Holmes Sherlock: A Hwarhath Mystery by Eleanor Arnason

Illustration for Holmes Sherlock by Kathleen Jennings

(c) 2012 Kathleen Jennings

There was a woman who fell in love with the stories about a human male named Holmes Sherlock. Her name was Amadi Kla, and she came from a town on the northeast coast of the Great Northern Continent. It became obvious, when she was a child, that she was gifted at learning. Her family sent her to a boarding school and then to college in the capital city. There she learned several languages, including English, and became a translator, working for a government department in the capital.

She did not translate military information, since that was done by hwarhath men in space. Nor did she translate technical information, since she lacked the requisite technical knowledge. Instead, she translated human fiction. “There is much to be learned from the stories people tell,” the foremost woman in her department said. “If we are going to understand humans, and we must understand them since they are our enemies, then we need to study their stories.”

The fiction came out of computers in captured human warships. At first the Department of Translation picked stories out of the human computers randomly. Most were as bad as the novels read by hwarhath young men and women. But it turned out that the humans made lists of important stories, so their young people would know the stories they ought to read. Once these lists were found, the Department began to pick out famous and well-considered works for translating.

The foremost woman said, “It may be possible to learn about a culture by reading

trivial fiction. There are people who will argue that. But humans are not a trivial species. They are clearly dangerous, and we should not underestimate them. If we study their least important work, we will decide they are silly. No one who can blow apart a hwarhath warship is silly.”

After nine years in the capital, Kla began to long for the steep mountains, fjords and fogs of her homeland. She requested permission to work from home.

“This is possible,” the foremost woman said. “Though you will have to fly here several times a year for meetings.”

Kla agreed, though she did not like to fly, and went home by coastal freighter.

Her hometown was named Amadi-Hewil. It stood at the end of a fjord, with mountains rising above it. Most of the people belonged to one of two lineages, Amadi or Hewil, though there were some members of neighboring lineages; the government kept a weather station on a cliff above the fjord. The two men who cared for the station were soldiers from another continent. Of course they were lovers, since there were no other men of their age in the town. Almost all young males went into space.

Most of the people in the town – women, girls, boys, old men and old women – lived off fishing. The cold ocean outside their fjord was full of great schools of silver and copper-colored fish, insulated with fat. There was a packing plant at the edge of the town, that froze the fish or put it in cans; smaller operations made specialty foods: dried seaweed and smoked or pickled marine animals.

The town had rental apartments and rooms for fishers whose family homes were farther in the mountains. Kla decided to take one of these, rather than move back into one of the Amadi houses. She had gotten used to living on her own.

Her room was furnished with a bed, a table and two chairs. There was a bathroom down the hall. She had a window that looked out on a narrow street that went steeply down toward the harbor. There were plenty of electrical inlets, which was always good. She could dock her computer and her two new lamps on any wall. A shelf along one side of the room gave her a place for books and recordings. She settled in and began to translate.

It was in this period that she discovered Holmes Sherlock. There was little crime in her town, mostly petty theft and drunken arguments. But there was plenty of fog, rain and freezing rain. The street lamps outside her window glowed through grayness; she could hear the clink and rattle of carts pulled by tsina, coming in from the country with loads of produce.

The human stories seemed to fit with her new life, which was also her childhood life. Much human fiction was disturbing, since it dealt with heterosexual love, a topic the hwarhath knew nothing about. Holmes Sherlock lived decently with a male friend, who might or might not be his lover. While the male friend, a doctor named Watson John, eventually took up with a woman, as humans were expected to, Holmes Sherlock remained indifferent to female humans.

The stories were puzzles, which Holmes Sherlock solved by reason. This appealed to Kla, who was not a romantic and who had to puzzle out the meaning of human stories, often so mysterious!

After a while, she went to a local craftsman and had a pipe made. It had a bent stem and a large bowl, like the pipe that Holmes Sherlock smoked in illustrations. She put a local herb into it, which produced an aromatic smoke that was calming when taken into the mouth.

Holmes Sherlock wore a famous hat. She did not have a copy of this made, since it looked silly, but she did take an illustration that showed his cape to a tailor. The tailor did not have the material called ‘tweed,’ but was able to make a fine cape for her out of a local wool that kept out rain and cold. Like Holmes Sherlock, Kla was tall and thin. Wearing her cape, she imagined she looked a bit like the famous human investigator.

For the rest, she continued to wear the local costume: pants, waterproof boots and a tunic with embroidery across the shoulders. This was worn by both women and men, though the embroidery patterns differed.

