The Hulks’, Subodhana Wijeyeratne

Illustrations © 2017 Miguel Santos

 [ Approach the door, © 2017 Miguel Santos ] It rains iron the day she is born. A drizzling inferno beginning up high as a coral glow and descending smokily behind the Peak of Sorrow. Every now and then a piece descends so big and so fast that it punches shockwaves through the air. The villagers behind the giant glass in the bunker feel the walls tremble.

It is a bad sign, of course.

There are two scavengers still out there, someone says. The boy remembers them leaving in the early morning, when it was yet dark and the starless sky was still and there was no sign of this calamity to come. Each clutching a grasper on a stick and carrying two sacks. They left unsuited, he tells someone, but that someone is not paying attention, because everyone knows they left unsuited. In any case, the boy is very young.

Everyone stares instead at the dead grey flanks of the mountain and there is nothing but chunks of iron spewing ash as they tumble. No chance of survival out there.

Best to tell the mother sooner rather than later, says someone.

They have seen days such as this before and a sky full of metal is no excuse not to head out to the machines. If anything, with this choking haze and heat, they must be tended to all the more. The villagers that can don their hazard suits and their masks. They look like horror birds with big eyes, the boy thinks. He does not like the suits, but he wants to wear one. To wear one is to be a man, or a woman, and not a child, or an elder, says his father. The boy longs to be a man and so do his friends, though they do not know what this means.

After the last piece of metal has come to rest, glowering and smoking on the shimmering black scree, the men and women file into the airlock and then out. The boy stays in the bunker and watches them fan out across the rain farms and the particle collectors. Each with their own device to check, and each knowing precisely what to do.

The boy never tires of watching them at work, but this day he hears screaming so he does not watch for long. He follows the noise instead, running his hands along the wall and over incomprehensible yellow glyphs as he goes. Full of secrets of the world from a long time ago. But even those who can read it say none of it makes any sense, and now there are fewer who could read than before, and soon there will be none. Then the past will be lost forever, the old people say. And to this the young people say the past is already lost.

The screaming is coming from the infirmary and as he comes in he sees that one of the beds is surrounded by old men and women. All silhouetted against the big window on the far side. Beyond the window, the grey and milky sea. A yellow fog hanging over everything like an infection, but still, lurking in it, he can see the distant mass of Shuddering Isle.

‘Here,’ says an old woman, handing him an old jug, white and flecked with rust. ‘Get some fresh water. Run. Run!’

The boy runs and fills the jug from a wall-pipe and comes back. There is no screaming now, only sobbing. And then the sound of a baby wailing.

The boy comes close and now he can hear what they are saying.

‘Maybe from dark to fair,’ says the old woman holding the jug. ‘But never the other way around.’

He pushes his way through the old folk and they let him. There is blood on their hands and on the floor and on the rags they are throwing into a basin. On the bed is a woman and there is blood on her legs and between her legs and on her belly. There is blood also between her breasts where there is a little baby curled up like a frog, cord still hanging from her belly, hair thick and so pale it is almost transparent. The woman is stroking her and crying. The baby quietens.

‘I won’t let her go,’ says the woman. ‘I won’t let her.’ She looks up. ‘Where is my man? Is he returned yet? What was that thunder I heard?’

The old people mutter and look out the window and at the sea. The boy does so too, though he does not understand why everyone is looking. Perhaps, he thinks, they can see something he cannot. Adults always seem to see things that are not there.

After the girl is born the village has the requisite number of children for a wedding. There are three extra boys, and of course the baby will never marry. But in any case all four are far too young. In the meanwhile Seven Hoatzin has almost reached manhood. Already, he has hair on his face, and everyone knows that he and Sky Poch’il have been sneaking off into the tunnels on their own.

The sixteen eldest go into a room and their parents all stand outside and share protein and remember their own weddings. The last one ten years ago. Some of them were married at the one before that, sixteen years ago, and Nine Serpent and his wife, who is now dead, were married more than thirty years ago. Everyone falls silent when he mentions this, and the boy does not know why.

‘Where is Twelve Pelican?’ asks someone.

The boy’s father pops a piece of protein into his mouth and chews slowly.

‘Outside,’ he says. ‘Heading up the peak.’

‘She’s gone mad. She’s still looking for Silver Silver.’

‘Wouldn’t you? In her position?’

‘I’d throw the girl in the sea.’

‘Why? Poor child.’

‘She’ll bring nothing but misery.’

‘Let her be.’

‘Did she take her the girl with her?’

The boy’s father shrugs.

‘I saw no child.’

‘Oh, father of the seas!’ groans one of the women. She jogs off down the corridor and a man goes after her and another woman sets off the other way.

The boy’s father looks at him through all the chatter and smiles his strange upside-down smile. He hands him a piece of protein and says, ‘You be nice to that girl. There are people enough who will be cruel to her.’

The boy nods.

There is shuffling inside the room and the elders’ conference is over. One of them sticks out her head. Pallid and grooved and hair hanging from her scalp in lanky clumps. She nods and the parents usher the children into the bunker. The boy notices for the first time that the ceiling is scabbed with fungus. Brown-red stuff blooming in concentric patches like stony tie-dye.

They line them up, boys to the left, girls to the right, facing away from each other. They are ordered by age, so Seven Hoatzin and Sky Poch’il are at the front. The elders line up against the door. The eldest of them all, called only Grandfather, and who may have forgotten his own name, steps forward and clears his throat.

‘I was married forty-one years ago,’ he says. ‘I was very young. We had a lot of algae that year, and there were twelve couples. Now, there are only seven. We are dwindling.’

