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The Rehabilitation of Eli May
I sit in the shade of my porch and watch two children play in the sun. One of them is my daughter, and I can reasonably expect many things of her: to experience pleasure, to suffer pain, to bury me when I die. For this I am thankful. The other is called Eliza May, and she will disappoint anyone who expects her to do anything. Nevertheless, she represents the greatest success of my life. A philosopher, I think, once counseled us to beware of small victories. Eliza May’s gift to me was to show that these are the only victories worth having. I helped bring her from an awful, fecund darkness into some small approximation of the light, and I would not trade the tiniest part of the process for any prize the world can offer me.
This is Eliza May’s story. It is the story of how the most damaged person in history managed to find her way home. It is my story too, though that is not important. What is important is that we recognize the community we have with her. What is important is that she reflects the light.
My name is Paul Patrinus. For 32 years, I have been a developmental psychologist with the Interplanetary Coordination Bureau. My job is easy to describe and difficult to do. Essentially, it is to visit the more remote Earth colonies and assess whether they are in danger of lapsing into atavism. Given the distance of most of the colonies from Earth and the impact of relativistic time dilation, it is to be expected that they will be largely autonomous in governing their own affairs. The problem starts when autonomy becomes insularity, and insularity degenerates into isolationism. More than once, it has happened that some technophobe meme has taken over a settlement and permanently regressed it to the seed drill and the cataloging of demons. Considering that the main criterion for settlement is that a planet has a high resource value, the need to prevent this happening should be obvious. It is my task to identify the advance signs and recommend appropriate action.
Eliza May entered my life first when I was on a scheduled visit to assess the level of cultural development on Materonta. As human settlements go, Materonta—or, to give it its proper name, 51 Pegasi d—is close to the very edge of explored space. At more than 12 light years from Earth, even superluminal transport takes three years to get there. When traveling to Materonta, an interest in filling the gaps in one’s knowledge of the weightier classics is a decided advantage. I made my way through all of Dante, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy, and emerged from the experience with a slightly worse estimation of the human character. So much for the improving value of literature.
Not that the inhabitants of Materonta would ever waste a thought on the value of literature, improving or otherwise. The sole aim and purpose of Materonta is diamond mining. The planet’s crust is rich enough in high-quality carbon allotropes to reward individual prospecting, so social relations there might as well have been scripted for a wolf pack. The government will condescend to adjudicate between competing stake claims and to punish publicly visible murderers—after that, it is a perfect libertarian paradise. It didn’t take us long to realize that the problem on Materonta wasn’t so much lapsing back into atavism as advancing out of it in the first place. The evidence of this was everywhere, from the plug-ugly, tin-shack brutalism of Moresby, the only city, to the blistering contempt that seemed to be its inhabitants’ default orientation to off-worlders. To my mind, however, the interviews we did with the children were most telling.
‘So, Tan, what would you like to be when you grow up?’
‘And if you couldn’t be a prospector, what might you like to be instead?’
Tan offered the same response to this question as all the other children—namely, a brow furrowed in incredulity at a cosmic dispensation that might not involve grubbing in the dirt.
‘How about an engineer, maybe?’ I continued. ‘Or a pilot? Perhaps a teacher? Would you like to be any of these things?’
‘No. All of ’em pash.’
Pash was a Materonta term of abuse, with a meaning that ranged from ‘dirt poor’ to ‘contemptibly effeminate.’ I had little doubt that, as far as Tan was concerned, I accommodated both semantic extremities.
This was the attitude evinced everywhere we went. It became grating, after a while. To be hated is one thing, but it is hard to endure scorn. Most colonies detest our presence; the cannier few sham atavism in order to secure federal grants. Materonta simply didn’t care.
