This story was first published in Matilda at the Speed of Light (Angus & Robertson 1988, ed. Damien Broderick); we are grateful to the author for permission to reprint it here. It was selected for this week's issue by Tansy Rayner Roberts; you can read her introduction to the story here.
Honeycomb, my honey, sweet Honey Coombe. I love her so much I daubed her name on the biggest white wall in the ghetto and round it a six-foot heart. The paint was shocking pink, and it dribbled, when I so wanted my ideogram to be perfect! She passed by that wall everyday, but unfortunately so did others, and that was how the trouble started.
"Vandalism!" That was the Neighborhood Watch, our ghetto guards. I was minding my own business, thinking of Honey, but cat curious I followed the groups of womyn drifting towards the clamour. It was only when I was in the main square that I realised the offence was mine. Ah well, I’d brazen it out—I’m nothing if not brazen.
There was a crowd in the square, which included the off-duty Watch and most of the powers-that-be in Womyn Only. One of the most dignified of these Elders was actually atop a step ladder inspecting my splash.
"Honeycomb," she announced to the groundlings as if every womyn jill of them couldn’t already read. "Possibly male reference to our genitals?"
"Ishtar!" cried the Watch Chief. "They got in this far?" There was a horrified mumble from the masses.
"Tsk tsk sleeping on the job," I said, just loudly enough for the Watch to hear and not pinpoint me. Zoska, who’d reared me, came forward trailing her youngest.
"Not quite down to their usual standard, is it?" she said. "Bar the colour."
It was strident, but that’s my style.
"They go in for dribbling cocks usually, not dribbling hearts."
Some of the hearers drew in their breaths hard, and she snapped: "Don’t be silly, this isn’t the Hive."
"You think it’s a Sister?" asked the Watch Chief, catching on at last.
Zoska nodded her coif of plaits and I cursed silently: if she got much warmer things would be hot for me.
"Our vandal," said Zoska, "loves Honeycomb."
"There aren’t any Sisters of that name," said the Ladderclimber. "Unless you mean Marthe’s daughter Honey . . ."
Their heads followed one direction and I thought I saw my sweeting, so I waved my floppy hat at her. But it was only her grim mamma and I knew I was for it.
"I own up! I did it, I did it!" I shouted, jumping up and down.
"Thought so," said Zoska.
Marthe was looking black and I was beginning to realise why.
"Sister Raffy," said the Chief, "Womyn Only supports artistic expression but isn’t this over the top?"
"Shucks Officer, I’m in LOVE."
"Honeycomb," said Marthe as though that sweet name was wormwood in her mouth. "Is that your name for her?"
I nodded, thinking oh-oh! My darling’s name was Honey Marthe, the mother’s name affixed to the daughter’s, as is ghetto custom. Me, I’m Raphael Grania, but I only answer to Raffy. Coombe had been Honey’s father, a sperm donor anonymous except in the genetic profile of his daughter. Hardcore dykes like Marthe (who never ventured from the ghetto nor indeed much from the Hive, our inner sanctum) detested the profiles—but kept them in case of genetic disorders. Honey had found the document, and discovered her humourless mother had made an accidental pun. I had laughed at that, at Marthe, but now I had made a laughing stock of her, and worse. It was bad taste to remind Womyn Only that its girl-children were not spontaneously generated.
Me and my big paintbrush. There was a long really nasty silence during which I mentally gave myself a hundred lashes, and crossed miles of paving on my kneebones.
"You’ll never call her that again," said Marthe and strode off followed by a curious knot of Elders. The crowd was staring and Zoska had piggybacked her child and was pushing towards me. I didn’t need comfort now, just action! So I pretended not to see her and nipped around the corner and over a couple of back gardens, short-cutting to Honey’s home. It was empty; and I stood outside and thought of the hydroponic flowers I had thrown through her window. Then I embarked on a long and increasingly desperate tour of our trysting places. I found nobody waiting alas! and at the last the Watch Chief found me. She was embarrassed but stern.
"Marthe and Honey are in the Hive, from which the Elders have banned you until further notice."
I lay down by our fountain and imitated it for a while. Then I recovered and went to see Zoska.
"Ninny," she said.
We sat in the sunny brick courtyard behind her little house, she at her embroidery frame and Basienka, who had accompanied her to the meeting, wandering around the confined space in her enigmatic two-year-old’s way.
"Oh I agree absolutely. Now what do I do?"
"Go to Bozena at Haven, until the fuss dies down."
Haven was the refuge we dykes were building in the country. I had scouted the site and normally would go there gladly.
"Can’t leave Honey."
Puck puck puck went the needle into the stiff linen cloth.
"I get soppy just thinking about her."
"Creamy you mean," said Zoska. "I know you."
"No, this is the real thing. I’m so sentimental I could die."
"You’re old enough to be her mother."
"Not quite. Honey may be sixteen, but I—as you ought to remember—had a late menarche."
She did the sums with her lips.
"So you did. I was confusing you with Boz."
"Quite a party we had for it," I said, hopping over a wall in my mind into memory lane.
"Was it ever! You tore up the poem Grania had written for the occasion and when she created lit out with Boz. The pair of you didn’t come back until six the next morning, when you burst into my bedroom shouting you were in love with each other. I haven’t had intoxicants at a menarche party since. Won’t have it at hers either."
She grinned at Basienka.
"Look at her. Aren’t I clever? Forty-eight years and three months I was when I bore her. Broke the ghetto record."
I recollected that Zoska had begun the career of mothering with Bozena and had had thirty-two years at it since. Some daughters were hers; others came from Sisters who like Grania preferred not to have the rearing of their young.
She looked at me, reading my face.
"You and Boz may have had your adventures with Haven, but I’ve reared seven fine womyn. Mind you, it’s early days with Basienka and with Urszula I’m not sure."
I stirred, perceiving how my least favourite sister might help my purpose.
"You could use Urszula as an example to Marthe. She’s not much older than Honey, she’s taken up with Bea, who’s my age. . . "
"I’ve got enough chickens to take chances with them. Marthe’s only got one."
"Let me finish. And Urszula’s leaving the ghetto!"
"Oh Ishtar don’t even think of saying that to Marthe!"
"Why not? Honey wants to."
"After she’s been reared hardcore? To go among men? Raffy, she really must love you."
"I want to swear committal."
She reached into the basket between us for a new skein of wool, the colours jewel bright against her fingers.
"Wow, Raffy settling down at last. Okay, I’ll talk to Marthe."
She snipped off a length of wool viciously.
"It won’t be easy."
Her gaze was like a mirror, in which my scarecrow image—in old camouflage duds from Haven (worn to annoy the hardcores, who never went Outside), lurid pink shirt, embroidered scarf and old hat—was reflected with censure.
"Raffy, you’re disreputable. You’ll have to smarten up if I’m to get anywhere with Marthe and while I’m at it also stop teasing the Elders and getting into fights with the Watch. You’re the last match Marthe wants for Honey."
"I’m the daughter of a famous poet."
"Yes, and Grania denounces you in verse for being undutiful."
"We never ever got on."
"So I got the rearing of you, half my luck. Raffy, I can’t win Marthe without Grania's help. You’ll have to make up with her."
"I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes!"
"What’s that? What do you mean?"
"It’s poetry. Shakespeare, a man. I mean, I’ll do it."
She was looking puzzled and I got up to stretch my skinny legs in the courtyard, puzzled myself. I keep my Shakespeare well-hid in Womyn Only, because of what it means to me: lost time with Benedict, a man. Swashbuckling Raffy might have had a child, a son even, and not by donor but by the old way, which Shakespeare writes about a lot.
There was no telling what a hardcore dyke would do if she knew her daughter was marrying tainted flesh. But Marthe would never hear of it, would she?
In my perambulations I nearly tripped over Basienka, who looked up from trying to unpick a wool flower on the skirt of the little peasant dress all Zoska’s daughters, even tatty Raffy, wore. On her face was the same knowing smile as the Cumean Sibyl, whose painting adorns a wall in the Hive, and I was suddenly afraid. Marthe could discover Raffy’s little secret, from Grania, who might tell her if we two were unreconciled.
I looked away from Basienka, to Zoska.
"Can you talk to Marthe? I’ll do Grania."
She nodded her silver-brown head, and I took leave of her.
Grania lived outside Womyn Only, in a small brick house with a studied bohemian air. There was a hammock on the front verandah with a huge hole in it; the garden was a careful mixture of weeds and colour-clashing flowers; the brass nameplate said “Poet’s Corner”. Before I could knock the door was opened by Bea, lover of my foster-sister Urszula. She carried a carton of books for her shop, my mother’s literary children, new branded with her squiggly signature.
