5970 words, short story
This is Why We Jump
When he will be gentled, I call him little starfish.
I can curl myself around him like an ammonite, and call him little names, and he will smile. Arms and legs getting bigger every day. A little starfish, crowding me out. It is my name for him, but only when he will be gentled can I say. It happens less and less.
Humans came here for mining. Oberon, moon of the ice giant Uranus, of the star Sol, the sun we never see. Half ice, half stone: A core 65% of Earth’s moon in size, wrapped in a skin of ice. They built over the ice, chopped out level on level, until it was gone, and they lived upon the surface. And then down again, and again. Now the only bit of moon not cored or carved away sits in a glass case, at the center of our moon. Everything else is steel, and gold, anything too heavy to cart back to Jove Station. A city deep as she is wide.
My father is a district head of one of the zones running from surface to core, but I haven’t seen him in ten years. My sister leaves me notes to meet, sometimes, in a vent we knew as kids. She buys us dinner, says Father’s getting on. She has a Name, free travel between zones.
But I have a world, built in the bones of a moon. It belongs to me. My moon, my starfish, and no name at all. We live in the in-between places, the little man and I. In vents and hatches, corridors unmarked by our passing.
What they don’t understand is that a world like this goes all the way down, spikeshaped, down to core. They live on the surface, like a world is a bubble. Like they’re back home. They call themselves colonists, as though they’re here to save us. We call them refugees, because we know they’re running from something. My sister married one. He has business and travel and friends. One I would like, she says. She says we should meet.
On third days we wait for a shift-change in a spa about half down coreward, one that doesn’t see much offworld action, and we take our showers. Sweat-stink; that grav-line smell in your hair. He’s been asking to run with big boys, like the gang I first ran with, when I fell through the cracks and into the moon. Scary, violent and wonderful. His smile when he talks about them. I wash and think. He’s seven. I was seventeen when I dropped out, so I think he’s seven.
I found him half-hidden behind a fan close to core, just tiny. I felt trapped with my people, sometimes. Running the same gang, the names they give each other. I thought, “I can retire, climb into the walls and live. Nobody will hate me, nobody will follow. They know I’m fast and I am strong. They respect me. But they won’t be sad either, when I go.” I found him then, that day, and that was proof. And I was right. They don’t bother us and they don’t miss us either.
This businessman, the refugee. I think about moving back up, up to the surface: Colonial, like her. To sit in Father’s chairs again, and to hear his dreams. Sovereign political power to Oberon herself, control over methane ice and labor and clones; to bring it all together under one flag. I don’t know if I could sit still for all that, but I would like to meet this man, I think. So I wash myself and I look at my shaven head in the mirrors all around and I tell the boy, yes.
Yes, he can run with the knife boys. He can go and see. For a little bit at first, he can be away from me. And if he is not where I tell him, at the end of an hour, the experiment will have failed, and we will negotiate again in a year.
My sister says it’s what father should have done. Let me off the leash a little bit. I’d see both things, both worlds, like she does. Even young, she was able. Still in school she’d come away, weekends or longer, running vents and shafts, tops of elevator cars, down the well to core, stolen showers. Sitting in the sounds. Near the bubble you can hear the magnetic field for space junk and solar rays; near the core you get the gravity sounds. Oberon sings to you everywhere.
His favorite thing this year is to climb past the bubble, right at the obsidian ceiling of their sky’s false night, so his ghostly reflection seems to stand on the surface of our moon. Proud as if he owns it, he stands, feet to secret feet. Little starfish on top of the world. Arms and legs crowding out the night, the stars. Little man bigger every day, little beast, asking for a name I can’t give.
I call him little brother, he wants to call me Mother. I call him little man, he wants to call me Wife. I call him little starfish, he wrinkles up his nose: When he wants names for things he doesn’t want to play, but to be serious. To name them For All Time. For himself he wants a name like knife boys have, Torc or Jam or Siz. And to shout it, everywhere he goes.
