Animals – Pragya Bhagat

“There was a time when animals lived on this planet.”

            “What are animals, grandmother?”

            “Animals are creatures that live and breathe.”

            “Are we animals?”

            “Well, I suppose we are, but we are different. We controlled the other animals and then we killed them.”

            “Why did we control the animals, grandmother?”

            “You ask too many questions. Do you want to hear the story or not?”

            “I do, I do. But why did we control them?”

            “Because we did. We like to control things. That’s why we have factories, so we can control what gets made and how it gets made.”

            “Like Mama controls you?”

            “She doesn’t control me. I am an Elder now. I’m free to move about the house as I please. It’s just not safe for people like me in the city.”

            “Why is it not safe, grandmother?”

            “Because there’s too much crime in the slums, and your Mama wants to keep us safe. Now before you ask why there’s so much crime, go to sleep before Mama comes home.”

            “Tell me more about animals, Grandmother. Please?”

            “Only if you promise not to interrupt me.”

            “I promise.”

            “There was a time when animals lived with us. They used to live on trees and plants and soil, but you haven’t seen these things, because they were long gone before you and I were born. Now everything is made in factories, but back then, animals would be made on their own, without factories. It was like magic, and that’s why we have the names of animals, so that we can keep their meaning and memory and magic alive.”

            “What does my name mean, Grandmother?”

            “Dove was an animal that flew in the sky.”

            “Like hover cars?”

            “Yes, like hover cars, but without batteries and petrol. Doves could fly, and they were white and peaceful and loving. Just like you.”

            “What does your name mean, Grandmother?”

            “Panthers were quick and clever and fierce. And their eyes glowed at night.”

            “That’s why you have blue eyes,” Dove grinned.

            “Yes, my love. Now go to sleep before you Mama comes home.” Panther kissed Dove on the nose.

            “Goodnight, Grandmother.”

            “Goodnight, my love.”

            Panther turned off the lights and shut the door to her granddaughter’s bedroom. Dove was four years old now. How time flew. It seemed like just yesterday that Panther had moved in with her pregnant daughter. Like all women in the city, that was when she became an Elder from an Adult. As per the contract, it was the last time she had set foot outside.

            Every day, after putting Dove to bed and waiting for Gazelle to arrive, Panther sat by the window of their fifty-first story apartment, watching the never ending whiz of bright lights and the swift whooshing of hover cars in clear tubes. It was a life she missed, working at the factory, meeting interesting men and women, engaging with whomever she chose.  For twenty years she had lived this life, and since her daughter’s pregnancy, it was a life she craved even more. Gazelle was probably in one of the factory’s recreation rooms right now, engaging with a partner of her choice. That’s what their city’s contract allowed, the one people signed when they turned seventeen.

            The contract allowed them unrestricted access to the factory’s community, the ability to engage someone with humour one night, another with intelligence the next night, someone with musical ability or beautiful hair the night after, and so it went. The diverse features of their numerous partners would allow the child to possess all these features. After the second pregnancy, the engagements would stop and the women shifted from Youth to Adult. Thinking about her own Youth and Adult days, Panther marveled at how long it had been since she stepped outside. Now, her life was bound to her grandchild’s, to watch Dove shift from Child to Youth. After that, Panther would be moved to the Home for the Elderly, and Gazelle would take her place with Dove’s child.

            The door clicked and Gazelle walked in. Even in her business suit, her legs appeared long and lean. Her brown, straight hair was so different from Panther’s own, a mane of ginger-coloured curls that now held more white than red. She remembered the man she engaged with that night while her own mother stayed at home with Panther’s first son. The man had hair the colour of dark chocolate, and he was quiet, unassuming. They spoke for most of the time in the recreation room, she had made the first move, and he passively accepted the engagement.

            “My children will control their own lives, their lives won’t control them,” Panther had told her mother that night.

            “So find a man like that,” her mother replied, and for the next month, Panther followed her mother’s advice, engaging with a series of confident, beautiful men until her second pregnancy. Gazelle’s usual energy and compassion mirrored her later partners, but her hair, a delicious brown, was identical to that of the quiet man she had shared hours of conversation with. Watching Gazelle sink onto the sofa, Panther felt pride in her creation.

            “How was your day, Mama?” Gazelle closed her eyes. To Panther, her daughter appeared to age from exhaustion.

            “Good.” What could she tell Gazelle about the life she hadn’t chosen, the kind of life that lay in store for her own daughter and the daughters that came after? A question struck Panther.

            “Listen, I was wondering.”

            “Hmmm.” Gazelle’s eyes remained closed.

            “Are there any men in the Home for the Elderly?”

            Gazelle opened her eyes and turned towards her mother. “What makes you say that? Did Dove say something? I really need to talk to her, she asks way too many questions. Are you okay here?”

            “What’s wrong with asking questions? And no, she didn’t say anything. I’m fine, just wondering.”

            “Of course there are men there.”

            “How do you know? Have you been there?”

            “Of course I haven’t, Mama. You know Elders are the only ones allowed.” Gazelle paused. “Are you feeling lonely, Mama? I know life hasn’t been the same since, well-”

            “Since I became an Elder? It is okay, Gazelle, I’m fine. Sure, I miss being an Adult, and it does get lonely, but we signed the contract, you and I both. ‘Women are best at rearing children, so men are not needed in the rearing environment.’ It made sense at the time, but now I wonder, is that all life is about? Working, engaging, and rearing children? What about friendships and freedom to walk outside and-”

            “Mama, just stop,” Gazelle whispered, “You know they might be listening. We signed the contract, didn’t we? You had the choice not to sign it-”

            “And what?” Panther raised her voice. “Disappear like the rest of the ones who don’t. Where do they go, the slums? Where do they take them? And the men, have you seen any with white hair, ever?” She was frantic now. “Where do they take them? Where do you take them?” Panther yelled at the window and her manic reflection yelled back.

Gazelle walked up to her mother, hugging her sobbing shoulders from behind. “It’s okay, Mama. It’s going to be okay.”

            “They don’t want us asking questions. They don’t want us living our lives. You know what I think?” She looked at her reflection again. It dissolved into the skyscrapers outside. “I think life was better when animals existed. At least we were free, like them. But we couldn’t take it, could we? How dare those animals try to be free? We showed them, we finished them off. And now, the contract, this city, they tell us life is better, because we have money and food and engagement and fancy homes and hover cars.”

            A sudden knocking on the door startled Gazelle. She looked at her mother in panic. Dove walked into the room, her night gown hanging off her tiny shoulders. Gazelle grabbed her daughter as the knocking grew louder, more insistent. Panther ignored the noise and continued talking to her reflection. Her eyes glowed.

            “Before we killed the animals we kept them in cages. Cages! They were imprisoned, like we are now. The only difference is that we accept the cage. Those that don’t, disappear. We’re the animals. Don’t you see? We’re the animals!”

Pragya writes short stories for the Open Road Review and Muse India and blogs
with the Huffington Post. She also perform poetry as part of Kommune’s
The Storytellers. She currently lives in Kumaon, writing.