The papers don’t always turn into history. My mother bought all the newspapers leading up to the Immigrants moving to Matewan: the discovery of the Immigrants’ little planetoid hiding in the asteroid belt, NASA’s reception of their distress signal, their arrival at Cape Canaveral. Nobody remembers the Immigrants anymore, though. That’s nothing new in Matewan. From my high school science classroom, you could see the courthouse (since turned into a 7-11) where Smilin’ Sid Hatfield was assassinated on the steps by Baldwin-Felts thugs the Company hired to put the miners in their place. For a year, Sid Hatfield was all the papers could talk about—I know, I found copies of them in a box of microfilm at the Matewan Public Library rummage sale. But you won’t find him, or what happened after, in any of our state history books. No memorial, no folk tales or songs passed down. We forgot.
It’s the same with the Immigrants. We forget.
I was young, younger than I realized back then, when the Immigrants started popping up at Don Blankenship High. They were green and wispy like young wheat, and quiet. It wasn’t a language barrier holding their tongues, like other kinds of immigrants before them. In what more progressive Christians than the professionally dour Baptists in town called a miracle, the Immigrants’ language was similar to an older English than what Americans more civilized than us spoke. Biologists and linguists and a bunch of other ists who figure out how that kind of thing happens had their theories, but none were ever accepted wholesale. Maybe that was why the government sent them to us? Even now, we’re so isolated, our English is more than a few decades behind the times. More probably nobody else wanted them, and, really, nobody else wanted us either.
The Immigrant’s voices didn’t quite reach a register humans should be able to hear. Collected at their lunch table under a gaudy, dime-store Rembrandt of Blankenship standing in front of the state seal, they’d talk among themselves, silent to most, the air around them vibrating with sounds too low to hear. As a stopgap measure, until the earth-air in their lungs breathed a tongue into their heads, most of the younger immigrants were taught basic sign language. With overlong fingers the wrong color, they signed with an accent.
Aside from their vibrating silence and their coloring, the Immigrants were otherwise identical to humans, a government-issue factoid our principal recited on the intercom in an unconvinced voice. Their green skin tone was akin to chlorophyll, our science teacher, Mr. Jenkins, told us, pushing his glasses up his nose with nervous excitement, while the new kids stared at the floor.
“Skin capable of generating its own energy! Bodies that hardly needed food before they drifted too far from the sun! Almost immortal!” he’d sputtered.
The arrival of aliens, actual green-from-space aliens, was beyond a blessing for a kid like me. I thought myself brave to try and befriend one, but really I was just lonesome. Lonesome and anemic and deaf enough that my demeanor and my skin tone could match theirs on my bad days. I read their rustling hands better than I understood my speaking classmates with their impossible to lip-read drawls with my dead right ear, to the delight of the girl who sat next to me in Religion.
For two weeks after she arrived, I sat silent next to her, listening with my good ear to her breathing, too nervous to speak. She looked tired, like me, but prettier. For all the government insisted the Immigrants were the same as us, as beautiful, as quiet as she was it was impossible to forget she was something other than human. Something better, I suspected. I felt like as awkward as a dumb boy, finding some stupid pretense to talk to her, waiting for a pencil to roll off our shared table, for one of her long green eyelashes to fall on her high cheekbone, imagining and failing a million witticisms. I was never very good at casual conversation and had not signed in years. Not since elementary, when the School for the Deaf in Bluefield lost funding. My hands were heavy with nerves as muscle memory made my fingers say :
“Hello. My name is Lydia,” I finger-spelled my name first, and then showed her the sign the deaf kids had given me, an L brushed against both cheekbones. My name-sign indicated my most prominent feature; even as a kid, it had been the purple circles under my eyes. “What is yours?”
The girl’s dark green lips stretched in a smile of more and better teeth than my own. She did not ask how I knew ASL but signed back.
“My name? Or the one they gave to me?”
