by Jason L. Corner
The rays of the noontime sun glinted through the diamond prism leaf Jessica Chen held in her hand as she stood outside the house. The light entered the transparent, paper–thin leaf and split into a six–pointed wheel of single–colored beams. Jessica grew them in her house; they weren’t native to this part of the planet Esef, and to grow them here took immense diligence, care, and specialized equipment. There were jungles in the north, apparently, where they grew in great numbers and different varieties. They were some of the most fascinating plants in the universe as far as Jessica knew, and she had come here with her family to study them.
She hadn’t planned on living here.
And the light shot through the leaf, and struck beneath her son Bobby’s bed, and revealed a small stone knife. Jessica looked around a little nervously, then picked it up. It had jagged edges, like an Indian arrowhead, and was about half again the length and width of her hand, There were three symbols on it, painted on it in red. She didn’t recognize the symbols; she assumed that they were Eosfi, although she had learned the basic Eosfi alphabet and didn’t recognize them.
“So the question is now,” she said to herself, “is this something my son ought to have or not? And it looks like not. Because it’s a knife, and because if it was something he ought to have, I’d know about it already.” She had never talked to herself before, but the last two years had changed everybody.
Wouldn’t she? She wondered. Bobby had put it under the bed to conceal it. But then how did she justify searching his room? She did it regularly, of course; she worried about Bobby, after all. But she guessed he didn’t know that.
She would have to talk to Ziggaut about it, and wrote that into the Planner window on her handheld, right after “check the garden,” which would have to be done right that moment.
Even though Jessica walked the tree branch from her back door to the garden three or four times a day every day, for the last two years, since the destruction of the Gate, she still put her arms out wide each time to balance herself. Even though the branch was twenty feet wide! For on rainy, nutrient–rich Esef, the trees grew huge, and the Eosfi built cities of interconnected tree houses, and the humans in the diaspora lived in them.
The purple irises (a human name) looked all right; she had trouble getting used to the taste and had started out just seasoning her food with them, but Bobby liked them, so they had been eating more and more. Satisfied, she bent down to inspect the meat-flowers, the large, thick fungus-like plants that provided most of their protein.
Jessica peeled open one of the smaller plants. The pure white inside was blotched and full of holes. A fat purple worm poked its head out of one of the holes.
With a muttered curse, she looked briefly through a couple others. All infested, all ruined. And Jessica knew the reason why. Her section of the tree bordered on the section of Dr. Hand, and he let his tree grow wild. Even here she could see just the edge of one of his branches; thick with overgrowth and wild plants, with a few larger branches shooting out at jagged angles from the wall of overgrowth. It looked like the underside of a giant hairy spider.
When you didn’t keep your area pruned and clean, the wild plants attracted bugs and the bugs destroyed gardens, and not just your own. They had all decided at the last Human Neighborhood Association meeting that everyone would voluntarily take care of their areas. But Dr. Hand never came to meetings (he must have gotten the newsletter, though), and he didn’t take care of his area, and he didn’t, apparently, care at all.
Jessica reopened the Planner window on her handheld, and wrote down “Next meeting (tomorrow) – bring up tree care (Dr. Hand).” Sitting right there above the words, in her blocky scrawl? “See Ziggaut about knife.”
Bobby had soccer after school. She didn’t have to pick him up for another three hours. So in theory, she could go to Ziggaut’s office now and talk to it, unless it rained of course.
She looked to the alien sky, hoping it looked like heavy rain. It didn’t. So there was no putting it off. She put her arms out very carefully and walked down the tree.
“Hello, Chen-Jessica!” Ziggaut, the Earthling-Eosfi Liaison for Jessica’s region, said as Jessica entered its office. “That is the proper name protocol for Chinese Earthlings, is it not? I have been reading about China.”
“Yes, that would be right in China,” Jessica said. “But Chen is my husband’s name; he was Chinese. And he had never been there. His great-grandparents were born there.”
Ziggaut was typical, in appearance, of its race, which is to say it looked (to Jessica) like a large red octopus with tusks and five tentacles (a pentapus? The word had not caught on). It sat on an Eosfi chair, which looked like a wicker chair with no back and a thin blanket instead of a cushion. Ziggaut’s desk was shaped like a donut and the chair was in the center; a human would have been trapped but Ziggaut had its climbing bars on the roof.
