by Deborah Fitchett
These were the single-gravvers, the gas-breathers, the oxygen-in-and-CO2-outers; the sound-hearers and vocal-speakers; the one-to-three-metered very-nearly-red-to-violet seers.
These were some of them: from Modus, from Getrau, from Frond and Xexots and Siderlag; betentacled Scets and shapeless Palerinets; naked Edsams and shrouded Zaoleyeraos. They had come from sweet Lich and A!es and Rookan; they had abandoned beautiful Rapot and Krolik and Trocasink; they mourned for distant Flerr and Aiyiy and Spee. Here were hundreds of species with names on the tip of one’s tongue; and they all knew that somewhere in the lonely crowded stretches of space were thousands more that no one yet had met.
This was Station 137, which they called most often Home in their mishmash of pidgins that shifted and changed depending on who they talked to.
They were 4,016 inhabitants and no visitors today.
But visitors were coming.
“A boat’s coming tomorrow, Nansap,” said the Courev youngster, Auponear, a mere 86 Home-years old. “This ship’ll be here at three.” He extended three of his thousands of tentacles. “At three in the morning.”
Here sat Nansap: wizened, dull-scaled and too proud to care about the bare patches. She wore cobweb drifts of turquoise and lemon and wet-cotton-candy, layered into opacity. She was nearly 49 Home-years of age and counted herself far older than this youngster of another species. So did he, though they’d once been in school together. He’d only graduated five years ago.
Nansap said, choosing from years of experience the words she could pronounce, “A craft, d’ya say? A craft can arrive any day, baby man.”
The pair played board games together every few days, in the community hall. Today they played something that could have been chess crossed with snakes and ladders, but wasn’t. Auponear had known it five years; Nansap had known it for one. She was winning now, having had more subjective-time to learn it in. This was relaxation for her, challenge for the youth.
“There are Jaraps aboard,” Auponear said. Nansap was a Jarap; she was the only Jarap at Home. Her mother had lived here until her death, and five or six Jaraps over the years since had come, lived here a while, and left again. Nansap was the only one who still stayed. “Jaraps coming on the craft tomorrow. Will you meet them?”
“Nay,” she said, and moved three pieces.
“I wake at jarr,” she said imperturbably, showing six fingers. She studied the board, though Auponear didn’t take his turn. “All my days and all my ages. I’ll nae advance my waking.”
“Then who’ll meet them?” he asked. “Who’ll show them around, who’ll make them feel at home? Who’ll keep them from loneliness amongst all our hundreds of aliens?”
“Blather and balderdash,” she said. “An that band fancies Habitat, they’ll stay. An they fancy nae, they’ll fare away. What have I to say in that appraisal?”
He was silent at that, and said no more.
But the butcher spoke and wasn’t quiet, when she ran her errands. The butcher had always been here. No one knew its name. No one knew when it had arrived and come Home. Some said it’d been here before the station was built.
The butcher knew what Nansap wanted to buy, and she knew what it had to sell, which was the last part of the carcass it had first butchered for her forty days ago.
While it sawed the meat into thirds it said, “So you’ll be meeting and greeting the Jaraps tomorrow, Young Nansap.” It doubled its words from habit, speaking all day to customers who might know one if not the other.
“That’s claptrap and false talk, Ancient Trader,” she said, doing the same. “I’m at my blankets and nae awake at that date.”
“That time and moment?” he clarified to be sure. “On such a special once-only time? Aren’t you wishing and wanting to see Jaraps again, once more?”
“An I wanted Jarap mates or family, I’d have fared away or fared crazy ages ago.”
And she took her steaks and strode out, onto the slow-path, and across to the mid-path, and across to the fast-path that took and whisked her without a turn or transfer to her very door.
But across all those paths, before she could step all the way into her apartment, called her neighbour Wessino’s shrill voice: “Nansap, arra!” she said, because she’d known Nansap for forty-five years and had learnt some words in that time. “You must be grunne re rennass paoless the Jaraps tomorrow!”
And Nansap had been friends with Wessino for forty-five years, so she understood the reedy Gosjune words. She shot back in irritation: “Am nae glad, and I’ll nae fare, and I’ll nae hail that Jarap band! My family came at Habitat alone, and stayed alone, and alone my dam passed away. An that band wants to stay, they can act as we acted and stay sans aid!”
