At seven o’clock, Ann Smith was not ready to begin her day. She had had difficulty returning to sleep after the two- and six-o’clock feedings, and she was still tired. While Harry shaved and dressed, Ann started the coffee, poured the juice, fried Harry’s egg and toasted his toast. She did all this with her dreams still faintly visible, silly dreams of ingenuous cartoon characters and her, interacting with them whenever she had a free second or two, and then snapping back to consciousness to turn an egg, butter toast, or pour coffee.
The egg went over easy and the toast came out light, the way Harry liked. Ann didn’t even think about how relaxing it was going to be when her maternity leave was over and she could return to work. While holding the dense weight of her son, his powerful mouth connecting them, she watched while Harry sat at the kitchen table and ate his breakfast, then kissed him goodbye, aware of his hand lingering on the curve of her hip.
She did not eat. She did not drink coffee. She heard the garage door open, the car start and reverse down the drive and into the street, the hum of the automatic opener as the door shut again.
The house was quiet. As she watched, the baby settled down, breathed and snored softly in his crib. Ann went back to the queen-size bed and soon fell asleep.
When Ann woke at nine o’clock with her scalp damp and her tongue feeling like a dry tongue depressor in her mouth, she realized the blanket had been too warm, and the details of a troubling dream escaped the reach of her waking mind even as she tried to recall them. But the dream lingered in the borderland between sleeping and waking like a fly buzzing in a stale room. Ann needed coffee, and she needed it strong, with cream and sugar. She needed sugar for energy to face another day, and cream because she hated the taste of black coffee, even with sugar in it.
Ann stopped at the baby’s door. She would just check him once quickly on her way to the kitchen, adjust his blanket or remove his thumb from his mouth.
There was not a sound to be heard. At first Ann was reassured. But then the room seemed too quiet. The room seemed to radiate quiet in threatening waves. She crossed the carpet to the crib.
The baby’s eyes stared toward the ceiling. Stepping closer, Ann saw his eyes were dull and dry. Just below his undeveloped chin, the straight satin edge of the blue blanket lay neatly over his chest.
Ann reached. Her fingers did not at first obey her will to grasp the blanket. She willed the fingers to close, her arm to pull the blanket down her son’s compact body.
At first Ann did not understand. She remembered her friend Ellen, who had had a breast removed and had shown Ann her chest afterward. After the mammary gland and the pectoral muscle has been removed from the sternum to the armpit and the lymph nodes had been removed and the ribs had been scraped, after the scab had formed over the naked ribs, Ellen had shown Ann.
But actually, Ellen’s chest had had a flat nippleless covering of stitched skin. It was in a nightmare later Ann had seen even the skin removed and ribs covered only with scab.
Ann heard a quick electric snap in her head. For a moment she was fully awake. The room seemed to grow brighter. Then an opaque fog fell, and with it a massive gravity.
Ann fell and could not rise. On the floor under the crushing mass of the column of air above her, she became small and then managed to disappear.
Harry returned home for supper, but there was no supper on the stove. He carried some red roses in a paper funnel.
His breakfast plate in the sink held a smear of golden egg yolk, now shiny and cracking. The stove was cold. No pots or pans were out. The house was quiet. He walked briskly into the house calling Ann, entered the nursery and found her on the floor at the foot of the crib, curled tightly on her side, her right hand a fist in front of her mouth.
He called her name. She did not respond. He dropped beside her and shook her shoulder. He leaned over her ear and shouted her name. He tried to pull her thumb from her mouth. When he used enough strength, her whole body began to rotate on the rough carpet, but her fist stayed in front of her mouth. He stood and looked into the crib. A fly buzzed in ellipses and settled on the curtain.
Harry thought he would fall. His legs were suddenly numb. His head felt pressurized. His abdomen hurt. Carefully, consciously directing his legs, he walked to the bathroom. His skin burned red, but he shivered as he kneeled on the floor.
He heaved repeatedly, then was able to stand and flush the toilet, his arm trembling weakly as he pressed the chrome lever. He rinsed his hands, and then splashed water over the faucet. His clothes were damp and his hair was matted with sweat. He shivered and his skin puckered in gooseflesh. As much as he could, he rinsed the bile from his mouth. Although he gargled with mouthwash the acid remained in his throat.
