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       Fledgling, p.23

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  “Did you mind that you would be symbiont to another man?” I asked, remembering the question that Wright had asked Brook.

  He gave me an odd look. “You don’t care what you pry into, do you?”

  I didn’t answer—since I didn’t know what to say.

  “There are plenty of women here,” he said. “I married one of them shortly after I decided to stay.” He lifted an eyebrow. “How’s your new symbiont—the one who came in last night?”

  “Theodora?” I smiled, seeing the connection. “She says she doesn’t understand her feelings for me but that they are important to her.”

  “I’ll bet. I saw you two. You were all over each other. That’s the way it goes. It doesn’t seem to matter to most humans what our lives were before we meet you. You bite us, and that’s all it takes. I didn’t understand at all. Hayden ambushed me as I got home from work one day. He bit me, and after that I never really had a chance. I didn’t have any idea what I was getting into.”

  “Are you ever sorry you got into it?”

  He gave me another strange look, this broad, tall black man. Joel had his coloring but would never have his size. Martin just stood, looking down at me as though trying to decide something. After a while, he said, “The Gordons are decent people. Hayden brought me here, showed me around, introduced me to William, who was tall and spindly but looked almost as young as you do now. Hayden let me know what was going to happen if I stayed. He let me know while I could still leave, and I did leave. They didn’t stop me. William asked me to stay, but that made me run faster. The whole thing was too weird for me. Worse, I thought it sounded more like slavery than symbiosis. It scared the hell out of me. I stayed away for about ten months. I’d only been bitten three times in all, so I wasn’t physically addicted. No pain, no sickness. But psychologically … Well, I couldn’t forget it. I wanted it like crazy. Hell, I thought I was crazy. All of a sudden, I lived in a world where vampires were real. I couldn’t tell anyone about them. Hayden had seen to that. But I knew they were real. And I wanted to be with them. After a while, I quit my job, packed my things, put what I could in my car, gave the rest away, and drove here. God, it was a relief.” He stopped and smiled down at me. “Your first doesn’t want any other life, girl, no more than Joel does. The only difference is Joel knows it. Wright is still finding out.”

  “You’ve talked to him?”

  “Yeah. He’ll be all right. How’s he getting along with Joel?”

  “When he can, he pretends Joel isn’t there. When he can’t do that, he’s civil.”

  “It’s rough on him. Rough on both of them, really. Ease their way as best you can. This Council of Judgment should help a little—distraction, excitement, new people, plenty to do.”

  “It scares me a little.”

  “The Council? Sensory overload for you and the other Ina. That’s why Councils are only three days long.”

  “No, I mean … having Wright and Joel as well as Brook, Celia, and Theodora. It scares me. I need them. I care about them more than I thought I could care about anyone. But having them scares me.”

  “Good,” he said. “It ought to. Pay attention. Help them when they need help.” He paused. “Only when they need help.”

  I nodded. “I will.” I looked into his broad dark face, uncertainly. “Do you want your son to be with me?”

  “It’s what he wants.”

  “Is it all right with you?”

  “If you treat him right.” He looked past me at nothing for several seconds. “I wanted him to live in the human world for a few years, get more education than we could give him here. He did that. But to tell the truth, I wanted him to stay out there, make a life for himself, forget about vampires. Then he comes back, and all he wants to do is find himself a nice vampire girl.” He smiled, and it wasn’t an altogether happy smile. “I think he’ll want to do more once he’s been with you for a while. He’ll want to write or teach or something. Too much energy in that boy for him be to just some kind of house-husband.”

  “Theodora wants more, too. Once this Council of Judgment is finished, I’ll have to decide what to do, how best to build a home for us all. When that’s done, my symbionts will be able to do what they want to do.”

  “Good girl.” He took a deep breath and started toward the nearest building of offices and studios. “Now let’s go figure out how many people can be jammed into these studios. Thank God the weather hasn’t gotten cold yet.”

  Twenty

  The night before the Council was to begin, members of the Leontyev family arrived. I didn’t know them, of course, and until they arrived and Martin mentioned it, no one had bothered to tell me that Leontyev was the name of my mothers’ male family—the family of their fathers, elderfathers, brothers, and brothers’ sons.

  The Leontyevs and their symbionts arrived in two cars—a pair of Jeep Cherokees—while I was coming back from showing the very cool and distant Zoë and Helena Fotopoulos and their symbionts to their rooms in one of the office complexes. Martin had given me a list of who was coming and where they were to sleep. He said, “If you want to learn, you might as well help. This will give you a chance to meet people.” He was, I had noticed, good at putting people to work.

  The Leontyevs were older males, Konstantin and Vladimir, each with three symbionts. Martin intended them to stay with Henry Gordon. I came to get them, introduced myself, and realized from their expressions that something was wrong.

  “I’ve had a serious head injury,” I told them. “As a result of it, I have amnesia. If I knew you before, I’m sorry. I don’t remember you now.”

  “You don’t remember … anything?” the one Martin had pointed out to me as Konstantin asked.

