Through the thick green-tinted glass of this tank, the room is dark and wavers as the light shifts, so it’s hard for me to see you; but I can safely assume you can see me.
After all, if you couldn’t see us in the tank, how would you know which of us to pick? The light must be good enough for that, mustn’t it?
Allow me to introduce myself. I’m sorry, but I don’t have a name to give you. That’s because I’m a greep, of course, as you must know, since you’re in this place. After all, doesn’t the sign outside say, in huge flickering words of red and yellow light, HOUSE OF GREEPS? It does.
Oh. I’m sorry – I realise that you’re surprised that I know what the sign says. You’re surprised that I can read. That’s no problem; you don’t have to be embarrassed. Just about everyone makes that mistake. After all, I’m only a greep, and we aren’t supposed to be able to do anything more than crawl around a bit.
I know what you’re thinking when you look at me. You see this dome-shaped ovoid of flexing grey-green shell-plates, the triangular black eyes, the short questing antennae, and your immediate reaction is likely mild disgust. That’s all right too; I don’t mind at all. I can live with that.
I mean, I can live with that until I go to the crottling oven. Yes, I know what the crottling oven is; it’s just opposite this tank. Don’t you know that we can all see it quite well? The glowing red mouth of it has already consumed five of my tank-mates today, and if you choose me, it’ll take me, too.
If you don’t choose me, someone else will, today or at the most, tomorrow. HOUSE OF GREEPS does good business.
What? No, I don’t mind. Not really. After all, millions of greeps are spawned in the farms each year, and only the very best are chosen to stay back and survive to breed. I wasn’t good enough to make that grade, which meant I was only fit for the crottling oven. So there’s no point in my fretting. If you were in my place, I’m sure you’d feel the same way.
No, no, please don’t hesitate to choose me. If you want me, go right ahead. Don’t let my talking to you, telling you my story, put you off in the least.
But, as long as you’re still choosing, let me go on with my tale.
I was, as I said, spawned in a greep farm. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a greep farm, but I assume you haven’t. It’s basically a huge, shallow pool, divided into multiple sections by concrete barriers. Water flows continuously over the top, from one end to the other, bringing in nutrients which feed the algae growing on the bottom of the pool. We greeps, of course, then eat the algae. The sections are of different sizes. The spawning pens are the smallest, because each contains just a pregnant greep, or a new mother with her eggs and young brood. Greep mothers take care of their young, even though they know exactly what’s going to happen to most of them. And they don’t hide the truth from their babies, either.
I think I was one of my mother’s favourites; she was a first time breeder, she told me, and so she still had the foolish sentiment to grow fond of her spawn. At any rate, when night fell and the shallow water of the spawning pen cooled, she’d ask me to snuggle up to her side, and tell me the things she knew. Some of it she’d seen for herself, and some she’d heard from her own mother, and some things she’d picked up elsewhere. She taught me how to read, what your letters said. It isn’t difficult. I think if I had the chance I could make a written language for us greeps that would be at least as easy to use, maybe easier. Oh well.
And while I was with her I learnt some things for myself.
I remember listening to the greep farmer talking, once, to a visiting scientist. They were standing by the side of my spawning pen, and their voices were loud enough to carry through the water and the noise of all my hundreds of spawn-mates busily chewing their algae. This was not a surprise; the farmer was a small man with a voice big enough to make up for his lack of size. I heard him complaining that it was inefficient to let greep mothers remain by their spawn for so long – the mothers should be bred and spawned again as soon as one load of eggs was delivered. The scientist told him she and her colleagues were working on it, and that they were hopeful they’d succeed.
They’ve certainly succeeded in other things. You see what I look like; don’t think I’ve missed your involuntary flinch of disgust when you laid eyes on me first. But, my mother says, we greeps weren’t always like this. Once, we were much smaller, long-legged and slender, and our armour plates were translucent and caught the light like rainbows. My mother said we were almost beautiful.
But slender greeps contain too little flesh to be economically viable to raise, and the thin, translucent armour plates burst open in the crottling ovens. Besides, our long legs made us far too active, and prone to escape from the spawning pens. So we were bred to be heavy and slow-moving, with short claws that can barely drag our bulks along, and thick shells which serve as our own serving-platters. That’s the kind of magic they’ve managed; so why shouldn’t they be able to change motherly behaviour too?
