Angel's Egg

by Edgar Pangborn

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: When adopting a pet, choose the species that is most intelligent, obedient, loyal, fun to play with, yet a shrewd, fearless protector. For the best in pets--choose a human being!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Mr. Cleveland McCarran
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Washington, D. C.
Dear Sir:

In compliance with your request, I enclose herewith a transcript of the pertinent sections of the journal of Dr. David Bannerman, deceased. The original document is being held at this office until proper disposition can be determined.

Our investigation has shown no connection between Dr. Bannerman and any organization, subversive or otherwise. So far as we can learn he was exactly what he seemed, an inoffensive summer resident, retired, with a small independent income--a recluse to some extent, but well spoken of by local tradesmen and other neighbors. A connection between Dr. Bannerman and the type of activity that concerns your Department would seem most unlikely.

The following information is summarized from the earlier parts of Dr. Bannerman’s journal, and tallies with the results of our own limited inquiry.

He was born in 1898 at Springfield, Massachusetts, attended public school there, and was graduated from Harvard College in 1922, his studies having been interrupted by two years’ military service. He was wounded in action in the Argonne, receiving a spinal injury. He earned a doctorate in Biology, 1926. Delayed after-effects of his war injury necessitated hospitalization, 1927-’28. From 1929 to 1948 he taught elementary sciences in a private school in Boston. He published two textbooks in introductory biology, 1929 and 1937. In 1948 he retired from teaching: a pension and a modest income from textbook royalties evidently made this possible.

Aside from the spinal injury, which caused him to walk with a stoop, his health is said to have been fair. Autopsy findings suggested that the spinal condition must have given him considerable pain; he is not known to have mentioned this to anyone, not even his physician, Dr. Lester Morse. There is no evidence whatever of drug addiction or alcoholism.

At one point early in his journal, Dr. Bannerman describes himself as “a naturalist of the puttering type. I would rather sit on a log than write monographs; it pays off better.” Dr. Morse, and others who knew Dr. Bannerman personally, tell me that this conveys a hint of his personality.

I am not qualified to comment on the material of this journal, except to say that I have no evidence to support (or to contradict) Dr. Bannerman’s statements. The journal has been studied only by my immediate superiors, by Dr. Morse, and by myself. I take it for granted you will hold the matter in strictest confidence.

With the journal I am also enclosing a statement by Dr. Morse, written at my request for our records and for your information. You will note that he says, with some qualifications, that “death was not inconsistent with an embolism.” He has signed a death certificate on that basis. You will recall from my letter of August 5 that it was Dr. Morse who discovered Dr. Bannerman’s body. Because he was a close personal friend of the deceased, Dr. Morse did not feel able to perform the autopsy himself. It was done by a Dr. Stephen Clyde of this city, and was virtually negative as regards cause of death, neither confirming nor contradicting Dr. Morse’s original tentative diagnosis. If you wish to read the autopsy report in full, I shall be glad to forward a copy.

Dr. Morse tells me that so far as he knows, Dr. Bannerman had no near relatives. He never married. For the last twelve summers he occupied a small cottage on a back road about twenty-five miles from this city, and had few visitors. The neighbor Steele mentioned in the journal is a farmer, age 68, of good character, who tells me he “never got really acquainted with Dr. Bannerman.”

At this office we feel that unless new information comes to light, further active investigation is hardly justified.

Respectfully yours,
Garrison Blaine
Capt., State Police
Augusta, Me.
Encl: Extract from Journal of David Bannerman, dec’d. Statement by
Lester Morse, M.D.

LIBRARIAN’S NOTE: The following document, originally attached as an unofficial “rider” to the foregoing letter, was donated to this institution in 1994 through the courtesy of Mrs. Helen McCarran, widow of the martyred first President of the World Federation. Other personal and state papers of President McCarran, many of them dating from the early period when he was employed by the FBI, are accessible to public view at the Institute of World History, Copenhagen.


