‘Silent Song’, Wendy Palmer

Illustrations © 2010 Robin Kaplan

 [ Strangers, © 2010 Robin Kaplan ] The dark months came and with them the strangers.

Kem was out tweaking the power settings for the jatropha greenhouses when the sleds rolled in; at least three, to her ear, and judging by the excited shout from her daughter Mey echoing through the valley in the twilight. Kem wiped her hands, grimacing—the girl should know better than to raise her voice upslope and risk avalanche—and went on down the hill to see what the fuss was about.

There were five sleds in all, pulled by nine-dog teams, and that had to be every dog in Fell, and the black and white loads must be heavy. Disoriented, Kem thought Old Man Het had towed up snow-covered rocks from the lava field out by the geothermal plant, before one rock shifted, shifting too her perspective.

She was looking at sleek black heads and white wings, she realised. Het came off the lead sled and towards her, holding out his hand. She took it. ‘Del,’ they greeted each other.

‘They speak Itic?’ Kem added, quietly, turning her back to the sleds, in case they did.

‘Neh,’ said Het. ‘Got Common from some programme in their ear, but not Itic.’

‘Good. I not taking any, Het.’ She felt the familiar shame rising in her, that she spoke the old language so poorly, and it made her words harsher than she had intended.


Neh. What good their cure to me, then, old man? What good FTL when we got no space port? What good any their gifts do any us?’

‘All communities take their share, Kem. All of us take our share. You’ll want the extra hands come summer.’

‘Last summer, poor harvest. Not wanting the extra mouths, Het.’

Het grinned and gestured back at the sleds. He was sweating lightly despite the artic wind. ‘Earth Central give food too.’

‘Earth Central learn give consult first. Let warm, well-fed states—’

Het, still smiling, said, ‘You not take them, Kem, who takes them? Fell been given its allocation. We not asked, fine. It not the way we do things, fine. It make things hard, fine. But we force other towns take them? Or you just force Widow Dos take yours?’

The canny old man had her measure, and never mind she was just as much a widow as Dos. She gestured, he turned and gestured, and one of the black and white shapes unfolded itself off a sled. It turned, lifted down a smaller shape, and they came towards her. Kem watched them through eyes as slitted as if she glared into the teeth-aching wind that came off the high slopes.

Both kept those flimsy-looking white wings wrapped close around their bodies, crumpled into a thousand folds. Kem had expected feathers, given the Grid media and the old myths, but the wings were not like bird wings, and did not resemble any living wing she had seen. Rather, they looked like some artificial material, a polymer or synthetic, like the creased and shiny material she saw Central using for the space ships when the weather was clear enough to get picture along with sound down the Grid Link.

One, its smooth black-furred head peeking out the top of the enveloping wings—they did not look warming for all their folded bulk—was taller than the other, though still a few heads shorter than Kem. Was the height difference between the two due to sex or age, she wondered. Aside from the size, the golden faces they turned to her were identical to her eye. Bipedal and bifocal, and at least it was wings, not tentacles.

The taller paused and inclined its head to her. ‘This is Kem.’ Het spoke loudly and slowly in Common. ‘You will meet her family later.’

It stared unblinkingly over Het’s head while clicks came from the vicinity of its ears. Then it stirred and nodded. ‘I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Madam Kem. I may be addressed as Andreos. I am a male of my species. The small one may be called Merios, and is a female child of my species.’ Its Common rolled from its mouth clipped and neat like the tended gardens she’d seen in the bigger cities.

Het was already making his escape, while his two surviving sons, with quick waves to Kem, unloaded a single canvas bag, and two wooden boxes stamped EC. Kem eyed those off; the food was welcome enough, but the wood of the boxes might even count as more valuable right now. With a riot of shouting and barking, the sleds with their mushers pulled off, heading down the valley towards Widow Dos’s stead.

‘Bring your—’ Would the translator in his ear get stuff? How tuned to slang was it? Not very, judging by the speech he’d smacked her in the face with. ‘Items of luggage,’ she tried. ‘I will show you your room, and the rest of the farm.’

