From the author: About a little old lady, an alien, and the faceless bureaucracy that brings them together.
The doorbell broke the silence of the apartment. From his cage the canary echoed the sound wanly; Zenia rose from her chair to let the monster into her home.
It was a small apartment, the best she could afford on a fixed income, decorated with old furniture, old faces, the small trappings of memory. Zenia was one hundred and forty-three years old, and her world was changing again.
The letter from the Corporation still lay open on the china cabinet as she shuffled past; the regular spacing, the evenly balanced mass of the paragraphs could fool one into believing it was only a letter, a communication. It was polite, even congratulatory, offering Zenia Mavroandrates the opportunity to join with the Fairleigh Corporation in a pioneering program to better the lives of all Corporation dependents by extending a welcome to an extra-terrestrial, an alien stranded by sudden sickness or injury on Earth, unable to return to die decently on its own world. Zenia was invited to share her home with one such creature, to remove it from the dreary Corporation-owned shelter and make it welcome in her apartment where, from the Corporation’s standpoint, anyway, two could live as cheaply as one.
In smaller print, like an afterthought, the letter mentioned the importance of Zenia’s cooperation as an example: the widow of Captain Peter Mavroandrates, working to cement interstellar relations. Cooperation would be worth 65 cr. a month above the 350 cr. Zenia already received as her regular Corporation stipend, a gesture of appreciation for her good-hearted assistance. The letter also regretted that failure to cooperate in this forward-looking program would result in the reluctant invocation of section eleven of the Security/Welfare contract Zenia had purchased years before; her stipend would be reduced to the basic rate, 100 cr. per month, with which Zenia could just afford to buy a share in a Social Welfare home and wait to die.
Wishing only to be left alone with her pictures, her few friends, her canary and her silence, Zenia opened the door. Two men, and the woman from the Fairleigh office, with a shiny black perambulator trailing behind them, its shade lowered to hide the passenger from inquisitive eyes.
“Hello, Mrs. Maverandrattis.” The Fairleigh woman mispronounced the name as she always did. The two men wheeled the carriage into the far corner of the room, away from heaters, the window, and the door, and unloaded two small machines which, once set into motion, purred, clucked, and gurgled chattily. One machine was low and flat, curved slightly, connected by delicate cords to the other, larger one, a tall cylinder of flat white metal. There were gauges, a light, slots, and a few unreadable labels. The Fairleigh woman chattered unheard as Zenia watched the process of preparing her home to receive the alien.
“I don’t know how to work any of this,” Zenia broke in at last, resentful. If they understood her ignorance, they might take the thing and its machinery away and leave her and Peter’s photographs and Roscoe the canary alone in their small space. From every tabletop Peter’s smile reassured her: images of her husband, long dead, a hundred years gone, telling her not to mind this latest invasion.
“It’s very simple, Mrs. Mavroandrates,” the younger of the two men assured her. “Look, you put water in here. And twice a week you fit one of these in here. That’s food.” He showed her a flat, square brick of dun-colored stuff, showed her where it would fit into an upper slot on the white cylinder. “That’s all you need to do. And if this light here ever goes on, you call us. There’s a link-up with a computer at the shelter, but you know these things—“ his smile invited her confidence. “They go crazy sometimes. You ask for me if you like. Name’s Les Carik.” A nice young man.
“It eats this stuff?” Zenia looked at the dull brick. “And how does it—“ she stopped. Some things a lady did not say in front of strangers in her home. The Corporation lady snickered. “I got a right to know, don’t I? You give me this thing to look after, I got a right to know what I got to do with it.”
“Sure you got a right to know, ma’am.” Les Carik ignored the Fairleigh woman. “The machines take care of everything, Mrs. Mavroandrates.” He looked, she thought, a little like Peter had. Like Peter before the last flight.
The thought returned her attention to the machines. “Where is it? Where’s the thing?”
“It’s called a B’nithouri,” the other woman corrected sharply. Zenia wondered if the woman garbled the thing’s name as she garbled hers. Peter’s name.
The technician was lifting something onto the lower machine, which gave way with a settled whuuush under the thing’s weight.
It was unlike anything. Zenia could no more think what the thing was like than she could hate it. Egg-shaped, it stood a meter tall on what looked like roots that grasped the machine; there were projections, like tentacles, or maybe branches, which ended in a fringe of dense, unmoving flesh. No legs. No eyes. No up, down, or sideways. It looked, Zenia thought, like a sculpture in one of the old museums. A sculpture the color and texture of lightly burned toast.
And it smelled. Not a bad smell, just a smell. Like what? Too many things to tell. A whiff of sunny grass. Cinnamon. Scorched milk in the pan, three days old.
“Is it a he or a she?” Zenia asked the technician.
“It isn’t either one, ma’am.” Zenia looked at him blankly. “Neither, Mrs. Mavroandrates.”
That was hard to take in. “Can I talk to it?”
Les Carik smiled. “You’d need a machine, a translator for that. They—the B’nithouris—they talk by smell, I guess you’d say.” He sniffed the air significantly. “I guess it’s saying something right now.”
Behind them, the woman from the Fairleigh office coughed impatiently. “You don’t need to talk to it; it doesn’t even know you’re here,”
But, “Look, ma’am. You talk to it if you like. Maybe it likes it. Okay?” The technician smiled again and returned to business. “You understand all this stuff now? The water here, once a week. Twice a week, the food blocks. And look.” He pulled a slip of paper from his pocket and wrote something in small, tilted capitals. Here’s the number to call when you run out of food, or if that light goes out. You put that someplace safe, right?”
“But what does it do?” Zenia prodded.
“It just is,” the man answered her.
When they were gone Zenia closed the door to her home and turned to face her guest. “Well?” she asked the room at large. “Well?”
Roscoe caroled from his cage. The machine in the corner gurgled politely. The thing, the B’nit-whatever-it-was, just sat there in the corner on its flat machine and said, did nothing. Peter’s photographs smiled at her as she began to make her dinner.
“I don’t know, Roscoe,” she fretted as she chopped vegetables methodically. “I don’t know. I mean, what are we going to do with him? It,” she corrected.
Roscoe cocked his head to one side and trilled.
“And that woman, talks to me like I was nothing. All my life I paid my own way; I bought my contract with good money. Now—I got to take a B-nithy-thing in my home. Peter—” She stopped chopping and looked myopically in the direction of his images. Captain Peter Mavroandrates, victim of the first war of interstellar contact, smiled glassily back at her. A fifteen-minute war, a misunderstanding, a fluke of bad translation that had cost seventeen lives on an orbiting laboratory and made her a widow.
“It wasn’t your kind that did it,” she informed the thing fairly. “I’ve seen pictures of them. They look sort of like us. And everyone said it was a mistake, like that meant something.” She chopped steadily for a moment, watching the chunks of carrot spin past her moving fingers. “I don’t want you thinking I think it was one of you,” she said finally. An instinct of hospitality sputtered in her; how could she offer it anything? Did it like music? She could turn on the radio, but there was rarely anything on that she liked to listen to.
“In my day we had music,” she told Roscoe and the thing. Roscoe seemed unimpressed, but the canary made its own music and, beside, had heard Zenia’s lectures on Then and Now before. “Good music you could dance to. Peter and I used to go dancing. How they can dance to this slow stuff they play now…” The machines sighed and gurgled. No answer.
“Well.” Another In My Day rose to her lips, but politeness demanded that the topic be more general. It was her guest’s first night in the house. A boarder, like her grandmother had taken in from time to time when money was tight. But what could she turn the topic to? Not books, or music, or TV. If she asked a question about the thing’s world it couldn’t answer her. If she asked its name—no name.
Somehow, if the thing was going to live in her apartment, share her space, Zenia expected it to make a difference. It sat there, the machines gurgling and sighing from time to time. No difference.
