Fledgling, Octavia Butler’s last novel, is the story of an apparently young, amnesiac girl whose alarmingly un-human needs and abilities lead her to a startling conclusion: she is in fact a genetically modified, 53-year-old vampire. Forced to discover what she can about her stolen former life, she must at the same time learn who wanted—and still wants—to destroy her and those she cares for, and how she can save herself. Fledgling is a captivating novel that tests the limits of "otherness" and questions what it means to be truly human.
Release date: January 4, 2011
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Print pages: 320
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Fledgling: A Novel
Octavia E. Butler
I awoke to darkness.
I was hungry—starving!—and I was in pain. There was nothing in my world but hunger and pain, no other people, no other time, no other feelings.
I was lying on something hard and uneven, and it hurt me. One side of me was hot, burning. I tried to drag myself away from the heat source, whatever it was, moving slowly, feeling my way until I found coolness, smoothness, less pain.
It hurt to move. It hurt even to breathe. My head pounded and throbbed, and I held it between my hands, whimpering. The sound of my voice, even the touch of my hands seemed to make the pain worse. In two places my head felt crusty and lumpy and … almost soft.
And I was so hungry.
The hunger was a violent twisting inside me. I curled my empty, wounded body tightly, knees against chest, and whimpered in pain. I clutched at whatever I was lying on. After a time, I came to understand, to remember, that what I was lying on should have been a bed. I remembered little by little what a bed was. My hands were grasping not at a mattress, not at pillows, sheets, or blankets, but at things that I didn’t recognize, at first. Hardness, powder, something light and brittle. Gradually, I understood that I must be lying on the ground—on stone, earth, and perhaps dry leaves.
The worst was, no matter where I looked, there was no hint of light. I couldn’t see my own hands as I held them up in front of me. Was it so dark, then? Or was there something wrong with my eyes? Was I blind?
I lay in the dark, trembling. What if I were blind?
Then I heard something coming toward me, something large and noisy, some animal. I couldn’t see it, but after a moment, I could smell it. It smelled … not exactly good, but at least edible. Starved as I was, I was in no condition to hunt. I lay trembling and whimpering as the pain of my hunger grew and eclipsed everything.
It seemed that I should be able to locate the creature by the noise it was making. Then, if it wasn’t frightened off by the noise I was making, maybe I could catch it and kill it and eat it.
Or maybe not. I tried to get up, fell back, groaning, discovering all over again how badly every part of my body hurt. I lay still, trying to keep quiet, trying to relax my body and not tremble. And the creature wandered closer.
I waited. I knew I couldn’t chase it, but if it came close enough, I might really be able to get my hands on it.
After what seemed a long time, it found me. It came to me like a tame thing, and I lay almost out of control, trembling and gasping, and thinking only, food! So much food. It touched my face, my wrist, my throat, causing me pain somehow each time it touched me and making noises of its own.
The pain of my hunger won over all my other pain. I discovered that I was strong in spite of all the things that were wrong with me. I seized the animal. It fought me, tore at me, struggled to escape, but I had it. I clung to it, rode it, found its throat, tasted its blood, smelled its terror. I tore at its throat with my teeth until it collapsed. Then, at last, I fed, gorged myself on the fresh meat that I needed.
I ate as much meat as I could. Then, my hunger sated and my pain dulled, I slept alongside what remained of my prey.
When I awoke, my darkness had begun to give way. I could see light again, and I could see blurred shadowy shapes that blocked the light. I didn’t know what the shapes were, but I could see them. I began to believe then that my eyes had been injured somehow, but that they were healing. After a while there was too much light. It burned not only my eyes, but my skin.
I turned away from the light, dragged myself and my prey farther into the cool dimness that seemed to be so close to me, but took so much effort to reach. When I had gone far enough to escape the light, I fed again, slept again, awoke, and fed. I lost count of the number of times I did this. But after a while, something went wrong with the meat. It began to smell so bad that, even though I was still hungry, I couldn’t make myself touch it again. In fact, the smell of it was making me sick. I needed to get away from it. I remembered enough to understand that it was rotting. Meat rotted after a while, it stank and the insects got into it.
I needed fresh meat.
My injuries seemed to be healing, and it was easier for me to move around. I could see much better, especially when there wasn’t so much light. I had come to remember sometime during one of my meals that the time of less light was called night and that I preferred it to the day. I wasn’t only healing, I was remembering things. And now, at least during the night, I could hunt.
