This poem is spillover from the October 7, 2014 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from ng_moonmoth, rix_scaedu, siliconshaman, and DW user Redsixwing. It also fills the "laboratory" square in my 9-1-14 card for the Genprompt Bingo fest, and the "dystopias" square in my 9-1-14 card for the Ladiesbingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. It belongs to the series Diminished Expectations.
WARNING: This setting is a dystopia. Highlight for the spoilery warnings. The following poem contains a dysfunctional society, references to severe birth defects, past abuse, current oppression, difficult survival conditions, unpleasant medical needs, controversial research, awkward interpersonal dynamics, and other intense topics. Readers are advised to use caution in deciding whether to click through.
After the war, it became
increasingly difficult to get
funding or supplies for science,
unless you were researching
the kinds of things the conquerors
most desired to control.
Azalea had no stomach for that,
even though she had come
from the same country; the war
had taught her that skin
did not necessarily make kin.
She regretted the damage done
by the chemical warfare which
created the Diminished from
the bodies of the conquered
(and sometimes the conquerors,
for all they did not want to admit it).
The marketplace was always busy,
full of people buying and selling and trading,
with things offered aboveboard or under the table.
The crowd made a jumble of bodies,
conquerors and conquered alike,
the Diminished standing out
with their lumpy white skin.
Azalea met them in the marketplace --
first Tolerance, noseless, mouthless,
her clever hands signing, This way!
as she directed the scientist to a merchant
who had a whole truckbed of lab supplies.
Amaze stood by as their lookout,
earless, noseless, mouthless,
and armless as well, but his gray eyes
alert to any potential danger.
The Diminished were always at risk
from those who would take advantage.
Azalea dickered briskly with the merchant,
her own funds bolstered by the arrival of Prudence --
earless, noseless, mouthless -- her pinched fingers
handing over a purse that allowed them
to buy most of the materials.
Azalea wondered how long they had been
watching her to learn what she sought
and how far she might be trusted.
When the deal was done, two more
of the Diminished appeared.
Tolerance introduced Concord
as their leader -- he was
earless, noseless, mouthless,
and armless but possessed of
a quiet confidence all the same.
Endurance served as another lookout,
noseless and mouthless but able
to see and hear clearly, his skittish nature
making him hang back from the group.
Their purchases amounted to far more
than Azalea could have carried alone,
but she didn't have to: Tolerance, Prudence,
and Endurance swiftly loaded everything
into harnesses and backpacks.
With six people carrying, it was easy.
The Diminished had a den,
surprisingly secure despite its location
in the most ruined part of the city,
where they unpacked everything
to distribute who would get what.
"You choose, I choose," Azalea offered.
The Diminished had proved better
at locating valuable goods than she was;
maybe if she treated them well,
they would do it again.
Tolerance nodded eagerly,
the corners of her eyes crinkling
into a subtle grin.
Azalea was not surprised to see
Tolerance grab the feeding supplies first.
All five of the Diminished were mouthless,
unable to eat in the usual way, so they had to
make do with medical support instead.
Azalea picked a box of microscope slides,
precious to her but likely useless to the others.
Tolerance took the more of the feeding supplies.
Azalea looked at the rest of the needles and tubing,
then pushed them over to Tolerance, saying,
"Here, you need these more than I do."
Tolerance bobbed happily in place,
but some of the others stirred,
restless and wary.
They had been hurt before;
Azalea could see it in them.
There were always people
seeking to cheat or to rape,
to grab unwilling subjects
for this experiment or that.
Azalea looked away, merely choosing
a carton of petri dishes for herself.
In the end, the Diminished had enough
equipment to feed themselves for weeks,
lacking only the nutrient solution itself;
and Azalea had the makings of a modest lab
if only she had anywhere to put it
besides the hidden corner where
she had been squatting.
What do you study? Tolerance asked,
poking at the array of boxes.
Azalea sighed. She would not lie,
and so there went the new alliance.
"I study the Diminishment," she admitted.
Prudence hissed at her,
tiny breathing spicules in her skin
fluttering with outrage, then stormed away.
