Fledgling, p.10
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       Fledgling, p.10

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  “None of the others are bound to you yet.”

  “Yes.”

  “Why am I?”

  “I wanted you.” I touched his shoulder, rested my hand on his upper arm. “I think you wanted me, too. From the night you found me, we wanted each other.”

  He glanced at me. “I don’t know. I never really had a chance to figure that out.”

  “You did. When I was shot, I gave you a chance. It was … very hard for me to do that, but I did it. I would have let you go—helped you go.”

  “And you think I could have just gone away and not come back? I had to leave you lying on the ground bleeding. You insisted on it. How could I not come back to make sure you were all right?”

  “You knew I would heal. I told you you weren’t bound to me then. I offered you freedom. I told you I wouldn’t be able to offer it again.”

  “I remember,” he said. He sounded angry. “But I didn’t know then that I was agreeing to be part of a harem. You left that little bit out.”

  I knew what a harem was. One of the books I’d read had referred to Dracula’s three wives as his harem, and I’d looked the word up. “You’re not part of a harem,” I said. “You and I have a symbiotic relationship, and it’s a relationship that I want and need. But didn’t you see all those children? I’ll have mates someday, and you can have yours. You can have a family if you want one.”

  He turned to glare at me, and the car swerved, forcing him to pay attention to his driving. “What am I supposed to do? Help produce the next generation of symbionts?”

  I kept quiet for a moment, wondering at the rage in his voice. “What would be the point of that?” I asked finally.

  “Just as easy to snatch them off the street, eh?”

  I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “Iosif said the children of some symbionts stay in the hope of finding an Ina child to bond with. Others choose to make lives for themselves outside.”

  He made a sound—almost a moan. For a while, he said nothing.

  Finally, I asked, “Do you want to leave me?”

  “Why bother to ask me that?” he demanded. “I can’t leave you. I can’t even really want to leave you.”

  “Then what do you want?”

  He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know. I know I wish I had driven past you on the road eleven nights ago and not stopped. And yet, I know that if I could have you all to myself, I’d stop for you again, even knowing what I know about you.”

  “That would kill you. Quickly.”

  “I know.”

  But he didn’t care—or he didn’t think he would have cared. “What did those three people tell you?” I asked. “What did they say that’s made you so angry and so miserable? Was it only that I take blood from several symbionts instead of draining one person until I kill him?”

  “That probably would have been enough.”

  I rested my head against his arm so that I could touch him without looking at him. I needed to touch him. And yet, he had to understand. “I’ve fed from you and from five other people—three women and two men. I’ll keep one of the women if she wants to stay with me. I think she will. The others will forget me or remember me as just a dream.”

  “Did you sleep with any of them?”

  “Did I have sex with them, you mean? No. Except for the one woman, I fed and came back to you. I stayed longer with her because something in her comforts and pleases me. Her name is Theodora Harden. I don’t know why I like her so much, but I do.”

  “Swing both ways, do you?”

  I frowned, startled and confused by the terrible bitterness in his voice. “What?”

  “Sex with men and with women?”

  “With my symbionts if both they and I want it. For the moment, that’s you.”

  “For the moment.”

  I reached up to slip my hand under his jacket and shirt to touch the bare flesh of his neck. It was unmarked. I had only nipped him a little for pleasure the night before, then I went to one of the others while he slept. He had healed by morning. Tonight, I had intended to do something that wouldn’t heal nearly as fast.

  And yet when we reached his cabin, we went in and went to bed without saying or doing anything at all. I didn’t bite him because he clearly didn’t want me to. I fell asleep fitted against his furry back, taking comfort in his presence even though he was angry and confused. At least he didn’t push me away.

  Finally, some time later, he shook me awake, shook me hard, saying, “Do it! Do it, damnit! I should get some pleasure out of all this if I don’t get anything else.”

  I put my fingers over his lips gently. When he fell silent, I kissed first his mouth, then his throat. He was so angry—so filled with rage and confusion.

  He rolled onto me, pushing my legs apart, pushing them out of his way, then thrust hard into me. I bit him more deeply than I had intended and wrapped my arms and legs around him as I took his blood. He groaned, writhing against me, holding me, thrusting harder until I had taken all I needed of his blood, until he had all he needed of me.

  After a long while, he rolled off me, sated for the moment in body if not in mind.

  “Did I hurt you?” he asked very softly.

  I pulled myself onto his chest and lapped at the ragged edges of the bite. “You didn’t hurt me,” I said. “Were you trying to hurt me?”

  “I think I was,” he said.

  I went on lapping. There was more bleeding than usual. “Did I hurt you?” I asked.

  “No, of course not. What you do ought to hurt, but except for that first instant when you break the skin, it never does.” He slipped his arms around me, and it was more the way he usually held me.

  “It’s good to know we don’t hurt each other even when we’re upset.”

  “I don’t know how to deal with all this, Renee … Shori. It’s like being told that extraterrestrials have arrived, and I’m sleeping with one of them.”

  I laughed. “That may be true, except that if we arrived, it must have happened thousands of years ago.”