By now Mey had got the cow back into the byre and come pelting around the side of the turf huts. At least Jeb was off fixing fences; it was his words she’d regurgitated to Het and he’d be not so pleased to meet the new arrivals when he got back.

‘This is Mey Kemdoter,’ Kem said.

Once Mey might have paused and returned the shy look of the little alien with an overawed curiosity of her own. But since last winter, it was as if she had deliberately expanded herself to fill the space left by her twin sister and father, and the rest of the empty beds of the farm too. She launched off into a flurry of words, probably far too fast for the translator to catch.

The aliens were not paying attention anyway; behind Mey had come one of the farm dogs, and they both skittered away from it, their wings stiffening out so that they looked twice as big as they had.

Kem sent the dog off with a sharp word and raised her hands to the aliens to soothe them. They were both shivering, though from fear or cold she could not tell. Slowly their wings smoothed down.

She pointed down to their luggage, the single paltry bag of their personal belongings and the two big boxes of food. Andreos hoisted one box under each arm, holding them there with layers of his swathing wings, and the little one slung the bag across her shoulder. They were strong then, or Central was messing about more than they already had, and had sent half-empty boxes.

‘Please be kind enough to inform as to the timing of sunrise, please, madam,’ said Andreos.

‘You don’t have to call me that,’ Kem said. ‘Sunrise is about two months off.’

Andreos blinked and tapped his ear. ‘My translation is not working in a correct manner. Does it not intend to tell me the unit of time hours?’

‘No, months. We are far north here, Andreos. We’ll not see more of the day than this for the next two months.’ Kem waved a hand to indicate the soft twilight. ‘And even then, she’ll be just taking a peek over the horizon for another few months. I take it you didn’t have much time to learn about your new home.’

She could not read the expression on his face but his hands had tightened about the girl. ‘This is not an appropriate environment for us. We are of necessity requiring the solar light.’

‘Plenty of that in summer.’ Ushering Mey ahead of her, she led the two newcomers to the door into the central covered passageway joining all the turf huts together. ‘Mey will show you to your room.’

Andreos did not appear to be listening. He stood with Merios just outside the passageway, peering into the dimness and shivering. Their whole bodies recoiled from the entrance as if a bad smell streamed out, and maybe to their nose, it did. But to human noses, the cool air kept odours at bay, and their reaction rankled at her.

‘This is not a lifestyle that is suitable to our survival needs,’ Andreos said. ‘We have strict requirements of air and light and warmth.’

Kem took off her woollen cap and rubbed at her hair. The blond spikes were growing out from when she’d sheared it off last winter. ‘You’ll have to adjust, then, won’t you? Just like the rest of us.’

Mey was gripping her own blonde braids; it had been a fierce argument to make her keep them instead of cutting them off as Kem had done to her own hair. ‘Why don’t you come with me, I’ll show you your beds,’ she said. Her voice held that desperate note that had woven its way in since last winter.

‘The guestroom, Mey,’ Kem said.

Mey straightened and looked at Kem with wide eyes. ‘The—?’

Awa, that’s what I said.’

Still looking troubled, Mey took the alien’s girl’s hand. ‘Yes, Mother. Come down here, you two.’

‘And get them some caps or something, would you?’ Kem added. ‘They think it’s cold.’

She stepped back outside, settling her own cap back over her ears. The Grid was predicting a storm for the coming true night, and she wanted to check the struts of the outer sheds before it hit. Before she was halfway across the yard, however, Mey was at the door, shouting for her. She ran back.

Jeb,’ said Mey, as if the farmhand’s name was a curse. ‘He came back unexpected.’ No doubt he’d seen the sleds come in just like she had. ‘I was explaining why we don’t heat the huts and in he comes through the side door and announces that if they’re so cold they can go sleep with the other animals in the warmth of their own farts—and now they’re hiding in the guestroom and I can’t get them to come out.’

Kem sighed. ‘You go put water on to heat and rustle out the old woollens. Where’s Jeb?’

‘At his bunk.’

