Every Twenty-Eight Years

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My wife told me earlier this evening that she is pregnant. As a consequence, I have left the house. It is a quarter past three in the morning; I am despondent and drunk; I am running in a weedy, muddy ditch off to the side of a narrow road that lacks a shoulder. The road connects my village to that of my teacher. Few people drive this way at this hour; but still, to be safe, I run in the ditch.

I am despondent because my wife and I are forty-three years old, and we already have four children, all fifteen years old. The first three were born eighteen months apart; the fourth was born twenty-two months after the third. They are all fifteen because in our country, for a generation, our government has required that all children either be born exactly when the parents are twenty-eight, or if they are born after that, that they be born at the same age as if they had been born when their parents were twenty-eight. The science of this—of a child being born at the age of three, or four, or seven, or what have you—it turns out, is rather simple; it’s not my field, but the work has its analog, as I understand it, in the science of data-compression algorithms. With a little encouragement, in other words, you can fit a lot more child into a woman than nature intended.

A generation ago, our government got exasperated with its people. If a man had a child at twenty, and then another child at fifty, but the first child had his or her own child at twenty-five, the result would be a child five years older than his own uncle or aunt. Such lives made genealogy disorderly and inelegant; they made uncomplicated record-keeping impossible. The twenty-eight rule—researchers, after careful study, determined that twenty-eight was the ideal age for both men and women to have a child—has made our archives vastly simpler. Neighboring countries to ours, I am told, are far less advanced when it comes to the intersection of reproductive technology, the law, and library science.

The distance from my house to my teacher’s is a long way to travel on foot, but my faith prohibits driving at night. So I run. I need to talk to my teacher because I badly need his advice. My wife’s news would not be a big deal to some people, but to me, it is a great dilemma. To my mind, if a child is born a toddler, it’s not such a bad thing; it saves the parents all the sleepless nights of caring for a newborn baby, and the child won’t remember what he or she has missed, anyway. But I believe it is unfair for a child to be born directly into adolescence. To emerge into the world not just fully formed, but cognizant of its horrors, and immediately aware of one’s parents’ faults, and of one’s own misery in the world—that, to me, is a nightmare.

My wife, if she even notices my absence, will not worry; my chronic insomnia often means me spending countless hours in the middle of the night down in the basement working on various projects. She does not know that I practice a religion. The days I’ve spent studying with my teacher, all these years, she’s believed I’ve been out fishing. She and I are both scientists, which does not necessarily preclude the possibility of a religious life, although in her case, it does.

Then I spot the creature up ahead. I stop running. The light of a streetlight—rare on this strip of road—spills down into the ditch, allowing me to see it; if not for the light, I might have run right over it. The creature has a wet snout, is covered in dark fur, and has paws, but I can’t identify it. In our country, we are expert at our own biology, but not as well versed in the details of other species. Its black eyes spot me; its head tracks me as I approach. The creature is lying on its back in the ditch. It looks comfortable, as if it were splayed out in a hammock, but then I realize it must have been hit by a car and knocked down off the road into this position.

As I get closer, I take pity. The only ethical thing for me to do, I realize, is kill it quickly. Then I notice movement in the creature’s gut, like eggs rolling around beneath a sweater.

I take out the knife that I keep on my person at all times, in case I ever have to perform emergency surgery, a circumstance that comes up more often than I ever thought it would when I was younger. With one quick, horizontal cut, I slit the creature’s throat, praying for a mercifully swift death; with a second, vertical cut I open its body from the top of its chest down to its abdomen. Both of my guesses were right: the creature’s internal organs are a disorderly mess, as if from a sudden impact, and its womb is crawling with a half-dozen fully gestated fetuses. My next decision is already made for me. I gently make an incision in the uterus and perform an impromptu delivery; I take all six blind, red, and fluid-slicked babies, each no larger than the palm of a hand, and slip them into my inside coat pocket, where they can be warm next to my chest. I remember that I have an incubator in among my collection of scientific instruments in my basement. I no longer need to consult my teacher. I am now fully sober. I turn around and start running for home.