On this diplomatic mission, I, Scholar, have two objectives: first, to advise Master Feeder TikTik on Earth customs and linguistic differences, and second, to accurately record what transpires so we may determine an exchange of gifts…
On the Feeding Habits of Humans: A Firsthand Account
by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali and Rachael K. Jones
On this diplomatic mission, I, Scholar, have two objectives: first, to advise Master Feeder TikTik on Earth customs and linguistic differences, and second, to accurately record what transpires so we may determine an exchange of gifts.
As we land on the planet, Feeder TikTik cautions myself and Soldier to exercise prudence in any direct interactions with the humans, as befits the first representatives of our species to make contact. After Soldier secures the premises, we arrive at the domicile of the first human Feeder well after the sun has disappeared beyond the horizon.
Feeder TikTik approaches the Feeder with their haustellums extended and extrudes the greeting-scent. The human Feeder is receptive to this display. We confess to have watched her home for several hours preceding our arrival. She instructed us to arrive when we heard the infant awake from slumber with a squall, which signals the hour of feeding.
She calls herself Aisha and she claims to be the primary feeder for the child. She and the infant are the only members of this family.
I’m going to ask that you be very quiet because if you make a lot of noise, Jamal won’t want to eat and then I’ll be up all night trying to coax him to sleep. Then I’ll be exhausted when I have to get up for work tomorrow morning. It’s a very delicate balance.
TikTik asks Feeder Aisha to explain, as our Feeders have only one job.
Well, there are very few people here who do nothing but nurse—
TikTik interrupts again to request an explanation as “to nurse,” in our limited understanding of her language, is an act of healing and not feeding.
Yes, but this is what we call feeding infants from the breast.
Feeder TikTik interrupts Feeder Aisha again to request an explanation of “breast.” Our Feeders nourish our young via their many long and efficient haustellums.
She closes her eyes for a few beats and makes a hissing squelching noise between her teeth and tongue, which in our language means, I shall put you out of my domicile if you do not stop asking questions. While we believe this is somewhat rude, Feeder TikTik goes silent. And waits.
Come on, let’s go to the baby’s nurs—, ahem, the baby’s room. Remember to be quiet. Please sit in that dark corner there, where Jamal can’t see you. He is easily distracted.
She lifts a tiny squalling human from a bed cage and upon sitting in a moving chair, opens her garment and sets the tiny human against her “breast,” which is like a round, stubby haustellum.
Mothers have been feeding their babies this way since the dawn of time. Breast milk contains exactly the right nutrients, is always clean and prepared, and is usually available as long as the infant requires it.
Feeder TikTik raises one of their appendages to indicate they wish to ask a question. Feeder Aisha nods in acquiescence. Feeder TikTik asks in a very soft voice why the child would not wish to eat? Is there a time when humans no longer require sustenance?
Humans always need food or some kind of sustenance to survive. However, there will come a time when Jamal will no longer need my breast milk. He will grow larger and grow teeth and his requirements will change. The food I make will not be enough for him.
The squalling human makes soft smacking sounds and little contented squeaks. Aisha Feeder looks down at her tiny human and her face goes soft and her eyes shine.
You know, now that I think about it, nursing is the perfect way to describe breastfeeding, because I’m providing more than sustenance. Jamal is not in immediate need of healing, no, but that is exactly what I am doing. I am healing my child in advance of a future that will be challenging and may frighten or wound him. My breast milk contains antibodies that protect my baby from illness. Breastfeeding provides comfort and it creates a bond between a mother and child that spans all distances, time and space. If done well, Jamal will take with him a sense of…of…belonging and confidence. Breastfeeding or nursing is the first brick set down by a mother that says, you are part of me, and by extension, this family, and by extension, this community.
Feeder TikTik asks how all human young get fed, given Aisha’s low number of haustellums. Will some children be bereft of community and vital strength?
The most important component necessary to secure the infant against a difficult future is not necessarily a mother or breastfeeding. It’s love. There are other ways to nourish and fortify our young ones. There are other ways to nurse.
