“Would you like five or seven grapni, friend?” the waiter asked. He held a ladle over a silvery bowl filled with what looked like shrunken little apples in a clear sauce. I looked over towards Panu for help, since I had never seen a grapni before.
“Have some, John,” he urged, “they’re quite delicious!”
“Oh, yes,” Panu’s mother cooed, “Grapni are a delicacy that are best and cheapest here in Herlup Province, where they’re grown. In fact, we brought you and Panu here for dinner, just for this special treat!” Panu’s father nodded proudly.
Panu’s father smiled and nodded, “We want you to have the best possible impression of our Province.”
“I’ll take three,” I told the waiter. Since I had never heard of them before, I thought I would just try a few to start.
“Only three, friend?” he asked, feigning tragic disappointment, “We have the finest grapni in Herlup; you must be from out of town!”
There was a good round of laughter at that one, and the waiter was both surprised and embarrassed.
“You might say I am slightly from out of town,” I chuckled, “You see, I am a naturalized Thorgelfaynese, but I am biologically human.” The laughter from our table began to subside.
“Human?” the waiter exclaimed in astonishment. Then he waved his arm with a flourish and clicked his fingers in the air. Someone at the other end of the room looked up. “This is a great honor! We’ve never had an alien guest from your planet before.” The owner of the restaurant scurried over to our table and fawned all over me! He insisted that I sign the guest book (which I did), and then they asked me to do it again, this time, in my native humanian language. I let that one pass with a smile, and obliged him with a scribble.
When all the ceremonies were over, we continued with our dessert.
The grapni were delicious! I’ve never tasted anything like it before. Panu’s father, seeing my pleasure, insisted on ordering me three more. While I finished eating, the others took turns educating me about grapni, a rare fruit that grows on a shrub right at the timberline in the tall mountains of Herlup. It’s the only place they grow wild, and they can’t be cultivated anywhere else on Homeland. What a privilege it is to eat so many in one sitting!
“Oh, by the way,” Panu advised me, interrupting his father, “don’t eat the seeds. They aren’t particularly good for you.”
I was certain that I had eaten one or two in my haste, but I saw no harm in it. I nodded to Panu that I would avoid the seeds, and from this point on I carefully lined up the little black seeds on the edge of my dessert plate.
We left the restaurant with distended bellies and contented sighs. Panu’s father drove us home the long way. Personally, I don’t think I could do much driving around here. The mountain roads twist and turn, often revealing startling views of steep valleys! Vertigo is actually a driving hazard! Herlup is the most beautiful province in all of Thorgelfayne, but I imagine my upbringing in the gentler Allegheny mountains has biased me somewhat in its favor.
We drove around another curve. Suddenly, the highway was only a paved ledge on a steep slope, with a valley spread out below. Vertigo came and left quickly enough to give me a pleasant thrill! I could see clouds lower than our car, and small villages below that. I was seated on the passenger side of the front seat (they thought I’d get a better view that way) with a very good view out the window to my left of a very tall mountain, with a gleaming rocky peak.
“That mountain is the tallest in Herlup, and the tallest in all our beloved Duchy,” Panu’s father explained with pride, as he steered us round the curve, “In the summertime, people from all over the world come to scale it. From the top, you can see all the way into the next country!”
I emitted the appropriate oohs and aahs.
It was a pleasant drive, perfectly timed. We arrived back at their house just as dusk was beginning to cloak the scenic wonders of Herlup for the night.
We had planned to end our evening with some television and conversation, which we proceeded to do.
“Would you like a cup of harng?” Panu asked me, as he got up and made for the kitchen. We had been watching television and chatting for about two hours by that time.
“I can get it for myself,” I said indignantly, as I rose to my feet. Somehow that came out wrong; I didn’t mean it that way.
Panu looked at me strangely. “Okay,” he said with a shrug, “come on!” I followed him into the kitchen, and walked in the doorway just as he was setting two glasses on the counter top.
“Why did you do that?” I complained. “You know full well I prefer it in a mug!” I vehemently returned one of the glasses to the cupboard and selected a mug. I slapped it down on the counter.
“Are you feeling all right?” Panu asked cautiously.
“I’m feeling fine, thank you!” I shouted back.
Panu’s mother came into the kitchen at this point. “Is everything in order in here?” she asked.
“Everything’s fine!” I shouted with unintended sarcasm. I tried to smile, but I think it came out a leer instead. I looked down at my hands and found them shaking. Somehow I had gotten angry, and couldn’t stop it.
I turned to find Panu pouring harng into my mug. “Stop that!” I demanded loudly, “I am perfectly capable of pouring it myself!”
Panu’s mother shrank quietly out of the kitchen, only to be replaced by his sister.
“John,” she said respectfully, “I think I know what is wrong.”
“Nothing is wrong,” I insisted. For emphasis, I lifted the mug and banged it on the counter; a little harder than I had intended, for it shattered. Panu started opening drawers, muttering something about getting a rag. For the first time, I was clearly aware that something was drastically wrong with me!
“John, I am a doctor,” she cooed, “we can probably clear this up in a very short time.”
I was very distressed by my behavior, and I started to cry. My anger turned inwards and used me as its target. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what got into me!” I pled like a child, “This hasn’t ever happened to me before!” I pounded my fist against the counter top a few times, until it hurt so bad I had to stop. “What’s wrong with me?”
Panu’s sister led me like a pouting child into the dining room, we pulled out two chairs and sat down, facing each other. She pulled a small flashlight out of her purse, which had been on the dining room table since we returned home, and asked me to open my mouth. I held my mouth open wide enough that it hurt while she poked around and peered in with her fingers.
“Uh huh,” she said, “I think this is the problem. You can close your mouth now.” I did so gratefully. Then she showed me a small black object between her fingers. “You ate some of the grapni seeds!”
I blushed. Panu told me not to, but he didn’t say so until after I had eaten quite a few.
“Grapni seeds can cause irritability or rage in sensitive individuals,” she advised me. “Either because of your own individual make up or because of your species, you are especially sensitive—I am a doctor, not a veterinarian, so I can’t say for sure which it is. In any event, don’t eat any more grapni seeds, promise?”
I nodded. I was relieved, but I still wanted crawl under some rock. There was no rock in sight, all I could do was nod. I put my elbows on the table and sat there, rocking my head in my hands. All sorts of uncontrollable thoughts were running around in there, and I could not stop them!
She told me to stay put, then she went to get something from one of the bedrooms. When she returned, she headed straight for the kitchen and returned with a glass of water.
“Take this pill,” she instructed me, as she handed me a little blue pill and a glass of water. “Drink all of the water,” she cautioned, “you don’t want that pill to get stuck half-way down!”
I nodded as I drank, spilling a few drops. So what will a little klutziness do to my newly soiled reputation?
“That pill should begin to counteract the irritability within four to eight minutes,” she said, “depending on how fast humans ingest things.”
I sat in the living room quietly, meditating on my shame and fighting my residual anger. Panu leaned to his sister and whispered, “Isn’t it unethical for a doctor to treat a non-Homelander?”
“Under normal conditions, you’re right,” she conceded, “I could easily be disciplined. But this is a special case; it’s a medical emergency where Homelandertarian considerations take precedence.”
“I see,” Panu whispered back. I didn’t feel better for having overheard that.
After about a half hour, my head cleared. I was my normal self again, except for the awful memory of how I had behaved. The who family talked it over with me, and made it very clear that they wouldn’t judge me by the effects of a little grapni seed!
“A man is judged by his character,” Panu’s father observed, “not by his failures. After all, we all have failures.”
Somehow at this point, I began to feel more like a member of the family, than an alien from another star.