Twice a year she flew to the capital city and got new assignments. “You are translating too many of these stories about Holmes Sherlock,” the foremost woman said. “Do it on your own time, if you must do it. I want stories that explain humanity. Therefore, I am giving you Madame Bovary and The Journey to the West.”

Kla took these home, reading Madame Bovary on the long flight over winter plains and mountains. It was an unpleasant story about a woman trapped in a life she did not like. The woman – Bovary Emma – had a long-term mating contract with a male who was a dullard and incompetent doctor. This was something humans did. Rather than produce children decently through artificial insemination or, lacking that, through decent short-term mating contracts, they entered into heterosexual alliances that were supposed to last a lifetime. These were often unhappy, as might be expected. Men and women were not that much alike, and most alliances – even those of women with women and men with men – did not last a lifetime. The hwarhath knew this and expected love to last as long as it did.

Bored by her ‘husband,’ a word that meant the owner of a house, Bovary Emma tried to make herself happy through sexual liaisons with other human males and by spending money. This did not work. The men were unsatisfactory. The spending led to debt. In the end, Bovary Emma killed herself, using a nasty poison. Her ‘husband’ lived a while longer and – being a fool with no ability to remake his life – was miserable.

A ridiculous novel! Everyone in it seemed to be a liar or a fool or both. How could humans enjoy something like this? Yes, there was suffering in life. Yes, there were people who behaved stupidly. But surely a story this long ought to remind the reader – somewhere, at least a bit – of good behavior, of people who met their obligations, were loyal to their kin and knew how to be happy.

Maybe the book could be seen as an argument against heterosexual love.

When Kla was most of the way home, she changed onto a seaplane, which landed in her native fjord and taxied to dock. The fishing fleet was out. She pulled her bag out of the plane and looked around at the fjord, lined by steep mountains and lit by slanting rays of sunlight. The air was cold and smelled of salt water and the fish plant.

Hah! It was fine to be back!

She translated Madame Bovary and sent it to the foremost woman via the planet’s information net. Then she went on to Journey, an adventure story about a badly behaved stone monkey. But the monkey’s crimes were not sexual, and it was obvious that he was a trickster, more good than bad, especially after he finished his journey. Unlike Bovary Emma, he had learned from experience. Kla enjoyed this translation, though the book was very long.

While she was still working on the monkey’s story, she met a woman who lived on another floor of her rooming house. The woman was short and stocky with pale gray fur and almost colorless gray eyes. She was a member of the Hewil lineage, employed by the fishing fleet as a doctor. She didn’t go out with the boats. Instead, sick and injured fishers came to her, and the fleet paid her fees. Like Kla, she preferred to live alone, rather than in one of her family’s houses. She walked with a limp, due to a childhood injury, and she enjoyed reading.

They began to meet to discuss books. The doctor, whose name was Hewil Mel, had read some of Kla’s translations.

“Though I don’t much enjoy human stories. They are too strange, and I can’t tell what the moral is.”

“I’m not sure there is one,” Kla said and described Madame Bovary.

“I will be certain to avoid that one,” Doctor Mel said firmly. “Do you think your translation will be published?”

“No. It’s too disturbing. Our scientists will read it and make up theories about human behavior. Let me tell you about the story I am translating now.”

They were walking along the docks on a fine, clear afternoon. The fleet was in, creaking and jingling as the boats rocked amid small waves. Kla told the story of the monkey.

“What is a monkey?” asked Doctor Mel.

“An animal that is somehow related to humans, though it has fur – as humans do not – and lives in trees.”

When she finished with the story, leaving out a lot, because the book really was very long, Doctor Mel said, “I hope that one is published in our language.”

“I think it will be, though it will have to be shortened, and there are some parts that will have to be removed. For the most part, it is decent. Still, it seems that humans can never be one hundred percent decent. They are a strange species.”

“They are all we have,” Doctor Mel said.

This was true. No other intelligent species had been found. Why had the Goddess given the hwarhath only one companion species in the vast darkness and cold of interstellar space? Especially since humans was more like the hwarhath than anyone had ever expected and also unpleasantly different. Surely if two similar species were possible, then many unlike species ought to be possible, but these had not been found; and why was a species so like the hwarhath so disturbing? Kla had no answer. The Goddess was famous for her sense of humor.

In the end, Kla and the doctor became lovers and moved to a larger apartment in a building with a view of the fjord. When she had free time, Kla continued to translate stories about Holmes Sherlock and handed them around to relatives, with the permission of the foremost woman. Some stories were too dangerous to spread around, but these were mostly safe.

“People need to get used to human behavior,” the foremost woman said. “But not all at once. Eh Matsehar has done a fine job of turning the plays of Shakespeare William into work that we can understand. Now we will give them a little more truth about humans, though only in your northern town. Be sure you get your copies back, after people have read them, and be sure to ask the people what they think. Are they interested or horrified? Do they want to meet humans or avoid them forever?”

When Kla and the doctor had been together almost a year, something disturbing happened in the town; and it happened to one of Kla’s remote cousins. The girl had taken a rowboat out into the fjord late one afternoon. She did not come back. In the morning, people went looking for her. They found the rowboat floating in the fjord water, which was still and green and so clear that it was possible to look down and see schools of fish turning and darting. The rowboat was empty, its oars gone. People kept searching on that day and days following. But the girl’s body did not turn up, though the oars did, floating in the water only a short distance away.

The girl was a good swimmer, but the fjord was cold. She could have gotten hypothermia and drowned. But why had she gone out so late in the afternoon? And how had a child from a town full of skilled sailors managed to fall out of a boat and been unable to get back in? Where was her body? It was possible that the ebbing tide had pulled it out into the ocean, but this was not likely. She ought to be in the fjord, and she ought to float to the surface.

All of this together was a mystery.

After twenty days or thereabouts, Kla’s grandmother sent for her. Of course she went, climbing the steep street that led to the largest of the Amadi houses, which was on a hill above the town. The house went down in layers from the hilltop, connected by covered stairways. Kla climbed these to the topmost building. Her grandmother was there, on a terrace overlooking the town and fjord. The day was mild. Nonetheless, the old lady was wrapped in a heavy jacket and had a blanket over her knees. A table with a pot of tea stood next to her.

“Sit down,” the grandmother said. “Pour tea for both of us.”

Kla did.

“You still wear that absurd cape,” the grandmother said.

“Yes.”

“I have read some of your stories about the human investigator.”

“Yes?” Kla said. “Did you like them?”

“They seemed alien.” The grandmother sipped her tea, then said, “We have a mystery in our house.”

Kla waited.

“The girl who vanished,” her grandmother said after a moment. “People are saying she must have weighted herself down and jumped into the water deliberately. Otherwise, her body would have appeared by now. This is possible, I think. But we don’t know why. She had no obvious reason. Her mother is grieving, but refuses to believe the girl is gone. I would like you to investigate this mystery.”

“I am a translator, not an investigator.”

“You have translated many stories about investigation. Surely you have learned something. We have no one else, unless we send to the regional government or the capital. I would like to keep whatever has happened private, in case it turns out to be shameful.”

Kla considered, looking down at the green fjord, edged with mountains. Rays of sunlight shone down through broken clouds, making the water shine in spots. “I will have to talk to people in this house and look at the girl’s computer.”

“The girl erased all her files and overwrote them. We have not been able to recover anything. That is a reason to think she killed herself.”

“Then she must have had a secret,” Kla said.

“But what?” the grandmother said. “It’s hard to keep secrets in a family or a small town.”

Kla could not refuse. Her grandmother was asking, and the woman was an important matriarch. In addition, she wanted to see if she could solve a mystery. She tilted her head in agreement and finished her tea. “Tell the people in the house I will be asking questions.”

“I will do that,” the grandmother said. “The girl was only eighteen, not yet full grown, but she was clever and might have become an imposing woman. I want to know what happened.”

Two days later, Kla went back to the house and questioned the women who had known the girl, whose name was – or had been – Nam.

A quiet girl, they told her. She had no close friends in the family or elsewhere. When she wasn’t busy at household tasks or studying, she liked to walk in the mountains around the town. She always carried a camera and did fine landscape photography.

One aunt said, “I expected her to go to an art school in the capital. She had enough talent.”

“Can I see her work?” Kla asked.

“Most is gone. It was on her computer. You know she erased it?”

“Yes.”

“But some of us have photographs she gave us. I’ll show you.”

Kla followed the woman around the Amadi house. The photographs hung on walls in public and private rooms. They were indeed fine: long vistas of mountain valleys and the town’s fjord, close-ups of rocks and low vegetation. The girl had potential. It was a pity she was gone.

Kla went home to her apartment and filled her pipe with herb, then smoked, looking out at the docks and the water beyond. When Doctor Mel came home from looking at a fisher with a bad fracture, Kla described her day.

“What will you do next?” Mel asked.

“Find out where the girl went on her walks. Do you want to come with me?”

“With my leg? I’m not going to limp through the countryside.”

“Let’s rent tsina and ride,” Kla said.

They went the next day, which was mild though overcast. Now and then, they felt fine drops of rain. The tsina were docile animals, used to poor riders, which was good, since neither Kla nor the doctor was a practiced traveler-by-tsina.

