The Scavenger’s Nursery, by Maria Dahvana Headley

A boy finds a baby in the garbage. It’s hotter this summer than it was the summer before. Everyone in the city is trying to get to the country, because in the city, the rat population is exploding. Rats themselves are exploding, though not of their own volition. Sometimes rats swallow explosives. Sometimes explosives are wrapped in little bobbles of food.

The boy, Danilo, has been doing some work in this regard. Rats are a renewable resource. Today, he’s tracking a big rat up the mountain. Beneath his sandals is a hill of plastic and peelings, rubber, blank screens, glass formerly glowing, now reflecting nothing but sun. He looks through red knock-off sunglasses labeled GUCCY. His feet skid on something. Something across the hillock ignites, and he looks suspiciously at the area, judging distance. Fine. No wind today.

garbage-pull1This mountain can be seen from space. It has a name, and on maps, it’s part of the topography. It’s only when you get closer that you can see it for an assemblage, invented earth. Secretly, the boy calls the mountain after himself: Danilo’s Bundók, as though he’s the first explorer to reach its summit. Beneath Danilo’s feet, the mountain shudders. A quiver, a coursing, and garbage slides.

In the town below, roofs clang with tin cans, and automobile parts thunder down. It’s a storm of junk.

As the avalanche subsides, Danilo becomes aware of something at his feet, pushing out from the layers of refuse. The rat, he thinks, ready for it. It’s long as his forearm. He nearly spears it, a wet black thing, its skin shining, blurry, dazzled eyes opening. But it isn’t a rat. It is an animal, its flesh hard and soft at once, like a banana bound in iron.

He’ll take it home, he thinks, and make it a pet. He’s owned other pets, some friendly, some feral. There’s a chicken in his history, smut-feathered, beak shiny and perfect, and when he owned that chicken, he stroked it until he lost custody and it became a soup. This pet won’t be eaten. There’s nothing about it that looks edible.

The thing blinks, showing pale yellow rubbery eyelids, somewhat transparent, and Danilo reaches out and picks it up. It shifts, comforting itself against his fingers, and he thinks Baby? Danilo once held his sister over his shoulder, her silken cheek resting against his neck, her fuzz of hair brushing his face, and so he tries to hold the thing using the same method. He jogs it a bit, and coos, shifting his sack to the other shoulder. Below him, metal roofing vibrates in the sun, hot and glittering, but where he is, far above the town, he’s king of the bundók.

He considers his new pet. It’s not a monkey, though it has a tail, and grasping fingers. It has a feathery black fringe around its neck, and small rough horns made of something very solid. No teeth, but a clamping mouth, the sort of mouth that would cause a bruise were it allowed to bite. It is very ugly.

Danilo knows he hasn’t seen everything. He hasn’t seen the stars, though he knows they exist, or once did. On the mountain, he found a tourist magazine with a yellow jacket, and photos of places all around the world, including the bottom of the sea, where a glowing jellyfish orbited in the dark, like a balloon caught in a current, floating higher and higher until the clouds took their color.

Antennae tendril against Danilo’s face, radio, television, insect, whisker, he can’t tell, but they belong to the baby. The little thing stares up at him, and he feels powerful. He might put the baby down and leave it here in the sun, or he might take it and save it. It’s his choice.

It makes a sound, a gurgling crow. Then it begins to cry. Danilo gives it a bit of his T-shirt to suckle at, and it clamps its mouth down on that, nursing at the dirty cotton, smacking. He considers for a moment, and then wraps the baby in the rest of his shirt, constructing a small sling. He makes his way, bare-chested, down the mountain toward home.

As Danilo descends, the mountain pulsates. He looks around, wondering if there’s a relief organization bulldozer bringing dirt to cover over some particular toxicity, but shortly, the quivering stops, and he continues, the baby sleeping against his chest.

The last of the river dolphins. The last of the poisonous frogs. The last of the polar bears. The last of the Siberian tigers. The last of the dodos, gone two centuries now. The first of these.

A small boat moves like a hungover partygoer in Times Square on New Year’s Day. Nets stretch out to take samples from the patch—bones and tangles. It’s a glittering gyre, colorful bits of wrapping, and metal-lined sacks.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine, somebody’s music shouts from the cabin, and somebody else yells “Fuck off, Jack. That song’s banned from this boat and you know it.”

“I miss the ‘90’s,” says the somebody, unrepentant.