Sometimes his wildness I think comes from me. Sometimes I think it’s how he was born. But one thing neither I nor my sisters ever was, is a boy. Do all little boys want this? This violence and empire? Father did, but Father’s a special man. He wanted it more than anybody else in 36, wants it more than them still. Perhaps my son is special like that, too.
I dream he unites the gangs in the walls, each and all. Bends them to his service. When I wake I am not proud, nor really afraid: Just crowded, face pushed gently into the wall, by a starfish.
Do we need names? I ask. Would we know each other any better? He shakes his head, as if wiser than me. We don’t need them, says the little man. We have them. We must find them!
My sister calls me Deals, the name they called me in my knife days. I didn’t like it then, nor now when she does it, but she at least must call me something.
I have a feeling he tests himself with this, in his mind: If one day he’ll be old enough to call me this name, to shock me with it, to test the lines and limits of our little two-man gang. Biding his time. Just as I did, before I found a crack and dropped straight down.
But I didn’t fall, I told her, so many times when we were young. Before my boy, and her colonist husband. I didn’t fall, I was not pushed. I jumped. I jump every, every day.
I leave him, then, in the care of my closest knife: a boy who fell into the same crack I did. We ran together. I suppose we were in charge. I thought he loved me, I didn’t want to know for sure: It would only open up another crack for later. But if we didn’t say it, I’d never have to jump. It comes in handy.
“As if he were our own,” he swears, and looks at me a second like a broken thing. Like I’m something he was promised, by the ice-skinned goddesses of Oberon, and yet denied.
Our own, he says. I wonder who is the we.
They’re only sad as long as they remember to be. And then you go away from them, and the movie goes back to being about somebody else. Whoever is the we today.
“One hour, brother,” I say to the boy, and he nods, already embarrassed. Already reaching up and back for the hand of this knife boy, without even looking. Hungry, to touch his first man.
“One hour, or the experiment’s a failure?”
He nods, he blushes, he races away. Knife trailing behind, laughing with joy at him. The fierceness in his tiny self.
“But he isn’t ours,” I want to say.
He isn’t even mine.
This the first meeting, I said, would be short. Just coffee. I must dress myself like one of them, like a human. We’re a legitimate political bloc, down in moon where they don’t know to go; he’ll know what I am. But I can’t come dressed in a knife’s jumpsuit with gashed knees: Into a dress. Legs pulled tight together, knees knocked. How the boy would laugh.
“Forty minutes is all I can spare, but I am pleased to meet you. Regine speaks the world of you.”
He shakes my hand, his face near unreadable. I can see desire.
I have forgotten why we’re here. Perhaps to make my sister happy; perhaps he is a new crack. A new way to jump: Outward. Away from the core. He would probably call it up.
“Your sister’s husband has been great. We’re working on a merger, actually. He’s been instrumental.”
I ask. He wants me to ask.
“I’m glad you asked. We’re interested in helping transition Oberon to a manufacturing plant. The bottom’s fallen out of mining across the Uranus orbital, it’s all heading inward, to the ice. So we’re looking to build support, here among the people, and your district 36 has been . . . ”
Not mine, not mine. I am not my father’s, I am not the gate to this. I am mother to a starfish, and even that can be a goad. I think of dragging my sister backwards through a vent. Not a long distance, just enough to make her scream, as when we were girls. Just to show.
“But of course that’s not why your sister . . . We’re already on quite good terms with 36, and as I understand you’re not a citizen proper now, you’re a . . . I’m afraid of stepping on the . . . terminology? I want to learn.”
There is no terminology. No words in the in-between. Put names where they don’t belong and suddenly you own that place. I shave my name off every day. Bleed if I had to.
“Runners, usually. Decentralized anarchist collectives, in the unused spaces. Ask a hundred of us, get a hundred answers. Our fellow Auberans call us runners. I say Nameless.”
“It’s a very unique economy you’ve built. Working in concert with the . . . ”
“Everybody chose. You bring with you this idea of somebody being on top and somebody oppressed, but that’s . . . something you bring with you.”
“Might I ask . . . ?”
