A Fish Out of Water
"You must miss living on Earth." I'm always told this by well meaning humans. Never asked. Somehow, they feel as if they know me better than myself.
"No, I don't," I always say, smiling to take the sting out of my words, usually spoken to homesick humans who, really, are speaking for themselves.
"How not?" they always then ask. And the answer is a little complicated. It's a bit of a story, actually, that goes back a few years.
Sarek was trying to be nice. Or at least fair, I suppose. I was a little shocked when he let me know he was packing us all off for two years on Earth – him, to serve as Vulcan ambassador to Terra. Me to go back to teach, I suppose, at my old stomping grounds. And our three year old son? Sarek didn't say it, but I suspect he thought for him to be totally corrupted by human values – no, I mean to broaden his cultural – well, I thought maybe to travel a zillion light-years from his desert covered home to have his first chance to actually play in a sandbox.
That's the kind of paradoxical life I lead.
Sarek obviously expected me to be thrilled, or at least pleased at his news. I tried not to let on that I thought it was largely going to be a tremendous headache to pull up stakes and reacclimatize to Terra, when I had finally, after the last couple of years, manage to acclimate my stubborn human body to Vulcan, at least as much as a human ever can.
But being a diplomat's wife was what I signed on for, and it was Terra after all, not Tellur or Andor, or someplace even worse. I should be pleased, right? So I put a good face on it, and pretended to be pleased. And off we went.
Like any mother hen with one chick, I worried about Spock acclimating to Terra. And I even worried about that one myself. I had been finding the Earth normal conditions in, say, the Terran Embassy pretty cold and clammy these days. But I hadn't thought much about Sarek. Being a Vulcan, he had that marvelous ability to adjust his metabolism. And where he couldn't, he was, after all, pretty stoic about such things. Even after four years of marriage and bonding and all, there were plenty of times when I didn't have a clue what he was feeling, much less thinking. I figured he was more than equal to it. So I didn't worry about him.
In those days, the Federation government hadn't settled permanently in Geneva, and was still leapfrogging every four years from continent to continent in their attempt to be fair, or at least spread the pain around. It was still largely a government of Terra and her colonies, and a few non human allies who were, for the most part, not really considered as such. So they didn't think it at all a problem that they moved from continent to continent, and not planet to planet. At least not yet.
For our stint, they were in North America. D.C. The District. Or for those not in the know, Washington D.C. It could have been worse. Antarctica had been the last continent, and it was not my idea of a great two year stint.
In spite of being, by Vulcan standards, situated in a fetid swamp, D.C. had some cultural advantages. The Smithsonian. Lots of symphonies, concerts, operas, museums. Shopping galore. Though shopping was never a passion of mine, after years absent from Terra, the idea of it held a faint thrill.
But for the first thing we had to shop for, I had to take Sarek along.
We went house hunting in Georgetown. A nice old Federal townhouse, I thought. With one of those pocket-sized gardens in the back, enough for a couple of rosebushes and an outdoor dining set. Sarek could walk to work, or take the subway on cold days. I'd have Georgetown U. practically at my doorstep.
We got taken up by a realtor so illustrious she only took special clients on referral. After a conversation with me, she lined us up a very select group of houses, taking us to the best one first. And I thought it was perfect. It had everything I wanted, location, charm, a bit of room, but not too big. A pretty little garden, with the roses, and even a small fountain that partially drowned out the traffic noise. It would feel like a dollhouse to Sarek after the Fortress, but it was, after all, only a temporary pied-a-terre, not a permanent home. So I thought.
We went over the house and Sarek asked a lot of questions – more than I would have expected, given he didn't usually take much of an interest in housekeeping. I had thought he'd be more of a passive partner on this transaction. More fool, me. And he clearly didn't seem to like the answers he was getting either. He kept throwing me looks that he obviously expected me to interpret and that left me mystified. We finally went into a huddle in the kitchen when the agent left us to talk alone.