On deck, Reya Barr sifts fingernails through her fingers. A container of decorated plastic press-ons fell from a Chinese ship six months ago, and here they are, as predicted. She’s mapped their theoretical progress on a current chart, but no one ever knows what the ocean will do, not really. She reads the pale pink ovals, one letter at a time. B-R-I-D-E. As though a woman might need to look down midway through her wedding and read her fingertips to tell herself who she is. She puts one on each finger, and crimps her fingers into claws. It’s for the money, this cruise. Her student loans are due. BRIDE. Her other hand’s all glitter lightning and storm clouds.

This is a particular kind of expedition, a sponsored sail though a plastic sea. The goal is to confirm that the garbage patch is growing, and also to confirm that it’s drifting toward Hawaii. Everyone already knows this, but this is science; one hypothesis requires confirmation before another can be made. The scientists are mapping the boundaries of the mass. Garbage flows over the water like something fluid, but it’s also distinct, each piece something that can be captured in a net, examined.

garbage-pull2She imagines garbage crossing thousands of miles, drawn to this place. A kind of magnetic desire, drawing like to like. The world is collapsing under plastic ducks. Hula hoops. Water bottles. Were she plastic and thrown into a gutter, Reya might be drawn here herself. She’d sail across the sea, until she arrived in this civilization of crumple.

She leans far out over the rail, squinting at something shiny moving in the garbage. Maybe a gull or a trapped fish. There’s an ancient smell out here—rot, salt, and darkness.

There’s a kind of weird beauty in the reinvention of an ocean. It’s not as though things have never changed before. It isn’t as though what she floats on wasn’t once ice. And the land she walks on, when she’s at home? That land was covered with ocean, the sand full of bones of the sea.

She thinks about that when she feels like pretending that none of this is really going to have repercussions. There was oil geysering up in the Gulf of Mexico; the oil was in the news for a while, and then mysteriously gone, as though some giant mouth beneath the ocean sucked it away. It isn’t lost. That much oil doesn’t get lost. But the world is content to believe that water is big enough to win.

Reya has vials full of water thickened with photodegraded plastic, a slurry of children’s toys and dildoes, of baggies, shiny leggings, medical tubing and plankton, and all of it looks like the same thing. It looks like water.

Sometimes she dreams of dropping to the bottom, where none of the world has yet gotten, but even the deepest vents are full of mermaid tears and microplastic. The arteries of the earth are clogged with hotel room keys.

The world’s ending, yeah. It’s begun to bore her, the sort of horror that’s dull when considered too deeply from the deck of a research boat out in the middle of the Pacific.

The thing in the garbage patch is still moving. She watches it idly. There was a storm last night, and today the mass has rolled over. New things are visible, bodies of gulls and fish skeletons, dead jellyfish wrapping about indecipherable gleam. She aims her camera at the thing, zooming in on its motion and filming it. She’ll post it to the vessel blog. Look at this, expedition donors, this bit of plastic that looks like an animal. Look at this un-thing that looks like life.

The un-thing looks back at her.

“What,” she says, quietly, and then her voice rises. “What the hell is that?”

It’s not a seal. It’s not a shark. It’s not anything like anything.

A cloud drapes itself over Mexico City, yellow with gasoline and cigarettes and souls. It hangs there like something solid, low enough to graze the skyscrapers, putting them to their original task, that of touching the fingers of god. But the cloud is not birthing a god; it’s birthing another cloud—small, dark, heavy, wet.

In an office building in London, a janitor pushes a wastepaper bin down a hallway. Inside the bin, a plastic sack of shredded accounts rustles against coffee grounds, newspapers. Its heart is full of decapitated payables, receivables, half words and splintered sentences, crumpled muffin wrappers, its blood copy machine toner and printer ink.

The newborn lies at the bottom of the bin, too wobbly to support its own limbs. The janitor swipes a mop along the floor and dumps wastepaper baskets, and each time wastepaper joins the mass, the baby at the bottom of the bin grows bigger.

scavengers-nursery-illustration-topDanilo puts his garbage baby into a box and feeds it fruit. It rattles and bares its tiny tin teeth. His sister looks into the box, once, and gives him a look of confirmation. Yes, Danilo is a devil on earth. Yes, he would adopt a thing like this thing. She runs from the room spitting tattle like she’s a can full of crickets.

Danilo’s mother looks into the box, but doesn’t really see. It’s dark. All she can make out is tail and a fringy black ruff. “That’ll get too big,” she says. “Better put it out now and save yourself the pain.”

“I’ll keep it just a little longer,” Danilo says.

