3660 words, short story
This Wanderer, in the Dark of the Year
It starts this way: I am a journalist. I interview the inhabitants of war zones. I go to Afghanistan, Iraq, the DRC. The stories are all different, but after a while they begin to blur together. The women are tired, and children with thin arms cling to them. We cannot get bread, they say. Or clean water. My husband died last night. My brothers have been taken.
You’re a disaster, Annelise says on the phone one night, voice distant and crackling over the satellite phone. I think her tone is fond. It’s difficult to tell, with the static. Come home safe.
They took us and raped us one after the other. They are monsters, monsters.
They are men, but they are monsters.
I travel with translators, or embedded into peacekeeping forces. The thump of shells exploding lulls me to sleep.
Or it starts this way: I am home, and doing the dishes. This is my job when I’m home. Scrape, wash, rinse; my hands are mechanical. Annelise leans on the doorframe. The kitchen is the size of a postage stamp, and the rest of the apartment is not much bigger. We pretend that this is the reason I do not spend much time at home. “Did you see the news?” Her accent curls around each word, turning it into rough music. We met in Durban ten years ago, when I was doing a predictable piece on the townships. Annelise was the only good thing about that trip.
I set a plate into the drainer. “About the meteor?”
“They’re not sure that’s what it is,” she says. “Weren’t you working there a while ago? The gypsy story?”
“Not gypsies. Roma. Gypsy’s a pejorative.” I wash off a couple of forks and set them in the drainer. “But yes. That’s right near where all those people were killed.”
All I can remember is how gray the sky was, and how cold it was at night. I have some beautiful pictures from that assignment, but I don’t remember taking any of them.
“Sorry.” Her tone is unrepentant. Annelise is an evolutionary biologist, and she dislikes the niceties of human behavior. We’re all too fast-moving for her.
“Maybe it’s a spaceship. Also, do you have to use every pot we own to make dinner with?” My voice is sharper than I mean.
“When someone else is washing dishes? Yes.” Again, no contrition. I used to love the way you never apologized. “I’m going to go see if they’ve gotten into the thing yet.” Her bare feet are nearly soundless on the old wood floor of the apartment that was once mine and then ours and now more hers. Over the sink is a small framed photograph: Annelise, her sister, and two cousins. The sun casts harsh shadows under the brims of their hats, but their smiles are wide and bright.
It will be weeks before anyone can get close to the object. When it cools off enough that they can send rovers to look at it, they will find that the surface is made of some sort of metal, pockmarked in ways that make little sense.
Everyone, it seems, wants it to be a spaceship. Nobody knows for certain.
That night, on our threadbare couch, a spring pokes me in the back, keeping me awake. Even with the roar of the city below and Annelise’s soft snoring from the bedroom, it’s too quiet.
No, it actually starts this way: I am kidnapped from the Budapest airport. I let my guard down. Life seems so much less urgent when nobody is shooting at you.
It’s easy. Replace the car driver who was supposed to meet me at the airport. Go towards the hotel but stop in a narrow, cobbled alley. Men with guns slide into the car; I am paralyzed with surprise for a critical moment.
Then the bag over my head, and darkness for what feels like days.
I step forward, and I am falling, falling, falling.
This is all out of order. I’m sorry.
The meteorite opened and something escaped. I was taken from Budapest and driven to a remote location. The non-Roma and the Roma here have been killing each other for centuries.
These three things are related.
My name is Audra Feher. I was born in Athens to American parents. I work for the international desk of a newspaper based in New York. It is January fourteenth, I am told. I am alive. I am unhurt.
I do not know who the people are who are holding me captive. I do know that they have an alien. I have seen it.
Whatever they are telling you, believe them.
The alien resembles nothing so much as a damp gray blanket with restlessly moving fringe, darker spots roving its felted-looking back.
My hands are cuffed behind my back. The metal has worn sores into my wrists, and my shoulders ache. The alien smells like nothing I’ve ever smelled before, a little like formaldehyde and fresh-cut apples. The man standing next to me has a machine gun. He keeps shifting where he stands.
“It will try to touch you,” the man says in heavily Hungarian-accented German. He lowers the muzzle of the gun a little; a reminder, a warning. “Hold still.”
