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Friendship

By Scott Miller

Griffin Jackson sat in a metal chair, at a metal table, in a metal room. That was the limit of his knowledge on the subject of location.

A metal door opened, and a short man in a dark suit entered. “Good morning, Mr. Jackson. I’m Smith, with the UN agency for Cygnoid affairs. How are you today?”

(Image provided by Scott Miller)

“I’m apparently incarcerated today, Mr. Smith. How are you?”

“Funny. They told me you were funny.”

“Who told you?”

“The Cygnoids. We’re in one of their ships, in orbit.”

“Really? Is there a window?”

“This is a serious situation, Mr. Jackson. There are diplomatic issues.”

“Call me Griff. Everyone calls me Griff. Now, how about getting me out of here.”

“That’s not going to happen right now, Griff. I’m here to take your statement.”

“Regarding?”

“Regarding the events that led to your detention.”

“You’re going to have to help me out, Mr. Smith. I don’t know why I’m here.”

“I’ll start then,” said Smith. “You are the manager of the Pennock Farmers Market?”

“Yes, for the past eight years.”

“Tell me about this summer at your market. I’m interested in your friend, the Cygnoid you call En-Ja.

✸✸✸

The escape pod made landfall about fifty kilometers west of Anchorage, at the edge of a small lake. En-Ja extracted himself from the cramped space and, reaching in, set the controls for one short burn. He stepped back, used his remote to ignite the engine, and watched it lurch into the water. The lake flowed in through the open hatch, and as the craft sank, he threw the remote in after it. By the time the authorities noticed he was gone, they’d have no idea where on Earth he was.

The tall, blue humanoid took a deep breath and a good look at his surroundings. Huge yellow eyes took in the tall trees and the vastly taller mountains carrying their loads of snow not far to the east and west. An unbearably blue sky pierced his hearts as the sun rested for a moment on the eastern peaks. En-Ja smiled, tied back his straight black hair, shouldered his pack, and began the long walk to Anchorage.

✸✸✸

The new vendor application stood out to Griff because of the name, En-Ja. That was odd, but there were a lot of odd people in Pennock. It stated that En-Ja was farming locally, had a variety of produce, and wanted to attend the Saturday markets. That was all in order and automatically qualified him for a booth space. Griff approved the application.

An hour before the season’s first market opened, an old red pickup truck pulled into the lot. An insect-thin figure unfolded itself from the cab and walked to the information booth, where Griff was setting up. At over seven feet tall, he towered over Griff. A Cygnoid. Less polite humans called them smurfs.

The alien introduced himself as En-Ja. “Where should I set up?”

Griff maintained his smile and tried to reign in his eyebrows. He noticed the paperwork crumpled in his fist and put it down. A market manager deals with all kinds of strange things. “Nice to meet you, En-Ja. I’ll show you to your booth.”

They walked the short distance together in uncomfortable silence. “Here you go,” Griff said. “You’ll set up here every week. Back your truck in and unload. You need to be ready by…”

En-Ja interrupted, “I am familiar with the rules, Mr. Jackson.”

“Call me Griff. That’s great En-Ja, it puts you ahead of most of our vendors. Good Luck today.”

Griff walked back to the information booth, then turned to watch En-Ja unload his truck. He certainly dressed like a farmer. Overalls, flannel shirt, rubber boots, only the straw hat was missing. He must have consulted a Norman Rockwell painting. And where the heck did he get that stuff in his size?

Griff finished setting up and began his usual pre-opening circuit of the market. Most of the vendors had paused in their work to stare at the new guy. That was understandable. Everyone had seen the Cygnoids on television when they’d arrived three years ago. Almost no one had seen one in person.

As he passed Fred’s booth, the old man said, “What’s that damned smurf doing here?”

Griff stopped. “Fred, you keep that crap to yourself. En-Ja is a new vendor with as much right to be here as anyone. More so than you if I hear any more of that kind of talk.”

Fred mumbled something about “human” rights and freedom of speech. He was a crusty old bigot but a long-time vendor with a good customer base. And he was likely not alone in his sentiments.

Many vendors spent their time between sales giving En-Ja the side-eye. A few, perhaps through kindness or curiosity, made it a point to say hello. Most customers walked quickly past, eyes straight ahead, while some attempted conversation and received a polite nod in return. A Fred-like few took the time to complain at the information booth. Griff gave these a short lecture on civility and sent them on their way.

En-Ja’s sales were not good. Maybe people were afraid of becoming infected with an alien spore. Maybe they thought he’d eat them. Maybe they’d seen too many movies.

