In a Universe Where We Draw Children from the Stars
by Gordon B. White
I don’t think I’ll be a good parent because even before the adoption application is submitted, we cannot fully agree on how to raise the baby and what role her original planetary culture should play. I had been insisting on trying to raise her as close to her original Xolod heritage as is possible for us as humans to accomplish, although you very rightly point out that we’ve already compromised that position by referring to the baby as a “her.” Using female names and pronouns seems to be the default since the Xolod have gracile physical features that we on Earth consider typically feminine. We have to do something, though, since we agree that we cannot call our child “it” until it is old enough to determine its own gender identity. The damage that might do is probably incalculable.
The one thing neither of us wants to do is contribute to any further grief on the behalf of any Xolod. After the most recent war, when the Xolod economy was decimated and for a while flotillas of them came across the skies and sought refuge here on Earth, you and I would watch them on television and we knew we needed to help.
We’d already decided against the uncertainty of having children of our own, so when you suggested this adoption, I was caught off-guard. Even beyond just the idea of being responsible for an alien child, I didn’t know if I, if we, could be authentic parents to anything. Still, you were persistent and we spent a lot of time discussing it as we walked through the Intergalactic District downtown before I finally agreed. It was important to you that both of us were comfortable with one day maybe helping our potential future child to explore her background.
Even something as simple as a name to give the child is almost paralyzing. We debate whether to give her a traditionally Xolod name, and we trawl the baby naming websites for ones that sound cultural without being too exotic. At first I want to lean into it, to raise a Xlorthia or a Zlondarla, but you’re concerned that the decision we make in a few days or weeks or even months will burden her forever. She’ll already be at a disadvantage; she’ll never be human and while we’re hopeful that species discrimination will be ruled unconstitutional (at least in this country), who knows what the next election will bring. If her name brands her as an outsider, we’ll have set her up for permanent failure.
Not for the first time I wonder what gives us the gall to draw a child from across the stars, cloak in it an X-5 adoption visa, and put it in our attempted home. A half-remembered passage from a book haunts me until the neural net finds it and I realize that I am a creature driven and derided by vanity. I don’t tell you that part, but we settle on the name “Joyce.”
We’ll be together, you say. We’ll have support.
Aren’t there babies here on Earth that need parents, your brother asks, as if there weren’t Xolod, Rattar, or any other refugee species here on Earth. Or, he asks, can’t you do it, you know, the normal way?
I’m spoiling for a fight by the time dinner with your family reaches the fried chicken course, but the way you hold my knee beneath the table – clenching it when I’m on the verge of saying something obliquely cutting, like, Plenty of humans aren’t normal – pulls me back before I even know I’m about to jump.
In the bathroom, when I excuse myself after a glass too many of red wine and can feel the sweat prickling at my hairline, I try to find myself in the mirror. In the downstairs lavatory, surrounded by the inoffensive hunting prints and little lavender hand soaps shaped like nebulas, I am adrift. I wonder sometimes if I’ve talked myself too far along to pivot back. But you’re still out there at the table, and whether you can’t or you won’t back down, I won’t leave your side. We’ve made a commitment. So I wash my hands, spit my Fuck you, Charles down the sink, and then practice a smile. My teeth are purple and my cheeks are blotchy, but even if I am not the perfect back up, I am unflagging.
As we leave, your father stops me at the door. I’ve got friends that fought over there, he says. I’ve got a daughter over there, I would have said, if I had thought of it in time.
I think you’re so brave, my mother tells us, using a tone normally reserved for praising women who go to parties without much makeup or with highly noticeable cosmetic augmentations. I just don’t think I could raise someone else’s child, she says. Implicit in that is that she wishes we couldn’t either, but her husband is the confrontational one and he’s too busy to come downstairs to see us.
Even as my mother smiles, I worry that our child’s place in the extended family. I’ve told you enough about the bourgeois cruelty of my step-relatives even as a human child that I need only say, Let’s not have holidays with the Tobins, for you to understand. It’s painful, though, to already be planning to sequester our child.