  “Not people or events. I remember language. I recognize many objects. Sometimes I recall disconnected bits about myself or about the Ina in general. But I’ve lost my past, my memory of my families, symbionts, friends … The people of my families who are dead are so completely gone from me that I can’t truly miss them or mourn them because, for me, it’s as though they never existed.”

  Konstantin gazed down at me with almost too much sympathy. A human who looked that way would surely cry. After a moment, he said, “Shori, we’re your mothers’ fathers. You’ve known us all of your life.”

  I looked at them, took in their tall leanness, trying to find in them something I recognized. They looked more like relatives of Hayden and Preston Gordon—just two more pale blond men who appeared to be in their mid-to-late forties but who were actually closer to their mid–four hundreds.

  And suddenly, I found myself wondering what that meant. What had their lives been like so long ago? What had the world been like? I should ask Martin who had once been a history teacher.

  The faces and the ages of these two elderfathers—my elderfathers, my mothers’ fathers—triggered no memories. They were strangers.

  “I’m sorry,” I told them. “I’ll have to get to know you all over again. And you’ll have to get to know me. I can’t even pretend to be the person I was before the injury.”

  “I’m grateful the Gordons were able to take you in and care for you,” the one called Vladimir said. “How did they find you?”

  I stared at him, surprised, suddenly angry. “I found them. I’ve survived three attacks, and twice helped fight the attackers off. I helped to question the surviving attackers who came here a few days ago. Only my memory of my life before I was hurt is impaired.”

  They looked at each other, then at me. “My apologies,” Vladimir said. He lifted his head a little and smiled down his long nose at me. He managed to look more amused than condescending. “Whether you remember or not, you still have my Shori’s temper.”

  I took them to the rooms that Henry Gordon had set aside for them in his house. Before I left, I showed them Martin’s list and asked one more question. “Are any of these people close female relatives of mine?”

  They looked at the list, then looked at one another, each of them fr
owning. In that moment, they looked almost identical. Then Vladimir said, “I believe your closest surviving female blood relatives are too young to be involved it this. They’re children or young women busy with children. For instance, your brothers were mated and had two girls and a boy, all of whom are still very young children. Your mothers’ brothers have adult female children, but those children are too young for Council duty.”

  “Wouldn’t they be around my age or older? Some of them must be adults.”

  “Yes. They’re mated so the youngest of them is years older than you. But, unless they’re directly involved, people aren’t usually called to Councils of Judgment unless their children are adult and mated.”

  That explained why everyone I’d seen so far seemed to be around the ages of Hayden and Preston.

  “All right,” I said. “I’ve been told that all Council members are related to me in one way or another. Who among the women members are my closest relatives? And did any of them know me before?” I asked.

  Again the two paused to think. At last, Konstantin said, “The Braithwaites. The Braithwaite eldermothers are Joan, Irene, Amy, and Margaret. Two of them will be coming. They’re the daughters of your second elderfathers.”

  I frowned trying to understand that.

  “They are the daughters of your father’s father’s father,” Vladimir clarified. “They know you, knew you before. You can talk to them. But, Shori, you can talk to us, too. We are your family. We’ve come here to see that your interests are protected and that the people responsible for what happened to you and to so many of our relatives pay for what they’ve done.”

  I remembered hearing from Hayden that Joan and Margaret Braithwaite would be coming. In fact, they were arriving tonight. “Thank you,” I said. “I … I just need to see and talk to an Ina female. I have no memory of ever doing that before today. I’ve met several males since my injury, but until I met Zoë and Helena Fotopoulos this morning, no females. It’s very strange to be an Ina female and yet have no clear idea of what Ina females are like.”

  Konstantin smiled. “Talk to the Braithwaites then. Elizabeth I was on the throne of England when Joan and Irene were born, so I’m not sure you’ll learn much from them about being a young Ina woman now. But all four sisters have met you, Shori, and I think they like you. Go ahead and talk with them when they come.”

  I kept watch for the Braithwaite women, pestering Martin to look whenever female Ina drove in. The Braithwaites arrived just after midnight. Before I could ask Martin about them, Daniel came out to welcome them. I heard him call them by name. I watched as he stood talking with them.

  Joan and Margaret Braithwaite were a head shorter than Daniel, but still taller than Celia or Brook. They were very straight, very pale women in white shirts and long black skirts. Their hair was twisted and pinned up neatly on their heads. One was brown-haired—the first brown-haired Ina I’d seen—and one was blond. Their chests, beneath their clean, handsome, long-sleeved shirts, were as flat as mine. I suspected that that meant I would not be growing the breasts Wright liked on women. Yet as ignorant as I was, even I wouldn’t have mistaken these two for men. There was something undeniably feminine and interestingly seductive about them, even to me. Was it their scents? Did my scent make me seem interesting to other people?

  I realized that I wanted Joan and Margaret to think well of me, to like me. That was important somehow. Their scent was definitely influencing me. Was it something they were doing deliberately, I wondered. Could they control it? Could I? I would ask them if I could manage to be alone with one of them.

  “Shori?” the brown-haired one said to me as I stood off to one side, almost hiding in the shadows, watching them. Daniel had called the blond woman Joan, so this one must be Margaret.

