by S Myers
Humans colonizing another planet and things interact that shouldn't
|Mother gathered up her skirts and knelt down to pick up a smooth stone from the shore. She looked through the hole in its middle. Philippa and her brother could see her bright green iris flashing through the gap.
“What do you think I see through this stone?” Mother asked them.
They both cried out, wanting to be the first to answer.
“The city where Father works!”
She laughed. Mother was so beautiful. Before Philippa and Lander were old enough to attend school in the City, Mother would often take them to the river’s shore behind their home and introduce them to the immutable laws of her universe.
“Yes, I see all those things,” she said. “I also see my two wonderful children.”
Then she asked, “Do you know how this stone is like a filter?”
They shook their heads no.
“The stone’s hole turns my world into a tunnel with everything I love a bright spot in the middle. Everything else is filtered out--the beach, the river, the sky.”
Then she picked up a smooth shard of green river glass. “What about this green?” she asked, holding it up to her eye. “Who can tell me what the world looks like now?”
“Like we live under the ocean!”
“Like the inside of a fish!”
“Like the Emerald City!”
“Very nice imagery. Such creative children!” Mother beamed and then said, “Simply speaking, the glass’s silica matrix filters the sunlight, letting through some wavelengths and absorbing others. This particular piece of glass, because of contaminants, filters out all colors but green.”
She handed the children several glass shards, and while they played with them, she continued the lesson. “Your minds are like filters, too. Clever children control what goes into their heads and, more importantly, what comes out. The trick is to find the right filter.”
From a young age, Philippa and Lander had come to understand that Mother’s lessons were often metaphorical, layered with meanings which would slowly reveal themselves, even years later. They greedily consumed her words and strove to imitate her; they loved her so much.
She discouraged them from displaying unpleasant emotions. She said they were unproductive; any animal could feel, she’d explain. Children should reason, she’d say, because “Emotions do not solve problems. A solid understanding of what is in your long-term best interest is a better strategy.”
“Feelings come and go. Why should you behave differently just because one day is sunny and another rainy? How arbitrary.” They could only agree and strive to be less moody.
When they told their father about all the strange and wonderful things Mother said, he’d laugh and say it was because Mother was a Mid-Century Victorian Lady model. Because she never spoke or behaved that way in front of him, he never really understood. For him, Mother was their attendant, their cook and cleaner, his nighttime companion. She was the trusted caretaker of his children when he was travelling.
So, Philippa and Lander knew two mothers--the profound, thrilling, and loving mother when it was just the three of them, and the reserved, domestic, and detached mother when Father was home.
Kitty’s odd behavior had been the first sign that anything was wrong. Mother was wiping down the kitchen counters and Philippa, Lander and their father were eating dinner, talking about Father’s next trip off world. Kitty was cleaning her back leg, her head bobbing up and down when Lander noticed she was no longer moving. Her back leg poked straight out, and her head was cocked as if listening to something in the distance. The three of them stopped eating, Mother stopped cleaning, and they all watched Kitty. After a few minutes, the cat’s head began to twitch like a little bird’s. Then Kitty slowly returned to normal, and she went back to cleaning herself.
Lander ran over to Kitty and picked her up, hugging her tightly. Uncharacteristically, Kitty squirmed and clawed his face. Lander dropped her and Kitty raced out of the room. Struggling to hold back tears, Lander returned to the table. Father told him to not worry, sometimes the damp gets into the hardware. The three of them finished dinner while Mother finished up cleaning.
Kitty’s behavior grew stranger over the days. Her movements became jerky, her head would hang to one side, and she wouldn’t let anyone touch her. Then there was Kitty’s growing violence toward Bitty, their small gray cat. Bitty began to hide from Kitty, who, not requiring any sleep, would wander through the house night and day, searching for him.
Mother was changing, too. Soon after the Kitty incident, when Kitty still tolerated Bitty being in the same room, Mother came up to Philippa and Lander and asked, pointing to the two cats, “Which one of the cats do you love the most?” Her eyes were the same brilliant green and her smile as warm, but her voice was cold.
Philippa answered calmly, glancing at Lander, “We love them both the same, of course.”
Mother stopped smiling, “You love the one with the beating heart best.”
Philippa and Lander denied her charge, and while Mother’s green eyes searched their faces, they told her that having a heart had nothing to do with which cat they loved the most. And they meant it. They didn’t have to lie, yet. They loved both cats equally. They had grown up with Kitty, a forever kitten. And Bitty had been adopted after Father had found him wandering behind their home several years before. Her smile returned. “You two are my kittens,” she said and returned to the kitchen.
A few weeks later, after the schools had closed down and Philippa and Lander had stopped leaving the house, Father came home from work early and told them to pack a suitcase with only essential clothing and items. The problems in the City had escalated, and he had booked the three of them on a flight off planet late that evening. Philippa could see Mother in the back, motionless behind the kitchen island, knife hovering over half chopped vegetables. Philippa wanted to warn Father to stop talking; to simply walk out with them to the hover car, but it was too late. He told them he’d come back later after working out some details, and they would leave. He kissed them and left the house. He never returned for them. Philippa and Lander carefully chose not to notice. Later that evening, Mother quietly unpacked their suitcase.
The next week, as Mother handed them their dinner plates, she leaned over and asked Philippa, “Who do you love more, your father or me?” She said it gently, probingly. Her clouded eyes had stopped blinking days before.
“Lander and I love you both equally,” Philippa told her, reaching under the table and squeezing Lander’s leg. He nodded rapidly. Mother’s head pivoted and fixed on Lander. Philippa kicked him under the table to stop his nodding.
After a few moments, she straightened up. “I love you both equally, too.” Her skirts rustled as she walked back into the kitchen. They sat quietly eating dinner to the sounds of Mother cleaning up.
The situation was growing dire for Bitty. Kitty stalked him relentlessly, chasing him away from his food bowl, keeping him moving from place to place. Bitty hissed and retreated whenever she got too close. One afternoon as Mother was chopping onions on the kitchen island, and Philippa and Lander were watching vids at the dining table, Kitty attacked Bitty and managed to get a real grip, her back claws ripping into his belly. Bitty howled. Lander let out a cry and Mother’s head whipped around, homing in on him.
Philippa knew she had to act now. She stood up, walked over to the mantle and picked up the heavy silver candlestick. Then she calmly walked over to Kitty and crushed her skull with one swing. Bitty squirmed out of Kitty’s grip and lay panting on the floor. Philippa told Lander to go get the dermarep and take care of Bitty. She fetched Father’s circuitry tool bag from the foyer and then scooped up the bot and placed it at her seat.
Keeping an eye on Mother, Philippa carefully cut Kitty open, rummaging around in her circuitry looking for anything that might explain her behavior, while Lander ran the rep over Bitty’s wounds, soothing and petting the cat.
Mother came around the kitchen island and stood between the two of them. She watched with unblinking eyes the two children work, her head cocked to the side, a gentle smile. Suddenly, her arm darted out and grabbed Bitty by the hind leg. She lunged toward the kitchen island, swinging the cat by the leg, and dashed his head against the edge. Then she dropped his body on the counter and picked up the vegetable knife. Later, after Philippa had dismantled Kitty and Mother had dismembered Bitty, brother and sister quietly ate cat stew while Mother cleaned the kitchen.