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Out of Place

By Pamela Sargent

To understand the language of beasts! This is a dream that has persisted throughout the ages, from Aesop to Doctor Doolittle. If we could understand the speech of animals, though, would we necessarily like what they had to say?

Perhaps. Or perhaps not. . . .

Pamela Sargent has emerged as one of the foremost writer-editors of her generation. Her novels include the recent (and highly acclaimed) The Golden Space, as well as Cloned Lives, The Sudden Star, and Watchstar. Her anthologies include the acclaimed Women of Wonder, More Women of Wonder, The New Women of Wonder, and Bio-Futures. Her short fiction has been collected in Starshadows. Her most recent books are Earthseed and The Alien Upstairs, both novels.

"For something is amiss or out of place

When mice with wings can wear a human face."

—Theodore Roethke, "The Bat"

Marcia was washing the breakfast dishes when she first heard her cat thinking. "I'm thirsty, why doesn't she give me more water, there's dried food on the sides of my bowl." There was a pause. "I wonder how she catches the food. She can't stalk anything, she always scares the birds away. She never catches any when I'm nearby. Why does she put it into those squares and round things when she just has to take it out again? What is food, anyway? What is water?"

Very slowly, Marcia put down the cup she was washing, turned off the water, and faced the cat. Pearl, a slim Siamese, was sitting by her plastic bowls. She swatted the newspaper under them with one paw, then stretched out on her side. "I want to be combed, I want my stomach scratched. Why isn't he here? He always goes away. They should both be here, they're supposed to serve me." Pearl's mouth did not move, but Marcia knew the words were hers. For one thing, there was no one else in the house. For another, the disembodied voice had a feline whine to it, as if the words were almost, but not quite, meows.

Oh, God, Marcia thought, I'm going crazy. Still eyeing the cat, she crept to the back door and opened it. She inhaled some fresh air and felt better. A robin was pecking at the grass. "Earth, yield your treasures to me. I hunger, my young cry out for food." This voice had a musical lilt. Marcia leaned against the door frame.

"I create space." The next voice was deep and sluggish. "The universe parts before me. It is solid and dark and damp, it covers all, but I create space. I approach the infinite. Who has created it? A giant of massive dimensions must have moved through the world, leaving the infinite. It is before me now. The warmth—ah!"

The voice broke off. The robin had caught a worm.

Marcia slammed the door shut. Help, she thought, and then: I wonder what Dr. Leroy would say. A year of transactional analysis and weekly group-therapy sessions had assured her that she was only a mildly depressed neurotic; though she had never been able to scream and pound her pillow in front of others in her group and could not bring herself to call Dr. Leroy Bill, as his other clients did, the therapy had at least diminished the frequency of her migraines, and the psychiatrist had been pleased with her progress. Now she was sure that she was becoming psychotic; only psychotics heard voices. There was some satisfaction in knowing Dr. Leroy had been wrong.

Pearl had wandered away. Marcia struggled to stay calm. If I can hear her thoughts, she reasoned, can she hear mine? She shivered. "Pearl," she called out in a wavering voice. "Here, kitty. Nice Pearl." She walked into the hall and toward the stairs.

The cat was on the top step, crouching. Her tail twitched. Marcia concentrated, trying to transmit a message to Pearl. If you come to the kitchen right now, she thought, I'll give you a whole can of Super Supper.

The cat did not move.

If you don't come down immediately, Marcia went on, I won't feed you at all.

Pearl was still.

She doesn't hear me, Marcia thought, relieved. She was now beginning to feel a bit silly. She had imagined it all; she would have to ask Dr. Leroy what it meant.

"I could leap from here," Pearl thought, "and land on my feet. I could leap and sink my claws in flesh, but then I'd be punished." Marcia backed away.

The telephone rang. Marcia hurried to the kitchen to answer it, huddling against the wall as she clung to the receiver. "Hello."


"Hi, Paula."

"Marcia, I don't know what to do, you're going to think I'm crazy."

"Are you at work?"

