3650 words, short story
Keiki's Pitcher Plant
A maintenance request called Ina down to the old dispensary on the sixtieth Reclamation. Her wife, Maya, was pulling lemon grass from the belly of a roasted suckling pig, wood-choked and salty fine for the guests of the Reclamation Feast. Twelve other young pigs were placed by their chefs throughout this western part of Palawan, the foreleg of Maharlika, east of all the world. White puto and purple taro drinks, lumpia with fish and some with vegetables, kare-kare oxtail: the dishes that contained meat had been prepared with animal parts grown by Acardia Labs. The special fasciated mangoes were genetically programmed to grow as wide and heavy as their branches would allow. There were hundreds of them, yellow as the sun. Ina most looked forward to the cauldrons of sinigang—the meaty jackfruit sitting in sour broth. She would come back up the road before the last of it was ladled away; Maya would be sure to save some.
Ina and Maya raised the hogs. They fed them well on mash. The large boars and sows were wild as though they’d never seen a body full of love, but the piglets were tame to a point, and so the death was easy when they grew to size. It was the West that had outlawed animal slaughter, but Ina’s father taught her well of the fight. The right to eat as her ancestors had, before America arrived, before Spain, even, some seven hundred years ago. And the right, too, to eat as the colonies did—to enjoy the hogs on Reclamation, to eat the lab-farmed oxtails. This was all a Brown person’s right. It had been won, and the West retreated like a shamed animal to its own land.
The hogs were eaten twice a year on Christmas and Reclamation. And that was all there is to say about them.
Ina was sixty in the young way of the new generations, and her health and that of her wife and neighbors had always been respected. Uninhibited access to therapies, medicine, and one’s own records was a peaceful right. Medical technology had been in part an evolution convergent with that of the seed and animal dispensaries. Whenever Ina visited her doctor, they could talk about her health at the molecular level. She knew nearly all of what went on inside her body and how the old trauma of fearing war corrupted her bones. Some days Ina imagined what it was like—to be healthy and to expect all the full years leading up to one-hundred-thirty.
Ina came to the dispensary and greeted the sleeping AI. There was no response. Only the soft buzz of the dispensary’s inner wall mechanisms could be heard beneath the trill of parrots. The AI’s strange voice had come to her when she sequenced her first major genetic recipe some thirty years ago. Sweet recognition in a thousand tongues. It had announced the dispensary’s immediate intentions: to seal the perfected genetic sequence deep within its armored archive and then scatter that code like seeds to every dispensary archive in the islands. Such a code could then be retrieved at a future point if the wild specimens of Nepenthes attenboroughii, Attenborough’s pitcher plant, went extinct again.
The AI spoke its intentions to the scientists who worked in the fields of sequencing and ecology. It was silent to all else, visiting like an infrequent rain in the dead of one’s sleep. Some could hear it in passing. When the door was open, people standing outside of the dispensary could hear it read protocol. Ina’s father had been a guard at the dispensary, as had his parents before him. He spoke of the voice having many throats that all lived within the dispensary’s walls; Aswang, he called the voice, for it frightened him like the tales of his youth. Aswang—listen, my keiki-baby—speaks with the voices of all the old gods, who were like men, like women, like men-women, and something new. Aswang never once answered to that name.
A round door peeled away to allow Ina in and she noticed that its fractal pattern had gained a layer of paneling since the last Reclamation—a triangular pattern like shark’s teeth pulled into the walls, and she was inside the quiet warm darkness where electricity pumped through the seed-wombs. Palawan had not needed a use for the dispensary in thirty years. The island was full of rice and soy and fish as its gods intended. In 2170, this dispensary injected one-hundred-billion seeds of Nepenthes attenboroughii into the highland air, and the beautiful pitcher plant took its niche again, secluded as it ought to be. Ina knew where the swollen pitchers made their dew, and she would tell not a soul in the world except for Maya.
The first room was full of dust. The dispensary’s temperature regulation fans dropped it thick upon books and folders and black screens. Further in, the ventilation sucked up dust. Not here, though, where Ina used to take her meals and talk with Maya behind the front desk. The maintenance call had pinged her from somewhere deeper into the facility.
She followed the low glowing lights that lined the wall. Once her eyes adjusted, she carefully descended the escalator. Her hands felt feathery with dust. Ahead, a soft ring of green light framed a door, which receded and again showed proof of new interlocking fractals riveted there by the AI’s self-replicating system. These additions were also at most a year old.
