Trust me, you do not want to go shopping with my mother. Mom has this passion for curiosities. Every shopping expedition is weird, whether in Dallas or Dar es Salaam or Delhi—like this time. (My mom’s a diplomat, so we get around.)
• • •
On a hot Saturday afternoon in New Delhi, we’re walking along the lane of stalls kept by Tibetan refugees, and Mom’s checking every single one. In a tiny shop under a faded striped awning, she spots a baseball-sized round metal box with a grotesque face and four clawed legs. Something rattles inside, but the box won’t open.
“What’s this?” Mom asks. The guy just smiles and shrugs.
Mom’s hooked. Something she can’t identify? Curious. Something the shopkeeper himself can’t identify? Even better!
She pays him Rs4,000 and doesn’t even bargain. I wave off the plastic bag he offers, and just carry the box in my hand. It’s still closed, still rattling.
• • •
Soon after we get home, the globe splits along its equator, revealing a small porcelain egg.
Mom grimaces. “Mass-produced. Probably imported from China.” She’s disappointed that it’s not handcrafted.
“Give it to me, then.” I take it in my hand. The porcelain glows like really intense mother-of-pearl.
Mom likes the box, though, and puts it with her Delhi collection—old bronzes, inlaid marble paperweights, wooden elephants, and other assorted objects. The display cabinet’s lighting makes everything look special whether it is or not. I leave my porcelain egg in there too, and go off to tussle with an assignment due tomorrow.
• • •
The next morning, the egg’s in jagged pieces. The bronzes are gone and so is the side of the cabinet. From behind the couch peers a little scaly green animal with four bug eyes and two tails. It glances at me and emerges cautiously, looking hungry.
“Let’s keep it, Mom!” I say when she comes in.
“Kris, it’s eating the vintage bakelite lamp I found in Camden Market.”
I quickly pile wood shavings from a carpentry project around the creature. It munches them like potato chips. I feed it a broken plastic bucket, and an old plastic brush from the kitchen. It polishes them off even faster. Then it sticks out a tiny purple tongue and licks its lips.
“It’s so cute! Mom, we’ve got to keep it.”
“No, Kris,” Mom says firmly. “How would we cage it? It’ll eat us out of house and home.”
But what’s she going to do with it? No animal shelter will take it, and we can’t give it to friends. We don’t even know where it came from—maybe Mars, home of little green men and the bug-eyed monsters? I decide to call him Bradbury, and tell only my closest friend Maya next door. We’re both hoping to get accepted to the same college.
By Monday afternoon, Bradbury has eaten a pile of old clothes, a plastic curtain rod longer than himself (including his tails), vegetable peels from dinner, and the accumulation of polyethylene bags from grocery shopping. He's got no interest in any living thing, so the geckoes haunting the wall lamps are safe.
Then he escapes out the back door. I chase him, but he hides behind the marigolds in the garden. Now what? I really daren’t let him get loose!
There’s a sound of scratching. Bradbury abruptly emerges from the patch of orange flowers and I grab him. I know he won’t bite me, but when I bring him back inside, he bites the dining table leg. I hastily give him my world history text. He delicately rips out each page and nibbles it appreciatively. Who knew a book could be so delicious?
“He’s just like a puppy, Mom,” I say soothingly. “Like your dog ate your shoe when you were a kid?”
“Kris, there’s a difference between a puppy chewing on a shoe and a monster destroying a cabinet, a lamp, your textbook that we’ll have to replace, and the dining table!”
Bradbury stays, thriving on whatever we feed him. He’s particularly fond of anything plastic, which I suspect he’s breaking down. All those hydrocarbons, essentially. The marigolds grow gorgeous and enormous from his manure.
• • •
When he’s not eating, Bradbury follows me around. We don’t play “Fetch!” any more because he eats the ball.
“Bradbury,” I call one day, and he sort of squeaks at me.
“Squeak squeaksqueak!” I respond, and he copies me like a four-eyed two-tailed puppy squeaking up and down the scales.
Soon we’re squeaking “Greensleeves” together. When Maya drops in, she teaches him some old Hindi film songs, and he learns to squeak “Dum Maro Dum” and a bunch of other tunes.
• • •
One evening, I hear Mom scream. I dash into the living room, to find Bradbury snacking on Mom’s prized Kashmiri rug. I grab him, but it’s too late.
“He has to go, Kris.” Mom looks at the ruined carpet. “I’ll talk to someone at the embassy. They’ll find an agency to take him away.” She stalks off to the kitchen to calm down.
I’m too horrified to say anything. They’ll kill Bradbury, dissect him. I must stop this, but how? I huddle in my room, Bradbury curled up against me. His little purple tongue licks my cheek.
Maya comes over to commiserate. We tearfully feed Bradbury some waste plastic and an old polyester shirt.
Suddenly, I have an idea.
“Maya, didn’t your Dad’s company get the contract when the Indian government privatized garbage collection?”
“Yes?” Maya says.
“They have a big landfill outside the city, right? Bradbury could be their mascot?”
“Wow!” says Maya. “I’ll ask Papa right now.”
She goes outside to make the call.
“Papa wants to know, what’ll happen when he eats faster than Delhi can produce garbage?” asks Maya when she returns.
“He’d need to be big as a T-Rex,” I say confidently.
“Yeah.” She looks at Bradbury. He’s about the size of a German Shepherd dog now.
“Maybe you can have a global garbage dump? All the countries will send their trash to your dad’s company?”
Maya looks thoughtful, considering the logistics, then nods. “Papa should look for a landfill space near a port.”
She calls him again.
• • •
“He’s an ecological miracle,” I tell Maya. “Maybe he’ll solve our whole waste-stream problem.”
“Right,” says Maya thoughtfully. “But for how long? There has to be a limit to growth.” She pulls out her tablet and starts some calculations.
“How long?” I ask her when she looks up.
“It’s really a rough estimate now, but assuming he grows as big as an elephant, maybe five years?”
“Why an elephant? I know it’s the largest land animal now but why not consider some of the extinct ones, if there’s no food constraint?”
“Hmm. Those were larger ... some may have been three or four times bigger than an elephant.”
She plugs a few more figures into her calculations. “Anyway, he’ll probably eat less as his growth tapers off. And that waste stream just keeps growing. Ten years?”
Maya’s really into waste management. She’s expecting to take over her family company one day.
“Wasn’t I reading something about scientists breeding bacteria that can break down plastics?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says. “We have a company lab with a team working on it, and we hope to have something within ten years. But it’s never going to be enough. In the end, if we don’t shrink our waste production, we’re still going to be buried in our garbage.”
“So? At least it’ll buy us time. Every bit helps. Recycling, composting ... and Bradbury.”
• • •
Three days later, we see Bradbury on TV, renamed Kachra-Nash (which means Destroyer of Trash) and happily munching through all the stuff Delhi throws away. Everyone assumes he’s a CGI, except for Maya, her dad, and the landfill workers. And he’s producing loads of excellent manure.
Copyright © 2019 Keyan Bowes.
Katrina Archer from DepositPhotos stock images
Keyan Bowes is a peripatetic writer of science fiction and fantasy based in San Francisco. She’s lived in nine cities in seven countries, visited more (and is still travelling). These places sometimes form the settings for her stories. Her work can be found online in various webzines (including a Polish one), a podcast, and an award-winning short film, and on paper in a dozen print anthologies.
She’s a graduate of the 2007 Clarion Workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers, and a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Keyan’s website is at www.keyanbowes.org.