"Hi Raffy, surprise to see you. . . "
"Here?" I asked dangerously.
She looked embarrassed.
"I’ll get out of your way. Raffy . . . do you really want Marthe for a mum-in-law?"
"Anything for Honey."
She walked down the pathway with my brothers and sisters. I waved, then went noisily inside. Grania was in her visitor’s chair, a monster of carved mahogany chosen to diminish the bulk of the womyn within it. From my mother I had my height, but I blessed her donor for a lithe figure, for his genes dominating over those which would have made me resemble a hippo. She batted not an eyelid as I sauntered in.
"Come to your mummikins, lambie-pie," she said icily. It was the standard greeting and as usual I kept my distance, leaning against a wall of this book-lined grotto, with its troll-queen enthroned.
"What, no fond greeting?"
Go cautiously, I thought.
"Did you ask Bea about me?"
"Of course. She said you were in trouble, big trouble if you come and visit me. There was mention of a sweet young thing locked away from your wickedness. Then she spied your approach and bolted, leaving me in a state of gossipus interruptus."
"I shall bring you to climax."
"This sounds like the tale of your lost month. The one time you confided in me."
I stared at her.
"Mother, we are of one mind. I want you to recall the incident."
She grinned evilly.
"How could I forget Raphael’s True Confessions?"
My lost time had been thirteen years back, before Haven even, but it was vivid to me. When I dipped into the past with Zoska I had half seen the brickwork and moss beneath my feet strewn with coloured streamers and crushed paper cups. Now, instead of books I could see pollution-bleached grass, weird trees and eroded hills with knob rocks sticking out. She’s very visual, Honey’s Raffy.
I had been Outside both ghetto and City, sussing out a site for Haven in the countryside. When I remember, the mind’s eye comes through first, then later the body with what my past-self was feeling. I had been happy, despite the desolation, which was coldly beautiful, and the dangers. The country had unmarked pollution dumps, which had already claimed one scout, wild dogs, and of course the bogey of man.
Ah, who cared! I was wearing camouflage clothes that were weatherproof; I had survival rations, weapons, mini-communicator, compass, heat detector, Auntie Cobley and all. The paraphernalia fitted neatly into a five-kilo pack on my shoulders that left me unencumbered, feeling free. There was a wild wind blowing, early spring sunlight and Raffy who had lived behind walls was madly in love with wide open spaces.
This was my first solo voyage. Previously I had gone with senior members of the Watch, who were supposed to restrain young hotheads like Boz and me, and then with Boz. That trip had been a mistake, for in the excitement we had revived our first love, only to quarrel so bitterly we resolved: never again. We were too alike, and I crave opposites, Honey.
I was walking through a narrow valley peaceful even though bisected by a service road, when I heard a droning roar, steadily increasingly in volume. Diving into the nearest cover, a ditch curtained with green weed, I checked the heat sensor, which registered zero. My fears of a behemoth mutant vanished and I peered through the green to see a robotruck on the road, making its slow thunder from a macrofarm somewhere. False alarm; but nonetheless I left the road and went cross-country, moving swiftly until I came to a patch of burnt-out ground.
I started to weep then, and my future self, standing in Grania’s study, sought for a reason. There was a memory within the memory and it was red, the colour of the fire that had engulfed a house on the edge of the ghetto. Five womyn had been inside and there were more dead, Watch members who had surprised the arsonists. "Men did it," Zoska had explained to little Urszula, who had only stared at her uncomprehendingly.
After the fire had been doused there had been more red, with a torchlit meeting in the main square I was later to defile with my "HONEYCOMB." The Elders had argued and argued what to do and slowly a consensus was reached. We were easily attacked within our enclosure, we needed to go beyond the city, found a city of our own. And so the Haven movement began, and changed the lives of Boz and me. We had been feckless ghetto girls, too wild for the Watch and too hardcore to find work in the straight world. Now we had a goal in life.
Standing amongst charcoal and singed trees, I wept for the dead, until it occurred to me that were it not for them I would still be cooped up in Zoska’s living room. There was a site for me to look at; I went on.
Our Haven was defined by a list of desiderata, a majority of which had to be ticked before the Elders would approve the site. My destination had already accrued some ticks, if we were to believe the intermediary feminists who had investigated the site in the guise of a macrofarm consortium. They had liked it. Yet the site needed to be seen with a dyke’s eyes, and secretly. The memory of the incinerated house still burnt.
I spent a day at the prospective site, being thorough. Womyn Only looked at many locations, finding some too marshy, too polluted, too grim et cetera. I was writing the report in my head as I trudged: "eminently suitable for our queendom, our newfoundland"—words Grania had used when she heard of my vocation, laughing all the while—"except . . . " It was insufficiently secluded, being too close to the farm I had seen the truck trundling towards earlier. And this farm, as the intermediaries had discovered, was not staffed entirely by robots.
I inked in the last mental full stop of my report and turned to go, when the late afternoon light caught a spot of colour on a distant hillside. When I pulled out my viewfinder I saw a scrawny blossom tree in its spring best. The flowers were chalky-pink, beautiful.
I glanced at the sun and again at the tree, estimating it was a kilometre away. Why not? I could take a pressed flower home for Zoska to copy and maybe another for a young lady of the Watch I had my eye on. What I had not expected, though, was the macrofarm’s fence between me and tree, impenetrable even for a Scout equipped to the eyeballs. I followed it hopefully and came at last to a spot where an animal had burrowed beneath it. There was just room for Raffy, but not if she were hump-backed: I had to discard the pack in order to squeeze through.
The detour had eaten at the daylight and the hill was dusked over by the time I arrived at the tree. Feeling uneasy, I decided not to stay long and reached for a blossom. There was a growl and automatically I jumped into the branches as a low shaggy shape came up the slope towards me. It was a feral dog and it was followed by its brethren.
They clustered snarling around the base of the tree and I climbed higher. Hormones from the macrofarm had affected this tree’s growth: it was some seven metres high, with sturdy branches. I sat in the highest of these, watching the dogs leap upward, snapping teeth on air and scrabbling their paws on the bark before falling to earth again. I was well out of reach, but I cursed, the dogs replying in their language. Any idiot would have checked the heat sensor for these pests, or considered that they might have dug under the fence. Any idiot, but not Raffy.
Packless I was not quite defenceless, wearing under my camo shirt a weapon as unphallic as a dyke could make it. I took out the gun and shot experimentally at the dog chieftain, remembering my target practice with the Scouts. It was close: there was a smell of singed hair and the pack ran off a little, yelping. I gloated until I registered another smell, that of singed tree. The shot had nicked a lower bough, had almost cut it through.
Rather than whittle my sanctuary away I stopped, and the dogs settled under the tree for a long wait. I considered my options: the gun had a limited number of charges and the waning light would not improve my aim. Better to wait until the morning. I ate a couple of blossoms and found them tasteless, then had joy of a half-eaten lolly Urszula had dropped in my pocket during the farewell. Lest I fall in sleep, I buckled my belt around flesh and tree trunks. The sun set and like the dogs I waited.
In the darkness maybe I slept, for when I awoke suddenly it was moonrise and all the landscape silvery. There was a pawing and moaning at the foot of the tree, as the dogs milled around something strange—a metal canister. As I watched it emitted white mist; the dogs sniffed at it and whined. I could smell chemicals now, stupefying, and below the dogs were staggering like drunks. I pulled my scarf over my face for a filter, feeling weak and glad of the belt that bound me.
Walking among the fallen, twitching forms was a figure oddly distorted around the face. It stopped and stared upwards at my form outlined against branches and sky.
"Here, catch!" and it threw a package to me expertly. The gift was a mask, like the mask, I saw now, of the giver. I pulled it over my head and breathed freely again.
"You can come down now."
For the first time I noticed the lower timbre: a man’s voice. Was I going from frying pan to firing squad? I began to pick at my self-made bonds watching him all the while. The canister had disgorged its drug and he was walking from dog to dog, pressing a rod against each head. There was a faint click, then death.
A deep-voiced thank-you, I decided, then scram! I rebuckled my belt and clambered down, too fast, for in the haste I put foot to the half-severed branch. It cracked beneath me and I fell in a shower of pink flowers made silver. With a splintering crash bough Raffy and all hit earth, just missing the hillock of a dead dog.
"Are you all right?"
He was bending over me now, and I heard him draw his breath in deep. I looked and noticed my leg caught between wood and ground. Funny, it never used to bend that way.
"If you don’t mind me saying so, that’s a godawful break. I’ll have to take you back to the farm."
He was fumbling in a pocket of his coat.
"Can’t have you screaming blue murder all the way there . . . sorry about this, mate."
His hand emerged from the pocket with another canister, and simultaneously he reached forward and snapped my mask off.
"Sorry," he repeated and cracked the canister under my nose.
Much later I awoke in yellow artificial light and found myself lying on a table, head propped up on foam. There was a machine covering one leg.
"Robo doctor," he said, from where he sat watching. "They gave me one ‘cos I’m all alone here."
I stared at him; a smallish man with a lined, weary face, not young, not particularly muscled, and not threatening at the moment, although you never could trust them.
"Well, say something! Think you’ll give yourself away? I can tell you’re a woman."
"And that you’re one of those."
"That’s a man’s name, an archangel’s."
"My mother says angels don’t have gender, so there."
"Your mum knows her theology, Raphael. I’m Benedict. That means blessings, and I don’t mean you harm. I even left your toy with you."
Sure enough, my right hand had been folded around the gun. I lifted both cautiously.
"Don’t burn me," he said, and I lowered my hand.
"We aren’t all beasts," he said seriously, and at that moment the machine on my leg thrummed. He got up to inspect it, and satisfied, lifted it off. Revealed were my camo pants cut off at mid-thigh and the rest encased in pale, stiff plastic.
"Like I said, bad break, and you’ll find bruises and cuts too. To get you down to my transport I had to hook your belt onto the branch and drag it behind me like a peacock’s tail."
Our gaze met.
"You’re bigger than me, in case you hadn’t noticed."
Perhaps he expected me to smirk. I merely changed the subject: "Can I have some water? That mist dehydrates."
"I’ll make some coffee, grow it myself. Ambrosia!"
I looked puzzled, and he added: "Food of the gods."
He disappeared from my view, and I got up on one elbow to see where I was. From the curving plastic walls I guessed I was inside a housing module, but the high-tech was offset by an incredible mess. There was furniture, mainly in disrepair, plants in pots, odd bits of machinery, some half dismantled, tools, rusty wire, music tapes, collections of coloured stones—clutter everywhere. Vaguely I wondered how Benedict had managed to bring me in here, then realised with a grimace that he must have carried me.
When he returned from the small cook-unit set against one wall he handed me a cup, taking care our flesh never touched in the transaction.
"How did you find me?"
"I’m the caretaker, I know what goes on down the farm. The dogs showed up on the heat sensor when they broke in and so did you. When all the blips were grouped round the old cherry I could kill two jobs at once: get the pack and see who you were. From the wavelength I knew it was a human."
He put his cup down on the table hard. "Raphael, I’ve been talking to you fifteen minutes and this is the third time you’ve corrected me!"
"It offends my sensibilities."
"And being corrected offends mine!"
We glared at each other and he sighed.
"Sorry, I’m not used to people much. Maybe I’ll leave you and your leg alone for now."
He went over to a packing case and dragged out a blanket, which he draped carefully on the table beside me.
"I sleep in the next module. If you want something, scream."
He shuffled away, following some invisible path that led him to the door without falling over anything. Pausing at the threshold, he put his hand to a knob in the plastic and the yellow glare dimmed down to nightlight.
"Thanks for the rescue," I said, and threw the blanket over my head before he could respond.
Daylight shining through the translucent plastic woke me, that and a pain in my groin.
He appeared in the doorway, in a change of clothes, but unshaven.
"I wanna piss!"
"Oh gawd," he said, looking from door to table and at the mess in between. I flung off the blanket and slid to a one-legged stop on the floor, forcing the issue.
He bent down and rose with a large broom, which he used to clear a haphazard path from me to the exit. Experimentally I hopped, and nearly went face first into a robot of some kind, its sharp guts exposed for maintenance. As I wobbled, he restored my balance with a hand to my sleeve.
"Can you lean on me, perhaps?"
Once Boz and I had gone out of the ghetto to visit Bea, now Urszula’s Bea, and a man had grabbed at me. After we had rubbed his face in a mud puddle it had vaguely registered that his flesh felt no different from a womyn’s. Then, as now.
Benedict lived in three small modules, living, sleeping and bathroom, all detached from each other and set in a circle. Although the day was overcast and chill it felt good to be outside, so afterwards I let go of him and sat on the little grass courtyard between the ovals of plastic. He brought coffee and insta-bread from the module and we breakfasted.
"Raphael . . . "
Only Grania called me that, and now Benedict. After his outburst I did not want to correct him again, to say: Just Raffy.
"What’s to be done with you?"
"I’ll contact the Sisters. There’s a communicator in my pack."
"Pack, where?" and I said: "By the hole under the fence."
"Knew I’d have to fix it sometime. Okay, I’ll kill two jobs again: get your handbag and seal the fence."
It was starting to drizzle, so he helped me inside again, then left. I very soon got bored silly in the crowded room and gazing around spotted a fat old book. After one glance I dropped it—full of strange words. Then I thought to clean my gun and found that Benedict had removed the charges when I was unconscious.
When he came back I threw it at him, shouting: "Pig!"
The impact left a white mark on his face, but he stood still as the gun clattered to the floor.
"How was I to know you wouldn’t fry me for laying hands on you?"
"I don’t care! Pig!"
His gaze flitted about the room.
"You’ve been at my Shakespeare."
I recalled the name on the old book.
"I’d have ripped it to shreds if I’d known you valued it."
He lunged forward and grabbed the volume. "For that I’d have killed you."
I had never cared for poetry, thanks to Grania, and so was struck mum by his feeling.
"You’ve never heard of Bill," he said sadly and opened the book. Seeing him distracted, I snatched at the pack, but he deftly kicked my good leg from under me. I fell heavily, breath and pride knocked out of me. While I lay, he began quietly to read:
"O! She doth teach the torches to burn bright.
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
So shows a snowy dove trooping with crows,
As yonder lady o’er her fellows shows.
The measure done, I’ll watch her place of stand,
And, touching hers, make blessed my rude hand.
Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night."
I was a captive audience, but it was words rather than a shackle of plastic that held me. Words that summoned memories: in front of me was the beautiful face of a dark girl who had come just once into the ghetto. I had made enquiries about her and found her irrevocably straight, so I kicked a wall and went on living.
(Never would a face have the same effect on me until, years later, I came back from Haven to find little Honey had grown up. But by then I knew Romeo’s speech by rote.)
Benedict stopped, and spoke his own words:
"See, it’s not all rapes."
I was sitting up by then; he dropped the pack into my lap and went out. I opened it, found the communicator and began to cry.
"What is it?" he asked from the doorway.
"I—can’t. I’ve blown it, I’m better off dead."
He sat down on the arm of a laden armchair.
"Have you noticed, Raphael, that I’ve never asked you what you’re doing out here? You lot haven’t been careful enough. For months now there’s been rumours on the computer of walkers in the waste, consortiums nobody’s heard of waving big money, a girl dressed like you found dead in a dioxin dump . . . "
I scowled, remembering how the Scouts had ascribed the death to inexperience: "Poor thing, let her go alone too soon." Now they would say the same about Raffy.
"Stop crying. I don’t care what you’re up to so long I’m left alone. And I never dob in anyone. Call the ladies!"
Maybe I trusted him, but the Sisters never would. Besides:
"I’d be a laughing stock, skiving off after flowers and having to be rescued—by an andro! They’d never let me scout again."
"So," he said. "I’m not going to tell my bosses and you’re not going to tell your bossesses. What then?"
"How long before I walk?"
"Coupla months. The robo gave you a calcium accelerator, but you can’t hurry Mother Nature."
He was looking glum and the emotion was infectious; the consequences of our silence were an unwanted guest for him and dependence on a man for me.
"I can modify a robo into transport for you," he said. "But it’ll take time."
"Gimme materials and I’ll make crutches."
He fished in the litter behind the chair, emerging with an all-purpose kit, its plastic grimy and dented.
"You can make one crutch from the broom—never use it anyway. I'll see what’s handy for the other."
He was half out the door when I yelled at him:
"Benedict! I want something else."
He turned and I tapped the gun meaningfully.
"Promise you won’t burn me?"
"I promise only if you promise not to—"
I stopped, for an extraordinary expression of grief had taken hold of his face.
"Lord, what we’ve done to deserve this, and rightly too!"
He took the charges from his coat pocket and rolled them across the floor to me, where they were stopped by my leg in its plastic chitin. I picked them up, counted them, slotted them into their pods—and looked up to see that Benedict had gone.
Good, because I needed to consider the strange situation we had fallen into. An analogy came to mind: Edge City, when two wildly differing ghetto factions united against the middle ground. Just because their interests coincided did not mean opportunities were lost for mischief to each other; I should remember that. He had several Edges on me: mobility and his computer, wherever it was, with which he could summon his bosses if the guest proved irksome. On the other hand I had the Edges of a gun and my communicator, for a last resort SOS.
