Sir Reginald F. Grump XXIII presents...
The journal of unlikely entomology
When Andrea brought her new wife to the pod, the family welcomed her, of course, quite properly. And then, not intentionally, ignored her. They had issues of their own: the main huswife, their pod's Second, was leaving, taking a significant amount of the household income, and one of the more minor husbands needed significant surgery, and then they had all of the other individual and family issues that a pod might have.
Andrea had hoped that her new wife, with her exotic looks, and the brilliant green tattoos gleaming against her dark skin, might prove a distraction, at least, but Vani merely smiled, and did not contribute much to the family conversation. They moved her into a room next to Andrea's, with a deep bay window overlooking the dark streets below, and Andrea helped her hang screens and music and hangings and plants.
After that, she touched Andrea's hands respectfully, and closed the door.
They had met at an art gallery, where Vani had been displaying her three dimensional light and music sculptures, images that had mesmerized Andrea's first wife. Holly had insisted that Andrea and she spend their contracted nights together at the art gallery, watching the sculptures, sometimes hand in hand, in deference to the old art traditions. In those old sculptures and paintings, Andrea's first wife half lectured, half laughed, people touched. Andrea felt comforted, somehow, although she could not have explained why, and ended up holding Holly's hand for even longer than might have been necessary. And so they were touching when they met Vani, who was circulating among the sculptures, her head half tilted, as if to catch any flaws in the music.
It had been a polite meeting, nothing more, and Andrea was surprised when Vani had requested her ID, still more surprised when texts had come a few days later, inviting her for lunch. A friendship formed, and Andrea found herself proposing marriage. She explained the relative newness, but stability of the pod; outlined their current eight members; stressed that they were licensed for a full sixteen, but had chosen to grow slowly, yet. They had rooms, many of them; three of their members were musicians; five of them loved cooking; the pod's house overlooked an ocean, and stood on land ringed by steady trees.
Vani had listened, tilted her head, and agreed. She had ties to other pods, of course, but they were merely sexual and social, no more. She and Andrea had touched hands, their fingers lightly stroking each other. And then — Andrea was to remember this later — Vani did not move on, as expected, to contracts. Rather she smiled and leaned forward.
"You never considered going podless, did you?"
Andrea felt her mouth go slightly dry. "Podless? Well— no. Well. Perhaps, when I was much younger. In my schooling days." She had thought about it then, of course, or more precisely, dreaded it: what would it be like to be found undesirable, unproductive, alone? It had been a relief to meet her wife, and later her husband, to be politely welcomed into the pod, without ceremony.
"I've slept alone, of course," she added, defensively, and then wondered what she was defending against. "I still sleep alone," she added, and it was true: even with a wife and a husband she was sometimes left alone in her own bed. She claimed to others that she cherished these moments, which let her read and dream, but the truth was she hated it; she missed the warmth of another person. It was not entirely why she had proposed to Vani, of course — a fruitless line of thought. She would stop thinking it. She did.
Vani smiled at her, and stroked her fingers again. "Podless people don't have to sleep alone."
"No, but—" How to explain it? "Children," she managed, and then shuddered inwardly; Vani would begin to think her an incoherent idiot. But Vani smiled again. "Of course," she said.
But Andrea did not feel any true "of course" about it. "But it's more— it's more—" She was turning into an incoherent idiot. She would have to watch her diet. "I like knowing I have family."
Not her imagination: Vani's smile was genuinely warm this time, almost relieved. "Naturally," and this time it really was.
"So," Andrea said, "you will then?"
A buzz came through: her first wife, Holly, requesting company. Andrea looked up at Vani questionably.
"I would be honored to enter your pod," Vani said, and then she had formally, carefully, bent to kiss Andrea on the lips.
They had married a week later, outside of the pod, as customary, since Vani was marrying only Andrea, not any of the others, the arrangements made by Holly, who was as efficient in this as she was in all other things. Holly's other wife, learning that Vani was an award-winning artist, had insisted on vacating her room for Vani's use, correctly stating that it was one of few in the house that could double as an artist's studio. All efficient, all correct. Andrea found herself remembering her second marriage, the way Holly had stood beside her as she had signed with her husband, the way they had written the contract to provide for some triad nights for all of them. This was different. Vani had requested, and Andrea had agreed, that the marriage take place by the ocean, on the sand: it added a touch of artistry, Andrea thought, of freedom, although she rather missed the flowers her first wife had given her.
