It wasn't like in the movies. There were no massive ships darkening the skies, no cities being annihilated by laser or gamma ray, no monsters, no bulbous-foreheaded, insect-eyed, tall, skinny, green aliens on the news with the president of the USA or the prime minister of Britain. None of that.
They came as tourists.
They just started popping up in cold and remote places. They didn't look like movie aliens either. They looked like us. Well, except that they were covered in white hair, head to toe, male and female. Their eyes were blue or sometimes violet. They were a little stockier than us, and had bigger, sharper canine teeth. In all, they looked a bit like throwbacks rather than more evolved beings, something the tabloids picked up on. They started running stories about them being some sort of long-hidden evolutionary offshoot. They accounted for all those yeti sightings. And at first that's what we called them: abominable snowmen. And then the word "Frixhian" started circulating. I don't know where it came from. You just started hearing it on the news, and when you googled it, there was a Wikipedia entry for it, written in somewhat broken English, and a host of other languages that I suspect were also somewhat broken. The Frixhians don't use personal pronouns and have a hard time figuring out why we do. They'd hacked and invaded our internet long before they put in an appearance on the planet.
According to the Wikipedia entry, they are quite sociable and they smile a lot, and they aren't very good at obeying other species' laws, but live by their own code of keeping peace and doing no harm. So they bypassed customs and immigration, and just showed up.
I was living in Mukluk when I first heard of them. Mukluk is a bleak little place on the edge of the Ukkusiksalik National Park in Nunavut. The prefab houses stand on the tundra—no foundations—like they are some giant child's playthings just left there until it comes back from lunch. I had come here with my girlfriend Ann, who had been hired as a social worker for Mukluk and the surrounding territory. Ann was out to save the world. I was worried about leaving Ottawa behind and moving someplace so remote, but I was too starry-eyed in love at the time to listen to sense. Ann was so happy--and triumphant--that they offered me a job to get her to go: I was to teach ESL to Inuit elders who had never sufficiently learned it. I had been teaching ESL, mostly to new Canadians, and it didn't pay very well, but working up in Mukluk you got isolation pay, and that tipped the scales.
The reason you get isolation pay, of course, is that everything in the far north is incredibly expensive.
It was here that we first heard about the Frixhians. A group of hunters came roaring back into town on their ATVs, hollering about seeing abominable snowmen.
"We saw them, eh, they was clear as day!" declared one. "There was five of them, and some of them was wearing, like dresses, or something. And when we tried to ride closer, they went behind a ridge and just, like, vanished!"
And then a few weeks later on the news, there was a snatch of video from Iceland. A group of Frixhians saw that they were being filmed. They turned and waved at the camera and then they walked away, around a rock formation or something and vanished. That's when I first heard the word "Frixhian."
By then Ann and I had had The Fight. The stars had left my eyes. I told her she was impossibly conceited to think that the Inuit needed saving. She countered that I was a worse colonizer than she was, trying to make everyone into Anglophones. It went downhill from there, and the big words turned into short, 4-letter words.
The problem with breaking up in such a small place is that, not only does everyone know it, but there is no place to go. The house we lived in was provided by the government as part of our compensation. Neither of us were willing to leave it to rent a room at the bar (it didn't have a name--it didn't need one, it was the only one), so we lived in a state of angry pretence that the other one was not there, each leaving a room if the other one entered it. We ignored each other except when we fought--over whose books were whose, or who had used whose milk, or how much time her cat Minou was spending in my room. She accused me of trying to turn Minou against her.
Going home was my first thought, of course. But where was that? Ann had dragged me to Mukluk from Ottawa; I had followed Lori to Ottawa from Kingston; I had been in Kingston because my high school girlfriend Jaime was going there to study English. Before that, home had been my folks' house in the little blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Cottam in southern Ontario. I didn't want to go back there. Besides, I was still on contract here in Mukluk, and really, I liked my job.
My favorite part about teaching ESL is listening to people's stories. I need to get them to talk, so I ask them about their lives and their families and their history. I had a class of a half dozen regulars, and a handful of others who came and went, all over the age of sixty, all men except for one toothless old woman in her 90s whom everyone called Auntie. She had a face wizened like an apple that has been peeled and left out, smudged coke-bottle glasses, and she spent all class knitting and never said a word of English and barely any in Inuktitut. They all looked like their faces were sewn together from leather. They had no interest in reading and writing, but it wasn't hard to get them talking. So I put on coffee, and they would tell me stories about their lives and their community and their ancestors in English, which I tried to improve gently without interrupting too much. Sometimes the men brought me gifts of moose or venison wrapped in layers of plastic grocery bags. I had a feeling that that was Inuit flirting. Auntie would tut-tut and shake her head, but I pretended that I had no idea it might be a come-on and accepted it in the spirit of an apple for teacher.
We had our classes in the school, after the children were done for the day, and the men would invite me to the bar afterwards. They smiled congenially at me, but I suspected that they thought alcohol was a way to get into my pants. Besides, I have a rule about not socializing with my students.
