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by Pamela Sargent
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Great science fiction looks outward toward the intricacy of the universe in order to look inward at the complexity of the human condition. In THUMBPRINTS, Nebula and Locus Award-winning author Pamela Sargent brings together short stories from across her career, each filled with rich characterization and eclectic, fascinating plots. From Mongolia to Venus, from the distant past to the near future, these works of short fiction explore what it means to be human. Ranging from lyrically mystical to bitterly realistic to laughably satirical, THUMBPRINTS is a shining catalogue of all that Sargent has contributed to the genre. With an introduction by James Morrow and an afterword by Sargent, herself.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: February 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [505 KB]
Reading time: 339-474 min.
Out of Place
* * * *
"For something is amiss or out of place
When mice with wings can wear a human face."
-- Theodore Roethke, "The Bat"
Marcia was washing the breakfast dishes when she first heard her cat thinking. "I'm thirsty, why doesn't she give me more water, there's dried food on the sides of my bowl." There was a pause. "I wonder how she catches the food. She can't stalk anything, she always scares the birds away. She never catches any when I'm nearby. Why does she put it into those squares and round things when she just has to take it out again? What is food, anyway? What is water?"
Very slowly, Marcia put down the cup she was washing, turned off the water, and faced the cat. Pearl, a slim Siamese, was sitting by her plastic bowls. She swatted the newspaper under them with one paw, then stretched out on her side. "I want to be combed, I want my stomach scratched. Why isn't he here? He always goes away. They should both be here, they're supposed to serve me." Pearl's mouth did not move, but Marcia knew the words were hers. For one thing, there was no one else in the house. For another, the disembodied voice had a feline whine to it, as if the words were almost, but not quite, meows.
Oh, God, Marcia thought, I'm going crazy. Still eyeing the cat, she crept to the back door and opened it. She inhaled some fresh air and felt better. A robin was pecking at the grass. "Earth, yield your treasures to me. I hunger, my young cry out for food." This voice had a musical lilt. Marcia leaned against the door frame.
"I create space." The next voice was deep and sluggish. "The universe parts before me. It is solid and dark and damp, it covers all, but I create space. I approach the infinite. Who has created it? A giant of massive dimensions must have moved through the world, leaving the infinite. It is before me now. The warmth -- ah!"
The voice broke off. The robin had caught a worm.
Marcia slammed the door shut. Help, she thought, and then: I wonder what Dr. Leroy would say. A year of transactional analysis and weekly group-therapy sessions had assured her that she was only a mildly depressed neurotic; though she had never been able to scream and pound her pillow in front of others in her group and could not bring herself to call Dr. Leroy "Bill," as his other clients did, the therapy had at least diminished the frequency of her migraines, and the psychiatrist had been pleased with her progress. Now she was sure that she was becoming psychotic; only psychotics heard voices. There was some satisfaction in knowing Dr. Leroy had been wrong.
Pearl had wandered away. Marcia struggled to stay calm. If I can hear her thoughts, she reasoned, can she hear mine? She shivered. "Pearl," she called out in a wavering voice. "Here, kitty. Nice Pearl." She walked into the hall and toward the stairs.
The cat was on the top step, crouching. Her tail twitched. Marcia concentrated, trying to transmit a message to Pearl. If you come to the kitchen right now, she thought, I'll give you a whole can of Super Supper.
The cat did not move. If you don't come down immediately, Marcia went on, I won't feed you at all.
Pearl was still. She doesn't hear me, Marcia thought, relieved. She was now beginning to feel a bit silly. She had imagined it all; she would have to ask Dr. Leroy what it meant.
"I could leap from here," Pearl thought, "and land on my feet. I could leap and sink my claws in flesh, but then I'd be punished." Marcia backed away.
The telephone rang. Marcia hurried to the kitchen to answer it, huddling against the wall as she clung to the receiver. "Hello."
"Marcia, I don't know what to do, you're going to think I'm crazy."
"Are you at work?"
"I called in sick. I think I'm having a nervous breakdown. I heard the Baron this morning, I mean I heard what he was thinking. I heard him very clearly. He was thinking, 'They're stealing everything again, they're stealing it,' and then he said, 'But the other man will catch them and bring some of it back, and I'll bark at him and he'll be afraid even though I'm only being friendly.' I finally figured it out. He thinks the garbage men are thieves and the mailman catches them later."
"Does he think in German?"
"German shepherds should know German, shouldn't they?" Marcia laughed nervously. "I'm sorry, Paula. I heard Pearl, too. I also overheard a bird and a worm."
"I was afraid the Baron could hear my thoughts, too. But he doesn't seem to." Paula paused. "Jesus. The Baron just came in. He thinks my perfume ruins my smell. His idea of a good time is sniffing around to see which dogs pissed on his favorite telephone poles. What are we going to do?"
"I don't know." Marcia looked down. Pearl was rubbing against her legs.
"Why doesn't she comb me," the cat thought. "Why doesn't she pay attention to me? She's always talking to that thing. I'm much prettier."
Marcia said, "I'll call you back later."
Doug was sitting at the kitchen table when Marcia came up from the laundry room.
"You're home early."
Doug looked up, frowning under his beard. "Jimmy Barzini brought his hamster to Show and Tell, and the damn thing started to talk. We all heard it. That was the end of any order in the classroom. The kids started crowding around and asking it questions, but it just kept babbling, as if it couldn't understand them. Its mouth wasn't moving, though. I thought at first that Jimmy was throwing his voice, but he wasn't. Then I figured out that we must be hearing the hamster's thoughts somehow, and then Mrs. Price came in and told me the white rats in her class's science project were talking, too, and after that Tallman got on the PA system and said school would close early."
"Then I'm not crazy," Marcia said. "Or else we all are. I heard Pearl. Then Paula called and said Baron von Ribbentrop was doing it."
They were both silent for a few moments. Then Marcia asked, "What did it say? The hamster, I mean."
"It said, 'I want to get out of this cage.' "