Native Tongue: Excerpts

(Copied with permission from Suzette’s SFWA website to preserve for posterity’s sake.)

Native Tongue
by Suzette Haden Elgin


Chapter Three, pages 35-36

SPRING 2180…

Michaela did all the things he wanted a wife to do. She saw to his house and his meals and his comfort and his sexual needs. She kept so smoothly running a setup that he never had time to think, I wonder why Michaela hasn’t …. done something or other because she always had done it; often it wasn’t until after she had seen to some detail, some change, that he realized it had been a thing that he wanted. The flowers in the vases were always fresh; clean garments appeared as if by magic in his gardrobes; a tunic that had seemed to him about to show signs of wear either appeared so expertly renovated that it looked new, or was replaced between one day and the next… never once did he have to miss something or do without anything.

Ned had only to mention in passing that a particular food sounded interesting, and in the next day or two it would appear on his table — and if he didn’t care for it after all, it would never appear again. Household repairs, maintenance, cleaning, the small garden of which he was justifiably proud, any sort of household business matter, upkeep on his assets and his collections — all these things were attended to in his absence. His only contribution to the perfect serenity of his home was to look over the printouts his accountant provided for him at the end of every month and sign or refuse the authorization for spending whatever sums Michaela had requested.

It was a blissful existence; he treasured it. Except at his work, where no woman’s influence could intrude and there was therefore no way Michaela could smooth the waters, Ned Landry was spared even the memory of irritation. And she was always there, her butter-blond hair in the elegant chignon he liked so much for the contrast it offered when, in his bed, she let it down to fan over the pillows like a net of pale silk.

He valued Michaela for all the things that she did; he knew her worth, and he saw to it that she was rewarded not only by the customary birthday and holiday gifts expected of any courteous husband but with small extra ones that he had no obligation to make. … Ned prided himself on understanding what women liked and on his ability to provide it, and Michaela was worth every credit and penny she cost him. Michaela was a thoroughbred, and superbly trained, just as the agency had guaranteed that she would be.

But the thing that mattered most to him about his wife, the thing that was the heart and core of the marriage for him, was none of those usual things. He could have hired almost anyone to do what she did around the house… He would have been obliged to give orders rather than having his order anticipated, but he could have managed that. He could have bought servomechanisms to carry out many of those orders. And anything he had no permanent arrangement for, he could have dialed up by comset in a matter of minutes.

What really mattered to him, the one service that he could not have simply purchased, was Michaela’s role as listener. Listener! That was beyond price, and had come as a surprise to him.

Chapter Four, page 45

I suppose every single one of us that comes here, knowing that his work will mean contact with extraterrestrials, thinks that he will be an exception, that he’ll find a way to make friends with at least some of them. You figure you’ll get the Lingoe to teach you a few words … “Hello! How are you? Nice whatsit you’ve got there!” That kind of thing. You think, we can’t just go on forevermore being strangers, right? But when the time comes, and you get close to an Alien, you understand what the scientists are talking about when they say it isn’t possible. There’s a feeling that comes over you. It’s not just fear, and it’s not just prejudice. It’s something you never felt before, and something you’ll never forget when you’ve felt it once.

You know how you can find things under rocks that will just about go crazy digging in and curling up, trying to get away from the light? That’s how you feel, when you’re close to an Alien, or even when you’re in contact with one by comset for more than a minute or two. You wish you had something to burrow into. Everything goes on red alert, and everything you’ve got to feel with is screaming ALIEN! ALIEN! You’re glad then, let me tell you, you’re very glad then, that you’re not expected to be friendly. Just polite, that’s all, even after all the training they give you here. Just polite.

(U.S. State Department liaison staffer, in an interview with Elderwild Barnes of Spacetime)

Chapter Four, pages 46-47

The other technicians had pulled back from the Interface, the oh so perfect and according to specs Interface, where Brooks stood holding the infant. They had formed themselves into a little group, that could behave as if it had nothing to do with whatever this regrettable latest development turned out to be. Who, them? They were just passing by. Just happened to be in the neighborhood, don’t you know?

“You get on over here!” he bellowed at them, shoving the baby under one armpit and shaking his free fist at them like the maniac, raving ranting maniac gone clear outaspace, that he considered himself to be at this moment. “You get on over here and look at this mess….you’re as guilty as I am in this! Get your asses on over here and see this!”

They moved an inch, maybe. And Showard began a steady dull cursing… They weren’t going to come over there to him. They weren’t going to participate in this, share the guilt, spread the horror around, not willingly. He was going to have to take it to them, the cowards! And it might be that next time he wouldn’t have the guts to go inside the Interface after what was squirming there either, and then they could all be cowards together in Christian fellowship, couldn’t they?

Behind him, safe in its special environment, the Alien-in-Residence existed, so far as anyone could tell. If it had died, presumably the various indicators on the walls would have told him that — that was the theory, anyhow. You couldn’t say that the AIRY sat, precisely, or that it stood, or that it did anything or was in any particular state. It was, and that was all it was. If what had happened to the human infant was of any concern to it, there was no way to know that, and might never be any way to know that. Sometimes Showard wasn’t sure he saw the AIRY, really, the way it flickered (??), and never any pattern to the flickering (??); it drove the Terran eye to a constant search for order until there were great flat spots of color floating in the air between you and the source of the sensory stimulation. And then there were the other times, when you profoundly wished that you couldn’t see it.

The linguists called theirs Aliens-in-Residence, too, called them AIRY’s for short like the technicians did, but theirs were different. It was possible to look at one of theirs and at least assign labels roughly to its parts…

These excerpts are printed by permission of The Feminist Press, at The City University of New York, from Suzette Haden Elgin, Native Tongue. Copyright 1984 by Suzette Haden Elgin. Available with a new afterword by Susan M. Squier and Julie Vedder in November 2000 from The Feminist Press. No part of these excerpts may be sold, reproduced, transmitted, or used in any way without prior written permission from the Feminist Press at The City University of New York.


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