He stares out the window up at the mountain and seems to forget what he is supposed to do. Then he turns and looks at the people behind him. One of them points to the children and he says, ‘Ah, yes,’ and turns round.

‘Right,’ he says. ‘Seven Hoatzin and Sky Poch’il.’

Sky Poch’il squeals and Seven Hoatzin grins and the boy next to him thumps him so hard on the back that he staggers. Boy and girl turn and face each other and bow in unison. Then they take each other’s hand and go up to the old folk. The witnesses cheer and all this echoes against the walls and down the corridors until everyone is lost in a great reverberating storm.

One of the old people binds their left little fingers together some string and then pours some water over it from a little jar.

‘I am Sky Hoatzin,’ says the boy.

‘I am Seven Poch’il,’ says the girl.

The elder nods and smiles and they both run hand in hand through the door and into the darkness.

‘Cloud Kukulkan and Red Ke’kchi’,’ says the old man.

The boy freezes. He looks at his father and his father is clapping and so are the others. He turns and to his left Red Ke’kchi’ steps forward. He goes up to her and takes her hand but it is cold and wet so he only touches it with the tips of his fingers. He looks at her but she covers her face with her long hair grey-gold hair and will not say anything.

They go up to the old folk and when they bind their fingers together he hears Red Ke’kchi sniffing and realizes she is crying. He looks up at one of the old women. She puts her hand on his shoulder with its yellowing claws and says, ‘Give her time.’

‘I am Red Kukulkan,’ says the boy.

‘I,’ The girl’s voice breaks. ‘I am Cloud Ke’kchi’.’

More applause, but less than before. The old folk step aside and the doorway gapes into blackness before Red Kukulkan and Cloud Ke’kchi’. They both wander out as if lost and down the corridor and presently there is nothing but the dim cool and the sporadic fizz of the lights.

Red Kukulkan yanks his finger out of the string and takes off. Cloud Ke’kchi’ listens to the tumbling chaos of his footsteps and their echoes fading into the distance. He did not see it, but she was looking at him. He did not notice, but she was trying to smile.

The girl’s mother shaves her head every day with a piece of glass and so her scalp is covered in little scars and nicks. She does not give the girl a name, nor let her out of the bunkers. She keeps her close, and when she cannot see her she wanders around shouting ‘Come here! Come back!’ until she reappears. Then she beats her and tells her never to leave her side. After that she hugs the girl and cries and endlessly strokes her little hairless head.

Then the next day she is gone, wandering around outside without a suit, or else through the vast dark of the bunkers, so far her muttering becomes less even than an echo.

After the oldest man dies, the oldest woman climbs halfway up the Peak of Sorrows and brings back a stone. She sits in the observation bunker and carves a face into it, a leering face with big staring eyes, for the old woman has no talent for such things. But it is the effort that matters.

The old woman goes to the mother and give her the stone and the mother looks at it and puts it down by her side. She has the child on her lap but the child is so tall now that her legs reach the ground. She squirms and looks at the old woman and tries to get off, but the mother holds her tight. She is not paying attention, but the old woman speaks anyway.

‘You must let her go, One Pol,’ says the old woman. ‘You must let her hair grow and let her play with the other children.’

‘No,’ says One Pol. ‘No, I won’t let her go. You know she’ll run away. You know she will.’

‘I won’t,’ says the girl.

One Pol looks at the oldest woman, eyes luminous with tears.

‘You know she will,’

The oldest woman reaches out for the child and eventually One Pol lets her go. She takes the girl by the hand and leads her out of the room. The woman watches her, nibbling her knuckles.

‘Stay here,’ says the old woman. ‘Close the door and do not listen. I will know if you have, and if you think your mother’s beatings are bad, you have not felt one from these old claws.’

She holds up her hands and her fingers are like twigs with skin stretched over them. The girl believes her.

The oldest woman then goes back into the room and closes the door. She turns and looks at One Pol and One Pol flinches, as if it were she who was about to receive the beating.

‘You can tell her to wear a suit,’ says the oldest woman. ‘Tell her she will burn like the others if she doesn’t. She does not know yet what she is and if you treat her like the others then it will be a long time before she does.’

‘She will. She’s clever.’

‘Even if you keep her here, she’ll find out eventually.’

‘But I won’t be alone before that.’

The old woman sighs. ‘We are all of us alone, in the end.’

‘You’re not alone. You had your man. You have your children.’

‘I never had my man. We made children together and he looked after me, but you know and everyone knows that he was always Blue Tziimin’s.’

One Pol looks up at the oldest woman. Now she is paying attention.

The oldest woman smiles and proceeds.

‘It is no secret. And as for children—they are never truly yours. They grow up and they grow away. As I did with my parents, and you did with yours.’

One Pol is sobbing now. ‘She’ll go away. She’ll go away.’

The oldest woman sits down and puts her arm around the woman.

‘Of course she will,’ she says. ‘Of course she will.’

When Red Kukulkan is big enough to fit into a suit they begin to send him out. He has two water-collectors on the cliff by the sea and and two algae-processors by a pond thick with greenish brown sludge. He runs diagnostics every day and spends two or three hours fiddling and fixing. The others say he has made a good choice, and after a while even his father comes to accept that this perhaps is better for him than being a scavenger.

After he has finished his work, he walks along the cliffs as far as the blasted tree and scours the beach for something to take back. He sometimes he finds a shell, or a shiny little bead. One day he finds a little silver box with letters on the side and a blue and red symbol and one of the old folk who can read tells him it says NASA. He asks what this means but the old man says it makes no sense, like everything else that is written.