After six months in Moresby, the team split up to visit the various outlying regions. Unusually for a colonized planet, the vast majority of Materonta’s population did not live in the capital city; instead, it was dispersed in small settlements all over the planet’s surface. As luck would have it, I drew the ticket for Telluria, a sub continental territory that was considered backward even by Materontan standards. As there was no chance of the population coming to me without an inducement, I had to offer bribes in every village I visited. The inhabitants, naturally, thought that they were swindling me; and I, naturally, encouraged them to believe it. Long experience has thought me that there is more to be learned from fabulation and evasion than there ever is from direct statement. So, every day I spent the afternoon sifting through lies in an effort to catalogue the cultural unconscious of the Tellurian hinterland. The mornings and evenings were my own to do with as I pleased, not that this was a matter of choice--I may as well have not existed for all that was offered to me in the way of voluntary social contact.
This is what made it all the more unusual when one morning I was interrupted while shaving by an aggressive shout outside my tent. When I opened the flap and looked out, I encountered its owner--a ferret-faced man with a gray beard halfway down his chest. His calloused hands and his weather-burnished face instantly identified him as a prospector. Next to him stood a woman; she was probably in her mid-30s, but could plausibly have passed for 60. They were both dressed in a jarring mix of cast-off synthetics and home-stitched leathers.
The man spoke first. ‘Ya the sango man?’
I nodded. Sango was the prefix that attached to anything medical or therapeutic in Materonta.
‘Got a thing for ya so. Might be worth a bit. Bit to ya, bit to I. Ya do the game?’
‘Well, that depends. What have you got?’
‘Got it on cart over; ya come and see.’
I followed them over to a mule-drawn flatbed cart. If the pair were prospectors, they obviously weren’t very good at it. On top of the cart was a wooden box of sufficient size to contain a large dog. The man climbed up and levered off the lid. He beckoned me up with a grin and pointed inside.
‘It be a girl, ya see it?’
My heart very nearly stopped beating when I looked inside. The box contained a girl of about five years. Her arms and legs were tied, and there was a bandage around her eyes. She didn’t move, but continually voiced a high-pitched whine. The smell that came from the box was the pungent damp of a rotten woodpile.
I jumped down from the cart and indicated to the man to replace the lid on the box. I was the width of a shadow away from murder, but I steeled myself against showing it.
‘Where did you get her?’
The woman answered. ‘We seen her before recent, ya know? Last long while, she been in the hive with the nicktick. Fero here, he hears ya in the town; he reckons she worth it to ya and claims her back.’ Her eyes narrowed. ‘It’s a hard task, mister; we see no crystal while Fero work the hive. Ya got a good offer for us?’
‘Let me get this straight: It was only when I turned up that you thought to remove her from the hive?’
Fero shrugged. ‘Not kin to us. So, mister, ya do the game? We do think that 100,000 omni be a fair play. ’
I was too appalled to even argue with him. ‘Yes, I’ll do the game,’ I muttered through gritted teeth. I signed a federal credit receipt to the extortionate value he asked. It was enough to bankrupt the rest of my survey, not that I cared any longer.
‘The girl: I need to know all the information you have about her. Do you have any idea how she ended up in the nicktick hive?’
The woman answered. ‘No easy life to be had in this place, mister. Maybe her ma die and her pa cut her loose. More likely, mayhap, a girl gets child by a soul too close and it get known, ya understand me? No marryin’ of a child like that. Lots of stories can be told. Me and Fero? We mind ourselves and our business alone. We got no answer for ya that’s proof against any other.’
‘I see. If that’s all you have to say, then you can go. You’ve taken your advantage and profited by it. Now please get out of my sight.’
The woman looked back as they moved off. ‘Ya think us hard, mister. Ya think wrong. Don’t ya forget: it were us that take that girl from the hive--and no soul else were game to do it.’
