by Mark Rich
Release came not as I expected — burdened with fines, restrictions, armed guard, and list of warnings longer than my conscience. Instead I walked away entirely free. The doctors, inquisitors, and officials did not visit my cell in the morning as they usually did. Only the middle-aged woman named Ardis entered the cell, without a guard. She arrived with the breakfast tray consisting of nothing out of the ordinary with its simple roll, butter, dab of marmalade, and small red pot of black tea. I stared at the tray trying to assess what was different. Had the commissary taken a second longer in arranging the items across the yellow plastic? Had the usual disarray of items proved unsatisfactory this day? The normally skewed angles of napkin, butter knife, and spoon — had they demanded straightening today? In my brief look at the tray I could see the kitchen help had thought to cut into a fresh lemon for the tea saucer, instead of reaching for a slice remaining from the day before. Or perhaps Ardis personally had overseen the assembly of this breakfast, even stopping to straighten its contents as she stood in the hall outside my cell. As she placed it on the immovable round table near the bed, she did so with greater care than usual.
“After you finish your breakfast you are free to go,” she said. “You can go.”
Our eyes locked for a second. Often at this time I had some witticism for her, or some ironic comment as to the morning, the lack of sunshine in my cell, or the predictable fare. I could think of nothing to say this time, looking into her face. I had tried to study that face during her brief visits at breakfast, lunch, and supper times, trying to delve beneath that outer layer of tiredness and distracted concern. To my thirty years she had perhaps ten years more, yet she had about her face the kind of perennial attractiveness that can bring out the admiration of men of any age. While I felt no more than a friendly warmth for her, that I could feel anything at all while boxed in this windowless cell kept some part of me alive that might otherwise have starved and died.
Yet I could say nothing. Our eyes met for a moment as she set the tray down.
“Will you be wanting anything else?” she said.
I shook my head, still unable to speak.
Ardis smiled at me and left, closing the door behind her as she had on all previous days. A faint hint of her flowery perfume remained in the air. I rose from where I had been sitting at the edge of the cot and walked to the door, taking the knob and turning it. The door opened. The motion of it swinging open at my touch had an unbearable novelty to it. I closed the door again and returned to my place on my cot to contemplate my breakfast. Ardis’s words had altered everything. The cot I sat on no longer remained mine; moments before I would have said, “This is my cot, my tray, my cell.” In bringing me my breakfast she had effectively taken it away. Suddenly the four walls, the dull white ceiling and green-brown carpet moved away from my grasp. Ardis had displaced me. I no longer belonged. I was “free” — a circumlocution. These things, this room, even Ardis herself, were all free of me. They had achieved freedom; I had gained uncertainty.
I must have eaten, for when I rose again I had emptied my tray, and I felt a certain physical satisfaction. In the bathroom I washed my hands, examined my face in the mirror, then washed it, and examined it again, expecting it to have changed through the washing. Too long a time spent under interrogation had brought on a distrust of that face. “After all,” I could hear an interrogator saying to me, “might it not be that the brown hair, rounded nose, dark brown eyes, and pale lips do not as such exist? Could they not be providing the facade for a deeper, more mysterious truth?” Yet the water did not change my face. Nor had the interrogations or drug therapies pierced behind that skin or hair or eyes: they were releasing me, an action which in essence said: “You are what you say you are, George Bringland. You are not an alien.”
The question of whether to take razor, toothbrush, or soap — or even the towel — besieged me for a moment. I took the few items from the shelf I knew to be my possessions: a pocket watch which ticked loudly, a set of keys, a wallet with some bills, and a handkerchief printed with fish in a geometrical pattern of greens and blues. I decided to take the toothbrush and razor. Was I to take the clothes I was wearing? What clothes had I brought with me to this place? I could almost seem to remember.
The haziness of my memory brought a quick flash of guilt: I am not of this planet.The drug treatments had left my connections with my memories tenuous. That vague, shifting cloud that seemed to follow me: to even call it a memory any more seemed a twisting of the language. Those people whose faces, voices, and movements I could bring forth to the mind’s eye — they were my parents? My childhood friends? My schoolmates? Were they true memories? They might all have been planted images.
Yet the interrogations had ceased. Those in white lab coats and suits of grey officialdom now turned to me and said, “We were doubters, but now we believe. Go. Leave.” I could turn to that cloud behind me and finally reestablish my claim: You, cloud, are my memory. Stay with me. Be with me. You are mine.
