By Daniel M. Cojocaru
Daniel M. Cojocaru was born and grew up in Switzerland (of Rumanian and Czech background). He studied English Lit in Zurich and later did his PhD at Oxford University (St. Peter’s College). But, since everybody’s a critic, he decided to start writing fiction himself, whenever his kids let him. He teaches English in Wetzikon, Switzerland. Recently he took a small step for mankind but a big one for himself and joined twitter: https://twitter.com/DanielMCojocaru
“So, how did you feel, when you first noticed that a carrot was growing out of your belly-button?” What could have easily been a question asked by his shrink in his previous life, was in actual fact asked of Helmut Krauthammer by a reporter from TIME Magazine, for the person of the year interview.
“Well, it didn’t happen overnight”, explained Krauthammer in a thick German accent, “so I had a little bit of time getting used to it. But then, it also happened kind of really fast. I guess you can compare it to growing–what do you call them”, Krauthammer consulted his notes, “callouses or warts. Their growth feels somehow natural and they become a part of you. But here of course the analogy ends, as we all love our Krautbelts and would not want to part with them, I mean as a whole at least. But now, of course, everyone knows how it feels.”
The carrot had not remained an isolated phenomenon. Soon Krauthammer had been sprouting a zucchini on its left, a pineapple on its right, then a dragon fruit, several litchis and a baby cucumber.
Krauthammer, an otherwise non-descript, average German citizen in every other way, had been what with diseases is known as patient zero, the first to develop a pathology, the one to start a pandemic. Yet with his condition the term sat oddly, as some considered him to be a new messiah, a messenger from God in a time of dire need. How exactly it had happened, let alone why, is known to few and understood by even fewer. It had percolated through to popular science as an unlikely and rare genetic mutation, something that, if at all, occurs every ten thousand years or so–depending on who you’d ask at any given moment. If nothing else, it didn’t stretch the public’s belief more than let’s say a Higgs boson being created in a giant particle accelerator. Krauthammer’s fruit-and-veg belt at least was observable by the naked or mediated eye and so most people shrugged, accepted yet another scientific paradigm shift and focussed on the more practical and sensational ramifications of the Krauthammer story.
In the many interviews that followed, Krauthammer admitted to feeling like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, yet without the accompanying social angst, since this was a tolerant, enlightened age where everybody was accepted; if at all, he was Gregor Samosa, albeit a turned inside-out one at that, what with the fruit and veg protruding from his waist, he added in almost every interview with a slightly embarrassed chuckle that made him oddly likeable.
It was only once he recognized the buddings of a watermelon, however, that he finally decided to consult his GP, as he realized that even his most airy clothes could no longer hide what would have constituted a mid-sized fruit basket just a few years before.
Wrapped in his giant cycling poncho to the doctor’s he went, who, utterly perplexed at his patient’s condition, referred him to a specialist–although it took him quite some time and all his wisdom acquired in his long years of medical study and practice to decide on which of the various candidates would be able to help Krauthammer best. He dismissed his gut instinct of sending him to a psychiatrist immediately, as the physical proof of his condition was not to be denied, and he probably would have to join him if he did that. An Oncologist?–but the fruit and veg looked much too yummy to be cancerous. A dermatologist?–but then the skin of the greens did no longer have anything to do with human skin as such. So, after going through a long list of possible medical specialists, he settled on a non-medical expert and sent him to a botanist.
The botanist was as flummoxed as Krauthammer’s doctor had been but then he remembered that one of his friends from his university days had become somewhat of a luminary in the field of genetics and was working at a renowned research lab of one of the pharmaceutical giants, which happened to have a nearby German outpost facility. And thus, after several phone calls, e-mails containing detailed pictures and descriptions of Krauthammer’s condition, a visitor’s pass was printed, an appointment made and Krauthammer and his poncho made their way to yet further examinations, this time by what, as Krauthammer, having watched too many good and bad movies about scientific experiments gone wrong creating potentially world-ending biohazards, might turn out to be mad scientists.
