Sneak preview: "Hear the Enemy, My Daughter" from The Law & the Heart

The Heart and the Law by Kenneth SchneyerThis is one of thirteen stories in Kenneth Schneyer’s new collection The Law & the Heart. Emotionally and ethically complex, it gives us the perfect opportunity to show you why we’re so excited about this book!

Hear the Enemy, My Daughter
by Kenneth Schneyer

Everything about Kesi reminds me of her father. Her hair is crinklier than mine, because Jabari’s was. Her skin is a darker shade of brown than mine, because Jabari’s was. Her chin juts out absurdly for such a little face, because Jabari’s did. She even smells like him. Every sight of her is like a kick in my stomach.

Kesi has stopped wondering where Jabari has gone. For the first two or three months, she asked many times a day, “Mzazi, where Baba?” She was past such baby-talk; it was a sign of her distress that she regressed, lost her verbs. I was honest with her, or I tried to be. You can say, “Baba has died. Baba was very brave, he was fighting to protect Kesi and Mzazi, he was fighting to protect everyone.” But how much of that will a three-year-old understand? All she knew was that her father was gone. I did not even tell her that he had gone to a better place, that he was happy — what would be the point, even if I believed it? Did she care whether he was happy, if it kept him away forever?

Nor did I allow the other voice to speak, the voice that said, “I should have been fighting next to Jabari; I could have saved Jabari. If you had not been born, Jabari would still be here.”

Now she is four and does not mention him at all. She remembers him; when I point to his picture, she tells me who Jabari is. But she does not begin conversation about him. She does not ask when he will return. She does not ask what it means to die.

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No matter how many times I watched them, the battle recordings told me nothing. The one identifiable word was the one we already knew: kri’ikshi, the one the Sheshash say over and over in combat. No commands, no calls to each other, just that same sound, kri’ikshi. Nothing in the recordings explained its meaning, nor gave any clue to the syntax of the rest of the Sheshash language, if language it was. With a frustrated sigh, I turned back to the latest pattern analysis on the intercepted signals between their ships, which so far had proved equally fruitless.

The call from Levi came just as I was getting ready to abandon the intractable recordings and go home to Kesi.

“We need you in Interrogation tomorrow, Halima,” he said. “Can you handle it?”

I stiffened. “Of course, sir. I do my duty.”

He made an impatient sound. “You know what I mean. I can get someone else, do some sort of swap, if I have to. Are you ready for this?”

He was right to ask, but it still annoyed me. After my combat tour, I used to feel an urge to get out of my chair whenever I saw a picture of a Sheshash. Those feelings subsided after Kesi was born, only to return with horror and rage after we lost Jabari on Heraclea. For a while, it was all I could do not to put my hand through the screen; once I actually did so, cutting my palm as I screamed.

But a year had gone by since Heraclea, and I was better, mostly better. I took a deep breath and visualized looking into the eyes of a Sheshash across a transparent barrier, talking to it, smelling it. My gorge did not rise, my heartbeat did not race.

“Yes, I’m ready. But I didn’t know we had any Sheshash in Holding. Was there a new capture?”

“Oh yes, on Asculum, a spectacular one. We’ve actually got our hands on a fighting pair.”

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No Sheshash fights alone. Always there are pairs of them, a three-meter giant and a half-meter dwarf, tens of thousands of pairs on the field at once. The larger and the smaller soldier fight with a rapid coordination that makes the mind swim and the eyes ache. When one moves, the other moves at the same millisecond; the recordings show literally that brief a delay, if delay it is. Any human soldier will be faced with the choice of fighting the giant or the dwarf, typically on opposite sides of him, and whichever he does not fight, that one will kill him.

Of course they cannot outrun projectiles or beam weapons any more than we can, but they do outrun the reflexes of human soldiers; they move faster than we can think. Artillery and bombs are effective, but after the first engagement the Sheshash never amassed enough troops in one location for ordnance to do much damage.