Ziggaut fingered its tusk thoughtfully. “But . . . your name is Chen, also? So are you also Chinese?”
“No, it just means that Chen is my husband’s name.”
“But Amanda Abernathy? Her husband’s name is Schwartz.”
Jessica thought for a moment, framing her words carefully. Though it had been studying art history at Yale and was only home on vacation when the Gate was destroyed, and it was employed by the Eosfi government as liaison to the human community in this district for its knowledge, it still found itself stumped on what seemed (to Jessica) like the most obvious bits of knowledge, and she knew that it always appreciated her help. “It used to be tradition for wives – marriage partners with female gender – to take the names of their husbands when they got married. When females gained more political and economic equality, many – most, actually – gave up the custom.”
“But you and your male marriage partner kept the tradition?”
“Yes. We both wanted to.”
“Ah, then you are a conservative, Jessica Chen!” Ziggaut leapt up and grabbed the climbing bars on the roof by two tentacles, then wrapped two more around another bar and crawled away from its desk like a sloth. It dropped – gracefully – in another Eosfi chair near the door, motioning with a tentacle for Jessica to sit down in a nearby human chair.
“I am glad to hear this, Jessica Chen, for I am a conservative too, you know,” Ziggaut said. “But perhaps I read from your face that you are surprised?”
Jessica had been thinking no such thing. But Earthlings and Eosfi were known, already, for their incompetence at reading each other’s body language. Not wishing to provoke a discussion either way, she made a vague, noncommittal noise.
But nothing could ever stop Ziggaut from talking. “It is true that I am a conservative,” Ziggaut continued. “Many of our liaisons between Earthlings and Eosfi are those that affect to be – apologies, I must translate the idiom – of all trees and none. Maybe there is an English equivalent?”
“Thank you, Jessica Chen. Cosmopolitans. But I say no, I must be a liaison because I am a conservative. This is our planet and our civilization, worth preserving, and so also worth extending. On Earth – Earth is a great civilization also – if you are an Eosfi and you visit, you let the Earthlings extend their great civilization to you and you learn English and you get a driver’s license. And on Esef you send your young to Eosfi schools and you do things this way. It is like your naming and reproductive partnership protocols.” As an asexual species that reproduced by budding, the Eosfi were utterly confused by human marriage and family structure, but Ziggaut took it all as part of the job. “I will never understand it, but it’s good that you have them.”
“Ziggaut,” Jessica said. “I need to ask you something.” She took out her handheld and e-pen and quickly sketched a picture of the knife she had found. “I found this under my son Bobby’s bed. And there were some characters – some letters – on it. Like this.” She sketched those as well. “But they’re not in the regular alphabet, are they?”
Ziggaut looked at the symbols and blinked. “No. They are archaic.” It paused. “This is your child’s ramos.”
“His ramos? What’s that? And why hasn’t he told me anything about it?”
“Hroom, hroom, hroom!” Ziggaut made a kind of snorting noise, muffled by its tusks. This seemed to be an Eosfi equivalent of laughter, triggered by embarrassment. “It’s not the kind of thing, hroom, that one talks about!” Ziggaut put its tentacles to its head and breathed deeply. “Apologies. Your child is how old?”
“He’ll be fourteen next month.”
“Yes, that’s right. Well, on the first summer day, your son and some others will take these ramoses and our priests will blindfold them and lock them in a room with an angry zunder; you know the animals that roam the southwestern desert. When they kill it, they’ll be let out and they will all be ramos-mates for the rest of their lives. This is the ramos-reed. We all do it.”
There was absolute silence in the little building. Jessica contemplated Ziggaut’s tusks. They were painted purple, with a few star–shaped flecks of gold. Ziggaut’s tusks were always painted interesting colors, not like her neighbor Kupp, who wore the same green every day. It was very interesting to look at and kept her from having to think about what she had just heard.
“Jessica Chen?” Ziggaut said. “You understand, then? I am pleased you are not resistant as many humans have been.”
“No, I’m sorry,” Jessica said, snapping out of reverie. “I was just thinking that there must be something wrong with my hearing. Because I — believe me — thought you just said you were going to have my son blindfolded and sent to kill a wild animal with a bunch of other children.”