"Well, what do you think?" I asked. "We could use that room off the master bedroom as a nursery for Spock and--"
"This house is completely unsuitable," Sarek said.
"It is?" I asked. He gave me another one of those looks, and I nodded in agreement, confused but momentarily unwilling to argue, the force of his conviction was so strong as to nearly bowl me over on first encountering it. It was totally unconcious on his part, just part of his personality, yet an effective trait for an Ambassador. It could still take me unawares when I was least expecting it. "It is. Of course, it is." I said, then paused, considering. "Only I thought it was perfect." I said, drawing a breath, and reestablishing my own convictions, while his eyebrows flew to his bangs.
"What exactly is wrong with it?" I asked.
"Amanda," he said with the excessive patience Vulcans have for dimwitted human wives. "It doesn't have any water."
"Water," I repeated. And I blinked. I couldn't have been more stupefied if he had said it didn't have any air. "Do you mean there's something wrong with the plumbing?" I reached over and turned on a tap, which released an obedient flow of clean cool water. I tried the hot tap. The same, except for the temperature.
"I'm not speaking of plumbing," Sarek said, that trace of leashed impatience in his voice that always made his aides scurry to do his bidding. "It doesn't have water."
Okay, I get that to a Vulcan, humans can be a little dense at times, but I was mystified here. Clearly he was saying something I wasn't hearing. I put my hand in the flow of water and shook it, so that the drops sparkled in the pale Terran sunlight through the light filled windows. It really was a pretty kitchen. "Chemistry is not my field of expertise," I said slowly, "but unless I'm very much mistaken, this is--"
"It doesn't have Its Own Water Source." Sarek enunciated the last few words as if they were capitalized. "We can't live in a house without water." The conviction in his voice did make it seem as if I was expecting him to live in a house without air. Which to a Vulcan from a desert world, was, well, practically the same, perhaps to him. But to me...
My brow cleared. I would have laughed, but for the fact that Sarek never – well rarely – laughed at me when I put forth provincial Terran attitudes on Vulcan. And it didn't matter that Vulcans rarely laughed anyway. Not if they were quite sane. It simply wasn't sporting of me to take advantage of him in his ignorance. "Sarek," I said gently, to take the sting out of my words, "in spite of my planet's perhaps inappropriate name, Terra is a water world. We are not exactly hurting for water. Why, 70 percent of the Earth's surface is--"
"72.347, to be exact," Sarek said, not missing a beat. "No matter. We cannot live in a house without water."
I swallowed the rest of my speech and, well recognizing that particular tone in my husband's voice – decided doesn't cut it – followed him out while he gave his verdict to the real estate agent. No house without water. Right. Let him explain it to her.
The real estate agent was used to dealing with obscure requirements and dignitaries, but after Sarek rejected one house after another that day, on her list of perfect possibilities she'd lined up for us, none of which, of course, she had enquired into their source of water, and none of which, of course, had their own water, all relying on water from public utilities, you could tell she was regretting taking on this particular client. She kept throwing me pleading looks as if I could somehow talk sense into my husband. Even I thought Sarek was being twitchy.
"They do have water," I said to Sarek, when I got him alone again in the fifth or sixth house, the real estate agent taking a much needed break from us. "They just have public mains. It's perfectly safe," I tried to convince him. "It's normal."
"No. Not for Vulcans. Not for me, or Spock, or you. This is not a temporary stay. We will be here two years. We must have our own water source."
"It won't run out," I assured him. "It flows, winter and summer. You may not necessarily approve of what's in it -- I'm joking, of course. Municipal water is checked and treated -- but no one has ever died of thirst in Georgetown. At least not in the last few centuries."
I damned all provincial Vulcans, specifically all clan leaders who for thousands of years fought horrific wars for possession of rare -- on Vulcan – sources of water, and the illogic of transporting that attitude to Earth along with the rest of our luggage. Clearly I should have better checked his baggage for what he was packing that had best been left on Vulcan.