The dwarf member of a fighting pair is deadlier, more reckless than the giant. Both Sheshash use their weapons swiftly, cleanly, not wasting a calorie of energy. Nor do they seem to fight for advantage or position, to gain the high ground or keep the initiative. They kill as many as they can, do not stop trying to slaughter us until they are killed themselves or forcibly restrained.

No fighting pair had ever been captured before. We had taken giant Sheshash on the battlefield, either wounded or surrounded, but never had one of the dwarf fighters been taken prisoner, and surely no pair. On the battlefield we found approximately as many of the giant Sheshash slain as the dwarfs, but we never saw a smaller one alive unless it was still trying to kill us.

Many theories were proposed for this discrepancy. Some suggested that the dwarfs, being less strong, were expendable — but this made no sense in light of how much more effective killers they were. Others speculated that there was a class distinction between giant and dwarf, as between an officer and an enlisted soldier, or between a lord and a commoner. A simpler explanation was that the dwarf Sheshash were simply easier to kill. But detailed tabulations of battle recordings failed to show such a discrepancy in our hits. Indeed, there was a discrepancy the other way, as the larger fighters were easier targets. Instead, these recordings showed smaller Sheshash collapsing in the middle of a fight, with no apparent wound or impact. More, they showed that the dwarfs who collapsed were all fighting alone. When a pair was fighting together, neither of them underwent this spontaneous implosion.

All of our efforts at communication had so far been futile, and the Sheshash continued to attack at every opportunity. The High Command had considered evacuating all of our colonized worlds — probably not feasible before the Sheshash exterminated us on half-a-dozen of them. And in any case, since we didn’t know why they were fighting us in the first place, for all we knew they would go on to finish the job on Terra.

We weren’t without options. We had fusion bombs and atmospheric catalysts. We could stop them. The question was how to do it without committing genocide.

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When I entered the cell, there was only one Sheshash present, a giant. As many as I have seen on the battlefield, they still astonish me. Their smooth, shiny skin is so bright a white it hurts the eyes, with a faint chartreuse overlay that appears and disappears like the rainbows of oil droplets in a puddle. Their three legs, slender and lithe, each have three major joints, rotating on dual axes like their three arms. Their three eyes are large and dark, like those of a seal. In combat those eyes open wide; at rest, as in captivity, they are typically half-closed, so the Sheshash give the impression of being perpetually sleepy. In a Sheshash who has lost its fighting partner, the eyes dart back and forth, up and down in a way that seems frantic to us. Perhaps this is the way they register grief or distress; perhaps the wide eyes signify anger.

Or perhaps we anthropomorphize even to ascribe these emotions to them. Our anger comes from the part of our brain that is reptilian, our grief from something somewhat later. But with an alien, how can you make such a comparison? Do they even have “reptilian brains?”

In the moment before it saw me, I had the feeling (justified or not) that the Sheshash was calm, even happy in the cell. It was moving slowly, its eyes in their half-shut position, and uttering a sound which, although high to our ears, was low for them.

Then the Sheshash noticed me. It moved rapidly forward with its arms out as if to attack, its eyes opening wide, but stopped before it hit the barrier. I backed away, beginning to reach for my weapon until I caught myself; I felt a sudden flush.

The Shesash pushed and tapped the barrier several times, using different combinations of its limbs until satisfied that there was no way it could get at me, or I at it. I stared at it for several seconds, and it gazed with half-closed eyes at me.

I swallowed, then phoned Levi.

“You told me there were two Sheshash in the cell. A fighting pair, you said,” I began.

“Wait a minute. We’ve been monitoring the cell. Just wait a minute, you’ll see. This is huge.”

As I watched, a head poked out from the horizontal slit in the Sheshash’s belly. It was another Sheshash, the small one.

I did not gasp aloud. Holding the phone close to my mouth, I whispered, “They are marsupials?”

“Who knows?” said Levi. “If the small one is a child, if the large one is its mother—”

“Or father?”

“Parent, whatever. If the sack has a developmental function like the marsupial pouch, then sure, why not, you can call them marsupials.”

