Mother is shameless, flaunting her breasts with their dark nipples, their aureoles the color of dried blood, feeding the legion babies in public. She suckles them then orders them to march. And though they have barely been able to crawl, they totter up onto soft, plump legs and waddle off, goose-stepping as best they can, burbling and cooing, dribbling and plopping into shreds that pass for diapers. Mother salutes as they toddle past, a ragged infant phalanx among other, equally ragged infant phalanxes, an army of tender hoplites sucking their thumbs.
So "Mother's bravos" shamble forward, yearning and whimpering. There were many in their litter; Mother had only two breasts. Mostly they were fed diluted milk from cans or a gruel of mystery meat and water, with a rolled rag in the mouth of a jar for a nipple. Never mind; there is no looking back.
"Courage," Mother cries, "Positive thoughts, fierce droop-drawers. No dawdling, spitting, or flipping the bird. Keep your hands from your crotch, your fingers out of your noses."
Since the mines closed, the shops have emptied, and money has vanished. Musters are more and more frequent. Parades are everywhere. In public squares all over town, twirlers prance in place as highung thoroughbreds are said to have done before a race. Alas, nowadays the twirlers' batons are but sticks.
Grinning as he passes Mother, the only remaining trombone player in the republic, loops of greenish-gold braid on each shoulder of his tattered jacket, opens his spit valve, aiming the stream away from cracked patent-leather shoes polished to so high a shine his face is reflected among fissures in the leather. Bong! Crack-a-bong! goes a drum made from an ancient joint-compound bucket. A flute player whistles a virtuoso tune on inward and outward breaths. He pretends he fingers an actual flute. Chime players shake bits of metal and glass that dangle in strings from crotch-shaped sticks. Under these cadences of celebration, the slurping sound of babes in their mothers' arms pulls the occasion into itself like the maw of the world opened wide, sucking in marchers; spectators waving tattered flags; and dignitaries perched like crows on collapsed risers, proud in rusty black suits (one actually wearing socks, though the socks don't match), hands over hearts as the national anthem is played with paper on gap-toothed combs.
TV commentators watch with solemn dignity from a sagging booth dangling over the parade route. The apparatus of transmission has long since been stolen, and the viewing window is cracked and crazed. Never mind. Waves of gossip have replaced the news that once blared from TV monitors still mounted on some public buildings, their screens mostly shattered. The commentators nod at the crippled veterans of the last war fought by grown-ups, balding neckties knotted around scraggly white hair, their beards stained with the memory of tobacco. With callused hands the legless ones roll themselves along on rickety dollies with mismatched wheels. Holes in their tee-shirts obscure the faded injunction: "Support warriors, not war." Mother ignores that exhortation, believing that zeal in defense of order is always appropriate. Display trumps decay, both social and tooth. And you can't whelp young enough or often enough.
So Mother stays pregnant, her saggy womb expanding to hold larger and larger broods for shorter and shorter gestations. Alas, she supplies the recruiting office with ever smaller, ever weaker babes. To ever more miserably puling contingents, she passes out battered pacifiers in the national colors, exhorting her larval platoons to march for whatever causes animate the calls to muster. Actually, no new causes have sprung up for quite some time; the old causes are simply recycled—why not? The old slogans, the old passions are perfectly good, and anyway, they will have to do.
"You there," says Mother—who does not bother to name children bred to leave while still in diapers—"You're Locally Grown Vegetables, you An End to Big Banks. You, Stop the Government's Socialist Take-Over. You, Save the Automobile Industry from Foreign Cars. You: Cut taxes. Suspend Student Loans. Unlimited Credit for Everyone. Drill, Baby, Drill. Save the Polar Bears. Our Homes Are Underwater. Food Stamps for Everyone. Bring Back Our Phones.
Cheering the babies and their signs is something to do. Without flags to wave, people slump on their stoops or huddle in packing-crate shanties, amazed by oldsters' recollection of plenty. "Before the mines played out, busses transported us into the desert where we descended into the earth with full lunch pails. The jobs were dark and hard—but everyone worked. No one but an occasional widow on relief—can you believe it? Paychecks, mortgages, credit cards? Kids used to go to school, where they learned how to read. And the stadiums—once they held football games and rock concerts with banks of speakers piled high beside the stage. Oh yes! There were iridescent pink guitars and singers in sequined boots yowling like horny cats." No one needs to dwell on what takes place in stadiums now. They are used for public beheadings, or they cup the swelling ranks of homeless lying numb on patches of hard-packed earth as lice scurry from head to head.
"Once there were libraries"—are you making it up? "With DVDs on loan—for free! A tired person down on her luck could sit in a sturdy chair at a long table, doze over the terminal and later wash in a tiled bathroom, where she could dry herself with individual paper towels—also free! At the terminals, anyone at all could go through a wormhole to a place called The Internet, another world—another universe, really—in the air. For free! Oh, everything was grand then! TV used to be in every home, sometimes in every room of every home.