While the verdict on their madness is still pending, the scientists were also professionally friendly, accommodating to the utmost degree and most importantly non-judgmental. This had maybe something to do with the fact that Krauthammer constituted by no means the oddest thing they had ever seen or produced. They’d seen it all from smoking monkeys to mice sporting giant ears on their backs. And while Krauthammer was still suspecting that he would simply disappear in a secure, neon-light-blazed cubicle of a basement of a lab wearing a label with a complex alphanumeric code denoting the specifics of his condition, the scientists took blood samples, made biopsies, studied the tissue of the fruit and veg and once in a while sipped black coffee from styrofoam cups to ponder the challenge that Krauthammer presented to them.
After several weeks of testing, during which Krauthammer was by no means left uncomfortable by the scientists, his room reminded him of a generous suite at one of the more luxurious spas, one of the researchers suggested to Krauthammer in a polite, yet firm tone that betrayed her curbed excitement, that they surgically remove one of his fruits for further examination. Krauthammer, whose interest of getting to the bottom of his condition was as vested as anyone’s, agreed and without hesitation signed the various waivers that any self-respecting member of the global corporate playground produced in all shades of complicated without blinking and which were seen by Krauthammer as evidence for their serious and professional efforts to further the concerns of humanity.
A surgeon was flown in and performed the operation swiftly and painlessly on Krauthammer. This latter fact was not so much the result of the local anaesthetics that he had been given, but turned out to be related to the curious characteristics of the membrane that connected fruit or veg to Krauthammer’s body. Like an umbilical cord the membrane did not contain any nerve cells, which meant that, like the cutting of the cord was painless to mother and child, so it was for in this case zucchini and Krauthammer.
If it hadn’t been for the unusual circumstances, there wouldn’t have been anything unusual about a man holding a zucchini, it might even be the subject of an eponymous painting. And what turned it even less unusual but therefore paradoxically more unusual was the fact that there was nothing unusual about the zucchini. It was a regular mid-sized zucchini. A battery of tests performed on it failed to reveal anything noteworthy. And when there was nothing else to be done with it from a scientific point of view, an intern boiled the thing, ate it and pronounced it to be most delicious.
Whether or not this constituted an act of cannibalism by the intern was a question eclipsed by more pressing concerns. Here was a man who had produced the first “naturally” grown vegetable on the planet in years, a fresh and apparently perfectly edible fruit of, well, not exactly the earth, but close enough. The researchers’ imperatives had been sharpened long enough by their executive superiors’ ceaseless mantra to recognize a business opportunity when it presented itself to them. Krauthammer was a curio that could turn cure, not of a disease in its narrow medical meaning, but of a much larger ailment that had plagued humanity for years: the increasing inability of human kind to grow fruit and veg due to, again–it depended on who you’d ask–infested soils, increased solar radiation, carbon-dioxide poisoning, bio-weapon attacks of various governments, aliens meddling with our ecosystem to prepare for invasion or Brazil not winning the football world cup yet again. Five-a-day had gradually turned from a virtuous and reasonable call to treat your body as a temple or greenhouse into a preposterous standard that only the richest of the rich could meet. Advocates desperately attempted to save their credo by reducing it to three-a-day, then two, then one, until they had to start to meddle with the whole a-day policy, turning it into weeks, months and finally years to maintain their integrity through integral numbers and not having to revert to fractions.
Meat and sweets eaters and carbohydrate enthusiasts all over the world sighed a secret sigh of relief, as media attention was at least to a certain extent diverted from their heinous acts of consumption, poisoning and murdering themselves and others. What was more, they could even engage in gallant gestures of foregoing their five-a-day, three-a-month, two-a-year, portions and no longer had to force down their greens with every meal they ordered or prepared.
Be that as it may, the world was short of fruit and veg and here was a man who was able to be fruitful and multiply without any visible effort, for not even an hour after the “birth” of the zucchini, in its “berth” there started growing another one to replace it. The scientists immediately presented their findings to the executives, expounded the potential blessings for humanity and their purses to them and within a couple of days, the financial floodgates opened and poured out more researchers, facilities, equipment, all for the sole purpose of studying the process that enabled Krauthammer to become a human greenhouse of fresh, delicious and healthy treasure.