“Which still would not explain their reproduction,” I said, as if it mattered.

“Right,” said Levi. “But it would tell us that they put their children into combat.”

Then the dwarf Sheshash’s eyes opened fully and it shot out of the pouch, throwing itself at the barrier to get at me. I didn’t back away this time, but felt my heart pound in my chest. The dwarf bounced off the barrier but tried again, bounced again and kept trying. Its mouth was open and it was uttering the shriek we had heard on every battlefield: Kri’ikshi! Kri’ikshi!

The giant reached for the dwarf, but the dwarf seemed fully intent on me and would not be distracted, as if it did not understand that it could not reach me.

Finally the giant uttered some long words; their voices are high and their language has a staccato quality to it. The dwarf Sheshash stopped what it was doing, half-closed its eyes, and turned to the giant.

Kri’ikshi!” it said. Its voice was even higher; it sounded like a whistle.

Kri’ikshi sha’akdash kishidi to’ishati,” said the giant.

Kri’ikshi! Kri’ikshi!” the dwarf repeated, spinning a circle around the big one.

Kri’ikshi sha’akdash,” the giant said again, more slowly, each sound pronounced more precisely. “Kri’ikshi Kishidi. Kri’ikshi to’ishati.

Kri’ikshi,” the little one repeated, more quietly. But it stopped moving.

Shi,” said the big one. Then the dwarf hopped up and crawled back into the pouch. It squirmed its way down (like someone burrowing into warm blankets, I thought) and became quiescent. Its eyes closed.

It seemed obvious. The little Sheshash was more excitable, more likely to attack, less likely to understand the concept of a transparent barrier, than the big one. Its vocabulary was more limited, or else it had a less nuanced use of it. It understood that I was the enemy and wanted to kill me. The giant had tried to make it understand — what? That they were prisoners? That there was a barrier? That killing me would accomplish nothing? — and had had a hard time getting the message across. But the smaller one — the child — became docile anyway, and returned to the larger one’s — its mother’s — pouch. Once there, it fell asleep.

We had no clue as to their gender, and the exact relationship might not even be familial. But my instinct said: mother and child.

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Kesi’s use of language misleads me into thinking she has a mind like mine. She uses a subject, verb, and object in ways I understand, and so I imagine that she means by it the same thing I would mean. But a four-year-old, in some ways, is as different from an adult as a chimpanzee.

Last month she cut into small pieces Jabari’s decoration for valor, which I stupidly left sitting on a low table after I had shown it to her the day before. I had not guessed that she was able to use her little scissors so well, nor that they would cut something that seemed so durable. When I saw the scattering of silk ribbon and golden twine on the table and floor, I felt dizzy and had to sit down. It was just a thing, it was not Jabari, but it was one more bit of him that I will never have again.

I asked Kesi what she had done. She saw the tears in my eyes and knew that something was wrong.

So she said, “Nothing.”

I said, “But Baba’s ribbon is all cut to bits.”

She looked right at it and said, “No, it isn’t.”

It wasn’t a lie, not in the sense that you would mean it. Kesi has learned enough about words to know that they have power. She knows that adults speak of things that are not present in the room, and that these things turn out to be true. It is logical, from her perspective, to think that the words make them true. She wished that the ribbon were all in one piece, so she told me, with conviction, that it was. I do not think she expected magic, but rather that the world would conform itself to her words, as (from where she stands) it seems to conform itself to mine.

But at the moment she said it, a miserable voice in my head screamed, liar! In that instant I judged her, found her untrustworthy, unloving, selfish. I hated her, and not for the first time.

Then I returned to myself and saw a scared, sad little girl who had not understood what she had done. I took her into my arms and we cried into each other’s shoulders.

And I wondered whether someday I will misplace the reason to forgive her — whether there will come an instant of hatred that does not fade.