‘Teach me the letters,’ says Red Kukulkan.

‘Why?’ says the old man. ‘There’s no point. Nothing makes sense.’

‘I want to see,’ says Red Kukulkan. ‘I want to see the nonsense for myself.’

The old man frowns.

‘That is wanderer talk.’

‘I’m not a wanderer. I’m a tender. Besides, why did you learn to read?’

‘Much the same reasons as you.’ says the old man.

He brings these trinkets back and through the airlock and then leaves them in the decontaminator with the suit. When the great aperture hisses and opens he takes his gift and leaves it outside Cloud Ke’kchi’’s room. Never once has she acknowledged his offerings, but if she likes it she threads it onto a little piece of string she wears around her neck, and on it are things that he has brought her and nothing else.

This day he is coming to leave her a little piece of black coral when Seven Poch’il runs past him, and after her, three other people. The door opens and Cloud Ke’kchi’ looks at him and then down the corridor and says, ‘What is happening?’

It is the first time she has spoken to him in a long time and he does not know what to say. He holds out the piece of coral and says, ‘This is for you.’

Cloud Ke’kchi’ takes it without expression.

‘What is happening?’ she asks again.

‘I don’t know,’ says Red Kukulkan. ‘Let’s go and find out.’

They walk down the corridor so close together that Cloud Ke’kchi’’s hand brushes his and he does not understand why this is so exciting. They get to the airlock and there are people gathered there, donning suits. One Pol is there too and she is wailing and tearing chunks of her own hair out and three women are trying to stop her.

Sky Hoatzin throws a suit at Red Kukulkan and then at Cloud Ke’kchi’.

‘Get suited,’ he says. ‘We’re going out.’

‘What happened?’ asks Red Kukulkan. ‘Where are you going?’

‘Zero escaped,’ he says, and heads for the airlock.

‘Zero?’ says Cloud Ke’kchi’.

‘The girl with the white hair,’ says Red Kukulkan.

It is a sweltering day and the suit’s conditioner whines with the effort of keeping them cool as they fan out around their side of the island. Red Kukulkan heads for the beach, for he knows it best, and there, to his astonishment, is Zero. Naked, holding her hands over her head, and stretching to the left and to the right. He picks up a pebble and tosses it at her and hits her on the back, but she ignores him.

He comes up next to her and grabs her but she kicks him in the groin.

‘You can’t stop me,’ she says.

He can barely hear her through the helmet. He shakes his head and mimics burning as best he can but she smiles and runs into the sea. The silky grey water slurping at her feet and then at her legs and then finally her face as she submerges.

The are others on the beach now. They all stand in silence watching her swim out into the rippling grey and then someone says, ‘She’s not burning.’

‘Look,’ says someone.

Out to the left is a bank of fog approaching across the water, and out if it slips a hulk. A long black one with a towering white construction at the end. Vast and silent and even at this distance they can see it rocking gently from side to side. It signals with its foghorn, a long dolorous blast, and they all avert their eyes and wish they could cover their ears.

‘She’s drowning,’ says Red Kukulkan. ‘She’s flailing. Look.’

‘Let her go,’ says someone. ‘Maybe it’s here for her.’

‘She won’t make it. She’ll drown.’

No one responds. Then one of them begins to take off their suit.

‘What’re you doing?’

‘I’m going in. She can’t swim.’

‘Keep your suit on, idiot. You’ll burn.’

‘She’s not burning.’

‘She’s got white hair.’

‘So? Why should that matter?’

When the suit comes off Red Kukulkan can see that it is a boy, but he cannot remember his name. The boy dives into the sea too, and he cannot swim either, but he is stronger than Zero and he grabs her around the neck and drags her back to the beach. She screams and bites but her teeth cannot get through the suits and eventually Sky Hoatzin puts her in a headlock and holds her until she is exhausted.

The boy rubs his eyes. They are red and so is the skin around them and the water trickling off his body leaves powdery white residue.

‘It stings,’ he says, coughing. ‘Eugh, it stings my eyes.’

They take them both back and put them in the decontamination room and wash them with fresh water. A few days’ supply, but Red Kukulkan does not mind, because it will only mean more work. Zero lies on the floor, eyes closed, and the boy leans against the wall and shakes and wheezes. Red Kukulkan and Sky Hoatzin scrub them with brushes and soap and then take them both naked through the airlock.

One Pol pounces on Zero and slaps her and scratches at her face. Screaming incoherently and sobbing. After a few minutes Zero grabs her face and stares at her, feral, and says, ‘I’m not burned.’ Then she throws her against the wall and stalks off down the corridor.

‘The water tingles like diamonds!’ she shouts back. ‘It just tingles and kisses and nothing else!’

After she is gone they all disperse muttering and leave One Pol there on the floor. Red Kukulkan looks for Cloud Ke’kchi’ but she is nowhere near. Then he sees two people sobbing over the boy who saved Zero. His parents ask him why he dived in when he knew the sea was poisoned but he cannot speak. His eyes go red and then white with cataracts. His skin begins to peel. Eventually he vomits a pink foam and then he sleeps for three days. Then he dies.

After the boy dies, it does not rain for a long time. The hulks come more frequently now and people say it is Zero’s fault. Sometimes they sail near the shore. Each sliding past like some great predator upon the waves. Once or twice they come close enough that the villagers can see figures on the deck. Strange things with elongated limbs. Cartwheeling and dancing and throwing little balls of flame at each other. The children dream of these things at night and wake up screaming.