My head still hurt, throbbed dully most of the time, but the pain was bearable. It was not the agony it had been.
I got wet as soon as I crawled out of my shelter where the remains of my prey lay rotting. I sat still for a while, feeling the wetness—water falling on my head, my back, and into my lap. After a while, I understood that it was raining—raining very hard. I could not recall feeling rain on my skin before—water falling from the sky, gently pounding my skin.
I decided I liked it. I climbed to my feet slowly, my knees protesting the movement with individual outbursts of pain. Once I was up, I stood still for a while, trying to get used to balancing on my legs. I held on to the rocks that happened to be next to me and stood looking around, trying to understand where I was. I was standing on the side of a hill, from which rose a solid, vertical mass of rock. I had to look at these things, let the sight of them remind me what they were called—the hillside, the rock face, the trees—pine?—that grew on the hill as far as the sheer wall of rock. I saw all this, but still, I had no idea where I was or where I should be or how I had come to be there or even why I was there—there was so much that I didn’t know.
The rain came down harder. It still seemed good to me. I let it wash away my prey’s blood and my own, let it clean off the crust of dirt that I had picked up from where I had lain. When I was a little cleaner, I cupped my hands together, caught water in them, and drank it. That was so good that I spent a long time just catching rain and drinking it.
After a while, the rain lessened, and I decided that it was time for me to go. I began to walk down the hill. It wasn’t an easy walk at first. My knees still hurt, and it was hard for me to keep my balance. I stopped once and looked back. I could see then that I had come from a shallow hillside cave. It was almost invisible to me now, concealed behind a screen of trees. It had been a good place to hide and heal. It had kept me safe, that small hidden place. But how had I come to be in it? Where had I come from? How had I been hurt and left alone, starving? And now that I was better, where should I go?
I wandered, not aware of going anywhere in particular, except down the hill. I knew no other people, could remember no other people. I frowned, picking my way among the trees, bushes, and rocks over the wet ground. I was recognizing things now, at least by category—bushes, rocks, mud … I tried to remember something more about myself—anything that had happened to me before I awoke in the cave. Nothing at all occurred to me.
As I walked, it suddenly occurred to me that my feet were bare. I was walking carefully, not stepping on anything that would hurt me, but I could see and understand now that my feet and legs were bare. I knew I should have shoes on. In fact, I knew I should be dressed. But I was bare all over. I was naked.
I stopped and looked at myself. My skin was scarred, badly scarred over every part of my body that I could see. The scars were broad, creased, shiny patches of mottled red-brown skin. Had I always been scarred? Was my face scarred? I touched one of the broad scars across my abdomen, then touched my face. It felt the same. My face might be scarred. I wondered how I looked. I felt my head and discovered that I had almost no hair. I had touched my head, expecting hair. There should have been hair. But I was bald except for a small patch of hair on the back of my head. And higher up on my head there was a misshapen place, an indentation that hurt when I touched it and seemed even more wrong than my hairlessness or my scars. I remembered discovering, as I lay in the cave, that my head felt lumpy and soft in two places, as though the flesh had been damaged and the skull broken. There was no softness now. My head, like the rest of me, was healing.
Somehow, I had been hurt very badly, and yet I couldn’t remember how.
I needed to remember and I needed to cover myself. Being naked had seemed completely normal until I became aware of it. Then it seemed intolerable. But most important, I needed to eat again.
I resumed my downhill walk. Eventually I came to flatter, open land—farmland with something growing in some of the fields and other fields, already harvested or empty for some other reason. Again, I was remembering things—fragments—understanding a little of what I saw, perhaps just because I saw it.
Off to one side there was a collection of what I gradually recognized as the burned remains of several houses and outbuildings. All of these had been burned so thoroughly that as far as I could see, they offered no real shelter. This had been a little village surrounded by farmland and woods. There were animal pens and the good smells of animals that could be eaten, but the pens were empty. I thought the place must once have provided comfortable homes for several people. That felt right. It felt like something I would want—living together with other people instead of wandering alone. The idea was a little frightening, though. I didn’t know any other people. I knew they existed, but thinking about them, wondering about them scared me almost as much as it interested me.
People had lived in these houses sometime not long ago. Now plants had begun to grow and to cover the burned spaces. Where were the people who had lived here? Had I lived here?
It occurred to me that I had come to this place hoping to kill an animal and eat it. Somehow, I had expected to find food here. And yet I remembered nothing about this place. I recognized nothing except in the most general way—animal pens, fields, burned remnants of buildings. So why would I expect to find food here? How had I known to come here? Either I had visited here before or this place had been my home. If it was my home, why didn’t I recognize it as home? Had my injuries come from the fire that destroyed this place? I had an endless stream of questions and no answers.
I turned away, meaning to go back into the trees and hunt an animal—a deer, I thought suddenly. The word came into my thoughts, and at once, I knew what a deer was. It was a large animal. It would provide meat for several meals.
Then I stopped. As hungry as I was, I wanted to go down and take a closer look at the burned houses. They must have something to do with me or they would not hold my interest the way they did.
I walked down toward the burned buildings. I might at least be able to find something to wear. I was not cold. Even walking in the rain had not made me cold, but I wanted clothing badly. I felt very vulnerable without it. I did not want to be naked when I found other people, and I thought I must, sooner or later, find other people.
Eight of the buildings had been large houses. Their fireplaces, sinks, and bathtubs told me that much. I walked through each of them, hoping to see something familiar, something that triggered a memory, a memory about people. In one, at the bottom of a pile of charred rubble, I found a pair of jeans that were only burned a little at the bottoms of the legs, and I found three slightly burned shirts that were wearable. All of it was too large in every way—too broad, too long … Another person my size would have fit easily into the shirts with me. And there were no wearable underwear, no wearable shoes. And, of course, there was nothing to eat.
Feeding my hunger suddenly became more important than anything. I put on the pants and two of the shirts. I used the third shirt to keep the pants up, tying it around my waist and turning the top of the pants down over it. I rolled up the legs of the pants, then I went back into the trees. After a time I scented a doe. I stalked her, killed her, ate as much of her flesh as I could. I took part of the carcass up a tree with me to keep it safe from scavenging animals. I slept in the tree for a while.
Then the sun rose, and it burned my skin and my eyes. I climbed down and used a tree branch and my hands to dig a shallow trench. When I finished it, I lay down in it and covered myself with leaf litter and earth. That and my clothing—I folded one of my shirts over my face—proved to be enough of a shield to protect me from sunlight.
I lived that way for the next three days and nights, eating, hunting, examining the ruin during the night, and hiding myself in the earth during the day. Sometimes I slept. Sometimes I lay awake, listening to the sounds around me. I couldn’t identify most of them, but I listened.
On the fourth night curiosity and restlessness got the better of me. I had begun to feel dissatisfied, hungry for something other than deer flesh. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I went exploring. That was how, for the first time in my memory, I met another person.
It was raining again—a steady, gentle rain that had been coming down for some time.
I had discovered a paved road that led away from the burned houses. I had walked on it for some time before I remembered the word “road,” and that led to my remembering cars and trucks, although I hadn’t yet seen either. The road I was on led to a metal gate, which I climbed over, then to another, slightly wider road, and I had to choose a direction. I chose the downslope direction and walked along for a while in contentment until I came to a third still wider road. Again, I chose to go downhill. It was easier to walk along the road than to pick my way through the rocks, trees, underbrush, and creeks, although the pavement was hard against my bare feet.
A blue car came along the road behind me, and I walked well to one side so that I could look at it, and it would pass me without hitting me. It couldn’t have been the first car I had ever seen. I knew that because I recognized it as a car and found nothing surprising about it. But it was the first car I could remember seeing.
I was surprised when the car stopped alongside me.
The person inside was, at first, just a face, shoulders, a pair of hands. Then I understood that I was seeing a young man, pale-skinned, brown-haired, broad, and tall. His hair brushed against the top of the inside of his car. His shoulders were so broad that even alone in the car, he looked crowded. His car seemed to fit him almost as badly as my clothing fitted me. He lowered his window, looked out at me, and asked, “Are you all right?”
I heard the words, but at first, they meant nothing at all. They were noise. After a moment, though, they seemed to click into place as language. I understood them. It took me a moment longer before I realized that I should answer. I couldn’t remember ever speaking to another person, and at first, I wasn’t sure I could do it.
I opened my mouth, cleared my throat, coughed, then finally managed to say, “I … am. Yes, I am all right.” My voice sounded strange and hoarse to my own ears. It wasn’t only that I couldn’t recall speaking to anyone else. I couldn’t remember ever speaking at all. Yet it seemed that I knew how.
“No, you’re not,” the man said. “You’re soaking wet and filthy, and … God, how old are you?”
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. I didn’t have any idea how old I was or why my age should matter.
“Is that blood on your shirt?” he asked.
I looked down. “I killed a deer,” I said. In all, I had killed two deer. And I did have their blood on my clothing. The rain hadn’t washed it away.
He stared at me for several seconds. “Look, is there someplace I can take you? Do you have family or friends somewhere around here?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“You shouldn’t be out here in the middle of the night in the rain!” he said. “You can’t be any more than ten or eleven. Where are you going?”
“Just walking,” I said because I didn’t know what else to say. Where was I going? Where would he think I should be going? Home, perhaps. “Home,” I lied. “I’m going home.” Then I wondered why I had lied. Was it important for this stranger to think that I had a home and was going there? Or was it only that I didn’t want him to realize how little I knew about myself, about anything?
“I’ll take you home,” he said. “Get in.”
I surprised myself completely by instantly wanting to go with him. I went around to the passenger side of his car and opened the door. Then I stopped, confused. “I don’t really have a home,” I said. I closed the door and stepped back.
He leaned over and opened the door. “Look,” he said, “I can’t leave you out here. You’re a kid, for Godsake. Come on, I’ll at least take you someplace dry.” He reached into the backseat and picked up a big piece of thick cloth. “Here’s a blanket. Get in and wrap up.”
I wasn’t uncomfortable. Being wet didn’t bother me, and I wasn’t cold. Yet I wanted to get into the car with him. I didn’t want him to drive away without me. Now that I’d had a few more moments to absorb his scent I realized he smelled … really interesting. Also, I didn’t want to stop talking to him. I felt almost as hungry for conversation as I was for food. A taste of it had only whetted my appetite.
I wrapped the blanket around me and got into the car.
“Did someone hurt you?” he asked when he had gotten the car moving again. “Were you in someone’s car?”
“I was hurt,” I said. “I’m all right now.”
He glanced at me. “Are you sure? I can take you to a hospital.”
“I don’t need a hospital,” I said quickly, even though, at first, I wasn’t sure what a hospital was. Then I knew that it was a place where the sick and injured were taken for care. There would be a lot of people all around me at a hospital. That was enough to make it frightening. “No hospital.”
Another glance. “Okay,” he said. “What’s your name?”
I opened my mouth to answer, then closed it. After a while, I admitted, “I don’t know what my name is. I don’t remember.”
He glanced at me several times before saying anything about that. After a while he said, “Okay, you don’t want to tell me, then. Did you run away? Get tired of home and strike out on your own?”
“I don’t think so,” I frowned. “I don’t think I would do that. I don’t remember, really, but that doesn’t feel like something I would do.”
There was another long silence. “You really don’t remember? You’re not kidding?”
“I’m not. My … my injuries are healed now, but I still don’t remember things.”
He didn’t say anything for a while. Then, “You really don’t know what your own name is?”
“Then you do need a hospital.”
“No, I don’t. No!”
“Why? The doctors there might be able to help you.”
Might they? Then why did the idea of going among them scare me so? I knew absolutely that I didn’t want to put myself into the hands of strangers. I didn’t want to be even near large numbers of strangers. “No hospital,” I repeated.
Again, he didn’t say anything, but this time, there was something different about his silence. I looked at him and suddenly believed that he meant to deliver me to a hospital anyway, and I panicked. I unfastened the seat belt that he had insisted I buckle and pushed aside the blanket. I turned to open the car door. He grabbed my arm before I could figure out how to get it open. He had huge hands that wrapped completely around my arm. He pulled me back, pulled me hard against the little low wall that divided his legs from mine.
He scared me. I was less than half his size, and he meant to force me to go where I didn’t want to go. I pulled away from him, dodged his hand as he grasped at me, tried again to open the door, only to be caught again.
I caught his wrist, squeezed it, and yanked it away from my arm. He yelped, said “Shit!” and managed to rub his wrist with the hand still holding the steering wheel. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” he demanded.
I put my back against the door that I had been trying to open. “Are you going to take me to the hospital even though I don’t want to go?” I asked.
He nodded, still rubbing his wrist. “The hospital or the police station. Your choice.”
“Neither!” Being turned over to the police scared me even more than the idea of going to the hospital did. I turned to try again to get the door open.
And again, he grasped my left upper arm, pulling me back from the door. His fingers wrapped all the way around my upper arm and held me tightly, pulling me away from the door. I understood him a little better now that I’d had my hands on him. I thought I could break his wrist if I wanted to. He was big but not that strong. Or, at least, I was stronger. But I didn’t want to break his bones. He seemed to want to help me, although he didn’t know how. And he did smell good. I didn’t have the words to say how good he smelled. Breaking his bones would be wrong.
I bit him—just a quick bite and release on the meaty part of his hand where his thumb was.
“Goddamnit!” he shouted, jerking his hand away. Then he made another grab for me before I could get the door open. There were several buttons on the door, and I didn’t know which of them would make it open. None of them seemed to work. That gave him a chance to get his hand on me a third time.
“Be still!” he ordered and gave me a hard shake. “You’ll kill yourself! If you’re crazy enough to try to jump out of a moving car, you should be in mental hospital.”
I stared down at the bleeding marks I’d made on his hand, and suddenly I was unable to think about anything else. I ducked my head and licked away the blood, licked the wound I had made. He tensed, almost pulling his hand away. Then he stopped, seemed to relax. He let me take his hand between my own. I looked at him, saw him glancing at me, felt the car zigzag a little on the road.
He frowned and pulled away from me, all the while looking uncertain, unhappy. I caught his hand again between mine and held it. I felt him try to pull away. He shook me, actually lifting me into the air a little, trying to get away from me, but I didn’t let go. I licked at the blood welling up where my teeth had cut him.
He made a noise, a kind of gasp. Abruptly, he drove completely across the road to a spot where there was room to stop the car without blocking other cars—the few other cars that came along. He made a huge fist of the hand that was no longer needed to steer the car. I watched him draw it back to hit me. I thought I should be afraid, should try to stop him, but I was calm. Somehow, I couldn’t believe he would hit me.
He frowned, shook his head. After a while he dropped his hand to his lap and glared at me. “What are you doing?” he demanded, watching me, not pulling away at all now, but looking as though he wanted to—or as though he thought he should want to.
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t getting enough blood from his hand. I wanted to bite him again, but I didn’t want him afraid or angry. I didn’t know why I cared about that, but it seemed important. Also, I knew hands weren’t as good for getting blood as wrists and throats were. I looked at him and saw that he was looking intently at me.
“It doesn’t hurt anymore,” he said. “It feels good. Which is weird. How do you do that?”
“I don’t know,” I told him. “You taste good.”
“Do I?” He lifted me, squeezed past the division between the seats to my side of the car, and put me on his lap.
“Let me bite you again,” I whispered.
He smiled. “If I do, what will you let me do?”
I heard consent in his voice, and I hauled myself up and kissed the side of his neck, searching with my tongue and my nose for the largest blood source there. A moment later, I bit hard into the side of his neck. He convulsed and I held on to him. He writhed under me, not struggling, but holding me as I took more of his blood. I took enough blood to satisfy a hunger I hadn’t realized I had until a few moments before. I could have taken more, but I didn’t want to hurt him. He tasted wonderful, and he had fed me without trying to escape or to hurt me. I licked the bite until it stopped bleeding. I wished I could make it heal, wished I could repay him by healing him.
He sighed and held me, leaning back in his seat and letting me lean against him. “So what was that?” he asked after a while. “How did you do that? And why the hell did it feel so fantastic?”
He had enjoyed it—maybe as much as I had. I felt pleased, felt myself smile. That was right somehow. I’d done it right. That meant I’d done it before, even though I couldn’t remember.
“Keep me with you,” I said, and I knew I meant it the moment I said it. He would have a place to live. If I could go there with him, maybe the things I saw there would help me begin to get my memory back—and I would have a home.
“Do you really not have anywhere to go or anyone looking for you?” he asked.
“I don’t think I have anyone,” I said. “I don’t remember. I need to find out who I am and what happened to me and … and everything.”
“Do you always bite?”
I leaned back against him. “I don’t know.”
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