Gradually news filtered through the building, and there were visitors. Clara, from Seven, brave in too much pink lipstick, with a new beau fifteen years her junior, who spoke respectfully to Zenia and adored Clara. Mrs. Kocynski from Eighteen came, squealing delightedly at each purr and gurgle from the machinery. And the Chous, brother and sister from the fortieth floor, both straining to hear through failing hearing appliances, marveling at the creature’s otherness. Visitors came and went; after a time the monster was no longer a seven-days’ wonder in the building.
They settled together, Zenia, Roscoe, and the B’nithouri. At first Zenia watched for a sign of life, a difference, the rise and fall of breath or a change of position, as a child might. She resented sleep, afraid to miss something. But over the days that became months that charm disappeared, and the inert form, settled comfortably in the corner on its murmuring machinery, became part of the old woman’s life. It was a presence as real as Roscoe’s, more real than the pictures of her husband; a living presence evoked by the warm, spicy smell that pervaded the living room. It needed a name; how could she speak to something that didn’t have a name? Slowly, the distinction between comments addressed to her husband’s pictures and comments addressed to the spicy silent presence in the corner became less distinct. One morning Zenia entered the room and greeted the creature in the corner as Peter, and knew that that was who it was.
They entertained each other, each in its own way. Zenia told her stories: tales of a long-ago girlhood when space travel was still miraculous and she had been married to a real, live hero; stories of the long ecru years of widowhood, lived but not felt; diatribes on Then and Now. Roscoe sang his ecstatic roller-coaster trills. The machines of Peter sighed and gurgled delicately in the corner. Zenia began to think of the B’nithouri as Peter’s soul come back to stay with her, but the thing, like the images that smiled from their frames around her room, never moved, never changed their faceless acceptance.
So they lived.
Zenia awoke one morning with a sense of clear, sharp, crystal well-being. Roscoe burst into a paean of appreciation when she walked into the room. The sky through her window was a blue from her childhood skies, and Zenia thought she could almost see the sun. Everything, even the concrete walls of the building, seemed amazingly clear and sharp and beautiful. The scent of the alien Peter was soft and enveloping and warm on the air. It would be a wonderful day.
As she ran water for tea and sliced bread for the toaster, Zenia talked to Peter in the corner. Almost, she could hear his answers, his cheerful acceptance of her silly nothings; is that so, Zenia? Do tell. Well, I never. I remember… She knew what his voice would be like, his self, the person he would be. Comfortable, like the little noises his machines made. Yes, you go along and make your breakfast. Don’t you mind me, I’ll just—
Tuesday! Startled by her forgetfulness Zenia bustled, full of apologies, to fetch a food block to slide into the machine. Why thanks, Zenia. Didn’t want to bother you, but I was feeling a bit puckish.
“No bother, Peter,” she assured the alien. “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” And went back to the kitchenette to butter her toast.
Or began to. Her quick, almost merry shuffle across the room was interrupted by a sudden vertigo, a steep, sickening, tear-the-breath-from-you dizziness that split the halves of her brain and sent them slamming concussively together, sent her reeling. Zenia folded to the floor ungracefully, breaking a hip as she fell, unaware of the pain in her desperate grasping reach to right the world again. The clear crystal taste of the day turned to brass in her mouth; her eyes opened and closed blindly, and she called for her husband, her mother, her father. Anyone. Peter.
Roscoe, impossibly high above, unbelievably far away, sang out in consternation. In the corner Peter’s soul filled the room with spicy musk. Zenia called out its name once, twice. The brassy rattle in her head turned the sound to monsters, devils that danced on her body, poked her furiously along one side with their forks. Zenia slipped into unconsciousness the way a climber slips into the chasm: as if he knows the fall will be his last.
But she woke again.
She was in a hospital, clean white and the smells of another sick body near by, the squeaking sounds of nurses’ shoes on the other side of the curtain,
A startled face appeared at the curtain. “You’re awake! Omigosh. Hi. I’ll be right there!” A young voice. Zenia’s eyes wouldn’t focus enough to make out the girl’s face as she rounded the partition. “How do you feel? That was some close call. The doctor will be here in a sec.”
“Whure? Long?” It was difficult to form the words properly; her mouth felt like rubber. There was a dull, throbbing pain in her left hip. “Wha’ hapn?” she managed.
“You’re at St. Augustine’s, Mrs.—” The girl checked the chart, pronounced the name carefully. “Mavroandrates. They brought you in yesterday. You had a stroke, and fell and broke your hip. But you’re looking pretty chipper today; I guess you’ll be fine real soon now.”
Zenia did not feel chipper enough to ask what Fine Real Soon Now meant. She was very old. Even now, with medicines and therapies and anti-agathic science, she was an old woman. What point in putting her back together again if…
“Pe’er?” she whispered. “Ros-coe?”
“Your canary? Don’t worry, ma’am. Someone from your building’s taking care of the canary.” Would someone from the building take care of Peter, too? Zenia flushed uneasily, jealously. The room smelled sour; her hip hurt. She wanted to go home to Roscoe and Peter in the corner.
“How—I’m here?” The words sounded as if they had been extruded through a mouthful of marbles, but the nurse understood.
“That’s the incredible thing.” Her voice was very young, very impressed. “An alarm went off on the extra-terrestrial support, just about the time you fell, ma’am. The man who came to fix the machine found you.”
“The ET? Must be, ma’am. They’ll take good care of it. Now, you rest, right?”
After the enormous exertion of the past five minutes Zenia could not have fought sleep if she had wanted to.
Getting well was a slow process. Doctors came and asked her to move one hand, the other, wiggle her toes, how was the hip today. Clara, and the Chous, and others from her little community came to visit; even, one morning, Les Carik, the young technician who had brought Peter to her. He was mannerly, a little nervous in the hospital. Beaming at him, Xenia told the boy a little about her long-dead husband, the hero, and Les agreed that he must have been a wonderful man.
“But what about P—my B’nit-houry? Who’s taking care of him?” she asked at last.
Les looked uncomfortable. “Well, ma’am, I guess he’ll be placed in another home sooner or later.”
“But when I get home I’ll get him back.”
“Ahh, well. I guess the Fairleigh people will let you know about that later. I mean, with your being so sick and that, you shouldn’t have to worry—“
“Worry? He isn’t any trouble at all. You told me so yourself. And I—I like him.” It was still difficult to talk clearly. “Pe—the B’nit-hoory and I got on good, just fine. It wasn’t really sick when you came, was it? The nurse said the light went on’s why someone found me.”
“There wasn’t anything wrong with the B’nithouri or the machines, at least when I got there. I checked everything, but I still can’t say why the alarm went off.”
With the calm of someone who has learned that miracles happen to the unwary, Zenia smiled. “It called you to help me.”
“Ma’am?” Les Carik had been looking out the window; now he turned back to her sharply. “Ma’am?”
“So you see, I got to have Peter back when I’m well,” Zenia hurried on anxiously. “The B’nit-hoory. We take care of each other.”
“I don’t think—“ the man began.
“Just you tell them about that. They wanted me to take it in the first place. You tell them I’ll be up and around in a few weeks and they can bring Peter home to me then. We’re used to each other now. They can’t pull that apart just because I got sick, can they?” Zenia smiled a very young smile.
“I’ll tell them, ma’am. I don’t know if it’ll do any good but—well, I will tell them.”
The Fairleigh Corporation said no. Not only to Les Carik, who made the request on behalf of Mrs. Zenia Mavroandrates, but to Mrs. Mavroandrates herself when, six months after her fall, she was able to plead her case in person. It was no: the Corporation was willing to continue the additional stipend to her, but felt it would be inadvisable to return that particular Extra-Terrestrial, or any other, to her at this time. Mrs. Mavroandrates now had a record of cerebral accidents; she might endanger the subject intelligence’s life. The Corporation’s liabilities…surely she could understand.
Zenia could not understand. Without money she could not appeal, and the one meeting she had with Corporation officials left her trembling with fatigue and anger. No one would listen to her.
On a dour and drizzly day Zenia returned to her home. Roscoe, his cage hectic with ribbons, trilled a welcome song, fluttering frantically to indicate his approval. The apartment looked almost the same: the pictures, the kickshaws and souvenirs of a long life, the grey and blue chairs and sofa all as she had left them. Except, no Peter in the corner to scent the air with spice, no sigh and chuckle of machinery. The pictures of her husband smiled at her; Zenia smiled back automatically, wanting the B’nithouri.
“Can I visit him—it?” she asked, calling Les the next day. “Just to see how he—it’s getting along? You think I’m a crazy old woman, and I guess I am, but you get used to something when you’re my age; too many things just go away.”
“I’ll see,” he said. And called her back the next day to say that she could visit. The B’nithouri was still being housed in the Corporation’s shelter. Zenia shuddered. Rather have Peter in a shelter than here, safe and comfortable with her?
Les offered to pick her up for the visit and Zenia, with the dignity of a young girl asked to her first dance, thanked him gravely and accepted. Roscoe chirruped inquiringly from behind her, but Roscoe was, as Zenia reminded him, only a bird.
The shelter was huge, impersonal, riddled with hallways and doors. Many extra-terrestrials who could not, for reasons of age, illness, or injury incurred on Earth, withstand the rigors of a journey to their own planets, had been housed in the shelter pursuant to treaty arrangements, just as an incapacitated diplomat or merchant from Earth would be housed on their own worlds. Zenia and Les, with a dull-eyed technician who chain-smoked impatiently, rode a tiny electric cart down the metal-walled corridors.
“You think you can tell which of these things is yours?”
Zenia looked at the shelter-tech with dignity. “Of course I can.” The tech shook his head bemusedly. Another one who doesn’t like old people, Zenia thought. I don’t like him either.
The cart came to a silent stop and Les helped Zenia from her seat. Since the stroke she had walked with a cane, and her movements were slow, elderly. The technician eased out of the cart and loped around to meet them, guiding the old woman and the young man into a room.
The scent in the room was deafening. Zenia closed her eyes, bathed in the fragrance. When she opened them again, she saw the B’nithaur, at least fifty of them, packed together in rows, each one shuffling through the ranks of the creatures looking at one, another, waiting for recognition. Les, behind her, opened his mouth half a dozen times to tell her that she wouldn’t be able to do it, but Zenia moved on, elegant with purpose.
“Peter?” To outside eyes the alien she stopped for was no different than any of the others. “Peter,” Zenia said more definitely. The B’nithouri looked shrunken, somehow, withered by its stay in the shelter. Zenia could hardly counsel bravery, tell it that soon it would be home with her. So she began to tell it all about the hospital, hearing in her inner ear that same, comfortable voice: yes, Zenia? They did what? What happened then? “And I tried to get them to bring you home, Peter, I did.” The thing sat unmoving.
At last Zenia sighed. “Time to go, I guess.” Les and the drab technician stood a little way off, watching the visit. “Maybe I’ll come back again, though. To make sure they take care of you.” The tech gave Les an exasperated look. Nothing happened, no movement, no acknowledgement from the brown eggish thing on its life-support platform. Zenia turned and walked away, her back straight.
Behind her, an alarm went off. The alert keyed to the B’nithouri she had just left.
The shelter-tech jerked up, his boredom drowned in suspicion. “Waddedyoudo?” he snapped over his shoulder.
“Nothing,” Zenia snapped back, unheard, over the clang of the bell.
After a moment the shelter-tech straightened up. “Mechanical. A short, I guess. No damned reason for it.” He turned away disgustedly to lead them out of the room. After a backward look Zenia followed. As she took a step forward the bell rang again.
The tech glared at her.
“I didn’t do a thing,” she protested to Les. “It just doesn’t want to be here. Why can’t it come home with me?”
“Mrs. Mavroandrates,” Les began urgently. Stopped at the sight of her face, the stubborn dawning triumph there.
“Look, it’s just something wrong with the wiring. The thing’s okay,” the tech insisted. Before the party could reach the door the bell rang for a third time. “Damn,” the tech said, teeth clenched. “I’m gonna call my supervisor. Lady, don’t you move.”
Les found a chair for her. Zenia smiled at his wary face.
“How’d you know it was that one, Mrs. Mavroandrates?”
“Just knew. You live with something a while, you get to know it. That’s Peter there. And the Fairleigh Corporation,” she added, and smiled deliciously, “can either set me up a cot right here, or send Peter home with me. Right?” She answered herself. “Right.”
“Does it do that for everyone?” the supervisor asked. He and the tech hunched together nervously in the corner of the room, away from Zenia and Lee.
“Nossir, just her.”
“Dammit.” The supervisor looked at Zenia, saw only a problem. “Lady, I can’t just give the thing to you like a pet. It’s got rights too. Under a treaty. And how d’you know that’s the one lived with you?”
“I know.” She said it simply; it was obvious.
“The numbers match,” the tech agreed, as if the words tasted bad.
“Christ. Look, lady.” The supervisor ran a hand over his forehead. ”I have to talk to people in the offices. Can you—ahh—calm the thing down a little? Explain that you’ll be back? We can’t have that bell ringing all the time, it’ll upset the other—ahh, inmates. If I promise to talk to some people?”
Zenia looked him in the eye. He didn’t flinch; she’d have to trust him. “Okay.” She shuffled back to the B’nithouri. “I’ve done all I can here, Peter. But they’re going see about bringing you home. You’ve got to take it easy till then, okay?” She turned to the supervisor. “I tried. I think it’s okay now.”
“Yeah, lady. You sure tried,” he agreed.
No one wanted to believe it. It made too much trouble. Too many decisions to reverse, too many conversations with the B’nithaur Trade Mission, examining fine points of treaty law and the Coporation’s service contracts. The media got wind of it; one little old lady, a war widow from the Fifteen Minute War, and one burnt-toast-egg-shaped extra-terrestrial pensioner made a good story. A nuisance the Fairleigh Corporation could do without, particularly when the B’nithaur Mission made it clear that they were more impressed by the earnest desire of their sibling to share space with an elderly Tellurian female than by the maintenance of rules and order. The shelter was a negative environment at best; why should their sibling not be allowed to be where he wished to be?
It was Les who brought Peter back to her, flanked by two anonymous assistants from the shelter who eyed the little woman in housecoat and slippers as if she were a witch. Clara was there, and the Chous, and other friends, cluttering up Zenia’s living room like old, musty birds. A coming-home party.
The machines were set up and began their faint noisemaking. The B’nithouri, brought out of its carriage, released its wonderful living scent into the room. The technicians settled it into place resentfully, plugged in plugs, wired wires, made their exit. Peter was home. Roscoe sang welcome.
The party was brief; everyone but Zenia was conscious of a strange sort of flatness, a letdown. All that fuss for a thing that sat, almost ignored, in its corner. People started to leave; Les was the last one, standing in the door obviously trying to think of something to say to her. But Zenia said it first, said thank you and Godspeed, and offered him a raddled cheek to kiss.
“You visit some time, huh?” Before he could agree, she smiled shrewdly. “You think about it, anyway.”
“I will,” he promised. Then he was gone, too.
She went about clearing the genteel untidiness her guests had left. Roscoe settled himself in to sleep, nuzzling the bars of his cage with a careful beak. In the corner the machines made their chuckling sighs. Zenia began to hum.
“Glad to be home, Peter?” she asked at last.
Well, yes, Zenia. Been a while, hasn’t it. Glad to see you looking so well.
It was her own voice that sounded in the room, but they were Peter’s words, growing from inside of her. It didn’t matter who spoke them.
“Did I ever tell you about the time when Peter and I went out to Wyoming?” she began, chores completed. She settled herself with hydraulic grace into a chair near the corner.
Why no, Zeen, don’t believe you ever did.
“Well, that was a long time ago, of course. . .”
Comfortably she began her story. The canary slept and the monster’s machinery whuuushed softly in accompaniment.
This story originally appeared in Asimov's.