So I was spending my afternoons listening to old men tell stories, and my evenings trying to write them down, but when I pressed them onto the page, the stories felt flat. Between the breakup and the no socializing rule, I was lonely and a little depressed.
And then one afternoon as we were about to begin, a Frixhian walked into the classroom.
She raised both hands to show her pink palms and said "Peace" and smiled broadly. "English class? Malchior needs to learn better English."
My mouth flapped a few times before any sound came out, like I was in a foreign film and being dubbed, and then I stuttered, "Please, come in, have a seat." I think I managed to get through my routine for introducing a new student into the class and assessing their English. I think I did. If I didn't, none of the other students would have noticed, because they were all agape and goggle-eyed. Auntie even stopped knitting. Malchior the Frixhian took no offense at their staring or my stumbling.
She was covered head to toe in white wavy hair, just like we had seen on the news, including her face, and her eyes were lavender. The hair on her head was no longer than the hair on the rest of her. She was wearing a one-piece romper sort of thing. In summer in Mukluk, I wear jeans and a sweater and sometimes a windbreaker, especially if I am going near the bay, and it was early autumn now. I learned later that the romper was for our benefit. Frixhians don't care much for clothing, and their idea of "cold" is much colder than ours. That's why they were showing up in Iceland and Greenland and Alaska and on Baffin Island and Antarctica.
"Why you come here to Mukluk?" asked one of my other students after Malchior had been a regular for a few days and they were starting to get used to her. "Mukluk is ..."
"Boring," supplied someone else.
"Earth is a whole new planet!" Malchior declared. "Everything is exciting."
She explained to us how Earthlings and Frixhians were cousins, both types of human. Apes, she said, devolved from us. Back in the days when humans were first spreading across the galaxy, space travel was not very good and there were lots of accidents that resulted in mutations.
She listened with rapt attention to the others tell their tales, and asked lots of questions. Her vocabulary was large, even for a native speaker, but she didn't always know how to put the words together. It was like she had a large and complex building set with all the pieces and a picture of what it should look like, but she had lost the instructions. Personal pronouns just baffled her. "I" and "me" she sometimes used correctly, but "you" was just too vague for her.
She went on ATV rides with the younger folk into the tundra or out on boats in the bay. I saw her toting groceries home for Auntie and playing games with the children in the street. Life in Mukluk was exciting to her, and she made it exciting for everyone else. I noticed my class improving in leaps and bounds. Though she could speak Inuktitut (I have no idea how well, I only knew a few words myself), she would only speak English in class and they all worked hard to impress her. When she recited the poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," they all scrambled to find a child's picture book to show her what a knight was.
Over the weeks her face went from alien to normalized to attractive. I could lose myself in those periwinkle eyes, and I had to consciously not spend too long lingering on her face when we all sat in our circle of desks. I wondered what the curling white hair around her mouth felt like when she kissed. Was it soft? Did she have to trim it? Did it smell like baby shampoo? I wondered if Frixhians did kiss.
One day she lingered after class as I was cleaning up the coffee cups and sidled up to me and asked. "Would Maggie like to have a drink? A coffee? With Malchior?" She batted her long white lashes.
"I, um ... I ..." In my defense, she caught me off guard. It had never occurred to me that she might like girls. I just stared and then I realized I had to stop doing that and say something. "Do you mean for a date?" I have learned, when dating women, it's always best to find out up front.
She pursed her lips up into duck lips, which meant she was thinking. "Date?" she repeated. "Calendar ...?"
"No, I mean, um ..." Words to do with romance didn't get into our curriculum and hadn't come up in our conversations.
"You are pretty," she said, looking up at me through her long white eyelashes. "I like you."
I knew that she had practiced that because she used pronouns, and used them correctly. I blushed, something good grammar had never caused before.
"Turning pink means yes?"
I nodded. Somewhere there was a cat with my tongue--it was not available for my use.
"Oh good!" She grabbed the tea towel. "I will dry!"
So that was our first date. We washed up coffee cups, and I felt then and there that living with Malchior would be domestic bliss. Call it clairvoyance, or good judgment, or just luck. From there we went over to the bar, where everyone stared at us until, I guess, we got boring, and we ate venison burgers (she ate hers raw) and greasy French fries and then we went out for a walk.
"Into the gloaming!" she said of the setting sun.
And when I asked her if Frixhians kissed, she said, "Oh yes!" but not in the bubbly cheerful way she usually did. It was deeper and a little growly and it made my toes curl inside my wool socks.
That night I went home to the house I was still sharing with Ann, and Malchior went back to the room she was renting at the bar. On Saturday, Malchior borrowed an ATV and we went off into the park, which I had never thought was interesting, and besides, I was afraid of bears. Malchior assured me that if we came across any, she would not hurt them. She took off her romper and swam in icy cold Wager Bay, which is when I discovered that Frixhians have four breasts. Everything else is pretty much the same. We spent the night in Malchior's room, and the next day, everyone I saw either grinned knowingly or winked at me.
