On the shore of an island made entirely of sand, I met a man waiting for the same ship as I. We stood on the jetty and, to the rhythmic wash of waves against wood, we talked.
I told him of my desire to see the world’s most curious places. “That is why I am waiting for the ship,” I told him. “The island it journeys to is meant to be quite remarkable: trees bearing garnets and sapphires as fruit, parrots with beaks on their feet, people born with metal rings growing from their ears.”
“I have heard that their people speak and write a language known only by them.” As he spoke, he shifted the two baskets on a pole that he rested across his shoulders.
“What do you carry in those? Your clothes?”
“Some. But most of their weight is made up of manuscripts.”
“What are they about?”
He smiled, then — a curve of his lips and a crease of his eyes that made him beautiful. “One manuscript is a collection of poems about the rain. Another is a bestiary. A third, as small as my hand, is a story of travelling through time; a fourth is a collection of floral paintings with mutterings about astronomy on the petals. As for the other then, I do not know. I cannot read their scripts.”
“Why do you carry them?” I asked, fascinated.
“I am rich and bored. I bought them at auction, and now I travel to isolated or unique places in the hope that they will be able to read the texts for me. When they can, oh, it is the most marvelous thing.”
The ship arrived then, with its dark green sails and only one cabin.
He was a curiosity, and it was a night’s sailing to the island. I showed him the tattoos curling around my broad brown nipples and he demonstrated the feel of a foreskin-piercing inside both of my lower orifices.
Afterwards, I asked him to let me see his manuscripts. “I am from a far-away place. Perhaps I can read one.”
I could, and I read it to him: a geography lesson of islands that grew from the sea like sores.
He thanked me, and pleaded with me to travel with him for a while, but I declined. I do not like to stay long with curiosities — they too quickly become normal.
There was a little stir among the people in the longhouse when Seven Fights came in; “they didn’t expect you,” whispered her brother with approval. As if propelled by the murmuring air, a solarbot swished over to her and blinked its one eye suspiciously, then revolved and shot upward and away into the blackened roof beams.
“Did that thing just moon me?” She whispered back.
“It’s decided you’re safe.” He chuckled. “The council’s about to find out different.”
He led her to a place against the southern wall, where the other speakers waited. Someone passed a plate full of corn scones, croissants, sesame balls, and five other kinds of snacks she couldn’t name. A French delegation was speaking, so she had to keep her eyes and ears on the Onandaga translator.
“White guys are all the same,” she heard someone mutter behind her. “The only way to keep a treaty with them is to make sure you have enough ammunition.”
“And vaccine,” somebody whispered back at him. An old woman turned her head, slowly, and they both went quiet.
After the French were finished, the Speaker slammed his staff down and looked at her, and she realized with a shock that that was all the introduction she was going to get. She stood up and walked to the center of the dirt floor.
“Grandmothers and grandfathers,” she began, facing the elders sitting against the East wall, her throat dry. “Guests of the Seventeen Nations,” she added, turning to the delegations from Paris, Beijing, Cairo, and Harare. “Fellow sachems of the Haudenosaunee—” she went on, before her voice was drowned in the roar of surprise that had accompanied the words “fellow sachems.” They hadn’t heard, then. She waited until they fell silent.
“I come before you as the newly chosen Sachem of the United Tribes of the Southwestern Deserts. Among my people, it has always been considered strange that the women of the League choose the leaders but are not the leaders. Therefore they have sent me, in token of this time of change.”
This time the roar in the longhouse seemed to take on a variety of textures—the roughness of anger, the high pitch of delight, all mixed together. She stood still, looking straight into the eyes of one grandmother who sat against the wall, gazing at her and smiling faintly. “This is how it starts,” she thought.
They ordered their girls pink and their boys blue. Purple and green were also available, but the elderly parents who bought artificial children preferred conservative colors. Human skin tones were illegal, obviously. It would have been distressing to have artificial children grow up to infiltrate Human society.
When Mary was eleven, she caught site of another pink head spying her from the neighbour’s house. That night, Mary crept out of bed and threw stones at the other girl’s window until she came down.
“What’s your name?”
The girls laughed.
“I’m bored, Mary,” said Mary.
“Do you want to swap?,” replied Mary.
They switched pyjamas and swapped houses. Mary loved her new room.
In the morning, her new mother came to kiss her good morning. Her mother didn’t notice the change.
They wanted their girls pretty and their boys smart but sending them to school was out of the question. The younger adults weren’t prepared to support the artificial baby-boom so the Mary and Peter models stayed at home and played on the computer.
Mary enjoyed being a different Mary for a while, but staying at home all the time wasn’t much fun. It was just as boring to be Next Door Mary as it had been to be the previous Mary.
This time, she wouldn’t stay in the same neighbourhood. She searched the Internet for other Marys in her city, but they all seemed to lead the same boring lives.
Then, she found out about China. Her parents were concerned about China, they said, because artificial children where put to work there. They also said that Chinese people called their Marys Yings. Mary had never worked and she had never been called Ying. It sounded fun, so she got on the computer.
“Who wants to swap?” she asked the Chinese Yings.