From the author: SF, after the occupation. Originally published in The Journal of Unlikely Entomology.
"I was nine the year the aliens came to Dünnendorf," Frau Steigner said. She peered out from filmy eyes. Gray-white hair lay limp across her pink skull. "I remember it exactly. It was the year that Frau Tahir had to leave because she wasn't allowed to teach with her headscarf on. At the time, everyone was very concerned about terrorism. We thought that other people were the enemy. My new teacher was Fräulein Sittner who took us on a school trip to the zoo. We saw the monkeys from the Amazon and the zebras of Africa and then I remember that we watched the penguins splashing through the dark blue lake they called the South Pole. I remember the penguins." She rocked back and forth, eyes half-closed. The ancient rocking chair creaked under her sagging weight as if in pain.
Frau Steigner's words were dissonant and harsh: her strong accent obliterated the gentle consonants of their language. It was hard for the children to hear the simple words without thinking her stupid, but Third Teacher told them that it was important to just listen and try to understand. They jostled for position on the bright yellow plastic floor while the old woman's head nodded and shook. Rock sat near her friend Chys, trying to avoid staring at the papery skin of Frau Steigner's wrinkled face. There was dust in the corners of the room and the remnants of a web.
Third Teacher gave the children a warning glance. Once everyone was quiet and settled down, she left with the nurse. Their footsteps clicked against the hard floor of the hallway, disappearing into the distance.
It was frightening to be alone with the old woman. Rock shuffled backwards and crouched near the door, ready to be ahead of the crush if she had to run. She kept a jealous eye on Chys, who had scooted to the front, right up close to the runners of the rocking chair. Chys wasn't afraid of anything. A few miscreants rough-housed at the back wall: Bubbler and his friends pretending that they weren't interested. When they got too loud Chys turned around and hissed at them to shut up.
"There was a loud boom," said Frau Steigner. "It sounded like a bomb. The adult persons panicked. We, we were not adults. The young persons." She twisted her fingers in her lap as she searched for the words. "The children, we splashed around the zoo lake. We all knew about the Twin Towers in America. We heard about terrorism but we did not think it could happen to us. It was exciting. Soon, the adults began to get themselves in grip and they took us away from the penguins and back to the school buildings. By that time, the television news stations began to talk about the ship from outer space, breaking through the sound barrier and landing in the city. They did not yet say the word invasion. We were told to go home and stay indoors."
Frau Steigner crinkled her nose. "Mrs. Hartman, who used to be kept in the room next to mine, she accused me of trying to cause self-importance when I say that they went to my house first. But it is not so. That is exactly how it happened."
Tinny music wound its way through the window, blasted through an old megaphone bolted onto the roof of an ancient metal vehicle driving past. Rock's mouth went dry at the thought of the chilled water sold by the rusted vans. Even Frau Steigner paused to listen. Her voice was softer when she continued. "You still use the old things. Those musics are from the ice-cream man, who would drive down our street with huge tubs of chocolate and strawberry ice cream. My mother would let me choose a sugar cone or a little paper cup and he would scoop it in." She shifted in her seat. "That was when we still had strawberries, when we still had zoos. That was before the aliens came and ate all the animals." She exhaled a sigh of sorrow and closed her eyes. The children nudged one another.
"You shouldn't use that word. We're just creatures, just like you," said Chys, showing her sharp teeth. Frau Steigner opened her eyes and leaned forwards. The front few children scuffled back into the safety of the crowd but Chys stayed firm, antennae quivering.
"You came here to hear how it was, did you not?" said Frau Steigner, squinting at her. Her gravelly voice increased in force. "Then you should listen and you should not argue." Rock held her breath.
The resulting silence was broken by a soft clicking: Bubbler tapping his claws nervously against the chipped wall. Frau Steigner turned her head towards the sound and it stopped. She looked at each of the children as if daring them to speak. No one did.
After three slow heartbeats she leaned back into her rocking chair. "The Earth belonged to us. My mother was the first casualty."
"I don't understand why we even keep an old person like her alive," whispered Bubbler. His friends nodded their agreement.
Chys turned and snapped at him. "You shouldn't say that, either! She's the last one." Bubbler glared but held his tongue.
Frau Steigner leaned forward again and the children quieted. "Let me tell you how it was. I came to find my home broken into, the front door smashed. A pot of vegetable stew simmered on the stove but no one was there. I knew then that something terrible must have happened. My mother was gone. I ran through the house, calling her name, trying to find her. Then I found thick blood splattered over the bright green apples hanging from the small tree in the garden. A scrap of blue and white fabric stuck to the grass, a piece of her apron. I sat under the apple tree until my father came home. By that time, everyone knew what was happening. An invasion." She raised a hand to still the children before any of them could challenge her. "Your people, you were invading. You ate my mother."
"We don't eat people," whispered Rock from her position by the door.
Frau Steigner jabbed a bent finger at her. "You lock me up, you poke and stare, you call me a liar!"
Chys jumped to Rock's defense. "We protect you. You are too old and frail to live on the outside, in the heat."
Frau Steigner's voice rose to a high pitch. "You locked us up, you ruined our lands, you ate our mothers!" She pressed her hands to the sides of her chair but she did not have the strength to stand.
Bubbler held a hand up to his head, snapping his pincers in the silent symbol of crazy. His friends chittered. Rock edged into the doorway to look for Third Teacher.
"Don't you understand what you took from us?" shrieked Frau Steigner. "Don't you regret a single thing that was lost when you destroyed our world?"
Fast footsteps clicked along the linoleum hallway. The nurse pushed Rock out of the doorway and grabbed the old woman with her claws sheathed. Third Teacher dashed in behind her, a steaming cup of stewed bones still in her hand.
"She'll be fine," said the nurse. She rummaged in her pockets for a syringe and pinned the old woman to the rocking chair. "Sometimes she has these fits but they pass once she's tranquilized. I think you should probably go now."
Third Teacher nodded her agreement and motioned the children to follow her out. Rock could still hear Frau Steigner screaming in the distance as the class marched across the glowing sand in single file. The heat was blistering after the cool shadows of the building.
Rock positioned herself at the front of the line and tugged at Third Teacher's arm. "Is it true what she said, about her mother? That the colonists ate her mother?"
Third Teacher's smile broadened, her needlelike teeth catching the sunlight. "Ludicrous," she said. "Earthling propaganda. The humans claimed that we would eat anything." She shuddered. "But let me tell you, human dietary habits would make your stomachs seize. You wouldn't have wanted their food, even second-hand."
She eyed the children but only Rock was listening. Third Teacher sighed and lowered her voice. "Perhaps, I don't know, one or two humans might have been eaten, in the initial rush." She raised her arms in a shrug. "You must remember that the colonists had been quite some time in the transport. I am sure they must have been ravenously hungry when they arrived. So you can see that it is possible that someone could not have recognized the dominant race of this planet and simply made a meal. But it wasn't common in any way. The chances that her mother was eaten are next to nothing. She's just repeating the same old lies." She raised her voice again. "And we certainly don't blame every human for mistakes made by one or two, now do we? We are tolerant and quick to forgive. What are we?"
"Tolerant and quick to forgive," echoed the children.
Third Teacher's smile returned. "That's right."
Rock was silent for a moment and then tugged at her teacher's arm again. "What's a penguin?"
"They were one of the odder inhabitants of this world," said Third Teacher, shaking her off. "It was a black and white bird with a big belly. Rather fatty."
Rock stared up at the bright white sky, squinting her eyes against the blinding sun. "I wish I could see a penguin," she said. "I think that old lady misses the old world very much."
"Don't they all," sighed Third Teacher. "Don't they all."
They reached the rusting station building and filed through it to the tracks. The children clambered into an ancient train. The animals were gone and Rock had never seen the green trees of the story. Oil and iron and steel remained, unaffected by the burning temperatures as the atmosphere disintegrated. It made for a sad memorial, she thought. All browns and greys and dark smudges.
Third Teacher led all the children into a coach for the journey back to the hive. They sat by the gaps of the windows to try to gain a small wisp of a breeze, chattering to each other until the train began to move.
"Did we all enjoy our trip out to see the human?"
The children called out their approval.
Third Teacher smiled at them. "Good. It is our duty to learn about the worlds we inhabit. What is our duty?"
"To learn about the worlds," they shouted. A landscape of sand and broken steel flashed by.
"Correct. And to that end, I would like each of you to save a copy of what you learned to the swarm. One day, your memories will be the only record left of this world. We must fulfill our duty."
Rock stared out the window, trying to imagine the world that the old woman had known, a beautiful globe of greens and blues. "I'll remember the penguins," she whispered as she stared into the bright-white sky.
This story originally appeared in The Journal of Unlikely Entomology.