In a village on the distant colony of Kiruna, the outcast Aino has worked hard to created a life for herself. The fragile status quo is upset when the offworlder Petr arrives and insists on becoming a part of her life. But he has no idea what it will cost him, and has cost Aino, to belong to the people who sing with inhuman voices.
This short story was acquired for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.
The cold dawn light creeps onto the mountaintops; they emerge like islands in the valley’s dark sea, tendrils of steam rising up from the thickets clinging to the rock. Right now there’s no sound of birdsong or crickets, no hiss of wind in the trees. When Maderakka’s great shadow has sunk back below the horizon, twitter and chirp will return in a shocking explosion of sound. For now, we sit in complete silence.
The birds have left. Petr lies with his head in my lap, his chest rising and falling so quickly it’s almost a flutter, his pulse rushing under the skin. The bits of eggshell I couldn’t get out of his mouth, those that have already made their way into him, spread whiteness into the surrounding flesh. If only I could hear that he’s breathing properly. His eyes are rolled back into his head, his arms and legs curled up against his body like a baby’s. If he’s conscious, he must be in pain. I hope he’s not conscious.
A strangely shaped man came in the door and stepped up to the counter. He made a full turn to look at the mess in my workshop: the fabrics, the cutting table, the bits of pattern. Then he looked directly at me. He was definitely not from here—no one had told him not to do that. I almost wanted to correct him: leave, you’re not supposed to make contact like that, you’re supposed to pretend you can’t see me and tell the air what you want. But I was curious about what he might do. I was too used to avoiding eye contact, so I concentrated carefully on the rest of him: the squat body with its weirdly broad shoulders, the swelling upper arms and legs. The cropped copper on his head. I’d never seen anything like it.
So this man stepped up to the counter and he spoke directly to me, and it was like being caught under the midday sun.
“You’re Aino? The tailor? Can you repair this?”
He spoke slowly and deliberately, his accent crowded with hard sounds. He dropped a heap of something on the counter. I collected myself and made my way over. He flinched as I slid off my chair at the cutting table, catching myself before my knees collapsed backward. I knew what he saw: a stick insect of a woman clambering unsteadily along the furniture, joints flexing at impossible angles. Still he didn’t look away. I could see his eyes at the outskirts of my vision, golden-yellow points following me as I heaved myself forward to the stool by the counter. The bundle, when I held it up, was an oddly cut jacket. It had no visible seams, the material almost like rough canvas but not quite. It was half-eaten by wear and grime.
“You should have had this mended long ago,” I said. “And washed. I can’t fix this.”
He leaned closer, hand cupped behind an ear. “Again, please?”
“I can’t repair it,” I said, slower.
He sighed, a long waft of warm air on my forearm. “Can you make a new one?”
“Maybe. But I’ll have to measure you.” I waved him toward me.
He stepped around the counter. After that first flinch, he didn’t react. His smell was dry, like burnt ochre and spices, not unpleasant, and while I measured him he kept talking in a stream of consonants and archaic words, easy enough to understand if I didn’t listen too closely. His name was Petr, the name as angular as his accent, and he came from Amitié—a station somewhere out there—but was born on Gliese. (I knew a little about Gliese, and told him so.) He was a biologist and hadn’t seen an open sky for eight years. He had landed on Kiruna and ridden with a truck and then walked for three days, and he was proud to have learned our language, although our dialect was very odd. He was here to research lichen.
“Lichen can survive anywhere,” he said, “even in a vacuum, at least as spores. I want to compare these to the ones on Gliese, to see if they have the same origin.”
“Just you? You’re alone?”
“Do you know how many colonies are out there?” He laughed, but then cleared his throat. “Sorry. But it’s really like that. There are more colonies than anyone can keep track of. And Kiruna is, well, it’s considered an abandoned world, after the mining companies left, so—”
His next word was silent. Saarakka was up, the bright moonlet sudden as always. He mouthed more words. I switched into song, but Petr just stared at me. He inclined his head slightly toward me, eyes narrowing, then shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. He reached into the back pocket of his trousers and drew out something like a small and very thin book. He did something with a quick movement—shook it out, somehow—and it unfolded into a large square that he put down on the counter. It had the outlines of letters at the bottom, and his fingers flew over them. WHAT HAPPENED WITH SOUND?