The nicktick are a macro-faunal species of arthropods native to Materonta. Physically, they resemble dragonfly larvae from Earth, though they are the size of large pigs and practice eusociality. They live in large underground hives that cover about one square kilometer. Most of the year, the nicktick feed on a specially cultivated fungus that they grow deep within the hive. However, they are also autophagous. At the start of the Materontan summer, around ten percent of the nicktick hatch leave the hive and develop a different morphology from those that remain behind. The grubs travel considerable distances from the hive, consuming any dead organic matter they encounter. All of this is translated directly into increased bodily mass. By the end of the summer, the grubs have become many times their original size, with all of it being concentrated in their white, maggot-like abdomens. Then, on the first autumn conjunction of the two Materontan moons, the grubs make their way back to their hive of origin. Their parents and their siblings are waiting for them in the passages. The grubs are devoured alive.
Now imagine this. There is a two-year-old girl. Someone who lacks even the humanity to give her a quick death has abandoned her. The Materontan night is freezing, even in the summer. She can barely understand what has happened to her, but she understands what it means to be cold. She wanders into the vicinity of a nicktick hive. A ventilation passage emits warm air; she is drawn to it. She goes deeper into the hive. Somewhere she finds a fungus she can eat. Somewhere else she finds water. The air is high in carbon dioxide so it is difficult to breathe; nevertheless, it is still better than the frigid air outside. She is a survivor, and gradually she adapts to the hive. She discovers that the best food is pre-digested and fed to the nicktick hatchlings in the nursery. It is warmest there too. Whatever rudiments of human acculturation she has learned fall away; instead she learns to negotiate a lightless world of smells and pheromones. Her ears grow accustomed to the clicks and whistles of nicktick communication. She will never understand it fully, not being nicktick; but she learns to make associations. Agitation, excitement, anticipation--whatever analog to these the nicktick may possess, she is able to detect. Once a year, she understands that something of vital importance happens. She is a participant in it.
The nicktick are not without intelligence. In problem-solving terms at least, they are the rivals of the chimpanzee. They recognize that the strange creature that wanders their tunnels is not one of their number. But their world is young, and the only natural threat they have ever faced is disease. So, they tolerate her. Indeed, their instincts are such that they feel compelled to feed her when she is in the nursery. Eventually, they become habituated and she ceases to interest them at all. It will only be when she dies and starts to decompose that they will once again turn their attention towards her. Then, along with the rest of the carrion, they will take her to gardens where she will feed the fungus.
In all that the girl forgets, only one thing remains to her. Sometimes, when a tunnel takes her near a ventilation hole, she remembers the light. If it is dawn or dusk, the light only hurts her eyes a little, and she may look out. She is dimly aware that she has suffered a loss of horrific magnitude, but she lacks any language that will allow her to think of it. And if she knows that she does not belong here, she also knows that there is nowhere else for her to go.
One evening she is at a ventilation hole. She can smell something alien, but she does not know what it is. Suddenly, her wrist is grabbed. The creature responsible is hideous to behold: it has four limbs instead of six, and it walks upright. Its white skin reminds her of the grubs when they return from the outside. In the midst of her fear, this triggers hunger. She lunges at her captor but it is quick and moves out of the way. It ties her hands and has at least the good sense to cover her eyes with a bandage. It is cold outside the hive.
Even after three years she remembers the cold.
My immediate response after the prospector and his wife had left was to radio for a pick-up from orbit. If what I heard was true, then the Materontan authorities would see the incident as an embarrassment, and condemn the child to a lifetime in one of the children’s prisons that they have the audacity to call orphanages. Next to that, kidnapping was an act of mercy.
Katja Anderson, the chief of medicine, conducted a full examination after the child had been sedated. The girl suffered from scoliosis, vitamin deficiencies in all major groups, chronic fungal infections, severely attenuated eyesight, ingrown toenails, weeping sores on her left leg and mild symptoms of hypothermia. Genetic sequencing also threw up a suspiciously largely count of homozygous alleles in the child’s DNA. This may merely have been the product of endogamous Tellurian marriage practices, and it may not. There was no value for her in our speculating about it, so we didn’t. The closest mitochondrial match on record was for a woman called Eliza May Erde, a first-generation immigrant to Materonta. As she had died three hundred years before, this was little help in tracing living relatives. Nevertheless, it gave us a name, and the name stuck.
