After aliens arrive on earth, humans do the unthinkable out of fear. When an alien walks into a human kite maker’s store, coveting her kites, the human struggles with her guilt over her part in the alien massacres, while neo-Nazis draw a violent line between alien and human.
We’re thrilled to encore Brenda Peynado’s “The Kite Maker”, originally published on Tor.com in August 2018 and available now in Peynado’s new short fiction collection, The Rock Eaters.
The Kite Maker
You’ve never seen a kite fly until you’ve seen an alien fly one. Dragonfly wings on their backs trembling with anticipation, these deep sighs from their purple mouths as they’re unrolling the spool. They run with their slow, spindly legs to let the kite pick up speed. When the diamond of cloth is let loose from their skeletal hands, you can see their armored shoulders strain to rise up with it. As the diamond dips and rises on the string, you can hear these great yips, then these wavering trills and the desperateness of their song, how they want to be up there. There were thousands of them at the park the other day, and I swear to god I cried hearing those songs ripped from thousands of alien throats.
A few of them try to hide this surge of emotion when I put the kite in their hands. Tove was like this. First time he came into my shop, he tried to keep his eyes closed, his black eyelids flickering with the effort. He walked in pretty stiff for his kind, pushing his skinny feeler legs barely out in front of him, like he was sneaking in on tiptoe. But the little hairs on those legs bristled, and finally, he flicked open his black lids.
Can I help you? I asked. I never knew what to say around them. It seemed like everything I said was wrong, loaded with some hidden meaning I didn’t intend. I still remembered the moment they first arrived, their spaceships burning through the atmosphere like comets, like falling angels, and how we’d surrounded the ships in horror, aiming for their thin legs with anything we could find, because the rest of their bodies were armored but the legs snapped like pencils. I had done these things myself, when the boys were small, out of fear, but there was no taking it back now. The ease of killing was just so natural to us from when bugs had encroached on the territories of our houses. Now the aliens kept my shop afloat, seeing as they were the only ones who wanted the antique toys I dealt in. These days all the humans wanted were tech-gadgets, anything with the hint of looking alien, a taste of the exotic. Kids weren’t even flying remote helicopters anymore, not even drones. Now you could roll into a suburb and the kids in the front yards would be flying around mini Dragonfly Arks, playing at intergalactic war, the losers crashing down into the home base dirt patch they called Earth. Kites, spinning tops, these were ancient toys for kids these days, more alien even than the Dragonfly tech we’d dragged out from the ships before the aliens could start fighting back. Teenagers were covered in Dragonfly tattoos and alien symbols.
Tove inhaled sharply, his Dragonfly body puffing up for a moment. He looked around my dusty shelves of wooden and metal toys. Miniature trains, yo-yos, weathervanes, carved boxes, maracas, tin soldiers. The pegged wall of kites, bright and colorful like those old collector’s rooms of dead butterflies stretched open to display their wings—this was the only wall he didn’t look at, as if he was infinitely aware of where it was.
I am Tove Who Battles Photons, he said in the strange way they always announced themselves, his voice flickering in and out of human range.
Anything you need? I said.
He said, A wooden top. Maybe a kite? Or a game of the dominos?
I used to be able to scalp them for all the technology they could spare just for the kites. Since, they’d learned to feign nonchalance, but a good antique dealer knows the market. I led him straight to the kite wall, the sailcloth breathing with the breeze he’d let in.
Tove scanned the price tags and shook his head. Maybe not, he said in that gravely voice.
I knew what they did for money. Because their wings and legs were built for gravity and atmosphere thinner than ours, they didn’t move fast, couldn’t fly, were unsuitable for heavy lifting. Jobs like construction and fieldwork were reserved for humans. But their hands, their fingers were so nimble, so thin and skeletal they swished through our atmosphere like singing blades. Needlework, precision jobs, diamond cutting. They would do all of this for less money than our most meaningless jobs. They slept in giant warehouses that companies had built for this purpose. But everything they made felt strange, built for another world. Cloth rasped in a way that felt hollow to our ears, jewelry they’d cut reminded us of scales instead of gold. Alien-made. All the brawny, tough-man jobs were sources of human pride, if you could have them. In this way, I was more like the Dragonflies than the humans, my craft something that had become disgusting to most people, a sign of weakness.
