Our first set of Fuses had sold well. A pterodactyl fused to a redwood, a hawk fused to a cactus, an eagle fused to an oak. We had aimed them exclusively at what the marketing department called "Suburban Draculas"-customers who loved the monstrous, but who could not afford the outfittings of a proper estate: no basement bestiaries, filled with intriguing mutants; no misty acreages, inhabited by hellish wildlife.
We were physiological engineers. Our tools were both genetic and surgical. In designing these first Fuses, we had substantially reworked the biology of both halves, ensuring that they would fit in a smallish backyard, and that, if the owner took reasonable precautions, they probably wouldn't cause property damage. At the same time, we had also introduced many clever tricks of posture, which enhanced their menace. Though moderately-sized, the Fuses appeared to loom above the viewer: utterly grim, and utterly intimidating.
At sunset, when they were most active, the Fuses would put on ferocious shows. The animal-half would writhe and caw, wings flapping. The vegetable-half, driven by the animal's movement, would also shake. Sometimes, the living rope that attached the two halves, part umbilicus and part vine, would even rip a little, and drops of a purplish fluid would flick into the air: half blood and half sap.
To the Suburban Draculas, these violent pageants were delightful. The animal part, forever attempting to reach the sky, but always failing, due to the physical tether, which restrained it to a particular branch, seemed, for many of our customers, to reflect the tragic condition of mankind. And they craved the bitterness of it.
In the end, though, it wasn't enough. After a few years, once the Suburban Draculas' yards were full (hawks and eagles and pterodactyls, all crowded together and gnawing at one another), sales slowed. Soon, we were back in the red-deeper, even, than our initial investment had placed us. To remain viable, we would have to do something dramatic.
With a partridge, fused to a pear tree, we intended to target a very different audience. And we weren't stupid about it, or at least we didn't think we were. We chose a dumpy little bird, crafted to elicit a wistful smile; we chose a dumpy little tree, long beloved for its fruit. No one, we thought, could actually be disturbed by this combination, even if their ideology might force them to claim so. It possessed none of the "spine-tingling, nausea-inducing Majesty" that our earlier models had advertised, and it was self-evidently incapable of viciousness.
To each half, we introduced some tasteful improvements, doing nature one better. We gave it more sweetness, more docility, more sparkle. The effect, in the end, was dear-just dear. The pears were darling: red-gold globes, arranged like proper Christmas ornaments. The tree itself was a dwarf version. Just three feet high, it was designed to complement any setting that the buyer might choose to place it: garden, kitchen nook, or sewing parlor. The leaves were engineered to remain perpetually green.
In the partridge, we introduced just a few changes. We modified its colors, to better contrast with the tree's; we made it slightly plumper, to accentuate its existing charm. By the time we fused its feet to the branch, it was solidly appealing. Almost cute. It would ruffle its wings. It would nuzzle at a section of the bark. From time to time, if its feathers were petted, it might look up affectionately and cock its head.
The bird's circulatory system, as in previous models, was continuous with the tree's. It required no food, just light and water. It would, though, extend its tongue and swallow, with a delighted little chitter, if a human should decide to give it a treat.
We timed our first exports for the pre-Christmas rush. As the first trucks rolled away, we broke out the champagne. Bubbles popping, glasses fizzing, we shouted out quotations from our newest promotional materials. "The delight of gardeners!" we chorused. And: "The energetic obsession of lovers-of-the-adorable!" And: "Sell! Sell! Sell!"
It was one of our brightest nights, then or ever. High on our presumed success, we trooped back inside, into the break room, where additional bottles of champagne were waiting for us. Over the next several hours, heads buzzing, we sketched an entire line of Timid Fuses. A dove fused to an olive tree, a humming bird fused to a flowering plum, an ortolan fused to the branch of a dainty chestnut.
Later, once our sketchpads were full (and all the bottles were empty), we suggested much wilder things. A swarm of butterflies, fused to a cherry tree. Or: a swarm of jellyfish, attached to the tips of a fig tree. In the air, we said, the tentacles would twist, playing like colored party streamers. And against the leaves, each bell-shaped body would also quiver-undulate!-like a gossamer gown, worn by a fairy queen. It would be, in whole, a perfect setting, permanently decorated, beneath which to celebrate a child's birthday, or pass an Easter picnic.
When the night was over, we were still buzzing about it. We tossed against our pillows, shouting out solutions to previously intractable chemical problems: how to render a tree's phloem continuous with the hemolymph of an insect's open circulatory system; how to thatch a Cnidarian with a desiccation-resistant exterior, or how to sufficiently hydrate it, using only the moisture that could be pumped through the length of a twig. And when we did sleep, it was only to experience feverish little visions, pertaining to new aesthetic frameworks, in which we might now unashamedly operate, now that we were not wholly allegiant to the Suburban Draculas. From them, we would burst up gasping: "Beautiful, Beautiful, Beautiful..."
But the partridge in a pear tree did not sell. Not really. Over the next several weeks, as the numbers trickled back, we sat very glumly, facing the reality of it. During the day, we drank caffeine-or just injected it-ostensibly in order to help with the depression. Mostly, though, we just appreciated the fact that it was foul.
A few from our old target demographic, whom age had mellowed a bit, made the purchase. (We called them "pensioner Draculas.") Others, for the most part, stayed away. Those that we had hoped to target-people with nice haircuts and clean armpits and clothing that was primarily designed to retain heat, rather than to look vampiric and unsettling-just skirted blankly past our shelves.
Only one group, The Protestors, was actually stirred by our product. They were, for the most part, a grey and doddering lot, and their arguments were meandering and senile. They carried yellowed signs, printed with puzzling slogans. Each sign (and this seemed to be the only explanation) had apparently been taken from a general stockpile of anti-biotechnology propaganda, with no particular regard to the actual product, the plant-animal Fuse, that they were supposedly intended to protest. "Take your viral promoters out of my pancakes!" they said. And: "Keep our cow breeds DNA-free!" It was all the same to the protestors, it really was, part of the same decades-long war (which, by nearly every measure, they had already lost), and they had long ago ceased to concern themselves with the details that distinguished individual battles.
At previous releases, we hadn't cared about the protestors...because the Suburban Draculas hadn't cared. The S. D.s, if anything, had viewed the protestors' objections as a kind of enticement: the idea that someone, somewhere might be angered by their purchase was totally thrilling-as good, really, as any advertisement we might have crafted ourselves. But this time, it was different. To mainstream shoppers, all of this negativity was off-putting. And the physical ugliness of the protestors' groupings-the shaking hands, the slack mouths, the cataract-speckled eyes...was just ugly. And it made our P. & P.T.s ugly, by association, in the popular press.
During these difficult weeks-as Christmas music played dissonantly in the background-we often speculated about the protestors' post-protest routines. What did they do in the evenings, after spending the day grousing incoherently about our beautiful Fuses? Once at home, we suggested, they would be greeted by their own, standard pets: hideously inbred dogs, and perpetually caged parrots, who possessed no concept of the sun, and goldfish that had been so abused by selective breeding that they could not see, for whom motion was an impossible agony, and whose ornamental fins would split and bleed and begin to rot, should they make the error of voluntarily flicking them. And all without the least sense of irony.
As we shared these reflections, we often sat together in the break room, surrounded by crumpled heaps of past-due notices and scathing product reviews. Intermittently, we would pick up one piece or another and use it as tissue to wipe various sorts of moisture from our faces: tears, snot, angry spit. "To beauty!" we would say. Sometimes, in toast, a bottle would also get passed around, full of an amber liquor, which tasted something like fire. Unlike champagne, it contained no bubbles.