The first Sinmai I ever saw was watching my kindergarten class play from behind the fence. Round belly and stumpy legs, noodle arms, a short muzzle, and nubby teacup ears, lush with wheaten fur. Long fingers that threaded through the chain link like vines. I thought they were a baseball mascot. Yet, even from afar, they had an alertness, a flexibility to their face, not the vacant, manic expression of a mascot. They had the expression I saw on the children I taught and the expression I sought in adults. Curiosity.
They unwrapped their fingers from the fence and toddled down the sidewalk, still watching. The thirty-two kids pointed at them, waved, and called. I also waved, secretly wishing they would come over. My neighbor, who worked with the Sinmai, had told me a little about them, but that was no substitute for meeting them in person.
Then they rounded the fence and ventured towards us. I thought, Oh no, I got my wish, and called the class back. The other teacher on duty, Trevor, blew his whistle. Some children ran to his side. Some dawdled, disobeyed, and ran for the Sinmai.
“Stop!” I said in the teacher-voice I had been sharpening. The children halted, and so did the alien. “Back to class. Toby, Jeanne, now.”
Toby and Jeanne whined, “But Miss Stacey…” but went. The Sinmai did not move, merely stared, friendly-looking. They were just a little shorter than me.
I approached them and spoke in the voice I used on frightened children. “Hi there. Can I help you?”
“Can… you?” Their voice was creaky and halting, as if needing to be oiled. “Where am I?”
“You are at Zeigler Elementary.”
“What is Zeigler Elementary?”
“It is a school for young children.”
“What is a school?”
“A school is a place where we learn.”
Their ears wiggled. “I may stay?”
“I—no.” Their ear twisted. I said clearly and gently, “I can’t let a stranger into class without permission.”
“Someone we don’t know.”
“Ahhh.” They raised their hand, as if offering a solemn hi-five. The back of their hand was furred, and the fur was silky and dense. The palm was naked, pale brown, and rough, and the meaty parts of their palm and fingertips had raised pads like gold calluses or metallic blisters.
“Singot,” they said emphatically. A frisson ran through my skin. Before I had ever known what the Sinmai were, I had wanted to singot. I just hadn’t had a word for it. My attempts to connect with people had been like off-center, too-enthusiastic hi-fives: missing the mark, embarrassing, and stinging. I wanted the feeling of reaching for someone’s hand when walking home together, and they not only let me hold their hand, but grasped mine tightly. The shared, unspoken knowing that we wanted each other, without risking mortification and only reaping the rewards of being aligned and connected. I’d felt out of alignment with the human race all my life.
And then I learned of singot, the supreme connection: wordless understanding of a person’s entire life.
I pressed my hand to theirs. The pads were cooler than the rest of their hand.
“I am not a stranger,” they said.
I had expected—I don’t know. A flash of perfect understanding? Maybe our hands weren’t properly aligned. While disappointment sunk in, three large men, led by my neighbor Anya, ran down the sidewalk, waving.
“Poche!” Anya jumped the fence and jogged over to us. I had last seen her sobbing on her apartment balcony after her girlfriend had broken up with her, her cheeks smeared with the icing of the cinnamon roll I had brought. Now she wore business casual with a badge clipped to her pocket and a stun gun clipped to her hip.
“Hi, Stacey. Sorry about this. Poche, it’s time to return to the lab,” she said, and held up her hand as if for a hi-five. They placed their hand over hers, and I realized the hi-five was a symbolic gesture.
“The one called Stacey says they learn here,” they said. “I cannot stay?”
“Can’t he?” Anya asked me.
I wished I could say yes. What did he want to learn? What was he like? Could he singot with us? “You should ask the school board first. I have to get back to class. I can give you their contact—”
Anya interrupted. “Time is of the essence. Poche, if you really want to go, we can go.”
“Yes,” they said immediately.