I heard people passing on the sidewalk outside. I held my breath. Sometimes I got a hard time from angry groups who still weren’t pleased that the aliens had landed, no matter how many of us were won over, no matter that there was no decent way to get rid of them. A group of anti-miscegenation skinheads had been roving the strip, and it wouldn’t be the first time they came in my store. I’d had bricks thrown through my window a few months before.
But the footsteps passed.
Next time, I said to Tove, exhaling.
It wasn’t about the money. It was about pride in something I’d done, about art. I’d made each kite with my own hands, thread and needle, stick and lathe. I dyed the cloth myself into tapestries that could be seen from the ground. It wasn’t that they couldn’t make their own kites or that there weren’t a few other holdout kite makers. The Dragonflies sometimes made them out of paper bags and twigs. Sometimes they even made them out of scraps of nylon they’d quilted together, stolen from the factories where they worked. But the alien craft makers reflected their own predicament in everything they made. These clunky, makeshift things flew poorly; they only reminded people of how stuck we were on the ground by their gracelessness. Mine were art, the aliens told me, they were more than the sum of their parts. Mine had the lift, the weightlessness that made you feel like you could rise up there with them, the kind that dragged your heart up by their string. They told me it made them feel like they were back home, like they had never been stuck here, like thousands of their own kind were still family-swarming around their sun. Dragonflies dropped into my store often, like moths to light. Profits went up. Now, I could make the kites as big as I wanted. I had one as big as a hang glider in the backroom. Eight hands would have to hold it at once to keep it on the ground.
I went to return the kite from his hands to a wooden peg on the pegboard wall. I brushed his feeler hands as I did, the millions of hairs on his black fingers tickling me. I felt my face go hot. I knew I’d done something wrong instantly.
Tove withdrew his thin arm as if he’d been burned and said nothing. He left the store in the same tiptoeing way he came.
I went home to my human-made house in the suburbs. In the dusk, I always half-expected another ark to fall, the parabolas of broken ships littering the sky. But it had been fifteen years since they arrived, more since they first headed for earth, their home world eaten by a red giant sun, only enough fuel and years to reach the closest habitable planet, break their ships open like eggs in the atmosphere, and never return. Now, when I rolled into my driveway, the kids roamed the neighborhood playing humans and aliens, hitting each other with electronic wands that dissipated on contact so that no damage could be done. We didn’t have any aliens on our side of town; the children considered weak played the aliens, eyes big, offering no resistance. If they fought back, they were scolded, That’s not how it happened.
I closed my car door. Mini-ark toys floated above my head, dipping around me as they fought and crash-landed in a sandpit. My boys seemed to have outgrown those games. They sat around the kitchen table watching holograms instead of homework.
Help me with my bags, I said, and it took them several seconds before they shifted to indicate they’d heard me.
My oldest, Aleo, brought in my bag of nearly finished kites I would work on later that night and tossed them in the corner of the kitchen without looking. He had a disdain for the things. Nobody at his high school wanted to look like poor alien kids, who were always flying kites and never wore clothes, only tiny threadbare baby shoes that protected the ends of their delicate legs from the pavement. Of course, no human would ever be confused with being an alien, of looking like a Dragonfly, but you might be confused with looking poor, and sometimes that was almost as bad. We weren’t poor exactly, but no matter how much money I made off of the kites, we weren’t rolling in it.
Benon hugged the paper sack of groceries. He was wide-eyed, and I knew he was bullied when Aleo wasn’t around.
How’s the schoolwork coming? I asked as I threw broccoli into a pot.
What’s cooking? Aleo asked without looking up from the hologram he’d started watching again.
Benon held his nose. I didn’t make any excuses for my cooking.
When we sat down to eat, Benon said, About homework…
Shoot, I said.
I have a history report. It can be about anything.
I froze. I knew what he would say before it was out of his mouth. Of course he would, always playing the alien in the neighborhood games.
I want to write about the Fallings, he said.
