The Congress of the Animals

February 20, 2010

I’m lying in the back room of a suburban home on the far outskirts of Singapore. By the standards of Singapore it’s a pretty big home, big enough that there’s a small yard out the back where the owners keep the prostitute I’ve bought for the night roped to a metal stake in the ground.

She bleats beside me, confused by my ungoatlike post-coital chattering.

There are a lot of things that should be confusing her and me both, actually. She’s pretty smart for a goat.

A few weeks ago, at the end of the year 2113, having ended all the causes of human misery in the world, Earth’s leaders and scientists chose a convention hall in the International Waters District of Singapore to play host to their next great project. The study of genetics had arrived at a point where it had become easily possible to give any biological entity already endowed with a nervous system human intelligence.

Human ethicists, we were later informed, had advanced beyond the confusions and uncertainties of their earlier, turbulent past, and so decided without hesitation that the only moral course was to offer each species a free choice whether or not to accept this gift or burden. Representatives of every species of animal were gathered at the Growing Island Celebration Hall to discuss and arrive at their species’ decisions.

International Waters District is not, as its name suggests, anywhere near the sea. In the early 21st Century Singapore’s combination of conspicuous prosperity and limited landmass led it to begin construction of a series of floating decks that hung around the city in concentric rings. International Waters District was so named because it was the first of these rings to extend beyond the limits of Singapore’s territorial waters and into an oceanic expanse. Right now, it’s actually 15 minutes by subway from the nearest beach. That makes it about 40 minutes form the area around Changi airport, where the landing and taking off of aircraft at every hour of the day has meant that it’s now the only part of the whole country where construction is limited to less than two stories, and where the really determined and even more affluent can still manage to keep an animal.

And that’s how I got where I am today. Tonight I busted into the offices of the Growing Island Celebration Hall’s management, and stole every scrap of cash I could find. I made my way down to Singapore’s single suburb, and talked a slightly bewildered Mr. and Mrs. Tzu into renting Pao-Pao out to me for the night. Maybe the financial strain of keeping a goat in the city-state was getting to the point that they needed all the extra cash they could get. It’s nice to able to tell yourself that what you’re actually doing is saving your sex worker’s life. Or maybe the sight of a talking goat just scared them so far out of their wits that right now the Tzus are lighting sticks of incense before a family altar that for the past few years they’ve only ever used as a chopping board.

***

Today the first assembly of all the animals is being held. I’m guessing that I’m in about the seventh row of the amphitheatre that has been erected in what used to be the main room of Growing Island Celebration Hall, but it’s actually really hard to tell in here. In the centre of the amphitheatre is a steel and glass maze of aquariums that looks like a cross between a museum of modern art and a moonbase. Around the tanks the amphitheatre itself has been erected. The amphitheatre isn’t the regular series of level seats that you get in the classical image of an amphitheatre. Around me there are a cluster of large, stone pedestals for the seals, dewgongs and sea leopards to lounge on, and next to them a pit extending through several rows prepared for an elephant. A fly rests on a cubic centimetre block superglued to the wall of an empty space beneath a three-toed sloth hanging off an artificial branch. At the highest edges of the amphitheatre the eccentric seats become rows of perches where the myriad birds and bats attending perch, hanging over us as if they’re waiting for the right moment to fly down and peck out our eyes. Around each place is an array of screens and microphones. It had been easier to configure speech recognition technology to thousands of vocal setups, than to design electronic controls for every manner of body in the world. Each representative is in possession of not only the most advanced biological mind in the world, but the most advanced artificial one too. I’m using mine to print off reams of porn.

A chicken stares at me for a while, and when I turn to look at her, she looks away as though she could never possibly have had any interest in what I’m doing.

The congress begins. The chairman, a black bear who named himself Big Albert, rises to speak from his place at the base of the amphitheatre at three o’clock from me. Each representative who arrives at the congress gets to choose a name for themselves, because the ethicists figured it would have been impolite to keep us all with names like Pao-Pao. My former owners used to call me Scrambles Butterworth, which I guess is why I decided to call myself Pan and get a subscription to bestialityxxxplosion666.com.

The first speaker at the assembly is a single bee who hasn’t given herself a name.