"I called in sick. I think I'm having a nervous breakdown. I heard the Baron this morning, I mean I heard what he was thinking, 'They're stealing everything again, they're stealing it,' and then he said, 'But the other man will catch them and bring some of it back, and I'll bark at him and he'll be afraid even though I'm only being friendly.' I finally figured it out. He thinks the garbage men are thieves and the mailman catches them later."

"Does he think in German?"


"German shepherds should know German, shouldn't they?" Marcia laughed nervously. "I'm sorry, Paula. I heard Pearl, too. I also overheard a bird and a worm."

"I was afraid the Baron could hear my thoughts, too. But he doesn't seem to." Paula paused. "Jesus. The Baron just came in. He thinks my perfume ruins my smell. His idea of a good time is sniffing around to see which dogs pissed on his favorite telephone poles. What are we going to do?"

"I don't know." Marcia looked down. Pearl was rubbing against her legs. "Why doesn't she comb me," the cat thought. "Why doesn't she pay attention to me? She's always talking to that thing. I'm much prettier."

Marcia said, "I'll call you back later."

Doug was sitting at the kitchen table when Marcia came up from the laundry room.

"You're home early."

Doug looked up, frowning under his beard. "Jimmy Barzini brought his hamster to Show and Tell, and the damn thing started to talk. We all heard it. That was the end of any order in the classroom. The kids started crowding around and asking it questions, but it just kept babbling, as if it couldn't understand them. Its mouth wasn't moving, though. I thought at first that Jimmy was throwing his voice, but he wasn't. Then I figured out that we must be hearing the hamster's thoughts somehow, and then Mrs. Price came in and told me the white rats in her class's science project were talking, too, and after that Tallman got on the P.A. system and said school would close early."

"Then I'm not crazy," Marcia said. "Or else we all are. I heard Pearl. Then Paula called up and said Baron von Ribbentrop was doing it."

They were both silent for a few moments. Then Marcia asked, "What did it say? The hamster, I mean."

"It said, 'I want to get out of this cage.' "

Did cats owned by Russians speak Russian? Marcia had wondered. Did dogs in France transmit in French? Either animals were multilingual or one heard their thoughts in one's native tongue; she had gathered this much from the news.

Press coverage and television news programs were now given over almost entirely to this phenomenon. Did it mean that animals had in fact become intelligent, or were people simply hearing, for the first time, the thoughts that had always been there? Or was the world in the midst of a mass psychosis?

It was now almost impossible to take a walk without hearing birds and other people's pets expressing themselves at length. Marcia had discovered that the cocker spaniel down the street thought she had a nice body odor, while Mr. Sampson's poodle next door longed to take a nip out of her leg. Cries of "Invader approaching!" had kept her from stepping on an anthill. She was afraid to spend time in her yard since listening to a small snake: "I slither. The sun is warm. I coil. I strike. Strike or be struck. That is the way of it. My fangs are ready."

Marcia found herself hiding from this cacophony by staying indoors, listening instead to the babble on the radio and television as animal behaviorists, zoo officials, dog breeders, farmers, psychiatrists, and a few cranks offered their views. A Presidential commission was to study the matter, an advisor to the President had spoken of training migratory birds as observers to assure arms control. Marcia had heard many theories. People were picking up the thoughts of animals and somehow translating them into terms they could understand. They were picking up their own thoughts and projecting them onto the nearest creatures. The animals' thoughts were a manifestation of humankind's guilt over having treated other living, sentient beings as slaves and objects. They were all racists—or "speciesists," as one philosopher had put it on "Good Morning, America"; the word had gained wide currency.

Marcia had begun to follow Pearl around the house, hoping for some insight into the cat's character; it had occurred to her that understanding a cat's point of view might yield some wisdom. Pearl, however, had disappointed her. The cat's mind was almost purely associative; she thought of food, of being scratched behind the ears, of sex, of sharpening her claws on the furniture. "I want to stalk those birds in the yard," she would think. "I like to feel the grass on my paws but it tickles my nose, when I scratched that dog next door on the nose, he yipped, I hate him, why did my people scream at me when I caught a mouse and put it on their pillow for them, I'm thirsty, why don't they ever give me any tuna fish instead of keeping it all to themselves?" Pearl reminded Marcia, more than anything, of her mother-in-law, whose conversations were a weakly linked chain.