I pressed my lips together hard. Aleo shoved more food in his mouth than I thought it was possible to swallow. Something black flashed from under Aleo’s sleeve as he reached for more food. I grabbed his hand and pulled up his sleeve. What is that?
Nothing, he said, yanking his sleeve back down again. But I’d seen it. Alien script: the swoops and careful circles, the spheres with the arrows shooting out.
Is it permanent? I said. Do you even know what that means?
Aleo mumbled something.
Benon said, Mom, you were there at the Fallings. You saw it.
So did your brother. Aleo, what does it mean?
I don’t remember ship, Aleo said. I was only a few years old.
What does the tattoo mean? I insisted.
Aleo slammed his fork down. It means Aleo Laughter in the Air.
I snorted. Laughter in the Air? Really? Can you even read it?
He didn’t answer.
Mom, Benon whined, I want to know what it was like.
I didn’t say, How could you own up to all the things you’ve ever done that shamed you? How could you look backwards while stepping over the dead bodies in the way?
It changed everything, I said.
I got up from the table. I was no longer hungry. I shut myself up in the backroom for the rest of the night, turning a group of sticks smooth in the lathe. One thick, long branch was earmarked for the large kite. When I picked it up, it felt just like the weight of a baseball bat, the only weapon I’d had when I’d headed to the first Arkfall. I swung it in the air, the heft just right for making contact.
In late summer, the skinheads started setting fire to some of the shops that catered to Dragonflies. It was illegal, and also ridiculous. The world would change without them whether they wanted to or not. But a bakery down the street that had hired a Dragonfly to decorate the cakes had burned to the ground.
The skinheads were already on the wrong side of history, but it only made them cling harder to old hatreds. Some groups were angry because the Dragonflies were taking up resources, others because they’d taken their jobs. Others were staunch on no human-Dragonfly love. Our species were so different we couldn’t procreate together and the religious zealots claimed that without the sanctification of children, the union was unnatural, disgusting. Bestiality, which was a sin. Religious pundits who were horrified at what they’d done tried to justify our cruelty by saying the Dragonflies had no souls. Some of them believed that the aliens were playing a long con, coining the term: There’s more than one way to colonize an earth.
It was months before Tove walked into my shop again. I wouldn’t even have recognized him—I had a hard time differentiating them—except he had that strange way of walking like he was feeling his way around a cage. The bell tinkled, and he tiptoed in again. From Benon’s history report, from which he walked around the house spewing facts, I knew that their religions focused on the legs as the expressions of the body. The rest of their bodies were so rigid, but the legs could curl like delicate antennae. If they could express their souls, it would be through the way they walked.
We’re closing soon, I said. I hoped he did not remember my touch.
Tove’s top antennae drooped.
But if there’s something I can do? I said.
He tiptoed through the aisles of shelves, ended up at the kite wall like I knew he would. I hopped off my stool. He set his fingers to glide across the sailcloth of the cheapest kite, a red one that pictured the deserts of Mars. I could tell it wasn’t his favorite. His eyes, remarkably human, roved all over the wall.
There was one on the bottom shelf that was my own favorite, painted mostly blue like it would melt into the sky. A big no-no in the kite trade; amateurs stuck to reds and oranges, colors that would be easily seen in the clouds. But I was an artist and hated rules. I wanted the kite to blend in. I wanted the kite to look like a ripple across a mirror, like a great tide welling up under the surface. It wasn’t the cheapest, but I was determined to see it in the sky. I always made my customers take their kites across the street to the park. I told them it was to verify that they were satisfied, that the kite worked. But mostly I was watching them, trying to understand the alien emotion that racked their bodies as they let it loose.
How about this one, I said picking it up.
He purred from his throat, smashed his eyes shut against the blue.
It is not for me, he said. I would have to ask.
Who is it for? I asked.
My sons, he said.
Benon had informed me that the Dragonfly women gave all of the material gifts to the offspring, so I knew something must have happened to Tove’s mate. If the thing happened fifteen years ago, I did not want to know. My own mate had left me around that time, for another woman across the country. It made you realize you didn’t even know yourself, he’d said, that we didn’t even know who we’d become. He wanted to start over with someone else, with this new understanding. He said, as he closed the door softly for the last time on me and the kids, How can you love like that, not knowing what’s inside of you?