“Ask a hundred runners. Me, I found it too difficult to live only on the surfaces of things. It’s not a planet or a moon anymore, it’s a city. Deep as she is wide. You think in two dimensions—lots of people do, my sister, my father—I just never did. It made me feel . . . Compressed.”
More words maybe than I’ve said in two weeks. More on this subject, certainly, than in seven years. He stares at me, this man. I still wouldn’t know him in a crowd. That puffiness around their eyes. New gravity.
“I think that’s beautiful.”
“I think it’s correct.”
He doesn’t begrudge me my tone, or smell, my quick turns of the head. Not that turned on, either. They look away sometimes, as at a thing they never saw before and must own, put a name on. Must crowd into, atop, against. But he’s not one of those either. He’s like Regine’s man, I think: Complacent. Comfortable enough to find other ways fascinating, without wanting to devour them necessarily. To colonize.
“ . . . Cloning. You’ve done more on your moon in ten years than the rest of the Solar in a hundred, and those tanks sit fallow. Empty. A manufacturing base with self-sustaining crops and a workforce bolstered—a gene pool, randomized to order—by your dad’s clone facilities. A new world.”
“We don’t turn in upon ourselves, like an ingrown hair. It’s sustainable already.”
“Not if those jobs convert to manufacturing, it’s not. They’re on the other moons. Looking into adaptations for the ice giant himself next. A net of satellites, supplying everything a world would need. The next Earth down there, and Oberon the jewel in the sky. You have the greatest engineers coming in on every shuttle . . . Do you follow the news at all?”
I don’t giggle, but I chuckle. Of course I do, I’m my father’s daughter. Before I jumped I was one of them, one great scientific mind in a long line of them, all pressing down. He says this as if I am lucky. I am not lucky, nor am I unlucky: It’s not relevant anymore. Her gravity is my blood, her ice is my skin. I am a native. But he does not begrudge, and this shines in him. His eyes wonder, shine, and we are equals; neither colonist nor colonized, neither refugee nor refuge.
I could love him, I think gingerly. I need more information but I could love him.
With five minutes left—who could say what the starfish would do, if I came late—I’m unexcited to leave. His color rises when I ask to see him again; desire hardens into diamond. Whatever it is they want, I’ve done it. At least enough for more.
Across the zocalo of the third, down to the vent at the arena, quick loop up over the skyway and again, to a cleaner chute. Cozy old jumpsuit from a stash locker, and the long drop down, coreward, to the hollow place where we meet. Phyto paint on the walls, neoprimitive signs, in a hoax language. He’s filthy, but all his limbs are there. All the arms and legs of him.
Did he have fun, with the big boys? Oh my, indeed. Cheeks ruddy, eyes glossy; we’ll sleep like ammonites, curled into infinity. Did he run, and fight with gravity? He shows me a tiny scab that won’t even scar. Were the knife boys nice to him? Ever so.
They gave him a book of funny animals and a tiny blunted knife of bone, and fed him on sugar and—I was hoping, I knew he’d adore it—racked his arms and legs in grav boots, tossed him in the well. He floated up, and up, he says. Core a million billion feet up, starfished, looking down on the one piece of real moon: He says it glimmered, like a star. He means its plastic show box.
“I’ve only ever done that once. The grav.” Was I too afraid? I can’t say yes, but I can’t say no either.
“I like to be in control of myself,” I say. “My parts.”
He says the gravity, through the rig, was like waves in port station. The pool’s free for them, my sister used to take us there. “You could feel it passing up, lifting,” he says. “You could ride it. It was my beast.”
He shows me a horse in his picture book: “Me and the wind. Gravity. Looking down on a star, like it was mine.” Not controlling him, he means. I’m too weak for being afraid, he means, when for him it was his beast.
He points to the letters, “H-O-R-S-E,” and looks proudly up. I smile, but he’s known how to read since he was four. They set him down with this book and they thought, “That hermit girl won’t care for letters and words and names. This little man, oh, without even those.” Imagine how pleased they were with themselves, when he read it back to them. Like they’d done it! And so quick, too. This is why I left the knives. This is why I cut my hair, move fast. If they want to be like them, just surfaces, why jump at all?