They have to move the water collectors back inside to save them from the whipping wind that comes with the drought. Instead they have to deploy the seawater filterer. It is huge and takes twenty-four of them to move down to the beach. Red Kukulkan devises a new way of running the tubes into the bunker and removes the coil generator. He reconfigures it and puts it in the sea and the villagers put their hands to their mouths and say he is insane. But days pass and the generator is still working and a few days after that the filter is producing twice as much water as it did before. Now he is feted and people pat him on the back when they see him. All but Sky Hoatzin, who strokes his growing beard and says nothing.

One cloudless day Red Kukulkan is tending to his processors when his father approaches. Wearing his thin scavenger’s suit and holding a spear. He stops by one of the machines and it is the first time he has ever come to see Red Kukulkan at work so Red Kukulkan stops and straightens.

‘I’m told you’re very good at this,’ says the father.

‘Only because I know how to fix these.’


‘Some of the papers the elders have. They are about these machines. I read them.’

‘You can read?’


The father purses his lips.

‘Then it is true what they say.’

‘What do they say?’

‘You are the reason we are all growing fat.’

He says it without humour and Red Kukulkan does not realize it is a joke until the corners of his father’s mouth curve down into a smile. Then he smiles too and crouches and resumes his work.

‘I see not an inch of fat on you,’ he says.

‘I’m a thin man by nature,’ says his father. He points up to the Peak of Sorrow with his spear. ‘I’m heading up and over.’

‘Be safe.’

‘Would you like to come with me?’

‘To the Peak?’



His father shrugs and turns to go. ‘No reason.’

‘No, wait. I’ll come. What shall I bring?’

‘I have everything we need.’

‘For two?’

‘For two.’

‘Let me carry some of it.’

His father pokes his suit. ‘With this heavy thing? You’ll find it hard enough just walking.’

Red Kukulkan packs away his things and gives his box to Nine Mis to take back and heads off with his father. The mountain’s flank is bare all the way to the top. Every now and then stones roll down past them and sudden belches of smoke hiss from the earth. The filter on his suit works overtime but still he can smell something like burning. It is heavy going and he sweats a lot and has to stop frequently.

They ascend at an angle and curve around the mountain and Red Kukulkan looks back when they are halfway up. Down below is a little flat plain surrounded on all sides by blinding white ocean. A forest of white machines specking that expanse and beyond it the squat entrances to the bunker. Off to the left is a hulk and another one to the right, but farther away. The air is clear and off in the distance he can see another island and he realizes he has never seen it, or this view, before.

‘What’s that?’ he asks, pointing.

His father does not turn around. ‘The Isle of Lies,’ he says.

‘Isle of Lies? Why is it called that? Does anyone live there?’

‘Aye,’ says his father. ‘Liars. So my father told me.’ He stops and looks back. ‘If you like such things, wait till we get to the other side.’

Red Kukulkan has trouble climbing over some of the stones but his father does not. Long limbed like a spider and as flexible he clambers over all obstacles and he has strength enough to pull Red Kukulkan along too. The sun is setting by the time the bunker and the farms finally disappear behind the mountain’s bulk. This is farther than Red Kukulkan has ever been and he wonders if he will ever come this far again. Then he sees what is to be seen and realizes he probably will.

The far side of the Peak of Sorrow is pocked with a thousand little ponds and Red Kukulkan realizes they are craters. The mountain levels out into another plain before it meets the sea and it too is covered in craters. Each full of greenish water and choked with slimy brown algae. In the middle of all this a scarred old building and atop that a skeletal satellite dish, still rotating slowly. Strewn all about is an anarchy of metallic detritus. Red Kukulkan cannot even begin to guess what they once were but now they are just glittering shards and scattered globs of metal. All twinkling redly in the twilight.

‘That’s what we come to scavenge,’ says his father, sweeping his spear in an arc. ‘Dead gods. They fall from above at the dish. I think perhaps it is calling to them. And see there? That is the Isle of Night. And the big one on the horizon is the realm of the Hulks.’ He pauses. ‘That is where they come from.’

The Isle of Night is not far off and to the west and Red Kukulkan can see there is a bunker there too and lights inside. Just beyond it, a smattering of machines not unlike their own. There is a hulk drawing near it, but as he watches it veers slowly around and towards the flat dark mass hunkered on the horizon.

‘What are they?’ he asks. ‘Who are the people on the Isle of Night?’

His father shrugs. ‘People like us, probably. I don’t know. I’ve never met one.’

‘And the hulks?’

‘I don’t know. But they’re not gods.’

They make their way down in the setting sun and towards the building with the radar dish. As they approach the door opens and someone steps out and waves at them. Red Kukulkan’s father tenses and lifts his spear and pushes Red Kukulkan behind him. Then they both realize who it is and relax. Red Kukulkan’s father sighs and lowers his spear and calls out, ‘Your mother is going mad with concern.’

Zero holds her hands up and smiles. Her hair long now and falling down her shoulders. She is wearing no suit.

‘Such wonderful things!’ she says.

Sky Hoatzin spots it first. A small black island drifting a mile or two offshore. He points to it and everyone stops and looks. As they do it tips over sideways. Its smooth underbelly striated with glorious aquamarine lines. An iceberg, then. And beyond that, a black umbilicus seething on the horizon. Riven now and then with lightning like jagged streaks of blood. They feel the wind on them and even though they are wearing suits they can feel the cold on their skin.

‘Stay calm,’ says Sky Hoatzin. ‘Stow your equipment.’