“Foreign hive-mind,” she begins, “we would like to protest at the unreasonable treatment we have received from you. From what little we can understand of your ridiculous ways, we must make our demands here and now.

“You have made the absurd decision that I, but a small finger on one hand of our splendid many-armed hive, will think as though I were an entire hive in and of myself. Though this is stupidity enough to annihilate any hive, you have then gone on to suppose that I would also by extension think for all the bees of the world, as though we were all some kind of enormous super-hive like you.

“My first demand is to know, to the limited extent that your gargantuan and defective hive is capable of explaining, why this inexcusable situation has come about.”

A confused murmuring makes its way through the amphitheatre, as a lot of confused animals vainly hope that their immediate neighbours are any more enlightened than they are. Though oddly no one feels the need to ask me anything.

Eventually Big Albert decides that being the chairman, he should stand and respond. “Well, er, Ms. Bee, if I may call you so-”

“WHY ARE YOU NAMING ME YOU DEFECTIVE? I DEMANDED INFORMATION!”

“Firstly,” he says through a mouthful of hems and hums, “I feel I should inform you that we who are assembled here are not actually a hive.”

“This information relieves and confuses me. Give me more.”

“Yes,” Big Albert waffles in his sonorous bear-tones, “secondly, I feel it is my place to further add that it is not any of us here assembled today who has brought you here. Rather, it is the case that the leading human scientists and politicians of the world decided to assemble us here. They have acquired the power and the disposition to grant any and all creatures on Earth who desire it human intelligence. It was their opinion that one representative member of each species should be selected to experience human intelligence, and use it to decide whether its species should join it in the human world, or remain as it already is. I can only assume that you were chosen because you are a worker-bee, and those are, statistically speaking, the most representative kinds of bees.”

“So you are not in fact a great and powerful hive?”

“No,” Big Albert orally stumbles, “no, I and, or should I say or, or and/or we are not.”

“And so it is entirely beyond you to meet any other demands that we must make.”

“Well what are those, um, demands?”

“That I be returned to my hive, and that you all retreat to a great distance away from us.”

“That is impossible on a number of levels, yes.”

“This information is satisfactory. Return to your prescribed function.” The bee rises up from its place and heads directly for the nearest exposed skin it can find. She stings a giraffe whose name I don’t know, who being a giraffe is not very greatly affected by the gesture, and falls dead through several metres of silent air.

***

A recess is held while the bee’s body is disposed of, and while it is being decided whether to interpret her suicide as no-vote on intelligence, or just a suicide.

I use the time to take my reams of freshly printed pornography into the nearest public toilet. I’m the only one in there because it’s actually a human toilet. Obviously it would have been a waste of time to remove all of the toilets from the Growing Island Celebration Hall altogether, but just the same, with the exception of the great apes, none of the animals can actually use a human toilet. Something like a cross between a litterbox and the miniature rainforest in Kuala Lumpur Airport was erected instead. And the great apes think their bodily functions are a social occasion anyway, so I pretty much have the human place to myself.

I spread my collection out in rows across the floor. I can walk between the rows like a general inspecting an army.

When the internet was invented one of the first things it was used for was bestial pornography. In ancient Rome animals were trained to have sex with slaves, and they learnt to do it so well that they could rape people if they met with any resistance.

The trick to putting a horse in a porno is balancing tranquillisers and viagra.

Celtic kings used to go through a ritual where they had to do the act with a full-grown mare to prove they had the manliness and strength to lead their people.

Excuse me a moment…

***

I’ve thrown about a half a kilogram of used porn into the garbage can in the hallway between here and the men’s room, and now I’m back in my place at the assembly. A chimpanzee introducing herself as Annie has risen to speak in the top row behind me.

“Animals of the congress,” she begins, attempting to restore some dignity to proceedings, “the dearly departed retard of seat 47b has a point.

“For the past forty minutes some of you have taken it upon yourselves to try to decide whether the demented deceased’s suicide can be interpreted as a rejection of intelligence on behalf of all bees, or as a sign of her own particular unfitness to carry out the duties of an animal representative. I admit that in that time I have not followed your arguments very closely, skilful as I’m sure they were. Instead I have pursued my own line of thinking, and I would now like to say where it has led me.

