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Fiction

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It was almost like being alone. Taki, who had been alone one way or another most of his life, recognized this and thought he could deal with it. What choice did he have? It was only that he had allowed him­self to hope for something different. A second star, small and dim, joined the sun in the sky, making its appearance over the rope bridge which spanned the empty river. Taki crossed the bridge in a hurry to get inside before the hottest part of the day began.

Something flashed briefly in the dust at his feet and he stooped to pick it up. It was one of Hesper’s poems, half finished, left out all night. Taki had stopped reading Hesper’s poetry. It reflected nothing, not a whisper of her life here with him, but was filled with longing for things and people behind her. Taki pocketed the poem on his way to the house, stood outside the door, and removed what dust he could with the stiff brush which hung at the entrance. He keyed his admit­tance; the door made a slight sucking sound as it resealed behind him.

Hesper had set out an iced glass of ade for him. Taki drank it at a gulp, superimposing his own dusty fingerprints over hers sketched lightly in the condensation on the glass. The drink was heavily sugared and only made him thirstier.

A cloth curtain separated one room from another, a blue sheet, Hesper’s innovation since the dwelling was designed as a single, mul­tifunctional space. Through the curtain Taki heard a voice and knew Hesper was listening again to her mother’s letter—Earth weather, the romances of her younger cousins. The letter had arrived weeks ago, but Taki was careful not to remind Hesper how old its news really was. If she chose to imagine the lives of her family moving along the same timeline as her own, then this must be a fantasy she needed. She knew the truth. In the time it had taken her to travel here with Taki, her mother had grown old and died. Her cousins had settled into mar­riages happy or unhappy or had faced life alone. The letters which continued to arrive with some regularity were an illusion. A lifetime later Hesper would answer them.

Taki ducked through the curtain to join her. “Hot,” he told her as if this were news. She lay on their mat stomach down, legs bent at the knees, feet crossed in the air. Her hair, the color of dried grasses, hung over her face. Taki stared for a moment at the back of her head. “Here,” he said. He pulled her poem from his pocket and laid it by her hand. “I found this out front.”

Hesper switched off the letter and rolled onto her back away from the poem. She was careful not to look at Taki. Her cheeks were stained with irregular red patches so that Taki knew she had been crying again. The observation caused him a familiar mixture of sympathy and impatience. His feelings for Hesper always came in these uncomfort­able combinations; it tired him.

“‘Out front,‘” Hesper repeated, and her voice held a practiced tone of uninterested nastiness. “And how did you determine that one part of this featureless landscape was the ‘front’?”

“Because of the door. We have only the one door so it’s the front door.”

“No,” said Hesper. “If we had two doors then one might arguably be the front door and the other the back door, but with only one it’s just the door.” Her gaze went straight upward. “You use words so care­lessly. Words from another world. They mean nothing here.” Her eye­lids fluttered briefly, the lashes darkened with tears. “It’s not just an annoyance to me, you know,” she said. “It can’t help but damage your work.”

“My work is the study of the mene,” Taki answered. “Not the cre­ation of a new language,” and Hesper’s eyes closed.

“I really don’t see the difference,” she told him. She lay a moment longer without moving, then opened her eyes and looked at Taki di­rectly. “I don’t want to have this conversation. I don’t know why I started it. Let’s rewind, run it again. I’ll be the wife this time. You come in and say, ‘Honey, I’m home!’ and I’ll ask you how your morning was.”

Taki began to suggest that this was a scene from another world and would mean nothing here. He had not yet framed the sentence when he heard the door seal release and saw Hesper’s face go hard and white. She reached for her poem and slid it under the scarf at her waist. Before she could get to her feet the first of the mene had joined them in the bedroom. Taki ducked through the curtain to fasten the door before the temperature inside the house rose. The outer room was filled with dust and the hands which reached out to him as he went past left dusty streaks on his clothes and his skin. He counted eight of the mene, fluttering about him like large moths, moths the size of human children, but with furry vestigial wings, hourglass ab­domens, sticklike limbs. They danced about him in the open spaces, looked through the cupboards, pulled the tapes from his desk. When they had their backs to him he could see the symmetrical arrangement of dark spots which marked their wings in a pattern resembling a hu­man face. A very sad face, very distinct. Masculine, Taki had always thought, but Hesper disagreed.