In the hallway I knew which direction to go to find the front desk, where a young woman, perhaps not many years out of high school, handed me a light jacket and a well-wrapped bundle. I had seen her before, at the time the investigators had apprehended me and brought me here. How long ago that had been I was unsure.
“Good thing you came with your jacket,” she said. “Might be a little cool out there.”
In the bundle, not a heavy one, would be the few extra shirts, underwear, and pants the orderlies had brought me each morning.
“I don’t want these,” I said.
“They’re yours,” she said.
“I don’t want them.”
She had light skin and hair, the latter curled and put up in a fashionable manner. She glanced at me without holding my gaze for any length of time: a skittish animal, I thought.
“Do you want us to hold them for you?” she said.
“If you wish.”
I imagined the investigators taking the bundle back into their laboratory, analyzing the fibers and closely inspecting each fold and stitch for some hidden message, some revealing fact. I was suddenly pleased to be leaving the clothes behind. They were a gift to the investigators, who had otherwise got nothing from me.
“Thanks,” I said.
Footfalls down the hall did not herald the approach of Ardis, to my disappointment. I would have enjoyed saying goodbye to her. Instead it was Drs. Roann and Pylckner. Dr. Roann, a younger man with genial features, dark hair, and a marked tendency to frown and stare, walked up the hall in a slight hunch, momentarily caught in his own thoughts. Older than her colleague, being perhaps in her early forties, Dr. Pylckner walked with strict deliberation toward me. I regarded her with wariness. The silver streaks in her hair seemed to continue onto her skin, which hovered somewhere between white and grey, even on her smooth face, a cold set of planes in which her black eyes rested.
“George,” she said. I could not remember her having not said “Mr. Bringland” before.
“Ardis tells me I can leave.”
“She told you correctly.” Dr. Pylckner stopped sharply in front of me and motioned to a small carpeted square near the front door where a set of cushioned chairs and couches sat in conspiratorial arrangements. Looking through the glass of the doors I found myself — or some part of myself, a neglected part — swept outside. Trees losing their leaves, rumpled lawns cold with the melting dews of frost, and a tattered brown horizon where a woodland had met the sky when I first arrived here: I had missed the summer.
“George, we wanted to speak with you before you leave, if you don’t mind spending a few minutes more.” Dr. Pylckner sat on the chair to my left, and motioned Dr. Roann to the chair opposite mine. “We understand the trouble we have caused you. Philip?”
At the cue, Dr. Roann nodded his head vigorously. “We have placed in your account an amount equivalent twice of what you might have earned during your time here, at the job you held, had you held that job during that time you see.” A frown at me, then a stare. “Your rent has all been paid. We took care of the everyday bills, the things that, oh, bother us all. A paid vacation, you see. Even though you probably don’t see it as a vacation.” A short laugh from the man, and the beginning of a stare, and then his frown.
“What Peter is saying is that we are trying to ease you back into the world as gently as possible.” Dr. Pylckner’s voice was not one to reflect gentleness or understanding extraordinarily well. “Since we are unable to establish that you are an alien, the law indicates we must let you go, with ample recompense.”
I could feel her voice grow colder. The fact of autumn did not enter my brain from the evidence of my eyes, from seeing its signs through the glass doors, but from Dr. Pylckner’s voice. A chill spilled down my left side. Rising, I took the coat in my hands and found the pockets where I could put the razor, toothbrush, and handkerchief I had clutched. I must have left the hairbrush.
“If you need anything,” said Dr. Roann, “just let us know.” He rose, frowning but less intensely than at other times.
“Of course,” I said. “Thank you.” I looked at the both of them, the one sitting and the one standing, and suddenly wondered if they were not partners only professionally but personally as well. Had they sequestered away a cot in some empty cell where they could enjoy each other? I could only imagine Dr. Pylckner descending clinically upon the prone Dr. Roann, expertly bringing him to life, and as expertly placing herself upon him, with firmness and measured vigor.
Thinking of Dr. Pylckner made me wonder. Was I involved personally with a woman? In removing me from the rest of larger society, had these governmental clinicians removed me from some more closely-bound, sexually-tied relationship as well? I could not remember. No one had visited me here; but likely no one had been permitted. Not even permitted to know, perhaps. I could not picture any face of importance.
Dr. Pylckner rose and offered her hand, which I shook.
“Goodbye,” I said.
At the door, the policeman standing with relaxed watchfulness nodded to me. I walked past him to reach the sidewalk, the damp lawn, the parking lot, the air, the grey clouds, the silvery boles of the street lamps. I knew where I was. I was on the edge of town. I lived perhaps an hour’s walk away. I wondered what form my new captivity would take.