They do, quickly and in silence. Nothing but the occasional cough or murmur over the radio and those too falling silent as people realize they have left theirs on and turn them off. Red Kukulkan works with Seven Poch’il and she is completely quiet. He catches a glimpse of her face and she has a big red mark on one cheek and when she sees him looking she looks away.

‘Where is Sky Hoatzin?’ he says, when they are finished.

Seven Poch’il points to the beach.

‘Probably down there.’

Red Kukulkan heads down the pebbly path around the cliffs and down to the seawater filterer. Sky Hoatzin is there and so is Zero. She is wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and a vest and she is swimming in the stinking sea. Collecting the generators Red Kukulkan put in there with her bare hands. Sky Hoatzin is fully suited and sitting on the beach, turning each off in turn. His hands gloved and the gloves charring and smoking when they touch the devices. He looks up and points to the filterer.

‘What do we do with this?’ he asks.

‘It’ll be fine,’ says Red Kukulkan. ‘It was designed for this.’

‘Let’s cover it in sand, just in case,’ says Zero.

Red Kukulkan looks at her. Hair plastered about her face and down her shoulders and all over her glistening chest. So now that long some of it reaches her hips. He wonders where One Pol is. He has not seen her in a long time.

‘No,’ he says. ‘If too much sand gets in it’ll jam.’

Zero wraps her arms around herself.

‘It’s getting cold.’

They head in. By the time they reach the bunker door it is already beginning to snow. The sea is rising behind them and soon it is halfway up the cliffs, frothing and screaming. They all gather in the observation bunker and watch the sky turn black and then deep purple and things condense out of the air one by one. First a yellow miasma, then a blue one, and finally one green-white and delicate. Ice frosts the window and they can hear it creak. All this in less than ten minutes, and everyone is mesmerised.

Red Kukulkan feels someone brushing his hands and when he looks it is Cloud Ke’kchi’. Flawless like an empty sky.

‘It is time,’ she says in his ear.


‘We must make a child.’

Red Kukulkan licks his suddenly dry lips.

‘Right now?’

She watches him for a few moments and breathes in through her nose. Short and hard and fast.

‘Another time, then.’

She turns to go.

Red Kukulkan takes her hand, cold and slightly moist as ever.

‘No, let’s go now.’

‘As you wish.’

Cloud Ke’kchi’ leads him into her room. She has lined the floor with scavenged carpet and covered the walls in images. In one corner, a small steel table, and a lamp too. He realizes that he has only been in here a few times before and the last time he was here it did not look like this.

‘Where did you find all this?’ he asks. ‘Are you a scavenger?’

She stops with her back to him.

‘Wouldn’t you have seen me outside if I were?’

‘I suppose so. Where, then, did you find it?’

‘In the bunkers. All you need is a torch and patience.’

‘You explore the bunkers?’

She looks at him and holds his gaze until he looks away.

‘Yes,’ she says, sitting on her bed. ‘I explore the bunkers.’

He sits next to her and they do not look at each other. He takes her hand and laces his fingers through hers and she leans in and puts her head against his shoulder for a moment. Her skin is cool all over and just like her hands she is damp all over. Red Kukulkan nuzzles her cheeks and feels her hands on him and his skin sliding over hers. Then they are lying down and he slowly reaches under her clothes and she under his. They fumble for a few moments and her breath grows heavy and his too. Then they both stop and lie still for a few moments and she says, ‘It isn’t hard.’

‘I know. Give it some time.’

He tilts her head towards him and kisses her on the lips but her lips are still. She rolls over on top of him and he can feel the weight of her on his hips and he wants nothing more than to do what must be done but still there is nothing. After a few more minutes she looks at him, beautiful and dead-faced, and says, ‘It still isn’t hard.’

He sits up. ‘I know.’

‘We can’t do anything if it isn’t hard.’

‘I know.’

She gets off him and buttons up her clothes and sits with her hands in her lap.

‘We can’t do anything if it isn’t hard,’ she says again, quietly.

Red Kukulkan sits by her and strokes his chin. Then he gets up and gets dressed and walks out.

He heads heavy-footed down the corridor and as he does Sky Hoatzin comes around the corner and looks at him and Cloud Ke’kchi’’s open door. He points at his crotch and grins and says, ‘Button up.’

Red Kukulkan zips up and keeps walking. When he looks back Sky Hoatzin is standing by Cloud Ke’kchi’’s open door. He looks down the corridor at Red Kukulkan and then back at the door and then both disappear around the corner.

Red Kukulkan wanders for a while and then he hears singing. He follows the sound and after a while he is lost in the evertwisting dimness of the corridors, and no closer to it. He gives up and heads back and it is then that he sees something off in the dark to the left. A shard of yellow light slicing the gloom in half. He peeks in, and inside is Zero.

She is singing to herself and cartwheeling around the room. She pauses for a second and then arches over backwards and stops with her palms flat on the ground. She has not seen him.

Red Kukulkan heads back down the corridor but when he is a few feet away Zero comes to the door and leans against the doorframe, panting.

‘Hello, Red Kukulkan,’ she says. Rolling his name around in her mouth as if she were tasting it.

‘Hello, Zero. Why are you everywhere I go?’

Zero smiles.

‘Why are you following me?’

He shakes his head. ‘I wasn’t following you. I was lost.’

‘Intentionally lost?’

‘Yes, intentionally lost.’

She looks back into the room, even though he knows there is nothing there to look at, and when she looks back she is grinning.

‘Well, enjoy being lost,’ she says. ‘Sooner or later, someone will find you.’

‘What are you doing in there?’

‘Cartwheels. Dancing.’ She flexes her bicep. ‘To stay strong.’