After one more glance he had to take into the nursery, Harry went into the living room and picked up the telephone book. For half a minute he tried to remember the name. “Vincent, Vincent,” he recited to himself, hoping to prime his memory. Feeling the heat of frustration burn toward his eyes, unable to think what to do, he dropped the telephone book and opened two windows to the cool evening air. Then he realized he could use the yellow pages. Then he remembered: Vincent Stans. He found the listing, “Stans, Vincent, M.D.,” and dialed.
After a few days in which Ann lay dry-eyed in bed, she got up and returned to cooking and cleaning. She did not go out to see anyone, and she did not invite anyone in. A few neighbors came and talked through the doorway and, when she did not invite them in, went away. With Harry she walked around the block in her white sealskin coat. When they were back inside the house, Harry said, “Take off your coat and stay a while, Annie,” and kissed her forehead. It seemed she did not hear him, but then she said, “Just a minute, Har. I’m still a little cold.”
“Want me to turn the thermostat up?”
“No, that’s okay. I’ll be fine in just a minute or two.” The thermostat was already at eighty degrees, and Harry was in shirtsleeves. He drew her against his chest and said, “Why don’t you let go and have a good cry, Annie?”
“I just don’t understand,” she said. She did not cry.
Many days Ann took the coat out of the front closet, placed it over her arm and stroked the white fur. She imagined herself standing at the North Pole surrounded by clean white snow as far as the eye could see in all directions, snow sifting from the colorful flickering sky and falling softly around her in the antiseptic cold, falling and collecting smooth and without footprint to the horizon. In the frozen wastes of her imagination, under the aurora borealis of her wounded central nervous system, she could achieve numbness.
One week and then another went by and Ann still felt terrible. The more time passed without dulling her pain, the more Ann felt homeless on an uncaring planet.
She wanted to be whole again for Harry. He had felt his pain, but he had continued to function, and now she was afraid he was wearying of her uninterrupted depression. When she tried to buck up she became only more fearful, as if she were daring fate. She had become afraid of many things: loud noises, dark rooms, footsteps behind her, approaching sleep — these things made her heart race, and her body tremble. The worst of these was approaching sleep, the moment of surrendering control to the dark; she was afraid to lose consciousness, yet she was sure she needed sleep to get well.
Afraid of Harry’s pulling away from her, she forced herself to smile for him. The smile, a mask, smothered her like a wet washcloth over her face. She ran from the room and thought as hard as she could of things she had done and felt when she was a little girl, softly nurturing the breath of consciousness like a Girl Scout breathing on a weak ember, gently, for fear of blowing it out.
Her hands shook, but she could sit with her legs crossed twice, twined around each other, and then force her hands into the hollows just above her knees; then her hands were calm. She could not follow a book for more than a sentence or two. She had lost the ability for benign manipulation that makes conversation possible. She could stand only a few minutes of the mindless joy of the people she saw on television. The more she saw or thought of anyone else’s success, even a loudmouthed TV gameshow host’s, the more she became convinced this world was not a favorable environment for her. But she knew this was the only world she was going to get, the only chance for happiness she was ever going to know, and it all seemed unfair.
One time when she tried watching the news, she found herself watching a special report, a secret interview with an alleged spaceman, as the reporter kept calling him. The interview took place in an empty warehouse, where the alleged spaceman had insisted on meeting “for security reasons.”
The announcer said the subject would be a person, at least he seemed to be a person, in his twenties, who claimed to have come from space, and who claimed to have special knowledge of the recent flaying deaths of infants.
Ann felt herself grow hard and brittle at these words, the first time she had heard the expression “flaying death” used in this connection, and she realized the expression had become common to everyone but her during the period she had insulated herself from all news. She felt the room tip and wheel. She had not thought of her baby for an unconscionable time. How could she have forgotten him? He existed now only in her memory. If she let go of his memory, it would slip into an immense gravityless blackness and drift away forever.
