The Feral

Josie Sigler Sibara | Fiction

During adolescence, it’s innocent enough, a method for curing loneliness or boredom: a boy sinks his teeth into his finger and watches a small self, a petite and perfect miracle, emerge from the wound. The copy, red and raw like a newborn, no taller than a pencil eraser, is yet proportioned like the original boy. It has hair and walks upright, leaping over folds in the original’s palm.

Is anyone there? the copy shouts.

I’m going to kill you, says the original.

They cannot hear each other. Frequencies work like that. The original hears a faint chirping. The copy covers his ears to block out the thunder. The original examines the copy with a magnifying glass, looking for differences between him and it, but finds none. The copy tries to escape the blur of horizon that prods his groin, unaware he was born of the weather he detests.

The original’s mother, discovering the moon-shaped scab on his finger, gets the peroxide.

This is dangerous, she says. You could get an infection.

I won’t do it again, the original says.

It’s an easy promise to make while this copy still has some use in him.

The copy treks terrified through sparse vegetation, settling at last in a small grove over his planet’s heart, south of the animate canyon from whence edibles scatter. When the original showers, the copy clings to a spindly tree, drinks of the wild storm. But his planet is not otherwise hospitable. On an undulating plain, a monster too big to see shoves him into a linty sinkhole. It chases him into a rank swamp where he cannot breathe. He continues to search for better habitat, certain the forces that overtake him at every turn cannot be the extent of life.

All day at school, Sundays at church, the original feels the copy exploring. The original smiles—he can always find the copy. When it reaches his collar, threatens to emerge in public, the original reaches in as if scratching an itch. He shoves the copy into his armpit, clamps.

In weeks, the copy grows to be the length of the original’s pinky, then the pointer, then the fuck you—finally the original can hear what the copy is screaming. But the original doesn’t listen. He steps on the copy, enjoying the crunch of fine bones, the squelch of minuscule organs beneath his bare foot. He tosses the body out the window where the neighbor’s cat prowls.

That night, the boy wakes from a dream in which someone steps on him and tosses his body away. Curled in the dark, he promises himself, God, and the universe he will never do it again.

But it’s easy for a boy to get lonely and bored. School is out. Summer days are long. His father’s traveling. His mother fired the girl from the community college who used to keep the boy company in the afternoons. He’s gotten too old for a babysitter, is all his mother will say.

The boy considers his problem from every angle and strikes a bargain between himself and his longing. He could make another copy, but raise this one properly, befriend it, not succumb to the urge to kill. This time he bites his inner arm, where his sleeve covers, so his mother won’t see. It hurts more. The copy slips out breech, lies gasping and coated in blood near the wound.

This copy goes unmolested as he explores his planet. The boy wants to gain his trust. Once they can hear each other, the original explains the copy’s existence. The copy finds the story implausible. But sitting on the original’s shoulder, he sees the hands that turn the pages of books are like his own. The original gives the copy a bit of cloth to cover his private parts. Soon the copy feels a strengthening connection to the original, trace memories of having been in his body.

Although the original is kinder to this copy, he feels he must also provide the roughhousing his father says all boys need. He hunts for the copy, who hides in a fold of bed sheet. He presses him into the mattress and waits for him to stop kicking. The copy tells himself the original is just playing. The copy’s drunk the creation myth Kool-Aid. Why would someone bring someone else into the world just to hurt him? There must be some lesson in the pain, as the original promises.

The dog days have passed. School will start soon. The original has spent so much time caring for his copy, he’s missed out on the last summer of his boyhood, the first of his manhood. He puts the copy in his pillowcase, ties its end, and goes to the lake at the edge of the development to splash with the neighbor girl. He’s never paid her much attention, but she’s got this new bikini.

Pushing at the knotted linen, the copy realizes the constant in the stories the original reads to him: if you don’t die of weather, tigers, sharks, you’re killed by people bigger or more powerful than you. Late at night, the copy sits on the bridge of the original’s nose, bites his eyelids, his forehead. He kneels on the collarbone and tries there. No one emerges from the wounds.

In late September, during another argument about the origins of existence—It can’t be true! the copy shouts—the original heaves a sigh, smacks the copy, sends him flying. The original picks at a scab on his cheek, considers just finishing it. Now would be a bad time for his parents to discover he’s especially abnormal. Without the copy, nothing to discover. But without the copy, he’d be alone listening to his parents scream at each other about the long-lost babysitter.

The copy spits up blood for two days. He’s scared and wishes he had a mother. He sees himself, the tiny boy clinging to the giant boy’s forearm in the bathroom mirror. He climbs over a crumpled hand towel to examine his face, identical to the original’s, but for the bruises. The original could kill him anytime. In the copy’s fantasy, he escapes to the lake, builds a hut, fishes for minnows, remains until he’s big enough to pass as the original, buy a ticket to elsewhere.