“Don’t get attached,” says his mother, knowing he will. These are the sorrows of having a son. Daughters are more bloodthirsty.

So the baby grows. The mountain outside shudders and shakes, shedding layers of garbage, earthquaking, and the baby cries. Danilo worries about it. He isn’t feeding it the right food. He gives it a Coke. It whirrs like a motor, and grows fat and sleek on sugar. It sleeps in his bed. It eats a bicycle tire, then a bicycle, broken and twisted after a run-in with a car. Danilo looks at it, assessing its appetite. The mountain is there, and periodically a particularly succulent piece of garbage surges up through layers, a gift for the baby’s belly.

Reya reaches over the rail, the fake-fingernails three inches longer than her fingertips. The un-thing swims to her. She hauls it aboard. The garbage gyre roils, and then is still. The creature is small and light, its body covered in aluminum wrappings and fingernails, bones of fish, a bit of kelp, a tentacle of some dead cephalopod caught in a net. It has a black beak, and large, lidless hazel eyes.

The other scientists examine it, brows furrowed, tweezers taking samples. They argue. It’s a gull covered in oil; maybe it drifted in from the Gulf. No, it’s some other seabird, messed about in garbage and plastic. At last, they decide that it is—it must be—a creature that’s been mutated by the plastic water. They photograph it, post the photo to the vessel’s blog, and then send the photo to NOAA, asking for backup. People take notice. A contingent rises up and screams about the end of the world, beast numbering, signs.

The un-thing curls in Reya’s stateroom, wrapped in a heat blanket, opening its beak periodically for food. Its tentacle twists around the bottle. The only woman on the ship, and here she is, feeding a baby. She’s appalled, repulsed, guilty. She can’t bring herself to think about what sort of baby it is. It’ll become a paper in Nature. She’ll be the head author. Career-making. New species. She looks at its glassy doll eyes. There was a container of five thousand drink-and-wet baby dolls lost from a ship late last year. She’d originally thought of tracking the baby dolls instead of the fingernails, but decided it was too much metaphor, mapping a sea full of fake babies.

Though she should’ve known they were coming, Reya isn’t expecting it when the helicopter lands on their pad and the uniformed men get out. They’ll take the un-thing away from her, probably to a laboratory to be dissected. She looks into the baby’s eyes. If anyone’s going to kill it, dissect it, display it, it will be her.

garbage-pull3Reya carries it onto the helicopter. She cradles it all the way to Washington. She feeds it Styrofoam cups and foil-wrapped candies. She doesn’t croon to it or lullaby it. She learns it. That’s her job. Does it have reflexes? Yes. Can it speak? Also yes, a mynah, a mimic. She knows things about it that the other scientists don’t. It’s intelligent. She’ll be damned if she lets it pass through her fingers without…without, what? She wants to know where its mother is. It didn’t come into being out of light and photosynthesis; it was born from the patch. The creature’s mother is drifting toward Hawaii.

In the laboratory, Reya looks at the creature, and the creature looks back. It opens its mouth, stretches its jaws, and crumples itself back into a ball. It lives in a tank beside the tanks of the seagulls and the ocean fish to which the lab is comparing its DNA. Reya doesn’t feel sympathy for it. It’s more complicated than that, and also simpler. She feeds it a classified document, which gives it codes for entry into any locked door in the building. Later, the baby will use the codes to open its cage and rustle out. Later in the night, it will become a Top Secret, but for now, she passes it a latex glove, and watches as it sinks its teeth into it.

A heap of cell phone parts glimmers green as beetle shells. Children sort them. A goat minces its way through a thousand ghost voices, recorded messages crushed into oblivion, texts, naked photos, emails, and pleadings. The goat’s white-yellow fur is splashed with turquoise powder from a festival that’s now over. It nibbles at a bit of metal, faintly annoyed at the new thing rising from the heap of broken. Children crouch on their heels and watch as a newborn creature stands, twelve feet tall, flashing in the sun. It opens its mouth and screams, and all across the sky, satellites tremble.

This one, at last, hits the international news, but is dismissed as a hoax. Hysteria. Mass hallucination. Some sort of Techno-Environmentalist Bigfoot. Eyes roll in the countries that still have all the money. The creature in the photo is convincing, and that is to the credit of whoever made it, but that’s all.

The monster crawls into the forest, its feet tender still, bruised by rocks. After a time, some of the children creep into the trees to feed it. Children are better at feeding monsters than adults are. They don’t have the burden of suspicion.