“Ke meljita!” said Wessino.
“And y’are a fraud, Wassana. Can ya say frankly that ya fancy all and any Gasjanas that came at Habitat? Haven’t I harked at ya arguing day after day against that man ya hate? And that’s nae an alien.”
“So I hate that man, but I plenty fancy Onnaol. Those last Jaraps weren’t made to be locals, but maybe these will. How will you know before you fare?”
“What care I?” They stood at their doors, shouting their questions above the heads and backs of those passing on the paths. “I have ample mates already, and that band shall also, an they make an assay. Can they stay an I’m their ace mate?” She showed one finger from habit, but Wessino knew what she meant. “An they want Jarap mates they’d rather fare back straight away than stay a day and pack again.”
“Too many do, Nansap.”
“What care I?” she said again. “An ya want that band that bad, fare away and hail them alone!” And she turned away.
She stepped into her apartment, and the door closed behind her. The door shut out the paths behind it, and Wessino behind the paths.
Nansap took her groceries to the corner of the room where, at the push of a button, wall became bench and pantry and oven. That was not Jarap style. It was standard model for Station 137. Others might complain of the lack of choice, but Nansap was proud of being used to everything of Station 137. It was Home, her home.
She put boxes and cans away. She brought out other boxes and cans, and one darrak steak. A bit of rearranging and a bit of heating would turn it all into dinner.
It would not be up to the quality a visitor would be used to. There was little fresh here, and less variety. Everything had to be shipped from Jarap, even the animals for the butcher to slaughter. The cargo captains sacrificed fashion for value. If these visitors wanted to stay they’d get used to it, as Nansap had.
Dinner was ready. She put away the kitchen and sat to eat in the left-hand armchair. Her mother’s blue chairs were the last she had left from Jarap. Crockery had broken, trinkets had been gifted away, clothes had been long since worn out. The armchairs were wearing too now, after more than fifty years’ use — threadbare on the arms and uncertain in the springs — but they’d finish out Nansap’s lifetime and then some. Not that it mattered, she thought to herself. She’d have been happy enough with Station chairs, but there was no point buying new when old would do. That was simple economics.
So she sat in the Station room, ate her Station dinner, and read the Station news from the Station screen on the Station wall. She’d been happy with it all for forty-five years. She was determined not to think about Jarap now, despite her meddling friends.
When the ship arrived at three in the morning, Wessino was there, waiting outside customs. So were Boag and Spompock and Ererble and their families, because Paiasks and Figes and Palerinets were on that ship. So was the butcher.
“Hayay!” said the butcher when it saw Wessino. It came sliding over to her as she turned towards it. “Greetings,” it said again. “Why are you here, for what reason? Does the ship have Gosjunes aboard that boat?”
“No, not a one,” Wessino said. “But there are Jaraps, and Nansap the Jarap won’t come, she’s sleeping. So here I am, that’s why, to greet and welcome them for my friend Nansap instead.”
“Well, so am I!” said the butcher whose name no one knew. “Yes, me too. She told me, saying she’d not come or go this morning; so I thought and said to me, well, I’ll meet and greet them myself.”
Here came Auponear towards them, rolling tentacle over tentacle. “Hayay, Old Gosjune, and hayay, Old Butcher. Did you two both come for Old Nansap too, like me?”
So they laughed and joked about stubborn Old Nansap, the obstinate Jarap, and then they talked and chattered with the others who were waiting.
Then the new arrivals came.
The spindly white Paiasks went with spindly white Boag.
The Figes wrapped in stifling wool went with Spompock the ever-cold.
The Palerinets squelched after Ererble, who’d once been caught in a loading accident and had squeezed himself out, inch by inch, over an hour.
When they were gone there remained four bisymmetric Jaraps, scales iridescent under cobweb scarves of navy and maroon and bottle-green. Three girls each dragged a bag behind them, and one woman juggled four more. It seemed a thin load to start a new life with.
“Arra!” called Wessino.
The woman looked uncertainly at them, hesitating. “Arra,” she said. After another pause she nodded at her girls to go forward to the locals.
“Hayay,” said Auponear.
“Hayay and arra!” said the butcher.
The girls understood quickly. “Hayay,” they said, and giggled.
Wessino said, mixing Nansap’s words with her own and adding signs to fit, “What languages do you speak?”