Having grown to the size of a G.I. Joe, the copy is too big to go unnoticed at school. While the original is gone, the copy launches himself from the bookshelf and swings on the door handle until he feels the latch give. He pushes against the frame with his feet and drops to the carpet in the hallway, excited to have escaped the bedroom, which smells of sweaty gym socks.

In the den, the father displays his trophies. The copy loops his arm through the crook of a small golden wrestler’s elbow, puts his arm around a football player’s shoulders. The original has only one trophy, from when he was four, gymnastics. The father does not read the same kind of books as the original; the mother does. The copy goes through her drawers and finds that certain pairs of her underwear are magical. He rolls himself up in the silk, stares at the roses.

Mostly, he looks for ways out. He’s not strong enough to shift the deadbolts. The first snow has come. The windows are closed. He stands in their frames, surveying the yard. The trees are so enormous he laughs to think he once got lost in a forest of leg hair. The original has told the copy this story many times: back when his great-grandfather set out by ship from his cold northern country to find this cold northern country it took a hundred men to fell a single tree.

The neighbor’s cat perches on the empty flower box outside, tracks the copy with its yellow-green eyes. Even if the copy got out, how would he survive? The copy asks the original to read to him about megafauna, wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers. The copy is mentally composing a survival manual for when spring comes and he sneaks out an open window.

One day, hiding behind a doorframe, the copy witnesses the original’s mother, who should be at work, sit down at the kitchen table and cup her face in her palms. She starts to cry. He wants to comfort her, understanding that in some way he came from her. But if he approached, she would think she’d lost her mind. After she leaves, the copy drinks his fill of the burning liquid in her cup. Soon he feels oddly elated. Then it gets hard to walk and the room goes black.

The copy wakes to the original scooping him up. It feels good to be cradled. But back in the bedroom, the original places the copy on the desk, holds up a heavy book, and brings it down as hard as he can. The pain in the copy’s leg is big enough to belong to the original.

She could have seen you! the original hisses.

He forbids the copy to leave the room. He builds a bed for him in the closet, which he locks when he leaves, though there is no need: the copy cannot walk on a broken leg. When the original goes to a weekend basketball clinic his father has insisted upon, the copy grows lonely and bored. He bites his finger, and finds he possesses the same potential as the original.

Small as a mustard seed, the copy’s copy gasps, unfolds, stands. The copy is filled with wonder. What a marvelous thing he’s made. He’ll be in trouble with the original, who will kill the tiny perfection, no doubt. But in the days they have, he’ll provide a wonderful planet, be the kindest original ever. When he eats, he spills crumbs all over. Dribbles water. Tries not to sneeze.

When the original original returns, he opens the closet, tosses his duffel down. The copy is prepared to fight, despite the fact that he only comes up to the original’s knee. The original seems to stare right at the copy’s copy summiting the peak of a nipple, trying to get a lay of the land.

You’re turning into a real slob, the original original says. You’ve got food all over you. You’ve got to pull yourself together. What if I run you a nice hot bath in the sink?

The original goes into the bathroom without another word. The copy’s heart surges. His copy is too small to be seen. The copy’s heart plummets. His copy won’t always be invisible. He’ll have to get them out, despite the threat of the cat, before his copy starts to grow. How else to ensure his darling copy’s safety? The copy hides his copy in his pillow. The hot soapy water feels good, and the original is being gentle, but the copy is anxious. He replaces his loin cloth and asks to be taken back to bed. When the original puts him down, he does not even wince at the pain in his leg. He commences to reach into his pillowcase, searching for the small nub of his copy.

The original, distracted by this curious activity, doesn’t notice his father standing behind him.

Woah, his father says, staring down at the copy.

The original is terrified. But his dad seems nervous, not angry. He keeps his eyes on the copy, who is calm now, having resettled his own copy in the crease of his elbow. The copy watches the father, glad to see someone bigger than the original exists, a shift in the pecking order.

Look, the original’s father says, Maybe I should have said this sooner, but I wasn’t sure you were…you know?…ahem, ready. So here’s the thing. It’s fine to mess with small ones for awhile, but if a bigger one escapes, it can cause all sorts of problems.

I’m sorry, the boy says.

Don’t worry about it, his father says, punching the original’s arm.

Really? the original says.

I can take care of it for you, his father says.

The original’s father, who has forgotten to tell his son about the divorce, picks up the copy, who squirms and shouts. The original prays for his copy and the copy prays for his own copy. It seems the original’s father will snap the copy’s neck right there in the original’s bedroom until he begs him not to. His father sighs, empties the duffel, shoves the copy into it, and leaves. In the garage, he gets a shovel, an ice auger, and a fishing pole, puts on the hat with the earflaps. Whistling, he heads to the frozen lake, the neighbor’s cat trotting behind. The copy, smothered in vinyl and clutching at his own copy, hears the auger eating ice until the father unzips the bag.

The copy is stunned by the raw beauty of the sky, which he has not seen since he was small enough to ride the original out into the world. The father picks him up. The copy brings his copy to his mouth and kisses that sweet bit of flesh. Then he flings his copy far from the quivering blue hole. He removes his loin cloth and tosses it, too, hoping it will be of some use to his copy.

Neither father nor copy nor copy of copy knows the original has followed, putting his feet in his father’s tracks in the snow. Tucked behind a tree, he watches as his father ties the copy with fishing line and drops him into the freezing water.

The copy does not struggle drowning. He knows he has left the best of himself behind.

The original searches his father’s face for any hint of regret and finds none. The sound of the shovel chopping at the frozen ground in the woods sickens the original. His father buries the copy deep, heaps his grave with dirt and snow so the cat will not discover him, dig him back up.

The copy’s copy, on that vast plain of ice, howls, his bare feet burning. He scrambles, but he cannot get away from this agony, cannot find the warmth he’s always known. He gathers the giant, rough piece of cloth around him. It smells familiar. He wants to lie down, but senses that would be the end of him. In the distance, he can make out a forest like the one from which he was ejected. He fashions slippers from bits of cloth and begins to walk toward the trees.

The original soon decides he hates his father and wants to destroy him. For killing his copy and leaving his mother. He gathers his father’s trophies in a box and goes down to the lake.

The copy’s copy has walked day and night, but the forest seems no closer. His fingers ache. His nose has blackened. He’s hungry. He dodges the blades of ice skates, pulls chunks from the trenches they leave to melt in his mouth. He is considering giving up when some gold god flashes in the sky. Then the first icequake hits. It shakes him off his feet. He leaps up and runs.

On shore, the original picks up another trophy, hurls it into the air. It lands on the ice with a satisfying crack. When spring comes, these copies of his father, winner at everything except fathering and husbanding, will litter the leechy muck. The original looks toward the north end of the lake, the shore that has remained much as it was when his great-grandfather lived there.

The copy’s copy spends another night moving over the dark field of ice to find himself at long last in a forest. Though it’s not the tropical sort he recalls, he sobs with relief. The cat, who has been prowling all week, sniffs, but the copy is too small to locate. He digs a snow cave in a hollow tree trunk. He makes his bed of fur and feathers. He finds something musty that he determines is edible. A mushroom. Already he can hardly remember that other life. This life is better, anyway: if you know nothing will come easily, you will always be ready to fight.

Soon, he has grown as tall as a crow. He’s sharpened the spear he’ll use against the beast that stalks him in these woods. Twice, it’s pinned him. This feral copy is an expert at evasion, playing dead, slipping beneath the snow. The thaw has come. He wants to be the hunter, not the hunted. He practices on smaller animals, mice and voles and chipmunks, wears their skins. He paints pictures of the hunt on the walls of his wooden home. Times are good.

Yet on bright spring evenings, the feral grows restless, feels an urge to bite. Vermin emerge from any opening he makes in his flesh. Once these pests are big enough, the feral pinches them in his fingernails and tosses them into his mouth. They pop like winterberries, yet have a richer flavor, reminiscent of slug, and he doesn’t have to climb a bush or dig in the ground to find them.

A copy stands on the easternmost of the two sloping mountains formed by the feral’s shoulder blades. This copy has beaten the odds by claiming a sharp shard of fingernail. In the valley beneath, something moves. Bellowing, the copy runs down the slope, brandishing his weapon. He is prepared to take down this land-eating beast before it leaps off his planet.

The feral reaches as high as he can and bends his arm at an odd angle, but he can’t reach the itch between his shoulder blades.

Another small copy lies in the hollow of a spinal notch, watching the warrior kill the flea. He wants to join in the feast. He has been so hungry he has taken to biting his own flesh. He walks out from behind the notch, his hands in the air. He approaches the warrior and bows before him.

I knew there must be others, the warrior says, hacking off a hunk of meat and handing it to the humble copy.

So a fierce and warlike culture grows up in this valley between mountains. When there is no game, the largest warrior sacrifices himself for his comrades and is a king remembered until the smallest becomes king himself. Every time someone ventures out of the valley, the horizon monster, shaped like a hand, comes down upon him and carries him away, never to return.

That May, the original takes a walk with the neighbor girl in the woods. Her parents are divorced, too. The original and the neighbor girl agree they’ll never marry anyone.

Love is bunk, she says.

Love is bunk, he agrees.

One muggy day, the feral is pursuing his beast, who has become distracted by a wriggling caterpillar. Certain this is his moment, the feral aims for the jugular, does not notice a giant who smells of a thousand flowers is also pursuing his beast. Humans have not played a large part in his world, though soon the lake will be overrun by the kind carrying beach umbrellas.

No! the giant’s voice booms. That’s going to turn into a butterfly!

The beast turns to look at the giant and catches sight of the feral, not even a pace away. The beast takes the feral up by the neck. The feral goes limp, but for the hand that grips his spear. The beast begins to run. The forest floor passes by. The giant continues to call out as they travel over a strange plain of uniform rocks, then uniform vegetation. They arrive in a closed, arid place where. Before the feral knows what’s happening, he is wrested from the mouth of the beast by the giant. He continues to play dead as she examines him.

So lifelike, she whispers, her flowery smell enveloping him.

She cannot wait to show the neighbor boy, to whom she’s grown close. He is at his father’s this weekend. The doll looks like the boy, though it’s filthy. She takes it to the bathroom, peels off its furs, and begins to wash it. The feral keeps an eye on his spear resting on the edge of the white pool. The giant spends an inordinate amount of time cleaning his favorite part of himself. It seems for a moment that perhaps this captured-by-a-giant gig isn’t such a bad deal.

A flood rushes through the valley between mountains. Some lucky warriors cling to trees. But vegetation is sparse and most are swept away. One plucky soul manages to hold onto the fingernail, and theoretically, their way of life. But after the flood, there are no signs of game.

She is too old for this, almost in high school. But she searches for clothes belonging to her long-ago-decapitated Malibu Ken. She shoves the feral’s limbs into the slender jeans, the tennis sweater. When her mother calls her for dinner, she stops grinding him against Barbie and goes.

The feral lies on the bedroom floor of the Malibu Mansion shocked, unable to breathe. This will not do. He stands, and with some effort, strips himself. Shaking, he walks down the plastic stairs and out the door. He makes his way to his spear and skins. He begins to track the beast, secure in the knowledge that once he’s done what’s required, he can leave this barren place.

When he locates the beast, it’s perched on a cushion, staring at a giant box that emanates a flickering light. The feral discovers that people his own size live in the box. They are vulnerable, don’t seem to see the beast. He feels moved to protect them. When the beast flicks its tail, ready to pounce, the feral leaps onto its back. After a struggle, he jabs his spear deep into its neck.

Wishing to celebrate, the feral turns toward that society in the flickering box. He walks toward it, tries to step in, join the others. He bounces off the glass screen. He tries again, but is again held out. He sits down and watches, decides to stay in this land awhile, learn their ways.

The original returns home to find the neighbor girl distressed and allowing him to hold her while she cries it out: Fluffy hurt himself on a sharp stick. Crawled under the coffee table and died. Her mom gave her Fluffy when she was six, right before her mom left. . . .

The girl is so upset she has forgotten all about the doll.

The feral, keeping to laundry baskets and shadows, has grown loathe to give up his new country, where food and warmth are come by so easily. And that flickering box. It fills him with knowledge and pleasure. Though it also empties him. Staring into the Malibu mirror, he sees a creature who belongs nowhere. Soon he’ll be too big to tuck himself in a drawer or cupboard when the girl’s father—or the girl herself—approaches. The girl. He can’t bring himself to leave her. Under the thousand flowers soap she uses to hide it, she smells like a wild wood mushroom.

The soon-king of the valley between mountains calls a meeting in which at last he acknowledges the lack of game. He is concerned that they’re eating soon-kings so fast that none grow very wise—it will be the end of history. The warriors discuss migration.

But no one can beat the horizon monster, one says, dejected.

A young warrior stands and says, Let us leap off this planet like the flea that feeds us.

It’s a change of religion he’s proposed, and the king holds the dulled blade of the fingernail to his neck. But others agree. They are dying here. This band of feral leap into the abyss and find themselves on a decidedly more hospitable planet. They thrive in the wild wood bottom.

Spring has sprung, its call irresistible. The feral aches to sleep in his log near the lapping waves. Making use of the navigational skills he’s nearly lost, the feral sets out. Having eaten so well these last weeks, he’s grown exponentially, and upon locating his old home, finds he’s too large to enter. He takes shelter beneath the dock near the lake’s edge.

The two young people spend summer on the beach. They lie in the sun, letting their pinky fingers touch. After a barbecue of the neighborhood association, they take a walk. She presses him against a birch and kisses him.

The feral mixes right in with naked toddlers playing in the shallows. This makes it easier to steal their snacks. He’s a bit odd-looking, his proportions those of a fourteen year old, but these are the kind of rich white people who don’t comment on the deformities of other people’s kids. They watch everyone else’s kids, too. So when the feral slips under, a random father swoops him to safety and says, Careful buddy. This paternal touch is shocking. The feral loves and hates it.

The ferals who remained in the valley are swept away by daily floods. Most drown. The very tiniest discover a new way of life—they glide over the water’s surface on their thin light legs. They become a water people. Each time one grows so large the surface cannot sustain him, he makes a copy, though he sinks too fast to teach his offspring much. It is the end of history.

