The End of the World,
As We Know It
“Little Zutie asked me, what is god?”
“And you said?”
“I don’t know.”
“Zutie, please, I’m sure you know what you said.”
“That’s what I said: I don’t know.” Big Zutie’s eyes twinkled as she raised a wrinkled digit to the crown of her hairless head. “Little Zutie piped back at me, you an elder Ank, you know the answer. Then I said, I told you the answer to your question.”
Big Zutie dropped to the floor. I brought her a bowl of gumba. Zutie thumped her foot in an excited 6/8 rhythm. “Oohh weee, you killing me.”
“Good. Die happy,” I laughed as she finished the bowl in two quick gulps. I grabbed the empty ceramic container and glided back to the stove, refilled it halfway, and then returned to where Big Zutie was lying on her side and humming to himself. I knelt before her. As I offered her the bowl she shook her head and pulled at my penduta. “Wait, tell me about Little Zutie,” I asked. There must have been a reason Zutie even brought this up. She doesn’t usually make small talk with me.
“What is there to tell? I told Little Zutie, whenever someone says ‘god,’ all they’re saying is, ‘I don’t know’. God is the mystery of life. Whatever we don’t know, that becomes god.” While Big Zutie is talking she is rubbing me and my penduta firms up beneath her touch.
“Look how pretty and long it is.”
She embarrasses me whenever she talks like that even though it is true that my penduta is longer than average. Zutie always said she picked me because of that, “You know, the thicker the penduta, the sweeter the nectar.” I turned my head away. My penduta was sensitive now. I moaned.
“Come here, I want a mouthful.”
I tried ignoring Zutie. Most Ank’s would slap you silly if you ignored them, but Zutie and I were different. I pushed her hand away with my left hand as I picked up the bowl in my right hand and slowly sipped from it.
I felt Zutie listening to me as I noisily smacked my lips. I started to move to place the bowl in the corner but Zutie pulled me by my left arm and tightly grasped my penduta in the pudgy softness of her left hand. Sometimes, when their cycle comes around, I think Anks would rather nurse than eat.
Zutie and I have been together almost a whole rotation, and despite my age I was beginning to feel a certain tenderness for Zutie, and I know that’s crazy. Separating love from need is very difficult. When you don’t need someone and then you love them, then it’s easy to know that what you’re feeling is genuine and not just survival masking itself as some self-deluding emotion…
“Deimos, you think I don’t know that you are afraid to die.”
“Death is nothing.” My back stiffened as I stood up while backing away from where Zutie lay on the floor. Anks always think we penda are obsessed with dying. Even Zutie, who is so open in how she thinks, even she does not understand—but how can she? She is a womb. She lives to suck nectar and to give birth, and I survive by supplying nectar and by working hard.
As I turned to remove the bowl, I tried to sound nonchalant in contradicting Zutie. “No, Zutie, I do not fear death. I fear living without love.” There I had said it, admitted it.
“Death is real. Love is nothing,” Zutie spat the words out like fruit pits. When I returned Zutie was standing, reared up to her full height. Zutie fixed a withering stare on me. “Love… ask me… look at me!” Zutie sternly commanded, her voice dropping to a hiss. I kept my head slightly bowed as I looked up at her. “You are a penda, I am an Ank, and love has nothing to do with any of it. Nothing.”
I was trembling, now. Both brave and afraid. “Some times, Zutie…”
“Some times what?”
“Some times love makes life livable and death bearable.”
“Oh, what a load of crap.” Zutie slapped me so quickly I did not see it coming. The blow staggered me. I would have fallen but she caught me and steadied me. My head was ringing. Her breath was rancid on my face as she embraced me.
Blood rushed to my fingers. I hid my pulsing hands behind my back. But Zutie heard. She hears everything. Zutie grabbed one of my hands.
“Your pulse is screaming. You are really upset. I understand that.” There was a long silence. “Deimos what am I to do with you?” I said nothing.
Zutie dropped my hand. “I like the taste of you. We both know I could have as many other penda as I want. I have had many penda in my long life. So many, I have forgotten…” Zutie turned from me and spoke with her back turned. “Do you think the fact that I happen to really like the taste of you is love? That I keep you safe, is that love? That I talk with you?”