The fact that the Fortress at home was entirely self sufficient I thought had been a pleasant historical anachronism. That Sarek had insisted on terraforming gardens there to grow Terran fruits and vegetables for me I had thought was merely a thoughtful gift. Now I realized I was up against a deep felt Vulcan tenet. We might be a clan of only three on Terra, but we were of his clan. And nothing in Sarek's mindset about being at least minimally self sufficient in some basic essentials had changed in his moving us to Terra. None of the houses that I had thought were eminently suitable even made Sarek's first cut.
I was beginning to wonder if we were going to have to pitch a tent in the desert while we built a replica of the Fortress, when the agent finally took us, with an air of triumph, to a house way out in Middleburg. Even in a flyer the travel time made it horribly inconvenient compared to that perfect little house Sarek had first rejected. By this time, I had given up being an active participant in the house hunting search because I hadn't the vaguest idea what he was looking for, or if we would ever find it on Earth. We flew up the old land approach to the house, acres of rolling fields while I surreptitiously checked my watch and rolled my eyes upon calculating the daily commute for each of us. Sarek, however, was eying the fields.
"Is that grain?" He asked the agent with what sounded like real interest.
"Hay on the left. And oats on the right. This is horse country, you know. Though there are wheat fields, too. Some people do insist on wheat straw, still, in the stable. There's a tenant farmer who takes care of all that."
Sarek threw me a look, which I didn't even bother to try to interpret. I shifted in my seat and asked, without much hope, what seemed to me a more logical, or at least practical, question. "Is there a local high speed transport station?"
"Not here, I'm afraid. The locals voted against it. They were afraid it would let undesirable elements in. They like their privacy."
That pretty much did it for me. Over an hour to commute every day, plus a bunch of stuffy neighbors who no doubt would consider an alien ambassador an undesirable element. Sarek, however, merely looked more satisfied. To a Vulcan, privacy and space were key.
I don't mind space. I just didn't think we needed this much space. And unless there was a mill on that property, I didn't think we either needed or could use a field of home grown oats. Or wheat, for that matter. Oatmeal was all very well, but a high speed magnetic train into downtown - or better yet a nice two bedroom townhouse in Georgetown -- with a few oatmeal selections programmed into the automated kitchen processor -- was more what I had in mind for our practical needs.
When it came in view the house convinced me. Not a tenth the size of the Fortress, but way too big for us. Just to heat the place to Vulcan comfort would be exorbitant. And no way could I take care of a house like this without help. I threw Sarek a look, but he was clearly as bad at interpreting my looks as I'd been about his. If he had been looking. He had his head craned out the window as the agent flew a lazy circle over the house itself.
"Is that a garden?" Sarek was asking.
"Oh, plenty of gardens. Oh, do you mean the walled space between the house and the stable block? That's a kitchen garden, yes. Herbs, even vegetables."
She landed the flyer. Though I was sorely tempted not to even get out of the aircar, I let myself be handed out. Still trying to be a good sport, I followed morosely around as the agent led us through a myriad of echoing rooms with enough enthusiasm for both of us. The house was lovely. To quote Jean Brodie, 'For those that like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.' But it was completely impractical for us. We were only going to be here two years. It would take that long to get all these rooms furnished. It was too big. It was drafty. Oh, the rooms might come in handy for hosting diplomatic parties and guests, but my heart was still back in the Georgetown house.
"Seven fireplaces," the real estate agent pointed out cheerfully, leading us past one big enough to roast a steer. Big enough, in fact, to host a walk-in steer roasting party. Just what we needed in our vegetarian household.
Seven flues leaking hot air every winter. My baby would freeze in this place.
"Sarek, don't you think, practically speaking that the -" I began, as she led us finally, to the kitchen.
"And of course," the real estate agent hurriedly said, as if forestalling the inevitable objection. "it has it's own well. Artesian. Plus two spring fed streams. Plenty of water."
"Excellent," Sarek said. He didn't even bother to turn on a tap. I did, mostly in the hope that, this time, there would be something wrong with the plumbing. It worked, of course. I nearly burned my hand on the hot water. Just my luck. I winced and put my parboiled finger in my mouth.