Ziggaut breathed what might have been a sigh. “Not so wild. An old zunder, who has lived an easy, boring life, and is now showing signs of age. Believe me, it will be a favor to the animal.”
Jessica felt, later, that perhaps this was another occasion for forming her words carefully. But it didn’t work out, and she doubted, in the state of mind she (inevitably, necessarily) had been in, she could have done anything to curb what came out of her mouth, which was a torrent of obscene adverbs and adverbial phrases, all coming before the word ‘crazy’ and after the words ‘you are.’
Nothing if not nonchalant, Ziggaut waited patiently for Jessica to finish, and then said, “I see you have some objections. Many of your fellow Earthlings, particularly the females, have had objections, but all have agreed in the end. Let me present the arguments that have convinced them. First, the Zunder is tame and generally toothless; only two per cent of ramos–mates are ever injured, and far less are killed. Second, adults will kill the Zunder very quickly and painlessly once the fatal blow has been scored by one of the children. Furthermore —”
“Stop. No, no. Just stop. Stop.” Jessica did not say these things to communicate information; she was using words as a buckler to ward off blows. The world had gone quite mad, and was lashing out at her. Well, she was lashing back.
“Do you think,” she said, “that you’re convincing me of anything? Do you know that you just said there was a one in fifty chance of my son getting killed?”
“Seriously injured,” Ziggaut said. “Fatality is really quite rare. You have driven cars and flown in airplanes, have you not? The risk is similar. Look, look,” Ziggaut raised two of its tentacles and waved them around. “Do you see this?”
Jessica stopped protesting just long enough to see a long purple scar on the underside of its tentacle. “You see this? Even injury to this extent is rare. And I treasure it as I treasure my own life.
“Look here,” it continued, reaching into its desk and taking out a photograph. It showed five Eosfi; strikingly, they were touching each other, which adults never did. The five of them, their tusks dyed in jaunty stripes of bright green and blue, had their tentacles draped across each other, and one of them, she was pretty sure, was Ziggaut, although she wasn’t positive; Ziggaut must have been younger. One of the Eosfi had an eye patch.
“Apologies. I become sentimental. But you must understand. These are my ramos-mates, Zaddut, Ettaro, Chima, and Mett. I was with them when those terrorists attacked, on this side of the Gate, in my home, our reunion, trapping us all here. Never go back to Earth. I like Earth, but this is my home; only at home can I live. So you see, they have saved my life again. Only a ramos-mate could. How many times can I thank them? Jessica Chen, would you spare your child this?”
Jessica had come to Esef to study the plant life. She was not uninterested in this planet. And she knew that Ziggaut was genuinely emotional, that this was, for it, intended to be a touching moment. But only part of her mind knew that; on the whole, she could only understand that Ziggaut wanted to kill her son.
“How did you get that scar?” She was throwing words now, as a monkey hurls its own feces to defend its territory. “Was it the Zunder? Or could it be that blindfolded children with knives make mistakes? Maybe you put your blood brother’s eye out?”
Ziggaut slammed all its tentacles down at once, quivering with what had to be rage in any species. “Are you so short in the tusk that you can say such things? Lakk!”
The two sat there silent for a minute. Finally, Ziggaut said, “Do you really plan this little revolution? Don’t you know that you will be alone; that all the other parents, thus far, have agreed?”
“If all your friends jumped out of the tree,” Jessica started to say, and then laughed. “I’m sorry. I just felt like I was talking to my son for a minute. But no. My son’s life and safety are not at the mercy of your primitive — your whatever.” She stood up. “I think I’d better go now.”
“Go now,” Ziggaut repeated. “There are consequences. You will be contacted later. But go now.”
Both Bobby’s soccer team and the opposing one were equal mixes of human and Eosfi, which was good, because although the Eosfi made excellent goalies, they simply weren’t very good on the field. Too slow. They whipped any humans that played against them in their tree–hanging and vine–swinging games, but on the ground they didn’t move very fast.
So, for reasons of fairness, Jessica and a majority of the members of the Earthling–Eosfi parents council decided that each team would an equal mix of both species, which had seemed very important to Jessica once. Now, she felt a little out of place, wandering from knot to knot of onlookers. Some Eosfi parents were there — maybe one for every three or four children on the team; they just weren’t as involved — but Jessica felt shaky as she neared them, even friends like Mizzov and Kupp. We have never really known our hosts, she thought, and the thought was the push you give to a billiard ball on a slightly tilted table, and she floated, almost unconsciously, to Amanda Abernathy and a small circle of human parents standing off to the side.
