The son of the chimera

30 September 1999 | Fiction, Prose

A short story from Pereat mundus. Romaani, eräänlainen  (‘Pereat mundus. A novel, sort of’, WSOY, 1998)

I was born, but not because anyone wanted it to happen. No one even knew it was possible, for my mother was a human being, my father a chimera. He was one of the first multi-species hybrids.

Only one picture of my father survives. It is not a photograph, but a water-colour, painted by my mother. My father is sitting in an armchair, book in hand, one cloven hoof placed delicately on top of the other. According to my mother, he liked to leaf through illustrated books, although he never learned to read. He is wearing an elegant, muted blue suit jacket, but no trousers at all. Thick grey fur covers his strong legs, right down to his hoofs. Small horns curve gracefully over his convex forehead. Striking in his face are his round, yellow eyes, his extraordinarily wide mouth, his tiny chin and his surprisingly large but flat nose.

Virgin forest is visible through the window behind him, and above it a moon that is reddish, as if it were oozing blood. If you look a little more closely at the picture, you notice that Håkan’s book carries the same picture of Håkan, in which he gazes at the same book by the light of the same moon.

Schoolwork never really held my mother’s attention. This was a disappointment to my grandmother, who was a high court judge. My aunt always said that my mother lacked perseverance. All the same, my mother has always worked and earned her own living. She dropped out of school, tried three times to get into art college and was rejected each time. But she never lost her hobby of painting. Later she survived on temporary jobs, cleaning in various institutions, spent some time as assistant to the cobbler at the opera house, then moved on to the central parish kitchen. From time to time she filled in for the caretaker at the city museum.

My mother met my father at Hydra, the laboratory of an international gene technology institution, where she had a job for a couple of months. There my mother cleaned, and was sometimes expected to feed the laboratory animals.

‘Did you like it at Hydra?’ I asked.

‘It was one of my best jobs,’ my mother said. ‘Even the cleaners were treated like human beings, and the laboratory buildings were so modern and spacious. There were plenty of workers, but even I was reasonably well-paid. I was happy to clean the laboratory animal rooms, particularly when I was able to work by myself. After five, it was peaceful and light in there. The chimeras had just been fed and most of them were fast asleep, for after the experiments they were given sedatives. The only sound was that of the computer ventilators and, from time to time, a rumbling from the plumbing of the embryo cupboards.’

‘Tell me something else about daddy,’ I asked.

‘Your father, Håkan, wasn’t the only chimera in the lab. There were already dozens of them when Håkan was born, but most of them were combinations of two species. Håkan was a special case. He was the first four-species chimera: chimpanzee, wolf, goat and human.

‘You will remember that the scientists had succeeded in transplanting into Håkan twenty thousand of the eighty thousand human genes. All the rest were genes from the three other species, but in what proportions I was never able to discover.

‘Around the time of the events that led to your birth, there was no longer anything new even about multichimeras. There were already hybrids of seven species among the laboratory chimeras at Hydra.

‘But Håkan was the oldest of the laboratory animals; he had even been patented. He had been the whole lab’s favourite, not just because of the patent, but because he was such a gentle and docile chimera. But by the time I arrived at Hydra to clean and look after the animals, no one was interested in Håkan any more, and he was no longer young. The only time he got any attention was during controlled experiments and the inevitable caring routines.

‘I liked his humble and melancholy, but sometimes amazingly animated chimpanzee’s gaze. The irises of his eyes were yellow, but his pupils often dilated – perhaps on account of the drugs – so much that his gaze was deep and black. Often, after I had fed the chimeras, I lingered, stroking Håkan’s woolly fringe, and he rubbed his disproportionately large head against my white forearm, which was still plump then. Before long there grew up between us a mute but durable friendship.

‘Håkan had good hearing, but the scientists and laboratory animal assistants did not know whether he understood anything of human speech. There had apparently been at one time great hopes for his capacity for language, and quite early on he learned to react to his own name and understand simple commands, like a dog. But despite regular lessons from a phoniatrist, he never learned to speak. The sounds he made consisted of whimpers, bleats and strange howls that became more impassioned as mealtimes drew near.

‘”That’s a wolf-whistle”,’ they used to say.

