Fledgling, p.12
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       Fledgling, p.12

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  After a moment, she nodded. “Let me go. I won’t bother you.”

  I took her at her word and let her up.

  “She says Iosif’s dead,” Brook said.

  Immediately, Celia confronted me. “How do you know he’s dead? Were you here when all this happened? Did you see?”

  I took both their hands, although Celia tried to snatch hers away, and led them over to the place where Iosif had burned. “He died here,” I told them. “I can smell that much. I don’t know whether it was only the fire or whether he was shot, too. I couldn’t find any bullets. But he died here. A few of his ashes are still here.”

  I looked at one woman, then the other. Both now had tears streaming down their faces. They believed me. “I don’t remember anything about Ina funerals or beliefs about death,” I said. “Do either of you know other Ina families—Iosif’s mothers perhaps—who would be able to do what should be done?”

  “His mothers were killed in Russia during World War II,” Brook said. She and Celia looked at one another. “We went to Seattle to shop and visit our relatives. That’s why we weren’t here. The only Ina phone numbers I know from memory are the numbers of several of the people who lived here and some of your mothers’ phone numbers.” She looked at Celia.

  “I knew some of our community’s numbers and Shori’s mothers’ numbers too,” Celia said. “That’s all.”

  It occurred to me then for no reason I could put my finger on that Celia was much younger than Brook—young enough to be Brook’s daughter. Brook was only a few years younger than Theodora but except for very small signs, she appeared to be the same age as Celia. That, I realized, was what happened when a human became an Ina symbiont while she was still young. Wright would age slowly the way Brook had.

  I pulled my thoughts back to the rubble we stood in. “When did you go into Seattle?” I asked.

  Celia answered, “Five nights ago.”

  “I won’t be able to visit my relatives many more times,” Brook said. “My sister and my mother are aging a lot faster than I am, and they keep staring at me and asking me what my secret is.”

  Celia and I both raised an eyebrow and looked at her in the same way. She noticed it, glanced at the spot where Iosif had died, and whispered, “Oh God.”

  I took a deep breath, glanced at Celia, then left them and walked toward Stefan’s house. They followed, saying nothing. Then they stood outside the site of the house while I walked through the rooms, finding five symbionts, including the two I’d met when I met Celia. And I found a misshapen bullet inside a charred plank. I had to break apart what was left of the plank to get at it, but once I had it, I found a faint blood scent. One of the symbionts. The bullet had passed through the man’s body and gone into the wood.

  Finally, I found the place where Stefan’s body had fallen and burned in one of the bedrooms near part of the window frame. Had be been trying to get out or … might he have been firing a gun at his attackers? I couldn’t be certain, but it seemed likely to me that he died fighting against whoever had done this.

  I went back to Celia and shook my head. “I’m sorry. He didn’t survive either.”

  She glared at me as though I’d killed him—a look filled with grief and rage.

  “Where,” she demanded. “Where did he die?”

  “Over here.”

  They both followed me to the place where Stefan had died curled on his side, limbs drawn tight against his body.

  “Here,” I said.

  Celia looked down, then knelt and put her hands flat in the ashes, taking up some of what remained of Stefan. For a long time, she said nothing. I glanced to the east where the sky was growing a little more light.

  After a while, Celia looked up at Brook. “He was shooting back at them,” she said. “He could have made himself do it, even if they came during the day. Days were hard on him, but he could wake up enough to shoot back.”

  Brook nodded. “He could have.”

  “That’s what I thought,” I said.

  Celia glared at me, then closed her eyes, tears spilling down her face. “You can’t tell for sure?”

  “No. But I know there was shooting. I found a bullet that smelled of one of the other members of his household. And Stefan’s position … somehow it seemed that he might have been shooting back. I hope he hit some of them.”

  “He had guns,” Celia said. “Iosif didn’t like guns, but Stefan did.”

  It hadn’t helped him survive.