I recognized the layout of keys. I could type. SAARAKKA, I wrote. WHEN SAARAKKA IS UP, WE CAN’T HEAR SPEECH. WE SING INSTEAD.
WHY HAS NOBODY TOLD ME ABOUT THIS?, he replied.
He typed with annoyed, jerky movements. HOW LONG DOES IT LAST?
UNTIL IT SETS, I told him.
He had so many questions—he wanted to know how Saarakka silenced speech, if the other moon did something too. I told him about how Oksakka kills the sound of birds, and how giant Maderakka peeks over the horizon now and then, reminding us that the three of us are just her satellites. How they once named our own world after a mining town and we named the other moons for an ancient goddess and her handmaidens, although these names sound strange and harsh to us now. But every answer prompted new questions. I finally pushed the sheet away from me. He held his palms up in resignation, folded it up, and left.
What I had wanted to say, when he started talking about how Kiruna was just one world among many, was that I’m not stupid. I read books and sometimes I could pick up stuff on my old set, when the satellite was up and the moons didn’t interfere with it so much. I knew that Amitié was a big space station. I knew we lived in a poor backwater place. Still, you think your home is special, even if nobody ever visits.
The village has a single street. One can walk along the street for a little while, and then go down to the sluggish red river. I go there to wash myself and rinse out cloth.
I like dusk, when everyone’s gone home and I can air-dry on the big, flat stone by the shore, arms and legs finally long and relaxed and folding at what angles they will, my spine and muscles creaking like wood after a long day of keeping everything straight and upright. Sometimes the goats come to visit. They’re only interested in whether I have food or ear scratchings for them. To the goats, all people are equal, except for those who have treats. Sometimes the birds come here too, alighting on the rocks to preen their plumes, compound eyes iridescent in the twilight. I try not to notice them, but unless Oksakka is up to muffle the higher-pitched noise, the insistent buzzing twitches of their wings are impossible to ignore. More than two or three and they start warbling among themselves, eerily like human song, and I leave.
Petr met me on the path up from the river. I was carrying a bundle of wet fabric strapped to my back; it was slow going because I’d brought too much and the extra weight made me swing heavy on my crutches.
He held out a hand. “Let me carry that for you, Aino.”
“No, thank you.” I moved past him.
He kept pace with me. “I’m just trying to be polite.”
I sneaked a glance at him, but it did seem that was what he wanted. I unstrapped my bundle. He took it and casually slung it over his shoulder. We walked in silence up the slope, him at a leisurely walk, me concentrating on the uphill effort, crutch-foot-foot-crutch.
“Your ecosystem,” he said eventually, when the path flattened out. “It’s fascinating.”
“What about it?”
“I’ve never seen a system based on parasitism.”
“I don’t know much about that.”
“But you know how it works?”
“Of course,” I said. “Animals lay eggs in other animals. Even the plants.”
“So is there anything that uses the goats for hosts?”
“Hookflies. They hatch in the goats’ noses.”
Petr hummed. “Does it harm the goats?”
“No . . . not usually. Some of them get sick and die. Most of the time they just get . . . more perky. It’s good for them.”
“Fascinating,” Petr said. “I’ve never seen an alien species just slip into an ecosystem like that.” He paused. “These hookflies. Do they ever go for humans?”
I shook my head.
He was quiet for a while. We were almost at the village when he spoke again.
“So how long have your people been singing?”
“I don’t know. A long time.”
“But how do you learn? I mean I’ve tried, but I just can’t make the sounds. The pitch, it’s higher than anything I’ve heard a human voice do. It’s like birdsong.”
“It’s passed on.” I concentrated on tensing the muscles in my feet for the next step.
“How? Is it a mutation?”
“It’s passed on,” I repeated. “Here’s the workshop. I can handle it from here. Thank you.”
He handed me the bundle. I could tell he wanted to ask me more, but I turned away from him and dragged my load inside.
I don’t lie. But neither will I answer a question that hasn’t been asked. Petr would have called it lying by omission, I suppose. I’ve wondered if things would have happened differently if I’d just told him what he really wanted to know: not how we learn, but how it’s possible for us to learn. But no. I don’t think it would have changed much. He was too recklessly curious.