Our child. Those two words aren’t any less difficult to say, even though we’re midway through the process of picking one that is already alive and growing. Is that wrong? Am I projecting too much onto her already? The Xolods have highly tuned empathetic systems and I worry that my worry will worry her.
You, too, must sense these thoughts, even though we’re only human, because you stop me on our way to the car. It’s going to be hard, you say, but there are people who can help us.
I love your optimism. At least one of us will make a wonderful parent.
We go to the government-mandated pre-adoption counselor, but although it’s legally sufficient to obtain the X-5 visa, the counselor isn’t giving us enough real information. In each session a human bureaucrat reads to us from outdated manuals on cultural differences and post-War conditions. The world that our daughter – our Joyce – is coming from was shaped by those historical events, but that’s not the current reality. Even though we are high-information voters and, if I do say so, adept at searching out neural net resources, I still feel like we don’t know anything.
Xlothorian is the Xolod who works at my office, so despite my anxiety, I stop by to talk to him after work on Tuesday. I already suspect that Xlothorian doesn’t like me because I misgendered him for the first few weeks I worked here. You know how bad I felt, but the Xolod’s primary physical characteristics remain feminine even after some of them choose – no, that’s not right – after they understand how they fit within the Earth gender constructs. Or don’t. That’s a conversation that we’re going to wait a while before having with Joyce, once we get her.
Anyway, I stop in to talk to Xlothorian, but I am already on edge because of the Xolod’s empathetic receptors and it’s clear that he can tell that I’m on edge. I don’t know if that puts him on edge, too, or if I’m creating a projection feedback loop but it’s a very awkward conversation.
(God, having dealt with it directly makes me so nervous now. Even if we smile and keep up appearances for Joyce, she’ll be able to sense when things are wrong. She’ll know when we’re stressed or when we’re anxious. If our marriage falls apart or when we reach the end – that’s a long way off, though – she’d know it was happening maybe even before we did. I can’t imagine the damage that would do.)
My partner and I are adopting a Xolod child, I say to Xlothorian, realizing too late that this is apropos of nothing.
Okay, he says.
Is there anything that you think I should know about it, I ask.
He looks at me for a long time. He blinks his nictitating membrane and for a moment I worry that he’s using some kind of Xolod mind trick on me, but then I realize that this is my own latent speciesism coming up. But that’s even worse, because then my heart starts racing and I just know that he can sense my fear. Is that speciesist to say? I’m not happy that I felt it but I did, and I’m almost certain he picked up on it.
Do you know any other Xolod, he asks.
Well, of course you and I do, and for a split second I was going to rattle off all of them – there’s Jane at your office, and Xthild at the gym, and a handful from our college Xeno-Econ classes. But I don’t say all that to Xlothorian, obviously. I just nod.
Look, Xlothorian says, you seem like a nice person; but it’s not my job to educate you.
When I tell you about this at home, you squeeze my hand and say, Of course it isn’t. That’s one-oh-one.
In your eyes, though, I can see that you’re worried that I didn’t get an answer and that we might be more alone than we thought. You can’t just ask them, you say but catch yourself, ask people, I mean, to tell you those things. It’s not their responsibility.
I want to ask you, Then whose responsibility is it, but we both know the answer.
In the week before we pick her up, the agency sends us pictures of Joyce here on Earth. She’s in a gravitational weaning pod on the other side of the world, which is still only a half-day hyper trip, but knowing that we’re all on the same planet makes my mouth dry. Everything seems much smaller and so the final days of waiting are a smear of putting in child safety locks, stocking up on nutrient paste, and installing the lead shielding and radiation machine in the nursery so that Joyce can receive the necessary photo-energy.
Are you sure you’re up for this, you ask as we run the final circuit test on the machine. The dial flashes green: ready to go.
Of course, I say. We’re in it together.
