Science Fiction & Fantasy




The Foster Child


I came, the hope of my tribe, to the City of Absolutes, in the year of the zero plus two big and a nine. I sought Lena, the girl I had dreamed of as my fingers grew back and I drifted in the waters of Nagoda.

They had killed us long and hard, and scattered what was killed, and howled long prayers over our heads so that, even dead, we grew demoralized and let the enduring truth leak from our essence, as blood leaks from the sky-cracked hands of our prophets.

Had the rivers been less vigilant, we would have blown away, without the strength to even add a voice to the black wind. But the mother rivers caught us and carried us down to Nagoda, just enough of us to make this one, and I call myself Yeats, after a singer from the north who abandoned the name to walk naked through the Country of Dead Trees.

At the gates of the city, I was halted.

I dissembled, saying, “I am a trader from Magoth. I bring gold to trade for machine thoughts wrought by your high engineers in the Temple of Bytes.”

“Give us some of your gold,” they said, “and we will let you pass.”

This I did, but then, being imperfect, I killed them anyway, and separated their limbs from their bodies, according to custom.

I should not have done this. Now they knew I was in the city, and their servants would seek me.

I went immediately to the Garden of News and lay down in a rented coma. There the voice visited me.

“What do you need to know, my son?”

“Oh holy Network,” I cried. “I need to know why it must go on, why this getting and spending? The stillness between the stars is our true delight and peace.”

“We thought you all were killed,” the Network said. “We thought the Void of Incoherence had claimed you and all your generations.”

“No,” I said. “I am alive and seeking one, Lena by name.”


“Love. Implacable love. The line across which life leaps. She is our hope. She will restore our order.”

“Flee this place,” the Network said. “They come now, flying down the infrastructure.”

The spiky shivers told me of their presence. Charred electrons, blue halitosis of ghost robots withered the stale air of the coma. I broke out, wires flapping, and ran down the Street of Philosophers.

I fled inward to the Reference Jungle at the edge of my enemy’s lair. I wandered amid ancient paper runes and ragged scholars, one of whom recognized me.

“I fall at your feet,” the old man said. “I humble myself, grovel, delete all dignity, that you might grant me a boon.”

“Be quick,” I said. “I am harried by circumstance.”

“One question answered,” the old man said, “no more. I have spent my life in worship of knowledge. Tell me, have I been wrong to do this?”


The man looked stricken, as though skewered by revelation. I move on, into the Field of Arguments where my kind had once chosen to abide and where the greatest of us, Meta, had wounded the Earth and sought his own death, devoured by his students.

I came to the Wall of Congruity, beyond which the wizard Nulson, misshapen, robbed of humanness, did nothing now but covet. And I knew that there I would find Lena, no more than a child.

I reached out and grasped the holohand that extended from the door. Cold ghosts rushed through me and stirred a thousand thousand memories.

“You are not dead, then,” the voice said. “It is just as well. I am bored and sick of killing things that hold their lives no tighter than an infant holds a spoon. Come in.”

“This time you will not kill me, Nulson,” I said. My tongue, hampered by my mission, had difficulty speaking the words.

He glittered with laughter. Around the metal bulk of his person, in blue turbulence like small asteroids, a dust of old capacitors, resistors, ICs spun. “You come for the child.”

“I come for the child,” I said.

“And why?”

Pride made me tall. “Always this question. And who is its author? Even here, in this lamentable darkness, questions lurk. I come to answer them, of course. I come from love.”

“Well, there she lies, embraced by sleep. Claim her.”

He moved aside, and I saw, in his motion, that he had grown much since our last encounter. All manner of things had accrued to him, wires and devices, some rusted, some gleaming still, some oscillating and humming.

I looked beyond him to the clear glass from which Lena’s frozen face, pale as desire in an old man’s heart, stared with frosted eyes.

Three tentacles spun out, silver, segmented, and as the first fell on my shoulder I drew my sword and swung. Sparks gauded the darkness and seared the air. The second tentacle wrapped thickly round my thigh; the third one girded my waist.

I struck again and my sword shattered. A dull electric current sought to paralyze me—a new trick this—and I fell down. I was pulled, knees skidding across the concrete, toward my hated foe.

“What made you think you could defeat me? What made you think it would be different?”

He drew me to him.

“The last time I died, I learned,” I said. “What good is death if some wisdom does not adhere to the dying?”

“What good indeed!” my enemy roared. “Die in vain twice over.”

He drew me to the grinding gears, the teeth that processed blood and flesh and bone.

“I learned where the rat hides in his maze,” I said, and I spit the homing dart from my mouth, through the latticework of steel, through the one opening, to where that memory of a monkey shape still lodged. Nulson himself, atrophied, sequestered in his cage within the cybernetic monster he had sprouted, screamed—this was a violent poison that boiled the blood—and a great straining and crying out of metal filled my ears, and I toppled sideways amid blue smoke and the buckling thunder of exploding circuits.