Kem followed her daughter down the passageway. Mey turned off into the kitchen to start the water heating. On the other side of the passageway was the hut they used as a dairy; earlier that day, Mey had put on a batch of skyr, a yoghurt-like dessert, for Jeb’s birthday. Kem went on past the two food storage rooms and to the end of the passageway. To her left was the south door, which let out on to the well and the barn where all the animals saw out winter. To her right, the guestroom, the doorway blocked off with a material which looked much like the wings of the arrivals. Directly in front, the door to the sleeping quarters was shut.

It was the only internal door within the winter-worthy complex of turf huts joined by the covered-over passageway, serving to keep out the cold draft from the front door. Kem opened it without knocking and turned immediately to the bunk to the left.

As if he’d been waiting for her, Jeb burst out, ‘Well, who d’they think they are, coming here, complaining about us? Can’t take a joke?’

His blond hair was flat to his head as if he’d been sweating, and his face was unshaven. His sullenness, as usual, both infected and exasperated her.

‘They’re guests,’ she said, and switched to Itic. ‘We hospitable people. We hold that reputation. You want they tell stories otherwise?’

They not guests,’ said Jeb. ‘Guests are invited. These things been forced on us.’

‘Forced on every household in Central Union.’ Kem lowered her voice. ‘I think same, too, Jeb. But they here. They here till Central works out best way deal with planet worth of refugees. So we be hospitable. Get back to fences.’

Jeb went, muttering, out the south door, and Kem faced the white curtain on the guestroom. Mey hurried past into the quarters, presumably to pull the woollens out of storage.

Kem suppressed a shudder. She didn’t want to see those aliens wearing her husband’s old clothes. Stifling her revulsion, she put out her hand to push the curtain aside. She stopped as she heard a lilting refrain from the room beyond. It sounded like the folksongs of her childhood; it sounded like her grandfather singing a lullaby, and it froze her.

‘Hush, Merios, child of my wife, we must not converse in the mother language now. We must practise this one.’

Just as a wave of revulsion had taken her a moment ago, a wave of pity caught Kem unawares now. Was it not the same with Itic, which, by the time they were allowed to speak it again, had become a shadow-language, stilted in those her own age and beset by dying fluency in the young? Mey hadn’t had a lesson since last winter. One day, would Andreos call Merios by her real name in his own language, and have her shrug and answer in the human language, sorry, Dad, don’t understand that old song anymore.

Kem slid aside the makeshift door they’d rigged up. The guestroom was perforce bare, with the bed and single chair on one side of the room, the table and pair of chairs where lessons used to take place on the other. Andreos had been sitting on the bed but he rose as she entered, again taking Merios, perched on the chair, by the shoulder. Protectiveness, she had thought it, and now revised her judgement: support, he taking it from her.

Both mantled their wings, and Kem hesitated, feeling the same double-pulse of her heart as when the nesting falcons swooped on them when they walked the lava fields. Then the alien child lifted her mouth in an awkward curve, and Kem realised she was seeing them smile.

‘Mey is bringing you down warmer clothes.’ She checked. ‘Oh, you’ll have to cut holes for your—anyway, the caps and gloves and socks will help. They’re old but they’re clean.’ She was blathering worse than Mey in the face of their impassive waiting, and she made herself stop.

But it was just the lag of the translator. Andreos moved his lips in the same mimic of a human smile. ‘We thank you greatly and with gratitude extend our appreciation of your generosity particularly in consideration of the nature of our arrival here.’

Kem rubbed her hand together. His full knowledge that he was not welcome here, and his calm acceptance of it, tore a hole in her conscience. ‘Okay. Look, I know the huts seem dim and closed-in right now but it really is the best way to get through winter. Wood’s scarce here, and the turf keeps us dry and is a decent insulator.’

‘The child Mey did undertake such explanation, I thank you,’ Andreos said.

Mey came in then, with piles of wool clothes and blankets. Kem took these and passed them to Andreos.