“Suppose that we were to decide that a new bee representative should be chosen. The process by which the original candidate was selected would have to be used again. So again we would screen the bee population to chose the average bee, the one with the most common behaviour, the most common role in its environment and so forth. We would again have a bee, that by the standards of a bee, was free from any irregularities in health that could effect its thinking. In short, we would have the same bee.

“I suppose you are welcome to try this to see whether I am right. Bees are not exactly rare, and one less worker bee would hardly be missed in the species, or for that matter even in her hive. Nevertheless, I think that would just be to waste one small life.

“If we have the same bee, presented with the same choice, we will doubtless find that it pursues the same course of action. We cannot change the bee we have selected, because that would put the duty of representation on an unrepresentative delegate, and we cannot change the terms of the choice to something we think it might be able to live with, because that would mean that the decision was being made without complete and honest information. So we have the decision of the bees already, and do not really need to go through any repetitions of the process to make certain of that. But the decision of the bees is neither a yes nor a no to the question: does your species want intelligence?

“Instead the answer was to say that the question is ridiculous. No animal, a bee least of all, exists alone, apart from the societies that it forms. The worker bee can no more think without the queen than the queen can hope to exist without giving thought to the worker bee. This is what the maniac of 47b understood, and it led her to choose death rather than make a choice that by ignoring this bond would have quickly annihilated her whole hive. And though the logic of her actions is less pressing on the minds of us who are not so constantly devoted to our groups, it is still there for us too. This is not to say that intelligence is good or bad. The point is that I cannot decide, because in a sense I am not a whole animal so long as I, like the bee, am apart from the family that I need to live.”

The animals in my part of the amphitheatre stare at me throughout the end of the chimpanzee’s speech. It seems I’m exemplary proof that we should think in groups. And they’re right. Even if I sat down and rationally weighed up the pros and cons of accepting intelligence for the species (I’ve been trying to convince the others to use the horoscopes in Playboy instead) it’s pretty obvious to everyone that what I think is rational would not scale up for a whole species. The pursuit of obscenity can’t be a mass movement.

***

How did I get this way?

The first animal representatives to arrive at the Congress of the Animals had been the common domesticated creatures: the chicken, the duck, the horse… The reason was that though the technology with which the animals would be made sentient was in fact quite primitive by 22nd Century standards, it had never actually been used en masse, and so a respectful awareness of the unknown compelled the congress’ organisers to keep the endangered species last on the list.

So for the first week a few dozen animal representatives were alone in the newly refurbished Growing Island Exhibition Hall. The camel, llama, horse and donkey kept together, since they were herd animals accustomed to covering distances the other animals thought a burden. Far from their homes, they settled into a routine of taking long walks past the empty tanks, dens and life-support systems that shone with the distant electric light of things still new to the living.

I’d spent the first week in a corner gnawing on the walls. Eventually I decided that I’d have to talk to some of the others, because I obviously wasn’t going to be let out any time soon. So I joined the camel et al. on their daily walks.

“I don’t remember things very clearly,” said Hippologos, as the horse representative had named himself. “Before I was brought here I thought differently to the way I do now. I can’t think very well anymore with the kinds of memories I had then, and I used not to pay very much attention to the things that feel like memories to me now.”

The camel, who preferred simply to be called Afghan, because he liked to be reminded of his home, had himself been thinking about this matter ever since he arrived. “I recognise what you are experiencing, since I myself am troubled by the same problems. I’m sure that George and Señor X have felt the same thing.”

George was the donkey and Sr. X was the llama. They both nodded that Afghan was indeed right.

“I believe that what has occurred,” Afghan continued “is that the process of granting us human intelligence involved the development of parts of our brains that normally remained unused by us, while leaving the parts that had been central to our lives in their former state. Hence the parts of our minds we used to think with are now too dim to compete with the human components, leaving us unable to properly recall our old lives. At the same time, as our now dominant linguistic faculties did not exist prior to our arrival in Singapore, we have no memories from before this time that we can access with them. This is why all of us are experiencing a murk between our two lives.”

“But does this mean that we can’t really remember what took place before?” asked Hippologos. “If so how can any of us make any decisions at all? The unintelligent animal would never be able to understand the question, but the intelligent animal can’t understand the unintelligent one.”