Thinking of a Mayday caused me to remember that I had not given my daily position report to the ghetto. I glanced at my watch, noting I was several hours late. If I didn’t send the Scouts off on a wild gorse chase they would go straight to my last location, just south of the site, and from there track me to the macrofarm. Loss of face for me: but of life for Benedict, who despite his hospitality would be killed out of hand.
I unfolded my map, looking for a labyrinth or tanglewood, and found a marsh, probably once a sewage farm. It was off-course, perfect. I fed its co-ordinates into the flute, a coding device that unravelled information into its component yarns and sent it across space, to be knit up only at the other end. "Chased by wild dogs," I added for explanation, and flicked the communicator to receiving mode.
A jumble of symbols appeared on the little screen, resolving first into letters, then words. "OK. Come on home." Whoever was on the other end was in a laconic mood. I had a moment of conscience, as I remembered Zoska, Boz and my other foster-sisters, even despised Grania—then I turned the communicator off
"The rest is silence," I said, as I returned the communicator to my pack.
Benedict spoke from the doorway, and I jumped:
"Do you know where that comes from?"
"How long have you been there?"
"Only long enough to hear you quote Bill."
He came in lugging a collection of staves.
"Any of these do?"
"Yeah, the longest," and we set to woodwork. Our hands dipped in and out of the kitbox, never coinciding.
After a while he returned to the quotation:
"Where’d you hear that?"
"Probably my mother."
"The authority on angels?"
"Yeah, I’ve got two mothers." He blinked. "One gave birth to me, the other reared me."
"So which knows Bill?"
"My blood mother, Grania Erato."
"Poetry woman, eh?"
Now I blinked, then I remembered that he read.
"You know her?"
He shook his head.
"I only read one book. See Raphael, I decided long ago that a man, begging your pardon, didn’t have time to read everything. There’s too many people writing and nearly all of them are mediocre. There ought to be a pogrom—they hide the really good writers with their verbiage. So I just stuck with the very best."
He gestured at the book.
"Before you flare up at me again, I’m not saying your mum’s no good. I never read her . . . I’m restricted in my reading."
"But how do you know she writes verse?"
"Erato’s the muse of love poetry."
"How pretentious," I said without thinking, and bit my lip, too late.
He looked at me, reading more than I wished him to, so I bent over the crutch and worked like a machine. After a pause, he followed suit. Even when we broke briefly for more bread and coffee, we did not speak—until the crutches were finished.
I pulled myself up to standing and fitted the pads under my arms. Suddenly Raffy metamorphosed from crawling caterpillar to a Mummy-Long-Legs, with limbs of wood, plastic and flesh. It was fleet, in a lurching fashion, for with three long steps I was down Benedict’s pathway and outside, being buffeted by the late afternoon wind.
He had followed me outside protectively.
"Don’t overdo it. Years ago I was on those things and took days getting used to them. Don’t think because you’re muscled like a racehorse that you won’t be sore."
Just for that, I left the courtyard, hopping through the gaps between the modules to the farm proper. It consisted of: more modules, but giant, in row after row with tidy concrete paths in between. I lolloped to the nearest and stared through the plastic opaqued by my breath, like a child at a shop window. There were many green plants, and the glint of steel as a robot gardener rolled up and down.
I glanced behind me and saw Benedict watching like a guardian angel. Irritated by his solicitude I swung away from the wall and went for a long walk along concrete, walled in always by plastic. He did not follow, perhaps expecting a clout over the head with a crutch.
When I returned, doused in sweat and radiating heat like a boiler, I found the courtyard littered with Benedict’s junk. Dust blew like a mist from the door of the living module.
I sat down with a thump on the packing case and at the noise he came out, wearing a faded red scarf over his grizzled hair.
"You want your broom back for the spring-cleaning?"
He scowled. "I’m making space. If you’re living here you’ll need territory of your own. For my sanity I’m making a moiety of the living room."
He stared at me. "Move furniture when you’ve buggered yourself with the most strenous walk you could manage? Braggadacian!"
He disappeared inside again and I, feeling parched, went to the bathroom to get a drink without disturbing him. There was a mirror there, overlooked previously, and it reflected the new face like a stranger. I saw a girl weary and strained, with twigs in her brown hair and smears from bark on her face. The man’s glass told me what I had not noticed in his gaze: this girl was attractive.
The water plashed into my hands and I longed for a bath, but only cleaned my face. To strip, and to have him sneak up behind me . . .
When I went out it was sunset and I shivered at the memory of dogs and flowers. I sat on the crate again and watched lights come on inside the living module. It resembled a giant phosphorescent slug.
"You can come in now, Raphael."
Within a low wall had been built of odds and ends; on one side was Benedict’s clutter, on the other was an area cleared of all save a mattress with my pack and blanket set neatly upon it.
"I’ll make the wall higher, give you privacy, promise. I’m just out of energy now."
"It’s not urgent," I lied politely.
He grunted and dodged effortlessly to the cook-unit, where a saucepan bubbled. I looked for the table and found it pushed against the wall, at the end of the path. There were two chairs by it; I sat down and noticed the Shakespeare on the table, like a second guest for dinner.
Benedict brought stewpot, cutlery and crockery to the table.
"Let good digestion wait on appetite!"
"I suppose that’s in your book too," I said.
"Bill says something about everything."
Chit-chat was forgotten then, as we ate like a pair of wild beasts. When the meal was over I reached for the book.
"What are you doing?" he asked suspiciously.
"Seeing what he says about the likes of me . . . them, as you put it. What’s this, The taming of the . . . "
"I doubt you’ll find it there," he said and pulled the book from me.
"How ‘bout this: 'Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust? to make account of her life to a clod of wayward marl?' That’s feminist at least."
"Nice. Who is she?"
"Lass called Beatrice. A bit like you: fierce."
I twitched the book into my grasp again, accidentially losing the place. In front of me was a list of names followed by their speeches and I looked for Beatrice.
"Phooey. Here she’s saying: 'I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest' to a clod named—"
"—Benedick," he finished. Picking up the book he walked to the door.
"Goodnight," he said without turning.
I fidgeted for a while then shoved the robot against the door and went to sleep. In the morning I was awakened by the sound of an electric motor. Moving, I found my muscles sore (prophetic Benedict!), but pushed the robot aside and swung out. The courtyard was empty but through the gap I could see Benedict atop a squat vehicle with fat rubber wheels. He zoomed it down a pathway and out of sight.
Tied to the largest bit of the courtyard junk was a note:
"Off to check fences. Back late today. Place yours."
I stood there like a tripod, listening to the motor fade out of earshot. How lovely to be alone again! Then my solitude was interrupted by the tock of rain—within moments my hair was soaked and drops trickled down my neck. I laughed, throwing my head back to drink rain, and went to the bathroom module to finish what the cloudburst had begun. Only the mirror marred my mood; its big round eye seemed prurient so I made it stare at the wall.
Showered, I went searching for Benedict’s computer and found the console behind a filing cabinet that looked as if the robot had kicked it in a pet. Raffy was never a hacker, except for a romantic summer with the ghetto’s computer whiz, yet the sight revived memories. Benedict was no hacker either, for log-on instructions were taped to the keyboard. There was no password, but I guessed "Shakespeare" and guessed right.
The screen lit up with a list of options and I chose "Security" and after that "Heat Sensor." An infra-red picture of the farm covered the screen, with the small blips of wildlife and one big blip moving slowly around the perimeter. It would appear Benedict was truthful. I returned to the original list and took the option "Maintenance." This killed the curious kitten for diagram after confusing diagram of the giant modules appeared. The care involved indicated that the green crop I had glimpsed so briefly was highly lucrative. What was it? Best not ask. The seclusion of the farm and the fact that the intermediaries had not been able to discover the names of its owners argued a need for secrecy.
Benedict returned after dark, to the lukewarm half of a meal I had concocted from various odd edibles found around the cook-unit. He devoured it, then looked closely at me.
"Good, you had a bath. Thought if I went away you would—you were starting to pong."
I was silent, and he gazed around the module. After my hacking I had got sick of having to weave through his mess like a drunkard, so had added the more maneuverable furniture to the wall.
"And you made space! I can work in here."
"Robo-digger. To modify for your transport."
"I’ve got the wood legs."
He shook his head.
"Very soon you’ll find them restricting."
He spread a plastic groundsheet on the floor and wheeled in the digger, which—shovel apart—was the baby of his transport. I opened my mouth and he said, raising his voice an octave:
"Need help?" Then, in his normal pitch: "No thanks Raphael, unless you’re an expert on robotics."