“What? No!” I retorted. I felt irritated that she wasn’t listening to me, though I was curious to know why time was of the essence. Yet I couldn’t in good conscience let him around the children until I knew it was safe. Poche’s ear twisted again. “We have policies around letting strangers into the school. If something happened and somebody got hurt, we would never forgive ourselves.”
Anya replied, “The federal government has agreed to allow Sinmai to go wherever they want in Golden to learn about us, so long as they abide by our rules.”
“Then please abide by ours, and get permission. I’m not the one who can give it.”
Anya said earnestly, “If he can visit just for today, it could mean we learn something that benefits both the Sinmai and humanity.”
I wanted to let him in. I wanted to see what he could learn from us. I wanted to teach him, share with him what we did. In my more romantic moments, I thought of my job as teaching children how to be human. Pick up after yourself, wait your turn; if you see something wrong, say something; be kind to everyone… and it killed me that Poche’s first lesson on how-to-be-human was to be cautious of strangers.
Reluctantly, I said. “I’m sorry, Anya. The children have to come first.”
I returned to class on my own, kicking myself. An extraterrestrial wandering through the streets would be unusual anywhere else in America, but this was Golden, Oklahoma. The speed-bump-sized town made the national news for getting its first stop light in 2015. Ten years later, the Sinmai ship’s landing rockets had flattened the stop light. The military moved in and the town had doubled and doubled and doubled. Yet, the first time I had heard of singot was when I met Anya. She had told me, through hiccups and tears on our apartment balcony, that she was the Director of Xenologic Studies at the Interplanetary Institute.
“Oh, wow!” I had said, “What’s that like? Did you get to meet the Sinmai? Can they really read minds?”
“Yes and no. We’re not sure what’s going on. When they align the pads on their fingers and palms, they share information as pure experience. They call it singot. A moment where they share what it’s like to be them. For example, if I wanted to singot—” she pressed her hands together “—what I did with you with my colleagues, I would pass on the sensory memory of your voice, the taste of the cinnamon roll, what I felt, what we said… We think it’s a perfect transmission of information.
“But singot only works in person. Their technology can’t support the volume of information needed to replicate singot or even substitute for it. Also, they must singot to stay healthy, and they need many Sinmai to singot with.” Anya wiped her tears away with the heel of her hand. “Six is the smallest number of Sinmai who can singot for extensive periods of time without falling physically or mentally ill. They have a spoken language, but with a limited vocabulary. They think their language evolved so they can signal to each other that they want to singot. They want to learn language as an alternative to singot so they can explore the galaxy farther than they have before.”
“I wish I could singot,” I said fervently. “That would be amazing.”
“That’s why we’re helping them. We’re studying their behavior and anatomy to understand how they do it. In fact, they killed a crew member and gave us their body.” My stomach lurched as she went on. “In this case, the one they killed had gone insane. They wouldn’t singot with the rest of the crew,” she answered my question before I asked it.
“They think of individuality differently than we do,” she said, wiping her face. “Why do you want to singot?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
The question was both rhetorical and not. Sometimes I felt like I was hatched from a locker. Born to teach and nothing else. If I could compare my inner life to someone else’s, I could understand why I felt different.
Questions pelted me when I slipped back into class.
“Where did the alien go? Is he here? Can we see him?”
Trevor jumped in. “Why don’t we start our activity? Paint your favorite memory.”
They groaned, but they pulled on their smocks and got busy smearing paint over their paper. If Sinmai were to study pictures drawn by children and took them to be an accurate picture of human life, they would be very, very wrong. Jeanne painted something that could be a dog or a cat or a cow—it had four legs and black and white spots and a bottle-brush tail. I wondered if Poche knew what those animals were.
Trevor gasped. Behind the window of the classroom door, Poche’s big golden head loomed. Anya came in, followed by the men, Poche, and the superintendent. The kids gaped. Some ducked behind their canvas.
“We got permission,” Anya told me, a little smugly.
The superintendent motioned me closer and said in an undertone, “I said he could watch and participate, but he can’t touch the children or be alone with them. And one of the teachers has to be with him at all times.”