A dangerous current arced through her head. Her chest hurt, her heart raced, and she could not breathe. After a moment she could consciously move her ribcage and force air in and out of her lungs, but somehow she knew oxygen was not being exchanged into her bloodstream and, even breathing, she would suffocate.
The alleged spaceman was a soft-spoken young man. Something inside Ann relaxed, and she found herself breathing normally again.
“I am a misfit on my planet,” the gentle spaceman said on television. “Some of our people are here on a scout ship. These are not scientists, as you might suppose space travelers to be. They are hunters. They search for materials to clothe the wealthy on our planet. It is these hunters who have flayed babies on your planet. The hides will be tested. It is fairly certain there will be a large demand for the skin of infant human beings. You can expect periodic invasions of skin hunters.
“The hunters remain in their ships and take skins with laser cutting tools. (I accommodate myself to your understanding. Your laser is the closest analogy to our more refined and potent device.) The ship, made up of elements whose frequencies are beyond your perception, can occupy the same space you do without your being aware of it — the way x-rays can — and can easily overpower you, as strong x-rays can. And of course you would be as powerless to stop it as you would be to stop x-rays with your hands.
“I belong to a group that gathered enough money in contributions to send a small ship to follow the hunters to try to interfere with their work. I am a protester. As I said, I am a misfit at home. I protest against the idea that other living creatures in the universe, even if they do not have our intelligence and sentience, should become our prey merely because we have the power to slaughter them. But I don’t have much power to effect change. Our movement is small.”
“Surely,” the interviewer said, “you don’t call human beings insentient or unintelligent, do you?”
“No, actually, personally, I don’t,” the spaceman replied. “I believe all animals are similar, especially in things like pain, mourning, loneliness, happiness, love. . . . But I am in a small minority, and against us are all the laws and mores of all the nations of our planet.”
“Where is your planet?” the reporter inquired.
“We are the fourth satellite of the star known to your scientists as Omicron VII, a little over seventeen light years away in Delta IV nebula. It took me several hours in a good library to find any record of your having named my sun.”
“How is it you look and sound human?” the announcer asked. “American, for that matter?”
“That is a matter of emanations,” the spaceman said. “When I emanate the characteristic frequencies of human beings, your perceptions do the rest — seeing, hearing, even touching me as human.”
“Could you disappear by just not emanating?”
“It’s not that easy. I can exist on this planet only through those emanations. My metabolism has been temporarily reprogrammed. If I were in my own frequency, I would only be a bunch of high-frequency energy, white noise out of range of even your radar screens. I could not survive. In my own form and unprotected by a ship, I would quickly die on your planet. I have to assume the frequencies of carbon-based life in order to live here.
“But I can do some tricks for you,” he said with a shy grin. He stood and stepped behind some packing crates. The camera moved convulsively in an attempt to follow, showing the steel webbing of the roof, and some dizzying glimpses of forklifts, walls, crates, and cables hanging like lianas from steel rafters, but by the time the viewer saw behind the crates, there was no sign of the alleged spaceman. The reporter looked around for some awkward seconds and then announced he could not account for the disappearance. Then regular programming resumed.
Ann called the station. That afternoon she stepped into a taxi and went beyond her neighborhood for the first time since her breakdown. She found the newspeople friendly and sympathetic, easy to talk to. They interviewed her under the bright lights of two cameras, then allowed her to preview the tape. She was satisfied they had not sensationalized her case.
On camera she had said she wanted to meet the spaceman, to talk with him so he could help her to understand. She deliberately had not used a direct object after the word understand, and she wondered if he was regaining the use of language.
The telephone rang an hour after the newscast that night.
“Hello, this is Jeff Thomas.” His soft voice seemed familiar. He did not allow her silence to become burdensome.
“I’m the spaceman,” he explained. “The alleged spaceman,” he modified lightly. “So far no one has asked my name, and, actually, my name at home cannot be pronounced vocally. Our names are not just sound, the way yours are. We don’t use speech, anyway. We just call to mind the person we want to talk to, as many pictures or ideas of him as we can, and that mental energy defines and calls him if a match is possible on the communications network. Everyone has as many names as he has acquaintances, and yet there’s never any confusion about identity. We have names for people we have only seen or heard of, and communication with any of these people is possible — especially because communication on our planet takes little time. And we realize communication depends on the level of development of both parties. We never expect really to understand the other, only to learn as much as we can. I’m sorry. Am I boring you?”
