Mission Childby Maureen F. McHugh
With her debut novel China Mountain Zhang -- a New York Times Notable Book of the Year -- Maureen F. McHugh established herself as a major writer of humanist sf, one of the most distinctive and talented to emerge this decade. She reaffirms her mastery with a brilliantly imagined and slyly subversive tale of personal and planetary transformation; the story of an exemplary young woman's awakening on a world hauntingly similar to, yet far distant in space and time from our own.
Young Janna has lived her 14 years on the icy northern plains of a world that has forgotten its history. Now the arrival of alien offworlders -- identical in appearance to her own kind but far different in thought and culture -- has violently upset the fragile balance of a developing civilization. The Earther's advanced technology and cruel indifference to local life has brought despair and destruction to Janna's home, robbing her of family, husband, and child...self. But with the cataclysmic end of everything she has ever known comes the opportunity -- unsought and unwanted -- for rebirth.
Haunted by a dead past -- mysteriously altered by the gift of three offworld artifacts -- Janna must now redefine herself on a devastated planet she no longer recognizes. Disguised as a young boy, she begins a remarkable, transcendent journey into an uncertain future; finding pain and brief solace in her love of a dangerous criminal; miraculously discovering the spirit of her dead child in the soul of a machine. For Janna -- like the strange world around her -- is changing, growing, becoming something extraordinary, solid and real, as she moves steadily toward an astonishing realization about herself and her role in the great cosmic order.
A stunning and provocative spiritual odyssey reminiscent of the best work of Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin, Mission Child is a powerful fable, a stirring adventure, and a profoundly moving portrait of a lost woman in search of an identity as she walks the narrow fault line dividing female and male, child and adult, dark reality and illuminated dream.
- HarperCollins Publishers
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 4.15(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.05(d)
Read an Excerpt
Wild Dogs at the Door
The sound of rifles was like the cracking of whips. Like the snapping of bones. My da and I came outside to shade our eyes from the sun, and we watched the outrunners for the Tekse clan come into the Mission. They made a great deal of racketbrass clattering, the men singing and firing their guns into the air. It started the dogs barking and scared our renndeer.
They came to buy whiskey. Or so we hoped. Sometimes when Tekse outrunners came, they just took it. They were all men, of course. Clan outrunners were all bachelors. They did foolish things.
"They have a lot of rifles," my da said.
They had more guns than I had ever seen. Usually when outrunners came, they had one or two guns. Guns are hard to get. But it looked as if almost every outrunner had a rifle.
Tekse dyed the clawed toes and ridgeline manes of their sled renndeer kracken yellow. They hung their harnesses with brass clappers, and bits of milky blue glass hung from the harnesses of their dogs. On this brief sunny day everything winked. Only their milking does were plain, and only because even the will of a hunter can't make a doe renndeer tractable.
The dogs nipped at the doe renndeer, halting them so outrunners could slip on hobbles. The renndeer looked pretty good. They were mostly dun, and the males were heavy in the shoulders with heads set low and forward on their necks. The long hairs on their ears were braided with red and yellow threads hanging almost to their knees.Handlers unhooked the sleds from the pack renndeer.
Our dogs barked and their dogs barked. The outrunner men talked loudly. Mission people stood at the doors of their houses and didn't talk at all. I saw one of the teachers, Ayudesh, come to the schoolhouse door and stand. Several of the outrunners looked at him and then looked away. Ayudesh was an offworlder, from Earth, from a place on Earth called India. He was taller than any other man in the village. His skin was so dark it looked as if it had been tanned. He and his wife, Wanji, they started the mission before I was born. I thought he might go talk to them, but he just stood there, like everyone else, watching the outrunners settle their animals.
I went down to the distillery to tell Mam. Aslak, my boyfriend, followed me down the hill. The distillery stank, so it was down below the mission in the trees, just above the fields.
Aslak caught me by the waist, and I leaned easily from his arms so he could brush his lips across my hair.
"It's too cold out here," I said and broke away.
"Let's go in the back," he said.
"I've got to tell Mam."
"Once you tell your mam, there'll be all these things to do and we won't get any time together," he said.
"I can't," I said, but I let him make up my mind for me.
We went around the side, tracking through the dry snow where no one much walked, through the lacy wintertrees to the storage door in the back. It was as cold there as it was outside, and dark. It smelled like mash and whiskey and the faint charcoal scent from the charred insides of the kegs. Brass whiskey, mission whiskey.
He boosted me onto a stack of kegs and kissed me.
It wasn't that I really cared so much about kissing. It was nice, but Aslak would have kissed and kissed for hours if I would let him. He would kiss long after my face felt overused and bruised. But I wanted to be with Aslak so much. I wanted to talk with him and have him walk with me. I would let him kiss me if I could whisper to him. I liked the way he pressed against me now; he was warm and I was cold.