The party which had made initial contact under the leadership of Hans Mene so many years ago had wisely found the faces too whimsi­cal for mention in their report. Instead they had included pictures and allowed them to speak for themselves. Perhaps the original explorers had been asking the same question Hesper posed the first time Taki showed her the pictures. Was the face really there? Or was this only evidence of the ability of humans to see their own faces in everything? Hesper had a poem entitled “The Kitchen God,” which recounted the true story of a woman about a century ago who had found the image of Christ in the burn-marks on a tortilla. “Do they see it, too?” she had asked Taki, but there was as yet no way to ask this of the mene, no way to know if they had reacted with shock and recognition to the faces of the first humans they had seen, though studies of the mene eye sug­gested a finer depth perception which might significantly distort the flat image.

Taki thought that Hesper’s own face had changed since the day, only six months ago calculated as Traveltime, when she had said she would come here with him and he thought it was because she loved him. They had sorted through all the information which had been col­lected to date on the mene and her face had been all sympathy then. “What would it be like,” she asked him, “to be able to fly and then to lose this ability? To outgrow it? What would a loss like that do to the racial consciousness of a species?”

“It happened so long ago, I doubt it’s even noticed as a loss,” Tali had answered. “Legends, myths not really believed perhaps. Probably not even that. In the racial memory not even a whisper.”

Hesper had ignored him. “What a shame they don’t write poetry,” she had said. She was finding them less romantic now as she joined Taki in the outer room, her face stoic. The mene surrounded her, ran their string-fingered hands all over her body, inside her clothing. One mene attempted to insert a finger into her mouth, but Hesper tight­ened her lips together resolutely, dust on her chin. Her eyes were fas­tened on Taki. Accusingly? Beseechingly? Taki was no good at reading people’s eyes. He looked away.

Eventually the mene grew bored. They left in groups, a few lin­gering behind to poke among the boxes in the bedroom, then follow­ing the others until Hesper and Taki were left alone. Hesper went to wash herself as thoroughly as their limited water supply allowed; Taki swept up the loose dust. Before he finished, Hesper returned, show­ing him her empty jewelry box without a word. The jewelry had all be­longed to her mother.

“I’ll get them when it cools,” Taki told her.

“Thank you.”

It was always Hesper’s things that the mene took. The more they disgusted her, pawing over her, rummaging through her things, no way to key the door against clever mene fingers even if Taki had agreed to lock them out, which he had not, the more fascinating they seemed to find her. They touched her twice as often as they touched Taki and much more insistently. They took her jewelry, her poems, her letters, all the things she treasured most, and Taki believed, although it was far too early in his studies really to speculate with any assurance, that the mene read something off the objects. The initial explorers had con­cluded that mene communication was entirely telepathic, and if this was accurate, then Taki’s speculation was not such a leap. Certainly the mene didn’t value the objects for themselves. Taki always found them discarded in the dust on this side of the rope bridge.

The fact that everything would be easily recovered did nothing to soften Hesper’s sense of invasion. She mixed herself a drink, stirring it with the metal straw which poked through the dust-proof lid. “You shouldn’t allow it,” she said at last, and Taki knew from the time that had elapsed that she had tried not to begin this familiar conversation. He appreciated her effort as much as he was annoyed by her failure.

“It’s part of my job,” he reminded her. “We have to be accessible to them. I study them. They study us. There’s no way to differentiate the two activities and certainly no way to establish communication except simultaneously.”

“You’re letting them study us, but you’re giving them a false pic­ture. You’re allowing them to believe that humans intrude on each other in this way. Does it occur to you that they may be involved in similar charades? If so, what can either of us learn?”