‘Do you think,’ I asked Anderson, ‘that anything can be done for her?’
‘Lots of things can be done for her. You can fix scoliosis and you can treat fungal infections. Ingrown toenails can be removed and vitamin deficiencies can be remedied. In that sense, yes, there many things that can be done.’
‘That’s not what I meant.’
‘Jesus Christ, Paul--what the fuck is it you want me to say? That I can give her a pill and it will all be made better?’
Anderson’s hands were shaking violently. Why did I ever assume that this would be easier for her than it was for me?
‘I’m sorry. I wasn’t asking for a miracle. It’s just that when I think of what’s happened to her--’
‘I know, Paul; do you suppose I’m not thinking of it too? I find it nearly impossible to think of anything else.’ Anderson slumped into the chair across from me and wearily covered her face with her hands. ‘Look, Paul: I can look after her physically--that much I’m confident of. As for the rest, well, that’s your area of expertise, not mine.’ She removed her hands and looked up. ‘So, as a psychologist, what do you think?’
I sighed. ‘I honestly don’t know. She’s spent the formative years of her life in the company of something so profoundly inhuman that it makes being locked in an attic look like being born with a silver spoon in your mouth. I guess it all depends on what she knew before being abandoned. If she had even the rudiments of speech, then it may be possible to retrieve some basic level of symbolic cognition--if.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I don’t know that either. But I do know that we’re three years from any help worth having, and that if nothing is done in that time, she’s as good as lost.’
‘But you will do something?’
‘Yes, I will do something.’
Think of what it’s like to rip open a compost heap or kick over a rotten board. Think of the mass of lush, sprawling life that it spills out--life that breathes with gills, despite not living in water; life without eyes and without sex; life that exists purely as a function of death. Such is the life that was given to Eliza May.
This knowledge was the gravity-well around which my dreams used to orbit. In the nadir of the night, I would find myself in a child’s body--my own, not hers--and in a suffocating, overheated, blackness. All around me I would hear scuttling in the dark. Every so often, there would be a high-pitched trilling that was laden with significance but not meaning. I would be frightened to the point of utter paralysis. Unable to do otherwise, I would stand and wait for what I knew must come: the probing touch of an organ that no human brain is calibrated to exploit. Inevitably, it would come, and I would feel its quivering touch as it brushed my neck and worked its way down my back. The desire to scream would be overwhelming, but nothing would come--not that it mattered. There was no mind there that could parse a human scream. What might it mean, to inhabit darkness like this? What might it mean to consider it home?
Every time, the spell would be broken by the supervening of vast booming, which, when I woke, I would register as the beating of my own accelerated heart. This is what these dreams did to me, and they were only second-hand. I used to see Eliza May’s eyes quiver in her sleep, and wonder with quiet dread what horror was enacting itself behind them. And I would wonder if, after all that had been done, she would still rather be there than here.
Food was a problem. The ship was fitted with just about every commodity that a human being could want, with the exception of the one we needed--nicktick fungus. We tried every other offering that the galley was able to provide, but Eliza May ignored them all. This meant either force-feeding or something altogether more drastic. As I could think of nothing better than force-feeding to permanently alienate the child, we took the more drastic option.
The nicktick are not particularly well studied. Zoologists have yet to exhaustively inventory Earth’s biosphere, let alone that of the seventy-odd planetary colonies. The result is that most of the data gathering is done robotically, after which it is analyzed as the need arises. What knowledge we have of the nicktick comes from small drones that spent a number of years in the hives recording their behavior. These recordings were available on the ship’s data bank.