I shook my head, reluctantly. He grinned, then saw my expression and pulled the corners of his mouth down.
"Why don’t you talk to me while I work?"
"The ghetto. See, I’m curious—it’s natural with something that excludes you. Years ago, before your wall went up, I walked through the ghetto fringes. Dirty looks galore, but nobody beat me up. I suppose being a little tich saved me."
I agreed silently.
"What did you see, Benedict?"
"Nothing much, just no men."
I snorted and he blushed rosy pink.
"I was only there five minutes, girl."
I gazed at him, gauging what information to give and what to withold. At Bea’s house I had met straight women who would politely, deviously, direct the conversation to my lifestyle. All I need do was think of the most unsound of them, add a dash of caution, and I would have a recipe for Benedict.
"Why are you staring at me?" he asked.
Just for a moment, the image of a woman had flickered on his face.
"It’s just a place where womyn live. We have the wall, and beyond that are 'suburbs' where feminists and dykes who don’t mind mixing"—like Bea and Grania—"live. The Watch, that’s our Police, call them the first line of defence. Softcores live just inside the wall, hardcores further in."
"Degrees of ideological rigidity."
"And what are you?"
"Guess," I said coldly.
"In between, I’d say."
Correct, but he needn’t know that. He waited, then ventured:
"And what do you lot do for a crust? You can’t live off ideology and air."
"The suburbans pay tithes from their work in the andro’s world." Grania had been bankrolling the ghetto for decades, to name one prominent instance. "There’s also workshops, factories, where goods are made to sell Outside."
"I’m not going to tell you."
"Knitting," he fished, half-seriously. I smiled at his little joke and also at the thought of the systems that my old hacker love marketed to a lot of blissful ignoramuses.
"The ideal is self-sufficiency," I said, imagining the walled Haven in the country, our City of Womyn.
"In more ways than one," he muttered. "I’ve heard talk of a Hive."
Loose lips! I thought, but continued, trying not to let the exchange become an Edge Game.
"It’s the centre, for us. To stay there long is to forget that your kind exist. Call it an editing device."
Any mention of andros was forbidden in our temple to the Gyn principle, which caused some bizarre conversations. Once Urszula, being a brat, had asked Zoska in front of hardcores where babies came from ("Yes Mama, but what makes the baby grow in your belly? Why aren’t I growing one now?"). She had got a flustered answer about cabbages and my accompanying raucous laughter got me thrown out of the Hive for the very first time. It had been "unseemly," in this quiet place decorated with murals of Ishtar, Athena and Joan of Arc sans Ur-Nammu, Zeus and the English clerics. I could feel uplifted, even refreshed in the Hive but ultimately it was claustrophobic. All restrictions annoy Raffy.
Benedict should not hear criticisms, but neither could I voice vague platitudes. I clammed up. The cessation obviously irritated him, for he began to quote his Bill, half to himself, a quarter to the digger and a quarter to me. I listened until we parted for the night.
In the morning it rained again, and Benedict’s robotics were interrupted by the visit of a truck. He dealt with it, returned, and worked with a mixture of care and haste. By a happy coincidence the sun poked out moments after the contraption was finished. He pushed it out into the courtyard and through a gap to the start of a sloping path.
He took the crutches, slotting them into a niche at the back of the transport.
"Oh, so that’s what it’s for."
"That, by your hand, is direction and this is speed. This starts the motor."
I forestalled him and switched it on myself. As the machine purred he grinned at his handiwork. Seeing him off guard I put my hand hard on the speed button.
"Hey, wait! Whoa!"
The machine shot down the path straight for one of the giant modules, and I grabbed the steering just in time to execute a two-wheeled turn. To show Benedict I had mistressed the vehicle I did a circuit of the module and risked glancing behind for his reaction. He was open mouthed like a yokel, so with a wave I disappeared around the module again.
When I had explored on crutches I had found the farm monotonous; riding, it was the same, although I passed a processing plant and the road for the trucks, which relieved the uniformity. There was more fun in being Raffy the speed maniac, careering around like a pinball. Pride cometh before a crash, of course, and I was sobered by a near collision with a robot gardener.
"Roadhog!" I shouted at its featureless metal carapace, largely to cover the pain from my leg, which had been jarred. Then I continued down the path and found I was free of modules, in open, tussocked country. Still adventurous, I rode to the fence and back, but at an invalid’s pace.
It was late when I puttered nervously up to Benedict’s home, and to my relief he was not waiting outside. I parked the transport and became a stick insect again.
He was sitting at the console.
"Have a nice time?"
"Yes, thank you."
"I watched your blip until it slowed down. Then I did some hacking."
I poled to where I could see the screen, which resembled the old samplers displayed in the Hive: across the screen was verse, Grania’s verse:
Battersea blues couldn’t keep me apart
I go to play songs in a grimy gutter
With you along—your clutter.
There’s leaves in your hair, have you
been dancing with your old man again?
Walk on the wind of September evening
Don’t come down until I’ve finished playing.
Lend me a mood, oh no
I’m not wistful, not jealous.
I have the music and you have the heart
Battersea blues couldn’t keep me apart.
"She was very young when she wrote that," I said. "She still had her father’s name."
"So I saw."
"You didn’t get far with her verse."
"On the contrary. I accessed the biography first, which was mainly a list of prizes, then the contents page of the Collected Works. There were lots of poems about R. and Raphael, but I thought you’d thump me if I read them. So I accessed the cheapest poem about anything else."
"Amazing! She’s said ‘thank-you’ to me twice in one conversation."
There was a round scrap of plastic temptingly near; I leaned on one crutch and savagely batted it across the module with the other. It hit the wall with a satisfying clunk.
"I live in glass. Anything she hears about me goes into her verse! Vampire!"
"The parent feeds the child and then feeds off him . . . her."
I stared at him.
"You’re not unique," he said. "With me it was my father."
"My father was 10CC of sticky fluid," I said viciously. He ignored the goad.
He switched off the console.
"Dad was a drunk. Only good thing he did was desert the family. Trouble was he kept coming back."
I too had been incompletely deserted.
"Mum was all right," he said. "Earth mother type."
"Like my foster mother."
"That’s right," he recalled. "You said you had two."
"She says the world’s oldest profession isn’t whoring, it’s motherhood. That’s what she does."
"She good at it?"
I laughed: "You think so, on the evidence of me?"
"I meant, is she respected for it?"
"It’s high status in the ghetto."
Zoska had been nominated as an Elder, but had dodged the election by beginning Basienka.
"That’s how it should be," he said.
Both of us had become embarrassed by the confessions, and so gravitated to the table, where there was a bowl of fresh greens.
"Grow it myself," he said proudly. "One of the perks of the job."
"That and being alone," I said, and he nodded, a little too emphatically. We sat and ate, crushing crisp leaves between our teeth. The crunching made me aggressive, revived my daredevil high with the transport. Foolhardy as ever, I decided on an Edge Game. If Benedict was in a confessing mood, he might give information valuable to the ghetto and my curiosity.
I waved a strip of bok choi: "You grow other greens in the modules."
This was not a good sign, but I persisted: "I don’t know botany, but they’re like no plants I’ve seen."
"They’re intoxicants. The only other perk of the job."
I had not expected him to fold so easily. Careful, a biochemical sensor warned.
"They come from what used to be the Amazon rainforest. Got saved from extinction when a scientist et one and had a nice time. They’re still only quasi-legal, like the other substances that relax society’s rules a little. That’s why this farm is far from awkward questions."
"Except when asked by Raphaels. You want to try some?"
We were both on the razor’s edge now. His suggestion had caught me off-guard, but to signal that might be dangerous. I had to answer quickly.
He went out and I grinned like a wedge of cheese. Free intoxicant!
Benedict was gone a long time and returned, not with the expected green sheaf, but carrying a small box.
"Could have got raw stuff, just pull it off the vine, but it’s rough. This is processed, ready for the truck."
He opened the box, to reveal grey crystals, more intoxicant than I had ever seen before. I nodded warily, thinking about dosages—in the ghetto only Boz had had a stronger head than Raffy for the drug. He set the box on the table and to my surprise ignited the crystals. A soft grey smoke, reminiscent of Zoska’s old homespun shawl, drifted upwards.
"This is freebasing. Extravagant, but the best."
I attempted the worldly-wise expression of a drug savant, and obviously failed, for he continued:
"This extract’s euphoric. Other types make people concentrate, make 'em sexy, send 'em to sleep . . . the many words that describe emotions, they’re all covered by the drug. It’s a universal, like Bill."