“You’ve let your hair grow long,” she said.
I stared at her. Joann. I had forgotten her. I had returned here, to the used bookstore, to see if I could again work a few hours. Memory of this woman had escaped me: too young, too vivacious, too stylish and too quick-tongued for me. Yet hadn’t she tried to become close? And hadn’t I begun to hunger for her? Were these true memories? Human memories?
She turned back to her customer and the punch-button cash register, then flashed me another glance.
“Lila’s in the back. She said you’d be coming.”
“Good,” I said. “She knew more than me.”
Joann let out her too-high laugh.
The stacks called me with their musty scent of cracking, glued spines and dust-seasoned pages. The scent brought forth a memory from the cloud of the past, one that seemed true. A famous poet, visiting the nearby university, had stopped in the bookstore and chosen a few old volumes. I had stood at the counter, prepared to ring them up and trying to think of some comment to make: what does one say to a poet? The man had picked up one of the books and widened it at the middle, sticking his nose into the crevasse formed by the opened pages, and breathed in deeply. “That’s how I tell an old book,” he had said.
Lila was sitting pondering cartons of newly arrived books in the back room. She smiled as I entered, apparently with genuine feeling. A small, needle-featured woman having a full head of curling black hair and today wearing her usual outfit of loose jeans and a thick sweater, she commanded the authority of a person twice her size, and somehow did so through her more personable qualities instead of the usual Leader-of-Men pretensions — such as official dress, somber manner, or gravity of pronouncement. Lila had a direct manner I remembered liking.
“I have you down on the schedule, George,” she said. “In fact I’m a little short-handed today, so if you want to stay, then stay. No one’s been doing fanatical alphabetizing since you left on vacation.” She smiled widely at me and let that hang in the air for a long moment. “I know something else was up this summer, but the word is ‘vacation’ around here. Okay?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Is everything okay really?” she said, switching from her cheerful gear. “It was pretty strange, that you disappeared. I got a few creepy feelings.”
“They thought I was an alien.”
She laughed. “That was one of the stories that came up. I guess I wouldn’t know from your resume, would I? You’ve got your spotty job record, what with your constant dropping out to go be the artist in the garret.”
“You went back and checked?”
Lila gave me a brief worried glance. Then her features relaxed. “We talked about it often, George. Don’t you remember? You’ve told me how you save up a little and go off to draw and write in the countryside. I’m glad you’ve stuck with this place as long as you have.”
Her words made a certain sense. “My memories are a bit slow catching up with me,” I said. “They used drugs. I’ve been through a lot this summer. My head’s a mess.”
“That’s all right,” she said. “I’m sure you can still work your magic on the stacks. You’re going to stay and work today?”
“I will if you want.”
“Good. I’ll take you to supper tonight to welcome you back. You up to it?”
I thought back to the strange place that my apartment had become. “Sure.”
As I turned to leave the back room, Lila said, “By the way, Joann has a boyfriend.”
“Is that supposed to register with me?”
It did not.
The stacks welcomed me back: the dull colors of the long rows of history, the strange bindings and ornate characters in the foreign language section, the colored and pictured spines of the travel and adventure volumes. I moved to check the small shelf of geology books, drawn there by some interior urge: the ancient and prehuman always fascinated me. The old volumes of Salisbury were there, and the series of mining reports from Utah. A few new books sat among them, including a survey of recent paleontological results. The book opened in my hands to a paper by H. Xian-guang which detailed a new early Cambrian species, Atrypella,correlatable with British Columbian Burgessian fauna. Xian-guang wrote, “If the evidence is correct, we have encountered yet another new phylum in the early rocks of China.”
I closed the book. New phyla: paleontologists delved back to one of the points of morphological divergence and identified different types, each of which they designated new phyla. Was it possible? Or were all the functional patterns of organization no more different from one another, deep down, than ladybugs and praying mantids were within the insecta? Or than the ladybugs and the horseshoe crabs within the arthropoda? In other words, why could not all those early patterns of organization, recognized by paleontologists as “phyla,” have fallen into one, single, primordial phylum? Why should not natural groupings change through time as fluidly as the earth’s crust and the contours of the seas and oceans through the earth’s long ages? Or better yet, why shouldn’t our criteria for groupings change across the ages we glance over?
I replaced the book, wondering why these matters should concern me. Perhaps because a group of scientists had followed some hint that I belonged to not only a different phylum, but perhaps even a different kingdom of life from their own.
