We have decided not to eat the Doctor, at least for the time being. I am glad, because the Doctor is crazy, and he does the funniest things. We don’t laugh in front of him, of course, since that is not something the People do, but there is always a retelling afterwards that has everyone clutching their bellies and rolling on the ground. Besides, the Doctor still has not learned to sing the tones properly, and I like being the one who speaks his language the best. His words are hard and awkward and putting them together is like rolling a flat stone across sand, but I think he can use them to say ideas we would never dream of. Mostly, though, he is just fun to watch.
“Who were the Tall People?” he says one day.
I wish he would not always ask his questions. That part is not fun. I shrug and pretend to be busy.
“Where are the Tall People now?” he asks.
“I am not one of the Tall People. You are not one of the Tall People,” I say, to remind him what he is doing as gently as possible.
He does not take the hint, and he does not hide his frustration very well. Instead, he sits by himself for a while, and then prepares to leave the village and go for a walk in the marshes.
The Doctor is not one of the Watching People, and the Tall People are no more, so he must come from another people, who live very far away. His like has certainly never been seen in the marshes before. His ears are round and on the sides of his head, and where his beak should be is only a piece of soft flesh in the middle of his face. He knows dangerously little about how the People live or how to survive in the marshes, but he is sincere in his desire to learn everything he can. I just wish it were easier to help him.
Grandfather nods at the Doctor’s back as the bushes swallow his shape and says to me, “He might sit on another fire-ant hive.”
“Or put his head into a sand badger’s trap again,” I agree respectfully. Both of those events can be re-enacted over and over without ever becoming boring, but they could have been bad for the Doctor.
“If he notices you, it will be a loss of face for two,” Grandfather says, by which I understand he wants me to watch after the Doctor. I stand and silently slip out of the village after him.
The Doctor has not told us anything about his home, and of course one of the People doesn’t just come out and ask a thing like that, so we watch him very closely. We can guess a little about it from the things he doesn’t seem to know, and it must be very nice to live in a fat and easy land where you don’t need to be mindful of all the tricks for cheating death.
The Doctor changes paths many times and cuts across his own trail as if he has forgotten his way. I follow him from far enough behind that he does not discover me, but just close enough that I could pretend to wander by if he gets into trouble. It is hard work to not run into him. He stops a moment to admire the demon-gem butterflies gliding between nectar blossoms at the edge of the water and floating just out of his reach, and holds out his hand to entice one to land on it. They ignore him, so his arm will not be shredded to the elbow this day, and he moves on. He doubles back the way we had come, and then suddenly heads off with great intent.
I have to walk quickly to keep up. This task would ordinarily be given to a strong hunter and I am still a boy, so it is a great honor that Grandfather has chosen me. The appearance of the Doctor and his strange language to learn have given me the chance to prove myself early.
The Doctor leads me on a long chase far to the south and the east, to a bad dry place the People rarely enter. He digs a little under a stone, and I see he has cached some things that are precious to him there. I wait until he has left, and then look at them myself. Most of the cache is in strong smooth boxes I cannot open, but in one I find some very odd clothing. It is made of several pieces of something softer than skin, bound together at their edges by little knots that are so tiny you could barely see them.
When you steal a wokka egg, you must replace every stick in the nest exactly as it was, or the wokka will worry and stop laying. No one can collect more eggs than me. I replace the garments and cover the cache and put every pebble and grain of soil just as the Doctor had left them, then run all the way back to the village and arrive before he does.
The Oldest Ones carefully tend all knowledge. They guide it to us as it gathers and flows like water, and when it is misused or ignored they let it vanish into the air, and it is at that moment that we die. When I was little and Grandfather told me this, I dismissed it as a fairy-story, but now that I am almost a man I see it is a true thing. The life of the village balances on the edge of a black-glass blade. Since the birth of the world, the bone desert has surrounded the marshes a little more tightly and eaten a little more of them each year. The marshes are kind and provide the Watching People with exactly enough to survive, but only as a reward for studying and remembering everything we see.
One must show the proper respect for knowledge, and learn by watching and counting and copying. The Doctor does almost nothing but learn — although he watches the wrong things — and some of us think he might be a little sacred as well, which is one of the reasons he is still alive. It might be unlucky to eat a sacred person.
But the main reason he is still among us is someday we will learn something valuable from him, and then maybe the village will support the lives of a few more of the People. We watch him carefully.
When I return, Grandfather immediately convenes a learning council, and I am the youngest that has sat in that circle for many years. All eyes are on me as I describe everything I saw at the cache. The little string — like a long hair or thick strand of caterpillar web — is not hard to make, and Jollolo and Lafu soon find that fibers of green bark can be soaked in brackish water and twisted into something very much like it. We can do nothing, however, to push the string through the edges of the skins. We try cutting holes, but the string is too soft to pass through the small holes, and if we cut big holes the string spreads them and tears the garment. A few days later Atsuka, who has stared at the skin and the string from above and below and behind until he is cross-eyed, suddenly cries, “Don’t push it, pull it!” and attaches the string to a little sliver of bone, and shows us how the sliver slides right through the skin and takes the string with it and leaves barely any hole at all.
Soon some of us are wearing tunics just like the ones in the Doctor’s cache, and they are much better than the skins we usually wear, because we can make them fit the shape of our bodies and arms exactly right.
The Doctor is very surprised when he sees them, and he takes me aside.
“I’ve never seen the People wear shirts like this before,” he says.
“Yes. They are a new thing,” I tell him. “They are very good.”
He grabs me by the arm. “How did the People learn to use a needle?” he asks.
And that is exactly the problem. You can be having the most amicable conversation with the Doctor, and then he’ll suddenly ask you a direct question — in front of others, in public, right in the middle of the village with everyone listening. He is an elder with a beard, and I have not even had my tail clipped yet; could I scold him as if he were the child? But I cannot ignore him either, so I just say, “By watching kono spiders make nests,” which is a clever nonsense answer, because no kono spider has ever stopped jumping long enough to build a nest. I hope this is a tactful reminder of the position he is putting me in, but if he catches my meaning, he chooses to dismiss it.
He does this all the time. The other day he was helping Bomi pound huffa fibers while they chatted about pleasant things, and then he turned and asked her how it was she had first learned to turn huffa into flour. Naturally, she was furious, but all she could do was smile and tell him, “I used to know, but I’ve forgotten,” as if he were an infant that she could no longer afford to spoil. I was there to translate, and before either of them lost any more face, I called, “Oi, Rumali! Come here! I want to see you.”
Stoop-backed Rumali, who was so old and daft she needed to be told where to watch, shuffled over to us with her foolish grin.
“Rumali!” I said loudly. “How did you learn to pound huffa?”
“Huffa?” she repeated. If she was hurt by the question, it was not her place to show it. “I learned from my mother,” she mumbled. The Doctor nodded, instead of pretending not to notice what I was doing.
“How did she teach you?” I demanded.
Her cloudy eyes traveled across my face, baffled. Finally her hands made a pounding motion. “With a stick,” she said. She made the motion again.
The Doctor nodded again and he and Bomi and I waited, but that was all Rumali could tell us.
“Go away,” I said. She wandered off, the affront already forgotten, or maybe never noticed. Those who cannot watch well enough to pull their own weight in the village cannot expect to hold on to their pride, or to be treated like People. The Doctor went back to his hut, and I felt lucky she had been nearby to distract him.
There are always ways to let others understand what you need to know without shaming yourself or them, and a good person will always share his wealth, but sometimes I think he does not see that. It is not my place to say this, but perhaps the Doctor does not know how to watch properly.
The Doctor wants to see where food comes from. I think what he really wants to see is a hunt, but there will be no hunt for two more seasons, so Grandfather tells me to take him berry picking. I lead the Doctor across the marshes to where the kelas grow, and let him watch me pinch them off the branches. He likes to pick the plumpest berries, so when he is not looking I toss those out of the basket and leave only the older, mottled ones that are no longer poisonous.
When the basket is half full, the Doctor says, “Something smells wonderful.”
I agree. It is the golden scent of the shobu bushes, which bloom all throughout the marshes several times a year.
“And it’s such a warm clear day, too, now that the fog has lifted,” he says.
I stop and look at him. He is absolutely right.
“We should go now,” I tell him.
“Even though there are so many good berries left?” he asks.
“This is only the ninety-first day,” I explain.
The Doctor does not seem concerned, so I urge him along the path, and increase our pace until we are going as fast as he can run. Perhaps we will be able to reach the village in time.
We have run only a little way when the buzzing sound seeps into the air all around us. They are already here, and I think we may be dead. I lead the Doctor to a deep pool of open water, and jump in. He looks at me for a moment, and then jumps in after me. The basket of berries floats out of reach, which is a shame.
I snap off two long hollow reeds and hand him one.
“This is for breathing,” I tell him, too rushed to be respectful, and duck under. He joins me, holding his reed to his mouth, his hair and beard wafting like weeds.
Then the swarm of vengeance bees sweeps over the pool with a roar that we can hear through the water, a black and sparkling cloud that skims low and ripples the surface. Drawn from their hive by the warmth and the shobu pollen before the end of their hundred-day sleep, they are furious and hungry as demons. Anything that walks or flies today will be stripped of its flesh before it can fall.
It is hard to take air through the reed, and the bees sometimes cover it, seeking the source of my breath, or strike it so hard that it might come out of my hands, but I wait a long time. Beside me, the Doctor has enough sense to stay still. At last, the sky over us clears and I cautiously put my ears above water. Twice I hear an angry buzz that sends me back down, but finally the normal marsh sounds return.
We walk back home, and the whole village comes out to greet us. The People were able to shelter in the cave before the bees found them, but old Rumali had been out in the marshes, and she is still missing.
Scattered along the path before the entrance to the village we find a few fresh bones, warm and gray and polished perfectly smooth. I too almost died today when I failed to respect the knowledge that had gathered to me, and I am ashamed of my weakness. We collect all the bones we can find and take them back with us.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” the Doctor says.
“Yes,” I agree. “It is a great waste of meat.”
The next time the Doctor prepares to go walking alone, Marfi approaches me.
“The Doctor is putting dried huffa in his pack,” he says, which means he knows the Doctor is planning for a long hike and is probably going back to his cache. I nod.
“I wonder if he will try to pee on the bang nettles again,” Marfi says, watching my eyes, which is his way of telling me he wants to go along. More than that, I am surprised to realize, he wants my permission. Marfi is one summer older than I am and has been a good teacher to me, and besides, he can speak a bit of the Doctor’s language too.
“Four eyes watch better than two,” I tell him. We leave the village and make a game of copying bird calls by the side of the trail until the Doctor passes by, and then quietly follow him.
Here is an odd thing but a true one: the Doctor has a friend he keeps in a box. It must be a very small friend, because it is a little box. The Doctor takes the box out of his hiding spot, and places it on the ground along with some others. There are lights like stars on the front, and he touches them and bends over it and speaks some words into it. Suddenly a very lively voice comes out, and what it says sounds like:
“So, the prodigal xenologist returns! How’s tricks with your hunter-gatherers, Jack?”
I think these are nonsense words, but the Doctor is pleased and not at all surprised. “Good, good,” he tells it. “Project status is optimal. All’s well, I’m healthy, and the research is proceeding more or less as planned.”
“I’m glad to hear it. Everything’s normal at this end, or at least what passes for normal in a department with this much red tape. Look, I’ve got to tell you, some of the big shots on the Xenology Commission are getting restless. I’m hearing grumbling that you could’ve found a satisfactory group of subjects on any of a dozen more convenient planets. They want to know where their funding’s going, and they want to see results.”
“If those tightfisted bastards — pardon me — if my generous benefactors on the Xenology Commission really cared so much about results, they damn well could have split for the equipment to do this job right. If I’d had even standard microprobes and could snoop the village by remote, I’d be twice as far along by now. But I’ve got something to tide them over, and I’m transmitting my notes.
“You’d be amazed, Bill. These people have developed some fascinating cultural vehicles for adapting to an environment that would kill anyone else. They’re all as sharp as tacks, and they practically worship data, and it’s uncanny how they remember everything. They can be infuriatingly reluctant to share information at times, though I’m sure there’s a context for that. I’d love to see what these people could do if they had decent resources.”
“I wouldn’t,” says the man in the box. “It sounds like if they ever got out into the galaxy, they’d be coming after our jobs in a few years. Just make sure they don’t learn too much from you.”
“Actually — and don’t be spreading this around the department — I wonder if there hasn’t been some contamination already,” says the Doctor. “In the last few weeks they’ve suddenly started using needle-and-thread. But I certainly didn’t teach them, and my supplies haven’t been touched.”
The man in the box sounds concerned. “I’d be damned careful about that if I were you, Jack. You know better than I do that’s nothing to muck around with. And if the X.C. ever finds out you’ve been leaking technology to your subjects, it’ll come down on you so hard there’ll be nothing left but a greasy spot.”
The Doctor makes a face like he has eaten something too sour. “I hear you,” he says.
Their conversation ends soon after that, and I am sorry we did not get to see what the man in the box looked like. We would like to have gotten some advice from him too. We leave our hiding spot and run home ahead of the Doctor, and I make Grandfather call another learning council while we are still trying to catch our breath. I tell them about the little man, and how he had said if we used needles and thread the ecksee monster would come down and get the Doctor, and we all agree it would be best to hide the needles and our new clothes for a little while. There had been many new words I hadn’t understood, and those of us who speak the Doctor’s language promise to listen for galaxy and jobs and tightfisted bastards so we can learn what they mean.
When the Doctor sees no one is wearing the new clothes anymore he is very relieved. He does not say anything, but I know we have saved him.
Once, the marshes were also home to the Tall People. This was long ago in the Dreaming Years, when the world was still forming and the Oldest Ones walked the earth, and a thing could be true and not real at the same time. In those years the Tall People called the fathers of the Watching People beasts, and turned against them. None could withstand the Tall People, for their eyes burned and were terrible to behold, and their arms were long and strong, and their spears were sharp. The few remaining fathers of the Watching People were driven out of the sweet marshes into the bone desert, and that is a hard and sorrowful place. There are few living things there and it is difficult to get out of the sun, and every new generation that came was smaller than the one before it.
Over a long time the bone desert used death to shape the fathers of the Watching People, so that they became strong beings who watched very carefully and thought deeply about all they saw. Even so, they had become so few in number they were certain to disappear. So they began to secretly watch the Tall People, who were happy because they lived in the kind marshes, and safe because they had a wonderful village that was protected by water that no one else could cross. Then the fathers of the Watching People found one of the reed boats the Tall People used floating alone, and they saw it was not an animal with a mind of its own, and they learned to make it take them where they wished. They made their first spears, shaped like the Tall People’s but tipped with black-glass from the desert, which holds the sharpest edge in the world. And they learned to build the reed boats, and made many of them in secret.
Then before dawn they quietly went across the water to the village and tore through the Tall People like vengeance so that none lived to see the sunrise, and the Watching People took their homes in the happy marshes to be theirs forever.
That was not in the Dreaming Years — Grandfather has shown me where he keeps the skulls of the people he met that night.
So if we are always mindful, the marshes and even the bone desert will give the Watching People great gifts and tell us all we need to know to survive, but they do not answer questions. And the Watching People do not ask them.
There are now many mysteries surrounding the Doctor, and only a few of the People still think it would be best to eat him right away and take his supplies. The rest of us understand we are seeing hints of something far bigger than the marshes. We encourage him to stay with us, and we let him see more of our ways, and the next time he borrows a boat to cross the water, the whole village expects Marfi and me to go after him.
We follow the Doctor to his cache without a word, and when he uncovers the box with his friend in it, we quietly creep as close as we can and look over his shoulder from atop a rock. He touches the front of the box until the lights appear on it, and then speaks some nonsense words into it.
The voice that answers is not his friend. It is the voice of the wind or a stone, but without a soul. It does not sound like a person. The Doctor coldly demands answers from it, and it gives them quickly and directly, without offense, every time. He finishes his questions, and without even a thank-you, puts away the box and starts back towards the village. Marfi and I do not follow him.
We have never heard of anything like this. I think perhaps the voice could be one of the Doctor’s Oldest Ones. Marfi, who has seen more things than I, whispers that this could be one of the Doctor’s people who has never known pride. That makes more sense, but then how could the Doctor trust its answers? We remove the little box the same way he had.
The Doctor’s fingers had danced across the lights before he spoke into it. The dance looked like the steps to part of the spring ajakara dance, except that it ended with two to the right instead of forwards. I make the same motions, and the green and white stars appear across its front. They are not hot. Then Marfi leans over the box, and mimicking the Doctor’s voice the same way he would copy a bird call, says, “Status check.”
“All systems nominal,” the box answers in that empty voice. “Standard parking orbit. Main drive reactor is on standby. Fuel cells yielding eighty-seven percent of capacity and recharging. Hull integrity remains uncompromised. Full compliance with relay-and-support mode programming. No passengers.”
Marfi looks at me wide-eyed. We are stunned.
“It would be good to know what sort of person I am speaking with,” Marfi tells it carefully. There is no response.
“Who are you?” he demands. My breath catches in my throat.
“I am the Interplanetary Xenology Commission sloop Margaret Meade, out of New Boston, registration code NXS-3508-M.” We both giggle — we have never been so rude before, or heard such thrilling nonsense.
“Why… are you in this little box?” I ask it. Silence.
On a hunch, I make myself ask, “Where are you?”
“I am in standard geosynchronous parking orbit thirty-eight thousand kilometers above the source of your transmission,” it says. We secretly laugh with delight.
Then it asks, “Shall I maintain position?”
“No,” says Marfi. “Come here.” He is struggling so hard with his laughter that tears appear. “We want to see you.”
“Please confirm correction.”
“Come here! Come here!” I shout. We roll on the ground and can barely breathe for laughing.
“Correction command acknowledged. Retracting sub-space communication array and engaging drive reactor for descent and re-entry… Drive reactor on-line. Initiating breaking thruster and lateral maneuvering thruster firing sequence… Topography identifies adequate set-down zone two hundred meters north-northwest of your transmission source… Estimated time of arrival, four hours twenty-three minutes.”
We stop laughing then. Arrival is a word we both know.
Marfi and I agree the best thing to do is to wait here. When it comes, maybe we can bring it to the village, and together we’ll see what sort of folk it is and what it can tell the People about the rest of the world. If it is very useful, maybe we will eat the Doctor after all.
In the meantime, we sit and watch the sky and pray that we are not waiting for the ecksee monster to come down on us.