Standard procedure had been assigning names on the Ellis Isle, the UN shuttle sent to collect her kind. Their birth names were possible, but deemed too difficult, to pronounce by humans.
She laughed, a noise like marbles rattling, a noise I could hear. A sound I could feel.
“Stella.” She said, finger-spelling it letter by letter. With her thin little fist she showed me an s, then wiggled her willow-switch fingers around her face around her face like stars sparkling. “Stella.”
When I repeat this story to my children, it will end there. Your mother was friends with one of them, and they were so beautiful and kind—that’s what I’ll say. The Immigrants are gone now, and how would any child born these days know to question? But as much as what happened to them was everybody’s fault, it was mine too.
See, back then, I was plagued by nightmares. Not on occasion. I did not dream, I nightmared, every night. If anything came through from the other side of waking, it was a terror. It made me sleepless and strange. Of course, I wasn’t the only one in town with night terrors. The world was changing. But not for us, not really, not before the Immigrants, anyway. New surgeries, new vaccines, new technologies were everywhere bringing humans closer to the immortality of the Immigrants, but not in Matewan. There was a cure for the cancers and black lung our fathers got from still working the mines, if the Company would pay for it. We’d all known men who were fired on obscure technicalities after management heard the cough. But there was still no cure for alcohol or suicide or bad romances, which was how a lot of us were killed off, or for decapitation by slate-collapse, which is how my father died. How he died every night as soon as my eyes closed. Of course, his death only gave form to a dark jumble of half remembered fears that had haunted me time out of memory. A part of me ought to have been grateful.
But grateful or not, all the nightmares stopped when I met Stella.
This! This, I thought, this is what having a friend does. Having a friend made nightmares stop, it made days brighter, night skies cleaner and starrier, my feet lighter, spine straighter.
Stella’s signing was worse than mine, accented funny, mostly just polite phrases you learn at the early stages of any language. So we spent most of our time immersed in amiable silence, which suited both of us. We walked to school together, rope-tie walking along the disused railroad tracks. We invented signs, secret snippets of language dancing through our fingers. Like we were twins. I tied strands of fancy knots into bracelets for her skinny ankles, and she braided my hair into the snaking pattern most of the Immigrant girls wore. For a while, I think she was happy. I want to believe she was happy.
We lived near each other, as the crow flies, in almost identical houses The Company built. All the houses in town had at one time been Company houses, mine and the Immigrants’ more recently so. They were cheap, but sturdy, sitting on sad little platforms of land carved out the mountain, tiered like pueblos.
I lived on top, where the best kept houses were. In the old days, the top tier was where the wealthiest people lived, mine bosses and their cronies, and their houses showed it with fresh paint and indoor plumbing. The interim tiers were what sufficed for a middle class, families who’d worked for the company for generations, all native-born Americans, who kept ivy trellises to hide their outhouses. The houses at the bottom, next to the train tracks, were the worst; where immigrants and drunks have always lived. Most houses down there to this day have uncovered wooden outhouses and only get painted (by the Chamber of Commerce, not the Company) when the Government is shopping for a new place to plunk refugees they don’t want to spend much on. Before Stella’s people got there, the houses had been doused in a sickly yellow , like the color would make us forget the swirling purples and greens of the Nigerians who lived there before.
Don’t misunderstand about me living on the top tier, me and mom weren’t rich, even by Matewan standards. The Company had offered us renovations and controlled rent as part of dad’s settlement. What were we going to do, move? I was a kid, mom was a waitress. The rest of our family was just as dead as Dad.
As far as I could tell, the Company forgot about those houses where the Immigrants lived unless the Feds paid them to remember. Stella’s people weren’t the first to live there and wouldn’t be the last. Other immigrants—regular, from earth places—lived in them in the 1970s, when the Government sent our county checks for taking in Hmong and Vietnamese until each group found family and better job prospects elsewhere.
