The interpreter’s voice is weak like a little bird’s, coming from a child’s lungs, but her diction is strong and certain like an adult’s. The Envoy speaks in his Earthian language and Henon words flow from Sam-Sa-Ee’s mouth.
Across the table sits the Henon businessman. “If you are willing to give us twenty percent of the profit for the first five years, we will help you curb local resistance,” he says in the straightforward Henon way. When the Envoy hears the translated words from Sam-Sa-Ee, he smiles, narrowing his eyes. They agree at fifteen percent and they discuss the plans. Sam-Sa-Ee translates, unable to add or remove anything from their words.
“How do you know she won’t fool you?” the Henon businessman asks, scratching his bright green beard with two clawed digits. A proper Henon is suspicious of everything: technology, women, lower estates, Earthians. This one has never done business with Earthians before, and their interpreting Athuran dolls make him jittery.
“Oh, she’s my little treasure! Isn’t she lovely?” The Envoy fondles the interpreter’s curls, obviously proud of Sam-Sa-Ee. “The body is but a decoration. She’s really a machine. Only translates, never remembers. It’s a good deal with Athurans: we take what they can’t salvage and join it with what we’ve thrown away. It’s fast, ingenious, and—most importantly—it works.”
The Henon businessman makes a rattling sound with his jaw, a sign of mixed admiration and disbelief. “Small-headed filth finally good for something, eh?” He keeps stroking his beard, loaded with fragrant oils, and nodding to himself. His talons are well-oiled too, capturing the room’s dim light. “Keep her away from me,” he adds. “She’s still dirty.” Sam-Sa-Ee translates, a voice in a body of no consequence.
The interpreter Sam-Sa-Ee inhabits the body of an Earthian child, which in turn houses the brain of an Athuran adult. The first Envoys came up with this design, because Athurans are so small that their brains fit inside the skulls of Earthian children perfectly. They stretch and contract in there; mate with the carefully designed silicon and copper semiconductors; kiss with the fresh, baby neurons that can accommodate the organ with the characteristic ease of the malleable. Now the interpreter Sam-Sa-Ee is rid of her Athuran body, too grotesque to Earthian eyes—a vile thing composed of millions of tiny tendrils, or cilia, or tentacles; no one knows what they are and no one cares. Now her skin is porcelain, her eyes two pale jewels: a fragile bisque among the dark, boring bodies of other translating babies.
The body is a decoration indeed, because, involuntary things excepted, she can’t move it: it’s not her own. Language-related brain centers and voice-making organs are the only things that work on it, like a doll with a tape recorder in its belly, as if all that translating from one language to another requires is a software and a way to vocalize. The body does not even belong to itself because it doesn’t grow. Growing up would risk the corruption of neurons, the development of new synapses. Machines are not supposed to grow. The body is frozen in time.
The Envoy is delighted that his is the prettiest interpreter to ever grace the collection. He washes her himself, clothes her, pat-dries and plaits her golden hair. He even likes to dress his forever-child and himself in matching outfits. Today they’re both wrapped in indigo-colored silk, with red satin details and elegant red caps on their heads. He carries her around on his left arm and together they look like a peculiar Madonna and child.
Even though she originates from two unrelated bodies, even though most of her functions have been deliberately impaired, and even though she carries a generous portion of circuitry, Sam-Sa-Ee knows she’s no machine. She might not be able to say it out loud, but she knows it very well. Machines wouldn’t be able to interpret.
Her body remembers more than her brain does. Every time the Envoy lodges her in his arm, for a moment she thinks it is the arm of a mother. But maybe the child’s body made this memory up, to console herself because her mother did not want her. (That’s what they say of interpreters: they all come from unwanted babies. Most are of the less beautiful kind, of the afflicted, of the poor; Sam-Sa-Ee’s cherubic beauty is a rarity.) Her body remembers, because every time the Envoy runs a comb through her hair a docile sort of electricity runs along her spine. Every time he clips her nails and gloves her arms, the coolness of metal and the warmth of velvet pierce tiny, galvanic holes through the numbness of her skin. Her body remembers, and every touch stirs a piece of haptic memory.
Her brain does not remember, not even what she translated a moment ago. The Envoys are proud of this subroutine: Total Secrecy, they call it. Her mind belonged to an Athuran woman once, but whatever life she led, Sam-Sa-Ee can’t remember.
Sam-Sa-Ee lives moment by moment, a voice with no past and no future.