Yet she supposed she still loved the cat, in spite of it. In the evening, Pearl would hop on her lap as she watched television with Doug, and Marcia would stroke her fur, and Pearl would say, "That feels good," and begin to purr. At night, before going to bed, Marcia had always closed the bedroom door, feeling that sex should be private, even from cats. Now she was glad she had done so. She was not sure she wanted to know what Pearl would have had to say about that subject.

The President had gone on television to urge the nation to return to its daily tasks, and Doug's school had reopened. Marcia, alone again for the day, vacuumed the living room while thinking guiltily that she had to start looking for another job. The months at home had made her lazy; she had too easily settled into a homemaker's routine and wondered if this meant she was unintelligent. Persisting in her dull-wittedness, she decided to do some grocery shopping instead of making a trip to the employment agency.

Doug had taken the bus to work, leaving her the car. She felt foolish as she drove down the street. Anton's Market was only a block away and she could have taken her shopping cart, but she could not face the neighborhood's animals. It was all too evident that Mr. Sampson's poodle and a mixed-breed down the road bore her ill will because she was Pearl's owner. She had heard a report from India on the morning news. Few people there were disturbed by recent events, since audible animal contemplation had only confirmed what many had already believed; that animals had souls. Several people there had in fact identified certain creatures as dead relatives or ancestors.

As she parked behind Anton's Market and got out of the car, she noticed a collie pawing at Mr. Anton's garbage cans. "Bones," the dog was thinking. "I know there are bones in there. I want to gnaw on one. What a wonderful day! I smell a bitch close by." The collie barked. "Why do they make it so hard for me to get the bones?" The dog's mood was growing darker. It turned toward Marcia's car. "I hate them, I hate those shiny rolling carapaces, I saw it, one rolled and growled as it went down the street and it didn't even see her, she barked and whined and then she died, and the thing's side opened and a man got out, and the thing just sat there on its wheels and purred. I hate them." The dog barked again.

When Marcia entered the store, she saw Mr. Anton behind the cash register. "Where's Jeannie?" she asked.

Mr. Anton usually seemed cheerful, as if three decades of waiting on his customers had set his round face in a perpetual smile. But today his brown eyes stared at her morosely. "I had to let her go, Mrs. Bochner," he replied. "I had to let the other butchers go, too. Thirty years, and I don't know how long I can keep going. My supplier won't be able to get me any more meat. There's a run on it now in the big cities, but after that—" He shrugged. "May I help you?" he went on, and smiled, as if old habits were reasserting themselves.

Marcia, peering down the aisle of canned goods, noticed that the meat counter was almost empty. Another customer, a big-shouldered, gray-haired man, wandered over with a six-pack of beer. "I don't know what things are coming to," the man said as he fumbled for his wallet. "I was out in the country with my buddy last weekend. You can't hardly sleep with all the noise. I heard one of them coyotes out there. You know what it said? It said, 'I must beware the two-legged stalker.' And you know who it meant. Then it howled."

"You should have seen '60 Minutes,' " Mr. Anton said. "They did a story about the tuna fishermen, and how they're going out of business. They showed one of the last runs. They shouldn't have stuff like that on when kids are watching. My grandson was crying all night." He draped an arm over the register. "A guy has a farm," he said. "How does he know it's actually a concentration camp? All the cows are bitching, that's what they say. You can't go into a barn now without hearing their complaints." He sighed. "At least we can still get milk—the cows can't wander around with swollen udders. But what the hell happens later? They want bigger stalls, they want better feed, they want more pasture. What if they want to keep all the milk for their calves?"

"I don't know," Marcia said, at a loss.

"The government should do something," the gray-haired man uttered.

