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from the October 2010 issue

Octavio the Invader

He was prepared for the terrifying violence of the light and noise, but not for the pressure, the brutal atmospheric pressure, combined with the Earth’s gravity, acting on that body which was so different from his own and whose reactions he hadn’t yet learned to control. An unfamiliar body in an unfamiliar world. Now, after the pain and anxiety of the passage, just when he was hoping to find some sort of relief, the horror of the situation struck him.

Only the arduous sensations of transmigration could be compared to the experience he had just gone through. But after transmigration he had enjoyed a few months’ recovery, a convalescence, one might even say, in a warm darkness where sound and light seemed muted, and the liquid in which he floated lessened the effect of the planet’s gravity.

Now, in contrast, he felt cold; he felt a deep sense of unease; he felt himself transported from one side to the other; he felt that his body desperately needed oxygen, but how and where to find it? A shriek escaped from his mouth, and he realized something inside him was expanding, an ingenious, automatic mechanism that would allow him to use the oxygen in the air to survive.

“A boy,” the midwife said.

 “A beautiful, healthy little boy,” said the obstetrician. “What are you going to call him?”

“Octavio,” the woman replied, exhausted from the effort and suffused with the pure physical happiness that comes only from the sudden cessation of pain.

Octavio discovered, like another element of the horror in which he was immersed, that he couldn’t organize his sensations in his mind: no doubt human voices were audible at that moment, but he couldn’t manage to identify them in the undifferentiated wash of sound that suffocated him.

Once more he felt himself transported. Something or someone was touching him and moving parts of his body. The light hurt him. Suddenly they lifted him up in the air and deposited him on top of a warm, soft body. He stopped howling: from within that warmth there came—now muted—the regular, hypnotic rhythm he had listened to during his anticipatory convalescence, during the months following the transmigration. His terror receded. He began to feel inexplicably safe, at peace. There he was at last, part of the vanguard of this new invasion attempt, an attempt that, this time, would not fail. He should have felt proud, but fatigue struggled against his pride, finally conquering it: on the breast of the Earth-woman who thought she was his mother, for the very first time in this world, he fell sound asleep.

He awoke sometime later—impossible to tell how long. He felt more lucid now and understood that no prior preparation would have been sufficient to make him respond coherently to the brutal demands of the body he inhabited, demands that only now, from birth on, imposed themselves upon him with all their force. It made sense that transmigration was never attempted with adult subjects: the abrupt change in behavior, the sudden clumsiness in managing the body, would have been detected immediately by the enemy.

Before embarking, Octavio had learned the language that was spoken on that part of the Earth. Or, at least, its main characteristics. Because only now did he begin to appreciate the difference between acquiring a language in the abstract and understanding its interaction with the biological and cultural factors affecting its development. The word “head,” for example, began to take on its true meaning (one of them, at least), when the gigantic force pushing him forward had obliged him to use that part of his body (which still throbbed painfully, deformed) as a battering ram, forcing his way through a very narrow space.

He remembered that others like him had been destined for the same spatial and temporal coordinates. He wondered if any of their powers had survived the transmigration and if they could still use them. He managed to send out a few faint signals that received an immediate response. There were nine of them, and they were there, very close by. Like him, they too were filled with fear, pain, and sadness. They would have to wait much longer than anticipated before getting organized and proceeding with their plans. His ungainly body once again began to shake and tremble uncontrollably, and Octavio let out a long wail, to which his companions responded. Thus, in that terrible, unfamiliar place, they joined voices to cry for the lost planet of their birth.

Two nurses walked into the nursery.

“How strange,” said the younger one. “One of them starts crying and it’s as though the others catch it. Pretty soon you’ve got a whole chorus.”

“Come on, hurry up. We’ve got to bathe them all and take them to their rooms,” said the second nurse, who found her job boring and ill-paid and was tired of hearing the same comments all the time.

It was the younger nurse who took Octavio, bathed and changed, to the room where his mother awaited him.

“Knock, knock! Good morning, Mommy!” said the nurse, who was sweet and good-natured and knew how to use those qualities when it was time to earn a tip.

Although his sensations were still an amorphous, chaotic blur, Octavio could already recognize certain repeated feelings, so he understood that the woman who thought she was his mother was receiving him into her arms. He could even distinguish the sound of her voice from other, background noises. According to his instructions, Octavio was supposed to force them to feed him artificially: it was better to keep physical contact with the enemy to a minimum.

“Look at that lazy little bum—he doesn’t want to nurse.”

“Remember, the same thing happened with Alex. You have to be patient. Tell the nurses to leave him in your room. Otherwise, they’ll fill him up with glucose, and then when they bring him to you, he won’t be hungry anymore,” said Octavio’s grandmother.