Stella and me walked together after school most days to my house, which had the largest lawn and most sun. If there is a God in heaven, I’m inclined to believe in his mercy or his cruelty, either one, for the weather we had when Stella first arrived. Sunnier than you ever see in Matewan, where the old folks say that the sunlight gets piped in by the Company. The same joke repeated for years like it was ever funny. The sun shone right on past what was left of the mountain and the air was humid, but light—like walking through mist around the hot springs on the other side of the mountain. Stella and me lay side by side on the grass soaking in the sunlight while it lasted.
Even so, Stella grew paler. They all did.
“A miracle of evo…God’s design!” Mr Jenkins corrected himself lightning fastand pointed to Stella.
“You’re adapting! You don’t need to generate your own nutrition anymore, do you? You’re eating food, now, right? “
“Are you tired? You should be tired, during the transition.” Mr Jenkins made a face too eager to be as sympathetic as he intended.
Stella pursed her olive lips at this suggestion. Her cast-down eyes had the look mine did when I skipped sleep to avoid my father.
“I’m sorry they’re so weird to you,” I told her, later, on our backs in the grass of my yard. “They get like this about all refugees, not just ya’ll. Shoulda seen when the Sudanese were here—least ya’ll don’t have an accent to make fun of.” She could hear just fine, all of them could, just not speak.
Not a problem, she rumbled back. Lying close like that, I could feel the vibrations if she tried to speak, well enough that she could say simple things and I would understand.
“I’ll say something to them. Ain’t like you’re a circus freak or nothin’.”
That time I just felt her head shake “no” halfhearted, and she rested her forehead against mine. Her skin was so cool. As I had gotten closer to her, as her green faded, it became easier to forget she was something different than me, not human. She was my friend, I thought, more important than her species.
Her skin was so cool. Almost cold.
You know how the news reports said the whole thing came as a shock? That’s a damn lie. An immigrant who I didn’t know, identical to Stella, only broader and with shorter hair, killed himself the first week of October, right when it started to get cold. Another pair followed. Those suicides, in and of themselves, were nothing to be alarmed about; suicide is catching, and death comes in threes. Least that’s what the old folks say, and they lived to get old somehow. I figure they’d know.
Same thing happens to us every five years or so, killing spells come and pass and we aren’t too much worse for it. But those Immigrant kids…they must have researched how to die. How else would they know? Centuries…the Immigrants were supposed to live on their own planet. The paper didn’t release how they had done it, maybe trying to prevent what ended up happening anyway. I asked Stella if I could go with her to the funerals, and she had just laughed. Leaning against me, so I could feel the vibrations of her speech, she rumbled: “So kind. But we have no funerals. Why would we?”
For her part, Stella was as stoic as ever. I had at first believed her silence was due to her grade-school signing vocabulary. Late in the year, it was too cold to lay in the ever-dwindling sunlight. Young and greedy and foolish like I was, I didn’t notice the change in the timbre of her silence. I felt so good! I had never, not ever in my life slept so well. When I slept I dreamt of Stella, of her humming on the ground next to me, of us signing under the table in science class. I slept the sleep of the young, I dreamt the dreams of lovers.
“How do you live here?” Stella asked me, her hands making the signs small, as if her fingers were whispering, as we laid on the browning grass outside my mother’s house. The ground under us was cold and sunsets were coming earlier and earlier, but we had a few good weeks until winter. Matewan had not shown Stella our best face. There had not even been an offer of a memorial for the kids who killed themselves, no real attempt to assimilate the few Immigrant adults. Even the Methodists hadn’t tried to woo the Immigrants with muffins and invitations to hayrides when they first arrived, as was their custom with every previous immigrant group. The Baptists had gone so far as to post “Jesus loves all the children of the WORLD” on their placard out front. The world. Our world.
If memory serves, as it only sometimes does, that day had been rough on Stella in particular. Sister Agnes, the “bible literature” teacher, had lit into one of her infamous lessons on Hell. The lecture, and the cranked-up thermostat accompanying, it was the stuff of Don Blankenship High legend. It was a blessing for Agnes that our civics instruction had been as slipshod as it was. None of us thought to question the legality of sermons disguised as lectures in a “literature” class, much less thought to do anything about it.