There was an awkward moment of stillness. Waving her hand just above her shoulder although not turning to face me, Zutie beckoned for me to come near her. I stood so close to her, the hairs on her back swayed in time to my exhales.
“What I love…” Zutie turned, stared at me briefly, patted my penduta and chortled a short, cynical laugh, “…is the taste of your sweet nectar.” Then she lay down on her side, leaning against the wall.
A tear formed in my eye. Was providing nectar all I meant to Zutie?
“Stop being so sentimental. Old as I am, you may even outlive me. Now that Little Zutie is matured, and…” Zutie quickly turned melancholy. Neither of us said anything for a minute as we both knew that the rise of Little Zutie, who was both Big Zutie’s offspring and her successor, meant that death was near for Zutie whose body could produce no more Anks and that death was also near for me simply because time was catching up with me. Besides, I was sure that Little Zutie had her choice of penda in mind.
Though they both said my nectar was still the sweetest, I felt like the well was almost dry. My reverie was broken by Zutie’s hoarse but subdued revelation.
“Deimos, my transition date has been set.” Zutie gathered up the bulk of herself and slowly sat up. “It will be soon. Sooner than you know…”
Zutie pulled me close to her. I didn’t resist her touch, but inside I stiffened. I felt depressed, overcome by a sudden weight of guilt for not taking better care of her in her last days. I wondered how long she had known her time.
“Deimos, stop crying. We all die, eventually. The world will go on.” I didn’t know I was crying. Zutie pulled me close and licked the tears on my face. “Mmmm…”
Her hand was on my penduta again. Stroking. It hurt so much the last time. They say when the pain gets to be almost unbearable is when it happens.
I have known this conversation was coming and had tried to prepare myself, but obviously I had failed because I couldn’t stop crying. And the more I cried, the more Zutie’s tongue lapped at my tears. Then she pushed me flat on my back and moved her mouth onto my penduta. It felt good, but I knew the pain was coming. It felt really good. Really. And then her hands were on my nipples. Pinching. Hard. The pleasure was almost too much.
Suddenly she stopped sucking… I opened my eyes. Someone else was here. It was Little Zutie. Little? She was almost the equal of Big Zutie’s massive weight. I didn’t like Little Zutie. She never talked to me other than to give me instructions. I turned away from the sight of Little Zutie lumbering towards us and found myself looking at the cool stare of Big Zutie who drew back a bit and continued earnestly stroking my penduta with one hand while leaning on her side and staring blankly at me. Little Zutie started making that wheezing sound of anticipation that was normal for her when she was about to eat. I didn’t want to, but Zutie’s touch was arousing.
Emitting deep grunts of satisfaction, Big Zutie roused herself, rolled slowly beside me, bent over and resolutely started kissing my face and sucking my teardrops, which I was vainly trying to staunch now that I understood that Big Zutie was preparing me for Little Zutie to drink my nectar. There were so many other penda available. Zutie could have gotten one just for Little Zutie.
“Stop thinking so much, your thoughts will sour your nectar.” Zutie pinched my nipples again and then moved aside as Little Zutie scooted over to us. Little Zutie took my penduta into her mouth. This was my first time nursing Little Zutie.
Even though I able to will myself to stop crying, Zutie’s rough tongue kept lapping around the edges of my eyes. Meanwhile I tried to hold back, tried to stem my arousal by concentrating on the pungency of Big Zutie’s breath, but I could not help myself. I moaned as I felt the nectar stirring in my penduta, ready to geyser forth. And at the same time there was a stinging pain building in my groin. I moaned louder.
“Suck harder,” Zutie instructed and Little Zutie complied. My toes clinched as I screamed. The pain grew so quickly. I started thrashing. Zutie pressed down with her full weight to hold me still. The pain was so great my eyes hurt. Zutie clamped down on my face, my screams muffled by her body. I tried to buck, to turn my head to breath, but my nectar was about to erupt.
Little Zutie stuck a finger into my rectum. Spasms shot through my body and two long streams of nectar erupted. Little Zutie sucked harder after each spurt.
I must have blanked out for a few seconds. My penduta was soft. Little Zutie had rolled over onto her back, her tongue lolling out of her open mouth. Big Zutie was down between my legs. She gently squeezed my gonads and took a soft suck on my penduta. Pain shot through me, but I was too weak to do anything but utter a feeble yelp.