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The war broke out a year after Jabari and I were married. Although trained as a linguist and translator, I elected for combat duty so that we could be posted together. It amazes me that we were not both killed during those first weeks, so complete were the losses at the hands of the Sheshash fighting pairs. Jabari and I fought together in the same unit, one covering for the other in combat, sharing a tent or quarters to ourselves. I do not know how many times he saved my life or I his. Our lovemaking in those days was fierce, desperate and joyful; death hovered near us, and we kept it away by grabbing great fistfuls of life.

When I became pregnant, I was ordered back to non-combatant duty. Our armies still will not allow women with child to fight, and with this Jabari agreed. So I worked on trying to decode the Sheshash language. Jabari also had desk duty for a time, and he was present when our daughter was born.

Then he had the opportunity to go back to combat. Over this decision we had bitter arguments, because he wished me to stay behind again. “I don’t want our daughter raised by strangers,” he said.

“Then why don’t you stay behind?”

“Because you can contribute to the war here, and I can’t. At a desk I’m useless; I’ll rust if I don’t go back.”

In the end I gave in, though I was sulking when I did it. I saw him only twice again before Heraclea. Some part of me believed, still believes, that if I had been there, I would have seen the danger coming; I would have saved him.

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With so little in common besides the war, it was hard to know where to start. But the Sheshash had space travel, which meant they understood physics, therefore mathematics.

I reached into my bag. The giant Sheshash’s eyes widened for a moment, then half-closed again when what I drew out was not a weapon.

I held up a white plastic sphere. “Sphere,” I said.

The Sheshash regarded me for a while. I did not really expect a response; we’d never had one in the past. Then she said, “Itto.”

I hid my surprise at getting a response. The dwarf Sheshash launched itself at the barrier again, and in that instant I felt like a traitor even for trying to talk to the giant. The mother was a liar, the daughter was a killer, these things had killed Jabari, they would kill me.

The giant ignored the dwarf, still looking at me. I looked at her. Then I replaced the sphere and held up a cube, the same color. “Cube,” I said.

Itto,” said the giant again.

Very well then, itto probably was not “sphere” — unless, to the Sheshash, a sphere and a cube were the same thing. That would be fascinating, but daunting.

I brought up a blue sphere. “Blue,” I said.

Itto,” she repeated.

Perhaps it meant “plastic,” or “opaque.” I lowered the sphere into the bag —

Ushata,” said the Sheshash.

I stopped. Then I slowly raised the sphere. “Itto?” I asked. I worried that the rising pitch at the end of the word might signify a wholly different meaning.

Itto,” she agreed.

Then I lowered the sphere again. “Ushata?”

Ushata.”

Itto was either a verb, meaning to raise or take out, or an adjective, meaning a higher elevation, or possibly exposure to the elements. A few more experiments persuaded me that it was the verb. Itto was “raise,” ushata was “lower.”

Or the whole thing might be a deception. She was, after all, a prisoner in enemy hands. We had treated her and her daughter gently after capture on Asculum, but we could not be sure that “gently” meant the same thing to us as to them, and, in any case, the capture itself must have been brutal.

Still it was a breakthrough, even if she was trying to mislead me.

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When I look at Kesi, it is easy to imagine I am seeing a smaller, simpler, more naïve version of myself. I fancy that I remember being her age, can relive the games I played and feel the way she is feeling as she plays now. When she disobeys or defies me, I tell myself that she is just like her mother, that I understand her. This is the life-giving self-deception, like the stories we tell of fierce, protective mothers who die for their young.

A few days ago, the teacher at the preschool called me aside before I picked Kesi up, explaining that there had been “a little incident” and that she had a cut on her forehead. One of the other children, a boy named Edmund, had struck her with a wooden toy. It seems he was playing a game in which he was a soldier and the other children were Sheshash. They had taken Edmund aside and explained what he had done while Kesi cried into the teacher’s shirt, then Edmund apologized and helped Kesi clean and bandage the cut.

When I went in, Kesi ran to me and showed off her bandage like a medal.

“Does it hurt?” I asked.

