Snow continued to fall outside, flurries ebbing and waning in the vagaries of the winds. Deep now. Banking up around the walls of the house, almost to the eaves on the windward sides. Christ only knew why the Mediator had wanted to go out in that.
In the afternoon after struggling back through the drifts from her class, Chihirae was at her desk; head propped on fist, spectacles perched on her nose, tail slotted through the gap in the rear of the chair flicking while she poured over some detail in one of her books: the history atlas. As she'd been doing most of the day. A peculiar sight, a scene that even more strangely struck me as peaceful, as ... fitting.
I added another stroke with the pencil, darkening in a reverse detail, highlighting her ear. The first time I'd ever tried to draw a Rris and I still wasn't sure I was able to pinpoint just what differentiated them.
With humans it's not just the shape of the face or the color of the hair, it's a multitude of tiny details that blend to give someone character. It's easy to follow the set rules: corners of the mouth in line with pupils, seven and a half heads to the body, ears line up with nose... but it doesn't create a character, someone's cheekbones, the set of the eyes, the jaw, particular mannerisms... all the little quirks and nuances and imperfections that make the individual.
But she wasn't human. It wasn't the kind of symmetry I'd grown up seeing every day, being immersed in whether I watched television or walked down the street. Aside from her fur, I didn't know if it was the set of her amber eyes, tufted ears or nose. Maybe it was the ears I sighed to myself as I erased yet another retouched attempt. Chihirae paused in her reading and turned in her chair to look at me over her glasses, "What are you doing there?"
"Trying to see you," I said.
"I thought you were studying." She stood and laid her glasses on the desk, stretched, then wandered over and crouched beside me. I heard her breath close to my ear, then she asked, "Is that how you see me?"
"I don't know. It is not... right."
"A," she said and I didn't know if she was agreeing or not. "You are good."
"Thank you." I smiled a bit, "It was my life."
"Oh." She sat down beside me on my sleeping mat and stretched her peculiar toes toward the warmth of the fire. "How long have you been doing that?"
"Long as I know," I tried to think back to the first time I'd picked up a crayon, the time I'd decided I wanted to spend my life doing this. "Since I was small."
She blinked at me, perhaps trying to imagine what I looked like as a child. "Does your kind place a lot of importance on [something]."
"What was that word?"
"What you do, making things that are pleasant to look at or touch. Beautiful noises and tastes. [Art], [artisans]. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I understand." I shrugged then and tried to put her previous question into context. "I suppose we do," I finally answered and it's true. I mean, in the modern Norde Americano culture it's difficult to escape it. Some might say that commercial artwork is a bastardization of true art. To be reciprocal, I for one feel 'true art' is a bit of a crock, going downhill since Picasso and Braque and a few other cubists got themselves totally zeroed on some exotic weed, tried to reduce the world to its component geometries and decided it looked better that way. Modern 'art'. Ughh. Give me an Andrew Wyath, a Claude Monet any day.
"Were you an [artist]? Someone who makes art."
"Yes. In a way. Would you like to see?"
"It would be interesting."
It didn't take more than thirty seconds to boot up the laptop and run the macro to show my portfolio. Chihirae huddled up to my shoulder and watched with me, asking me questions as the screens passed. I tried to answer her as best as I could, but some things just didn't make any sense to her, things she just didn't have any reference for. "What is that?" she asked as an ad for window cleaner spiraled across the screen in a smooth Khaos routine.
"It tries to make people want to... buy? Yes, buy a thing to clean glass."
Why indeed. I tried to explain about advertising and competition and wide exposure and market saturation and found out my Rris just wasn't up to it. I didn't know many words related to economics. Try explaining politics or theology with a seven year old's vocabulary. When I was about to start tearing my hair out, Chihirae touched my arm. "Don't worry. Try later. We can just watch, alright?"
"All right," I agreed, somewhat disheartened. Having my face rubbed in my limitations still happens - some physical activities, words I can't pronounce - and it's still a letdown.
And Chihirae chittered at my disappointment. "Don't worry. You tried. You will learn. A, that is a good one. How long does it take you to make one of these?"
She asked more questions, trying to keep them simple and the afternoon turned into a relaxed lesson in language and cultures. Time passed and the light outside remained the same flat grey as snow kept falling, icing the windows over. Around the stove it was warm, but move just a few metres away and it got cold. Fast. So Chihirae and I sat beside each other on the mat, sorting through pictures and trying to name them. She asked about other art forms: music, plays, literature, architecture...
"I have some of all here," I patted the laptop.
"Sort of." How else to describe films? "Yes. A few."
"With things like you?" Her eyes sparkled with interest, her ears perked high. "Could we see one?"
"Sure. Ah, which?" I put the disk in and called up the main menu. Alongside each entry a miniature animated icon depicting the film it represented danced smoothly. "A few. True and not true."
She leaned closer to squint at the icons: rows of moving figures in miniature, colours vibrant, except for - "Why is that [colourless]?" Chihirae asked, pointing to the icon for Schindler's List. Shit, I didn't think showing her that would be such a good idea. Maybe deleting the entire thing would be more...
Censorship is an ugly thing. No matter how I disliked it, that film showed a side of humankind that existed.
"Uh, that was what the... person who made it wanted. It does look different."
"A, that it does," she flicked her ears then asked, "What did you mean 'true and not true'?"
"The stories, some happened, others are... ah..."
"[Fiction]?" she supplied.
"Yes, fiction," I had some trouble with the Rris word, stuttering it.
"That colorless one?"
"It is true." I hesitated, "It is not a... nice film. I do not know that I would be able to explain..." I trailed off uncomfortably.
Chihirae was looking at me. Eventually she just said, "Some other time then. What about that one?"
Silken. Uh-huh. The film that'd won Emile Disrile her Oscars. A detective story set in Louisiana with a convoluted and subtle plot, characters, depths, cinematography to rival Dances With Wolves on the big screen, atmospheric music, steamy sex scenes, adventure and action. Everything that - IMHO - makes a film worth watching.
Chihirae breathed out softly as the titles ran, the views of the bayou, wildlife, Baton Rouge, Orleans, the Mississippi river and delta, then she was silent as the film ran, just drinking in the images even though she couldn't understand a word that was being said. I offered to try and translate, but she just wanted to watch. She was close to me, casually leaning against my arm. I could feel her reactions to scenes: tense in the shadowy backwaters, nervous during the chases, gunplay, laughing at some things, confused during others. Then the sex scenes.
She stared. Like she didn't know what to make of the semi-lit couple gyrating on the bed with its silk sheets and wrought-iron frame. Then she chittered loudly, "That is a female, isn't it? They are [something]?"
If that meant what I thought it meant... "Uh, Yes."
Slow music. Indistinct lighting. Low moans, gasps, wet noises.
"Is [mating] always like that for your kind?" she asked after another while.
"It looks [something]. Is it fun?"
"You have never... ah... what is the word?"
"Mated," she provided absently. "Ah, yes, but never like that." She gestured as the actress threw her head back, moaning, her partner nuzzling down between her legs. "What are they doing?"
I didn't quite know how to explain that. She listened, then her jaw dropped slightly and she looked from me to the monitor and back again. Then her mouth shut with a hollow clop. "You are joking."
"Huhnn," she made a noise as if she wasn't sure whether to laugh or say something else and an awkward tension seemed to set the air on edge. She made a coughing sound, then looked back as the scene faded to morning, the couple entwined in each others limbs in the warm light sifting through black wrought-iron curlicues over the window.
I looked at the alien sitting beside me, leaning against my arm with the flickering light of the Active FlatLine screen strobing across her face. "Do you have a... a mate?" I eventually asked her.
"Ah?" she looked up at me, wrinkles on her muzzle. "A mate? What do you mean? You know that word 'mate' is a verb; it does not make sense."
Taken aback, I groped for words, "Is there someone... you stay with, you live with. A male you are..." Shit, I didn't know the word for married. "A male you live with?"
"Like you, you mean?" she chittered softly.
Not what I meant. I frowned, rubbed my chin, then asked, "Chihirae, how long do Rris mate for?"
"Ah?" she looked back to the screen and scratched at her chin with a clawtip. "I suppose [something] goes on a few days, maybe weeks. They might stay together for a while, until someone leaves. It depends on the situation. Sometimes they will decide to live together. Why?"
"You mean Rris just meet and... and mate?"
She laughed, chittering. "There's a little more to it than that. It does help if they like each other."
They didn't mate for life. Well, neither do humans, not naturally. It's just various social and religious doctrines over the centuries that forced us into monogamous patterns. Perhaps the marriage rate back home was falling, but it seemed that Rris had never even heard of the concept. Love 'em and leave 'em was the way they lived. Probably because of the lack of dimorphism between males and females: from what I'd seen both sexes seemed capable of standing on their own and looking after themselves, but what about pregnancies? raising their offspring? That loopy female who'd accused me of murder, surely she'd been Sherrith's mate? And what about the other couples I'd seen around the village? Like that Ki, the 'family' I'd peeped in on when I was still skulking around the wilderness.
"A," Chihirae absently answered my question, more of her attention on what was going on on the screen. "Ki and Risa live together. The cubs were not sired by him. What is that thing... she - It is a she? - is talking at?" she pointed at the screen where the semi-naked actress was phoning her dealer. I took the hint and saved my questions for later. God knew I had more than enough time.
So we sat and watched the movie. All that was missing was the popcorn. Chihirae was a warm presence at my side, occasionally chuckling at something she found amusing, more often than not watching in silence and self-contained confusion. It was disturbing: sitting in the darkness watching a film was something I'd done so often with Jackie. Now, I glanced at the... the person beside me and felt that hollow emptiness: A part of me was gone and any hope that it might be regained was fading. Chihirae snickered, oblivious, and I turned my attentions back to the screen and tried to push thoughts that could drive me over the edge to the back of my mind.
When the end credits scrolled I had to tell her it was finished. She rubbed her eyes and lay back on my sleeping mat, looking up at the roof. "That was... quite a [something]. I have never dreamed there could be such..." she raised her arms, waving her hands as though she was trying to grab suitable words out of the air, "The places, things... people, the sounds... that was supposed to be music? It is like the [something] after [dreaming?]: one is never sure what is real and what isn't." She let her arms drop to her sides, lolled her head to look at me. "Is that considered a good play among your kind, Mikah?"
"Many people said it was one of the best," I told her.
"Do you like it?"
"Yes." I hesitated. "But..."
"It's just this time... it is like... like being in a dark room, looking at the real world through the crack in the wall." I shrugged. "It just... wasn't the same."
She shifted, rolling to her side and resting her tufted chin on laced fingers. "A dark room... is that how you see us? [something]. A dark room. No light? No color? Mikah, we do not have your toys, but we have plays, we have books, music, art. We are Rris/ people."
"Yes, I know." I nodded slightly. "I didn't mean to... I am sorry."
Chihirae licked at her black lips - a flash of a pink tongue - then she said, "You are lonely, aren't you."
I forced a smile and I don't think it fooled her for a second. "It isn't easy."
She seemed to hunt for something to say, just the tip of her tail flicking like a questing snake. "I... don't think there is much anyone can do," she finally said. "You are going to have to try and manage. Somehow."
The wind outside seemed very loud in the awkward silence, rattling the windows in their frames and sending draughts skittering across the floor like cold, invisible mice.
"What are you going to do now?" Chihirae finally asked.
"I don't know," I sighed and leaned my head back against the wall. "Try and go home?"
"And if you can't?"
I looked down at my hands, as if I might already be holding the answer to that one. "Try and just... live? I do not know... Chihirae, can I have a home here? Can I have friends? Can I get work?"
She waved a hand in one of her shrugs. "I don't know. But there are going to be a lot of people interested in you and your kind."
I swallowed. "I don't want to live as a... a... something to stare at."
"I understand," she said softly, then added, "It might be difficult. You will always be different."
I mulled that over, remembering what the Mediator had told me. It didn't do a great deal for my self-esteem. "What can I do then? Just be a thing for Rris to look at? To be an animal that does tricks?" Picturing that, imagining it going on for the rest of my life... "I do not think I can live like that. Goddamnit! I am not an animal."
She turned to me again, a peculiar expression I didn't recognise flitting across her face. "What is that look?" I had to ask.
Involuntarily her hand went up to her face, hesitated. "I did not mean..." she began, then made a throat-clearing sound: a small cough. "Sorry for you," she explained. Pity for me. "Mikah, look at yourself. You are... not Rris. You look like nothing anyone has ever seen before. You cannot even speak properly. I just want to warn you, do not expect too much."
I nodded slightly.
Her hand touched my arm, moving as if she were trying to stroke nonexistent fur. "I didn't mean to worry you like that. [Something], in some ways you are just like a cub... there is a lot you have to learn."
"Can you teach me?"
She sat up, then, crossing her legs to sit tailor-fashion. "Mikah, I do not know if I can give you enough time."
"You teach cubs every day," I pointed out.
A thoughtful look crossed her face. "You would like to come to the class?"
I nodded, then realised it was asking a lot of her. I'd still be a burden, and I didn't have anything I could offer in exchange. "I cannot pay money. I can help maybe?"
"How?" One ear tipped backwards.
"I do work around here. Cut wood. Fix things. Maybe I help in teaching?"
"A?" she looked interested and again asked, "How?"
"I answer questions? I can teach some new things maybe."
She hesitated for quite a while and I had to wonder if I'd gone too far, threatening to poach her territory. "If you don't want..." I started to say and she cut me off. "No, no. It is not that. I suppose... it is something to think over." Her head - a noble feline profile - dipped, then she glared at the stove. "[Something]! That [something] thing! Always going out."
I watched as she occupied herself shoving wood into the soot-smudged stove door, fiddling with vents. Avoiding something. "Chihirae? You do not want me there."
She paused with a piece of wood in her hand, then sighed and settled back onto her knees. "Not me. Mikah, you will frighten some of the cubs, and their elders... I know some of them would not be happy."
Oh. Deflated, I stared at the floor; I hadn't thought of that.
"Mikah, I didn't... I mean, I'm not sure what they would say. I suppose we can only find out, a? I will try, all right?"
I gave her a halfhearted smile. "Thank you." Oh, Jesus and Joseph, was I ever going to be able to live anything like a normal life? Be able to do anything without being thought of as a ravening monster by creatures that looked like fugitives from the island of Dr. Moreau?
I've had time to grow accustomed to it, to settle down and learn to live and deal with my problems. I've lived through the highs and lows but If I'd known then what was to come in the next few months... well, I'm sure I would have tried to do something desperate. Looking back, I can see there were easier roads to travel, but they still wouldn't have been the right one.
So I sighed, shook my head slightly, then reached for the laptop and called up some music, something mellow, Indigo, Sanctuary. Relaxing, the music and lyrics were human, soothing, something to help me calm down and try to take stock.
"Mikah," Chihirae gestured at the laptop. "Stop that? It is... annoying."
I opened my mouth to protest, then something inside me sagged. What was the use. I turned the machine off and stared at the dark metallic face of the screen. Outside, snow flurried through light seeping through the window: silent static beyond the glass.