We do wake curled. He will be gentled. I run my fingers through his curls, and he recounts his adventures. In just an hour, the world and stars opened to him. Some of the stories are like dreams, others are parables. Some of them, I think, even actually happened.
He tests the skin around a bruise: This idea of Names, of legitimizing. The knives wanted to give him a nickname, something unlike little starfish, little man, but my friend their leader knew better than to let them. He said one day my boy would pick his own, and oh, the romance of that!
He spends the better part of ten minutes just saying words. Some real, some real enough that you could see how he found his way to them. Testing them out upon his tongue. Against my ears.
“ . . . Your friend says you have no love for Names. You run from them like a breach.”
He’s right, I say. He said that just right. I miss him. If I had no little man, I would miss him more. Still, I do.
“When you think of the best name, little starfish, you will know it. Everywhere in you. Until then, you needn’t hurry or feel pressured. It’s not because I hate Names, or knives, or anything in our whole entire world. It loves us, as I love you. Oberon. She wraps herself, curls herself around us.”
He nods, distracted. “STARFISH,” he pronounces, flipping through his book. Gleaming up at me: It is him.
“Cut off an arm, another one grows. Forever and ever. Cut ’em all off, what have you got?”
A moon, cored and mined until it’s a satellite of steel and heavy metals. A solid city, in the skeleton of a moon that was. A skin of ice. But the same name, always: Home.
“Once the arms grow back, he’s new,” I say. “Something new and wonderful. He remembers what he was, but he grows and grows again.”
“Does it hurt?”
Always. Every time. But he grows, nevertheless.
Days after showers we go down core, to see the Wanderers. He is sometimes thoughtful, sometimes a pisspot, when we go. But I know he loves to hear them too.
They call themselves Those Who Wander; for whom everywhere is home. Not specific to Oberon, they do have a major outpost here. They provide medical care; they’re advocates in places we can’t yet go; mostly they pray. I haven’t ever spoken to one, but there’s no point: Their oath says they don’t stay anywhere longer than a year. Local. On Oberon, that’s about a fortnight.
I love them, their ceremonies and litanies, the solace of their words, but I would never join them. I have found what they are looking for: Everywhere is already home. The little starfish is, I am, all Oberon is home already. They’re refugees from everywhere who think they’re colonists of everywhere. They own the galaxy, it doesn’t own them. I couldn’t live that way.
But this for them is only true in practice. In theory, they worship the God of those who choose no God. His are the ones are who cannot hide, cannot deny, cannot decide: This part, I like. He watches over those that don’t care to be watched. He watches anyway. Their worship, then, is nothing at all. Nothing but the most beautiful music.
“Those who wander are the lost,” they sing. “Those who wander are not lost.”
And then a rising crescendo, in four- and five- and sometimes eight-part harmony:
“All who wander are not lost. All of His are never lost . . . ”
I am a moon, hollowed out and filled with gold. It is too much.
A tiny starfish arm reaches up to my tears; he whispers softly, “Little sister. Oh, little mother.”
“ . . . All those who live were never lost.”
Our second date, he calls it this, is redoubled: Four hours, starfish safely in the care of knives. No refugee talk, not yet: This is for his betterment. There will be a time for overnights, knives in the dark, secrets of men. I have no wish to impede him. For now, four hours and we meet back up. And if we do not, the experiment is over.
My sister’s gift brings flowers, a smile. I am wearing that dress again, pulling at the hem. I couldn’t bring flowers back to the berth; he’d laugh and laugh at me. Like bringing home a cup of water to keep as a pet, he’d say. I have taught him to have nothing, that the world is his. I think he believes it.
“But where does it go from there?” This man wants to know. “If this society is self-sustaining, and I honestly think it might be, with a population limited to this size, will there always be runners? Always Nameless?”
I have no idea. I have no good rationale for any one of the others. What would make a man, a woman, jump. We don’t have one goal or want, neither needs nor angers. We wouldn’t be who we are.
“You’ve said it, I think. A population limited not only to this size, but to familiar shapes of living. To the bubble, leaving things how they’ve always been. Bringing your world here, to our moon, pretending it’s the same. Some can do that, some go native. I think that’s us. Me.”