He had rhubarb, greens, cucumbers, onions, beets, radishes, the usual array of normal, early season, Alaska produce. Obviously, he had some skill as a farmer. At the end of that first day, he took his unsold produce, there was a lot, and left it in the food bank pick-up area.

✸✸✸

This day did not go well. En-Ja pulled out of the market lot and headed for home. The hostility had been palpable, but what had he expected? He’d already found humans to be suspicious of strangers, xenophobic even. A few fellow vendors and customers had made a point of greeting him, but that had seemed more curiosity than an overture to friendship. The beauty of his surroundings did not compensate for his loneliness. He’d made his decision, though, and taken his actions. There was no backing out now. He had nowhere to go and no way to get there.

Almost a year before, when he’d first arrived, he’d walked into the Anchorage suburbs and found an old pickup truck for sale in the front yard of a modest house. The owner had stepped back with a gasp when he’d opened his front door to a Cygnoid on his porch. But he quickly recovered in his eagerness to make a sale. En-Ja obliged him by paying the full asking price from the stash of currency he’d accumulated while living on the big ship in orbit. He knew he was paying too much, he’d done his homework, but he was in a hurry.

The drive south down the Kenai Peninsula was startling in its beauty. Mountains rose close on his left, and there were more across the whitecapped waters of Cook Inlet. He stopped only to refuel, and a few hours driving brought him to the small town of Pennock on a pretty bay. He immediately began visiting the properties he’d located on the online real estate listings.

He was obviously startling people and even frightening some, but Alaska is an odd place with many odd residents. Its culture of minding one’s own business was one of the reasons he’d chosen it.

After a few days of searching and a few nights sleeping in the back of his truck, he found exactly what he was looking for. He paid cash in a simple deal with the owner, and by that evening, he was sitting on the front porch of his one-room cabin complete with a wood stove and a nearby spring for water. A vast peace filled him as the stars filled the sky over his ten acres of fields and greenhouses. This was the stuff of his contrary dreams.

Cygnus, his homeworld, was one huge city where he had never felt at home. His people had long been an urban race, but he had yearned for a simpler life on a world where nature still held its own. “Chop wood and carry water” was how the humans put it. Here that would be his literal existence. Now, if he could only make some friends.

✸✸✸

At the season’s second market, Griff made a point of spending some time with the Cygnoid. “Morning, En-Ja, it’s good to see you back. I hope you’re not discouraged by your last week’s sales. Sometimes it takes a while for new vendors to catch on with the customers.”

“Especially when they’re aliens, I imagine.”

“Yeah, I guess. It’s not something that’s come up before. Humans can be a disagreeable lot. We don’t even get on well with each other.”

“But you are different?”

“I’m more open to new experiences than most. I thrive on novelty. That’s why I like this job. Anyway, I’ll let you finish setting up. Maybe we can talk again later.”

Griff felt sorry for En-Ja. He seemed sad, probably lonely, so far from home. He watched the Cygnoid have another terrible sales day. Watched him put another considerable load of produce in the food bank pickup area. The poor guy probably hadn’t a friend in this world.

As the season continued, En-Ja’s sales slowly picked up. Customers seemed to become used to his presence and could not resist the quality and abundance of his produce. Some may have enjoyed the novelty of dealing with an alien. Most just wanted his tomatoes.

Griff’s compassion for the Cygnoid was amplified by his own issues. His longtime girlfriend had left him in the spring, and he still felt the ache of it. Their relationship had seemed solid, but she’d wanted to start a family, and Griff was congenitally opposed to having children. He liked kids well enough, as long as they were someone else’s. Outside of his job, he now had a lot of empty time to fill.

He began hanging out with En-Ja after the market closed. At first, they chatted casually while En-Ja broke down his booth. Soon, they were discussing everything from human politics to human religions. En-Ja was reticent about his own people but had an unending curiosity about Earth culture.

One rainy afternoon, sitting under En-Ja’s tent after market, Griff broke out a couple of beers. “Have you tried this?”

“I have not, Griff. The human attraction to intoxication is strange. Why disable your minds so?”

“It doesn’t exactly disable our minds, just alters them. It’s fun. Give it a try.”

En-Ja accepted the can of beer and cautiously sipped, then tilted it back and emptied it. “Wonderful, the popularity of this beverage is well deserved. May I have another?”

“Sure, here ya go but take it easy. You’re not used to alcohol.”

En-Ja savored the second beer as they continued their conversation.

“So, is there a Mrs. En-Ja back home?”