Bogolomov and Patel, the couple next door, adopted a beautiful baby about three months ago. They bottle-feed Skylar and she receives love enough to ensure that she’ll never want for comfort or a sense of belonging.
Feeder Tiktik inquires about the “bottle” Aisha mentioned. Feeder Aisha deposits her drowsing infant back into the bed cage and guides us into another room. Its floor is cold tiles, and a large boxy appliance hums in one corner. She holds up a clear receptacle.
This is a bottle. And this is formula. Sometimes when I can’t feed Jamal, or when someone else has to do it for me, we just scoop a few spoonfuls of this into the bottle and add water. See?
Feeder TikTik extrudes a scent of anxiety and immediately turns their attention to the cylinder, greeting it with the full honors due to a Feeder. There is a moment’s confusion as Aisha laughs and explains. The cylinder itself is not another Feeder life form on this planet, but merely a receptacle for a dried, powdered Feeder fluid.
I buy it by the gallon from SavingsCo. It was on sale last week.
Feeder TikTik extrudes a scent of dismay. Human feeders outsource the feeding of their broods?
SavingsCo isn’t a feeder, per se. It’s a market where you can buy food and all sorts of other things. It would be pretty hard to keep everyone fed if you couldn’t buy food.
Feeder TikTik requests an explanation of the word “buy.” The closest translation in our language is g’miitu, which is the violent act of seizing another’s place at the haustellum.
People buy food all the time, though. Haven’t you ever been to a restaurant?
We learn that “restaurant” is a sort of hub for Feeders to distribute nourishment directly to the hungry.
Try Shanghai Kitchen on 23rd and Pine. The dim sum’s to die for, and they’re open late. If you hustle, you might get there before they close.
We are about to extrude our farewell scent when Aisha stops us.
Wait. You’ve asked me a lot of questions, but I just want to know why I’m not afraid of you.
Feeder TikTik extrudes a scent of apology and explains the purpose of the greeting-scent is to induce an environment of openness and ease. For our people, it is crucial to social function. What do humans use for this function?
If it’s anything, it’s coffee. I have the sneaking suspicion that I am going to need an extra cup tomorrow.
We smell the restaurant, Shanghai Kitchen, long before we enter. The many interesting scents mingle in the air, causing our haustellums to uncontrollably twitch. Feeder TikTik extrudes extra calming pheromones to ensure the “hostess” remains calm as she greets us and leads us to our assigned table. Humans sit at separate tables, sometimes in groups, sometimes singly. Curiously, they all eat something different. Our hostess, Biyu, hands each of us clear plastic-covered lists.
Of course we don’t all eat the same thing all the time. That’d be boring. Like, this afternoon for lunch, I had the orange beef with white rice and a side of crab rangoons. Tonight I’ll probably take home an order of General Tso’s Chicken. It’s my boyfriend’s favorite. Mine too. We shared an order of General Tso’s on our first date.
Feeder TikTik seems entranced but dismayed by the scene of so many people eating in a way that appears communal, but also partitioned. We have few master feeders, Feeder TikTik being one, and we all, as in an entire community of hundreds, and sometimes thousands, feed from them and them alone. Our people lack such variety in nourishment, just the same highly nutritious liquid produced by the Feeders.
That’s because we like to experiment with taste and texture. Humans are neophytes. We lose interest in things we know well. We’re always looking for new experiences. But we always return to old favorites because they give us comfort. For example, when I am feeling a little blue, I eat warm apple pie ala mode. Nom!
Feeder TikTik asks about this “Nom,” but Biyu Hostess screws up her face at us in a way that translates, “How stupid can you be?” So we instead ask of this apple pie and we also ask why Hostess Biyu closed her eyes and moaned when she said it.
It’s, like, my favorite dessert. When I was a kid, my mother would bake an apple pie for special occasions. It’s kind of a tradition.
We ask if there are other places where humans gather to eat separate and different meals. Biyu Hostess taps her chin with an appendage and brightens.