“Security’s up?” Ina said. “Why are you building it up?”
None of the AI’s voices answered. A terminal beside the door beeped quietly, and Ina, remembering, put the password KEIKI into the device. The second terminal’s face revealed itself above the key screen, and here Ina gazed into it with her eyes open wide. She did not like the feeling of its thin green beam scanning her pupil, her flat nose, the patch of hairy birthmark spanning a quarter of her face, forehead to lip on the left side. She held her breath every time. In recognition, the door opened.
Here was the clean room where the ventilation acted constantly; Ina ran her fingers along the dormant seed wombs and found them clean. Here is where her colleagues worked on seeds engineered by her own team, part of the Acardia Sequencing Group, which was Maharlika’s pride. Nepenthes attenboroughii, her greatest accomplishment, rested with thousands of other high-risk species in two forms: as frozen seeds and as a genetic remembrance, a string of code-like leaves on a vine. She had created the latter in the next room over while her tatay, an old man, guarded the dispensary’s entrance.
This year, Nepenthes attenboroughii will receive a new taxonomic name of her choosing.
She had not visited the sequencing room in some five years. It was as unassuming as she remembered it; the room hid its secret knowledge well. The West cannot know it until it learns to behave, and neither can the large nations of mainland Asia; this is the power of Maharlika. Other countries have their own versions of Acardia Labs, wherein the local meats are grown attached to computerized brain stems. Cattle limbs and chicken feet, livers and tongue and backstraps, free growing but expensive. Acardia has worked the hardest to make them cheap.
Another terminal beeped. Ina pressed on the same way into that room, the clean cream-white room of her research. Professor Reyes’ eyes smiled down at her from their place in the photo affixed to a wall, and beside Reyes were portraits of the other Reclamation leaders: Lazaro, Calderon, Mata, and Yu. Sixty Reclamations had passed since their genetic work produced the first fertile rice plant. It was the first grain that truly belonged to Maharlika. The leaders had all died at the age of one-hundred-twenty.
The room was as she left it. Automated, humming with ripe energy, and decorated with news of past projects’ successes. Imagine leading such a success that the entire facility was ready to be abandoned, left to protect its dormant life. All workers were allowed to continue their research from home with their children in their laps and their dogs on their beds. Scientists left to spend their final years with their wives.
In ten years, the dispensary will be humming along as always. Ten years will see the growth of Acardia Labs and its universities. Perhaps even the West and the big hungry countries will have been reformed enough to have some of the food science birthed here. In ten years, life will be sustained. Pitchers will catch mice and flies and will wither. Tourists will flock to the Davao Eagle Center to see haring ibon. Another ten Reclamations will pass, with that many more hogs shared. A new drug to cure a new disease; always we will reach for the higher leaf. In ten years, Ina will be dead.
Tatay died the year after Ina’s nepenthes project. He guarded her while sitting in a wheelchair. And it was a natural sudden death because the science of death found no genetic disposition for his second stroke. Half his ashes were scattered across Palawan, the other half across the Hawaiian island where he was born. His favorite orchid was of a species Ina’s team had wrenched back from the brink of extinction. On the day he died, Ina snipped its keiki from its flower stalk. Two orchids now sit in pots by the same window. So Ina will die too, the natural way of hogs and plants. Science has already won her another decade.
Another terminal. The sound surprised her, for the door led to a storage room she had never entered. She had seen its round port fold in on itself and had in passing learned that extra glass tubing and amniotic pressure fluid resided in one corner. Over fifteen years had passed since the last straggling scientists bid the dispensary goodbye.
She entered the door. Last she knew it did not have its own terminal and password regulation, and as she was letting the light fall across her face, she registered a glow seeping through the door’s geometry. Then she was inside and found that the small storage room had been folded into itself, and where there had been corners and equipment, the floor was peeled away and restructured. The space was larger now. The dispensary had done it on its own, she was sure. None who had this level of authority clearance still lived in Palawan. They all went home to other islands.
Something new was protruding from the back wall. It appeared to Ina like the glass cloches wherein Acardia grew its engineered mammals—critical species, not for human consumption. The technology was wrong. It was all fractals and panels layered upon micro hydraulics, the tubes woven like grass baskets. The glass chamber appeared to be repurposed from the binturong preservation project. It showed no interface for human processing—it was nothing that a human would have made.
The bodiless voice of the AI sent chills through Ina. She should not have entered this strange room. What was that pale white flesh bobbing in the chamber—an acardiac animal?