‘He walked on two legs, but with some difficulty, for Håkan had goat’s hoofs, as you know. His forepaws, on the other hand, were three-fingered and almost hairless, and he used them with great skill. He had a little tuft of a tail, and with the exception of his forepaws a thick coat of wolf’s fur covered him from his hoofs to his convex chimpanzee’s forehead. No one could have called him beautiful, however pretty the curve of his horns. There was really extraordinarily little about his appearance that was human, apart from his nose, his shoulders and his shoulder-blades. In his cage Håkan had a swing in which he spent most of his waking hours.

‘Everyone knew that Håkan’s time was nearly up; when he reached his tenth birthday the last needle awaited him.

‘That thought was hard for me to bear. My own job at Hydra was only temporary, and I had decided that after Håkan I would have nothing more to do with the place. I had not planned anything in advance, but quite unexpectedly a moment came in which I found myself intervening in Håkan’s destiny. And my own life changed too.

‘On my last day at work at Hydra, Håkan was awake, and his eyes followed me incessantly. When I pushed my finger through the wires of the cage door to scratch Håkan’s forehead, I realised to my amazement that the door was unlocked and ajar. One of the lab assistants had been careless.

‘I opened the door to be able to pat Håkan more easily. But Håkan took the opportunity to clamber out of his cage.

‘”What d’you do that for?” I said to your father.

‘Didn’t you even try to get daddy back into the cage?’ I asked.

‘No, I didn’t. I thought it would do him good to walk around the room for a while. There’s not much extra space in laboratory animals’ cages, as you may have guessed.

‘As I said, Håkan never learned to work properly, but in his enthusiasm he stood up and, with the help of his strong forepaws, was able to clamber. His back hoofs slipped on the shiny tiles of the laboratory floor, and he toppled over, whimpering pathetically. I took him in my arms. At that moment, feeling his warmth and his weight against my breasts, as his pure, woolly scent penetrated my nostrils, I suddenly knew that I never wanted to be parted from Håkan again. Håkan meant nothing to anyone else in the world, and I was the only one Håkan cared for. How could I have rejected his affection – far less abandon him?’

‘In other words, you stole daddy.’

‘That’s right. I wrapped Håkan in a blanket and carried him as if he were a rucksack through the evening bustle of the streets to my own little bedsit. I could feel his rapid breathing on my neck and cheek, and his gentle warmth spread throughout my body. He weighed about thirty kilos, and I had to rest from time to time. I could not afford a taxi, and I did not dare take the bus with Håkan as I was afraid that he might begin to yelp and attract too much attention.

‘You can sleep here,’ I said, when we got home.

‘I made him a bed in the bath-tub, as I was afraid that some friend might come visiting and I would not have time to hide Håkan. In fact, I lived such a lonely life that it was unlikely in the extreme.’

‘But wasn’t he ever missed?’

‘I did have one telephone call. It was an assistant, and he asked me if I knew anything about an escaped chimera. I denied it, of course. After that I heard nothing. They forgot me and they forgot Håkan, as if we had never existed.

‘We began to live a life of our own. It was a peaceful and harmonious home. I talked to Håkan a lot, and he understood me better each day. I began to be able to make out distinct sounds in his yelps. After a while he began to give short answers to my questions. Often he doubled up the first syllable of a word. Water was wa-wa, sleeping slee-slee. He also learned to smile so that his sharp wolf’s teeth flashed. I realised that his consciousness and capacity for development had been drastically underestimated throughout his short life.

‘I saw in him an old soul which was bound to a deformed body, a combination of many human parts. How can we ever be forgiven for the wrong we did him? But still: without that wrong, he would never have been born, and neither would you.

‘He began to eat at table, but never really succeeded in learning to use a knife and fork. Because he was so small, I got him a high chair. In the evenings, we listened to music or I read aloud to him. Your father liked Schubert’s Lieder so much that sometimes he used to sink into a kind of semi-conscious ecstasy, which worried me a little.

‘I also read poems aloud to him. He was so entranced by these lines that I had to say them every night before we went to sleep. It became our shared ritual:

What is this thing, o love,
that enters the heart through the eyes,
and in the small space inside it, seems to expand?
And what if it should overflow?

‘Whenever I remember those lines, I see before me your father’s eyes, in which joy and nameless suffering alternated.