I forced myself to take steadying breaths and to think deliberately. My eagerness to see what would happen warred with my conscience. How well did Poche understand human speech? Did he understand what we were asking of him?
I said to Poche, “Do you understand the rules?”
“Yes,” he said. “Can’t touch. Can’t be alone.”
“And a teacher has to be with me.”
Think of him as one of the students, I told myself. I took a breath. “Okay.” I addressed the class. “Everyone? Poche will be joining us in class today. Let’s give him a big welcome!”
“Hi, Poche!” they chorused. The enthusiasm made his fur flare.
“We are painting our favorite memory,” I explained to him. “Do you want to try?”
I tied an apron around Poche’s belly, handed him a paintbrush, and stood a blank easel with a big sheet of paper before him. “Jeanne, can you share your paint and water with Poche?”
“Yes.” She scooted her easel over, shyly.
“Thank you, that’s very nice of you. Could you show Poche how to paint?”
“Yes.” Jeanne grabbed her brush, dipped it in water, and scrubbed it against the red paint. She poked her canvas a few times. “Like that.”
Poche scrutinized the other paintings for a minute. At last, he swirled his brush in blue, and swept it in a circle over the canvas. Anya took notes while one of the men with her recorded Poche on his phone. Poche filled in the blue with patches of deeper blue, then green.
“Is that Earth?” asked Jeanne.
“Yes.” More confidently, he loaded his brush with grey and drew a rectangle around Earth, then painted a yellow and brown figure at the bottom of the rectangle. He switched to red, and dabbed dots in a square outside the rectangle.
“Controls,” he said.
“Spaceship!” said a little voice at my hip: Toby. The rest of the children abandoned their easels to ogle as Poche swept color across his canvas.
“Yes.” He dabbed buttons in other colors and added squiggles—wires?—and added the ears and tails to the figures.
I asked, “Poche, would you share your memory with the class?”
“The memory is…” His fur slicked down and his eyes dilated, scanning blankly, as if searching the wrinkles of his brain. Other than his eyes, he was as still as a tree. At last, he said, “…not… enough… words.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “That’s what we learn in kindergarten. Words, and how we use them with others.”
A few hours after he was led out of the school, the paperwork was signed, and the Institute rigged the classroom with cameras and microphones and sensors. Every interaction, every word, would be recorded and catalogued.
The next day, Anya hunched in a chair so small her knees practically hit her chin. Like the other kids, Poche had his own cushion, forest green corduroy to contrast with his flaxen fur. Anya looked around the room with a soft, wistful expression I often see on visiting adults without children.
The kids streamed in. When some saw Poche, they gasped and waved. Davy spotted him and dashed back to his mom, burying his head in her thigh. She unwrapped his arms from her leg.
Before we began class, we explained to the children what was going on and allowed them to pepper Poche with questions. Hands rocketed into the air.
“Why did you come to Earth?”
“What is your home planet called? What is it like?”
“Do you like it when we call you alien? Do you want to be called something else?”
Poche answered each question with an air of polite interest. I kept my hands in my lap, though I had a billion questions myself.
For our first exercise, Trevor and I asked the children about their weekend.
Janice’s hand zipped into the air. “I wanna share!”
“Okay, Janice, go ahead,” I said.
Janice recited, “I went to the recycling center with Mommy. We recycle everything. We got ice cream after. Daddy wasn’t home and I sat in his chair. Angela licked my feet. The end.”
“Who’s Angela?” I asked.
“Excellent. Who’s next?”
More hands. One was Poche’s.
I called on him.
He said, “I woke when your side of the planet faced your central star, at the time you call 7:46:36 AM central time, in the mothership, in what humans call my ‘bed’, from a dreamless, 8.96-hour-long, oxygen-supplemented…. thing we do at night?”
The children giggled.
“Funny?” he asked.
I explained, “You don’t have to explain every little detail, Poche.”
“But that was the weekend.”
