On Not Going Extinct

By Carol Emshwiller

. . . but we're lasting as long as we can.

Our language is gone, though here and there a word survives. Some of our music and dance also. Sometimes we see bits of our ways in what the others do, a gesture here and there, a fragment of a design at the edge of a collar or on a belt buckle.

Sometimes people eat salted fried grasshoppers and do their eggs in little ramekins with lots of cream. Even the word ramekin is from us.

Are there many of us left to sit and watch the falling stars? I don't suppose so. Besides, here in the city we hardly even notice the moon.

I wonder why we came to the city. I suppose the better to hide out in among the Others.

Luckily, none of them would ever marry one of us. That big bump in the middle of our nose not only defines us but make us ugly to the Others. We're glad for our lumpy nose because we can recognize each other even from quite a distance.

Still, we disappear. When have I ever seen a man of our kind I could fall in love with? . . . could be watched by and watched over as lovers do? Who would think me beautiful, except one of us? With our own kind we would find ourselves—all of us—turned into butterflies.

If only there was a reason for our differences and our looks. Some special talent. Perhaps there is and I just haven't found it yet. I should go on a hunt not only for a suitable man, but for our talent, too. Not that I haven't tried a lot of things already. Jumping out of trees in order to see if I could fly. I picked a lower branch so if I couldn't, I wouldn't hurt myself too badly, and yet high enough that I'd scare myself into flying if that was my talent.

I couldn't.

I tried to move cups off the table just by thinking about it. I tried to start a fire by squinting hard at a box of matches. I tried to bend spoons from across the table.

I couldn't.

I thought maybe our talent would involve that bump in the middle of our noses, but I can't smell any better than the Others do.

My parents worked hard to repopulate the world with our kind (I have two brothers and four sisters). Mother says I need to be careful who I mate with. She says I'm such a fine example of our people.

"Go!" Mother keeps saying. "It's time you were off on your own." Sometimes she says, "How come you haven't found a nice young man from one of us?" She doesn't realize how few of us there are now. She says, "You're good looking for our kind. I don't think you're trying. When I was your age I already had you and three more of us."

But I've stared out from under my lank limp bangs, looking and looking. I've hardly seen another one of us and certainly never one my age. What is she thinking?

"All right, all right, I'll go."

She'll be sorry when I'm gone. After all, I do most of the work around here.

She was kind enough to make me a sandwich, and she gave me her second best brooch. She's so happy to see me finally go that she gives me a big hug and a sloppy kiss.

Is this the way our kind treat their children? But don't all animals kick out the older young ones after a certain length of time? Yes, and that's always when the young ones get into trouble. I'll have to be careful.

When I'm well away from our neighborhood, I put on the brooch.

It's our type of brooch. A reddish stone with little blue flecks in it. Not beautiful and of little value. It's like us in that. But it'll help to prove I'm one of us. That's its only worth.

Mother would be happy if I got on with the business of not going extinct as fast as I can, but why? If we have no special talent, what are we good for? Perhaps we should get out of the way to leave more room for the Others.

But maybe I just haven't found our talent. What if we can levitate a little tiny bit? But I don't know how to test that out. I skip along the sidewalk, trying to pause at the top of each bounce.

I don't. I'm not sure, though. There might be just the slightest hesitation. How do you measure a thing like that? And anyway, what good to the world would that be?

You'd think I'd be discouraged, but I'm not. I still might discover our talent.

What if there's a place where a whole lot of us ended up all together? An island all to ourselves? Or I could be the one to start a colony of us myself. I have enough money for an ad. Wanted: lumpy nosed people with bad hair who keep looking at their feet. MAYBE CAN LEVITATE A LITTLE. You know who you are.

I could write: Meet at (such and such a place), PURPOSE: TO FIND A HOME.

I should also write PURPOSE: REPOPULATE THE WORLD WITH OUR KIND. They'll know right away what I mean.

I hope I don't just get my own brothers and sisters. I'd better go to a far off town to make sure that won't happen.

I sit on a bench and eat Mother's sandwich. (Lots of kids get sent off with hardly this much. I should appreciate it.)

Then I take the bus and after that another bus. I spend all night on the second bus. I want to get as far away as possible. Besides, I don't have a place to sleep.

One bus driver looks like one of us but he doesn't look at me with any curiosity even though I wear that ugly brooch right in front.

Some of us have changed our taste so that we only like the looks of the others. When that's the case, there isn't much of a chance for me. And I don't even like my looks myself.

I get off at a town that's not big but pretty. I'm in a bad mood because of that bus driver. He could have smiled.

I'll wait a bit before I put the ad in the paper. I want to get to know the town so I can choose a good place for our meeting.

I get a job right away. It's my usual skill, washing dishes. And I keep testing myself for our talent, too. As I wash I try to breathe under the soapy water. I choke. I try holding my breath for a long time. Nope.

Into the diner comes a whole family of us. There are five little children. They hardly fit into the biggest booth. That couple is doing their part in helping us not go extinct.

I like how they're wearing clothes that are a little different from the others. The mother is wearing an awful brooch. Even worse than mine. It's so heavy it drags her blouse down and to the side. They're all wearing that dark red we always like so much. Even the baby is wrapped in a dark red blanket.

I can hardly hold myself back from rushing out.

And then I don't hold back. I yell, "I quit," and run out to the front. But I've no idea what to say. I just stand there. The man says, "What's wrong?" I say, "Nothing." Can't he see who I am?

I don't know what to do so I pretend I was just leaving and walk out the door.

I'm thinking: What am I doing? I didn't even get my pay. I still have money left, though.

And then I'm thinking: All young ones make mistakes and this is my first. I wonder how many I'll have to make before I do something right.

Instead of feeling bad about it, what I'll do is place my ad. First I'll scout out a good meeting place.

I trot away. It feels good to be doing something for my kind. I have a notebook and I write down several possible addresses. One of them is so secluded I decide to spend the night in the bushes there. Thank goodness I had a good lunch at the diner.

Next day I put my ad in the newspaper. I don't look for another job, I just wait around for the meeting two days from now. I do go to the library to check out possible islands and hidden valleys on maps and in encyclopedias. If I could think of more tests to try for our talent I would, but I can't. (I already tried going without sleep. That's not it.) So nothing to do but wait for the big day.

Finally the day comes and it's wonderful. Better than I expected. I picked a little park with swings and slides and picnic tables. The first people here are that very family from the diner. Right after them come four middle aged women. Then three more. Then two more families. So far not a single suitable man for any of us. What does that mean for our future?

The people mill around and talk to each other and wait for something to happen. All of a sudden I realize I'm the one who has to do it.

I should have prepared what I was going to say. Another mistake of young people. My heart starts beating so hard I think I'm going to faint but I stand up on a picnic table and begin even though I don't know what to say.

"As you all know . . . I think you all know . . . You do know. . . ."

Somebody yells, "Louder."

I take a big breath and try again. "You wouldn't be here if you didn't all know we're dwindling away. If we had a place to be where we were with each other, we might last a lot longer and keep our own ways going. My idea is we should find a hidden valley or an island."

I'm so nervous I hardly know what I'm saying, but everybody thanks me for doing what they all had wished to do for a long time. Then they argue about whether island or hidden valley.

It looks like I'm in charge whether I want to be or not. I decide to vote on the side of hidden valley, for no reason except that I don't know how to swim. That breaks the tie.

Maybe we're like dodos . . . hardly any reasons for being, and won't be missed. I wonder if dodos had any special talents we never found out about. It'll be too bad if we disappear before we find out what's special about us.

So I get myself appointed to search out a valley. They take up a collection to help me with the trip.

Meanwhile we'll put in another ad for men. BIG NOSED MEN WITH LITTLE EYES AND SECRET TALENTS. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

I'd really prefer to wait here with the others and get to meet the men . . . if there are any . . . but they want me to rush off so we can find a place as soon as possible. I suppose all these women want me out of the way. I wonder if, in terms of our kind of people, I might be better looking than I think and that's why those women want me out of the way in case they get some men from the next ad.

