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The Seventh Rule
A short story by Cheeseburger Brown
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The Seventh Rule, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

IV.

I lowered my knife. The seventh rule of our clan is to cherish babies. "I will not take you until you have set the baby free," I said in a very clear voice such as one might use with a child, in order to make myself understood despite her incorrect way of making words.

She blinked. "You -- you can speak?"

"All men can speak," I told her. "How can you be ignorant of this?"

"Please don't hurt my baby," she begged.

"You are my meat. The baby is free to go."

She swallowed heavily, still panting. "You're going to kill me?"

I nodded. "Yes. You are my prize, because you are so fat. I will be lauded for feeding so many. But I will not break the seventh rule -- I will not harm a baby. Let the baby go."

"He'll die on his own. He needs me."

I squinted at the baby. It was small but thick in the limbs, cheeks dimpled and full. "He looks pretty strong and fed," I argued. "I believe he will survive."

"He can't even walk!"

I frowned. It was true that very small babies do not remember how to walk when they first climb out of a woman's parts. I have seen this myself. Could it really be true that this sobbing overworlder's clan had been so reduced that she was the only mother? "Where are your other mothers?" I demanded. "Where are your people?"

"In the city," she breathed, nodding upward.

I narrowed my eyes suspiciously. "Has your clan banished you?"

She shook her head. "I don't have a clan."

"That makes no sense. What are your rules?"

"What rules?"

"I am a Twentyman," I explained. "My clan has twenty rules, and the number of our rules is twenty. The rules remind us of all the things we forget when we are in the womb. How could a human being have no rules?"

She cocked her head, breath still coming quick and shallow, causing her excesses to roll and heave. Her skin glistened with sweat, which made it seem especially delicious and salty. "What? Why twenty?" she asked, making me blink.

I looked up. "If there were less than twenty we would know that a rule had been omitted; if there were more than twenty we would know that a rule had been made up."

"What are the rules?"

"The first rule is that I am my clan, and my clan is my body. The second rule is that I am the body, but the chief is my mind and the shaman is my heart."

"They're...your laws? You have a law that tells you to protect babies?"

"The seventh rule is that I should always take care of babies, especially if I like them."

She furrowed her shining brow. "What makes you like a baby?"

"If it reminds me of somebody I know."

She took a deep breath, looked down at the now quiet child squeezed against her chest and then looked up at me again. "Do you like my baby?"

I shrugged. "He is too brown, like you left him too close to a vent for too long. I do not know any man who looks like this baby. Maybe this baby is sick."

"He's not sick!" she insisted.

"The tenth rule is that anyone who is very sick must go away."

She paused and licked her lips. "But that's all I want. I want to go away. Please. What if we are sick? What if we make your clan sick, too? You should send us away. You should let us go."

I thought about this. "You would carry your meat?"

"My meat?"

I pointed to the corpse mashed against the nose of the whale. "I think you may have broken his interior pipes, though. I would not eat his meat if I were you."

"Is that a rule?"

"No, it is common sense. Meat tainted by dark essences turns to poison. Even your baby remembers it, I am sure. How can a crone be ignorant of this?"

"I am not a crone!"

"Well, you are very old."

"I'm not. Maybe it seems that way to you, but you're just a child."

"I am a man ten sleeps gone," I said proudly, puffing out my chest.

"But -- you can't be more than twelve or thirteen years old. You're not a man."

I exposed my member to prove to her how it had been cropped to manhood but this upset her very much. I tucked myself back in and held up my empty hands in appeal. "Hush, crone. Whether you are too wild or not to understand it I do have a man's authority, and this is my decision: I cannot risk bringing your sick baby to my clan, and since your baby cannot walk I will take it to the overworld."

"And...what about me?"

"You are my meat. I have hunted you."

She closed her eyes to look at something inside her mind, then opened them again. "But you will let my baby live?"

"Yes."

"You promise?"

"The ninth rule forbids telling lies or making secrets."

"And you never break the rules."

"The twentieth rule is that the rules must never be altered, and must always be kept."

She nodded, raising her round chin. "I want to accompany you to the city."

I shook my head. "It would be easier to quarter and pack you, first."

"I insist."

"I am becoming tired from so much speaking. Please expose your neck so that I might make a clean cut."

"No, wait!" she cried, holding up her free hand. "If you refuse me...I'll -- I'll kill the baby myself."

I hesitated. If I forced the mad crone to kill the baby, would I be the proximate cause of the baby's death? Would I be guilty of failing the seventh rule? What if the spirits sought to punish me instead of the woman's ghost?

I sighed. "Very well, crone. We go."


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