My sister Xiang works at MLK Elementary. Five days a week she dishes up some questionable fare for the kids there. I read that the United States has, like, the least nutritious lunches in the world. Well, maybe not the whole world, but close. Anyway, go talk to her.
The next morning, it requires careful planning by Soldier to safely enter the MLK Elementary. Human young are born much more frail than ours. The local feeders have accounted for this by installing brood feeders at the schools to deliver extra nutrition while the young are separated from their primary feeders.
We find Brood Feeder Xiang in a vast room called “the cafeteria”, nourishing the young via trays containing an assortment of foods. According to Feeder TikTik’s analysis, none of the foods provides complete nourishment the way Feeder Aisha’s secretions or Feeder Bogolomov’s powders do. We ask Brood Feeder Xiang why this is.
As long as they eat lots of variety, they’ll get all the nutrition they need. Part of my job at MLK is giving the children opportunities to try new things.
The human younglings weave around us as the meal continues. When a bell rings, they line up to dispose of uneaten food and return their trays to Brood Feeder Xiang. All three of us emit confusion pheromones. Why are the young permitted to reject the Feeder’s selections?
Obviously you’ve never met a picky eater. My daughter went through a phase where she only ate noodles. She would go to bed hungry rather than touch a vegetable! But she outgrew it. Some of the kids have allergies or sensory issues with certain foods. And some are vegetarian, or have religious restrictions.
I work to find cultural analogues for these concepts. Any of our young unable to receive a Feeder’s secretions would not survive, as there are no alternatives. But some are born with pheromonal sensitivities. They are treated with consideration and given special roles in our community to protect them from adverse reactions.
You’ve got the idea. My friend Ben Goldman would die if you give him garlic. His body doesn’t make histamines. But since we eat so much variety, he’s in no danger of malnutrition. He lives all the way in Michigan, but I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you.
After Brood Feeder Xiang says this, she looks confused.
You know, it’s funny. I don’t even believe in aliens, and here I am giving out my address book to one. Somehow I don’t feel like you’re a threat to the children or myself. What are you doing here?
Feeder TikTik emits a smell of confusion. Why would any Feeder harm another? Feeders nurture and heal. Is this not universal?
When you put it that way, it makes sense. I guess our “feeders,” as you call them, don’t always do their job right. Make sure you ask Ben about the water when you see him.
We arrive at the home of Feeder Ben Goldman, a third-story unit inside a stacked domicile of many such units. He greets us at the entrance, then dashes back inside before Feeder Tiktik has an opportunity to extrude their calming pheromones. Feeder Ben begins to chase a very loud youngling around a chair. Two other younglings hide behind a door and another chair respectively. They all release tittering shrieks as Feeder Ben stomps loudly around the room as he growls.
Soldier prepares to unleash stunning pheromones, but Feeder Tiktik changes colors to signal that neither we nor the younglings are in danger. When the younglings spot Feeder Tiktik’s strobing, they stop shrieking and run to meet us. Soldier and I are unnerved by the impulsivity and volume of these younglings but Feeder Tiktik appears…amused?
We are invited into another room as Feeder Ben prepares the evening meal. The room shares some traits in common with Feeder Aisha’s place of preparation, such as the humming box and the rich, lingering spice of mingled organics. Three species of edible flora grow in small receptacles on the counter. Boxes and large bottles of water are stacked along a wall, blocking the window. A pot of fragrant liquid simmers. We expect Ben to prepare bottles for his excited younglings but we soon learn that they no longer require breast milk or SavingsCo formula. The younglings crowd around Feeder Tiktik, stroking their dermis and toying with their haustellums.
Yeah, it’s just me and the kiddos. My wife passed about four years ago. Angela had just finished her chemotherapy and she was doing great. Really great. But…
Feeder Ben lowers himself into a narrow chair, head in hands. Saline leaks from his eyes. The children leave Feeder Tiktik and crowd around their parent. The smallest crawls into his lap. Feeder Tiktik releases a small direct spray of calming pheromones and soon Feeder Ben no longer leaks. He sends the younglings to entertain themselves in another room.
It’s just the damn water here is contaminated with all kinds of shit. Angela got Legionnaire’s and even with antibiotics, she just wasn’t strong enough to recover. And Kwame, our youngest, is always going to have difficulty in school. He has permanent brain damage and is about three or four years behind his peers. Kwame was such a brilliant baby. I mean, they all were, but he had this spark, this intuitive intelligence…but he got lead poisoning from the water. Imagine that. The one thing we absolutely must have to live is bad for us.
Feeder Tiktik is enthralled by Feeder Ben’s story. They are also angered. How could such a thing happen in a world with so many resources? What are their Feeders doing? What measures are being taken to remedy this situation? Feeder Ben laughs, but we do not detect humor in his vocalization.
Hell if I know. Several of our leaders, if that’s what you want to call them, have been indicted for what they allowed to happen, what they made happen, but not one of them is paying for it. They get to go on with their lives and we’re stuck with the aftermath.
Feeder Ben calls the children back and they take seats around a small table. He serves them each a bowl of what he calls soup, accompanied by hot squares of crust suffused with animal fat and filled with the melted feeder-juice solids of a local herbivore. I take scans of the substances for future study, and remembering Feeder Xiang’s words, ask about Feeder Ben’s difficulty with “garlic.”
Not much to tell you. Garlic makes my throat swell up and then I can’t breathe. You wouldn’t believe how many things contain garlic. I’ve got to read all the food labels.
We ask if Feeder Ben will take his brood to someplace safer, where the water is not a hazard.
Nah. I can’t afford it. Besides my family and my job is in Flint. And my community needs me. Every week on my day off, I’m down at the community center helping my people to organize. We’re doing everything we can to improve the conditions here. The water is definitely an issue, but it’s not the only one. In the surrounding 100 square miles there are 323 liquor stores and only five grocery stores. We’re trying to raise money to purchase some of the vacant lots so we can have a community garden and maybe open another grocery store that has good fresh produce options. Long term plans are for a delivery service staffed by local teens to deliver food to folks who can’t make it there. But for now, we use the SuperMart down the road.
Feeder Ben offers a receptacle of the soup to each of us but we decline. Feeder Ben barely has enough food for himself and his children. We do however accept bottles of water.
Hey. Thanks for stopping by. I’m really glad you came. Sometimes it helps to talk to someone who isn’t just as tired of this shit as I am.
Feeder TikTik strobes with rage as Soldier leads us to the next coordinates. “Where are their Master Feeders?” they protest, coiling their haustellums tight against their locomotive limbs. “They have left their lesser Feeders to consume poison. How can the humans stand it?”
It is in this mood that we meet what at first appears to be a human Master Feeder in an alleyway, blocks away from the SuperMart. His legs stick out of a tall metal receptacle as he rummages around inside. Initial scans reveal the organic waste he emerges with to be violently toxic for the average human biological makeup. Feeder TikTik approaches him and, as one Master Feeder to another, demands he account for the state of his people. Why has he allowed lesser feeders the dangerous task of detoxification?
Whoa! You got me messed up. I’m not in charge of humanity or anything. I’m just hungry.
The human cowers low against the brick wall as I labor to translate “hungry” for Feeder TikTik, a word among my people that usually indicates a temporary state, not an ongoing one, as seems to be the case for this human. Our scans indicate the onset of significant malnutrition. He introduces himself as DeShawn. We ask when he last received nourishment.
It’s been a hot minute. Does coffee count? Neeta split her bagel with me yesterday. And I’ll probably find something good in here. SuperMart throws out anything that’s only a day or two past the expiration date.
Feeder TikTik points out that the meal he is holding is quite toxic. Is DeShawn a Master Feeder after all? We explain that Master Feeders on our planet are tasked with consuming organic matter and breaking it down into nourishing components. After hearing this, DeShawn tosses the meal back into the dumpster.
Well, nevermind then. Guess I’ll just go hungry a little longer.
We ask about the SuperMart. Can DeShawn not ask for fresh food?
Man, if I had money, don’t you think I’d have thought of that already? They don’t just let you take whatever you want.
After a rigorous bout of translation, we learn that humans stockpile vast quantities of nourishment, but allow some to go hungry, even though some of the stockpile spoils uneaten. Feeder TikTik is strobing again with rage. They turn to DeShawn. Would he like to be fed? Feeder TikTik will do it.
Um. Well, sure. Why not?
Feeder TikTik unfurls their haustellums and extrudes the feeding pheromone. I extrude a pleasure-scent as the Feeder approaches. There is no joy like sharing the haustellum together, and never before have we welcomed an alien to join us. But the human screams and scrambles away.
Aw hell nah! Get those things away from me. I don’t roll like that.
The scent of greeting is too thin in this outdoor area to do any good. Soldier suggests we treat with the SuperMart feeders on behalf of DeShawn. Perhaps they can be made to see reason. We insist that DeShawn accompany us.
There are many feeders inside the SuperMart, but we do not allow them to distract us. We speak to a nearly mature youngling, almost as tall and broad as the adults, who stands before a computing machine and pushes different food items along a conveyor belt. She informs us that her “manager” is in a specially designated room in the back. We pass through aisles brimming with boxed, bagged, and clear plastic-wrapped food items. Some are room temperature, some cold. Some highly nutritious and some that fall well below a reasonable standard to support life. All of it is fresh, or at least well-preserved. We marvel at the abundance. How could a world exist where there is so much, yet people are forced to eat spoiled remnants?
The office already smells of what Feeder Aisha calls “coffee.” As this serves the same function among humans as our greeting-scent, Feeder TikTik extrudes less of the greeting-scent than customary. Feeder TikTik announces to the manager that we have found this malnourished human outside. Will Feeder Manager provide him nourishment?
Perhaps you don’t understand how we do things. Here in my country, if you want to eat, then you have to work. We can’t just give food away. If we fed every homeless person that simply asked for food, we couldn’t stay in business.
This manager, Miguel, turns his attention to DeShawn and sniffs. This gesture is disconcerting and now, instead of strobing, Feeder Tiktik is turning a mottled gray and red. The last time I have seen Feeder Tiktik this irreconcilably angry…well, I do not wish to see it again. We never were able to restore their apartments to their original state.
Feeder Tiktik wants to know what this “work” is.
It is an assignment that one must complete in order to earn money to purchase food.
Feeder Tiktik wishes to know why Miguel will not give DeShawn a job, as this seems a simple enough resolution.
He’s not qualified to work here.
DeShawn speaks loudly, startling Feeder Manager Miguel.
You don’t know what I am qualified to do. I’m probably overqualified for every job in this SuperMart. Remember the Brighter Horizons Senior Living facility down on Holcombe? Well, I owned that. It doesn’t take much to turn a person’s life completely inside out. The big fire that wiped out the old apartment building next to our lot spread. We had to evacuate the premises and eventually close our doors, sending all those sweet folks to other facilities. All it takes is one thing to go wrong, one fucking catastrophe for your life to fall apart. One fire, one lawsuit, one divorce, a couple of missed payments and next thing you know, you’re sleeping in your car and eating shit out of the garbage. Suddenly your degrees and your reputation don’t mean nothing. Suddenly you are nothing and folks like you sit in judgement of my hunger, like it’s a fucking crime.
Feeder Tiktik waits in hopes that Feeder Manager Miguel will see reason, but they are soon disappointed.
Perfect. Then you should be able to get a job somewhere else. And when you have the money, then you can come back and buy all the food you want.
Feeder Tiktik is not mollified by this false concession, and to the dismay of Feeder Manager Miguel, instructs Soldier to escort DeShawn throughout the SuperMart so that he may gather the foodstuffs he wishes. DeShawn points to the items he desires and Soldier retrieves them and places them in the cart. Feeder Tiktik has resolved that DeShawn and his companion, Neeta, of whom he fondly speaks, should have provisions enough to sate their hunger and restore their health for several Earth rotations. When we reach the exit we are met by soldier-humans in matching clothes. They exit three vehicles and shout all at once while holding weapons. The leader speaks.
We are here to arrest the man and…and… what they hell are you?
I intend to answer but, sensing danger, Feeder Tiktik lifts DeShawn to safety with their haustullems and lets loose a cry that shatters the windows of the SuperMart. This signals for Soldier to act. She shoots a gelatinous substance from her muscular haustullems directly onto the weapons, which disintegrate. She administers a powerful targeted dose of calming pheromones, and the soldier-humans fall into an immediate slumber.
Several humans gather around and break into a loud congratulatory cheer. A gray-pelted human steps from the crowd.
What y’all did for him, man that was terrific. If more people were this good, the world would be a less hungry place. Am I right?
Feeder Tiktik agrees. The gray-pelted human speaks to DeShawn.
Anyway, I own the Down Home food truck that’s parked at Ella and St. James, 11 to 11, Monday through Friday. Business is good and I could use a sous chef. I also got a sister who is looking to rent out the basement apartment in her house. Fully furnished and everything. How about it?
Feeder Tiktik is now mollified.
The older human, who calls herself Mama, escorts us to a large vehicle, explaining that more soldier-humans will be on the way to apprehend us if we do not leave immediately. The vehicle’s inner chamber is large and redolent of spices and roast fauna, full of apparatus for preparing nutritious meals. It reminds me of Feeder Ben’s home, except for the presence of the deadly allergen garlic. I wonder how humans signal possible dangers like garlic to one another, but given the danger, it doesn’t seem prudent to ask.
Once Soldier has ensured our safety, she slumps to the floor, exhausted by the battle.
Is your friend okay? Sorry about what happened back at the store. That’s not how we treat visitors where I come from.
Feeder TikTik explains Soldier requires feeding to replenish her energy stores.
There’s plenty to eat back there. Help yourselves! Made from scratch right here by me and my son Mo–cornbread, Anasazi beans, barbecue, lemonade, all of it. I do the meat, and he whips up the sauce and cornbread and handles customers.
Feeder TikTik thanks her. Among our kind, only Feeders have robust enough digestive tracts to handle solids. However, after some sampling, Feeder TikTik determines the “sauce” appears of a composition and consistency safe for me and Soldier to sample. The flavor of Feeder Mama’s sauce is a truly new experience for me, and nearly impossible to put into words, but I have recorded a pheromone facsimile to the best of my ability. Suffice it to say it is one of the most extraordinary, alien, and yet deeply satisfying experiences of my lifetime. I wonder in passing how closely the flavor maps onto other human Feeder secretions, and regret missing the opportunity to request a sample of Feeder Aisha’s fluids.
Y’all okay? If you’re gonna get carsick, let me know and I’ll pull over. We’re almost there.
Feeder TikTik exudes reassuring gratitude, explaining how profoundly moving this experience is for us.
Ha! Believe me, it’s not the first time someone said that. People sure do love our sauce. We’ve got regulars coming every week for ten years now. I’ll fix you a to-go plate before you leave. Where y’all heading, anyway?
Feeder TikTik explains we are trying to make contact with the Feeders in charge of this planet, but while we have met many Feeders, none of them seem to have any power. Feeder Mama laughs humorlessly.
You might be looking for two different things. Wish I could say feeding people comes with power around here. You really wanna talk to the guys in charge. You’ll have to drag yourselves to Washington, and they ain’t gonna give you no homemade barbecue. Do you have a ride?
We ask about the distance of travel to this “Washington.”
It’s a good 8 hour’s drive at least. You’d do better to fly.
Feeder Mama explained about human intraplanet flight, which is a complicated process involving many stages, and will increase our chance of meeting soldier-humans in great number.
Ain’t y’all aliens? How’d you get here? Can’t you just call your spaceship or something?