“We aren’t trying to explain the whole weekend. We are sharing the most memorable things that happened during the weekend. What is the essence of the weekend?”
One of his ears twisted. “All of the weekend.”
Anya wrote frantically, tearing the paper of her legal pad in her haste to flip to a new page.
“Homework for you,” I said to Poche. The children tittered. “Five sentences. No longer than ten words each.”
Both ears twisted and his fur frizzed.
“It’s doable, I promise,” I said. “You don’t have to do it now.”
He twisted one ear and replied, “Not enough words.”
I pulled a beginner’s dictionary from the bookshelf and handed it to him. “This is a dictionary,” I said. “It will help you understand where words came from, how they are pronounced, and what they mean.”
After that, he carried the dictionary around like a blanket. He only set it down at recess to watch the class shout and play. Anya explained games to him: Red Rover, tag, hide and seek, kickball. Mesmerized, he watched the children with the intense stare of a baby as they weaved, collided, argued, cooperated, and ran back and forth across the grass.
“How do they know how to…?” He trailed off. Then he riffled through the dictionary.
The kids pulled him into their games, but he could only stand, puzzled, as the kickball whanged off his belly. After the first brutal game, Kai ran up to him and hugged him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I love you.”
Poche merely said, “It’s okay.”
At the end of the day, Anya, Poche, and I stayed behind in the empty classroom to go over the day. I saw him turn to the page defining love. Anya had stepped out into the hall to have a phone call about confidential Institute stuff, and he and I were alone.
I said, “I don’t think the dictionary will help you understand every word.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Sometimes things need to be experienced to be understood. But,” I mused, “not everything can be experienced by everyone. Otherwise, there would be no need to communicate.”
“Abai is…” His fur slicked down. After a long moment, he said haltingly, “Abai… is… when you don’t singot. It makes one…” Poche flipped through the dictionary again, and he did not finish his sentence.
“Like loneliness,” I suggested. “A fatal loneliness.”
Poche flipped to both words. His ears wiggled. “Yes!” he said. “Some yes.”
“Is there a cure for being abai?”
“Like loneliness,” I repeated. “Our species are somewhat alike.”
“What is the cure for loneliness?”
“Talking or writing to someone could help,” I replied. “If the lonely person is honest. But sometimes they don’t know what they need to hear. Or say.” I hesitated. “I’m in that situation now.”
“You need to singot,” Poche said authoritatively.
“Ergh.” Poche drummed his fingers and his ears swirled. He looked like he was winding up for something serious. “You may die soon.”
“No, I won’t,” I said, alarmed. “Humans can die from loneliness, but not that easily. Sometimes it can take years. Decades.” Oh God, decades? said a little voice in the back of my mind.
Anya returned. Her mouth was pulled tight as she set her phone down on the table to record. “Poche, tell us what you thought about today’s events.”
“What is love?”
I caught Anya’s eye and hummed the famous bars from the song. Anya smirked.
She said, “Love is when you feel deep, tender affection for someone. Like how I loved my girlfriend. But it doesn’t mean they will feel the same way.”
“There’re different kinds of love,” I said hastily. “And none are less than others. Love for your partner, your parents, your friends, your children, your country—”
Anya cut in, “But the Sinmai don’t have to worry about attraction getting in the way. They’re all asexual. They don’t experience sexual attraction, whatsoever.”
I felt a strange internal fracturing, like an ice cube dropped in water.
Poche asked, “Then what is love for?”
I answered, quietly, “Love, I think, makes up the gap between language and understanding. People misunderstand quite often. Sometimes they don’t listen. But, if they love each other, they can trust the other person and assume the best intentions from what is said.” As I spoke, the fracturing traveled along my nerves and blood vessels. An odd sensation of horror—and relief. Asexual.
Poche flipped through his dictionary to ‘misunderstand,’ ‘trust’, and ‘intentions.’ He curled his hands into fists as he scanned the words.
Anya asked him, “What are you thinking?”