I hadn’t argued.
I’m sure they would love it, I told Tove. These sell quickly, so I can’t promise to hold it.
It is about choice, he said tersely in his accent. His voice sounded like a bad radio, wavering in and out. Their own language was spoken on a frequency that sounded to us like silence and hums.
Benon had told me that back on Sadiyada, none of them gave orders. If a shuttle-full of Dragonflies were about to drive over the cliff, the passengers would say, A cliff! rather than Stop! or Turn Around! They believed in pointing out what was there rather than compelling action. When they had realized their sun was about to engulf their planet, they merely built the ships, let anyone who wanted board the one-way ticket, the ships that would fall apart on atmospheric impact, and the others just stayed behind, burned up with the sun. Sons, mothers, lovers, all of them separated, and no matter the love between them, not a one would beg, Come with me. They just waved goodbye.
And then they got here, and they were assaulted with demands. Come out, come out unarmed, give us everything you have, defend yourself, fight back so we can excuse what we’ve done, proceed this way to the camps, work, work, buy. Buy. I pressured them all. I can’t imagine the shame, on top of everything else I had caused.
I nodded to Tove, who put my favorite kite down to look at another. Choose whichever you’d like, I said, a demand disguised as a choice.
Two teenage voices began yelling outside the store.
I pushed Tove quickly into the back workroom. He screeched softly, his hairs smashed down underneath my palms. Stay here, I said, and don’t come out until I tell you. Tove said nothing.
Trust me, I pleaded. I had to leave him there, stuck among my half-finished projects and the cardboard boxes.
I got to the front counter before the bell tinkled, before bald heads rushed into the room, the baldness a physical refusal to be like the Dragonflies with their million bristling, feeling hairs. They blew in with chants of Bugs are Bugs!
Any bugs in here? the leader asked.
No, I said quickly. I stared them down. I recognized one of them, an older girl that Aleo had brought over once after school. Then, I thought she’d been nice, shy, had always called me ma’am. The baldness was new, her scalp paler where hair used to be, and it made her look alien herself. I could tell she recognized me too, the way she wouldn’t meet my eyes, and she hunched her shoulders and tried to melt behind one of the others, a burly man with a sweatband around his forehead.
Lady, I could have sworn, the ringleader said.
See for yourself, I said. I knew it was best to let their anger wash over the store with the least provocation. I had called the cops before, and I knew from experience that they waited until any damage was already done before appearing.
They looked around the store without moving. Their eyes settled on the kites. They knew who my customers were. They started to poke through the racks, the dusty aisles, the afternoon light arriving in golden, violent streaks to illuminate what even the best of us were capable of.
The girl I recognized pushed a display case weakly, so that it tottered but didn’t fall. One of them brushed a row of yo-yos onto the floor. Another was heading in the direction of the workroom door. The burly man with the sweatband picked up the kite Tove had been looking at, which he had dropped on the floor. I kept eye contact with the girl I recognized, who finally looked up and caught my eye.
Nothing here, she said.
The burly one with the kite handed it to the girl like it was evidence to the contrary. The girl looked at me, snapped the wood of the kite. She ripped the cloth in a struggle of arms.
Shoddy work, she said, tossing the flail of broken kite, the spine akimbo. She led them out of the store. I could hear them whooping on their way down the street to the next establishment.
I picked up the broken kite and put it behind the counter. I spent a moment picking up the scatters of wooden yo-yos, just in case they changed their minds and came back.
When I finally opened the door, Tove was under the giant hang-glider-sized kite that took up most of the ten-foot room. His shape under there flinched when he heard the door open.
I’m sorry, I said. You can come out now.
He moved the giant kite off and nodded.
I held my hand out to help him, but he stood up slowly by himself, his legs curling heavily under his weight, the air pushed from the flutter of his wings tickling my hands. A breeze when there was none.
This one, he said, pointing at the giant kite. This is the one I want.