“No. I was Sheshash! He can’t hurt me!”

I shuddered inside, but smiled and nodded to her.

As we walked out the door, I tried to decide whether I was more surprised that a little, innocent child could hurt someone, or that human children were civilized at all, and did not simply rip one another’s throats out.

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I learned to call the mother Ishish, the daughter Ashashi. Without other Sheshash present, I could not know whether Ishish was the mother’s name, or whether it meant “mother” or simply “adult.” It might have some other meaning altogether; it might mean someone who does a certain thing, or even the word for the action itself, although this seemed less likely as time went on.

By now I was consistently thinking of them as mother and daughter. Levi was still skeptical, but the behavioral evidence supported my intuition. Ishish was visibly nurturing, teaching, protecting Ashashi — I could see her modeling behavior which Ashashi then copied, slowing down her speech when Ashashi did not understand the first time, taking Ashashi into her pouch when the child became agitated. Such behavior might be typical for a fighting pair regardless of their relationship, as Levi kept pointing out. But I was sure.

They learned to say my name, after a fashion. Although I’d heard them employing something like our glottal stops, they seemed to have no glottal fricatives, voiced or otherwise, nor voiced alveolars, nor nasal consonants of any kind. (Of course it is misleading to use these terms, which refer to the part of the mouth where speech is made. They have no nasal consonants because they have only one respiratory orifice.) Thus my name Halima became “Atipa.” At the time I did not know whether they meant to describe me personally by that name, or female humans, or interrogators.

Beyond my name, they showed no interest in learning our speech, which was just as well; they could not pronounce most of it. I, on the other hand, began to pick up a few dozen words of the Sheshash language.

Most of the attempts at communication I made over the next two weeks were with Ishish. For days after Ishish began speaking to me, Ashashi consistently tried various ways of killing me. Too, Ashasi’s use of their language was more rudimentary and less nuanced, and her responses to Ishish were either echoes, queries, or possibly jokes.

But one afternoon, repeatedly distracted from my work by a buzzing fly (Maintenance has never succeeded in eradicating the things), I swatted it on the table without thinking.

Ishish and Ashashi both stopped what they were doing and stared at me for a long moment. I stared back, wondering whether I had committed some sort of transgression.

Then Ashashi said, “Kri’ikshi akdash kri’ikshi!” Ishish waited another moment, then confirmed it more calmly: “Kri’ikshi akdash kri’ikshi.” Kri’ikshi, I had inferred, was the word they used to refer to humans, but it was also their battle cry. Perhaps it meant “enemy?”

For the first time, Ashashi approached me slowly, turning so that each of her eyes could look at me in turn.

Ashashi’s attitude changed from that moment. Not only did she begin speaking to me, she spoke nonstop. Most of her sentences were simple, and most of them I could not understand. Like a toddler, she seemed to like showing me the obvious. She would hold up an object and tell me what it was, perhaps copying my own actions, or she would do something and describe it (the way a youngster might say, “Look at me!”). She pointed out Ishish to me frequently, or would say, “Ashashi shi” when she crawled into Ishish’s pouch.

Ishish seemed interested in getting through to me, although she was selective in the topics she would discuss. Human civilization, human concerns, anything about human beings interested her not at all, except for that single, dismissive term, kri’ikshi.

She talked preferentially about Ashashi: what she was doing or learning. Often she would describe Ashashi’s actions as Ashashi performed them; I thought she was speaking to me, although possibly she narrated Ashashi’s behavior the way parents narrate their children’s actions, to teach them the connection between actions and words. As I might say, “Now Kesi picks up the ball,” Ishish would say, “Ashashi akpa’atkoko,” which seemed to mean, “Ashashi is spinning around when she doesn’t need to.”

Ashashi’s greater tendency towards violence, so far as I could tell, seemed natural to Ishish. I wondered, are Sheshash children this brutal on their homeworld, against each other? If so, it’s a wonder they survive to adulthood.