“No, Griff. There is no Mr. or Mrs. among my people. You have been calling me ‘he,’ but that is inaccurate. We are not a gendered race.”

“Sorry,” Griff replied. “I don’t mean to offend.”

“There is no offense. It is an understandable mistake given your race’s obsession with gender differentiation, and I believe my choice of clothing may present me as male. Human social rules around gender are quite arbitrary. It is very confusing but a fascinating subject. Is there a Mrs. Griff?”

“No, I’m currently unattached.”

“Unattached?”

“Not in a romantic relationship.”

“And a romantic relationship is necessary for your species to reproduce?”

“No, not for reproduction itself, although it’s often the basis for the choice of reproductive partner.”

“Among my people, a simple friendship suffices.”

“That must make things a lot simpler,” said Griff.

“I believe that it does,” replied En-Ja.

After the next market, Griff invited En-Ja to the post-market meeting at a nearby tavern. Not really a meeting, it was a time to hang with friends and drink a few beers. The alien happily accepted. He was eager to make more friends.

The tavern went silent as they entered. Heads snapped around, and tourists gaped. But when they walked into the beer garden out back, they were warmly greeted by the market vendors. Griff let out a long breath and smiled. He hadn’t been sure of their reception.

A special camaraderie exists among Alaskan farmers. Theirs is not an entirely rational career choice. En-Ja’s skill and hard work had apparently won them over. Finally, being a fellow farmer had trumped his alienness. Griff left him to work out the geometry of fitting himself into a chair at the big table while he went back inside. He returned shortly, with two mugs and a pitcher.

En-Ja didn’t say much at first, but he sure could put down the beer. He drank two pitchers himself that afternoon.

The initial awkward silence dissolved into friendly banter as the drink did its work. They drank and shared samples of each other’s produce. They drank and talked about crops, soil, pests, and politics. They drank and asked En-Ja about his farm. He joined the conversation with increasing enthusiasm until the gathering broke up a few hours later.

En-Ja arrived early at the following week’s market and strolled around before the opening bell, greeting his new friends. He visited some craft booths and bought leather bracelets and a ceramic beer mug. Later in the morning, old Fred walked up to his booth and complemented his carrots. Griff stood in the midst of it all, smiling. He loved it when everyone was getting along. They were all neighbors in a tiny temporary village.

After that, En-Ja never missed a post-market meeting. He brought snacks to share and bought beer for the table. As different crops came into season, the farmers brought new samples. One afternoon, En-Ja brought an odd little blue fruit he called an Asian plumb. Everyone agreed it went well with beer, and En-Ja seemed pleased with its acceptance.

Near the end of one September market, a black SUV with dark tinted windows parked at the entrance, blocking it. When En-Ja saw the two Cygnoids emerge, he took off running toward the woods. The newcomers attempted pursuit but were stopped by a group of En-Ja’s friends. A scuffle ensued. Fists and rocks were thrown. Someone called the police. It wasn’t Griff. He was in the thick of it, trying to protect his friend.

✸✸✸

“That’s the last thing I remember before being brought in here by a couple of Cygnoids.”

“Thank you, Griff. That answers most of our questions.”

“I have a few myself, Mr. Smith. What the hell am I doing here?”

“The Cygnoids charged you and your friends with abetting a felon. They were quite insistent.”

“A felon? En-Ja? What…”

“He is charged with being a serial procreator outside of his species. The Cygnoids apparently have strict rules around their reproduction.”

“I don’t understand. He’s a rapist?”

“No, not exactly,” Smith replied.

“What exactly, then?”

“How much do you know about Cygnoid reproduction, Griff?”

“I know they’re not gendered. Of course, that makes me curious, but it’s really none of my business.”

“Oh, but it is, Griff. Let me enlighten you. When they want to reproduce, one individual produces a seed. A second individual ingests it and caries the young one to term.”

“The Asian plumb,” Griff whispered to himself.

“What?”

“He shared a small blue fruit he called an Asian plumb with some of us.”

“That would be the seed, Griff. Congratulations. You and your friends are pregnant.”

“But…”

“The Cygnoids have agreed to drop the ‘abetting a felon’ charge. It was clearly a misunderstanding. However, all of you will be required to travel to Cygnus to give birth. Good luck, Griff.”

This story first appeared in Del Sol Spec-Fic Review 3/23/21.
Edited by Marie Ginga

Scott is a writer and artist who lives in a yurt, in a fen, in end-of-the-road Alaska. His fiction has appeared in Del Sol Spec Fic Review, The Cabinet of Heed, and Land Beyond the World. Find his art and writings at Wooden Diamonds.