I had painted it with a mosaic that looked like stained glass, so when it flew, it was like we were inside some great cathedral where we were supposed to pray. Like we were stuck here, underneath its great glass, but our spirit was supposed to rise somehow anyway.
How much? he asked.
I understood Tove, wanting the biggest, best thing you couldn’t have. I wanted his unexhausted hope, that’s what I wanted. I wanted forgiveness without having to name my sins, I wanted tenderness to feel real to me again. Some part of me wanted to fly in the face of everything those skinheads represented, but another part of me wanted the world before the Dragonflies fell in, the world we couldn’t have. Were we tender before? Could we be tender again? Or did the Fallings only awaken the violence we’d always had? Benon had informed me that the Dragonflies were so fragile, all those hairs on their legs and arms and feelers, all those thin appendages, that they were so careful with each other when they loved, that they barely even touched. Love making was mostly an act of foreplay, their wings manipulating the air around the loved like a cyclone sending all of their hairs and feelers singing with touch. It was like being loved by the air itself. Even this was left wanting from Earth’s atmosphere, their movements clumsier now, the work so much harder on them. But human lungs! We had always been clumsy, but we had more lung force than their wings had now. Instead of answering Tove, giving him the price of a simple kite, I pursed my lips and whistled air in his direction.
Oh, he said, eyes closing. Oh hemena. His throat buzzed.
I whistled again, pushing air across his face in the circular pattern Benon had described.
Oh, I feel unarmored, he said. Oh hemenalala, I am defenseless.
It was like I was pummeling the words out of him, he said them that painfully. I knew he wanted to say Stop. He wanted to say Desist. Were those nicknames he had given his fallen mate? Was he trying to call her ghost back across the years? But it was my name I wanted on his purple lips.
I blew all the way around him to the back, where his four wings trembled, my breath blowing their wing-dust off until they shone translucent. Had he still been able to fly, stripping his wings of their powder would have been even more cruel. Benon had said that their wings were electric colors in the home atmosphere, but in this one they had turned a dusty brown. Now they were drab ghosts of what they used to be. Benon had never told me what came after, what consummation was for them. Had I known, I would have done it. I know I would have done it.
Oh hemenalala, he said as I made my way back to his front, where his thorax armor glistened and tensed.
Finally I stopped, held my breath.
When Tove was finally able to compose himself, I couldn’t look at him. I said, the kite isn’t finished. Come back in a month.
He didn’t answer me and he didn’t turn around. His eyes stayed closed the whole way out of the store.
A few weeks later, I went home to a Dragonfly in the backyard, the neighborhood kids around him with their electronic sticks. Even the older kids were out, excited by the new development. What’s going on? I said.
Ask Benon. Aleo shrugged.
He’s for my project, Benon said. I asked him to come home with us.
Are you fine with this? I asked the Dragonfly kid.
I’m cool, the Dragonfly said.
The Dragonfly looked at me and popped gum from his tiny, pursed mouth. I waited for him to announce himself the way his kind did. It was hard to tell their ages, but this one must have been born here, was already starting to lose the customs of his parents.
Finally, I asked him, Who are you? more combatively than I would have liked.
I am Yeshela Whisperer of Mist, the child said begrudgingly.
Wonderful, I said, and went back inside.
I was not against the kids mixing, unlike other parents I knew who were prying their blinds open to watch across the block. It’s just that I didn’t think the kids were ready. Not after I’d seen what we’d done as adults. But I was willing to bet against myself. I left them to it and pulled aside the curtain.
They were reenacting the Fallings again, which the Dragonflies called the Arkfall Massacres but we did not. Benon sat atop our old swing set and was directing. It seemed like this time they were trying to get everything exactly right. They even had a giant hologram of one of the Arks cracked like an egg projected behind them in the sandbox. Benon was reading the history out loud.