Endurance scrambled back as fast
as his short, pudgy body would carry him.
Tolerance, Amaze, and Concord
all stayed, though. Azalea
had not expected that.
Why? Tolerance asked,
and Amaze traced in the dirt
with one nimble pink foot, What?
"If I can learn more about how
the Diminishment works, then maybe
I could understand how to buffer the bad effects
without losing the advantages," Azalea said.
"Look at how tough your skin is; that's a good thing."
Indeed, the Diminished were all sitting on rubble
as if it were cushions, their claylike skin
protecting them from the jumbled bricks.
Azalea was sitting on her folded coat
and still felt sharp corners poking her butt.
This was why Azalea did not have a real lab
even though she came from the conquering nation,
so that she had to scrounge in the marketplace
for scraps along with the conquered.
Everyone thought she was mad
to give up the privilege of her birth,
but she didn't see it as a privilege
to be associated with the people
who had ravaged this land into ruins.
Azalea knew what kind of "research"
into the Diminishment was approved
and she found it as sick as the research that
had produced the damn weapon in the first place.
You couldn't do good science if your
premises were warped like that.
It twisted your whole thought pattern
out of alignment and got into your analysis and
distorted your results to the point of uselessness.
Azalea put her face in her hands,
trying not to think of how her ideals
had similarly wrecked her life
and made it just as difficult
for her to do science.
No lab, no work, except for trifles;
circumstances conspired against progress.
The delicate touch on her shoulder startled her.
Tolerance pulled back and signed,
I am Diminished. Could I help?
As long as you don't hurt me,
I'm willing to show you my body.
Azalea had not thought of teaming up
with the Diminished because they
tended to avoid scientists --
with sadly valid reasons.
She'd been making do with things
scavenged from the corpse-handlers.
A live, willing subject would be
so much more useful.
Unfortunately that started a sharp argument
between Tolerance and the two men.
Azalea could not follow all of it,
couched in some kind of somatic language
along with Amaze's jerky writing on the floor.
Evidently Concord and Amaze objected
to Tolerance volunteering.
"You don't have to," Azalea said.
"I don't want to cause trouble for you."
Your body belongs to YOU,
Amaze wrote in the dirt,
stamping his big foot beside it.
So I can share it if I want to,
Tolerance signed back.
I want to know.
Concord gave a grudging nod then,
and Amaze subsided.
Concord says you can stay here,
Tolerance signed to Azalea.
There's plenty of room.
"Thank you," Azalea said, looking around
at the big broken building, beyond
the little corner of it they'd made into a den.
She could cobble up something like a lab in here.
"We will do this together, and see what we can find
when we look into the diminishing point."
* * *
The title is a riff on the vanishing point, and there's also a creepy novel called To the Vanishing Point.
In the language of flowers, meanings for Azalea include "take care of yourself for me" and "temperance."
Survivor guilt is one type of guilt that can come after traumatic events. A few of the conquerors feel bad about the war and the Diminishment, but most of them think it's grand until somebody in their family has a birth defect. Know how to forgive, make amends, and move on.
Many of the Diminished have vision and/or hearing impairment. Some individuals without external ears still have some internal organs that give them partial hearing. The Diminished use a combination of sign language, tactile signing, and lip reading to communicate.
Scrounging for food and other supplies with little or no money is a necessary survival skill for many people. There are tips for scrounging at markets and other places. It's not what you'd call a great society for anyone, really.
Abuse survivors often display common traits and symptoms. There are ways to build a better family and recover from abuse. Almost all of the Diminished have had horrible experiences. Some of them cope by forming families of choice.
Breathing spicules appear on insects and may be used for sound, as in the Madagascar hissing cockroach. Some of the Diminished are born without a typical mouth or nose and have small random air passages instead. Lack of a functional respiratory system is a common cause of infant death immediately after birth.
Bad foundations make for bad science, especially when you mix in politics.
Family fights are a natural part of life. Healthy families know how to argue fairly. These folks have actually managed to cobble up a family life that works for them, despite growing up with really crappy examples.