The smoke swirled round me, like the three witches on a panel in the Hive.
"Weird sisters," he said, and I goggled: did the drug cause telepathy?
"From the book," he explained. "Want to hear it?"
He read from his memory, speech after fantastical speech, and I savoured them. All, except for the initial extract from Macbeth, were descants on the theme of heterosexual love, which might have been oppressive had not the language transcended gender. I heard the love-talk of men and women, and interpreted it as that of womyn.
He stopped, dried out, and an eerie silence descended. The room was a ball of smoke and we were silhouettes to each other. Feeling nervous, I moved closer to him, and he turned his head.
"Did that upset you?"
"Very sexist. I’m sorry. I forgot with you it was girl and girl."
"It’s much like the other," I said, recalling the language.
"Really? You’ve tried?"
I was feeling pleasantly confused.
"No, although Grania said I’d try anything except incest and folk-dancing."
He had never seemed threatening; that was his advantage, or Edge. Perhaps to convince myself he was still there, in this witches’ brew, or perhaps for Raffy’s damned curiosity, I reached out and touched him. His chest was as hard as that of a pre-pubescent girl.
"Is this an advance?" he said, cautiously flattered.
It was now. Raffy is also tactile.
He put his hand reverently over mine—they were almost the same size.
"Who’d have thought it? An old man like me."
Actually he was younger than Grania. Our other hands were grappled now.
"I’m out of practice," he said, and glanced around. The smoke had cleared a little.
"Not on that hard little mattress," I said.
We stood up, and I teetered as I tried to fit the crutches.
"Are we ever stoned!" he said. "You’ll never make it out the door."
He tried to lift me but got hopelessly tangled with a crutch, and nearly fell over himself.
"Pig-back," I said muzzily.
He laughed: "Yeah, appropriate for a pig."
He knelt in front of me and I stood on my good leg, tucking the crutches under one arm.
"Hupsy-dairy," he said, and I rode him out the door to the sleeping module.
I awoke, again to daylight diffused through module plastic, and looked into the face of Benedict. Asleep, he looked like something the cat had dragged in: a little beat-up mouse.
As if on cue he opened his eyes.
"Raphael, that was sweet."
I rolled over on my back, to get the weight off my cast and also to escape his sooky expression. There, above me, was flesh, holos of naked women, all breasts, buttocks, thighs, taped to the module ceiling. They had a look of vacuous unreality suggesting the counterfeit; if not, they were like no womyn I had ever seen.
It had been dark in here last night. Intentionally? He saw my expression and groaned like a creaky door. I shot up and began to extract my clothes from the mess around his bed, swearing under my breath. Pulling on a garment I overbalanced and fell on top of him; he lay still beneath me. I scrambled up again and finished dressing. Then I found my crutches at the foor of the bed and poled furiously for the living module. There was a box of grey ash on the table and I knocked it to the floor, before grabbing my pack and heading for my transport.
He was standing in the courtyard, wrapped in a blanket.
"Raphael!" he shouted, "I’m only human and I mean a man!"
"That’s no excuse!"
I started the motor and sped away, making a grand exit. Moments later I remembered my gun: should I return and use it? No. I never wanted to see him again.
My intent had been to follow the roboroad to the gate, the weak spot in most defences. However in my haste I had made a wrong turning and was as lost among identical paths and modules as an ant on a draughtsboard. The sun was out; I estimated east and headed that way. The maze of modules ended and I continued towards the fence, thinking to circumnavigate to the farm entrance. Idly I noticed the tracks of a larger transport on the grass before me. Then there was a cherry-bough, its flowers withered and dry, and beyond it, up a steep slope, the Rock-a-bye-Raffy tree.
I pulled out the communicator and held it in my hand like a shell. It was no use, for the same restrictions still applied. If I returned to the ghetto on a stolen transport questions would still be asked about my leg. For expediency’s sake I would have to return and make peace with Benedict.
I drove along the fence to the gate, as planned, and found it open. Was this an invitation to leave? If so, I refused it and took the road back to Benedict.
He was waiting outside this time, looking worried.
"Why didn’t you go?"
Dismounting, I tapped the cast with a crutch, in answer: it made a dull sound, like a prison door slamming.
"Yes, but after what we did? I did?"
His tone was guilty and something occurred to me: he had mentioned that the drug could make people "sexy."
"Benedict, was there aphrodisiac in that blend?"
"A little," he said sheepishly, a repentant ram. "Didn’t think it’d work."
I struck him with a crutch, not hard, but sufficient to send him reeling back against the nearest piece of junk. He hit it at an angle, gashing his scalp. Blood dribbled down like water into his eyes.
"I can’t see! Raphael, help!"
He was crouched on the ground, both hands over the wound. There was no way I could lift him.
"Stand up!" I said like the Watch Chief and he obeyed.
"Easy. I’m here."
He reached one blood-sticky hand out to the voice. I anchored the crutches and took hold of it.
"Inside," he said. "Doctor!"
Now I had the problem of getting him to the living module, for while he clasped me as though drowning I could not use the crutches. They required both hands. A sudden gust of wind flapped my scarf, left untied in the hasty dressing, and I had an idea.
"Benedict, let go!"
Very slowly, he complied.
"Now take this," I said, and brushed one fringed end of the scarf against his fingers. He took it, and I wrapped the other end around one crutch handgrip. Carefully I swung into the module, leading him by an embroidered tether.
"The lame leading the blind," he said.
Inside I sat him down at the table and found the doctor unit. When I activated it, the optical sensors swivelled and it made a clicking noise, tsk, tsk, tsk. Metal hands shot out of the body and began to minister. Within minutes the blood had been cleaned from him and the hair shaved from around the gash, which was staunched with a dab of sealant. The robot went into inert mode and I switched it off.
He opened his eyes and stared down at an anthill of spilt ash. Absently he smoothed it with the side of his hand.
"Raphael . . ."
He doodled in the ash with a forefinger, then erased the design.
"Don’t hit me again, but I’m not protected against fertility. Are you?"
I sat down too, feeling sick to my boots.
"Of course not. And I’m at full moon."
He sighed, and as if his head was suddenly too heavy, rested his cheek on the ashy hand. Realising too late, he withdrew the hand and stared at it glumly.
"Next it’ll be sackcloth."
I made no reply.
"Say something. Laugh at slapstick old me."
"The doctor," I said incoherently.
"They programmed it for a man on his own, no gynie-cology. I’ve heard that jumping with your legs in splints . . ."
"Well, surely the ghetto has herbal remedies."
"No, I suppose not."
"I’m NOT speaking to you," and with that I retired behind the wall of China, or rather of junk, and huddled under the blanket. After a pause he went out, and I heard the noise of his transport, moving away.
He did not come into the living module the rest of that day, nor did I go out—thus we avoided each other. The following day the pattern was reversed: I took the little transport out around the farm while he was a stay-at-home. In this way we had the necessary illusion of being alone. If our paths crossed the junctions were marked by a chilling silence.
The routine was finally aborted one rainy morning, as we breakfasted—he on fresh-brewed coffee and I on food-concentrate from the pack. An electronic whine crossed the wall.
"The heat sensor!" he said, and dashed to the console. I followed in seven-league strides.
"What is it?"
He jabbed a stubby finger at the screen.
"Figures, just north. Your mates?"
I leaned closer to stare at the sexless blobs. The marsh had been north of the farm.
"Relax, this isn’t the dyke cavalry. They’re just being curious." (Taking a look at the farm and also the site, but I couldn’t say that).
"Don’t think much of their tracking. You and the tree were on the other side."
"I gave them a position reading for the marsh centre."
"Gulper? They could have been killed looking for you there."
After all that had happened since I had crawled under the fence, I should have been immune to shock. Yet that jarred me. With my luck it would probably be Boz.
"Well, I didn’t know it was dangerous. If I hadn’t, they’d have burst in here thinking I’d been kidnapped for a sex slave—which is partly true."
"Take the cart and catch up with them."
They would come back and kill you, I thought, but only said:
"I’d be pitied for the rest of my life."
"A fate worse than death," he said drily.
"And what if I were carrying?"
We had agonized silently about that question for three days now, but to voice it hurt not at all. He took the cue quickly.
"Any reason you might not?"
"I never tried. And you?"
"The ladies all took precautions. I never got close to one so she’d stop using them and have my baby . . . have a child with me."
I rocked on the crutches and considered.
"What are our options?"
"One—nothing’s cooking. Two, there is, but you want to stop it."
That option was tricky: the knowledge lay outside the ghetto.
"Three, you don’t."
"It might be a boy!" I cried. How unpleasant, to have the enemy growing inside me.