Thousands died. We didn’t know what they wanted. When they crawled out of their broken ships and picked themselves up out of the crashes, we were sure they were invading, they wanted our children, they wanted more than we could give. We defended our earth. We aimed for their thin legs, their eyes, their delicate fingers. In our city, a ship crashed into the main fiber optic tower. It wiped out most communications, and city officials were too panicked to fix it. Other cities made other mistakes. We couldn’t call each other directly, and so everything we knew about the crash that boomed into the city at dusk, the other arkfalls across the world, was through a rumor mill. Was the National Guard coming? Were they too busy with other arkfalls? Were there too many of the ships to defend against? How many of us could they kill before we reacted? By sundown the next day, we were at the crash site with any weapon we could find.
The neighborhood kids were making the Dragonfly kid crawl out of the hologram. Then they had a line of them stand off with their e-sticks. Benon knew I was watching. He couldn’t help but flick his eyes in my direction. That kid always had the uncanny ability to know when I was looking, unlike Aleo.
Benon directed the neighborhood kids to approach and demand what the Dragonflies wanted. Tell us what you want. Hand over your weapons. Speak in our language. Give us everything. Benon kept pausing the action to ask the boy what he felt, what he would have done if he’d been there.
The moment came I was dreading. The boy, as directed, stood up slowly, testing the thick, heavy atmosphere. He put up his thin arms to shield his eyes from the alien sun. Benon said, Look, he’s going to shoot us. The humans approached, sticks raised. The boy’s wings fluttered, an unconscious reaction, trying to fly away, even in a game, finding this atmosphere a noose to the ground—just like his parents did, then. Had he been like us, he would have yelled for the humans to stop. The e-sticks flew at him, whaled on him, and went for his legs. The e-sticks worked as they were supposed to, dissipating into gas upon contact. The blows weren’t hurting him. Aleo had once flung one at me in a childish rage, and the dissipation had only felt like the strangest whisper. The boy closed his eyes at the feeling of the sticks passing over him, his sensitive body hairs moving through the ghosts of a long-dead massacre. Benon looked at me, it seemed, for approval, his eyes asking, Is this right? Is this how you did it?
I closed the curtains. A spray of police lights flashed past the window. Someone must have called the cops when they heard a Dragonfly boy was in the neighborhood.
I opened the curtains again. Yeshela was cowering on the ground, trying not to move, lest he hit the handles and fists holding the e-sticks, which would not dissipate. The humans were still going, their joy at having their game more lifelike than it had ever been before like a drug. How could they know what they were pretending to be? For them, it was just a story. They never got to the point of horror, the point where we were sorry, when the tide turned, after we wanted them to surrender in the human way, arms up, after we wanted them to fight back to absolve us, after we realized they could not be pushed to fight back, when we began to carry them into the hospitals and the morgue, the doctors trying as best as they could to understand our differences, how to get under their armor, how to splint antennae together, where the vital organs were.
I burst through the screen door. Stop, I yelled.
Mom, it’s a game, Aleo said.
A game, I scoffed. Do you know where I saw your friend, that nice girl you brought over once?
Aleo shrugged. I hadn’t told him.
The cop car parked across the street.
I’m taking you home, I said to the Dragonfly boy.
I loaded Aleo and Benon and the Dragonfly into the car. The boy directed me to a side of town I’d avoided since the city had changed. The three were silent the whole way. The streets changed from suburbs and people walking their dogs after work to cheap construction warehouses in a maze of driveways, deserted. In our city, they had been installed in old complexes of customer fulfillment warehouses. In other cities, they had been pushed into condemned and rotten buildings at the center. In others they were given cloth FEMA tents. In others they were given nothing and wandered from public park to public park.
The warehouse the boy pointed me to was almost as big as one of their own ships. A cluster of them gathered around the industrial complex. At the gates of the warehouse, I parked, pushed my boys out. You’re going to apologize to his mother, I said. Benon hung his head.
History makes no apologies, Aleo said, repeating something he’d heard in a bad hologram, winking at Benon.
The Dragonfly boy did not say, Please don’t come, please do not meet my mother, please do not tell them what you did. Instead, he said, The warehouse is not a place you’ll like. My mother will not like this. We are far in the back.
Which did not deter me in the least.
