I followed Rystala inside the dwelling. I had never been inside a human home before. It was a new and interesting experience. I had no way of knowing whether or not Rystala kept a typical home. I knew, from the view of the dwelling I had taken in while we approached, that it was larger, overall, than the first space into which she invited me. There was a wall at the opposite end with two doors set into it, which I assumed led to another space within the house.
This space had a floor covered in mats woven of flexible, woody material, which I could not identify at first but which I later learned was made from strips of wood from a particular fast-growing tree. Curtains dimmed the light flowing in through the windows, but did not diminish it entirely. A round table dominated one portion of the space. The top of that table, and the seats of the chairs that surrounded it, were made of that same woven wood. A small black stove sat up against the wall, with a metal pipe leading outside to vent its smoke and heat.
These were not the details which intrigued me the most, however. From the ceiling hug a great variety of plants, suspended upside-down by their stems. All were either dried or in the process of drying. Against the wall opposite the stove was a hutch filled with labelled jars, which were in turn filled with the flakes of crushed and ground plants and other materials.
Rystala gestured to the chairs, intending me to sit. It is painful to look back through the lens of memory and recognize my own inadequacies. Reflecting on the things I did not know and understand is embarrassing, now that I understand both how to use a chair and how to feel embarrassed.
You see, I had never seen chairs before, or a table. I had certainly never seen them in use. I moved toward the chair hesitantly, knowing that Rystala wanted me to do something with it but unsure as to what that might be.
Rystala had continued on her path toward the hutch, from which she took two jars. When she turned around to see me standing next to the table, she raised an eyebrow. “You may sit.”
Sit. I knew that word, from my lessons with Telan. I had seen him do it before, though he had no chair, only the floor of the forest or, occasionally, a rock. I pictured Telan sitting on a rock and attempted to imitate the motions he took to get there and the position in which he ended up. The results were clumsy. I nearly knocked over the chair.
Rystala, of course, was watching me the entire time. “Have you been struggling with coordination as well as memory loss?
I had only one viable answer. “Yes.”
“I see.” She looked down at the jars of herbs in her hand and shook her head. She turned back to the hutch. From a drawer, she produced a spoon and a small metal cage. She scooped a bit from each of the jars into the cage, then brought down a third jar, from which she added another scoop.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m making you some tea,” she said, as though I should know what that meant. “It probably won’t do much for you, if anything, but there’s not really much to be done for head injuries. You just have to hope they get better on their own.”
“Head injuries?” I said. “My head is not injured.”
“Your condition would say otherwise,” she explained. “Memory loss and a loss of coordination are both symptoms of brain injury.”
“Oh,” I said simply. I decided to amend my narrative. “Maybe I just don’t remember hurting my head.”
Rystala moved to the stove. From the shelf behind it, she retrieved an iron kettle, into which she placed the metal tea infuser. She filled the kettle with water from a bucket next to the stove, then placed it on the stovetop. Sheltering the flesh of her hand with a potholder — another mysterious item, the name of which I would learn later — she opened the front of the stove, revealing the embers of a dying fire. She closed it, apparently satisfied.
I leaned over in my chair, watching the entire process with interest. I knew, from Telan, that humans heated much of their food before eating it, though I had never seen the process. So much of human life was a true mystery to me. A good deal of it remains as such even now.
With that done, she turned to me, one hand cocked upon a hip. “What drew you here?”
“Cela led me to your house,” I said
“That’s not what I mean,” she sighed. She approached the table and, with much more grace than me, takes a seat in a chair opposite mine. “I suppose you don’t know the answer anyway.”
“I’m not even sure of your question,” I said honestly.
“That’s fine,” she said. “I’m not really sure what Cela expected me to do for you. I suppose I should have a look at your head.”
“What?” I asked, though I understood her turn of phrase. I didn’t want her to look at me too closely, lest she discover that I was not human.
“If you’ve had a head injury, I should look you over,” she repeated. She stood. “Could you remove your mask and hood?”
“I do not want you to look at my head,” I said.