As for Krauthammer, his state can be best described as one of benign shock. Never in his life had so much attention been showered onto his insignificant self. This was, he pondered how a queen bee or a star athlete must feel, as the researchers were day in day out swarming about him, taking more samples, asking more questions about his well-being etc. The only thing Krauthammer could complain about was a hazy memory, as he seemed to have forgotten the details of the day of the operation. But he put it down to the days starting to resemble each other what with more of the same tests and questions.
Much more could be written about the details of the research surrounding Krauthammer. And much more has been documented in endless lab reports, research papers, executive memos etc. But what really matters was the outcome of it all. After only a few short months, the scientists had been able to synthesize the process that had started naturally in Krauthammer. For when something is observable in nature, it can easily be imitated by science, especially when the smoking monkeys lend you a hand. In short, in one of the final boardroom meetings the executives were assured by the research staff that, yes, they were now ready to condense all the mechanics of the Krauthammer fruit and veg production into a pill that anyone could pop and thus turn themselves into a walking orchard among other things.
The rest is history as everyone knows. As with any truly revolutionary invention, the changes to people’s environments and the way they relate to it were drastic and yet in retrospect seemed to have occurred naturally in a way that a different world prior to it could not even be imagined anymore. As the light-bulb that changed people’s homes and habits forever, as the motor car that stamped its distorted mirror image into surroundings with concrete highways and petrol stations, or as the internet that reduced communicational distance and time to a zero limited only by the restrictions of the speed of electrons, available broadband Wi-Fi and people’s clumsy texting thumbs and thoughts, so what came to be known as the “Krautpopper” left its mark on all human beings who were ready and willing to open themselves to the brave new world of the pill. And those hesitant or even opposed towards its promised blessings were soon stoppered into a choking silence by the facts created by the willing masses and the changes in human relations they brought with them. Soon the sight of people everywhere sporting fresh “Krauts” on their “Krautbelts” became such a regularity that those who didn’t were looked upon pityingly as odd relics of a dark, fruitless age. Humanity had boldly embarked on its journey of transition from homo sapiens to homo sapiens fructuensis, and whoever wasn’t ready to put on their fruity lifebelts and hop into the boat would be fated, like the Neanderthals, to an evolutionary dead end, whose only future lay in dusty glass cabinets of natural history museums, where their well-preserved bones would be relished by a small cohort of paleontological professionals and the occasional rainy-day visitor.
Belinda Beaufort, aka “happygoth666” to her online followers, was one of the many not wanting to end up in a glass cabinet. While she and the goth community in general might seem unlikely candidates for embracing the colourful cordon of the belt, Belinda of course couldn’t care less about what other people thought. Also, her Krauts had assumed a pale hue, as her see-through top covered them with a tinted shroud. She thanked Satan for quickly adapting fashion designers, who had wasted no time to alter goth clothing to the shape of the belts, using stretch synthetic leather and the latest nano-adhesive shrink-weave technology. And yet, even stolid Belinda gulped down her apprehension and nausea before attending her first heavy metal concert with the belt. If she was a shade paler than usual, it didn’t show, also because nothing could be paler than the thick layer of makeup that she was wearing.
She felt ok during the supporting act, Krautstein, an up-and-coming band exploring the darker sides of the Krautbelt with songs like “Krautocalypse”. But as more and more metalheads were arriving for Megadeth, it became increasingly difficult for Belinda and everyone else to maintain a cordon of safety around their belts. First there was the occasional brushing, then a rubbing and finally a squeezing of thousands of sweating bodies, until the enormous pressure released itself into the mechanism of a giant juicer to the sound of “Sweating Bullets”. “At first”, so Belinda would later write in her blog, “it felt like the anticipation and nausea of the first slow ascent of a roller-coaster ride, before everything released itself into the frantic topsy-turviness of the ride.”
The uncontrollable dynamics of the crowd had transformed the already miraculous individual Krautbelts into something new and beautiful, something that Megadeth, who were proud to be part of this ecstatic moment of creation, would soon turn into bottled fruit beer in collaboration with a Belgian Brewery–somebody had had the great idea to mop up and store the juice after the gig. The possibilities for new flavours were virtually limitless, as they depended on the random mix of Krauts on the belts of the individual attendants of concerts, ranging from pulpy multi-vitamin smoothie to a more austere carroty and beetrooty taste of a fasting cure. The first batch of beers, however, harvested from that soon to be legendary Megadeth concert, had been named “Belinda No. 5”, in honour of the author of the blog that had documented the first occurrence of crowdjuicing.
One special and rather hilarious case of this general phenomenon were the walls of death at heavy metal concerts. Despite their new physiques the metalheads would not want to miss out on their cherished clashing of bodies in crashing of waves reminiscent of the flowing back of the parted seas over the Egyptians. Only now, as the human waves crashed into each other, there was a spurting of liquified belt-juice, rising several meters above the reunited metalheads.
Sex was of course another matter to be considered. But for most people this had already been an awkward matter, what with sex’s reproductive function having become redundant, as mostly eggs were Bokanofskyfied and embryos bred in tubes outside human bodies to be decanted to life anyway, and intercourse had been on the wane as a result of human isolation due to the influence of virtual reality and trends such as masturbathons. The Krautbelt, despite making necessary quite substantial adaptations to sexual positions and roles, led to a reinvigoration of “the act”.
It was how, for instance, Fabio Deckel’s and Theresa Potter’s bodies–and the more romantically inclined might add their souls–collided. Both had been secretly having the hots for each other for years, living across the street from each other in La Valetta, on the rocky island of Malta. But each had been too deeply insecure about their selves to make the first move. Advertising had kindly but firmly and without sparing trouble or expense reminded them for the better part of their lives that their noses were too long or too short, their breasts and penises too small, their hair too thin or curly etc. But as they both spied each other for the first time with their new magnificent belts protruding from their waists, eclipsing all their “faults”, Deckel and Potter saw each other and themselves reflected in the other’s gaze as new creations and were surprised at themselves for their newfound ease to speak to each other and go on their first, second and third dates. Imagine their surprise at finding out, when things really started heating up, that despite the belt’s connecting membrane’s lack of nerve-endings , a peculiarly pleasant sensation was created by the deliberate, protracted rubbing together of for example a starfruit and a papaya of consenting adults.
Needless to say, the stock of the pill-producing pharma giant, and their competitors, after they had manufactured their own version of the pill, which they of course claimed in still ongoing court cases were entirely original and had nothing to do with the original Krautpopper, skyrocketed and made everyone in the higher echelons of these concerns drowning in money, as even the billionaires of the tech-age or Scrooge McDuck never had. But it wasn’t just the classical rich getting richer. Some of the created wealth trickled down to the middle classes, as of course most of the stock was owned by pension funds, thus turning even the middle-classes classier.
Be that as it may, the Krautpopper opened yet another avenue or rather alleyway for business opportunities, which was deemed by the more optimistic economists to be truly democratic and egalitarian. In the spirit of micro-entrepreneurialism everyone popping the pill was a potential produce provider to the general public, with the added benefit that no microcredit was necessary to start the business, except if you were lacking the money for the popper maybe–however, most health insurance plans, if you had insurance, had included the popper on the list of covered drugs soon enough. In the early days of the pill at least, demand for fresh Krauts was spiralling out of control, so that early adopters willing to part with their produce, could just walk into the next supermarket and exchange their belted goods for other groceries or cold hard cash. The success stories of pioneers such as Manolo Wszyscy, a formerly failing repairer of watches, who was the first to make it from “rags to litchis” so to speak, quickly turned into modern myths: tales of encouragement for millions of aspiring entrepreneurs.
What distinguished Wszyscy from most people, however, was that he was the first to refine the crude beginnings of the renascent fruit and veg trade into more sophisticated ways of exchange. His savvy start-up, aided by public and crowd funding, devised intricate distribution systems for freshly parted Krauts constituting of underground mini tunnels, a kind of melding of the idea of the sewer and the highway and possibly pneumatic post, although few remembered the latter, which led to the term “seway”. If it hadn’t been for the by default unsanitary conditions of the sewer system, Kraut distribution might have even hijacked the already existing system, kind of what the early internet did with the telephone line. But as few people needed convincing that mixing your excrement with the ingredients of your daily five, for of course the doctrine had celebrated a stunning comeback, the connection remained in name only and instead sprouting on the sidewalks were “frootubes”, slender cylindrical pillars, into which people could pop in their Krauts, which would then be transported via seway to the closest distribution centre. The senders were then identified by the DNA of their “offspring”, a feat easily achieved, as the DNA of every citizen was centrally registered anyway. After deducting a fee for the use of the frootube, the suppliers were then paid, electronically at first using classical currencies and later via “eatcoin” (the more reluctant adopters jokingly called it “shitcoin”), according to the market price on the particular day of depositing the produce.