“Jessica!” Amanda said, breaking from the circle, her hands fluttering up like little birds. “I just have to talk to you.”
Ziggaut had said that all the parents had agreed to the ramos-reed. So now, Jessica reasoned, Amanda — strangely Amanda, who for all her leadership in the Human Neighborhood Council didn’t, as far as Jessica could tell, really like the Eosfi — had been sent as an emissary to try to persuade her again.
Jessica shrugged as Amanda cantered over to her. “Sure,” she said. “Let’s talk. Over there.” They walked away from the open field, over to a nearby tree. Only faint glints of sunlight darted through the leaves overhead, so a string of lamps (although it was midday) hung from the branches over the field. The lights gave Amanda’s face a harsh, surreal, horror–movie pale gleam. It hurt Jessica’s eyes and made her tired. She leaned against the tree.
“Well,” Amanda said. “I presume you’ve spoken with Ziggaut.”
“Yeah, I did,” Jessica said, closing her eyes. The glare from Amanda’s face had given her a headache. “And I really hope you know that my decision’s final. I’m not going to be talked out of it.”
“Well, that is just . . .” Amanda looked like she didn’t have words bad enough. “Of all the irresponsible . . . I’m very surprised, Jessica Chen.”
“I’m surprised at you too, you know,” Jessica said. “But I’m not going to get my panties in a wringer over it.” Amanda gave a small gasp, a thimbleful of distressed air. “And you can tell Ziggaut that too,” Jessica continued. “Tell Ziggaut my child’s life is more important to me than what everybody else is doing. And that’s final.”
The effect on Amanda was dramatic; a melting in the shoulders, like steel rods into pudding. “Oh dear, Jessica. Oh dear me. You’re laboring under something of a misapprehension, aren’t you? Jessica. Do you think my Kirsten is going into that awful room?”
Jessica opened her eyes. “You’re not going to let your daughter do it either? But — Ziggaut told me all the parents had agreed to it.”
“Did Ziggaut say that? Well, it’s not true. Ziggaut’s a politician, dear Jessie, and it’s a liar. So far as I can tell, the split in this community is about fifty–fifty, and I figure Ziggaut’s been telling all the undecided parents that to get them in line. It’s downright authoritarian and we of the diaspora aren’t going to stand for those kinds of pressure tactics.
“Now listen, Jessica,” Amanda continued, stepping closer to the tree and placing her hand on Jessica’s arm. “I’m going to need your support on this at the meeting tomorrow.”
Jessica laughed, and Amanda backed a bit away, giving her a confused look. “Forgive me, Amanda. It’s just that . . . the meeting tomorrow. I was going to take up the question of Dr. Hand’s tree–care. You see, he’s attracting bugs. Bugs!”
“Yes, er, that does seem like a less important problem now.” Amanda was nonplussed, having been taken away from her subject. “Now, listen. I need you on my side at the meeting tomorrow, because — ”
“Forgive me again, Amanda,” Jessica said. “But why do you need me on your side at the meeting? I’ve taken my son’s ramos away. And I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do it. But I don’t think it’s any public issue, is it?”
“Oh, but Jessica, don’t you know? Didn’t Ziggaut tell you? They’re making it a public issue. Apparently, if we don’t comply, our children — and we too — will all be deprived of citizenship. And they want to move us onto a Yorn reservation!” She chuckled mirthlessly.
“But . . . can we live with the Yorn? Does their religion allow that?”
Amanda snorted. “The government worked out some deal. That’s why I need you on my side; we’ve got to resist.” She looked up into the sky, northward, where the Gate used to orbit. “I hate them sometimes. Orphaning us here like this.”
“So do I, Amanda.” Jessica’s husband had been on Earth when the Gate was destroyed by human supremacists. She knew about hate.
“No, I mean really hate them. Sometimes I go all day and feel nothing else.” She stared at the sky for a moment, then shook herself. “Well. It looks like practice is over. Let’s go get our little darlings home, safe and sound.”
