Ed slept till noon the next day, got up and cooked a dozen flapjacks and a pound of bacon. After breakfast, he sat around for an hour or so drinking coffee. Then he spent the rest of the afternoon puttering around the cabin.
He packed away the snakeproof pants, disassembled the flame-thrower, picked up the traps by the hole.
Old Tom seemed to have pretty well cleaned up the mice under the lean-to. Ed took his shovel and filled in the hole he had dug for the cat to get at them.
He went to bed early. Tomorrow he would take a long hike around the new world, scout out the fur and game, plan his trap-line and pick cabin sites.
The next morning, though, the hole into the other world was gone.
The posts which had marked it were sheared neatly in half. The remains of the door still hung there, battered and sagging; but it swung open on nothing but Alaska, when Ed stepped through he found himself standing beside the old leaning birch.
He tried it several times before he convinced himself.
He walked slowly back toward the cabin, feeling old and uncertain, not quite knowing what to do with himself. Old Tom was over by the lean-to, sniffing and pawing tentatively at the fresh earth where Ed had filled in the hole. As Ed came up, he came over to rub against Ed's leg.
They went into the cabin and Ed started fixing breakfast.
By Mari Wolf
The starship waited. Cylindrical walls enclosed it, and a transparent plastic dome held it back from the sky and the stars. It waited, while night changed to day and back again, while the seasons merged one into another, and the years, and the centuries. It towered as gleaming and as uncorroded as it had when it was first built, long ago, when men had bustled about it and in it, their shouting and their laughter and the sound of their tools ringing against the metallic plates.
Now few men ever came to it. And those who did come merely looked with quiet faces for a few minutes, and then went away again.
The generations kaleidoscoped by. The Starship waited.
Eric met the other children when he was four years old. They were out in the country, and he'd slipped away from his parents and started wading along the edge of a tiny stream, kicking at the water spiders.
His feet were soaked, and his knees were streaked with mud where he'd knelt down to play. His father wouldn't like it later, but right now it didn't matter. It was fun to be off by himself, splashing along the stream, feeling the sun hot on his back and the water icy against his feet.
A water spider scooted past him, heading for the tangled moss along the bank. He bent down, scooped his hand through the water to catch it. For a moment he had it, then it slipped over his fingers and darted away, out of his reach.
As he stood up, disappointed, he saw them: two boys and a girl, not much older than he. They were standing at the edge of the trees, watching him.
He'd seen children before, but he'd never met any of them. His parents kept him away from them--and from all strangers. He stood still, watching them, waiting for them to say something. He felt excited and uncomfortable at the same time.
They didn't say anything. They just watched him, very intently.
He felt even more uncomfortable.
The bigger boy laughed. He pointed at Eric and laughed again and looked over at his companions. They shook their heads.
Eric waded up out of the water. He didn't know whether to go over to them or run away, back to his mother. He didn't understand the way they were looking at him.
"Hello," he said.
The big boy laughed again. "See?" he said, pointing at Eric. "He can't."
"Can't what?" Eric said.
The three looked at him, not saying anything. Then they all burst out laughing. They pointed at him, jumped up and down and clapped their hands together.
"What's funny?" Eric said, backing away from them, wishing his mother would come, and yet afraid to turn around and run.
"You," the girl said. "You're funny. Funny, funny, funny! You're stu-pid."
The others took it up. "Stu-pid, stu-pid. You can't talk to us, you're too stu-pid...."
They skipped down the bank toward him, laughing and calling. They jumped up and down and pointed at him, crowded closer and closer.
"Silly, silly. Can't talk. Silly, silly. Can't talk...."
Eric backed away from them. He tried to run, but he couldn't. His knees shook too much. He could hardly move his legs at all. He began to cry.
They crowded still closer around him. "Stu-pid." Their laughter was terrible. He couldn't get away from them. He cried louder.
"Eric!" His mother's voice. He twisted around, saw her coming, running toward him along the bank.
"Mama!" He could move again. He stumbled toward her.
"He wants his mama," the big boy said. "Funny baby."
His mother was looking past him, at the other children. They stopped laughing abruptly. They looked back at her for a moment, scuffing their feet in the dirt and not saying anything. Suddenly the big boy turned and ran, up over the bank and out of sight. The other boy followed him.
The girl started to run, and then she looked at Eric's mother again and stopped. She looked back at Eric. "I'm sorry," she said sulkily, and then she turned and fled after the others.
Eric's mother picked him up. "It's all right," she said. "Mother's here. It's all right."
He clung to her, clutching her convulsively, his whole body shaking. "Why, Mama? Why?"
"You're all right, dear."
