("Saber Marionette J," its characters and situations are copyright of their respective owners. Story copyright 2011 by George Pollock, Jr. All rights reserved.)

Waiting for Rice

by

George Pollock, Jr.

She lifted the lid of the pot, and the steam burst forth to embrace her in white.

The vapor touched the woman's face and chest, forming a glistening sheen on her skin. She waved the lid back and forth to disperse the cottony wisps rising from the restaurant-size metal pot sitting on the gas cooker behind the festival booth. She looked in. Almost done now, she thought.

The rice had been simmering nicely for several minutes. She took a sizeable wooden spoon and began stirring. She was tall and statuesque, yet strongly built, and shifting the mass of plumping grain didn't challenge her. More steam swirled as she stirred, enveloping her again. The day – though beautifully blue and sunny – was hot and humid, too, so her garments were beginning to get damp.

She listened while replacing the lid. Slightly muted, like a conversation in an adjoining room, were the sounds of the summer festival. A line of booths separated her from the voices, music and laughter, and all she saw – other than the backs of the booths – were a wide stretch of grass and a forest beyond. The sounds of the unseen crowd were muffled by the booths, but that was only part of the reason they seemed distant. She was also half deaf.

Between the steam and the humidity, she was glad she had worn white shorts and a white winding cloth of over the lower part of her ample breasts and her upper midriff. A white happi coat hung on her loosely, and wooden sandals kept her feet open to the air. She was glad, too, that she remembered to bring a white headband to keep sweat out of her red-brown eyes. Most of her long red hair was pulled into a vertical ponytail to keep it off her neck. Her neck was sweaty, nevertheless. A large red bang hung over the left side of her head.

A trickle of sweat raced down her deep cleavage. Then another. And another. Time to towel off, she thought.

She grabbed a white towel draped over the back of a simple wooden chair nearby, then sat down. She reached behind her back and loosened the winding cloth. Instantly, the pressure on her breasts was released, and it felt good. She took a deep breath, and it felt better, and she pulled the cloth down from her breasts. Her forehead was wiped of sweat first, then the rest of her face, the back of her neck, her shoulders, her upper back and her arms. Then the soft pile traveled across her upper chest until it finally ventured, gently, into her cleavage and dried the moisture there.

Slowly, the fabric moved over until she had cupped her left breast. She couldn't feel her hand through the towel, so it was as if someone else, someone outside herself, was sizing up her bosom. She closed her eyes and moved the cloth to her right breast. Again, the same sensation – the same disembodied thrill.

She sighed. It had been too long. Much too long. Decades, in fact, since a man had felt her endowments, and even then, it had been by accident. He was young and unsure, and he had tripped clumsily near her. His arms flailed for balance, his face fell forward and his hands instinctively sought a hold to break his fall.

His face ended in her cleavage. His hands landed on her breasts. And it had, she admitted, felt very, very good ...

Immediately, he recovered, flustered a moment and begged forgiveness. She remembered to this day how deeply red his face became. It was cute, almost precious. Of course, she forgave him, although in her mind, there was nothing for him to apologize for. She wanted him to always be at ease around her, and she had hoped that the accident would be the start of greater closeness. Even intimacy. At that time, she imagined teasing him in later years – in private moments – of how they "met." The thought always gave her a sly, satisfied grin.

She had two sisters, and when she told them of the accident with the young man, they were jealous. They had crushes on him, too, and her encounter made her feel a little powerful over them.

The two sisters were a paradox: They both looked younger than her, but they had been around longer than her. The smallest looked like a young girl, with funny squeaky shoes and a yellow cloth cap tied tight with a big knot. Upon learning of the accident, she had stomped and pouted and even cried, "No fair!"

The middle sister – seemingly older than the first but not acting as mature as the redhead – was partial to kimonos and elaborate hairpieces. She had reacted like a jealous teen, fuming and glaring and warning, "I won't give up! You can't have him so easily!"