“I don’t think our situation is so desperate,” said Afghan as our very small herd passed one of the smallest tanks in the centre, on which were marked the words ‘medium high-pressure.’ “While our minds are now substantially overshadowed by their human components, nothing has at any point actually been removed from them. All of our memories are still available to us, and I’m sure you will begin, if you have not already begun, to see them in flashes. This will occur especially in dreams where the ratiocinating faculties of our waking minds rest and the other parts can resume their dominance. With practice and concentration it is possible that we can use this foothold to regain some kind of clarity in and control over our minds.

“I think it is important to consider that our choice is not necessarily between human intelligence or our former selves. The parts of our minds that have been added are tools, nothing more. Intelligence does not necessarily change who we are, if we are able to control it, rather than being controlled by it as we are right now.”

We walked further along the corridors between the aquariums, until we could not see anything around us but light dispersing in semi-translucent water, and far above them an overcast tropical sky through a glass roof. We were trying to recall what little we could of how we had lived before.

“I don’t really remember it,” Hippologos tried to explain. “But when we walk like this something in my legs feels different. At just this speed I remember a cold light, and grass which is a little wet on the ground. If I go a little faster, like this,” Hippologos skipped a little ahead of the others before turning around and continuing, “I remember the ground being much nearer, and a little colourful flicker rising in and out of the grass. I remember wanting to see it closer, and smell it, and touch it if I could somehow catch up to it.”

“But you don’t remember it,” said George, who had quietly been walking at the back of our herd, and to whom we now stopped and turned our heads, “you sense it when you move like that, and what you now call your mind tries to make what you now call memories out of it.”

We slowly nodded in the way that you nod when someone tells you something that you had been sure you and you alone felt, and you had in fact felt in such loneliness that you wondered whether you had perhaps only been imagining the experience after all.

***

That night was the first time we broke out of the convention centre and saw the streets of Singapore. It was still just a few days after Christmas. The artificial stars that hung over every pedestrian mall, and by the side of every road, washed out the real ones in the sky. No one was looking there anyway.

We had no idea where we were so we picked a direction and we walked. We were hoping that if we walked far enough that eventually we would have to find where the city ended, and the buildings gave way at least a little to parks, or vacant lots. I learned later that the last park in Singapore had been built over forty years ago.

The further we went the thicker the city got. Obviously we were walking north to the natural island. I don’t know if we actually got that far before the others left.

The other animals were stoic about what they saw. “When the congress is over,” said Sr. X, “then at least we’ll see some land that looks like home again. It isn’t really that long to wait.”

Hippologos, Afghan, and George agreed, and so they began to head back. I told them that I wanted to stay longer, and since that was entirely my business they left me in the middle of Singapore.

Did I mention that I used to be called Scrambles Butterworth?

I don’t know what I did or where I went for a while after they left, but I remember that the whole time I was thinking about the name I used to have.

There wasn’t really a chain of logic that followed on from that, more just a slowly building neuro-chemical reaction in my brain. But after a while I found some space behind some dumpsters in an underground pedestrian crossing where no one was looking. At the other side, where they couldn’t see me, some kids sat in a circle reading bible verses to one another, and next to the no skateboarding sign some more kids were doing tricks on BMX bikes.

I started trying to stand on my hind legs. I found out on Wikipedia (178 million articles and counting) that the ancient Greeks had thought that the goat God, Pan, was something between a sexual deviant and the embodiment of all evil. In Europe when they painted the devil, he always had the legs of Pan, a goat standing on its back two legs.

I don’t know why anyone ever thought that a goat would do this in the first place. Imagine human knees bent out sideways, that is how it feels to push your body into that position. Now imagine standing upright on those knees, that is how I kept my balance.

I spent the whole night doing this until I finally got it. The Christians and the skaters were gone by the time I managed to walk out from behind the garbage, which was for the best considering what the Christians would have read into it. I only got back to the Growing Island Celebration Hall at eleven in the morning. I lost time because I walked so slowly at first, but by the end of the way I could skip along the road bleating “Singing in the Rain” for all my winded, goat lungs were worth.