Afterwards I cry in the shower and I can’t distinguish whether it’s excitement or terror. I want to tell you this, but I have no words left to nuance it. We’ve talked it to death and now here it is.
She’s beautiful and strange. Intellectually I know that she’ll grow to look like us, that by being near us her sympathetic registers will impress her cilia into something like hair and her starfish limbs into something almost indistinguishable from arms and legs, but right now she is completely alien. I don’t understand it at all, but I love her.
We take her home and she’s so good, she barely cries on the hyper. You have expended every effort to make our former guest room into the nursery, its walls painted with shimmering nebulae and your best depiction of Xolod. It’s gorgeous – you could have been but never quite felt you had the time to be an artist – and as we watch Joyce sleep off the transit in her pressure-crib, I feel like we are a family for the very first time.
Y’tholn-ultha, you whisper over her. It’s Xolod for: I love you.
Three days later, as prescribed by the Xolod caretaker, we give Joyce a first bath in the sink. As the water rolls down her cilia and membrane, I can already see which side of her will develop into a head and which into a tiny rump. When you lift her, you hold her right side up and she coos into your shoulder. I would give anything for this never to change, but I already feel it slipping away.
Just five years later and it still feels too soon, but we have to have the talk with Joyce about why she doesn’t look like us. There are all kinds of families, we tell her. Kaaren at the immersion preschool has two mommies; Daryl has a dad and mom; Francis has at least three parents that were combined together. You and I had planned this out, and I wish that I had kept to the script.
But there is something as we’re explaining the adoption process that doesn’t feel right. She keeps asking us, Why? Why did we bring her here? And the abstraction we repeat about how we love her more because we picked her out doesn’t seem sufficient. Maybe that’s me projecting or maybe Joyce really is picking up on what we aren’t saying, but I wanted to give her an honest reason. So even though she only has a child’s concept of reproduction (and not even the same organs), I told her that you have a condition that we didn’t want to risk passing on, even though I stop short of telling her how far it’s progressed. There’s no need to burden her with that; not yet.
Afterwards, I tell myself I wanted her to know that even when things look like others, they aren’t. I meant it to be that everyone is special, even if it’s in a broken kind of way.
It didn’t do anything for Joyce, though, and your face shattered when I said it, as if you thought I was blaming you. I don’t think I knew how much it would upset you, even though I know it wasn’t mine to tell.
While we had originally planned to split the tasks of parenthood evenly, in light of things, we let you have the fun jobs. I look for extra hours at work and ways to trim expenses so that we can keep the radiation machine running and the doctors at bay, and so that you can spend your time with Joyce. Most nights after dinner, I clear the kitchen table so that I can sort through bills and our accounts, all the while listening to the two of you going over her colors or numbers in English and Xolod. I wish I could be with you, but this is your time with her.
Let’s do numbers, you say. One.
Your voice carries clearly around the doorway between the dining area and the living room. Even though I can’t see you around the wall, I can picture the two of you snuggling on the couch as she points to words in the oversized books, those little appendages of hers becoming more like fingers every day.
Al’pak, Joyce responds.
Now colors, you say. Blue.
Once, when I had stared so long at the smaller and smaller balances in our accounts that all the numbers had lost their meaning, I came out to see you. All I wanted to do was to look at the two of you; all I wanted was to remind myself of why I – why we – do this. When I saw her, though, pressed against your side and your arm draped around her, the way that you seemed to be sharing a moment that I was missing now and once gone I would never be able to be a part of, I got jealous. Before I knew it, that spike of anger was in my throat and I tried to swallow it down but it wasn’t fast enough.
I was too close, and Joyce felt it. She stiffened like she felt an electric shock, the cilia where hair would be bristling like they’d been gripped by static. The tremor ran through her blue skin and into your arm and you turned around, I think, to look at me.
I had already retreated back into the kitchen, though, taking my negative charge with me. Had you asked, I would have told you that I knew better and didn’t want my petty jealousy of your time together to ruin those moments. In reality, though, I didn’t want Joyce to feel my sick sense of relief – only for a moment – that it won’t be like this forever. I hate myself for even thinking it.