“I think I see now,” he said. “Sinmai failed to use language correctly before. Yuche said they went abai on purpose. They said we had to… risk it. To test language.” He turned the dictionary’s pages to the word risk. “We did not believe them. And now there are six of us.” He opened his hands. “I am thinking, what did Yuche think? They did not have the words that I have now.”
Poche’s hands clenched briefly, crumpling the page, and he smoothed the paper.
“If… language… can…” He put his hands together. “Singot. It can also…” He took his hands apart. “Stop abai.”
“But you don’t need to be abai to singot,” Anya said.
“You need to be a little abai to singot,” Poche replied. “Otherwise… why singot? That’s why, I think, Yuche went abai. We… did not….” His mouth worked for a moment before he managed, “Trust.”
My heart clenched for the Sinmai. Poche turned the dictionary to the first page of the ‘A’ section.
“I will need more words,” he said. “I will test language, and go abai.”
I passed a park, walking from my kindergarten to my apartment, and a couple relaxing on a picnic blanket under a tree. The woman leaned close to the man, laughing, and I could not ever remember being so radiant. How are they doing it? What does it mean when she looks at his hands, what does it mean when he rolls up his sleeves, what is he doing to her that makes her beam like that? What does it feel like for both of them?
Was this how Poche felt living with humanity? I thought, Singot is better. Why articulate something to somebody else when you can just feel it together? It made sense why the Sinmai would be asexual.
Yet that thought disturbed me. It couldn’t be right.
I shut myself in my apartment and researched asexuality.
As I read articles, forums, papers, I felt myself draining into a deadly swallowing sea without bottom. My past felt empty, even as I questioned the emptiness, hoping something would answer back. I thought I had been in love before. A middle-school friend, a sleepover. The lights going out as if snatched away by the lightning storm that rolled in. As I groped for a light switch, I had found a hand. We screamed, then burst into laughter, grabbed again, and caught each other. We were as close as a pair of socks. I’d felt this time and again with others, believing that the urgent wanting (as I imagined sexual desire would feel) would come sometime for the right person. I wanted a light switch or a hand to hold. I tried to imagine sex, and couldn’t.
The websites I found emphasized that asexuality didn’t mean that you couldn’t give or feel love. Asexuality had little to do with the lack of communication. At least, the kind of communication Poche sought. Yet, asexuality felt important to abai and singot, and I couldn’t explain why.
I couldn’t wait for humanity to invent something that would allow us to singot. Poche was right; language would have to suffice. But the dictionaries wouldn’t be enough, because it wasn’t just the lack of words—what words we didn’t have could be invented. It was the lack of trust that someone else would understand you and be patient with you while you fumbled to explain yourself. But how could he learn patience when he didn’t have the time? How long could a Sinmai be abai until they died?
The following day, when going over vocabulary with Poche, he said, “Yesterday, you reacted to Anya’s words.”
A pit deepened in my stomach. Anya was taking notes beside us. Her eyebrows quirked.
“Uh, yes.” I had sworn that I would be honest with children when they asked me questions, and I counted Poche as one of them. “About love. She accidentally touched on something I had been thinking about for a long time.”
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’m still thinking about what it means. How to say it.” I asked, “Can I tell you later when I know more about how I feel?”
His lips lifted. His gums were black and set with chisel-like teeth beveled to sharp edges. I imagined the crew mate who had been sacrificed. “Abai, Stacey,” he said. “That’s abai.”
He held up his hand suddenly, and I jumped, as if he had been about to slap me. “You will tell me?”
I put my hand to his. “I promise.”
Poche flipped to the word ‘promise.’ He looked mollified, but still suspicious.
“Very good,” Anya said, scrawling notes at light speed. “Very interesting stuff.”
As class went on, I thought, Maybe I should have just told them. Why didn’t I want to? Maybe it was because it seemed pretty hasty to tell people I was asexual so soon after discovering it myself. What if I was wrong? I wanted to be wrong. I was delaying for evidence to the contrary: a leaping heart at another person’s appearance, an undeniable feeling between the legs. When I thought of a partner, I pictured myself standing next to a blot, like someone had put their thumb over a camera lens.