The alien craft seized by the government, even the one collected from a site near where I stood, were secreted away in chambers known only to the highest officers in the new anti-alien brass. Fenced off from artifacts that should have been made public, we all became foreigners in our own communities. We were barred opportunity for recognition: how many of us, had we had a chance to look on the wrecks and recognize them, would have rejoiced to finally be able to say, Yes, I am an alien, I truly am. We were forced into ignorance of ourselves, and of others. Everyone became an outsider.
Yet could this man, George Bringland, have arrived by ship from even overseas? I found it hard to imagine, even with that undependable fog of memory bequeathed to me by my summer of captivity. The government propagated the myth that alien replication of human form descended even to the level of dna, and to the reconstruction of human-style language capacities and memory structures.
The prospect of such similarities did not disturb me. With such talents for mimicry, the aliens and the humans were surely closely related. Perhaps one of those early Cambrian arthropods that were so much more successful than the proto-chordata in those ancient seas, say whip-handed Leanchoilia or the odd carnivore Anomalocaris, that they developed extraordinary means of travel; imagine if they had developed means of spatial transportation so radical that they shifted themselves to another locale around another sun, only to return later to the home planet in the same form the humans bore, with the same basic structures within their cells. Why shouldn’t they appear to be humans, when we appear to be them? Why shouldn’t we be disturbed at the resemblance we bear to the descendents of lowly Leanchoilia, instead of being disturbed that they look like us?
I turned away from the shelf to find myself confronted by Joann, whose expression contained both confusion and anger.
“Why couldn’t you even say goodbye before you left?” she said.
“It was unexpected,” I said.
“But surely you knew –” She looked as though the rest of her words did not want to follow the first ones out.
“You must have known that they were about to find you out. You must have had a way of knowing that they were closing in on you.”
My internal confusion must have become obvious, for her face immediately softened. Before I could react she put her hands on my cheeks and kissed me, not lingeringly, but not quickly either. My heart beat quicker. I was not sure what kind of confusion I was feeling.
“There,” she said, standing back. “I’ve kissed an alien.” With a look of triumph, she disappeared toward the front of the store.
My cell was painted in such plain colors and in such nondescript patterns — or was it a dim wallpaper — that if I closed my eyes I could not re-picture it. In the darkness of my shut eyes, which was my only voluntary darkness since the ceiling lamps were controlled from the hallway outside, I found myself visualizing a few scenes in repetition. Despite their nondescript, inactive nature they impressed me as scenes from a different world than this one, even though I remembered them as peopled with normal beings engaged in normal activities. One scene took place within a cafe serving only vegetable food where people dressed in the garb of cultures to which they did not all belong. A man at one table near mine bent nearer his companion, a woman of similar age but of less ostentatious garb than he had assembled. He wore a rock at his throat on a thong that looked intentionally primitive. “Then she moved a part of my head, with her massaging, you know,” he said, “and I felt holes opening in me. And you know she said sometimes people visit other planets when she manipulates their heads. I think I did. Suddenly for a moment I was like in another place where the light was really different. Then I was back. And what’s really strange is that I didn’t remember that I traveled to another world until three days later. Three days. Then it suddenly burst on me. Iremembered. I could almost see that strange light again.”
The woman sitting across from the man reached out and put her hand on his. “That’s really great, Jeff. You’ve really been coming along.” She looked with such sincerity into his eyes that I found myself floating up and flowing into the body of the man with the rock around my neck and wanting nothing more at that moment than to climb into bed with this sympathetic, comforting woman with her faith in my spiritual travels.
In the scene behind my closed eyes I forced my attention back to my own plate of turmeric-yellow potatoes and green peas, leaving behind the man and his rock on the thong, feeling myself returning to my own planet.
“We can have cocktails here, too. Cheaper than buying them at the restaurant bar. Besides, there isn’t much wait at the Chinese place. No time for drinks.”
I shrugged agreeably. “Is Barry here?”
“We’re broken up, bub. He’s gone his own way. It’s been a couple months. You missed a few things in your summer away, didn’t you?”
“I guess so.”
I had visited her apartment before, when it was crowded with other bookstore people and sundry guests, most of whom I had encountered as customers at the store. More things had cluttered the space, then: Barry’s, presumably. Lila still had a painting on the wall I had admired at the party, showing a large bird, perhaps a heron, launching itself across a canyon and looking impossibly isolated against the vast rocky landscape.
“I’ll be just a moment. I really worked up a sweat moving those boxes,” she said, heading for the bedroom. “Pour yourself something.” She closed the door behind herself.