One evening in her room she told me, "My name is Hesper."
We were snuggling in post-coital afterglow, me under the blankets and quilts and Malchior uncovered. "Your name is Malchior," I said.
"No. Malchior is public name. Malchior Prexan Chorid is official name. Hesper is bedname. It is a name only for lovers to know."
I digested that for a minute.
"What do I call Maggie?" she asked shyly.
"Um, Earthling couples usually make up little pet names for each other," I said.
"Pet name?" That made her giggle. "Maggie is my pet! Hesper will feed Maggie Purina Dog Chow. Only the best for pet Maggie!" She ruffled the hair on the top of my head.
I told her the usual pet names, like honey and dear and love and cupcake. "Hesper gets to choose? Hm ... Hesper will call Maggie 'Naked Grrl' because when Maggie is naked, Maggie is really naked."
"Hesper," I whispered into her ear, "I love you." She held me tight, but she didn't answer.
Autumn froze into winter and the days were dark and long. Malchior pointed out the stars in the crystal clear sky and told me about the planets that circled them. She said when she looked in my eyes she could see the stars reflected there.
I spent more and more time at Malchior's motel room till I was pretty much living there. We strung the place with Christmas lights inside and out to ward off the darkness. She had a prepaid credit card with a seemingly limitless amount of money on it. She explained to me how it worked.
"You see on Frix there are crystals called gigm. Everywhere, in the dirt. Frixhians gather up gigm and go to Vanotu, where they are rare and worth lots of rhondek. Take the rhondek to Magareb and get gold. Bring the gold to Earth ... Earth has such complicated financial systems. Malchior turned the gold into this plastic card which is not worth anything anywhere else. But Malchior will take these back to Frix and finance this trip." She showed me a few rolls of pennies.
On another night she took out what looked like a piece of Plexiglas and swiped her hand over it and photos appeared on its surface like magic. She showed me pictures she had taken of the town and the wilderness and the people. She brought up her Facebook page on the Plexiglas. She had over 9,000 followers. I said I had never seen her with a camera, and she held up her hands in two Ls, like an artist framing a scene, and then with a swipe of her palm my face appeared on the Plexiglas too.
"This is not for sharing, this camera thing. Maggie must not tell anyone," she said.
"Earthlings are like children. Frixhians cannot give Earthlings technology that Earthlings are not ready for. Better for Earthlings not to know."
"Aren't you afraid," I said, the fear suddenly dawning on me as I looked the Facebook counter, "that the government or someone will try to capture you and take it by force?"
She smiled benignly, like you would at a child's fear of the dark. "Malchior is not afraid. Frixhians cannot be captured by Earthlings. Do not worry. Earthlings have tried; Earthlings have learned."
"So, if you can't share your technology, why aren't there laws about coming here? I mean, you know, what if your technology accidentally fell into our hands?"
"Frixhians are not good at following rules." Malchior sighed sadly. "There are laws, but there is no waiting. Soon it will be too warm here for Frixhians."
"But you could help us, couldn't you?"
"See, there is 'you,' and who is 'you'? Do you," she pointed at me each time she said it, "-- Naked Grrl--mean Malchior? Do you mean Frixhians? Do you mean other humans on other worlds?"
"Well ... yes ... the latter."
"Malchior does not understand the problem. Humans came here with a life support system and it flourished, but now Earthlings are killing it. It is said Earthlings know what they are doing, and keep doing it. Genetic flaw. You have a law for that: Darwin's law."
"So you are just here to ... take pictures. To see the sights before they are gone."
"And when we kill ourselves off ...?"
"We will not visit then."
"Earth is just a tourist attraction."
Malchior looked down at her Plexiglas sheet and twiddled with the Facebook feed. "Yes."
"And am I just a tourist attraction for you?"
Malchior fixed me with her lavender eyes. "Hesper should have left two months ago. Naked Grrl is not a tourist attraction.
Hesper loves Naked Grrl, and that is a problem."
"Why is that a problem?" I asked faintly.
"Malchior cannot stay and Hesper cannot leave."
"Take me with you!" I blurted. "Take me to Frix!"
"Frixhians are not allowed to take Earthlings off-planet."
"You told me that Frixhians are not good at following rules."
Hesper looked down at her Plexiglas and smiled and then chuckled faintly. "Naked Grrl would come to Frix? It is always winter there ..."
"Yes!" I hadn't even known until that moment, but I had never wanted anything more than I wanted this.
"Naked Grrl will be the only Earthling on Frix, maybe the only Earthling not on Earth. Naked Grrl will have to eat Frixhian food."
"Will Hesper take me?" I asked breathlessly. "Will Malchior?"
"Yes." She grabbed me and kissed me. "Yes! Hesper will wrap Naked Grrl in furs and keep Naked Grrl warm."
So, Ann, that's where I've gone. I know we didn't part friends, but please pass this on to the few people who need to know. Anything I left behind you can have, including all my books.
P.S. Minou is with Auntie.