"Amanda?" Sarek asked, as the real estate agent was leading us out the door, into the walled garden, to show us the stables.
"There's a hanger," the agent was assuring us, as we passed a row of loose boxes. "This is just for horses. And this passageway leads us back to the kitchen garden." She opened another door and we were back in the square. Someone had espaliered fruit trees along the old brick walls, and there was a circular herb garden in the center, around a little wishing well like structure, covered with both a roof and a grating. There was a hose and a modern irrigation system, but it also had an old fashioned pump handle and bucket, probably for effect. And no doubt for show, the agent stepped up to it and hauled off on the pump handle, setting off a gush of water that I hastily stepped back from before it soaked my shoes. "This well is also functional, of course," she said, with an air of triumph.
Right. Like I'd be out here, a modern Mammie Yokum, pumping water into that dirty bucket.
"Excellent," Sarek said again, looking around at the garden with an air of satisfaction I would never have expected, given he was staring at blue sky and green leaves and not his beloved desert sands. "It's perfect for us. We will take it."
"Are you out of your mind?" I asked, completely breaking every pose of decorum we Vulcans try to practice before outworlders. I really do try not to embarrass my husband in public.
"I'll leave you two to discuss it privately," the agent said hastily. But she threw me a pleading look before she left, clearly dreading more interminable house hunting with a Vulcan.
She might not have bothered. What followed was the kind of futile argument with which I was only beginning to become acquainted. To put me into the role of being the logical one in the argument, when clearly, by species alone, I deserved to be on the other side seemed vastly unfair to me and put me at a clear disadvantage. Plus the fact that when Sarek wanted something, I was completely unmatched. I should have remembered this from when he first went after me, but I'd forgotten. He had a logical argument for all my objections, and he was deaf to my contentions that we didn't need an artesian well and two spring fed streams, much less a kitchen garden, a stable block, seven fireplaces, and forty unfurnished and empty rooms. He took the house.
And he was right, as always, just as he had been in our marriage. It was perfect for us. The agent had a decorator friend who soon filled what rooms we needed with furniture. She also knew an agency who'd find us a housekeeper and a groundsman. After a day of privately mulling over what I had thought were my futile arguments against the house and in favor of the other, Sarek surprised me by deciding to also take the Georgetown house as well, to give us a pied-a-terre on those days when we stayed late for meetings or some social activity. He congratulated me on my logic in foreseeing those issues, while I tried to reconcile his -- to me -- conflicting views. We lived in the Georgetown house, quite happily, while the Middleburg house was furnished, and we ended up spending mostly weekends in Middleburg-- with three days a week in the townhouse.
Apparently it was okay for Vulcans to have a house that didn't have water, so long as you had an ace in the hole house that did, for those treacherous times when the public water sources failed, or an enemy clan attacked. From all the way across the galaxy, Vulcan to Earth. I knew better than to comment. Even logical Vulcans have their moments of illogic.
Instead, I found a lovely private progressive school in the city for Spock. He was soon nearly outstripping the teachers, between that and private lessons at home. And a pony club for him in the country. The commuting wasn't bad, because we hired a driver and we both did work on the way back and forth from city to country. And also in the country were the two horses and pony I soon acquired, all eating their heads off of the home grown hay and oats. I had Spock on a pony in weeks. Even Sarek wasn't bad on a horse. They had a natural affinity for animals, my Vulcans. Most animals, that is.
Except for Sarek's involuntary reaction when, reaching for a hoof pick one day, he came nearly nose to nose with a big striped stable cat who had crouched under the saddle tree. It had probably been sleeping on the saddle pads again. Sarek reared back as shocked as if the cat had bitten him on the nose.
"Kitty," Spock said cheerfully, pointing it out to his father from the top of his pony as the cat, totally ignoring my frantic gestures, casually strolled into the stable yard, its tiger stripes rippling over its lithe muscles.
"No," Sarek said automatically to his son. "Amanda." He looked from Spock to me as if wondering which one of us to rescue first.
"It's just a cat, Sarek. A domestic cat." I pointed out, tightening up my saddle girth. It was big as cats go, a good hunter and mouser. But still just a cat. Right?
The domestic cat didn't help its cause by giving a huge yawn after its aborted nap, showing a row of small yet excellent teeth, and then stretching hugely, scoring the ground with its claws.
"No cats," Sarek pronounced, in the most emphatic mode he could manage when speaking in English, which fortunately had no emphatic mode. It made it so much less heretical to argue around it.
And I had half expected this. On Vulcan, there are no domestic felines. All the cats there are venomous and wild. Extremely dangerous. I couldn't really blame Sarek for his near instinctive reaction.
"It's a friendly cat. It doesn't hunt people. Just mice."
Sarek drew a deep breath, reestablishing his control and regarded the cat doubtfully with narrowed eyes as, with the perverse manner of all cats, it sidled up to the one person who couldn't bear it, with the obvious intent of rubbing against that person's immaculate riding boots.
"No." Sarek repeated, barely suppressing a shudder and stepping away from the affronted animal.
I left off my tacking up. "It won't hurt you," I assured him. "It's just trying to make friends. You woke him up, you know." I shooed the cat away from my Vulcan husband, who, in normal circumstances when he wasn't terrified by pussycats, could take on anything short of a dinosaur.
"It sets a terrible example for Spock," Sarek pointed out, as the cat, vastly offended at my husband's lack of proper manners, turned its back on the unsociable Vulcan and pretended to wash its face. "How is he to know that he must avoid such creatures when we return home?" Sarek continued. "No cats," he repeated to Spock, who was following the argument with fascination.
"Yes, cats," Spock said, undeterred. "And kittens, too."
"Blabbermouth," I hissed to my unrepentant son, but not softly enough to escape Sarek's Vulcan hearing. I'd hoped to avoid the dangerous topic of the five newborn kittens Spock had found nesting in a saddle blanket, not having made Sarek's automatic leap between domestic Terran kittens and Vulcan lematya. Though it wasn't entirely my fault. The horses, I'd bought, but the cats had conveyed with the house. They were long term residents. "Come on," I said hastily, "we'll miss our ride if we don't get going."
"Kittens?" Sarek asked me, with a dangerous air.
"All stables have cats," I told my husband loftily. "And cats have kittens. It's…traditional." There. He couldn't argue with that.
He gave me a look I had no trouble interpreting, but thankfully, stopped his protests at that. Still, after he mounted his horse, he rode a wide circle around the disdainful cat, as if to lead by example.
I can't say Spock was entirely good about following that example, since he smuggled a kitten into the house whenever he could. Perhaps that was a foreshadowing of future events. I don't know. Sarek, thankfully, simply ignored the cats so completely it was as if they didn't exist for him, his way of dealing with their impossible (for him) presence. It was a bit of a stretch for him to do so when he'd find one of Spock's kittens nesting in his sock drawer, or when they walked under his nose across the papers on his desk, but as I pointed out to him, it gave him plenty of opportunity to exercise his Vulcan control.
Other than the cats, we were actually pretty happy in the Middleburg house for almost the full two years. Until the day we turned on one of its many taps. Then all of its many taps. And discovered the water had, indeed, failed.
The well company assured Sarek there was enough water down there for a thousand years. Which to a Vulcan, used to thinking in terms of multiple millennia, only disturbed Sarek further. Shocked him really. To a Vulcan, a thousand years is nothing. The engineer, realizing his mistake, assured him there was water down there enough for ten thousand years. Forever. They just had to drill past a chip of limestone that had shifted underground, temporarily blocking the flow. They just needed to get their equipment in. It would take a couple of weeks, max.
Sarek wasn't really appeased.