“No, but I’m not listening very well. I want to talk about the babies.”
“I do too, really.”
“Where are you?”
“Can we get together sometime?”
She did not tell anyone about her appointment. His gentle voice made her feel safe, but if she was wrong about that, she did not care.
They met in a small Italian restaurant. The spaceman had wild curly auburn hair. He was dressed in jeans, a chambray shirt and a sweater. He was taller than Ann but shorter and lighter than Harry. He looked young, tired, and sad.
The restaurant held only a small bar and five tables with red and white checked tablecloths and short fat guttering candles in tumblers. Ann ordered spaghetti. The waiter and the cook consulted in Italian. Jeff leaned over the table toward Ann.
“On our planet you are considered dumb animals, lacking all but the most rudimentary nervous development. Your frequencies are just too low, your wavelengths grossly long. Our conventional wisdom holds that human beings are not capable of feeling as we understand it. Although I agree your sense fields are only rudimentary, I have been moved by you. I have seen you mourn. But our scientists see your reactions as mere neural overload, a physical reaction like the wilting of a cut flower. Our morals do not include you. You are our prey.”
Later when Jeff started to pour more wine into her goblet, she stopped him, afraid it would make her sad. And when she thought about it, she was also afraid it might make her happy. She didn’t want to go to either extreme.
He poured himself some wine, then sat contemplating his glass. Speaking hardly above a whisper, looking down, he said, “I’m so tired of their arrogance, their killing just because they can.”
“The men who do the killing, the hunters, are just making a living. They’re not evil men, I don’t imagine — just insensitive. They blind themselves to their affinities. They don’t feel they injure themselves . . . when they kill. . . .” Jeff held his wineglass in two hands and looked into it. “They’re probably good to their wives and children. Some of them probably even have pets they care for.”
He did not know what zeppole was, so they ordered some. Ann drank the strong black coffee without sugar to lessen the outrage of the dessert.
The telephone woke her. Harry tossed and grumbled in his sleep but did not wake up.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” Jeff said. “I’m having terrible nightmares.” Ann heard repressed panic in his voice. “I’m afraid I’m losing my mind. I have no one else to talk to.”
Asking him to wait, she got up, put on her heaviest robe, and plugged in the phone in the living room.
She could not help saying, “You really are human, aren’t you?”
“All too human,” he said. “I can’t wait to get back to my own planet.”
“I didn’t think it sounded any better there,” Ann said.
“Oh, sure, we have our problems, but at least I know where I stand. Oh, these dreams. I’m afraid I’ll lose control and go running screaming into the street.”
“What do you dream? Do you want to talk about it?”
“I don’t know. I lose it as I wake. I think I’ll remember, and then I don’t,” he said. “I feel better just being able to talk with you. Oh, Ann, I feel terrible about those babies.”
“You’ve taken the sins of the universe on your shoulders,” Ann said. “It’s too big a burden.”
“I don’t even know when I’m supposed to leave this planet,” he said. “I don’t remember when or where I’m supposed to be picked up. I guess that’s another result of becoming human. Now I can only trust they’ll find me, or somehow I’ll just unconsciously be in the right place at the right time.”
She didn’t know what else to say, so she said, “There, there. It’s going to be all right.”
“Thanks for talking to me, Ann. Good night.” She wondered if she heard in his voice a tinge of resentment at her patronizing there, there.
“I don’t mind talking,” she said.
“No, that’s okay. I think I’m going to be okay now. Thank you. Good night.”
But he did not hang up. The line stayed open and she could sense him at the other end. Because she began to need sleep to prevent the room from rotating around her, she leaned back in the chair with the telephone receiver next to her ear. But she could not sleep that way. “Jeff?” There was no response. “Jeff, I have to hang up now. Good night.”
Slowly, so she would hear if he called to her, Ann hung up, then went back to bed.
