Fiction - Lewis Turco

Homunculus by Lewis Turco

Before she uncovered it Agnes Rother drew the curtains in what they called her "senior citizens" apartment and made sure the door was locked.  "Thank you," it said as she undid the front of her blouse and exposed its tiny head.  "I was beginning to think you had forgotten me."  It smiled up at her, blinking in the electric light.

Agnes sighed and began to fix the evening meal, such as it was. She saw little point in putting together anything elaborate for supper.  She seldom felt like eating, but of course there was the little man to consider.  He watched as she worked slowly, gathering the few utensils, heating the food.  When she sat down he said, "This smells good."

It was awkward for her to bend over the plate. She didn't have to feed him, thank goodness.  He had no digestive tract of his own, though at the rate he was growing he probably soon would have.  If she put on her glasses and looked carefully she could see that the original lump, which she had at first thought was cancerous, had turned into a perfectly formed head, neck, and shoulders.  His skin was tight and it had a good color, quite unlike the wrinkled and folded flesh of the abdomen surrounding him.  For the moment at least he was a mere parasite, not an independent being.

But Agnes preferred not to wear her glasses.  She could get around her apartment quite well without them, their absence creating an indeterminate inscape that suited her thoughts. At the moment, however, she did happen to have her spectacles perched on her nose.  Through the door of the kitchenette she could see the photographs upon the wall of the living room.  Though she could make out no details, Agnes knew well enough what they looked like.  One was of the dead man, long dead, whom she could recall as someone she had known well for a period, but not as anyone who might have shared a life with her, for the time elapsed between his leaving and the present moment seemed a good deal longer, if it weren't actually so, than the time they'd spent together.

The other photograph was of the child who had many years gone become an adult she rarely saw and seldom heard from.  Even he was no longer young, his children not living at home, two of her grandchildren married and living at widely scattered locations across the country.

When she was through eating she washed the few things in the little stainless steel sink.  "Please don't splash," it said.  She tried not to.  When she was through she took a facial tissue from the box on the counter and gently wiped its face.  "Thank you," he said.

How had it learned to talk?  By listening to her these past few months?  But it spoke very well Agnes sometimes thought it spoke better than she could.  She was no scientist, but she did wonder whether it might not have known how to talk all along because it was "tapped into" her brain through her nerves.  Then it would know how to do everything she could do.

Agnes heard a scratching at the window and looked over to see the cat asking to come in.  It was an old cat, sixteen years old, and it had been her only companion for many years after her son had moved out.  When it had been a kitten Agnes had still been working as a typist for a local engineering firm.  Each weekday she had gone to her job and then come home at night to feed her little neutered Tom that's what she'd named it.  Tom liked to sleep on the mat with which she covered the living room rug in front of the front door, so she had had to remember when she unlocked it to push the door open very slowly and carefully.  When she came into the apartment Tom would sit there blinking at her, staring with its cold eyes, but in the kitchenette it would rub up against her legs and purr until she had opened a can and fed it.  She'd also pour just a little milk into a saucer for it, for milk isn't good for cats even though they love it.

Every day had been the same.  Sometimes she'd go for a walk, but the neighborhood had changed since then and she didn't dare to go out in the evenings anymore.  In those days, though, a decade or more ago, she'd stroll the streets, going to the market or the pharmacy perhaps, or maybe even walking as far as the mall.  By the time she got home she'd be tired and want to relax, so she'd eat and then watch television, snacking until it was late.  Then she'd go to bed and sleep noisily until around eight in the morning when the cycle would begin again.  She had begun to run to wrinkles, and then to fat.

She went to the window, raised the shade, then opened it so Tom could come in.  He did, but he did it bristling and sidling because the little man was at about the same level as the sill and she had carelessly forgotten to close her bodice.  She glanced about outdoors but saw no one.  Hurriedly she closed the window and pulled the shade down once again.

"That wasn't clever," he said.  Tom hissed, glaring.  "Don't let him hurt me," he said, but Tom jumped down onto the floor and began to rub against Agnes' shins.

After she'd fed the cat his meal Agnes went into the living room to relax and watch her evening shows.  She enjoyed some of the sit-coms.  She caught herself glancing to the phone sometimes.

"I don't think it will ring," he said.  He was right, of course. She wondered where he had come from and why.  She had asked him before, but he had never said anything except, "Why does anything happen?"  Was he real or just a figment of her imagination?  She hated to touch him with her bare fingers but she did so now, running her hand over his pate and down his cheek it had used to be smooth, but now it seemed to have a little fuzz on it, the beginnings of a beard, perhaps?  How could he be maturing so quickly?

"That feels good," he said.  "Please don't stop."  But as soon as he said it she felt a revulsion that actually made her gut turn.  She guessed he must be real, but was he something natural?  She remembered that special she had seen on television about the Chinese "Siamese" twin.  The man had had his brother's distorted and undeveloped face growing out of the right side of his head.  Since she'd seen the program she had heard on the news that they had removed the second head and the man had survived.  This wasn't the same, however.  This was no twin.  This was a completely independent organism or it would be, she supposed, once it had developed to maturity.  Ought she, perhaps, to give it a name?  "Manikin," maybe?  Or something more normal, like "John" or "Edward"?  She shook her head.

She had a little time to think about it.  Or perhaps she should simply ask it what its name is, or what name he wanted. While she was turning these questions over in her thoughts, outdoors the noises of traffic had faded.  Agnes turned off the television set and all the lights except one in the kitchenette.

Then she raised the window shades and sat in the near-darkness.  She didn't imagine that anyone looking in would be able to see very much. She was on the third floor anyway.  Someone would have to be on the fire escape to see inside.  The lamps came on in windows around the neighborhood and on the streets.

Still the phone hadn't rung.  She supposed she could call someone herself, just to talk, but she couldn't think of anyone she wanted to talk to or, rather, anyone who might want to talk with her. What could they find to say to one another?

Tom jumped up in her lap, forgetting for the moment that the little man was there.  Agnes felt her parasite flinch. Tom hesitated for a moment, looking at the homunculus.  He licked his chops once, nervously, then walked off Agnes' lap and lay down beside her on the sofa.  He began to purr.

"It's time for bed," he told her when the city lay drowsing in its mist.  Agnes rose, went into the bedroom, and switched on the reading lamp.  She turned down the covers and pulled her nightgown off the hook on the door.  Before she put it on she went into the kitchenette to turn off the light there and go into the tiny bathroom with its perpetually burning night light.  She took off her glasses and laid them on the sink so that she would not have to see the body with its veins, the sagging breasts, the gut and sprouting out of it the little man, perfect as a child, who would soon be grown out of her, just as the other one had done so long ago.