I crudely sculpted a block of tofu to look like a nicktick grub and brought it with me into Eliza May’s room. I placed it in the center of the floor and sat stock still with my back to the door. Over the intercom, a recording of the noise inside a hive when the grubs returned from outside was played. The reaction was instantaneous. Where before Eliza May had inserted herself into the darkest corner and not moved from it, she now jerked into instant readiness. She registered the faux-grub and fell upon it with a savagery that disturbed me a little.
When she had finished, I coughed deliberately and she looked in my direction. I wanted her to associate me with the food. She crept over quietly and sniffed the air in my vicinity. This was exactly how I had hoped things would work out.
Then, with the quickness of a snake, she thrust her forefinger into my left eye. The pain was excruciating, and I bellowed aloud. Eliza May instantly retreated to the corner. An alarm went off and the lights came on. Two medical orderlies entered and took me to sickbay.
Anderson spent an hour examining what remained of my eye. When she had finished, I found myself reluctant to ask the necessary question. I forced myself to do it anyway.
‘So what’s the prognosis?’
‘I’m afraid it’s not good. Her finger went through the lens entirely and severely damaged the retina. It can’t be repaired. I’m sorry Paul--the eye is going to have to come out. I can’t risk you losing the other one to a sympathetic infection.’
‘That’s only temporary though, right? When we get back I can have a new eye cloned?’
‘I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. After three years, the socket would no longer take the new eye. You’re going to have to get by with a prosthetic. They’re quite good--your vision will only be marginally degraded.’
‘Would a prosthetic require a lot of maintenance?’
‘Yes, though you shouldn’t let that deter you.’
I deliberated for a moment then made my decision.
‘I think I’ll pass. It’s not like the world gets any better the more you look at it. I’ve seen it in the light; maybe the darkness isn’t so bad.’
‘Very poetic, Paul, but hardly practical; are you sure about this?’
I fixed Anderson with my remaining eye.
‘Yes, I’m sure.’
There are many reports of children being raised by animals. Almost none of them are true. Sometimes, they’re gimmicked up for publicity; more often, they’re simply convenient cover stories for garden-variety abuse and neglect. In the cases where there is some evidence that animals were involved, the children were usually severely disabled to begin with. Once all of these are filtered out, there are only a tiny number of precedents relevant to Eliza May’s situation.
Take the case of John Beeko, for example. He was discovered in 1976 living with a troop of black-faced macaques in the Ugandan rainforest. His parents had both been murdered in the civil war, and he had been missing since he was two years old. Both he and the monkeys ferociously resisted him being taken back into civilization; he fought off his rescuers from a tree, and two of the party had to receive treatment for monkey bites. The boy suffered from a severe case of rickets, and when he defecated, he produced intestinal worms nearly half a meter long. The Ugandan government had him placed in a Presbyterian orphanage, where the family of the manager adopted him. He never truly adapted to life in society, but he managed to learn the rudiments of speech, and it was discovered that he had a particular talent for singing.
Compared to Eliza May, John Beeko was fortunate. Black-faced macaques are primates. Their social structure is not too different from that of a human group, and the ecological niche they inhabit at least partially correlates with human needs. They also engage in parent-offspring bonding and their communicative practices are readily translatable into human terms.
The nicktick, on the other hand, are eusocial--a behavioral strategy for which humans have no cognitive template whatsoever. Understanding eusociality from the inside would be like trying to educate a bonfire in parental solicitation. Every social cue that might have triggered Eliza May’s development as a human being was either absent or warped beyond recognition. She was a foot bound into the wrong shape, a cat grown inside a bottle.
But she did carry some marks of the human world. The infections on her legs and the fungus that covered her body could not have come from the nicktick hive--this was impossible, given that humans and the nicktick evolved on two separate planets and have incompatible biologies. Only one thing could explain their presence.
Wherever Eliza May came from, she brought those afflictions in with her.
I was playing chess with one of the medical orderlies when the idea came to me. I had knocked over one of the pieces yet again--lack of depth perception does that--when I noticed the shading of the board. It struck me that there are no right angles in nature; they are entirely the product of manufacture.
Reflect on what this suggests about the difference between the inner lives of animals and humans. The world of an animal is a seamless whole. Nothing in it has the imperative of an ought--only the necessity of a must. The life of a human is different. From our first words onwards, we break things apart and out them together differently. It is in our nature to pixellate the world, to impose discrete categories on it that, if they can’t be justified with reference to nature, we’ll find occasion to attribute to god or some other convenient abstraction.
Eliza May inherited none of this. Her world was a vast, indiscriminate mass of detail. It can be difficult to imagine what this must be like. Think of how impossible it is to urinate in a kitchen or to eat lunch in a bathroom. Consider the anxiety entrained by an unreciprocated invitation or being caught naked in public. Culture marks our very dreams and we do not even notice it. The task with Eliza May was to shatter her world and impress the pieces with the stamp of the symbolic.
My plan was simple. When I entered Eliza May’s room, I had a pattern displayed on the wall. It consisted of alternating black and white squares, adjusted for maximum perceptual contrast. I settled into my usual spot near the door. Nothing happened for about twenty minutes, then Eliza May crept over to the middle of the room and sat down. She was entranced by the pattern, and stared intently at it. After five minutes, I left and had the pattern turned off.
I repeated this procedure every day for a month, and her fascination persisted. She came to associate my presence with the pattern, and no longer hid when she saw me. Then I changed the pattern. I had the controls of the room switched over to voice activation. The room was always in darkness when I entered. I would then say one word loudly:
The lights would rise to a level just about tolerable to her eyes. I would then say my second word:
The lights would fade. I repeated this pattern for another month.
One day, I went to Eliza May’s room and the lights were already on. I was furious at having the routine interrupted, and contacted maintenance with a view to filleting someone alive. The response stunned me.
‘Save the gasbagging for your other slave; we didn’t do anything to the kid’s room.’
I replayed the surveillance file and I heard it for myself. The word was both simple and profound--light.
It was almost certainly not her first. At her age, the parts of her brain responsible for linguistic parsing would have long ago attenuated unless the environment had activated them. Nevertheless, that one word was the guarantee of her being capable of a future. I was elated, and immediately got in touch with Anderson to tell her about what had happened. It struck me as I did so that, before then, I had never once experienced any form of joy that did not center primarily on myself.
A dud eye and uncomplicated happiness--there is no accounting for the gifts that are given to us.
The Russian mnemonist Solomon Shereshevsky was unable to ride a bicycle without carrying an umbrella. The reason? It once rained when he was cycling, and his hyper-augmented memory forever associated the two afterwards. Sufferers of anterograde amnesia, on the other hand, are entirely unable to lay down new memories, and spend each day reacquainting themselves with geography of the kitchen. One is chained to the past; the other is unmoored in the present.
The scar that most of us carry derives from somewhere in between. This ground has been staked out, too. That mountebank Freud wagered that we were warped into humanity by seeing mummy and daddy have at it on a Saturday night. J.B. Watson traced it all back to environmental conditioning, his family’s addiction to suicide not embarrassing him one whit. Martin Heidegger--a Nazi this time, for color--attributed the scar to our inauthentic relation with ourselves.
In the end, I think the Catholics come closest to the truth. The wound we carry is universal, and it is present at birth: it is the wound of being human. It is the wound that comes with inhabiting a world that permanently frustrates everything we want of it. All that we have done as a species is an attempt to escape this wound, and nothing we will ever do is sufficient to succeed in it.
I remind myself of this when I think of what happened to Eliza May. It is too easy to classify what she underwent in the nicktick hive as a singular experience, to place it on the far side of what we are able to accommodate. It is too easy and it is dangerous, because once we do this then we must inevitably do the same to Eliza May. What she endured is horrific beyond imagining, but imagine it is exactly what we must do. Once we do this, once we think it through to the bitter end, then it becomes part of the wound we all must carry. And if we exist in a world of pain, then there is at least community in suffering.