Battalions of civilians went by in business suits and gowns and dresses and jeans and sweaters and tennis outfits and jogging suits and overalls and coveralls and jumpsuits and bathing suits, a world full of people with concerns that did not include her and who would step over her and continue on their way if she were to faint and fall from the doorway where she stood watching them go by, and she thought she was going to faint.
The ringing of the telephone woke her. It was light outside. Reaching, she expected it to be either Harry or Jeff. It was the TV station news office. “Our producer, Mr. Burns, would like to speak to you.”
After a moment Ann heard his nervous nasal voice. “Hello, Mrs. Smith? This is Rich Burns. I’m just wondering if you’ve met the spaceman?” She said yes, but she could not reach him. “Could you come down to the studio this morning,” he went on, “as soon as possible? Would that be convenient? Someone is coming to talk to us, and I’d like you to be here.”
At the station she crossed the large room where many people typed, talked, and walked rapidly with papers in their hands while teletype machines chattered and telephones rang and were answered on several desks. The receptionist indicated a young man with slick brown hair. “Do you know Steven Hughes?” she asked. Ann gave him her hand. He had been the one who interviewed the spaceman, she remembered. He took her into a smaller room and offered her a seat at a conference table. He was a pleasant young man in the deliberately relaxed style of the newsroom, but with rough edges of self-consciousness.
A short, balding man in a good gray suit came out of an office carrying an untidy sheaf of papers in one hand and a coffeecup in the other and introduced himself as Rich Burns. “How have you been getting along, Mrs. Smith?” he asked. “That spaceman — how’s he?”
“I don’t know,” Ann said. “He seems troubled, but he’s such a gentle person.”
“Yeah, a really sweet guy. That’s what I thought, too.”
“Have you learned anything about Jeff?”
“I didn’t know he had a name,” Rich Burns answered.
Ann was about to repeat what Jeff had said about his real name, but in the bright light here she just nodded.
They sat at the large table. Rich Burns looked into his papers, glanced up, and then asked, “Would you like a cup of coffee, Ann?”
She realized she had been staring at his coffee cup and her salivary glands were poignantly active. She swallowed and said no, that would be okay, but then she realized how stupidly self-denying it was to decline and said, yes, if it was already made, if it wasn’t much trouble, she would love a cup.
“Steve,” Rich Burns said over his shoulder, “would you. . . .” Steven Hughes said, “Sure thing, chief,” and strode away.
“Ah, here she is, I’ll bet,” Rich Burns said. He stood at the table. Ann followed his gaze through the large interior window and saw across the busy outer room a thin young woman with ragged straight blonde hair speaking with an uncertain smile to the receptionist. Rich Burns met her just outside the door and ushered her in. “You must be Miss Foster,” he said loudly.
“I’m looking for Mr. Burns?” she said tentatively.
“I’m Rich Burns. Come in, please. This is Mrs. Smith. I asked her to be here with us.”
“Ann,” Ann said, offering her hand.
“Penny,” the young woman said and shook hands firmly, her hand cold from outside.
“Have a seat, please, Penny,” Rich Burns said. Steven Hughes returned carrying a styrofoam cup of coffee, which he put down in front of Ann. Rich Burns introduced Penny and Steven, and everyone sat down. “Would you like some?” Rich Burns asked Penny, pointing to his cup.
“No,” she said, “no thank you.”
“Now, Miss . . . ah, Penny, you say you saw our show . . . ?” Rich Burns’s tone had changed; they were now down to business.
“I think it was Jerry,” she said, “the guy I used to live with. But I wasn’t, you know, completely sure. My television set isn’t all that good, and he seemed kind of strange. Anyway,” she said, reaching into her canvas handbag and pulling out a wallet-size photograph. “Is this him?”
Penny placed the photograph in front of Rich, who glanced at it and handed it to Ann.
The snapshot showed Jeff surrounded by snow. He was dressed in a parka and kneeling close to a small white animal. The hood of the parka was pushed back off his head, and although he was not looking toward the camera, Ann was sure.
Her heartbeat seemed erratic and she wished she had not come. She wished at least she had a glass of water instead of the bitter, oily coffee. Ann handed the picture back to Rich.
Looking at it, he asked, “Where was this taken?”
“On the pack ice off Labrador,” Penny said.