‘On television we followed lecture series and children’s programmes. We never watched police series. I told Håkan about my life, my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, all of whom had got on better in life than I had. I told him about failing my exams in maths and languages, how I had had to repeat a class, my attempts at dieting and my numerous jobs. I told him about my only lover, a certain bought ledger accountant, who took my virginity. He treated me badly, and the relationship only lasted a couple of weeks.

‘I confessed my shame and my humiliation to your father, weeping over my disappointment, and he listened silently, shedding hot tears with me.

‘At night I took Håkan into my bed to sleep with me. His gaze uncovered my heart; a selfless, sacred love poured itself into my poor life. Since the accountant, I hadn’t slept with a man. But from Håkan there was no need to fear a curt word. Time after time we sank into one another’s embrace, and I was not troubled by his hard hoofs or his animal smell.

‘The fact that I became pregnant by Håkan was, of course, a shock. I had not even thought that a child could be born from our relationship.’

‘Did you never consider abortion?’

My mother was silent for a long time, until she admitted she had.

‘But only for a moment. For when I truly understood that I was to be a mother, I was so happy that I danced for joy.

‘But your father never saw you. He began to be ill when I was three months gone. I would have taken him to hospital, but your father forbade it. I realised that his time really was up; his short life was lived. In his last weeks, your father stopped eating completely. He changed a great deal toward the end. Not only did he become more and more human, he was also more angelic the closer he slipped toward death.

‘He died one Monday morning; it was raining. His body fitted into a large suitcase. I bought a spade, ordered a taxi and drove north. You know where I asked the driver to stop. I dug him a grave alone in a forest clearing.

‘When my time came, I went to a private hospital to give birth. As you understand, I was in a difficult position. I told the midwife and obstetrician what to expect. You were born after a long labour by Caesarean section. The doctor promised that he would not reveal anything in public about your unusual origins.’

So: I was born, a hybrid too, a monstrosity, as many people would say. There is more human in me than in my father, but there is also a good deal of goat and chimpanzee and wolf. I do not like to look into the mirror, but I rejoice that I am able to live. We live outside the city, in a rented cabin in the grounds of a large country house. As a child, I ran freely in the fields and grazed. My mother has learned to milk and, when necessary, she is able to work as an assistant milkmaid.

My father’s grave is in a meadow in the estate forest, but no one knows it but we two. My mother has sowed forget-me-nots there, and oriental poppies. From time to time we clear the willow saplings so that the meadow stays light. On the best days of summer we make expeditions there, with a bottle of wine and bread and apples in our picnic basket.

Our lives are as peaceful as my mother and Håkan’s once were, and my mother calls me, too, Håkan. I don’t go outside much during daylight; my appearance attracts too much attention. I cannot even set foot inside the byre, as the cows become very restless. I don’t want to think about the time when my mother will be dead. I hope that my life will be as short as my fathers, for I do not mean to live without my mother.

The beauty of the world never ceases to amaze me. I have more senses, and more sensitive ones, than human beings do. My sense of smell is as keen as a wolf’s. I climb with the agility of a chimpanzee. Why should I not be content with my lot, even if it cannot be called easy.

I believe that one day the age will dawn when there are no longer different mammalian species – human beings and lower mammals. The species will have hybridised and formed combinations that we cannot now even imagine. Our senses will be keener, we will see new colours and hear voices where now there is mute silence. Then we shall know and sense, understand and rejoice more than we do now.

My father and I are pioneers of the future. The day will dawn when we are all one and all equal. It is years away, millions, maybe even billions, but I do not doubt that that day will dawn.

The evening darkens; I leave my room and open the garden gate without a sound. When I remember I am a goat, I do nothing but long to wander in a meadow. When my wolf’s nature wins, I run into the deep forest, strange sounds rise from my throat and I dance alone. Sometimes I disappear for weeks. When I wish to be a chimpanzee, I clamber nimbly into tall trees and like to sit on the roof of our house. I look at the night sky in wonderment. The stars glitter, I hum to myself and my hoofs tap hollowly on the tin roof.

Locally, there is talk of strange things. It is said that one night a lamb was found torn to pieces in the meadow, but that the toothmarks that were found on it were human. My mother gives me a long look, her eyes full of anxiety.

I cannot find anyone like me.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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