The Back of Our Heads - Cover

The Back of Our Heads

by Stephen Barr

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: She traveled from life to death and back again like a commuter on the 5:15. except each trip brought her nearer the beginning of the line!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

In reading this report, it must be borne in mind that when the word “they” is used, it does not refer necessarily to separate entities as individuals.

It is possible that a closer analogy would be the cells of an organism--which, in a sense, we ourselves become when we are in a pack or forming a mob.

On the other hand, that particular cell or entity which this report deals with exhibited at all times marked individuality--even eccentricity--and will hereinafter be referred to as “she.” This is because “she” invariably assumed a female form when visiting us, and because she furthermore gave every indication of that type of mind and point of view which is generally met with in the more noticeable, effective or contentious members of that sex.

As she put it herself during the hearing, she was always in hot water.

The four teen-agers--one girl, three boys--weren’t allowed in the bar, so they went down the street to a joint where there were a soda fountain, booths and a jukebox. They sat in a booth and a waitress came to take the orders: three hot dogs and three cokes.

“What about you, dear?”

“Just a glass of water.” The waitress started to leave. “No, wait--gimme a white on rye, too.”

The waitress left, then came back again. “What was that you wanted, dear? Some kind of rye-bread sandwich?”

“Changed my mind. Make it a buttered pecan, but tell ‘em to go easy on the butter. And I don’t want no French dressing. Make it on whole wheat.”

The waitress looked uncertain. “You mean a nut sandwich?”

“Yeah, only malted. With lettuce and chocolate sprinkles.”

“Who you kiddin’?” the waitress said, and turned to go.

“No, hold it. Tell Joe to please scramble them on both sides.”

“What you talkin’ about?” the waitress said. “We ain’t got no one here called Joe.”

“So okay, Joseph, then. Tell him just a boiled egg sunny side up.”

The waitress left, frowning.

“Our Miss Framis,” one of the boys said, meaning the girl, and the others smiled. They looked as though they were sneering at the same time and hoped they would be taken for juvenile delinquents.

There were two very odd-looking men in the booth opposite and they were listening to the conversation. Their oddness lay in an atmosphere rather than in any physical abnormality. The girl noticed them and nudged one of the boys.

The three boys looked at the men resentfully and one of them said something under his breath, but the girl said, “Button it.” Then she asked the men opposite, “Lookin’ for someone, mister?”

The two men looked away, and this made the boys feel brave. One of them said, “Let’s give ‘em the works.”

“No, leave it to me.” The girl got up and went across to the two men. “Me and my friends was wondering. Maybe you gentlemen would like to come to a trake in the gort later?”

The three boys snickered and the men looked up at the girl and waited with blank faces.

“Or maybe you’d rather we put on a hanse for you?” she said.

“No, sit down,” one of the men--the bigger one--said, and moved back to make room for her. She glanced at him with surprise for a moment and sat down next to him.

One of the boys started to get up when he saw this, but the others pulled him down again.

“What did you say to us just now?” the big man asked. “It was too small in here.”

She shook her head and frowned. “Why, that was just ... I said did you want for us to put on a hanse, is all.” She had a rather feeble grin.

“Yes,” the big man said. “We do.”

She glanced back at her friends nervously, and then at the man again. “I don’t get you,” she said.

“Neither do we,” the smaller man said.

The boys across the room were listening quietly and then one of them said, “Go on, tell ‘em, Miss Framis.”

“We just want you to quint,” the big man said, “and won’t thursday on it.”

She stared at him without expression and got up slowly. She went over to her friends. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.

She was shivering.

Q. You say you object to this line of questioning?

A. (She) No, I just don’t like being spied on. And it made the kids

... mad. They wrecked the car and that meant starting all over again.

Q. The car?

A. Yes, their hot-rod. When we got outside, they acted the way

teen-agers do and went too fast. They were sore at those

spies--they took it out on the car, so it went off the road. It

turned over three times and we were all killed.

