“Well, Ken, how has your visit gone so far?” John asked, stretching forward to pick up his cup from the coffee table (harng table?) before him.
“This is just my first day,” I explained, “and I’m ashamed to say that I spent most of it sleeping.” I leaned forward and placed my elbows on my knees, and continued in a confidential tone, “Melissa gave me a delicious breakfast this morning, I took a shower and explored the apartment a little bit, but then I fell asleep on the sofa in the living room. Before I knew it, the whole family was back. We had dinner and then we sat around and chatted until you arrived.”
John took a sip from his harng. “What I really meant to ask was if your memory had returned,” he said.
“Not completely,” I confessed. “I do remember that my name is Ken and that all these people are supposed to be familiar, but beyond that things are a bit hazy.”
“That’s normal, I suppose,” John smiled. Then he began to point out the others in the room. “You remember Melissa, of course,” he chuckled.
“Of course,” I said, “she brought me breakfast this morning.”
“I mean beyond that,” John explained, placing his cup back onto the coffee table. “You wrote a series of stories about us and put them on an electronic network. Melissa was one of the people who read them, but unlike the rest, she took them at face value. She applied with the WCCIJ Interspecies Exchange Program for a grant to visit Homeland and received a one-year trip.”
“I see,” I said vaguely. “What’s the ‘WCCIJ’?”
“That’s the World Council of Countries and Independent Jurisdictions,” John explained as if to a child. “I’ve heard that Maneuvers cause amnesia in certain susceptible people, but I never thought it would be this complete!”
“I’m afraid that I don’t know how extensive it is,” I joked, “since I can’t remember what I used to know, I don’t know how much of it I’ve forgotten! But Melissa keeps telling me that it’s only temporary.” I took another sip of my harng, which had become tepid. “In fact, I was hoping everything would have come back to me by now!”
“You know all these people through our letters,” John said. He pointed out a handsome blue-eyed man. “Take Harshan, for example,” he said, “He’s originally from the United Republic of Halakan, which is about half-way around the world from here. He met Melissa on the first leg of their trip; he was a purser on the ship.”
“I see,” I said vaguely. The living room was filled with people; in fact, I had helped Melissa bring in chairs from the dining room and the bedrooms to accommodate them all. I knew which one was Harshan, because I met him when he came home from work. He’s Melissa’s husband and my host.
“Darryl there is from Chicago, just like Melissa,” John pointed to the little boy who had just walked up to Melissa with a question. She bent over slightly to answer him, he nodded and went down the hallway towards his bedroom. “Darryl was an orphan. After Melissa and Harshan were married, they initially wanted to settle in Chicago. That’s where they adopted Darryl.” I knew Darryl, too. He was the first one home this afternoon; he woke me up from my nap on the very sofa where John was presently seated.
“So I am in Chicago?” I asked in mild confusion.
“No!” John laughed, “This is Hapdorn! Believe me, it’s a much nicer city that Chicago! You see, Darryl was deaf. When they found out his hearing condition could be corrected at the university hospital here, they decided it would be easier on him if they just settled in Hapdorn permanently.”
“I don’t get it,” I confessed. “Why couldn’t they just go home after the surgery?”
John looked mildly exasperated. “Because Darryl is quite young and impressionable. He would tell all his friends about his trip, and no one would believe him; especially not his schoolteachers. So they decided to save him that agony by staying here. Melissa secretly wanted to settle here all along. The only reason they went back to Chicago was because Harshan wanted Melissa to have the comfort of familiar surroundings, and Melissa thought that Harshan was intrigued by the idea of living there. They both sacrificed their own wishes for the other, until Darryl came along and made them realize they’d really much rather be here!”
“That’s quite a story,” I agreed. “What about you!”
“Oh, that’s a funny story!” John began, but just at that moment, the tall black man sitting next to him on the sofa leaned over and whispered a few musical words into John’s ear. It’s the same language I heard on all the television channels this morning; a lovely, lilting, Jamaican-sounding language.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce you,” John apologized. “Panu doesn’t speak any English, and I know you don’t speak any Thorgelfaynese, so it completely slipped…”
“I beg your pardon,” I interrupted, “Did you say ‘Thorgelfaynese’?” The name sounded as familiar as it did improbable.
“Yes,” John nodded. “Thorgelfaynese is the language of the Grand Duchy of Thorgelfayne, which is the country we’re in; and is also the primary language in some neighboring areas of Fjarn. It’s also the language of scholarship all over the world,” he added, then he looked at me as if that were the answer to all my problems.
“You sound like you swallowed an encyclopedia,” I said, “but that doesn’t really clear anything up for me.”
He looked a little embarrassed for a moment. “It’ll come back to you soon,” he reassured me. Then he introduced me to Panu, and we stood to hug. After we had all hugged each other, John said, “It looks like you feel a little awkward.”
“I am! I was only expecting a hand-shake!” I said as I sat back down on my chair.
“We don’t shake hands in Thorgelfayne,” John said with a smile, “It’s even considered a rude way of enforcing distance!” He sat there for a moment with a ‘where was I?’ look, then his face brightened, and he continued, “You asked me about myself. I was living in Pittsburgh when I met Bobo…”
“Bobo?” I asked.
“Your contact on Earth,” he said and continued, “I was a member of a UFO society. He visited several of the meetings. Of course, back then I thought he was a janitor from Jamaica, I never dreamed he was an anthropologist from Thorgelfayne!”
Just then there was a commotion at the door. A man and a woman had arrived, and everyone was hugging them in greeting.
Melissa walked up to me with the two of them in tow, “Ken,” she said, “I’d like you to meet Lanni Hargelstope and her husband Harna Farsino!” We exchanged hugs.