"The chickens. They're all crazy from being crowded. It's like a nuthouse, a chicken farm. The pigs—they're the worst, because they're the smartest. You know what I feel like? I feel like a murderer—I've got blood on my hands. I feel like a cannibal."

Marcia had left the house with thoughts of hamburgers and slices of baked Virginia ham. Now she had lost her appetite. "What are you going to do?"

"I don't know," Mr. Anton replied. "I'm trying to get into legumes, vegetables, fresh produce, but that puts me in competition with John Ramey's fruit and vegetable market. I'm going to have to get a vegetarian advisor, so I'll know what to stock. There's this vegetarian college kid down the street from me. She's thinking of setting up a consulting firm."

"Well," Marcia said, looking down at the floor.

"I can give you some potato salad, my wife made it up fresh. At least potatoes don't talk. Not yet."

Doug nibbled at his dinner of bean curd and vegetables. "Have you noticed? People are getting thinner."

"Not everybody. Some people are eating more starch."

"I guess so," Doug said. "Still, it's probably better for us in the long run. We'll live longer. I know I feel better."

"I suppose. I don't know what we're going to do when Pearl's cat food runs out." Marcia lowered her voice when she spoke of Pearl. After supper, they watched the evening news. Normality, of a sort, had returned to the network broadcast; the first part of the program consisted of the usual assortment of international crises, Congressional hearings, and press conferences. Halfway through the broadcast, it was announced that the President's Labrador retriever had died; the Washington Post was claiming that the Secret Service had disposed of the dog as a security risk.

"My God," Marcia said.

There was more animal news toward the end of the program. Family therapists in California were asking their clients to bring their pets to sessions. Animal shelters all over the country were crowded with dogs and cats that workers refused to put to sleep. Medical researchers were abandoning animal studies and turning to computer models. Race tracks were closing because too many horseplayers were getting inside information from the horses. There were rumors in Moscow that the Kremlin had been secretly and extensively fumigated, and that there were thousands of dead mice in the city's sewers. There was a story about a man named MacDonald, whose column, "MacDonald's Farm," was made up of sayings and aphorisms he picked up from his barnyard animals. His column had been syndicated and was being published in several major newspapers, putting him in direct competition with Farmer Bob, a "Today" show commentator who also had a column. Marcia suspected editorial tampering on the part of both men, since MacDonald's animals sounded like Will Rogers, while Farmer Bob's reminded her of Oscar Wilde.

Pearl entered the room as the news was ending and began to claw at the rug. "I saw an interesting cat on Phil Donahue this morning," Marcia said. "A Persian. Kind of a philosopher. His owner said that he has a theory of life after death and thinks cats live on in a parallel world. The cat thinks that all those strange sounds you sometimes hear in the night are actually the spirits of cats. What's interesting is that he doesn't think birds or mice have souls."

"Why don't you look for a job instead of watching the tube all day?"

"I don't watch it all day. I have to spend a lot of time on meals, you know. Vegetarian cooking is very time-consuming when you're not used to it."

"That's no excuse. You know I'll do my share when you're working."

"I'm afraid to leave Pearl alone all day."

"That never bothered you before."

"I never heard what she was thinking before."

Pearl was stretching, front legs straight out, back arched. "I want to sleep on the bed tonight," the cat was thinking. "Why can't I sleep on it at night, I sleep there during the day. They keep it all to themselves. They let that woman with the red fur on her head sleep there at night, but not me."

Doug sucked in his breath. Marcia sat up. "He pushed her on it," the cat went on, "and they shed their outer skins, and he rolled around and rubbed her, but when I jumped up on the bed, he shooed me away."

Marcia said, "You bastard." Doug was pulling at his beard. "When did this happen?" He did not answer. "It must have been when I was visiting my sister, wasn't it? You son of a bitch." She got to her feet, feeling as though someone had punched her in the stomach. "Red fur on her head. It must have been Emma. I always thought she was after you. Jesus Christ, you couldn't even go to a motel."