“Jerry and I tried to get on the Rainbow Warrior when it sailed to protest the killing of the baby harp seals last Spring. But we were just Johnny-come-latelys. The Greenpeace crew is picked and trained long in advance. We were up there with our life savings and a small group of friends because of an article in National Geographic. We took cans of spray paint; we were going to spray the pups so their coats would be worthless to the hunters. We weren’t any good to Greenpeace, but they couldn’t be everywhere. So we rented a boat and followed a small Norwegian sealing ship. Everything was supposed to be peaceful. We had decided on that beforehand in a workshop when we formed our affinity group. We were only going to ask the hunters not to kill the baby harp seals.
“We followed the ship to the floe. Maybe a dozen men climbed down to the ice, men of all ages, carrying big wooden clubs. There were only five of us, and we got ahead of them on the ice.
“The mother seals were on their sides nursing the pups, but most of the mothers slid into the water when they saw us. One mother remained with her pup. She pushed up into a warning position and growled. Jerry ran up and dropped down next to her and put his arms around her and the pup. The mother just stayed in the warning position and let Jerry hug her and the pup. I took this picture.
“Jerry ran around among the bedlamers, the youngest pups, the ones with the white coats the hunters want, but the paint cans didn’t work — they didn’t spray — because of the cold, I guess. He ran from one pod to another over the white ice and suddenly snow was falling. While the hunters came closer, Jerry ran to the farthest seals, so far away all we could see was his parka against the snow, and he looked like a little blue bird. I worried about him going so far away. Pans of the ice can turn over without warning, and pieces of pack ice can break apart or crash together in the wind and waves.
“When the hunters caught up to us, we asked them not to kill the seals. Most of the hunters didn’t seem to understand English — except for one grizzled little barrel of a man with snow sticking to his eyebrows who kept cursing in English, not directly at us, just sort of at the ground as he walked toward the seals. We had one person who had memorized how to say ‘Please don’t kill the seals’ in Norwegian. They didn’t look at him, either.
“Jerry ran back to us as the hunters reached the seals. Most of the mother seals were in the water growling at us. The white pups lay on the ice and watched us with their big brown eyes. They say their fur is not really white, but transparent, like the windows of a greenhouse, to let the sun’s rays warm them. They can’t go in the water yet because they haven’t built up a layer of fat. At night they depend on their mothers’ warmth.
“Jerry stood in front of the lead hunter. ‘I claim the seals on this floe,’ he said. ‘I have as much right to own them and want them kept alive as you do to kill them.’
“He had stepped in front of the man who had been cursing as he walked over the ice, but the man walked forward as if Jerry wasn’t even there, easily pushing him aside. Jerry tried to push him back, and the man hit him with the back of his hand hard enough to make him slip and fall down.
“Jerry got back to his feet just as the man stood over the first pup. This was the one Jerry had hugged at first. The mother still stood next to the pup. As the man drew his club back, Jerry yelled NO, but the man swung his club down. Jerry leaped on the man, but he brushed him off and then, holding the bat with just one hand, and flicking it with his wrist, tapped Jerry on the head with it. Jerry’s eyes rolled back into his head, his legs got rubbery, and he collapsed on the snow — sat down looking straight ahead and then rolled onto his side. We ran up and rubbed his face with snow. As he came to, the first thing he saw was the carcass of the seal pup lying on the ice. I’m sure of it. The hunter had taken the skin. The mother seal moaned over the body and nuzzled it with her nose. The mother seal kept moaning and nuzzling the body. I think it was still alive. I think I saw the heart beat. We held Jerry up and helped him walk back toward our boat.
“After we got back to town, Jerry disappeared. I don’t even know if he went back to our apartment at all after the boat got in. I asked around, but I couldn’t find out anything about him. And then I saw your interview on TV.”
Again Ann’s world tilted, and the room began to revolve. She had known all the time, hadn’t she? But she had not wanted to face it. And now she felt betrayed. Remembering the snowfields and aurora borealis of her own daydreams, she lowered her head to the table, felt her eyes burn and tried to fight it, and then the welcome pain racked through her diaphragm, and she cried for the vulnerable.