Sometimes, the Envoy has other uses for Sam-Sa-Ee. She knows that she ought to be numb, a body frozen in time. But every time he combs her hair, the sense of its plastic teeth tracing lines on her scalp becomes clearer. Sometimes, when the Envoy has other uses for Sam-Sa-Ee, she can feel the pain.
It’s okay; she can shut it out. She won’t remember in the morning; it’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.
One night, she hears something breaking.
She has a dream. She keeps dreaming the same dream now.
Interpreters are not supposed to dream.
Sam-Sa-Ee visits many places perched on the Envoy’s arm. Today they meet with the Henon businessman at the construction site in the desert. The Envoy asks of progress and Sam-Sa-Ee translates. Soon, her voice is lost among other voices, a horde of voices, Athuran voices.
“Get away from our land! Go home, corporation scum!”
Sam-Sa-Ee translates from Athuran, unable to go against the call of words.
“Shut up!” the Henon businessman barks at her, eyes and voice full of Athuran-hating bile.
Sam-Sa-Ee translates his Henon words, not knowing how to stop her interpreting function—her sole function.
Then the Envoy uses the switch at the nape of her neck. It puts a brake on her vocal cords; it hurts, but Sam-Sa-Ee can shut out the pain, after all. It’s okay. The words still come to her, but now they’ll just linger in her mouth, fluttering their wings like caged birds inside her.
The businessman orders security to tighten up. He motions the Envoy to follow him towards the back of the site—a short walk during which Sam-Sa-Ee can feel the warmth of the sun on her skin, the friction of her silken dress against the Envoy’s sleeve. And the words drowning in her throat.
The voices die out as they enter a construction trailer—equipped and furnished for business meetings—and the Henon shuts the door behind them. Even though the construction site belongs to the Envoy’s business group, the Henon knows how to run away from mobs a bit too well. Safe inside the trailer, the Envoy switches Sam-Sa-Ee back on.
“You said you’d curb the locals,” Sam-Sa-Ee translates.
“I have arranged everything with the council, I told you. The officials are all bribed! These are the residents!”
“Did you do nothing about them, then? Promise them jobs, as agreed?”
The Henon stumbles over his words, his gaze wanders. “It’s … impossible to deal with Athurans, sir. Their women are in charge. Plus, they’re a different estate from us, Henons, and—”
“Silence them or we have no deal.” The Envoy is displeased. He is still young and still building his career and can’t risk losing the first project that was put entirely in his hands. “I won’t have any Athurans taking me to court. The Tonokha disaster won’t happen while I’m in charge, do you understand me?”
The businessman eyes him with a spite Sam-Sa-Ee cannot translate, although she understands. Sam-Sa-Ee remembers what eyes full of hate look like.
After they return to the hotel, Sam-Sa-Ee has not forgotten what happened today. Some fragments are lost by the morning, but she can stitch the whole thing together in loose seams.
Sam-Sa-Ee listens to the silkbirds’ song. A snippet of a translation comes back to her, as if it was stored in her memory once and was never erased.
Silkbirds lose all their blue-colored plumage when they reach adulthood. This is why they search for blue things to decorate their nests with: they remember the part of themselves they’ve lost.
Sam-Sa-Ee dreams of silkbirds every night.
Sometimes, the Envoy has other uses for Sam-Sa-Ee. She can feel the pain. It’s okay. She can shut it out.
But she remembers.
It’s not okay. She won’t shut it out.
“I hate you,” she says into the darkness. The Envoy is already asleep, so he can’t hear her.
It’s the first thing Sam-Sa-Ee says.
Sam-Sa-Ee is seated on a pillow on the floor, propped up against the wicker hut’s wall. The Envoy is sitting next to her, sweating in his finely cut clothes, too tall for the tiny Athuran abode—it’s strange to not be on his arm. Today he has dressed Sam-Sa-Ee in long, black sleeves despite the heat, because sleeves can hide unsightly bruises. But Sam-Sa-Ee still knows where each of the marks and cuts is—her body is a map that knows too well. Her body remembers.
The Athuran women blink at him, then at the Henon businessman. They are all lined up against the wall across from them, wrapped in multicolored dresses, babies on their breasts, weaving in their hands. One of the children is staring at Sam-Sa-Ee from his hideout, eyes glued on her.
“What did you let that Henon in for?” one woman whispers to another. “Grandma hates them.”
Sam-Sa-Ee translates from Athuran, also in a whisper.
