She was shelling peas, that old woman. I heard them plop into the white bowl on her lap as I walked towards her. The wind blew her long, white hair back and forth. She wore a black dress. It touched the tops of her shoes. Her home was old, ivy overgrown. I had been walking all day and exhaustion hung heavy around me. It was a new world for me, an alien world. I was here only because I had to be. I did not know the people, but I was hoping she would allow me to sleep on her floor. It was growing dark and chilly. Already the sun had begun to set and the night winds to blow through the dimness of the twilight that was settling in. I didn't mind the chill nor the blackness for I had slept outside many a night, but not knowing what kind of wildlife they had on this world, I did not relish being on the outside when I slumbered this evening. She stopped, watching me, her eyes neither welcoming nor forbidding, neither inquisitive nor incurious but somewhere in between.
"You're not from our world," she said calmly as I stopped close to her. The dust from the unpaved road made my feet travel-soiled.
"No," I agreed quietly.
"This is a strange place for you to be. You must be going the wrong way. Nothing's ahead but the village. Space Port's behind you."
"I know. I'm looking for a temporary job and they had none. I thought I'd try in the town."
"Oh." The old woman shelled a few more peas. She chewed her lower lip. Her eyes remained on her job. "My name's Jist."
"Where you from?" Plop, plop. The peas landed sure and careful in that cracked bowl.
I shrugged. "Here and there."
She seemed to study something in herself, arguing quietly in her mind. "Here and there?"
"I travel a lot."
"You got a family? Aren't they missing you?"
"I'm looking for my father. He's out there, somewhere. I have no one else. Mother died two years ago."
She nodded, making up her mind. I could see she had from the expression on her face. I wondered what she had been silently debating. "You say you're looking for a job?"
"A temporary one. I had just enough to come here. I need to make enough to travel on. Like I said, I'm looking for my father." Anything further was none of her business.
The old woman stood up. She had the bowl in one hand but the sack of peas were on the porch, forgotten. "Stay here tonight. There's just me and my daughter. You'll have to sleep on the floor, but you'll be by the fire. Tomorrow morning, I'll take you to the Sack Cave. The Sacketts are looking for someone. I'm sure they'll take you."
"I thank you for the opportunity to sleep here tonight and for you taking me to the cave. What kind of job is it?" It was a strange place to work but I had never been on this world before and it might be a lab. I would have to wait and see.
Looking quickly away, she shrugged. "Never gone there before," the older female muttered. She went to the open doorway and called. "Yetti?"
A young woman left a far room. She was about eighteen, more like the old woman's granddaughter than her child. Her hair was golden, thick with curls. She wore dark grey pants, a flowing, blue shirt. "Yes, Mother?"
"She's staying tonight. I'll be taking her to the cave tomorrow."
The young female's eyes grew wide with shock. "Mother?"
"I said I'm taking her to the cave tomorrow."
"But, Mother . . ."
The mother threw her a look. The girl paled. "I said I'm taking her to the Cave tomorrow and that's what I'm going to do. Set another place at the table. She's eating with us tonight. Here." She handed the girl the bowl of peas. "I left the sack outside on the porch. Bring it in."
"Yes, Mother." The girl put the bowl in the cooler by the back wall. It was old, that cooler, as old as the house, and although it was grey with age, its outer surface was clean. The daughter went outside. The cold wind, a few dried leaves, blew in as she opened the door.
The old woman turned to me. "Sit, rest. Dinner will be ready as soon as your plate is put on the table." She motioned to a wood chair close to the fire. I removed my cloak and placed it across the back of the wooden chair. The warmth from the burning logs felt pleasant to my chilled skin. "It's a cold night." I nodded. I could feel my body relaxing. The girl brought in the sack and the chilliness once more before closing and barring the door. She placed the bag in the cooler as well. She went to the cupboard and took down a plate and cracked cup. She set them on the table and took her spoon and put it on the plate. She filled the cup with water. "Come and eat," the old woman told me. I ate but I had to fight going to sleep as I did. "You're tired."
Nodding, I answered her, "I am; I've been traveling a lot lately."
"You go curl up by the fire." Mumbling a thank you, I stumbled to the pallet, grabbing my cloak as I did. No one sooner was I on that pallet, my cloak wrapped around me, than I was lost to my surroundings.