At the closing of the door the light dimmed and I was in my cell again. A strap held me back on my cot and kept me from leaping up and running for the wall as I saw the door open and Dr. Pylckner enter. Even the lights to the hall outside had been dimmed. She shut the door behind her came closer, standing near the foot of the cot.
“You’re a little sedated tonight,” she said. “But not too sedated. Don’t move so much so you disturb the wires on your forehead. Of course you have the straps there. They should do the job, shouldn’t they?”
She laughed without raising her voice, sitting in the chair she always sat on and bending over to unlace her shoes, then remove her socks. The whiteness of her coat, blouse and trousers fell away quickly into the dimness of the room. Her skin seemed a silvery grey. She removed her underwear, stretched herself as though truly enjoying what she became without her clothes; I could almost hear an oddly modulating melody as she looked up at the ceiling and opened her mouth, could see her as a celestial animal outlined by faint lines between glowing stars, raising her face to the moon and courting it with a high ululating song. She looked down then and stood there, naked, and moved toward the cot.
The door opened again. I returned to Lila’s apartment. She emerged in a new flannel shirt, her hair slightly more organized. She moved directly to the kitchen without noticing my distraught state. I attempted to reassemble myself before she returned.
“You didn’t pour yourself something?” she said, poking her head back in from the kitchen.
I managed an intelligible order of a drink.
“You know what this alien scare is just like,” she said, settling beside me on the couch. She placed the two glasses of brandy on the table in front of us.
“This whole men and women thing. Make sense to you?”
I was feeling dazed, and shook my head. The brandy did not help. It burned in my throat.
“The whole thing about men being afraid of women, and vice versa. I mean, imagine some of that Freudian shit. God, men wanting to go to bed with their mothers, in Freud’s book, and being jealous of their fathers? Hell, society makes men so afraid of women their mothers are the only safe women. That whole vagina dentata thing, what’s more alien than that image of a woman equipped with carnivorous equipment between her legs? People get so damned afraid of the most stupid things. The government is still mostly male and they’ve finally found a new post-liberation way of expressing their fear of women. They’ve come up with aliens. They’re suddenly paranoid they’ll go to bed with an alien instead of a human, and not even know it!”
“Which they’ve been doing all along.”
“That’s right! They should welcome the aliens and finally get around to admitting that there are no aliens.”
I felt awkward and laughed, the first laugh I remembered.
“Sorry,” she said. “I get heavy sometimes. But you know that.” She laughed herself, and lifted her cup in a mute toast. This sip, the ice cubes had softened the bite of the alcohol and gave the brandy a pleasant smoothness. I felt warmer.
“It would certainly help me,” I said, “if there were no aliens.”
“Why? They let you go, didn’t they?”
At the Chinese diner I picked up each piece of vegetable with curiosity, the memory building within me of often having cooked similar food myself. The stylization of the decor extended to the cut of the celery, carrots and bamboo shoots, sliced into even, quasi-geometrical shapes. I remembered not to eat the blackened hot peppers dotting the dish.
“You lost a lot this summer, didn’t you?” Lila said, watching me eat. She looked down then and may have blushed. “I’m sorry. I’m too direct all the time. You’re probably — I mean, this last summer isn’t probably what you want to talk about.” She played with her own food. “I should probably shut up, and just be your boss. You like being back at work?”
I laughed again, enjoying the sensation. “I don’t know what I’ve lost and what I’ve gained. For a while I was an alien, drugged out and living in space. Maybe the government isn’t trying to identify aliens but make them.”
“You think they’ve made you an alien?”
“I didn’t think I was before. Now I don’t know.”
“What if you are an alien?”
“I’ll go into a concentration camp for humans when I get back to my home world.” I thought about that statement, raising an interesting slice of mushroom with my chopsticks. “Or perhaps I am alien, and have passed the test that proved I’m an alien, and am now free to join the rest of the aliens in this big concentration camp of ours.”
“There aren’t any humans, then, if we’re all aliens.”
“We’re looking for them.”
“If the government was looking for humans do you really think they’d find any?”
“Perhaps some will come here from abroad.” I ate the mushroom, then searched my plate for another. “It must be hard keeping the alien stock pure, with so many humans flooding into the country.”
She laughed. “You’re a sketch, George,” she said, her face quickly sobering. “But why do you take your summer so lightly? I mean, you’ve lost a chunk of your life, and it seems like — well, that it’s affected other things. You keep saying you don’t remember things.”
I chewed my food and regarded her, wondering how an alien would see her. Or, if my viewpoint was alien, then how a human would see her. She was showing concern, one of those strange pieces of luggage of the strictly human: compassion, concern, worry, anxiety. I could not feel these things, especially for myself. But I could feel other things which I could not express by any common word. For a moment I sensed a ball of light swelling below my lungs and expanding upwards and outwards — an invisible ball of light, for Lila gave no sign of seeing it or feeling its heat. I began feeling giddy, and recklessly wanted to drop my chopsticks and reach over for her hand, to see if it was a human hand. To me she looked like a human mate; but wrapped in my glowing ball I could not tell from what shores she had arrived. What was her evolutionary history? Had Anomalocaris played a part? Or had she come to me in a straight line from old chordate Pikaia? I felt the ball of light expand to touch her, then dissipate in the glow of the orange-tinted oriental lamps above us.
“I’m not sure that it’s that I don’t remember,” I said. “It’s almost as though I have added memories to my old ones.”
“But you don’t feel angry at what happened to you? At losing a whole summer?”
“Did I lose it? I don’t remember much of it. I’ve blocked out some, or they have done the blocking-out for me. But I think I still have it. I haven’t lost it. Isn’t it true that whatever I have done has become a part of me?”
“You’re beginning to remind me of your old self, George. You once quoted something to me from Socrates a lot like what you just said.”
The ball of light had not entirely dissipated after all, but remained about us, cutting us off from the rest of the restaurant and raising us up into the garlic-scented air where we hung peacefully.
“Did you know me well?” I said.
“Pretty well.” She smiled. “It was getting to be a weird time when you disappeared. I was getting confused about Barry. You and I were getting to be real good friends. We did a lot together. And you were distracting yourself with that kid Joann, and I always supposed it was because nothing could happen between you and me. Because of Barry.”
“The government got me just in time. I was meddling in human affairs.”
“Cut it out, George. You’re as human as the rest of us.”
“How do you know.”
“I trust my feelings.”
I laughed, somehow delighted. Our table having returned to its place among the other tables in the restaurant, I noticed the sound of laughter rising almost simultaneously from every table, as though a spark of knowledge could pass around and charge a wave of delighted laughter through a room full of disconnected people.
The walk was not long. If you started from the middle of town you could pass one park, three blocks of housing, two graveyards, and a last stretch of housing and a lone restaurant and its excessive parking lot before coming to the railroad. The autumn made the walk quicker: you walked to build heat, where in summer you loitered to avoid building it. Once on the railroad you walked north a quarter mile, passed under the overpass, and continued on to the place you could take a jaunt to the right if your eye saw the place to dodge down into the underbrush. The dirt track followed the west side of the creek through low scrub and beneath the tall boxelders and maples. The water ran calm, unobtrusive, and dark. You could reach the bluff by two ways. Either you could turn left before the bend in the creek, or you could go ahead and round the bend, passing the shallows where the raccoons liked to beach the river clams, and following the water until it led you straight to the base of the bluff. Either way, you climbed through the grasses to a spot not at the top where bike trails had destroyed the carpet of living things, nor too far down the side. There, you sat looking across the creek valley to the bluff on the other side.
I was beginning to feel more at home in this world. It felt like mine. I began re-understanding certain things, such as the tilt of the head of a jay before it launched itself raucously from a branch, or the rhythm-keeping of a broken bough bent into the water, bobbing slowly up and down with the current. As I climbed the hill the pebbles embedded in the dirt of a small washed-out area spoke to me with familiarity between the rustlings and quick chatterings of autumn-dried grass blades and the occasional browned seed pods.
I stopped at the edge of the last rise of the hill and turned to sit facing the creek valley, lined with poplars in this section, across to the opposite rise. The day was ending, which made my object of contemplation more visible. By day, from this spot no more than a dark smudge of wires, trucks, and low buildings would appear to the naked eye, merging with the yellowed blur of the field grass. Through a binocular one could see little more, only discovering the fine-marked tightness of the fencing around the compound, the indistinct bleakness of the cement-block cubicles, and the official colors on the pick-up trucks and smaller vehicles. One might even see the surveillance cameras turning atop their poles.
