Little Ambushes

By Joanne Merriam

Practically the first thing she did when she took in the alien was to give him a new name. He looked at her outstretched hand long enough to annoy her, and then grasped it with his four opposable fingers and hung on limply until she wrenched her hand out of his moist and over-jointed grip.

She said, "I'm Sarah," and he said his name, or what she assumed was his name, in return, rolling the syllables around in his mouth like so many rough pebbles. His name was too long, something like Shperidth with extra grunting noises in the middle, like a car backfiring very far away. She tried to repeat it and couldn't, while he stood on her doorstep sweating and folding his fingers around each other. She frowned at him.

"I can't say that," she said.

He twisted his fingers together as though emphasizing his alienness, every one of them looking like a slender thumb, and she thought his hands looked like a big, black spider wriggling at the end of its thread.

"How about I call you Spider instead?" she said. "It kind of sounds the same."

He inclined his head, and she took that as agreement and stepped back to let him in the house. She wondered how they'd chosen him: their first artist. How did you test for an ability you didn't understand?

Their culture was a coin made of soft metal, rubbed featureless by long use, with no further worth, but they didn't come for ours, no matter how politely they listened while we tried to explain ourselves to them. They came for no particular reason, or maybe because they were bored, or maybe for some other reason. They had suggested the exchange program, but hadn't shown anything other than polite interest in the things we'd suggested exchanging. Sarah didn't even know if her guest wanted to be here. She supposed it didn't matter.

A smaller alien followed him and placed several smooth black boxes on the floor, bowed, and left the house. His luggage and art supplies, presumably.

The people who had brought the aliens stood by their car and talked into headsets, eyes scanning the road. She closed the door on them.

The refrigerator kicked on in the kitchen, and the alien's ears swiveled toward it. "Are you thirsty?" Sarah asked. "Would you like something to drink?"

Spider inclined his head again and just stood there, looking at the floor. Sarah stamped on her irritation with him—he was several month's mortgage payments, if nothing else—and led the way, coming back to take his arm when he didn't follow her. In the kitchen, he sat down, either expecting to be waited on or not understanding where they were.

"The glasses are here," she said firmly, indicating them as she pulled down two. "Help yourself to anything in the fridge." She handed him a glass, and he looked at it, and then at her, his chin raising a little as his nostrils flared. She poured juice in her own glass. "Juice?" she said. He just looked at her. She put the pitcher down next to him and walked away. When she heard him drinking, she turned to see him holding the pitcher to his lips. She showed him the right way to drink. "It is the custom," she kept saying, hoping he wouldn't take offense. Who knew what would happen if she offended him. The aliens hadn't been hostile yet—not when the Prime Minister had mistaken their leader for a child, not when we'd pointed our nuclear weapons at them, not when one of their ships had been covered in rude graffiti—but the program director had impressed upon her the need for civility. "With the technology they have," he'd said, "they could probably destroy our planet without blinking."

The alien pointed out a squirrel on her lawn, which was eating something with the nervous intensity of small mammals. Its tiny hands turned the little bit of food around and around. Spider imitated it, and she smiled back, relieved the alien had a sense of humor, however baroque. "That's a squirrel," she told him.

"Squirrel," he agreed. "Very like our—" and here he made a noise like a truck skidding on loose gravel. "I like to watch them hunt each other," he said, and she explained that squirrels weren't carnivores. "Nevertheless, they hunt, as all things do," he said, and she shrugged. She wasn't being paid to teach him biology.

They started on drawing first. "Before I can teach you how to paint like a human," she told him, "you need to learn how to see."

"I can see."

"No. I've seen your work. You don't see the way we see. You see the way a camera sees. If you want to be able to reproduce our style, you need to understand us."

Spider nodded, a little awkwardly, as though he'd never done it before but had been told it was something humans did. They sat at separate easels, and she showed him how to draw an orange, and then she showed him how to draw an orange like Rembrandt might, and then Picasso, and so on. She taught him about perspective and negative space and contours and shading. She taught him the things he already knew so he'd understand what those things meant to another species, a species with the ability to see the world differently than it was.

They drew oranges for a week before his oranges began looking like her oranges, and not like photographs of oranges, and then for a week longer before his oranges stopped looking like her oranges, and started looking like oranges of his own.

On their sixth day, he did a painting of the violets on her windowsill that made her laugh: he'd drawn them so out of proportion that they looked like a child's art. It was the first time she'd laughed around him.

He threw himself away from her, his eyes huge, knocking over his easel, and ran from the room, slamming the door behind him.

"What's wrong, Spider?" she said through the door, and she listened to his breathing on the other side. "Are you okay?" She was surprised to discover that she cared if he was okay. He was a good man, even if he was an alien. He was trying so hard to learn. "Tell me you're okay."

"What was that noise?" he said after a long pause, and she said, "what noise?" and then realized and said, "I was laughing. Haven't you heard anybody laugh yet?" but it seemed he hadn't, and when she thought about it, she wondered why she'd expected anything different. He'd been kept in an official, officious cocoon since he got here. All the aliens had.

"It's a noise we make when we're happy," she said. "It's. . . an expression of delight. Of joy."

"Oh," he said.

"I'm sorry," she said through the door.

"Do not apologize for being joyful," he said, and he opened the door. "It is only that your laugh sounds like our war cries. I did not want to fight you."

She promised him she wouldn't laugh again, and he shook his head, and said, "Do not promise me that. I would like to delight you."

Sarah didn't know how to respond, so she just nodded, and that seemed to please him. He smiled at her, carefully not showing any teeth.

"Before I leave," he said. "I will give you more joy."

On their ninth day, she left him alone to get groceries. When she returned, a red sports car was taking up half of her driveway. It was Mark's car. She parked and let the engine idle for a moment, watching a squirrel standing on the telephone wire outside her house. It ran a few steps overhead, and then turned and ran back, and then stopped and looked back and forth. Sarah watched it dither. Finally it made a decision and ran to the other side of the road, dancing lightly over the surface of other people's conversations.

Mark was her husband. He had moved out six months before. They'd tried couples counseling, marijuana, antidepressants. He had suggested a second honeymoon but they hadn't been able to agree on a destination. Their shrink had suggested dating, so they'd eaten meals they didn't taste and sat on the sidelines at dance clubs and taken refuge in the enforced silence of movie theatres.

Finally, with a regret so subtle she still couldn't sense it, Mark had suggested separation. Just to get their heads together, and then they'd try again, he'd said. Sarah had agreed. Sarah had always agreed with him. After he'd left, she'd decided that was their problem: she gave him everything she had, even the things he'd never asked for, and then got angry when she felt empty. Well, whose fault was that?

She got the groceries out of the trunk and went inside. Mark was standing in her kitchen, holding a steaming mug of something in both hands, and Spider was sitting at the table, empty-handed. Sarah put the bags of groceries down on the floor.

"What are you doing here," she said to Mark. It came out a statement.

He said, "I can't believe you left a fucking alien alone in our house."

"Are you worried about the alien or the house," she said, still in that flat voice, and then she glanced apologetically at Spider, but he was staring at his hands and missed it. She stooped to pick up a bag. She put the milk and juice and carton of eggs in the fridge. Mark said nothing. She stuck the jars of spaghetti sauce and the cavatappi noodles in the pantry. Mark shifted his weight, and took a sip from his mug. She emptied a bag of apples into the sink and washed the pesticide residue from their skins, pulled down a wooden bowl and put them, still dripping, inside, and set them on the table, where a shaft of sunlight lit them. It would make a good still life for Spider, she thought.

Mark cleared his throat.

Sarah said, "What do you want, Mark."

"I want a divorce," he said.

"Get out of my house."

"It's my house, Sarah. I paid for it."

"Funny how you saddled me with the mortgage."

"My lawyer gave me these for you," he said, and he bent to open a briefcase she hadn't noticed, and pull out a manila envelope, and hand it to her. She took it, and didn't say anything. She hoped he didn't notice the slight tremor in her hands. Somehow, despite everything, she hadn't expected this.

"You have a lawyer?" she said, and finally the question sounded like a question. At the up-turn in her voice, Spider's head came up, and he looked at her with what she thought might be pity, tumbling his hands over and over each other.

Mark laughed a little, and said, "Of course I have a lawyer. You should get one, too."

"I'm sorry you had to see that," she said to Spider when Mark had gone. "You can work on a new painting tonight. The apples. I'll be back down in a few hours. I'm sorry," and she went upstairs, but didn't cry. She laid on her bed—on her and Mark's bed—and watched the late afternoon light move across her ceiling, and thought about a world where laughter sounded like war.

The next day, Spider showed her his painting of the apples. They were too shiny, and their shadows housed little demons. The demons looked like Mark. She couldn't help laughing, and this time, Spider smiled at her.

"Everything reminds you," he said. "The apples remind you. Their empty bag reminds you. His scent waits for you in the kitchen. The kitchen itself reminds you. Just some of the hundreds of little ambushes this house has waiting for you."

"Why, Spider," she said, touching her upper lip with two fingers, "you're a poet."

Spider started to do self-portraits. She had shown him a succession of them: Albrecht Dürer, Sofonisba Anguissola, Frida Kahlo, Gustave Courbet, Jackson Pollack, Zhang Ji.

She told him that Rembrandt had probably done so many self-portraits so he could explore how to paint the expressions his wealthy clients wouldn't have wanted to see on their own faces, and showed him Rembrandt frowning, and Rembrandt grimacing, and Rembrandt sinking back into the shadows. She told him about Marc Chagall's childhood in Russia, and showed him I And The Village. "He wanted to know himself," Spider said, stroking the reproduction on her wall, and she said yes. She said she thought that was what self-portraits were for.

"May I see yours?" he asked, and she shook her head.

"I've never done a self-portrait I liked," she said.

The men from the exchange program came on at the end of the month: two humans and one alien, all dressed in sober suits, gray and black. Sarah couldn't tell if the alien was the same one who dropped off Spider's things when he'd arrived. The humans were different. They flanked the door while the alien carried out Spider's artwork, bundled in soft cloths and cardboard.

"Thank you," Spider said to her, and Sarah smiled and said, "Any time." He nodded, and then he left. She'd been told the aliens didn't believe in saying goodbye; their religion told them everybody meets again. One of the humans gave her an envelope with a check inside, and then they, too, left. Sarah stood at the door watching their car drive away, and then she just stood at the door.

The squirrel was back on the telephone wire outside her house. She watched it run toward her and stop. It sat back on its haunches and stared at her, chittering. She listened to the silence, and finally she went indoors. A painting was propped against the bowl of apples. The faces of the people in the painting were more beautiful than she could have drawn them. They were glowing with health and confidence, and something else, some kind of divinity that came through in the short strokes of the brush. Spider was a better painter than she was, she thought, and she reached out to touch it, and stopped short of the surface, worried it might still be wet.

There was her mother, and her first boyfriend, and her childhood friend Dale, and her current best friend Connie, and a host of others from her past. Everybody who had ever really mattered to her was in this painting. She wondered how Spider had known what they looked like. She wasn't one to keep photographs up in the house, and they hadn't discussed their lives. She wondered what else he'd found out about her without her knowing about it, but the thought held no terror.

Mark was there, at the edge of the crowd, his hands clasped behind his back, his face turned away from her. And there she was, the only human in the painting who wasn't glowingly gorgeous, her mouth pinched in a tight line and her eyes mere slits. Her hands were clenched into fists, one of them holding a paintbrush that dripped on the floor. Her cheekbones were slashes of tension across a stricken face.

Spider was in the painting, too, his overly large, awkward body partially hidden in a darkened corner. His feet stretched to touch hers, as though he were her shadow. His face was looking up, his chin jutting out with what would have been arrogance in a human, but which she'd learned to read as bewilderment. His strange hands hung at his sides, looking even stranger than they did in real life. All of the perfectly rendered people stood a little apart from them both.

Sarah picked up the phone and called the exchange program's office line. "Any complaints?" the admin officer asked, and Sarah said, "No, I want to participate again. Only I want to go to them." The admin officer said she'd see what she could do, her voice warm. There was a shortage of humans willing to exchange, she told Sarah. There should be no problem.

Sarah looked at the painting for a long time, until the sun was starting to set. She got a nail, and hung the painting in the kitchen above the table. She left the manila envelope below it, with the signed papers inside. Then she began to pack her things.

Joanne Merriam's writing has appeared recently in On Spec and Strange Horizons, and is forthcoming in Astropoetica and Asimov's Science Fiction. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two manic depressive rabbits.