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By George Alec Effinger
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 George Alec Effinger
All rights reserved.
A Fateful Breakfast
Irene hadn't always been dead.
She remembered that she had lived a very long and very full life. She was grateful for the opportunity she had been given. As she floated in the blackness she recalled one incident after another, things that had happened to her, things that had made her happy or sad. She had enjoyed life, and she wished that she could personally thank whatever had made it possible. If the old men in California had been right, Irene's wish would come true. She was doubtful, though. The empty blackness that surrounded her seemed as infinite and unchangeable as anything she had ever experienced. She was dead, and death was empty and unchangeable. The old men in California had tried to persuade her that there was more to death than that. Irene was doubtful.
She hung in the void and thought. Without sensation, without even the sense of her own body's existence, there was nothing else to do. Irene thought back to the morning that had begun the sequence of events leading to her death and her present occupation: floating. Dreaming.
Irene remembered that morning very distinctly. It had been early spring, the second week in April. The trees had begun to show the first pastel hints of the dark forest-green leaves to come. The day was Irene's birthday, her eighty-second. She was happy about it. She loved birthdays, her own and those of her family. Every birthday was a reason to celebrate—not her own defiance of mortality, but the wealth of associations that had grown over the years. She stayed in bed after sunrise, when she usually got up, and indulged herself with memories. She felt warmth and melancholy together, thinking about her mother and father, about her brothers and sisters, all dead. She remembered previous birthdays, parties, special outings, small gifts now lost. The sun moved half an hour closer to noon while Irene lay in bed. She heard her great-nephew and his family moving about in the other rooms of the house. Still she did not get up. Her thin arms rested on the old quilt, her mottled hands folded together over her chest. She felt her lower lip quiver, and she had a recurring twitch in her left cheek. That made her feel old. She didn't like that feeling; she shook her head slightly, as if to shake the growing feeling of depression from her mind.
A bird began to sing in one of the trees near her window. Irene listened. "The bird is awake and about," she said to herself. "It's time for me, too." She pulled back the covers slowly, swung her legs over the edge of the bed, and sat up. She put her feet into her old comfortable slippers and stood up. She put on a frayed robe over her nightgown, tied the belt in a loose knot, and made up her bed. The bird in the yard sang again. Irene clucked her tongue and walked slowly to her door. "It's my birthday, bird," she murmured. "I'm eighty-two years old today. In eighty-two years, I haven't done as much as you have. You have baby chicks, don't you, bird? In eighty-two years, I haven't found the time for children." Irene opened the door and went out into the long, high-ceilinged hallway. She walked silently toward the family dining room. She wondered if her great-nephew would remember that it was her birthday.
Michael, his wife, Constance, and their daughter, Alyse lived in an immense house in what had once been downtown Louisville. All traces of the city had been obliterated, and dense forest covered the whole area. It had been that way for centuries. No one in the world had ever seen a city. References to cities and their problems were common in materials left over from the old times, but they were difficult to comprehend. To Irene, to Michael and his family, cities were like dinosaurs; they certainly had ruled the world at one time, but they were almost impossible to accept emotionally. There were so few people now, so few settlements. The world had gone back to unspoiled nature and no one wanted to change it. The last men of the old times, the last industrialists, the last scientists, the last administrators and executives, the last paid laborers, had all worked with their last resources to destroy nearly every trace that they had existed. They removed the marks that man had made on his world. It was a project that consumed decades, scores of them, along with millions of lives, along with the accumulated wealth and knowledge and skills of the entire race.
The world was changed. It was changed into what the people of the old times thought was a better world. It was greener now, it was lovelier, it was fresher, there were more birds, animals, and flowers. There was no crowding, no pollution of air and water, no noise, no racial tensions, no hunger. Now there was no one to decide if it was better. There was no one who could compare. Irene, in her ignorance of what life in the old times had been like, hoped that the old people had known what they were doing. It was too late to change back.
Her Great-nephew Michael had inherited the huge old house from his father. Michael was only thirty-four years old, but he was the master of a domain some 250 miles square. Michael's parents were living in another large house, near what had once been West Virginia. That house had always been a vacation home, but Michael's mother preferred it. Michael had been given the great house as a wedding present, along with the responsibility of caring for Great-aunt Irene.
Irene sometimes thought of herself as a kind of legacy, to be passed from family member to family member. She didn't mind. The family loved her, and Michael and Constance had the most comfortable home and the fewest burdens. Irene thought of herself as a roll of one-five-four in a game of gabrio. Not as bad as a three-three-seven, not as good as a one-one-one. To her relatives, she was about equal to burning one's tongue on a spoonful of very good but very hot soup. Not pleasant, but not fatal.
The sun shone in through the windows as she walked along the hallway. The wood paneling glowed in bright rectangles. Irene could see golden motes of dust swarming in the sunlight. She walked through the warm clouds and disturbed them. As she got closer to the dining room she heard laughter. It was Constance, laughing at something her husband had said. Their daughter, Alyse, was fifteen years old; she was Irene's great- great-niece. That thought made Irene pause for a moment. She had a great-great-niece, so Irene must be very old. She was eighty-two.
Irene raised one hand slowly to her lips. She was very old. Then she made an impatient gesture. "So what?" she said aloud. She walked on toward the dining room. The sounds of laughter came again. Irene wondered if they were getting ready a surprise for her birthday.
"Good morning, Aunt Irene," said Constance, a few moments later.
"Good morning, dear," said Irene. Her voice sounded strangely harsh to her.
"Did you sleep well?" asked Michael, coming toward the table and carrying a small cage covered with a white cloth. Irene nodded, looking at the cage. Michael removed the cloth. There was a little white animal in the cage.
"What is it, Michael?" asked Alyse.
"It's a baby cat," her father told her. "I caught it by the well."
"It's a kitten," said Irene.
"Yes," said Michael, "that's what they call it."
"What are you going to do with it?" asked Constance. She looked at the kitten and shuddered.
Michael put the cage down on the table and sat at his place. "I thought of hanging it in the sunroom."
"Not in my clean house you won't," said Constance. "And get it off the table. We're going to eat breakfast here. That thing's filthy. Who knows what kind of disease it's carrying?"
Irene sat down in her chair, sighing a little. She folded her hands in her lap. "They're very clean animals, as I recall," she said.
"It won't be any problem," said Michael.
"Can we keep it, Constance?" asked Alyse.
Her mother shook her head. "No," she said, "definitely not. I won't have it in the house."
"Oh, please?" said Alyse. "I'll take care of it."
"No, not in the house. Either let it go or keep it in the barn."
Michael stood up. "All right, Constance," he said. "I'll put it in the barn. It'll be fine out there."
"We could let it loose in the barn," said Alyse. "It could run and play. I could teach it to do tricks."
"Not kittens," said Constance. "They are mean, vicious animals. You can't tame them. They grow up to be killers."
"That little thing?" asked Alyse. "It couldn't hurt anything."
"I've heard stories, Alyse," said Constance. "They grow up and turn on their masters. That's why you have to keep them in cages. They eat meat, like we do. One day that kitten will be a cat. Then it won't think anything of slashing you and eating you."
"That's just a plain house cat," said Michael. "You're thinking of lions. They get big and dangerous. This kitten won't ever get much bigger than a rabbit. It's harmless."
"I don't believe it," said Constance. "My father told me all about them."
"Ask Aunt Irene," said Michael.
"Oh," said Alyse, "she won't help. She's so old, she doesn't remember anything anymore."
"Alyse!" said Michael. "Don't you ever talk like that about anyone! Apologize to Aunt Irene."
"It's true," said Alyse sullenly. "She's always saying things to keep me from having what I want."
Irene felt her face flushing. "I just say what I know," she said.
"That's not much, these days," said Alyse.
"That's enough," said Constance. "Go to your rooms and stay there."
"But today's the party at Felicia's house," said Alyse. "I have to go over there after breakfast and help with the decorations."
"You'll just have to miss it," said Michael. "Now go to your rooms."
"See?" said Alyse, as she stood up from the table. "See? It's all Aunt Irene's fault again. If it weren't for her, everything would be fine. She's so old. She's always getting me in trouble. She's always making me miss things."
Irene felt tears in her eyes. She raised one hand and wiped the tears away. "Constance," she said, "let her stay. Let her go to her party. I know how it is with her. She just doesn't understand."
Constance's expression was stern. "She'll have to learn, that's all."
"See?" said Alyse. "She's doing it again. She's making you hate me."
"Alyse, go to your rooms. Right now," said Michael.
"Let her stay, dear," said Irene. There was a long silence. Irene was very embarrassed.
Alyse watched her mother. Michael looked at his great-aunt.
"All right," said Constance at last. "You may go to the party if you apologize to Aunt Irene."
"I apologize," said Alyse in a voice hardly above a whisper.
"Thank you, dear," said Irene.
"All right," said Michael, "let's eat breakfast."