The three years it took to return to Earth were the hardest of my professional life. Progress with Eliza May was exasperatingly, frustratingly slow--but progress was made. Each incremental step was like one more block being levered out of a wall that blocked the light. By the end of the voyage, she understood most of what was said to her. She had a vocabulary of about two hundred words, though advanced grammatical constructions were beyond her. She was toilet trained and willing to wear clothes; with dark glasses she could endure the regular lighting of the ship. If you held her hand and no one looked too closely, she’d have passed for an ordinary child with a slight limp.
In the meantime, Earth had moved on fifty years. Everyone I knew was probably dead, off world, or too old to care about me one way or the other. This is the reason why developmental psychologists are so handsomely remunerated. It is also the reason why its practitioners have the highest rate of suicide, substance abuse and depression of any profession on record.
Mental Health Services took in Eliza May. They congratulated me on what I had achieved, marveled on the opportunities she offered for researching the ontogenesis of language, and gave me to understand that my clothes should be donated to a museum. For my part, I filed my report on Materonta with the IPCB--“Exterminate all the brutes!”--and handed in my notice. For three decades I had been a developmental psychologist, and in that time Earth had traveled a century and a half into the future. If I continued like this, the heat death of the universe would arrive before I got to claim my first pension installment. It was time to stop.
I quickly found that freedom didn’t suit me. I certainly tried to make the best of it: I decked myself out in the requisite à la mode attire, I got drunk for whole days at a time, I played catch-up on fifty years of cultural and historical progress. None of it was enough to ease over the painful, aggravated boredom that afflicted me. I knew, of course, what the problem was. I made an appointment with Nessa Brooks, the psychologist in charge of Eliza May’s case.
‘Dr Patrinus: this is a surprise. What can I do for you?’
‘I’d like to continue my involvement in the rehabilitation of Eliza May.’
‘I appreciate the offer, but I’m afraid that’s impossible. We have some highly qualified people working with her; you can be certain that she’s receiving the very best care available.’
‘That’s wonderful and everything, but it’s not like I’m a gentleman-amateur. You’ll remember that I’m a psychologist too.’
‘I don’t doubt it--and a very skilled one at that, if the work you’ve already done with Eliza May is anything to go by. But the fact is that psychology has moved on a lot in the last fifty years.’
‘And to think that human nature changed while I was away and I never even noticed.’
Brooks sublimated a snigger into a cough. I knew then that I’d get what I wanted.
‘Look, maybe you could leave it with me? Given that the child is familiar with you, I suppose a case can be made for taking you on in an advisory role. I’ll have to run it by the rest of the team.’
‘That’s fine. You’ll let me know as soon as you decide?
I got the job. After four years, Brooks was promoted and I was made chief consultant in Eliza May’s case. In the same four years, I took out a fifty-year marriage lease with Enla Channon, the psycholinguist assigned to Eliza May, and we had a child of our own. The ease with which Antigone made her way through the developmental stages made me realize that that Eliza May’s progress had plateaued. Indeed, I began to fear that she was regressing. Sometimes she would sit in darkness for two days, refusing to speak or interact with anyone. Other times, she might stop eating or without warning frenziedly attempt to bite someone. Most ominous of all were the noises she began to make in her sleep--clicks, whistles, and trills that no human throat had any business articulating.
I was unable to escape the thought that everything we had achieved with her was a façade--that beneath the plausible-seeming repertoire of behaviors we had taught her, she remained as foreign to the human world as the day she had been captured. It was not long after this that my own horrible odyssey of dreaming started, and I began to wonder if I had been deluded to think that anyone could overcome the alienation that had been enacted on Eliza May.
