Fledgling, p.33
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       Fledgling, p.33

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  Preston said, “Russell, you’ve heard your family’s sentence.”

  Russell managed to turn away from me and direct his hateful stare at Preston.

  “Stand,” Preston ordered.

  Russell made no move to rise. He turned to look at me again. He looked as though he wanted to kill me so badly that it was hurting him.

  “Russell Silk,” Preston said in that big, deep, clear voice of his. “Stand,” he said, “Stand and speak for yourself and your family.”

  Russell Silk rose slowly, and I watched him. He was at the very edge of his control. If he lost control, he would certainly come for me. He was half again my height and easily twice my weight—an adult Ina male. Not a deer. But he was old. Perhaps not as fast as a deer. Watching him, I decided I could ride him. I could be on him before he could stop me. I could tear out his throat. It wouldn’t kill him, although my venom might tame him for me, make him obey. If it didn’t, it would surely slow him down, give me a chance to twist his head right off. No one could recover from that. I could do that. I could.

  “You must accept the sentence,” Preston said. “Then each member of your family must stand and accept it. By your acceptance, you give your word, each of you, that there will be peace between the Silks and the Matthews, peace between the Silks and the Gordons, peace for a period of at least three hundred years from today.”

  Preston paused, his eyes on Russell as intently as mine were. “The penalty for refusing to accept your sentence or for breaking your word once you’ve given it is immediate death—death for you, Russell, and for each mated member of your family.” He paused and looked at the Silk family waiting in the audience. “Do you accept your sentence?” he demanded.

  Russell launched himself toward me.

  I stood up and away from the table, ready for him, eager for him. It was like being eager for sex or for feeding.

  But before he could reach me, before I could taste his blood, two of his sons and one of his brothers leaped up from the front row, grabbed him, and dragged him down. They held him while he struggled beneath them, screaming. At first, it seemed that he wasn’t making words. He was only looking at me and screaming. Then I began to recognize words: “Murdering black mongrel bitch …” and “What will she give us all? Fur? Tails?”

  He didn’t shed tears. I wondered suddenly whether we could cry the way humans did. Russell just lay curled on his side, moaning and choking.

  I watched the whole group of Silks, clustered in the first few rows on Russell’s side of the room. Milo glared at me, but the others were focused on Russell, who seemed to be slowly regaining his sanity.

  Wright and Joel got up and came toward me, but I waved them back to their seats. They couldn’t regrow lost parts. Better for them to stay clear.

  Milo looked from me to them—a long, slow look. Then he looked at me again. It was an obvious threat.

  Daniel Gordon, his fathers, and his brothers came up to stand behind me. In silence, they looked back at Milo.

  The pile of Silks on the floor untangled itself, and all four of them stood up. After a moment, Russell went back to his table and stood by it. The rest of his family watched him, as the three who had restrained him went back to their seats.

  At the same time, the Gordons behind me melted away and went back to their seats as silently as they had come. I sat down at my table.

  Preston repeated in an oddly gentle voice, “Russell Silk, do you accept your sentence?”

  It was as though there had been no interruption. Russell looked down at his table, then stared at me. “What is to be done with the Matthews child?” he demanded.

  “Nothing at all,” Preston said.

  “She should be adopted. She’s a child. She’s ill. She should be looked after, brought into a family that can teach her how to at least pretend to be Ina.”

  “You created Shori’s problems,” Preston said. “But solving them is not your concern. Your only concern now is whether you accept your sentence or reject it. Now, for the last time, do you accept your sentence?”

  Russell looked at his family—his father, his brothers, his sons, and his five youngersons who would soon be leaving the Silk family to be adopted by others. Adoption was apparently so permanent a thing that there was no possibility of their sneaking back home or uniting as Silks in another country or another part of the United States. For one thing, they would eventually be mated to different families of females. And their sons would never be Silks.

  It took Russell almost a full minute to make himself say the words: “I … accept … the sentence.”