They had spent the first night of the marriage together, alone, in one of the shoreline hotels — Vani had said that hearkened back to even older customs — and then they had entered the pod. Andrea saw Vani, as contracted, at least every four days, occasionally switching times to accommodate her other spouses, who were contracted on different periods. Sometimes they also met at the pod meals, when the family, under the direction of their Pod's First, made some attempt to gather and join in general conversation. It was not contracted, admittedly, but Andrea loved these meals, the flow of conversation, of laughter, of careful adult conversation. The pod had no children, although nearly half of them were genetically qualified; they had bonded too recently and lacked the financial resources, but those would come. In the meantime, they had this, and that was enough.
Vani did not spend every night at the pod, of course — she continued her ties with other pods, and even, Andrea suspected, a few podless companions. She was careful not to enquire closely; successful marriages required trust, and Vani had unhesitatingly tied a quarter of her revenue to Andrea's pod, smiling as she did so.
On those nights, and on the non-contracted nights, Andrea often devoted herself to the pod. And the pod had much to distract them: the financial ramifications of the huswife leaving, and the surgery, and a few job and career changes; house repairs to make, and computers to fix; the lawn and garden to tend, cooking, cleaning, screens to watch. This and her own job kept her busy, very busy, and when she found herself sleeping alone, she found herself falling asleep almost immediately, worn out yet oddly fulfilled.
But marriages needed more than contracted time. She headed over to the room they had given Vani, a room large enough to serve as a bedroom and an art studio. She knocked; as a spouse, she had the right of automatic entrance, of course, but she had never been able to bring herself to use that, even with Holly after fifteen years of marriage. Vani's silver voice floated through the door, welcoming. She stepped in.
Vani's room bewildered her: not for the first time, she felt thankful that her pod kept to the sometimes controversial and frequently impractical custom of giving each pod member a separate room. Vani had placed a narrow bed in one corner — she usually came to Andrea's room on their contracted nights — and above that placed layers of dazzling light sculptures, which endlessly shifted throughout the day and night. She kept her art tools by the large bay window that radiated light each morning.
Each remaining wall had been jammed full of shelves, in their turn jammed full of various intriguing and odd objects, some new, most very old indeed. Andrea could not identify half of them; they were the sorts of things that fascinated Holly more than she. Still, as always, her breath caught, seeing the fiery beauty and perfection of Vani's light sculptures. She had one in her own room, a marriage gift from Vani, but she never grew tired of them.
Yet every once in a while Vani would turn from her light sculptures, her music, to a much older form of art: pure painting, using the antique materials, the almost forgotten paints. The rest of the pod was slightly hesitant about this. In part, because the paints did smell, however faintly, and some of them were sensitive. But they could have accommodated the smell. The larger concern was that no one, except the rare museum, wanted pure painting anymore, or anything earlier than 2080 or so. That was the date, Holly said, that marked the true death of the artform. Vani was using her paints now, standing in brilliant blue robes near the window, brush outstretched. Andrea approached and touched Vani's fingers lightly. "I do not interrupt?"
"Oh, not at all." Her smile was kindly. "This portion does not need the same concentration."
Andrea peered over Vani's shoulder. She did not recognize the image — some mess of greens, apparently meant to be leaves, dotted with what seemed to be a swath of redness, which upon a closer look, seemed to be small, winged creatures.
"What are you painting?"
"Mosquitoes," Andrea said, letting the word fill her mouth. It was vaguely familiar to her, from some distant class or other, perhaps.
"Small, annoying insects that once covered the planet in vast numbers — the billions and billions, probably. They bit people, leaving welts and itching, and sometimes spread disease."
Andrea thought she remembered now. "A legend."
"No," Vani said. "Quite, quite real. We have dead ones enough, in the museums, and many fossils. And old images, if you care to see."
"No," Andrea said. She was an architect, an engineer: she did not care about insects. But Vani did. "What happened to them?"
"They died, went extinct, I suppose you would say. About 150 years ago."
"Radiation?" Andrea said, uncertainly. "The global warming events? Volcanic dust? Solar flares?"
"Nothing so simple," said Vani, dipping her brush into the well of paint, then holding it thoughtfully over the canvas. "Humans."
A long forgotten word returned to Andrea's memory. "Pesticides," she said.