They visited the town’s outlying houses. Most were too far away to be reached by walking. Nonetheless, they contained relatives, Amadi or Hewil, though most of these were not fishers. Instead, they spent their days herding or tending gardens that lay in sheltered places, protected by stone walls. Some of these people remembered the girl. They had seen her walking along farm roads and climbing the hillsides. A shy lass, who barely spoke. She always carried a camera and took pictures of everything.

Some had photographs she had given them, fastened to the walls of herding huts: favorite livestock, the mountains, the huts themselves. The girl did have an eye. Everything she photographed looked true and honest, as sharp as a good knife and balanced like a good boat that could ride out any storm.

“This is a loss,” Doctor Mel said.

“Yes,” Kla replied.

After several days of exploring the nearby country, they returned their tsina to the town stable and went home to their apartment. A fog rolled in at evening, hiding the fjord and the neighboring houses. Streetlights shone dimly. Sounds were muffled. Kla smoked her pipe.

“What next?” the doctor asked.

“There are paths going up the mountains above the fjord. No one lives up there, except the two soldiers at the weather station. We’ll ask them about the girl.”

“It’s too steep for me,” Doctor Mel said.

Kla tilted her head in agreement. “I’ll go by myself.”

The next day she did. The fog had lifted, but low clouds hid the mountain peaks. The fjord’s water was as gray as steel. Kla took a staff and leaned on it as she climbed the narrow path that led to the station. Hah! It seemed perilous! Drop offs went abruptly down toward the gray water. Cliffs hung overhead, seeming ready to fall. She was a townswoman, a bit afraid of heights, though she came of mountain ancestry. Her gift was language and a curious mind.

The station was a prefab metal building, set against the cliff wall. Beyond it was a promontory overlooking the fjord. Equipment stood there, far more complicated than an ordinary weather station. Well, it was maintained by the military. Who could say what they were watching, even here on the safe home planet? No doubt important women knew what was going on here.

A soldier came out of the prefab building, a slim male with dark grey fur. He wore shorts and sandals and an open jacket.

Casual, thought Kla.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

She explained that she was looking for people who had met Amadi Nam, a shy girl who loved to photograph.

“No such person has been here,” the soldier replied.

“Hah!” said Kla and looked at the magnificent view of the fjord beyond the equipment.

Now the second soldier appeared. He was the same height as the first male, but much broader with thick, white fur that was lightly spotted. He also wore shorts, but no jacket. His fur must be enough, even on this cool, damp day.

He agreed with the first man. The girl had never been to the station.

Kla thanked them and went back down the mountain. She arrived home at twilight. Lamps shone in the apartment windows. The electric heater in the main room was on. Doctor Mel had bought dinner, fish stew from a shop in town.

They ate, then Kla smoked, settled in a low chair close to the heater. Doctor Mel turned on her computer and watched a play on the world information net, her injured leg lifted up on a stool. Kla could hear music and cries of anger or joy. But the dialogue was a mumble, too soft to understand.

The play ended, and Doctor Mel turned the computer off. “Well?”

“I have a clue,” answered Kla.

“You do?”

Kla knocked the dottle out of her pipe. “It is similar to the dog that made noise in the night time.”

“What is a dog?”

“A domestic animal similar to a sul, though smaller and less ferocious. The humans use them to herd and guard, as we use sulin. In this case, in a story you have apparently not read, the dog did not make any noise.”

“Kla, you are being irritating. What are you trying to say?”

“The dog did not do what was expected, and this was the clue that enabled Holmes Sherlock to solve the problem.”

“You met a sul on the mountain?”

“I met two young men who said they never met my cousin, though she climbed every slope in the area and loved to photograph splendid vistas.”

“They are lying?”

“Almost certainly.”

“Why?”

“I have no idea.”

Doctor Mel looked confused. “They belong to far-off lineages and have no relatives in town. Why would they become involved in something here? If Amadi Nam had been a boy, one might suspect a romance. But she was a girl, and the soldiers are lovers, as everyone knows.”

“This is true,” Kla replied. “But I am certain the soldiers are lying. I need to confront them.”

Doctor Mel rose and went to pour two cups of halin. She gave one to Kla and settled back in her chair. “If they are telling the truth, they will think you are crazy and may tell people in town. You will have to endure joking. More important, if they are lying, then they are crazy and may be dangerous. I’d go with you, except for the climb.”

“I’ll go to my grandmother tomorrow and explain the situation. She will know what to do.”

“Good,” said Doctor Mel.

The next day was clear and cold. Ice rimmed puddles in the streets and made the street paving stones slippery. Kla could see her breath.

Her grandmother was inside, next to an old-fashioned brazier full of glowing coals.