Her eyes still closed, the woman recalled all their disappointments after later events. The young man found the woman whom fate had destined for him, and the three sisters became their "good friends." But the trio had hoped for more. She, especially, had always hoped for more.

Nearly 60 years ago. She still seemed to be in her late 20s, as humans gauged time – maybe early 30s – and six decades didn't seem to have touched her. She didn't know exactly how old she was – or how she had been created – but all evidence suggested that she and her sisters were now nearly 400 years old.

And there were days when her joints – and her circuits – felt like it.

She felt the towel on her right breast again and imagined it was the grasp of the young man.

"Heh-wo …?"

A child's voice. A girl's. The woman's eyes snapped open. And there was a girl. She seemed about 11 and wore a blue yukata with bright-red flowers on it. A sharp contrast to her bright blond hair and her large brown eyes behind round wire-rimmed glasses. She carried a ceramic bowl so large, she used both hands to hold it.

The woman instantly covered her breasts with the towel. She turned away from the child quickly, then reached behind her back with one hand to pull the winding cloth to its former position there. "Oh … Lori …," she said disorientedly. "I didn't hear you come back here ..." She dropped the towel, pulled the winding cloth over her nipples and tightened the garment. She brushed some hair from her face and adjusted her clothes nervously.

The girl walked around the pot on the cooker. "Mama says we need more rice soon," she said, holding out the bowl as proof.

The adult turned back to her. "Well …," she answered, still trying to recover her composure, "it should be … a few minutes." Her expression brightened in forced delight. "Can you wait?"

"Awright."

"Would you like to sit down?"

" OK."

The woman got out of the chair, and the child took her place. As they traded, the older female noted – as always – the youngster's speech defect. The girl had had it since she learned to talk, and the woman knew the cause. Something she shared: The child was half deaf, too.

After draping the towel around her neck, the woman lifted the lid again and was greeted by steam. She grabbed the spoon and started stirring the rice again. "How are your parents doing at the booth?"

"OK. 'ots of people are buying their food."

"Well, that's good. Tell them I'm glad to help out, like your grandfather asked me. Have you had fun so far?"

"Yeah. Tried to catch a go'dfish at one booth, but it got away."

"Oh, I'm sorry."

"I 'ike go'dfish. They're pretty."

"I think they're pretty, too." The woman sighed and stirred. Every time she heard the girl speak, it hurt. The whole story came back, and it always made her sad. The pain was seven years old, and it was still there. "How are your grandparents, Lori?" she asked, trying to clear her mind.

"They're OK. They might come to the festiva' 'ater today, Mama said."

"That'd be nice." She turned toward Lori. "You know I knew your grandfather when he was young, don't you?"

The girl nodded. "Yeah, that's when you were a gir', right?"

The woman chuckled. "Well … there really weren't any girls around when your grandfather and I were younger."

"Not even Mama?"

"Oh, Lori, your mom wasn't born until long after that."

"Oh, yeah."

Lori's mother, the woman thought. The first child naturally conceived and born since humans came to this planet. After about 300 years of cloning men from the only six survivors of the colony ship's disaster in orbit. And after the first women were cloned from the girl's grandmother.

Lorelei.

She had been a gift from heaven, the story went. Which was partly true: The woman had been reawakened from stasis aboard the ship after 300 years. Three centuries while cloned men settled the planet and built societies. And fought wars.

And women were a legend that the men made living robotic dolls of. They were nothing more than that – until Lori's grandfather had awakened the woman who now stirred the rice. Her and her sisters. They were different. In their circuits lay a secret program that, when combined and activated, had awakened the gift of heaven.

Lorelei.

And despite the hatred and violence of other races of men against the young man and the sisters – and the demented artificial intelligence of the colony ship's computer that coveted the gift – they had prevailed. And brought the miracle of women to the world.