“AI? It’s me, Ina Manalo. Did you ping me for a maintenance review?” There was no response. “Marker: KEIKI.”
The triangular panels around the glass chamber conjoined and receded into a hard metal shell, and the chamber pulled away from the wall, its chords hissing with movement. The dispensary had never moved without command. Suppose that is what happens, though, when man lets a program code itself. Somewhere between Ina’s final dispensary workdays and now, the AI had developed its own agency.
“To what project source is this experiment linked?” Ina asked. The honeyed fluid kept the white being in place. She saw no discernible limbs protruding from its body. It was a single floating misshapen orb. Is that what we are before a god grants us a face?
“AI, what is the project source? Marker: KEIKI. Clearance level—”
A burst of steam hissed from both ports at the base of the chamber. The fluid was draining. As she backed away, Ina saw the white thing twitch.
“Halt project immediately!” The AI never spoke again.
The glass shell opened prematurely, and thick golden liquid spilled down the panels, into the fractals, upon the floor. The panels would likely never move again. Ina peered into the space of white flesh, watched as it broke apart and the membrane was kicked at feebly, and then she tugged at its wet corner and slid it off of a familiar face. The baby sucked air and wailed in that serious way babies do. Her face bore a bright red mark, forehead to lip on the left side.
Ina stared into the baby’s scrunched face. Her knees were weak and she fell into the sticky puddle. Her forehead pressed to the ruined machine, cold and steaming, and the baby cried. The base of the machine snapped open, the panels scraping her knee on their way back. Orbs of white water glistened and trembled; Ina knew this must be the drink for the project.
But a baby cannot drink from consumable bottles. It must have a glass or plastic bottle with a nipple—that much, Ina knew. The baby was getting cold. Like piglets when they’re forgotten under some straw.
Ina took the baby into her arms and stared into her tiny pink mouth. With her eyes, she traced the baby’s birthmark. She knew it to be her own, exactly the same; it was red like this in her baby photos, the images her tatay would cry over. On the baby’s shoulder was a small brown dot. It, too, would someday grow hair.
Every terminal in the dispensary beeped then, and Ina felt it was the AI calculating that she needed to leave based on its sacred math. She needed to carry the baby drink as well, and she needed to procure a bottle with an appropriate spout.
“You should have told me. Or let me know somehow. I would’ve come prepared. I would have brought a whole team of people. AI, reveal the project origin.”
Ina left with the baby bound tightly in her shirt. The portraits of the Reclamation leaders were ablaze with light.
A week passed and in that time several choices were made: Ina and Maya temporarily lived with a neighboring couple, whose house was already furnished with the necessities of infant care; the baby was taken to an emergency clinic for evaluation, which she passed in excellent health; Ina ate the sinigang from the Feast; she and Maya reviewed files left behind at the dispensary; botanical hybrids, expedited growth of medicinal plants; sugar cane clones; the prototype genetic code of a rice-killer’s pathogen, now commercially available; no secret projects were found; Ina made some phone calls.
One of these was to Dr. Boal, with whom Ina had worked alongside during the Nepenthes Revival project.
“Inday, did you by chance get a call from a dispensary? For a maintenance review?” A long sigh. Boal’s face looked old and tired on Ina’s screen.
“Three other scientists all were pinged on Reclamation for maintenance. You could imagine their shock . . . no, Ina, I wasn’t one of them, they were all from outside our dispensary. They were each pinged by their original place of work. One lives in Luzon and was called from a dispensary in Davao. He naturally sent another worker who lives closer to inspect . . . ”
It was the same for those three—children of their own images floating listlessly in golden fluid. Each dispensary had equipped itself with the basic formalities of human birth and had gone and done what was thought to be forbidden.
Ina’s eyes welled with tears. Boal sat back in her chair and rubbed her forehead. In her mind, Ina saw herself in a plane over Maharlika. She would meet with the other three, the four of them chest-proud and heavy with babies. Far below her the islands of Maharlika arched like a dragon’s spine in and out of the ocean. She did not want to go and see these people. She wanted ten more peaceful years with Maya and the hogs.
“Ina. Don’t be sad. We will move forward. That’s what we do.”
“But who initiated this sort of project? What sick mind would . . . Inday, do you think the AI did this on its own? Is it aware?”
