by Carol Emshwiller
We’re not against you, we’re for. In fact we’re built for you and you for us — we, so our weak little legs will dangle on your chest and our tail down the back. Exactly as you so often transport your own young when they are weak and small. It’s a joy. Just like a mother-walk.
You’ll be free. You’ll have a pillow. You’ll have a water faucet and a bookcase. We’ll pat you if you do things fast enough and don’t play hard to catch. We’ll rub your legs and soak your feet. Sams and Sues, and you Sams had better behave yourselves.
You still call us aliens in spite of the fact that we’ve been on your world for generations. And why call aliens exactly those who’ve brought health and happiness to you? And look how well we fit, you and us. As if born for each other even though we come from different worlds.
We mate the stocky with the stocky, the thin with the thin, the pygmy with the pygmy. You’ve done a fairly good job with that yourselves before we came. As to skin, we like a color a little on the reddish side. Freckles are third best.
Your type is called a Seattle. I hope to find other Seattles to mate with you, and soon.
Your young will stay with their mothers until weaning. We’ll stroke them all over to make them love us. Four months is the crucial time for imprinting you predators. And your young do love us. You all do. We’re the ones with the treats. Leather straps will help keep you in line and help us keep our seat. There will sometimes be prickers on our toes. How and if these are used, and when, depends, of course, on you.
You are the recipient of our kindness, our wealth and knowledge, our intelligence, our good growth of greens. Without us you’d not exist. Remember that. Though it’s true a few of you still survive in the mountains. We care nothing for mountains. What can you grow in the mountains that’s not better grown in the valleys? Or build?
There is no need for you, or any of you, to learn how to count. And why read? We like you well-muscled. Reading is not conducive to muscles. We prefer that you hook yourself to the go-round instead.
My offspring will be pleased with you. They already know good lines: Slope of shoulders, rise of chest, slim waist, more so in your females. And, and most important, sturdy legs. Legs are what we’re taught to notice first. Hands last. Compared to ours, your hands are so small and weak. Then there’s the look in the eye. You should have a kind eye. Many things depend on such knowledge, or else there would be more danger than there already always is.
Our young adore you. They even adore your straps and buckles. They keep your pictures above where they curl up. They hang your worn-out shoes over their doorways. They save apples for you that they feed you piece-by-piece — and strawberries and chocolate.
As we go along on your shoulders, head to head (so sweetly!), cheek to cheek, our sun hats cover you also, and our rain hats. Some of us whisper our most secret secrets into your ear as we go.
Though I have prods and poles, I believe in explaining. Even to you, though you are as children. I believe it is safer that you understand — at least in part. You will never fully understand, but you must trust us, that we always have our reasons.
So I speak. “Tomorrow I will attach you to a circling line. You will be strapped up for the journey after the friskiness is taken out of you.” We prefer that there be no fight left and no ideas.
There are reasons for all this — all this from the start, I mean, and how we came to be on top. First, of course, there’s the fact that we’re superior in every way. You should be happy to serve such as we. And we can tell if you’re not. We have studied diagrams of your facial expressions. We can read your forehead and your lips, the wrinkles at the outsides of your eyes. Do not squint. It is unsightly.
You have a good life here. And, and most important, you are free — free in your stalls for a part of every day. You may rest and recuperate. If you have a book, and know how, you can read.
This is a case of prey over predator. You must admit, it’s only fair. Since we are prey, we can see, as you might put it, around corners, though that is not true. We simply see behind as well as in front. We know when a bug moves in a bush.
Now is the time for the willingness that is in you, since you are bred for it. We count on you for crossing whatever needs to be crossed without hesitation. Try to look good as you do it. Sweep ahead and don’t glance to the side. It’s our job to do the seeing. If danger lurks, we will let you know when to beware — when to jump back — when to turn around and run. Our senses are keener and we judge better than you can. A little tickle on the ear…you could decide on that as the signal. The choice is yours, of course. You are free. After our trip we’ll give you a good rubdown and lots of pats. (We like strokes — it reminds us of the lickings of our ancestors — butyou like pats, so thinking only of you, we’ll pat.)
And so we will enter the forest. Those of your kind who might be hiding there are few and should not be a trouble.
Already my heart is with your heart. We are two of one single kind, companions about to take a companionable outing. Surely as much fun for you as for me.
The meaning of life, yes, yes, and of butterflies. You would say they are two separate questions. We say they’re the same one.
“Wake up. It’s time. Kneel. This sack isn’t heavy. You’ll hardly notice it. Turn to your near side so I may mount. Near, I say. Near, near, near!”
Enter the forest. Appreciate the trees. Sure-footed friend. The ground is rough. My balance will help to hold you steady. When have I ever fallen, even when mounted on the very young? And here you are at the peak of your strength.
