My biggest secret is that you licked off my right nipple. Shame in the shape of absence. Making love with men was a dream for months. I thought to myself – you will understand the pain of a cold bed, once you’re grown. But what do you know about it now, now that you are?
Then, you were a glob. No one dreamed of finding you there. But there you slept, lodged, like spinach in teeth, in the debris of dead moons. Your home – before mine became yours – was a meteor the shape of my head, the length of my legs, and the breadth of my breasts. As if, by some star, my whole body was shaped to cradle you.
But embryos die in the palm of our hands.
The incubator held you first. Your pink goo stained the glass and wet the pads, until sixty days later you outgrew your sticky sack and dried as dry as bones, those miracles that shaped your five pounds into something worth our money and time. The whole lab strained in silence as you wailed your first wail. Expensive child, you held the breath of the world. I remember little caves opening in your face – slits widening into nostrils and the taut line beneath them breaking out into a mouth. Thank god you could breathe oxygen.
I filed away your pictures, first on a desktop, then in my heart.
Strange pictures. A pale pink wrinkly tiny skinny leafy cub, hairless pup, fleshly sapling, two-legged fry of a strange baby. I wished to roll them thin and shove them past my cervix, where nothing would grow.
‘Nothing is working, doctor.’
‘I am afraid nothing will.’
I wished for family. John wished for a baby. So he left and found a woman with a womb in working order. I found no one, until a year later you found me.
So tell me, were you natural or a caesarean?
‘Neither,’ they reported, perplexed. Skeptical, I repeated the question. Male or female? ‘Neither.’
Sure enough, there was nothing – nothing – between your legs. Four limbs and ten fingers and ten toes and no genitalia. We took turns with your DNA and double-checked and triple-checked with microscopic detail for the signs of a new discovery while you lay there, exposed.
‘You’re not even a real woman.’
I pulled the blanket up to your chin again.
Our eyes met.
Huge black pupils ringed in thin cosmic blue. So large, I could have poked them with the whole pad of my forefinger. I didn’t do it, but you cried. I wanted to rock your incubator.
‘Will somebody please shut that thing up!’
Slipping on my latex gloves, I opened the lid and unwired you from the cube. They watched as I hooked my hands under your armpits. I pretended you were a dog or a cat, just so that I wouldn’t lose my grip on your million-dollar body out of sheer nerves and break it all over the floor. I gripped tight. You cried harder. Your skin was so soft I could have left dents. Feeling foolish, I almost put you down again.
But then you stretched out your hand and touched my face. Your red fingers latched onto my cheeks, impossibly warm. I could have sworn the rest of my body went cold. The blood rushed through my veins under your tiny palm that became, for an instant, the only point of contact I had with Earth.
I held my breath to listen to yours. Air filtered in and out through the snot in your nostril – the most fragile sound. I was seized with the sudden impulse to put my head on your chest. How is your pulse? Should mine beat in time with yours?
Someone sneezed, and the moment was broken. With the very last bit of self-control I had, I pulled you in and cradled your head against my chest instead, like any normal grownup would do. My heart thumped against your ear and all I could do was hope it didn’t deafen you.
At last, you stopped crying.
Up until the incubator doors closed, your eyes never left mine. The place where we had touched tingled. I ran my fingers over my cheek. Nothing but smooth skin. Somebody whistled. ‘You sure have a way with that thing, doc.’ Dazed, I shook my head. No, I thought. No, it has a way with me. And I found that I did not mind.
I did not mind that you wanted me.
I felt Dr. Grant’s eager little eyes on me, then you, then back on me. ‘We should give it a mother,’ he suggested. You didn’t have mothers on your planet. ‘An experiment, if you will. It seems to prefer human contact. Unusual, considering its asexuality, but, hmm, perhaps a survival instinct of sorts? An attempt to form attachments? We’ll have to look into that a bit more… Are you all right, doctor? Your face is fine. Will a check-up be necessary? No? Well, what a golden opportunity! Intimate observation, that’s the key. A personal bond with the creature may also guarantee a long-term—’
I can never recall the rest of his ramble. All I remember is raising my hand to say:
‘I will raise Extex 1.’
The night I brought you home, the stars were close to the Earth. I felt them breathe down my neck as I lay you down in my living room. Be good, they whispered. Be good to our child. I made it so that you could look up at them from your pillow. The first time you looked out into the dark, you stopped crying. The black sky spoke to you in low tones I couldn’t hear. I sang ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ but I can never be sure if you heard me that night. I watched you fall asleep, singing softer and softer until I couldn’t blink anymore.
Right before I fell asleep, my murmurs turned into the lowest breath of a baby. It’s what I called you in the morning, on many mornings since. My colleagues called you all sorts of nicknames – Christopher Columbus, John Smith, E.T. and Adam. I only ever called you Extex 1. But alone, I simply called you baby, my baby.
I woke up to the sound of crying. I stumbled into the kitchen to make your breakfast, yawning through your screaming and marveling at how noisy 6am had become.
The lab had armed me with everything from milk and diapers to little cameras on the crib. You preferred whole milk from the supermarket because baby formula made you vomit, and I preferred a clean shirt. So they filled my fridge with DairyPure and handed me a baby bottle.
Holding you in the crook of my arm, I held the bottle up to your mouth. I watched as you suckled, listening to every gulp as my stomach rumbled. But I did not think of toast or eggs or even orange juice. I was watching your lips, puckered around the nipple of the bottle.
I checked the cameras on the crib to make sure none of them were facing me.
With a soft plop, I pulled the bottle out of your mouth. With one hand, I lifted the hem of my shirt, all the way up and past one of my breasts. Slowly, I brought the bottle closer to my breast and pressed the plastic hard against my skin. I lined up the synthetic silicon teat along my own, close as I could, and angled it towards your mouth.
You suckled just as well. When a bit of the suction and pressure touched my flesh I thought, this is what I should have had.
‘E.T. doing all right there?’
‘He’s— It’s doing great. It’s a big eater, I just fed it.’
I gave them statistics, pictures, videos, reports, everything but the part of me that yearned to call you mine.
And that’s how I fed you, nine times a day, every day. Heat the milk, fill the bottle, screw it shut, wash my hands, then tease and pinch the silicon teat between my fingers until it’s as warm and worn as my mother’s.
Until one day, I gave in and pushed my whole nipple into your mouth.
Your tongue was like wet sandpaper. Scratchy, like a cat’s. I told myself it didn’t hurt. A minute of this couldn’t hurt. Confusion grew in your eyes as you sucked and sucked without tasting a drop. My dirt-dry teat could never satisfy, but I could not stop. Once again I became a child as you suckled my need for maternity.
It was only when you began screaming that I put the bottle back in your mouth. Your saliva felt strange as it dried on my skin. A little stickier, a little smellier than how a baby’s should have been. I made note of it on my clipboard and lied that I’d observed your bottle after meals. I would have killed any one of them before I told the truth. And the truth was that the stars held their breath beside the crib every night, with me, watching you.
That first time, my nipple went dry. By the third time, it was itchy. By the fifth, there were welts. Tiny red and yellow blisters rose like goosebumps all over my left breast, leaving me aching for weeks like a heartbreak. Government secrets and the shame of my love barred the doors of doctors, and so alone, I tried every salve I could find to no avail. In a fortnight my right nipple shrunk to a shapeless stump, buried in its own pus that I had to clean with gauze from the local pharmacy. Some guy at the bar left me there after one glimpse, bra dangling off my shoulder.
I reported toxic chemicals and collected samples for tests. I could have used your milk bottle, but instead I stuck a cotton swab in your mouth and swirled it around and around against the inside of your cheeks, longer and harder than I needed to. You struggled, and right before you burst out crying, I yanked out the sticky swab. The sight of fear glazed over those black eyes made me hate myself a little for a little while. I never did that to you again.
I never did anything to you again for a while.