The maternity ward didn’t approve of rooming in, the practice of allowing babies to remain with their mothers instead of being shunted off to the nursery after each feeding. There was a small struggle with the head nurse until they could confirm the pediatrician’s express approval. Octavio wasn’t yet in any condition to know about these details. He only knew that now they kept him very far from his companions, from whom a remote vibration would reach him from time to time.

When the painful sensation coming from inside his body became unbearable, Octavio began to scream again. He was lifted into the air and taken to that warm, squishy place from which, despite his instructions, he was loath to be separated. And when something stroked his cheek, he couldn’t help turning his head and parting his lips. Desperately, frantically, he sought relief from the burning feeling that ripped through his insides. Before he realized what he was doing, Octavio was eagerly sucking on his “mother’s” nipple. Yielding, he understood that his entire will could not wrest him from that fount of relief, the very body of a human being. The words “sweet” and “warm,” which, in referring to the organs that organized experience in his own world, had been no more than symbolic terms, were now filled with tangible meaning. Trying to convince himself that this small concession would in no way affect his mission, Octavio once more fell asleep.

By a few days later, Octavio, through sheer effort, managed to remain awake for several hours. He could already raise his head and focus his eyes for a couple of seconds, although the movement of his limbs was still totally uncoordinated. He nursed regularly every three hours. He recognized human voices and could distinguish words, although he was far from having learned enough about the culture in which he was immersed to achieve real comprehension. He anxiously awaited the moment when he would be capable of rational communication with that inferior race which he needed to inform of his plans for conquest and to which he had to make his power known. It was then that he received the first attack.

He expected it. He had already tried to communicate with him telepathically, to no avail. Apparently the traitor had lost some of his powers or refused to utilize them. Like an electric shock, he felt contact with that red blob of hatred in motion. They called him Alex and also Alejandro, Honey, Baby, Darling. He had been a participant in one of many failed invasions, two years ago, having lost all contact with those who intervened in it. Alex was a traitor to his world and to his cause: it was logical to conclude that he would try to get rid of Octavio by any means possible.

While the woman was in the bathroom, Alex leaned on the cradle with all the weight of his little body until he tipped it over. Octavio shot through the air and hit the floor, hard. He howled in pain. The woman ran into the room, screaming. Shocked, Alex looked at the pathetic results of his action, which, besides, might have terrible consequences for himself. Ignoring him, the woman lifted Octavio, pressing him gently against her breast and crooning, in order to calm him.

Ashamed of himself, Octavio breathed in the woman’s scent and cried and cried until she stuck her nipple in his mouth. Although he wasn’t hungry, he nursed eagerly as the pain gradually diminished. To keep from losing his mind, Octavio tried to think of the moment when he would at last possess the word, the liberating word, the language that, under pretext of communication, would serve to establish the necessary distance between his body and that other one whose warmth he so enjoyed.

Frustrated in his attempt at direct aggression and carefully supervised by the woman, the Traitor had to content himself with expressing his hostility more stealthily, with kisses that became bites and caresses that contained sharp nails. Twice those hugs nearly asphyxiated Octavio: each time the woman’s intervention came to his rescue.

Somehow, Octavio managed to survive. He had learned a great deal. When he understood that he was supposed to respond to certain gestures, he began to return smiles, stretching his mouth in an empty grimace that the humans celebrated as though it were full of meaning. The woman would take him out for strolls in his little carriage, and he would raise his head as high as possible, supporting himself with his forearms, in order to observe the street activity. Something in his expression must have caught people’s attention, because they would stop to admire him and make remarks.

“How divine!” nearly all of them said. And the word “divine,” which referred to an unknown, supreme force, struck Octavio as dangerously revealing: perhaps he had been careless in hiding his powers.

“How divine!” people said. “Look how he lifts his little head!” And when Octavio smiled, they went on smugly: “You can tell this one has no problems!”

Octavio was now familiar with the household routine, and the repetition of certain habits gave him a sense of security. Sudden, loud noises, on the other hand, threw him into a quagmire of uncontrolled terror, taking him back to the pain of transmigration. Discarding his ascetic intentions, Octavio no longer was afraid to yield to the animal pleasures his new body offered him. He liked being dipped into warm water; he liked being changed, exposing the urine-chafed areas of his skin to the air; above all, he liked contact with the woman’s flesh. Little by little he took ownership of his movements. But despite his efforts to keep it alive, the fierce destructive energy with which he had arrived in this world grew weaker, along with the memories of his native planet.