Despite my previous spotty performance, after several notes home and a particularly fraught parent-teacher conference, we decide that I will also be the one to talk to Joyce about being different at school. In general, I’ve assumed the role of disciplinarian and while we agree that I’ll have the rest of my life to be the good parent, I don’t take to the task with relish. Sometimes, at night, I wonder if the only reason I agreed to this is because I have an inordinate sense of guilt. As far as humans go, however, I have become much more adept at reining in my emotions, which helps with a Xolod daughter.
I sit Joyce down after dinner and you hover just outside the living room, just around the corner of the kitchen. We know that Joyce can sense us at least behind the couch, but it isn’t clear how far her reach extends. I wonder if normal parents have these barriers, but even as I think that I regret it. Can she read me on that level? This is just a different kind of normal, I tell myself again so she can feel it.
I hate school, Joyce says. I don’t belong there.
Of course, you do, I say. That’s where you learn things.
No, she says. I’m not like them. I’m not human.
Even though you’ve gotten better at not making a sound, I know you well enough to feel your sharp inhalation. Behind clenched eyes, I divide my energy between trying to come up with the right answer and willing you to keep calm.
No, I tell Joyce the truth she already knows. You’re not human, but you are a person.
Why am I here, she asks and begins to sob. I hate it. And, she can barely speak, I hate you for bringing me here.
She goes on. You and I had already guessed that the kids at school are horrible, but Joyce confirming it through her shimmering tears it makes it worse. I manage not to wince when she says they call her Squid Head or Orphan, but when you lose your composure and stifle a sob from the kitchen and Joyce prickles like she’s felt a burst of static and cries even harder, it sets me on edge, too. I hug Joyce to me and, with the back of my hand, I motion to you to leave us. It doesn’t do anyone any good for both of us to get worked up.
In our room that night, while Joyce sleeps down the hall and undergoes the nightly radiation treatments that mimic Xolod’s stellar radiance, I whisper to you: Do you think that maybe you’re overreacting?
About this, you ask.
About everything, I respond, but I immediately know that this was the wrong thing to say.
Am I not allowed to have feelings about things, you ask.
I’m tired and not thinking when I say, Not when they hurt us.
So I should stop having them, you say.
You don’t talk to me for the rest of the night. I lie in bed after we’ve shut the lights off and I listen to the rumble of Joyce’s radiation machine down the hall. After you’ve stopped hyperventilating and your breath is still enough that either you are asleep or I can pretend that I thought you are if you are not, I slide from beneath the arm that you’ve dangled over me. I slip into the hall and then down to Joyce’s room, standing just outside her door. I want to open it, to see her sleeping, but I know that not only is the artificial starlight strong enough to burn me, but Joyce is getting to the age where I need to knock before entering her room. It’s such a strange feeling, being so close and yet so far away. It reminds me of those first pictures of her in the weaning chamber before we picked her up.
I worry about her all the time. I worry that the starlight radiation machine will break. I worry that she thinks we abandon her at night. I worry that she’ll grow up and fall in love with a human and one day she and he – or she, or they, whoever – will be like you and I are tonight. That one of them will be walking the halls, unable to reach out to the other. I worry that all of us are wasting precious moments being alone even while surrounded by family.
Is there a word for this, I wonder, in either of our languages?
Joyce comes to me one evening when you’re resting upstairs after dinner. You’ve been turning in earlier and earlier, and of course she’s noticed but I’ve been telling myself that she doesn’t know what it means. Still, I have to do extra data processing in the evenings, so I usually sit at the table in the kitchen and work on my computer while she sits on the couch in the other room and watches the video screen. Her intrusion isn’t unwelcome, though.