“Jarap Hrarl,” said the woman, “ha Alkant.” In another language, carefully: “Tchekin Naeron-wen.” She said that with a sign to show how little she spoke.
“Ai tchkarr nkail Hrarl,” said the two younger girls. “Ha Tson.” And “Ha Riilap, ha Waloom,” said the eldest. They pronounced the alien words with more confidence and fluency than their mother, and weren’t worried about qualifying their knowledge.
“Waloom jovunyo!” said the butcher happily.
Auponear said, “I know uiui Tson.”
Wessino explained in broken Hrarl, “My friend Nansap.” The girls laughed and corrected her pronunciation.
“Nansap from Jarap,” said the butcher in Waloom.
“She crazy,” Auponear added in Tson, miming with a dizzying whirl of tentacles.
“You have house? Where?”
And in a babel of languages and a mimeshow of gestures they all made themselves half-understood, and the three locals took the four newcomers and showed them the way to their apartment.
They passed the butcher’s shop as they went. “That’s my shop,” it said. “I sell meat there. You want meat, you come to me.”
“Meat?” said the eldest girl in the middle of translating for her mother and sisters.
The butcher listed all the names of animals it had butchered for Nansap and her mother over the years.
“Aiquak!” said the youngest.
“Meat, flesh, carcass,” said the butcher, and the girls repeated the words.
“Carcass,” said their mother, seizing on the easiest to pronounce.
That was their second word, and they learned a dozen more before they came to their new apartment.
The mother unlocked the door and they went inside. They put the bags in the middle of the main room. The two youngest girls ran off to explore the other rooms. They were in the early years of schooling, just reading. The other girl was two or even three years older, beginning to grow up. She stayed with her mother to talk to the locals.
“We take you Nansap house,” said Wessino. “You want? Maybe she angry to we. We friend,” she said dismissively. “She angry, good good. Maybe she happy, she you friend. You and Nansap from Jarap — Jarap friend good good.” Sometimes she used the wrong word, a word from another language, but with her friends’ help in Waloom and Tson the mother understood.
“She will be happy,” the butcher asserted. “Yesterday she….” He consulted with Auponear, asking him the word.
“Crazy,” said Auponear. “Today she want erjon.”
“Friend,” finished Wessino. “You want Nansap?”
The mother demurred. She didn’t want to bother someone who didn’t want to be bothered. But her daughter looked thoughtful. “Is Mrs. Nansap lonely?” she asked. She explained at Wessino’s question, “Lonely is sad because you have no friends.”
“No, no,” said Wessino. “She ssel naepov friends.” She pretended to lose count on her digits. Auponear waved thirty, forty tentacles. “Wof she no Jarap friends. No mummy. No retalnu.” She pointed to the girl, mimed holding a baby. “You want Nansap, go, go.”
The butcher said, “You don’t want Nansap, that’s okay. You and we, we will be friends.”
“Go, go,” said Auponear. “Nansap good erjon.”
“Erjon,” repeated the girl, frowning in thought. “Friend.”
Her mother looked at the three locals, who were so sure and certain of their friend. She looked at her daughter, and she looked at the empty room they stood in with seven small bags. She started to speak, and stopped again.
“Nansap good Hrarl,” Auponear added, miming speech.
The woman laughed even before her daughter could translate. Slowly she said, “If Nansap wants, then we’ll meet her. But otherwise, if she doesn’t want, if she isn’t happy, that’s okay, that’s good.” She was already learning to double her words.
Nansap woke a couple of hours later, at six in the morning. She got up, washed, dressed in gym clothes. She was old, but she still liked to join her friends for stretches and dancing. They were going to learn Edsam waltzes today. She’d dreamed last night of a Jarap fling, but she brushed that fancy aside as mere symbolism.
The doorbell rang, and she stopped on the way to the kitchen corner. She looked suspiciously at the door. “Who’s there?” she demanded of its silent metal. “Disturbing my morning.” She crossed the room and opened it.
There stood Wessino and the butcher and Auponear. There stood four Jaraps behind them.
Nansap cursed at them, swore solidly for a full minute in two dozen languages, but Wessino spoke over her expletives: “Listen to your mates—”
“Call yaself my mates, and nae hark my sayings, ya !xoal ntaeni? Fare back t’ya cartael nayshal-sa, fyaacel wam…“
So she carried on like that, even while Wessino continued, “Mates is one thing, same species is diff—”
“Same race adds to naught. Watch th’ancient trader, and say an the man any day faces its same race. Foul-fingered leper!” she labelled the butcher in quick afterthought.
“It would if one came,” Auponear said. He told the newcomers in Tson, “She happy, good-good. She you erjon.”
“I’ll erjon you, you one-tentacled tripe!” she told the youth in Courev. But she welcomed the Jaraps with signs to match, “Arrive, arrive, d’ya talk Hrarl or Alkant or Jpanaa?” She told Wessino: “They shan’t be my mates, mark. I ask them as I have manners, that’s all my aim.”
The Jarap woman ignored the scolding harangue and politely said, “We speak Hrarl and some Alkant.”
“Give them a chance,” Wessino said.
“That’s larger than I’ll grant ya,” Nansap retorted. “And ya, aged man, I’ll nae transact at ya again!” Its shop was the only butchery in Home. She’d go back, but now she closed the door and shut out all their grinning faces.
She turned, scowled at the Jaraps. “So you visit Station 137,” she said in halting Hrarl. She hadn’t spoken the language pure for more than forty years. Even with her mother she’d mixed in more and more local words.
“We’ve come to make this our home,” the woman said quietly. She wouldn’t answer anyone rudely on her first day in a place. “My name is Agnaram s’Alkaer sa Paalian. My daughters are Ranam, Aarar, and Ainaalb.”
The girls fluttered in polite greeting.
“I am Nansap,” Nansap said. “You came today alone, yes?”
“That’s right. Your friends met us and helped us find our rooms.”
“Everyone is friendly here,” Nansap said, “to new people. But it is not easy to live here. Most people stay a few weeks, a few months. A few years, sometimes. Then they get homesick. They miss their planet, their people. I’m the one Jarap here, and I’ll die soon. You’ll be lonely and crazy if you take me for your one friend.”
The girls looked solemn and puzzled at once. Agnaram said, “We knew we couldn’t rely on other Jaraps. We thought there mightn’t be any Jaraps here at all.”
“We packed two bags of food,” said Aarar. “Just in case there was no Jarap food here.”
“Dehydrated food,” Ranam specified. “It’s lighter. And medicine, too.”
Nansap’s mother had brought the same, forty-five years ago: medicine, food, clothes, a few keepsakes from family and friends, and two new blue armchairs. Nansap remembered this.
Agnaram continued, “We’ve come to meet other folk. The girls will start school here today, and I’ll look for a job.”
“Good,” said Nansap, almost forty years out of school. “There’s people that make their children do…” She used the local words: “Correspondence courses. School by letters. How can a child learn how to speak with their friends that way?”
“Friends is erjon,” Ainaalb announced proudly.
“That’s right, but not everyone knows that word. Friend is ‘monao’, too, and ‘mate’ and ‘jerri’, and this.” She made a sign. “And a dozen more you’ll hear and see, and you’ll never learn them all. If you don’t like being misunderstood then you’d better go straight back to Jarap, because you’re going to be misunderstood every day for the rest of your life here.”
“Sometimes we didn’t understand those mates this morning,” Ranam said, not quite defiantly. Her mother glanced sharply at her, but she ignored the look. “But it was fun.”
“Well,” said Nansap, uncertain. “Well.”
“We’ve travelled before,” Agnaram explained, “so my daughters are used to communication problems.”
Nansap stiffened at that word travelled. “You mean holidays?” she said sharply.
“No,” Ranam contradicted her before Agnaram could answer, “we went to school there too, and mother worked. We stayed two years on Fwayrets, and the years there are longer than Jarap’s.”
“Two whole years?” Nansap asked drily. The last Jarap to visit Home had stayed nearly that long before leaving. But Nansap and her mother had lived in two or three different cities before settling here, too.
“The sky was blue,” Ainaalb said, proud of the memory.
“We like meeting new people,” her mother said.
Ranam added, “And new languages.”
“But it’s hard always moving, packing everything and our food in seven bags. We want to settle down, have our own home. And we want to keep meeting new people.” She looked at Ranam. “New languages.”
“There are no languages here,” Nansap said. “Only pidgins made up for the occasion. And nothing you learn here will be any use anywhere else in the universe, because it’s all a mishmash.”
“We’re not going anywhere else in the universe,” said Agnaram. “We came here for the pidgins and the mishmash.”
And Ranam said, “Talking like that brings your brain alive.”
She said it so fervently, and her mother listened to it so wistfully, that not even Nansap could doubt that they meant it and intended to stay here.
There was an awkward silence. Agnaram took the opportunity to take leave of this woman who didn’t want them there: she said, “It’s been good to meet you, but we shouldn’t keep you from breakfast. And we should start settling in.”
“Of course,” Nansap said. But then she thought of her breakfast of breads she’d baked over the last week and spreads she’d collected over months. She thought of the newcomers’ breakfast of dehydrated travel food. And she thought that she was enjoying speaking Hrarl again, and that she didn’t want these visitors to leave thinking she was a grumpy old inhospitable woman. She said, “Have you eaten this morning?”
“No,” Agnaram admitted.
“Then you’d better eat with me,” Nansap said. She turned abruptly to the corner and pulled out bench, pantry and oven. “There’s a table and stools in the wall there, if you’ll pull it out.”
“It’s very kind of you,” Agnaram said, hiding her surprise at the offer. A glance from her prompted the girls into adding their courtesies.
“I don’t keep up to the fashions,” Nansap warned them in advance. She put a selection of six breads into the oven to thaw, and started arranging her best spreads on a tray.
“I’m sure it will be delicious.”
The girls studied the wall and found the hairline cracks that betrayed its secret. They pulled at the cracks and whispered to each other. Aarar was the one who found the pressure points that released the table and attached stools. The suite hissed downwards and clicked into place: two stools each on two sides of the aluminum table.
They’d need another chair. Agnaram asked, “Can we move one of your armchairs?”
“Yes,” Nansap said. She added belatedly, “Thank you.”
A minute or so later the armchair was in place, the visitors were settled on stools around the table, and the breads were piled high and steaming in two bowls.
Nansap brought the tray over, and they ate and drank together, no one speaking. She hadn’t eaten silently with another person since her mother’s death. It relaxed her now, even though they were strangers.
She watched them sideways. The girls were looking around themselves. They nodded to each other at the folding kitchen, the screen on the wall above Ainaalb, the alien plants in odd corners. Their mother met Nansap’s looks directly, proud of her self-reliance.
Nansap had to admit that Agnaram knew what she was getting into, here at Home. The girls were clearly eager for it, too — especially Ranam. Nansap herself hadn’t been so enthusiastic on her first day here.
Maybe, she thought, they would settle down here after all. Maybe they’d stay long enough to earn the title of ‘locals’. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad getting to know them in the meantime.
When they finished, she pulled herself up from her armchair. The visitors stood with her and they all bowed to the crumbs. Nansap stopped for a moment at that. No one here ever commented on the gesture when she did it, but no one ever joined in, either. It seemed silly and unimportant … but it touched something buried deep inside her.
She cleared away the bowls and glasses, and the girls hefted the dining suite, helping it hiss back into the wall. Agnaram put the armchair back in place.
Nansap showed them to the door. She said, “I’ll take you up to the school to enroll the girls, if you’d like. It starts in an hour and a half.”
“Thank you,” Agnaram replied. She wasn’t sure exactly what she’d said to turn the old woman around, but she was glad for it. “We’d like to invite you for dinner tonight. Our food isn’t very good, though,” she said politely.
“I would be happy to come.” Then she realized that they probably had only four chairs in their dining suite too. She remembered that they’d come with just seven bags, including food and medicine. She recalled that she had two armchairs, and hardly used the second.
“You’ll need some furniture,” she said, and suddenly found it difficult to give up the old thing. Just like it was hard to take up the new. “Since you’re staying,” she said, more firmly. She turned, determined, and pulled the armchair a little towards the door. “Are you girls strong enough to get this onto the path? It’s getting old, but maybe it’ll hold for a little more.”
The next morning, when the ship left, it took with it three Takaurfs, a Cuthper, three Bobulyads and two Paiasks. One Paiask stayed, and two Figes, and five Palerinets.
And four Jaraps stayed too, because they’d come Home.
This was Station 137 where they lived, and they were 4,021 inhabitants, and no visitors today.
Deborah Fitchett lives in New Zealand, in between trips to far-flung corners of the globe in search of adventure and obscure languages.
Story © 2005 Deborah Fitchett. All other content copyright © 2005 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish