A Woman's Place
by Mark Clifton
Science Fiction Story: Home is where you hang up your spaceship--that is, if you have any Miss Kitty along!
Tags: Science Fiction Novel-Classic
It was the speaking of Miss Kitty’s name which half roused her from sleep. She eased her angular body into a more comfortable position in the sack. Still more asleep than awake, her mind reflected tartly that in this lifeboat, hurtling away from their wrecked spaceship back to Earth, the sleeping accommodation was quite appropriately named. On another mental level, she tried to hear more of what was being said about her. Naturally, hearing one’s name spoken, one would.
“We’re going to have to tell Miss Kitty as soon as she wakes up.” It was Sam Eade talking to Lt. Harper--the two men who had escaped with her.
“Yes, Sam,” the lieutenant answered. “What we’ve suspected all along is pretty definite now.”
Still drowsing, she wondered, without any real interest, what they felt they must tell her. But the other level of her mind was more real. She wondered how she looked to these two young men while she slept. Did she sleep with her mouth open? Did her tiara slip while she snored?
Vividly, as in full dreaming, she slipped back into the remembered scene which had given birth to the phrase. At some social gathering she had been about to enter a room. She’d overheard her name spoken then, too.
“Miss Kitty is probably a cute enough name when you’re young,” the catty woman was saying. “But at her age!”
“Well, I suppose you might say she’s kept it for professional reasons,” the other woman had answered with a false tolerance. “A school teacher, wanting to be cozy with her kiddies, just a big sister.” The tolerance was too thin, it broke away. “Kind of pathetic, I think. She’s so plain, so very typical of an old maid school teacher. She’s just the kind to keep a name like Miss Kitty.”
“What gets me,” the first one scoffed, “is her pride in having such a brilliant mind--if she really does have one. All those academic degrees. She wears them on every occasion, like a tiara!”
She had drawn back from the door. But in her instant and habitual introspection, she realized she was less offended than perversely pleased because, obviously, they were jealous of her intellectual accomplishments, her ability to meet men on their own ground, intellectually as good a man as any man.
The half dream drowsiness was sharply washed away by the belated impact of Sam Eade’s question to Lt. Harper. Reality flashed on, and she was suddenly wide awake in the lifeboat heading back to Earth.
“What is it you must tell me?” She spoke loudly and crisply to the men’s broad backs where they sat in front of the instrument panel. The implication of the question, itself, that they had been holding something back...
Lt. Harper turned slowly around in his seat and looked at her with that detested expression of amused tolerance which his kind of adult male affected toward females. He was the dark, ruggedly handsome type, the kind who took it for granted that women should fawn over him. The kind who would speak the fatuous cliche that a woman’s place was in the home, not gallivanting off to teach colonists’ children on the fourth planet of Procyon. Still, perhaps she was unjust, she hardly knew the man.
“Oh, you awake, Miss Kitty?” he asked easily. His tone, as always, was diffident, respectful toward her. Odd, she resented that respect from him, when she would have resented lack of it even more.
“Certainly,” she snapped. “What is it you must tell me?”
“When you’re dressed, freshened up a bit,” he answered, not evasively, but as if it could wait.
She started to insist, but he had already turned back to the nose window to study the starry sky and the huge misty green ball of Earth in front of them. Sam Eade, the radioman, was intently twisting the dials on his set with a puckered frown between his blond eyebrows. He was an entirely different type, tall, blond, but just as fatuously masculine, as arrogantly handsome. Probably neither one of them had an ounce of brains--handsome people so seldom needed to develop mental ability.
Sam, too, turned his face farther away from her. Both backs told her plainly that she could dress, take care of her needs, with as much privacy as the lifeboat could allow anybody.
Not that it would take her long. She’d worn coveralls since the catastrophe, saving the dress she’d had on for landing on Earth. They’d had to leave most of her luggage behind. The lieutenant had insisted on taking up most of the spare space in the lifeboat with that dismantled space warper from the wreck of their ship.
She combed her short graying hair back of her ears, and used a little water sparingly to brush her teeth. Perhaps it had been a quixotic thing, her giving up a secure teaching post on Earth to go out to Procyon IV. Except that she’d dreamed about a new colony where the rising generation, under her influence, would value intellect--with the girls no different from the boys. Perhaps it had been even sillier to take a cabin on a freighter, the only passenger with a crew of four men. But men did not intimidate her, and on a regular passenger ship she’d have been bored stiff by having to associate with the women.
Two of the men...
It wasn’t quite clear to her, even yet, what had happened. They’d used the normal drive to get clear of regular solar shipping lanes. The warning bell had rung that they were about to warp into hyperspace, a mechanism which canceled out distance and made the trip in apparent time no more than an overnight jaunt to Mars. There was a grinding shudder--then a twisted ship which looked as if some giant had taken a wet rag and torqued it to squeeze out the water. Lt. Harper and Sam had got her out of her cabin, and finally into the lifeboat which was only partly crippled.
The other two men of the crew...
She zipped up the front of her coveralls with a crisp gesture, as if to snap off the vision. She would show no weakness in front of these two men. She had no weakness to show!
“All right, gentlemen,” she said incisively to their backs. “Now. What is it I must be told?”
Lt. Harper pointed to the ball of Earth so close ahead. It was huge, almost filling the sky in front of them. The misty atmosphere blurred outlines slightly, but she could make out the Eastern halves of North and South America clearly. The Western portions were still in dim darkness.
“See anything wrong, Miss Kitty?” the lieutenant asked quietly.
She looked more closely, sensing a possible trap in his question, a revealment of her lack of knowledge.
“I’m not an authority on celestial geography,” she said cautiously, academically. “But obviously the maps I’ve seen were not accurate in showing the true continental proportions.” She pointed to a small chart hanging on the side wall. “This map shows Florida, for example, a much longer peninsula than it actually is. A number of things like that. I don’t see anything else wrong, but, of course, it’s not my field of knowledge.”
Lt. Harper looked at her approvingly, the kind of look she gave a bright pupil who’d been especially discerning.
“Only it’s not the map that’s wrong, Miss Kitty,” he said. “It is my field of knowledge, and I’ve seen those continental outlines hundreds of times. They always corresponded to the map ... before.”
She looked at him without comprehension.
“Not only that,” Sam Eade entered the conversation. “As soon as we were clear of the wreck, Lt. Harper took a fix on stars and constellations. He’s an astrogator. He knows his business. And they were wrong, too. Just a little wrong, here and there, but enough. And even more than that. On a tight beam, I should have been able to make a connection with Earth headquarters on this set. And I haven’t yet got communication, and we know there’s nothing wrong with this set.”
“Sam knows his business, too, Miss Kitty,” Lt. Harper said. “If he can’t get communication, it’s because there isn’t any.”
She looked wide-eyed from one to the other. For once, she was more concerned with a problem than with concealing her ignorance about it.
“It means,” the lieutenant said, as if he were answering a question she hadn’t yet asked, “that the Earth we are returning to is not the Earth we left.”
“I don’t understand,” she gasped.
“There’s a theory,” Lt. Harper answered slowly. “Heretofore it has been considered only a mathematical abstraction, and having no counterpart in reality. The theory of multiple dimensions.” She looked at him closely, and in her habitual ambivalence of thought reflected that he sounded much more intelligent than she had suspected.
“I’ve read about that,” she answered.
He looked relieved, and threw a quick look at Sam. Apparently he had underestimated her intelligence, too--in spite of all her degrees.
“We never thought it could be real,” he emphasized. “But the theory was that multiple universes lay side by side, perhaps each an instant’s time away from the other. The only thing I can see is that some flaw in the space warper threw us out of our dimension into another one closely adjacent--not far enough for things to be totally different, just different enough that the duplication isn’t identical. It’s Earth, but it’s not our Earth. It’s a New Earth, one we don’t know anything about.”
“In another few hours, we’ll be entering the atmosphere,” Sam put in, “and we don’t know what we’ll find. We thought you ought to know.”
She flared in exasperation at the simple assumption of male arrogance.
“Of course I should know!” she snapped back. “I am not one of your little bits of blonde, empty-headed fluff to be protected by strong males! I should have been told immediately!”
Lt. Harper looked at Sam with a broad grin. It was amusement, but it was more--a confirmation that they could depend on her to take it in her stride--an approval. Apparently, they had discussed more things about her than she’d overheard, while she slept. He didn’t turn off the grin when he looked directly at her.
“What could you have done about it, if we had told you, Miss Kitty?” he asked mildly.
It was not the same Earth. The charts and maps had not been wrong. Her tentative theory that perhaps there were vision flaws in the plastic nose window which had not stood up.
The continents, the lakes, the rivers--the topography really was distorted. Now there was the Mississippi River, one spot swinging rather too widely to the East. The Great Lakes were one huge inland sea. The Gulf of Mexico swung high up into what had once been Alabama and Georgia.
There was no New Orleans, shipping center of the world, headquarters of Space.
There were no cities anywhere up and down the Mississippi. Where St. Louis should have been, there was virgin forest. As they dropped down into the upper reaches of atmosphere, experiencing the familiar and sometimes nauseating reference shift from ahead to below, there had been no New York to the East, no San Francisco to the West. There had been no Boulder Dam, no Tennessee Valley project, no continuous hydroelectric installations running the entire length of the Mississippi, where the strength of the Father of the Waters had finally been harnessed for Man. There were no thin lines of highways, no paint-brush strokes of smoke against the canvas of the Gulf of Mexico to denote steamers, for atomic power was still not available to all.
On this New Earth, Man could not yet have reached a state of complex technology.
And as they dropped lower still, through their telescope sights, they saw no canoes on the river or the feeder streams. They saw no huts along the river shore, no thin streamers of wood smoke from huts hidden under the trees along the bayous. New Earth was purple and blue, then shading into green as they dropped lower. They sighted a deer drinking at the edge of a pool.
But there was no trace of Man.
“If there are no scars, no defacements upon this forest primeval,” Miss Kitty said didactically, “then Man has not evolved on New Earth.” Since it was spoken in the tone of an axiom, and there was no evidence to refute it, neither of the two men felt like arguing the matter.
They were low enough now that they were flying horizontally rather than dropping vertically. They were still searching for traces of some kind of artifacts. They were also searching, Lt. Harper advised them at last, for a suitable place to land. They wanted a higher ground than the delta country so they might be free of insect pests, assuming there were some since deer could be seen throwing their heads back along their sides as if to chase away flies. They wanted higher ground with a stream of water going over falls to supplement their limited power in the lifeship. On the chance there were fish, it would be nice to be handy to a lake. A forest for game. A level ground for a permanent camp.
Since they were here, and it might be some time before they could figure out a way to return to Old Earth, they may as well make the best of it.
They found the kind of place they wanted, a little to the west of the Mississippi. They grounded the lifeship at the edge of a natural clearing beside a lake where a stream of sparkling water dropped from a rock ledge.
They settled the ship on the springy turf, then sat and looked at one another as if they were suddenly all strangers. Wordlessly, Lt. Harper got up and opened the door of the lifeship. He threw down the hinged metal steps. He stood back. Miss Kitty went through the door first and down the steps. The two men followed.
They stood on the ground of New Earth, and looked at one another the way they had in the ship. In the minds of each there was the thought that some kind of a ceremonial speech should be made, but no one volunteered it.
“I suppose we should have a campfire,” Miss Kitty said doubtfully.
They did not realize it at the time, but it was the most effective speech which could have been devised. It was a symbol. Man had discovered and taken possession of New Earth. His instinctive thought was to place his brand upon it, an artificial fire.
All of them missed the significance of the fact that it was Miss Kitty who had made the first move in the domestication of this New Earth.
In the weeks which followed, Miss Kitty began to be dimly aware of the significance. At first they had lived a sort of Robinson Crusoe kind of life, leaning pretty heavily upon the stores of the liferaft.
It had been she who had converted it over into more of the Swiss Family Robinson pattern of making use of the resources about them.
The resources were abundant, bountiful. Yet the two men seemed little interested, and appeared content to live off the stores within the liferaft. They devoted almost all their time, except that little for bringing up firewood and trapping game, to fiddling with that gadget they called a warp motor. They were trying to hook it up to the radio sets, they said.
Miss Kitty detested women who nagged at men, but she felt compelled to point out that this was the fall season upon New Earth, and winter would soon be upon them. It should not be a severe winter at this latitude, but they must be prepared for it with something more substantial than her uncomfortable sleeping place in the liferaft; nor would the two of them continue to enjoy sleeping out under the trees, if a blanket of snow fell some night.
“I was hoping we could be back home before winter sets in, Miss Kitty,” Lt. Harper apologized mildly.
She had not nagged them. She had simply shut her lips and walked away.
The next day they began cutting logs.
It was odd, the basic pleasure she felt in seeing the sides of the cabin start to take form. Certainly she was not domestic by nature. And this could, in no sense, be considered a home. Still, she felt it might have gone up faster, if the men had used their muscles--their brute strength--rather than spend so much futile time trying to devise power tools.
They were also inclined to talk too much about warping radio wave bands through cross sections of sinowaves, and to drop their work on the cabin in favor of spending long hours trying new hookups.
But Miss Kitty never nagged about it. She had even tried to follow some of the theory, to share in their efforts to put such theory into practice, to be just a third fellow. Instead she found her thoughts wandering to how an oven could be constructed so she could bake and roast meats instead of broiling and frying them over an open fire.
Game was plentiful, fish seemed to be begging for the hook. Every day, without going too far away from camp, she found new foods; watercress, mustard greens, wild turnips, wild onions, occasionally a turkey nest with eggs still edible, hollow trees where wild bees had stored honey, persimmons still astringent, but promising incredibly sweet and delicious flavor when frost struck them, chinquapin, a kind of chestnut, black walnuts. There was no end to what the country provided. Yet the men, instead of laying in winter stores, spent their time with the warp motor.
Without meaning to, Miss Kitty interrupted an explanation of Lt. Harper’s on how they were calibrating the torquing degrees. She told him that he and Sam simply must help her harvest a hillside patch of wild maise she had found, before the rains came and ruined all the grain with mold, or the migrating birds ate it all.
The cabin they were erecting would contain only two rooms--a large general room for cooking, eating, visiting, such as an old-fashioned farm kitchen had once been. A little room, opening off it, would be her sleeping room. She raised her eyebrows questioningly, and Sam explained they would build a small, separate bunkhouse for himself and Lt. Harper.
She had a curious sense of displeasure at the arrangement. She knew she should be pleased at their understanding of the need for privacy. There was no point in becoming primitive savages. She should be grateful that they shared her determination to preserve the civilized codes. She told herself, rather severely, that the preservation of civilized mores was extremely important. And she brought herself up short with a shocking question, equal to a slap in the face.
She realized then she had intuitively known from the first that they would never get back to Old Earth. Her instincts had been functioning, insuring their lives, where intellect had failed them completely. She tried to laugh scornfully at herself, in feminist tradition. Imagine! Katheryn Kittredge, Career Woman, devoted to the intellectual advancement of Man, thinking that mere cooking and cleaning and mending was the supremely important thing.
But she failed in her efforts to deride herself. The intellectual discussions among the small groups of intelligent girls back on Old Earth were far away and meaningless. She discovered she was a little proud and strangely contented that she could prepare edible food. Certainly the two men were not talented; and someone had to accept the responsibility for a halfway decent domestic standard and comfort.
As, for example, with the walls of the cabin halfway up, it was necessary to point out that while they may be going to put the little cookstove--welded together out of metal scrap--in the cabin, there was no provision for a fireplace. How would they keep warm through the long winter months this year, and in the years to come?
Lt. Harper had started to say something. Then he shrugged and a hopeless look came over his face.
“Perhaps you are right, Miss Kitty,” he said humbly. “It may be spring, at that, before we can finish trying the more obvious combinations. We’re trying to...” He broke off, turned away, and began to mark off the spot where they would saw down through the logs to fit in a fireplace.
Later that day, she overheard him tell Sam that, theoretically at least, there could be millions of versions of the Earth, each removed an infinitesimal point from the next. There was the chance the flaw in the torque motor, which still eluded him, might not automatically take them back to the right cross-section, even if he found it. They might have to make an incredible number of trials, and then again they might hit it on the very next combination.
“And you might not!” she cut into the conversation, with perhaps more acid in her voice than she intended. “It might not be your next, nor tomorrow, nor next spring--nor ever!”
Odd that she had felt an obscure satisfaction at the stricken looks on their faces when she had said it. Yet they had it coming to them. It was time someone shocked them into a sense of reality. It took a woman to be a realist. She had already faced the possibility and was reconciled to it. They were still living in an impossible dream.
Still she was sorry. She was sorry in the way she had always regretted having to make a bad boy in kindergarten go stand with his face to the wall. She tried to make up for it that evening.
“I understand,” she said as they sat near the campfire outside the half-finished cabin. “You alter the torque, then try the various radio wave bands in the new position.”
They both looked at her, a little surprised.
“It must be a slow and tedious procedure,” she continued.
“Very,” Sam said with a groan.
A shifting air current, carrying the sound of the waterfall, gave her an idea.
“Too bad you can’t borrow the practice of Tibetan monks,” she mused. “They tie their prayers to a wheel, set it in a running stream. Every turn of the wheel is a prayer sent up to their gods. That way they can get their praying done for them while they go about the more urgent matters of providing a living for themselves and their families.”
She hadn’t meant it to be so pointed, implying that all they were doing was sending up futile prayers to unheeding gods, implying they should be giving more attention to setting in winter stores. But even so...
“Miss Kitty,” Sam said in a kind of awe. “You are a wonderful woman!”
In spite of her sudden flush of pleasure, she was irritated. As pointed as she had made it, he had missed it.
He turned and began talking excitedly to Lt. Harper. Yes, of course, they could rig up an automatic method instead of doing it by hand. It could be done faster and more smoothly with electric motors, but the idea was the same. If Lt. Harper could rig a trip to kick the warp over another notch each time, they could run it night and day. Just let some kind of alarm bell start ringing, if they hit anything at the other end!
The two of them jumped to their feet then, grabbed her arms, squeezed them, and rushed away to the little shed they’d constructed beside the lifeship to hold some of their scattered equipment.
She felt vaguely regretful that she had mentioned it.
Still she gained a great deal. The men finished the cabin in a hurry after that, and they put up their own bunkhouse in less than a week. Both jobs were obviously not done by experts, and she had fussed at them, although not unkindly, because she had had to chink such wide cracks with a mixture of clay and dried grass.
She moved into the larger cabin, discovered a dozen roof leaks during the first hard rain they’d had; got them patched, began molding clay into dishes and containers, started pressuring the boys to build her a ceramics kiln, began to think about how their clothes would eventually wear out and how she would have to find some way to weave cloth to replace them. Day by day she was less irritable, as the boys settled into a routine.
“I do believe,” she said to herself one day, “I would be disappointed if they found a way back!” She straightened up and almost spilled the container of wild rice she had been garnering from the swampy spot at the upper reaches of the lake. “Why! The very idea of saying such a thing, Katheryn Kittredge!” But her heart was not in the self chiding.
But what reason, in heaven’s name, would they have for staying here? Three people, marooned, growing old, dying one by one. There was no chance for Man’s survival here. From the evidence about them, they had come to the conclusion that on this New Earth, in the tree of evolution, the bud to grow into a limb of primates had never formed.