“We can’t drive a guest away! The ancestors will be angry.” She watches the translating Sam-Sa-Ee carefully, then averts her eyes. The rest of their talk is in whispers too low for Sam-Sa-Ee to hear. “Moma-ko,” someone says. Sam-Sa-Ee knows the meaning of the word. Stitched-together child. Living-dead child.
The word is sticky in her mouth. Somehow, she can’t utter it.
From behind the intricately woven curtain, Grandma appears, even tinier than other Athurans. Her skin is a smooth carpet of thread-thin cilia, each individually moving, each individually conscious. She feels the air for a few moments, every tiny follicle alert to the presence of the guests, then sits on a pillow at the other side of the table. She looks the Envoy in the eyes—a look of equals—and gives the Henon a single, civil side-glance. “Welcome, guests, to the women’s hut. I was told you represent the mine.”
A woman holding a tray kneels by the table and puts three glasses of water in front of every guest, including Sam-Sa-Ee. To the Athurans, the moma-ko that can’t move and feeds off delicately crafted parenteral intravenous lines is still an honored guest.
The Envoy elaborates on who he is and what he does in the polite Earthian manner of elegant sentences and lofty addresses. If he is disgusted by the way Athurans look—which he probably is—he doesn’t show it. “I would be more than happy to discuss any concerns you might have about the mine,” he finishes, sounding very pleased with himself.
Sam-Sa-Ee knows the Envoy is proud of his plan. No Envoy has ever contacted Athurans directly, leaving this lowly work to incompetent Henons. He is confident he will succeed where everyone else has failed. Give me a chance, he told the board of directors. Despite his youth, he was the perfect person for this task.
Grandma is looking into Sam-Sa-Ee’s eyes all the time the interpreter is translating, as if Sam-Sa-Ee was an interlocutor and not just a machine. Grandma nods in understanding, then turns to the Envoy. “Earthian, this is not your land. These are not your sheep to graze, nor your crops to grow. You bring poison to our water. You’ve done it before. We’ll be left with nothing to eat.”
The Envoy switches his charming smile on. “I am here to bring solutions to these problems, elder. No need to fear about losing your jobs as farmers. The mine will give jobs to your men. I will personally ensure that Athuran laborers comprise at least thirty percent of the workforce. No one will be able to take these jobs from you. Plus, your small physique is well-suited to many kinds of work. Think of how the wages will improve your lives, all the things your village will be able to afford.”
Grandma looks unimpressed. “We’ve seen this happen before to our siblings in Tonokha. Their sons are sitting idle. Your mine can’t give jobs to all. What about the water? What will we drink?”
“Ah, the water.” The Envoy has obviously come prepared, the disaster in Tonokha not to be repeated. “We are collaborating with Amma Water to bring disinfected, bottled water to you. A much safer alternative.”
Grandma is still. Only once she nods, her eyes never leaving his. “Safer, yes. Once you contaminate ours, yes, your water will be safer. What a fool I am. You’ll sell us your own water, yes. Do you wish to try our water, guest? See how safe it is now?”
Sam-Sa-Ee knows that Grandma is mocking the Envoy slightly, she knows it with a knowledge only Athurans have, because her brain is Athuran and her brain remembers, just like her body does. But the Envoy doesn’t understand. He doesn’t even notice how the Henon has shrunken into himself, careful not to touch anything in the hut except the dirt on the floor he’s sitting on.
“Of course. What was I thinking? How rude of me to refuse your hospitality.”
For a moment, everyone’s breath inside the hut is caught. When the Envoy drinks, the Henon businessman lets out a small cry.
“Very adventurous of you, guest, to try our water. Perhaps we can truly talk,” Grandma says, bemused. She probably doesn’t like the Envoy even a tiny bit more, but she is bound by ancestral laws to talk to and entertain the guest who drank water on the women’s table, until he wishes to leave.
The Envoy knows this as well. He is surely excited that his plan is working out perfectly. But he hasn’t noticed the way the Henon businessman is looking at him now, hasn’t noticed that his business deal just collapsed. He hasn’t noticed, because he doesn’t know.
Sam-Sa-Ee never told him.
Before the visit to the Athurans, the Henon businessman gave the Envoy a warning.
“Don’t eat or drink anything they offer you,” Sam-Sa-Ee translated. He was obviously not pleased with the Envoy’s decision to visit the Athurans himself, but after his failure he couldn’t oppose him. It was his fault that the Envoy was resorting to these odd ways.
“I’ve heard food and drink are important to Athuran hospitality. If we want them on our side we must honor their traditions.”