“Help yourself to tea and pour a cup for me,” the old lady said. “Then tell me what you have found.”

Kla did as she was told. When she had finished her story, the matriarch said, “The soldiers must be confronted.”

“My lover has suggested that they may be dangerous.”

“Hardly likely. But this story is disturbing. Something unpleasant has happened.” Her grandmother drank more tea. “I want to keep this in the family. I’ll pick two of your cousins, large and solid fisher-women. They’ll go with you up the mountain. Even if the soldiers are crazy, they will hardly do harm to three women, all larger than they are, though you are thin. The fishers will not be.”

A day later, Kla went back up the weather station. It was another clear, cold day. The fjord sparkled like silver.

The two fisher-women were named Serit and Doda. Both were second cousins to Kla, and both were tall and broad, with big knives in their tunic belts. Serit carried a harpoon gun, and Doda had a club.

“Is that necessary?” Kla asked.

“Always be provided,” Serit replied in a deep, calm voice.

“The soldiers have been trained for war,” Doda added. “But the war they were trained to fight is fought by ships in space. How can that help them here? We, by contrast, have struggled with many large and dangerous fish, while the fish thrashed on the decks of our boats. If the soldiers threaten us, though that does not seem likely, we will know what to do.”

When they reached the station, both men came out.

“How can we help?” the dark soldier asked.

“We are certain Amadi Nam came here,” Kla said. “Since you lied about this, we are going to search your building.”

What did she hope to find? Some evidence that Nam had been there – a picture that had been printed out or her camera, full of pictures. People did not easily throw away Amadi Nam’s work.

The dark soldier frowned. “This is a military installation. You can’t examine our equipment or building until you get permission from the officers in front of us.”

Serit lifted the harpoon gun. “This is not space, where your senior officers make decisions. This is our town, our country and our planet. Our senior women are in charge, and you are here on this mountain with their – and our – permission. If we want to know what you do in your building, we have the right.”

“We will go in,” Kla said.

“Women do not fight and kill,” the dark soldier said, as if trying to reassure himself.

“What nonsense,” Serit replied. “Doda and I fight large and dangerous fish and other sea animals.”

“But not people,” the dark soldier said.

“Of course not. We are fishers, and we are still young. But who decides which newborn children will live? Who gives death to those who have nothing left but suffering?”

“The old women,” said the spotted soldier in a resigned tone.

“So,” Serit continued in a tone of satisfaction. “Women can fight, and we are able to kill. We will go into this building.”

Kla felt uneasy. As a rule, men and women did not interfere with each other’s activities. If it had been up to her, she would have waited for the soldiers to consult their senior officers, though she suspected they were stalling. What did they have hidden which could be better hidden, if they had time?

But her grandmother had picked Serit and Doda. She must have known how aggressive they were.

The spotted soldier exhaled. “I will not fight women, Perin, even for you.”

The dark soldier made the gesture that meant be quiet!

So, thought Kla, there was a secret. “I will go in and search. The two of you watch the soldiers.”

Doda made the gesture of assent, and Serit tilted her head in agreement.

Kla entered the building. It was messy, as was to be expected, with two young men living alone, no senior officers near them. Unwashed dishes stood on tables. The beds were unmade. Kla saw no sign of the girl, even in the closets and under the beds. But there were pieces of paper tucked between one bed and the wall. She pulled them out, surprised that she had noticed them. Printouts of photographs. They showed the green fjord, the black and white surrounding mountains, and the dark soldier, Perin.

She took the printouts into sunlight. “What are these?”

“I took them,” the spotted man said quickly.

This was almost certainly a lie. Kla knew Nam’s work when she saw it. She gave the printouts to Doda and went back in the building, going through it a second time. An uncomfortable experience! She was a translator, not someone who poked around in other people’s homes.

This time she found the girl, wedged into a low cabinet and folded over like the kind of scissors that bend back on themselves, the blade points touching the handles.

“Come out,” said Kla.

“No,” said the girl, her voice muffled.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Kla replied. “I might not be able to get you out, but I have two large, strong fisher-women with me. They can easily pull you from that hole.”

After a moment or two, the girl squeezed herself out, groaning as she did so. Once she was upright, Kla could see her clearly. A plump young woman with badly rumpled clothing and fur. She looked miserable and angry.

Kla gestured, and the girl followed her outside.

“Now,” Kla said to the girl and the soldiers. “What is this about?”

The girl looked sullen. The soldiers looked more unhappy than before. No one spoke.

“Very well,” Kla said. “We will all go to see my grandmother. If the girl has a jacket, get it.”

The spotted soldier did.

