Home by the Sea29 min read


Élisabeth Vonarburg
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Originally appeared in Tesseracts edited by Judith Merril, Press Porcépic, Sept 1985

Images of sorrow, pictures of delight

Things that go to make up a life (…)

Let us relive our lives in what we tell you

(Home by the Sea, Genesis)

«Is it a lady, Mommy?»

The small girl looks at me with the innocent insolence of children who say out loud what adults are thinking to themselves. A skinny, pale, fair–haired child of five or six, she already looks so like her mother that I feel sorry for her. The mother gives an embarrassed laugh and lifts the child onto her lap. «Of course it’s a lady, Rita.» She smiles excuse–her–please, I smile back oh–it’s–nothing. Will she take advantage of it to launch into one of those meaningless, ritual conversations whereby neighbors assure each other of their mutual inoffensiveness? To cut her off, I turn towards the window of the compartment and look purposefully at the scenery. Heading to the north the train follows the system of old dykes as far as the huge gap breached four years ago by the Eschatoï in their final madness. The scars left by the explosions have nearly disappeared, and it almost seems as though the dykes were meant to stop here and that the waters had been allowed to invade the lowlands as part of some official scheme. We cross the narrows by ferry, and are once more in the train, an ordinary electric train this time, suspended between the two wide sheets of water, to the west rippled by waves, to the east broken by dead trees, old transmission towers, church spires, and caved–in roofs. There is a mist, a whitish breath rising from the waters like a second tide ready to engulf what is left of the man–made landscape.

Is it a lady? You obviously don’t see ladies like me very often in your part of the world, little girl. Cropped hair, boots, army fatigues, a heavy jacket of worn leather; and the way I was sitting, grudgingly corrected when you and your mousy mother came in — a real lady doesn’t sprawl like that, does she, even when she’s by herself. The lady actually likes to be comfortable, believe it or not, and in her usual surroundings she doesn’t have to worry much about what people think. The lady, little girl, is a recuperator.

But she couldn’t tell you this; she didn’t want to see your big, stupid eyes fill with terror. All the same, you don’t get to see a real live bogeywoman every day. I could’ve told you a few things. Yes, I know, If you’re not good the Recuperator will get you, and he’ll say you’re not a real person and put you in his big sack. As a matter of fact, we don’t put human specimens in our big sacks right away, you know; only plants and small animals. Big animals are injected with tracers once they’ve been put to sleep for preliminary tests. If the Institute researchers discover something especially interesting, they send us back for it. I could’ve told you all this, little girl, you and your mother, who would probably have looked at me with superstitious fear. But who cares what recuperators really do, anyway? They go into the contaminated Zones to bring back horrible things that in other times might have been plants, animals, humans. So the recuperators must be contaminated too, mentally if nothing else. No, no one apart from the Recuperation Agency cares what the recuperators really do. And no one, especially not the Institute, wonders who they really are, which suits me just fine.

«Why did they break the dyke, Mommy?» asks the small girl. She’s sensed that it would be a good idea to change the subject.

«They were crazy,» says the mother curtly. Not a bad summing up. Fanatics, they were — but it comes to the same thing. You see, they thought the waters would keep rising, and they wanted to help the process along: The End of the Damned Human Race. But the waters stopped. So did the Eschatoï, by the way; one of their great collective suicides. But this time there weren’t enough of them left to start the sect afresh — nor enough energy in the new generations to be fanatic. The pro–life people have simmered down too. Even the Institute doesn’t believe in its own slogans any more. The Rehabilitation of the Wonderful Human Race. But that’s just it: the human race isn’t reproducing itself well or adequately. It probably wore itself out with its frenetic activity during the Great Tides and seismic catastrophes at the end of the last century. Now it’s going downhill, although no one dares say so straight out to the Institute and its people. True, there are fewer earthquakes, fewer volcanic eruptions, the sun breaks through the clouds more often, and the waters have stopped rising, but that’s nothing to get excited about; it’s not a human victory. Just a blind, natural phenomenon that peaked by pure chance before destroying what was left of the human race. And I, little girl, I who am not human, I collect what the Institute calls «specimens» in the contaminated Zones — specimens that are also, in their way, what is left of the human race.