***

I stopped walking with others after that. It wasn’t that the way I’d become repulsed them; beasts of burden can put up with a lot more than that. It was more that I’d now taken to spending more and more of my time wandering around the streets of Singapore, obliterating Scrambles Butterworth. I saw Afghan in the evenings, because we’d taken to sleeping in the same part of the Hall from the start. He told me about what they had been doing that day, and asked my opinion on whatever they had discussed during the day. I was quieter about what I was doing, though I told a few stories about the things I saw when I thought they would amuse him. It’s to Afghan’s credit that throughout this whole time I’ve never felt as though I’d really left the herd.

***

In the second week a dog named Chingu arrived, and it joined the herd on their daily walks. At first it caused the original four some confusion. They were all beasts of burden, so they had simply assumed that they enjoyed each others’ company because they had grown up with such a common experience of life. Even I was a hoofed herd animal from a farm free from any buildings bar fences and powerlines. But Chingu was a stray from the streets of Seoul. He had grown up in a small rubbish tip between a second hand furniture store and a railway line. Regardless, he fit into their little group perfectly. He was strong enough to keep up with them for the whole day, and, even though he preferred to run rather than walk, he enjoyed running in circles around the others and so never got too far ahead or behind. He was only two years old, and very happy to be somewhere where there was lots of food and lots of friendly animals, so he was always very excited. At first the others had been a little worried that this would get on their nerves, but instead they found it actually stopped their days from growing monotonous and dreary.

One day Sr. X asked Chingu “why do you keep running around us like that? You could just walk along at a sensible, restrained pace, like us, and you wouldn’t get tired very quickly at all.”

“O that’s alright,” said Chingu. “I don’t really mind being tired very much. It’s not a big deal for me. And I have to keep running to and fro to make sure that our pack stays together. Where I lived I never had a pack, it was just me and my sister Mokda.  So now that I have one it’s very important that I make sure that no one gets lost, and that the pack stays together.”

Sr. X, Hippologos and George all thought Chingu’s excessive devotion was a little funny, and exchanged smirks as he spoke. But Afghan never took his eyes off Chingu, and as he finished speaking said “that’s very kind of you. Even though I don’t think we need very much protection, you’re welcome to continue shepherding us if that’s what makes you happy.

“But I must ask, why are you here with the four of us and not with all the others who stayed at the living quarters. Surely they would have made an even bigger pack, that would have been even easier to keep an eye on.”

“Oh, I think they’re also in our pack,” said Chingu. “But because they don’t go anywhere I know where they are and I’m pretty sure they’re safe there. I wanted to go with you while you were looking for food, because that’s very important and it’s easier to get lost while you’re looking for food.”

“We’re not looking for food,” said Sr. X. “Beasts of burden don’t go looking for food like dogs. We just eat all we can in any pasture we come across. Right now we’re not looking for anything at all. We’re just walking together because that’s what we like to do.”

“That’s okay,” Chingu answered. “’Looking for food,’ is just what I call it when anyone goes out and walks. We don’t actually have to find food, or even look for any at all. It’s okay to just look around, and not have any specific idea of what you’re going to find. But for me, that’s what I’ve always called ‘looking for food.’”

For a moment the animals nodded silently, mulling over the idea of ‘looking for food.’ Then George cleared his throat to speak and asked, “why do you want such a big pack?”

“A big pack is a very important thing,” answered Chingu excitedly. “When I lived in Seoul alone with my sister Mokda things were very hard. We tried to help one another to get by as best we could, but the time we had to spend just keeping ourselves alive meant that we had very little time to help one another, and because we couldn’t help one another very much, we had to spend almost all of our time just keeping ourselves alive.

“For a little while an old dog called Halabochi lived with us. I was very suspicious of him at first because he was getting too old to work very much and I thought that all of the time Mokda and I spent helping each other would now go to just keeping him alive. I would have howled him away like I did the birds and cats who tried to steal from our little rubbish tip, but he was carrying a big old bone with him and he gave it to us to share if we let him stay a while. The bone was completely picked clean; there hadn’t been a trace of meat on it in years. He’d been carrying it around with him for so long, and he was getting a bit funny with age you have to remember, that he actually couldn’t remember how he had gotten it.

“Mokda and I hadn’t had a bone in almost as long as we could remember, and even then all we had had were little kitchen scraps, mostly chicken bones that broke apart almost as soon as you started to chew them. Even though there was no food on it, just chewing on the bone felt good. Scratching on it with my teeth reminded me how much they itched for something like that.