Oh, a day like this! One mountain would be enough, yet here are many. A dozen flowers, a dozen butterflies are all I would ask for, yet here are many dozens. And you, swinging along so lively, as if as new as the day.
Trust me, that I will lead us to a happy meadow where there will be a stream. Then I will give you a treat. “Have you your comb? My kind sees all sides and could be anywhere. I want you to look good.”
The social consequences of the journey must be taken into consideration. There is the mess that may inadvertently be made, if, that is, we encounter any of them — your sort. Should we see any, we will be obligated to round them up and bring them in, out of kindness and for their own safety. (That’s the reason for this pole.) The forest is cruel and dangerous, and there are no medical services available. It’s a wonder you survive there, those few of you that do. I’ve heard you eat acorns and the roots of Solomon Seal.
So, “Go, go, go!”
Trot and again trot, and I, by the motion of the stepping…I, as if having jumped back into the womb as I used to love to do. In those days any womb would do. Lulled, therefore, into a half-sleep — a half-dream — of mothers. We follow a paved way towards a mountain, though we’ll turn before we get there.
Pat your shoulder. “Good boy.” Praise is better than punishment.
“Don’t be afraid of the river. I know this river. One such as you can cross it easily. You’re a heavy and a tall. That’s why I chose you. Your head will be above it. See if it isn’t. Even my toes will stay dry. See if they aren’t.
“Cross the river, shake out. Comb your hair. Isn’t that refreshing?”
“Go, go, go along and go along. Knees high. Head up. Points off for slouching. I have a thought to feature you.” I would be much admired if you were high-stepping and had your hair slicked up and out. “Up and out, chest also. Chin in.”
The morning is so sweet I will sing of it and of love. “La, la, la, love. Lee, la, love.” And of you, my sturdy. We haven’t been together long, but you will know how I love you already.
Keep on. The work of the world is always done by creatures too tired to do it.
“Jump that log.” I will lean forward to help. “Lovely, lovely.” (Pat, pat, pat.) All so far, and the world, and the ways of it. “Be happy.”
Hear. Our ears are better. See, smell. Ours are better. How could we not have come to be your masters? Let us show you the way. From sun to shade to sun again, to shade. They say you cannot even smell the sun.
“Go,” I say out loud. “And go,” I say.
Here the remains of a primitive fire. I pull you to the side around it. I cover your eyes. “Go, my steady. Go, go. Well done.” (Pat, pat, pat.) “We’ll not rest until another length or so.”
That way you’ll be too tired to notice if another primitive fire spot turns up.
And it does. And another. I cover your eyes each time. Perhaps we’ve lost our way. I drop my hands from your eyes as if scales after moltings. I let my hands hover around your throat. It’s as a warning. “Peace,” I say. “We have always been peaceful creatures, as you well know. And you also, peaceful creatures, too.”
Down a steep bank, you, slipping and sliding. I don’t want any mud on me or my whites. I pull, this side and that. You throw your head as if to escape my pulling. You grunt. Thank goodness you have been well-trained in not making inappropriate noises.
“Good job. Did you hurt yourself?”
You know better than to answer.
I have two spots of mud. Best be uncomplaining. That’s always peaceable.
A stream. And another. A place where it’s hard to push through the brush. I wish I’d thought of your leggings. I don’t want unsightly scratches on your legs.
Perhaps we really are lost. I have my fix-upon and here is a good place to separate myself from you.
“Kneel. Near side. Near! Near! Are you listening, or don’t you yet know your near from your far? Hush. You know better than to answer. Some of you never seem to be able to learn near from far. Why is that? Hush. You know better than to speak.”
This is a good time for a treat. One bite. You don’t smell well enough to know I have lots more.
“You may squat.”
“Here is a sip and a bite.”
I love to watch your muscles. I love to see you move with the spots of sun shining down.
But I’m tired, I will mount again and rest on your warmth. Let me look at you first…again and yet again. The shine of you with sweat! What a magnificent creature!
“Near. Near!” And, “Go, go, go. My steady. Hurry.”
But what can you know of time, poor, dear creature? Though many’s the time I wish I had your notion of it.
Somebody watches. My better ears, my better nose…. You don’t know. I’m sorry for your kind and your dull senses. I will do my best to keep you safe.
You shake your head. You thrust your elbows out and back. I suppose the straps bother you. I say, “Next stop I’ll look at those straps. Hurry now. The faster we go, the sooner we stop. That’s always the way.” I don’t say, but I want to get rid of the watchers. There is now more than one.
“Save your breath. Save your muscles. We’ll rest at the next knob. Trust me.” I say that last in case you, also, are aware of watchers. I say, “I have your best interests at heart. Without you, happy and healthy and strong, where would I be?”