Her eyes narrowed. “Why not?”
I didn’t have an answer, of course; or at least, I didn’t have one that would keep the truth of my identity a secret. I realized I was taking to long to respond, so I simply said, “I don’t know.” It had worked for my previous answers, so I hoped it would work for this one.
Rystala leaned on the table with one hand. “Okay. Maybe it’s a cultural thing that you’re not clear on right now. Maybe your head injury made you forget it. I don’t know.” She pointed at me with her free hand. “What I do know is that, if you’ve got some sort of wound beneath your head covering, it needs to be treated, whether it makes you uncomfortable or not.”
I thought about my options. The outer layer of my simulacrum matched human skin in texture and give. It was also very close to being the appropriate color, at least when compared to some of the humans I had encountered. It seemed there was a wide variation among human skin tones depending on factors which I had not yet come to fully understand.
Either I continued to refuse, I showed her my head, or I killed her and avoided dealing with the problem. For a moment, all three options seemed equally valid. Then I decided to test the extent of my disguise. If she was trained in looking at and helping humans who were injured, fooling her with my disguise would mean I could deceive any human.
“Alright,” I said. “You may check my head for wounds.”
I reached up to remove my mask and hood. Rystala approached me, gesturing for me to remain seated. In the chair, my head was at a good level for her to look down on me from above.
The first thing she said had nothing to do with either my supposed injury or, I thought, whether I passed as human. “You have no hair.”
“I do not,” I said.
Hair seemed very difficult to fake, and transferring each individual hair from a corpse I had otherwise consumed seemed tedious and unnecessary. I had encountered humans on both ends of the spectrum of hairiness, having consumed humans covered in a great deal of hair, and humans with little hair anywhere save their heads. I knew that older males sometimes had more hair on their bodies than on their heads.
“Have you always been that way, or did your hair fall out?” She reached out to touch my head with one of her hands. I flinched at the contact. I had to constrain centuries worth of impulses and ingrained responses to prevent myself from trying to absorb her hand into myself.
I could taste the salt of her skin. I absorbed a few flakes of it that fell off on their own, tired and used up from their time spent protecting her hands from the world. They were so miniscule she would never even know she had shed them.
“I have never had hair,” I said. “That, I remember.”
“Interesting,” she said.
Her hand remained in contact with my head as she examined it. I wondered what she saw. I knew, in some respects: I had observed my simulacrum from the outside before, with the aid of my extra sets of eyes, but that vision of how I appeared was tainted by my own perspective and my own set of experiences. I realized that she had come from a totally different life, and that as a result, she might see something I had missed.
“I don’t see any injuries,” she said. “I don’t see much at all, really. No cuts or bruises. No marks or freckles or anything. You have very even skin.”
“Is that a bad thing?” I asked.
The kettle on the stove began to whistle, drawing my attention, and Rystala’s as well. She left me to go attend to it. “No,” she said. “It’s just interesting.”
“Okay,” I answered, unsure of what else to say.
Rystala brought the tea to the table, where she set it on a small wooden block. She then brought me a ceramic cup from one of her cupboards, then sat down across from me, watching me. I did not know what to do.
She remained that way for what felt, by what I guessed to be human standards, like a long time. We did not speak because she did not say anything, and I didn’t know what I might say that wouldn’t reveal me as someone who didn’t know what to say. I suppose, now, that the silence was probably worse than anything I might have said.
Rystala, after a time, took the lid from the tea kettle and removed the tea leaves. “Pour yourself some tea,” she said. “Drink the pot. It will not taste good, but we can hope it helps you.”
Rystala stood. “When you are done, come outside and find me. I have work to do in my garden while I try to figure out what to do with you.”
She left me alone in her house with the tea in front of me. I drank it slowly, both because I wanted to give myself time to consider what I might say to her, and because I did not appreciate the heat. My species have an aversion to heat, and especially to flame. The tea was not hot enough to harm me, but I nevertheless found it unpleasant.
At least she had not seen me for what I was. In that respect, the tea was comforting.