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Aoife was only eleven when she caught the little house in the forest. She surprised it as it drank from a puddle, half-hidden under a writhing tree root as large as her own body. Fast as an eel, she snaked her hand around it and held on tight. It was no bigger than a strawberry, all soft and furry and yellow. Even in the gloom of the giant, bad-tempered trees, it shone like a candle flame.
“House,” she whispered, “you’re mine now.”
It couldn’t answer back yet, but she knew it understood.
She showed her catch to Mama. Mama hugged her and told the big house they lived in what Aoife had found.
House spoke from the walls. “Good girl. Show it to me, little one. Let me see if it’s the right kind.”
Aoife clenched her fist tighter around the little house until it squirmed against the pressure. Sometimes the big hice didn’t approve of the little ones, for reasons no human could guess at. She didn’t plan on letting anything happen to her house.
“It’s mine, Big House. None of your business.”
The floor shook with deep laughter, a sound so resonant it made Aoife a little sick to her stomach. Mama’s house was a good provider and kept them all warm and well fed, but it had a mean streak. It liked to make the little girls stumble, or scare them by dousing the glow of its walls unexpectedly.
“House–” Mama said in a tight voice.
“Hush, dear,” it said. “If little Aoife already loves it that much, I’m sure it’s the right kind of little house.”
Aoife didn’t think she’d ever met the wrong kind of house. And she was certain she’d know it if she did. Her downy pet felt just right.
You weren’t supposed to give hice names. If Mama stood out on the square and said, “House,” every house in the village knew exactly who she was talking to. But Aoife gave hers a secret name anyway. She called it Mine.
Mama was having another baby. It was a good time to be out of the house. Its walls strummed with tension as Mama screamed. It was busy cooling and warming the birthing room as Mama’s needs fluctuated. Aoife and her sisters sat around the fire pit in the middle of the village, watching the house colors ebb and flow, and all the other hice standing cool and grey-brown and unconcerned. Aoife felt safe, surrounded by the village of hice. Nothing bad would happen here.
“What if it’s a boy again?” Ho asked. “What’s Mama gonna do?”
“Nothing she can do,” Biri, the eldest, said. “House is gonna do what it’s gonna do.”
Aoife didn’t like her tone of voice.
While Biri spoke, she fondled the feeler her little house had put on her leg. That house wasn’t so little anymore–it was as tall as Biri and about four times as wide and deep. Biri longed to strike out on her own, but as Mama said, not until you can stand up and lay down in your house. “Hurry up and grow, you,” Biri whispered to it and it glowed pink with pleasure. It was a light tan, no longer the bright yellow of childhood.
Aoife cradled her house in her lap. It had grown to about the size of her head, but it was still small enough to carry around. If it wanted, it could make legs and waddle after her, but not quickly. Funny how girls grew faster than hice when they were little, and then when the girls were grown, the hice overtook them.
“She’s at it longer than last time,” Biri said.
What she didn’t say, but they all heard, even little Koori: what if something goes wrong? They would have nowhere to stay. If a mama died, her house upped and went to plant itself in the forest, taking the body with it. None of them had hice that were big enough to live in, although maybe Biri could cram into hers.
Biri’s house cooed. Biri stood up. “It wants to forage,” she said. “See you later.”
The three girls watched her go, between the hice, toward the veldt. They all thought the same thing. Eat, Biri’s house, eat! Grow big enough to take care of us!
A young man slipped out of the men’s lodge and headed after Biri. It was the new boy, just come in from the Exchange. Ho elbowed Aoife in the side and sniggered. Aoife wondered why.
A rumbling sounded overhead. Aoife craned her neck, scanning the green sky for thunderclouds. No thunderheads, but one long, thin, white cloud streaking across the sky, hurtling toward them.
“What’s that?” Aoife said.
Ho stood up, hindered by the house clenching its feelers around her in fear. “I don’t know!”
The three girls huddled together. As much as they wanted to run home, they couldn’t go inside House while Mama was birthing. It wouldn’t let them in. They watched as the cloud trail sped closer and closer. It ended with a bang that shook the ground. Behind the farthest hice, black clouds boiled up.