But at dusk the site came alive. Officialdom loves a well-lit space. Lights grew in brightness with the darkness to mark the fence, the outer perimeter of the top of the bluff, and the separate buildings. Above them all, however, rose the high lamps situated around a wide patch of land at the center of the compound. This level patch was never allowed to fall into darkness, having risen to the status of religious relic: here, governmental priests might well have found the heel impression of a governmental deity. In a sense, they had. Here they had found the abandoned, stripped fuselage of the alien craft, identical in all essentials to others found around the country and, perhaps, the world. The government then sequestered it. A few unrevealing photographs appeared on the news services. Otherwise the public received nothing of these contemporary relics beyond the sight of protective compounds and a general air of mystery.
Whether the government had incited the alien scare, or if the furor had scientific basis, it was hard to tell. People shook their fists at the government for upsetting the routine of their placid existences, or at the sky. I had not felt bothered by the scare, interested and amused more than alarmed by the prospect of genetically identical aliens among us. The government was doing memory tests on selected subjects, I had heard. Mainly drifters, eccentrics, and general old folk — people with ambiguous pasts, into which category I had figured we all belonged. Who looks back in time with a crystal clarity? Not I, said the dog. Not I, said the cow. Well, you better, said the hen. Meanwhile the new department for extraterrestrial affairs illuminated these landing pads, setting them up for good night visibility from far, far above.
The darkness of early evening settled in comfortably. I saw the sign of movement on the opposite bluff: a sentry, I supposed. A truck came, stayed, and departed. Through my binocular I could see the motionless dried grass beneath the high spotlights. It was a place locked away from our time. The government, best refuge for forecasters of every stripe, sat around its electric fire in hopes of a vision of the future.
I breathed out into the cold air, briefly fogging the lenses.
The sound of a tom drum suddenly started beside me, startling me.
I dropped my binocular and jerked my head over to see a man beside me in the dark. In the starlight and glimmering of moonlight I could see him well enough. He appeared underdressed for the chill. His breath came out in a great cloud, his hands coming down again on the small drum held between his crossed legs. I had heard nothing of his approach. Even the ever-present rustling of dried grass should not have been enough to conceal his approach. His hands now hovered again over the drums, turning and feeling the air with slow movements before one of them darted down to strike sound out of the tight cover.
He threw back his head, opening his mouth and releasing a thin, high note. A chill ran down my spine. I could almost see the note arch up into the night toward the stars, then curve back to earth, an increasingly bright ember of fire. Its orange hue grew and deepened as it returned, and flashed white as it burst roaring onto the grass just below us on the hill. It remained there as a fire, yet not a fire I could say I had ever seen before: within it, as though its light meant not combustion but vision onto another scene, I could see the spikes and first leaves of new plants rising within the brightness of the flame, some of them shooting up rapidly and producing fleeting, brilliant flowers.
The man beside me was drumming in more regular pattern now. I turned to him again and saw in the light of the flames that a dull wooden mask covered his face, painted a dirty white around the ovals of the eyes and mouth. It seemed to me natural. At that moment I could not have imagined him looking other than this, and I wondered if I had experienced this all before.
As I turned back to look again into the flames with their rising, flowering plants, the man’s voice started up, this time in low register, a deep buzz in his throat running beneath his words as though he could maintain an internal, unceasing breath rotating within his lungs, punctuated only occasionally by drops in pitch or brief cessations:
“The world and the death of the buffalo
The cattle and the death of the world
The sunflower follows the sun
It watches it fall and disappear
Come foreign people
Ancient ways are but youthful ways of play to you
Wisdom is of the gun and horse
Your happiness is to make trinkets from stones
You would take metal and give metal for land
You would make all things bow to the metal of air
You would yourselves obey the metal of air
But it is less than air this metal
I hold your metal to the sunflower and it ignores me
I hold your metal to the corn and it dies
You would have us exchange all things for less than air
You would give up all for less than air
You would sacrifice even yourselves
You would become less than air
You would become your own foreigners
You have made us all foreigners
We are all foreigners
We are in a land bought for less than air –“
The plants grew taller, of a height greater than a person, bursting at the tops with clusters of golden blossoms, petals stretching wide as if to greet all the radiations emanating from the dark vastness of the universe and striking down on this small spot of light on the bluff. The plants then became fewer, and shorter. One burst of knee-high flowers of white-tinted blue and violet preceded the falling away of the leaves as snow began falling around us. The fire died. The whiteness kept falling, the flakes appearing unreasonably out of the star-flecked sky. Then the snow, too, ceased.
I looked beside me and saw no trace of the man with the drum. In the thin layer of whiteness I saw a track of fox footprints that abruptly appeared beside me and trailed away out of the circle of white. Before me in the snow no sign remained of the fire, the grasses still tall and unblackened, and framed now in whiteness.