  “Milo Silk?” Preston said.

  Milo stood up. In an ancient, paper-dry voice that I had not heard from him before, he said, “I accept the sentence.” Then he sat down again and sagged forward in his chair, staring at the floor, elbows resting on his knees.

  Once he had said it, each of the rest of his sons could say it. Then their sons could say it. Finally the youngest, unmated sons—those who were giving their word that they accepted absolute, permanent banishment—could say it. It still seemed wrong to me that they should be the ones to bear the worst of the punishment. Each might never see his fathers or his brothers again, and three of them were children. They were the only ones truly not responsible for what their elders had done to my families.

  It occurred to me suddenly that Russell had asked about my being adopted because if I, like his sons, became a member of a different family, he might not be legally forbidden from attacking me. If I were not Shori Matthews, but Shori Braithwaite, for instance, I might be fair game. The Braithwaites might be fair game. I had no intention of being adopted, but I did intend to ask Preston if my suspicions were true.

  The Gordons quietly separated the Silks from their unmated sons. The sons’ symbionts joined them quickly, and that was a good thing. It would ease their pain to have these loved and needed people with them, people they had probably known most their lives. The sons would be taken from their fathers but not from the humans who were closest to them. In fact, someone would have to collect the rest of their symbionts back at the Silk community and reunite them with their Ina. I was glad to see that one of the son’s symbionts was the doctor who had questioned me. It was good that he could be away from the ugly contempt of the adults. The Silk son to whom he was bound was taller than I was, but he looked no older.

  The youngest Silks and their symbionts were herded out of the room by several adult Ina—the siblings of those who had served on the Council of Judgment. Perhaps these were the people who would have had to carry out the death sentence if there had been one. Was that the arrangement? One brother or sister passed judgment and the other helped to carry out the sentence?

  The adult Silks watched, distraught. Their obvious pain was so much at odds with their utter stillness that it was hard to look at them. They stared at their children, their family’s future, walking away, and in that vast room, no one spoke a word.

  Then the youngest Silks were gone, and we all sat looking at one another.

  Preston coughed—an odd sound from him since he did it to get our attention rather than to clear his throat. “We must also attend to the matter of Katharine Dahlman,” he said. He looked at her where she sat near the Silks. “Stand, please, Katharine, and come forward.”

  Very slowly, she stood up and came to the microphone that stood alone in the arc.

  Preston, also standing, faced her. “For the wrong that you’ve done, Katharine Dahlman—for using your own symbiont, Jack Roan, as a murderous tool, for having him kill Theodora Harden, the symbiont of Shori Matthews—you must, according to written law, have both your legs severed at mid-thigh.” He took a breath. “Katharine, do you accept your sentence?”

  She leaned forward to speak into the microphone, then had to lower it to her height. “I do not,” she said when she had finished. “The punishment is too extreme. It does not fit the minor crime that I committed.”

  “Minor crime!” I said loudly. “How
can murdering a woman who never harmed you, who never even threatened you be a minor crime?”

  She didn’t even glance at me. “I ask that the members of the Council consider my punishment and count themselves for or against it.”

  I looked at Preston. I found it intolerable that Katharine would be permitted to live. Now she was whining about having to suffer at all. If she accepted her punishment, in a year or two, she would have legs again and be fine, but Theodora would still be dead. Minor crime?

  “I will give up my left hand to pay for my … crime,” Katharine said. “That’s more than justice.”

  “Or perhaps only a finger!” I said. “Maybe a fingernail would do. But if the penalty is so small, then I should be able to do to you what you did to me. Which of your symbionts shall I take?”

  She looked at me with more hatred and contempt than I would have thought she could manage, then she turned away and spoke to Preston. “I demand a count of the Council. I have a right to that.”

  “There has been a count as to your guilt. Once that vote went against you, your guilt and punishment were decided. You have no right to negotiate, and you know it. You knew the law long before you decided to break it.”

  She looked away from him, stared past him, and said nothing for several seconds. Finally, she shook her head. “I can’t accept it. It’s unjust. That human was not a symbiont because Shori is not Ina! And … and at my age, the punishment would probably kill me.”

  What did that mean? Was she saying she thought it was all right to kill innocent human beings who were not symbionts?

  Preston hesitated, then spoke gently. “Katharine, this isn’t a death sentence. It will be bad. It’s supposed to be bad. Consider what you did to earn it. But your family will look after you, and in a year or two, you’ll have healed. But refusing the sentence, Katharine … that would be death.”

  She shook her head. “Then kill me! Go ahead. Kill me! I cannot accept the punishment you’ve ordered.”

  The two of them, not far apart in age, stared at one another. “We’ll take a short break,” he said. “Katharine, go talk with your sister and your symbionts. Think about what you’re doing.” He stepped away from his place at the table and glanced at his silent audience. “We’ll resume in one hour.”

  My symbionts hesitated, then came up to me. I didn’t know why they hesitated until they stayed back and let Wright be the first to touch me. He took my hand, and when I took his huge hand between both of mine, the others came up to me.

  I realized that they were afraid of me. What had I said or done? How had I looked or acted to make these people whom I loved and needed most afraid of me? I stood and hugged each of them, holding Brook for a little longer than the others because she was trembling so.

  “The tension in this place is like a bad smell,” I said. “Let’s go back to the house for a little while.”

  We left the hall and headed toward the guest house. We weren’t talking. I think we all wanted what I had said—a little time away from the anger and hatred and pain in the hall. Joel had put his arm around me and was, I think, deliberately distracting me with his scent. I needed to be distracted. Both he and Brook knew enough about the Ina to do something like that.

  I sat with them in the kitchen while they had coffee and cinnamon-apple muffins. Wright was talking about building our first house himself, and the others didn’t believe he could do it. I did. I kind of liked the idea.

  They dared me to taste the coffee, and I tasted it. It was less appealing than plain water, but not disgusting. I wondered what other human food or drink I could tolerate. When I had more time, I might find out.

  We talked for a while longer, then got up and headed back. Suddenly there was confusion and shouting. Not too far ahead of us, people came spilling out of Henry’s house. Before I could understand what was going on, Katharine Dahlman was there in front of us. She had run from Henry’s house, run faster than a human could, but not that fast for an Ina. She was holding something in front of her, clutched in both hands.

  It took a moment for me to understand that she was holding a rifle. She ran ahead of the crowd, then stopped suddenly and leveled the gun at my symbionts and me.

  I charged her. I was terrified that she would kill another of my symbionts before I could stop her.

  Again, I had not kept them safe.

  She fired.

  And I felt as though I’d been punched hard, hammered in the stomach by something impossibly strong.

  It was as though I hung in midair for an instant, not going forward, not dropping. It didn’t happen that way, of course, but I felt as though it did. In fact, my momentum carried me into her. I hit her with my feet, and she started to fall. I hit the rifle with my hand, shoved it upward, and made her next shot go wild. Her weapon was an old bolt-action rifle, perhaps one of those kept handy while the Gordons were worried about being attacked. If it had been automatic like the ones our attackers had used against us, or if Katharine had been quick with it, she might have shot me again before I reached her. She might have battered me down with bullets, then while I was helpless, she could have finished killing me.

  Instead, I reached her. As we struggled on the ground I tore the gun from her hands and threw it away. I was surprised that I could. She was an adult and larger than I was, even though she was small for an Ina. I could feel her in my hands as she twisted and tried to push me away, tried to tear herself free of me, tried to bite me.

  My own strength was bleeding away. She was winning, holding on to me, pulling me close so that she could bite and tear. With the last of my strength, I rammed my hand upward, hit her hard under the chin, pulled myself up, and bit down hard into the flesh of her throat.