Sometimes something comes along upon which a band of water people can build a colony—a twig or a leaf. One night, some encounter in the waves a boat that’s drifted away from a boy on shore. They move aboard, find they can live upon this vessel long enough to bring history back. Having gathered a fishing line with bobber and hook, they use copies as bait. Times are good.

By late August, the feral has grown large enough to feel conspicuous when naked. He steals an old man’s Speedo from the bathhouse. Walking the beach with his parts covered, he still feels exposed. What will happen if he’s found out? And what is it they will find out about him? In the dark, he wades into the lake that was once a plain of ice and swims out as far as he can.

The original is in love, though he’d never say so, never go back on his word that love is bunk. Especially after visiting his father in the city, sleeping on the sofa while his father slept in the bedroom with his old babysitter, who splits the difference between their ages. She seems like a cool older sister until he thinks of what she does with his father. His father takes him to his fancy gym to play one-on-one, screams advice even as the boy sinks baskets. The original’s mother drinks more when he’s gone. He counts the bottles in the recycling. Twice as many.

The neighbor girl won’t go back on her word, either. Not exactly. She invites the original to the lake on the last night of summer before school starts. But she refuses to call what she plans to do with him there love. It’s about bodies, isn’t it? The heart can remain aloof. Can’t it?

The original thinks about her invitation. He wants to be sure before they do it. On the appointed night, he turns over in his bed, has an urge to bite his finger. He resists, checks the bright green face of his watch. He thinks of the small version of himself buried at the lake’s edge, how easy—pleasurable even—it is to hurt those you love. That is why love is bunk.

In her bedroom, the neighbor girl puts on her bikini. She sneaks out her window. The air is hot and close, as if Earth is wearing a sweater. When she arrives on shore, she sees the boy has waded in up to his waist. The moon is just a sliver, but light plays on his slender shoulders. When he turns, she takes off the top of her suit. Then the bottom. She walks toward him, shivering. When she reaches him, she takes him in her arms. He feels smaller without his clothes on.

The feral remembers this girl, what he used to do to himself in the hot tub of the Malibu Mansion when she undressed. Perhaps she is the one who is supposed to teach him how to be more human, make him belong. He puts his mouth to her shoulder and bites.

She did not expect it to be like this, the fast, hot pain in her shoulder, the fast, hot pain between her legs. But she is proud, too. Her mother waited until she was married. The neighbor girl has avoided, at least, that mistake. She lies on the sand with . . . her lover.

I should go home soon, she says at last, kissing him, walking away.

The feral nods, his breath still gone from what she let him do.

The original checks his watch for the hundredth time. It’s nearly one. She’s probably left. Any other boy would have gone. What if she stops talking to him? He couldn’t bear that. He jumps up, pulls on his suit, opens the window, and drops to the ground. He jogs to the beach, his flip-flops flip-flopping. He sees a figure waiting for him in the sand, bare back a tantalizing curve. She’s naked. If she waited, she must be serious about him. So he removes his suit.

The feral feels someone approaching, senses the person’s hesitation. It’s not the girl, but whoever it is feels familiar, so he does not slip into the water, hide in the trees. The person sits next to him, reaches to put an arm around him. They turn to look at each other.

The original screams. He leaps to his feet and says, But how? How did you survive? I saw him kill you!

The feral shrugs. He’s in a great mood, can’t be fazed.

Once the original overcomes the shock, he examines this feral copy, walking around him, nudging him, running a hand over his matted hair.

So…exact, the original marvels.

And the original has a clever, amazing idea.

You hungry? the original asks.

The feral is hungrier than he’s ever been. The original leads the feral home. He makes the feral a sandwich. The feral asks for another. The feral finds a package of raw hamburger in the crisper and eats it, wrapper and all. The original takes the feral to the den, which no one ever uses anymore. He pulls out the dusty sofa bed. The feral falls into a deep and drooling sleep.

On this same night, across the lake, a small vessel runs aground. The feral-of-the-water come ashore, their ship destroyed. They stumble, their sea legs hardly able to walk on even ground. They have no knowledge of such terrain. But they are fierce, can survive the harshest of conditions. It’s in their blood to arrive on a far-off shore and make many generations.

The morning after, the neighbor girl sits next to the original on the bus, holds his arm as they walk the halls. Something has changed between them; he can sense it. Perhaps she had gone to the lake, and failing to find him there, trusted him even more: he had honored their first promise.

The feral wakes and goes to the fridge, where he eats everything he did not eat the night before. Exploring, he finds the original’s mother asleep, an empty bottle on the floor beside her.

When the original drops the neighbor girl at cheerleading practice, she asks, in a special tone he cannot decipher, if she can come by later. He says yes. Doesn’t she always?