Sister Agnes raged harder that year, in the presence of beings she deemed even further outside God’s graces than human non-Catholics like me.
“Sister Agnes?” I asked Stella, with my hands and my voice. I was teaching her new signs until her voice grew in. “Don’t worry about her. She’s a bitch.”
Stella shook her head, her hands, nearly white, and now said: “When you sleep, how can you live like this?”
“What do you mean?”
“Every night…” She looked up into the sky, away from me. Her hair, once the pearly color of cornsilk, had browned at the tips and blended into the dying grass. She lay her head next to mine, so I could feel her rumbling as clear as if she’d spoken: “I see these things…awful things. While I sleep. Every night.”
“Nightmares. They happen to everybody. Didn’t they happen…back home?” I asked, avoiding naming her old planet, by then a barren rock hanging in space, where those who had not been lucky enough to fit on the UN shuttle to Earth waited in darkness to die.
Stella shook her head.
I put a cautious hand to her shoulder, a gesture I’d seen other girls make toward each other but never had occasion to make myself.
“A man. His head…” Stella drew a finger across her neck, not knowing the word. I felt sick. “He looks like you.”
I had never told her about my father. It was possible she knew; as common as mining deaths were, Dad’s was gruesome enough to be famous. I should have known. Who else did she talk to but me? How else would she have seen?
“They’re just part of being human,” I told her instead. Not like I was lying. Nightmares were in our genes. They were directive. Malignant, terrible things who had their place. “God is in sleep also, and dreams advise” Dad always quoted to me when I woke him up with one of my terrors, before he turned into them. I never learned who taught him the line—he was not the literary type.
“I’m not human,” Stella rumbled back.
“It’s catching, Stel,” I smiled.
She raised a hand to speak, but dropped it, the weight against the ground like a bird dropping from flight. She turned, pressing her forehead against mine. We laid in silence until the last smattering of light faded into black. Stella walked home alone. I watched her disappear into the darkness down the hill. I hadn’t offered to walk her home.
It was cold. I was selfish.
That night I slept deep, like a stone dropped in still water. That night I had the last nightmare of my life, perhaps the last nightmare of our generation. Dreams are boring to hear about and bad luck to tell them if a listener has already eaten. I will take the risk, as I will never tell this story again. In the stillness of sleep, I nightmared:
We are sitting in Religion class, me and Stella, and she’s dozed off. Her elbow on the table, holding her head in one hand, and every time she falls too deep asleep, she sways forward and wakes up. Every time she wakes her eyes go wide, wider, wider, until her face is all eyes. All thick eyelashes and swooping brow, all purple-tinged green circles, like the unfolded leaves of a prayer plant. The proportions seem off, I think in dream logic, and I realize I am asleep and in my own head, in my own bed, and the things around me are only as real as I allow. The classroom around us changes into different places, as places in dreams are wont to do. Blink: the brown grass of my mother’s lawn. Blink: Mr. Jenkin’s science class. Blink: orange-red evening balancing on the railroad ties. Blink: Dark, cold, the distant glimmer of Earth just visible from Stella’s barren homeland. It’s hot, like Sister Agnes had set fire to the room to drive her point home.
Suddenly, there is a scream—a deep, sternum-rattling scream next to me, and it is Stella, pulling at her hair, fallen out of her chair. I look around and know I am the only one who can hear her, that her voice resonates in my bad ear, the one dead one. In a voice lower than anyone else’s healthy ears can hear she hollers, “These aren’t even mine! They aren’t even mine!” I drop to her side, try to hold her as scenes flicker around us. No one notices either of us, even as her sub-sonic screams rattle the windows. A great tongue of flame wraps around the room, and I watch it eat up every nightmare I’ve ever had. The whole room on fire, Stella and me are all that’s left, and I pull her close to me, shout in a voice like hers, but she can’t hear for her own screaming.