  “Do you believe that—that your people come from another planet? I remember your father said something about a theory like that.”

  “According to Iosif, some younger Ina believe it. Some don’t. He doesn’t. I don’t know what to think about it. If I could get my memory back, then maybe I’d have an opinion that was worth bothering about.”

  “Do you believe Iosif is your father?”

  I nodded against his chest. Then the sweet smell of his blood made me go on licking at the bite.

  “Why? If he’s a stranger to you, why do you believe him?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe it’s something about his manner, his body language. But more likely it’s his scent. I kept hoping to remember something while I was with him, any little thing. But there was nothing. He introduced me to my brother Stefan, and still, there was nothing. But I never doubted that they were who they said they were. And all their human symbionts recognized me.”

  “Yeah,” Wright said.

  “You talked to three symbionts. Do you think they were lying?”

  “No, I don’t think they were lying.” He ran his hand over my head and down my back. “They said I was lucky to have you—lucky to be your first. That was when I realized that … of course you’d have to already have others, even though I didn’t know about them. Then the woman, Brook, told me all Ina have several symbionts.”

  “How much blood do you think you could provide?”

  “You … you taste me just about every day.”

  “Just a little. I crave you. I do. And I enjoy pleasuring you.”

  “That’s the right attitude,” he said. He rolled over, trapping me beneath him and thrust into me again. This time I was the one who could not let out a groan of pleasure. He laughed, delighted.

  Later, as we lay together, more satisfied, more at ease, he said, “They’ll be coming for us next Friday.”

  “Yes,” I said. “I don’t want to go live with them, but I t
hink we have to.”

  “I was going to say that.”

  “I need to learn how to set up my own household—how to make it work. When I can do that, when I’ve learned the things I need to know to do that, we’ll go out on our own.”

  “How big a household?” he asked.

  “You, me, five or six others. We don’t all have to live in the same house the way my brothers do with their symbionts, but we need to be near one another.”

  “It’ll be rough to live together in your father’s house.”

  “He says he’ll sell my mothers’ property, and when I’m older, the money will give me a start somewhere else.”

  “And he’ll hook you up with a male Ina, or rather, with a group of Ina brothers. My God, a group of brothers …”

  I said nothing. My mothers had lived together in the same community, shared a mate, and worked things out somehow. It could be done. It was the Ina way. “That will all happen in the future,” I said. “Next week, we’ll be in rooms at Iosif’s house, you and I and Theodora. She’s one of our neighbors, a few doors down. You might know her.”

  There was a long silence. Finally he asked, “Is she pretty?”

  I smiled. “Not pretty. Not young either. But I like her.”

  “Are you going to tell her to join us … or ask her?”

  “Ask her. But she’ll come.”

  “Because she’s already fallen so far under your influence that she won’t be able to help herself?”

  “She’ll want to come. She doesn’t have to, but she’ll want to.”

  He sighed. “I think the scariest thing about all this so far is that all three of those symbionts seem genuinely happy. What do you figure? Old Iosif told them they were living in the best of all possible worlds, and they bought it because as far as they’re concerned, he’s God?”

  “He didn’t,” I said.

  “You asked?”

  “He told me that it was wrong, shortsighted, and harmful to symbionts to do such things. I didn’t ask. I had already figured that out.”

  “So you believe that’s what he believes?”

  “I do, at least on this subject.”

  “Shit.”

  I kissed him and turned over and went to sleep.

  During the next week, I visited each of my people, fed from them, and said good-bye. I became a dream to them, as Iosif had suggested, and I left them. Finally, on Thursday, I visited Theodora.

  I paid attention to her house and waited until shortly after sunset when she was alone. Then I visited her.

  I hadn’t seen her for a while, but as I looked at her large, handsome house, it occurred to me that in spite of what I had said to Wright, perhaps I should not ask Theodora to join me until I had a home, something more than rooms in Iosif’s house to offer her. The thought surprised me. It occurred to me after I reached her front door and rang the doorbell.

  I heard her come to the door. Then there was a long pause while, I suppose, she looked out through the peephole and tried to figure out who I might be. She had never seen me before. I had visited her in darkness three times and had not allowed her to turn on a light. She must have gotten an idea of my general size, but she had never seen my face, my coloring, or the fact that I looked so young.

  Finally, she opened the door, looked down at me questioningly, and said, “Hello there.”

  “Hello,” I said, and as she recognized my voice, as her expression began to change to one of shock, I said, “Invite me in.”

  At once, she stood aside and said, “Come in.”

  This was a bit of vampire theater. I knew it, and I was fairly sure she knew it, too. She had probably been brushing up on vampires recently. Of course, I didn’t need permission to enter her home or anyone else’s. I did find it interesting, though, that human beings made up these fantasy safeguards, little magics, like garlic and crucifixes, that would somehow keep them safe from my kind—or from what they imagined my kind to be.

  I walked past her into the house. There was, near the front door, a broad staircase on one side and a living room almost as large as Iosif’s on the other. The walls were a very pale green, and the woodwork was white. All the furniture was, somehow, exactly where it should be and exactly what it should be. Iosif’s living room was more lived-in, more imperfect, more comfortable to be in. I began to feel even more uneasy about asking Theodora to come with me.

  She came up behind me, and when I turned to face her, she stopped, staring at me with a kind of horror.

  “Is it my skin color or my apparent age that’s upsetting you so?” I asked.

  “Why are you here?” she demanded.

  “To talk with you,” I said. “To have you see me.”

  “I didn’t want to see you!”

  I nodded. “It will make a difference,” I said, “but not as great a difference as you think.” I went to her, took her arm, tried to lead her into the perfect living room.

  She pulled back and said, “Not here.” She took my hand and led me up the stairs into a room whose walls were covered with books. There was a sofa and two chairs also piled high with books and papers. In the middle of the room was a large, messy desk covered with open books, papers, a computer and monitor, a radio, a telephone, a box of pencils and pens, a stack of notebooks and crossword puzzle magazines, a long decorative wooden box of compact discs, bottles of aspirin, hand lotion, antacid, correction fluid, and who knew what else.

  I stared at it and burst out laughing. It was the most disorderly mass of stuff I had run across, and yet it all looked—felt—familiar. Had I once had an equally messy desk? Had one of my mothers or sisters? I would ask Iosif. Anyway, it was the opposite of the living room downstairs, and that was a relief.

  Theodora had been clearing books off a chair so that I could sit down. She stopped when I laughed, followed my gaze, and said, “Oh. I forget how awful that must look to strangers. No one ever sees it but me.”

  I laughed again. “No, this is who you are. This is what I wanted to see.” I drew a deep breath, assuring myself that she was still free of me, still unaddicted. She was, and that was a good thing, although it felt like a flaw I should fix at once.

  “I write poetry,” she said. She almost seemed embarrassed about it. “I’ve published three books. Poetry doesn’t really pay, but I enjoy writing it.”

  I took some of the books off the sofa and piled them on the chair she had been clearing for me, then took her hand and drew her to the sofa. She sat with me even though she didn’t want to—or she didn’t want to want to. I felt that she was teaching me about herself every moment. I turned her to face me and just enjoyed looking at her. She had waist-length, dark-brown hair with many strands of gray. Her eyes were the same dark brown as her hair, and the flesh at the corners of them was indented with arrays of fine lines—the only lines on her face. She was a little heavier than was good for her. Plump might have been the best word to describe her. It made her face full and round. She wore no makeup at all—not even lipstick. She had been at home, relaxing without her family around her.

  After a moment, I leaned against her, put my head on her shoulder, and she put her arm around me, then took it away, then put it back. She smelled remarkably enticing.

  “I don’t understand,” she said.

  “I don’t either,” I said. “But the things I don’t understand are probably not the same ones giving you trouble. How long do we have before your family comes home?”

  “They’re visiting my son-in-law’s family in Portland. They won’t be home until tomorrow.” The moment she said this, she began to look nervous, as though she was afraid of what I might make of her solitude, her vulnerability.

  “Good,” I said. “I need to talk to you, tell you my story, hear yours. Then I have something to ask of you.”

  “Who are you?” she demanded. “What’s your name? What … What …?”

  “What am I?”

  “… yes.” She looked away, embarrassed.

  I pulled
her down to a comfortable level and bit her gently, then hard enough to start blood flowing on its own so that I could be lazy and just take it as it came. After a while, I said, “You told me I was a vampire.”

  She had not objected to anything I’d done even when I climbed onto her lap, straddled her, and rested against her, lapping occasionally at the blood. She put her arms around me and held me against her as though I might try to escape.

  “You are a vampire,” she said. “Although according to what I’ve read, you’re supposed to be a tall, handsome, fully grown white man. Just my luck. But you must be a vampire. How could you do this if you weren’t? How could I let you do it? How could it feel so good when it should be disgusting and painful? And how could the wound heal so quickly and without scars?”

  “You don’t believe in vampires.”

  “I didn’t use to. And I never thought they would be so small and … like you.”

  “I’ve been called an elfin little girl.”

  “That’s exactly right.”

  “In a way, it is. I’m a child according to the standards of my people, but my people age more slowly than yours, and I have an extra problem. I may be older than you are in years. As far as my memory is concerned, though, I was born just a few weeks ago.”

  “But how can that—?”

  “Shh.” I started to get off her lap, and she tried to hold me where I was. “No,” I said. “Let me go.” She released me, and I sat beside her and leaned against her.

  “Three, maybe four weeks ago,” I began, “I woke up in a shallow cave a few miles from here. I’m being vague about when and where because I don’t know enough to be exact. During my first days in the cave I was blind and in and out of consciousness. I was in a lot of pain, and I had no memory of anything that had happened before the cave.”

  “Amnesia.”

  “Yes.” I told her the rest of it, told her about killing Hugh Tang, but not about eating him, told her about hunting deer and eating them. I told her about Wright finding me and taking me in, and about finding my father and brothers. I told her the little I knew about the Ina and about what an Ina community was like. I told her I wasn’t human, and she believed me. She wasn’t even surprised.

 

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