Curate's Egg by David Whelan

Eggs in the pan look almost green in the afternoon light. It was supposed to be morning but the clock didn’t stop. Scrambled by the wedding rings, kissing unused and rusted on the countertop. They stopped wearing them ever since he told her how he is getting the eggs.

‘Can you give me a hand in here, please?’ he says. The kettle needs to be boiled.

He's wearing a bulky orange jumper that makes him look thicker than a human should. His hands are red and white; his veins are a murky green and trickle beneath his flesh like a small stream.

‘What do you call a frog?’ she asks from the other room. She is hidden behind a laptop and the fuzzy white glare from the screen highlights her imperfections. For weeks now she's been going on about animals and what exactly they are. She’s been tracing the origins of XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.

‘Huh?’

‘What do you call a frog, Curate?’ Crooked nose. Oval face. Tiny flecks of green at the corner of her mouth.

‘I don’t know – a distraction? Just [RETRACTED] it.’ He regrets saying the name as soon as it leaves his mouth; to his relief, she doesn’t hear him.

The eggs are nearing that moment where they begin to smell. He doesn’t want to look away from the bad eggs in case they become worse. He feels he can salvage them, make them what they're not.

‘Huh?’ Hair in need of a fresh coat of bleach. She does not believe in [RETRACTED], not anymore.

He has tried to stop [RETRACTED], but it is hard; could sooner give up breathing. His mind whirrs with information the laptop brings him, loyal like a dog to stick. He thinks of a room of china plates falling like sleet to the ground; this is his mind. His body is an empty tennis ball thrown by an unseen arm.

Staring at the two eggs combining in the pan, remembers that the wedding rings are necessary for identification, so collects them into his trouser pocket; still, after all this, does he believe there is potential in an egg. After XXXXXXXXX, he kept one book:—they were only allowed to keep one—101 Ways to Cook an Egg. Endless choice, endless variations. These things amaze him. He loves that he can determine what's inside each egg, only with his mind, his decisions; that tactile, sturdy reliability of it all. Eggs taught him control.

He can’t begin to imagine what is inside Merry,—‘Can you help me with the eggs?’—worries that, did he try to smell the eggs too hard will the whole gloop go up them; hovers an inch or so above them, like the wells that sucked the earth dry.

‘Do you think I should tell the Doctor that I don’t want to continue our meetings? I don’t know how to word it. Though. I don’t know what to say. Dear Doctor Wong, I no longer want XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX…’

Since the tightening up of the budget, the healthcare Merry relies on has fallen out of the back; he doesn’t know how she's still with him.

Looking over now, he can see her skin is dryer than yesterday; pulled so tight it looks like it could split like the fabric of worn jeans. Maybe she's already left him.

‘Merry? Can you please come in here and help me, please.’

‘I’m doing something, here. Curate. I’ll be in in a minute.’ Curate looks at the clock through the doorway just above Merry’s head. It's been three minutes since the last minute. Inside her shell, the white is becoming solid, the yellow becoming a fluffy miniature sun; outside there's a grey cat. It is not their grey cat. Merry has fed it twice a day for the last month, but it is decidedly not their grey cat. Rules are rules. It's plump and circular like a beach ball. It mews.

‘Mew.’

‘What’s that got to do with frogs, anyway?’

‘Huh?’

‘Can you come and help me out in here?’

The pans in the sink have been building up since [RETRACTED] went under. Water's too expensive; they decided dirt is only natural so built a shrine to what the body wants right in their kitchen; water, only used to boil. The eggs are beginning to congeal.

The air is thick with air.

‘Wait, I need to check my messages.’

He pauses, the wooden spoon in his hand begins to die.

‘I thought you were.’

She pauses. The keyboard under her fingers braces.

‘My other messages.’

A crisis circumvented they return to their function; Curate dreads but is too scared to consider his belief that Merry has been leading a double life.

Her mobile phone vibrates on the wooden desk. Bzz.

A thought occurs to him, a beautiful, original idea, filled with the potential and possibility of a virginal, uncooked egg. Doubles.

‘Amphibian,’ he says. Bzz.