But it wasn’t just that. I was like Tasha, who always could be found hovering outside play groups, waiting to be invited in. I always stepped in to help her. But now I wondered whether I needed an adult to do that for me with other adults. But I’m an adult, damnit. I should be able to do it myself.
We stayed behind after class to go over the day, as usual. Anya had brought a bag of clementines and the sweet lobes glowed in the sunlight. Her hand knocked against mine repeatedly as we reached for them. Each time it was like the tongue of a bell resonating through me. As I put a lobe in my mouth, I forced myself to imagine it was her ear. The smooth, plump crescent, warm, tart, bursting.
And then I thought, What am I doing?
Anya caught my eye with her deep brown gaze.
Poche said gravely, “Stacey, you are red. Why?”
“Oh, hush.” I was mortified, smiling awkwardly. I hadn’t thought he would notice.
“You can’t say that to him.” Anya smiled with crinkling eyes.
“Noooo, I’m not going to say.” I was laughing, even as she grabbed my hands. I was half-serious. She was getting the wrong idea. But the contrarian part of me said, “Yes, yes, yes.” Where would this go? Don’t you want to know her more? Even if it starts with a misunderstanding?
“You have to explain, or he won’t know.” She beamed like the sun. Nobody had ever looked at me like that before. I wanted to blind myself looking.
Both of his ears twisted.
He asked, “Why will you not tell me?”
“Well…” I couldn’t answer. I didn’t have an answer, at least, not one that I wanted to say out loud. Anya was listening. Say it, I thought. “I’m red because I’m sunburned,” I said lamely. Such a coward, I thought. Breaking my pledge not to lie to children so I didn’t have to confront difficult things. Anya raised an eyebrow.
Poche asked, “Why do you say that?”
Anya said icily, “Sometimes, Poche, people are uncomfortable with same-sex flirting.”
“I’m not uncomfortable!” I protested.
“Then why don’t you explain?”
“Why don’t you explain, Anya?” he asked. “Is this a power struggle?”
“No,” Anya and I said together.
He asked, “Is there danger nearby? And redness is camouflage?” I chuckled. Anya blistered me with a look. “Is it a secret? Is it like how Sinmai treat horkew’e ceremonies, during which we send a young Sinmai into the threwd with sled, vie, and wave—”
“Poche,” I said.
But he babbled, “—and we tell them, ‘Go. Make yourself abai, see how plants go together, how water unmakes itself from clouds, and when you return, singot, and you will know Sinmai and know nothing and they will go out and grow abai with only two hands—”
Anya had pulled out her phone and dialed frantically. Was he going insane? Was this abai? I held up my hands. Fuck my feelings, I’d deal with the fallout with Anya later. But then his fingers wrapped twice around my hand and squeezed. It was like being caught in a machine—flesh bending too far in wrong ways.
I screamed, “I will tell you! Please, let go!”
He yanked his hands away as if he had touched a scorching stove. “I am sorry. Sorry. Sorry.”
My heart raced in my throat. My joints cracked, and welts crossed my wrists.
Anya had pulled out her stun gun. When she saw my expression, she shoved it back in its holster.
“Let’s end here,” she muttered.
Poche’s hands flexed and flexed, as did mine. Anya’s clenched.
What would have happened if I had been honest? I had been… But I didn’t know why I had blushed. I thought I was asexual. Right?
Idiot, I told myself. Language only works if you use it.
I didn’t understand what had happened to me. I thought that if I could just explain what I felt to myself, I would understand. Then I would know what to say to Poche and Anya. I had to know perfectly. Otherwise, it would feel like I was lying to them.
But the contrarian inside me said, You won’t know perfectly. What are you afraid of?
My answer was meager, pathetic. I’m afraid they won’t believe me.