"Not really," Vani said. "Although yes, in a way." She placed the brush on her the canvas, then back into one of the paints, working slowly, methodically, almost as if Andrea was not there at all. "Pheromone re-engineering. The pesticides, as you know, were dangerous. To humans and mosquitoes."
They had said so, in school, Andrea remembered.
"So we rebuilt the pheromones. The molecules that mosquitoes used to find each other, to find mates. And from there, to reproduce. Halt reproduction, we said, and we would end the mosquito problem."
"Oh, this one was not done hastily," Vani said. "They had no true ecological niche, these mosquitoes, and they spread disease everywhere. No, they were not needed. So we tinkered, and rebuilt, and sprayed the new pheromones into the air, and the mosquitoes were confused, and one by one, billions upon billions, they failed to find new mates, and so they died."
The painting glittered before Andrea. She did not like it. She preferred Vani's other work, the work that was always in motion, always surrounded by music. The music that was more Vani. "And?" she said.
"Very little and happens after death," Vani said, and she reached forward to pull the — screen? no, canvas was the word. Andrea felt a certain pride — or smugness — for remembering that. "But they say, after that, that humans stopped loving. Or rather, stopped falling in love."
Andrea laughed. "How funny."
"Yes," said Vani, although she did not laugh. "Whatever dies, was not mixed equally/If our two loves be one, or thou and I/Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die."
Andrea was confused. "I do not understand." She was an engineer, not a poet; she liked straight lines and balance, things of beauty and grace, not the chaos of words.
Vani smiled. "Nor do I. Perhaps, with mosquitoes, I used to." She glanced at Andrea, took pity on her confused face. "A bit of a poem, by a man named John Donne. Sixteenth century."
"Ah," said Andrea. She admired the exquisite lines of old buildings, the gardens that often enveloped them, but she had little use for its poetry. "Is this—" and she waved her hand towards the painting — "because you miss mosquitoes?"
Vani laughed. "Not at all," she said. "I hate it when my skin itches."
Andrea had dinner the next night with her husband, an astronomer and mathematician. A bit of dreamer, to be truthful, less practical than the other members of the pod. It was something she enjoyed about him. They ate, and he discussed his research, the intricacies of rock systems on the other side of the galaxy, the interplay of cosmic waves and time, the communication of light. They touched hands. They selected music, in careful turns.
"Have you ever read poetry?" she asked.
"Some, I think. Back in school." He chewed, thought. "Shakespeare, I think," he said. "A few others. I confess I never much got it. I've always been more of a numbers person."
They talked on, through the evening, touching each other's hands. She was comforted. He showed her screens of the stars, of their predicted, chaotic, mathematical movement, and she shut her eyes for a moment, imagining dancing through space, a tiny dark speck, pulling her energy from the glowing fires around her.
To Andrea's mild distress, Vani began failing to show up to their contracted days and nights. Holly reminded her that Vani was new to a pod, had been connected to pods, yes, but not formally, and was uncertain of the difference. Adjustments had to be expected. Her husband did not bother with explanations — sometimes, marriages were merely inexplicable — and instead, gathered Andrea close on the nights they had together. She sniffed his skin and felt comforted. She still had hopes of marrying Jesse, another member of the pod: perhaps, now with a husband and two wives, she would be perceived as stable enough to attract his interest. And she had Vani's sculpture, dancing above her — them — at night.
She ventured out again, alone or with her husband, and met another potential spouse, this one already triple married into another pod. She still had solo days and nights, however, and was not of the temperament to enjoy this; the alliance between the pods would be beneficial to both. Andrea's husband could even, eventually, form part of the arrangement, they thought. It was all very suitable, and Vani smiled at both of them when Andrea brought her third wife home to meet the rest of the pod.
Vani left some time later, without a formal ceremony. She had married only Andrea, not anyone else in the pod, so the arrangements were simple enough. She left two tubes of paint with Andrea as a remembrance gift. Slightly odd, but Andrea placed them on her shelf anyway, near the keepsakes left to her by other parents, other spouses. She was not sad, of course; no one was ever sad anymore, not really. Even if she could never quite stop thinking of Vani, podless, in some studio someplace, welcoming guests, surrounded by her paints. And even if she had finally broken down and bought a small painting — with real paint — touching its surface from time to time. And even if sometimes, when she looked at the paint, she thought perhaps her skin was itching. But she had no way to be sure.
The Mosquito © Lynnette Shelley