Xlonay, she says, using the affectionate form of the Xolod word for parent. Somehow she’s learned to start off this way when she wants something or has something she thinks is important to say. Whether she learned it as an effect of her sympathetic sensory organs or it’s just a trait all children have, it melts me briefly. I push my computer to the side, clearing my mental space for her. Whenever possible, I try to give her myself without the stress clinging to me.
What is it, honey, I ask.
I need to tell you and xlonay something, Joyce says. It’s still a little confusing when she refers to both of us with the same pronoun, but Xolod nouns don’t have the same genders we do.
Xlonay is sleeping, I tell her. You can tell me, sweetie, and I’ll pass it on.
Don’t call me sweetie, she says. The crease between her brows is adorable, but then turns serious. After all these years she has becomes so much our child that it doesn’t surprise me to see you in her face at one minute and myself at the next. I take her hands – now fully formed – and look her in the eyes.
Okay, I say. What should I call you instead?
I need to talk to you and xlonay, she says.
You can talk to me now, I say. But xlonay is sleeping.
It’s not fair, Joyce whines. Xlonay is always sleeping. I’m going upstairs!
This is almost too much for me, constantly holding back so much from Joyce. Holding it back from you, too. Joyce can feel my frustration rising and in turn she flushes a more vivid blue and pulls against my grip, but I hold her even as we rile each other up.
Xlonay is not feeling well, I say through clenched teeth. You need to be a good daughter and let—
No, Joyce squeals and tugs, almost breaking free. You’re not listening to me!
I hold her tightly despite her pull and, exhausted, I can’t help but sigh. Even though she can already feel everything, vocalizing my frustration – not even bothering to hide how much she’s irritating me – suddenly strikes me as a much worse failure.
Please, I say as she struggles. Xlonay is very sick and you just have to be a good girl. Please?
She stops, and it dawns on me what I’ve said.
Xlonet, she says sternly, using the formal word for parent.
What, I ask.
Joyce says: I’m not a girl. That’s for humans. I’m different.
We stare at each other and Joyce’s eyes are the color of a sky above a distant world. In them is a storm. It is a place I’ll never go, but which isn’t really so far away from mine. I let her go.
You’re right, I say. I’m sorry.
Even with years of experience, it’s still a feat to hold back the tears. I feel and can practically see the waves of regret rolling out from me, crashing down with the weight of every mistake made over the years and overflowing the levees that we had tried to build back when life didn’t seem so beyond our control.
Are you mad? Joyce asks. You feel . . . she trails off.
No, I say. Not mad and never at you, okay? I understand you, and you need to know that I love you – xlonay loves you, both of us – forever, okay? Always.
I continue: And just as soon as xlonay is feeling better, maybe tonight, we’ll all of us discuss this together, okay?
Joyce hugs me, quickly but fiercely, then slips out of the kitchen. She – no, not she, but Joyce – heads to the stairs and pauses at the foot. Xlonay, Joyce calls, when did you know what you were?
A long time ago, I say, but I only say that because I know that Joyce has retreated far enough away not to read me, although I don’t know if she intended that or not.
The fact is that I’m still not sure, and the further along I get the more I think that who we are it isn’t something we can reason our way into or out of. We’re always changing, but what we are a part of or separate from is something that we feel even when we can’t describe it. It is as if we are all distant worlds, even in the same universe. That’s what it is to be a person, I imagine, even if not a human.
It isn’t even a full year later when things finally fall apart inside you. We come to visit you in the hospital, Joyce and I, as often as we can. The doctors have told me privately that you’re into days and weeks instead of weeks and months, but I haven’t quite told Joyce this. Still, every time we enter the waiting room, Joyce trembles under the waves of collected unease that emanate from every corner. I put my arm around Joyce, though, and we wait to be called.
We wait there and I try to think calm thoughts and breathe deeply, but beneath my skin and the pulse I will into submission, I’m perpetually losing it. Even after all this time, I still don’t know how far Joyce’s reach extends; it’s a mystery if my inner turmoil is further away from my surface than the kitchen was from the couch. At least once every trip I wonder if this is too much and I think about letting Joyce stay back at the hotel, locked in the bathroom with the portable starlight machine, but the truth is that I can’t be alone for this. Is that selfish?