And then I felt angry with myself. How will Poche learn how to trust if I’m not a good role model? I have to tell him soon, I told myself. Even if I’m not sure what it is, even if I stammer or stutter. He’s trying. Meet him half-way. This I can do for him.
A storm muscled into the following morning’s blue sky. Trevor led the group in a lesson about the water cycle, how clouds form and rain falls. Poche watched the sky with a finger tapping his knee.
The lights flickered.
“It’s okay, everyone,” said Trevor. “We have our flashlights.”
Then thunder shattered the air and the lights went out.
Children screamed. Trevor switched on his flashlight and called for order. The grey-blue disturbed light from the window was all we had, and the flashlights—and Poche, whose hands glowed. A pale blue light emitted from his calluses.
“Poche, how are you doing that?” Anya asked, and held out the recorder.
“The Sinmai evolved to singot,” he said. His hands clenched, as if to crush the light. “The ship will be here soon.”
The way he sat, the way he looked out the window, the tapping. Something else I couldn’t understand.
“Poche?” I said uncertainly.
“Let’s go out to the hall,” Poche said suddenly, rising.
The hall was dark, except where the storm’s light wavered through the windows. The gloom shied away from Poche’s upheld hands.
“I have discovered something about the nature of abai,” Poche said. In the dark, he looked misshapen, bestial. “Abai is not a disease. It is a stranger-maker, an evolutionary learning mechanism which—” He vibrated. “Which singot overrides.” Suddenly, he said, “Do not let the others singot with me, Stacey. Explain to them. I promise I will tell them. I need to stay abai, just for a little while longer—it’s the only way to test—”
His words jumbled together.
“Stacey, get away from him,” Anya said. She reached for something on her belt, and there was an electric whine.
I said, “Tell me—what’s wrong?” I raised my hand.
“Poche, walk in front of us to the lobby,” said Anya.
“Anya, wait. I’ll take full responsibility.”
“For what?” she said tersely.
“Poche, I’ll tell you—the thing I didn’t want to talk about…” My heart clogged my throat. “The word that I reacted to—what Anya said—about asexuality. I have always felt a little… out of alignment, with people, all my life. When she said that, I realized I was… asexual. And my life made sense.” Poche’s fur stood on end. “But it scared me, because I didn’t know what the rest of my life would look like.”
Poche’s expression was like none I had ever seen on Earth. He said in a garbled voice, “I don’t understand.”
I felt like he had reached inside my chest and crushed my heart.
The stormlight dimmed, and so did the slashing of the rain on the windows. Beyond the lobby, over the parking lot, was something that could only be the Sinmai ship. Like a black moon had descended from the sky and blocked the rain. Sirens keened, approaching.
Poche hurried out of the lobby into the rain. From the ship, five Sinmai descended on a platform. The way they glanced around themselves, their gestures, the way they stood—like five fingers on the same hand. Poche approached them and spoke rapidly in Sinmai before they could. He overpowered their attempts to cut in, repeating abai and singot amidst a torrent of English and Sinmai words. The five exchanged a complicated set of gestures like a secret handshake. Blue sparks danced between their palms like a cloudless summer day, when you can see infinity hinting beyond the sky. Poche shivered. But he stepped away, covered his eyes, and said something in a breaking voice.
The Sinmai lunged for him. They wrestled him down as military vehicles skidded round the corner. Their powerful lights caught the tussling aliens and obliterated individual features. Snarls juddered from Poche’s chest. Claws extended from his feet and gouged earth from the lawn. One Sinmai had bit down on his arm with those teeth and another champed his leg, forcing him down.
Tears smeared my vision. I felt divided against myself. Help him! Leap in, say something! Why don’t you do anything? Something! But what could I say that could replace singot? I had already failed.
The lead Sinmai pinned down Poche’s arm, uncurled his clenched hand, and pressed their palm to his.
Light annihilated the schoolyard. When I recall that moment now, it is like a still in a movie, and a bomb has just gone off. It doesn’t seem like it happened. I should have felt the blast like a ghostly wall. I know the soldiers who had been running to confront the Sinmai recoiled. I know the Sinmai pile fell apart. I saw one fall to the side, on the road, making an awful scream like an iceberg splitting.