He looks at me, confused. Not horror, but a relative.
“Every human structure, though, has these things. Cities, stations, colonies, worlds. They’ve all got a sewer system, environmental . . . All the ‘unused’ spaces, as you call them. What makes Oberon special?”
Nothing, man. Nothing at all.
“The first human who stepped onto her ice changed her forever. A refuge, not a colony. That first foot stopped being Earthling or Martian or Loony, became Auberan. It was home. Not a going-to, but a coming-now-from. A born-forever-as. I don’t know how these other human structures made their decisions, or how you decide what is for living, and who deserves to be there. What’s a life and what’s a vacation . . . ”
I run my hand along a slick scalp, forcing him to look. The shine, the alien beauty. Auberan. Look here, I say without saying. Not the girl I would be, with hair, a Name. This thing you want to look at, now.
“ . . . But I don’t live in a fucking sewer.”
“You seem really angry. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not angry, I’m tired. I look to see you questioning, doubting, judging and all I see is you trying. To look over your fence and into my . . . My lawn, my grass?”
“Yard. We had a big one, growing up.”
“My yard. I know you’re trying. But it’s writing a letter in a language we don’t both speak . . . ”
“—I have a visa. I’m here for a standard year, unless I find a situation.”
“It’s our second date, man.”
“I know. I just . . . I don’t want you to think that I am some kind of colonist.”
“I don’t. Not anymore. I think you are a good man. I think you’ll do well, on the bubble. But I can’t join you there. Not for a date, not for a life. Not to secure your visa, for sure . . . I have a son, did she tell you that?”
His eyes darken. He forms several beginnings, with his mouth. Breathes not a one.
“She . . . did. Your family seems very interested.”
“In him. You.”
“Well. I jumped. To love is to respect, inclusive. He doesn’t miss me, if that’s what. Especially with all this . . . politics. Imagine that. Hello Dad, hello, it’s me! It’s Deals The Knife!”
I laugh, a barking. It startles him; the bubble shivers, I feel them looking. I am embarrassed. Not for me, they can screw, but for him. This isn’t what he wanted. It’s what he asked for, but he didn’t know. And anyway I’m not a crazy knife girl, I’m a hermit. A mother. A sister.
I’m a choice he can’t hear explaining itself, no matter how he wants to. How hard he listens.
“I should go, I’m . . . disappointing. Myself, and also you. A nice man.”
“Deals, don’t! I can’t just . . . ”
“We look across this glass between us and see . . . If the lights shifted, suddenly just your reflection, looking back. I’m your dream, and you’re a . . . perfectly fine fantasy. If you’re the last colonist I ever meet, you’ll have been the best possible one. But these are dreams. You will never be Auberan. You’ll always be a refugee. And I’ll be the best you could do . . . ”
“You mustn’t devalue your . . . ”
“No. Man, no. I am doing the best I can do. I am the best I can do. You want to give a woman a home, as if I do not have one.”
He looks away, and nods. Giving me the gift of his real thinking. Nods again sharply.
“I do. That is what I want. I want to make a tiny earth, here upon your moon. On your home. With a son, and a beautiful woman. Like you.”
“Then you must find her!”
“But I want you.”
“You have what everybody wants already. And you just keep wanting more. You crowd it out. The world, you crowd it out with wanting, with thinking that you’re lost. You don’t know what you want. Go to the Wanderers, they’ll tell you: That’s a gift.”
Hour to rendezvous. I rack up in a twisty-hole, curled around in a pipe as wide as I sitting am tall, back rounded to the curve, head upon my knees, to meditate on this.
“It doesn’t make him evil,” Regine would say. “It doesn’t make him Father. It doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know.”
And I would say, “I’m not sorry. I lost no innocence. But he was sadder for having known me. When he remembers to be sad again, he’ll think of me. I will be a pain.”
And I would think, but never say, “This is why. This is why we jump.”
I think of sleeping. Cry a little bit instead. If I just wanted more.