We are in a damp, concrete-walled cell with one barred window near the ceiling. My feet are bare and ache so badly with the cold. The alien shifts, and moves. It flows like a slug flows, like an underwater creature, bag of water with cilia moving it along.
It touches the end of my toe. My big toenail, with chipped polish clinging to it still. Jungle Red, the color is called. Bright red, like arterial blood. I think about this because the alien is touching me and I need to think about something other than how my skin wants to crawl right off of my body.
It touches the top of my foot. It’s strangely warm. It tickles a little.
And then—pain. What feels like fire spreads up my leg in a sweeping rush, and I scream. My foot shoots out as I try to shake the fucking thing off of me—
It moves far more quickly than I thought possible, withdrawing with a swift and preternatural grace, the dark spots moving more quickly now. The man with the gun grabs my arm and drags me away with him.
Later, in the cell, I look at my feet. Bright red pinpricks—Jungle Red—show on purplish, bruised skin. My foot throbs.
It does not heal. The bruise and the pinpricks remain, even after the pain begins to fade.
I put things together, little by little.
Only the one guard speaks German; the rest speak Hungarian—a language that I can speak only the very basics of. The German talks to me, but only to give me orders. I ask questions and he grunts. They’ve read the books on how to survive hostage situations, too, it seems, and they know all the tricks one does to build rapport with one’s kidnappers. What’s your name? I ask. Where are you from? Why have you taken me?
If I were to describe the German in an article, I would say a burly man with dark hair and a sparse moustache, worn hat pulled low over his eyes. I would not mention the way he smells as if he has not bathed in weeks, or the stains on his pants, or the way his eyes flick over me as if I were one of the insects that colonize my cell.
“Please,” I wheedle. German is a terrible language to plead in. “How can I do what you want if I don’t know what it is?”
He turns towards me. Narrowed eyes with deep furrows in the corners, a suspicious set to his mouth, I note absently. “You will see,” he says. “Your government values you.” He grins, briefly, lopsidedly, and then will say no more.
The men wear gray camo and tan coats, and boots with cracked leather uppers. Their guns, though—their guns are well-tended. They’ve been at this a while. They grow careless eventually, and one of them walks by wearing a hat with a recognizable emblem on it.
Some of the men I interviewed for the piece on the killings of the Roma wore pins and badges with that sign on it. One of them had it tattooed on his beefy neck.
There were angry letters to the editor, after my piece came out. Angry letters, death threats in my email, the background noise of being a woman who walks into war and walks out with a story. I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t even think I would be returning to Hungary, but a mysterious space object crashed here and my editors wanted a follow-up piece.
I am here because they want a mouthpiece, or some sort of insurance against attack. The fact that they are . . . feeding me to the alien, if that is what is happening—I suspect that is just because I am a stranger, and my pain means nothing to them. I hear other screams sometimes. Men. I think they’re trying different people, to see what it likes.
After what feels like months, they drag me into a cinderblock room and have me talk to a video camera. They point guns at me. The German tells me what to say.
I don’t play games with the translation. I’m sure someone in their network speaks English and would know if I slipped a hint about where I think I’m located, the few glimpses I’ve gotten of the trees, the color of the dirt. I also don’t say, I miss you, Annelise.
Your native environment, Annelise always says. Your biome is war. The words had been fond at first, then less fond, as she realized that even though I would come back to New York and sleep beside her, I was never truly there at all.
I don’t wonder what she’s doing. I don’t think of her at all, if I can help it.
They take me to see the alien, again and again. Sometimes it touches me. Sometimes I just stand and stare at it. I don’t know how they know what it wants. If they know what it wants. It’s cryptic as a sea cucumber, as an anemone.
Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night, the smell of apples and bitter almonds choking me.
When the meteorite—spaceship—opens, something escapes. Nobody sees what, because at that point armed men of unknown affiliation have taken control of the crater that was the crash site. They have shot the guards and taken the scientists hostage. The Hungarian government was in the process of sending in the army when the pitted metal opened and smoke and something else poured out.
When the smoke clears, the armed men as well as whatever had come out are gone. They leave behind the bodies of the scientists.
Annelise comes out with me to wait for the taxi on the stoop of our building. She watches the traffic go past, spraying filthy slush onto the sidewalk. I glance at her, once, then again. She’s left her coat upstairs.