“So you’re Ken Collins!” Lanni cooed musically, “What a lovely pleasure! I’ve read all the things you wrote!”
“Thank you,” I blushed. Panu and Harna chuckled as my face turned red. I suppose if you live in a predominantly black country, blushing would look comical.
“I especially enjoyed your account of our wedding!” she said in her xylophone voice, “I’ve had it translated and framed!” She released me from her hug, and then her husband took up where she left off. He said a few things in Thorgelfaynese that I took for social pleasantries, so I smiled and nodded.
The evening progressed quite amiably in two languages. Panu and Harna spoke no English, and Darryl did so only reluctantly. Lanni made a curious remark; she said that it was a thrill to have three of the four native speakers of English on Homeland under one roof!
After another hour, John saw that I still looked distressed and ill at ease. “Are you enjoying the party?” he asked, though I am sure the answer must have been obvious.
“Well, since it is in my honor—for some reason that I don’t yet fathom—I’m trying my very best. But,” I confessed, “Don’t get me wrong; this is a very nice get-together, but I still don’t understand why I am here, or for that matter, where ‘here’ is!”
John excused himself for a moment and walked across the room to talk with Melissa. They were speaking Thorgelfaynese, so I couldn’t understand what they were saying; I just saw John point in my direction and make a few hand motions. Melissa said something, then he replied. Melissa nodded, and John returned.
“Come with me,” he said, “I think I know what can help.” Then he grabbed me by the hand and led me out of the apartment and down several flights of stairs into an underground parking garage.
“Where are we going?” I asked, as our footsteps echoed against the concrete walls. The garage was filled with a variety of nice looking cars, but I didn’t recognize the makes and models of any of them.
“Just for a short ride,” John replied mysteriously, “We’ll be back before you’re missed.” He then walked up to the passenger side of a sleek, black and gray sports car, opened the door and put one leg in. He saw me hesitate, so he nodded towards the door on the driver’s side. “Hop in!” he said.
“Wait a minute,” I protested, “I don’t think I should be driving in my condition!”
“Who said you would be driving?” John asked. He got into the car and slammed the door shut. I shrugged my shoulders and did the same. Once inside the car, I discovered that the steering wheel was on John’s side!
John started the engine and we began to pull out. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, “I guess you weren’t expecting right-hand drive. We drive on the left in Thorgelfayne.”
That much was evident. Before long we were zipping through the city in the cool, crisp night air. Since it was night, there wasn’t much to see. We stopped at a red light and waited for the hypothetical cross traffic. Then the light turned blue, and John started up.
“That’s odd,” I said, “somehow I expected the light to turn green.”
“That’s because they do turn green where you are from,” John replied cryptically. He was preoccupied with getting us to our destination, which turned out to be a city park. We got out of the car and started walking down a pathway that I could barely see, but John was obviously familiar with it. Before long we came to the top of a rise.
“Look up!” John commanded. Ah, the stars! What a beautiful clear night it is, too! Some of my memories started coming back; and I told John about it. Long ago, my father used to put me on his shoulder and point out all the stars. He taught me all the constellations and the names of the more important stars; in fact, as an adult I could still pick out Orion and the Big Dipper! Which is what I attempted to do, but for some reason I couldn’t pull it off.
“We’re in the southern hemisphere,” John announced in a reverently hushed voice, “and the celestial south pole is directly behind the top of that umbrella tree.” I didn’t know what an umbrella tree was, but I could tell which one he was pointing at. Then he turned in the opposite direction and swept his hand in a broad arc low in the sky. “That’s the equator.” Then he pointed out several stars, which he called the constellation of the Falling Scepter. As he spoke, I could hear the distant bustle of the city and the gentle chirping of the insects. John’s voice took on a hypnotic quality that took me back in my mind to my childhood. It was almost as if I were a child again, and my father was pointing out the stars.
“Do you see that dim star there, halfway down the staff?” I nodded, savoring my memories. “That star is Sol. It is twice as bright as our sun and has eight or nine planets, depending on whether you use their method of counting them or ours.” Something here began to feel familiar, but it was all turned around! How can I be looking up in the nighttime sky at a star named Sol? John turned to face me. “This planet,” he said, stomping his foot for emphasis, “Is the fifth planet from the sun. We call it ‘Homeland’ and humans call our sun ‘Tau Ceti’.” He turned and pointed at the dim star in the Falling Scepter again. “The third planet of Sol is called ‘Earth’ by its inhabitants.”
Then he turned to face me once again. The air was deliciously cool and crisp; the trees were swaying in the fragrant breeze, and below us the city was winding down from a busy day. The stars pierced the sky, and as I looked up, I imagined a dramatic chord of music to underscore the view. Deep within me, I felt a strange mixture of panic, horror, hope and joy! Things were beginning to fall into place in a new and more wonderful way than I had dreamed!
John’s earnest face was barely discernable in the dim light. He placed his left hand on my shoulder, as if to brace me, and continued in his best me-Tarzan-you-Jane voice: “You are a human, just like Melissa, Darryl, and me. We all came from that star up there,” he said, nodding over his shoulder towards Sol. “This is Homeland, and the people here are Homelanders.” His voice cracked, as if the mere mention of these things caused immense gratitude and loyalty to well up inside him. “You and I were their contacts, through Bobo. Because of you, Darryl and Melissa were able to emigrate and have been living much better lives than they could have on Earth. They consider you their dearest friend!”
It all came back to me in one sudden flood! I began to sob, but John caught me before I fell. Over his shoulder I could see Harshan, Melissa, Panu, Lanni, and Harna trudging up the path. Darryl lagged behind the adults. It was very embarrassing to have them all witness my moment of weakness.
“Did it work?” Melissa asked eagerly, and then she paused. “I guess it has!”