I rose amid the rubble and walked to the glass case and found the secret of it and opened it. I kissed Lena on the forehead and studied her frost-glazed eyes.


“You may be the best teacher in the world, Mr. Wilson, but I am afraid that you cannot help my child,” Mrs. Jamerson said.

The young man put the cup of tea down and regarded the woman. She was pretty, and he could see an echo of the much-photographed child in her, but worry had aged her, and her blue eyes looked beyond him to some repeated tragedy.

“I’ve read the articles, of course; the media coverage brought her to my attention. And the institution has briefed me thoroughly,” he said.

The woman sighed and ran her hands across the fabric of her dress. Such a well-appointed house, such a decorous woman, such sadness. “Yes, there has been much written about Lena,” Mrs. Jamerson said. “So many words, as though a million words could explain her, solve her. Words like ‘savant.’ But Lena is only Lena, only herself.”

“Can I see her?”

“I suppose there is no reason you shouldn’t.” Lena’s mother put down her teacup and stood up. “This way, please.”

John Wilson followed her down a hallway. They passed a framed photo of Mr. and Mrs. Jamerson, waving from a yacht—the same photo the newspapers had run, the same photo John Wilson had studied just yesterday. It must be painful to keep it there, John thought. An act of deliberate courage, perhaps.

Less than a week after that photo was taken, the yacht had been destroyed in a storm. Lena Jamerson—two years old—had fallen into the ocean, and her father had lost his life trying to save her. Lena had survived, but near-drowning, oxygen deprivation, had done some damage. She was not the same. And it was this alteration that drew the newspapers, always hungry for the unique, the bizarre, the uncanny.

“Lena,” Mrs. Jamerson said, ushering John Wilson into the room. “I’ve brought you a visitor.”

The room was decorated with posters of animals. Sunlight streamed through a window, falling on a doll that sat crookedly in a small white chair.

A little girl, dressed in a blue smock with white knee-length socks and white tennis shoes, sat cross-legged on a canopied bed. Her hair was pale blond, almost white, and combed to a sunstruck luster. She was staring straight in front of her and her eyes were the blue one encounters when breaking the ocean’s surface after diving off a boat somewhere in the Caribbean.

“She has always been the most beautiful girl in the world,” her mother said, speaking from behind him. “There is nothing about Lena that is not extraordinary. You know, as a baby, she did nothing but laugh; I believe, on occasion, I heard her giggle when I was carrying her, months before her birth.”

“She is a princess,” Wilson said. She was like a china figurine, an enchanted fairy.

“She does not relate to the world around her. She is amused but passive. She smiles often, laughs, but she is unaware of our presence. She can feed herself. She is toilet trained. Oh, in many respects, she is the model child. But she sleepwalks through her life.” Lena’s mother walked to the bed, sat down, and put her arms around her daughter, who continued to stare straight ahead, hands primly nested in her lap.

“A year ago, at the age of five, she spoke. My sister and I were at the breakfast table. Lena said, ‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness, thou foster-child of silence and slow time.’”

Wilson nodded. “Keats. The beginning of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’”

“Hardly ‘Mommy,’” Lena’s mother said. “Those were the first words she ever uttered. My sister is a professor of English literature—as the more skeptical reporters noted immediately—and she recognized the quote. But I assure you, as I have assured a horde of doubters, that we did not coach her. Since then any number of investigators, including some from the institution with which you are affiliated, Mr. Wilson, have satisfied themselves that Lena speaks only in fragments of poetry and that she ranges across all nationalities and times. If you are yet another man determined to expose a fraud, you are doomed to failure. Lena does not read; she has not been exposed to these poets. This is not a ‘savant’ syndrome; Lena is not one of those children with greatly impaired mental faculties who can mimic classical piano pieces after one listening. In Lena’s case, there is no source to mimic.”

“Yes,” he said, “It is incredible.”

The first touch of anger darkened his hostess’s voice. “And how do you explain it?”

“Well. I’m not sure that anyone can explain it. It is mysterious.”

“Then you haven’t given it sufficient thought, Mr. Wilson. Your institution should have asked a poet. Any poet could have told them that Lena simply listens to the Muse. She is not quoting William Blake or Shakespeare or Milton or anyone else. My Lena is listening to the source of all inspiration. The Muse is dictating to her directly. Don’t poets say their visions come from some mysterious otherworld? Well, my poor Lena has been shouted deaf by that mystery voice, that voice poets call the Muse.”

