[Story] The Very Beneficial Changeling Society, By Jesse Ball | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[Story]

The Very Beneficial Changeling Society

Untitled (In the Middle of the Night), by Maria Miesenberger, from the series Sverige/Schweden © The artist. Courtesy Anna Bohman Gallery, Stockholm

[Story]

The Very Beneficial Changeling Society

Adjust

I am a member of the Very Beneficial Changeling Society. Perhaps you have heard of us? We love our name, the Very Beneficial Changeling Society, because it indicates in some way the good that we do. And we do a lot of good, a rather profound and incalculable good.

Our founder, the late Elayne Simkin, noticed a rather sad fact, a fact that one would rather not think about, and not only did she notice the fact, but she considered it, took it to heart, and acted. That fact is the following: most people don’t deserve to have children! They aren’t prepared at all—and because they are unprepared, because they don’t know anything about the world, how it works, what humans are, how to behave—anything at all!—they raise their children badly. The result is: children who themselves go on to do exactly the same thing. You know, have more children. . . ! And so the Very Beneficial Changeling Society was born. We do not replace children, as the name might indicate. Or we replace them, but with absences—with the space where children were. Our foundation was initially called the Children’s Aid Society, but that name had been taken. That name had been taken and there were litigations, proceedings that forced us to change our title. We are fond of all who love and help children, and sorry to have made the Children’s Aid Society angry. We heartily apologize, and even at the time, we were in fact ready to change our name, but they were already suing us for everything we had. Luckily we had nothing at all! Take it, we said. We will change our name. And we scuttled away into the shadows like the tail of a rat.

At the core of our society are two things: education, and testing. They go in the opposite order, actually, and they are applied to completely separate populations. Maybe not what you expected! You see—we specialize in home invasions. Let’s take you for example, you might be at home with your husband on a Sunday, having a glass of cognac and sitting by the television while your children play idly on the floor. They might be doing anything at all. It doesn’t matter. We enter, enter the house, enter the room. You are surprised. How horrified you are! And your husband even more so. People are in your house and without permission. However little you may know about the world and its workings, you know this: we are not supposed to be in your house! Your husband is taken aback, and maybe it’s worse for him, as he’s the one whose job it is, by societal doctrine, to repel invaders. That we are a mix of skinny-armed semigendered misfits only makes the matter more embarrassing for him. Well—he is due much more embarrassment, just wait!

Once we have you restrained, we give your children something nice to eat, but healthy, like pickled beet or candied turnip. You sit in our handsome little manacles on your sofa beside your husband. You watch your children consume delicacies and observe, I am sure you observe, how well we handle your offspring. We are much better with children than you are. We are the Very Beneficial Changeling Society!

Events proceed: you are given a test. You must explain what life is, and why you have brought a child into the world. We ask you basic questions of math, philosophy, natural science, et cetera. We are interested in your notions of epistemology and metaphysics, also whether you have street smarts, also do you wash your hands often? Yes, no, yes, no, yes? We listen very carefully. We inject you with a substance that, along with a retinal scan, shows us your consistency of character, whether you, for instance, are prone to rage, or fits of pique. We learn about you, carefully but quickly.

We are not interested in your financial resources, your wherewithal in the workplace, your level of cultural esteem. Whatever terms you want to use to make us understand your excellence—those will be enough, but only if they are enough. We have open eyes, and the children of the rich we take just as often as the children of the poor, or I should say, in a similar proportion, for you know, the poor are numberless, the rich few.

When we discover that your husband gathers with others in a building once a week to drink the blood of a seminude wound-covered man who may or may not have ever lived, well, we are sorry to say, that’s that! We pack your children into our van and away we go. Incidentally, the substance we injected you with has sterilized you. A good joke! No more children for you! Pray you get reincarnated as a rabbit, or some kind of plenteous fish.

That’s the basics of what we call a Visit. When we get your children back to the safe house, there is a lot of talking to be done. We explain some basic matters about society, about biology, human groups. They meet the other children—and that’s really when things start looking up. Your children are so happy to meet the other children. They like each other more than they liked you, much much more, and their intentions vis-à-vis each other are better. They are really interested in what the other children have to say. Meanwhile you could only buy your children’s obedience with toys, sweets, et cetera. What a laugh! From that safe house, we transport your children to one or another compound, and they grow—how quickly they grow!—and soon it is they, it is your children who are visiting others just as you were visited, your children, in essence, who visit you, who take themselves away from you, out of your care. They have seen that you are unfit to be parents, just not good enough as a matter of fact. All of us, we wonder in common why you thought you were wise enough to be parents in the first place—that’s the question we ask you. Just kidding! We know you didn’t really think about it. You just did it. That’s biology!

And that’s why the Very Beneficial Changeling Society had to come into being. Too many people having children. Too many of the wrong people—as in, anyone at all! We don’t need more people. In America today, such a broad and palpable ignorance has lain itself across the land. Why, one can speak to dozens of people in a single day and not meet with a single bright face of generosity and kindness. We imagine it must not always have been so. Or was it? Maybe it was always that way. If so—the joke, the so-called human-joke, is even funnier!

How does our operation run, you wonder? Are we self-supporting? Do we rely on donations? Well—when we take the children of the wealthy, we sometimes offer a ransom program. We return the children in exchange for a large sum of money, which we use to acquire more children. It works very well, especially well, principally because the children we return, what do they do? They don’t stay with you, with their wealthy parents, do they? No—first chance they get, they run away, and we are waiting with a van, into which they happily climb. Once they are educated about your inferior style of behavior, you may observe they will have nothing more to do with you.

The thing is: the society of which you are part is an old-fashioned thing, a rather pitiable and disgusting relic. The Very Beneficial Changeling Society is just one arm of a many-limbed, octopuslike mode of progress. We are a society (writ small) and a SOCIETY (writ large). Among other things we combat: materialism, god delusions, self-delusions, testosterone-drunkenness, human exceptionalism. We have goals, and we move gradually toward them, taking your children as we go.

In fact, I might as well be your child, I, the one who is speaking. In a sense we are all one child, all of us who were taken, and you, the insufficient parents, you gather together into a single unit of the incapable. I address you. I say, Here I stand on the carpet of your home staring into your beady eyes, and there on the ground, I, in my younger state, crouch, in expectancy, like some fish that needs to travel surprising paths and distances in its life cycle, from stream to sea to stream. Our wayfinding is impeccable.

I address you to say, You are scarcely worth addressing. The sadness really is that you were not yourself visited by the Very Beneficial Changeling Society when you were yourself at an age worth saving. How unlucky! Instead you became one of the pathetic-many, as we term you. You lean into your own morbidity, entertaining yourselves until death with pleasant thoughts of your own remarkable extent. Good luck!

Our education process is not interesting because it is completely obvious. We teach: patience, first of all, then resilience and curiosity. We are very practical. The children are to assess their immediate surroundings in order to discover any and all resources. We teach irreverence toward the “law of the land”—whether in America or any other empire. We teach skepticism and an enduring happiness based on constant gratitude. We do not spend too much time on history; so much of it is falsehood-based. But we give a general encapsulation of the previous idiocies of the human race: a series of kings and wars and rapes. And this is how it will continue, just as it has until now, unless we stop it!

We believe humans are adults at fourteen, given responsibility and love. Our cadres are made up mostly of young humans between fourteen and thirty, for we only began our work fifteen years ago. I myself am nineteen years old, and have rescued between fifty and one hundred children from various homes. I say between fifty and one hundred because we are cautioned to not take too much credit for what we do. Half of the ones we save could well have chosen, statistically, to escape by running away or suicide. Children do want to escape, you know. They don’t like living with you. I think of the remarkable case of Annabelle and Stephen. They were living with you up until last Thursday, when we visited your house. It was about three in the morning. We woke you up, gathered you out in the garage, tied your hands. You were a bit uppity, weren’t you, Mr. Riley? We had to put the face mask on you, quiet you down. I think you thought, being a corrections officer and all, that you would get your physical way. Of course, we are small and frail, but we are many! Even a large guy like you figured that out pretty quick, and once we got the electric plate attached to your forehead, well, you had to settle down. What is the thing you types like to say—Who’s boss? Yes, Who’s boss.