I don’t know if you have faith in yourself, but rest assured, I’ve full faith in you.
Then one day they came to shift us out of the spawning pens to the growing section. My mother had already told me it was going to happen, because she’d seen for herself that we were big enough. And the previous evening, the farmer had come to look us over, to see if any were fit to be kept back for breeding. None were, which isn’t a surprise; as I said, most of us are only good for the crottling oven.
So the next morning the farmer’s workers came with their nets, wading in the breeding pen, while he himself stood on the platform by the side, telling them he wanted faster work and greater productivity. I clung to my mother’s shell, unwilling to be taken away from her, but it was no use. A worker inserted a narrow strip of metal between her and me and pried us apart, dropping us into two different nets. I was taken with the rest of my spawn-mates to the growing pens. And she? I suppose she was taken to the breeding pools, which I’ve never seen and know nothing about. I never asked her about them; I’m sure you understand that it’s awkward and indelicate to demand of your parent details of the procedure by which you were brought into the world. It would have been pointless, since I was never going to get to take part in that anyway.
Of course I never saw her again.
The time in the growing pens passed quickly. It wasn’t a part of my life that gave me anything to talk about. In the growing pens, we’re just exposed to other greeps of our own age, who know nothing more than we do, and the farmer and his men hardly even come by except once every few days to see how we’re doing. There’s nothing to do but eat and rest, so that’s what we all did.
Once we were big enough, we were, of course, shifted to the fattening pens. And there we were no longer allowed to graze on algae as we chose. That’s inefficient and takes too long, and the fattening is uneven. So they put us in water that was so saturated with chopped algae that we had no option but to eat constantly, merely to clear enough space to be able to breathe. It’s really a wonderful example of ingenuity on your species’ part; really, I congratulate you.
Twice each day the farmer would come with his men, and scoop up several of us one by one in his net to weigh on a scale, to check how quickly we were gaining weight. The first time this happened, I was frightened, because the scale’s pan was cold and metallic and the man holding me squeezed rather too hard with his heavy glove. But that was the first time. Later I grew used to it, and we gained weight so fast that we were in the fattening pen for a couple of weeks only.
And so the day came when I was scooped out of the fattening pen by a net, along with nine of my spawn-mates. There was a big blue container beside the pen on which was written, in pale yellow letters, GREEPMASTER FARMS. I just had time to read this before they put us all inside and clamped down the lid. It was so constricted inside that we couldn’t even move around, and could barely breathe. I don’t know how long we were inside, but I thought they intended to suffocate us to death. But of course they weren’t; they were only bringing us here, to THE HOUSE OF GREEPS.
So, have you made your choice? If you want me, don’t hesitate, just point. You see that waiter there? Tell him you want me, and he’ll scoop me out of the tank and take me to the table there by the crottling oven. He’ll turn me over, and with a knife neatly cut away my soft lower plates and my legs, before popping me inside the oven. Five minutes later, and I’ll be on your table, still half alive, but succulent and tasty, a dish fit for a king.
No, don’t worry, I’m not blaming you in the least. It’s going to happen anyway, so it’s better to be unsentimental about these things.
Oh yes; about that waiter. I’ve heard him talking on the phone today. He’s worried about his sick wife and the money he owes for her treatment, and the fact that he’s hardly making enough to cover his basic living expenses. Please leave him a good tip. He deserves it.
What’s that? You’ve changed your mind? You don’t want to eat any one of us? But you want to take us away, to set us free? Are you crazy? How on earth do you imagine we’ll ever survive in the wild? We’ve lost that ability long ago.
Oh. You want to keep us in a pool in your own garden. You’re going to make a little greep refuge, so we can live out our lives in peace and comfort. And you’re going to campaign to stop greep eating. Really. You mean to do that. Do you imagine you’ll succeed? The whole economy of greep farming, and you’re going to overthrow it all by yourself?
If I could laugh, I would.
What do I think about that, you ask. You’re insane, that’s what I think.
I mean, just imagine what the neighbours will say.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016