The original rushes home. He is supposed to go to his father’s that weekend, but if he can educate the copy in just a few days, he won’t have to. Luckily, there is little a feral must learn to hang out with his father. The original prepares the feral with a host of memories his father could bring up, but they turn out to be useless—his father doesn’t talk much. The feral has an excellent time fighting his dad to the death on the court, eating steak and cheese curls for every meal.

The original stays with his mom, curls up on the couch to watch movies with her and the neighbor girl, tells them he is so angry at his father he may never visit him again.

After his mother goes to bed, having drunk far less than usual, the original rejects the neighbor girl’s advances, determined to keep her trust. It’s driving him crazy, how badly he wants to do the thing he saw his father doing to his babysitter through the crack of the bedroom door, but the returning feral says his father has a new girlfriend now, a taller one with darker hair.

Depressed by this, the original asks the feral to go to school for him one Monday. Tuesday, the original learns he has earned a week’s detention. People shy away from him in the halls, even the neighbor girl, who says he needs to get control of himself before they see each other again.

What the hell did you do? the original asks the feral that evening.

Nothing you wouldn’t do, the feral says, remembering how good it felt to jackjaw that annoying kid in the lunch line. He runs his fingers over the knuckles of his fighting hand.

The original notes the scars on the feral’s fingers. The result of his father’s murder attempt? Signs of survival in the woods? The original talks of their early days, but I don’t remember that is always the feral’s reply. The original asks what happened in the time they spent apart; never mind, the feral says. His father obviously traumatized this kid, destroyed his memory. So perhaps the original should not ask the feral to handle these weekend visits, but he says he likes to go.

Why? the original asks.

I just do, the feral says.

The feral wants to end the conversation so he can sneak out to climb in the girl’s window, get into her bed where she waits naked and trembling. They don’t talk much. She doesn’t want her father and little brother to hear. For this the feral is grateful. When she gets mad, if he says sorry, promises to improve, she lets him do it all, anyway. A technique he learned from television.

The next day, the original understands that the neighbor girl has forgiven him. He has no idea why, and comes to believe women’s emotions are far more complicated than his own.

Meanwhile, the ferals-of-the-water have learned the ways of the wild wood bottom. They gather berries, kill rodents. Soon they crave territory beyond their small settlement, which they’ve outgrown. In their quest, they discover the logging camp where the original’s great-grandfather once lived, which is occupied by a band of feral who’ve never been to sea. War ensues. The fiercest survive. The rest are eaten. An even more warlike culture emerges. By the time the air grows crisp and the days begin to shorten, many are the size of grade-school boys.

Late one night, the feral is just entering the girl when her father walks into her room holding a laundry basket.

Oh my God, he says, scattering T-shirts all over the floor.

Get off me, the girl hisses, kicking the feral and pulling the sheets up around her chest.

Sorry, the feral says to the girl’s father. I promise to improve.

I think it’s time you went home, the father says.

At home, the feral crawls into the original’s bed. The original rolls over and feels the feral’s hardness against his hand through a fold of sheet. A gulf impossible to cross opens in the original’s chest. He might cry. The feral tugs the sheet from between them, pushes the original’s face into the pillow, and puts his favorite part of himself into the original, who is shocked, but does not fight. He opens himself to the feral and promises to forget as soon as it’s over.

The next day the original answers a knock at the door to find the neighbor girl’s father on the front porch, bright red and orange leaves swirling behind him.

I know times have changed, the father begins, but there is still such a thing as respect, and the potential ramifications on both of your lives here, well, they could be profound. . . .

He goes on and on, trying to be firm but sensitive, something the original’s father never is. First the original thinks the girl’s father has somehow discovered what he let the feral do the night before. But how? Then it dawns on him: the father thinks he is doing with the girl the thing he wants to but hasn’t. Hand on his heart, he assures the father he hasn’t. The father holds up three fingers, says he can bear anything except lies, lying, and liars, ticking each of these off.

I’m not lying, the original says.

In the original’s peripheral vision, the feral slips into the kitchen, where he roots around in the fridge. In a flash the original gets it: he has not done the thing with the girl. But someone has.

I respect your daughter, the original says. I plan . . . I plan to marry her.

The original sees it’s true. He wants to marry the girl, love bunk or not.

You’re fifteen, the girl’s father says. Do a little living first.

That night, the girl sneaks out and lets herself in the original’s window. But he’s too nervous to do the thing she wants to do. She sleeps in his arms. He wakes hours later, hungry. In the kitchen, he eats a bowl of microwaveable rice. There’s no meat left. Returning to his room, he finds the feral in his bed, touching his girl in ways he never has, moonlight falling on their bodies. The girl whimpers; the feral grunts. The original feels a rage so murderous he is reminded of who he was before his father left, the boy who pierced his copy’s ear with a thumbtack, who listened close for the titillating snap of a tiny ulna. He knows what he must do.