Back home, in the waking world, a siren from the bottom of the mountain blinked my eyes open, and I laid there trying to cry out for what felt like a very long time before my throat crackled, allowing a broken yelp. Yes, Dad, God is in sleep, dreams advise, but there’s a good science for this, reason enough: I was not a stranger to sleep paralysis, to the horrifying trapped-in-my-own-skin regaining consciousness. The end of sleep where dreaming happens is susceptible to outside influence, and the sirens were so close, so even as deaf as I am, they made it through to my subconscious without managing to rouse the parts of my brain that made me move or scream.
Walking out to the porch in my bare feet, I should have known what I would find. That’s the part that was my fault. I was Stella’s friend, I knew, in my bones. I should have helped. I should have walked her home. I should have asked…I have so many should-haves about Stella, about the Immigrants, about everybody. I will spend the rest of my life listing should-haves. I will stand before the throne of Judgement with a mouth full of “should-haves” stacked down my throat. Standing on the porch in my bare feet, I should have known what I would find.
The bottom of the mountain was a row of flame. The ramshackle houses by the train tracks lit the early morning sky orange, the air itself glowing with fire. The smell was like burning young, green wood.
As human as they appeared by the end, the Immigrants were not the same as us. They couldn’t bleed, couldn’t starve, aged only so much, wouldn’t smother; without direct intervention, they were almost immortal. Almost.
On the news in the next few weeks, different county officials tried to explain what happened. Said we weren’t planetist. We had no idea the Immigrants were suffering so much that immolating themselves was preferable to another day in our town, on our planet. We’d been so welcoming, they said, we’d tried so hard, but the Immigrants kept to themselves. In a few weeks, stories started seeping in of other Immigrant settlements elsewhere disappearing in the same way.
“A senseless tragedy.” A newswoman said, standing in front of the burned-out Company houses, desolate as the planetoid the Immigrants had abandoned. I expected that night to meet Stella aflame in sleep, for her to join my father. Only after a week of quiet sleep, alone in my head, did I piece together what had happened.
Our nightmares abandoned us. Parasites, nightmares would have more time to live on the almost-immortal Immigrants, innocents with no defense against them. It wasn’t fair. Stories that didn’t belong to them, incomprehensible terrors not of their world shattered the Immigrants. Our nightmares wouldn’t suffer such beautiful things as the Immigrants to live uninfected by the dread lived and breathed.
I haven’t had a nightmare or even heard of someone having one in years. My younger self would think me insane for missing nightmares, but in the hours before my colorless, meaningless sleep overtakes me these days, I do. In those hours I believe Dad, and whoever read Milton to him, was right: without my dreams, I am sleepwalking through life, unadvised. God himself was lit up in that pillar of flame by the train tracks. Miracles made flesh were delivered to our doorsteps and we ignored them, turned them away, were suspicious of them.
I am alone all over again. My memories of Dad and Stella are just flat images my waking mind can manipulate at will. For the most part, I have given up on sleep. Most nights, I sit on my mother’s porch and look down the mountain, where Stella used to live.
The County never rebuilt the houses. There was some dispute between the County and the Company over who owned them in the first place, and by the time the Company’s lawyers had sorted the whole thing out it was too late. Quicker than kudzu and stronger than diamonds, a strange new knot of trees appeared by the train tracks, a tangled forest of silver wood and willowy leaves. No one knows what to make of it. The Government even sent in botanists from DC to collect samples, but the trees’ shining bark would not yield and they left empty-handed.
On nights when rest seems pointless, I walk down there to stroke the smoothness of their twisting trunks, to hear the buzz that nobody else will admit to hearing—if they can hear it at all.
“Stella?” I call into the night.
The trees hum with my heartbeat, and I know they’ll be back—my nightmares, the Immigrants, all of them. I used to ask myself, “Did I need my nightmares, to be human?”
An inane question, one a child could answer.
In the starlit shade of that overnight forest, my question is different now.
What will we be when they come back?