THE BIRDWHISTLE PRIZE IN SHORT FICTION 2017

 

SUSAN AND TOMAS, SUSAN/TOMAS, TOMAS/SUSAN, TOMAS

SHILPA IYYER

 

On the streets, sunglasses lift. Hands curve around imaginary Coke bottles. Susan is a beautiful woman. Tomas is a sorry flesh pile. People inquire. Susan? Why not a man? Why this sorry flesh pile? Her sighs jostle the canister at her hip. Explaining is beneath her dignity. Tomas does not mind the occasional jostle. The jelly of his flesh pile body feels cool as it sloshes against itself.
 
Susan’s mother copes through delusions. She tells Grandma Lo that it’s a curse. Tomas will soon evolve into a handsome gentleman. Tell her, Jeffrey. Susan’s father rumbles in agreement. Grandma Lo returns to the prattle of her evening programs. Neither eye bats. In the end, she knows, even handsome gentlemen are sorry flesh piles.
 
If she cared to learn the truth, Grandma Lo only needed to look at the placard embedded in Susan’s chest. Town regulation insisted on a high degree of exposition after such accidents. The card’s inscription did not disappoint.


 
1. Susan Nichols and Tomas Dykstra were involved in a vehicular collision near Kropp Laboratories on 8/1/25.
2. Industrial runoff from the site permanently altered the physical constitutions of each motorist.
3. As a temporary measure, Kropp Academy doctors fused the remains of Ms. Nichols’ body with Kropp biosynthetics to construct a single female body. The following principles pertain.
3.1. The engineered female body may accept either Ms. Nichols’ or Mr. Dykstra’s consciousness, but not both.
3.2. The unbodied consciousness will be housed in an attached nutrient-rich sludge container.
3.3. In accordance with bylaws established under the Kropp Ethics Commission, the motorists’ consciousness must rotate between these two physical spaces on the first Monday of each month.
3.4. Dr. Ron Sidebottom and associates at Kropp Laboratories must oversee each rotation procedure.
3.5. This incident card must bear the date of the most recent rotation, and be visibly displayed on the sternum of the bodied consciousness at all times.
4. Failure to comply with 3.3, 3.4, and 3.5 will result in swift penalties for both motorists, as enumerated below.
4.1. Failure to report for rotation will result in a fine of $350.
4.2. Receipt of rotation services from unauthorized entities will result in a fine of $350.
4.3. Failure to display the card at all times will result in a fine of $350.
5. A service fee of $351 accompanies the issuance of this card.
5.1. Payment must be personally delivered to Suite 12 of the Kropp General Services Administration building. The office is open every other hour beginning at 10AM, M-F.

 
Given the ample size of Susan’s chest, and the general taboo against staring, only loved ones and the especially lecherous had been able to read the card in its entirety. Among the former, reactions had been mixed. Susan’s lover stress-ate a shared plate of diner fries before sputtering out a formal resignation. The prospect of making love to a man inside his girlfriend’s body greatly overwhelmed Arthur. On the other hand, Susan’s lovelorn best friend, Deborah, a waitress who spent her free time mulling over elaborate sex stratagems, rejoiced at the thought of hoodwinking an isolated Tomas. Tomas overheard her schemes with absent interest. All women were the same.
 
Today, Susan idles in a bookstore and broods over her fate. She liked to read GMAT preparatory materials to irritate Arthur, a cranky doctorate deserter. Without anyone to lovingly compete with, the books hold no appeal. In fact, she muses dully, nothing does. Love drips through your hands like yolk, and beauty is a trap. She can’t wait for the rotation tomorrow. What bliss it must be, to observe life without feeling so much as a lick of pain.
 
Overhearing this, Tomas refuses to congeal himself into a consoling shape. He doesn’t much care about Susan. Whenever he makes himself into an apple, to show that he wants one, she eats a pear. Whenever he fashions himself into a drippy tree of mucous, to show that he wants to go outside, she sits in her basement and cries. She is a chore of a woman. The collision was her fault, too. Who slows down at green lights?
 
Even more unforgivably, Susan continues to insist that Tomas feels no pain. She insists it while waiting for barely delayed trains, and when teenagers scold her for snaking brimming grocery carts into express lines. This, in no way, is true. Tomas knows pain. A month ago, Tomas strode through airports in tightly-cut leather mules, and paired every meal with a latte. He was a popular sculptor coming off a packed summer of gallery showings. He was ascendant. Now he is three liters of human slobber. He’s never known such anguish.
 
He tunes out Susan’s pity bleating to ponder what he will do tomorrow as a woman. A few of these thoughts slip out of his consciousness and enter Susan. Appalled, she drops a hardbound cookbook on the lid of the canister. Tomas ignores the scolding on principle – he is an artist. He cannot be sexist. He molds himself into what Susan believes is a cavernous flower, and chuckles viciously to himself.
 
Susan and Tomas leave the store, bookless and in violent moods. It is important to rest well before the procedure, Dr. Sidebottom had told them. Don’t agitate yourselves.
 
 


 
 
Dr. Sidebottom had accounted for a fair number of surprises today. He had allowed for the possibility that he would have to vary the nutrient mixture to suit Susan’s history of anemia. He had requested his undergraduate students to prepare a pamphlet on gender performativity to facilitate Tomas’ assimilation. (A disgruntled few wrote the words do what you want, death comes for us all for the TA to wisely refrain from passing along). Dr. Sidebottom had even prepared for the possibility that Susan’s consciousness would refuse evacuation, and had amassed a fleet of lawyers in his office to strong-arm, if necessary.
 
He had not prepared for the possibility that Susan’s flesh slurry would not be able to communicate with Tomas.
 
It’s because I was a sculptor before, Tomas says. He speaks excitedly, thrilled to flex his new female vocal cords. That’s why I could make myself into shapes and such.
 
Dr. Sidebottom glowers. He resents casual theorizing when it does not come from him. Irritated, the doctor advises Tomas to eat properly, go outside enough, and live peacefully, so as not to unduly trouble the mute pile of Susan. In the meantime, he will develop a functional communication pathway. Tomas nods, distracted. As far as he can tell, it’s impossible to know what women feel even when they can speak. As per regulation, Dr. Sidebottom revises the date on Tomas/Susan’s sternum, and exits the domed research chamber with a parting nod.
 
Alone in the chamber, Tomas marvels at his slender wrists, his petal nails. He relishes the thought of extravagant debut. Imagine a rented studio space, with troughs of chocolate ice cream garnished with rose oil. Imagine his friends, exes, classmates, the shrill parents who had disavowed his previous form. He looks at his delicate feet, pale and ready. Can’t you see it? Tomas spins around in the cold room, sliding his arms around his chest, his waist, his exalted bottom. He is as beautiful a woman as he was a man. Susan swings with him, slave to his hip. She is motionless plasma, full of screaming mind.
 
 

 
 
So the best laid plans go. October ices into November. Dr. Sidebottom’s secretary calls, and then the man himself. Unpaid fines accumulate. Novel communication channels are innovated only to languish for months on the laboratory server. Police officers bring news of Tomas’ entanglements in the neighboring town’s red light district. Arthur files a missing person’s report and is told that the second word no longer applies. Nothing can be done. Abject guilt fills Susan’s home, touching everything. Unbothered, Grandma Lo watches her programs. She is seventy-four, and proficient in the language of injury and prophecy. She believes that people spend their lives petting the bars of their cages, saying I deserve this, I deserve this, I deserve this. She has spent her whole life around such bleeding egos. At least on television, people rage against their prisons. At least on television, they resist.

 

 

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