A Red One Cannot See

By Barbara A. Barnett
Sep 18, 2017 · 1,882 words · 7 minutes

Philibert pressed his snout against the glass. The Bénédict's windows were angled out so that one could watch the sea passing beneath the dirigible, but Philibert fixed his gaze further in the distance, where the island was coming into view.

"It will be a lonely ride, lémur-homme," his mentor had told him before his departure—the human mentor who had taken him from the island years before and given him the name Philibert. "Have you not thought that there might be a reason so few of your kind return to the island?"

Mist hung over the island the way smoke hovered around the factory stacks in the mainland city of New Madagascar. The humans would be building those factories on the island soon, Philibert had heard. The forests would be razed, and when his family became too numerous for the enclaves into which they would be forced, they would be put in zoos or caged as pets—pets that would be hidden at parties whenever a lémur-homme like himself was in attendance.

Unless I share what I have learned, Philibert thought. My kin will see that I am no different than them, that they can better themselves as I have.

Philibert drew back from the window. Immediately, one of the Bénédict's attendants made its way over to clean the glass.  Philibert's fur stood on end as the attendant drew near, a click-clack of metallic limbs and a whir of gears beneath a starched collar and a velvet waistcoat.

Philibert thought the attendants should smell like the humans they resembled, like salt and sweat masked beneath artificial perfumes. Instead, their scent was one of oil and metal, their sound an unnatural winding and grinding that the cabin's thick oriental rug could not absorb. They moved with stiff, jerky motions, as Philibert's mentor had when the rheumatism took hold, only their brass faces never twisted with pain.

Philibert leaned back in his wicker chair, one of twenty lining the passenger cabin's aisles. Unlike the attendants, the chair had a scent with life to it—a woody odor lingering beneath the cleaning fluids that the attendants wiped over everything a passenger touched.

"The humans are going to build a new factory in the bank district," a passenger across the aisle said, a lémur-homme like Philibert, his snout buried in a newspaper. "More jobs to get the beggars off the streets. Can't abide the way they yank at your coattails when you pass—especially when you've got another tail to worry about them yanking as well."

The lémur-homme snickered, then patted his ringed tail, drawn up from behind him and curled on his lap.

Philibert smiled—politely, as his mentor had instructed, no teeth bared. The other lémur-homme, sitting so close despite the two of them having the entire cabin to themselves, possessed a tidy elegance that made Philibert's cravat look too crooked, his watch chain too tarnished, his nails too long and sharp for civilized company.

"I'm going back to the island for a mate," the lémur-homme said, looking up from his newspaper. He was one of those who had gone to the doctors to have his face altered, to make it flatter like a human's. "The lémur-femmes on the mainland have too good an idea of themselves now. They're insufferable."

Philibert gave a noncommittal grunt. This other lémur-homme had a visual enhancement, too: spectacles embedded over his eyes, mounted with mechanical arms that would shift the tinted lenses and allow him to see colors as the humans did.

"Dichromatism is the problem," Philibert's mentor had explained when trying to foist such spectacles upon him. "Your kind sees the world in only blues and greens. Without these, you will never know how glorious the color red can be."

Philibert stared at the dirigible's carpeted floor—a swirl of reds that he would never truly see. Such a disappointment he had turned out to be to his mentor. He had left his island home and learned to walk upright among the humans, to bathe and groom and dress like them, to ornament himself with hats and canes so that his mentor could show him off at parties. But he still refused the alterations in which so many other lémur-hommes indulged.

"Why do you go back to the island?" his fellow passenger asked as he folded his newspaper into a neat rectangle.

"Because those we've left at home deserve a better idea of themselves," Philibert said, his voice tinged with the snarl he had been taught to contain. "Like the lémur-femmes."

"I see." The lémur-homme sniffed indignantly, then signaled one of the Bénédict's attendants with a wave of his newspaper. "You're one of those."

The attendant handed him another newspaper and bowed, gears clacking and wheels whirring. The lémur-homme spared the attendant no glance.

"Never mind why you would want to help those who are not as gifted as the rest of us," he said to Philibert. "You just can't. The fools won't have it."

Philibert's fur bristled—a primitive reaction of aggression, his mentor would have called it. "Or perhaps it's because we think ourselves so much better that we never try."

The other lémur-homme responded with a condescending sniff and a raise of his flattened nose. "If that is what you need to tell yourself."

Philibert turned away to gaze out the window. His mentor had told him that when humans stared at the sea from above like this, when it filled their sight lines so completely, they saw as the lémur-hommes did—nothing but blues and greens.

Philibert thought of the large balloon cavity above them, filled with no more than gas to keep them from plummeting into those blues and greens, where the waves would swallow them and the pressure would snap the dirigible's skeletal frame. And no matter what color they saw on the way down, their fate would be the same.

In some ways, Philibert thought, the island forest was not so different from the humans' world in New Madagascar. The moss-covered trees were as tightly packed as city buildings, and often loomed just as high. The island and the city were both humid and oppressive, both crowded with life. They draped themselves and their inhabitants with hazy shrouds: on the island, mist clung to one's hair and skin; on the mainland, smoke clung to one's clothes and lungs.

Philibert left the dirigible's landing site behind and sloshed through a shallow pool toward the forest, mud enveloping his feet with each step. He remembered how comforting the sensation had been during his youth, when the dampness would seep between his toes and cool his padded palms as he strode forth on all fours. Now, though, it squelched in his boots and made him squirm.

Philibert pressed forward, into the shade beneath the forest's canopy, where thick vegetation brushed his fur. Insects buzzed past his ears, chirping a myriad of mating calls, so much more straightforward than the complicated rituals the humans called courtship.

Philibert snickered to think how aghast his mentor would be at his present state: filth sloshed across his trousers, his boots encased in mud, his fur matted with sweat. For all the human trappings he had adopted over the years, he was no different from his kin. As a boy, all he had done to catch his mentor's attention was mimic a human's whistle, then a gesture or two. Any of his family could have done the same had they shared his curiosity—had they not been preoccupied with the necessities of survival in the forest. Yet it was Philibert who had been taken to New Madagascar, groomed and schooled and declared a lémur-homme, fit for society.

There is no reason we should not all be given the chance I had, he thought. Perhaps a greater chance, a chance to better ourselves on our own terms.

A familiar scent halted Philibert's steps: damp fur that had been dragged against tree bark and leaves, coated with dirt and sweat and excrement. The assault on his nose was so overwhelming that he wanted to hurry past, but he refused to turn away from that for which he had returned.

His kin.

Philibert found the lemurs by a clump of trees, some huddled on the ground, some hanging from the branches. He called out to them in their tongue: "I am home."

Several of the lemurs scampered away, chittering as they disappeared into the heights of the trees. Those who stayed peered down from the branches, half hidden in shadow, fur raised, bodies poised to flee.

"I am home," Philibert said again, hands held out in supplication. "I've come back to share what I've learned. To share it with all of you."

He stepped forward, and more lemurs scurried away on all fours. Philibert crouched to mimic their stance, cringing at the protest in his muscles. When had walking on two legs become so comfortable, he wondered, so natural?

A female lemur peered at him from behind a rotting stump.  One of his sisters, perhaps? He should have recognized her scent, but it was too much like the alleys in New Madagascar where people emptied their chamber pots.

Philibert held out his hand—one with nails too polished and finely trimmed to climb the trees as easily as he once had. "Do you recognize me?"

The female lemur backed away, her round eyes fixed on him, as if she understood the words, but did not trust them.

"Please…" Philibert crawled toward her, gritting his teeth. To think that he had once moved on all fours as gracefully as his kin, only to do so now with such awkwardness. "Please, tell me that you remember me. Tell me that things have not changed so much."

The female lemur crept out from behind the stump. She sniffed at Philibert's mud-covered hands and gave a faint chirp of recognition. Philibert laughed, but as the lemur moved onto sniffing the shampooed fur around his snout and ears, her chirp became one of agitation.

"Please," Philibert said, "I came back to help you."

She pressed her snout into his jacket and sniffed at his pocket watch as it ticked and whirred like the attendants on the Bénédict.


The female fled with a screech, and the other lemurs followed.

Philibert hurried after them, but after only a few steps, his limbs cramped and he slumped into the mud.

"I must smell like clockwork to them now," he said, burying his face in his muddied hands.

The Bénédict's attendants were upon Philibert the moment he entered the passenger cabin, grooming and cleaning him as best they could before allowing him to sit.

The other lémur-homme, already settled with his newspaper, regarded Philibert with a derisive laugh. "What a mess you look.  You belong caged up in the luggage closet with my new mate."

Philibert collapsed into a wicker chair. He held his pocket watch up to his ear, whimpered at the sound of it tick-tocking in time with his heart.

"I told you the fools can't be helped," the lémur-homme said.  "They simply lack the gifts that you and I possess."

"It is not a gift to be so aware of what one can be," Philibert said. "It is a curse."

He scratched a nail across his arm, drawing blood—a red he could not see.

This story originally appeared in Shimmer.

Barbara A. Barnett

Fantasy, horror & science fiction