“I’m going home,” she says.
I hear how the oh in home elongates. Hohhme. The Afrikaner way of indicating distance. Something cold threads through my gut. “Are you coming back?”
“Taxi’s here.” She picks up my suitcase and heads down the steps.
There’s a moment after a bomb goes off that is always filled with a profound personal silence, no matter how noisy the aftermath. It is a silence filled with two questions: can I move? and why am I not moving yet?
So I move in that silence. I get into the taxi as the driver loads my bags into the trunk. Annelise bends over, makes a circling motion with her hand. I roll down the window.
“Do me a favor, Audra.” Her dark eyes meet mine, curls gathering beads of mist in them. “Get some help.”
Then she straightens and bangs once on the roof of the car. The driver slams his door and the taxi lurches into traffic before I come up with a response.
I crane around to stare out the back window. What do you mean? Help with what?
Annelise’s sharp-planed face holds no answers, and all too quickly recedes into the distance.
Later, after the lights on the plane are turned down for the evening, I close my eyes. After a while, I realize my cheeks are wet.
Instead of sleeping, instead of thinking about Annelise, I draft the beginning of my piece. I give a quick précis of the region’s bitter history of violence between the Roma and non-Roma, detail the current right-wing disposition of the government, and posit that the appearance of such an immensely valuable space artifact might stir tensions up once more.
When I land in Budapest, I receive a text about the spaceship opening. I am distracted on my way out of the terminal to meet my driver, thinking about how I’m going to have to edit my opening. Not thinking about Annelise, and Durban.
It is an explanation, as much as anything is.
There are somber bootsteps outside of my cell, low voices sorrowing and angry. I heft myself up and limp to the door, look out the little window. Camouflaged figures walk past, carrying the body of one of their own. One of the men doing the carrying is the German; I recognize the slightly crooked set of his shoulders.
The dead man’s feet are bare. The pattern of bruise and livid pinpricks is the same as on my own feet.
I’m going to die here, I realize, somewhat belatedly.
One morning, I open my eyes to thin light filtering in through the window and the word adapt ringing in my mind.
I sit up, wrap the scratchy blanket around my shoulders. I study my hands. The skin on my knuckles is cracked, seeping blood. Jungle Red is a quarter-moon on my nails. Chipped away, grown out.
My nails are a secret calendar. Even if their growth has slowed from malnutrition, even if my periods have stopped, my nails keep track of the days and the months. My nails are a record of this endless, endless winter. My feet and calves are covered with pinpricked bruises.
Phantom scents tease my nose—burned meat, olives, bathroom cleaner, pine trees. Is it because I’m hungry? Anise and blood. Just hallucinations, I tell myself. I am starving, I am isolated.
I lie down again, close my eyes, lapse into a fever-chill sleep. I dream about the alien. In my dreams, it is warm, and its cilia are thin and soft as a kitten’s fur.
I don’t know what it means until a few days later, when I waken to find that overnight the roof of my mouth has grown a coating of cilia, shifting and seeking against my tongue. It’s revolting. I retch and retch.
When I try to scrape it off with my thumbnail, I nearly pass out from the pain.
I forget how to walk and fall forward, gashing open my knees on the concrete of the hall floor.
When I wake the next morning, the wounds have sealed over with a gray substance and the pain is gone. Within three days, they are healed as if they never were.
I lie awake and stare at the ceiling. I think I can feel thin filaments growing through me, invading me. Everything hurts, from my skin to my bones to the backs of my eyes. I allow myself to think of Annelise, of her smile, of the way my gut clenches when I think of her leaving.
I’m so cold. What are you doing to me?
I am back at home, with Annelise. I smell sunlight and dish soap, chemical lemon and Annelise’s own warm scent, the ghost of the soap she uses.
She hands me a towel for the dishes. “Every one of us is colonized by mitochondria. This is just a larger scale, is all.”
When she smiles, her teeth are gray-furred. I scream and wake myself up, sobbing, no, no.
Nem, nem, echoes a male voice distantly, and then a long, agonized scream.
The smell of apples fills my sinuses.
“It is fine,” the German says, his voice harshly accented. “It is fine.” He lapses into Hungarian. I pick out élelmiszer and holnap. Food and tomorrow.