Twenty minutes behind schedule when I get it together. Head under an overflow, which he’s not allowed to do. The water carries particulates from cooling the grav lines, it’s maybe toxic, but it’s wet. I’m hurried, eyes puffy like I’m new. He’ll ask questions, and my knife will get that look, of a man who sees a woman crying and must, must try to fix it. And I’ll . . . I cannot see that today.
I am resolute, chanting. I am jumping, every day is a jump into fresh cracks. We write a new name and erase it. Of all who wander, none are lost. The silt from the off-drip gritting in my eyes, rushing to him. Cut across a civil square, still in my stupid funny dress. I could almost pass for a human.
Across the well I see him, slap-jacks with the youngest knife boys. He loves it, laughing harder at the quick pain than he does the test of speed itself. Oh, what he’ll do with that blunt knife. The million troubles of boys. When I was his age I thought I was one, but I had sense at least.
His face turns to me like the sunflowers on 65, like the black-eyed Susans in my hand, forgotten, hydroponic, and grins. He is not sad to see me return, yet.
A sudden hiss this close to a main vent means a breach. I drop into a forward roll; get knocked forty yards up the well, snatching at levels, as below us the well is engulfed in brief fire.
I can barely see him, down below, but I know it’s him. I’d know him, always.
Just as I know the policemen swarming in, from seemingly every direction, to take him up in arms, to spirit him—just him, surgically leaving the knives to recover—away, into the world. Away from core. Toward the embassies. The district offices.
“Solitude Unto Equinox,” the banners say outside. They let the Hamlet Crater guys hold meetings outside the embassies, where surveillance is heaviest. The rallies are always the same: We must halt immigration for at least forty-two years, if Auberan society and culture have any chance of becoming something real, unique. We can mutate all we want, they say, but it always comes back to humanity. The control group of what’s normal, who get to say what that is.
They’re not violent. They’re probably right, even. Imagine a moment with nobody looking. No pieces shoved or tinkered in, no half-measures. Organic. They’re probably very right. But shit can they talk.
I accept a flyer on my way in, asking for my father at the first desk I reach. I can’t even remember the layout. They wave me through, as if I’m expected; people rush around, looking from the side of their eyes only, as if I am a lie they tell.
“Cordie. Sit, lovely. I was going to offer a meal or something but you look just healthy as can be. Still shaving that head, I see. Do you want a change of clothes, or a shower . . . ?”
On one hand I am loath to accept his charity. Then too, I have recently been blown up.
“Caught in a vent near the well, so I just popped out into the fields. It was horrible, but I’m uninjured. Regine would probably have enjoyed it.”
“I saw on the news. It was actually a surface vent a few districts away, distributed the force of the blowout to the well itself. You were one of the unlucky few who happened to be in the vent path. It’s a redundant system, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it actually put into . . . ”
I shuck my dress, drop it in the garbage; snatch up a too-large jumpsuit, pop it over my head. I don’t want to chat. Father looks so old, and so beautiful. He’s aged not ten but fifty years, somehow, since I jumped. I know every crack and grin that face could bloom. I remember him better, looking in his eyes, than anything in life. As if I’d been looking at him all this time.
“Father. I hate to ask, but I’ve misplaced something. In the blast. And I’m pretty sure your men . . . ”
“The police are a community-resourced and community-supported group of paid volunteers . . . ”
“Fine. Our men. They may have absconded with something, um. Unlabeled as mine.”
“He’s beautiful, Cordie. And so smart.”
I go quiet, still. Footsteps passing a grill, when we were small. That chill, the thrill of a footfall.
“You’ve had us taped, then?”
“Since you found him. I always kept tabs, of course—I love you more than life—but once the boy was out there, and you got ahold of him, it was prudent . . . ”
“You. The cops swarmed in the very second it reached the well? Like they already knew?”
“A fire broke out a few levels down, I couldn’t risk him. Too important. And you were fine, of course. And I knew you’d come to me. Hoped, anyway.”
“You took advantage of a disaster to kidnap my son, so we could . . . have a little chat?”