It must have been at least three weeks ago when we had that flying saucer flurry. Observers the other side of Katahdin saw it come down this side; observers this side saw it come down the other. Size anywhere from six inches to sixty feet in diameter (or was it cigar-shaped?) and speed whatever you please. Seem to recall that witnesses agreed on a rosy-pink light. There was the inevitable gobbledegookery of official explanation designed to leave everyone impressed, soothed and disappointed.

I paid scant attention to the excitement and less to the explanations--naturally, I thought it was just a flying saucer. But now Camilla has hatched out an angel.

I have eight hens, all yearlings except Camilla; this is her third spring. I boarded her two winters at my neighbor Steele’s farm when I closed this shack and shuffled my chilly bones off to Florida, because even as a pullet she had a manner which overbore me. I could never have eaten Camilla. If she had looked at the ax with that same expression of rancid disapproval (and she would) I should have felt I was beheading a favorite aunt. Her only concession to sentiment is the annual rush of maternity to the brain--normal, for a case-hardened White Plymouth Rock.

This year she stole a nest successfully, in a tangle of blackberry. By the time I located it, I estimated I was about two weeks too late. I had to outwit her by watching from a window; she is far too acute to be openly trailed from feeding ground to nest. When I had bled and pruned my way to her hideout, she was sitting on nine eggs and hating my guts. They could not be fertile, since I keep no rooster, and I was about to rob her when I saw the ninth egg was not hers, nor any other chicken’s.

It was a deep blue, transparent, with flecks of inner light that made me think of the first stars in a clear evening. It was the same size as Camilla’s eggs. There was an embryo, but nothing I could recognize.

I returned the egg to Camilla’s bare and fevered breastbone, and went back to the house for a long cool drink.

That was ten days ago. I know I ought to have kept a record; I examined the blue egg every day, watching how some nameless life grew within it, until finally the angel chipped the shell deftly in two parts. This was evidently done with the aid of small horny out-growths on her elbows; these growths were sloughed off on the second day.

I wish I had seen her break the shell, but when I visited the blackberry tangle three days ago she was already out. She poked her exquisite head through Camilla’s neck feather, smiled sleepily, and snuggled back into darkness to finish drying off. So what could I do, more than save the broken shell and wriggle my clumsy self out of there?

I had removed Camilla’s own eggs the day before--Camilla was only moderately annoyed. I was nervous about disposing of them even though they were obviously Camilla’s, but no harm was done. I cracked each one to be sure. Very frankly rotten eggs and nothing more.

In the evening of that day I thought of rats and weasels, as I should have earlier. I hastily prepared a box in the kitchen and brought the two in, the angel quiet in my closed hand. They are there now. I think they are comfortable.

Three days after hatching, the angel is the length of my fore-finger, say three inches tall, with about the relative proportions of a six-year-old girl. Except for head, hands, and probably the soles of her feet, she is clothed in feathery down the color of ivory. What can be seen of her skin is a glowing pink--I do mean glowing, like the inside of certain seashells. Just above the small of her back are two stubs which I take to be infantile wings. They do not suggest an extra pair of specialized forelimbs. I think they are wholly differentiated organs; perhaps they will be like the wings of an insect. Somehow I never thought of angels buzzing. Maybe she won’t. I know very little about angels.

At present the stubs are covered with some dull tissue, no doubt a protective sheath to be discarded when the membranes (if they are membranes) are ready to grow. Between the stubs is a not very prominent ridge--special musculature, I suppose. Otherwise her shape is quite human, even to a pair of minuscule mammalian pin-heads just visible under the down.

How that can make sense in an egg-laying organism is beyond my comprehension. Just for the record, so is a Corot landscape; so is Schubert’s Unfinished; so is the flight of a hummingbird, or the other-world of frost on a windowpane.

The down on her head has grown visibly in three days and is of different quality from the body down. Later it may resemble human hair, probably as a diamond resembles a chunk of granite...

A curious thing has happened. I went to Camilla’s box after writing that. Judy[1] was already lying in front of it, unexcited. The angel’s head was out from under the feathers, and I thought, with more verbal distinctness than such thoughts commonly take, So here I am, a naturalist of middle years and cold sober, observing a three-inch oviparous mammal with down and wings.