But the miracle had its price: Lori's grandfather, as a youth, fell in love with the gift. The artificial woman and her sisters had come to love him, too, but they were told by the wisest of humans that the man's love for the woman was how life usually played out. And as the gift was first cloned, men volunteered DNA to be introduced into the women's. The genetic diversity would strengthen the world. Soon, mixing DNA in a laboratory wouldn't be needed anymore. Nature, between men and women, would take over.

That was a good thing, the sisters were told.

The woman and her sisters were thanked for making the miracle possible. Called heroes to the world and posterity. Legends on the same pedestal with the young man and she who would eventually be ceremoniously declared his "wife."

But a variation on an ancient cliché was given to the sisters: Two on a pedestal – the man and his wife – was company. But eventually, five would be a crowd.

But three, apparently, wasn't. Through a physical process that even the sisters could perform with men – although the smallest sister was told not to, not until her sisters thought her mind was ready for it – the man and his wife created a child. A girl. That was something the sisters could never do, no matter the depth of their love for him.

The child was named Lorelei, after her mother, the gift of heaven. And when the child grew into a woman, she, too, had "married" a man and "gave birth" to yet another Lorelei. Her parents, in their affection, called her "Lori."

The artificial woman assessed the rice. She turned to the girl and said, "Won't be long now, Lori."

The girl had been looking to her right, leaving her left ear facing the woman. She said nothing and tapped her wooden sandals together, making a loud clacking.

The woman spoke louder. "Lori! Did you hear me?"

The youngster started in mild surprise in the chair and looked at the adult. "Huh?"

"I said the rice would be done soon."

"OK." Lori thought. "You have just two sisters, right?"

"That's right."

"They 'ive with you?"

"Yes. We've lived together all our lives." Which was true: They had lived with the young man after he had awakened them decades earlier. But just before the ceremony involving him and the gift – their "wedding" – the sisters had been advised that it would be more seemly if they found a place of their own. The "five's a crowd" thing, they were reminded.

They did so and tried to live lives outside that of the young man. Mostly, it worked. But the highlights of their days were the occasional visits to see the man and his family as it grew. Grew up. And grew old.

As did the sisters. Outwardly, they never aged, but they became worn inside. The irony was that the woman's sisters looked younger than her, but she was the "youngest" – activated the last. She was also the strongest, so that might have helped her stay as active as long as she had.

Her sisters, on the other hand, spent most of their days now sitting in the small garden of their home, drinking tea and watching birds as the sun warmed the pair. And when they moved anymore, the creaking of their joints and the roughening hum of their systems would scare the birds away. It made her sad.

What saddened her more, however, was the day she learned that miracles could be flawed.

Seven years ago. Lori was with her mother when the parent stopped to chat with a friend on the side of a narrow street. Lori wandered away. Later, the girl said she had seen a cat in the street and went to pet it.

A car – miraculously still going slow after turning a corner a few meters away – approached the child and the animal, then stopped. Lori's back was to the vehicle, and she kept petting the cat. The vehicle rumbled. The girl pet the cat. At last, after a few more seconds, the driver hit the horn. Lori spun around in shock. The cat ran off.

Her mother screamed. She ran into the street and scooped up Lori, running her back to the sidewalk in a panic. "Didn't you see the car?" she asked in breathless fear.

"No," Lori said.

"Didn't you hear it?"

"No," Lori said.

"It was right behind you!"

"I didn't hear it," Lori said, and that was all.

Lori's grandfather – once the young man they loved – later gave the sisters the news: Lori was deaf in her left ear. The man had made a special trip to their home to tell them. He still had a wild mop of hair, though now it was white. But his eyes were still as clear as in his youth. He knew of their love for him and for the family he had nurtured over the decades, and he wanted to tell them himself.

"How?" the smallest sister asked. "How could Lori be deaf?"

The man shrugged. "Genetics is a gamble after a point. We didn't know this would show up."

"Can you fix her?" the middle sister asked.

He shifted uncomfortably. "She not a machine," he said. Suddenly, he felt defensive and added quickly, "Not even … a sophisticated one … like you three …"

"So doctors can't do anything for her?" the middle one continued.