She doesn't reply; instead, there's silence; Merry wonders how she can fill the space between them. She's given up trying; she just wonders. Curate picks up the egg carton and puts it down somewhere else.

‘Mew.’

He turns down the heat on the oven, the sink is filled with [RETRACTED]. He sets to boil two more eggs, he sets the egg timer. Tick.

‘I told him I can’t afford the treatment anymore. That’s not a lie, is it.’ Outside, she thinks she sees one of those things she used to eat, hanging in the air – what were they called? Donuts?—then realises it's the sun, glaring open-mouthed in the orangey furnace of the sky.

The weather has been changing every day. The new government says it's fighting off the change, but already are prices increasing; coffee, becoming like gold; flour is deceased. Her mouth is stained with embryo; she lost another tooth last night, and has since fed it to the cat.

Curate decides that the best thing to do is to talk to the eggs.

‘No. That’s not a lie. Amphibian.’ He sees the tiny pink marks on her wrists like blood spots in an uncooked membrane. Broken yolk is spilling out.

She returns to the keyboard and the screen. The cat is gone from the window. Time has continued after all this time. Raw, cooked, raw, cooked. Crack. The clock is moving around and around. Every sixty seconds, right back to where it started. Every sixty seconds bringing new possibilities. Curate longs to fertilise. Bzz. Tick.



‘Aren’t you going to get that?’ he asks.

The eggs have begun to smell. They smell of his childhood and her morning breath, they smell of eggs.

‘In a minute,’ she says. The sofa she sits on is stuffed rigid like a dead animal; she moves her weight but remains sitting.

Merry has been worried for a month. [RETRACTED] did not fix her. She's still changing, but Curate doesn’t know; her soul has become the monster under the bed.

‘Can you give me a hand in here, please?’ There's a moment where something is miscommunicated, worn out, faded, replayed.

[What if we weren’t seeing what is truly there?]

‘Mew.’

The eggs are finally done.

He takes a mouthful and eats. They're rubbery and definitely green but not without flavour. They are something, after all.

Merry stands. She's in the doorway.

‘What?’ she asks, her eyebrows arched, her pupils like slit; eyes, the colour of cornfields.

‘Nothing.’ he says, neck arched; he pours the eggs onto two small plates, he places one fork on each plate. The forks are speckled shells of brown and grey. He has begun to sweat. Merry squints at the eggs.

‘They look green.’

‘They are.’

He hands her a plate. It is white in the centre and rimmed with old sky blue. She takes it and opens the window. The cat comes in.

‘Mew.’

The cat eats her eggs; Curate looks at the skin around the mountains of her knuckles, they look swollen, like an overripe tomato. She tilts his head up with her index finger; her eyes are clear and filmed with the thinnest layer of wet.

They drink from empty mugs. Curate chews with deliberate slowness. The eggs are so soft they don’t need to be chewed. He feels young again. Tick.

He inspects the eggs still on the boil. Their flesh is red like a baby’s, and they seem to smile back at him with eyes as loyal as a dog’s.

‘Mew,’ he says.

‘Mew,’ she says.

‘[RETRACTED]?’ The cat says.

Time boils over. There is a nothing in the space but the three of them in the kitchen.

Soon, the doorbell rings: a loud and aggressive noise not too removed from that of Merry’s phone; they are drawn to the door together.

A man is behind the door, he's in a white shirt with a starched collar; his trousers are straight and narrow and black; his face is pale, and his skin is pulled back so tight that it must have been clipped up like hair on the far side of his neck. He bow, they bow. Curate doesn’t know why the man has come, or how he predicted it. He toys with the rings in his pocket.

‘Are you cooking eggs?’ he asks.

They nod.

‘Fine privilege,’ he says. ‘You must be good workers.’ His pink tongue slips in and out of his thin mouth, wetting his beige lips.

‘Just here for a routine community check,’ he says. ‘Do you have your bands?’

Merry does not move. Her body stiffens so that Curate worries her flesh will split; he places what he hopes is a soothing hand on her back, and presents the rings. Merry softens.

They wait as the man studies the rings; time cooks and eats each subsequent moment of time, and above them the sun loops around itself like an infinity sign or a snake, tail clamped tight between its jaws. ‘Ouroboros,’ the man says, with a smile, as he hands the rings back to Curate. ‘At least, that’s what I think you meant. Everything's fine here, thank you.’

