Parable of the talents, p.1
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       Parable of the Talents, p.1

           Octavia E. Butler
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Parable of the Talents


  The Works of Octavia E. Butler

  Parable of the Talents*

  Parable of the Sower*

  Dawn*

  Adulthood Rites*

  Imago*

  Wild Seed*

  Mind of My Mind*

  Clay’s Ark*

  Patternmaster*

  Kindred

  Survivor

  Bloodchild and Other Stories

  * Available from Warner Aspect

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

  Warner Books Edition

  Copyright © 1998 by Octavia E. Butler

  Reading Group Guide copyright © 2000 by Octavia E. Butler and Warner Books.

  All rights reserved.

  This Warner Books Edition is published by arrangement with Seven Stories Press, New York, NY

  Aspect® name and logo are registered trademarks of Warner Books, Inc.

  Warner Book, Inc., 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

  Visit our Web site at www.twbookmark.com.

  A Time Warner Company

  Printed in the United States of America

  First Trade Printing: January 2000

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Butler, Octavia E.

  Parable of the talents / Octavia E. Butler.—Warner Books ed.

  p. cm.

  “Aspect.”

  Includes Reading Group Guide questions

  ISBN 0-446-67578-4

  1. Young women—United States—Fiction. 2. Twenty-first century—Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3552.U827 P38 2000

  813'. 54-dc21

  99-046566

  CIP

  Cover design by Don Puckey

  Cover illustration by John Blackford

  Interior design by Charles Sutherland

  TO MY AUNTS

  IRMA HARRIS AND

  HAZEL RUTH WALKER,

  AND IN MEMORY OF MY MOTHER

  OCTAVIA MARGARET BUTLER

  Contents

  PROLOGUE

  2032

  ONE

  TWO

  THREE

  FOUR

  FIVE

  SIX

  SEVEN

  2033

  EIGHT

  NINE

  TEN

  ELEVEN

  TWELVE

  THIRTEEN

  2035

  FOURTEEN

  FIFTEEN

  SIXTEEN

  SEVENTEEN

  EIGHTEEN

  NINETEEN

  TWENTY

  TWENTY-ONE

  EPILOGUE

  A Conversation with Octavia E. Butler

  PROLOGUE

  ❏ ❏ ❏

  From EARTHSEED: THE BOOKS OF THE LIVING

  By Lauren Oya Olamina

  Here we are—

  Energy,

  Mass,

  Life,

  Shaping life,

  Mind,

  Shaping Mind,

  God,

  Shaping God.

  Consider—

  We are born

  Not with purpose,

  But with potential.

  THEY’LL MAKE A GOD of her.

  I think that would please her, if she could know about it. In spite of all her protests and denials, she’s always needed devoted, obedient followers—disciples—who would listen to her and believe everything she told them. And she needed large events to manipulate. All gods seem to need these things.

  Her legal name was Lauren Oya Olamina Bankole. To those who loved her or hated her, she was simply “Olamina.”

  She was my biological mother.

  She is dead.

  I have wanted to love her and to believe that what happened between her and me wasn’t her fault. I’ve wanted that. But instead, I’ve hated her, feared her, needed her. I’ve never trusted her, though, never understood how she could be the way she was—so focused, and yet so misguided, there for all the world, but never there for me. I still don’t understand. And now that she’s dead, I’m not even sure I ever will. But I must try because I need to understand myself, and she is part of me. I wish that she weren’t, but she is. In order for me to understand who I am, I must begin to understand who she was. That is my reason for writing and assembling this book.

  It has always been my way to sort through my feelings by writing. She and I had that in common. And along with the need to write, she also developed a need to draw. If she had been born in a saner time, she might have become a writer as I have or an artist.

  I’ve gathered a few of her drawings, although she gave most of these away during her lifetime. And I have copies of all that was saved of her writings. Even some of her early, paper notebooks have been copied to disk or crystal and saved. She had a habit, during her youth, of hiding caches of food, money, and weaponry in out-of-the-way places or with trusted people, and being able to go straight back to these years later. These saved her life several times, and also they saved her words, her journals and notes and my father’s writings. She managed to badger him into writing a little. He wrote well, although he didn’t like doing it. I’m glad she badgered him. I’m glad to have known him at least through his writing. I wonder why I’m not glad to have known her through hers.

  “God is Change,” my mother believed. That was what she said in the first of her verses in Earthseed: The First Book of the Living.

  All that you touch

  You Change.

  All that you Change

  Changes you.

  The only lasting truth

  Is Change.

  God

  Is Change.

  The words are harmless, I suppose, and metaphorically true. At least she began with some species of truth. And now she’s touched me one last time with her memories, her life, and her damned Earthseed.

  2032

  ❏ ❏ ❏

  From EARTHSEED: THE BOOKS OF THE LIVING

  We give our dead

  To the orchards

  And the groves.

  We give our dead

  To life.

  ONE

  ❏ ❏ ❏

  From EARTHSEED: THE BOOKS OF THE LIVING

  Darkness

  Gives shape to the light

  As light

  Shapes the darkness.

  Death

  Gives shape to life

  As life

  Shapes death.

  The universe

  And God

  Share this wholeness,

  Each

  Defining the other.

  God

  Gives shape to the universe

  As the universe

  Shapes God.

  FROM Memories of Other Worlds

  BY TAYLOR FRANKLIN BANKOLE

  I HAVE READ THAT the period of upheaval that journalists have begun to refer to as “the Apocalypse” or more commonly, more bitterly, “the Pox” lasted from 2015 through 2030—a decade and a half of chaos. This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment. It began well before 2015, perhaps even before the turn of the millennium. It has not ended.

  I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises. I have heard people deny this, but I was born in 1970. I have seen enough to know that it is true. I have watched education become more a privilege of the
rich than the basic necessity that it must be if civilized society is to survive. I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger, and disease become inevitable for more and more people.

  Overall, the Pox has had the effect of an installment-plan World War III. In fact, there were several small, bloody shooting wars going on around the world during the Pox. These were stupid affairs—wastes of life and treasure. They were fought, ostensibly, to defend against vicious foreign enemies. All too often, they were actually fought because inadequate leaders did not know what else to do. Such leaders knew that they could depend on fear, suspicion, hatred, need, and greed to arouse patriotic support for war.

  Amid all this, somehow, the United States of America suffered a major nonmilitary defeat. It lost no important war, yet it did not survive the Pox. Perhaps it simply lost sight of what it once intended to be, then blundered aimlessly until it exhausted itself.

  What is left of it now, what it has become, I do not know.

  Taylor Franklin Bankole was my father. From his writings, he seems to have been a thoughtful, somewhat formal man who wound up with my strange, stubborn mother even though she was almost young enough to be his granddaughter.

  My mother seems to have loved him, seems to have been happy with him. He and my mother met during the Pox when they were both homeless wanderers. But he was a 57-year-old doctor—a family practice physician—and she was an 18-year-old girl. The Pox gave them terrible memories in common. Both had seen their neighborhoods destroyed—his in San Diego and hers in Robledo, a suburb of Los Angeles. That seems to have been enough for them. In 2027, they met, liked each other, and got married. I think, reading between the lines of some of my father’s writing, that he wanted to take care of this strange young girl that he had found. He wanted to keep her safe from the chaos of the time, safe from the gangs, drugs, slavery, and disease. And of course he was flattered that she wanted him. He was human, and no doubt tired of being alone. His first wife had been dead for about two years when they met.

  He couldn’t keep my mother safe of course. No one could have done that. She had chosen her path long before they met. His mistake was in seeing her as a young girl. She was already a missile, armed and targeted.

  FROM The Journals of Lauren Oya Olamina

  SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 2032

  Today is Arrival Day, the fifth anniversary of our establishing a community called Acorn here in the mountains of Humboldt County.

  In perverse celebration of this, I’ve just had one of my recurring nightmares. They’ve become rare in the past few years—old enemies with familiar nasty habits. I know them. They have such soft, easy beginnings… This one was, at first, a visit to the past, a trip home, a chance to spend time with beloved ghosts.

  My old home has come back from the ashes. This doesn’t surprise me, somehow, although I saw it burn years ago. I walked through the rubble that was left of it. Yet here it is restored and filled with people—all the people I knew as I was growing up. They sit in our front rooms in rows of old metal folding chairs, wooden kitchen and dining room chairs, and plastic stacking chairs, a silent congregation of the scattered and the dead.

  Church service is already going on, and, of course, my father is preaching. He looks as he always has in his church robes: tall, broad, stern, straight—a great black wall of a man with a voice you not only hear, but feel on your skin and in your bones. There’s no corner of the meeting rooms that my father cannot reach with that voice. We’ve never had a sound system—never needed one. I hear and feel that voice again.

  Yet how many years has it been since my father vanished? Or rather, how many years since he was killed? He must have been killed. He wasn’t the kind of man who would abandon his family, his community, and his church. Back when he vanished, dying by violence was even easier than it is today. Living, on the other hand was almost impossible.

  He left home one day to go to his office at the college. He taught his classes by computer, and only had to go to the college once a week, but even once a week was too much exposure to danger. He stayed overnight at the college as usual. Early mornings were the safest times for working people to travel. He started for home the next morning and was never seen again.

  We searched. We even paid for a police search. Nothing did any good.

  This happened many months before our house burned, before our community was destroyed. I was 17. Now I’m 23 and I’m several hundred miles from that dead place.

  Yet all of a sudden, in my dream, things have come right again.

  I’m at home, and my father is preaching. My stepmother is sitting behind him and a little to one side at her piano. The congregation of our neighbors sits before him in the large, not-quite-open area formed by our living room, dining room, and family room. This is a broad L-shaped space into which even more than the usual 30 or 40 people have crammed themselves for Sunday service. These people are too quiet to be a Baptist congregation—or at least, they’re too quiet to be the Baptist congregation I grew up in. They’re here, but somehow not here. They’re shadow people. Ghosts.

  Only my own family feels real to me. They’re as dead as most of the others, and yet they’re alive! My brothers are here and they look the way they did when I was about 14. Keith, the oldest of them, the worst and the first to die, is only 11. This means Marcus, my favorite brother and always the best-looking person in the family, is 10. Ben and Greg, almost as alike as twins, are eight and seven. We’re all sitting in the front row, over near my stepmother so she can keep an eye on us. I’m sitting between Keith and Marcus to keep them from killing each other during the service.

  When neither of my parents is looking, Keith reaches across me and punches Marcus hard on the thigh. Marcus, younger, smaller, but always stubborn, always tough, punches back. I grab each boy’s fist and squeeze. I’m bigger and stronger than both of them and I’ve always had strong hands. The boys squirm in pain and try to pull away. After a moment, I let them go. Lesson learned. They let each other alone for at least a minute or two.

  In my dream, their pain doesn’t hurt me the way it always did when we were growing up. Back then, since I was the oldest, I was held responsible for their behavior. I had to control them even though I couldn’t escape their pain. My father and stepmother cut me as little slack as possible when it came to my hyperempathy syndrome. They refused to let me be handicapped. I was the oldest kid, and that was that. I had my responsibilities.

  Nevertheless I used to feel every damned bruise, cut, and burn that my brothers managed to collect. Each time I saw them hurt, I shared their pain as though I had been injured myself. Even pains they pretended to feel, I did feel. Hyperempathy syndrome is a delusional disorder, after all. There’s no telepathy, no magic, no deep spiritual awareness. There’s just the neurochemically-induced delusion that I feel the pain and pleasure that I see others experiencing. Pleasure is rare, pain is plentiful, and, delusional or not, it hurts like hell.

  So why do I miss it now?

  What a crazy thing to miss. Not feeling it should be like having a toothache vanish away. I should be surprised and happy. Instead, I’m afraid. A part of me is gone. Not being able to feel my brothers’ pain is like not being able to hear them when they shout, and I’m afraid.

  The dream begins to become a nightmare.

  Without warning, my brother Keith vanishes. He’s just gone. He was the first to go—to die—years ago. Now he’s vanished again. In his place beside me, there is a tall, beautiful woman, black-brown-skinned and slender with long, crow-black hair, gleaming. She’s wearing a soft, silky green dress that flows and twists around her body, wrapping her in some intricate pattern of folds and gathers from neck to feet. She is a stranger.

  She is my mother.

  She is the woman in the one picture my father gave me of my biological mother. Keith stole it from my bedroom when he was nine and I was twelve. He wrapped it in an old piec
e of a plastic tablecloth and buried it in our garden between a row of squashes and a mixed row of corn and beans. Later, he claimed it wasn’t his fault that the picture was ruined by water and by being walked on. He only hid it as a joke. How was he supposed to know anything would happen to it? That was Keith. I beat the hell out of him. I hurt myself too, of course, but it was worth it. That was one beating he never told our parents about.

  But the picture was still ruined. All I had left was the memory of it. And here was that memory, sitting next to me.

  My mother is tall, taller than I am, taller than most people. She’s not pretty. She’s beautiful. I don’t look like her. I look like my father, which he used to say was a pity. I don’t mind. But she is a stunning woman.

  I stare at her, but she does not turn to look at me. That, at least, is true to life. She never saw me. As I was born, she died. Before that, for two years, she took the popular “smart drug” of her time. It was a new prescription medicine called Paracetco, and it was doing wonders for people who had Alzheimer’s disease. It stopped the deterioration of their intellectual function and enabled them to make excellent use of whatever memory and thinking ability they had left. It also boosted the performance of ordinary, healthy young people. They read faster, retained more, made more rapid, accurate connections, calculations, and conclusions. As a result, Paracetco became as popular as coffee among students, and, if they meant to compete in any of the highly paid professions, it was as necessary as a knowledge of computers.

  My mother’s drug taking may have helped to kill her. I don’t know for sure. My father didn’t know either. But I do know that her drug left its unmistakable mark on me—my hyperempathy syndrome. Thanks to the addictive nature of Paracetco—a few thousand people died trying to break the habit—there were once tens of millions of us.

  Hyperempaths, we’re called, or hyperempathists, or sharers. Those are some of the polite names, And in spite of our vulnerability and our high mortality rate, there are still quite a few of us.

  I reach out to my mother. No matter what she’s done, I want to know her. But she won’t look at me. She won’t even turn her head. And somehow, I can’t quite reach her, can’t touch her. I try to get up from my chair, but I can’t move. My body won’t obey me. I can only sit and listen as my father preaches.

 
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