[Footnote 1: Dr. Bannerman’s dog, mentioned often earlier in the journal, a nine-year-old English setter. According to an entry of May 15, 1951, she was then beginning to go blind--BLAINE]

The thing is--she giggled!

Now it might have been only amusement at my appearance, which to her must be enormously gross and comic. But another thought formed unspoken: I am no longer lonely. And her face, hardly bigger than a dime, immediately changed from laughter to a brooding and friendly thoughtfulness.

Judy and Camilla are old friends. Judy seems untroubled by the angel. I have no worries about leaving them alone together.

June 3

I made no entry last night. The angel was talking to me, and when that was finished I drowsed off immediately on a cot which I have moved into the kitchen to be near them.

I had never been strongly impressed by the evidence for extrasensory perception. It is fortunate that my mind was able to accept the novelty, since to the angel it is clearly a matter of course. Her tiny mouth is most expressive, but moves only for that reason and for eating--not for speech. Probably she could speak to her own kind if she wished, but I dare say the sound would be above the range of my hearing as well as my understanding.

Last night after I brought the cot in and was about to finish my puttering bachelor supper, she climbed to the edge of the box and pointed, first at herself and then at the top of the kitchen table. Afraid to let my vast hand take hold of her, I held it out flat and she sat in my palm. Camilla was inclined to fuss, but the angel looked over her shoulder and Camilla subsided, watchful but no longer alarmed.

The table-top is porcelain, and the angel shivered. I folded a towel and spread a silk handkerchief on top of that; the angel sat on this arrangement with apparent comfort, near my face. I was not even bewildered, without realizing why. That doesn’t seem possible, does it? But there was a good reason.

She reached me first with visual imagery. How can I make it plain that this had nothing in common with my sleeping dreams? There was no weight of symbolism from my littered past, no discoverable connection with any of yesterday’s commonplaces, indeed no actual involvement of my personality at all. I saw. I was moving vision, though without eyes or other flesh. And while my mind saw, it also knew where my flesh was, seated at the kitchen table. If anyone had entered the kitchen, if there had been a noise of alarm out in the henhouse, I should have known it.

There was a valley such as I have not seen, and never will, on Earth. I have seen many beautiful places on this planet--some of them were even tranquil. Once I took a slow steamer to New Zealand and had the Pacific as a play-thing for many days. I can hardly say how I knew this was not Earth. The grass of the valley was a familiar green. A river below me was a blue and silver thread under sunlight. There were trees much like pine and maple, and maybe that is what they were. But it was not Earth. I was aware of mountains heaped to strange heights on either side of the valley--snow, rose, amber, gold. The amber tint was unlike any mountain color I have noticed in this world at mid-day.

Or I may have known it was not Earth, simply because her mind--dwelling within some unimaginable brain smaller than the tip of my little finger--told me so.

I watched two inhabitants of that world come flying, to rest in the field of sunny grass where my bodiless vision had brought me. Adult forms, such as my angel would surely be when she had her growth, except that both of these were male and one of them was dark-skinned. The latter was also old, with a thousand-wrinkled face, knowing and full of tranquillity; the other was flushed and lively with youth. Both were beautiful. The down of the brown-skinned old one was reddish-tawny; the other’s was ivory with hints of orange. Their wings were true membranes, with more variety of subtle iridescence than I have seen even in the wings of a dragonfly; I could not say that any color was dominant, for each motion brought a ripple of change.

These two sat at their ease on the grass. I realized that they were talking to each other, though their lips did not move in speech more than once or twice. They would nod, smile, now and then illustrate something with twinkling hands.

A huge rabbit lolloped past them. I knew--thanks to my own angel’s efforts, I supposed--that this animal was of the same size as our common wild ones. Later a blue-green snake three times the size of the angels came flowing through the grass. The old one reached out to stroke its head carelessly, and I think he did it without interrupting whatever he was saying.

Another creature came in leisured leaps. He was monstrous, yet I felt no alarm in the angels or myself. Imagine a being built somewhat like a kangaroo up to the head, about eight feet tall, and katydid-green. Really the thick balancing tail and enormous legs were the only kangaroolike features about him. The body above the massive thighs was not dwarfed, but thick and square. The arms and hands were quite humanoid, and the head was round, manlike except for its face--there was only a single nostril and his mouth was set in the vertical. The eyes were large and mild.

I received an impression of high intelligence and natural gentleness.

In one of his manlike hands he carried two tools, so familiar and ordinary that I knew my body by the kitchen table had laughed in startled recognition. But after all, a garden spade and rake are basic. Once invented--I expect we did it ourselves in the Neolithic--there is little reason why they should change much down the millennia.

This farmer halted by the angels, and the three conversed a while. The big head nodded agreeably. I believe the young angel made a joke; certainly the convulsions in the huge green face made me think of laughter. Then this amiable monster turned up the grass in a patch a few yards square, broke the sod and raked the surface smooth, just as any competent gardener might do, except that he moved with the relaxed smoothness of a being whose strength far exceeds the requirements of his task...

I was back in my kitchen with everyday eyes. My angel was exploring the table. I had a loaf of bread there, and a dish of strawberries in cream. She was trying a breadcrumb, seemed to like it fairly well. I offered the strawberries. She broke off one of the seeds and nibbled it, but didn’t care so much for the pulp. I held up the great spoon with sugary cream. She steadied it with both hands to try some. I think she liked it.

It had been stupid of me not to realize that she would be hungry. I brought wine from the cupboard; she watched inquiringly, so I put a couple of drops on the handle of a spoon. The taste really pleased her. She chuckled and patted her tiny stomach, though I’m afraid it wasn’t very good sherry. I brought some crumbs of cake, but she indicated that she was full, came close to my face and motioned me to lower my head.

She reached up until she could press both hands against my forehead--I felt it only enough to know her hands were there--and she stood so a long time, trying to tell me something.

It was difficult. Pictures come through with relative ease, but now she was transmitting an abstraction of a complex kind. My clumsy brain suffered in the effort to receive. Something did come across, but I have only the crudest way of passing it on. Imagine an equilateral triangle; place the following words one at each corner--”recruiting,” “collecting,” “saving.” The meaning she wanted to convey ought to be near the center of the triangle.

I had also the sense that her message provided a partial explanation of her errand in this lovable and damnable world.

She looked weary when she stood away from me. I put out my palm and she climbed into it, to be carried back to the nest.

She did not talk to me tonight, nor eat, but she gave a reason, coming out from Camilla’s feathers long enough to turn her back and show me the wing-stubs. The protective sheaths have dropped off; the wings are rapidly growing. They are probably damp and weak. She was quite tired and went back into the warm darkness almost at once.

Camilla must be exhausted, too. I don’t think she has been off the nest more than twice since I brought them into the house.

June 4

Today she can fly.

I learned it in the afternoon, when I was fiddling about in the garden and Judy was loafing in the sunshine she loves. Something apart from sight and sound called me to hurry back to the house. I saw my angel through the screen door before I opened it. One of her feet had caught in a hideous loop of loose wire at a break in the mesh. Her first tug of alarm must have tightened the loop so that her hands were not strong enough to force it open.

Fortunately I was able to cut the wire with a pair of shears before I lost my head; then she could free her foot without injury. Camilla had been frantic, rushing around fluffed up, but--here’s an odd thing--perfectly silent. None of the recognized chicken-noises of dismay. If an ordinary chick had been in trouble, she would have raised the roof.

The angel flew to me and hovered, pressing her hands on my forehead. The message was clear at once: “No harm done.” She flew down to tell Camilla the same thing.

Yes, in the same way. I saw Camilla standing near my feet with her neck out and head low, and the angel put a hand on either side of her scraggy comb. Camilla relaxed, clucked in the normal way, and spread her wings for a shelter. The angel went under it, but only to oblige Camilla, I think--at least, she stuck her head through the wing feathers and winked.

She must have seen something else then, for she came out and flew back to me and touched a finger to my cheek, looked at the finger, saw it was wet, put it in her mouth, made a face, and laughed at me.

We went outdoors into the sun (Camilla, too) and the angel gave me an exhibition of what flying ought to be. Not even Wagner can speak of joy as her first free flying did. At one moment she would be hanging in front of my eyes, radiant and delighted; the next instant she would be a dot of color against a cloud. Try to imagine something that would make a hummingbird seem dull and sluggish!

They do hum. Softer than a hummingbird; louder than a dragonfly. Something like the sound of hawk-moths--Hemaris thisbe, for instance, the one I used to call Hummingbird Moth when I was a child.

I was frightened, naturally. Frightened first at what might happen to her, but that was unnecessary; I don’t think she would be in danger from any savage animal except possibly Man. I saw a Cooper’s hawk slant down the invisible toward the swirl of color where she was dancing by herself. Presently she was drawing iridescent rings around him. Then, while he soared in smaller circles, I could not see her, but (maybe she felt my fright) she was again in front of me, pressing my forehead in the now familiar way.

I knew she was amused, and caught the idea that the hawk was a “lazy character.” Not quite the way I’d describe Accipiter Cooperi, but it’s all in the point of view. I believe she had been riding his back, no doubt with her telepathic hands on his predatory head.

Later I was frightened by the thought that she might not want to return to me. Could I compete with sunlight and open sky? The passage of that terror through me brought her swiftly back, and her hands said with great clarity: “Don’t ever be afraid of anything. It isn’t necessary for you.”

Once this afternoon I was saddened by the realization that old Judy can take little part in what goes on now. I can well remember Judy running like the wind. The angel must have heard this thought in me, for she stood a long time beside Judy’s drowsy head, while Judy’s tail thumped cheerfully on the warm grass...

In the evening the angel made a heavy meal on two or three cake crumbs and another drop of sherry, and we had what was almost a sustained conversation. I will write it in that form this time, rather than grope for anything more exact.

I asked her: “How far away is your home?”

“My home is here.”

“I meant the place your people came from.”

“Ten light years.”

“The images you showed me--that quiet valley--that is ten light years away?”

“Yes. But that was my father talking to you, through me. He was grown when the journey began. He is two hundred and forty years old--our years, thirty-two days longer than each of yours.”

Mainly I was conscious of a flood of relief. I had feared, on the basis of terrestrial biology that her explosively rapid growth after hatching must foretell a brief life. But it’s all right--she can outlive me, and by a few hundred years at that.

“Your father is here now, on this planet? Shall I see him?”

She took her hands away--listening, I believe. The answer was: “No. He is sorry. He is ill and cannot live long. I am to see him in a few days, when I fly a little better. He taught me for twenty years after I was born.”

“I don’t understand. I thought that--”

“Later, friend. My father is grateful for your kindness to me.”

I don’t know what I thought about that. I felt no faintest trace of condescension in the message.

“And he was showing me things he had seen with his own eyes, ten light years away?”

“Yes.” Then she wanted me to rest a while; I am sure she knows what a huge effort it is for my primitive brain to function in this way. But before she ended the conversation by humming down to her nest she gave me this, and I received it with such clarity that I cannot be mistaken: “He says that only fifty million years ago it was a jungle there, just as Terra is now.”

June 8

When I woke four days ago, the angel was having breakfast, and little Camilla was dead. The angel watched me rub sleep out of my eyes, watched me discover Camilla, and then flew to me.

I received this: “Does it make you unhappy?”

“I don’t know exactly.” You can get fond of a hen, especially a cantankerous and homely old one whose personality has a lot in common with your own.

“She was old. She wanted a flock of chicks, and I couldn’t stay with her. So I--” something obscure here; probably my mind was trying too hard to grasp it--”so I saved her life.” I could make nothing else out of it. She said “saved.”

Camilla’s death looked natural, except that I should have expected the death contractions to muss the straw and that hadn’t happened. Maybe the angel had arranged the old lady’s body for decorum, though I don’t see how her muscular strength would have been equal to it, Camilla weighed at least seven pounds.