Lena’s mother drew the child to her and hugged her tightly. Eyes wet now, emotion in her voice, she addressed Wilson as though the whole of science, in all its vanity, stood before her. “You can’t do anything for her. You say you are a teacher? Wonderful. Will you teach her to quote ‘Dover Beach’? Hah! Better if you can teach her how to poison this Muse. Teach her how to kill the voice within her. Teach her how to return to her mother and her aunt, to hear our unrhymed voices that love her and call her name every day, and get no answer and watch our beautiful child drift further and further from us.”

“I understand your feelings,” Wilson said. “But, without wishing to raise false hopes, I think I might be able to help. People . . . people talk to me.”

Mrs. Jamerson regarded him with a weary smile. She said, “I think you have met your match.”

“I would like to come here every day,” he said. “I would like to take Lena on some outings, picnics, that sort of thing.”

Mrs. Jamerson lifted her child in her arms, stroking the child’s bright hair. “You can do no harm, I suppose.”


The trees had turned to explosive reds, yellows like pennants in a festive football crowd. There was smoke in the autumn air. Lena’s mother had dressed Lena warmly, a green sweater, corduroy pants. Wilson held Lena’s hand as they stood there on the side of the mountain. It was a sign of Mrs. Jamerson’s trust in him that she no longer accompanied them on their outings.

“Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole!” he quoted.

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance?” Lena said, completing the quote.

Wilson had learned this trick, so gratifying at first and now, two months later, so frustrating, so heartbreaking. Here was Lena, relating, logically and absolutely, to his voice. Feedback!

He would say, “Light breaks where no sun shines,” and Lena would seem to answer, her small voice like a hallelujah choir in his ears: “Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart push in their tides.”

So gratified was Wilson that he immediately showed this trick to Mrs. Jamerson, and so he instilled false, cruel hopes. Lena was still remote, a good-humored little ghost, indifferent to her surroundings and to the desperate affection and suffering of those who loved her. He reproached himself now for announcing this parlor trick of triggered quotes as though it were real progress.

Recently he had been plagued by bad dreams. He seemed to be losing a battle with time; a dreadful sense of urgency would suddenly slam him awake at three in the morning. Sweating, suspecting some intruder had invaded his small apartment, he would get up and turn on all the lights and search the entire house, even opening dresser drawers—as though this invading menace might be the size of a rat, a serpent.

Still, it was a beautiful North Carolina autumn and it was a sacrilege to waste it with night-fears and negativity. The poems he knew were English, and many of them too sedate for such a day, but Gerard Manley Hopkins would do. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” he shouted, lifting Lena and swinging her in a circle.

“It will flame out like shining from shook foil!” Lena shouted back.

For a while he forgot all his failures. They ate their packed lunches under a bright, warming sun. A scattering of crows raced like schoolboys to a recess bell, over the sky and away in a clamor of raucous voices.


I had freed her from the wizard Nulson and carried her from the city. Her limbs were still cold, despite the tropical Contested Zone we traveled through, and when I lay in near-death trance, in the House of Solemnity to which I had brought the child, I found the door of her mind swung open on an empty room. She had tired of her imprisonment, and she had leapt recklessly toward the abyss. She had neglected the memory pinions; the cables of desire had been cast off, and so she spun away like a kite that snaps its string, unmoored and beyond all returning.

I screamed awake, breaking the circuits of trance-net with such ferocity that small flames ignited in the encumbering sheets.

“Gone!” I screamed. “Lost!”

My host, Portheria, reprimanded me: “Please, less despair,” she urged. “My kin-shepherds are sensitized to you and your quest. You’ve bruised many of them.”

I apologized to the cowled monks, and, still abstracted, walked to Lena, sleeping in her web, all our new-brood hopes imperiled by her abandonment. “Oh, Queen,” I sighed, “We are numb with knowledge. The world is dying in the knowing of things. All the waters of love, of empathy, are drained by tireless, inhuman engines. Children are crushed under the wheels without a whimper, and their parents do not weep. We need your holy compassion. Only compassion and love can save us. Just yesterday Volander Inc. merged with Welger Limited and the acid vats claimed two hundred thousand superfluous employees.”

The dream child said nothing. Portheria touched my shoulder.

“Despair perhaps later,” she said. Her words were always awkward in the air, but she was the greatest empath in the empire, and so her thoughts cut with clarity into my troubled mind. “My kin-shepherds and I can find her yet. We will task our energies to all limits.”

“The universes are so wide,” I said, unwilling to rise to the bait of hope.

“We will weave a great net of words,” Portheria said. “We will fish for her in all the languages of dreams, down all the years, with all the love and sorrow that she must hunger for.”

And so I retired apart from them, prepared for a wait of some years—knowing that our world unraveled at a quicker pace.


“You are a stubborn young man,” Mrs. Jamerson said, speaking into the phone. “But I think there is some virtue in acceptance. It is time to admit that Lena has defeated you. She remains aloof and alone, my impossible child.”