"You could lay on a recliner, feet up, and watch the program of your choice. Oh, there was so much to do. In those days there was water in the municipal swimming pool—no tents pitched in it. People swam in the water. Swam! Lay in the water, then propelled themselves through it by fluttering their arms and legs. It was not an unusual skill; many people swam. Swam…rode…drove. Yes, in the open air, on land, many drove those things called cars, those hulks now rusting by the sides of the roads where their owners ditched them for lack of fuel. The fuel was called gas. It used to be plentiful, pumped from under the earth where it had been exuded by dying plants long before the age of dinosaurs—prehistoric monsters like living cranes and earth movers—the ones you see going into the unknown beyond the site that the government has chosen for the City of Hope, where the old will be able to finish their days in comfort. For such grand projects, the government has vehicles and gas. But in the old days ordinary people had personal vehicles and gas for pleasure trips. Imagine!
"In those days roofs were covered in shingles—like the scales of an animal, but of wood or tile or asbestos—or big sheets of corrugated steel—yes, metal. And no one stole it. Now, you can see, even City Hall—the rubble that remains—is roofed in patched and repatched tarpaulins—heavy plastic, that's what they are—at least they're blue, like the sky once was—yes, yes, everyone knows, it would be better to repair or replace roofs rotting and rusting beneath those tarps. But there is nothing to repair them with; no replacements exist, even if we could afford them. No one ever dreamed the life we knew would fall apart so fast."
There are whispers behind hands raised casually to mouths, simulating yawns: life might be better for everyone if women like Mother made fewer babies—fewer hands reaching for the bags of government rice and beans and the cans of condensed milk and mystery meat that soldiers distribute, sometimes from rusting trucks, sometimes from the backs of wagons drawn by teams of men, convicts lashed and chained to serve as draft animals. But of course Mother makes babies! What is there to do for fun but watch parades and rut?
There is a rumor that people used to do it in private the way they pissed and shat. They were spared the sight of each others' buttocks humping and bumping. When the corporeal expressed itself in private, one could believe—so say the oldsters—that a spark of divinity smoldered in every bosom, waiting to be fanned to passionate flame if God breathed on the ember. Even today, an occasional precocious infant marches with his arms crossed over his heart, begging the sky for a sign that his cohort (and all the others) are marching toward something other than the silence after high-stepping twirlers and whistling, thumping musicians turn back to escort newer cohorts.
In this sudden hush the sun falls beneath the edge of the world in a sky radiant with the shame of complicity, for as night falls the frightened children have been left entirely alone. They abandon their signs, yet still they keep moving, as if stopping to sleep might bring on punishment they dare not court. Beyond the city center lie derelict blocks of windowless worker housing, factory buildings with grass growing in their eaves troughs, and mountains of aging midden, each with shadowy pickers rummaging by feel in the gathering gloom, their hands and feet a mass of scars from splinters of broken glass and the jagged edges of can lids—which may hurt you, yes, but can be exchanged for food coupons. Among these heaving, reeking heaps, ringed by hovels built of the trash itself, are fields in which people relieve themselves, their feces collected by scroungers for compost. The children marching in the dark see only shadows, but their noses wrinkle, and their eyes water; the smell may be acrid but it is oh so familiar. Invigorated by relief, they walk on and on, lurching forward, stumbling in potholes and ruts, stubbing their toes on stones.
The pissing fields give way to cemeteries long since closed, the graves scanty mounds topped by stones or odd bits of trash—broken plastic chairs or the toys of a time when children had the leisure for play. As the sun rises red in a sky that is smoky from cooking fires, even this far from the city, the babies on the road laugh and point, for they see that one sunken grave is topped by a weathered plastic jungle gym, some parts broken, but others intact. The babies squeal and gurgle when they see its still-bright colors. They crawl toward it—yes, they are crawling now, on torn knees, their legs too tired to support them, cooing and burbling with anticipation, as if that broken jungle gym in a cemetery no longer used were a bastion of hope.
You could climb to the top! You could swing on a bar! You could hunch through a tunnel! You could crouch in a tiny bright room no bigger than your body! You could slither down a slide!
From hitherto invisible trenches and foxholes beyond the graves there suddenly emerge brisk, grim cadres, guardians of a hidden border. To head off the infants crawling toward the jungle gym, the cadres poke them with staffs that seem at first to be batons, somewhat longer than those of the twirlers—marshals' batons, an oldster might have said. These batons turn out to be, not sticks, but prods with barbed picks at the ends that hook bits of the babies' flesh.
As the sun rises higher, the cadres herd their charges back to the road, a dusty stripe between the marker stones lined up intermittently at its sides. The landscape is emptying out; the hovels and mounds and heaps are fewer, the road rougher. A flat-bed truck piled with dead bodies passes them, headed out to the wasteland where the City of Hope is rumored to be under construction. "Those old dead ones are going to be born again," say the guards to the babies, as if the babies could know or care. The babies balk only because they are tired, annoying the cadres, who prod them harder. On the horizon now loom the cranes and conveyor belts of abandoned mines. The tall, rotting structures lurk in the distance like watching birds of prey as the children, snuffling and sobbing, laboriously pull themselves forward by their hands, struggling to stay ahead of the prods.