Here by myself, helpless on my wobbly legs, but I don’t say that.
“I count on your good will,” I say, and, “We are all free, as you well know.”
We should have turned long ago. I had not meant to get this close to the mountains. We’re climbing. Is that your fault? Did you miss a turn on purpose? Perhaps you’re a Wild? One who knows the mountains? You’ve been branded as Tame. You were stable-raised. I chose you specifically for your lineage — a long line of Seattle heavies. But there are some of us who are unscrupulous. Who change brands and lineage. Therefore you may be someone else entirely.
I unfold my pole. I spark it, one spark on each side and two in back.
“You may squat, my steady.”
I dismount. I will sit here and sing. “La, la, low, lee.” I’ll save fear for another time, another place. My mothers told me that, and it stands me in good stead. Oh, the memory of mothers!
I say out loud, “I will sing, yet again, of love.”
You are not, as a group, mean-spirited. Hardly ever. Perhaps they, hiding there (of your kind, if such they be), will feel sympathy when they hear my song. But your ears hear coarsely and cannot fathom overtones and undertones to any great extent. I suppose none of you will be able to tell anything important about an important song.
I hear them. They pretend to be birds. Do they think we can’t tell? You silly, sillies, with your childish games.
“Ho. And yet again, Ho.” And, “What a beautiful day.” Snap of my pole here and there. Spark a tree. Spark a bush. Spark as if a star overhead. You flinch. You shy. Have you been mistreated?
I ask you out loud then. “Have you been mistreated? You may nod.”
But you do not. You look away. You have an air of listening. We have become adept at reading your faces: The furrows of your frowns, the rictus of your smiles, but we also know sometimes you frown when you’re puzzled, and sometimes when you turn up your mouth it is not a pleasant thing.
“If you’ve been mistreated, I’m sorry if such is the case.”
I really am sorry. Such treatment is unforgivable when another creature is entrusted to our care. Can such as that breed trust and affection?
“Let me see the marks, if marks there be.” Though there need be none. We have our ways. Also we never want to spoil a perfect body with ugly scars. Yours has scars, but it is especially perfect even so.
Things are there behind the underbrush, tweeting.
“Ho!” Ho is not a word we use when speaking to you. It resembles go, but you are able to distinguish between them.
I stand up to my full height. Our legs wobble, and standing straight takes willpower, but it’s important at a moment like this one might become. But size and legs aren’t everything, as look at us, you and me. Which rides the other?
Such a thing should stay in my thoughts. I don’t say it. I remind myself: Be kind.
“See the berries? You may pick yourself a treat.”
They will see my kindness. And I will take this opportunity to watch your muscles as you move. It’s always a pleasure and a reassurance.
I’ll curl up for a while, though I prefer to do my resting with my legs crossed across your chest, and when you are full of mother motions, back-and-forthing on the trail.
I will tell you again what a good and noble steady you are — noble eye and noble brow. A look of circumstance regardless of the circumstances. I will tell you this out loud.
“I said pick, and if you have the urge to lie down, you may, as long as you do not crease the surcingle.”
Now a warm wind. “Rest, my sturdy steady, and let your sweat dry.”
That I say out loud. “Rest. You may pick flowers or pick up feathers if you’re so inclined.” I know the simple pleasures of your kind.
“Are you happier out here among the trees, my faithful? If so, we’ll come from time to time. You may nod.”
But your only answer is to show your noble profile as you listen still. (I would have preferred your nose be not quite so long. Perhaps it can be fixed. But I did not choose you for your face.) You haven’t even picked a berry. Perhaps we do wrong in teaching you silence, though I’ve heard that if we don’t, you do nothing but chatter and squawk.
And here, suddenly, a female of your kind. A Sue, partly hidden in the scrub willow. Stringy and muscular, but not at all as muscular as you, and definitely not another Seattle. Her hair is neither black nor blond nor red but a nondescript in-between. She’s a freckled and I would guess badly sunburned. No wonder the freckled are third best.
Why would she suddenly appear? And at such a time as this? I pretend I don’t notice, though you must know I do, since I always notice everything before you. When have I ever not?
‘Tis said, The happier the creature, the less to fear.
I say out loud, “Do you have a love life — a wishful mating of your own determination? Something could be arranged. You may speak.”
I unfold my pole.
“Your hair. See to your hair.”
No answer. Perhaps he is mute. I’ve heard that some of you, when trained for silence too brutally, lose your voices altogether. (Silence is important for many reasons. Your kind has a tendency to have ideas.)
Not only no answer, but you haven’t combed yourself, either.