They walked back towards the field. Jessica asked, “So who is letting their kids do it? You said fifty-fifty.”
“Oh,” Amanda said, distractedly. “All sorts of people. Most of the single fathers, and that’s not hard to believe. Because that’s what men do with children, isn’t it? They let them play with sharp objects and run around in the rain without a thought, and when they get cuts and catch cold, who takes care of them? And the Eosfi — they just let their children run wild; you’ve seen it. A whole planet of men.”
Jessica heard none of this but nodded anyway. Bobby was coming up the hill from practice and she held out her arms to receive him. It had been a long time since she had felt her husband’s absence so acutely; a long time since she had felt so strongly that Bobby was all she had left. As she hugged him, one thought filled her mind to overflowing:
You will be protected.
A ringing signaled that Ziggaut’s branch-boat had arrived. Hurriedly, Jessica put the leaf in her pocket and walked to the boat. For long trips between forests, the Eosfi had built long wooden artificial branches that stretched for miles, and the boats traveled on top of them by electric current.
“Jessica Chen,” Ziggaut, tusks painted a drab olive, said as she boarded.
“Hello,” she said. “How are you today?”
About a minute passed before Ziggaut answered her in a quiet voice. “I am good,” Ziggaut said. “And you?”
“My son hates me,” she said. “I took away his ramos and he told me I was going to make him the most hated member of his school.”
“He sounds wise, your child,” Ziggaut said. They didn’t converse for the rest of the trip, and since there were only two of them in the branch-boat, Jessica found herself fidgeting and looking out at the scenery quite a bit. They were passing over the Mondrott, one of the major rivers of the region, which separated the main forest village from the local Yorn reservation. Jessica knew little about them, save that they seemed equivalent to the Amish, more or less (they were definitely pacifists), and they were regarded with a mix of curiosity and revulsion by most Eosfi. There were a lot of jokes about them; Kupp had told her some once and Jessica hadn’t understood them at all.
She looked over the side as the boat moved, and fingered the diamond-prism leaf in her pocket. She took it out to look at it, but her fingers weren’t working properly and she gasped when the leaf almost fluttered out of her hands and she thrust it back into her pocket, terrified of losing it.
Her hands were clumsy because it had been a long night. Bobby had refused to give up the ramos at first, despite her explanations. She took the line that it was too dangerous at first, but Bobby pointed out (and his logic was, for a thirteen-year-old, trenchant) that none of his Eosfi friends seemed worried about it, nor did their parents. Changing her tack, Jessica said that what was appropriate for the Eosfi wasn’t appropriate for Earthlings. (She had used this before, to keep Bobby from excessive branch-swinging — his lack of tentacles had made this argument pretty knockdown at the time.) But Bobby had anticipated this move and produced a thorough list of fellow humans whose parents were allowing them to engage in the ritual. Jessica said it was no secret that there were some dreadful parents in the world, but that didn’t mean she had to be one of them; Bobby said he wished he had one of the dreadful parents for his mother, because none of them could be bad as her. The tone of the discussion degenerated from there. Bobby went into a massive sulk after Jessica simply took the ramos away; she had thought he would be feeling better by the morning, but in fact he was not speaking to her. So she had gotten maybe three hours of sleep the night before, and was just nodding off when she heard Ziggaut’s voice announce: “We’ve arrived.”
Jessica started and looked up. She had once had, in college, a roommate who went an entire semester without once doing the laundry or washing a dish. But that was nothing compared to what she saw. Dr. Hand’s section of the tree was unruly, but this was sheer wilderness. There were no cleared paths, no real sign of civilization at all, nothing but thick masses of leaves and wild branches shooting out of every larger branch like porcupine bristles.
An Eosfi voice began singing, a strange, rhythmless melody. Another voice joined in, singing more or less the same tune, but starting at a different part and not bothering to try and catch up.
Two other voices joined in, and the resulting cacophony was like a John Cage piece. One of the voices dropped out — maybe the voice that had begun the song, maybe one of the ones that had joined in subsequently, Jessica couldn’t tell — and the other three babbled for a while until each one dropped out, the final one quitting in, it seemed to Jessica, mid-syllable.
The last voice had sounded nearby, so Ziggaut called out a greeting in the major Eosfi language. There was a rustling in the thick murk of the leaves, and then an Eosfi emerged into their presence.