He makes to move on to the next house, but stops and returns as if a drifting thought has seized him mid-motion; only then that Merry feels the softness of the cat at her feet.

‘Do you know why salamanders eat frog’s eggs?’ the man asks, kneeling by the cat. ‘They don’t do it for the nutrients. Or the taste, as some think. They do it because they don’t want any frogs in the salamander pond.’ He is moving his hands in his pockets.

‘Bureaucrat,’ the cat says. Or Curate says. Or Merry sa--- [-and-sometimes-they think-alone-how-wonderful-and-breath-taking-and sea-sick-making-it-would-all-be-just-to-spin-and-spin-and-spin-and-say-what-they-really-feel,-just-for-once,-just-for-one-tiny-kernel-of-a-moment,-a-second-within-a-second,-and-touch-the –functions-within-their-hearts,-and-flood-the-vectors-between-them-with-every-last-cell,-and-hold-each-other’s-hand-until-their-bloodstreams-merged-into-one-and-they-were-connected-not-by-the-relations-of-their-bodies-but-by-their-minds-and-together-they-would-form-a-figure-eight-or-a-lemniscate-or-kissing-wedding-rings-or-two-eggs-boiling-side-by-side-] ---Tick.

The clock has moved them forward again, and the time is coming for everyone to go indoors and wait. Time to shut down and close the openings. Night is dangerous. The man looks into Merry’s eyes.

‘You need to have this beast relocated at once. You of all people know what the punishment is. The di-se-ase,’ he spreads the words like butter between them, ‘has to be quarantined.’ He turns to Curate and hands him a small business card of the same whiteness as his skin.

Back inside, the card is still in his hands, jutting out like an extra finger. ‘Is this a threat?’ Merry has her head in her hands. There are eggs on the boil.

‘I don’t know.’

‘What are we in? How deep does it go?’

Merry is shaking her head.

‘I don’t know.’

The cat has reappeared and nuzzles Merry’s fingers. Curate can swear he can see green scales beneath her flesh. Her white eyes are now fully yellow.

‘Who is Doctor Wong?’

The questions hangs like murderers at the docks. The clock ticks. The eggs harden inside their shells.

‘I thought he was for your XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX…’

She doesn't answer, but puts out her hand, Curate takes it instinctively. She is cold.

‘He was helping me,’ she says eventually.

The cat licks at Merry’s knuckles. Bzz.

‘Can you please take that text?’

‘I know what it says already.’

Curate snaps up the phone and looks at the screen.

[RETRACTED]

Merry does not move when it falls from his hand.

‘So this is it,’ he says. She nods. Her cheeks are tracked with cracking flesh.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says. Outside, there's a growing rumble. They both know they're coming for her, that her body will be seeded with pipes and pumps and tubes and the disssseeeeeassseeee – Tick.

Curate goes back into the kitchen and inspects the eggs. They are finally ready. He smacks them both with the curved side of a small spoon to loosen the armour before sawing off the top with a knife. Their last meal.

‘Mew.’

‘I like to think we’re all like eggs,’ he says. She looks at him from behind her skin. For once, she completely understands.

‘Take good care of Frog, for me, please,’ she says, glancing at Curate and then at the cat. So, Curate thinks, he has a name.

After Merry's been taken, he's in the kitchen cracking white eggs shells onto the curved side of a warm pan and talking to the cat.

‘Can you give me a hand in here, please?’ The shell of his hand is cracked. Something horrible peaks through between his knuckles. He imagines time is cooking us all, that the sun is eating itself. His wedding ring is on the ring finger of his left hand. He placed the other inside a boiled egg and gave it to Merry as they took her.

He has to prepare his statement. He knows what they'll make him change and what they'll edit later. Time doesn’t have enough time for everyone.

‘What do you call a human?’ the cat asks from the other room.


David Whelan is a writer from London, England. He is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where he is working on a tragicomic novel about fate, identity and technology. His fiction has previously appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Untitled Books, Shortfire Press, Prole, nth Position and Gutter, amongst others. He blogs at the Huffington Post.