He kissed me with little peckskiss, kiss, kiss. I liked it; it was almost as if he were talking to me in kisses. Then he kissed me hard and searched around with his tongue. I never knew what to do with my tongue when he put his in my mouth, so I just kept mine still. I could feel the rough edge of the keg beneath my legs, and if I shifted my weight it rocked on the one below it. I turned my face sideways to get my nose out of the way and opened my eyes to look past Aslak. In the dark I could barely make out Ranveig's eye burned on to all the kegs, to keep them from going bad. Ranveig was the door witch. Ranveig's sister Elin took souls from their mother and put them in seeds, put the seed in women to make babies. The kegs were all turned different directions, eyes looking everywhere. I closed mine again. Ranveig was also a virgin.
"Ohhhh, Janna! Eeeuuuu!"
I jumped, but Aslak didn't. He just let go of my waist and stepped back and crossed his arms the way he did when he was uncomfortable. The air felt cold where he had just been warm.
My little sister, Teija, shook her butt at us. "Kissy, kissy, kissy," she said. "MAM, JANNA'S BACK IN THE KEGS WITH ASLAK!"
"Shut up, Teija," I said. Not that she would.
"Slobber, slobber," she said, like we were renndeer trading cud. She danced around, still wriggling. She puckered up her lips and made wet smacking noises.
"Fucking little bitch," I said.
Aslak frowned at me. He liked Teija. She wasn't his little sister.
"MAM," Teija hollered, "JANNA SAID `FUCKING'!"
"Janna," my mother called, "come here."
Mam was tallying on her high stool, hunched over to see her marks in the dim light of the fire. My mam wore trousers most often, and she was tall and man-faced. Still and all, men liked her. I took after her so I was secretly glad that men watched her walk by, even if she never much noticed.
"Leave your little sister alone," she said.
"Leave her alone!" I said. "She came and found me."
"Don't swear at her. You talk like an old man." Mam was acting like a headman, her voice even and cool.
"If she hadn't come looking"
"If you had been working as you're supposed to, she'd have had no one to look for, would she."
"Tekse come here for whiskey," I said.
"So that means it is okay to swear at your sister."
It was the same words we always traded, all worn smooth and shining like the wood of a sled runner. Tekse was here and everybody was scared and we were having the same old argument. The brand for the kegs was heating in the fire and I could smell the tang of hot iron in the dung.
"You treat me like a child," I said.
She didn't even answer, but I knew what she would saythat I acted like a child. As if what Aslak and I were doing had anything to do with being a child.
I was so tired of it I thought I would burst.
"Go back to work," Mam said, turning on her stool. Saying this talk is done with her shoulders and her eyes.
"It's wrong to live this way," I said.
She looked back at me.
"If we lived with the clans, Aslak and I could be together."
That made her angry. "This is a better life than the clans," she said. "You don't know what you're talking about. Go back to work."
I didn't say anything. I just hated her. She didn't understand anything. She and my da hadn't waited until they were old. They hadn't waited for anything, and they'd left their clan to come to the mission when it was new. I stood in front of her, making her feel me standing there, all hot and silent.
"Janna," she said, "I'll not put up with your sullenness" It made her furious when I didn't talk. "You and Aslak go back and hide the three-year-old whiskey."
Tekse had come for whiskey two years ago and taken what they wanted and left us almost nothing but lame renndeer. They said it was because we had favored Toolie Clan in trade. The only reason we had any three-year-old whiskey left was because they couldn't tell what was what.
So my da and some of the men had dug a cellar in the distillery. Aslak jumped into the cellar, and I began stacking kegs at the edge for him to pull down. It wasn't very deep, not much over his chest, but the kegs were heavy.
"Hurry," Aslak said softly.
My hands were slick. I rolled the kegs on their edge. Aslak's hands were rough and red.
And then the last keg was on the edge. Ranveig's eye regarded me, strangely unaffected. Or maybe amused, or angry. Da said that spirits do not feel the way we feel. The teachers, Ayudesh and Wanji, never said anything at all about spirits, which was how we knew that they didn't listen to them.
There was not much space in the cellar, just enough for Aslak to stand and maybe a little more. Aslak put his hands on the edge and boosted himself out of the cellar. In front of the store we heard the crack of the door on its hinges and we jumped.
Aslak slid the wooden cover over the hole in the floor. "Move those," he said, pointing at empty kegs.
I didn't hear voices.
"Are you done yet?" Mam said, startling us again.
"Are they here?" I asked.
"No," she said. "Not yet." She didn't seem afraid. I had seen my mam afraid, but not very often. Mam helped us stack kegs. We all tried to be quiet, but they thumped like hollow drums. They filled the space around us with noise. It seemed that the outrunners had to hear us thumping away from outside. I kept looking at Mam, who was stacking kegs as if we hid whiskey all the time. Aslak was nervous, too. His shoulders were tense. I almost said to him, "You're up around the ears, boy," the way the hunters did, but right now I didn't think it would make him smile.