  I was immediately ashamed of myself for hiding and staring. “I’m sorry,” I said, stepping forward. “I have no memory of seeing Ina females before today. I’ve been waiting for you because I was told you are my closest female relatives on the Council.”

  Daniel looked at me with that strange, strained look of his that ranged between hostility and hunger. I had come to see that look more and more as my stay with the Gordons lengthened. I had seen it on Daniel, William, Philip, and Wayne. Without saying a word, Daniel turned and walked away. I was fairly sure his longing made him seem even more ill-mannered than my ignorance made me. We would have to talk, Daniel and I. If my presence was disturbing him so much, we should at least take a few moments to speak privately together, to get to know each other a little.

  “That was interesting,” Joan Braithwaite said. She looked at Daniel’s retreating back.

  “When this is over, I’m hoping I can leave here for a while and stop irritating Daniel and his brothers,” I said.

  Margaret said, as though we’d known one another for a long time, “Will you mate with them?”

  “I think so. I was afraid at first that they might not want me, now that I have to get to know everything all over again … and now that I’m alone.”

  “You truly don’t remember anything about your mothers, your sisters?” Margaret asked. “You don’t remember any other women?”

  “I don’t remember anyone,” I said. “As I said, I haven’t seen an Ina woman since my injury until today. I’ve only seen males.”

  The two Braithwaite sisters looked at one another. After a moment, Margaret said, “Take us to our quarters, then I’ll talk with you.”

  I hesitated, remembering the list. “Your quarters are in the offices. This way.” I took them and their six symbionts, each carrying a suitcase or a garment bag or both to the offices and the studio that were to be their living quarters. The symbionts were four men and two women. All four of the men were large and strong looking. They must have smelled very interesting before the Braithwaites claimed them. Two of the men were brown with very straight, very black hair. They were enough alike to be brothers. The other two were pale, muscular men. One of the women—the smallest of them—was startlingly beautiful. She was smaller than Celia, my smallest symbiont, and I’m not sure I would have chosen her as a symbiont out of fear that I would take too much blood from her. The other woman was tall and strong looking and deeply interested in one of the brown men.

  “Those two got married last week,” Margaret told me when we had left the symbionts in their rooms and Joan in hers. I was alone with Margaret in the office she had chosen as her bedroom. Her arrangement seemed to be to have a room of her own and have her symbionts come to her when she needed them. “Eden, the young woman, is mine and Arun is Joan’s,” she said. I realized she had noticed me noticing the affectionate pair.

  “Do they mind sharing each other with you and Joan?” I asked. “I mean, are they still content to be symbionts?”

  “Oh yes.” She smiled. “Symbionts usually choose to mate with one another because, as symbionts, they share a life that other humans not only couldn’t understand or accept, but … well, think about it, Shori. Symbionts age much more slowly than other humans, depending on how young they are when then accept us. How could they have a long-term relationship with someone who ages according to the human norm? People have tried it, but it doesn’t work.”

  I nodded. “I have no coherent idea of what does work. I’m still finding out how Ina families live. I know I should leave here as soon as I can, but then what? I can provide for myself and my symbionts, but I don’t know how to be part of the web of Ina society that obviously exists. How can I offer my symbionts the contacts they’ll need with other symbionts?” I sighed. “I’ve forgotten almost everything I spent fifty-three years learning.”

  “But you’re still a child,” Margaret Braithwaite said. “You could be adopted into one of your secondary families. Once this business with the Silks is attended to, you’ll be welcome in a number of communities.”

  “If I did that, what would happen to my connection with the Gordons?”

  She thought about that, then shook her head. “If you’re adopted in
to another community, you mate where they mate unless you could convince them to accept the Gordons. And you’d have to find a community with unmated daughters so that you can join them before the group of you mated. First adoption, then mating.”

  “My family was negotiating with the Gordon sons to mate with my sisters and me, and the Gordons have helped me, taken risks for me.”

  “You want to mate with them, then? It isn’t just that at the moment, they’re all you’ve got?”

  “I think I do. I like them. But it’s true that right now, I don’t know any other eligible mates.”

  “Then you’ll have to do what your father did. He lost his family in the European wars. Your mothers lost a few people, too. You had five eldermothers. Three were killed. At that point, your mothers left eastern Europe. Did you know that you were the only one of your sisters to be born here in the United States?”

  “I didn’t know. The others were born in Romania?”

  “Two in Romania and one in England. I met your mothers in England. They had young children, and two of them were pregnant when they reached England. They made themselves over, became English women, and begged your fathers to join them. But your fathers had once owned a great estate in Romania until it was taken from them after World War I and broken up and sold to small farmers. Your fathers’ family had lived there for at least two thousand years under several different names, and they truly didn’t want to leave. My own family lived there long enough for my mothers to mate with the fathers of your elderfathers. Eventually, though, we went to Greece, then to Italy, then to England. We were always willing to move to avoid trouble or to take advantage of opportunity. From England, we moved to the United States just after World War I. My mothers said there would be another war soon, and they wanted to avoid it as much as possible. No place on Earth was safe, of course, and we lost people, but we were never winnowed down to one person as your father’s family was. He had absolutely no primary relatives left who were of his age or older.”

 
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