In the end, it became clear in my mind that there was only one way to be certain: we needed to take her back to Materonta. It was a step fraught with risks, but whatever Eliza May remembered from the hive had to be met face-to-face. Leaving it to fester in the darkness of her memory would create a black hole in her psychology that would, in time, draw the whole world into its crooked orbit.
We travelled to Materonta--my wife, my daughter, Eliza May, and I. As I already had legal guardianship of Eliza May, it was a small matter to have the relationship strengthened into formal adoption. Superluminal transport had improved tenfold over the years, so now the journey could be done in three months, leaving you only a decade out of synch with Earth when you returned.
I didn’t take long for me to realize that Materonta, too, had moved on since I had last been there. Moresby had undergone an architectural renaissance, and could have passed for any modest-sized city anywhere in the federated colonies--indeed, it now boasted a university and an economy that was based on the novel concept of making items of value as opposed to just finding them. The people, admittedly, were as caustic as ever; but those involved in the tourist industry at least affected a type of truculent civility.
Enla and Antigone remained in Moresby, while I signed Eliza May and myself up for the trip to Telluria. Over the years, the return of the hatchlings had become a cult event in outré inter-planetary tourism. Never slow to spot an advantage, the Materontans took to organizing tours to witness the occasion. We were flown into Telluria with an eclectic mixture of professional biologists and obscenely wealthy, synth-swapping refugees from any permanent frame of spatiotemporal reference. It pleased me that, for once, I wasn’t the person with the oldest birth certificate in the group.
On the day before the first lunar conjunction of the autumn, we set up camp near a hive. The undergrowth surrounding us was alive with grubs, but it was impossible to see them. There was no difficulty in hearing them, however: all through the night the vegetation crashed and ripped with the movement of their distended bodies. I watched Eliza May sleep in her cot, and with growing unease registered her subvocalizing the two syllables that gave the nicktick their name.
When dawn came, I woke her and gave her a breakfast that she refused to eat. She just sat at the table, eyes fixed unblinkingly on a spot in the middle distance. I began to have doubts about the wisdom of what I planned to do, but I forced them out of my mind.
I led Eliza May out of the tent just as the first rays of Damkina, the Materontan sun, were lightening the gloom. The rest of the spectators had already gathered, and we forced our way to the front. As we got there, the disc of Ereshkigal, the smaller of the two Materontan moons, intersected with that of Inanna, its sister. As it did, a vast ululation arose from the hive: neek teek, neek teek, neek teek. In response, the grubs emerged from the brush, many puncturing their abdominal sacs on branches in their suicidal eagerness to be eaten by their own kin.
Beside me, I felt Eliza May stiffen. I knelt down, and heard a small echo of the clamor from the nicktick emerge from her mouth. Interposing myself between her and the view of the hive, I looked directly into her eyes.
‘Tell me, Eliza May: what do you see?’
She stared through me as if I wasn’t there. I asked again, this time louder.
‘You have to tell me Eliza May; I need to know what you see!’
I waited for a minute, then two. The first grubs had reached the hive, and the trilling was now even louder. I despaired of getting a response.
Abruptly, Eliza May blinked and focused her attention on me.
‘Slugs,’ she said in a matter-of-fact tone. She pointed to one of the grubs: ‘Big white slugs. Gone again soon. No more slugs.’
‘No more slugs,’ I repeated after her. What began as a breath exhaled in relief ended up as a slightly hysterical laugh. The other spectators looked at me with irritation. One of them shouted over at me.
‘This is no place for kid, buddy.’
‘You’re right,’ I answered. ‘This is no place for a kid. That’s why I’m taking her back.’
We returned to the tent in the light of the Materontan dawn: the lost girl hand-in-hand with the one-eyed man. There is no accounting for the gifts we are given.
#Unreal #ShortStory #CreativeWriting #ScienceFiction #AnotherPlanet #Extraterrestrial #Earthlings #AcrossTheUniverse
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