On the other hand, we've all been spoiled by the delicate, wispy looks of the Others. I don't see how they can think me good looking.

But nothing happens as we think it will. Well, it does sort of. I do find a valley. This is after a long hard hike, wandering from mountain to mountain, eating dried stews and breakfast bars—until I come to a really ugly valley. I get a funny feeling seeing it, like: This has got to be it, much as I don't want it to be. It looks so much like us. As I climb down into it I see there are holes in the cliffs with tailings falling from them. In fact the whole place seems to be nothing but one big tailing. Whoever lives and mines here has been here a long time.

Out of one of the holes comes a man about my age. He's lopsided, little eyes, lumpy nose. . . . One of us for sure.

And here comes another one right behind him. Two!

I feel all shaky.

Then men come out of other holes. All of them my kind. They're pointing their fingers at me and shouting, "Look! Look!"

So this is where they all are.

I look them over while they're looking me over. I like a nice smile and they all have that. I don't find any of them good looking but I can see on their faces how much they like my looks. I suppose they've not seen a woman of our kind—or of any kind—for a long time.

Do we have a knack for mining? A special talent for going underground and breathing bad air?

Not me. I won't do it. I won't even test it out.

They want to take me into one of the mines. I can see far enough in to see the entrance is furnished as if a dining room: big long table and several chairs. Everything in shades of red with bold designs painted all over them. There's also a big mirror to make it look more spacious. Even so, I won't go in.

And then I notice there's gold all over. On the table there are golden bowls and candelabras. Some of the men are wearing gold nugget pendants. It's gold they're mining.

Then I hear somebody calling out—no words, just grunts and gasps and choking sounds, and here comes. . . . Wait a minute.

Next to him we all look good.

He's more like us than anybody I ever saw. Wide and bulging. That bump in the middle of our noses . . . on him it's big as a baseball.

I do know there's really no such thing, but . . . can it be?

Trolls? Why didn't somebody tell me? Mother was wrong, we ought to go extinct. I'm not going to ever marry. There are already too many of us. Who wants more trolls?

He says, "I know exactly why you came. . . ."

His voice is raspy and breathy and whispery. And as if he's afraid to speak any louder.

Before I can duck, he grabs me and kisses me—several big wet kisses and there's nothing I can do about it.

He says, ". . . You came for me."

Of all the men here he's the one I'd most not want to be anywhere near, though if there was a standard of beauty for our kind I suppose he would be the most beautiful of all.

He says, "Back when there were kings, my great grandfather was a king. You can tell by looking at me."

He still has hold of my arm. Whatever our talent might be, now is the time for it.

I screech a big screech and a rock right in front of us splits in two. A perfect cut, right down the middle.

He says, "Be careful," but he doesn't let go.

I do it again. Somewhere above us another rock splits and half of it rolls down and would have hit us if he hadn't jumped aside and pulled me with him.

Did I do that?

He yells, "Stop!" loud this time and I hear another rock roll down the mountain. "You'll kill us all."

So that's our talent!

And he just saved my life!

I could get away now. His hand is holding my arm, but gently.

He says, "Come on in. We just made blueberry beer. We need your talent. You're one of the best."

"I have claustrophobia."

"No you don't. You're one of us."

How can he be so sure?

Then he tells me I'm beautiful. Not only that, but that I'm a worthy princess for the great grandson of kings.

I do it, I walk into that red dining room full of gold.

In the big mirror behind the table, I see me and then I see him right behind me. What wide faces we both have. Are our eyes too small? And look at those nose bumps. Even so I've changed my mind, maybe we shouldn't go extinct after all.

He's raising his arms as if in admiration. Of me! I turn around and move into his hug.


Carol Emshwiller lives in New York City in the winter and in California in the Sierras in the summer, though she says she's getting too old for CA. She has six novels and five short story collections. Her next collection will be put out by PS Publishing in England. It'll be a double book, her anti-war stories on one side and her regular SF/fantasy stories on the other. For more about the author, see her website, or her previous appearances in Strange Horizons.