The cave was lit with fire pits and torches. I saw them from the entrance where the old woman and I stood. I saw dark figures too but could not make them out. There was a strong odor of spices. I could hear chanting in the background. A frogman came to us as we entered the cave. He wore leather, shoes, clothes. His flesh was dark green, covered with warts. He glared at me. Angry, he took the old woman aside. I saw them arguing. He finally nodded. I saw the overwhelming relief on her face. I also noticed, she did not look toward me. He turned to me. "We have chosen you."
Two more frogmen came to us from a dark section of the cave. They grabbed hold of me. I struggled but they were too strong. My cloak fell to the ground. "Let me go!" I cursed them. They neither responded to my words nor turned me loose. "What is this?" I demanded of the woman. She looked at me then. It finally dawned on me, I wasn't going to get free; I stopped moving.
"They wanted my daughter," she said; "I gave them you."
"You gave them me? I don't understand." She walked out of the cave. Alarmed, I screamed at her and once again renewed my effort to get free. They drug me into the heart of the cave. The room was full of frogmen. There were red, glowing stones embedded in the wall. More were on side tables, tables made of stone. They seemed to radiate with inner life. One of the amphibians held one of the gems. Another came to me with a vial. Yet a third jerked back my head. The one with the vial uncorked it and held it beneath my nose. I had to smell it. It's sweet perfume offered nothing to alarm me but within seconds, I passed out. When I came to, I was on a stone table, tied down so I could not move. My bosom was free of my clothing. I caught sight of one of the jewels on my chest. My mind wasn't working so it took a moment for me to realize it was engrafted in me. Then panic set it. I knew where I was, how I came to be there. One of the anurans untied my hands. He forced me to touch the gem. The panic, the alarm, vanished.
"You get scared, you get worried, you get sick, you touch the gem. It is your symbiosis."
"No! I . . ." I was impelled to touch the jewel once again. The anger, the terror had begun to bubble up inside me, disappeared.
He repeated, "You get scared, you get worried, you get sick, you touch the gem."
"I won't!" I vowed. Something propelled my hand towards the stone. I battled against the movement, but my hand had a life of it's own. I touched the crystalline rock. Calmness invaded me. My hand dropped away. I began to weep. Once more, my fingers sought the gem. My tears vanished.
They helped me up. I closed my clothing and simply sat there, staring at my feet. "Why?"
"They must live. They need living tissue to cling to in order to survive. You feed them your blood, your nourishment; they feed you mastery over your emotions."
"I don't want it! I want to be free! I want to feel anger and happiness."
"Emotions will harm the symbion."
"I won't eat!"
"We cannot. It will not let us. The strength of its will to live is great." One of others brought a small box to him. He took it, opened it. I saw a beating heart inside. Without them telling me, I knew it was mine. "This is your heart. You must make physical contact with it once every six months. Not to do so will produce your death."
"I won't do it," I vowed. "I'll throw it away! I'll destroy it! I'll die first!" Against my wish, my fingers touched the rock once more. The emotional agony went away.
"You will not do any of those things. The stone has many powers . . ."
"I don't care."
The frogman sighed. "You are free to leave now." He put the box in an inner pocket of my cape.
I tried to rip the stone from my chest. My hand jerked away from the effort. It froze. The pain was immense as I fought against the Heart Stone. It won. My fingers caressed the ruby surface. I became calm, emotion free. Stumbling, I left that cave, left them.
Dawn was approaching but I could see the lights from the little village down the hill. I went towards it. I clutched my cloak close to me. My mind was a blur. Somehow, I made it there. Even at that early hour, people bustled around me, talking, laughing, hurrying. I felt detached from them, totally out of place. Water bubbled from a fountain. It's ornateness was old, worn, covered with moss and slime. Birds twittered, flew back and forth. They lit close to me, took off, relit. At a distance, children ran, chasing each other, laughing. The sun, warmer than yesterday, took the chill away. I went to the side and sat down on one of the benches. I wanted to give into my feelings, the despondency that was trying to surge through me, but of course, that crystalline life would not allow me the privilege. I wanted to experience hatred, rage, but could not. It wasn't fair but it was true. I was still a human but was no longer allowed to be a human.