Perhaps they could afford only simple methods, or perhaps simple methods were the best. A succession of people in coats and formal jackets would enter the room accompanied by uniformed men bearing odd-shaped items encased in leather at their belts. Each person had a task: they would utter a word, move their hands in front of my face, inject me, or attach wires to my forehead and stretch them to sockets in the wall that led to some cryptic place of analysis. They placed objects in my hand, sometimes rough, sometimes smooth, sometimes painful. They altered the temperature of the room, placed water on me, requested me to defecate, spoke unintelligible words and phrases to me and watched my reactions intently, then flashed cards of random items: an automobile, a carrot, a flying saucer, a naked man, a chair, a telephone pole, a watermelon, a naked woman, a grasshopper, a head of wheat, a tank, the president of the country. Once they flashed the cards behind my head. One of the doctors would enter at regular intervals to ask how I was doing. “Fine,” I would say.
Ardis would arrive with her tray, bringing me food. If I could see her without the room moving, and if I could focus normally, I would speak to her.
“They showed me that picture of you again,” I said.
She tisked. “I have to talk to those doctors.”
“You looked fine.”
“They must have taken it when I was a young thing. I’m a bit more saggy these days. Actually I did ask them for a look at those pictures they show you. You’re right. She looks in fine shape.”
“Did you see the man?”
“A bit scrawny.”
“Dr. Roann,” I said. She laughed, and left.
Later the routines would begin again. Often I would see the pictures several times in succession, sometimes with slight variations. Once, when they changed the pose of the naked woman I commented. “You noticed that did you?” said the man, an oversize one with the accent of having come from further south. “Yes,” I said. “I always look at her closely.” He wrote in his notebook. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but they changed the card with the building in it. You didn’t notice that one,” he said, perfectly seriously. “No,” I said. Afterwards I would be fed a pill. Someone pinched my forearm while a light shined in my eye. I was asked to walk a circle, to put my hand in ice water, and to try to imagine a nonsense language and speak it. And the pictures: some new, some old.
I would have the chance sometimes after they left to close my eyes. An image has existed within me for as long as I can remember, an image of flying over the countryside. No wings: it is a mental levitation, I always suppose. I would be standing in a field or in an opening in a woods, standing as tall as possible. I would feel no breeze. Without my moving a muscle the ground would fall away from me and the trees would start growing smaller, but not too small. Then the world would move beneath me, showing me vast landscapes I have never seen. I would never see sign of humans.
Down by the creek I saw movement, and heard a small splash. An aura of light developed around an object that came along the trail: although much too large, it resembled nothing so much as one of the early arthropods, with a flexing carapace and ribbed sections held aloft by series of legs and the tufted ends of gill branches. Two pairs of antennae poked among the grass and dried sunflower stalks along the path. Its slow, deliberate movements brought it to the base of the hill. Instead of turning with the trail, it went off the path at a point just below me, and began ascending. As it climbed the gentle slope, it began altering, first folding down its central axis to define a ridge from head to tail, and lengthening the posterior to extend to a thin whip, which then spread into a fan of thin membranes. Claws appeared on the front, helping ease its way upward by gripping on occasional protruding rocks. A convulsion seized it then while a protoplasmic mass, dimly illuminated in the creature’s surrounding aura, fleshed over the hard shell. Hair, ears, snout grew from the head; it continued crawling while splayed flat on the ground, then lifted its head, wide and massive, to bray at the sky. As it did so the entire body rose, growing higher than my height and then to my height again, taking the form of a towering, plastic-skinned human-thing. Yet it was woman. She continued toward me, shrinking as she neared. When she reached me she had assumed the size and look of Lila, wrapped in a thick down jacket with muffs over her ears.
“I’m sorry about following you,” she said. “I saw you taking off on your walk and I couldn’t help myself. It was a wild impulse. I just wanted to follow. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.” I was glad to see her. I was suddenly filled with a desire to speak with her, to tell her about the odd thing my head had become, and the odd thing the world had become.
She looked down in surprise. “There’s snow here.” Reaching down she grabbed a handful, and tossed it at me. “There isn’t any anywhere else. You really are from another planet, George.”
“It’s nice having that confirmed,” I said, smiling.
She sat beside me, nearer than had the drummer. Her body called out for mine. As I put my arm around her shoulders she turned her face to mine, and wordlessly her lips welcomed me back home.
Originally published in Full Spectrum 4 (Bantam Doubleday Dell: 1993).
“Foreigners” is the title story from Mark Rich’s chapbook, Foreigners, and Other Familiar Faces.