By the time the strange women in white suits entered the village, the adult women had gathered in the square, and the men and girls sent away. Aoife and her sisters pretended to leave but hid behind a stand of trees. At first, the strangers didn’t look like people at all, but then Aoife noticed the frozen water glistening before their faces, and behind it eyes and noses like people.
“Something something!” the front woman shouted. She had a deep voice like a man. Maybe she intended to speak true words, but nothing other than garble came out.
Mama’s sister Noriko, pregnant belly thrust out proudly, lifted a hand. “Greetings. What manner of women are you? From what village?”
The white-clad women conferred amongst themselves. Did they even understand true speech? Hadn’t their mothers taught them?
The first woman lifted her head-covering. She had a beard and bushy eyebrows. When she spoke again in that deep, rumbling voice, she changed into a man before Aoife’s eyes. A man who spoke like a leader? Had these people lost their great women?
Noriko scratched her head. “You are hard to understand, mistress. Speak slower, if you will.”
Aoife guffawed. Noriko hadn’t yet seen he wasn’t a woman! “It’s a man!” she called out. “Look at his beard!”
Ho pinched Aoife into silence.
Noriko hummed and hawed. “Are you a man? We already had our man exchange a couple of weeks ago. Are you lost?”
Aoife got bored with the grown-up talk and wandered off to catch bugs for Mine. Later that evening, she snuck back to the village square where now only the elders and the strange visitors–mostly men, she thought, from their beards and wide shoulders and deep voices–sat around the fire and talked. Hoping for a scrap of food–Mama’s house was still sealed and Mama would spank her if she raided the gardens–she crept up behind the man who’d spoken to Noriko earlier. She settled in cross-legged, petting Mine in her lap.
Beard sounded like a man who was fast using up his patience. “Like I said, we’re from Earth, your home planet, looking for lost colonies. The wars are over, the star lanes are safe again, and we’re here to do a census, a genetic assay.”
Noriko poked around in the fire, which didn’t need any poking. “I don’t really get where you’re from. But new blood in the exchange would be good. Maybe we can escort you to the exchange house at Mountainfoot?”
The man sighed. “Do you have any memories of not being from this place? Tales your grandmothers told?”
Several women nodded. “The First Woman and her house, you mean?”
“Maybe,” the man said. “Can you tell it to me?”
The women burst into laughter. “That’s not a tale for men’s ears! If you’ve forgotten it from when your mama told you, we’re not going to repeat it.”
“Men’s ears? So where are all the men?”
Aoife wished Mama wasn’t still birthing, or that Biri had returned from her foraging. What if Biri had been burnt in that streak of fire?
One of the strange men leaned back and stretched. He caught sight of Aoife huddling in the dark, stroking Mine’s dome.
“Hey there,” he said. “What a cute toy you have. He looks a bit like a baby duck, only bigger.”
Aoife didn’t know what a duck was, but he sounded friendly. He talked funny, yet she understood most of it. “It’s not a toy. It’s my house.”
The man smiled. “He doesn’t look like a house to me.” He gestured to the dim shapes of the hice standing around the square, almost invisible in the dusk. “Not that those are very big, mind.”
Aoife gaped. “They’re all grown. A mama and lots of kids can live in there. Are your hice bigger?”
“Lots bigger. We build them from stone or wood or brick. What are yours made of? Mud? Moss?”
“I don’t know what they’re made of,” Aoife said. “They just grow that way.”
A sudden ruckus drew them back to the circle.
Biri leaned exhaustedly on her house, soot-smudged even in the flickering firelight. She must have been close to the black smoke. Behind her, an equally blackened young man tried to back away from the women’s eyes.
“What in God’s name is that!” the man said.
Nobody paid him any attention.
He turned to Aoife. “What is that ugly critter with the girl? Something native?”
“It’s just her house. Look at her! She’s all dirty and burnt from the thing that fell from the sky.”
“You mean our ship?” the man asked.
“Like a house in the sky or on water.”
“If it’s your house, you should have been more careful where you went and not burnt people,” Aoife said and ran away. Now Biri was here, they could go and see if Mama was done birthing yet. Aoife was cold and hungry.
Mama, looking very tired, had two babies in her lap. That was odd. One was a boy. Aoife sucked on her teeth and cuddled Mine harder. What would House do?