Octavio didn’t even have proof that the powers he was supposed to employ to begin the conquest still existed or that the moment to attempt it hadn’t yet arrived. It was clear that Alex’s powers were lost: because of his treason, they must have stripped him of them from afar. On several occasions Octavio found himself on the street with others like him and was pleased to verify that they were still able to respond to his vibrations. He didn’t always get a response, however, One sunny afternoon in the plaza, he came upon a larger baby of the female sex who emphatically rejected his mental overtures.

At home there was also a man, but (luckily) Octavio felt no physical attraction to him, as he did to the woman. The man spent less time at home, and although he often held Octavio in his arms, he gave off an aura of hostility that Octavio could detect, like a sharp, acidic smell that sometimes became intolerable. Then he would cry vigorously until the woman, annoyed, came for him.

“I can’t believe you still don’t know how to hold a baby!”

One day, when Octavio had managed to flip over on his back by himself and grab objects with his hands, he and the man were alone at home. For the first time, clumsily, the man tried to change him, and, at that precise moment, Octavio launched a stream of urine, hitting his father right in the face.

The man worked in a sort of vault where they stored large quantities of the papers that humans used as a means of exchange. Octavio figured out that these papers were also the source of arguments between the man and the woman, and without understanding much about it, he took her side. He had already decided that when the invasion plans were completed, that woman, who had collaborated so often and to such an extent with the invader, would deserve some kind of special privileges. On the other hand, there would be no mercy for traitors. Octavio began to get annoyed at the fact that the woman also picked up or fed Alejandro. He wanted to warn her about him: a traitor is always dangerous, even for the enemy that has accepted him into its ranks.

The pediatrician was quite satisfied with Octavio’s progress. He had gained weight and grown reasonably and could now sit up for a few seconds without support.

“Did you see that look on his face? Sometimes I think he understands everything,” said the woman, who was on excellent terms with the doctor and called him by his first name.

“These critters understand more than you think,” the doctor replied, smiling. And Octavio returned his grin with a smile that was no longer an empty grimace.

Mama weaned Octavio at seven and a half months. Although he already had two teeth and could utter a couple of syllables that were meaningless to everyone else, Octavio continued to use (ever more often and with greater precision) his favorite strategy: crying. Weaning wasn’t easy because the baby rejected solid food and showed little enthusiasm for the bottle. Octavio knew he should feel satisfied—and even grateful—that a metal object filled with food or a rubber nipple came between his body and the woman’s, but he found no source of happiness within him. Now he could sit alone for long stretches of time and crawl along the floor. Soon the moment would arrive when he’d be able to say his first word, and he took comfort in daydreaming about the abrupt turnaround that would then take place in his relationship with the humans. And yet, his plans seemed jumbled and distant to him. Sometimes his previous life was hard to recall, or else he remembered it vaguely and chaotically, like a dream.

The woman’s physical presence was no longer essential to him, because his feeding didn’t depend directly on her, on her body. Why, then, was her absence more and more excruciating? Watching her disappear behind a door without knowing when she would return caused him almost physical pain, which he expressed through piercing shrieks. She would play hide-and-seek with him, covering her face with a cloth and shouting, ridiculously, “Where’s Mama? Where’s Mama?” Then she’d uncover her face, shouting, “Here’s Mama!” Octavio concealed his anguish with laughter that once again caused the disappearance of that face he nonetheless knew was so close by.

Unexpectedly and simultaneously, while gaining greater control over his body, Octavio began suffering a psychological aftereffect of the Great Voyage: unfamiliar human faces frightened him. He tried to rationalize his fear by telling himself that each new human who approached him might be an enemy with knowledge of his plans. That fear of strangers produced a change in his relationship with his Earth family. He no longer felt that relaxing mixture of hatred and scorn for the Traitor. Alex, in turn, seemed to notice the difference, and kissed and hugged him a few times without using his displays of affection to conceal an attack. Octavio didn’t want to admit how well he now understood him, how close he now felt to the Traitor.

When the woman, who had started working outside the home, went out for a few hours, leaving the children in other people’s care, Alex and Octavio felt curiously bonded in their grief. Octavio went so far as to accept, with pleasure, being picked up by the man, who uttered strange noises that didn’t belong to any Earthly tongue, as though he were searching for some language that might bring them closer.

And at last the word arrived. The first word. He used it successfully to summon the woman, who was outside the room at that moment, to his side. Octavio had clearly said “Mama.” He was now completely human. The millenary, infinite invasion had failed once again.

Translation of “Octavio el Invaser.” Copyright Ana Maria Shua. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Andrea G. Labinger. All rights reserved.

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