The Human Genre Project


Rumpelstiltskin had been a serious collector, committed to the acquisition of human infants. “Give me your firstborn,” he had said, repeatedly. Eventually, it had become a sort of motto, inscribed on his business cards, and matter-of-factly presented during meetings with new clients.
He had died, at last, at the hands of a client, a poor miller’s daughter, who had objected to his seizure of her son. Her repetition of his name—Rumpelstiltskin! Rumpelstiltskin! Rumpelstiltskin!—had been so vicious that it had precipitated a series of embolisms. He had died clutching his heart.
Behind him, Rumpelstiltskin left another dwarf, his own firstborn. To him, he bequeathed his entire collection: fifteen warehouses, stacked high with infants, each hungry, smelly, and squalling.
This son, however, was another sort of collector. He did not—in whole—desire this inheritance. After the funeral, he sorted through the warehouse shelves, taking what he wanted and selling the remainder at auction.
This son—who, like his father, was reluctant to share his name—in addition refined the family business. He composed a new motto, “I do not want your child...” which he printed on new business cards. For a short time, his clients were reassured. There was, however, a second part to this motto, revealed only after the contracts had been finalized: “...I only want its eyes.”
The old warehouses, now emptied of infants, took on a new character, silent and watchful. On each shelf, organized into stacks, were the eyes of children. Some were present in pairs, others as singletons. The eyes had no lids, and they stared, stared. They absorbed everything, though in a mournful, incurious way. Their impressions, conveyed to no neuron and unrecorded by any brain, were something less than real.
On quiet days, the son would play delightedly among them. He overturned the stacks, creating moist thuds, then flicked them about the floor like marbles. Sometimes, he strung several on a bit of twine—brown, blue, green—to form a rainbow necklace. He peered deeply into the pupils: windows, each, into a now distant soul. “You are mine,” he would say, kissing them.
On more serious days, old clients would attempt to confront the son, demanding a renegotiation of what they insisted had been an unfair contract. “Give them back,” they would say. They gestured helplessly towards their blind and half-blind children: ragged tykes, with unhealable wounds in their faces, permanently bandaged with eye patches or rubber replicas.
The dwarf’s refusals, though perfunctory, were not unkind. He shrugged his shoulders in a jovial way, then repeated “No, No, No” in a singsong whisper. It always defeated them. Weeping, sputtering, they always retreated.
Others—in apparent memory of the poor miller’s daughter, who, by crying “Rumpelstiltskin!” had destroyed his father—experimented with new incantations. Methodically, they attempted a range of syllables: Retinoblastoma? Tumor suppressor? Rb1? They produced a flurry of publications, in the hopes of generating a name—that name—that might obliterate him.
He listened, he always listened, but afterwards he would say “No, No, No,” in the same gruesome singsong. As they expostulated—word after word, question after question—he continued the work of courting new clients and of harvesting the eyes from their children.

There was a dream of his death—the dream of many—which was experienced so widely and with such frequency that it became an expectation. In the dream, he died suddenly, violently. His corpse was conveyed on a filthy wagon bed, while the crowds jeered at it. Some sang and blew trumpets; others, in fits of poetic meanness, ripped out his eyes. At the sidelines of this parade, watching intently, were the children whose eyes he would otherwise have harvested. They laughed and pointed. For the moment, they celebrated their sight: a precious miracle, hard-won; in later years, of course, this feeling would fade and they would simply regard it as their entitlement.
There was another part to the dream, less well articulated, concerning the fifteen warehouses. In them, the son’s collection slowly shriveled, pupils congealing to specks. The lenses also contracted, creating a whitish crust, opaque and ill-fitting.
Into this decay, another dwarf emerged, the warehouses’ next inheritor. Carefully, she sterilized the space, detaching the dehydrated flakes from the shelves, and bleaching the wood beneath them. Her lips twitched, anticipating the placement of her own collection. There would be, for her, another sort of harvest, yielded by new clients, equally reluctant.

Rb1 is a tumor suppressor protein, encoded by a gene on Chromosome 13. Inactivating mutations cause eye cancer (retinoblastoma) in children.

Rachel Rodman