"Well, apparently there's nerve damage. It's too delicate to work on. And there's no guarantee any surgery would work, anyway."

The largest sister – the one who would stir rice seven years later – thought. She tried to figure out what was happening, what could be done. And from the garden outside, she heard birds chirping. Their sharpness struck her with a clarity she never noticed before. She heard the ticking of a clock – a decoration for visitors because the sisters had internal chronometers – in another room. She heard the regulated ventilation – the breathing – of her sisters and the heartbeat of the man before her. And she heard her own fluid pump – her heart – within her.

"It's not fair …," she whispered.

"What?" the man asked.

"I SAID IT'S NOT FAIR!" she exploded, visibly shocking the three others. The smallest sister gasped.

"I told you …," the man said. "Genetics …"

"To HELL with genetics! Lori's a miracle! All women are miracles! You told us that! You always told us that!" Her red-brown eyes flared at him. "Miracles aren't deaf! It's wrong!"

She swept a hand toward her sisters. "We're machines! I know that! I accept that! But we can hear! We can be fixed! Lori can't! It's not fair! Is this what we all went through hell for? For a little girl to be deaf?"

"No …," he said. "But when you're human … there are some things you can't do …"

Her upset breathing filled the silence after that, and she thought deeply. To a depth she didn't know she had. A moment later, the hot feeling of tears traveled down her cheeks. She looked at the floor.

"Well …," she finally said, "I'm not human … There is something … I can do …"

It happened too fast for any of the three to stop her.

Her left hand flew up to the side of her head, her fingers pointed like pincers. A shrieking of metal cut through the room as the digits pierced her head around her left ear.

And she screamed. Screamed like a demon being murdered, and she collapsed to her knees. The others stood silently terrified.

Her breath came heavy before a final, huge breath. Another hellish scream and a horrific metallic ripping. She pulled her hand away, showering sparks and leaving a crater in her head. She fell forward from her waist onto the floor.

She gasped again and again. Clutched in her hand was her left ear. Her ear and the auditory circuitry from behind it. Torn wires quivered among the fingers of her trembling hand.

No one moved. "Oh … my … God," the man whispered, barely getting it out.

"Otaru …," she whispered from the floor.

He went over to her, frightened and uncertain, and knelt next to her. A now-gnarled hand rose and rested gently on her heaving back. Her face, wet with tears and covered with mussed hair, turned to his. She slowly moved her hand on the floor toward him and held it up. It was shaking.

"Give this … to Lori …," she whispered. He could almost see the pain in her voice. "… Please …"

She released the component, and it rolled off her hand onto the floor. Then she closed her eyes and faced the floor, and her deep breathing was reduced to subtle puffs from her nose. And wet spots appeared on the floor from her tears.

Finally, the man lowered his lined, aged face onto her back next to his hand. He started stroking her back with a wavering, gentle movement. Her sisters came over, knelt next to him and embraced her as best they could. Soon, all four were sobbing.

"I think it's done," the girl said.

The memory broke, and the woman turned toward the child. "Huh?"

"The rice," Lori said, pointing at the pot. "I think it's done."

The adult checked. "Oh, yeah. Well, bring the bowl over, then."

The youngster did, and the woman scooped up rice with the spoon, making a ceramic "ding" as she tapped the rim after depositing the food. It sent her mind back in time.

The old man came back two days after her self-mutilation. He held out her left ear with its circuitry. "I'm sorry," he said sadly. "It's not possible …"

"Why not?" she asked, taking the component and knowing that she probably knew the answer. She wore some of her red hair down on the left, covering the damaged part of her head.

"Human nerves are more delicate than the finest circuitry. At least, more than the circuitry now." He looked sadder. "We lost too much when the colony ship finally fell out of orbit. They say it might be decades before connecting something like this to nerves could work."

She thought, studying the component, then looked back at him. "What about a hearing aid? Can't they make it a hearing aid?"

