"Leaving the Earth and Its Troubles" by Sharon O'Roke
“Leaving the Earth and Its Troubles” by Sharon O’Roke

The Chums

by Laurence Klavan

It’s tempting to say “he” or “she” but the right thing to say is “it,” for that’s what it was—for a few hours, anyway, while sexless, before a sex was chosen for it, and everything changed. Born under the water, along with others, it had been laid as an egg on the top of a lake, then it sank to the bottom to hatch where it stayed for a year as a nymph, which sounds erotic but wasn’t. Then it had bobbed to the surface where it was currently awaiting the big moment when something specific would be decided for it and it could act or be acted upon—when an event would take place, in other words, when something would happen. (And it would get two penises or two gonopores—genital openings—that’s how important sex would be to it. It would have two organs: in case one didn’t work, it would be equipped with a back-up—or maybe it was so it could have sex with two partners at one time in a kind of orgy of impregnation. And that’s what the whole purpose would be, of course, not pleasure; it would never feel that, not in its entire—twenty-four-hour—life.)

It’s strange that this would be true, its never feeling pleasure, because the creature (a sub-imago or dun, as it was called, the second-to-last iteration of a mayfly after it was an egg and a nymph and before it was, well, a mayfly—or, more poignantly, a dayfly) was apparently irresistible—to fish, anyway. It wasn’t unattractive: tubular and wrapped in what looked like crinkled linen, its wings opaque like fans fluttering against the faces of beautiful…and here’s the problem with comparisons: so many of them involve gender and this dun had none, not yet, anyway. But it was desirable not because of how it looked but because it was perfectly passive—it was a lousy flier and had no distracting coloration (it didn’t have to draw anything to it, so why bother?)—and passive not as a stereotypically “ball-less” man or “blowsy” woman; it had no properties of either sex and so its inaction couldn’t be illuminated with them as frames of reference. Without a sex, it simply had no way to move, behave, or be (except in these few hours to lie or fly around a bit, badly).
We should give the thing a name, but choosing one androgynous—like Terry or Charlie or Alex—would be wrong. It should be called something closer to “table” or “chair” or maybe just “the object”—how about T.O., since initials are sometimes used to, say, neuter the identity of a writer unethically submitting a short story to a contest that’s been restricted to the other sex—or so it’s said that some people have done—which is near enough to labeling something as genderless, right?

Still, we can imagine that it felt frustration at its inability to act when, just having molted, it was in the floating or flying vicinity of another sub-imago, the company of which it desired and about which it could do nothing. This other one was just as adorable in its inertness, made to move mostly by the occasional rustle of the water or air, the way a beautiful flower blows in a breeze—a better analogy, because, no sex—and is said by poets or pretentious people to “dance” or to “sway.” Yet T.O. had no way to express its longing, which was as submerged in it as it had been as a nymph and egg in the lake hours earlier. It simply yearned, suspended, as if in a hospital and traction waiting for an injection that would animate it, nature being the nurse that would provide it with the two penises or openings, as if administering them with shots. Drifting or dangling in the water or air, the two at best could be pals or chums, have just the vaguest sort of attachment, a thing defined as love only with the greatest leeway. Still, it was better than being alone, which T.O. felt, despite all the others like itself scattered across the lake and sky, lying or flying in wait. It took comfort in at least having a companion, a kind of comrade in this strange span of time in which it could not be wanted or want.

Then, on this particular day—this particular life—a strange thing happened. T.O. and the other one were joined by a third sub-imago. It didn’t come from underneath the water as all of them had; it descended from above (to a human it would have looked like a parachutist landing), and it settled in the water between them. The intruder wasn’t exactly like T.O.; it was a shinier version, glossier, as if molded and painted instead of hatched and expelled. It made the others appear drab when, of course, seconds earlier they had been stunning (if virtually colorless) in their stillness. That wasn’t the weirdest thing about this interloper, either: it was the way that it moved and flew.

It jiggled and jumped, went up for an instant, then came down—and after a second slid as if swimming along the slimy surface of the lake. There was no way to characterize its springing and sinking except to say that it seemed “aggressive” in a male sense and “slinky and seductive” in a female: that is to say, it had attributes of a sex (and we’re going for the most corny attributes, just for simplicity’s sake). It could not possibly have done anything to deserve these traits, so it seemed a freakish sort of find floating or flying and once in a while relaxing at T.O.’s side.

Was it a new breed, a unique aberration, or were there many more like it and T.O. had never known? (And why would it? Its life was spent around one lousy lake and lasted one goddamn day—how sophisticated could it become?) T.O. now felt something new about this odd and, to tell the truth, annoying intruder. It wondered: How was its pal reacting to the brighter-looking, higher-flying, impishly swimming character? How could it not be entranced? The dun became despondent, for jealousy was a disorienting emotion, one it didn’t like yet could not deny experiencing, as the interloper bucked and dived nearby in a jazzy sort of way.