She was warm and her arms were tight around him. He was home again, and safe. He relaxed, slowly.
"Don't leave me, Mama."
"I won't, dear."
She crooned to him, softly, and he relaxed still more. His head drooped on her shoulder and after a while he fell asleep.
But it wasn't the same as it had been. It wouldn't ever be quite the same again. He knew he was different now.
That night Eric lay asleep. He was curled on his side, one chubby hand under his cheek, the other still holding his favorite animal, the wooly lamb his mother had given him for his birthday. He stirred in his sleep, threshing restlessly, and whimpered.
His mother's face lifted mutely to her husband's.
"Myron, the things those children said. It must have been terrible for him. I'm glad at least that he couldn't perceive what they were thinking."
Myron sighed. He put his arm about her shoulders and drew her close against him. "Don't torture yourself, Gwin. You can't make it easier for him. There's no way."
"But we'll have to tell him something."
He stroked her hair. The four years of their shared sorrow lay heavily between them as he looked down over her head at his son.
"Poor devil. Let him keep his childhood while he can, Gwin. He'll know he's all alone soon enough."
She nodded, burying her face against his chest. "I know...."
Eric whimpered again, and his hands clenched into fists and came up to protect his face.
Instinctively Gwin reached out to him, and then she drew back. She couldn't reach his emotions. There was no perception. There was no way she could enter his dreams and rearrange them and comfort him.
"Poor devil," his father said again. "He's got his whole life to be lonely in."
The summer passed, and another winter and another summer. Eric spent more and more time by himself. He liked to sit on the glassed-in sunporch, bouncing his ball up and down and talking to it, aloud, pretending that it answered him back. He liked to lie on his stomach close to the wall and look out at the garden with its riotous mass of flowers and the insects that flew among them. Some flew quickly, their wings moving so fast that they were just blurs. Others flew slowly, swooping on outspread bright-colored wings from petal to petal. He liked these slow-flying ones the best. He could wiggle his shoulder blades in time with their wings and pretend that he was flying too.
Sometimes other children came by on the outside of the wall. He could look out at them without worrying, because they couldn't see him. The wall wasn't transparent from the outside. He liked it when three or four of them came by together, laughing and chasing each other through the garden. Usually, though, they didn't stay long. After they had played a few minutes his father or his mother went out and looked at them, and then they went away.
Eric was playing by himself when the old man came out to the sunporch doorway and stood there, saying nothing, making no effort to interrupt or to speak. He was so quiet that after a while Eric almost didn't mind his being there.
The old man turned back to Myron and Gwin.
"Of course the boy can learn. He's not stupid."
Eric bounced the ball, flung it against the transparent glass, caught it, bounced it again.
"But how, Walden?" Gwin shook her head. "You offer to teach him, but--"
Walden smiled. "Remember these?"
... Walden's study. The familiar curtains drawn aside, and the shelves behind them. The rows of bright-backed, box-like objects, most of them old and spotted, quite unhygienic ...
Gwin shook her head at the perception, but Myron nodded.
"Books. I didn't know there were any outside the museums."
Walden smiled again. "Only mine. Books are fascinating things. All the knowledge of a race, gathered together on a few shelves...."
"Knowledge?" Myron shrugged. "Imagine storing knowledge in those--boxes. What are they? What's in them? Just words...."
The books faded as Walden sighed. "You'd be surprised what the old race did, with just those--boxes."
He looked across at Eric, who was now bouncing his ball and counting, out loud, up to three, and then going back and starting again.
"The boy can learn what's in those books. Just as if he'd gone to school back in the old times."
Myron and Gwin looked doubtfully at each other, and then over at the corner where Eric played unheeding. Perhaps Walden could help. Perhaps....
"Eric," Gwin said aloud.
"We've decided you're going to go to school, the way you want to. Mr. Walden here is going to be your teacher. Isn't that nice?"
Eric looked at her and then at the old man. Strangers didn't often come out on the sunporch. Strangers usually left him alone.
He bounced the ball again without answering.
"Say something, Eric," his mother commanded.
Eric looked back at Walden. "He can't teach me to be like other children, can he?"
"No," Walden said. "I can't."
"Then I don't want to go to school." Eric threw the ball across the room as hard as he could.
"But there once were other people like you," Walden said. "Lots of them. And you can learn about them, if you want to."
"Other people like me? Where?"
Myron and Gwin looked helplessly at each other and at the old man. Gwin began to cry and Myron cursed softly, on the perception level so that Eric wouldn't hear them.
But Walden's face was gentle and understanding as he answered, so understanding that Eric couldn't help wanting desperately to believe him.
"Everyone was like you once," Walden said. "A long time ago."