The female stands so still I have a hard time picking her out when I look again, though I know she’s there. I smell her. She’s wearing a sort of sack thing exactly the same color as bark and leaves. But she has it belted with silver links from fancy old surcingles. That is a mistake unless one wants to be noticed. I presume she wants her waist to be noticed.
Her hair is not combed nor has it any shine.
I say, “Beware.” I point the pole at her.
Something will happen because this Sam is a brave and noble creature. He would save her at his own expense.
She speaks. She calls him Heron. I had been told his name is Beauty.
You finally notice. I can tell your smile is a real smile this time.
What would happen if everybody mated with everybody else? I shudder at the thought. We don’t stoop to that. It has been said, if you were let loose, there would be nothing but chaos.
“Would you like me to find you a mate?” I say.
And then, “We are two of one kind. Comrades in mutual admiration.”
Then I say, and I say it firmly, “One way to live is not as good as another.”
But the self will know another of its own kind. The self will see its other self in another self’s eyes. This can’t be helped.
The Sue talks too much. As do all your kind. Even if you could hear as well as we do, how could you hear when you’re always chittering? I see how she is healthy in spite of how she must live out here. I don’t want to think about it, the dirty food and the raw, or, on the other hand, the burnt. Can there ever be anything — even one thing — really white in a place like this?
And now here comes another one, a Sam this time. Not a handsome one. Not like you, my steady. His chest is narrow and concave. He hasn’t even the look of a sprinter. You must be more than twice his weight. I would pit you against him and watch you win. Though sometimes the Sues fight alongside their Sams.
Why is this Sue calling you Heron? What is the meaning of that with reference to the past, and what does that portend?
Well, now and now. Look. See what you do. You are removing your harness as easily as can be, as if it had never been buckled behind your back where none of you can reach. You whistle. I have heard that tune before. It is simple, as everything in your lives is. You whistle and hiss between your teeth. I have not studied what that might mean, but I think it does have meaning.
You turn. You….
I cannot even think such a thing. I refuse to think it, but!
You pick me up! One hand under where I sit and one hand under my heavy head. My legs dangle. My arms dangle. I would let my long fingers curl around your throat, and don’t think it would be the first time I’ve done it to your kind. We may be weak, but our hands are strong. They were made for just this purpose. They were used from the start for leaping into wombs and from the start for strangling an unruly or a panicked mount, but you hold me low as if you know that.
You don’t even take my pole. You don’t even tie me up. You put me on a patch of scratchy sand.
The others of you talk, but you do not. There is something wrong with you. If I’d known that, I would never have asked you to speak. I would have been kind. That is our way.
“Kindness is our way,” I say.
You all three move from me, to another knob, and sit, knees almost touching. You whisper. Even with my long sharp ears turned towards you, and even with my hands cupped around them to gather yet more sound, I can’t hear what you’re saying. I say a few Hos. None of you pay attention. Though I have cared so much for you, even you don’t care.
I droop. I let my ears dangle against my cheeks. I look down at my whites. They’re dirty all over and your sweat has dulled them. I have to study to find a pure spot with any glow to it. What you all must think of me, crumpled here and no glow?
It’s time for a meal. Could it ever come to pass that I would have to eat your dried treats for my dinner?
Are they leaving? The Sam and Sue and my Sam, too? This is preposterous. It is not to be contemplated. Not to be experienced.
I call a real ho. HO! with all the overtones I can muster. I feel it rattle in my cheek bones, trumpet in my nose. I stand up. I call out everything I can think about to call.
“You can’t leave me out here helpless. I’m a pregnant female, or what you might call female…or might call pregnant. What will become of my little ones? They even have their names. I had thought we would have a future together, where my young would play on your shoulders.
“And what about all the things I wanted to tell? Teach? Wisdom and lore? My head is full of what you need to know. Come back. My heart is with your heart. It always is. You may speak. Tell me what you want.”
My Sam, my faithful steady — he doesn’t even look back.
But I can set your forest blazing, which is your forest, not ours. Except I couldn’t flee my own fire. My little wobbly legs…must they carry my heavy head? I might go a pace or two.
“Help me. I will show you the secrets of my pole. It isn’t much of a secret once you know it. Even you will understand.
“What I want to tell you has to do with the meaning of life. And most especially with the meaning of your life — all of you together and you in particular.
“I said so before. The meaning of life and of butterflies. Yes, yes, I did say it. Though perhaps not out loud. And the knowledge of time. Which few of you have because it goes on and on into a far future you cannot conceive of and begins in a year which is already ten thousand years old. But I will tell you, and only once, and then you will know it. We will ride in the forest together, backing-and-forthing. That was not the last time.
“Not the last time,” I say. “Not! It was not!”
Excerpted from The Mount by Carol Emshwiller. Copyright 2002 by Carol Emshwiller. All Rights Reserved.