Danilo finds the baby standing in his bedroom one day with a rat in each of its claws. They struggle, upside down.

“Rats aren’t food,” he tells it, suddenly anxious. He can’t tell whether or not the rats are explosive. The baby is six feet tall now, but still doesn’t sleep through the night. Its long tail is whippy, and it knocks things down.

It’s becoming difficult to keep the baby quiet in his room, though it folds itself small when it sleeps, and he’s reminded again of the tiny creature it was when it was born. It requires bottles of oil and dirty water. It needs gasoline. When Danilo fails to feed it on time, it bites at itself. When he fails to feed it what it wants, it bites at him. He feels exhausted by responsibility.

It eats the rats. They explode inside its belly. Danilo cringes, hands over his face, simultaneously hoping for freedom and fearing disaster, but the baby doesn’t die. It grows bigger.

In a forest in Montana, a newborn made of sawdust, splinters, engine oil and bird’s nests encounters a thing with a chainsaw. It picks the thing up, looks at it curiously, considering its purpose. Satisfied, it crumples the thing in its giant hand, and throws it away, off the logging road and into the river, where it floats for a moment—a bright, chaotic piece of red and white garbage. The body sinks, slowly, and the fish eat it.

The rest of the logging crew is speechless for only as long as it takes to dial the police, who bring news crews along with their sirens.

The monster stands in the place where it was born. Is it confused? Does it care? It is unclear. The newborn’s still standing there when the loggers surge around it and cut it down.

Hysteria begins with that footage, worldwide.

Danilo’s baby eats more than its weight, making its way onto the mountain at night, scavenging cars. It speaks to the mountain, until, one day, the mountain itself stands up, raining down on all the people surrounding it, and walks away from the place it has always been. The mountain carries its baby in its hands, and Danilo, standing in the doorway of his school building, covers his eyes.

Danilo goes about his business, what business there is. Rats explode. His family flees the city. At night, he looks out and as the world gets darker, the stars are, for the first time in his life, occasionally visible.

Reya Barr lets the monster take her with it when it leaves the lab. It carries her in its arms, and she looks up into its glassy eyes. When it opens its beak to speak it says Bride. It says love. It says sleep. It swims out into the sea, and she rides on its back, free of her student loans, her publication graphs, the way she prayed for an article a year, the scientists who’ve told her, despite her accomplishments, that she’s not their equal. She still thinks of dissecting the monster, but now she feels like a dissected object herself, a doll made of soft materials and stuffed with batting. A thing fallen off a ship and floating. She no longer minds. She sings the song from the rock and roll band, the end of the world song, and the garbage monster, the mimic, sings with her.

“And I feel fine.”

There are guns, of course, and bombs. There are thoughts of nuclear strikes, but the summer is hotter and hotter, and at first, the monsters aren’t killing many people. Those they do kill, they crush efficiently, placing them in sloping piles in the dirt.

Scientists and politicians deliberate. They try bombs, but bombs do nothing. They try poisons and guns. One monster curls up into tiny pieces of garbage, and then resurrects from each piece, a thousand-headed hydra, an impossible excess. More emerge newborn from buried trash, destroying houses and buildings. The earth wears a mantle of paper and plastic, tin cans, DVDs, and all of it is hatching. Perhaps the cold will kill these creatures made of useless things. The research supports it. Blooms have always ended and waters have always run clear again. Eventually, even plagues of locusts starve and fall out of the sky, and the humans, what humans remain, will do as they’ve always done. They will shovel.

Live and let live, say some.

Already dead, say others.

Use everything, say still others. The people on earth who’ve been living in places where everything has already been used look out across the dry plains at the dry crops. They move into caves. They set fires around the perimeters of their camps and villages, because the only thing that keeps the creatures away is fire. Those people survive. The ones who are used to excess do not. They hide amongst their own stockpiles, and there, the conditions are right for births. Even a scrap of paper forgotten might yield a newborn. Even a toothpick, or a rind. Even the dead might yield a newborn, and in a city with an underground full of pauper’s unmarked graves, things shake and stir and skeletons assemble into horses, large enough for the monsters to ride.