Q. They were not spies. They were acting on their own.

A. I didn’t know that. I just knew something was funny. Anyway,

how can you say that? They’re a waste. And it would have been part

of you, just as I am. It was more of a waste if I hadn’t been

split. The other part was only about eleven years old and I had to

wait another six years to--

Q. It is your own fault if you were split. You cannot blame us.

This has happened before--you have aimed badly and arrived wrong.

Don’t forget about the help.

A. Well, in this case it’s a lucky thing I did; otherwise the whole

thing would have been wasted. And the kelp--that was dreadfully

dull. I wanted to try a really primitive form, but not that

primitive. Then I got washed up and it led to the cat. After

they got the iodine out of the kelp, I was suddenly a cat.

Q. This has not been reported.

A. I’m reporting it now. It wasn’t dull in the least, but they were

very superstitious about cats in those days, and they decided I was


Q. They saw through you?

A. Oh, yes. People usually do.

Q. You couldn’t have been very successful if they saw through you.

A. It doesn’t make any difference if they see through you. The

important thing is to see through them.

Q. But you were a cat.

A. Cats are in a very good position to see through people. I think

they sensed that. Anyway, I was ... done away with.

Q. Burned again?

A. Yes.

Q. Seems to be a habit of yours. What happens? How does it feel?

A. I cannot explain it to you, but I know what to do. It’s not my

habit--it’s one of theirs, but it’s dying out in most places now.

And there was a time when it would never have occurred to them.

They were too frightened of it.

Q. Frightened of what?

A. Of fire. It was very new then...

The hunters came back to the cave at dusk, and one of them went to the fire that was kept going constantly in front of the opening. He took a dry branch and held it in the fire until the end caught. Then he held it up. “If we take this, we can hunt in the dark,” he said. “And when it is nearly eaten by the fire, we can take another branch and start it again. That way we do not need the moon.”

“That way we can hunt until we are tired,” said the other.

“That way we can kill twice as much game,” said the first.

“There is so much game in the cave now,” a young woman said, “that it is beginning to smell.”

The older hunter glanced at her apprehensively; she made him feel foolish, always finding fault with his plans. “Perhaps so,” he said. “But at other times we starve.”

“Besides,” she said, “if you take the fire with you to see where you are going and to see the game, the game will see you.”

The hunters looked at one another and shrugged. The woman went into the cave and returned with an earthenware pot. There were pieces of raw meat and some water in it and she put it on the fire, propping it in position with three stones. The second hunter looked at the pot curiously. He was a younger brother from the other side of the valley, where he lived with his mates. He pointed at the pot and looked inquiringly at the older brother.

“She made it out of mud,” the older brother said.

“Why doesn’t it fall apart with the water in it?”

“I put it into the fire first, for a long time,” the young woman said. “A very big fire. The mud gets red--and then it gets hard so it won’t melt when the water is in it.”

The younger man looked surprised. “Magic?”

“Yes,” said the other man.

“Nonsense,” said the woman. She went back to the cave and the young man put the end of his spear into the fire and tried to scrape the side of the pot with the flint head, but the flint was cold and it cracked. He pulled it back and was looking angrily at it when she came out again and sat on the ground. She had an armful of roots which she began to scrape with a sharp stone. “The spearhead is made of the wrong sort of stone,” she said, without looking up. “That is why it broke in the fire.”

“It’s made of the right kind!” the young man shouted. “All spearheads are made of that kind! They always have been and they always will be! How did you know it broke in the fire? You weren’t looking.”

“I heard it make the sound it makes when the fire breaks it.”

The young man glowered and pushed his under lip out. “This kind of stone was put in the cave for us to make knives and spears. And it makes a very sharp edge when you know how to form it.”

“No sharper than this knife,” she said, holding up the stone in her hand. “This doesn’t break so easily.”

The young man took it and examined it carefully. “How do you strike it to make it this shape?” he said, and then, grudgingly, “It is very smooth--a very good shape.”

“You don’t strike it,” she said, taking it back and going on scraping the roots. “You rub it on another stone--first on the kind that has the bright sparkles in it, and then under water on the flat gray kind. It’s much better than your knives and the fire doesn’t break it so easily.”

She finished with the roots and put them in the pot with the meat.

“Where do you find such big roots?” the young man asked his brother.

“Over there,” the brother said, pointing to a patch of earth nearby. “She finds them there.”

“I don’t find them,” she said. “I put them there in the first place.”

“You mean you store them in the earth?” the young man said.

“No. I put the tops in the ground--the blue and yellow flowers--and next warm season I dig and there are the new roots. You have to put water on the earth when it gets dry. Also you have to pull up all the small plants that grow there among them. It’s very hard work.”

“More magic,” said the young man.

“It’s not magic!” she said. “You are stupid. Haven’t you noticed that when you leave an acorn on the ground, it breaks open and a finger goes down into the earth? And then, after the next rains, it makes little leaves--and if you leave it alone, it grows and in time becomes a young tree?”

“Everyone knows that,” the young man said disdainfully.

“Well, this is the same.”

“Yes, but what makes the roots so big? I never saw any like these.”

“That’s because I only take the flowers from the plants that have the biggest roots. And if any of the new roots are little, I throw away the flowers from them. Far away.”

“What do you do with the little roots?”

“Eat them.”

“I don’t understand. If you eat the little roots, why don’t you get little roots?”

“You are being foolish again!” the young woman said. “A tall man has tall sons.”

If he eats the meat of a tall animal,” said the young man.

“That has nothing to do with it.”

“My friend’s father, who lives near the river, always eats the fat of the game they kill, and he is fat. So you see!”

“That has nothing to do with it,” she said, and went into the cave.

The young man walked up and down angrily. “Why does she talk that way? Is she one of our sisters? I don’t remember her.”

“No,” said the other. “She was with the people we fought with three seasons ago. She is my new mate and she is very good at magic, only I advise you not to pay any attention to what she says.”

The other picked up the scraping-stone she had left and looked at it with grudging envy. “The very tall man who killed the aurochs by himself has a son,” he said, “and the son is short.”

The other shrugged. “Don’t pay any attention to her.”

The woman came out again and looked at the sky, then went to the fire and stirred the pot with a stick. “I wish you would try to get the young animals,” she said. “You always bring home the biggest ones and they are hard to chew unless I cook the meat all day.”

“My father said that if you wish to be brave, powerful and swift, you must eat only the animals that are brave, powerful and swift,” said the young man obstinately.

“Didn’t he eat roots, too?”


“Well, then.”

The young man threw the scraping-stone hard against the side of the cave opening and split it in two. “Roots are not animals!”

The young woman picked up the pieces and said, “I think I can make a small scraper out of the big piece and a throwing tip out of the little one, but this is a foolish way to get little stones. There are more little ones than big ones.”

“Show him your bent stick with the animal sinew,” said her mate. “She has a way of throwing very small spears with a bent stick,” he said to his brother. He had a dim feeling that there should be peace between the other two, since they were near his cave, but he was scarcely aware of the feeling.

The young woman looked pleased and went into the cave and brought back a stick of springy wood with a thong attached to one end, and a few dried reeds.

“See,” she said, and took a dried reed which had a small sharp stone stuck in the end of it. Then she bent the stick and strung the sinew from end to end. The younger man had his first view of a bow and arrow. “This was the way my mother showed me to throw little spears.”

She fitted the arrow into the bow and, pulling it back, shot it at a pine tree on the other side of the fire. The bowstring twanged and the arrow wobbled, having no fletching, but it stuck into the tree trunk. The young man jumped back in alarm and blinked his eyes. Then he went to the tree and pulled at the arrow. It came loose, leaving the tip stuck in the bark.

“What good is it?” he said derisively, to conceal his astonishment. “It is a child’s plaything!” He tried to pry out the arrowhead with his thumb, and broke his nail.

“If any child of mine played with this,” said the young woman, “I should beat him.” She put a larger arrow into the bow--one that had a heavier tip--and shot it into the same tree. Owing to its superior balance, this arrow did not wobble; it swished through the air and sank its tip deep into the soft wood.

“You have no child,” said her mate, “so how can you beat it?”

The young woman said nothing, but she looked angry.

“My other women have children,” he went on tauntingly. “They laugh at you.”

“You have no child younger than ten seasons!” she said, and stamped her foot. “That is why I have no child! You are an old man!”

He started toward her with a look of furious intention. He had no spear in his hand, but he held a club with flint splinters stuck in the heavy head. She ran back to the cave mouth and put another arrow in her bow and aimed it at him. They both stood silently staring at one another. Then he threw down his club and turned away.

“Peace,” he said.

“Peace,” she replied, and dropped her bow. She went to the pot over the fire and sniffed it, poking at the meat with a sharp stick. “The food is ready,” she said. “Will you take the pot off the fire? You have braver hands than I.”

Q. How are we to find out anything about them, when you are so


A. What are we supposed to find out?

Q. That is what you are supposed to find out.

A. I am to find out what I am to find out? You sound like

them--like men.

Q. Like Man?

A. No, men. The women aren’t quite the same. That’s why I always

choose to be one, but I wish you would send somebody else--another

part of our Organism. I’m tired.

Q. Absurd. Besides, you are the best; you cannot be tired.

A. The best! How am I the best? You do nothing but criticize. You

send me because I understand the intentions--the leanings--of live

things. You say I understand understanding. I suppose that makes

me some kind of epistemologist: the father confessor of the


Q. Wouldn’t it be mother confessor?

A. Not with them; they don’t like women to be priests. They can be

holy, but they don’t like women to tell them what to do. It’s

called nagging. They get especially angry if the woman is right.

Q. Hmm. Now you say that we criticize you. You surely are not going

to claim to be above criticism here, are you?

A. Oh, no. I’m beneath it.

Q. Then why do you resent it?

A. Because it doesn’t apply. If a mother is not a fool, she will

correct her child, but she won’t blame it. You can’t go looking for

good and evil motives in everything that happens. Does a stone have

a motive when it falls to the ground?

Q. If this is the way you always talked, I’m not surprised you

angered them.

A. I am sorry.

Q. You turn everything around that’s said to you.

A. I will try not to. It’s like the bishop--he complained about the

same thing, and I was only trying to--

Q. What bishop?

A. I forgot his name. He was the thin one; he was much cleverer

than the others. He gave me an impossible choice, so I chose to

make another start.

Q. You mean you got yourself burned again?

A. Yes! They did it to all their best people. Both sides did. I

would have looked a precious fool if I’d backed down.

Q. Can’t you bear to admit you are wrong?

A. But I wasn’t wrong. Anyway, they’d have made me out in the wrong

either way.

Q. Did they only burn the women, when they thought the women were


A. No, of course not. And it was usually when they suspected the

women were right. Then there were the women who were thought to be

possessed by what they thought were evil spirits.

Q. They didn’t suspect they were right, surely?

A. No, but they were afraid they might be. They were very unsure of

themselves and their beliefs. That’s when they burned people.

Q. It sounds very wasteful. They must be very careless of their


A. No, not in the least. I’ll explain--

Q. I wish you wouldn’t.

A. There, you see? They were just like you--they kept asking me

questions and getting more and more enraged when I answered them.

So, to shut me up, they tied me to a stake.

Q. You are too interested in your own reactions to things. Tell us

about something more constructive--about what you found in other

guises. I understand you led an insurrection?

A. If you call throwing an armed robber out of your house an

insurrection. The trouble was that on that occasion a lot of my

friends thought I was right. That’s called conspiracy...

The captain led a small group of foot-soldiers into the village at what, to the Romans, was the Twelfth Hour, which is sunset. The soldiers had light armor and carried only the small shields--not the enormous testudines--but they had been warned to keep their eyes open as the British were tricky, even treacherous. The captain greatly disliked to take such raw troops so far north, where the treaties were uncertain and the Pax Romana was held lightly, if at all. An ancestor of his, also a captain, had been killed near here in one of Hadrian’s marches, and no one was quite sure what had happened.

The earth wall that Hadrian’s men subsequently built across the British island was intended to keep out the more unruly natives of the North, and later the emperor Severus built another one of stone, but it was by now in a state of disrepair and only a few of the guard towers were manned. Even the Great North Road made an attenuated and unreliable line of supply, and the captain could expect neither reinforcements nor food from the camps further south, like Eboracum or Lancastrium.

Live off the land, he was told, and that meant quartering his troops--a risky thing because it separated them--or sending foraging parties to the surly farmers for “contributions.” Since he was here to collect back-taxes, the inhabitants would not take kindly to feeding the collectors.

The village had a stockade of undressed logs and wide gates at either end. These were surmounted by arched wooden structures that were supposed to serve as watch-towers, but beyond spears and knives for hunting and the necessary farming implements, the villagers were not allowed to carry weapons of any kind. The stockade was not big enough to enclose all the houses, and the majority of these were on the outside and huddled against the walls.

The small body of Roman troops--barely a manipulus--were not surprised to notice that all the windows and booths had been shuttered, and in the exact center of the village, the local chieftain and heads of families were gathered in a respectful and anxious group. It annoyed the captain that it was impossible to make an unexpected arrival anywhere in Britain; news traveled faster than Roman foot-soldiers.

“Hail Caesar!” said the captain, putting his arm up, the palm of his hand facing forward.

“Hail Caesar!” said the villagers.

“We come for the taxes which were not paid last year.”

The villagers shook their heads and made regretful sounds.

“Nor the year before, nor the year before that. Which is your headman? I shall require food for my men at once--they are tired after a day’s march.”

A gray-bearded, very tall man stood forward. “The food will be ready at once, noble decemvir, and I hope you will honor me with your presence for dinner.”

“Thank you very much,” said the captain, “but I prefer to stay with my men until I see them taken care of. And I am not a decemvir. My rank is captain--Caesar’s captain.”

The bearded man bowed and said, “Then, after the arrangements have been made, Captain, will you not take a cup of wine?”

“Don’t press him, Grandfather,” a voice said from above them, and, looking up, the captain saw a girl’s face at a second-story window. She had very dark skin, red hair and blue eyes. “If he’s been walking all day, I expect he wants to go to bed early. You’ll only keep him up all night talking about boar hunts.”

“Silence!” the headman shouted. “Get back, girl! You insult our ... our guest!”

“No, let her stay,” the captain said with an amused smile. “Better still, have her come down. I think I shall accept your offer about the wine later.”

In the evening, the captain came to the headman’s house with his two lieutenants as guard. They were received with deference and given wolf-hides to sit on. The wine was brought by the granddaughter and served in horn cups.

“What is your name, young lady?” asked the captain politely. “This is excellent wine, by the way.”

“Thank you, Captain,” she said. “We have had a cask taken to your men. I made it myself, three years ago. My name is Boadicea.”

Boadicea?“ said the captain in astonishment.

“No, no, Captain!” the headman said hurriedly. “She’s joking--her name is Flavia; the other is the name she takes for herself. I apologize for her.”

“It is not a joke,” she said. “Boadicea is my heroine and I have taken her name. I don’t like the name Flavia--it’s Roman. Do I look like a Roman to you, Captain?”

“You look very beautiful,” the captain said, laughing, “and there is no need for apology. I admire Boadicea myself; she very nearly drove Caesar’s men into the sea. It was a long time ago.” He drained his wine cup. “A long, long time ago.”

“But we have not forgotten her, Captain,” the girl said, filling his cup again.

“You insult our honored guest, girl!” her grandfather said. “Go to bed!”

“No, I beg you--please don’t send her to bed,” said the captain. “I’m not in the least insulted. After all, it’s ancient history now. I don’t think people think of us as conquerors any more. We are protectors. While we are here, the Picts stay where they belong, and the Scots, too.”

“The Picts say they used to live hereabouts,” said the girl.

“The Picts say, the Picts say! What do you know of what they say?” asked her grandfather.

“The cook’s mother is a Pict,” she replied.

“Well, she’d better not come here!” said the headman. “We want no Celts!”

“But, Grandfather, we are Celts!”

“No, girl, we are Romans,” he answered, looking sideways at the captain.

The captain nodded. “That is true. All members of the Empire are Romans. Not citizens, perhaps, but Romans just the same, and all live by Caesar’s law.”

“But suppose people don’t want to live by his law?” said the girl.

The two lieutenants looked shocked, but the captain smiled. “That would be most foolish and uncivilized of them. Don’t you think it’s better for the whole world to live as members of one community and cease all this useless warfare?”

“It seems to me,” the girl said, “that warfare is the result of somebody trying to take somebody else’s land and subject him to a law that is alien to him.”

The captain raised his eyebrows and put his head to one side quizzically. The headman coughed and attempted to change the subject. “The taxes, Captain,” he said, “are very much on my mind...”

“And on mine,” the captain said. The two lieutenants tried to look businesslike, but they looked more as if they were falling asleep.

“And I hope I may say that this time we will have them ready for you,” said the headman.

“I hope so, too,” said the captain.

“But there are other levies that have not been made, which we had rather expected to be made...”

“Other levies?” The captain held out his cup and the girl poured more wine into it.

“I refer to troops, Captain,” the headman said. “You levy no troops from us up here.”

“You put me in rather an embarrassing position,” the captain said. “You must realize that while I make no comparison to yourself, there are some people living at the outer boundaries of the Empire, people not yet wholly reconciled to Caesar’s dominion, people who--to give another example--think of themselves as, say, Helvetiae first and Romans second. It is the Imperial policy in such cases not to levy troops because--”

“In other words,” the girl interrupted, “you think we are not to be trusted. It quite passes my understanding why anyone should expect loyalty unless it is freely offered.”

“But, my dear young lady, you are not slaves! You are given the civilizing benefits of Roman rule, and you are taxed very much less than people living in Rome itself, I can assure you of that.” He felt terribly sleepy--the wine was stronger than he had thought and he found it difficult to think of the right words. He was beginning to sound to himself like a senator, a race of men he secretly despised. “Let me put it this way,” he went on. “A child does not offer loyalty to his parents--it comes by nature.”

“Perhaps grown people do not like to be treated as children,” she said. “I don’t.”

“You behave like one, Granddaughter!” the headman said. “Go to your room!”

Rather unexpectedly, she got up and walked to the door. “Good night, Captain,” she said, but he did not answer. He was asleep and so were his lieutenants, and, since there were poppyheads in the wine, they did not wake up even when, an hour later, the shouting began outside.

Almost the entire detachment of the Roman troops was killed, and the captain and his lieutenants were being held hostage by the Pictish Decaledonae who had swarmed over the broken Wall--the break having been enlarged by the headman’s granddaughter and her friends during the previous night.

The headman and his companions were horrified; they pleaded with the Pictish leaders to spare the Roman officers. “Caesar will send a legion,” the headman said, “many legions to avenge this! Leave them unharmed and go back to the North, and the Roman captain will soften the blow that will fall on us all...”

The Picts told him to shut up and called for wine. The headman and his companions took advantage of the carousing to slip out the back way and, taking some of the villagers, including Flavia, they hid themselves in a cottage in the forest. Except for the girl, they were shaking with terror. She was triumphant.

“Now Caesar will withdraw again,” she said. “He no longer moves north--but slowly southward. The next Imperial rampart will be below us, and we shall be free!”

“You are mad,” her grandfather said. “Under Roman rule, we are safe. What can we expect from these Pictish barbarians?” He looked at her as though she were some new kind of snake.

“I should rather be occasionally robbed by my cousins than taxed to death by strangers,” she said, her dark face flushed.

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