“There is always a little bit left in there after they erupt.” Zutie smacked her lips. I guess she was talking to Little Zutie, instructing her on the art of sucking nectar. “And it’s all good, so don’t let any of it go to waste.” When Zutie finished, I crawled into her waiting embrace and fell fast asleep.
“I knew of only two penda who lived to be older than thirty, and both of them never nursed,” Phobos said to me as we walked back to the shelters. The atmosphere was wonderfully chilly for this time of rotation.
“How did they manage that?”
“They were the ones who discovered Eroz rocks.”
“Yeah, you know Eroz, the planet.”
“I don’t get it. Eroz rocks, so what?”
Before Phobos could answer, we heard the tinkling of bells. An Ank transition procession was coming. Phobos and I stepped aside and bowed to the Ank who was being carried by four penda, each of whom was much younger than us. They were headed down the mountain to Dry Lake. You didn’t usually see Anks on the surface unless they were like that group, headed for the last go round. It must be hard knowing for a long time before it happens exactly when you are going to be carried away. Much harder than just dying in an orgasm like we do.
“They say it’s painless,” Phobos whispered when the palanquin rounded a bend in the road and was gone from sight.
“Yes, I’ve heard that too.”
Almost as though he read my thoughts, Phobos added, “I heard that when a penda participates in an Ank transition, they give you this medication that dulls all the pain. You erupt and then you die but you don’t feel anything.”
I tried not to dwell on those morbid thoughts, but before I knew it, I was adding my own concerns to the mental image I had of dying, adrift on the floating pyre of a burning raft. I had never seen the ceremony, but we all knew about the disposal of Ank’s too old to breed… like Zutie. “Zutie’s time is almost here. She has not told me when, but from the way she is acting, I think it is soon.”
Phobos looked at me with the longing of one moon for another. I tried to smile to reassure Phobos, “But it’s ok. Zutie says she is going to get four new penda for her transition.”
I didn’t tell Phobos how much I disliked Little Zutie, nor did I mention anything about how much pain I had felt when I nursed Little Zutie because I knew it would make Phobos sad to know that my time was also near. But then, Phobos had to know. Just like I knew that his time was near. We were penda born of the same Ank.
Phobos put his arm around my shoulder. I looked at him. He briefly touched his forehead to my forehead. “Soon this old life will…”
I put a finger to Phobos’ lips to silence him. I loved him so much.
As far back as anyone could remember, we penda had short life spans and did all the hard work. Although the pain of nursing eventually killed you, at least life was both easier and longer if you serviced an Ank than if you worked the interior. But only a few of us were lucky enough to be chosen by an Ank.
There was no way to know what attracted an Ank to a penda except seemed like all Ank’s were crazy about nectar, and who could know why one pend’s nectar tasted sweeter than another? Maybe it was chromosome 13. Who knew?
I adjusted the straps of my water sack, hoisting the load a little higher. “Come, let’s get back before night light.” One moon was already barely visible, and the second was not far behind.
Phobos leaned in to touch foreheads again but I drew back, afraid that we would not be able to control ourselves. Phobos responded with a tight embrace. I closed my eyes but tears still squeezed out. My pulse raced against my will. Phobos began drinking my tears, greedily licking up and down each cheek beneath my eyes. As soon as he swallowed his knees buckled.
“No, not here.” I tried to hold him up, but I was not strong enough and he sat down clumsily, pulling me down with him. “No.” I stared at him. But he ignored me and his face became wet with tears. I could not resist him any longer. I leaned into him, kissing every wet spot I could find on his face.
We both knew the potency of our tears. We both knew how weak we would be and that we would be knocked out and might not awaken in time enough to get back to the shelters before night light.
I don’t know how long I was blissed out, but the next thing I knew Phobus was pulling me up. For a short while I did not know where I was, and then I remembered. Phobus just smiled at me and then started humming. I forced myself to get up but I really felt like sleeping.
I looked up into the emerald sky. We still had time. Phobus handed me my pouch, which I didn’t remember removing, and then he turned back onto the path. I pushed my arms through the straps and caught up with Phobus.
Although we walked hand in hand, we were both loss in our own thoughts. I glanced over at him. He looked straight ahead, almost as if I were not beside him. We hiked in silence, except for the barely audible sound of our breathing and the distinct swoosh of our footfalls on the ochre-colored, dusty slope.
Finally, I remembered to ask him about the Eroz rocks.
“Oh, it’s this theory that life started on Eroz and came here through the rocks.”
“No, no. There is this zone that supports life as we know it…”
“What do you mean, as we know it?”
“The theory is life didn’t start here. The bang force of the universe zoomed the nine planets away from the sun and there is a certain distance from the sun that supports life, and Eroz passed through the zone before us and now it’s our turn and next…”
“Next will be Gaia, the third one from the sun.”
“Yes, and life goes from planet to planet carried by rocks.”
“So, you believe that life exists on Eroz?”
“Existed—long, long ago, but we’re it now. And, of course, every manifestation is different. There is no way for us to know what life was like on Eroz or even to guess what form it will be on Gaia.”
There was a distinct note of pride in Phobus’ voice as he shared his deepest musings with me. As attractive as he was, he could have made it on looks alone without thinking one original thought, but rather than his body, it was his beautiful brain that he was most proud of. His intelligence was breathtaking.
“You know so much…” I intoned admiringly and he responded to my complement by squeezing my hand a little. My voice stumbled slowly over the syllables as I offered up my self-depreciating assessment, “…and I know so little.” I looked down as I talked. The dust felt cool on the soles of my bare feet as we walked. When I took a quick, shy peep at Phobus I was startled by the concerned look on his face. I tried to joke away my embarrassment by referring to my other attractive asset, “I guess I just have sexy tears.”
Phobus stopped and yanked me around with a tender tug. “I told you many, many times, I love…”
“I love your spirit,” I finished his oft-repeated declaration. He grinned. But I fell into the funk that only the homely and the ordinary know. If anyone likes us, it is always for our intangibles. But the truth was I wanted to be beautiful, I wanted more than a big penduta, I wanted a body like Phobos’, I wanted to be able to think like Phobos. Who doesn’t…
“Deimos, the Anks got you believing that tears and nectar are all you are good for, but the way life is is not the way life has to be. That’s why knowing about Eroz rocks is important. Eroz rocks prove that the world can be different than it is.”
Phobus’ sincerity was energizing. I smiled despite the feeling of futility gnawing at what little confidence was inside me. I diverted my gaze to the road ahead. When I peeked back out of the edges of my peripheral vision, Phobus was steady smiling at me. I held my head up and after a few more steps, Phobus continued, “They say there are at least ten Eroz rocks in one of the secret Ank chambers.”
“Yes, but a rock is not life.”
“Aha, but that is what Nef and Amo discovered. Inside the rocks are spoors that are the seeds of life.”
“Seeds of life, that is what some Anks called our nectar.”
Phobus looked over at me and smiled sadly, “Yes, except rocks don’t have feelings.”
“Zutie, have you heard of Eroz rocks?”
She looked at me over the rim of her bowl of gumba. Licked her lips, took a long sip which emptied the bowl and then lay supine placing the bowl beside her, “Yes. They exist.”
Zutie said nothing else and simply stared at me as if to say, Deimos, where did you get this knowledge. I looked away. Who was I to question an Ank?
“To me, Eroz rocks prove god exists.”
“What did you say?”
I could not bring myself to look at Zutie as I repeated my words.
“Deimos, there are two big challenges in life: one is to be satisfied with the life you are given and the other is to always reach for more.” The vein that ran back down the middle of her head bulged as she stared at me. I waited dutifully for her to explain but, instead, Zutie intentionally changed the subject. “The gumba was excellent.”
“Cave water instead of synthetic wet. Makes a big difference.” I picked up the bowl and gestured to ask did she want more. Zutie shook her head no.
“I’ll take a little more,” Little Zutie said.
I moved to get her bowl but Big Zutie stopped me with her voice, “No, Deimos. I want you to eat the rest. Little Zutie and I are full enough. Besides gumba makes the nectar sweeter.”
I said nothing but my head was spinning. I was getting too old to keep on giving nectar. Nursing was going to be the death of me. Would there ever be a time when penda were more than simply a source of something sweet to suck? Maybe in the next world…
—kalamu ya salaam