‘The power from the geothermal plant goes to run the desal plants,’ she went on before he could launch into his gratitude again. ‘We get a power ration, enough to run the ovens and the lights and the Link so’s we can access the Grid, not enough for heating and we don’t need it anyway. Only fuel is peat and dried dung, and what wood we can scavenge.’ Here she nodded at the food boxes. ‘We only light fires when we want to smoke up meat. However. However. We do have an old brazier we can put in here for you. You’ll have to collect your own fuel and it’ll make the room smoky but it’ll be heat and light till you get used to things. How’s that?’

Andreos had seemed to recognise the inappropriateness of the speech the translator was feeding him. To her own speech, more words than she had strung together since last winter, he answered with a bow and a simple ‘Thank you.’

‘Right. Mey’s going to bring down hot water for you to wash in. Then you can rug up. You’ve missed lunch, dinner’s in another three hours, ask Mey for something to tide you over if you need it. Your food there goes into communal rations. Ignore Jeb, he’s a fool.’

Kem nodded once more and left them.

When the household gathered that night to eat, sitting cross-legged on the bunk beds in the living quarters as was their custom, Mey went and fetched Andreos and Merios as well. They had been huddled in the guestroom and seemed to have expected to be fed separately. Kem wouldn’t have minded such an arrangement, and Jeb’s scowl said he’d been hoping for it. But then Jeb had had to spend his leisure hour before dinner helping Kem haul out and clean up the brazier, which had not helped his attitude.

They ate a winter meal of salted meat, spinach and potatoes. Kem watched their taloned fingers slice up the meat and thought again of the way their wings had mantled like a falcon’s. They weren’t birds, but they were predators, for sure.

Mey, beaming with pride, presented the two Yulians with bowls of the skyr with fresh berries and cream; Jeb scowled to see his birthday treat given blithely away. Kem noticed the aliens exchanging glances before a ripple ran through the draped wings crumpled over Andreos’s shoulders and they accepted the bowls, eating slowly and without enthusiasm.

Mey affected not to notice this, and as soon as she had finished helping clear away, she took Merios by the hand and led her into her old room, curtained off to one side of the long low living quarters. Since last winter she’d shared Kem’s room at the other end of the quarters. But now she wanted to play, and her old games and toys were still there in her old room. Their voices floated from the other side of the screen.

‘My da and sis went from the flu, where’s your ma?’

‘Gone in the floods,’ came Merios’s clear piping answer.

Andreos cleared his throat. ‘I am of the understanding that your people have suffered a widespread population reversal.’ Jeb spat, a dry ugly sound. Andreos touched his ear. ‘The translator is not apt. We are still learning better communications. I am wanting to say I am sorry for your loss. I am wanting to say I am sorry the cure my people gave to your people came too late for you. I am wanting to say I am sorry our planet was destroyed earlier than we had forecast and that we made your government take us in before the agreed date, before they had prepared the forests they had promised us. I am wanting to say we do not belong in the guestroom. We know what guest is and it is not what we are. We are here to work for you. We are not of a mind to be a burden here.’

Kem had picked up her knitting. She sat on one of the bunks on the far side of the room, where in summer wide windows let in the light. Now they were curtained against the stark wash of winter stars and she worked by dim electric lighting. ‘Your little girl can learn to knit and spin, Mey can teach her. And Jeb could always use help with rope-making and other winter tasks.’

‘Mey said they’re scared of animals, what use are they?’ Jeb muttered.

Kem thought, predators. Their reaction to the dog hadn’t been fear, but prey-instinct. She went on. ‘Summer’s the heavy work. We got the GM jatropha crop, our own harvesting, shearing and lambing, foaling, getting in the hay.’

‘We will complete all that is asked of us to our best degree, until the lack of light—’ He stopped.

‘Get the Link on, Jeb,’ Kem said, heading off another sullen jibe from him. ‘See if we can get on the Grid, check the news.’

Jeb shuffled over and twiddled the settings until he managed both voice and picture. It was only a few minutes before Kem cleared her throat and said, ‘Turn the damn thing off, then, Jeb.’

In the warm states, rioting. Yulians pulled from their new homes and clubbed to death. Females raped with their wings torn asunder. Houses burnt and food stolen and bitter accusations on both sides. Kem rubbed at her lips, feeling their dry rasp as she tried not to look at the others.

In the wake of the silence that ebbed into the room, as thick and heavy as the ugly voices it replaced, Jeb said suddenly, ‘Why shouldn’t we do same?’

At least he’d switched to Itic. Kem made a sharp cutting off gesture at him. Andreos had turned a strange shade of yellow. ‘It not our way,’ she told Jeb.

‘We grow jatropha to make biofuel for them. We ration our own power to run desal plants to send them fresh water. And they send us back things they can’t stomach themselves. We owe them nothing, we owe this thing nothing.’

The raised voices had brought Mey back into the communal room. ‘Stop it,’ she said. Her Itic was less well-formed than theirs—it had degraded since the lessons stopped last winter—but it came across clearly enough. ‘You think they not understand? They not stupid.’

Andreos leant forward and vomited violently between his feet. Kem started to her feet, feeling the alarm of the other two humans as they stared at her and at Andreos.

‘I am wanting say I am sorry we are not tolerant of lactose,’ said Andreos, his head still between his knees. The sound of retching came from the children’s room.

‘Oh, the skyr,’ Mey cried, her cheeks burning. ‘Why didn’t you just say—’ She hurried off down the passage, returning with bowls, water and clothes. She made a muddle of caring for the still-ill Andreos while trying to clean up the mess.

Kem sat with her hands over her mouth, torn between laughing and weeping. On their wedding night, poor Deg had thrown up after drinking too much krel, and hadn’t he worn that same dogged expression that Andreos hid under one wing now? And then hadn’t the whole room reeked of vomit last year as one by one they all got sick, and only three of them recovered?

She’d not had aliens forced on her. She’d taken people into her home. She got up. ‘Jeb, help Mey put Merios to bed. Not in the guestroom, in the children’s room. I’ll get Andreos to bed.’

She pushed the Yulian back on the bunk he was already sitting on. He’d been neat in making his mess, and not besoiled himself or the bedding. She tucked him in, muttering the traditional prayer as she did. He blinked at her as if he couldn’t quite see her.

‘There’s a bucket by the bed. You’ll feel better in the morning, and you can tell us what you can and can’t eat then, okay?’

He was asleep before Mey came back. The two of them silently cleaned up, and even Jeb lent a hand so that Kem could send Mey to bed. When they were done, Kem checked the children and found them sleeping cuddled together. She took the bucket and rags outside to keep the smell away.

The wind was rising; the storm was on its way. She pulled her coat closer about herself and went back inside. Preparing for bed, she was much easier in her mind than she had been earlier today. She thought the new arrivals might work out. Yes, they might indeed work out fine, and they would find their light for them somewhere.

It was still true night when an outcry in the outer room woke her. She leapt up and thrust the curtain aside. The lights were out from the storm, and Mey had lit the oil lamp, which she now held high, her face darkened. The little alien Merios lay on the floor, singing to herself, and Andreos crouched over her, half-holding her. Jeb was collapsed back on his bunk, holding his hand to his cheek.

‘She was looking under the pillow, wasn’t she?’ he shouted as soon as Kem’s eyes came to him.

‘She explains that her stomach was hurting and she wished an additional cushion to hold against it,’ said Andreos, running his seven-fingered hand over the fur on the girl’s head.

Kem crouched by the two aliens. ‘We keep our personal belongings under our pillows. It’s not right to look under them. It was his brother’s pillow and he misunderstood. It will be well.’

At that, Merios let out a piercing wail and sang out an additional woe. Andreos looked past Kem at Jeb. His dark eyes were welling.

‘All will not be well.’ He pointed at Jeb.

Kem, feeling her heart constricting, looked too. Jeb lowered his hand, showing her the slash down his cheek. How could she have missed the spray of blood down his shirt and across his blankets?

‘I’ll get the sewing kit,’ Mey said breathlessly, and set the lamp to swinging as she dashed across the room to the cabinet where such supplies were stored.

In the chancy light, Kem watched Andreos. He, still cradling the girl, stretched out one of her wings to show her the edge, silvery like an old-fashioned razor. ‘The wound was delivered by the edge of her wing and therefore has been greatly poisoned. If your biology is as I surmise, he will likely die of it.’

Mey dropped the lamp; she hastily stamped the flames out. In the dim coolness of the sleeping quarters, she looked only at Kem. Her eyes, her whole body, drooped as they had last winter. Andreos and Merios looked at Kem too.

‘Mey, get out the kit, water and cloths,’ Kem snapped. ‘Jeb, sit down, put your hand back over the cut.’ She sat on the bed next to him, putting her hand on his shoulder to calm him. Only then did she look at the Yulians. ‘There must be a way to treat the poison, surely.’

The cluster of wings rippled. ‘It is possible,’ he translated eventually. ‘I am not in possession of such knowledge.’

‘Who is?’

‘The oldest of those who came also to Fell, Yelios. But I am not in possession of the knowledge of which farm she was assigned to.’

‘Widow Dos,’ Kem decided. ‘Het’ll have given her the oldest, or if he didn’t, she’ll know where everyone was lodged by now.’

But the Link was down and Kem could raise no one at all. She looked over at Jeb, who lay quiet and still, except for the one hand held against his cheek, which twitched as if an insect crawled across the skin.

‘How long does he have?’

Andreos rippled his wings. ‘I know not. Not the night.’

‘We have to go down to the widow.’ She listened—the wind howled outside, to go into it was to risk death herself.

‘Show me the way and I will go,’ Andreos said.

‘We’ll both go,’ Kem said.

They piled up the woollens, gloves, hats, socks, and layers and layers of coats, hastily cut for Andreos. Then they headed out into the storm with one lamp each. There was no snow falling now, just the high wind, but Kem took Andreos the couple of steps through the fresh snowfall to the first cairn. She brushed snow from the top. The wind had already frozen her through her layers, and she wondered how the alien fared.

‘Don’t try to find the road with your eyes, it’s deceptive. Follow the cairns, go from one cairn to the next. If you can’t see the next cairn, feel the top of the one you’re at.’ She positioned his hands. ‘See, the long narrow stone on top points the way. The rounded end heads back up the valley to our farm, the pointed end goes towards the widow, she’s seventh along and keeps the old traditions—she’ll have a light out for travellers. But don’t leave my side.’

He left her side.

He left in a sudden unfurling of his wings; they stiffened out to each side like a glider, their length many times his own height, and he caught the wind and shot straight upwards. For a moment, he hovered over her and she thought again of mantling wings and talons.

Then he was gone, following the cairns, angling through the high wind as powerful as the great albatross of old, that she had seen footage of in her youth. She could not hope to catch him, and saw the folly of the chase—either he had understood and would follow the cairns, or he would be lost and they’d stumble over what was left of him come summer. But she could not go back inside. She stood by the cairn, holding up her lamp until her arm ached, a flea of gold in the expanse of white that was the Fell valley tonight.

 [ Aurora, © 2010 Robin Kaplan ] While she waited, the aurora started, the silent song, composing itself against the horizon. She watched it, knowing she had tears freezing on her skin, and saw Andreos coming back. The light of the aurora rippled across the white wings like a solar reflector and flushed his whole face to triumph. Throughout the valley, the aurora doubled and trebled until the light flooded her—the rest of the Yulians had taken to the air to bathe their wings in the solar light. There were so many of them, and they were beautiful.

Andreos landed but kept his wings out so that the light of her lamp was drowned out by the aurora drunk down by the wings. ‘I know now all that Yelios knows of remedies,’ he said. All about him was the glow. He held his wings in the mantle that meant smiling. ‘We have the light we need. All is well.’ His golden face, under its flush, looked grey-tinted and bitten by the icy wind.

‘All is well,’ Kem echoed. She let the lamp drop into the snow.

© 2010 Wendy Palmer

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