I am supposed to sit on the floor of this concrete room and wait for the alien to come to me. Lowering myself to the ground is difficult and I fall the last two feet when my legs lose strength. I will have another bruise on my hip, to join the collection.
The alien ripples towards me. I read eagerness in its movements, or desperation. I push myself up, put my back to the wall.
Under my skin, things move. There are cilia in the back of my throat, now, and the pinpoint of anger in my gut is flaring.
Not for the first time, I wonder if the alien has any opinions on its situation. It is not exactly a captive, nor exactly in charge. Both of us are stuck here surrounded by humans whose language we don’t understand. Do you even have language? I ask the alien silently. Is language a meaningful concept to you?
Ozone and a horrible artificial cherry smell rise in my sinuses. I choke.
I am remembering a Roma woman I interviewed, who had lost two children and her husband to the bullets of a vigilante group. I have nothing left. They have taken it all, the translator had said. How can they hate us so much that they kill our children?
The alien flows over my outstretched legs, and I shudder, my vision sparkling with pain. Up it goes, onto my lap. I rest my hand on it. Stroke it like a cat.
It wraps around my hand, dark spots moving restlessly. I don’t scream even though my hand and the skin of my thighs feel like they’re aflame. The cilia on the roof on my mouth stir, tickling my tongue. I find myself with my mouth hanging open.
Then I bend forward.
It reshapes itself, extends something like a limb to my lips. How strange I must seem to you, with this wet orifice surrounded by sharp bony projections. I keep my mouth open. Allow it to probe inside.
I feel the cilia in my mouth jerk in recognition, and light starbursts in my head.
Annelise smiles at me.
I stare at her dumbly. What is the thing she is doing with her—
Mouth, it is a mouth. She is smiling. She is happy, or wishes me to believe she is happy.
Woodsmoke and rotting seaweed. Understanding. This is like—
Yes. Much like.
We dream, the alien and I. Communicating. Adapting.
I wake on the dirty, cold floor. The alien is pressed against my stomach. Touching it no longer hurts. It is neither warm nor cool, but exactly the temperature of my body.
I push myself to my feet. I am weak, too weak. The alien’s scent is regretful. It was not supposed to take this long to find a suitable partner. It was nearing the end of its strength.
Incomprehension is baby powder and rainwater. We do not entirely know how to speak to one another yet. I bend down and lift the alien. It flows up my arm to drape itself across my shoulders.
The German runs away, shouting triumphantly. I don’t need to speak Hungarian to know that he is announcing that I have done it, I have tamed the alien.
Surely the world will listen to them now.
I remember the Roma woman’s face, the bitter anger in her eyes. Men like these killed her family. Old hatreds that I have no stake in, or real understanding of. I was just there to report. Just there to observe.
War has a habit of drawing us all in, eventually. Even a journalist. Even an alien who came here entirely by accident.
The German’s left the door open. Four steps and I am out the door. Step, step, step down the hall. I am unsteady, but I do not stumble.
Thundering footfalls, boots on concrete. At the end of the hall, five men pound into view—the German and four others. One points. Says something in that beautiful language that I do not understand.
I stand with the weight of the alien on my shoulders. The cilia in the back of my throat are writhing with alarm. I choke as my throat closes, the alien drawing itself together in alarm, its body against mine less like fluid in a sack than a clenched muscle.
That is all the warning I have. The men receive none at all.
Fluid sprays from the alien, hitting the men in the face. They fall to their knees, screaming as I stagger, panicking, trying to draw breath and finding no air. I clutch my throat as they spew bright blood from their noses and mouths, then collapse, going silent.
Then the cilia in my throat release and I draw great lungfuls of air. My heart throbs painfully in my chest, and I am alive. I cannot feel grateful. The alien wraps itself around me in a mockery of an embrace.
I will never see Annelise again.
No, it starts this way: a woman walks out of a bunker and into a snowscape, trees black against a dim evening sky. She carries a thing that looks like a furry blanket with restlessly moving spots. Her feet are bare, and spattered with blood. She does not seem to feel the cold.
Or perhaps that’s where it ends.
Your native habitat is war.
We walk on, this marooned explorer and I.