"I went out with some friends for a few beers," Doug said in a low voice. "She drove me home. I didn't expect anything to happen. It didn't mean anything. I would have told you if I thought it was important, but it wasn't, so why bother you with it? I don't even like Emma that much." He was silent for a moment. "You haven't exactly been showing a lot of interest in sex, you know. And ever since you stopped working, you don't seem to care about anything. At least Emma talks about something besides housework and gossip and Phil Donahue."

"You didn't even close the door," Marcia said, making fists of her hands. "You didn't even think of Pearl."

"For God's sake, Marcia, do you think normal people care if a cat sees them?"

"They do now."

"I'm thirsty," Pearl said. "I want some food. Why doesn't anybody clean my box? It stinks all the time. I wish I could piss where I like."

Doug said, "I'm going to kill that cat." He started to lunge across the room.

"No, you're not." Marcia stepped in front of him, blocking his way. Pearl scurried off.

"Let me by."


She struggled with him. He knocked her aside and she screamed, swung at him, and began to cry. They both sat down on the floor. Marcia cursed at him between sobs while he kept saying he was sorry. The television set blared at them until Doug turned it off and got out some wine. They drank for a while and Marcia thought of throwing him out, then remembered that she didn't have a job and would be alone with Pearl.

Doug went to bed early, exhausted by his apologizing. Marcia glared at the sofa resentfully; it was Doug who should sleep there, not she.

Before she went to sleep, she called Pearl. The cat crept up from the cellar while Marcia took out some cat food. "Your favorite," she whispered to the cat. "Chicken livers. Your reward. Good kitty."

Marcia had heard a sharp crack early that morning. The poodle next door was dead, lying in the road. When Mr. Sampson found out, he strode across the street and started shouting at Mr. Homig's door.

"Come out, you murderer," he hollered. "You come out here and tell me why you shot my dog. You bastard, get out here!"

Marcia stood in her front yard, watching; Doug was staring out the bay window at the scene. The Novaks' cocker spaniel sat on the edge of Marcia's lawn. "I smell death," the spaniel thought. "I smell rage. What is the matter? We are the friends of man, but must we die to prove our loyalty? We are not friends, we are slaves. We die licking our masters' hands."

Mr. Hornig opened his door; he was holding a rifle. "Get the hell off my lawn, Sampson."

"You shot my dog." Mr. Sampson was still wearing his pajamas; his bald pate gleamed in the sun. "I want to know why. I want an answer right now before I call the cops."

Mr. Hornig walked out on his porch and down the steps; Mrs. Hornig came to the door, gasped, and went after her husband, wresting the weapon from him. He pulled away from her and moved toward Mr. Sampson.

"Why?" Mr. Sampson cried. "Why did you do it?"

"I'll tell you why. I can live with your damn dog yapping all the time, even though I hate yappy dogs. I don't even care about him leaving turds all over my yard and running around loose. But I won't put up with his spying and his goddamn insults. That dog of yours has a dirty mind."

"Had," Mr. Sampson shouted. "He's dead now. You killed him and left him in the street."

"He insulted my wife. He was laughing at her tits. He was right outside our bedroom window, and he was making fun of her tits." Mrs. Hornig retreated with the rifle. "He says we stink. That's what he said. He said we smell like something that's been lying outside too long. I take a shower every day, and he says I stink. And he said some other things I won't repeat."

Mr. Sampson leaned forward. "You fool. He didn't understand. How the hell could he help what he thought? You didn't have to listen."

"I'll bet I know where he got his ideas. He wouldn't have thought them up all by himself. I shot him and I'm glad. What do you think of that, Sampson?"

Mr. Sampson answered with his fist. Soon the two pudgy men were rolling in the grass, trading punches. A few neighborhood children gathered to watch the display. A police car appeared; Marcia looked on as the officers pulled the two men away from each other.

"My God," Marcia said as she went inside. "The police came," she said to Doug, who was now stretched out on the sofa with the Sunday New York Times. She heard Pearl in the next room, scratching at the dining room table. "Good and sharp," Pearl was saying. "I have them good and sharp. My claws are so pretty. I'm shedding. Why doesn't somebody comb me?"

