Authors: Octavia E. Butler
E REMEMBERED MUCH OF
his stay in the womb.
While there, he began to be aware of sounds and tastes. They meant nothing to him, but he remembered them. When they recurred, he noticed.
When something touched him, he knew it to be a new thing—a new experience. The touch was first startling, then comforting. It penetrated his flesh painlessly and calmed him. When it withdrew, he felt bereft, alone for the first time. When it returned, he was pleased—another new sensation. When he had experienced a few of these withdrawals and returns, he learned anticipation.
He did not learn pain until it was time for him to be born.
He could feel and taste changes happening around him—the slow turning of his body, then later the sudden headfirst thrust, the compression first of his head, then gradually along the length of his body. He hurt in a dull, distant way.
Yet he was not afraid. The changes were right. It was time for them. His body was ready. He was propelled along in regular pulses and comforted from time to time by the touch of his familiar companion.
There was light!
Vision was first a blaze of shock and pain. He could not escape the light. It grew brighter and more painful, reached its maximum as the compression ended. No part of his body was free from the sharp, raw brilliance. Later, he would recall it as heat, as burning.
It cooled abruptly.
Something muted the light. He could still see, but seeing was no longer painful. His body was rubbed gently as he lay submerged in something soft and comforting. He did not like the rubbing. It made the light seem to jerk and vanish, then leap back to visibility. But it was the familiar presence that touched him, held him. It stayed with him and helped him endure the rubbing without fear.
He was wrapped in something that touched him everywhere except his face. He did not like the heavy feel of it, but it shut out the light and did not hurt him.
Something touched the side of his face, and he turned, mouth open, to take it. His body knew what to do. He sucked and was rewarded by food and by the taste of flesh as familiar as his own. For a time, he assumed it was his own. It had always been with him.
He could hear voices, could even distinguish individual sounds, though he understood none of them. They captured his attention, his curiosity. He would remember these, too, when he was older and able to understand them. But he liked the soft voices even without knowing what they were.
“He’s beautiful,” one voice said. “He looks completely Human.”
“Some of his features are only cosmetic, Lilith. Even now his senses are more dispersed over his body than yours are. He is … less Human than your daughters.”
“I’d guessed he would be. I know your people still worry about Human-born males.”
“They were an unsolved problem. I believe we’ve solved it now.”
“His senses are all right, though?”
“That’s all I can expect, I guess.” A sigh. “Shall I thank you for making him look this way—for making him seem Human so I can love him? … for a while.”
“You’ve never thanked me before.”
“And I think you go on loving them even when they change.”
“They can’t help what they are … what they become. You’re sure everything else is all right, too? All the mismatched bits of him fit together as best they can?”
“Nothing in him is mismatched. He’s very healthy. He’ll have a long life and be strong enough to endure what he must endure.”
E WAS AKIN.
Things touched him when this sound was made. He was given comfort or food, or he was held and taught. Body to body understanding was given to him. He came to perceive himself as himself—individual, defined, separate from all the touches and smells, all the tastes, sights, and sounds that came to him. He was Akin.
Yet he came to know that he was also part of the people who touched him—that within them, he could find fragments of himself. He was himself, and he was those others.
He learned quickly to distinguish between them by taste and touch. It took longer for him to know them by sight or smell, but taste and touch were almost a single sensation for him. Both had been familiar to him for so long.
He had heard differences in voices since his birth. Now he began to attach identities to those differences. When, within days of his birth, he had learned his own name and could say it aloud, the others taught him their names. These they repeated when they could see that they had his attention. They let him watch their mouths shape the words. He came to understand quickly that each of them could be called by one or both of two groups of sounds.
Nikanj Ooan, Lilith Mother, Ahajas Ty, Dichaan Ishliin, and the one who never came to him even though Nikanj Ooan had taught him that one’s touch and taste and smell. Lilith Mother had shown him a print image of that one, and he had scanned it with all his senses: Joseph Father.
He called for Joseph Father and, instead, Nikanj Ooan came and taught him that Joseph Father was dead. Dead. Ended. Gone away and not coming back. Yet he had been part of Akin, and Akin must know him as he knew all his living parents.
Akin was two months old when he began to put together simple sentences. He could not get enough of being held and taught.
“He’s quicker than most of my girls,” Lilith commented as she held him against her and let him drink. It could have been difficult to learn from her smooth, unhelpful skin except that it was as familiar as his own—and superficially like his own. Nikanj Ooan taught him to use his tongue—his least Human visible organ—to study Lilith when she fed him. Over many feedings, he tasted her flesh as well as her milk. She was a rush of flavors and textures—sweet milk, salty skin smooth in some places, rough in others. He concentrated on one of the smooth places, focused all his attention on probing it, perceiving it deeply, minutely. He perceived the many cells of her skin, living and dead. Her skin taught him what it meant to be dead. Its dead outer layer contrasted sharply with what he could perceive of the living flesh beneath. His tongue was as long and sensitive and malleable as the sensory tentacles of Ahajas and Dichaan. He sent a filament of it into the living tissue of her nipple. He had hurt her the first time he tried this, and the pain had been channeled back to him through his tongue. The pain had been so sharp and startling that he withdrew, screaming and weeping. He refused to be comforted until Nikanj showed him how to probe without causing pain.
“That,” Lilith had commented, “was a lot like being stabbed with a hot, blunt needle.”
“He won’t do it again,” Nikanj had promised.
Akin had not done it again. And he had learned an important lesson: He would share any pain he caused. Best, then, to be careful and not cause pain. He would not know for months how unusual it was for an infant to recognize the pain of another person and recognize himself as the cause of that pain.
Now he perceived, through the tendril of flesh he had extended into Lilith, expanses of living cells. He focused on a few cells, on a single cell, on the parts of that cell, on its nucleus, on chromosomes within the nucleus, on genes along the chromosomes. He investigated the DNA that made up the genes, the nucleotides of the DNA. There was something beyond the nucleotides that he could not perceive—a world of smaller particles that he could not cross into. He did not understand why he could not make this final crossing—if it were the final one. It frustrated him that anything was beyond his perception. He knew of it only through shadowy ungraspable feelings. When he was older he came to think of it as a horizon, always receding when he approached it.
He shifted his attention from the frustration of what he could not perceive to the fascination of what he could. Lilith’s flesh was much more exciting than the flesh of Nikanj, Ahajas, and Dichaan. There was something wrong with hers—something he did not understand. It was both frightening and seductive. It told him Lilith was dangerous, though she was also essential. Nikanj was interesting but not dangerous. Ahajas and Dichaan were so alike he had to struggle to perceive differences between them. In some ways Joseph had been like Lilith. Deadly and compelling. But he had not been as much like Lilith as Ahajas was like Dichaan. In fact, though he had clearly been Human and native to this place, this
like Lilith, he had not been Lilith’s relative. Ahajas and Dichaan were brother and sister, like most Oankali male and female mates. Joseph was unrelated, like Nikanj—but although Nikanj was Oankali, it was also ooloi, not male or female. Ooloi were supposed to be unrelated to their male and female mates so that they could focus their attention on their mates’ genetic differences and construct children without making dangerous mistakes of overfamiliarity and overconfidence.
“Be careful,” he heard Nikanj say. “He’s studying you again.”
“I know,” Lilith answered. “Sometimes I wish he’d just nurse like Human babies.”
Lilith rubbed Akin’s back, and the flickering of light between and around her fingers broke his concentration. He withdrew his flesh from hers, then released her nipple and looked at her. She closed clothing over her breast but went on holding him on her lap. He was always glad when people held him and talked to each other, allowing him to listen. He had already learned more words from them than he had yet had occasion to use. He collected words and gradually assembled them into questions. When his questions were answered, he remembered everything he was told. His picture of the world grew.
“At least he isn’t any stronger or faster in physical development than other babies,” Lilith said. “Except for his teeth.”
“There have been babies born with teeth before,” Nikanj said. “Physically, he’ll look his Human age until his metamorphosis. He’ll have to think his way out of any problems his precocity causes.”
“That won’t do him much good with some Humans. They’ll resent him for not being completely Human and for looking more Human than their kids. They’ll hate him for looking much younger than he sounds. They’ll hate him because they haven’t been allowed to have sons. Your people have made Human-looking male babies a very valuable commodity.”
“We’ll allow more of them now. Everyone feels more secure about mixing them. Before now, too many ooloi could not perceive the necessary mixture. They could have made mistakes and their mistakes could be monsters.”
“Most Humans think that’s what they’ve been doing.”
“Do you still?”
“Be content, Lilith. One group of us believed it would be best to dispense with Human-born males altogether. We could construct female children for Human females and male children for Oankali females. We’ve done that until now.”
“And cheated everyone. Ahajas wants daughters, and I want sons. Other people feel the same way.”
“I know. And we control children in ways we should not to make them mature as Oankali-born males and Human-born females. We control inclinations that should be left to individual children. Even the group that suggested we go on this way knows we shouldn’t. But they were afraid. A male who’s Human enough to be born to a Human female could be a danger to us all. We must try though. We’ll learn from Akin.”