Boal smiled. She did not think the AI was advanced enough to forge its own projects. Some higher authority had programmed the project into the dispensaries and had hidden within the vast Acardia code the directive to birth these scientists anew. There were four of them, all high-ranking individuals above the age of sixty. Dr. Boal told Ina that none of them had children. A day later, Boal found that only those now cloned had never reproduced; all other Acardia scientists were dead, with children, or, as the current trajectory marks, most likely in line to be cloned once a time threshold is passed. Maya, with her smile white against her dark skin—would she be pinged for maintenance in the coming years? Or are receptionists not elite enough for the privilege of being reborn?
After the call ended, Ina went to the baby. She was placed near a humidifier in indirect sunlight. The wooden crib was a loan from the nice young couple. How kind she looked with big black glassy eyes and round meaty paws held tight to her sides. Maya hung a tiny grass-woven coin purse above her head; her eyes crossed for it whenever she remembered it was there. She drank hungrily from the bottle; Ina thought it funny, the way her tiny mouth would turn to catch the nipple, a fish beneath a beetle. She wet and defecated as babies do. The red mark on her face held no fuzz but would be much like a peach by her fifth year. Her black eyes kept trying to focus on the two orchids Maya had placed on the shelf right close to her. The keiki is no longer so much smaller than its parent.
A safety net, a backup plan, a reserve of brilliant minds in case the world caved in. That was what Dr. Boal surmised about the babies. The cloning program was designed while the world was still at the edge, the sun too hot, the oceans too deep, and the West pawing at Maharlika shorelines. All scientists submit a genetic sample to Acardia upon tenure. That is the fellowship rule designated by the Reclamation leaders. Who could have guessed their intentions?
Ina was not so optimistic, for if the program were executed with professional care, the AI would not have mysteriously asked her to perform basic maintenance, and it would not have greeted her in its simple way absent of instruction and necessities. It would have updated her regularly on the fetus’ progress; it would have ordered humans to prepare soft beddings, bottles, and space. It was all a misfire. A mistake. A carriage of orders that should have been unwritten decades ago.
Would the others keep their babies? Would the babies be sterile, like the cloned mammals produced before the fertile lab rice? What other similar projects lie dormant?
Yesterday, Maya expressed her desire for a happy life with Ina and the baby. She had asked Ina to take the child in as though it were all a simple question with an obvious answer. Ina watched the little one reflexively grasp the too-long sleeve of her barong. Ina wondered how long it would be before the barong fit her well.
A child, a hog farm, and ten Reclamations. Ina had long dropped the habit of letting the number ten sap the joy from her days.
She would find her peace again in the triumph of Maharlika, which never bowed to the West, which took its challenges up in the wiry-thin arms of farmers, the brine of fishermen, the push of scientists. Its universities would grow fuller every year. Medicine shored its strength upon the backs of researchers and nurses and carabao pulling through work, low, wide, heavy. Why should Maharlika share its finest gems with the snapping dragons against whom they fought? Such a question went unanswered for too long. Korea, a dear friend with common dragons, got theirs first. Then the southeast peninsulas. Now the harsh governments of both the East and West are slowly receiving what to them is not owed but mercifully granted.
Ina will be with everyone in two years when Maharlika celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of the burying of its colonial name. No one has ever bid the Philippines goodbye because the islands are as green and pink and blue as they have always been; no one mourns its old name when its soul remains in the Chocolate Hills, Mount Apo, Bagong Manila. So now it has been called Maharlika. Ina thought there were two creatures in her life currently in need of fresh names.
Nepenthes attenboroughii she would bisect at the waist, dropping its second name. That name first belonged to a White biologist who once had a soft voice but harsh words for the Brown and Black people of the earth.
More importantly, the baby must be named, and Ina would find herself calling that name for the next ten years, when the child seemed taller on each of her birthdays and when she ran off with friends to play on white sand beaches. She needed her own name. She could not have Ina’s.
“Keiki” is a Hawaiian word. Her father’s favorite.
Keiki’s eyes rolled and her clubbed fists swiped the air. Ina pushed her face closer. “Ten inches away,” the doctor had told her. Keiki’s eyes crossed.
The pitcher plant would be called Nepenthes keiki.
Bri Castagnozzi is a Filipino-American writer, artist, and editor. She enjoys writing and reading fiction that explores the connections between ethnic, spiritual, and environmental narratives. Her work has been published in Stonesthrow Review, Shawangunk Review, and Entropy. Currently, she teaches composition and rhetoric courses within the State University of New York system. She is also a licensed falconer and trains a red-tailed hawk in the Hudson River Valley.