Mama’s face turned distant, a sign House was talking to her. Aoife wished Mine was old enough to do that.
Mama’s eyes rolled back down and a flush blossomed on her drawn cheeks. “House says he’s talked to the others and I can keep the boy. You’re going to have a brother!”
Aoife lifted up the baby’s blanket. He had a little thing between his legs, just like her sisters had told her he would. Not really interesting–if Mine wanted it could make a bigger feeler to put in her even now. She’d often watched Biri and her house playing and couldn’t imagine what a real boy could do better. Maybe she’d find out when she was bigger and visited the men’s lodge. There had to be a reason why Biri and that boy had met up in the veldt.
She set Mine in the crook of her elbow. It was growing so fast that it was getting hard to carry him. But she wanted to get out to the veldt without anybody making her weed or feed the eels, so she sneaked from house to house until she was in the open. The women’s fields looked green, and sometimes reddish. The mamas always said they could eat house food if they had to, but that it never tasted the way it should. So they stubbornly grew their own, against the hice grumbling about it.
The veldt was cool yellow, with flashes of blue like Mama’s eyes.
She put Mine down so it could sink feelers into the ground for bugs. Later, when it was big, it would root permanently and snack on the skin cells and waste of the people who lived inside it. She hunkered low, taking a few steps whenever Mine moved. Its baby-yellow was starting to shade into the yellow grasses of the veldt.
She crawled over to it and lay down on her back, shading her eyes. Grey clouds drifted across the green sky.
A thumping sounded. She tensed. The men were supposed to take care of the veldt beasts, but maybe they’d missed one. She slung a hand toward Mine. She bet it could sting a veldt beast to death, some day.
But no–voices rang out. Male voices. Aoife grabbed Mine and crawled nearer. What were they up to?
“Careful, we don’t know what they can do. They must have some kind of defense!”
“We got it, we got it! Tighten the rope!”
That sounded like men hunting, even if it was the strange men. Aoife almost went back to her daydream spot, but the tone of their voices caught her attention. They sounded afraid but fascinated. And disgusted, maybe? What had they caught?
“God, doesn’t that turn your stomach? They’re so ugly and the smell is just awful,” a woman’s voice said. Aoife hadn’t realized some of the strange men were women. Why hadn’t they taken charge?
She inched forward. Mine wormed himself from under her armpit and padded ahead.
Someone grunted, torn slashes of sound, a girl. What were they doing? Aoife became scared. She should sneak away and get help from the village. She pawed at Mine but it didn’t react. If it wanted to stay, then so must she.
Under the cover of the tussling and shouting, she crawled further forward. If Mine dared, so would she. Between stalks of bluish grass, she caught glimpses of the strange men fighting a young woman called Salome and her house. They were tearing them apart from each other, ripping the house’s feeler out of Salome’s body. The girl kicked and screamed, the crazed house whipped needle-stingers around. Too bad it wasn’t old enough to sting to death.
Very unwise of these men to interfere between woman and house. Aoife wasn’t sure if she felt scorn for their stupidity or sadness for the pain Salome and her house must be suffering. She stuffed her hand in her mouth to keep herself from crying out.
“What the hell was that thing doing?’
“Kill it! It’s raping the girl!”
A great foot swung down from the sky and near trampled Mine. Aoife tugged it backwards. She didn’t want Mine to be handled by these men, who didn’t appear to know how men ought to act.
She waited for a long time as the scuffling and shouting died down.
Her heart beat in her ears, the only sound in the whole wide world. She crawled forward to a rough circle of trampled grass. Salome and her house, as well as the strangers, had gone. Mine was sampling the ground. A drop of blood hung on a blade of scythe grass. A feeler drew it inside Mine’s body.
Blood? Had they hurt Salome?
“We have to get home!” she hissed to Mine. “We have to tell House and Mama! These are bad men.”
“Are we really?” a male voice said and a heavy hand landed on her shoulders.
Mine wriggled out of her grip and rolled away into the grass.
The bearded man turned her body toward his. His hands were large and hot, his face flushed. “Don’t fight, we’re here to help you.”