It wasn't that much of an inconvenience. We turned the horses out in the spring fed pastures, and went to stay in the city house for the couple of weeks it took to set the well to rights. I was mature enough to not even think of pointing out to my husband that the city water kept flowing there, without fail, the whole time we were in residence. At least, I didn't think of it much. I'm sure Sarek didn't notice my smug looks every time I turned on a tap those couple of weeks or gave him a glass of water. And if I had to bite my tongue a few times, well, Sarek no doubt put it down to a human's inevitable clumsiness.
But I couldn't triumph for long. Even though the well was soon set to rights, Sarek wasn't. He wasn't paying attention to my smug looks because he had bigger things on his mind. He was no longer easy in either house. The water failing, even momentarily, had fundamentally disturbed him at some deep Vulcan level. He was, dare I say it, twitchy again. I could tell he'd had enough of Earth. He wanted to go home.
I had just started to feel comfortable again on Earth. Even to enjoy living there. Truth to be told, however paradoxical it was, that made me eager to go home too. The longer I stayed, the harder I knew it would be for me to leave.
So we had a conversation where I let Sarek know I was more than willing to head back a little early. Sarek in an unprecedented absconding from his normal duty bound life, arranged for his replacement from Vulcan to come a few months ahead of schedule. And home we went.
It wasn't until we got home – yes, home, even to me, that the infinitesimal knot between his brows smoothed out as if it had never been. Even though the air was so thin, I was gasping a little – so much for Triox – he took his first free breath in what seemed like the last two years.
Spock was fussing and I took him into the kitchen. He needed a meal, and as for me, shell shocked by the climate in spite of past experience with the heat and the dry air, I needed something cool to drink.
Sarek followed me in, a look on his face that in a human would have been brooding, but in a Vulcan warned me that he was just itching to go and meditate.
Like women all over the galaxy, I'm used to a husband being almost useless around the house, though it is one he was born in, and one I can still get lost in even on a good day. And don't think I wasn't uneasily considering a need, after two years away, to reacquainting myself with the floorplans, all done up in archaic Vulcanir a good six millennia old. Stone corridors can look an awful lot alike. But to get back to husbands, I was used to a broody Vulcan standing useless while I tried to settle Spock down to a meal while my picky son turned up his Vulcan nose at everything I offered, letting me know he was going to be as hard to reacclimatize to Vulcan food as he had been to Terran.
Sarek was there before me at the sink, and he was filling three tumblers methodically, one after one. I took one for Spock without bothering to comment on Sarek's unexpected helpfulness in domestic chores. And it wasn't until I was finishing off my glass that I really paid attention to Sarek, who was filling the third with an unfathomable look. I went to refill my glass again, but he gave me his own, and filling up the one I'd handed him, took a sip and then, let out a little sigh that he'd clearly been holding in for the last two years. And his shoulders dropped an infinitesimal bit that to me, spoke volumes about how relaxed he really was, to be home. His eyes met mine with the barest trace of relief. "At last, we have water," he said. Without the barest trace of irony, so that I couldn't even quite feel the irony myself. That's bonding for you. When even incomprehensible Vulcan attitudes, somehow, make perfect sense.
And that's what I always tell those humans who ask me why I don't like living on Earth.
You'd have to have been there. But it makes perfect sense.
To Sarek. To both of us really.
Not to mention that terrible plague of cats running around freely, just everywhere.
Well, okay. That one I have a little trouble with. Every time I hear a lematya roar outside the gates.
"The cats on Terra don't try to kill us," I point out to my husband, when we have a particularly troublesome lematya hanging around.
"But there, they're in the house," Sarek points out, as if that makes all the difference, with the barest hint of a remembered shudder. Clearly it does, to him.
Oh yes, we're better off on Vulcan. Where we have water. And where the vicious cats stay outside.
To a Vulcan, it really does make perfect sense. But for a human, I think you'd have to be bonded to one to understand.
Meanwhile, would you care for a glass of water? We have plenty.
A Fish out of Water
Holography series 0
Barbara Ann Foley Hughes
August 1954 – August 2008