“Your . . . Oh, Cordie. Son? Really? Isn’t that against your bohemian ideals? ‘Unlabeled as mine.’ Oh, you little darling. Little hypocrite. Pantomiming with that cult, hoping Hamlet will take you, or blow me up, or . . . You want to control your child, but hate me for protecting you, in turn?”
“You sound angry, Father.”
“I could never. I love you, child. I love you, you’re my little girl. I love you for your rebellion. You bring me the most surprises. I love surprises.”
“Wrong. You do not love surprises. You control everything.”
“I . . . Well, yes. I love our world, our little moon. Our colony here. I realize that looks like control, Cordie. But I’ve got a surprise for you. You’ve been saving the world, all along . . . ”
“—Great. Are you going to give me back my . . . Are you going to put the child back in my care?”
“Oh my, yes. That’s the whole point of the exercise. But let me tell you why.”
On third days we watch the spa workers, shuffling off to breaks. Twenty minutes, in and out.
He’s caught me staring, oh he has. The crinkle and the smile in his eyes, so familiar from the moment I found him, in a basket of rushes, like a fairy tale. That regal gait he took on, learning to walk as we Auberans do, along the soft edges of the well—I knew that too. I thought it confirmed he was meant for me, that everything about him began and grew ever more familiar.
My knife, the boy I left behind, used to say: It wouldn’t be a promise if we made a clone of both of us. Half yours, half mine. Our child. No name. Maybe he was remembering this, when I brought him the boy. The ways of men. It wouldn’t be a promise, he’d said. Sweet boy, stupid boy. It wouldn’t be a promise if it were just mine, or even just his. That, I could deal with.
“Mother . . . ”
“Call me Sister. Call me Deals, if you want. Not that.”
“Do you not love me? Ever since that day at the well, you . . . ”
“Oh! I do, I love you more than Oberon. More than life. But I’m not your mother. We can love each other just the same, you needn’t name every single thing. Now, you had a question?”
“I have hair on my head, and nowhere else. You have hair places everywhere, but not up top.”
I want to cover my body, suddenly. I am terrified, ashamed. I hold very still, betraying nothing. He mustn’t be afraid. This mustn’t be a bad moment.
When he looks at me, who knows what he sees? Perhaps Mother would be better. Or worse.
“Men and women are different, little brother. You know I shave my head. But there are lots of other, smaller differences.”
“When I am a man, I will not fit into our berth.”
“When you’re a man. Little starfish, you’ll be king of this world. Just like Father wants.”
“Mine too. Do you remember him?”
The boy shivers. My son, my brother. My soft little father, getting bigger every day.
“He wanted to eat me right up! He held my hand so tight. His arm across my shoulder, when they were taking pictures, it shook like a breach. I couldn’t understand what he was saying really, I just said what he wanted when they asked me. I liked him, but he was shaky. Shaky hungry.”
“He’s getting old. He’s going to need a replacement.”
“Like a S-T-A-R-F-I-S-H. Or a clone, like they said at the press junket. Or like you say, about Oberon. Always growing more into what it always was. Even when the parts get replaced.”
“Just like that. Exactly . . . Just like that. From now on, we’re going to take our showers . . . ”
“—Every third day!”
“Every third day, yes. But we’re going to do it back-to-back. I’ll still be here, and you’ll be safe, but we’ll wash this way from now on. We’ll keep a lookout, like scouts. Do you think that’s strange?”
He doesn’t seem to mind; he turns his back obediently, singing little songs I’ve never heard. Songs of men, probably. Songs of future kings. Songs of a lookout scout, growing fiercer every day. Songs of a starfish, beloved by a mother with no name.
He turns his back, and I think I cannot look away from him. But of course I can. Eventually, I must. Solitude Unto Equinox.
But then too I can sing. We can still sing together: We are never lost, we’re already home.
We will grow into exactly what we are.
Jacob Clifton is a freelance writer and critic in Austin, Texas. Besides his long-term gig writing about TV for the website Television Without Pity, and blogging about culture and entertainment for Tor.com, he can be found online at jacobclifton.com. "This Is Why We Jump" was written for Catherynne M. Valente.