While there were some hiccups as to the question of tube neutrality and whether the whole essentially private system should be nationalized–in some countries it was, depending on the existing political culture–the frootube cast its net far and wide and quickly established itself as a background fact of life, like brushing your teeth. In hindsight the idea seemed so obvious that Wszyscy’s and his few competitors’ success seemed undeserved to those excluded from the litchis as it were: “Everyone could have come up with that”, they sneered snobbishly, which only inadequately masked their anger at themselves and utter dumbfoundedness for not having come up with it.
Essentially, however, through a freak mutation and some help from hi-tech science and engineering the world had become if not a better than at least a greener place: a happy valley of gardeners, cultivating their bodies for the benefit of others and their own – or rather happy valleys, as the frootube networks were limited in reach by the need for the Krauts to stay fresh and anyway didn’t have to reach far as anyone could grow anything.
It wasn’t until well into the days of the frootube that people started noticing that something was not quite right: not with the system per se, as, strange as it must seem to a pre- or potentially post-belt world, for belters this was “normal”. And yet one might ask why it took so long until anybody really noticed. For the writing had been on the wall as early as the Krauthammer experiments, when he reported the haziness of his memory. And yet there are several possible explanations for why it took so long.
One such explanation are the corroded characteristics of correlation. It can, for example, be compared to the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Everybody probably knew long before it was an accepted objective fact that smoking was bad for your health–I mean just look at the smoking monkeys. But until it became an accepted fact, a great deal of water flowed down the river, to use a metaphor from Krauthammer’s native language, partly because correlation can strongly suggest a connection between two phenomena but cannot prove it. Another reason of course was that you had powerful global tobacco companies who constantly bombarded the weakly budding correlation with propaganda of their own, kind of like a neutrino weapon bombarding our bodies, thus producing a cancerous correlation, and thus, while protracting the shaping of a strong connection, at the same time oddly confirming the correlation to cancer through the vehemence of their denial. Finally, people just don’t see what they don’t want to see.
One pre-belt phenomenon that is vaguely comparable to what happened to Kraut-consumers is the reported craving for potato chips that a heart transplant patient claimed to have inherited with the heart from the donor. The patient had apparently never in his life much liked potato chips, whereas the donor had, and while the heart certainly solved the patient’s most pressing problem, it left him with a cholesterol-shaped death sentence looming over his head. But what can you do? The heart wants what the heart wants.
To use another analogy: Krauts were like Trojan horses. It turned out that what they transported weren’t hidden Greek soldiers–or yoghurt, which would have gone nicely with some of the Krauts, but the short-term memories of its producers. The process worked like cut and paste: once the fruit was detached from the donor’s body, a memory of let’s say where you put your car keys was stored in the detached fruit and there only. When a customer ate it, the memory made its way into the new host’s brain and left an out-of-place memory there with a sense of puzzlement.
At first Kraut producers, like patients noticing the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s tried to hide their condition, mostly with a sophisticated system of sticky notes. And, as they were unaware of the connection to the detaching of their belted goods, they happily went on selling their wares. Their attempts at hiding their condition was of course another reason for why it took so long to recognise the connection.
As for the receivers of the memories, their lot was a mixed blessing at best, much depending on the specifics of the memory in question. After the initial bewildering experiences with the phenomenon, most were hoping for memories of great sex, which some people of course did get. But even those memories were fraught with possibilities for disappointment and even disgust, depending on the varying levels of matching sexual preferences between donors and receivers.
Some, however, sensed even a business opportunity in these new developments. They advertised their produce with phrases like “buy one and get the memory of the best orgasm ever for free”. But these had the credibility of penis enlargement spam and worked like a raffle where there’s one big prize and the rest is essentially the same plastic garbage that you get for free when you subscribe to one business scam or another. And yet, as with the latter, there was a market of course for these too.