Aoife let her mouth hang open. Her brain whispered directions. Look stupid. Look childish. It helped that she really wasn’t sure what was going on. “Help us how?”
He looked left and right. Who did he think might be watching? The women, the hice, his own people?
“We’re just here to count the population and do a tax inventory. We’ll set up a government, build roads, hospitals, schools. We’ll help against the critters. I can’t just stand idly by and watch women being used by aliens.”
“You mean the hice?” she asked.
“Yes, I mean the houses.” He stood frowning down at her. “Where’s your pet? Is he really a young one of those big houses you live in?”
She stayed silent. Maybe she could even squeeze a tear or two out of her eyes.
“I wanna go to my mama,” she said and quivered her lip.
His face softened. He reached out a hand as if to stroke her head, but stopped short of touching her. “Do you want to save your mama and her friends?”
“Go tell her to stay away from the house creatures, okay? We’ll get you out of here and eventually you’ll live in a real house with no aliens around. Your mama could be free and happy, you’d get an education.”
She nodded again. She swooped up Mine and ran off, choosing the highest patches of bluegrass to cut through for cover.
She found Mama tying up vines in the bean yard, moving slowly, newborns on her back.
“Mama!” she tried to yell, but only panting and squeaking emerged.
Mama looked up and must have seen something on Aoife’s face because she moved out from the beans double-quick.
“What is it, Aoife? Where’s your house? Did you lose it?”
That would have been even worse than her actual news. But Mine had just hidden in a patch of yellow weed.
Aoife puffed until she could speak. “The strange men want to steal us and take us to their village. And kill the young hice. They already hurt Salome and her house.”
“What!” Mama grew dark in the face and then ashen. Her hands fisted. “Men,” she breathed between clenched teeth. “Maybe the hice were right. Maybe we should kill all the men.”
“We wouldn’t get any babies,” Aoife said.
“Never mind that now. Oh, what a day. Old Imoh died, so her house is pulling up roots and going to live in the forest. We really could have used their advice. And my breasts hurt.”
Mama’s shirt was wet with milk.
“Why are you out here–I thought you were tired?”
“House was fussing,” Mama said distractedly. “Never mind that, either. Oh, I can’t think straight when I breastfeed. We have to talk to the other women.”
Aoife could have told her that, but kept her mouth shut.
Mama dragged her back to the village. Aoife could barely keep a grip on Mine. Mama put her hand on the first house at the edge of the fields. The hice could send each other messages faster than women could run. The house would scent the urgency in Mama’s sweat and tell the others.
Both babies were wailing by the time they reached Mama’s house. Mama unslung them and gave one to Aoife to rock while she fed the other. “House, we’re in danger. What can we do?”
House rumbled, as always when it wanted to speak with its voice. To warm up the tubes, get air flowing around the vocal cords in the walls.
“They are your species, Minny. What do you want us to do with them?”
Mama frowned while she rocked the suckling baby. The faraway look in her eyes sharpened as the milk was drawn from her breast. “Imprison them. Maybe Imoh’s house can be persuaded to stay a bit before it uproots?”
House gargled. “A man in a house? Imoh’s house won’t like that. It’ll eat them.”
“Can’t you ask it to wait?”
The floors shuddered. “Imoh’s dead. Her house is already changing. I could keep from eating them, I’ve already got a boy in me so my inner walls are immune to man scent.”
Mama’s face scrunched up. “Oh, do we have to? I’m already so tired.”
“The other hice agree. The young ones won’t have the self-control. Imoh’s house isn’t responding anymore. I think it has started migrating.”
“It should have kept Imoh alive a little longer,” Mother grumbled and switched babies with Aoife.
The baby burped against Aoife’s shoulder, its dark curly head sweaty from the hard work of nursing. It smelled deliciously of milk and baby skin, and less deliciously of poop. People always smelled better than hice, no matter how hard the hice tried.
She whispered to Mine, “When you are grown, I want you to smell like this baby, or like my own hair. Not like Big House.” Mine kissed her cheek with its feeler.
She had to change the baby. Hice ate the used nappy leaves and poo. She stripped nappy leaves off House’s wall, keeping an ear cocked to listen to the conversation. Mine nibbled on her heels, talking to House with one small feeler in the floor.