  “It’s almost dawn,” I said. “Will you drive me back to where Wright is waiting? I can direct you.”

  They looked at each other, then at me.

  “Drive me to Wright, then follow us to his cabin,” I said. “Although we’ll have to find another place soon. The cabin is almost too small for two people.”

  “Iosif owns—owned—a house outside Arlington,” Brook said. “Some of us used it to commute to jobs or to entertain visiting family members. There are three bedrooms, three baths. It’s a nice place, and it’s ours. We have a right to be there.”

  I nodded, relieved. “That would be better. Could other symbionts be there already?”

  Brook looked at Celia.

  “I don’t use it,” Celia said. “I haven’t kept up with the schedule.”

  “I don’t think anyone’s there,” Brook said. “If there is … if some of us are there, Shori, they need you, too.”

  I nodded. “Take me back to Wright. Then we’ll go there.”

  During the sad, silent trip back to Wright’s car, I had time to be afraid. These two women’s lives were in my hands, and yet I had no idea how to save them. Of course I would take their blood. I didn’t want to, but I would. They smelled like my father and my brother. They smelled almost Ina, and that was enough to make them unappetizing. And yet I would make myself take their blood. Would that be enough? Iosif had told me almost nothing. What else should I do? I could talk to them. What I told them to do, they would try to do, once I’d taken their blood. Would that be enough?

  If it wasn’t, they were dead.

  Eleven

  To get to the house that my father had bought for his symbionts and my brothers’, we followed the highway through dense woods, past the occasional lonely house or farm, past side roads and alongside the river. I asked Wright whether the river had a name.

  “That’s the north fork of the Stillaguamish,” he told me. “Don’t ask me what ‘Stillaguamish’ means because I have no idea. But it’s the name of a local Native American tribe.”

  Eventually we reached more populated areas where houses and farms were more visible, scattered along the highway. There were still many trees, but now there were more smells of people and domestic animals nearby. In particular, there was the scent of horses. I recognized it from the time I’d spent prowling around Wright’s neighborhood. Horses made noises and moved around restlessly when I got close enough to them to be noticed. My scent apparently disturbed them. Yet their scent had become one of the many that meant “home” to me.

  Wright and I followed the women’s car talking quietly. I told him what had happened to my father’s community and that Celia and Brook had survived because they were in Seattle.

  He shook his head. “I don’t know what to make of this,” he said. “Your kind have some serious enemies. What we need to do is find some place safe where we can hunker down, pool information, and figure out what to do. There’s probably a way to tip the police to these people if we can just figure out who they are.”

  As he spoke, I realized that I was willing to go further than that. If we found the people who had murdered both my male and my female families, I wanted to kill them, had to kill them. How else could I keep my new family safe?

  My new family …

  “Wright,” I said softly and saw him glance at me. “Celia and Brook will be with us now. They have to be.”

  There was a moment of silence. Then the said, “They’re not going to die?”

  “Not if I can take th
em over. I’m going to try.”

  “You’ll feed from them.”

  “Yes.” I hesitated. “And I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t remember anything about this. Iosif told me it had to be done when an Ina died and left symbionts, but he didn’t tell me much. He couldn’t know … how soon I would need the information.”

  “Maybe Brook and Celia know.”

  I turned away from him, looked out the window. The sun was well up now, and in spite of the threatening rain clouds, it was getting bright enough to bother me. I reached into the backseat, grabbed the blanket I had brought, and wrapped myself in it. Once I’d done that, except for my eyes, I was almost comfortable.

  “Look in the glove compartment there,” Wright said gesturing. “There should be a pair of sunglasses.”

  I looked at the glove compartment, decided how it must open, opened it, and found the glasses. They were too big for my face, and I had to keep pushing them up my nose, but they were very dark, and I immediately felt better. “Thank you,” I said and touched his face. He needed to shave. I rubbed the brown stubble and found even that good to touch.

  He took my hand and kissed it, then said, “Why don’t you want to ask Brook and Celia what they know?”

  I sighed. Of course he had not forgotten the question. “Embarrassment,” I said. “Pride. Imagine a doctor who has to ask her patient how to perform a life-saving operation.”

  “Not a confidence builder,” he said. “I can see that. But if they know anything, you need to find out.”

  “I do.” I drew a deep breath. “Brook is older. Maybe I’ll feed from her first and find out what she knows.”

  “She can’t be much older. They look about the same age.”

  “Do they? Brook is older by about twenty years.”

  “That much?” He looked skeptical. “How can you tell?”

  I thought about it. “Her skin shows it a little. I guess it’s as much the way she smells as the way she looks. She smells … much more Ina that Celia does. She’s been with my father longer than Celia’s been with my brother. I think Celia is about your age.”

  He shook his head. “Brook doesn’t have any wrinkles, not even those little lines around the eyes.”

  “I know.”

  “No gray either. Is her hair dyed?”

  “It isn’t, no.”

  “Jesus, am I still going to look that young in twenty years?”

  I smiled. “You should.”

  He glanced at me and grinned, delighted.

  “I think we’re here,” I said.

  The car ahead of us had turned and pulled into the driveway of a long, low ranch house. There were no other houses in sight. We turned down the same driveway, and when Brook stopped, Wright said, “Hang on a moment.” He jumped out and went to speak to the two women. I listened curiously. He wanted them to pull into the garage that I could see farther back on the property. It bothered him that this house was connected with Iosif’s family. He thought the killers might know about it.

  “You heard that didn’t you?” he asked me when he came back.

  I nodded. “You may be right. I hoped we could settle here for a while, but maybe we shouldn’t. Even the police might come here to look for information about Iosif.”

  He pulled the car into the garage alongside Brook’s. The garage had room enough for three cars, but there was no other car in it. “True,” he said. “But we won’t be able to use my cabin for long either. I already told my aunt and uncle that I was leaving.” He hesitated. “Actually, they sort of told me I had to go. They know … well they think that I’ve been sneaking girls in.”

  I laughed in spite of everything.

  “My aunt listened at the door a few nights ago. She told my uncle she heard ‘sex noises.’ My uncle told me he understands, said he was young once. But he says I’ve got to go because my aunt doesn’t understand.”

  I shook my head. “You’re an adult. What do they expect?”

  He pulled me against him for a moment. “Just be glad they haven’t seen you.”

  I was. I got out of the car and stood waiting, wrapped in my blanket, in the shadow of the garage until Brook had opened the back door, then I hurried inside. There was, even from the back, not another house in sight. There were other people around. I could smell them. But they were a comfortable distance away, and the many trees probably helped make their houses less visible.

  Inside, the rooms were clean, and there were dishes in the cupboard. There were canned and frozen foods, towels, and clean bedding.

  “The rule,” Brook said, “is to leave the place clean and well-stocked. People tend to do that. Tended to do that.”

  “Let’s settle somewhere,” I said to Celia and Brook. “I need to talk with you both.”

  Wright had walked down the hallway to look out the side door. Now he was wandering back, looking into each of the bedrooms. He looked up at me when I spoke.

  I shrugged. “I changed my mind,” I told him.

  “About what?” Celia demanded. I looked at her and noticed that she was beginning to sweat. The house was cool. As soon as we got in, Brook had complained that it was cold. She had reset the thermostat from fifty-five to seventy, but the house had not even begun to warm up. Yet Celia was hot. And she was afraid.

  I waited until we’d all found chairs in the living room. “About our becoming a family,” I said.

  Both women looked uncomfortable.

  “If you know any other Ina, and you would prefer to go to them, you should do it now, while you can,” I said. “If not, if you’re going to join with me, then I need your help.”

  “We’re here,” Celia said. She wiped her forehead with a hand that trembled a little. “You know we don’t know anyone else.”

