When Lo began growing odd, colorful lumps on its walls and furniture, Lilith first thought it a symptom of illness, or perhaps a prank played on the village by resister Humans passing through on their way to Mars.
When she brought her concerns to it, Nikanj said, "It is probably some irritant, brought from some piece of the forest beyond Lo by one of your gardeners, or perhaps a traveler." It looped a sensory arm affectionately around her wrist, burying several of its body tentacles into the wall around the growth. "See? It is only an unfamiliar series of chemicals. This one comes from a mixture of river mud and hair from one of the constructs who passed through last week." It showed her the sensations as it experienced them, still brighter and clearer than anything she could discern on her own, despite its many improvements to her physiology.
"But who put it there? And why?" she asked within the link, tasting the composition of the mud-hair mixture through Nikanj's senses. It was an unusual combination of chemicals and textures. "Interesting." She disengaged, and as her eyes adjusted back to sight, she noticed that the lumps were regularly spaced. She squinted at it, shading her eyes against the sunlight, until it clicked into place. They formed a stylized sixteen-fingered handprint. She schooled her expression into blankness, relieved when Nikanj was called away. When Lilith was alone, she explored the rest of the wall of the storage room but found nothing more.
Once she began searching for the irregularities, she found them everywhere. She saw intricate, abstract patterns in the thatching on the Mars Waystation, as the Humans in Lo had taken to calling the hut kept for visitors. There were textures in the barklike skin of Lo's 'banana' tree that upon closer inspection were revealed to be minutely carved scenes from the daily life of Lo's inhabitants. Odd juxtapositions of found objects were left almost, but not quite, at random along the path. Each blended in perfectly with its surroundings unless one looked creatively, intuitively. Lilith began to search out the alterations, finding some that were whimsical, some pensive, some frenetic, some frustratingly impenetrable to her senses. Sometimes Lilith fooled herself, once spending ten minutes examining the striations in a small rock before deciding that it was naturally occurring.
Lilith kept her curiosity about the unconventional artist to herself. She relished the fierce pride at noticing a secret that registered to her in a way that didn't for the Oankali, even her mates, and she hoarded the feeling.
One day she sliced open one of the yams she grew in her garden, only to find a perfect spiral of deep red threaded through it. When she bit into it, she found the yam tasted softer and richer and sweeter than usual, as if it had been baked in brown sugar. The taste brought tears to her eyes, and she quashed the memories of her life... before.
Lilith began to participate in this strange conversation, though her offerings were much rougher. She mixed pigments from plants she harvested along the river and painted a giraffe on the bottom of a storage pot. Three days later, she discovered that someone had bestowed Oankali-like tentacles on the giraffe. The sight gave her chills. The Oankali had never shown an interest in representational art, and certainly not art with this kind of dark humor. Her counterpart must be another Human... but no Human had the skills this artist displayed, unless they had accepted some very deep alterations to their bodies.
She learned who it was four nights later, when half of the village had gathered for a communal meal. Lilith leaned against Ahajas, grateful for her giant grey arm slung around her waist. For once she didn't even mind Ahajas's annoying tendency to card idly through Lilith's hair with her body tentacles. Ahajas was hugely pregnant again, and Lilith knew she would begin to show soon as well.
"Love, do you see our clever offspring?" Ahajas whispered, her deep voice resonating against Lilith's ear. She glanced around the room, her gaze lighting upon their oeka child hard at work healing Tino's minor wounds.
Lilith smiled privately, remembering vividly how he had gotten those rope burns. It had taken them almost twenty years to learn to enjoy one other around the ooloi-induced revulsion, making inventive use of the tough fibrous ropes they wove during their spare moments. Their Oankali mates flattened their tentacles when they saw the two of them leaving camp with this gear, but they no longer spoke against it. Occasionally they got a bit over-enthusiastic during these interludes, and had to endure a scolding from Nikanj. Tino caught her eye and cast a wry grin in her direction as he submitted to the inexpert ministrations of their child.
"If you mean Arash, yes. Relieved. Nikanj makes good ooloi children, but I always worry," she answered.
"Ah yes. I do as well. Tell me, what of Diyaal?" Ahajas tilted her chin in the direction of Arash's paired sibling.
"Diyaal." Lilith frowned. "It hasn't shown signs of metamorphosis yet. I've never seen a construct grown so old without showing something of what sex it will become."
"Nikanj is worried about it," Ahajas said through the link. "It believes Diyaal should choose so it can bond with another relative, or prepare to become ooloi."