‘For what?’

‘I won’t tell you.’

‘Very well.’

Red Kukulkan walks down to the end of the corridor and disappears around the corner. Zero watches him go, chewing her lip, and then heads after him.

They do not see a hulk again for a long time. Then something falls from the sky. A great glowering ball of metal bleeding fire as it comes. Soon after, a hulk appears. Distant at first but as it gets nearer they can see it is heading straight for the island. Then another, and another. All three approach in menacing and silent convoy for three days. Then two of them veer off and sail away. The last one comes to a halt not two miles distant and lingers in the rough seas. The villagers watch it for a while and then they begin to mutter prayers and leave the observation bunker. The young ask the old if they have ever seen such behaviour from the hulks before and the old say yes, but very long ago.

Eventually it is only Zero and Red Kukulkan left. Him leaning against the side of the window watching the great ship, her with her hands and her nose and her bulging belly pushed up against the glass. A little flower of moisture blooming and withering upon it with her every breath.

‘I can see them,’ she says.

‘See who?’

‘The people on the hulk. Look. They dance just like me.’

Red Kukulkan stares at the ship and then he sees them too. Those weird distended figures. Totally black, like living silhouettes. Cavorting on the deck and throwing things at each other and into the sea. As he watches they bring out huge drums and tubs and begin tipping them overboard. Their contents red and oily and flecked with white chunks. Soon the stuff has formed a slick all around the hull and the hulk is like some bleeding leviathan risen from the depths to breathe its last in the sunshine.

‘Red against the white,’ Zero whispers. ‘Black against the grey.’

‘What?’ says Red Kukulkan.

She turns and walks away.

‘Where are you going?’

She stops at the door and looks back and blows him a kiss.

‘I have things to do.’

‘What things?’

‘It doesn’t matter.’

He goes out after her but she is fleet despite her size and good with the shadows. After a few turns he has lost her and then he starts running and takes a corner and crashes straight into someone. A woman who screams and trips over backwards and lands heavily.

‘Oh, gods in the sky! I’m sorry,’ Red Kukulkan says. He kneels down and when he does he hears her laughing and realizes that it is Seven Poch’il.

‘Oh,’ he says. ‘Hello, Seven Poch’il.’

‘What’s the matter?’ she says, still laughing. ‘Not so sorry now?’

‘No, that’s not what I meant.’ He helps her to her feet. ‘Are you alright?’

‘I’m alright.’

She looks at him grinning and in silence and after a few moments he looks away and says, ‘Well, then, I’d best be going.’

She punches him on the shoulder. ‘When are you planning on telling us?’

‘About what?’

‘About the baby!’

Red Kukulkan stares at her for a few moments as if she had just punched him in the stomach, and then he says, ‘How did you know?’

‘Well, after a while, it is obvious.’

Red Kukulkan has no idea what she is talking about. Then he sighs and smiles and says, ‘I see. Well, yes, of course. We haven’t talked about it. She’s quiet, you know. It’s hard, sometimes.’ He looks down the corridor. ‘It’s hard to know what she’s thinking.

‘Well, you two decide soon! There must be a celebration.’ She nods. ‘I suppose we should have a celebration for Zero’s child too. Gods in the sky, I hope it’s dark-haired. I’m not sure we could handle another Zero.’

Seven Poch’il punches him on the shoulder again and heads off down the corridor. He watches her go, and then walks the other way. When he gets to Cloud Ke’kchi’’s door he stands by it for a few moments listening. There is no sound inside but he enters anyway, not bothering to knock, and pushing the door so hard it slams against the wall. He stops in the doorway and looks around the room wondering what he thought he would find. Whatever it was, it was not Cloud Ke’kchi’ sitting alone in the corner, sewing something together out of blue and red cloth.

She looks up.

‘Hello,’ she says.

‘Whose child is it?’ he asks.

Cloud Ke’kchi’ holds up what she is sewing. ‘It’s a coat. Only a small one, but it will be nice when it is done.’

‘Whose child?’

She puts down the coat and crosses her hands on her lap. ‘Sky Hoatzin’s.’

Red Kukulkan closes the door, quietly. Then he walks over to her bed and sits down. He puts his head in his hands and covers his face and rocks backwards and forwards a few times. Then he takes a deep breath.

‘I see.’

She watches him without expression and then picks up her needle.

‘You’re not jealous.’


She sighs. ‘Very well.’

‘Why did you do it?’

‘I wanted a child.’

‘You’re my woman.’

She looks up at him. ‘And you’re my man.’



She gets up and walks over to him and sits down next to him. No sign of a pregnancy. Her hair longer now than ever and glittering with the little stones he has brought her through the years, each woven into the tresses. He imagines her in a glass case, utterly still. And people gathering all about her to bow and scrape and beg her for favours. And him amongst them, wondering why she will not answer.

She sits close to him and looks him in the eyes. ‘Zero’s child is yours, is it not?’


‘Yet you are my man.’

Red Kukulkan pauses.

And then: ‘Yes.’

She looks down at her hands for a few moments and then she says, ‘Come with me.’

‘Where are we going?’

‘Just come with me. Listen to your woman.’

They walk out to the edge of the inhabited corridors and then she opens one of the wall panels with dancing fingers and takes out a torch. For an hour they wander through the tunnels, traversing empty halls and sections flooded with clear water. The floor beneath the still liquid fluffy with bright green mould. They are accompanied always by their own echoes and other echoes, of sounds from far away and long ago. Finally they come to a flight of metal stairs that descends into darkness and Cloud Ke’kchi’ makes her way down to the bottom and shines her torch on a pile of decaying filth.