Once the girl has returned to her house, the original invites the feral to go for a post-coital swim. It’s cold outside and mist hangs heavy in the air. The feral, who often misses his life in the wild, runs into the water without so much as losing his breath. The original enters by inches, sucking air through his teeth, taking pains to conceal the rock he’s clutching in his hand.

Come on, you wuss! the feral says, spreading his arms before the full moon.

The original creeps up behind the feral. He reassures himself that he is still bigger than the feral, even if only by a hair. The original lifts the rock high. And hesitates. But the feral would not hesitate, would he? The original brings the rock down on the feral’s head. The feral falls face down in the water. The original flips the feral, wraps his fingers around his neck, and squeezes, pushing him under. The original won’t screw this up like his father did. As a cloud moves past the moon, the original looks into the feral’s eyes under the water and sees he is gone.

But the feral is practiced at playing dead. He tries not to laugh as the original drags him into the woods and
begins to chop away at the ground.

Oh my god, the original says. Oh, god.

The feral opens one eye and sees the original sit down, catch his head between his hands. Curiosity gets the best of the feral. He creeps up a tree, crawls out on a branch to see what’s upsetting the original so. Looking down, he sees the original has unearthed a small skeleton, its skull offering the night a sad smile. The feral feels a tenderness for these bones. He sheds the only tear he ever will.

Then who the hell are you? the original says, turning to look at the space where he’d left the feral’s body.

But the feral, his old way of life always just below the surface, is already swinging from branch to branch half a mile away, laughing at last as the original cries out, No, no, no!

The feral, soon the size of the original, begins to age, to grow wise. He explores the rough edges of the lake and the depths of the woods for a place to winter. In his spare time, he dreams of ways to get revenge on the original. Late one evening in the depths of winter the feral scents meat in the air. He follows his nose to an old logging camp in which someone has snuffed out a fire. The feral bends to help himself to a hunk of ungulate roasting on the coals. He takes a bite.

Boys, bodies painted in blood and covered in skins, rush in from the surrounding woods, point their spears at him. He draws his own, but is closed into their circle of death. Clouds of breath hang in the air before them. Their faces. These warriors share his face. This does not stop him from ducking as they rush at him. Two land their spears in each other and fall to the ground howling. The feral flips onto his back, prepares to kill the next boy who approaches. Instead, the warriors put down their weapons, kneel around him. Their whole lives, every few days, another stray has appeared, a copy of a copy of a copy, but none has seemed a leader, a father, until now.

Teach us, they say.

And the feral has a clever, amazing idea.

At the end of sophomore year, the original is arrested for a theft he did not commit. His father has a friend on the force, so they let him off with a slap on the wrist, but the way his mother looks at him—he can hardly bear it. The original hopes he’s seen the end of it, but knows he likely hasn’t. What’s haunting him has survived him once already, so it must be quite resilient.

The original becomes the kind of person who has a lot of misunderstandings. At the end of junior year, the neighbor girl walks up to him in the cafeteria and slaps him in front of everyone. Several other girls cheer. He has no idea what he’s done. To her. To them. But he can imagine.

How could you? she says.

He wheedles and pleads, makes vague promises that he will change. He sounds an awful lot like his father, whom he hardly sees anymore, though his father sees him often.

At the beginning of senior year, the original waits outside his father’s apartment building one Sunday night until he sees the copy exit. The original carries the hunting knife his father left in the garage. He cannot let this damned copy keep hurting his girlfriend, disappointing his mother.

This feral on recon feels someone leap onto his back, an arm winding around his neck. He struggles, but then, realizing who is assaulting him, recalls his leader’s instructions: sacrifice yourself if you come upon the devil alone. It will make the game more fun. So he bares his neck.

If the original can just do this thing, he tells himself, he’ll have his life back. But he cannot get himself to open the jugular. When he looks into the feral’s eyes he sees the son his father loves. The copy he loved. The original walks away in the echo of the feral’s hysterical laughter.

That winter, walking to his car after basketball practice, the original is jumped by a group of guys wearing ski masks. Between blows, he catches a glimpse of the arm of one of his assailants. It’s covered with deep moon-shaped scars. While they kick him, the original kicks himself—of course there are many. Thousands, perhaps. They’re easy to come by. That’s how they can screw up so much of his life all at once. One can sleep with a stranger while another smashes his father’s car. The feral beat the original enough to let him know they can kill him, but they don’t. He wishes they would just finish him now. Why wait? He can’t find any lesson in it.

College is the hardest. He and the neighbor girl go to a local school because she wants to be close to her dad, he his mom. While others who’ve been impulsive cretins since kindergarten are finally getting a handle on themselves, he’s the prick who sets the chem lab on fire, the jerk who moons the cheerleading squad, the idiot who chronically cheats on a girl everyone says is just the nicest in the world. If he’s not getting his ass kicked by someone he’s wronged, he is kicking his own ass. He looks over his shoulder at every event: his graduation, his mother’s funeral, as he walks down the aisle with the neighbor girl, who’s kept him against her better judgment.