John Wilson had come to know Mrs. Jamerson well. He marveled at the woman’s courage, and felt a genuine, ever-growing affection.

“I want to come by tomorrow around noon and take Lena to meet a friend of mine,” Wilson said.

Mrs. Jamerson sighed. “Another scientist, I suppose. Another student of the mind. Oh, John, let it go.”

“I want Lena to meet Sara Palliser. Sara has won a Pulitzer Prize, so you might be familiar with the name. She is a poet.”

“What do you hope to accomplish, John?”

“Mrs. Jamerson,” John Wilson said, “probably nothing. But I remembered something you said. You said that Lena doesn’t quote the poetry of individual poets. She goes to the Muse, the Source of inspiration, and there finds the same poems that have bloomed in the hearts and minds of our great bards. So . . . suppose . . . Sara Palliser is a friend of mine. I had lunch with her yesterday, and she spoke of an unfinished poem. She said to me, ‘It is not really unfinished. Somewhere it is complete. I just have to unearth the rest of it.’ And I thought—it burst upon me—that Lena would know where the rest of the poem was. If she and Sara . . . well, you see, if they could go there together, if they made the journey at the same time under hypnosis—Dr. Byrne at the institution would serve as a guide—then they could talk to one another. Sara Palliser could speak to Lena. Lena could answer.”


“Tomorrow at noon. See you then.” John Wilson hung up.


I was awakened from a deep slumber. The whisper moths that had been drawn by my dreams fluttered away to drift in a pink cloud high above my head.

“We have found her,” Portheria said. There was an anxiety in her tone that should not have accompanied such news.

“What is wrong? What year is it?”

“We’ve found her soon enough,” said Portheria, anticipating my fear. “But you must act immediately. There is one there, well-intentioned but ignorant of the forces at risk, who is prepared to draw her into the new world she inhabits. He has found a singer who—we all agree—can awaken her. Once awakened to her new home, she will be lost to us forever.”

“I go then,” I said. “Show me the quadrant and I will surrender my will to your soul-steering.”


Wilson could not sleep that night. He got up and turned the radio on. A flurry of static crackled in the cold night of the apartment and then an organ-voiced version of “Silent Night” flared to sudden clarity. He had forgotten that Christmas was only a week away. He would have to buy presents for his parents, his sister, a few friends.

Wilson went to turn the radio off—the music of the season somehow saddened him—but then another burst of static, and a voice, or no voice at all but something like an articulate wind, said, “That is no country for old men.”

And Wilson slept late the next morning, and awoke feeling sluggish and thinking that this dullness heralded the beginning of a cold.

And as he drove over to see Mrs. Jamerson and fetch her daughter, a few large flakes of snow spiraled down from an overly bright sky.

Mrs. Jamerson greeted him at the door. She threw her arms around him. “I’ve talked to Lena,” she said.

She began to cry, sobbing against Wilson’s shoulder. “If she can live there whole, then she must go there of course.”

“I don’t understand,” Wilson said. “Just what did she say? How did it come about?”

Wilson stopped. A black bird perched on the sofa arm next to Lena. Lena raised her head, and instantly Wilson saw recognition, felt his heart reverberate as though some vast, inaudible chord resounded within.

“Say the words, John Wilson,” Lena urged.

He spoke them as though born with them, suddenly savant himself. He knew then, that this was the last poem they would share.

“That is no country for old men,” he began.

“ . . . therefore I have sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium,” Lena said, her words enlivened by the fire in her blue eyes.

I know what’s coming, John Wilson thought.

Her last words were whispered, “ . . . of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

“Goodbye, Mother. Goodbye, John Wilson,” she said. Her image had already begun to fade.

The nightingale hopped to the child’s shoulder where it too dimmed.

Mrs. Jamerson spoke from behind Wilson. “There is nothing about Lena that is not extraordinary,” she said, pride trembling in her voice. “They bow down to her in Byzantium.”

© 1997 by William Browning Spencer.

Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

Enjoyed this story? Consider supporting us via one of the following methods:

William Browning Spencer

William Browning SpencerWilliam Browning Spencer is the author of 4 novels and 2 short story collections. His short stories have been reprinted in The Year’s Best Science FictionThe Year’s Best Fantasy and HorrorYear’s Best SFThe Best Horror of the Year, and numerous Lovecraftian anthologies. One of his stories is reprinted in The Weird, that juggernaut of a book that has harvested a century of odd stories into one disorienting trip for fans of the brazenly strange. Spencer’s novel, Résumé with Monsters, won the International Horror Critics Award for best novel. His short story, “A Child’s Christmas in Florida,” can be found in its short-film incarnation on youtube (under the title “A Child’s Christmas in Texas”). That story was reprinted by Gardner Dozois in his Year’s Best Science Fiction, although it is a story that is not science fiction.