She turned and looked at the tall, straight pines ahead of her. She saw the deciduous hardwoods, now gold and red, to one side of her. Behind her the lake was teeming with fish. The spicy smell of fall was all around her, and a stray breeze brought a scent of grapes she had overlooked when she was gathering all she could find to make a wine to pleasantly surprise the boys.
She thought of the flock of wild chickens which had learned to hang around the cabin for scraps of food, the grunting lazy pigs, grown quite tame, begging her to find their acorns for them, the nanny goat with two half-grown kids Lt. Harper had brought back from a solitary walk he had taken.
New Earth was truly a paradise--and all to be wasted if there were not Man to appreciate it truly.
A thought knocked at her mind, but she resolutely shut it out, refused it even silent verbalization.
Yet, while she stooped over again and busied her hands with stripping the rice from the stalks without cutting them on the sharp dry leaves, she found herself thinking about Mendelian law. Line breeding from father to daughter, or brother to sister--in domestic animals, of course--was all right in fixing desirable traits, providing certain recessives in both the dam and the sire did not thus become dominant.
“There, Katheryn Kittredge,” she mumbled with satisfaction. “Assuming the responsibilities of domesticity has not made you forget what you learned.”
But the danger of fixing recessives into dominants through inbreeding was even less with half-brothers and sisters. Now daughters by one--er--sire could be bred to another sire to get only a quarter relationship to a similar cross from the other father--er--sire. She must work it out with a stylus in smooth clay. The boys had preempted every scrap of paper for their pointless calculations. But she could remember it, and it would be valuable in breeding up a desirable barnyard stock.
Yet it was odd that she assumed two males and only one female!
Then and there, standing ankle deep in the bog of wild rice, muddy to her knees in her torn coveralls, slapping at persistent mosquitoes, she came to terms with herself. In the back of her mind she had known it all the time. All this was without meaning unless there was Man--and a continuity of Man. Even so little as this gathering of wild rice, before the migrating ducks got it, was without meaning, if it were merely to stave off death from a purposeless existence. If there were no other fate for them than eventually to die, without posterity, then they might as well die tomorrow, today, now.
The men were still living in a dream of getting back. No doubt their lusting appetites were driving them to get back to their brazen, heavy-breasted, languorous-eyed hussies who pandered to all comers without shame! Miss Kitty was astonished at her sudden vehemence, the red wave of fury which swept over her.
But of course she was right. That was their urgent drive. “A male human is nothing more than a sex machine!” Wasn’t that what her roommate at college had once said? Or was it her maiden aunt who had dominated her widowed mother and herself through all the years she was growing up? What did it matter who said it? She knew it was true. No wonder they were so anxious to get back to Old Earth! Her lip lifted in cynical scorn.
“You don’t dare leave a young girl alone with a boy for five minutes,” her aunt had once complained bitterly. “All they ever think about is...” her voice had dropped to a whisper and she had given that significant look to Katheryn’s mother. But Katheryn had known what she meant, of course.
And it was true of all men.
Women, back on Old Earth, had looked at her with pity and a little contempt, because she had never, she had never ... But you didn’t have to have first hand experience to know. She had authoritative knowledge gleaned from reading between the lines of the very best text books on abnormal psychology. She hadn’t had to read between the lines of sundry surveys and reports. And if there had been no organized study at all, the movies, the TV, the published better fiction--all of it centered around that one theme--that one, alone, romanticize it or obscure it though they might.
It was all men ever thought about. And many women pandered to it--those sultry, shameless, undulating...
But Sam and Lt. Harper? It had been almost two months now since they had left Earth and those vile blondes. How had they restrained themselves during all this time!
Her fuming anger was suddenly overwhelmed by a warm rush of gratitude, a sympathy which brought a gush of tears into her eyes to stream down her cheeks. How blind she had been. Of course! They were still bound by their gentleman’s Word of Honor, given to her on that first night in the lifeship.
What splendid men! All right, so they had their faults; a little impractical, dreamers all, but with such nobility of character, truly they were fit to be the fathers of a proud and noble race. And, in time, with herself to shape and guide them...
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