"I've let you down," Doug said suddenly. Marcia tensed. "I don't mean just with Emma, I mean generally." They had not spoken of that incident since the night of Pearl's revelation.

"No, you haven't," Marcia said.

"I have. Maybe we should have had a kid. I don't know."

"You know I don't want kids now. Anyway, we can't afford it yet."

"That isn't the only reason," Doug said, staring at the dining room entrance, where Pearl now sat, licking a paw, silent for once. "You know how possessive Siamese cats are. If we had a kid, Pearl would hate it. The kid would have to listen to mean remarks all day. He'd probably be neurotic."

Pearl gazed at them calmly. Her eyes seemed to glow.

"Maybe we should get rid of her," Doug went on.

"Oh, no. You're just mad at her still. Anyway, she loves you."

"No, she doesn't. She doesn't love anyone."

"Pet me," Pearl said. "Somebody better scratch me behind the ears, and do it nicely."

"We have chickens today," Mr. Anton said as Marcia entered the store. "I'll be getting beef in next week." He leaned against the counter, glancing at the clock on the wall; it was almost closing time. "Jeannie's coming back on Tuesday. Things'll be normal again."

"I suppose," Marcia said. "You'll probably be seeing me on Saturdays from now on. I finally found a job. Nothing special, just office work." She paused. "Doesn't it make you feel funny?" She waved a hand at the chickens.

"It did at first. But you have to look at it this way. First of all, chickens are stupid. I guess nobody really knew how stupid until they could hear them thinking. And cows—well, it's like my supplier said. No one's going to hurt some nice animal, but a lot of them don't have nice things to say about people, and some of them sound like real troublemakers. You know who's going to get the axe, so to speak. It's a good thing they don't know we can hear them." Mr. Anton lowered his voice. "And the pigs. Think they're better than we are, that's what they say. Sitting around in a pen all day, and thinking they're better. They'll be sorry."

As Marcia walked home with her chicken and eggs, the street seemed quieter that evening. The birds still babbled: "My eggs are warm." "The wind lifts me, and carries me to my love." "The wires hum under my feet." "I am strong, my nest is sound, I want a mate." A squirrel darted up a tree. "Tuck them away, tuck them away. I have many acorns in my secret place. Save, save, save. I am prepared."

She did not hear the neighborhood pets. Some were inside; others were all too evident. She passed the bodies of two gray cats, then detoured around a dead mutt. Her eyes stung. We've always killed animals, she thought. Why should this be different?

Louise Novak was standing by her dead cocker spaniel, crying. "Louise?" Marcia said as she approached the child. Louise looked up, sniffing. Marcia gazed at the spaniel, remembering that the dog had liked her.

"Dad killed her," the girl said. "Mrs. Jones overheard her and told everybody Dad hits Mom. Dad said she liked Mom and me best, he heard her think it. He said she hated him and chewed his slippers on purpose and she wanted to tear out his throat because he's mean. I wish she had. I hate him. I hope he dies."

When Marcia reached her own house, she saw the car in the driveway; Doug was home. She heard him moving around upstairs as she unpacked her groceries and put them away. Pearl came into the kitchen and meowed, then scampered to the door, still meowing. "I want to go outside. Why doesn't she let me out? I want to stalk birds, I want to play."

Pearl was so unaware, so insistent, so perfect in her otherness. You'd better be careful, Marcia thought violently. You'd better keep your mind quiet when our friends are here if you know what's good for you, or you'll stay in the cellar. And you'd better watch what you think about me. Appalled, she suddenly realized that under the right circumstances, she could dash the cat's brains out against the wall.

"I want to go outside."

"Pearl," Marcia said, leaning over the cat. "Pearl, listen to me. Try to understand. I know you can't, but try anyway. You can't go outside, it's dangerous. You have to stay here. You have to stay inside for your own good. I know what's best. You have to stay inside from now on."

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