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       Fledgling, p.26

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  Then Preston stood up, introduced himself, welcomed everyone, and asked Milo to bless the meeting.

  Milo stood up and, microphone in hand, began to speak.

  “May we remember always that we are Ina,” he said in his deep, quiet voice. “We are an ancient and honorable people with more than ten thousand years of recorded history. We are a proud and powerful people, well aware of our duty to our families, to our kind, and to the truths that make us who we are. May we look after our human symbionts with kindness and firmness. May we care for them and keep them from harm. May we be loving, loyal, and generous to our mates. May the proceedings of this Council of Judgment be carried on with honor, justice, and truth. May we remember and honor the Goddess as we strive to do and to be all that she expects of us. May we put aside those things that do not honor her. May we put them aside and take care never again to be touched by them, never seduced by them, never soiled by them. May we remember always that our strength flows from our uniqueness and our unity. We are Ina! That is what this Council must protect. Now, then! Let us begin.” He closed his straight line of a mouth and sat down.

  Milo had looked directly at me as he spoke his last few sentences. He was straight bodied and white haired, six and a half feet tall, and even leaner than most Ina. He was sharp featured and fierce looking somehow. If he were human, I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that he was sixty, perhaps sixty-five years old. He had, I thought, spoken condescendingly of human symbionts and contemptuously of me, and yet in his deep voice, his words had had a majestic sound to them.

  Preston Gordon straightened in his seat at the center of the arc. I got the impression Preston was actually enjoying his position. He repeated his welcome to the members of the Council, their deputies, and their symbionts. He assured them that if they needed or wanted anything at all, they had only to speak to a member of the Gordon family. Then he introduced each Council member, although probably everyone knew them except me, some of the newer symbionts, and, ironically, some of the younger Silks. I listened carefully and remembered. Preston had already told me a little about each of the visiting families. Now I was getting a chance to put faces to the names.

  There was Zoë Fotopoulos, whose family had once lived in Greece, but who, for a century now, lived on a cattle ranch in Montana.

  There was Joan Braithwaite, whom I was glad to see again and whose family lived in western Oregon where they raised, among other things, Christmas trees.

  There was Alexander Svoboda, whose family had come from what was, at the time, Czechoslovakia a few years before World War II to establish a community in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains where they now owned a vacation resort.

  Peter Marcu had come down from British Columbia where his family owned several tourist-oriented businesses, including one that helicoptered tourists to isolated areas and guided them on memorable mountain hikes.

  Vladimir Leontyev and his family had lived in Alaska since Alaska was still Russian territory. They owned a fleet of fishing boats and interests in a cannery and a plant that processed frozen food.

  Ana Morariu’s family were neighbors of the Gordons, living only about two hundred miles away in Humboldt County where several of her people were teachers, writers, and artists and owned two hotels that served people visiting the national and state parks.

  Katharine Dahlman’s family ran a ranch that was a tourist resort in Arizona, but they were planning to move to Canada, away from the sun and toward the longer nights of northern winters. Katharine and her sister Sophia were noticeably short for Ina women. In fact, that was the first thing I noticed about them. Other Ina females who had come to the Council were at least six feet tall. But the Dahlmans were only Celia’s height, and Celia had told me she was five feet seven inches tall. She’d said she liked being around me since other Ina females made her feel short. She had measured me gleefully and discovered I was an inch under five feet tall. But I still had some growing to do. I wondered how Katharine and Sophia Dahlman felt about their height.

  Alice Rappaport’s family had a ranch in Texas where she was, for legal reasons, actually married to her first. He had taken her name legally and was enjoying himself, doing what he had always wanted to do: run a ranch and run it profitably. Alice, her sister, and the six symbionts they had brought with them were using the living, dining, and family rooms of the guest house as their quarters so I’d had a chance to talk to them. According to Alice, female Ina families had passed for human for thousands of years by marrying male symbionts and organizing their communities to look like human villages.

  Harold Westfall was also married to his first for legal as well as social reasons. He lived in South Carolina and felt that anything he could do to seem normal and unworthy of notice was a good thing. He and his family had been in South Carolina for 160 years, and yet I got the impression that he still was not comfortable there. I wondered why he stayed.

  Kira Nicolau and her family had left Romania for Russia, then left Russia just before the Communist Revolution in 1917, and had eventually settled in Idaho in a valley so isolated that they felt they had no reason to put on a show of human normality. They’d dug wells, cut their own logs, built their own cabins. They used the wind and sun to make their electricity, planted their crops and kept enough chickens, hogs, goats, and milk cows to supply their symbionts with food and make a small profit. They shopped maybe twice a year to buy the things they either couldn’t make or didn’t want to bother making. If they hadn’t had to visit their mates and attend the occasional Council of Judgment, they might have vanished completely from the awareness of other Ina.

  Ion Andrei, on the other hand, lived in a suburb of Chicago. His family, too, were planning to move to Canada. They owned interests in several Chicago businesses. They had been in the Chicago area for over a century, but now they were beginning to feel swallowed by the growing population.