It was smaller and scrawnier than Ziggaut, the size of an adolescent, but clearly an adult, judging by the size of the tusks. The tusks were unpainted, which in the regular Eosfi communities would have given the impression of being shamefully poor or else having just finished washing. The yorn stared at Jessica, started to raise a tentacle towards her, and then pulled it away. Without taking its eye off of Jessica, it spoke to Ziggaut in a few terse syllables of Eosfi. Ziggaut replied and then said to Jessica, “This is Yorn Atran. Yorn Atran is the yorn who deals with outsiders. It will be your guide in the community and show you the human area.”
Jessica paused, wondering whether to trust Ziggaut or not, but finally decided she had no choice and said, “Tell Yorn Atran I am very thankful for its help today, and also thankful that its people are taking us in.”
Ziggaut spoke to Yorn Atran in Eosfi. Yorn Atran turned away from Jessica and spoke sharply to Ziggaut, who immediately became pale and started wheezing.
“What is it?” Jessica asked. “What does it say?”
“Hroom, hroom, hroom,” Ziggaut sounded like it was choking. “It says nothing — only a formality —”
“Nik babbita–ramos! Nik babbita–ramos!” Yorn Atran squeaked, slapping the branch underfoot with two tentacles.
Ziggaut took one, two, three deep breaths in and out, then turned to Jessica and said, “Yorn Atran says, hroom hroom, that the Yorn will always welcome those who are, hroom hroom, hroom hroom, not holders of the knife.” Ziggaut sighed, looking exhausted from this exchange.
Yorn Atran placed its tentacles on an overhead branch that ran more or less along the same path as the branch they were standing on, and began moving into the growth. Ziggaut did the same, while Jessica walked behind them. Because of all the sub–branches and slippery moss growing out of the branch, Yorn Atran took it rather slowly, and Ziggaut, used to the cleanly pruned urban branches, was slower still. As Jessica walked slowly behind them, she saw an occasional head peeping out of the thick growth, then darting back, each with the same underfed, plain–tusked look as Yorn Atran. Every so often, the harmony-less, rhythm-less melody began again and minutes later it would just end, as if because of a distraction.
After about forty minutes, they stopped walking nowhere in particular. Yorn Atran spoke to Ziggaut, who turned to Jessica and said, “This is where the human settlement will be.”
Jessica felt like she was going to cry.
“Historically, we have taken care of them because they were mystics in the old religion,” Ziggaut explained as they boated back. “So even now we send them money, foodstuffs, building supplies. Every few years, the liberals on the council will say that they would be better off it they hung from their own five tentacles. And then we will cut off their funding for a while, and conditions will not improve, and the conservatives will reassert their historical prerogative and we will spend money on them again. It does not solve any problems either way, but it makes us feel good.”
For Jessica, the idea was tantamount to living with a thousand Dr. Hands. She couldn’t imagine building a house, raising a child, under such conditions — apparently, the Yorn didn’t maintain any regular schooling for their children or do any real trade or commerce beyond gathering free-growing food. For a minute she started to waver, and Ziggaut, politician that it was, must have sensed it, for it extended a tentacle and said:
“It doesn’t have to be that way, Jessica Chen,” Ziggaut said. “Give your child his ramos and let him know true fellowship. Many in your community will be influenced by you.”
She saw the long scar on its tentacle, and realized that could be Bobby’s head. And once again, she felt that yawning gulf of space and stars between her and her husband, and she knew there was only one piece of him left that she could really get her hands on and that was Bobby. And she had made a silent promise to Bobby: you will be protected.
“Why can’t we just live among you without it?” she said.
“Impossible,” Ziggaut said. “And I, hroom hroom hroom, decline to discuss it further. If you would —”
Her handheld’s communication line buzzed and she picked it up.
It was her babysitter. Bobby had run away.
It was raining when she got home, and so she didn’t see Dr. Hand, leaning against her tree house.
“Your boy’s in my yard somewhere,” he said. She jumped. Then she jumped again when she saw him. He looked like a stick painted light gray, with milky blue eyes, a few strings of hair pushed down against his head by the rain, and a lump the size of a curled thumb jutting out of his forehead.
He must have noticed her staring, because he said, “It’s cancer.”