“Put it on and pull the hood up,” Kla said to the girl. “I don’t want people to know you are alive, until Grandmother has made a decision.”

The girl obeyed, and they all went down the mountain, Serit last, holding the harpoon gun ready.

Once again her grandmother sat by an old-fashioned brazier, though it was difficult to see the glow of the coals this time. The room was full of sunlight, coming in through east-facing windows. The red floor tiles shone, and it was easy to see the paintings on the walls: flowers and flying bugs.

Doda pushed the girl in front of the old woman, then pulled back her hood.

“Well,” the old lady said. “You’ve had all of us worried, Nam.” Then she glanced around at everyone. “Pull up chairs. I will hurt my neck, if I look up at you.”

The men brought chairs from the walls and arranged them in front of the old woman.

“Sit!” Kla’s grandmother said. “You found Nam at the weather station. That much is evident. But why was she there? Why was the boat left floating empty? And why was her computer erased?”

“I think the soldier with spots might tell us,” Kla answered. “He seems to be the most reasonable of the three.”

The man clasped his hands tightly together. “I know I am dead. May I tell this the way it happened?”

“Yes,” said the grandmother. “But try to be brief. And tell me your name.”

“I am Sharim Wirn.”

“Go on.”

“My lover always took walks. I did more of the work than he did, but willingly, out of love. Recently, he has taken longer walks, and I began to notice food was disappearing. I do the accounting. I knew how much food we bought and how much we usually ate.” The man paused, glancing briefly at his comrade. “I thought he might have a new lover. But where had he found the man? And why would he feed him? It made no sense. So I followed Perin. He went to a cave in the mountains. I went inside after him, expecting to find Perin with another man. Instead, I found him with the girl, sitting by a little fire and sharing food. Not eating with her, that would be indecent, but giving her food from our supplies.

“I asked what this was about. At first he refused to speak. At last, he told me the story. He had met the girl during his walks. They both liked the mountains, and they were both solitary. The girl had no one to love, apparently, and Perin had only me. I was not enough.” The soldier’s voice was bitter. “They began by talking and ended by having sex.”

The two fishers drew breath in sharply. Kla’s grandmother hissed. Kla was too shocked to make a noise. Men and women had mated in the past, before artificial insemination, but only after their families had agreed to a breeding contract, and only to make children. Of course there had been perverts. But they were not common, and she had never expected to meet any. She certainly had not expected to have one in her family.

“Go on,” the grandmother said, sounding angry.

“The girl became pregnant and came to Perin, insisting on his help,” the spotted soldier went on. “He knew he would be told to kill himself, if this story became known. So he hid the girl, until I found them. I insisted on bringing her to our building. The cave was cold and damp. She would become sick. I was not willing to be responsible for the death of a woman, even one as foolish and selfish as this girl.”

He lifted his head, glancing briefly at the old lady. “I know that I should have told my senior officers, but I loved Perin. I knew he would die for what he did, and it would be my fault for telling. I could not bear the idea of him dying.”

“How could you love him after he had sex with a woman?” Serit asked.

The man looked down at his clasped hands. “I don’t know. But it became obvious to me, after spending time with her, that the girl has the stronger will. I believe she seduced him; and then she entangled him with her plan.”

This did not seem likely. Nam was only eighteen, two years away from adulthood.

Kla looked at the girl and saw her grim, determined, angry face.

“What plan?” asked the grandmother.

“She emptied her computer, so no one would know where she had been and what she photographed; and then she left evidence of her death – the boat, floating in the fjord, empty. Then she went to Perin and insisted on his help. He had no choice. If she told her family – you – what had happened, he would die. Or if not that – his family has influence – he would get a really bad assignment.

“She could not stay here in this town, because her family would discover what she’d done. And she could not travel while pregnant. A woman alone in that condition would arouse too much interest and concern. People would stop her and offer help or ask about her family. Where were they? Why was she alone?”

“You say that you love this man Perin, but now you tell this terrible story,” Kla’s grandmother said.

“There is no good ending,” the spotted soldier replied. “If the girl gave birth, she would do it alone, with no one to help except Perin and me. Hah! That was frightening! If the child lived, what would happen to it? Children don’t appear out of nowhere. They are the result of breeding contracts. They have families. No mother with a child is ever alone.”

“This is true,” Kla’s grandmother said.

“It became apparent to me that the child would die, even if it was healthy. How else could Perin and the girl hide what they had done?” He paused and took a deep breath. “The girl said she would travel to the capital after the child was born. There are people there who live in the shadows and make a living in irregular ways. She planned to become one of those. She never spoke of the child.

“All the time, while this was happening, my love for Perin was wearing away. How could he be so stupid? It was obvious to me that the girl had the stronger will. He was acting the way he did out of weakness and fear of discovery. I would have told your family or my senior officers, except by this time I had gotten myself entangled. I was at fault. I would be told to kill myself, once this was known.”

“True,” said Kla’s grandmother. She looked at Nam. “Well, child, why did you do this?”

“I love him,” Nam said stubbornly, though Kla was not sure the girl meant it. How could love endure this mess?

“How can you?” the old lady asked. “He is male.”

“I cannot change what I feel.”

“Certainly you can.”

“No,” the girl replied.

“Tell them all to kill themselves,” Serit put in. “They are disgusting.”

The old woman looked at Kla. “You have studied human crimes. What is your advice?”

“Two suicides close together would cause talk,” Kla replied. “Though we might say it was some kind of lovers’ quarrel. But why would both commit suicide? No one was stopping their love. It would be a mystery. There would be talk and wondering and possibly an investigation by military. We don’t want that.

“As for the girl, everyone thinks she is dead. But we would have to hide her body, if she killed herself. Otherwise, people would wonder where she had been before her death. And she is pregnant. That’s another problem. If Sharim Wirn is right, the girl planned to kill the child or let it die. We have no reason to believe the child is defective. I am not comfortable doing what the mother planned to do.”

“Yes.” The grandmother leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. “Be quiet, all of you. I need to think.”

They sat, as sunlight moved across the floor and out of the room. Kla needed to pee and would have liked a cup of tea or halin. But she kept still.

At last, the grandmother opened her eyes. “The important thing to keep this story secret. One solution would be for all three of you to die. But as Kla says, that might cause talk and wondering; and there is the problem of the child. So –” She gestured at the two soldiers. “You will volunteer for service in space, far out in the war zone, where you will not meet women. My family has relatives who are important in the military. They will make sure you get the assignments you desire.

“As for you, Nam, you will stay in this house until your child is born. You have a cousin who is pregnant now. We will say that she had twins. I am not comfortable with this, since I will be deceiving the lineage that provided semen for your cousin. But we do what we have to do; and I hope you are ashamed at the lies you are forcing your relatives to tell.”

Kla looked at the girl. She did not show any evidence of shame.

“After the child is born – “ the grandmother said. “I will give you two choices. Either you can stay here and study art on the world information net, or you can leave and go into the shadows. If you stay here, we will watch you for further signs of misbehavior. We cannot trust you, Nam. You have initiative, a strong will, no self-control and no sense of family obligation. This is a dangerous combination.”

“I will go,” Nam said.

The grandmother exhaled. “If you want to live in the shadows in the capital, fine! But don’t tell anyone your family name.”

“I won’t,” the girl said. “I despise all of you and this town.”

“Why?” asked Kla, surprised.

“Look at you,” the girl said. “In your silly cape, pretending to be a human.”

“What harm does it do?” Kla asked.

“And you,” the girl stared at Kla’s grandmother. “Pretending that none of this happened, because you are afraid of gossip.”

“Gossip can cause great harm,” the old lady said.

“The world is changing,” Nam said. “There are aliens in the sky! But your lives remain the same, full of fear and pretense.”

“There are no aliens in the sky,” Kla’s grandmother said firmly. “The humans remain a long distance from our home system.” She paused for a moment. “I hope your child has your gift for art, without your difficult personality. This has been an unpleasant conversation. I’m tired now. I want to take a nap. Everyone go.”

“You stay in the house,” Serit said to Nam. “We don’t want anyone outside the family to know you are alive.”

The girl made the gesture of assent, though she looked sullen.

Kla left the house with the soldiers. “Thank you,” the spotted soldier said before they parted. “You said that our suicides would cause talk. For this reason, Perin and I will remain alive.”

“Behave better in the future,” Kla said.

The man showed his teeth in a brief smile. “We will have no chance to behave badly in a war zone.” He glanced around at the mountains. “I will miss this country. But space may be safer.”

The two men took off, walking rapidly. They kept well apart, as people do who have quarreled.

Kla went back to her apartment. It was late afternoon by now, and the sun was behind the mountains, though the light still touched the high peaks, streaked with a little snow. The fjord was still and gray.

Doctor Mel was in the main room, drinking tea. Kla sat down and told the story. Even though Mel belonged to another lineage, she was a doctor and knew how to keep secrets.

At the end, Mel said, “You have solved your mystery.”

“It’s an ugly story,” Kla said. “I wish I still believed the girl had drowned.”

“That is wrong,” Mel said firmly. “Her life may be hard, but she still has a future. The dead have nothing.” She refilled her cup and poured tea for Kla. “Most likely, she will give up her unnatural interest in men. If she does not – well, there are people in the shadows who know about contraceptives.”