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Kesi had a tantrum today, a bad one. She was still playing the Sheshash game Edmund had started with her, strutting around the main room of our quarters, making shrieking noises and spinning around, grabbing dolls or toy animals and pretending to kill them. Occasionally she would fall down on the carpet from dizziness, laugh, and start over. It was the sort of game that was amusing at first (if not for the subject matter) but eventually would have set any parent’s teeth on edge. As it was, I bit my lip for the last ten minutes, trying to think of a way to distract her without making it obvious how much the game upset me.

I had been trying to ignore her for a while, staring at my work screen and hoping that she would get bored, when I sensed a change. I spun back, and saw that she had climbed up to the table and taken Jabari’s framed picture into her pudgy hand. Now she shook it, yelling at her father’s image, “You fight Sheshash! You die!”

Before I could even think, I had risen, crossed the room, snatched the photo out of her hand and shouted, “No, Kesi!”

It startled her, but she glared at me. “Give to Sheshash! Sheshash kill!”

I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak, and put the picture on a high shelf. She shouted, “Give me picture!”

“No,” I said, as calmly as I could.

“Give! Give! Give, give, give, give!”

Then she was on the floor, kicking the legs of the table, banging her fists, yelling so loudly that it seemed her vocal cords would snap. I have learned how to handle such things: I returned to my chair and sat down, although I was shaking. Eventually, I knew, she would tire and calm down, and then I could cuddle her and assure her that I loved her, and we could forget the whole thing.

It took twenty minutes. By the time she was done, face slick with tears and mucous, she was exhausted. I barely had time to take her into my lap before she fell asleep. I did not manage to say “Mzazi loves Kesi” when she could still hear me.

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One day, Ishish and Ashashi were both unusually quiet. They answered my questions briefly but did not elaborate. Ashashi moved around the room, but without what I had come to think of as her puppy-like enthusiasm. Eventually she crawled into Ishish’s pouch, and said, “Shi”—sleep. But she did not sleep; she turned restlessly in the pouch, sticking out one arm at a time. I wondered whether Ashashi was growing too large for the pouch, whether Ishish would have to exile her.

Another fly appeared, this time on Ishish’s side of the barrier (a much bigger Maintenance infraction, as the Sheshash were supposed to be in a sealed environment). Ishish saw it, said “Kri’ikshi,” and whipped out one of her flexible arms; the insect shattered.

Ashashi stirred in Ishish’s pouch.

I saw spots when I understood. Kri’ikshi didn’t mean “human.” It meant “pest,” “vermin.” They didn’t see us as opponents in a struggle; they saw us as parasites.

Once this was clear, I was able to ask questions I’d never thought to raise. Ishish spoke about kri’ikshi, and about the cell in which she and Ashashi were confined.

On the one hand, kri’ikshi (humans) had built the cell, captured and forced them to live there. On the other hand, the cell provided ata’ashkit—isolation, solitude, protection, safety. Specifically, it was nearly devoid of kri’ikshi (parasites and pathogens, like the fly). She repeated this over and over: kri’ikshi built the cell, but the cell kept kri’ikshi out. It seemed a paradox to her.

I felt that we had hit the key point, that we were on the verge of a breakthrough. I made Ishish repeat that kri’ikshi had built the cell, and that it kept kri’ikshi out.

Then I asked, “Halima atko kri’ikshi?” I held my breath waiting for the answer.

Finally she said very quietly, “Atipa sha’etish kri’ikshi.”

Halima is not vermin, not a parasite, not the enemy.

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I was halfway to the main entrance when the alarm sounded like a screaming child, hammering the eardrums twice a second until I thought my head would explode.

I phoned Levi as he was about to phone me. “The Sheshash broke out,” he said. “They’ve killed at least six soldiers already and are heading your way.”

How Ishish and Ashashi escaped is not important to relate. Our technology perplexes the Sheshash as theirs perplexes us. It may simply have taken Ishish this long to realize that what we thought was an impregnable chamber was as easy to violate as air.