I who am not human. Come on, now, didn’t I get over that long ago? But it’s a habit, a lapse, a relapse. I could’ve answered you just now, little girl, by saying, «The lady is an artifact, and she’s going to see her mother.»

But that very word requires so much explaining: Mother. At least I have a navel. A neat little navel, according to the medic who checked me out before my abortive departure for Australia and the Institute. The current artifacts have large, clumsily made navels that the scanner immediately picks up as not being the real thing. But you, now, it’s almost perfect, extraordinary, what technical skill your… And there he stumbled: mother, creator, manufacturer? He came out of his scientific ecstasy, suddenly conscious that after all someone was listening who hadn’t known the truth. None of the other tests had ever revealed anything! But this Medical Center is connected to the Institute, and new detection methods have been developed that didn’t exist when you were, er… (he cleared his throat — he was very embarrassed, poor man) made.

Yes, she made me like this so I could pass for human. Almost. In spite of everything I thought then, she surely didn’t foresee that I’d learn about it this way. I probably wasn’t meant to know until the end, with its unmistakable signs. Why? Am I really going to ask her? Is this why I came? But I’m not really going to see her. I’m passing by, that’s all. I’m on my way to the Hamburg Zone.

Oh, come on! I know damn well I’ll stop at Mahlerzee. I will? I won’t? Am I still afraid, then? That cowardice which made me burn all my bridges when I found out, swear never to ask her anything. But it wasn’t merely cowardice. It was a question of survival. It wasn’t because I was afraid or desperate that I ran away after the medic’s revelations. I didn’t want to see the others waiting for me outside. Not Rick, especially not Rick… No, if I remember rightly, that lady of fifteen years ago was in a fury — still is. A huge fury, a wild, redeeming fury. Surely this was why, on coming out of the Medical Center, she found herself heading for Colibri Park. It was there that she’d first seen the Walker.

Colibri Park. The first time you go there you wonder why it’s not called «Statue Park.» Of course, there is the transparent dome in the middle of the main lawn, enclosing its miniature jungle with hummingbirds that flit about on vibrating wings, but what one really sees are the statues. Everywhere, along the alleys, on the lawns, even in the trees, believe it or not. The young lady first came there with Rick, her lover, and Yevgheny, the typical street–wise city boy who teaches small–town greenhorns the score. The lady was sixteen. She’d barely been a month in Baïblanca. One of the youngest scholarship students at Kerens University. A future ornament of the Institute. The fledgling that had fled the nest, slamming the door as she went, so to speak. And all around her and her lover, there were the wonders of Baïblanca, the capital of Eurafrica. I could say it was Eldorado for us, but you probably wouldn’t know what Eldorado is.

Yevgheny had pointed out, among the people strolling by, the Walker — a man moving slowly, very slowly. He was tall and could have been handsome, had something in his bearing been as imposing as his height. But he walked listlessly, you couldn’t even call it sauntering. And then, as he passed them by, that blank face, those eyes that seemed to be looking far off, perhaps sad, perhaps merely empty… He’d been walking like this every day for almost ten years, Yevgheny had said. The sort of thing old men do… That was it, he walked like an old man. But he didn’t seem all that old, barely in his thirties.

«He was never young, either,» Yevgheny said. «He’s an artifact.»

And I’d never seen or heard the word. How did my mother managed that? At least Rick seemed as stupid as I was. Yevgheny was delighted. «An artifact — an organic work of art. Artificial! Obviously you don’t see them running around the streets of Mahlerzee or Broninghe.»

This one wasn’t doing much running either, Rick remarked. Yevgheny smiled condescendingly: this artifact was at the end of the road, used up, almost finished.

He made us go past the Walker and sit on one of the long benches facing the central lawn. Then he launched into a detailed explanation. (I was afraid he would wake the young woman in blue who was dozing at the other end of the bench, one arm resting on the back, the other propped by the elbow to support her head with its heavy black hair, but his brash voice didn’t seem to disturb her.) Not many of these artifacts were made nowadays; they’d gone out of fashion; and there had been incidents. During their fully active period, they were far more lively than the Walker (who moved slowly, so slowly, towards the bench). Very lively, in fact. And not everyone knew they were artifacts, not even the artifacts themselves. Thirty years earlier, the great diversion in the sophisticated circles of Baïblanca was to bet on who among the new favorites in the salon of this or that well–known personality was an artifact, whether or not the artifact knew, whether or not the artifact’s «client» knew, whether or not either would find out, and how either would react. Particularly the artifact.

There were Sheep and there were Tigers. The Tigers tended to self–destruct deliberately before their program terminated, sometimes with spectacular violence. A biosculptor had made a fortune this way. One of his artifacts had reacted at knowing what it was by setting out to kill him; there was always some doubt about the precise moment when an artifact stopped working completely, and the biosculptor gambled that his would self–destruct before getting him. He almost lost his bet. Instead, he merely lost both arms and half his face. It wasn’t serious: the medics made them grow back. After several premature deaths among the elite of Baïblanca in those inopportune explosions, the government put a stop to it. This didn’t keep the biosculptors from continuing for a while. Artifacts popped up now and then, but no more Tigers were made; the penalties were too stiff.

Yevgheny rattled all this off with a relish that disgusted the lovers. They didn’t know much about Baïblanca yet; they had heard the Judgementalists fulminating against the «New Sodom», and now they understood why. This decadent society wasn’t much better than that of the Eschatoï, the dyke–destroyers whom it had survived… Rick and Manou understood each other so well, little girl. They were so pure, the brave new generation. (Oh, what high–flown debates we used to have, late into the night, about what we’d do for this poor, ailing world once we were in the Institute!)

With Yevgheny, they watched the Walker reach the bench and sit down beside the blue–clad sleeper. Yevgheny began to laugh as he felt the lovers stiffen: the Walker wouldn’t do anything to them even if he heard them, which wasn’t likely! It was an artifact, an object! But didn’t he say they sometimes self–destructed? «I told you, they aren’t making any more Tigers!»

The final moments of the Sheep weren’t nearly as spectacular. They became less and less mobile, and finally their artorganic material became unstable. Then the artifacts vaporized, or else… Yevgheny rose as he spoke, and went over to the sleeper in blue. Bending his index finger, he tapped her on the forehead. «…or else they turn to stone.»

The young woman in blue hadn’t moved; neither had the Walker. He seemed to have seen and heard nothing. He was contemplating the Sleeper.

When Yevgheny, all out of breath, caught up with Rick and Manou, he finished what he was saying: «…and you know what they call those two? Tristan and Isolde!»

He nearly died laughing. He probably never understood why we systematically avoided him afterward. We had some moral fiber, Rick and I. Small–town greenhorns are better brought up than Baïblancans.

You know, when you come right down to it, little girl, probably nothing would have happened, or not in the same way, if I hadn’t been so much like her, like my mother. But of course I was. Oh, not physically. But in character. Typically pig–headed. Our reconciliations were as tempestuous as our rows. We had a marvelous time, we two. She told me the most extraordinary stories; she knew everything, could do everything, I was convinced of it. And it was true — almost. A man — what for? (Because one day, you must realize that too, the matter of fathers always comes up). And at this point I distinctly sensed a wound somewhere in her, deep down, a bitterness, despite her efforts to be honest. («They have their uses» she had said, laughing.) But really the two of us needed no one else; we were happy in the big house by the beach. She took care of everything: lessons, cooking, fixing things; and the toys when I was little, made of cloth, wood, anything! As a hobby, you see, Taïko Orogatsu was a sculptress. I still picture her now, smudges up to her elbows and even on her face, circling a lump of clay like a panther, talking to herself in Japanese. Of course, I didn’t understand any of it. I thought it was magic. She was determined to hold on to her language, but she never taught it to me. It was all she kept of Japan, where she had never set foot. Her ancestors had emigrated long before the Great Tides and the final submersion. She didn’t even have slanted eyes.

But I’m not going to tell you about my memories of that time, little girl. Perhaps they’re lies. Real memories? Implanted memories? I don’t know. But even if they are implants, she wanted them that way. They must reveal something about her, after all, because I can also remember her faults, her brutal practicality, her impatience, our interminable, logical arguments that would cave in beneath her sudden arbitrary decision: that’s–the–way–it–is–and–you’ll–understand–later. My adolescent whining also was typical. Another series of implanted memories? Impossible to find out, unless I asked her. Did I really go through the adolescent crisis, I–want–to–live–my–own–life–and–not–yours, or do I merely think I walked out slamming the door? Looking back now, however, isn’t it really the same thing? That old–fashioned career as a space pilot, did I want it for myself, or to thwart her? So as not to go into biotronics like her, as she wanted me to? Did I really mean it? In the end, when I fled the Medical Center after the medic’s revelation, what really hurt wasn’t the loss of a future career destroyed before it even began; I didn’t shed any tears about it later, either.

I didn’t cry at all, in fact. For years. It almost killed me. The young lady who’d just found out she was an artifact was furious. Can you understand that, little girl? Beside herself with fury and hate. The Taïko who had done this, who had done this to me, who had made me, she couldn’t be the Taïko of my memories! Yes, she was. But I couldn’t have lived with a monster all those years without realizing it? Yes, I could. She had done this to me so that I would find out like this, go crazy, do dreadful things, kill myself, kill her, anything? It was not possible! Yes, it was. A monster, underneath the Taïko that I thought I remembered. Two contradictory images met in my head, matter/antimatter, with myself in the middle of the disintegrating fire. Infinite emptiness, as the pillars of a whole life crumble.

Well, the lady was so gutted that she scarcely remembers the weeks that followed, you see. She dropped deep beneath the civilized surface of Baïblanca, into the submarine current of non–persons. Threw her credentity card into an incinerator! Disappeared, as far as Kerens University was concerned — and the Institute, and the universal data banks. And you know what? It’s extraordinarily easy to live underwater once you’ve given up breathing. The current wasn’t fast or cold; the creatures who lived there were so indifferent that it was almost like a kindness. I haven’t any really coherent memory of it. The shop where no questions were asked. The mechanical work, day in, day out. An empty shell. Automaton. I was never so much an artifact as then. And of course, the nightmares. I was a time bomb ready to explode, I had to become an automaton to protect myself. So as not to begin thinking, mainly, and especially not to begin feeling.

But one day, quite by chance, the lady encountered the Walker. For weeks after that she followed him around in horrible fascination. He walked slower and slower, and people turned to look at him — those who didn’t realize what he was. And then it happened, in broad daylight. I saw him on the Promenade, walking so, so slowly, as though he were floating in a time bubble. It wasn’t his usual hour at all. And there was something about his face, as though he were… in a hurry. I followed him to Colibri Park where the Sleeper slept, uncaring, in full sunlight. The Walker halted by the bench, and with impossible slowness he began to seat himself beside the motionless woman; but this time he did not simply sit: he curled up against her, placing his head in the crook of the arm on which the Sleeper was resting her head. He closed his eyes and stopped moving.

And the lady follower sat down beside the Walker now at his final destination, and watched his flesh become stone. It was a slow and ultimate tremor rising from his innermost being, rising to the surface of his skin and then imperceptibly stiffening, while the cells emptied out of their sublimated substance and their walls became mineral. The extinction of life, as lightly as the passing shadow of a cloud.

And I… I felt as though I were awakening. I stayed there a long time, beginning to think, to feel again. Through the fury, I sensed… no, not peace, but a resolve, a certainty, the glimmer of an emotion… I didn’t know what end had been planned for me — explosion or petrification — but I found that I could bear it after all. It wasn’t so terrible in the long run. (I was absolutely amazed to find myself thinking this way, but that was all right: astonishment also was an emotion.) It was like one of those diseases of which the outcome is at once certain and curiously problematical. You know it will happen, but not when or how. There were lots of humans who lived like this. So why not me?

Yes, astonishment was the initial emotion. The idea of revenge only came later. I would not give her the satisfaction of seeing me die before my time. I would not put on such a performance for her. I would not make a spectacle of myself.

But I still had enough sense of showmanship to sign on as a recuperator.

No. There were two ways of completely covering one’s tracks. Either go and live in a Zone, or go and hunt in a Zone. The really theatrical thing to do would have been to go and live in a Zone: «I’m a monster, and I’m joining the monsters.» Whereas becoming a recuperator…

Well, the lady still had a perverse streak. She was meant to be caught in the net and instead found herself doing the catching, ready to spring the traps in which she would capture these quasi–humans, these para–animals… these specimens. She could have become very cruel. She could have. But she saw too many sadistic recuperators, fanatics, sick people. And then she inevitably recognized herself in her prey. She was teetering on the razor’s edge between disgust and compassion. But she came down on the side of compassion; this recuperator was not a bogeywoman, after all. On the side of compassion. «By accident,» or «because of adequate programming,» or «because I had been properly brought up.» It comes to the same thing as far as results are concerned, and that’s all that counts.

That’s what Brutus thought. The only result that counted for him was that I opened the cage and let him go. Brutus. He called himself this because the neo–leprosy had only affected his face then, giving him a lion’s muzzle. Quite handsome, as a matter of fact. One finds everything in the recuperators’ cage, little girl, and this specimen was terribly well–educated. There are still lots of operational infolibraries in the Zones.

«The complete programming of artifacts is a myth maintained by the Institute. Actually, it’s not as simple as that. Implant memories? Yes, perhaps. But mainly, biosculptors who are into humanoïd artifacts insert the faculty of learning, plus a certain number or predispositions that won’t necessarily develop, depending on the circumstances — exactly as it is for human beings.» How strange to be discussing the nature of conscience and free–will with a half–man crouching in the moonlight. Because yes, Brutus often came back to see me, little girl, but that’s another story.

The lady has kept being a recuperator since Brutus, however. Not for the sake of delivering specimens to the far–off Institute, but to help them escape. If absolutely necessary, I bring back plants and animals. But not the quasi–, pseudo–, para–, semi–people. How long will I be able to go on like this? I suppose that will be another story, too. Perhaps it won’t be much of a story, after all. The people at the Institute don’t really care. In Australia they’re so far away from our old, sick Europe. They work at their research programs like sleepwalkers, and probably don’t even know why any more. They merely keep on with what they’re doing; it’s a lot simpler.

And as you can see, little girl, the lady has also kept on with what she was already doing. She’s been at it for quite some time. Thirty–two years old and no teeth missing, when most known artifacts only last a maximum of twenty years in the active phase. So one day, having seen how her fellow recuperators thinned around her — radiations, viruses, accidents, or «burnouts» as the Agency refers to the madness that overtakes most of them — she began to doubt whether she really was an artifact. And she had the tests run again. Not at the Kerens Medical Center, naturally. But one of the axioms of Baïblanca is that everything legitimate has its underground counterpart. In any case, my artifacticity was confirmed! The only reasonable hypothesis is that I am not really thirty–two years old and have only fifteen years of actual existence behind me. My birth certificate is false. And all my memories until the time I left home are implants.

And it bothers me. Not only because I must be nearing my «limit of obsolescence,» as the second examining medic so elegantly put it while admiring the performance of my biosculptress, just as the first had. But because I wonder why she made me like this, with these memories. So detailed, so exact! I’ve got a right to be a little curious, after all, since I’ve made my peace with the inevitable, up to a point. It doesn’t matter so much now about not asking her anything. I’ll be very calm when I see her. I’m not going there to demand an explanation. It’s past history. Fifteen years ago, I might have. But now…

You want to know what the lady’s going to do? So do I. See Taïko before she dies — is that all? Because she’s old, Taïko is. Fifty–seven is very old now; you may not live that long, little girl. The average life–span for you humans is barely sixty, and getting shorter all the time.

See Taïko. Let her see me. No need to say anything, in fact. Just to satisfy my conscience, liberate it, prove that I’ve really made my peace with myself. (With her? Despite her?) See her. And show her, to be honest. Show her that I’ve survived, that she’s failed if she built me merely to self–destruct. But she can’t have wanted that. The more I think about it the less it fits with what I remember about her — even if the memories are implants. No. She must have wanted a «daughter» of her own making, a creature who’d adore her, not foreseeing the innate unpredictability of any creation, the rebellion, the escape…  If I really did escape. But if this is also a pseudo–memory, what on earth can it mean?

Usually, little girl, the lady takes some reading material or music with her when she’s travelling; otherwise she thinks too much. Why didn’t I bring along anything to keep me occupied this time? Because I didn’t want to be distracted on the way north, to the past? Because I’m trying to work up nostalgia for memories which were probably implanted? Come on, Manou, be serious. I might as well go and have something to drink in the dining car. There’s no point keeping on like this, speculating. I’ll ask, she’ll explain. People don’t do what she’s done without wanting to explain, surely. Even after all this time.

Perhaps you wonder, little girl, how the lady knows that Taïko Orogatsu is still alive? Well, she took the precaution of checking it out. Without calling the house, of course.

Really, is there any point going? It’s perhaps another kind of cowardice, an admission of something missing somewhere inside me. Do I really need to know why she made me this way? I’ve made myself since. And anyway, I’m going into the Hamburg Zone. I’m not obliged to stop.

There, the train has finally ground to a halt. Mahlerzee. You see, little girl, the lady’s getting off here.


Artificial memory or no, it’s impossible to avoid clichés: flood–of–memories, changed–yet–unaltered scenery. The wharf completely submerged by the high tide, the avenue of statues almost buried in the sand. The terrace with its old wooden furniture, the varnish peeled off by the salt air. An unfamiliar black and white cat on the mat in front of the double doors, slightly ajar to show the living room beyond. Not a sound. The porcelain vase with its blue dragon, full of freshly cut flowering broom. I should call out, but I can’t, the silence oppresses me. Perhaps she won’t recognize me. I’ll say anything, that I am a census–taker, that it’s the wrong house. Or simply go… But, «Hello, Manou,» I didn’t hear her coming, she’s behind me.

Small, so small, diminutive, like a bird. Was she like this? I don’t remember her being so frail. The hair is quite white, tousled, she must have been having an afternoon nap. The wrinkles, the flabby cheeks, chin, eyelids. And yet her features seem clearer, as though purified. And the eyes, the eyes haven’t changed, big and black, liquid, lively. Try to think: she recognized me, how? Make out her expression… I can’t, it’s been so long that I’ve lost the habit of reading her face — and it’s not the same face. Or it’s the same but different. It’s her. She’s old, she’s tired. I look at her, she looks at me, her head thrown back, and I feel huge, a giant, but hollow, fragile.

She speaks first: «So, you recuperated yourself.» Sarcasm or satisfaction? And I say, «I’m going into the Hamburg zone, I’m catching the six o’clock train,» and it’s a retort, I’m on the defensive. I thought we’d chat about trivialities, embarrassed perhaps, before speaking about… But it’s true she never liked beating about the bush, and then when you’re old there’s no time to lose, right? Well, I haven’t any time to lose either! No, I’m not going to get angry in order to stand up to her; I’ve learned to control that reflex. It kept me alive, but it’s not what I need here. I don’t, absolutely don’t, want to get angry.

She doesn’t make it easy for me: «Not married, then, no children?» And while I suffocate in silence she goes on: «You left to live your own life, you should have been consistent, lived to the full. With your gifts, to become a recuperator! Really, I didn’t bring you up like that.»

I can’t mistake her tone. She’s reproaching me, she’s resentful!

«You didn’t make me like that, you mean! But perhaps you didn’t make me as much as you think!»

There we go, fighting. It can’t be true, I’m dreaming; fifteen years, and it’s as though I left last week!

«So you actually took the trouble to find out? If you’d taken a little more trouble, you’d have learned that artifacts are not necessarily sterile. True, the Institute buried the really pertinent data, but with a little effort… You didn’t even try, eh? So sure you were sterile! When I think of the pains I took to make you completely normal!»

I cool down. Suddenly, somewhere, I cross a threshold, and once over it I am incredulously calm. That’s Taïko. Not a goddess, not a monster. Just a woman set in her ways, with her limitations, her goodwill, her unawareness. I hear myself saying almost politely: «Still, I failed the navel test.»

Apparently she’s crossed a threshold of her own at the same time, in the same direction. She sighs: «I should have told you. When you were little. But I kept putting it off. And then it was too late, you were right in the middle of the terrible teens and I lost my temper. I couldn’t tell you just then, you can understand that! Well, yes, I should have, perhaps it would have calmed you down. I was so furious when you left. I expected a phone call, a letter. I said to myself, at least the Institute can’t find out about her. And in fact they know nothing. The Kerens medic called me. A nice person, actually. He never said anything. You were a brilliant student that disappeared without a trace. They offered me their sympathy, you know, Kerens and the Institute. Afterward, I tried to have you found. Why didn’t you call me, you stubborn mule?»

I’m the one being accused, can you beat that? I stare hard at her. And all of a sudden it’s too much. I burst out laughing. So does she.

We’re still the same, after all this time.

«But you came, anyway. None too soon, either.»

After that, a long silence. Embarrassed, pensive? She is pensive. «You ought to try. Having children. There’s no guarantee you’ll succeed, but it’s highly probable. Have you really never tried?»

Does she realize what she’s saying?

«What, there’s never been anyone?»

Rick, the first, yes. And a few others, initially as a challenge, just to see, and after that because it didn’t really matter what I was, thanks to Brutus. But still! I retort that knowing you’re an artifact doesn’t exactly make for harmonious relations with normal humans.

«Normal humans! I can’t believe my ears! You were born, the fact that it was in the lab down there doesn’t change anything. You grew up, you made mistakes and you’ll make more. You think, you feel, you choose. What more do you want? You’re a normal human being, like all the other so–called artifacts.»

Oh yes. Like the Walker and the Sleeper, I suppose? I grit my teeth. She looks me in the eye, impatient: «Well, what’s the matter?» Doesn’t even let me try to speak. «There may have been stupid or crazy biosculptors, but that’s another matter. Of course some artifacts were very limited. The Institute made sure of it by suppressing the necessary data, all Permahlion’s research. They made him practically an outlaw, fifty years ago, and after that they did everything to discourage artorganics. But it didn’t keep us from carrying on.»

I can’t understand what she is saying. She must see it, and it gives her fresh cause for annoyance. «Well, what do you think, that you’re the only one in the world? There are hundreds of you, silly! Just because the original human race is doomed to disappear sooner or later doesn’t mean that all life must end. It was all right for the Eschatoï to think that way, not for you!»

And suddenly, quietly, sadly, «You really thought I was a monster, didn’t you?»

What can I say? I subside onto the sofa and she sits down as well, not too near, slowly, sparing her knees. Yes, she’s old, really old. When she becomes animated, the expression in her eyes, her way of talking, her leap–frog sentences are there; but when she’s quiet it all flickers out. I look away. After the silence, all I can find to say is, «You made others? Like me?»

The answer is straightforward, almost absentminded: «No. I could have made others, probably, but for me, one baby was already a lot.»

«You made me… a baby?»

«I wanted you to be as normal as possible. There’s nothing to prevent artorganic matter growing as slowly as organic matter. Actually, it’s the best way. The personality develops along with it. I wasn’t in a hurry.»

«But you never made others… in the usual way?»

A sad–amused smile: «Come on, Manou. I was sterile, of course. Or rather, my karyotype was so damaged that it was unthinkable to try to have children in the usual way, as you put it.»

«And I can.»


«After working fifteen years in the contaminated Zones.»

«Oh, but you’re a lot more resistant than we are. The beauty of artorganics is that one can improve on nature. That’s the danger as well. But in the long run, it means I was able to give you a chance to adapt better than we could to the world you’d be dealing with. Do you remember? You were never sick when you were little.»

And I still heal very quickly. Oh yes, the medic in the Kerens Center pointed that out. That was a constant factor in artifacts. Not a proof, however; there had been a fairly widespread mutation of this kind about a hundred years earlier. «It is from studying this phenomenon, among others, that artorganic matter ended up being created. There are still instances of it among normal humans.» It was a parallelism, he emphasized, not a proof. But an indication which, combined with others, added to the certainty of my being an artifact.

«I’m telling you» — she’s still adamant — «you should try to have children.»

She’s really determined to know whether or not her experiment has worked, is that it?

«Thirty–two is a bit late, don’t you think?»

«A bit late? You’re in your prime!»

«For how long!?»

I’m standing up, fists clenched. I wasn’t aware of getting up, wasn’t aware of shaking. If she notices it, she gives no sign. She shrugs: «I don’t know.» And before I can react she smiles the old sarcastic smile: «At least as long as I, in any case. Longer, if I’ve been successful. But for exactly how long, I don’t know.»

She looks straight at me, screwing her eyes a little. Suddenly no longer old and tired, she’s ageless; so very gently sad, so very wise: «You thought I could tell you. That’s why you came.»

«You made me, you should know!»

«Someone made me, too. Not in the same way, but someone made me. And I don’t know when I’m going to die either.» The small, ironic smile comes back. «I’m beginning to have an inkling, mind you.» The smile disappears. «But I’m not certain, I don’t know the date. That’s what being human is like, too. Haven’t you learned anything in fifteen years? The only way to be sure is to kill yourself, which you didn’t. So keep on. You’ll still live long enough to forget lots of things and learn them all over again.»

And she looks at the old watch that slides around her birdlike wrist. «Two hours before your train. Would you like something to eat?»

«Are you in a hurry to see me leave?»

«For our first time it would be better not to try our luck too far.»

«You really think I’ll come back?»

Gently she says: «I hope you’ll come back.» Again the sarcastic smile: «With a belly this big.»

I shake my head; I can’t take any more of this; she’s right. I rise to get my bag near the door. «I think I’ll walk back to the station.»

Still, she goes with me onto the terrace and we walk down to the beach together. As we pass one of the statues, she puts a hand on the grey, shapeless stone. «It was his house, Permahlion’s. He brought the statues here himself. He liked to scuba–dive when he was young. I was his very last pupil, you know. He made the first artorganic humans, but he didn’t call them artifacts. It killed him, what was done to them after him.»

As always when the sun finally breaks through the clouds, it gets hot quickly. As I shrug off my jacket, I see her looking at me; she barely reaches my shoulder. It must be a long time since she was in the sun, she’s so pale.

I scan the distance for something else to look at. A few hundred years from the beach there seem to be shapes jumping in the waves. Dolphins? Swimmers? An arm above the water, like a sign…

She shades her eyes. «No, they’re Permahlion’s mermaids. I call them ‘mermaids,’ anyway. I don’t know why, but they’ve been coming here for several seasons. They don’t talk and they’re very shy.» At my stupefied silence, she remarks acidly: «Don’t tell me you have something against humanoïd artifacts?»

No, of course not, but…

She brushes off my questions, her hands spread in front of her: «I’ll look for everything there is about them in the lab. You’ll be able to see it. If you ever come back.» A cloud seems to pass over her rapidly and she fades again. «I’m tired, my daughter. The sun isn’t good for me these days. I’m going to lie down for a bit.»

And she goes, just like that, without another word or gesture, a tiny figure stumbling a little in the sand. I want to watch her go, and I can’t watch her go, as though it were the last time, perhaps because it is the last time, and «my daughter» has lodged itself in my chest somewhere; it grows, pushing my ribs, and the pressure becomes so strong that I shed my clothes and dive into the green, warm water to swim towards the sea creatures. My first burst of energy exhausted, I turn on my back and look towards the house. The tiny silhouette has stopped on the terrace. I wave an arm, I shout, «I’ll come back, Mother!» I laugh, and my tears mingle with the sea.

  • Élisabeth Vonarburg

    Élisabeth Vonarburg was born to life in 1947 in France, and to science–fiction in 1964. She teaches French Literature and Creative Writing at various universities in Quebec. Vonarburg is a translator, SF convention organizer, literary editor (Solaris magazine), essayist, and full–time writer. Thirteen of her novels have been translated into English, including The Silent City, The Maerlande Chronicles, Reluctant Voyagers, Tyranaël. She has eight short story collections published in French, two in English, three poetry collections, and three YA novels. Vonarburg has won more than thirty awards in France, Canada, Quebec and the United States. Her recent series, Reine de Mémoire (2005–2007, five books), received four major awards in Quebec.

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