As I was burying her at the edge of the garden and the angel was humming over my head, I recalled a thing which, when it happened, I had dismissed as a dream. Merely a moonlight image of the angel standing in the nest box with her hands on Camilla’s head, then pressing her mouth gently on Camilla’s throat, just before the hen’s head sank down out of my line of vision. Probably I actually awoke and saw it happen. I am somehow unconcerned--even, as I think more about it, pleased.

After the burial the angel’s hands said: “Sit on the grass and we’ll talk. Question me; I’ll tell you what I can. My father asks you to write it down.”

So that is what we have been doing for the last four days. I have been going to school, a slow but willing pupil. Rather than enter anything in this journal, for in the evenings I was exhausted, I made notes as best I could. The angel has gone now to see her father and will not return until morning. I shall try to make a readable version of my notes.

Since she had invited questions, I began with something which had been bothering me, as a would-be naturalist, exceedingly. I couldn’t see how creatures no larger than the adults I had observed could lay eggs, as large as Camilla’s. Nor could I understand why, if they were hatched in an almost adult condition and able to eat a varied diet, she had any use for that ridiculous, lovely and apparently functional pair of breasts.

When the angel grasped my difficulty, she exploded with laughter--her kind, which buzzed her all over the garden and caused her to fluff my hair on the wing and pinch my earlobe. She lit on a rhubarb leaf and gave a delectably naughty representation of herself as a hen laying an egg, including the cackle. She got me to bumbling helplessly--my kind of laughter--and it was some time before we could quiet down. Then she did her best to explain.

They are true mammals, and the young--not more than two or at most three in a lifetime averaging two hundred and fifty years--are delivered in very much the human way. The baby is nursed, human fashion, until his brain begins to respond a little to their unspoken language. That takes three to four weeks. Then he is placed in an altogether different medium.

She could not describe that clearly, because there was very little in my educational storehouse to help me grasp it. It is some gaseous medium which arrests bodily growth for an almost indefinite period, while mental growth continues. It took them, she says, about seven thousand years to perfect this technique after they first hit on the idea; they are never in a hurry.

The infant remains under this delicate and precise control for anywhere from fifteen to thirty years, the period depending not only on his mental vigor, but also on the type of lifework he tentatively elects as soon as his brain is knowing enough to make a choice. During this period his mind is guided with patience by teachers who--

It seems those teachers know their business. This was peculiarly difficult for me to assimilate, although the facts came through clearly enough. In their world, the profession of teacher is more highly honored than any other--can such a thing be possible?--and so difficult to enter that only the strongest minds dare to attempt it.

I had to rest a while after absorbing that.

An aspirant must spend fifty years, not including the period of infantile education, merely getting ready to begin, and the acquisition of factual knowledge, while not understressed, takes only a small proportion of those fifty years. Then, if he’s good enough, he can take a small part in the elementary instruction of a few babies, and if he does well on that basis for another thirty or forty years, he is considered a fair beginner...

Once upon a time I myself lurched around stuffy classrooms, trying to insert a few predigested facts--I wonder how many of them were facts--into the minds of bored and preoccupied adolescents, some of whom may have liked me moderately well. I was even able to shake hands and be nice while their terribly well-meaning parents explained to me how they ought to be educated. So much of our human effort goes down the drain of futility, I sometimes wonder how we ever got as far as the Bronze Age. Somehow we did, though, and a short way beyond.

After that preliminary stage of an angel’s education is finished, the baby is transferred to more ordinary surroundings, and his bodily growth completes itself in a very short time. Wings grow abruptly, as I have seen, and he reaches a maximum height of six inches by our measure. Only then does he enter on that lifetime of two hundred and fifty years, for not until then does his body begin to age. My angel has been a living personality for many years, but will not celebrate her first birthday for almost a year. I like to think of that.

At about the same time that they learned the principles of interplanetary travel, approximately twelve million years ago, these people also learned how growth could be rearrested at any point short of full maturity. At first the knowledge served no purpose except in the control of illnesses which still occasionally struck them at that time. But when the long periods of time required for space travel were considered, the advantages became obvious.

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