Mama and House took their time about their discussion. Aoife couldn’t understand why they didn’t get up to do something about the strange men now.
“We can lengthen your lives, but not indefinitely,” House said.
“I know, I know.” Mama sighed. “Are the young women out there yet?”
House boomed. A patch of wall turned dark blue, a color Aoife had never seen House wear before.
“They’re attacking,” it shouted, forgetting all about modulating its voice for human ears. “They damaged my walls!”
Mama plucked the protesting baby off her breast and put it in its cot. She ignored the wailing, milk still seeping from her breast. “Aoife, put the babies in the closet and warn your sisters.”
Aoife pulled her eating knife from her girdle and did as Mama said. Biri and her house stumbled out, Biri flushed and heavy-eyed from play.
“The strangers are attacking House,” Aoife said. “Go out and kill them.”
“Can my house sting them?” asked Biri.
“Yes,” Mama snapped. In one hand she held her scythe, in the other a heavy wooden grain pestle. “Stun them if possible.”
“Where’s Koori and Ho?”
Aoife found Koori cowering in her room. “Stay here,” she said. “We’re fighting. Where’s Ho?”
“She went out to play with Mariah,” Koori said, shaking as if it was her fault.
Aoife’s heart thundered. It might have been Ho out there in the fields, taken by the men. What if they’d killed her house? Now she was getting mad.
The house boomed again and another patch of dark blue bloomed on the opposite wall. Mine shivered in her arms, as if it was feeling House’s pain.
“We go out now,” Mama said. “Keep your weapons down, they might not attack us. They want to steal us, right, Aoife? That means they want us unharmed.”
House opened its sphincter door.
“Stand down!” a male voice yelled. “They’re coming out.”
“Mama,” Aoife whispered, “pretend you want to be stolen.”
They stepped outside, Mama, Biri, Aoife, their hands down at their sides, their little hice behind them. Aoife worried someone would step on Mine.
“Don’t shoot, it’s the women! Ma’am, are you all right?”
“Why did you hurt our House?” Mama asked and kept walking toward the three men with black things in their gloved hands. “You could have killed us. The babies.”
The lead man threw a look to the smaller man on the right. “Our apologies, ma’am. My colleagues will escort you to the ship while we take care of the aliens.”
“He means the hice,” Aoife said.
Beard smiled down at her. “We’ve talked before, eh?”
Aoife kept walking, trying to look as scared and childish as she could.
When she was close enough, she stabbed upward with her eating knife and got him in the groin. Beard screamed loudly. The other men turned toward him. A loud bang rang out.
Biri went down without a sound. A fountain of blood spurted from her neck.
“Jesus fuck you killed a child!”
“They attacked first! That little one stabbed Klaus.”
Biri’s house threw itself onto her. Holes appeared in the big house, accompanied by loud bangs. The bangs were coming from the sticks.
“Kill that ugly critter–it’s raping her right now!”
While the strangers were yelling at each other, mother bashed a skull in. Other women helped, even a few men with hunting bows. The women had brought weapons and hit the strangers until they stopped banging. The strangers didn’t look used to fighting, they only wanted to hurt the hice.
Aoife remembered to breathe. She loosened her clutch on Mine, who was busy absorbing Beard’s blood from her arms. Biri was dead. Biri! Now she would never live in her own house with her own children. The feeling sank like a stone to just below her heart. It hurt.
Some of the strange men were dead, as they deserved. A few had only been wounded and lay moaning and bleeding. Noriko was dead, others were being tended by their hice.
One of their own men had keeled over. Maybe he’d been too old for fighting.
Mama took charge, wild-eyed and leaking breast-milk. The women dragged the strangers inside Mama’s house, even though it was indigo-blotched and shuddering. It declared itself still able to not eat the men. Mama fed dead Beard to it, to speed up its healing.
A strange quiet descended on the village. It was midday, a time for working outdoors and chatting with other women, courting men, playing. Instead, everyone crept inside their hice, shaken, waiting for the return of normal life.
Aoife, her sisters and Mama sat vigil around Biri’s body and her stunned house. It would consume her and then drag itself into the forest to find its mother tree and gift itself back into her soil. They wept as much for the house as for Biri. Just like her, it would never reach maturity, never plant, nurture children, or become a mother tree at the end of its cycle.