And I saw that Poche lay still. Clearest of all was a black asterisk of soot on the asphalt where his hand should be, and his wrist cuffed with flames.
Next week, kindergarten resumed. I told the class that Poche might not come back. We all cried for a while. I put his painting on the wall so parents and children could see it with the rest of the class. We didn’t know if he would come back, but we had to keep going like he would. We set out his floor cushion and put it away at the end of each day. I felt like an extra chamber had been carved out of my heart and my blood had leaked away, and I was only still moving because I was too numb to realize I had died. If only I had had better words and put them in a better order. If only I had told him sooner, he would be alive.
But then he returned.
Certainly, it was a Sinmai, toddling down the sidewalk on the other side of the fence, the stub of an arm bandaged. Children screamed and ran towards him, and Trevor and I ran to call them back. Trevor called, at least—I just ran. Poche waded into the children and they glommed onto him. Anya and the guards who followed him stepped away. Anya looked tense, expectant.
“Good morning,” Poche said to me. “I’m sorry.”
“We’re all just glad you’re okay,” I said through a tight throat.
“No,” he said emphatically. “I’m sorry. Poche has died. This body is now Oche.”
The children quieted. Poche has died. This body is now Oche. These words did not go together with what I saw. They stood straighter. Their speech was clearer. They had Poche’s body. Yet, I was looking at a stranger.
To me, Oche held up his hand. With trepidation, I placed mine over it.
“When we singot,” he said carefully. “We pour ourselves together and redistribute equally among our bodies. We five Sinmai on Earth are all now Oche. Poche is within us all.”
They had killed Poche, as easily as wiping words off a whiteboard. I couldn’t believe I had wanted to singot. If perfect understanding with others meant self-destruction, I didn’t want it.
Oche’s ears were twisted as he watched me. This, I realized, was what Poche realized about singot.
“Humans don’t die when they share themselves with others,” I said. “We become people through other people, just like you. Only, we do it a little at a time.”
He asked. “Then why wouldn’t you tell me? What were you scared about?”
“I felt like I had become a stranger to myself. And to other people. I thought that nobody would understand who I was, and I wouldn’t understand others either. And then I would be abai forever.”
His ears wiggled. “Yes!”
The Sinmai had to leave soon. They had realized that there were too few Sinmai to stay safely on Earth. Before they left, I begged the school to give them the dictionaries, and helped the children write their names in the flyleaves. Anya invited me to watch them leave. One by one they put their hands to mine and disappeared into their ship. Gouts of fire billowed beneath it as it launched, punched through the clouds, and joined the moon in the sky.
I still miss Poche, the instance of individuality that wove into Oche. By now his name must have changed again. Does the whole planet share one name? Was there ever a difference between one of him and all of them? There must have been. And there must be now. Nobody can travel to another world and return unchanged. When the crew returns home, they will greet their citizens as strangers. There will be so much for them to know about Earth. I hope their hands won’t explode.
The human body limits us. We can’t understand everything all at the same time. We barely understand ourselves, let alone others. But the cool thing about language is that if communication fails, you can try again. I’ve been talking to Anya. I told her how I thought I was asexual. And she got it! I feel embarrassed for thinking she wouldn’t. Things have softened between us, started to flow onward. We’re not together, not really. But we’re looking in the same direction. Towards the Sinmai home world.
I’ve started a new career at the Institute. Being a certified friend of Sinmai helped my application jump to the top of the pile. I’ll be studying Oche’s language now, so I can tell him, “I know why you painted the moment you saw Earth. You were curious to know whether you were alone in the universe. And then you discovered you weren’t.” The Sinmai trusted that humanity was worth discovering. To live, I must too. And I can’t imagine a better life than spending it with people I’ll never really know, who will forever surprise me with new aspects to love, unfolding forever together.