Then, to T.O.’s relief, the agony ended. Within another second, the new threat to its friendship had leaped into the air (twirling like a circus acrobat—male or female—bit between teeth) and vanished as quickly and incomprehensibly as it had come.
T.O. could not see the string attached to this new dun, which wasn’t a dun at all but a thing created to look like one and so attract fish that in turn would be caught and eaten. It was a lure, in other words, bait or, to be blunt, another kind of chum, now being reeled back up into a small boat on the lake from which it had been cast by Tommy Otis, a fisherman also known, interestingly, as T.O. by friends.

He pulled up the line and looked at it, saw that it had attracted nothing and cursed, quietly, even though no one was around to hear. T. O. had recently turned fifty and was feeling his age, as they say, had newly become impotent and was pretty miserable about it. He had trouble expressing this emotion without shame to his wife of twenty-two years, Maureen, and found that their relationship—which had always been pleasingly physical—had now changed into a sort of brother-sister situation or what was worse a friendship, which it had always been, but you know. He had come to fish to keep from dwelling on it, but it had been a mistake: sitting still in the rocking boat had only underscored his sense of being idle and so unmanned, without the identification of himself as at least mildly potent that he had always taken for granted. A fish taking the bait he had made himself was more aggressive than he was now, he thought, with self-pity, but also actual sadness. Then T.O. tossed the line back in, waiting, he realized, for someone or something else to act, for he no longer could.

The line and phony dun zinged into the air and was swallowed by the lake. It went unnoticed by the other T.O., fluttering prettily past before alighting on the water beside its pal (which was a different dun now, but T.O. couldn’t tell), happy to no longer have to compete for its attention now that the fake dun was gone.

It was growing more and more anxious for the onset of adulthood—and the broadening of its “relationship”—and was curious which gender would be chosen for it by whom or whatever did the choosing (and it wasn’t just two organs that would announce how important sex was going to be: it wouldn’t even have a mouth, for it wouldn’t need to waste time eating; its digestive tract would only be filled with air. All that mattered would be reproducing—and fast—though the dun didn’t know how soon it would all be over once it began).

And, in fact, now it did begin, the last molting of its life. T.O. was given a pronoun by nature, became a she (she wouldn’t live long enough as a female to be named—but, oh, all right, let’s call her Brenda). Her wings grew shiny and transparent and legitimately lovely, not just nice because they were limp and languid. Full of energy, she shot into the sky, having no power to stop herself, forced into it and unable to enjoy or even judge the experience.

Soon she was aware of a huge swarm of creatures just like herself that had cascaded in the same exact way, creating a cloud in a sky that today had none of its own. The dun, her friend, the one that had been identical and just as empty of sexual characteristics, was suddenly male and so had bigger eyes than hers, big enough to dominate his entire head, and forelegs longer and stronger. Suddenly, Brenda shrieked as, in the hovering crowd and cloud, she was gripped by him (it wasn’t him or it might have been but it didn’t matter) and was penetrated, alongside countless other mayflies engaged in the same action, the first and last of their lives. Now you could make comparisons to human coupling, but it went way beyond any orgy: it was a twirling mass of motion and instinct that guaranteed the same thing would occur again soon while those engaged in it were dying and eggs were dropping into the lake below. Brenda never knew that love had not had time to occur and all her dreams had been dashed in the drive to perpetuity.

At the same time, the other T.O. felt a tug and yanked his rod and line. To his shock, he saw a fish on the other end. He pulled it toward him, power coursing through his arms and hands—and legs and feet, too, as he braced himself in the boat, for the fish was a big bastard. This power was a poor replacement for the one he had lost, but it felt great at the moment, was a beginning, anyway, after an end. Suddenly, T.O. was grateful for his past and all the years of human intimacy. His future would be different but might—would, with Maureen—at least include love.

Above the struggling and soon-to-be slaughtered fish, he saw in the sky the swarm of sex and life and death in which the dun Brenda had been born and obliterated, the sun hurting his eyes as he strained, yearned, to understand what it could be. But it would only make sense to someone—sorry, something—greater than him.

About Laurence Klavan


Laurence Klavan has been published in more than thirty literary magazines and a collection of his short work will be published in 2014 by Chizine. He wrote the novels The Cutting Room and The Shooting Script (Ballantine) and is co-author with Susan Kim of the current YA series, Wasteland (Harper Collins) and the graphic novels, City of Spies and Brain Camp (First Second). He is an Edgar Award winner and a Drama Desk nominee for his theater work, including the libretto to Bed and Sofa (Vineyard Theater, NY; Finborough Theatre, London).