“Halabochi really couldn’t work very much. He could sift through the fresh garbage thoroughly enough, but he worked much slower than either Mokda or I could. Because he was so old he never liked to go looking for food. But that was okay because we found that with him around doing what little he could at the tip, Mokda and I could go looking for food together, and so we actually managed to help each other a lot more than usual, and we found much more food.

“Halabochi was actually really good to leave at the tip. Other animals can’t tell how old a dog is just at a glance, and Halabochi’s voice hadn’t faded at all, so when he barked at any intruders he looked as vicious as a proper guard dog. After two months with us he died in his sleep. We dragged him a little way from the tip so that the body wouldn’t make us sick, and so the vultures would be able to eat it. When we talked about him we agreed that even though he was a stranger, and he was nearly dying, having a third member for our pack made life a lot easier for everyone. So that’s why I think it’s important to have as big a pack as possible. Because if everyone does what they can for everyone else, then we won’t have to spend very much time at all just surviving and everyone will be a lot happier.”

Chingu is the Korean for friend. He’d named himself that because he wanted everyone who met him to think of him as a  friend. He’d named his sister Mokda, which means “eating,” because eating was his favourite thing to do, so he figured that’s what his best friend should be called. Halabochi means grandfather.

***

The second assembly is being held now. It’s a week since the first one took place, and two important things have been happening since then.

The first is that Chingu’s idea of a pack of all the animals has been spreading through the animal grapevine, and the second is that more and more of the animals have been coming around to Annie’s way of seeing the bee’s suicide.

These two important things have been meeting in quite a few of the animals’ minds, and finally a group of them have put together a solution for our impasse based on the two.

The shark, Lejo, rises to the top of his tank to speak on behalf of the group who have taken the lead designing the pack of all the animals. “Animals,” he says to them, “I am probably the last creature on Earth you would have expected to speak on behalf of a proposal like this.”

I see the chicken near me gesture that she does not entirely agree. No one sees her but me.

Hundreds of years ago human slave captains used to throw living people from the decks of their boats to make sure that groups of sharks would keep following them, hungry for human meat. It stopped the sailors deserting, and made the slaves that much more reluctant to kill themselves. In a sense, sharks are a domesticated animal like me.

“The dead representative has opened our eyes to a very important fact. On the one hand, it is impossible for any of us to make a decision as important as the one before us for ourselves, when we are not completely ourselves without the rest of our families, as close or as vicious as they may be. At the same time, even if we were together, even if each of us was in fact the many animals that would be needed so that we could choose to accept or reject intelligence for ourselves, that would still not mean that what we chose could be taken as the choice of all the other animals who were never asked their opinion.

“The solution to the dilemma is to ask each individual animal in the world what they want. This is not easy, and will in fact be an extremely time-consuming activity. If I were to do this, just for the sharks of the world, it would take me longer than I have to live to ask just a few. And in all likelihood, perhaps only one shark would accept intelligence, and then their lives would be given over like mine to this endlessly hopeless task. This problem would be only more acute in the social animals, who unlike sharks would have to find ways to communicate not with individual creatures, but with whole groups of the unintelligent.

“So individually the task is impossible for each species. This is why the second part of our proposal is  for all the animals who choose intelligence to form one big pack, where all the members will help each other to talk to the animals of the world and present them with this choice. When one animal learns a good way of making itself understood to the unintelligent, it can teach it to all the other species. That way in every species there will eventually be not one representative, but many intelligent animals who can do even more work for the group. Some of these animals will be able to specialise in teaching those who join the ranks of the intelligent how to talk to the unintelligent, and so over time we will grow ever more efficient in our task. According to our groups calculations, it should therefore be possible to finish the work of the congress in as little as a million years.”

The speech is met with rapturous applause. When it comes time to vote whether or not to accept the proposal, I vote with vast majority who say yes. I couldn’t tell you why they all agreed, because I hardly take myself as the standard measure of the others, but I’m mostly just glad not to have a responsibility it was absurd to give me anymore.

***

Somehow the representatives who were assigned the task of talking the humans into letting us keep this building as a base of operations were successful. It’s three weeks since the congress brought itself to a close, and the Growing Island Celebration Hall is almost empty again. Almost all the other animals have left to go spreading the word.