  “And you know I have amnesia. I have no memory of seeing or hearing about the handling of symbionts whose Ina has died. Iosif told me a little, but anything either of you know—anything at all—you should tell me, for your own sakes.”

  Brook nodded. “I wondered what you knew.” She took a deep breath. “It scares me that you’re a child, but at least you’re female. That might save us.”

  “Why?” I asked.

  She looked surprised. “You don’t know that either?” She shook her head and sighed deeply. “Venom from Ina females is more potent than venom from males. That’s what Iosif told me. It has something to do with the way prehistoric Ina females used to get and keep mates.” She smiled a little. “Now females find mates for their sons, and males for their daughters, and it’s all very civilized. But long ago, groups of sisters competed to capture groups of brothers, and the competition was chemical. If a group of sisters had the venom to hold a group of brothers, they were more likely to have several healthy children, and their sons would have a safe haven with their fathers when they came of age. And their daughters were more likely to have even more potent venom.”

  “The sons would have more potent venom, too,” Wright said.

  “Yes, but among the Ina, the females competed. It’s like the way males have competed among humans. There was a time when a big, strong man might push other men aside and marry a lot of wives, pass on his genes to a lot of children. His size and strength might be passed to his daughters as well as his sons, but his daughters were still likely to be smaller and weaker than his sons.

  “Ina children, male and female, wind up with more potent venom, but the female’s is still more potent than the male’s. In that sense, the Ina are kind of a matriarchy. And a little thing like Shori might be a real power.” She took a deep breath and glanced at Celia. “Ina men are sort of like us, like symbionts. They become addicted to the venom of one group of sisters. That’s what it means to be mated. Once they’re addicted, they aren’t fertile with other females, and from time to time, they need their females. Need … like I need Iosif.”

  She knew more about Ina reproduction and Ina history than I did. She should, of course, after so many years with Iosif. But still, heari
ng it from her made me uncomfortable. I tried to ignore my discomfort. “You were with Iosif a long time,” I said.

  “Yeah.” She blinked and looked off into the distance at nothing. “Twenty-two years,” she said. She covered her face with her hands, curled her body away from me on the chair, crying. Like Celia, she was a lot bigger than I was, but for a moment, she seemed to be a small, helpless person in deep distress. Yet I didn’t want to touch her. I would have to soon enough.

  She said through her tears, “I always knew that I would die before him and that was good. I was so willing to accept him when he asked me. God, I loved him. And I thought it meant I would never be alone. My father died when I was eight. I had a brother who drowned when he was seven. And my sister’s husband died of cancer when they’d been married for only two years. I thought I had finally found a way to avoid all that pain—a way never to be alone again.” She was crying again.

  “I’m Iosif’s daughter,” I said. “I hope that my venom is strong and that you’ll come to me. It won’t be the same, I know, but you won’t be alone. I want you with me.”

  “Why should you?” Celia demanded. “You don’t know us.”

  “With my amnesia, I don’t know anyone,” I said. “I’m getting to know Wright. And there’s a woman named Theodora. I’m getting to know he. And, Celia, I’m only beginning to know myself.”

  She looked at me for several seconds, then shuddered and turned away. “I hate this,” she said. “Damn, I hate this!”

  And this was the way a symbiont behaved when she was missing her Ina. Or at least this was the way Celia behaved—suspicious, short-tempered, afraid. Brook and Celia were both grieving, but Celia must have been longer without Stefan than Brook had been without Iosif.

  I got up and went to Celia, trying to ignore the fact that she clearly didn’t want me to touch her. She was sensible enough not to protest when I took her hand, drew her to her feet, and led her away into one of the bedrooms.

  “I hate this,” she said again and turned her face away from me as I encouraged her to lie down on the huge bed. She smelled more of Stefan than she had before, and I truly didn’t want to touch her. Where I would have enjoyed tasting Theodora or Wright, I had to force myself to touch Celia.

 

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