  She screamed. Either she was terrified of my getting control of her or her pain overwhelmed her. I had not bitten her for nourishment or out of affection. I meant to destroy her throat, tear it to pieces. She let go of my shoulders to grab my head and push my face away, and in the instant of opportunity that gave me, I went for a better grip on her with my teeth. I bit through her larynx. She would do no more screaming for a while. And I broke her neck—or tried to. I wasn’t sure whether I managed it or not because I lost consciousness before the worst of my own pain could catch up with me.

  And then it was over.

  Epilogue

  I regained consciousness slowly. It was like struggling up through mud.

  I was naked except for one of Wright’s big T-shirts. Someone had undressed me and put me to bed. The room was very dark, and I lay alone in bed. I couldn’t see well at first. I wasn’t in pain from my wound, but I felt weak—weak on a whole different scale from anything I’d felt since the cave. In fact, this felt like awakening in the cave. This time, though, I thought I’d only lost a night or two.

  Then I smelled meat somewhere just beyond to bed. I turned toward it, literally starving. My body had used up its resources healing itself and had reached the point of beginning to consume its own muscle tissue as fuel.

  I scuttled toward the meat, desperate for it.

  Someone said, “Stop, Shori!”

  And I stopped. It was Wright. My first.

  I pulled back, seeing him now, tall, broad, and shadowy, sitting in a chair next to the bed. I hadn’t touched him, wouldn’t touch him. I pulled back, away from him, clutching the mattress, whimpering. The hunger was a massive twisting hurt inside me, but I would not touch him. I heard him moving around, then I caught a different scent. Beef. Food.

  “Here,” he said. “Take it. Eat.” He gave me a big dish filled with lean pieces of raw meat. It wasn’t as freshly killed as I would have preferred, but it was good enough. I gulped the meat, bit the pieces into smaller chunks, and swallowed them barely chewed, then gulped more. I finished the platter and grabbed the new one that Wright offered me, gulping much of it, then, with growing contentment, finishing the rest more slowly, actually chewing before I swallowed, feeling almost content, finally content.

  I put the
platter down, leaned back against the headboard, and sighed. “Thank you,” I said. “But next time—if this ever happens again—don’t stay with me. Just leave the meat.”

  “I don’t see where you put it all,” he said. “You’re so small. If you were human, I’d expect you to be sick after eating like that.”

  “I was sick—from the need to eat.”

  “I know but … oh, it doesn’t matter. I’m just grateful you’re all right.”

  “You shouldn’t have been here,” I told him again. I shook my head, tried to shake off the memory of Hugh Tang. “How could the Gordons let you stay here with me?”

  “They didn’t,” he said. “They said we should put the meat in a cooler and leave it in here with you. They said none of us should go in, that we should wait until you came out.”

  “You should have.”

  He put something in my hands. It turned out to be several disposable wipes. I used them to clean my hands and face. Then he poured water from a pitcher into a glass and handed me the glass. I had seen neither the pitcher nor the glass until he picked them up from the night table. I was focused on him—his scent, the sound of his heartbeat, his breathing, his voice. It was so good to have him nearby even though he shouldn’t have been.

  I took the glass and drank. “Thank you,” I said. “Why did you disobey the Gordons? You know what I could have done.”

  “I’m not Hugh Tang,” he said. “And you didn’t have a head wound this time. I knew you wouldn’t hurt me.”

  I stared at him, amazed and angry. “You don’t understand. The hunger is so terrible … Even without a head wound, I might have killed you.”

  “You stopped the instant I spoke. I don’t believe you would have touched me. In fact, without the head injury, I don’t think you would have touched anyone else who had the presence of mind to speak to you. I was pretty sure I was safe here.”

  “You don’t know what it’s like to be so … so hungry.”

  He put his hand on my arm. “I don’t. And I wish you hadn’t had to go through it. I know you were afraid Katharine was going to shoot one of us.” Very slowly, he gathered me to him. I let him because it felt so good, so completely comfortable to rest against him.

 

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