Mama nursed one baby, patting its tiny back in a slow, slow rhythm. It was supposed to soothe the baby, but it soothed everyone. Except Aoife. Her house grazed the soles of her feet and it made her twitchy.
“What are we going to do with the strangers?” Aoife asked finally, when she couldn’t stand the silence one moment longer. Ho was older, but she and her house were wrapped tightly around each other, dumb and frozen with grief.
“I don’t know,” Mama said. “I wanted to ask them where they came from, what that thing is that fell from the sky, why they wanted to steal us away from our hice.”
“But not anymore?”
“No,” Mama answered. “At first I thought they might become our neighbors or friends. Now I see these people will never be that. But I won’t do anything hasty. Tomorrow when everyone is rested from the fight, I’ll talk to the women and the grown hice. See what they think.”
“I think we should let the house squash them to a pulp,” Aoife said. “And then eat it.”
Mama ruffled her hair. “It’s a good thing you are not a grown woman yet. A person’s life is not to be taken lightly.”
“But they tried to take our lives. They deserve to have theirs taken.”
“Shush,” Mama said. “You are a child and your opinion doesn’t yet matter. Watch and learn from our decisions.”
Late that night, when everyone had retreated to their chambers–even Biri’s body had been dragged into her room by her sorrowing, quivering house–Aoife snuck out to the dining room. She rapped on the wall where she knew the men to be imprisoned.
“House,” she said, “make me a hole. I want to talk to them.”
House rumbled. It had regained its normal tone of voice. That meant it must be mostly healed. “Why? Your mama forbade it.”
“I want to understand,” she said. “Why they did what they did.”
House thought. “Curiosity about strange creatures is a good thing,” it said. “If we didn’t possess it, the humans would never have become our partners. You are so much more interesting than the iwah we lived with before. Curiosity should be rewarded.”
It made a small hole in the wall.
“Make it bigger? I can hardly see,” Aoife said.
The house didn’t answer. Mine spit on the sides of the little hole and made it part.
Aoife pulled herself up and wriggled inside. House rumbled but didn’t do anything to stop her and Mine.
The floor was packed with strange men lying supine. The house had grown bands to restrain them.
Aoife poked the nearest man. “Wake up.”
He opened his eyes, groggily, and tried to sit, but the house flesh over his chest prevented him. It was the man she’d talked to by the fire.
“What? Who? Huh?”
Aoife smiled at his fuzziness. That gave her the advantage.
His pupils shrank as the house walls grew brighter.
“Why did you try to steal us? Didn’t you think that would make us angry?”
He blinked. “What’s your name? Mine is Jonah.”
Aoife poked him again. “My name is none of your business. Tell me why.”
“You remind me of my niece,” he said. His face twisted. “We just wanted to help you. Haven’t you wondered why there are so few men in the village? Maybe these aliens kill them to keep you for themselves. “
“Just like you were planning to,” Aoife said. And of course the hice culled the men. You just didn’t need that many.
She inched closer. “You should have asked us. Why didn’t you?”
He hesitated. “You’ve been . . . isolated for so long. Become primitive. We didn’t think you’d understand the scope of the decision.”
It was as she’d thought. Aoife bent forward and slit his throat with her small eating knife. He burbled and fell still.
The house hummed in surprise but didn’t intervene.
Aoife crept among the sleeping men and cut all their throats, even the one that was a woman.
For Biri. For her sad, lonely house.
For all these cautious grown-up women. Someone needed to make the hard decisions.
About the Author
Bo Balder lives and works near Amsterdam. She is the first Dutch author to have been published in F&SF and Clarkesworld, after winning the prestigious Dutch Paul Harland Award twice. Her short fiction has also appeared in Nature Futures, Futuristica Vol. I and more. Her sf novel “The Wan”, by Pink Narcissus Press, was published in 2016.
About the Narrator
Amy H. Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in Intellectual History from Vanderbilt University and specializes in both Science Fiction and Indigenous American Studies. She is regular staff with the StarShipSofa podcast, editor in chief of Hocus Pocus Comics, and faculty at Lenoir-Rhyne University. She lives with her husband in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina.