"You're a slow one." The old woman paused and waited for him to catch up. "Where've you been all your life? You don't act like a mountain boy."
"I'm not," Eric said. "I'm from the valley...."
He stopped talking. He realized, suddenly, the futility of trying to explain his life to her. If she had ever known the towns, it would have been years ago. She was too old, and tattered, and so dirty that her smell wasn't even a good clean animal smell.
"Hurry up, boy!"
He felt unreal, as if this were a dream, as if he would awaken suddenly and be back at the museum. He almost wished that he would. He couldn't believe that he had found another like himself and was now following her, scrambling up a mountain as if he were a goat.
A goat. Smells. The dirty old woman in front of him. He wrinkled his nose in disgust and then was furious with himself, with his reactions, with the sudden knowledge that he had glamorized his kind and had hoped to find them noble and brilliant.
This tattered old woman with her cackling laugh and leathery, toothless face and dirt encrusted clothing couldn't be like him. He couldn't accept it....
Mag led him up the slope and then over some heaped boulders, and suddenly they were on level ground again. They had come out into a tiny canyon, a blind pocket recessed into the mountain, almost completely surrounded by walls that rose sharply upward. Back across the gorge, huddled against the face of the mountain, was a tiny hut.
It was primitive, like those in the prehistoric sections of the old history books. It was made of branches lashed together, with sides that leaned crookedly against each other and a matted roof that looked as if it would slide off at any minute. It was like a twig house that a child might make with sticks and grass.
"Our home," Mag said. Her voice was proud.
He didn't answer. He followed her across toward it, past the mounds of refuse, the fruit rinds and bones and skins that were flung carelessly beside the trail. He smelled the scent of decay and rottenness and turned his head away, feeling sick.
"Lisa! Lisa!" Mag shouted, the words echoing and re-echoing.
A figure moved just inside the hut doorway. "She's not here," a voice called. "She's out hunting."
"Well, come on out, Nell, and see what I've found."
The figure moved slowly out from the gloom of the hut, bending to get through the low door, half straightening up outside, and Eric saw that it was an old, old woman. She couldn't straighten very far. She was too old, bent and twisted and brittle, feebler looking than anyone Eric had ever seen before. She hobbled toward him slowly, teetering from side to side as she walked, her hands held out in front of her, her eyes on the ground.
"What is it, Mag?" Her voice was as twisted as her body.
"A boy. Valley boy. Just the age for our Lisa, too."
Eric felt his face redden and he opened his mouth to protest, to say something, anything, but Mag went right on talking, ignoring him.
"The boy came in an aircar. I thought he was one of the normals--but he's not. Hasn't their ways. Good looking boy, too."
"Is he?" Nell had reached them. She stopped and looked up, right into Eric's face, and for the first time he realized that she was blind. Her eyes were milky white, without pupils, without irises. Against the brown leather of her skin they looked moist and dead.
"Speak, boy," she croaked. "Let me hear your voice."
"Hello," Eric said, feeling utterly foolish and utterly confused. "I'm Eric."
"Eric...." Nell reached out, touched his arm with her hand, ran her fingers up over his shoulders, over his chest.
"It's been a long time since I've heard a man's voice," she said. "Not since Mag here was a little girl."
"Have you been--here--all that time?" Eric asked, looking around him at the hut, and the meat hanging to dry, covered with flies, and the leather water bags, and the mounds of refuse, the huge, heaped mounds that he couldn't stop smelling.
"Yes," Nell said. "I've been here longer than I want to remember, boy. We came here from the other mountains when Mag was only a baby."
They walked toward the hut, and as they neared it he smelled a new smell, that of stale smoke and stale sweat overlying the general odor of decay.
"Let's talk out here," he said, not wanting to go inside.
They sat down on the hard earth and the two women turned their faces toward him, Mag watching him intently, Nell listening, her head cocked to one side like an old crippled bird's.
"I always thought I was the only one like me," Eric said. "The people don't know of any others. They don't know you exist. They wouldn't believe it."
"That's the way we want it," Mag said. "That's the only way it can be."
Nell nodded. "I was a girl in the other hills," she said, nodding toward the west, toward the museum. "There were several of us then. There had been families of us in my father's time, and in his father's time, and maybe before that even. But when I was a girl there was only my father and my mother and another wife of my father's, and a lot of children...."
She paused, still looking toward the west, facing a horizon she could no longer see. "The normal ones came. We'd hidden from them before. But this time we had no chance to hide. I was hunting, with the boy who was my father's nephew.
"They surrounded the hut. They didn't make any sound. They don't have to. I was in the forest when I heard my mother scream."
"Did they kill her?" Eric cried out. "They wouldn't do that."
"No, they didn't kill any of them. They dragged them off to the aircars, all of them. My father, my mother and the other woman, the children. We watched from the trees and saw them dragged off, tied with ropes, like wild animals. The cars flew away. Our people never came back."
She stopped, sunken in revery. Mag took up the story. Her voice was matter-of-fact, completely casual about those long ago events.
"A bear killed my father. That was after we came back here. Nell was sick. I did the hunting. We almost starved, for a while, but there's lots of game in the hills. It's a good life here. But I've been sorry for Lisa. She's a woman now. She needs a man. I'm glad you came. I would have hated to send her out looking for a normal one."
"But--" Eric stopped, his head whirling. He didn't know what to say. Anything at all would sound wrong, cruel.
"It's dangerous," Mag went on, "taking up with the normals. They think it's wrong. They think we're animals. One of us has to pick a man who's stupid--a farmer, maybe--and even then it's like being a pet. A beast."
It took a moment for Eric to realize what she was saying, and when he did realize, the thought horrified him.
"Lisa's father was stupid," Mag said. "He took me in when I came down from the hills. He didn't send for the others. Not then. He kept me and fed me and treated me kindly, and I thought I was safe. I thought our kind and theirs could live together."
She laughed. Deep, bitter lines creased her mouth. "A week later the aircar came. They sneaked up to the garden where I was. He was with them. He was leading them."
She laughed again. "Their kindness means nothing. Their love means nothing. To them, we're animals."
The old woman, Nell, rocked back and forth, her face still in revery. Flies crawled over her bare arms, unheeded.
"I got away," Mag said. "I saw them coming. They can't run fast, and I knew the hiding places. I never went back to the valleys. Nell would have starved without me. And there was Lisa to care for, later...."
The flies settled on Eric's hands and he brushed them away, shivering.
Mag smiled. The bitterness left her face. "I'm glad I don't have to send Lisa down to the valley."
She got up before he could answer, before he could even think of anything to say or do. Crossing over to the pole where the dried meat hung, she pulled a piece of it loose and brought it back to where they sat. Some she gave to the old woman and some she kept for herself and the rest, most of it, she tossed to Eric.
"You must be hungry, boy."
It was filthy. Dirt clung to it--dust and pollen and grime--and the flies had flown off in clouds when she lifted it down.
The old woman raised her piece and put the edge of it in her mouth and started to chew, slowly, eating her way up the strip. Mag tore hers with her teeth, rending it and swallowing it quickly, watching Eric all the time.
It was unreal. He couldn't be here. These women couldn't exist.
He lifted the meat, feeling his stomach knot with disgust, wanting to fling it from him and run, blindly, down the hill to the aircar. But he didn't. He had searched too long to flee now. Shuddering, he closed his mind to the flies and the smell and the filth and bit into the meat and chewed it and swallowed it. And all the time, Mag watched him.
The sun passed overhead and began to dip toward the west. The shadows, which had shortened as they sat in front of the hut, lengthened again, until they themselves were half in the shadow of the trees lining the gorge. Still Lisa did not come. It was very quiet. The only sounds that broke the silence were their own voices and the buzzing of the flies.
They talked, but communication was difficult between them. Eric tried to accept their ideas, their way of life, but he couldn't. The things they said were strange to him. Their whole pattern of life was strange to him. He could understand it at all only because he had studied the primitive peoples of the old race. But he couldn't imagine himself as one of them. He couldn't think of himself as having grown up among them, in the hills, living only to hunt and gather berries and store food for the wintertime. He couldn't think of himself hiding, creeping through the gorges like a hunted animal, flattening himself in the underbrush whenever an aircar passed by.
He sat and listened to them talk, and his amazement grew. Their beliefs were so different. He listened to their superstitious accounts of the old race, and the way it had been "in the beginning."
He listened to their legends of the old gods who flew through the air and were a mighty people, but who were destroyed by a new race of devils. He listened as they told him of their own ancestors, children of the gods, who had fled to the hills to await the gods' return. They had no conception at all of the thousands of years that had elapsed between the old race's passing and their own forefathers' flight into the hills. And when he tried to explain, they shook their heads and wouldn't believe him.
He didn't hear Lisa come. One minute the far end of the clearing was empty and still and the next minute the girl was walking across it toward them, a bow in one hand and a pair of rabbits dangling from the other.
She saw him and stopped, the rabbits dropping from her hand.
"Here's your young man, Lisa," Mag said. "Valley boy. His name's Eric."
He stared back at her, more in curiosity than in surprise. She wasn't nearly as unattractive as he had thought she would be. She wouldn't be bad looking at all, he thought, if she were clean. She was fairly tall and lean, too skinny really, with thin muscular arms instead of the softly rounded arms the valley girls had. She was too brown, but her skin hadn't turned leathery yet, and there was still a little life in the lank brown hair that fell matted about her shoulders.
"Hello, Lisa," he said.
"Hello." Her eyes never left him. She stared at him, her lips trembling, her whole body tensed. She looked as if she were going to turn and run at any moment, as if only his quietness kept her from fleeing.
With a sudden shock Eric realized that she too was afraid--afraid of him. His own hesitation fell away and he smiled at her.
Mag got up and went over to the girl and put her arm around Lisa's shoulders. "Don't be afraid of him, child," Mag said. "He's a nice boy. Not like one of them."
Eric watched her, pitying her. She was as helpless as he before the calm assumption of the older women. More helpless, because she had probably never thought of defying them, of escaping the pattern of their lives.
"Don't worry, Lisa," he said. "I won't hurt you."
Slowly she walked toward him, poised, waiting for a hostile move. She came within a few feet of him and then sank to her haunches, still watching him, still poised.
She was as savage as the others. A graceful, dirty savage.
"You're really one of us?" she said. "You can't perceive?"
"No," he said. "I can't perceive."
"He's not like them," Mag said flatly. "If you'd ever been among them, you'd know their ways."
"I've never seen a man before, up close," Lisa said.
Her eyes pleaded with him, and suddenly he knew why he pitied her. It was because she felt helpless before him, and begged him not to harm her, and thought of him as something above her, more powerful than she, and dangerous. He looked across at her and felt protective, and it was a new feeling to him, absolutely new. Because always before, around the normals, even around his own parents and Walden, he had been the helpless one.
He liked this new feeling, and wished it could last. But it couldn't. He couldn't do as the old women expected him to, leave the valley and his parents, leave the books and the museum and the ship, just to hide in the hills like a beast with them.
He had come to find his people, but these three were not they.
"You two go on off and talk," Mag said. "We're old. We don't matter now. You've got things to settle between you."
She cackled again and got up and went into the hut and old Nell got up also and followed her.
The girl shivered. She drew back a little, away from him. Her eyes never left his face.
"Don't be afraid, Lisa," he said gently. "I won't hurt you. I won't even touch you. But I would like to talk to you."
"All right," she said.
They got up and walked to the end of the gorge, the girl keeping always a few feet from him. At the boulders she stopped and faced him, her back against a rock, her thin body still trembling.
"Lisa," he said. "I want to be your friend."
Her eyes widened. "How can you?" she said. "Men are friends. Women are friends. But you're a man and I'm a woman and it's different."
He shook his head helplessly, trying to think of a way to explain things to her. He couldn't say that he found her dirty and unattractive and almost another species. He couldn't say that he'd searched the hills, often thinking of the relationship between man and woman, but that she wasn't the woman, that she never could be the woman for him. He couldn't tell her that he pitied her in perhaps the same way that the normals pitied him.
Still, he wanted to talk to her. He wanted to be her friend. Because he was sure now that he could search the mountains forever, and perhaps find other people, even if those he found were like her, and Mag and Nell.
"Listen, Lisa," he said. "I can't live up here. I live in the valley. I came in an aircar, and it's down in the canyon below here. I have to go back--soon. Before it gets completely dark."
"If I don't the normals will come looking for me. They'll find the aircar and then they'll find us. And you and your family will be taken away. Don't you understand?"
"You're going?" Lisa said.
"In a little while. I must."
She looked at him, strangely. She looked at his clothes, at his face, at his body. Then she looked at her own hands and touched her own coarse dress, and she nodded.
"You won't come back," she said. "You don't like me. I'm not what you were searching for."
He couldn't answer. Her words hurt him. The very fact that she could recognize their difference from each other hurt him. He pitied her still more.
"I'll come back," he said, "Of course I will. As often as I can. You're the only other people I've ever known who didn't perceive."
She looked up into his face again. Her eyes were very large. They were the only beautiful thing about her.