Red Kukulkan looks closer and sees that it is a body. Face-down and lying on the stairs with its head at the bottom and its feet six steps up. He realizes that there is a big hole in its head and he looks around and sees a metal bar lying not two feet away.

‘This is One Pol,’ says Cloud Ke’kchi’.

‘How do you know?’

‘When I first found her she was a lot less rotten than this. And those are her clothes.’

‘Why did you not tell anyone?’

‘What good would it do? They’d only punish Zero, but what for? You may as well punish a mouse for creeping. But nevertheless, you should know. Your lover is a murderer.’

‘You can’t be sure it was her. Anyone could have done this.’

‘No one else but me,’ says Cloud Ke’kchi’. ‘No one else comes out this far.’

She lingers for a few more moments and then walks back up the stairs.

‘I’ll help you,’ says Red Kukulkan. ‘I will help you raise the child.’


‘Sky Hoatzin won’t. You didn’t think he would, did you? He won’t even admit that the child is his.’

She stops and looks down at him frowning and starts to say something. Then she stops.

‘I see.’

‘You didn’t think he loved you, did you? Do you love him?’

‘No, you idiot,’ she says quietly. ‘I’ve only ever tried to love you.’

He does not see Zero again for a long time. She just disappears into the dark deep of the bunkers. Few can be bothered to search for her and they too only for a little while. Red Kukulkan and Seven Poch’il persevere and sometimes they find signs of her presence—a half-eaten protein cube, a water spout still moist from use—but the closest they ever get to her is the splat of her footfall receding into the darkness like light leaching from the dusk sky.

Cloud Ke’kchi’ swells and then finally she gives birth and Red Kukulkan is on hand for it all. The baby is dark-haired and large and squalls incessantly. He cannot tear himself away from her or her mother. On occasion he catches Cloud Ke’kchi’ looking at him when she thinks he is not, and at first she looks away immediately. But then the looks begin to linger and one day, as he is cleaning the baby and tickling her belly, she comes up next to him and kisses him on the cheek.

‘What have I done to deserve that?’ Red Kukulkan asks.

‘Nothing,’ she says. ‘Nothing at all.’

Three days later Seven Poch’il finds Zero. Lying in a corridor a mile away, her water broken, and delirious.

‘You must come with us,’ says Seven Poch’il. ‘You can’t give birth here.’

‘All systems,’ says Zero. ‘All systems. Nominal. All systems nominal.’

Seven Poch’il looks at Red Kukulkan. ‘What did she say?’

‘What systems?’ asks Red Kukulkan.

Zero grabs his face and yanks him close. She stinks.

‘The nanites malfunctioned,’ she says. ‘That’s what happened. All systems were nominal.’ She begins to cry. ‘All systems were nominal.’

They take her to the infirmary and hoist her onto the bed and immediately her contractions quicken. But she will not let anyone else close.

‘You have to let someone help,’ says Red Kukulkan.

‘The telemetry. Look at the telemetry.’

One of the old women by the door approaches with a bowl of water and some rags. Zero looks at her and rolls her eyes and grunts. Another contraction hits and she sits up and screams.

‘Breathe, dear,’ says the old woman. ‘Breathe.’

‘Where is he?’ asks Zero.

‘Where is who? Breathe, now. Breathe.’

‘Where is my love?’

Seven Poch’il looks at the old woman and at Red Kukulkan and Red Kukulkan goes pale. He steps closer.

‘I’m here,’ he says.

The old woman squints at him and then at Seven Poch’il.

‘No, not you!’ says Zero. She rakes his face with a hiss and draws blood. ‘You read but you don’t understand. Not you!’

‘Who, then?’

She doesn’t answer. She arches backwards and screams and the old woman says to Red Kukulkan, ‘You had better leave.’

He does. Out into the corridor, but no further. Lingering there under a growing tension that he does not notice until he hears a child crying and it dissipates. He peeks into the room but Seven Poch’il and the old woman are in the way and he cannot see anything. After a few moments Seven Poch’il comes out and walks past him to a tap and washes the blood off her hands. Then she pinches the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger and leans her forehead against the naked concrete.

‘Is she well?’ asks Red Kukulkan. ‘Is the child well?’

‘They’re both well,’ says Seven Poch’il. ‘But the child has fair hair.’


‘The child has fair hair.’

‘Oh,’ says Red Kukulkan. He slides down the wall onto his haunches and looks down the corridor. ‘Oh, I see.’

They both linger in exhausted silence and then after a while the old woman comes out.

‘She won’t look at the child,’ she says. ‘She has to feed it, but she won’t look.’

‘I’ll go,’ says Red Kukulkan.

The old woman shakes her head but does not stop him.

Zero is staring out the window and the child is on her belly, mewling. But she does not seem to know it is there. She stares out the window, sickly and pale, and when he approaches she says, ‘They’re gathering. For the feast.’

Out in the bay is another hulk. Sliding into view out of the left and curving its way around the bay. Identical to the one already there, except it is more distant.

‘You must feed the baby,’ says Red Kukulkan. ‘If you don’t, she will die.’

Zero looks down at the child as if at a stone, and chews her lip. Then she reaches up and casually flips one breast out of her vest and pulls the child head-first towards it. Red Kukulkan says ‘Gently!’ but she ignores him and the child squalls but then it feels the nipple against its lips and clamps down. Zero winces and turns and looks out the window again.

‘I just want to go home,’ she says.

She is crying.