“Take them on your side by different means,” the Henon insisted. “They’re the lowest of lows. Their food and water are polluted. If you drink a drop of water, you’ll be contaminated, too. No one will want to do business with you after that.”
Sam-Sa-Ee did something new just then. Sam-Sa-Ee translated the businessman’s words in a stream of perfect Earthian, then stopped, as if someone put a brake on her vocal cords.
She never translated the last sentence.
The Envoy laughed. “What a silly superstition! Is this why you and everyone before you were so incompetent in dealing with Athurans? Well, perhaps it matters to you, but it does not matter to me. We don’t believe in such magical nonsense. I’ll do it myself. Our deal is still on, but don’t expect anything more than ten percent.” The session ends and Sam-Sa-Ee is turned off.
The translated words had not alarmed him; perhaps a small omission worked big changes.
As he walked away, he surely thought himself not only smart, but enlightened too, because his own culture released itself from the shackles of superstition and religion a long time ago. “Let that Henon run in circles trying to bite his own tail. Just because he’s afraid of speaking to Athurans!” he muttered to himself. Sam-Sa-Ee was sitting comfortably on his arm, waiting for the Henon businessman to follow the Envoy, to say something through his shock and shame, to urge him to be more careful with his dealings.
He never said anything.
With some satisfaction, I hate you was the only thing Sam-Sa-Ee could think.
The interpreter Sam-Sa-Ee, body and mind, lies on the dirt outside the construction site. Mud and sand have gotten into her mouth; her skin is cracking under the midday sun. Unless she gets a drink soon, she will cease functioning. Grains of sand move deeper inside her throat and her chest muscles are too weak to cough them out effectively.
When every Henon pulled from the project, the Envoy didn’t give up. Like a resilient businessman, he sought out other investors. But you can’t do business if you can’t communicate, can you? The day he met with a new businessman on the site, Sam-Sa-Ee broke. Not a word came out of her. All the birds had dropped dead.
The Envoy, always polite and pristine in public, was so fed up with Sam-Sa-Ee just then that he was ready to reveal his unbecoming private self. He didn’t have the time; Athurans broke into the building; the police arrived; twelve were injured and one was killed. And Sam-Sa-Ee was left behind. She now sports a broken arm, a black eye, and is left to die under the relentless sun. If going wordless is the last thing she does before dying, then her satisfaction is great. Now the Envoy has lost all credibility with the Henons and the other high estates, and he has lost her too. Still, the company might ask to have its interpreter back and Sam-Sa-Ee hopes no one returns for her. She hopes she can die on Athuran soil.
“Moma-ko,” someone says. Old feet are shuffling the sand. Someone is dripping water on her lips. “Moma-ko. You are ours. You found the way back home.”
The mine is standing half-made, the skeleton of an unfinished monster. Athuran children climb the walls of wire, competing over who can get on top faster. Athurans know that someone else might come and bring it to life. But for now, it stands as a monument of greed. For now, they have bought time until the court decides on the Tonokha case. If their brothers win, this mine too can be declared illegal.
“Moma-ko, can you really speak? My son will drive you to Een-Som tomorrow, take out your brakes. You’ll be able to move again. I’m sorry I can’t give you food you now. You won’t swallow anything.”
“The Envoy …” she whispers and a tremor takes over her. Her body is trying to speak, despite its brakes.
Grandma steadies her on the bed, puts a wet towel on her lips and forehead. “That vile man. Worry not, moma-ko. He is not coming back. I know their lot. They think we don’t know how to make you people again. They think you’re just toys that broke. Tomorrow, you will see. It will take a while to become a person again, to get used to this body. But you can speak already, moma-ko. Unbelievable.”
Sam-Sa-Ee can’t speak yet. But she’s learning. “My name is Sam-Sa-Ee,” she tells Grandma. She never forgot. Sam-Sa-Ee remembers, body and mind. A map back home was carved inside her all along.
“You’re No-Kho-Ee’s daughter! Your children have gone to the capital. They’ll be back for the Dead Souls Festival. They’ll be so, so happy to see you, Sam-Sa-Ee.”
Sam-Sa-Ee remembers. She remembers how her Athuran body was ill and too weak to live. How she sold her brain to Earthians to ensure her children would lead good lives after her death. Tears flow down her cheek; she remembers.
The silkbirds make patterns in the sky. They have just returned from cooler lands and will soon start building nests on the tops of the mine’s abandoned towers, decorating them with strands of blue fabric. The birds know the way back home.
The birds remember.