Endangered Speciesby Gene Wolfe
Wolfe, whose tetralogy The Book of the New Sun was the most acclaimed science fiction work of the 1980s, offered his second collection of short fiction in 1990 to universal acclaim. This is a hefty volume of over 30 unforgettable stories in a variety of genres-- SF, fantasy, horror, mainstream-many of them offering variations on themes and situations found in… See more details below
Wolfe, whose tetralogy The Book of the New Sun was the most acclaimed science fiction work of the 1980s, offered his second collection of short fiction in 1990 to universal acclaim. This is a hefty volume of over 30 unforgettable stories in a variety of genres-- SF, fantasy, horror, mainstream-many of them offering variations on themes and situations found in folklore and fairy tales, and including two stories, "The Cat" and "The Map," which are set in the universe of his New Sun novels. Wolfe's deconstructions/reconstructions are provocative, multilayered, and resonant. This embarrassment of literary riches is a must for all Gene Wolfe fans, and anyone who loves a good tale beautifully told.
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By Gene Wolfe
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1989 Gene Wolfe
All rights reserved.
A Cabin on the Coast
IT might have been a child's drawing of a ship. He blinked, and blinked again. There were masts and sails, surely. One stack, perhaps another. If the ship were really there at all. He went back to his father's beach cottage, climbed the five wooden steps, wiped his feet on the coco mat.
Lissy was still in bed, but awake, sitting up now. It must have been the squeaking of the steps, he thought. Aloud he said, "Sleep good?"
He crossed the room and kissed her. She caressed him and said, "You shouldn't go swimming without a suit, dear wonderful swimmer. How was the Pacific?"
"Peaceful. Cold. It's too early for people to be up, and there's nobody within a mile of here anyway."
"Get into bed then. How about the fish?"
"Salt water makes the sheets sticky. The fish have seen them before." He went to the corner, where a showerhead poked from the wall. The beach cottage — Lissy called it a cabin — had running water of the sometimes and rusty variety.
"They might bite 'em off. Sharks, you know. Little ones."
"Castrating woman." The shower coughed, doused him with icy spray, coughed again.
"You look worried."
"Is it your dad?"
He shook his head, then thrust it under the spray, fingers combing his dark, curly hair.
"You think he'll come out here? Today?"
He withdrew, considering. "If he's back from Washington, and he knows we're here."
"But he couldn't know, could he?"
He turned off the shower and grabbed a towel, already damp and a trifle sandy. "I don't see how."
"Only he might guess." Lissy was no longer smiling. "Where else could we go? Hey, what did we do with my underwear?"
"Your place. Your folks'. Any motel."
She swung long, golden legs out of bed, still holding the sheet across her lap. Her breasts were nearly perfect hemispheres, except for the tender protrusions of their pink nipples. He decided he had never seen breasts like that. He sat down on the bed beside her. "I love you very much," he said. "You know that?"
It made her smile again. "Does that mean you're coming back to bed?"
"If you want me to."
"I want a swimming lesson. What will people say if I tell them I came here and didn't go swimming."
He grinned at her. "That it's that time of the month."
"You know what you are? You're filthy!" She pushed him. "Absolutely filthy! I'm going to bite your ears off." Tangled in the sheet, they fell off the bed together. "There they are!"
"There what are?"
"My bra and stuff. We must have kicked them under the bed. Where are our bags?"
"Still in the trunk. I never carried them in."
"Would you get mine? My swim suit's in it."
"Sure," he said.
"And put on some pants!"
"My suit's in my bag too." He found his trousers and got the keys to the Triumph. Outside the sun was higher, the chill of the fall morning nearly gone. He looked for the ship and saw it. Then it winked out like a star.
That evening they made a fire of driftwood and roasted the big, greasy Italian sausages he had brought from town, making giant hot dogs by clamping them in French bread. He had brought red supermarket wine too; they chilled it in the Pacific. "I never ate this much in my life," Lissy said.
"You haven't eaten anything yet."
"I know, but just looking at this sandwich would make me full if I wasn't so hungry." She bit off the end. "Cuff tough woof."
"Castrating woman. That's what you called me this morning, Tim. Now this is a castrating woman."
"Don't talk with your mouth full."
"You sound like my mother. Give me some wine. You're hogging it."
He handed the bottle over. "It isn't bad, if you don't object to a complete lack of character."
"I sleep with you, don't I?"
"I have character, it's just all rotten."
"You said you wanted to get married."
"Let's go. You can finish that thing in the car."
"You drank half the bottle. You're too high to drive."
Lissy giggled. "You just said bullshoot. Now that's character!"
He stood up. "Come on, let's go. It's only five hundred miles to Reno. We can get married there in the morning."
"You're serious, aren't you?"
"If you are."
"You were testing me," he said. "That's not fair, now is it?"
"You've been so worried all day. I wanted to see if it was about me — if you thought you'd made a terrible mistake."
"We've made a mistake," he said. "I was trying to fix it just now."
"You think your dad is going to make it rough for you —"
" — for us because it might hurt him in the next election."
He shook his head. "Not that. All right, maybe partly that. But he means it too. You don't understand him."
"I've got a father myself."
"Not like mine. Ryan was almost grown up before he left Ireland. Taught by nuns and all that. Besides, I've got six older brothers and two sisters. You're the oldest kid. Ryan's probably at least fifteen years older than your folks."
"Is that really his name? Ryan Neal?"
"His full name is Timothy Ryan Neal, the same as mine. I'm Timothy, Junior. He used Ryan when he went into politics because there was another Tim Neal around then, and we've always called me Tim to get away from the Junior."
"I'm going to call him Tim again, like the nuns must have when he was young. Big Tim. You're Little Tim."
"Okay with me. I don't know if Big Tim is going to like it."
Something was moving, it seemed, out where the sun had set. Something darker against the dark horizon.
"What made you Junior anyway? Usually it's the oldest boy."
"He didn't want it, and would never let Mother do it. But she wanted to, and I was born during the Democratic convention that year."
"He had to go, of course."
"Yeah, he had to go, Lissy. If you don't understand that, you don't understand politics at all. They hoped I'd hold off for a few days, and what the hell, Mother'd had eight with no problems. Anyway he was used to it — he was the youngest of seven boys himself. So she got to call me what she wanted."
"But then she died." The words sounded thin and lonely against the pounding of the surf.
"Not because of that."
Lissy upended the wine bottle; he saw her throat pulse three times. "Will I die because of that, Little Tim?"
"I don't think so." He tried to think of something gracious and comforting. "If we decide we want children, that's the risk I have to take."
"You have to take? Bullshoot."
"That both of us have to take. Do you think it was easy for Ryan, raising nine kids by himself?"
"You love him, don't you?"
"Sure I love him. He's my father."
"And now you think you might be ruining things for him. For my sake."
"That's not why I want us to be married, Lissy."
She was staring into the flames; he was not certain she had even heard him. "Well, now I know why his pictures look so grim. So gaunt."
He stood up again. "If you're through eating ... "
"You want to go back to the cabin? You can screw me right here on the beach — there's nobody here but us."
"I didn't mean that."
"Then why go in there and look at the walls? Out here we've got the fire and the ocean. The moon ought to be up pretty soon."
"It would be warmer."
"With just that dinky little kerosene stove? I'd rather sit here by the fire. In a minute I'm going to send you off to get me some more wood. You can run up to the cabin and get a shirt too if you want to."
"Traditional roles. Big Tim must have told you all about them. The woman has the babies and keeps the home fires burning. You're not going to end up looking like him though, are you, Little Tim?"
"I suppose so. He used to look just like me."
He nodded. "He had his picture taken just after he got into politics. He was running for ward committeeman, and he had a poster made. We've still got the picture, and it looks like me with a high collar and a funny hat."
"She knew, didn't she?" Lissy said. For a moment he did not understand what she meant. "Now go and get some more wood. Only don't wear yourself out, because when you come back we're going to take care of that little thing that's bothering you, and we're going to spend the night on the beach."
When he came back she was asleep, but he woke her carrying her up to the beach cottage.
Next morning he woke up alone. He got up and showered and shaved, supposing that she had taken the car into town to get something for breakfast. He had filled the coffee pot and put it on before he looked out the shore-side window and saw the Triumph still waiting near the road.
There was nothing to be alarmed about, of course. She had awakened before he had and gone out for an early dip. He had done the same thing himself the morning before. The little patches of green cloth that were her bathing suit were hanging over the back of a rickety chair, but then they were still damp from last night. Who would want to put on a damp, clammy suit? She had gone in naked, just as he had.
He looked out the other window, wanting to see her splashing in the surf, waiting for him. The ship was there, closer now, rolling like a derelict. No smoke came from its clumsy funnel and no sails were set, but dark banners hung from its rigging. Then there was no ship, only wheeling gulls and the empty ocean. He called her name, but no one answered.
He put on his trunks and a jacket and went outside. A wind had smoothed the sand. The tide had come, obliterating their fire, reclaiming the driftwood he had gathered.
For two hours he walked up and down the beach, calling, telling himself there was nothing wrong. When he forced himself not to think of Lissy dead, he could only think of the headlines, the ninety seconds of ten o'clock news, how Ryan would look, how Pat — all his brothers — would look at him. And when he turned his mind from that, Lissy was dead again, her pale hair snarled with kelp as she rolled in the surf, green crabs feeding from her arms.
He got into the Triumph and drove to town. In the little brick station he sat beside the desk of a fat cop and told his story.
The fat cop said, "Kid, I can see why you want us to keep it quiet."
Tim said nothing. There was a paperweight on the desk — a baseball of white glass.
"You probably think we're out to get you, but we're not. Tomorrow we'll put out a missing persons report, but we don't have to say anything about you or the senator in it, and we won't."
"We got to wait twenty-four hours, in case she should show up. That's the law. But kid —"
The fat cop glanced at his notes.
"Right. Tim. She ain't going to show up. You got to get yourself used to that."
"She could be ..." Without wanting to, he let it trail away.
"Where? You think she snuck off and went home? She could walk out to the road and hitch, but you say her stuffs still there. Kidnapped? Nobody could have pulled her out of bed without waking you up. Did you kill her?"
"No!" Tears he could not hold back were streaming down his cheeks.
"Right. I've talked to you and I don't think you did. But you're the only one that could have. If her body washes up, we'll have to look into that."
Tim's hands tightened on the wooden arms of the chair. The fat cop pushed a box of tissues across the desk.
"Unless it washes up, though, it's just a missing person, okay? But she's dead, kid, and you're going to have to get used to it. Let me tell you what happened." He cleared his throat.
"She got up while you were still asleep, probably about when it started to get light. She did just what you thought she did — went out for a nice refreshing swim before you woke up. She went out too far, and probably she got a cramp. The ocean's cold as hell now. Maybe she yelled, but if she did she was too far out, and the waves covered it up. People think drowners holler like fire sirens, but they don't — they don't have that much air. Sometimes they don't make any noise at all."
Tim stared at the gleaming paperweight.
"The current here runs along the coast — you probably know that. Nobody ought to go swimming without somebody else around, but sometimes it seems like everybody does it. We lose a dozen or so a year. In maybe four or five cases we find them. That's all."
The beach cottage looked abandoned when he returned. He parked the Triumph and went inside and found the stove still burning, his coffee perked to tar. He took the pot outside, dumped the coffee, scrubbed the pot with beach sand and rinsed it with salt water. The ship, which had been invisible through the window of the cottage, was almost plain when he stood waist deep. He heaved the coffee pot back to shore and swam out some distance, but when he straightened up in the water, the ship was gone.
Back inside he made fresh coffee and packed Lissy's things in her suitcase. When that was done, he drove into town again. Ryan was still in Washington, but Tim told his secretary where he was. "Just in case anybody reports me missing," he said.
She laughed. "It must be pretty cold for swimming."
"I like it," he told her. "I want to have at least one more long swim."
"All right, Tim. When he calls, I'll let him know. Have a good time."
"Wish me luck," he said, and hung up. He got a hamburger and more coffee at a Jack-in- the-Box and went back to the cottage and walked a long way along the beach.
He had intended to sleep that night, but he did not. From time to time he got up and looked out the window at the ship, sometimes visible by moonlight, sometimes only a dark presence in the lower night sky. When the first light of dawn came, he put on his trunks and went into the water.
For a mile or more, as well as he could estimate the distance, he could not see it. Then it was abruptly close, the long oars like the legs of a water spider, the funnel belching sparks against the still-dim sky, sparks that seemed to become new stars.
He swam faster then, knowing that if the ship vanished he would turn back and save himself, knowing too that if it only retreated before him, retreated forever, he would drown. It disappeared behind a cobalt wave, reappeared. He sprinted and grasped at the sea-slick shaft of an oar, and it was like touching a living being. Quite suddenly he stood on the deck, with no memory of how he came there.
Bare feet pattered on the planks, but he saw no crew. A dark flag lettered with strange script flapped aft, and some vague recollection of a tour of a naval ship with his father years before made him touch his forehead. There was a sound that might have been laughter or many other things. The captain's cabin would be aft too, he thought. He went there, bracing himself against the wild roll, and found a door.
Inside, something black crouched upon a dais. "I've come for Lissy," Tim said.
There was no reply, but a question hung in the air. He answered it almost without intending to. "I'm Timothy Ryan Neal, and I've come for Lissy. Give her back to me."
A light, it seemed, dissolved the blackness. Cross-legged on the dais, a slender man in tweeds sucked at a long clay pipe. "It's Irish, are ye?" he asked.
"American," Tim said.
"With such a name? I don't believe ye. Where's yer feathers?"
"I want her back," Tim said again.
"An' if ye don't get her?"
"Then I'll tear this ship apart. You'll have to kill me or take me too."
"Spoken like a true son of the ould sod," said the man in tweeds. He scratched a kitchen match on the sole of his boot and lit his pipe. "Sit down, will ye? I don't fancy lookin' up like that. It hurts me neck. Sit down, and 'tis possible we can strike an agreement."
"This is crazy," Tim said. "The whole thing is crazy."
"It is that," the man in tweeds replied. "An' there's much, much more comin'. Ye'd best brace for it, Tim me lad. Now sit down."
There was a stout wooden chair behind Tim where the door had been. He sat. "Are you about to tell me you're a leprechaun? I warn you, I won't believe it."
"Me? One o' them scamperin', thievin', cobblin', little misers? I'd shoot meself. Me name's Daniel O'Donoghue, King o' Connaught. Do ye believe that, now?"
"No," Tim said.
"What would ye believe then?"
"That this is — some way, somehow — what people call a saucer. That you and your crew are from a planet of another sun."
Daniel laughed. "'Tis a close encounter you're havin', is it? Would ye like to see me as a tiny green man wi' horns like a snail's? I can do that too."
"All right, I won't, though 'tis a good shape. A man can take it and be whatever he wants, one o' the People o' Peace or a bit o' a man from Mars. I've used it for both, and there's nothin' better."
"You took Lissy," Tim said.
"And how would ye be knowin' that?"
"I thought she'd drowned."
"Did ye now?"
"And that this ship — or whatever it is — was just a sign, an omen. I talked to a policeman and he as good as told me, but I didn't really think about what he said until last night, when I was trying to sleep."
"Is it a dream yer havin'? Did ye ever think on that?"
"If it's a dream, it's still real," Tim said doggedly. "And anyway, I saw your ship when I was awake, yesterday and the day before."
"Or yer dreamin' now ye did. But go on wi' it."
Excerpted from Endangered Species by Gene Wolfe. Copyright © 1989 Gene Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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