"Put that animal in the barn first," said Constance. Her husband nodded but did not say anything. He carried the cage out of the room.
Irene took a deep breath and sat back in her chair. Her expression did not show the emotions she felt inside. She had taught herself at an early age to keep her feelings to herself. She wondered sometimes if that was a wise thing to do. She was certain that Michael, Constance, and Alyse believed that she was a little cold, a little distant. Perhaps they thought that Aunt Irene had become slightly senile, out of touch with her surroundings, unaffected by events, all because she rarely showed joy, sorrow, or anger. Irene knew better, of course; she knew how deeply Alyse's words had hurt, how happy she felt looking at the kitten, how sad the cage around the kitten had made her. The only outward sign of these feelings had been the quickly wiped-away tears. She knew how the kitten felt. Irene was caged in the house. She was caged in her body. She was caged by the weariness of eighty-two years.
Alyse wouldn't understand that. Alyse was sixty-seven years younger than Irene. Sixty-seven years! thought Irene. Much more than a half century. There were too many generations between them. It was impossible for Irene to teach anything to Alyse; it was just as impossible for the young girl to say anything to the old woman. Irene looked across the table at her great-great-niece. Alyse was impatiently toying with her silverware, waiting for the servants to bring breakfast. Irene knew that whatever Alyse learned about life, she would have to learn the hard way. There was no way for one generation to pass experience on to the next. That was the main cause of grief and the primary source of pleasure in life.
"I hung the kitten up between Blaze's stall and Lucky's," said Michael. His words roused Irene from her thoughts. Michael pulled out his chair and sat down.
Constance smiled. "That's fine, Michael. I just didn't want a wild animal in the house. You know how they make me feel. Sometimes I just can't breathe."
"When are we going to eat?" asked Alyse.
"Yes," said Michael, "Cook should be finished. Why don't you call for Man?"
Constance picked up a small wooden mallet and hit a small brass gong on the table in front of her. A moment later a middle-aged man came into the family dining room. He was dressed in black coat and trousers, white vest, white shirt, and black scarf. He wore a gold chain from his vest, with a great many keys hanging from it. He stopped just inside the doorway, his expression serious, looking at the far wall of the room. He never looked at any of the family members seated at the table, even when he was addressed. He had been with Michael's family, and his parents, and with his father's parents; nonetheless, he still appeared to be slightly past forty years old. No one knew how old Man was, not even Aunt Irene.
"Good morning, Man," said Constance.
"Good Morning, madame," said Man. He stared above her head. In all the years that the family had known Man, they had never seen him look directly at another person.
"We wish to be served breakfast now, if you will."
"Yes, madame." Man turned around and left the dining room. He did not make a sound as he walked away.
"Tell me, Michael," said Constance, "what have you planned for today?"
Michael bit a fingernail as he thought. "I'm not certain yet, Constance," he said. "I have two or three things to decide among. We might travel to one of the meadows and observe the flowers. We might lie upon some hill and attempt to find shapes in cloud formations. We haven't done that since last fall. Or, again, we might retire to the third-floor right front parlor to sing songs, while you or I play one of the musical instruments. We might try to start a garden, with blooming plants or vegetables, near the house or at some distance. We might find some creek or river and pass the day skipping stones and smiling. Or we might—"
"Oh, Michael," said Constance, "our lives are so full!"
"Yes, my dear," he said. "We have so much for which to be grateful."
"I am, Michael," she said. "I thank my private ghosts every night and every morning for the wonderful miracle of our life together."
Michael reached out and took one of Constance's hands in his. "I do the same," he said. "Every night and every morning. Just the way they did it in the old books."
The two adults looked at each other. There was a pleasant stillness for a while, until it was interrupted by Alyse. "I want to get some stamps," she said.
"Stamps?" asked Constance. "What are stamps?"
"They are things that people collect," said Alyse.
"Oh," said her mother, "I must have some of them, then."
Alyse was excited. "You do? Oh, Constance, what do they look like? What color are they? Where are they from?"
Constance only laughed quietly. "The impatience of youth," she said. "Aunt Irene, Alyse probably seems so intense to you."
Irene turned to look at Alyse. The girl, obviously embarrassed, stared at the table. "I am gladdened by her," said Irene.
At that moment Man re-entered the dining room, pushing a cart laden with bowls, platters, and pitchers, filled with the day's breakfast foods. "You may serve us now, Man," said Michael.
Excerpted from Heroics by George Alec Effinger. Copyright © 1979 George Alec Effinger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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