  During the northern hemisphere’s winter, Walter Nagy and his family lived on a farm on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. During the southern hemisphere’s winter, the whole family moved to a ranch in Argentina. In fact, they had just gotten back from Argentina. “We could get even more hours of darkness if we moved farther north and farther south,” he had told me when I met him. “But we like comfort, too. We don’t mind a little cold weather, but do mind snow and ice.” His family also owned income property in New York City and in Palo Alto and San Francisco. The few among them who bothered to work were artists, writers, and musicians.

  Finally, there was Elizabeth Akhmatova, whose family lived in Colorado in a Rocky Mountain community. They had gradually developed the land surrounding their community, building houses, stores, shops, and a nearby resort area until a fair-sized town had grown around them. They had held on to the property until it became popular and highly valued, and now, they were gradually selling it off at very high prices. She and her family had come to North America in 1875, and they were about to make their third major move, this time to Canada. They liked to find areas with potential, acquire vast stretches of land, and develop it.

  Preston introduced them all, then introduced me and welcomed me. Finally, he asked me to stand and tell my story.

  I stood, holding my microphone the way Milo had. I began my story with my first memory of awakening in the cave, confused, in pain, without my memory, and racked with intense hunger. I told them about Hugh Tang—all of it—about the ruin that I had not recognized as my home, about Wright and my father and the destruction of my father’s community—the whole story up to and including the raid on the Gordons and the capturing and questioning of Victor and his two friends. The telling took more than an hour.

  At last, I finished and sat down. There were several seconds of absolute silence. Then Milo Silk stood up. “Does this child have an advocate?” he demanded. He spoke the word “child” as though he wanted to say a much nastier word but restrained himself.

  Before I could say that I didn’t yet have an advocate, Vladimir Leontyev spoke up
.

  “I am one of the fathers of Shori Matthews’s mothers,” he said. “I believe I’m her nearest living relative on the Council. My brothers and I may be her nearest living relatives period. If Shori wishes it, I will be her advocate.”

  I leaned forward so that I could see him and said, “I must ask questions because of my memory loss. I mean no offense, Vladimir, but if you become my advocate, will it be a problem that you and I don’t really know each other anymore?”

  “It won’t be a problem,” he said. “Family is what matters here. You are of great importance to me because you are one of my descendants.”

  “Will you speak for me or will you help me understand rules and customs so that I can speak for myself?”

  “Both, probably,” he said, “but I would prefer the latter.”

  I nodded. “So would I. I understand that the Silks will also have to have an advocate.”

  Vladimir gave me a small smile, then looked at Milo Silk. “Who on the Council will be your family’s advocate, Milo?”

  “I speak for my family,” he said.

  Preston Gordon said, “Milo, in our negotiations with your family, one of your sons mentioned that a member of the Dahlman family might be persuaded to be your advocate.”

  “When have you known me to need someone to speak for me?” he demanded.

  Preston looked at him, looked down at his own spidery hands resting on the table, then faced Milo again. “Let me advise you, just this once. Your family needs more protection than you can give it. Don’t let your pride destroy your family.”

  Milo looked away from him, kept quiet for several seconds. After a while, he said, “Katharine Dahlman is the oldest daughter of my sisters,” Milo said. “I ask that she be my advocate.”

  Katharine Dahlman managed, by sitting very straight, to look not only important, but a little taller. She lowered her head in a slow nod. “Of course,” she said in a deep, quiet contralto—a female version of Milo’s voice. It was the voice of a larger woman, somehow. “Will you question the child, Milo, or shall I?”

  Milo looked down at the table, and I remembered that he had been writing while I spoke. Perhaps he had not trusted the two video cameras that were being used to record the session. Perhaps he had made notes of the questions he wanted to ask me. Or perhaps he had his own memory problems. I faced him across the arc, ready to be questioned, but he turned his body and tried to face Preston.

  “I have my doubts, Preston, whether this child should even be here,” he said. “She has suffered terrible losses, and she admits that she hasn’t recovered from her injuries.”

  I resisted an impulse to say that I had recovered, or had recovered as much as I was likely to. Instead, I waited to see what Preston would say. He looked at me, then at Vladimir.

  Vladimir said, “Shori, have you recovered from your injuries?”

  “I am recovered,” I said. “My memory may or may not return. I’m beginning to relearn what I’ve lost, and I remember clearly all that has happened to me since I awoke in the cave.” I looked across at Milo and decided that he would speak directly to me in a minute or two. He didn’t want to, but he would.

  “Has the child been examined by a physician?” Milo asked. “I understand there is a human physician among the symbionts here. If not, one of my family’s symbionts is a physician.”

  That was too much. I had been at Punta Nublada long enough to recognize that Milo was being openly insulting. He was saying that my body was not Ina enough to heal itself, that the human part of me had somehow crippled me.

  “Milo!” I said, not loudly, but sharply. He looked at me before he could stop himself and then looked away smoothly, as though he had only glanced at me by accident. I leaned forward, facing him across the arc. “I am Ina, Milo.”

  He stared at me, then turned again to Preston. “For the child’s own sake, I request that she be examined by a physician.”

  I said, “What are those notes you’re making there, Milo? No one else is taking notes. Are you having difficulties with your memory, too?”

  He glared at me. Katharine Dahlman glared at me.

  “I am Ina, Milo, and if the doctor must examine me, then for your own sake, I request that she also examine you.”

  “You’re not Ina!” he shouted. He slammed his palm down on the table, making a sound like a gunshot. “You’re not! And you have no more business at this Council than would a clever dog!”

  People jumped. Katharine Dahlman said, “Preston, could we break for a few minutes?” She didn’t wait but stood up and went around to Milo who had risen to his feet and was leaning forward, fists on the table, glaring at me.

  “Fifteen minutes,” Preston said and glanced at his watch.

  People poured themselves glasses of water, got up to stretch their legs, or turned to talk to one another. At first no one on the Council spoke to me. Most didn’t even look at me.

  Some went to speak to audience members, and Wright, Joel, and Brook took this to mean that they could come talk to me. They reached me at the same moment as Vladimir Leontyev and Joan Braithwaite.

  The two Ina and the three humans stared at one another for a moment, then Joan leaned on the table, clicked off my microphone, and said, “Shori, there are people in this room who have loved that old man for centuries.”

  I focused on her and bit back all the things I could have said. She knew them as well as I did. That old man either ordered my families killed or sat by and watched while his sons did it. That old man had just told me I was no better than a dog because I had human as well as Ina genes. That old man is not sane. All true, all obvious.

  “What should I have done?” I asked her.

  She looked surprised. “Nothing,” she said. “Nothing at all.”

  “You should have let me do it,” Vladimir said. “I’m only about ninety years younger than he is. A rebuke from me would have been more easily accepted.”

  “Would you have done it?” Wright asked him.

  Vladimir took a deep breath. “Eventually.”

  “It’s done,” I said. “What happens now?”

  “You didn’t think of that question before you humiliated him?” Joan asked. “You didn’t wonder what would happen afterward?”

  “I didn’t humiliate him,” I said, finally stating the obvious. “I would not have humiliated him. I just stood back and let him humiliate himself.”

  “Others won’t see it that way.”

  “Are we rid of him?” I asked. “Will he step aside and let one of his sons represent the family?”

  She looked at me as though she didn’t particularly like me. “He might,” she said. “What good do you imagine that will do you?”

  “Perhaps the new representative will at least dislike me as one-individual-to-another, and not as man-to-animal.”

  “And no doubt that will make you feel better,” she said. “But it won’t help you. You’ve shown your teeth, Shori. They’re sharp and set in strong female jaws. You are now less the victim and more the potentially dangerous opponent. You begin to overshadow your dead.”

  I thought about that, although I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted to go on feeling angry and justified. But finally I sighed. “You’re right. What shall I do?”

  She nodded. Apparently I had asked the right question. “Remember your dead,” she said. “Keep them around you. And remember what you want. What do you want?”

  “To punish them for what they’ve done,” I said. “To stop them from hunting me. To stop them from killing anyone else.”

  She nodded once, then turned and walked across the arc toward where people were very gently arguing with Milo.

  “She’s right,” Wright said to me, “but she’s cold.”

  “She’s just female,” Joel said.

  “And oldest sister,” Brook added. “I’ll bet the younger one, Margaret, is gentler.”

  “She is,” I said.

  “Nevertheless, Joan’s advice is good,” Vladimir
told me.

  “I know,” I said.

  “The truth is your best weapon,” he said. “Put aside that temper of yours. Use the truth intelligently.” He turned and went back to his place in the arc.

  Brook watched him go. Then she stepped behind me and put her hands on my shoulders. She massaged my neck and shoulders so that I began to relax before I realized I needed to. I looked up at her.

  “Good?” she asked.

  “Good,” I said.

  Joel laughed. “Ina need to be touched, especially young Ina. I don’t think you always realize how much you need it, Shori.”

  “We’ll have to see that she gets what she needs,” Wright said, looking at me. The look made me smile and shake my head.

  “You should all go back to your seats,” I said. “They’re about to start the Council again.”

  They went back to their seats, and on the other side of the arc, another of the Silks—Russell, I had heard him called—sat down in Milo’s place.

  Twenty-three

  Russell Silk had no story to tell. He denied all involvement in the death of my families and in the attacks on the Arlington house and on the Gordons. He denied that his family was involved in any of it. He suggested that I was confused or mistaken or that the humans who had been used as weapons had been given false information intended to incriminate the Silk family—which happened to be the only male Ina family in Los Angeles County. Who would create such a fiction? He did not know. He and his family were victims … just as I was.

  That was a sickening enough lie to make me wonder if I would have been able to keep my temper had I not lost my memory. If I could remember my mothers, my sisters, and my symbionts, if I could recall my father and my brothers as anything more than kindly strangers, I might not have been able to bear it. I thought Russell might have said it hoping to make me angry, hoping to pay me back for what I said to Milo.

 
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