He convinces her his problems are geographical. In a small town, you can’t escape your past. Now that his mother has drunk herself to death, no reason for him to stay. So they leave the country, move to a large, faraway city, where he can fade into the background, find peace. The copies have strength in numbers, he figures, but they are not educated, nor technologically savvy. They won’t stray far from home, and how would they find him if they did?

His wife is pleased that she took the risk on him, despite what her father and friends recommended. He isn’t the jerk he seemed to be, and now she has proof of this: love is not bunk. She does, however, wish their lovemaking could be as passionate as it once was, but there are tradeoffs, right? Nevertheless, she soon reports to the original that she is pregnant.

The very night the original’s small son pushes his way into the bright lights of the hospital and as he, trembling, cuts the cord, two ferals who have recently arrived in the city sign the lease on a dingy room, just as pairs are doing in various locales all over the world. One works days, the other nights. They walk the streets, looking for him in every cranny, corner, and alleyway.

The original weeps each time he holds this small version
of himself that came into the world the regular way. He rushes home from work, vows he will not make the mistakes his father did. He gives his son baseballs and books. He even lets his wife enroll the boy in a baby-water-ballet class. When his son is five, the original attends a gala at which his firm gives him a plaque for his achievements. His wife beams with pride. The original’s struggles are clearly over. For once no version of him has sabotaged his progress. He’s hit his stride. Times are good. Aren’t they?

A feral leans against a streetlight across from the shimmering glass building where the gala is held, waiting for the original to walk out, his wife on his arm, his child on his shoulders. The feral wants to be sure this is indeed their man before he reports in to central. But at close range, there is no doubt: the feral has found their devil.

A week later, the babysitter, a girl from a nearby college, approaches the original in the kitchen, says she needs to talk about what happened between them.

What’s that? he says, distracted, wiping a dish.

You know, she says.

No, he says, his ears beginning to burn. Tell me.

You don’t even remember?

Furious, the girl stomps out of the house. She burns rubber leaving their driveway.

The original’s wife comes into the kitchen.

What was that all about? she asks.

No idea, he shrugs.

But he does, indeed, have an idea. His heart pounds. He brings his finger to his mouth. Presses it against his teeth. He’s considered it before, making an army to fight the ones who are ruining him. But he has tried so hard to live an honest life despite his past shames and mistakes. He has vowed to manage his problems in reasonable ways. So he lets his hand drop to his side.

The feral on patrol calls in to report that the original has
reacted to this new assault on his life, this opening move, with maturity and grace. The leader reassures him that reinforcements are on their way. The original will not endure. They have been persistent, and now, the jig is up.

The babysitter tells the original’s wife in detail what they did together. His wife does not even yell at him. She just sits down at the table and pours herself a drink.

Don’t do this, he says. It wasn’t me. Let me prove it.

He stands up, walks over, and bites himself, drawing blood, and they both stare down into the wound filling with blood. No one emerges.

The original’s wife looks up at him, her pupils two tiny black points, as if drawn on the faded denim of her irises with an ultra-fine Sharpie.

Why is it always your pain we’re talking about? she says, pushing his arm aside.

As she walks away, he bites again, certain now he wants to make that army. But he’s gotten too old. A disappointment and a relief. Perhaps the eldest copies will become infertile, too. Perhaps the youngest will forget all about him, go live their lives. If so, he can ride it out. Hide the bruises when those ferals still in-the-know jump him. Soothe the women angry because he’s slept with them, not called back, and now they’ve learned he’s married on top of it.

But then he comes home from work one night to find he’s already been to bed with his wife. He walks in to find her naked in the sheets, thanking him for the passion he’s reignited between them, for reassuring her that he wants her and only her—the babysitter was a lapse. His wife’s got bite marks on her shoulders. The original vibrates with rage. Couldn’t she tell him from them? Did she not notice their scars were different from his? Scars being, after all, among a person’s defining features? Still, he crawls into bed and spoons her. He has a lot to make up to her in the time that remains. Not just for the things she thinks he’s done, but for what they’ll do.

Because he can see how it will go from here. Exiled, he’ll watch through windows while another man daubs potatoes on his son’s plate, tells the boy to eat it all, tells him he’s got to do X or Y whether or not he likes it, whether or not it hurts, because every pain inflicted is for his own good. Tells him, no, he cannot be a ballerina or a nurse. The other boys will laugh at him.

The original doesn’t want some maniac like his father raising his child. But they are surrounding him already, forcing him out of his own life. And if this is his reckoning, shouldn’t he admit it, at last? Isn’t that his face, his own hand? Wasn’t it always? If only he could tell them the truth, that sometimes he just felt so small. But no, this is his life, and he can see it all. Right up to the moment when his son, lonely because of the divorce, puts his finger in his mouth and bites.