"Can’t see him being reared by manhaters," he said.
"I suppose you’d want to keep him."
"I just remember," he said reasonably, "the one nice thing my dad did with me, which was fishing. Sitting by a stream, if I can find one unpolluted, teaching a small me . . ."
He looked at me.
"He might take after his tearaway mum."
There was a pause while I tried to imagine a male Raffy.
"You’d not let me keep a girl?" he said.
I shrugged, recalling Grania’s poems about father-daughter incest. On the other hand, the idea of returning to the ghetto with a female infant, claiming to have found her in bullrushes—the idea was preposterous.
"Look Benedict, aren’t we counting chickens before they’re hatched? There might be nothing in the eggshell."
"True," he said dubiously, and we left it at that. At least we were talking again, but the cautious cameraderie was gone. In the days that followed we ate together, did odd jobs around the farm together, but were emotionally apart. The book remained a common ground but we read it to ourselves separately.
Time passed in this waiting game. One day he put in hours at the terminal, while I hogged the book, enjoying the Three Witches and disagreeing with their images in the Hive (not evil enough). Sensing from his absorbtion that this was no farm matter, I sneaked up behind him, as quietly as a Woodeny could.
He was searching scientific literature, combining the terms "calcium accelerator" and "embryology."
"Raphael, quit reading over my shoulder," he said mildly.
"Tell me what you found first."
"See for yourself," and he dodged past me. I sat down at the terminal and saw that he had accessed several articles, full-text.
One dealt with white mice, the other with monotremes.
"What about people?"
"I tried that," he said from the other side of the room. "No research reports."
The door of the module slammed and I began to read the articles. The monotreme one was inconclusive and the white mice had eaten their young—not an encouraging prognosis.
I glanced back and saw that Benedict had snaffled the Shakespeare. Ah, well, it was his turn for it. To complete the reversal I began hacking myself, first checking the account to which the searches were credited. It worried me that Benedict’s bosses might smell a lady rat if their employee ticked up searches unconnected with their product. However, the account was private, its searches—until recently—solely of the database Shaklit.
I returned to the original enquiry and discarded "embryology" to concentrate on the drug that was healing my leg. After an hour I knew that in the young and healthy the period of accelerated cure could be as short as one month. I patted the cast thoughtfully; it would be rushing things, but if Option One occurred I could be away much sooner that Benedict expected. A quick getaway was desirable—he was starting to look sooky again.
He made one more attempt to discuss our possible parenthood:
"Have you decided yet?"
"Options Two or Three?"
"Oh Ishtar it might well be neither!"
I stormed off, more bluster, for I was late and I think he knew it. Of course, the upsets I had experienced this month would have disturbed the cycle of a she-elephant . . .
One pale spring dawn I woke up very early and found it was Remembrance day, as in Grania’s famous poem. Her words had never bobbed up in my mind much before, but now I was thinking in a mixture of Grania and Bill. I activated the Doctor and addressed it to my leg. It whirred, clicked again, shone lights, prodded me here and there—and then it extruded a nozzle which sprayed the cast with pink mist. The plastic melted away as I watched, leaving not even a discarded cocoon to mark my change. The leg underneath was scaly and looked strange; I cautiously tried exercises then shuffled up and down. It was whole.
Much of my silence had been put to the devising of contingency plans, and I knew what to do. I laid the crutches aside and walked to the console, where I instructed the gates to open. Then I shouldered my pack and left, pausing only to streak blood on the door of the sleeping module: my explanation.
He must have slept late that morning, for I had escaped the farm and was following the road through thickets of yellow gorse before he came after me. Hearing the motor, I moved to the roadside. Prickly leaves brushed my bare new leg—if I hid there I would be scratched raw. Instead I pulled out the gun, hating to use it.
Benedict was astride the little transport and for the first time I noticed, as he must have before, that riders of the converted digger looked absurd. He brought it to a stop on the other side of the road, several metres from me. Now I was in sight he seemed unable to speak.
"You got the message," I finally said.
He nodded. "Raphael! Not a word goodbye."
A buzzing insect shot past my head, going from gorse bush to gorse bush and incidentally from Raffy to Benedict. He continued:
"Oh I know that you couldn’t predict what I’d do. Suspicious minds! I’m not here to compel you."
"I’m worried. What if you meet another pack of dogs? I know you accessed CA data, and that you think the leg’s sound. But you could refracture if you run on it, and this time nobody might help you."
He was right: although I had paced myself carefully over the distance, I had developed a limp.
"Do you want to guard me back to the ghetto?"
"And ruin your reputation? No girl, just take the transport."
I started to demur, but he kept speaking:
"You can ditch it near the city. There’s a homing circuit and it’ll make its way back down the road."
He looked astounded.
"How do I repay you? I’ve taken and given nothing in return."
"But you have."
He clambered off the transport.
"Raphael, you’ve not been easy to live with. I cannot endure my Lady Tongue, not lately. But I’ve fallen in love with her."
"My first love! A lesbian who won’t be tamed, won’t play Beatrice with Benedict."
Slowly he moved away from the vehicle.
"It’s a gift to me if you take it, stops me imagining you et by dogs."
There was no real answer to this speech, not one which would satisfy him. I took one step, then two, towards the transport.
"Thank you," he said, when I got onto it.
"Thank you! Goodbye."
"Goodbye," he replied, his expression bleak. I started the motor and coasted away, glancing back now and then to see him standing there against the yellow like a spoon in mustard. A bend of the road hid him, and I never saw him again.
Now I knew how he had felt. Oh Honey! The emotional ache had become physical—I stared at Grania, and suffered.
"How could I forget?" she said. "You limped in here like a wounded bellatrice, expecting me to shred the—quite good—elegy I’d written for you. When I didn’t, you told me what you thought of me. It was a strange speech, first ghetto-gutter, then becoming arcane and archaic. ‘Cacodemon’ was one word used—I had not heard it outside Richard III. How strange to hear it from my Raphael’s foul mouth. When you finished, your womynly chest panting up and down like a bellows, I remarked, quoting as is my way . . ."
"‘She was wont to speak plain and to the purpose . . . and now is she turned orthography, her words are a very fantastical banquet—just so many strange dishes.’"
"And you turned to the bookshelf, and following the alpha-beta round, you discovered Shakes-rags and opened it."
"I said: ‘Much Ado About Nothing Act 2 Scene 3 nyaagh!’"
"Whereupon I remarked that while missing, presumed dead, you had attended classes on Shakespeare."
"And I told you the whole story."
"Which made me wonder why you, so secretive—"
"Because you write about me!"
"—should spiel the most profound experience of your life. Raphael, I know a dare when I see one. You were daring me to write that Raphael Grania had fornicated with an andro. Being contrary, a trait you have inherited, I didn’t."
"Would you, now?"
"It’s stale bread news. Haven’s half-completed and I doubt anyone would murder that poor man for slipping you a mickey thirteen years ago. The hardcores wouldn’t like it, but you dis-like them."
"I intend to marry into them."
This time she did blink.
"Oh, the sweet young thing. What’s her name?"
"Is she pretty?"
"Very. And with a mother like a meat-axe."
She put her pink hands to her mouth.
"So that’s why you want my silence!"
"I want a vow of it."
"On one condition."
"Raphael, on that night you witheld information from your dear mamma. You never said what you thought of the heterosexual act."
"Very well, but you must swear first."
"On something sacred. I know, you."
Feeling foolish, as she no doubt intended, I knelt down by the chair and she put her heavy hand on my head. An opportunity for caress, I realised.
"I swear, on Raphael, not to tattle."
I stood up.
"That promise covers what I shall tell you."
"Spit it out, this byte, this titbit."
I was silent, thinking of words.
"Mumchance! I see I must interrogate you. Was it pleasurable?"
"Of course. But not the real thing. Hence Honey."
She stored the information away.
"Well, my heretic, we both lose by this transaction, you some privacy, I for not being able to put this grain through the art mill."
"Crushing me," I said, continuing the conceit.
"You exaggerate, nothing could do that. I know being muse-food, museli, was irksome, but it cracked your indifference wonderfully. Naughty of me, but fun—you always bit."
"No, if we are to be at peace. Allow me at least an Epithalamium."
"You do that. Make it good."
Interview concluded, I strolled down the hall and out. The garden summoned memories of other flowers, but I brushed them away. Benedict, my apologies . . .
I returned to the ghetto, encountering the on-duty Watch at the gate. Considering my scuffles with that body, they were friendly, which made me suspect some support. This inkling and the news of Grania I wanted to share with Zoska, but when I returned to her little house, she was out. From Basienka’s room came a voice singing lullabies, probably Urszula bullied into babysitting. Not wanting questions, I raided the larder, mouse-quiet, and went to bed. Sated physically but not emotionally, I slept.