“There are?” Kla asked.

Mel grinned briefly. “You know more about crime in the ancient human city of London than you know about bad behavior here. Of course there are hwarhath who behave in ways we do not find acceptable; and of course these folk learn to deal with the consequences of their behavior. Doctors know this, though we rarely talk about it.”

“In the stories I have translated, the solution to the puzzle is satisfying. The ending seems neat and finished, though – of course – I don’t understand everything. Humans are alien, after all. I can translate their words, but not their minds. This ending does not satisfy,” Kla said.

“How could it? Most likely the young men will be fine, once they are in a military unit with officers to watch them; and most likely the child will be fine, born in your grandmother’s house and raised by members of your family. But the girl is an unsolved problem. Maybe she will decide to stay here and study photography. Her work is full of possibility.”

“I don’t believe she’ll stay. She is angry, though I don’t know why. Maybe it is shame. She said our lives are full of fear and pretense.”

“We live with rules and obligations,” Doctor Mel said. “Most of us fear what will happen if we break the rules; and we may – as in this case – pretend that a rule has not been broken, rather than deal with the idea of broken rules. Is this wrong? I don’t think so. I would not like to live in chaos, without the net of kinship that holds us all, and without front-and-back relations. The girl may want more honesty. However, most of us want a comfortable life.”

Mel paused, obviously thinking. “The girl is right about one thing. Our universe is changing in ways that people could not have imagined a century ago. Look at your job, translating human literature. It did not exist in the past. Now, through your work, we learn about Holmes Sherlock and the shadows of London, also that irritating woman who lived in her own shadow.”

“Bovary Emma. That translation will never be released. It is too disturbing.”

Mel smiled briefly. “See how we protect ourselves!”

“Rightly!”

Mel gave Kla a look of affectionate amusement, then continued her line of thought, like a sul following a scent. “There have always been people who feel constrained by our rules. Most stay in their families and are unhappy. Others leave, going into the shadows. Some are criminals. Others are outcasts or eccentrics. Doctors know about them, because we must watch everyone – even people who are difficult – for signs of illness. Public health requires that we treat everyone, even those we don’t approve of.

“Is it possible to be happy in shadows? I think so. Holmes Sherlock was happy, though he lived outside a family and made his own rules, and so was Watson John, who was odd enough to enjoy living with Holmes Sherlock. The irritating woman – remind me of her name.”

“Bovary Emma.”

Doctor Mel tilted her head in thanks. “Was unhappy, but she does not sound – from your description – like a person able to live a difficult life. Or even an ordinary life.”

“These are humans, and they are imaginary!”

“We can still learn from them. We can always learn from other people.”

“Are you saying the girl might be happy, even among outcasts?” Kla asked.

“Happier than in her – your – family. I will give you a name. Please give it to Nam before she leaves home. It’s a doctor in the capital city, a good woman who treats people in the shadows and collects art. She can help Nam get settled. If she likes Nam’s work, she can find a dealer-in-art. A good photographer should not be wasted.”

Kla looked at Mel with speculation. This woman she loved, who lived in a small town and treated the injuries of fishers, knew more about people than she did, although she had lived in the capital city and had been translating human novels for years. People were more difficult to understand than she had believed, even the people she loved. But Mel was right. A good photographer should not be wasted. Maybe this situation would work out. Best of all, the disturbing girl would be gone from Kla’s life.

Doctor Mel got up and limped to the room’s window. After a moment, Kla joined her. The street lamps were on, and lights shone on the fishing boats anchored by the docks. High up on the mountain, a gleam showed that the soldiers were home.

 

 

THE END

Eleanor Arnason fell in love with science fiction in the 1950s, while living in Design House # 2 behind the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Growing up in a cutting-edge house-of-the-future may have influenced her. The early TV show Captain Video certainly did. She published her first story in 1973, while living in Detroit. This was the old Detroit, full of car plants and working people. She moved back to the Twin Cities in 1974, but Detroit – the old Detroit — remains an influence. It was the toughest and most dynamic and interesting place she has ever lived.
Since 1973, she has published six novels, two chapbooks and 30 + short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People, won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Mythopoeic Society Award. Her fifth novel, Ring of Swords, won a Minnesota Book Award. Her short story “Dapple” won the Spectrum Award. Other short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Kindred, Sidewise and World Fantasy Awards. Eleanor would really like to win one of these.
“Holmes Sherlock” is one of many stories about the hwarhath, a humanoid species that first appeared in Ring of Swords.
Her blog address is is http://eleanorarnason.blogspot.com/