My mother told me I’d never take over the business, but she underestimated me and how much I’d learned before she passed. I have some strength in my hands and arms, and I’m good at precision work. It makes me a good tailor. In that way I can at least get a little respect, because I support myself and do it well. So the villagers employ me, even if they won’t look at me.
Others of my kind aren’t so lucky. A man down the street hasn’t left his room for years. His elderly parents take care of him. When they pass, the other villagers won’t show as much compassion. I know there are more of us here and there, in the village and the outlying farms. Those of us who do go outside don’t communicate with each other. We stay in the background, we who didn’t receive the gift unscathed.
I wonder if that will happen to Petr now. So far, there’s no change; he’s very still. His temples are freckled. I haven’t noticed that before.
Petr wouldn’t leave me alone. He kept coming in to talk. I didn’t know if he did this to everyone. I sometimes thought that maybe he didn’t study lichen at all; he just went from house to house and talked people’s ears off. He talked about his heavy homeworld, which he’d left to crawl almost weightless in the high spokes of Amitié. He told me I wouldn’t have to carry my own weight there, I’d move without crutches, and I was surprised by the want that flared up inside me, but I said nothing of it. He asked me if I hurt, and I said only if my joints folded back or sideways too quickly. He was very fascinated.
When Saarakka was up, he typed at me to sing to him. He parsed the cadences and inflections like a scientist, annoyed when they refused to slip into neat order.
I found myself talking too, telling him of sewing and books I’d read, of the other villagers and what they did. It’s remarkable what people will say and do when you’re part of the background. Petr listened to me, asked questions. Sometimes I met his eyes. They had little crinkles at the outer edges that deepened when he smiled. I discovered that I had many things to say. I couldn’t tell whether the biologist in him wanted to study my freakish appearance, or if he really enjoyed being around me.
He sat on my stool behind the counter, telling me about crawling around in the vents on Amitié to study the lichen unique to the station: “They must have hitchhiked in with a shuttle. The question was from where . . .”
I interrupted him. “How does one get there? To visit?”
“You want to go?”
“I’d like to see it.” And be weightless, I didn’t say.
“There’s a shuttle bypass in a few months to pick me up,” he said. “But it’d cost you.”
“Do you have money?” he asked.
“I’ve saved up some.”
He mentioned how much it would cost, and my heart sank so deep I couldn’t speak for a while. For once, Petr didn’t fill the silence.
I moved past him from the cutting table to the mannequin. I put my hand on a piece of fabric on the table and it slipped. I stumbled. He reached out and caught me, and I fell with my face against his throat. His skin was warm, almost hot; he smelled of sweat and dust and an undertone of musk that seeped into my body and made it heavy. It was suddenly hard to breathe.
I pushed myself out of his arms and leaned against the table, unsteadily, because my arms were shaking. No one had touched me like that before. He had slid from the stool, leaning against the counter across from me, his chest rising and falling as if he had been running. Those eyes were so sharp, I couldn’t look at them directly.
“I’m in love with you.” The words tumbled out of his mouth in a quick mumble.
He stiffened, as if surprised by what he had just said. I opened my mouth to say I didn’t know what, but words like that deserved something—
He held up a hand. “I didn’t mean to.”
“But . . .”
Petr shook his head. “Aino. It’s all right.”
When I finally figured out what to say, he had left. I wanted to say I hadn’t thought of the possibility, but that I did now. Someone wanted me. It was a very strange sensation, like a little hook tugging at the hollow under my ribs.
Petr changed after that. He kept coming into the workshop, but he started to make friends elsewhere too. I could see it from the shop window: his cheerful brusqueness bowled the others over. He crouched together with the weaver across the street, eagerly studying her work. He engaged in cheerful haggling with Maiju, who would never negotiate the price of her vegetables, but with him, she did. He even tried to sing, unsuccessfully. I recognized the looks the others gave him. And even though they were only humoring him, treating him as they would a harmless idiot, I found myself growing jealous. That was novel too.
He didn’t mention it again. Our conversation skirted away from any deeper subjects. The memory of his scent intruded on my thoughts at night. I tried to wash it away in the river.
“Aino, I’m thinking about staying.”
Petr hadn’t been in for a week. Now this.
“Why?” I fiddled with a seam on the work shirt I was hemming.
“I like it here. Everything’s simple—no high tech, no info flooding, no hurry. I can hear myself think.” He smiled faintly. “You know, I’ve had stomach problems most of my life. When I came here, they went away in a week. It’s been like coming home.”
“I don’t see why.” I kept my eyes down. “There’s nothing special here.”
“These are good people. Sure, they’re a bit traditional, a bit distant. But I like them. And it turns out they need me here. Jorma, he doesn’t mind that I can’t sing. He offered me a job at the clinic. Says they need someone with my experience.”
“Are you all right with this?” he asked when I didn’t reply immediately.
“It’s good,” I said eventually. “It’s good for you that they like you.”
“I don’t know about ‘like.’ Some of them treat me as if I’m handicapped. I don’t care much, though. I can live with that as long as some of you like me.” His gaze rested on me like a heavy hand.
“Good for you,” I repeated.
He leaned over the counter. “So . . . maybe you could teach me to sing? For real?”
“Why? I don’t understand why.”
“Because I can’t teach you. You are handicapped. Like me.”
“Aino.” His voice was low. “Did you ever consider that maybe they don’t hate you?”
I looked up. “They don’t hate me. They’re afraid of me. It’s different.”
“Are you really sure? Maybe if you talked to them . . .”
“. . . they would avoid me. It is what it is.”
“You can’t just sit in here and be bitter.”
“I’m not,” I said. “It just is what it is. I can choose to be miserable about it, or I can choose not to be.”
“Fine.” He sighed. “Does it matter to you if I stay or leave?”
“Yes,” I whispered to the shirt in my lap.
“Well, which is it? Do you want me to stay?”
He had asked directly, so I had to give him an answer, at least some sort of reply. “You could stay a while. Or I could go with you.”
“I told you. I’m not going back to Amitié.”
“All right,” I said.
I could have kept quiet when the procession went by. Maybe then things would have been different. I think he would have found out, anyway.
We were down by the river. We pretended the last conversation hadn’t happened. He had insisted on helping me with washing cloth. I wouldn’t let him, so he sat alongside me, making conversation while I dipped the lengths of cloth in the river and slapped them on the big flat stone. Maderakka’s huge approaching shadow hovered on the horizon. It would be Petr’s first time, and he was fascinated. The birds were beginning to amass in the air above the plateau, sharp trills echoing through the valley.
“How long will it last?”
“Just overnight,” I said. “It only rises a little bit before it sets again.”
“I wonder what it’s like on the other side,” he said. “Having that in the sky all the time.”
“Very quiet, I suppose.”
“Does anyone live there?”
I shrugged. “A few. Not as many as here.”
He grunted and said no more. I sank into the rhythm of my work, listening to the rush of water and wet cloth on stone, the clatter and bleat of goats on the shore.
Petr touched my arm, sending a shock up my shoulder. I pretended it was a twitch.
“Aino. What’s that?” He pointed up the slope.
The women and men walking by were dressed all in white, led by an old woman with a bundle in her arms. They were heading for the valley’s innermost point, where the river emerged from underground and a faint trail switchbacked up the wall.
I turned back to my laundry. “They’re going to the plateau.”
“I can see that. What are they going to do once they get there?”
The question was too direct to avoid. I had to answer somehow. “We don’t talk about that,” I said finally.
“Come on,” Petr said. “If I’m going to live here, I should be allowed to know.”
“I don’t know if that’s my decision to make,” I replied.
He settled on the stone again, but he was tense now, and kept casting glances at the procession on their way up the mountainside. He helped me carry the clothes back through the workshop and into the backyard, and then left without helping me hang them. I knew where he was going. You could say I let it happen—but I don’t think I could have stopped him either. It was a kind of relief. I hung the cloth, listening to the comforting whisper of wet fabric, until Maderakka rose and silence cupped its hands over my ears.
I don’t remember being carried to the plateau in my mother’s arms. I only know that she did. Looking down at Petr in my lap, I’m glad I don’t remember. Of course everyone knows what happens. We’re just better off forgetting what it was like.
Maderakka set in the early hours of the morning, and I woke to the noise of someone hammering on the door. It was Petr, of course, and his nose and lips were puffy. I let him in, and into the back of the workshop to my private room. He sank down on my bed and just sort of crumpled. I put the kettle on and waited.
“I tried to go up there,” he said into his hands. “I wanted to see what it was.”
“Jorma stopped me.”
I thought of the gangly doctor trying to hold Petr back, and snorted. “How?”
“He hit me.”
“But you’re”—I gestured toward him, all of him—“huge.”
“So? I don’t know how to fight. And he’s scary. I almost got to the top before he saw me and stopped me. I got this”—he pointed to his nose—“just for going up there. What the hell is going on up there, Aino? There were those bird things, hundreds of them, just circling overhead.”
“Did you see anything else?”
“You won’t give up until you find out, will you?”
He shook his head.
“It’s how we do things,” I said. “It’s how we sing.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You said it’s a—what was it?—parasitic ecosystem. Yes?”
“And I said that the hookflies use the goats, and that it’s good for the goats. The hookflies get to lay their eggs, and the goats get something in return.”
He nodded again. I waited for him to connect the facts. His face remained blank.
“The birds,” I said. “When a baby’s born, it’s taken up there the next time Maderakka rises.”
Petr’s shoulders slumped. He looked sick. It gave me some sort of grim satisfaction to go on talking, to get back at him for his idiocy.
I went on: “The birds lay their eggs. Not for long, just for a moment. And they leave something behind. It changes the children’s development . . . in the throat. It means they can learn to sing.” I gestured at myself. “Sometimes the child dies. Sometimes this happens. That’s why the others avoid me. I didn’t pass the test.”
“You make yourself hosts,” Petr said, faintly. “You do it to your children.”
“They don’t remember. I don’t remember.”
He stood up, swaying a little on his feet, and left.
“You wanted to know!” I called after him.
A latecomer has alighted on the rock next to me. It’s preening its iridescent wings in the morning light, pulling its plumes between its mandibles one by one. I look away as it hops up on Petr’s chest. It’s so wrong to see it happen, too intimate. But I’m afraid to move, I’m afraid to flee. I don’t know what will happen if I do.
The weather was so lovely I couldn’t stay indoors. I sat under the awning outside my workshop, wrapped up in shawls so as not to offend too much, basting the seams on a skirt. The weaver across the street had set up one of her smaller looms on her porch, working with her back to me. Saarakka was up, and the street filled with song.
I saw Petr coming from a long way away. His square form made the villagers look so unbearably gangly and frail, as if they would break if he touched them. How did they even manage to stay upright? How did his weight not break the cobblestones? The others shied away from him, like reeds from a boat. I saw why when he came closer. I greeted him with song without thinking. It made his tortured grimace deepen.
He fell to his knees in front of me and wrapped his arms around me, squeezed me so tight I could feel my shoulders creaking. He was shaking. The soundless weeping hit my neck in silent, wet waves. All around us, the others were very busy not noticing what was going on.
I brought him to the backyard. He calmed down and we sat leaning against the wall, watching Saarakka outrun the sun and sink. When the last sliver had disappeared under the horizon, he hummed to test the atmosphere, and then spoke.
“I couldn’t stand being in the village for Saarakka. Everyone else talking and I can’t . . . I’ve started to understand the song language now, you know? It makes it worse. So I left, I went up to that plateau. There was nothing there. I suppose you knew that already. Just the trees and the little clearing.” He fingered the back of his head and winced. “I don’t know how, but I fell on the way down, I fell off the path and down the wall. It was close to the bottom, I didn’t hurt myself much. Just banged my head a little.”
“That was what made you upset?”
I could feel him looking at me. “If I’d really hurt myself, if I’d hurt myself badly, I wouldn’t have been able to call for help. I could have just lain there until Saarakka set. Nobody would have heard me. You wouldn’t have heard me.”
We sat for a while without speaking. The sound of crickets and birds disappeared abruptly. Oksakka had risen behind us.
“I’ve always heard that if you’ve been near death, you’re supposed to feel alive and grateful for every moment.” Petr snorted. “All I can think of is how easy it is to die. That it can happen at any time.”
I turned my head to look at him. His eyes glittered yellow in the setting sun.
“You don’t believe I spend time with you because of you.”
Petr shook his head. “You know, on Amitié, they’d think you look strange, but you wouldn’t be treated differently. And the gravity’s low when closer to the hub. You wouldn’t need crutches.”
“So take me there.”
“I’m not going back. I’ve told you.”
“You’d be crushed.” He held up a massive arm. “Why do you think I look like I do?”
I swallowed my frustration.
“There are wading birds on Earth,” he said, “long-legged things. They move like dancers. You remind me of them.”
“You don’t remind me of anything here,” I replied.
He looked surprised when I leaned in and kissed him.
Later, I had to close his hands around me, so afraid was he to hurt me.
I lay next to him thinking about having normal conversations, other people meeting my eyes, talking to me like a person.
I’m thrifty. I had saved up a decent sum over the years; there was nothing I could spend money on, after all. If I sold everything I owned, if I sold the business, it would be enough to go to Amitié, at least to visit. If someone wanted to buy my things.
But Petr had in some almost unnoticeable way moved into my home. Suddenly he lived there, and had done so for a while. He cooked, he cleaned the corners I didn’t bother with because I couldn’t reach. He brought in shoots and plants from outside and planted them in little pots. When he showed up with lichen-covered rocks I put my foot down, so he arranged them in patterns in the backyard. Giant Maderakka rose twice; two processions in white passed by on their way to the plateau. He watched them with a mix of longing and disgust.
His attention spoiled me. I forgot that only he talked to me. I spoke directly to a customer and looked her in the eyes. She left the workshop in a hurry and didn’t come back.
“I want to leave,” I finally said. “I’m selling everything. Let’s go to Amitié.”
We were in bed, listening to the lack of birds. Oksakka’s quick little eye shone in the midnight sky.
“Again? I told you I don’t want to go back,” Petr replied.
“Just for a little while?”
“I feel at home here now,” he said. “The valley, the sky . . . I love it. I love being light.”
“I’ve lost my customers.”
“I’ve thought about raising goats.”
“These people will never accept you completely,” I said. “You can’t sing. You’re like me, you’re a cripple to them.”
“You’re not a cripple, Aino.”
“I am to them. On Amitié, I wouldn’t be.”
He sighed and rolled over on his side. The discussion was apparently over.
I woke up tonight because the bed was empty and the air completely still. Silence whined in my ears. Outside, Maderakka rose like a mountain at the valley’s mouth.
I don’t know if he’d planned it all along. It doesn’t matter. There were no new babies this cycle, no procession. Maybe he just saw his chance and decided to go for it.
It took such a long time to get up the path to the plateau. The upslope fought me, and my crutches slid and skittered over gravel and loose rocks; I almost fell over several times. I couldn’t call for him, couldn’t sing, and the birds circled overhead in a downward spiral.
Just before the clearing came into view, the path curled around an outcrop and flattened out among trees. All I could see while struggling through the trees was a faint flickering. It wasn’t until I came into the clearing that I could really see what was going on: that which had been done to me, that I was too young to remember, that which none of us remember and choose not to witness. They leave the children and wait among the trees with their backs turned. They don’t speak of what has happened during the wait. No one has ever said that watching is forbidden, but I felt like I was committing a crime, revealing what was hidden.
Petr stood in the middle of the clearing, a silhouette against the gray sky, surrounded by birds. No, he wasn’t standing. He hung suspended by their wings, his toes barely touching the ground, his head tipped back. They were swarming in his face, tangling in his hair.
I can’t avert my eyes anymore. I am about to see the process up close. The bird that sits on Petr’s chest seems to take no notice of me. It pushes its ovipositor in between his lips and shudders. Then it leaves in a flutter of wings, so fast that I almost don’t register it. Petr’s chest heaves, and he rolls out of my lap, landing on his back. He’s awake now, staring into the sky. I don’t know if it’s terror or ecstasy in his eyes as the tiny spawn fights its way out of his mouth.
In a week, the shuttle makes its bypass. Maybe they’ll let me take Petr’s place. If I went now, just left him on the ground and packed light, I could make it in time. I don’t need a sky overhead. And considering the quality of their clothes, Amitié needs a tailor.
“Sing” copyright © 2013 Karin Tidbeck
Art copyright © 2013 Greg Ruth