A short story about systems that keep us alive, needing them and yet hating them. Fiction allows us to explore alternate material cultures, which relate to but also differ from our own.
A nomadic tribe, who support themselves with that which surrounds them, wander through plains. Their travel towards fresh resources is overtaken by increasing desertification, leaving their lives a greater and greater struggle to preserve. They lie helplessly in sand, upon the brink of starvation, when a stork flies overhead, dropping a cardboard box attached to a parachute. The box is 1m2 wide by 50cm high. It contains algae such as dulse and wild carrot. There are mud cookies, and breads made of orache and bran fried in machine oil. Wet sponges, from which brackish liquid can be squeezed, have sodden one corner, and in another sits a flammable trash bag. On top of it all lies the carcass of a monitor lizard.
The group descend on the box with famished veracity. Grabbing at everything they see to be digestible inside. They pass handfuls around to loved ones, but not before tasting and swallowing solids themselves for the first time in weeks. An initial rush slows into careful savouring. Hungry fingers initially tore flesh from the lizard’s corpse, until sharper minds suggest cooking. Decelerated consumption leaves time for clarity to emerge. For although the contents at first look to be a cornucopia of delights, a salvatory miracle, they now seem sour. Seen with eyes unclouded by the fever of starvation, it is plain the box’s contents are only near-foods. The contents leave strange tastes inside mouths, dry and dusty tongues and throats, oncoming indigestion and heartburn. Ignoring these discomforts, the tribespeople methodically pick over the inside of the box, plucking out and sharing all remaining crumbs. Muscles, organs, and the joints of monitor lizard roast on hot rocks atop burning garbage. They all sit around and eat their share. Tough and acidic, the half-baked meat still satisfies more than anything else consumed prior. Juices are rigorously chewed from gristly fibres.
After all is done – the sponges left dry and the box meticulously stripped, lying open and flat – the group crawl into foetal positions. Stomachs no longer gnawing, instead churning. Unsatisfied and distressed, they understand that without this gift from above, they would be slipping ever closer to passing. But even considering their own mortality cannot distract from the sickness inside their guts. The next day, at around the same time, another box descends. It contains different but still near inedible food, in similar quantities. The group’s actions are replicated as well.
This cycle steadily repeats, only barely sustaining the tribe. Without ever gaining enough strength to migrate onwards, the group dutifully consume their indispensable rations, constantly wondering how it could be that these supplies come to them. Some tribespeople think of the stork as a deity, others as a scourge. Regardless of which inclination individuals fall towards, they cannot help but – with their lifeforce so interwoven into the stork’s actions – see the creature as mythology, instead of flesh. They build spiritual ties to the creature as reciprocation.
In the times before and after the transfer of goods is consummated, the tribespeople sit or lie in stasis, rarely talking. They wait in their moment; in the one location they can be. Their routine is calcified by the concrete of necessity, and yet they know of its impermanence: these gifts could be revoked at any time- resulting in their undoing. They are incapable of responding to their predicament, but they sit firmly in their ongoingness. All at once haunted, sustained and at peace with this unfinished configuration of life.