In the morning Basienka awakened me by crawling into my bed with a huge rag doll.
"You want breakfast, kid?"
She considered it like a duchess.
"Well, we’ll make some for everyone."
We brewed coffee, chopped fruit and toasted bread rolls, then I carried the tray into the bedroom. Zoska was weeping.
"What is it? Row with your lover again?"
In answer she waved her hand at the little radio beside the bed, which received only the ghetto’s weak FM signal. I listened, to an Elder talking excitedly about—
"Parthenogenesis! They’ve done it at last!"
Zoska blew her nose loudly.
"And it’s too late for me. Curse the biological clock!"
With exquisite timing, Basienka plonked herself in her mother’s lap. Zoska hugged her.
"Still, you two will benefit. No more seed and egg, just egg and egg."
"Don’t be facetious, you dreadful child. Other dreadful child, don’t spill my coffee!"
Complete independence, I thought, as she fussed over Basienka. It had been the inevitable consequence of the Sisters’ path, an ideal from the beginnings of the ghetto. Just because I had once been friendly with a man did not mean I regretted this innovation, that cast my kind adrift from his. Benedict, I was a Sister first, and there was no changing it.
"How did it go last night?" asked Zoska, munching fruit.
"How about you?"
"I talked my head off, first to Marthe, then I had tea with the Scouts and dropped in on the softcore leaders. On the way home I was met by the faction of hardcores at odds with Marthe. We’re getting an Edge City."
"There’s still the Elders."
"A Scout talked on the flute with Boz, and she sent the Elders a rocket, saying Marthe was behaving like a heavy father. I thought that too, but it takes the Head of Haven to say it and remained unscathed."
She gestured at the radio.
"But this news has done it."
I finished my coffee and lounged back.
"Sure it’s wonderful, but how does it affect Raffy ‘n’ Honey?"
"Well it’s like I’m fighting with the baby and the sky rains honey-apples. Instant end to hostilities as we gorge."
"Honey-apple," said Basienka.
"Silly," I said. "Now you’ll have to get her one."
"Later, sweet-tooth," said Marzie. "Talking of H O N E Y I saw her."
I sat up straight, rocking the bed.
"What she say what she say?"
"She loves you."
I jumped off the bed and capered around it, followed by the imitative Basienka.
"She got Marthe out of the room to tell me that. Not as submissive as I thought."
"My bad influence."
"No doubt. But I still think you’ll be doing the fighting when that girl leaves the ghetto."
"What if I take her to Haven?"
"A good compromise."
"Is it as utopic as Boz claims?"
"We’re working on it," I said.
"You do that. I’ll stay at home, old imperfect ghetto, in case Haven goes . . ."
"Dystopic. Forget I said that. I just realised I’m being thrown out with the bathwater. Still, it’s the best way to get Marthe out of your hair, which now I think of it—"
She put her head on one side.
"—needs a cut."
She hopped out of bed.
"Let me bully you for the last time."
First she made me wash in the little bathroom cluttered with water-toys, then combed down my damp mop and trimmed it. With an air of relish, she next produced respectable clothes, bought in between the visits of the day before. There were grey pants, grey shirt, smart black boots and a stiff, sobersides hat. As I admired my well-behaved self in the bedroom mirror, I noticed her sidling out the door with my old gaudy rags.
"What are you doing?"
"Throwing these out."
"Including the scarf, your handiwork?"
She pulled it out and inspected it.
"No! But it’s filthy, I’ll get you another."
She rummaged in her work basket and withdrew a strip of linen embroidered with pink cherry blossoms. I wondered vaguely if there was a cosmic conspiracy to remind me of Benedict—Zoska had never seen the flowers, the dogs had prevented me plucking one for her. Smiling wryly, I put the scarf on.
"You look very eligible," she said and kissed me.
"Honey-apple," said the repeating machine.
"Come on," I said. "Let’s buy one for her."
Outside the little street was bustling with womyn, some carrying flowers and all smiling.
"What’s this?" I said to nobody in particular and a passing softcore replied:
"Party in the main square. To celebrate!"
We strolled towards square and Hive, infected by the festive mood. A junior Scout dashed by, came to a dead stop, twirled round and gaped at me. Recovering, she ran off in the opposite direction and returned with two giggling girlfriends, and the Watch Chief.
"Lay off," I said, embarrassed.
"Well," said the Chief, "you are nicely turned out."
"For the books," I muttered.
"Doesn’t she look fine?" said Zoska.
"My word yes. Almost unrecognizeable."
I clenched my fists behind my back, momentarily regretting that all my rowdiness must be past. To my annoyance, the Watch Chief fell into step with us, chatting to Zoska about weddings:
"I cried and cried when my eldest . . ."
"Honey-apple," said the tireless Basienka.
"Soon, when we reach the square," I said. The Watch Chief bent close to me:
"We whitewashed your graffiti."
"It benefits you. Marthe was turning cartwheels every time she passed it."
"What a sight. Well, thank-you."
But she was not finished yet:
"One of my lasses let in Bea this morning with a message for Marthe. From Grania."
She eyed me, awaiting the reaction.
"How nice," I said blithely. Maybe it was the festival ambience, but I felt as if I was riding the crest of a wave, which would not suddenly dump me in a welter of foam and sand. We were nearly at the square now, its proximity marked by music, the whiff of intoxicant, and thankfully for the little girl clasping my hand, a sticky-sweet smell.
"There you are, persistent child," said Zoska. "Raffy, do you want one?"
"Not in these clothes."
The Watch Chief had already, incongruously, been tempted by the confection.
In a procession of four, and attracting more womyn in our wake, hardcores, softcores, stray lovers, friends and the curious, we crossed the square to the Hive, our sunken fortress. The girl on guard was unexpectedly confronted by her superior, sticky.
"Tell Marthe she has visitors," said the Chief.
We waited, the crowd jostling and muttering around us. After a suitable delay, the door at the foot of the ramp opened and Marthe, flanked by the two hardcore Elders, ascended.
"Greetings, Raphael Grania," she said formally.
"Greetings, Marthe Maria," I replied, tit for tat.
I saw her gaze roll down my attire, but being as good an actor as Grania, she made no verbal nor physical comment.
"I have received a verse letter from Grania Erato. It commends our alliance."
Behind me, I heard Zoska intake breath in gleeful surprise and then let it out slowly, as if she would have liked to whoop. Several of the rowdier Scouts actually cheered, and this was picked up by the young, the noisy and the disaffected. It was in the end an impressive sound, threatening even. Marthe suddenly looked and I think felt, vulnerable.
"I am, of course, honoured to communicate with the great poet."
And mediocre parent, I thought.
"Having long admired her verse, I am pleased—my words can’t express how much—to be given a holograph sample of it."
And to be the subject of it, I thought. Vanity! I could tell her it was no pleasure.
"For some reason," she added, her tone changing, "it’s called To a Fellow Widow Twankey."
She looked flustered, and the crowd, equally puzzled, was silent.
"I never understand all her allusions," I said quickly, well-knowing Grania’s dangerous humour. "Marthe Maria! Has my mother’s intervention changed your mind?"
She regained a little of her dark composure.
"The Elders have informed me that in a day of such celebration, Hive cannot be off-limits. In view of that, the letter, and other factors . . ."
She looked pointedly at someone behind me, from the opposite faction of hardcores, I presumed.
"I have no choice but to withdraw the prohibition."
Zoska hugged me, releasing Basienka, who for some time had been tugging at her mother’s hand. Seizing the opportunity, she ran down the ramp and through the slit of door held open by the Watchgirl. There were stairs behind that door—Zoska looked over my shoulder and screamed. The guard started and let the door clang shut.
There was a moment of agony and then the door opened slowly again. My Honey came out cradling my foster-sister.
Beautiful Honeycomb! I wanted to shout it, but that would have ruined everything. Instead I stood silent as a doll, watching Basienka offer Honey some of her apple. Honey, smiling, took a bite and the crowd went:
"Little scene-stealer," muttered Zoska. She walked halfway down the ramp and collected the baby. Marthe took her baby by the hand for a moment: goodbye. Then we faced each other, with no womyn between us.
"Get a move on," yelled somebody.
So, shyly, we met at the top of the ramp and kissed. The ghetto cheered and we parted, half-embarrassed by the noise. Her lips had tasted sweet from the candied fruit.
"Honeymouth," I said.
"Yes, that is her name," said her mother. "Honey Marthe."
And I laughed, and Honey laughed, and it was all right.