A smaller door had been cut into the giant loading dock door. Inside, the old product shelving stacks had been repurposed into bunks, layer upon layer of bed spaces where as many as four or five of them slept at a time. Whole families of Dragonflies curled into each other’s bodies. We stepped over standing water on the concrete floors, the smell of mold, flies swarming in clouds. There were dragonfly feeders hung up on the long scaffolding—I mean actual dragonflies, the tiny earth kind, which the aliens hatched from eggs and studied. There was no electricity, no running water I could see. Just rows and rows of bunks, each bunk bed like a tiny home, some decorated with my own kites and wind catchers, wind chimes, feathers, mechanical fans.
When we reached the bunk the boy said was his, his mother climbed down, buzzing. She didn’t announce her name because it was her turf, not mine, but I didn’t give her my name either. I pushed my boys in front of me.
I’m sorry, they chimed in unison.
For what? asked the mother.
They— I said. We—
He wasn’t hurt, I finally said.
I don’t understand, she said. She chattered to her son in their own language, the hums and silences, and he sullenly responded, his legs curling and making him sink in stature.
I wanted to run back the way we came, past rows and rows of these broken families, but I made the three of us stand there in penance.
The mother turned her head back to us. She said, I think forgiveness means different things in our language. We do not ask for it.
We were silent, rebuked, our heads hung.
I’m sorry we make you sleep here, Aleo said. It’s so horrible.
For a moment I was proud. I would have pointed out every failure in the warehouses so the boys would learn how much we had.
Then the mother said, It’s our home. She turned away from me, bundled her child’s legs up and lifted him, laboring slowly up the ladder in the heavy atmosphere.
That night, I put my sons to bed for the first time in years, checking on them in the bedroom they shared before they turned out the lights.
Benon was still chattering about his history report, how he could use what he’d learned.
Please, I said, don’t do that again.
Aleo rolled his eyes, turned over. Benon gave a large sigh. I was afraid for them, my kids, for what they would discover about themselves, for what they wanted to be but would soon discover they couldn’t. I tried to hold them both, one arm in each bed. Aleo shrugged me away, Benon stayed rigid.
Mom, we don’t need you, Aleo said.
Weeks passed. Tove did not come back. I wasn’t expecting him to. Where would he get the money? And after what I’d done. Benon got an A on his history report, the note from the teacher saying, May there be no judgment in truth. The skinheads came again into my store after another one of my customers, who was able to slip slowly out the backdoor. Benon was still spouting Dragonfly facts routinely, like, Their language doesn’t even have a grammar for commands, and Didja know they had prophecies about ending up here eventually? But this is only the third epoch in their religious texts, there’s still a fourth and a fifth about going to other places and saving us along with them. Apparently, they too had stories about arks, wandering through deserts, how many of them would fall when they got to their new home. Aleo got another tattoo, this one a poor translation of a command which they had no word for, Remember.
One afternoon, just before closing, I heard people yelling outside my store, saw the lighters flick on the other side of the frosted glass. I ran outside.
What do you think you’re doing? I yelled to the group that had gathered, the same group of skinheads that had plagued me with Tove. I meant to distract them with words, I meant to drain the fervor out of what they were doing. I meant to inject them with the moment I had years before, when I dropped my bat. But the aliens hadn’t fought back, had waited until we’d made a ruin of them.
The leader said, Stay out of the way and you won’t get hurt.
The lighters were licking strips of cardboard. I thought of how much money was inside that store in wood and cloth, what I would lose. I let my temper loose. I started yelling, calling them the curs of the world, disgusting creatures, more animal than the bugs, not fit to inherit the earth. I spat because I’d seen it done in holograms and at some point my words failed me.
The girl who had been Aleo’s friend, now confident and grown into her role, said, Lady, I wasn’t even born when they got here, and I didn’t even have the chance to do anything. What did you do when they came? You’re just like us.
That was before I knew, I said.
And now we know what we are, the girl said. You’re just pretending.
The rest of them chanted. More than one way. Bugs are bugs. The cardboard strips touched the storefront. They all stepped back.
There is more than one way, I said. I rushed forward, trying to put out the flames with my shirt, but the flames seemed to glow and leap up brighter with every swing and fan of my shirt. I yanked open the door of the shop, burning my hand on the doorknob, and ran inside.