I checked my weapon as I ran back; it was fully charged. I had not fired it in four years outside of mandatory practice, but at that second I did not know whether Ishish would kill me when she saw me, or let me talk to her.

I rounded the corner more quickly than I should have, failing to take the precautions drilled into me. Ishish and Ashashi were at the far end of the corridor, moving so rapidly it was hard to see them, a leapfrogging, swirling gait that made me nauseous. I stopped in my tracks.

“Ishish!” I called.

They stopped immediately, at the same instant, Ashashi a few yards closer to me than Ishish, their arms quivering, their fingers fluttering, their eyes open for battle.

Then, as I watched, their eyes half closed and their limbs slowed.

It was Ashashi who spoke. “Atipa!” Then she turned to her mother. “Atipa etish kri’ikshi? Akdash Atipa?” Is Halima a parasite, an enemy? Shall we kill her?

Ishish looked at me. “Atipa sha’etish kri’ikshi. Sha’akdash Atipa.”

Ashashi sidled closer to her mother. “Sha’etish kri’ikshi,” she repeated.

I lowered my weapon and began to step towards them, realizing that the alarm was no longer sounding, and that I could not remember when it had stopped. I was trying to work out how to get Ishish and Ashashi back to their cell, or to someplace safe, when I heard the pounding footsteps of a dozen sprinting soldiers echoing in the corridor behind me.

What happened next took less than two seconds. I turned back, away from Ishish and Ashashi, getting ready to explain the situation. A lone soldier, who either started from a different location than the others or had got ahead of them, rounded the corner first, his weapon out. He saw the Sheshash the instant I saw him.

I had begun to shout “Stand down!” when he fired.

“No!” I turned back. Ishish was down, a smoldering hole in her. Ashashi was already moving, a greenish-white blur who passed me before I could turn my head again.

When I did look back, the soldier was in two pieces, severed at the chest. Ashashi revolved around the body, screeching “Kri’ikshi! Kri’ikshi! Ishish! Ishish!” Her eyes were moving side-to-side.

The other sprinting footsteps came closer; any moment they would be in view.

“Ashashi,” I said, wanting to tell this child, this baby, that it was all right, that she could still survive, even without her mother, even as a prisoner in the hands of her enemies.

But she said, “Kri’ikshi!” — not towards me; she trusted me — but towards the coming footsteps. Another fraction of a second and she would be all over them, a blur of grief and rage that would not stop.

I fired my weapon. The baby popped like a balloon.

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I hold Kesi on my lap and stroke her hair, singing lullabies and trying to believe that I love her. She is innocent, she bears no guilt for Jabari’s death, for Ashashi’s murder. She is a child of war, but she is my child. I should love her. I am sure that I did.

But how am I to love her? As a mother loves? Does a mother kill children? It does no good to tell myself that I probably saved a dozen lives, that Ashashi was the enemy. It does no good to tell myself, “There are no true innocents among the Sheshash; those children kill hundreds.”

A child who kills is still a child. A child who kills from grief is even more a child.

In my dreams, sometimes it is Kesi who explodes and crumples. It is Kesi who looks into my eyes and says, “Halima sha’etish kri’ikshi.” Halima is not the enemy. And then I kill my daughter. And then I wake up.

But I continue to stroke Kesi’s hair, I continue to sing. Our children do not know our hearts; they only know what we show them. I will show Kesi the face of a loving mother, whether or not I am one. I will give her what she needs to grow, to thrive, maybe even to trust.

But she should not trust me.

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The Heart and the Law by Kenneth SchneyerThis is one of thirteen stories in Kenneth Schneyer’s new collection The Law & the Heart. For more information or to purchase the collection, go to http://stillpointdigital.com/the-heart-and-the-law.


“Hear the Enemy, My Daughter”: copyright © 2013 by Kenneth Schneyer. All rights reserved. To share or reprint this story, you must obtain permission from the publisher: rights@stillpointdigital.com.

This story originally appeared in Strange Horizons (May 6, 2013).

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