When we get to your bedside, though, Joyce is unafraid of the machines around you. The machines remind Joyce of the starlight radiation machine in their bedroom, although they’re obviously not the same. Joyce crawls up on the bed beside you and buries themself against your shrinking body. Watching, I repeat to myself that this is normal – just a different, broken sort of normal – and I hope that it gets through to both of you.
After a while, the doctors come in to talk to you and I, so I ask Joyce to wait outside. They pull against your hand as I guide them out, stretching your IV cord out like a lifeline.
How is your daughter doing, the doctor asks.
Our child, Joyce, is doing as well as can be expected, I say. They’re a strong kid. It’s what I keep telling myself, hoping that by saying it enough I can make it true.
That’s good, the doctor says. He waits and I know what he’s going to say: It’s going to happen soon. The ticking clock you and I have been waiting on for years in secret is going to chime soon. The grief is like a bomb going off.
When I go out into the waiting room to bring Joyce back in, they’re gone. That selfish grief curdles and turns to fear. Did I force too much on Joyce? What signals did I miss?
Have you seen my child, I ask the nurse behind the desk. Xolod? This tall?
I saw her getting on the elevator, she says. Probably to the lobby.
I rush down, but it’s packed. These consolidated hospitals are so much more difficult to navigate than the older ones ever were. There are men and women and children and Rattan and Xolod and half a dozen other species out here, all rushing and milling in knotted clusters. The anxiety Joyce must be picking up is probably incalculable.
I’ve failed. Not as a parent to a special child, not as a parent to a Xolod, but just as a parent in general.
I’ve lost our child.
Then I see them, being escorted by a human woman. Next week, tomorrow, in five minutes, maybe, if I ever tell you or anyone else this story, I will probably lie and say that I just knew it was Joyce because how can a parent not recognize their child? The truth will be, though, that despite my best efforts, I sometimes get confused when I look at pictures or only see Joyce from behind. But the way that they move in fits and starts down the hall – steps, pauses, then accelerates in a flail of cilia and pseudolimbs – that’s not a child trait. That’s not a Xolod trait.
I scream their name and I run towards them. I grab Joyce by the arm, quicker than I mean to, and then everyone is looking at us. As the security guards run towards us, I have flashes of every vidpool on the news of creepy humans abducting young Xolods.
How will I be able to prove that Joyce is my child? Can I tell the guards that I recognized the difference in how Joyce’s head cilia wave to the left, but her brow cilia flow to the right? That Joyce’s favorite food is hotdogs and that you and I had to teach them not to pet kitties too hard? That if the guards just hold on to Joyce for an hour, I can hyper home and pick up their DNA profile and ID papers to settle this?
What is there in this world that I could produce that will unite us? That will let me pick them up and take them home and apologize and apologize and get back to the process of loving them?
Xlonay! Joyce squeals. The Xolod word for parent. The affectionate form. Then Joyce is wrapping their warm arms around my neck so tightly that they might never let go, and I can finally see it: It doesn’t have to just be me.
Afterwards, I bring Joyce back in so that they can say Goodbye. You and I both know that anytime we leave, it could be the last time, but somehow you stay strong. You have the rest of your life to be a good parent and I have the rest of mine, too. Later on I will sob uncontrollably, but for now I hold it reasonably well together. I remind myself that in a universe such as this, where we draw children from the stars, we have all three us somehow found each other.
About the Author
Gordon B. White has lived in North Carolina, New York, and the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the collection As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions (Trepidatio Publishing 2020). A graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, Gordon’s stories have appeared in dozens of venues, including The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 12and the Bram Stoker Award® winning anthology Borderlands 6. He regularly contributes reviews and interviews to outlets including Nightmare, Lightspeed, and The Outer Dark podcast. You can find him online at www.gordonbwhite.com.