"I will talk to it tomorrow," Lilith said, twining her fingers through the tiny, elastic tentacles on Ahajas's gravid stomach. She listened through her fingertips to the heart of the child within its mother, beating twice as fast as that of the one growing within her own body. She loved the moments spent with Ahajas like this, and no longer felt ashamed for it. As she waited for the heartbeats to align through their mothers' touch, she watched Diyaal.
Lilith squinted at the object of the child's interest. It was a tiny doll, ingeniously knotted from Lo fibers. What was truly unusual about it was that it didn't resemble anyone who lived in Lo, though something about its aspect nagged at Lilith.
Diyaal was an artist, Lilith realized. The artist. The thought came with a pang, though of regret or hope she wasn't sure.
It was the unlikeliest of children to have this gift. Oankali born, Diyaal didn't even have rudimentary Human organs of perception, though of course it could still reproduce exact impressions, loaded with visual and chemical information, of anything it had ever seen. But for an Oankali child to make a physical representation, an expression, of art, was so unheard of, so un-Oankali in philosophy, that Lilith felt the weight of dread settle over her.
Her heart hammering in her chest, she watched Diyaal until the child finished its handiwork and rose to leave. Lilith waited a moment before following it, ignoring the sweep of Nikanj's tentacles tracking her movement. She waited a moment for her eyes to adjust to the night, feeling the soft tropical rain wash over her, rinsing the sweat from her face and body.
She found Diyaal in the Waystation. It was squatting on the porch, its wet, dark skin reflecting in the patchy moonlight. It held four tiny dolls in its hands, its tentacles listlessly focused on them. It turned its head away from her in an uncannily human gesture as she approached, though its senses betrayed it. It could no more close its eyes and ears to her than it could fly.
It didn't move as she picked each doll up and examined it. They all appeared to be little Humans and constructs, dyed in shades of grey and brown and gold. It wasn't until she peered closely at the smallest of them that her confusion gave way to horror. It was brown, with a round smiling face and a tuft of black fiber for hair. Ayre. Her son, her baby, the one who had died long before they... She searched the features of the others, finding one for Joseph Shing, one for Topiht, the son whose unexpected death had caused Dichaan to retreat into solitary grief for a month before they managed to coax him back into harmony with the family. Her husband, Sam, dead. And Ayre.
"Tell me," Lilith whispered. Her voice was hoarse, and she restrained the urge to clear her throat. "Why did you make them."
The tension seemed to ebb out of its body, and it reached its arms out to her. She held its small body close to her, feeling the tiny pricks as it linked into her. It was frustrated and a little afraid, and she resisted the impulse to comfort it. It didn't say anything.
She had lived for over a century with Oankali mates; Lilith knew how to wait. She knelt there, on the dead wood of the porch, and waited. She dimly noticed when the rain let up and when it started again.
Finally it spoke, its voice carrying a tremor that shocked her with its anger. "I wanted to know them. All of them." Its tentacles knotted and unknotted themselves in complex patterns as the words came stumbling out. "I needed to know them, Lilith, and the ways Nikanj has to tell me about them didn't--couldn't--satisfy this need. I knew what, and a bit of why, they were as they were. But I'll never know who they are." It lifted its chin and set its square jaw stubbornly in a mannerism it had adopted--or inherited--from Tino. "They are my family, too. Ayre is my brother, even though I never knew him. Everything about me is wrong. I see things differently, not as an ooloi or a male or a female or even construct or an Oankali. I do all of these things, find and make these patterns, because I have to. I don't know what else, how else, to go forward in the world. I am unlike the people, Mother. I am too Human."
Lilith cupped its face in her hands. It flinched at the pressure, but did not pull away. She stared at her hands on its face, at the color of its tentacles only a few shades lighter than her own deep brown skin. It was her child, she realized, the one she had been waiting for. She felt the baby within her stir.
"Eka, sometimes it is not enough to recall your history. Sometimes you must know it. I think it's a great and terrible gift, this Human thing you are doing." She stared at it, her fear of its uncanny work shifting to fear for its art. She saw the future in her grotesque, alien, beloved, incredibly Human child, and felt the unfamiliar rustle of hope in her soul. Lilith dropped a kiss on its forehead, heedless of the sensitive patches of skin growing there, and threw back her head and laughed long and helplessly.
When she recovered, she rummaged in her pack and found a stub of charcoal, holding it out to Diyaal. "Now," she said, smiling at it and pointing to the sheltered, dry wall of the hut. "Show me the future you see for us."