“I wasn’t looking!” Jessica yelled, jerking away and knocking over a bottle. “Oh, God! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, you know? I’m just . . . I’m sorry.”
“Yes,” Dr. Hand said, with a little smirk. “I think it’s something in the air here. I’ve heard of a few other people getting something similar; not many.” He sounded as if he were discussing the price of soil.
“Have you seen him?” she asked.
Dr. Hand motioned vaguely in the direction of the tangle where he lived. “I saw him run in there an hour or so ago. I didn’t see him come out.”
Jessica trembled. Bobby could have easily gotten lost in there. But it wasn’t that big, was it? The Eosfi had their Rip-Van-Winkle stories of being lost in a tree and finding one’s way out only after a thousand years. But there was nothing else to do but keep looking. Drawing a deep breath, she started to walk in.
“Would you like some help?” Dr. Hand said, right as she stood at the border of the tangle.
“Yes,” she said. “Oh, yes. You can’t imagine what that would mean.”
“Well, I didn’t have much else to do. It’s not as if I spend a lot of time gardening.” He chuckled, then broke into a fit of coughing. He removed a small bottle from his pocket and put it to his lips. “Want some?” he asked. “You can make an all right whiskey from some of the roots here.”
“Oh, hell yes,” Jessica said, and took a quick swallow. Her mouth burned and she realized that Dr. Hand’s standards of “all right” for whiskey were very different from her’s. But it stilled the clamor of her nerves, and she handed the bottle back to Dr. Hand with a tiny smile and together they walked into the tangle that was his area. A branch sprang into her mouth as she took a careless step forward. It tasted sour and dry, and as she yanked it out, a thorn scraped the roof of her mouth and drew a thin trickle of blood. She looked back. Dr. Hand was right behind her, peering into the darkness.
“You may as well know,” she said to him. “My son ran away from me because . . . there’s this coming-of-age ritual that the Eosfi do and —”
“Sure,” Dr. Hand said, still staring out. “The ramos-reed. I know all about it.”
“Oh,” she said. Then she turned away and yelled “Bobby!” into the blackness. Nothing but the bitter smell of roots and twigs, and the occasional rustle of the light wind.
“I guess,” Dr. Hand said, following her as she walked, “that he doesn’t want to do it. And you’re trying to make him.”
“No,” Jessica said. “I won’t let him. It’s too dangerous. Bobby!” Nothing.
“Good for you,” Dr. Hand said. “Keep him away from it.”
Jessica’s shoulders sagged with relief. “Oh, that is so right,” she said. “I can’t believe they let their own children do it. They’re a modern people in so many ways, and this, this thing, it’s just so dark ages.”
Dr. Hand had the bottle to his lips, but he spat a burst of liquor out when Jessica said this. “Savage? Dark ages? That’s awfully — I mean, that’s really — that’s sort of condescending, don’t you think? I mean, have you thought about it? What do you know about it?”
Jessica muttered something noncommittal; she didn’t want to talk about it anymore and was worried that Dr. Hand might be some sort of crank. She wandered off to the right and called Bobby’s name again. But Dr. Hand stayed where he was and continued talking.
“Biology isn’t destiny, but it certainly does a lot – destiny with blinders and a hand tied behind its back. All tied up in their reproductive pattern, it is. You can never tell whose spores fertilize who, so you never know who half your parents are, and the other half don’t get terribly attached to their children either. There’s enough maternal instinct to get the kids old enough to fend for themselves, but no families. So there’s very little in the way of models for them of cooperation and group loyalty; very naturally individualistic. I mean, you see all that.
“That’s what the ramos-mates do for them. Like fraternity initiations, or puberty rites. But more important for them. The ramos-reed keeps the whole society together.”
It seemed to Jessica that Dr. Hand had been waiting a long time to say this to somebody. “I’m sure you’re right,” she said, her eyes darting. “But they cut each other up. Nobody cuts my son for any reason.”
There was a noise, somewhere to the right. Jessica took off for it. Dr. Hand didn’t move. She ran until she found a small animal rolling around, and she collapsed to her knees, calling Bobby’s name over and over again. She had failed. All she wanted to do was protect him, was protect that last link to her husband, to Earth, and she had failed.
Dr. Hand caught up to her. “So,” he continued. “You’re quite sure that you don’t want your son to do it?”