Inside the shop, you could barely hear the crackle of the fire. I was panting. I stopped. I looked around at the shelves, the kite wall illuminated orange from the flames outside the window. Did I want to let it burn? To let everything I had done in conciliation disappear, burn up, leave no trace? For any guilt I had to disappear, to be forgiven by flames?
And then I smelled smoke. I snapped out of it, ran in a craze pulling kites down off the walls, rushing back and forth to my car parked out back, dumping everything I could and going back inside. One of the kites caught on the doorjamb, the cloth tearing like muscle, the frame snapping like bones, like legs, like antennae, a feeling I remembered. In my memory I stood over a Dragonfly, arms lifted to protect a small one. I left the baby, but I killed the mother. We were methodical in our frenzy. Dragonfly after Dragonfly, if they moved, if they didn’t move, if they made sound, if they were silent, we killed them. We were afraid. I was afraid.
I pulled all the kites down off the wall before the flames reached inside. I pulled the giant kite out of the backroom, the frame still heavy as a baseball bat, the cloth still fragile as skin.
I started driving. What did I have left in the world? My sons, my kites. The certainty of moving forward and beginning again. My fear. I wanted to scream. For a moment I let go of the steering wheel and let the car drift over into the other lane. Another car was coming down the roadway like everything in our world was normal. Then I thought of Aleo and Benon and jerked my wheel back.
I drove my car in circles. I was like a sleepwalker. I don’t even know how I got there; eventually, I ended up at the Dragonfly warehouses.
Inside, I asked, Please, does anyone know Tove Battler of Photons?
They bristled, and too late I realized I’d said his name wrong. Long black antennae-like fingers pointed me to another warehouse, down corridors, up racks of bunks. Then I found him lying on a third-floor bunk, eyes closed, his sons chattering in their mother tongue beside him.
Tove, I said.
He sat up.
I did not say, Come outside, or even please. I said, My store is burning. There is something outside. It is for you.
He stared at me for a good while. Did he hate me? He could have lain back in his bunk. Instead, he labored down slowly. He waved his antennae at his sons, and they followed at a distance.
There were tears sliding down my face. Why didn’t you defend yourself, I asked. Why?
He led the way outside, tiptoeing as if walking towards a dangerous secret. Finally, he said, Wouldn’t you have killed us all, if we had fought back and lost? You have books that say only the weak will inherit the earth. In our prophecies, the only way to stay was to not fight back.
I didn’t mean fifteen years ago, I meant in my backroom, but this answer was as good as any. I said, But why did you not fight back?
I wanted to live so badly, he said. For the first time I noticed seams on his legs where they must have been broken before, the source of his strange tiptoe walking.
And if you inherit the earth, what would you do with it? I said.
Silent, he waited for me behind the trunk of my car. A crowd of Dragonflies gathered behind us to see what this human woman wanted with one of their kind.
I opened the trunk door, passed out the kites I’d saved. Of what use could they possibly be to me? I handed the end of a rope to Tove, two others to his sons. I had five other rope ends that I passed out. Each was one piece of the giant kite.
This wasn’t charity; this wasn’t forgiveness. How could it be, after all that I had done, was still doing? I wanted to fling it in their faces, what they had lost. I wanted to see them hurt for that sky, sing for that lost planet. I wanted them to sing my own song and break open with it.
Then Tove led the eight of them forward, began running slowly with their curling legs. The kite, the sky over them as oppressive as my fear. All around me I heard gasps and yips, long protracted vowels, what they called their home planet in their own language. They moaned as the hang glider went up, that cathedral shard taking off above us, begging us all to rise.
Text copyright © 2018 by Brenda Peynado
Art copyright © 2018 by Chris Buzelli
Brenda Peynado’s stories have won an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Literary Award, selection for The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and The Best Small Fictions, a Dana Award, a Fulbright grant to the Dominican Republic, and other awards. Her fiction appears in The Georgia Review, The Sun (London), The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, Prairie Schooner, and more than forty other journals. She received her MFA at Florida State University and her PhD at the University of Cincinnati. She currently teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida. The Rock Eaters is her first collection.