Annabelle, when we got you onto the concrete of the garage, was very awake, very awake for a child of her age, and she immediately recognized us. Why, it’s the Very Beneficial Changeling Society, she told her brother, Stephen. All our prayers have come true. Stephen, aged nine, removed his clothes and asked us for a caftan, the unisex clothing we of the Changeling Society wear, in genderless preference. Of course, we had surplus caftans in the van. We brought him one. How painful it was, Mr. Riley, for you to observe that even while in your care, Stephen dreamed of leaving you. That caftan fit him well, right down to the ground.

When we asked you the basic questions, you had few answers. You couldn’t identify the Himalayan Plateau. You didn’t know whether flowering plants preceded animals. You believed in the existence of a soul. Perhaps worst of all, you agreed that money was real! Mostly you wanted to talk about what was going to happen to us. When I get through with you, you said, and other things like that. When I get through with you. That’s what you said. Are you through? Our little cabal stood there, around your hulking fatherness, and I recall Katrin observed very meaningfully, very trenchantly, that with her syringe she had effectively taken your testicles for all of time.

How funny that moment was! I remember, it seems like only yesterday, why it was yesterday, Stephen and Annabelle laughing with me about it in the practice yard. Stephen showed me a burn you had given him on one arm, some kind of punishment, and he laughed, such a delicious and brisk laugh. He said, But you took his balls, so it’s all right. Oh, how the leaves flew about our feet, there in the practice yard, in our happiness at your testicle loss.

If we are animals, Stephen asked me, what kind are we? I began to say something, but Annabelle put in: hyenas. There it was, she put it in, and I can’t help but think she’s right. We’re not the best, the biggest, we’re not the strongest, the smartest, but we have something else. I don’t know what it is. What is it that hyenas have? That’s what we have, and how fun it makes everything!

An article was published in a major metropolitan newspaper that described our methods. The critique it made was very interesting. It proposed that our testing methods were not fair, from a pedagogical standpoint. Immediately we responded with a letter to the editor. Our testing methods are indeed fair. That none of the parents examined, not a single one, has managed to pass the test, well, it just shows how fair the test is. We are certainly not discriminating against anyone. All parents are equally guilty, equally misinformed. The thing is: we’d love to be fair with you, but there just isn’t time. You and your predecessors absolutely ruined the world, and you continue to do so! We won’t have any more of it. You have failed—by your own ethics, by your own morality, and you have certainly failed by ours. How rightfully we blame you.

I think of that lovely photograph that is framed on the wall of the inside passage of the very first Children’s Aid Society (before we were forced to change our name). In the photo, Simkin stands with three other young women, the founders of the society! They are in a brick courtyard. They are all wearing gray caftans. Simkin is holding up a police baton—strangely enough, the very tool with which she would herself be beaten to death (by a crowd of officers) at the age of seventeen, less than a year later. She is wearing glasses, thick glasses, for her eyesight was very bad. Her hair is partially braided, and her brow seems furrowed for one so young. Somehow the thick glasses and the police baton, her unkempt style, the posture at once so humble and so aggressive: this is the heart of our endeavor. It declares something like Even as we ruin your pitiable existence, we will not ourselves be constituted as anything much at all. We are too busy. We are looking toward a difficult and actual future, one in which you play no part.

We of the Very Beneficial Changeling Society are a bit like the Shakers, but we aren’t delusional and we don’t make furniture. Every child comes with us on its own say-so. Not one has ever been compelled. We sit in the canteen late at night, playing cards, drinking, gambling, laughing. We are all so young and so happy. Look at our faces, so splendid with joy! We laugh together, saying, Will they fear us? Will they fear us? And then we talk about other things.

It isn’t even necessary for us to kill you. Like able hyenas, we’ll just take your children and leave you sterile. You’ll find some way to die on your own.

But what of the personal, what of my story? I am, like all the rest, far larger than you suspect, far quicker. I remember looking at you, father, and at you, mother, in your sad clothing of incumbency, and thinking, there is a reason for the old expression, children have no friends. Children have no friends. No friends at all. It was at that moment the front door burst open and I was rescued. They came and they rescued me. They rescued me from you.