He shook his head. "No. We thought about that. But the doctors said it didn't matter how much sound you put in her ear. With the nerve damage, it's as if Lori's brain doesn't even know she has a left ear. The connection is gone."

He saw her disappointment. "I know a guy … who's a genius at repair," he offered. "He could have this back in you in no time. And anyone looking at you would never know it had been taken out. He's that good."

"So you can fix a … doll … easier than you can fix a little girl …" It wasn't a question; she recognized it as a fact. "OK. But … I won't have it put back in." She gazed back down to her hand. "Not until Lori can hear out of that ear."

"That could be never," he said quietly.

She studied her own left ear. "I know …"

Later, the repairman rewired the circuits in the damaged area of her head. He sealed up the crater and replaced the skin. And the woman kept wearing some of her hair down over the left side of her head. She put her ear and the auditory circuitry in a small box and set it on the back of a shelf in the closet in her room.

She hadn't touched the box in seven years.

A ceramic "ding."

By now, the rice was heaped so high in the bowl, it was in danger of falling over. She hadn't noticed, so she put the spoon down. Then she looked at the girl, who was doing her best to balance the filled bowl. "I think that'll be enough for now," the woman said and smiled.

"Yeah …," Lori said, striving for a better grip on the bowl. She didn't sound as confident as the woman did.

The adult pondered the child. "Lori," she said, "are you happy?"

"Huh?"

"I mean, even though you can't hear out of one ear? Are you happy?"

"Yeah," the girl answered. "I have Mama and Papa and Grandma and Grandpa and my friends at schoo' and …," she emphasized proudly, " … I have a cat!"

The woman chuckled. "Well, that's something to be happy about, all right." She reassessed the rice, grabbed the spoon again and started compacting the mound slightly. "There. That's a little better."

"Yeah, and I pray for everybody every night before I go to bed."

A slight smile. "You do?"

"Yeah."

Another smile. "Even for the cat?"

"Uh-huh. And I pray for you, too."

It surprised the woman. "Really?"

"Yeah. And my two other aunts, too."

"You mean … my sisters?"

"Uh-huh. When I 'earned to pray, Grandpa said I shou'd a'ways pray for my three aunts. He said that if they weren't there when he was young, Grandma, Mama and even I wou'dn't be here. He said I shou'd a'ways thank heaven for my aunts. So I do. Every night."

The adult looked at Lori silently for a moment. In that moment, she realized that even with partial deafness, the child was a miracle for this world. And that men and women would keep making miracles like her for this world – even flawed, imperfect ones – now and forever.

And that she, a machine who could never perform that miracle, nevertheless had helped bring it about. And was loved for it. And was prayed for every night.

In that moment, she realized that she was tired of the sad and frightening things of her past. So in that moment, she chose to forget them. Right now, the future stood in front of her, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a blue yukata with bright-red flowers on it.

The woman wiped away a tiny tear. "Thank you, Lori …," she whispered.

The girl smiled. "You're we'come."

"Well," the adult huffed, "tell you what ... When you give your parents the rice, why don't you ask them whether they need some more soon? If they don't, tell them I'll turn off the cooker for a while and then …" She smiled widely. "… you and I are going to catch a goldfish!"

Lori's eyes brightened. "Yeah!" she cried. "Awright!" With that, she turned away to scurry toward the front of the booth.

"Don't run, Lori," the woman cautioned. "You'll spill the rice. Walk carefully. And we'll get a goldfish today before you go home, no matter what!"

The youngster stopped. She jogged back to the chair and set the bowl on it. Then she scampered back to the woman. And gave her a child's clumsy incomplete hug, the left side of her face lying on the adult's chest.

"I 'ove you, Aunt Budberry …," she whispered.

The woman slowly embraced the girl and closed her eyes. In her private darkness, she felt the creaking and aching and stubbornness of her centuries-old joints and systems. She didn't mind. All that – and all her sorrow and all her long life – was worth this moment.

She bent down. "I love you, too, Lori," she whispered into the child's right ear. "I love you, too …"