Until you sickened and started to go grey. You grew quiet and slept too much, as if you simply couldn’t gather the strength to throw a good tantrum. It was time you started weaning.
‘Once a day, feed it that instead of milk.’
‘They don’t sell those at the supermarket.’
‘I know. Wait for the mail.’
When I opened the mail, forty packs of blood sat in the Styrofoam box. Ten for chicken, ten for pig, ten for cow, ten for deer, for you, dear.
The metallic tang of blood fresh out of the fridge. The sickly heat of blood steaming out of the microwave. I got used to all of it. Once, I dipped a finger into the bottle and tasted a drop of cow, just to taste what your world was like.
Cow was your favourite – is what I told everyone. It was true, in a way. Chicken and pig were acceptable. Deer was offensive. Cow disappeared by packets. In a week you were rosy again, the circulation of your blood pumped by the hearts of beasts. I watched as you grew the horns of a bull in my dreams.
Until the dream changed. I was holding you under the red star of Mars, cool grass between our toes as we stargazed through a toy telescope. The lens was plastic and did not work, but I did not need to see the stars to name them in your ears. Sirius, Vega, Rigel, Capella… and then, with that certainty one feels in the midst of the most absurd dreams, I pointed to one and called it home. Your home. I even said a name, and it was a name I had never learned before. But you were not looking at the star. You were looking at my hand.
I woke up as you bit into the tip of my finger.
In the dead of night, I crept up to your crib and stood over you. Watching, waiting, as if you would open your eyes then and there to reveal crimson irises. I barely stopped myself from pulling your lips back from your teeth. I should not have pictured fangs when not a single tooth grew in your gums. But I did, and it was only the rhythm of your sleepy breathing that told me – don’t be a fool.
In the morning, there was no cow’s blood. Only a half-empty packet of deer you wouldn’t touch. Your morning soup stolen by some incomprehensible evil, you screamed and screamed as if I wasn’t there to hold you. I was there, you know. I wanted you to know I was there. ‘Shhh,’ I pleaded, putting a finger to your lips. I put my finger to your lips and, resigned, waited for the inevitable.
Your mouth closed around the tip and, with a strength I’d nearly forgotten since I last nursed you, sucked. There was a burn. The minute thorns of your tongue had grown longer. I knew what you were doing to me and simply watched, mesmerised, as the skin was scraped off the first knuckle of my digit. Drop by drop, I slid down your throat.
At last, you grew quiet.
I would have given all my blood to keep you that way – in blessed silence. You rewarded me with a look of utter content, as if to say, better than cow. Gazing at your face, grown rosy again with me, I was happy to be better than cow. But as the minutes went by with no sign of you stopping, I grew uneasy. Just a little more, a little more—
I pulled out before you were done. Skin red and angry, I dipped my whole finger in cold salve as you smacked the last of me on your lips.
I called the lab and asked for more cow. Because that was your favourite.
The whole day, the thought of my blood mingled in yours made me peck your forehead. You never liked kisses. The utterly blank expanse of your eyes after a kiss would make me think of fish and unsettle. Touch loses gravity in space where the placenta does not ground you. But that day, the way you turned your head to look at me whenever I was near made me hope.
I bent down to press my mouth in your sparse hair. Gaping, you looked back at me. Something I had not seen before glistened in your eyes. Slowly, you strained your head towards me. I held still, as if I could scare you away with a breath. You raised a hand towards my face. Your tiny hands, steadily turning orange with the passing weeks, combed clumsily through my brown hair, falling all around you. We were a maple tree. A sudden rush overtook me. I leaned down for another kiss, this time on your cheek.
Air rushed up your nostrils – then again, and again.
That was when I heard the sniffing.
You were smelling me. My hair, my face, my neck. You wouldn’t stop, as if something delicious wafted your way. I pulled back and stared. You stared back. Something glistened in your eyes that I had not seen before. You were smiling. I could only stare at that smile as if no one else had smiled on Earth before.
How I had longed to see that smile.
But it did not feel like the smile I had always wanted. Hand shaking, I extended a finger to your face. You craned your head to greet it, sniffing even louder. The sound of utter delight. I did not resist as you took me into your mouth and broke through skin.
What a fool, I thought to myself, watching you suck. And I’d thought I had willed you into loving me. What a fool, and yet – because of that warm, sated smile you gave me afterwards, because those eyes weren’t fish-eyes anymore – I could only cradle you in my arms and murmur, ‘You’re welcome.’ Full and drowsy, you fell asleep in my arms. Head resting on my shoulder, fluttering heartbeat faster against my own, you were more my child than ever. And more your mother than before, I lay down to rest with you on our worn leather sofa.
We were lying there two months later when you lisped your first word. It was soft and easy, just a parting of the lips around two syllables.
I cannot remember all the times I called you baby, my baby, wishing you were listening. I knew then that you must have, every time. Then, you looked into my face and christened me a name I never thought I would call my own.
‘Ma— maw— maw-maw.’
In secret ecstasy, I filed in the report: Promising signs of human speech development. They asked for recordings, for your words, for my words in your mouth, those budding seeds I wished to grow on my own and almost did not want to give away. The thought of doctors analyzing my every tone and cadence, echoed in yours, made me shy.
‘Mamma,’ they chuckled over the phone. The word was never meant to be a joke. But they were accepting me as the perfect foster, and that, I could accept. One of them even remarked how our relationship was strangely adorable. Adorable.
Her five-year-old girl was adorable.
You were difficult. Whenever I needed to rest my scraped and blistered hands, you threw a tantrum that brought the roof down on my shoulders. I appeased you with more and more cow’s blood, until the scales tipped and blood was all you ever drank. I panicked the first time you refused milk. Sucked just once and let it dribble down all over your chin. Unsuspecting, the lab told me to give you what you wanted. ‘The little vampire’s waking up,’ they murmured. Most chuckled. A few exchanged dark looks. ‘Maybe it’s the iron,’ I suggested coolly. ‘We should try giving him broccoli when we move onto solid food.’
‘It. You know what I mean.’
But they didn’t know what I meant. I meant that in spite of all the things you did to me, you were my child. That, because you were my child, all the things that should have been revolting only hurt instead.
Like the way you never got past your first two words.
‘What do you mean?’ I would ask, staring into your eyes, as if they would speak instead. But we already knew. Your long, narrow, thorny tongue was all that would ever grow inside your mouth. No teeth.
No speech. Not ours.
Instead, you began to speak your own.
Your first whistle was a do, an octave high. Your serpentine tongue would grow to contort into impossible figures, blowing every pitch and volume of every note imaginable. Birds would teach you how to sing – pigeons and sparrows, crows and magpies, ducks and wrens, woodpeckers and orioles. But four months into your life, you simply whistled. One quavering note, like the first note of the longest song in the world. I promised myself I would listen to the end. That evening, I tried to whistle-mumble goodnight, but my tongue was too thick and too flat. I would have sliced it in half or a third to balance your universe on the tip of my tongue.
Maybe if I’d married a Martian instead of fucking around with Earthlings, I would have had your tongue. Had you. Maybe my eggs were never meant for this place. Something about the gravity, the oxygen, the human semen makes them lonely.
That night, I dreamt that the tadpoles of the galaxy swam towards me. The sperm of stars raced towards an ovum on the brink of supernova, like the race of meteorites that hurtle towards Earth every second and, quite simply, hit or miss or burn away to ash. Why must they always burn away to ash? My belly grew heavy with dark matter.
I woke up to a wombful of space. The dark room reminded me – you are used to this cavity. And so I did not cry into my pillow.
Because adults cry.
By the end of the year you were half my size, standing and walking on your own. I filed in the report: Fully sentient. IQ: 110. EQ: 50. Age of maturity: 6 months.
No baby bottles. Tall glasses of steaming cow instead. Sometimes a finger.
You eventually grew to learn more words, and could smammer out a few dozen. But only when we were alone. Never at the lab, where I would take you with me for checkups.
They laughed. You hated the sound of Earth-speak on your tongue. You hated your narrow mouth that opened in one vertical ‘0.’ You glared up at them with bulbous eyes, the ring of blue around your pupils dangerously wide. I knew that look. You were either about to throw a bubbling flask at their heads or burst out in a whistling fit. Knowing a song would only amuse them, I hoped you would throw something instead. Out of mercy for the fools, I put a hand on your shoulder and made them chuckle out little apologies. I remember how you held onto my wrist, pleading ‘hom’ until the word echoed in my ears long after I was done taking your blood, your hair, your mucus, taking everything from you.
You sat in the back of our bulletproof SUV and all the way home, the only sound I heard from you was the sound of sniffling.
Your silence stretched on for days until I took you out see the birds. You liked that. You wanted to stay for hours, so that’s what I did with you. You sang, and I listened without getting any of it. You wanted to go again the next day, and the next. So I stuffed my bag with my tablet and tumbler and scarf to work outside on the benches, not caring that the days were steadily growing colder, because your silence at home was starting to scare me.
We squeezed into the loneliest part of the park with no swings, no slides, away from dogs and children and neighbours. There, in your armor of full-sleeved clothes and caps and sunglasses, you would sit under a tree, the same maple tree every time.
‘It’s that sparrow, right?’
After looking around to make sure we were alone, you opened your mouth.
‘Do you meet him often?’
A vigorous nod. I like to think that you smiled. The cap and sunglasses always hid your face from me. I could never make out your expressions.
‘What about that magpie with the white chin?’
‘Just one sparrow, then?’
You held up two fingers.
‘Are they friends?’
Heart hands. They were mates.
‘Are they your friends?’
It hurt me, the way you took a moment to think about it. Hesitant, you turned your face up to the branches and whistled. They chirped back.
All of a sudden, you yanked off your cap. A crop of rust-brown hair sprang free into the open air. Your huge black eyes shrunk in the sun. Frantic, I pulled it over your head again. ‘What are you thinking?’ I hissed. Your gloved hands tried to fight me off. As soon as I crushed the cap back on your head, you pushed my legs so hard I stumbled back and almost fell.
‘Foice! Ma foice!’
You pointed up the tree, your face, then made a gesture as if to take off your cap and remove your mask.
‘They want to see your face?’
You gave a sullen nod.
‘Just tell them this is your face.’
You gave me a pointed look as if to say, they’re not that stupid.
‘Won’t they let you be friends without showing your face?’
You angrily shook your head.
‘No trotht. Not trotht me.’
I wavered. There was, after all, no one around. No one was ever around us. So why were there always too many eyes? All of a sudden, I could feel them on the back of my head.
I turned to see an elderly couple looking back at us. Their keen eyes were fixed on you – a three-foot dwarf with its head and face obscured under a suspicious amount of accessories. Even their dog was sniffing the air, nose pointed towards us. I felt goosebumps run down my arms. ‘Later,’ I whispered. ‘Someone’s watching.’ You instantly stopped fighting. You hated it when people stared. Without another word, you let me take your hand in mine and gently lead you home.
That night we lay in bed side by side, as we had always done since you outgrew your crib. And as I had always done, I tried to sing you a lullaby. There was not much else I could do. We could not talk. But that night, you tugged at my sleeve and made me stop.
I counted thirty heartbeats before you opened your mouth.
Closing my eyes, I pictured your throat moving in the dark. But I did not look. I chose to stay in the woods where you led me, where birds sang for invisible moons light-years away and people did not exist. I laid my hand on yours. You let them be. You sang until I mumbled against your pillow, just before falling asleep – my oriole from Mars.
But you were not from Mars, nor Venus, nor any body we had named. I would stare at the back of your head and beseech you to name me your planet, my flesh your earth, my breath your wind. But the truth was you were lost, looking for friends in abandoned nests because the houses of men never knew your face. One day I opened the closet to find every cap and hat ripped to shreds and the sunglasses mangled apart. You shook your head behind my hunched back as if to say, I will cup the sun in my eye sockets.
‘Dr. Grant, please.’
‘It’s too dangerous. With all those people, the risk of being exposed—’
‘We’ve hid him well so far, haven’t we?’
‘What’s wrong with the park?’
‘All the sparrows went away.’
‘You can’t tell me all the pigeons and crows and magpies went away too.’
‘Don’t you want to know how many bird languages he could learn?’
He regarded me with narrowed eyes.
‘Do not use any form of public transportation.’
And that is how I took you to the largest zoo in the city, where you saw a giraffe for the first time and muttered ‘alien’ under your breath. In the stiff new cap and dark new sunglasses sitting heavy around your eyes, you studied every cage in a silence that for once, did not frighten me. Guiding you around pillars of strangers, I saved the best for last.
Your hand slipped out of mine when we finally entered the eyrie.
Surrounded by birds, the stitches around your lips burst at last. I still don’t know what I could have done if there had been people around to hear all you had to say. I suppose I could have burst into song along with you and pretended we were lunatics together. I looked down to see your gloved finger on the plaque.
What does it say?
Your finger did not move.
‘It’s a kind of parrot.’
An appreciative whistle.
‘The Sulphur-crested Cockatoo is a large white cockatoo found in the woods of Australia, New Guinea, and Indonesia. Their population can grow to be very numerous, leading to them become pests in some regions.’
Strange, unfamiliar names.
‘They’re other lands, other countries. Far, far away from here.’
Staring into the glass cage, you pressed a hand to the pane. The other, to your chest.
Maybe I’m from there.
I could not bear to say, no, even farther away.
Instead, I let you speak. The birds flocked close to the glass and listened. You took off your sunglasses. I did not stop you. You were too happy. Happier than at home with me. Soon, you were talking in stars and leaves without me. Without me, you did not seem so alone anymore. Gripped with anxiety, I stood close to you. Every time there were footsteps down the hall, I squeezed your shoulder and interrupted. Broken into fragments, your conversations became like Morse. I had never learned Morse. By the end of two hours, I was exhausted. Kneeling down, I brought my face close to yours.
‘We should go,’ I pleaded. ‘There’s going to be a lot more people in the afternoon. We’ll come back again later.’
You jerked back and glared up at me with those bulbous eyes. Anger leapt out of them, pricking my pupils. My eyes stung.
You shook your head and said things with your face that needed no words to be said. I pretended to be blind.
‘Extex 1, you will follow me out of this room immediately.’
You pointed at something behind the glass.
A pair of macaws. One big, one small. Much smaller. And yet, they were the same – same eyes, same beak, same blue-and yellow feathers. Your gaze rooted me to the floor.
Why aren’t we like them?
I tried to say something, anything, that would make you feel more like mine.
You slammed a hand against the glass. All the birds flapped away.
‘You moid me so alon.’
You’ve made me so alone.
Only, I never made you. And that was the problem, wasn’t it? I pressed my lips into a thin line.
‘I’m calling Dr. Grant.’
Only then did you turn and leave.
The ride back was silent. I tried to appease you at the dinner table, offering a finger for you to suck. You let me in and I felt saliva, warm and acidic. Your snailish tongue was rough but always bearable because you had learned how to drink without hurting me too—
I snatched my hand back with a cry. My finger was bleeding through five holes. You glared into them as if they were eyes, as if they were me, as if to say – I didn’t have to be yours.
No, you did not. But ever since you touched my face, you’ve made me yours. The day you fell from the sky, I felt the asteroid quake my stomach and if the pain I felt in my uterus was not for you, then for whom? The day you came home – because it must be our home, isn’t it? – I could not fall asleep until I reassured myself you were sleeping instead of dying in the corner of my room. Did you know? There was no day I loved you more than the day you sucked my breast.
Yet the sight of your face, as hard and hairless as a grapefruit, made me want to peel it back from your chin and up your nose and past your eyes, all the way up to your forehead to reveal what should have been something more human inside.
Watching the blood from my finger rush down the bathroom sink, I knew at last I would never find it.
You ate dinner alone that night. Then the next, and next, and next, shaving off layers of raw steak without me. Betrayed, I ate without you in the kitchen, in my room, in front of the TV, anywhere but where you were and ate away at myself for dessert, thinking of ways to tell the lab I couldn’t handle you anymore.
All the while, you were secretly preparing the greatest gift of all.
I remember coming home one day to find seeds raining down in my living room.
Ten million seeds the colour of bubblegum floated across the air as I breathed in and nearly choked. They parachuted lightly to the floor, to the wall, to the ceiling where they stuck and shone, eerily moist. For a moment I froze, did not even breathe as one by one they slowly grew before my eyes into pink globs that began to look like something from the incubator, where you – but no, please no—
With a cry, I swung my clipboard like a bat into every solid surface I could reach. Globs no bigger than my nails burst like pimples as I struck them flat, five, ten, a dozen at a time. Pink stains erupted all over the white wallpaper of what used to be our home. Fireworks, I thought wildly. Fireworks on the cement. Nauseous, I dug out a can of pesticide and sprayed the ones that were still floating in the air. Reeking clouds clotted above my head before sinking to the ground, all around my feet. My toes curled in on themselves, trying not to touch. Stopping my nose and mouth, I picked my way to the other side of the room and threw open all the windows.
I whirled around to face you. You, in all your naked glory. An orange strawberry. Tiny buds all over your body. Embedded into your limbs and torso, just beneath the crust where I could see them squirming to break out of your skin.
My mind went white at the thought of what I had done.
Your eyes narrowed into slits as they fixed upon my hands. The splintered clipboard in my left fist. The can of pesticide in my right.
The pesticide stretched out towards you, finger on the nozzle.
I dropped it. The half-empty can rolled away towards you, squishing dead buds as it went. You watched them twitch all over the nursery floor.
I braced myself. Surely, you would kill me, as I had killed you. You would suck me dry or leave me to die in spite, untouched. Had you leapt for my throat, I would have bared my neck without a fight.
You never touched me. You did not even come near me. You simply kneeled. Bending over, you pressed your cheek against the dirty floor, as if your dead had eyes to look back into yours. Nothing was said out loud. As always, you spoke without a syllable. And I understood.
‘Which is why I am no longer qualified to participate in this research.’
‘As admirable as I find your conscience and sense of responsibility, I assure you, we would have done the same thing at the lab, one way or another. We simply don’t have the resources to maintain that many specimens. The incident does lead me to believe, however,’ sighed Dr. Grant, ‘that our studies have been rather insensitive to the fact that Extex.1 is, ah, a living creature.’
And so I was given an excuse, and you were given a choice. We could habilitate you into the lab, into our world, even. There would be kind doctors and a private suite, and lessons where alphabetical speech would be stuffed like candy down your throat.
Or you could go back. To where, you did not ask. You knew by then that giraffes were not the real aliens. The task of molding yourself to the pull of our gravity was painful to your heavy eyelids, and so you murmured almost sleepily – impassively – deadly—
‘Twinkle twinkle little star,’ I muttered under my breath. You looked up at the familiar tune. I knew you knew the words. Your lips parted, trembled, then closed back into a hard line. Your gaze slapped across the side of my face. I looked away, laughing at myself for having thought even for a second that you might have meant – I want to go back home with her.
I did not have the strength to be disappointed.
The last memory I have of you is your footsteps, growing smaller behind my back.
Years later, a new ship was launched into outer space. The pictures were all over the news, on every cable and every paper. Four tall astronauts in suits. I knew there would be a fifth, waiting for them in the shuttle. I tuned into the live countdown before takeoff. I remember pulling a warm blanket over myself on the couch, covering my belly.
Ten, nine, eight—
For some reason, I was in pain.
Seven, six, five—
The ghost of an umbilical cord—
Four, three, two—
Straining harder and harder from my stomach—
Taut enough to, at last, snap—
Sometimes, on clear nights, I look up at the moon and pretend I can still catch you in the corner of my eye. My child, eating away at me from the stars.
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