“Please stop,” she said wearily. “I have to find my son. I have to find —”
“He’s in my cottage,” Dr. Hand said. “He’s all right, you know. Just sleeping. He wore himself out running and I told him he could stay. I had to make sure that you weren’t going to let him; it’s important.”
Jessica stood looking at Dr. Hand for a long time, at his skin stretched over his bones like too little paper on too large a present, at his tumor, jutting out of his head like a second nose.
“Take me to him now,” she finally said. “Or I’ll kill you.”
Dr. Hand meekly led her back to the cottage, where she found Bobby lying on a mat on the ground, dead tired; he passively allowed his mother to awaken him.
“I don’t know,” she said to Dr. Hand, “whether to thank you or hit you. So I’m just going to go.”
“Look at this.” He motioned her to a small statue on the wall, one of an Eosfi with three bandaged tentacles. “This is Metto, a mythical ruler of theirs from the Keskilon-to period; this is how it’s depicted in one of their greatest tragic dramas.
“The idea,” Hand said, leaning in close to Jessica. He smelled like a brewery. “The plot is that Metto here lost three of his tentacles in his own ramos–reed. And he burns in anger over it. Of course, to express any kind of anger or resentment over such an injury is extremely taboo. But not only does Metto — who is quite noble in many ways, brave, intelligent, and decent — express his secret anger over it, he actually hunts down all its ramos–mates and kills them. It never finds out which one has done it, though, and that is Metto’s most forbidden wandering of all. And, of course, the way the rite is structured, you’re all blindfolded, you can’t ever know. In the end the gods curse and destroy Metto. I had to see it, even though I skulked around in the back. So you see, the rite creates a center of guilt as well as loyalty; bottomless gulfs as well as shimmering rainbow peaks. You might say it creates their souls.
“Would they be better off eating hamburgers and listening to rock music?” he added, spreading his hands. “It’s not as if the ramos-reed is entirely secure. Every year a larger minority wanted to opt out when we met up with them. We made it worse. The conservatives in their legislature have fought very hard on this issue, but the forces of cultural contamination are stronger than you can imagine.
“That’s why I blew up the Gate.
“It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t as hard as I thought; I had to deal with some unsavory people, human supremacists, but they needed somebody to work the other end of the Gate, so that two simultaneous nuclear explosions on opposite ends of a hyperspace tunnel would seal of the circuit and make further Gate–building impossible for light–months around both areas. Getting the bomb through customs, hiding it, making the announcement so the Gate would be evacuated — all tricky, to be sure, but actually easier than I thought. And now this planet is safe.”
Jessica opened her mouth, but found nothing to say, as if a blanket had been thrown over her memory of words, utterly opaque.
“So don’t undo it,” Dr. Hand continued, in a voice both trembling and triumphant. “Take your boy to the Yorn colony and stay there. And discourage him from having any kids of his own.” He cradled the empty bottle in his hands like an infant. “Protect them from us.”
“I have to go now,” Jessica said. It was all she could say.
Later, as Jessica was standing on her own front porch, she fished into her pocket and found (with Bobby tucked away in bed) the ramos, and the diamond-prism leaf she had been saving. A light gust of wind took the leaf from her hands and, with a microscopic gasp of panic, she tried to pluck it out of the air, but it escaped her, fluttering to and fro on tiny, abortive little quests as it danced.
She watched with a small tingle of fear, waiting for it to rip or for holes to appear. But it proved not so fragile.
Then, her mind wholly made up, she went into Bobby’s room and woke him up.
“Mom,” he whined. “I’m sleeping.”
“Yes, I know. This will just be a minute.” She opened up his small, strong hand and, covering it with her own, placed the ramos in it.
“Take this back,” she said. “Take it and keep it and use it when the time comes, Bobby. We’re going to stay here, and so I want you to do this.”
Sleepily, Bobby stared at his hand, then looked at her and, his lip quivering, said, “Mom . . . thanks. I — ”
“And for God’s sake, Bobby,” she said, squeezing his hand even harder, as if trying to keep hold of a keychain in a hurricane. “For God’s sake, Bobby, be careful. Be careful.” It was all she could say as she let him go.
Jason L. Corner lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife Martha-Lynn. He teaches English at the Ohio State University at Newark. The Knife is his first publication.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish