The workshop floor bobbed and gave as the latest prospective tenant for the property on Villanova Boulevard strode out towards the sky-high windows. Designed to flex with the pounding of heavy machinery, the floor’s motion did not seem to faze Miss Julienne Margrave in the slightest. Like walking on waves, she merely timed her step to meet the upswing.
Grigory could barely keep up.
Miss Margrave stopped mere inches from the hundred-year-old glass, city grime caught in the morning’s condensation no doubt obscuring her view. Grigory cursed himself silently. He should have hired a window man to come, yesterday, this morning. With a clear view, a building could go from tax shelter to income-producing property in a twinkle of sunlight. But a dingy aspect, that could kill the deal, leaving him with nothing more than a polite “I’ll think about it and let you know.”
But then, he reasoned, what would she see, after all? Smog that settled over the city basin, smog that never made anybody buy anything, except perhaps an air conditioner. Ah, but beyond the smog, the palm trees stood like sentinels. And beneath the trees, the homes carved expensively into the hillside. Those houses, they made you want to spend money just by looking at them. Grigory worried in the way that he always did, his mind leapfrogging the merely disastrous and going straight for the catastrophic; perhaps she would turn on her exquisite heel and march right back to the elevators, leaving him seasick from the swaying floor in an empty cavern that would not feed his family or pay for his daughters’ weddings. He peered at her, from under the black brim of his hat, and was trying to assess her position, when she finally spoke.
“We’ll take it,” was all she said.
It took very little time for a price to be agreed upon and the paperwork drawn up, for a lease to be signed and checks to clear. Miss Margrave was adamant that she needed the property in an expedited fashion. So three days after that initial viewing, Grigory found her waiting in the alley behind the building. She had brought a small army of women, ready to move as soon as they were in possession, not a moment to be lost. He produced the keys and unlocked the back loading doors, offering Miss Margrave an old-world bow.
Grigory insisted on ascending the elevators with her — to make sure, he said, that the property still met with her satisfaction. There was no real reason for him to stay, but he was fascinated by the efficient and largely silent efforts of his new tenant’s crew. Hundreds of brown-faced girls in small coordinated groups moved chairs, desks, tables, and equipment Grigory could not even begin to recognize. These women and girls seemed to represent each and every ethnic enclave that formed the core of his cruel and beloved city. Koreatown. Thai Town. Filipinotown. Each a once-distinct and self-contained village-within-a-city, all were now blurred around the edges by new money and newcomers: Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hmong, Caribe. Grigory did not mourn for their passing. He had always found the designations distasteful, too much of the ghetto in their easy exclusion. But in America, such things were useful, or so his daughters told him, a helpful way to mark a map.
Wherever the map might say they were from, it was plain to Grigory that these were no recent arrivals. Their movements were organized, practiced. Whatever it was they did for Julienne Margrave, they had obviously done it before.
Now the girls were carrying draperies and what looked like bedding. One opened a case of jeweler’s loupes while another set up a collapsible aviary, complete with birds from transport cages.
“Tell me again, Miss Margrave, what it is your business will do here?”
She responded with a tight, toothless smile. “Please, call me Julienne. As I said, Mr. Kaizerman, we are producers of highly specialized, handcrafted durable goods.”
“And you please, call me Grigory,” he told her, stressing the second syllable the way no one in America seemed to be able to remember. “This good you say you make?”
“A high-demand luxury item.”
“Now, Mr. Kaizerman — ”
Around them, girls continued to unpack boxes. A bank of fine-work power tools was taking shape at one end of the room. And behind portable sound baffling walls, a tiered row of cushioned baskets, large enough for laundry or a picnic.
“Please, Miss Margrave, what goes on in my own building, I have a right to know.”
The smile that was not a smile evaporated and Julienne Margrave looked into his eyes. Grigory would wonder for the rest of his days what she had seen there.
“Very well then, Grigory. We make babies.”
Grigory thought it a joke, surely, the woman was joking with a funny old man like himself. But she patiently explained that making babies the old-fashioned way was messy, and the results unpredictable. There were firms that specialized in fast, cheap babies, but on the whole their products were hyper-processed and prone to spoilage. They also carried a certain look, a bland similarity that could be easily spotted, so before the child’s third birthday word would have traveled through neighborhood and family that your offspring was strictly cut-rate.
Julienne’s firm, on the other hand, was the height of specialization and discretion. She relied on the meticulous focus of women whose people had been making babies of superior quality amidst wholly inferior environments and materials for generations. The necessary skills were not only passed down culturally from mother to daughter, they were hardwired into her girls’ DNA.
Her babies were made to order, she said, each by hand, ensuring end-user satisfaction.
Grigory Kaizerman, son of the chosen people, was horrified. But Grigory Kaizerman, son of generations of Russian watchmakers par excellence, was also intrigued. As one of the girls brought them tea with unrefined sugar, he dared to ask Julienne, what was her process?
Each baby began, not in a tube, or a dish, or even a womb (real or artificial; “don’t look so shocked, such things are done elsewhere”) but with a diamond. By putting something so very, very old at the heart of the very, very young, Julienne explained, you could enhance and ensure the product’s long-term stability. Some of her shadier competitors would throw any old hunk of rock in there; after all, who would cut open their child to see if they got what they paid for? And of course, a quality diamond upped both production costs and consumer price, but really, what was money compared to lifetime satisfaction?
Grigory, father of four highly satisfactory daughters, murmured his agreement.
Once the appropriate stone had been selected, Julienne continued, it was set into the center of a modified gyroscope, concentric rings of titanium filament with tumblers. This gave the child motion and energy, and while it might be a bit wobbly for the first few years (she admitted that rollovers were common), with time and training it could guarantee the grace of a dancer and the balance of a jockey.
“Quite a few of our units have gone on to elite athletic and aesthetic pursuits,” she said. “Of course, client confidentiality, not to mention modesty, forbids my saying who, but I can assure you, you’ve seen our work on your video feed.”
Grigory inclined his head knowingly, as if to say of course.
“There are a few other hardware components — the gender-appropriate wiring is just one example among many — but the true artistry is in the softer sciences.”
A girl appeared at his elbow to take his empty cup. Whether she was the same girl who had brought it to him he could not say. A dark thought crossed Grigory’s mind; but no. Julienne Margrave would never be able to cover her overhead if she consumed her own products.
Julienne passed her own empty cup to the tea-girl without looking and led him to a workstation near the windows, which had been cleaned and had a shimmering pewter film applied. Natural light, she explained, was crucial to this phase of production, but the UV rays caused rapid deterioration of their trade-secret-protected skin analog, at least until it was suffused with blood as part of the final, living product; hence the filtering film. Arranged in pentagonal clusters, twenty girls of mixed heritages sat at tables that would have been equally at home in a school science lab or a furrier’s atelier. At each station, over a series of something like tailor’s hams, the skin of a small creature was taking shape, carved from some material that formed like lard but had the texture of fine leather. Warmed by the sunlight, it expanded gently, allowing itself to be stretched. Grigory’s own skin grew tight in horrified sympathy, but he was too fascinated to pull away.
To the left of the skin tables was the bone machine, a long bench with common baskets of fine carving tools running down the center. The skeleton required a living frame, so as to ensure even and proper growth throughout the life of the product. For this purpose, Julienne had found there simply was no substitute for ivory.
“Our supplier runs an elephant sanctuary and only culls the tusks after the beasts have died a natural death,” she said. “Ethical, if not strictly legal.”
“Of course. And the ivory, through its ethical source and difficulty to, ah, ship, this also adds a premium for your customers?”
Julienne Margrave smiled warmly. “Oh, Grigory, no nuance is lost on you, is it? It is a pleasure, I admit, to speak frankly, to someone experienced in business,” she said. “These girls are artists, but left to their own devices, they’d give children away for free.” She picked up a white pelvic bone, smaller than a teacup handle. “It takes less than a pound of ivory per baby, it’s really just a starter frame. Their own bones will grow over it in time, obscuring it completely.”
Grigory thought, though it might have been his own mind worrying him, that he was imagining a barely perceptible freezing in Miss Margrave at his choice of that particular word. He held his breath. Miss Margrave was tall and radiated power. She would not be able to continue in this business of hers, he reasoned, without ruthlessness. All of these women were certainly cowed by her, but it was statistically improbable that they were all cowards. If something were to happen to him here, no doubt Miss Margrave had what she needed to make any inquiry go away already in place. After all, this was a highly profitable business of questionable legality; stakes such as these were not taken on by someone ill-prepared to defend them.
But despite her real or imagined predatory pause, Miss Margrave continued with her educational tour. They had moved on to a series of tables for two, where miniature ivory skeletons hung like macabre dolls from a frame. Each limb, Julienne explained, was handcrafted, with one girl knitting the sinew and her partner threading it through the pivot points until the entire thing could be played like a marionette. She indicated the worker nearest to them.
“This is Khunying; she specializes in left-handed models, and she’s one of the best in the world,” Julienne said, and he saw a girl with scarred skin curled over a table, a loupe over one eye and a narrow needle in each hand, whose free eye barely flickered when her name was mentioned. “Few other manufacturers display our fanatic attention to detail.”
The aviary, she told him, was to provide vocal cords. The throat of a mourning dove grafted onto that of a macaw could produce a surprising range of sounds and responded well to the training conditions provided by the average parent. The body was stuffed with a proprietary mix Julienne could not reveal unless he would care to sign a rather draconian non-disclosure agreement. But she did tell him that some of the more interesting components included cloud vapor, sweet woodruff, hydrolyzed sugar and full-fat butter. And for each client order, something individual would be added to the mix, anything from absinthe to tempered steel springs to cocoa imported from Côte d’Ivoire. These allowed the clients to provide subtle notes and flavors in the child’s final disposition.
“After the skin is pulled taut, the head is sewn on. This is our head and neck girl, Mariposa; her stitches are so fine they evade a magnifying glass. After the head, the baby is brought here –” she indicated a standalone nursery, the ersatz kind you might see in a furniture store, complete with a crib, a rocking chair, and a changing table — “for a final quality check against client specifications.” An old woman, her face weathered and leathery, waited in the rocking chair to receive the little dears. She stared through Grigory as though he were not even there.
“And how long does it take, your process?”
Julienne pursed her lips. “From client consultation, through the final QC, we usually run eight to twelve weeks. If we have to do special prototyping, if a parent wants something we’ve never done before, then maybe twice that.” She gave Grigory a sly, conspiratorial look. “Of course, we could do it faster, but I have found that people place a greater value on things that are denied to them, even if only for a short time.”
“A sound business principle.” Grigory openly marveled at the entire enterprise. There were whispers of such places, of course, available to those whose wealth and lifestyle placed them beyond the confines of polite society. And as with any designer good, cheap knockoffs were alleged to be had for far better prices in the slums of Shanghai and the barrios of Mexico City. But he had never thought to see one, certainly not to provide a roof to shelter one. It turned his humble building into a workshop of miracles.
Something still chafed at him like an uncomfortable shirt, though. Something still was making him fret.
“And what of the parents’, ah, contribution?” he asked.
“We have an offsite clean room where the parents DNA is separated, faulty material removed, and the rest is randomized and divided for implantation in the gametes. A perfect baby who will live up to your expectations and still pass on your genes — we really do offer the best of all possible worlds.”
“To those who can afford it.”
“Of course. We are a going concern, Mr. Kaizerman. And I,” she said sweeping one pale arm to encompass the whole of the shop floor and all the girls beavering away on it, “have many mouths to feed.”
“Indeed. An admirable attitude. And,” he hesitated, the delicate question hanging on his lips. “What of the child’s soul?”
Grigory deduced that the sound of Julienne’s laughter was rare by the way it brought much of the workshop to a staring halt.
“Oh, Grigory. You really are too much. As our sales literature makes clear, the soul is an illusory feature with zero-benefit to our end user. We dispense with it entirely, as no such thing exists.” Her face sombered.
“Anyone who promises you a soul, Mr. Kaizerman, is a charlatan and a fakir, and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. He would give my profession a very bad name indeed.
“It would be wrong to charge my customers for something that did not exist. As a businessman yourself, surely you understand.”
Indeed. Grigory did understand. Here would be crafted something wondrous, yes, but falling well short of a miracle.
The sun had set on the heaviest day of Grigory’s life, trumping in wonder the birth of his first daughter and in grief the death of his closest boyhood friend. But now, standing in the driveway of one of those hillside homes, darkened, anonymous, and above all rich, seemed the proper time for reflection. Grigory had always been the responsible one. Among his brothers, it was he who made the hard choices, went without, did that distasteful thing which needed doing. It was not easy and he knew he won no love by doing it, but he knew no other way to live. In his marriage, he had let Marta chase her madness, an iron star at the center of her often erratic orbit, secure in the fact that he would always be there to catch her when she fell. A man made choices, and must be able to live with those, he had told her. If he failed at either part, he was less than nothing. He had raised his daughters to see him thus, and hopefully they would be drawn to men in his mold. If any still existed. How many, Grigory wondered, would have been strong enough to do this?
Many things pained Grigory over what he had done. Ten-thousand-square-foot buildings did not grow on trees after all, and he had owned this one for many years. It was like a girl he had known since he was young, no longer exciting perhaps, but familiar, pleasantly so. Then there was the loss to history, of the building itself and its gothic façade. The loss to the neighborhood, which had once been so vibrant, now adding another burned-out shell to the creeping blight. And of course, the loss of income to provide for his daughters, and to leave as a legacy when he would be gone.
That the burden should fall to him now, when his own life was in twilight, seemed so unfair as to be divine wisdom. The sound of screaming does and the vision of tiny bones curling away from the hungry flames would haunt every night he had remaining on the earth, and that seemed as it should be. He had made the difficult choice, the godly choice, and he should live with its consequences for the rest of his days. But watching the flames behind the high silvery windows, he thought of the little half-lives he had seen, and knew in his heart that he had done a righteous thing. Better a pauper than a party to abomination.
Grigory wondered if the prayer for the dead could be said for those without souls. Erring, as he hoped he always tried to, on the side of compassion, Grigory whispered the ancient words of the Shema as the building fell.
|Angelle Haney Gullett was born in Dayton, Ohio, an experience that left her so scarred she became a writer. Also a working voice-over artist, Angelle lives in Studio City, California with her Songwriter husband and their cats. Her voice can be heard in the novel A Marker to Measure Drift, the Strange Horizons podcast and the upcoming film The Bang Bang Brokers. You can follow her on Twitter at @CityofAngelle.|