Mostly she just stands by the window staring out at the ships gathering in the bay. Feeding the baby when she must but ignoring it the rest of the time, no matter how loud and hard it wails. Sometimes Red Kukulkan hears the child crying in a distant room and comes to find it crimson-faced and choking and Zero sitting next to it with her hands on her lap, silent and oblivious, eyes fixed on the waters.

And through all this the hulks gather in the bay. First the two that were there on the day of the birth, and then another, and then another. Then a larger one approaches and it rams one of the smaller ones and they begin hurling gobs of green fire at each other. The distant explosions shaking dust from the concrete walls and rattling the windows. They are all terrified, for none among them have seen anything like this, or even heard of it, not even the elderly. Then, after a battle lasting five days, two of the hulks burst into flames and split in half and their crews thrash about like insects in the milky waters. The other hulks sail over them and crush them under their bows and parents cover their children’s eyes, but do not stop watching themselves.

‘This is the white haired bitch’s doing,’ says someone. ‘We should slit her throat.’

‘You will not,’ says Sky Hoatzin.

‘And why not? We should kill her and her brat.’

And then someone else: ‘It will! It will!’

‘No,’ says Sky Hoatzin. ‘There will be no slitting of throats.’

‘You’re not an elder yet, Sky Hoatzin.’

‘No, not yet. But that won’t stop me slitting your throat in the night too if you harm the girl or her mother.’

The others fret, and Seven Poch’il smiles to herself.

‘What’s it to you if she lives or dies?’

‘We will not kill our own,’ says Sky Hoatzin, wrapping his arms around Seven Poch’il. ‘Be they dark haired or light.’

He is speaking to the others, but he is looking at Red Kukulkan, and Red Kukulkan cannot stand to look back at him.

Zero will not eat unless she is brought food, and will not drink unless she is brought water, so Red Kukulkan and Seven Poch’il and Sky Hoatzin take turns doing so. She speaks only to them and only rarely and when she does they do not understand what she has to say. Seven Poch’il can smile and say ‘Yes, yes’ regardless, but it is not so easy for Red Kukulkan. For Zero says what she says with such calmness and sincerity that sometimes for a brief dizzy moment he thinks that what she is saying makes complete sense, and it is the rest of them who are mad.

‘You’ll understand, won’t you?’ she says one day, not long after the child is weaned. She puts her hand on his shoulder and looks at him, pleading. ‘You read, don’t you?’

‘I do. Eat this.’

She pops the protein cube in her mouth and swallows without chewing. ‘You know where telemetry is. Everything was nominal.’ She looks up at the ceiling, wet-eyed. ‘How could it end like this when everything was nominal?’

‘You need to sleep,’ says Red Kukulkan.

‘I’ll sleep soon. I didn’t want to leave it like this but I’ll have to sleep soon.’

She lies down and he brings the child over to her and holds it up to her face. Fat now and pink-cheeked and kicking its bow legs constantly. It blows a bubble but Zero ignores it until Red Kukulkan says, ‘Zero.’ Then she turns and grazes its cheek with her lips and looks away.

He tucks the child in next to her and heads out. When he comes back a few hours later with another plate of dried algae and cubes and a glass of water, the child is sobbing, and Zero is gone.

 [ Zero on a raft, © 2017 Miguel Santos ] He picks up the baby and heads off in search of her. Then he sees people gathered in the observation bunker and he knows immediately what is happening. He pushes his way through and when they see him carrying the child they slide back as if he were diseased. When he gets to the front he sees Zero on a raft in the bay. No suit and hair loose and pushing herself along with a long stick.

‘Idiot,’ says someone. ‘Where is she going?’

‘Home,’ says Red Kukulkan, but no one hears him.

She takes a while getting to a hulk. The black featureless figures gathered on the deck by the time she does, lined up like paper cutouts. All with their arms in the air and rocking from side to side. After a while her stick will not reach deep enough and she lies down and paddles. The other hulks all begin to creep towards her but they are too far away. She reaches the one closest and the figures on the deck begin to drop ropes down the side and she takes hold of one. They pull her up and they close in around her and none of the villagers ever sees her again.

The hulk lets out a great blaring boom and it shakes the bunker and the villagers cower. But then the ships all turn and head out of the bay, spewing black smoke from their chimneys, and eventually all that is left of them is a blue-black haze over the water.

Someone shoves Red Kukulkan.

‘Be rid of that thing too,’ they say, ‘While you can.’

‘No,’ says Red Kukulkan. ‘You will not touch her.’

They spit on him and one of them tries to kick him but Sky Hoatzin steps between them and hits the man in the face. A wet crack and he goes down and one of the old men laughs and claps.

The villagers look at the old man and he shrugs and says, ‘We are dwindling.’

They disperse muttering and glancing narrow-eyed at Red Kukulkan, and he knows then that things will not be easy. But he knows there is one person whose help will make it bearable, so he goes to her room and knocks on the door and waits.

Cloud Ke’kchi’ opens the door holding her child and smiling. Then she sees Red Kukulkan and what he has in his hands, and her smile fades.

‘Is that where you went, then?’ she says.

‘Yes,’ says Red Kukulkan.

The child squirms in his hands and he nearly drops it. Cloud Ke’kchi’ walks over to her bed and puts her own child down and then comes back to Red Kukulkan. Wrapping her hair into a bun and sticking a pen through it. Still unsmiling. She stands in the doorway with her hands on her hips, and frowns.

‘That’s not how you hold a baby,’ she says eventually.

Red Kukulkan says nothing. She holds out her arms.

‘Here,’ she says. ‘Let me show you.’

© 2017 Subodhana Wijeyeratne

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