Tales of these (mis)matched sex-memories flooded the internet, forming a serious competition to cute cat videos. One that received particularly many likes and shares was the story of Theresa Ortega, a hard-working nurse in her mid-forties, who had gathered all her courage and most of her savings to invest in a memory kraut. The morning after she had ingested the kraut, an almost overripe, dripping honey melon, a gently swelling tide of remembrance started to caress her still half-asleep mind and body. Glimpses of a romantic candlelight dinner, a tall dark stranger, suave in his efforts to conquer Theresa’s pretend defences. Then, later, snapshots of heaving bodies, hungry for sexual fulfilment, the muscular hold of the stranger and the tingling contrast of his pure pineapple belt–the monobelt being the most recent fad introduced by the pharma giants–gently approaching mutual climax. Theresa woke from her sleepy stupor with a start, rushed to the toilet and violently evacuated the contents of her stomach, which included the melon, into the bowl. She hated tall dark strangers. She had always preferred short fair familiars. And pineapples. She hated pineapples.
Thus, with sexual preferences having become even more complicated since the development of the Krautbelt, the chances for a pleasantly surprising memory were even lower than they would have been before. Thus, the outcome was probably best compared to gambling, with only a lucky few hitting the jackpot and the others being left worse off.
Others were looking forward to getting rid of some of their more embarrassing moments, which ironically included unpleasant, second-hand Kraut memories. But, as the process of which memory went into the Krauts was or seemed random, you could never be sure if you had got rid of the right one, as you wouldn’t of course remember it anymore. And even if you were clever enough to write it down before you detached a Kraut, reading the note after the fact, you would not necessarily believe that it was your memory in the first place and might even confuse it with one of your “Alzheimer’s” notes that you actually had to remember.
But what of poor Krauthammer? The tables had turned, fate had cruelly conspired against him, the seeds of his rise had always already contained the grapes of wrath of public opinion and the authors of his destruction. And yet for a time the word “Kraut” had radiated a pleasant shade of meaning. But brief oh so brief and ethereal had been its existence and with the unexpected realities of the Krauts manifesting themselves, the darker connotations of “Kraut” quickly choked the budding beauty of “Kraut”. Language had had the slings and arrows aimed at Krauthammer’s heart at the ready all that time but it was only now that people had rediscovered them and unflinchingly flung them at Krauthammer. Hadn’t the “Krauts” always been rather “Sauerkrauts” or “Unkrauts”? People reproached themselves for having been conned, not by “a Kraut by any other name” but even worse, by “a Kraut by the same name”. Thus, before he was released into soothing anonymity again, were the shitstorms duly unleashed onto Krauthammer, even though as an effect of Kraut-exchange, half the people didn’t even remember why they were stormily shitting on him anymore. But like any good dump, it was precisely that.
For a while the mists of metaphorical excrement shrouded people’s minds as to the real issue at hand. For, burying Krauthammer under weightless tons of expelling invectives would and could not create an effective repellent against the Kraut infection. Whether they liked it or not, wasn’t there a little bit of Krauthammer in all of us?
It was a question taken up by philosophers, cultural critics and other academics of the same caste, once the mass media’s interest in the Krautgate had subsided after about three days. Symposia with highfalutin titles such as “Back to the Fruiture: From Postmodernity to Krauternity” or “I Will Be with You on Your Wedding Night: Society as Krautbraut” were convened to gauge the impact of the “Krautcident” on modern society. There was of course no hope for a consensus within the next few decades. Some argued that the situation wasn’t that different from how it had always been and that the Krautbelt just formed a new tool for cultural exchange, much like language or money, but just more yummy. On the opposite end of the spectrum were those cultural pessimists who finally saw irreversible proof, once again, of the coming apocalypse, the Krautbelt just being the decisive fuel for the fire, or rather fruit for the juicer, which had tipped a corrupt and rotten civilization over the edge.
Regardless of their position, they had this in common, that during breaks they all enjoyed the occasional, communal Kraut. And maybe it was that or the resulting or initial imprecision of their own thinking that led to moments of syncretistic, unified bliss among them. Satisfied by their own selves and a fresh mango or kiwi, charged with a memory of an opposed position on the subject, the world seemed less divided, the question of individuality – like the omniscient narrator of this story – a thing of the past, paving the way for a fruitier future.