Mam scuffed the dirt around the kegs.
"Will they find them?" I asked.
Mam shrugged. "We'll see."
There was a lot to do to get ready for the outrunners besides hiding the best whiskey. Mam had us count the kegs. Then when we finally agreed on a number she wrote it in her tally book. "So we know how much we sell," she said. If we sold it instead of having it taken away. Mam hadn't seen the rifles.
We were just finishing counting when outrunners came. They came through the front. First the wind, like a wild dog sliding around the door and making the fire sway. Then the outrunners. The outrunners' cheeks were winter red. Their felts were all dark with dirt, like they'd been out for a long time. They were younger than I expected. Older than Aslak and me, but not so much. If we had been in the clans, Aslak might have been an outrunner.
"Hie," said one of the men, seeing my mother. They all looked at each other and grinned. People always seemed surprised that they were going to trade with my mam. The outrunners already smelled of whiskey, so people had finally made them welcome. Or maybe someone had the sense to realize that if they gave them drink we'd have time to get things ready. Maybe my da. My mam stood as she always did, with her arms crossed, tall as any of them. Waiting them out.
"What's this?" the first one said, looking around. "Eh? What's this? It stinks in here." The distillery always stank. The other two outrunners laughed. Like boys, being big men for each other.
They walked around, peered at the kegs, poked at the copper tubing and the still. One stuck his finger under the drip and tasted the raw stuff and grimaced.
Mam just stood and let them walk all around her. She didn't turn her head to watch them.
The leader picked up the brand. "What's this?" he said again.
"We mark all our kegs with the eye of Ranveig," Mam said.
"Woman's work," he remarked.
He tapped a keg. Not like Mam thumped them, listening, but just as if everything here were his. He pointed to a kegnot the one he was tapping on but a different oneand one of the other men picked it up. "Is it good?" he asked.
My mam shrugged.
One of the other outrunners sniggered. "Are you ignoring me?" he said.
My mam shrugged again. He didn't like that. He took two steps forward and hit Mam across the face. I looked at the black, packed-dirt floor.
"It's good," my mam said. I looked up and she had a red mark on the side of her face.
The outrunner grabbed her braidshe flinched as he reached past her faceand yanked her head. "It's good, woman?" he asked.
"Yes," she said, her voice coming almost airless, like she could not breathe.
He yanked her down to her knees and glared at the other two outrunners. They were still grinning. Then he let go and they all went out with the keg.
Mam stood back up again and touched her braid, then flipped it back over her neck. She didn't look at any of us.
People were in the schoolhouse. Ayudesh sat cross-legged on the table at the front, and people were sitting on the floor talking as if it were a meeting. Ayudesh had a square face and gray hair that made his skin look very dark. Ayudesh was an old man, older than anyone at the Mission, but he didn't look so old, just a little stooped. He still had all his teeth.
"So we should just let them take whatever they want?" JohnKisu said. JohnKisu was usually funny. Usually making jokes about people and talking dirty. He wasn't clowning now, but talking as a senior hunter. He sat on his heels, the way hunters do when they're waiting. I was looking but I didn't see my da.
Ayudesh said, "Even if we could get guns, they're used to fighting and we aren't. What do you think would happen?"
"If we don't stand up for ourselves, what will happen?" JohnKisu said.
"If you provoke them they'll destroy us," Ayudesh said.
"Teacher," JohnKisu said, spreading his hands as if he were telling a story. "Renndeer are not hunting animals, eh. They are not sharp-toothed like haunds or dogs. Haunds are hunters, packs of hunters, who do nothing but hunt renndeer. There are more renndeer than all the haunds could eat, eh. So how do they choose? They don't kill the buck renndeer with their long hard claws and heads; they take the young, the old, the sick, the helpless. We do not want to be haunds, teacher. We just want the haunds to go elsewhere for easy prey."
"You're making this bigger than it is. Why would they bother us?" Ayudesh said. "We are not renndeer; they are not here to hunt us. The worst they will do is take the whiskey."
"They are outrunners," JohnKisu said. "Bachelors from Tekse clan. They are little more than boys. They have guns and soon they will be drunk. We are toothless and they have teeth. What is to keep them from biting us just because they can?"
"Because if they bite us, we can't make whiskey," Ayudesh said.
"You think they are that wise?" JohnKisu said. "They are bachelors. They have no families, no responsibilities, no sense."
Wanji came in behind us, and the fire in the boxstove ducked and jumped in the draft. Wanji didn't sit down on the table but, as was her custom, lowered herself to the floor at the back of the schoolhouse. "Old hips," she muttered as if everyone in the room wasn't watching her. "Old women have old hips."
When I thought of Kalky, the old woman who makes the souls of everything, I thought of her as looking like Wanji. Wanji was dark, darker even than Ayudesh. She had a little face and a big nose and deep lines down from her nose to her chin. "What happened to you, daughter?" she asked my mam.
"The outrunners came to the distillery to take a keg," Mam said.
I noticed that now the meeting had turned around, away from Ayudesh on the table toward us in the back. Wanji always said that Ayudesh was vain and liked to sit high. Sometimes she called him "High-on." They didn't act like married people. "And so," Wanji said.
My mother's face was still red from the blow, but it hadn't yet purpled. "I don't think the outrunners like to do business with me," Mam said.
"One of them hit her," I said, because Mam wasn't going to. Mam never talked about it when my da hit her, either. Although he didn't do it as much as he used to when I was Teija's size. Mam looked at me, but I couldn't tell if she was angry with me or not.
JohnKisu spread his hands to say See?
"We got the three-year-old whiskey in the cellar," Mam said.
"Good," said Ayudesh, and some people turned back toward him. Then people started talking.
Some of the men were talking about guns. Wanji was listening without saying anything, resting her chin on her hand. Sometimes it seemed as if Wanji didn't even blink, that she just turned into stone and you didn't know what she was thinking.
Some of the other men were talking to Ayudesh about the whiskey. Paulina, JohnKisu's wife, got up and put water on the boxstove for the men to drink, and JukkaPekka went out the men's door, the spirit door in the back of the schoolhouse, which meant he was going to get whiskey or beer.
"Nothing will get done now," Aslak said, disgusted. "Let's go."
Outside there were outrunners. It seemed as if they were everywhere, even though there were really not that many of them.
Aslak scowled at them, and I looked at their guns. Long black guns slung over their backs. I had never seen a gun close. And there was my da, standing with three outrunners, holding a gun in his hands as if it were a fishing spear, admiring it. He was nodding and grinning, the way he did when someone told a good hunting story. Of course, he didn't know that one of these people had hit Mam.
Still, it made me mad that he was being friendly.
* * *
I was supposed to stay at the house, but I wanted to see what was happening. It was the time of year just before winterdark, when the sun was below the horizon all the time. There were still brief days, but it was dark by mid-afternoon. In the dark I could stand at the edges of things and not be seen. Mostly I wanted to watch my da.
The outrunners took two more kegs of whiskey and got loud. They stuck torches in the snow, so the dogs' harnesses all glittered and winked. We gave them a renndeer to slaughter, and they roasted that. Some of the Hamra men like my daand even JohnKisusat with them and drank and talked and sang. I didn't understand why JohnKisu was there, but there he was, laughing and telling stories about the time my da got dumped out of the boat fishing.
Ayudesh was there, just listening.
The outrunners and the Hamra hunters were singing about Sivert the hunter and I looked up to see if I could make out the stars that formed him, but the sky had drifting clouds and I couldn't find the stars.
I couldn't see well enough; the light from the bonfire made everyone else just shadows. Faces glanced up, spirit faces in the firelight. The smoke blew our way and then shifted, and I smelled the sweat smell that came from the men's clothes as they warmed by the fire. And whiskey, of course. The renndeer was mostly bones.
I came up to my da and squatted behind him. "When are you coming home?" I asked.
"Janna," said my da. His face was strange, too, not human, like a mask. His eyes looked unnaturally light. "Go on back to your mother." I could smell whiskey on him, too. Whiskey sometimes made him mean. My da used to drink a lot of whiskey when I was young, but since Teija was born he didn't drink it very often at all. He said the mornings were too hard when you got old.
I drew away from him. I hated it when he smelled that way. I stood a moment, but there was nothing to watch but a bunch of drunk men. So I started around the edges to go back.
One of the outrunners stumbled up and into me before I could get out of the way. "Eh?"
I pulled away but he gripped my arm. "Boy?" he said again. His breath in my face made me close my eyes and turn my head.
"No boy," he said. He was drunk, probably going to relieve himself. "No boy, girl, pretty as a boy," he said.
I tried to pull away.
"I'm not pretty enough for you?" he said. "Eh? Not pretty enough?" He wasn't pretty; he was wiry and had teeth missing on one side of his mouth. "Not Hamra Clan? With their pretty houses like offworlders? Not pretty, eh?"
My da said, "Leave her go."
"You've got dirt on your face," he said to me. It was so dark, even with the fire, that he couldn't really see anything.
"Let go," I said.
"Shut up, girl," he said to me. He licked his thumb and reached toward my face. I raised my hand and drew back, and he twisted my arm. "Stand still." He rubbed my cheek with his thumb and peered closely at my face. My cheek smarted where he had rubbed on it.
"Damn," he said, pleased. "Better." Then he leaned forward and tried to kiss me.
If I had just let him kiss me it would have been okay. He was so drunk he couldn't really do anything. But his breath stank in my face and I tried to twist away. I pushed at him. He staggered and fell, pulling me down, too.
"Let go!" Shut up, I thought to myself, shut up, shut up! Give in, he's too drunk to do much. I tried to pull his arm away, but his grip was too strong.
"What's this?" another outrunner was saying.
"Eino's found some girl."
"It would be fucking Eino!"
I struggled, trying to get away. My da was standing over us; I could see him pulling on the man.
"Hey now," Ayudesh was saying, "hey now, leave her be." But nobody was paying attention. Everybody was watching us. The outrunner pinned me with my arms over my head and kissed me.
I went as still as I could.
"Get off him." Another outrunner hauled my da away.
Ayudesh said, "Stop! That's enough!"
"She's yours, eh?" someone said. One of the outrunners was holding my father by the arm and my father's face was twisted. He had told me not to come by the fire and now he would be mad at me
Someone else grunted and laughed.
"She likes Hamra better, eh?"
"That's because she doesn't know better."
"Eino'll show her."
You all stink like drunks, I wanted to scream at them, because they did. Oh, my da would be so mad at me, he was drunk, he was drunk, my da would be so mad
There was the bone crack of gunfire and everybody stopped.
JohnKisu was standing next to the fire with an outrunner rifle pointed up, as if he were shooting at Sivert up there in the stars. His expression was mild and he was studying the gun as if he hadn't even noticed what was going on.
"Hey," an outrunner said, "put that down!"
JohnKisu looked around at the outrunners, at us. He looked slowly. He didn't look funny or angry, he looked as if he were out on a boat in the ice. Calm, far away. Cold as the stars. He could kill someone.
The outrunners felt it, too. They didn't move. If he shot one of them, the others would kill him, but the one he shot would still be dead. No one wanted to be the one who might be dead.
"It's a nice piece," JohnKisu said, "but if you used it for hunting you'd soon be so deaf you couldn't hear anything moving." Then he grinned.
"Janna," JohnKisu said, "get us more whiskey."
"Eino, you walking dick, get up from the girl." One of them reached down and pulled him off. He looked mad.
"What," he said, "what?"
"Go take a piss," the outrunner said.
I fell asleep thinking about how I wished that the Tekse outrunners were gone. I dreamedand I was startled awake by gunfire.
Just more drinking and shooting.
I wished my da would come home. It didn't seem fair that we should lie there and be afraid while the men were getting drunk and singing.
The outrunners stayed the next day, taking three more kegs of whiskey but not talking about trade. The following day they sent out hunters but didn't find their own meat and so took another renndeer, a gelding, and more whiskey.
I went down to the distillery. It was already getting dark. The door was left open and the fire was out. Mam wasn't coming anymore. There was no work being done. Kegs had been taken down and some had been opened and left open. Some had been spilled. They had started on the green stuff, not knowing what was what and had thrown most of it in the snow, probably thinking it was bad. Branded eyes on the kegs looked everywhere.
I thought maybe they wouldn't leave until all the whiskey was gone. For one wild moment I thought about taking an ax to the kegs. Give them no reason to stay.
Instead I listened to them singing, their voices far away. My da was there, and I wondered what he was doing. I wanted him to see me and feel guilty and come home. I was afraid to walk back toward the voices, but I didn't want to stand outside the light in the dark either. I walked until I could see the big fire they had going and smell the renndeer roasting. Then I stood for a while, because I was more afraid of crossing the circle of firelight than I was cold. Maybe someone was holding me back, maybe my spirit knew something.
I looked for my father. I saw JohnKisu on the other side of the fire. His face was in the light. He wasn't singing, he was just watching. I saw Seppo, my little uncle, my father's half brother. I did not see my father anywhere.
Then I saw him. His back was to me. He was just a black outline against the fire. He had his hands open wide, as if he were explaining. He had his empty hands open. JohnKisu was watching my father explaining something to some of the outrunners, and something was wrong.
One of the outrunners turned his head and spat.
My fatherI couldn't hear his voice, but I could see his body, his shoulders moving as he explained. His shoulders working, working hard as if he were swimming. Such hard work, this talking with his hands open, talking, talking.
The outrunner took two steps, bent down, and pulled his rifle into the light. It was a dark thing there, a long thing against the light of the fire. My father took a step back and his hands came up, pushing something back.
And then the outrunner shot my father.
All the singing stopped. The fire cracked and the sparks rose like stars while my father struggled in the snow. He struggled hard, fighting and scraping back through the snow. Elbow-walking backwards. The outrunner was looking down the long barrel of the rifle.
Get up, I thought. Get up. For a long time it seemed I thought, Get up, get up. Da, get up! But no sound came out of my mouth, and there was black on the snow where my father had dragged himself and where he now lay.
The outrunner shot again.
My father flopped into the snow, and I could see the light on his face as he looked up. Then he stopped.
JohnKisu watched. No one moved except the outrunner who put his rifle away.
I could feel the red meat, the hammering muscle in my chest. I could feel it squeezing, squeezing. Heat flowed in my face. In my hands.
Outrunners shouted at outrunners. "You shit," one shouted at the one who shot my father. "You drunken, stupid shit!" The one who shot my father shrugged at first, as if he didn't care, and then he became angry, too, shouting.
No one saw me there. My breath was in my chest, so full. If I let the air out the outrunner would hear me breathe. I tried to take small breaths, could not get enough air. I did not remember when I had been holding my breath.
JohnKisu and the hunters of Hamra sat, like prey, hiding in their stillness. The arguing went on and on, until it wasn't about my father at all and his body was forgotten in the dirty snow. They argued about who was stupid and who had the High-on's favor. The whiskey was talking.
I could think of nothing but air.
I went back through the dark, out of Hamra, and crept around behind the houses in the dark and cold until I could come to our house without going past the fire. I took great shuddering breaths of cold air, breathed out great gouts of fog.
My mother was trying to get Teija quiet when I came in. "No," she was saying, "stop it now, or I'll give you something to cry about."
"Mam," I said, and I started to cry.
"What," she said. "Janna, your face is all red." She was my mam, with her face turned toward me, and I had never seen her face so clearly.
"They're going to kill all of us," I said. "They killed Da with a rifle."
She never said a word but just ran out and left me there. Teija started to cry, although she didn't really know what I was crying about. Just that she should be scared.
Wanji came and got me and brought me to Ayudesh's house because our house is small and Ayudesh's house had enough room for some people. Snow was caked in the creases of my father's pants. It was in his hands, too, unmelted. I had seen dead people before, and my father looked like all of them. Not like himself at all.
My mother had followed him as far as the living can goor at least as far as someone untrained in spirit journeysand she was not herself. She was sitting on the floor next to his body, rocking back and forth with her arms crossed in her lap. I had seen women like that before, but not my mother. I didn't want to look. It seemed indecent. Worse than the body of my father, since my father wasn't there at all.
Teija was screaming. Her face was red from the effort. I held her even though she was heavy and she kept arching away from me like a toddler in a tantrum. "MAM! MAM!" she kept screaming.
People came in and squatted down next to the body for a while. People talked about guns. It was important that I take care of Teija, so I did, until finally she wore herself out from crying and fell asleep. I held her on my lap until the blood was out of my legs and I couldn't feel the floor and then Wanji brought me a blanket and I wrapped Teija in it and let her sleep.
Wanji beckoned me to follow. I could barely standmy legs had so little feeling. I held the wall and looked around, at my mother sitting next to the vacant body, at my sister, who though asleep was still alive. Then I tottered after Wanji as if I were the old woman.
Wanji took me to her house, which was little and dark. She had a lamp shaped like a bird. It had been in her house as long as I could remember. It didn't give very much light, but I had always liked it. We sat on the floor. Wanji's floor was always piled high with rugs from her home in India and furs and blankets. It made it hard to walk but nice to sit. Wanji got cold and her bones hurt, so she always made a little nest when she sat down. She pulled a red and blue rug across her lap. "Sit, sit, sit," she said.
I was cold, but there was a blanket to wrap around my shoulders and watch Wanji make hot tea. I couldn't remember being alone with Wanji before. But everything was so strange it didn't seem to make any difference, and it was nice to have Wanji deciding what to do and me not having to do anything.
Wanji made tea over her little clay bird lamp. She handed me a cup and I sipped it. Offworld tea was a strange drink. Wanji and Ayudesh liked it and hoarded it. It was too bitter to be very good, but it was warm and the smell of it was always special. I drank it and held it against me. I started to get warm. The blanket got warm from me and smelled faintly of Wanji, an old dry smell.
I was sleepy. It would have been nice to go to sleep right there in my little nest on Wanji's floor. I wanted someone to take care of me. My eyes started to fill up and in a moment I was crying salt tears into my tea.
"No time for that, Janna," Wanji said. Always sharp with us. Some people were afraid of Wanji. I was. But it felt good to cry, and I didn't know how to stop it, so I didn't.
Wanji didn't pay any attention. She was hunting through her house, checking in a chest, pulling up layers of rugs to peer in a corner. Was she going to give me a gun? I couldn't think of anything else that would help very much right now, but I couldn't imagine that Wanji had a gun.
She came back with a dark red plastic bag not much bigger than the span of my spread hand. That was almost as astonishing as a gun. We didn't have plastic; it wasn't appropriate. I wiped my nose on my sleeve. I was warm and tired. Would Wanji let me sleep right here on her floor? She put the bag in front of me. It shone like metal. So very fine. Like nothing we had. I touched the bag. I liked the feeling of plastic. I liked the sound of the word in English. If someday I had a daughter, maybe I'd name her Plastic. It would be a rich name, an exotic name. The teachers wouldn't like it, but it was a name I wished I had.
Wanji opened the plastic bag, but away from me so I couldn't see inside it. She picked at it as if she were picking at a sewing kit, looking for something. I wanted to look in it, but I was afraid that if I tried she'd snap at me.
She looked at me. "This is mine," she said. "We both got one, Ayudesh and I, and we decided that if the people who settled the mission couldn't have it, we wouldn't either."
I didn't care about that. That was old talk. I wanted to know what it was.
Wanji wasn't ready to tell me what it was. No one knew about this and I was afraid she would talk herself out of it. She looked at it and thought. If I thought, it was about my father being dead. I sipped tea and tried to think about being warm, about sleeping, but that feeling had passed. I wondered where Aslak was.
I thought about my da and I started to cry again.
I thought that would really get Wanji angry, so I tried to hide it, but she didn't pay any attention at all. The shawl she wore over her head slipped halfway down, so when I glanced up I could see where her hair parted and the line of pale skin. It looked so bare that I wanted it covered up again.
"It was a mistake," Wanji said.
I thought she meant the bag, and I felt a terrible disappointment that I wouldn't get to see what was inside it.
"You understand what we were trying to do?" she asked me.
With the bag? Not at all.
"Why can't you have plastic, Janna?" she said softly.
Wanji had taught me why I couldn't have plastic. Our lessons in appropriate development used lots of English words because it was hard to say these things any other way, so I found the words to tell her came most easily that way. "Plastic," I said, "it's not appropriate. Appropriate technologies are based on the needs and capacities of people; they must be sustainable without outside support. Like the distillery is. Plastic isn't appropriate to Hamra's economy because we can't create it and it replaces things we can produce, like skin bags." I stroked the bag again. "But I like plastic. It's beautiful."
"What are the six precepts of development philosophy?" she asked.
I had to think. "One," I said, "that economic development should be gradual. Two, that analyzing economic growth by the production of goods rather than the needs and capacities of people leads to displacement and increased poverty. Three, that economic development should come from the integrated development of rural areas with the traditional sector"
"It's just words," she snapped at me.
I didn't know what I had done wrong so I ducked my head and sniffed and waited for her to get angry because I couldn't stop crying.
Instead she stroked my hair. "Oh, little girl. Oh, Janna. You are one of the bright ones. If you aren't understanding it, then we really haven't gotten it across, have we?" Her hand was nice on my hair, and it seemed so unlike Wanji that it scared me into stillness. "We were trying to help, you know," she said. "We were trying to do good. We gave up our lives to come here. Do you realize?"
Did she mean that they were going to die? Ayudesh and Wanji?
"Do you know what this mission is for, Janna?"
I nodded. "To teach us to use the precepts of the appropriate technology movement to protect us against the invitinevitable devastation that comes when technology comes in contact with our culture."
"But what does that mean, child?" she said, although she didn't really expect me to answer.
But I did. "If offworld things come, we will want them, and soon we will have no renndeer and we will be poor. But if we can learn to do things our own way..." I did not know how to explain what would happen if we could do things our own way. "It would be good," I finished lamely.
"Oh, Janna," she said, and there were tears in her eyes. "You people always could surprise me."
I did not know what to say.
But it seemed to decide her. "This," she said, suddenly brisk. "This is forwhat would you call them?runners. Offworld runners. It is to help them survive. I am going to give it to you, understood?"
I nodded, although I couldn't think what an offworld outrunner would be. I had never seen any offworlders except Wanji and Ayudesh and sometimes people who came to see them, and as far as I could tell, offworlders didn't even have clans. But I nodded because I wanted the bag.
But she didn't give it to me. She sighed again, a terrible sound. Out of the bag she pulled shiny foil packetsdark blue, red, and yellow. They were the size of the palm of her hand. Her glasses were around her neck. She put them on like she did in the schoolroom, absent from the gesture. She studied the printing on the foil packets. I loved foil. Plastic was beautiful, but foil, foil was something unimaginable. Tea came in foil packets. The strange foods that the teachers got off the skimmer came in foil.
My tea was cold.
"This one," she said, "it is a kind of signal." She looked over her glasses at me. "Listen to me, Janna. Your life will depend on this. When you have this, you can send a signal that the offworlders can hear. They can hear it all the way in Tonstad. And after you send it, if you can wait in the same place, they will send someone out to help you."
"They can hear it in Tonstad?" I said. I had never even met anyone other than Wanji and Ayudesh who had ever been to Tonstad.
"They can pick it up on their instruments. You send it every day until someone comes."
"How do I send it?"
She read the yellow packet. "We have to set the signal, you and I. First we have to put it in you."
I didn't understand, but she was reading, so I waited.
"I'm going to put it in your ear," she said. "From there it will migrate to your brain."
"Will it hurt?" I asked.
"A little," she said. "But it has its own way of taking pain away. Now, what should be the code?" She studied the packet. She pursed her lips.
A thing in my ear. I was afraid and I wanted to say no, but I was more afraid of Wanji, so I didn't.
"You can whistle, can't you?" she asked.
I knew how to whistle, yes, but whistling was bad luck.
"Okay," she said, "here it is. I'll put this in your ear, and then we'll wait for a while. Then when everything is ready we'll set the code."
She opened up the packet and inside was another packet and a little metal fork. She opened the inside packet and took out a tiny little disk, a soft thing almost like a fish egg. She leaned forward and put it in my left ear. Then she pushed it in hard and I jerked.
"Hold still," she said.
Something was moving and making noise in my ear and I couldn't be still. I pulled away and shook my head. The noise in my ear was loud, a sort of rubbing, oozing sound. I couldn't hear normal things out of my left ear. It was stopped up with whatever was making the oozing noise. Then it started to hurt. A little at first, then more and more.
I put my hand over my ear, pressing against the pain. Maybe it would eat through my ear? What would stop it from eating a hole in my head?
"Stop it," I said to Wanji. "Make it stop!"
But she didn't, she just sat there, watching.
The pain grew sharp, and then suddenly it stopped. The sound, the pain, everything.
I took my hand away. I was still deaf on the left side, but it didn't hurt.
"Did it stop?" Wanji asked.
"Do you feel dizzy? Sick?"
Wanji picked up the next packet. It was blue. "While that one is working, we'll do this one. Then the third one, which is easy. This one will make you faster when you are angry or scared. It will make time feel slower. There isn't any code for it. Something in your body starts it."
I didn't have any idea what she was talking about.
"After it has happened, you'll be tired. It uses up your energy." She studied the back of the packet, then she scooted closer to me, so we were both sitting cross-legged with our knees touching. Wanji had hard, bony knees, even through the felt of her dress.
"Open your eye, very wide," she said.
"Wait," I said. "Is this going to hurt?"
"No," she said.
I opened my eyes as wide as I could.
"Look down, but keep your eyes wide open," she said.
"No," she said, irritated, "keep your eyes open."
"They are open," I said. I didn't think she should treat me this way. My da had just died. She should be nice to me. I could hear her open the packet. I wanted to blink but I was afraid to. I did, because I couldn't help it.
She leaned forward and spread my left eye open with thumb and forefinger. Then she swiftly touched my eye.
I jerked back. There was something in my eyeI could feel itup under my eyelid. It was very uncomfortable. I blinked and blinked and blinked. My eye filled up with tears, just the one eye, which was very strange.
My eye socket started to ache. "It hurts."
"It won't last long," she said.
"You said it wouldn't hurt!" I said, startled.
"I lied," Wanji said, matter-of-fact.
It hurt more and more. I moaned. "You're hateful," I said.
"That's true," she said, unperturbed.
She picked up the third packet, the red one.
"No," I said, "I won't! I won't! You can't do it!"
"Hush," she said, "this one won't hurt. I saved it until last on purpose."
"You're lying!" I scrambled away from her. The air was cold where the nest of rugs and blankets had been wrapped around me. My head ached. It just ached. And I still couldn't hear anything out of my left ear.
"Look," she said, "I will read you the English. It is a patch, nothing more. It says it will feel cold, but that is all. See, it is just a square of cloth that will rest on your neck. If it hurts you can take it off."
I scrambled backwards away from her.
"Janna," she said. "Enough!" She was angry.
I was afraid of it, but I was still more afraid of Wanji. So I hunched down in front of her. I was so afraid that I sobbed while she peeled the back off the square and put it on me.
"See," she said, still sharp with me, "it doesn't hurt at all. Stop crying. Stop it. Enough is enough." She waved her hands over her head in disgust. "You are hysterical."
I held my hand over the patch. It didn't hurt but it did feel cold. I scrunched up and wrapped myself in a rug and gave myself over to my misery. My head hurt and my ear still ached faintly and I was starting to feel dizzy.
"Lie down," Wanji said. "Go on, lie down. I'll wake you when we can set the signal."
I made myself a nest in the mess of Wanji's floor and piled a blanket and a rug on top of me. Maybe the dark made my head feel betterI didn't know. But I fell asleep.
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A colonized world develops a unique identity and culture. Years later, one of its citizens develops a unique identity as well, adapting to her culture by taking on the identity of a man. Soon, she finds that her gender-blurring actually appeals to her in ways beyond what her situation demands of her. I love Mission Child as much as McHugh's more popular novel China Mountain Zhang, which received the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. McHugh is a great writer who can involve readers in any scene, regardless of how much or how little action that scene contains. The language seems descriptive to an extreme, but she still manages to tie those descriptions into the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Before reading her work, I read reviews that included complaints about her supposedly not focusing on plot. Readers can find countless formulaic, plot-driven science fiction and fantasy novels, but they won't find many original and evocative writers of McHugh's caliber. McHugh's other novels include Nekropolis and Half the Day Is Night.