We decided to keep the name Growing Island Celebration Hall, though of course it means something different to us now.

The congress wasn’t actually due to finish for another week, so a problem arose a few days ago. One of the last delegates scheduled to arrive was an extremely rare fish called the fangtooth. There are only about five of them left in the world.

A fangtooth is one of the rare creatures that lives entirely in the almost uninhabited middle-depths of the world’s oceans. It never rises to within two hundred metres of the surface, and never gets within sight of the bottom. The reason it’s called a fangtooth is because it has long canine-teeth that stick out of its face like the metal spikes on a security fence, and a face that looks scarred and burned like that of the ritually self-mutilated. It got this way because living in the middle-depths means only seeing something that can be eaten so rarely that if you miss it, you starve. Most of the time a fangtooth has to snatch at corpses as they fall down through the water.

Human biologists have been desperately trying to keep the animal alive, because it’s one of the only examples in the world of an animal whose evolutionary family has only one species. Over millions of years and thousands of generations a process of running away from the dangers of the more prosperous parts of the ocean and adapting to live in the world of permanent famine has driven the fangtooth apart from everyone. Apart from the occasional moments where the brain-chemicals that make up fangtooth-love kick in, they don’t even think of each other.

The trouble with a mind so far removed from us, by so many ages of despair and starving competition, is that even with intelligence we can’t make each other mutually understood.

The animal representatives have tried every way they know to make the question: do you want to be intelligent? understood. But the only answer they’ve been getting is something along the lines of, “hzhzhzhzhzzhzhhzhzXRXRXRXRX wantmanwantmanWANTMAN! hxrzhxrzhxrz.” While this might be a yes, it might also be that the fangtooth wants to eat a human because it’s the biggest pile of meat it’s ever seen. “Or,” I suggest to the animals gathered around the tank trying to find a way to make sense of it, “it might just be that the fangtooth is in heat.”

I’m ignored as usual, and eventually it’s decided that the fangtooth should be treated like a mental case. It’ll be given food and comfort for as long as it takes to calm it, in the hope that one day it will make some progress to what we consider sanity.

***

It’s three years since the fangtooth arrived. I’m still at the Hall, because I’ve found that it’s the most efficient way to talk to the other goats of the world. If I travelled around I’d lose a lot of time in transit getting form place to place. Instead, I’m staying put, because it’s become a kind of tourist attraction for people to bring their goats to me like some kind of ancient oracle. Apparently people have even started buying goats just to take them to Singapore and visit me. The goats who choose intelligence can do the legwork and finish the job in future generations.

In these three years I haven’t seen a lot of my old friends except for one. Chingu still comes by for a day every month to try to talk to the fangtooth. The other animals all gave up and lost interest in the project after a few weeks, but seeing an animal that no one can make any kind of contact with has effected Chingu deeply.

He’s there again now. I’m watching him read his clipboard of ideas on how to get through to the fangtooth. Apparently he keeps it with him everywhere in the world he goes, and every time he gets any new idea about how he can talk to the fangtooth, he writes it down. Then on his day here he goes methodically through his list of ridiculous balderdash in the hope that something on it might make some trace of an effect on the fish.

Chingu sits back away from the clipboard and stares through the murk of the empty tanks around him. I don’t think he knows I’m here. Then he slowly pads up to the glass of the aquarium where the fangtooth floats staring at Chingu the same way he stares at everyone, like a starved desperado. Chingu sits down again and the wines like a dog. I haven’t ever heard him do that. He puts out his right front paw, and with it reaches towards the immobile fangtooth, his claw faintly tapping the glass.

5 Responses to “The Congress of the Animals”

  1. Dear Internet,

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8426132.stm

    Well there, that is what a fangtooth looks like.

    Some guy called Jack Scoresby is writing a novel chapter every day for thirty-one days on his blog here:

    http://jackscoresby.tumblr.com/post/357533866/chapter-one-of-thirty-one-the-morning-after

    I’ve only read the first few, but they seem pretty decent.

    PAK

  2. Vedrana said

    Absolutely my favourite of all your work that I’ve read so far.

    Just be careful with the words “affect” and “effect”. Also, I think it’s spelled “dugong” (not “dewgong”).

  3. I enjoyed it – the narrator has a great voice.

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