Taki took a deep breath. “The need for privacy may not be as in­trinsically human as you imagine. I could point to many societies which afforded very little of this. As for any deliberate misrepresenta­tions on their part—well, isn’t that the whole rationale for not sending a study team? Wouldn’t I be farther along if I were working with envi­ronmentalists, physiologists, linguists? But the risk of contamination increases exponentially with each additional human. We would be too much of a presence. Of course, I will be very careful. I am far from the stage in my study where I can begin to draw conclusions. When I visit them. . .”

“Reinforcing the notion that such visits are ordinary human behav­ior. . .” Hesper was looking at Taki with great coolness.

“When I visit them I am much more circumspect,” Taki finished. “I conduct my study as unobtrusively as possible.”

“And what do you imagine you are studying?” Hesper asked. She closed her lips tightly over the straw and drank. Taki regarded her steadily and with exasperation.

“Is this a trick question?” he asked. “I imagine I am studying the mene. What do you imagine I am studying?”

“What humans always study,” said Hesper. “Humans.”

***

You never saw one of the mene alone. Not ever. One never wandered off to watch the sun set or took its food to a solitary hole to eat without sharing. They did everything in groups and although Taki had been observing them for weeks now and was able to identify individuals and had compiled charts of the groupings he had seen, trying to isolate families or friendships or work-castes, still the results were inconclu­sive.

His attempts at communication were similarly discouraging. He had tried verbalizations, but had not expected a response to them; he had no idea how they processed audio information although they could hear. He had tried clapping and gestures, simple hand signals for the names of common objects. He had no sense that these efforts were noticed. They were so unfocused when he dealt with them, flut­tering here, fluttering there. Taki’s ESP quotient had never been mea­surable, yet he tried that route, too. He tried to send a simple command. He would trap a mene hand and hold it against his own cheek, trying to form in his mind the picture which corresponded to the action. When he released the hand, sticky mene fingers might linger for a moment or they might slip away immediately, tangle in his hair instead, or tap his teeth. Mene teeth were tiny and pointed like wires. Taki saw them only when the mene ate. At other times they were hidden inside the folds of skin which almost hid their eyes as well. Taki speculated that the skin flaps protected their mouths and eyes from the dust. Taki found mene faces less expressive than their backs. Head-on they appeared petaled and blind as flowers. When he wanted to differentiate one mene from another, Taki looked at their wings.

Hesper had warned him there would be no art and he had asked her how she could be so sure. “Because their communication system is perfect,” she said. “Out of one brain and into the next with no loss of meaning, no need for abstraction. Art arises from the inability to com­municate. Art is the imperfect symbol. Isn’t it?” But Taki, watching the mene carry water up from their underground deposits, asked himself where the line between tools and art objects should be drawn. For no functional reason that he could see, the water containers curved in the centers like the shapes of the mene’s own abdomens.

Taki followed the mene below ground, down some shallow, rough-cut stairs into the darkness. The mene themselves were slightly lumi­nescent when there was no other light; at times and seasons some were spectacularly so and Taki’s best guess was that this was sexual. Even with the dimmer members, Taki could see well enough. He moved through a long tunnel with a low ceiling which made him stoop. He could hear water at the other end of it, not the water itself, but a special quality to the silence which told him water was near. The lake was clearly artificial, collected during the rainy season which no hu­man had seen yet. The tunnel narrowed sharply. Taki could have gone forward, but felt suddenly claustrophobic and backed out instead. What did the mene think, he wondered, of the fact that he came here without Hesper. Did they notice this at all? Did it teach them anything about humans that they were capable of understanding?

“Their lives together are perfect,” Hesper said. “Except for those useless wings. If they are ever able to talk with us at all it will be be­cause of those wings.”

Of course Hesper was a poet. The world was all language as far as she was concerned.

When Taki first met Hesper, at a party given by a colleague of his, he had asked her what she did. “I name things,” she had said. “I try to find the right names for things.” In retrospect Taki thought it was bull­shit. He couldn’t remember why he had been so impressed with it at the time, a deliberate miscommunication, when a simple answer, “I write poetry,” would have been so clear and easy to understand. He felt the same way about her poetry itself, needlessly obscure, slightly evocative, but it left the reader feeling that he had fallen short some­how, that it had been a test and he had flunked it. It was unkind poetry and Taki had worked so hard to read it then.

“Am I right?” he would ask her anxiously when he finished. “Is that what you’re saying?” but she would answer that the poem spoke for it­self.

“Once it’s on the page, I’ve lost control over it. Then the reader de­termines what it says or how it works.” Hesper’s eyes were gray, the irises so large and intense within their dark rings, that they made Taki dizzy. “So you’re always right. By definition. Even if it’s not remotely close to what I intended.”

What Taki really wanted was to find himself in Hesper’s poems. He would read them anxiously for some symbol which could be con­strued as him, some clue as to his impact on her life. But he was never there.

***

It was against policy to send anyone into the field alone. There were pros and cons, of course, but ultimately the isolation of a single pro­fessional was seen as too cruel. For shorter projects there were advan­tages in sending a threesome, but during a longer study the group dynamics in a trio often became difficult. Two were considered ideal and Taki knew that Rawji and Heyen had applied for this post, a hus­band and wife team in which both members were trained for this type of study. He had never stopped being surprised that the post had been offered to him instead. He could not have even been considered if Hesper had not convinced the members of the committee of her will­ingness to accompany him, but she must have done much more. She must have impressed someone very much for them to decide that one trained xenologist and one poet might be more valuable than two trained xenologists. The committee had made some noises about “con­tamination” occurring between the two trained professionals, but Taki found this argument specious. “What did you say to them?” he asked her after her interview and she shrugged.

“You know,” she said. “Words.”

Taki had hidden things from the committee during his own inter­view. Things about Hesper. Her moods, her deep attachment to her mother, her unreliable attachment to him. He must have known it would never work out, but he walked about in those days with the stunned expression of a man who has been given everything. Could he be blamed for accepting it? Could he be blamed for believing in Hes­per’s unexpected willingness to accompany him? It made a sort of equation for Taki. If Hesper was willing to give up everything and come with Taki, then Hesper loved Taki. An ordinary marriage com­mitment was reviewable every five years; this was something much greater. No other explanation made any sense.

The equation still held a sort of inevitability for Taki. Then Hesper loved Taki, if Hesper was willing to come with him. So somehow, sometime, Taki had done something which lost him Hesper’s love. If he could figure out what, perhaps he could make her love him again. “Do you love me?” he had asked Hesper, only once; he had too much pride for these thinly disguised pleadings. “Love is such a difficult word,” she had answered, but her voice had been filled with a rare softness and had not hurt Taki as much as it might.

The daystar was appearing again when Taki returned home. Hes­per had made a meal which suggested she was coping well today. It in­cluded a sort of pudding made of a local fruit they found themselves able to tolerate. Hesper called the pudding “boxty.” It was apparently a private joke. Taki was grateful for the food and the joke, even if he didn’t understand it. He tried to keep the conversation lighthearted, talking to Hesper about the mene water jars. Taki’s position was that when the form of a practical object was less utilitarian than it might be, then it was art. Hesper laughed. She ran through a list of human arti­facts and made him classify them.

“A paper clip,” she said.

“The shape hasn’t changed in centuries,” he told her. “Not art.”

“A safety pin.”

Taki hesitated. How essential was the coil at the bottom of the pin? Very. “Not art,” he decided.

“A hair brush.”

“Boar bristle?”

“Wood handle.”

“Art. Definitely.”

She smiled at him. “You’re confusing ornamentation with art. But why not? It’s as good a definition as any,” she told him. “Eat your boxty.”

They spent the whole afternoon alone, uninterrupted. Taki tran­scribed the morning’s notes into his files, reviewed his tapes. Hesper recorded a letter whose recipient would never hear it and sang softly to herself.

That night he reached for her, his hand along the curve at her waist. She stiffened slightly, but responded by putting her hand on his face. He kissed her and her mouth did not move. His movements be­came less gentle. It might have been passion; it might have been anger. She told him to stop, but he didn’t. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t. “Stop,” she said again and he heard she was crying. “They’re here. Please stop. They’re watching us.”

“Studying us,” Taki said. “Let them,” but he rolled away and re­leased her. They were alone in the room. He would have seen the mene easily in the dark. “Hesper,” he said. “There’s no one here.”

She lay rigid on her side of their bed. He saw the stitching of her backbone disappearing into her neck and had a sudden feeling that he could see everything about her, how she was made, how she was held together. It made him no less angry.

“I’m sorry,” Hesper told him, but he didn’t believe her. Even so, he was asleep before she was. He made his own breakfast the next morn­ing without leaving anything out for her. He was gone before she had gotten out of bed.

The mene were gathering food, dried husks thick enough to pro­tect the liquid fruit during the two-star dry season. They punctured the husks with their needle-thin teeth. Several crowded about him, greeting him with their fingers, checking his pockets, removing his recorder and passing it about until one of them dropped it in the dust. When they returned to work, Taki retrieved it, wiped it as clean as he could. He sat down to watch them, logged everything he observed. He noted in particular how often they touched each other and wondered what each touch meant. Affection? Communication? Some sort of chain of command?

Later he went underground again, choosing another tunnel, look­ing for one which wouldn’t narrow so as to exclude him, but finding himself beside the same lake with the same narrow access ahead. He went deeper this time until it gradually became too close for his shoul­ders. Before him he could see a luminescence; he smelled the dusty odor of the mene and could just make out a sound, too, a sort of move­ment, a grass-rubbing-together sound. He stooped and strained his eyes to see something in the faint light. It was like looking into the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. The tunnel narrowed and narrowed. Beyond it must be the mene homes and he could never get into them.

He contrasted this with the easy access they had to his home. At the end of his vision he thought he could just see something move, but he wasn’t sure. A light touch on the back of his neck and another behind his knee startled him. He twisted around to see a group of the mene crowded into the tunnel behind him. It gave him a feeling of being trapped and he had to force himself to be very gentle as he pushed his way back and let the mene go through. The dark pattern of their wings stood in high relief against the luminescent bodies. The human faces grew smaller and smaller until they disappeared.

***

“Leave me alone,” Hesper told him. It took Taki completely by sur­prise. He had done nothing but enter the bedroom; he had not even spoken yet. “Just leave me alone.”

Taki saw no signs that Hesper had ever gotten up. She lay against the pillow and her cheek was still creased from the wrinkles in the sheets. She had not been crying. There was something worse in her face, something which alarmed Taki.

“Hesper?” he asked. “Hesper? Did you eat anything? Let me get you something to eat.”

It took Hesper a moment to answer. When she did, she looked or­dinary again. “Thank you,” she said. “I am hungry.” She joined him in the outer room, wrapped in their blanket, her hair tangled around her face. She got a drink for herself, dropping the empty glass once, stoop­ing to retrieve it. Taki had the strange impression that the glass fell slowly. When they had first arrived, the gravitational pull had been light, just perceptibly lighter than Earth’s. Without quite noticing, this had registered on him in a sort of lightheartedness. But Hesper had complained of feelings of dislocation, disconnection. Taki put together a cold breakfast, which Hesper ate slowly, watching her own hands as if they fascinated her. Taki looked away. “Fork,” she said. He looked back. She was smiling at him.

“What?”

“Fork.”

He understood. “Not art.”

“Four tines?”

He didn’t answer.

“Roses carved on the handle.”

“Well then, art. Because of the handle. Not because of the tines.” He was greatly reassured.

The mene came while he was telling her about the tunnel. They put their dusty fingers in her food, pulled it apart. Hesper set her fork down and pushed the plate away. When they reached for her she pushed them away, too. They came back. Hesper shoved harder.

“Hesper,” said Taki.

“I just want to be left alone. They never leave me alone.” Hesper stood up, towering above the mene. The blanket fell to the floor. “We flew here,” Hesper said to the mene. “Did you see the ship? Didn’t you see the pod? Doesn’t that interest you? Flying?” She laughed and flapped her arms until they froze, horizontal at her sides. The mene reached for her again and she brought her arms in to protect her breasts, pushing the mene away repeatedly, harder and harder, until they tired of approaching her and went into the bedroom, reappearing with her poems in their hands. The door sealed behind them.

“I’ll get them back for you,” Taki promised, but Hesper told him not to bother.

“I haven’t written in weeks,” she said. “In case you hadn’t noticed. I haven’t finished a poem since I came here. I’ve lost that. Along with everything else.” She brushed at her hair rather frantically with one hand. “It doesn’t matter,” she added. “My poems? Not art.”

“Are you the best person to judge that?” Taki asked.

“Don’t patronize me.” Hesper returned to the table, looked again at the plate which held her unfinished breakfast, dusty from handling. “My critical faculties are still intact. It’s just the poetry that’s gone.” She took the dish to clean it, scraped the food away. “I was never any good,” she said. “Why do you think I came here? I had no poetry of my own so I thought I’d write the mene’s. I came to a world without words. I hoped it would be clarifying. I knew there was a risk.” Her hands moved very fast. “I want you to know I don’t blame you.”

“Come and sit down a moment, Hesper,” Taki said, but she shook her head. She looked down at her body and moved her hands over it.

“They feel sorry for us. Did you know that? They feel sorry about our bodies.”

“How do you know that?” Taki asked.

“Logic. We have these completely functional bodies. No useless wings. Not art.” Hesper picked up the blanket and headed for the bed­room. At the cloth curtain she paused a moment. “They love our loneliness, though. They’ve taken all mine. They never leave me alone now.” She thrust her right arm suddenly out into the air. It made the curtain ripple. “Go away,” she said, ducking behind the sheet.

Taki followed her. He was very frightened. “No one is here but us, Hesper,” he told her. He tried to put his arms around her but she pushed him back and began to dress.

“Don’t touch me all the time,” she said. He sank onto the bed and watched her. She sat on the floor to fasten her boots.

“Are you going out, Hesper?” he asked and she laughed.

“Hesper is out,” she said. “Hesper is out of place, out of time, out of luck, and out of her mind. Hesper has vanished completely. Hesper was broken into and taken.”

Taki fastened his hands tightly together. “Please don’t do this to me, Hesper,” he pleaded. “It’s really so unfair. When did I ask so much of you? I took what you offered me; I never took anything else. Please don’t do this.”

Hesper had found the brush and was pulling it roughly through her hair. He rose and went to her, grabbing her by the arms, trying to turn her to face him. “Please, Hesper!”

She shook loose from him without really appearing to notice his hands, continued to work through the worst of her tangles. When she did turn around, her face was familiar, but somehow not Hesper’s face. It was a face which startled him.

“Hesper is gone,” it said. “We have her. You’ve lost her. We are ready to talk to you. Even though you will never, never, never under­stand.” She reached out to touch him, laying her open palm against his cheek and leaving it there.

***

© 1986 by Karen Joy Fowler.
Originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler is the author of six novels and three short story collections. Her first novel, Sarah Canary, won the Commonwealth medal for best first novel by a Californian; her third, Sister Noon, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner; and The Jane Austen Book Club was a New York Times bestseller. She has two Nebulas for short fiction, one being for the title story in the collection, What I Didn’t See. Another story, “The Pelican Bar,” recently won the Shirley Jackson and the World Fantasy Award. Her latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, came out from Putnam in May of 2013, and won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was also short-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. She lives in Santa Cruz, California with her husband.