One child curls into a fetal position, wailing. One by one the children drop, until all are howling, intractable balls of mutilated flesh.
The cadres huddle; one lights a cigarette that glows in the dark, imitating a spark of hope. It smells funny. Who knows what weed the man has dried? The others cough and move away from him. The youngest and quickest is dispatched on an errand. The others draw their lunch from the pockets of baggy pants belted with bits of string. The cadres share cans of condensed milk and kindle a fire to grill slices of mystery meat impaled on prods. The babies whimper and bleat, but no food is offered, or even water. One of the cadres kicks a child. Another slaps one. Is that how the Army is, then? The new recruits brutally corrected? But what of rewards for the right way? Indeed, what is the right way?
One of the cadres pulls from his pants a bottle of wretched vodka distilled from field weeds, and the cadres share it around. Then it is time for their nap. Let those babies lie there puling and stinking. Sooner or later they will tire of whining. The cadres sprawl by the road with their heads on each others' legs and their hands over their ears, so they will not hear their charges. They doze, dreaming of artillery—big guns, which they have only heard about—and women's breasts, of which their charges also dream, though in the infants' dreams, the breasts do not have nipples erect with desire but spurt fountains of milk. The guards and the guarded, all curl in on themselves in the noonday sun, folded in the consoling dream of women's love.
In her packing-crate hovel Mother quaffs her government beer. Others may hesitate to drink it, knowing that it is laced with fertility drugs, but Mother throws down draught after draught. The bigger the litter the more little soldiers for the war—whatever war, she can't keep track. The fertility premiums keep rising, and there is always need—a need even for soldiers who can't carry guns. Especially for them. An army crawls on its stomach.
If only Mother's flesh were elastic enough to snap back to tautness after she whelps; instead it collapses into folds and wrinkles. Many of the men who want her now are old, short-sighted or simply cruel. She must be drunk to face them. Sometimes they beat her or stomp her or cut her face with shards of glass. Her face is cratered with scars, her limbs crooked from broken bones that were never set. Sometimes she flaunts her remaining attractions to the deformed and diseased—lepers or syphilitics. She must drink more beer to stomach them—more beer laced with more fertility drugs. With her premiums she buys stock in the City of Hope. When she can no longer bear, she will retire there. She will not fall in her tracks, as others do. She will not!
The bulldozers are almost upon the children and their keepers before the jumpiest cadre peels his hands from his ears and shakes his head. He leaps up, "They're here! They're here!"
Patched with tomato cans—ah! Remember tomatoes?—and the fenders of abandoned cars—bedecked with flowers cut from sun-rotted plastic soda bottles—the dozers are gay with color. With their kaleidoscopic revolutions the large tires with their balding treads—gaudy with patches—charm babies and guards. They stare transfixed as the dozers descend. Imagine! These vehicles are not motionless hulks!
The dozers have lost their mufflers; they roar and pop and sputter, cutting the morning with farts and purrs and coughs. Infants and keepers breathe in the pungent, fresh smell of gasoline. Some infants wave at the drivers in the cabs of the dozers, who have costumed themselves to enhance the effect of gaiety. One man wears a torn pair of women's leopard-print panties on his head. Another wears as a scarf a length of orange safety fence. A third waves his legs from the sides of his dozer's cab so onlookers can admire his one dingy sneaker too small for his foot. The heel has been mashed down, the toe box slit open; his other foot is bare. Never mind. His ankles—and indeed his wrists—are ringed with bracelets woven of precious old plastic bags, red and yellow and orange.
The drivers pull levers with dainty, exaggerated motions, like those of dancers. The soldiers ignore them. They mostly sit on the ground, their knees drawn up to their chests, staring at the earth. They know the drill. The babies strong enough to crawl away will be found and kept and become—who these cadres are themselves. The others will be scooped up in the jaws of the earth-movers, which will laboriously change course on their tired treads then rumble away with the dazed and silent cargo. One more band of children driven to the smoking dark mine shaft into which they will tumble to become its ore, tomorrow's mystery meat, carried up to the vats on the last working conveyor belt.
Patricia Eakins is the author of The Hungry Girls and Other Stories and The Marvelous Adventures of Pierre Baptiste (a novel) which won both the NYU Press Prize for Fiction and the Capricorn Fiction Award of the Writer's Voice. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Parnassus, Conjunctions, and The Paris Review, which awarded her the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction.
Eakins has been awarded two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, one from NYFA, one from CAPS, and the Charles Angoff Award from The Literary Review. She was a 2010 honoree of the Uptown Art Stroll for her excellence as curator of the Sunday Best Reading series in Northern Manhattan.
In 1997, "The Hungry Girls" was made into a work of theatre by the performance ensemble Collision Theory, which later commissioned Eakins to write the texts and lyrics for Portrait (with horse and other). These texts appear in the Artist in Wartime Issue of Fiction International under the title "What Remained."
Eakins is the subject of Reading Patricia Eakins, a book of critical studies of her work edited by Françoise Palleau, who has also translated The Hungry Girls into French. Les Affamées is forthcoming in November 2010 from the University of Grenoble Press.