These are new conditions to become accustomed to, but this is the planet shifting. Earthquakes have flattened cities. Cities have been murdered. The ice has melted. The world adjusts, after screaming and panic, to a new normal. The monsters keep to themselves, and most of the remaining population of the planet does not eventually care. The garbage sleeps at night, and sometimes someone tries to kill it with a gun, or with a knife, but it doesn’t die. The rivers run and drift into the sea. Lazy twisted currents, water traveling into lakes and into sky. The garbage moves through the water and rain from the clouds, floats and drifts, and slowly makes a changed world out of mess.

scavengers-nursery-illustration-bottomThe documents from this period are public now. The deaths—called mysterious—of the team of scientists sent to examine that first sea-born baby, the way they were, months after they harvested it from the Pacific Patch, crushed in its tentacles and torn by its beak, the way the hazel eyes blinked when its head moved to swallow them.

The way Reya Barr, the scientist who fetched the baby from the water, was the only one spared as the laboratory was torn apart from the inside out, returned to metal and glass, and how that broken metal and glass rearranged itself into something new. The way more babies were born from this new garbage, and how they emerged from the building, flooding the parking garages, swarming down the street, overturning cars as they moved, turning the cars into wrecks, turning the wrecks into more of themselves.

A bloom of babies. A swarm. A plague.

And can joy be read between the lines of the official prose? Vindication, certainly. The world was indeed ending. Certain of the official documents reflect that conviction. Everything was beginning again. Slates were wiped clean.

The President gave an address, of course, an Emergency State of the Union, but as he spoke, he realized that all he could say was that people should stay away from the garbage.

Fresh Kills landfill walked into New York City, miles tall and miles deep. In Rome, Monte Testaccio shook off the trees on its back, and stood up to trample, its body made of the shards of ancient amphorae, once full of olive oil, now coated in lime.

The rules of the world changed. There was an evolution, a shift in everything.

The last of the senators. The last of the secretaries. The last of the chieftains. The last of the burlesque dancers. The last of the astrophysicists.

The first of these.

The cities empty. The streets stop moving. The nights get quieter and darker. Danilo is one of the last left in his city, and as he grows older, sometimes he sees the garbage mountain walking, moving past his shack, and beside it, the smaller body of its baby, walking with long strides, a slipping thing with a hard shell, horns, a black plastic fringe fluttering in the hot breeze. Beyond the city limits, there’s a new mountain, this one made of human bones, and in its layers the rats move as they always have, turning the secrets of centuries to sediment.

Somewhere in the Pacific, Reya Barr floats on a raft made of detritus, her back supported by plastic bottles, held above the surface by the fingers of soda rings. Her hair is long and white now, and it trails into the deep, and her eyes are blind from too much sun.

Some things are still as they’ve always been on earth. There are fewer people, but they still fight and still fuck. Some people are frightened of the dark, and some are not. In one of the cities, a human throws something away. A dog finds it in the garbage, snuffles it and barks, and a gleaming, clattering creature kneels and picks the garbage up, carries it away, cradling it, rocking it.

As it’s carried, the human baby cries, a thin cry, and then it’s soothed by the thing that has found it. This green-skinned creature sings out a lullaby in all the former languages of the world, for more signal, for

Can you even hear me? And

Fuck you, just go and fuck yourself if you’re going to be like that I’m telling you I’m done and

I love you so much, oh my god I love you so much and

I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before and

The creature opens its mouth wider and vibrates to all the satellites, to everyone who has ever occupied the place it occupies now. It holds the human baby in its metal hands, and talks to the sky.

I’m losing you, it trills in every language ever spoken through telephony. I’m losing you.


Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the upcoming young adult sky ship novel Magonia, from HarperCollins, the dark fantasy/alt-history novel Queen of Kings, the internationally bestselling memoir The Year of Yes, and The End of the Sentence, a novella co-written with Kat Howard, from Subterranean.With Neil Gaiman, she is the New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the monster anthology Unnatural Creatures, benefitting 826DC. Her Nebula and Shirley Jackson award-nominated short fiction has recently appeared in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Apex, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Subterranean Online, Glitter & Mayhem and Jurassic London’s The Lowest Heaven and The Book of the Dead. It’s anthologized in the 2013 and 2014 editions of Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction, Paula Guran’s 2013 The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror.

She grew up in rural Idaho on a survivalist sled-dog ranch, spent part of her 20’s as a pirate negotiator in the maritime industry, and now lives in Brooklyn in an apartment shared with a seven-foot-long stuffed crocodile. Twitter: @MARIADAHVANA Web:


 Buy Shimmer #24 or Subscribe!

4 thoughts on “The Scavenger’s Nursery, by Maria Dahvana Headley”

  1. WOW!!! We should all worry about the possibility of this being prophecy. Beautiful, horrifying, and I’m eyeing the the small litter container nearby as I type..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

Powered by eShop v.6