We explain summoning the pod requires careful coordination with the mothership Feeders around feeding schedules for the crew. It isn’t safe to send the pod crew without its own Feeder, and there aren’t many spare Feeders with TikTik on the surface.
If y’all can’t fly, get yourself a driver. Try the mosque down the street. They’ve got a brand-new van, and they’re always giving people rides.
We stay the night with Feeder Mama and Feeder Mo. In the morning, they send us off with three large cartons, roast fauna for Feeder TikTik and sauce for me and Soldier. We head for the mosque to borrow their “van.” It is time to go to Washington and meet the people who have usurped the Feeders’ power on this planet.
A voice vibrating in slow melodious tones sounds out as we approach a tall building with spires. Moments later, human adults and younglings stream from the building wearing brightly colored garments. They gather in an open area where several tables hold metallic containers of fragrant spiced foods. We approach a cheery Feeder with a wrapping on her head the color of Earth’s sun. She doles out portions onto plates and hands them out to a line of loud younglings.
When she sees us her breathing hitches and her eyes widen, then she steadies herself and smiles, greeting us before we have an opportunity to extrude calming pheromones.
As Salaamu Alaikum and Eid Mubarak! My name is Aminatu Ali. I’ve never seen you at the mosque. Are you new to the area? Wait, you’re the new converts Imam Rashid asked me to look out for, yes?
We agree that we are new to the area, but do not understand what she means by “converts,” a word that suggests changing into something different. We also ask the meaning of the melodious tones we heard earlier.
Suddenly, a group of screeching younglings race by in a prismatic streak. Feeder Tiktik is momentarily distracted and involuntarily extrudes pheromones of amusement, causing the already happy Feeder Aminatu Ali to giggle.
I moved here from Nigeria when I was ten. I’m twenty-six now, but you know what? Sometimes people treat me like I’m new to the area too. So let me be the first to welcome you. Anyway, converts are people new to Islam. That’s the name of my religion.
I struggle to translate “religion.” Our closest cultural analogue is funeral rites performed at the most ancient Feeder houses, a proceeding whose origins are lost in time. At such gatherings, one is not welcome who lacks historic ties with the deceased Feeder. We ask if we are intruding.
No, it’s okay if you’re not a convert. Here at Masjid Muhammad, we welcome everyone from the new convert, to the shut in, to the curious, or just plain hungry to join us in celebrating the Eid. That sound you heard earlier was our imam as he led us in prayer.
We enquire about this Eid.
Every year for a lunar month all Muslims who are able fast from sunup to sundown. Eid al-Fitr is the three-day celebration we have once the fasting ends. That means lots of food, and activities for the adults and kids.
We all express confusion at this “fasting.” Why would anyone voluntarily starve themselves for an entire month? How can this be beneficial? Is this not torture?
Fasting isn’t easy, but it’s hardly torture either. Most Muslims enjoy fasting. It helps us control our urges and engage in introspection. It’s a way of strengthening our spiritual connection to ourselves, our god, and our community. Muslims have been fasting for 600 years to no detriment. There are even medical studies that show there is true health benefit in fasting.
But today isn’t about fasting. Are you here for the celebration?
We explain about our mission and urgent need for transportation, and inquire about the “van”.
I have to finish serving the meal first, but after that I’d be happy to drive you.
Feeder Aminatu Ali proceeds to fill receptacles of food for each of us.
These dishes are native to Nigeria. I hope you enjoy. This here is egusi soup. It’s made with ground melon seeds and spinach and goodness. This white ball is called tuwo shinkafa. It’s made of mashed rice and if you use it to scoop up your soup it should all be a delicious mash easy enough for you to suck up with your…uhm, trunks? This purple liquid is called zobo. It’s kind of tart and it’s better than any carbonated drink to wash down a delicious meal.
After Feeder TikTik approves it, Soldier and I try the savory dish and are soon overcome with the mélange of flavors and infused heat. While our attention is turned fully onto our meals, which we find a pleasant yet excruciating experience, Feeder Tiktik abandons their half-eaten food and slips away. Soldier and I extrude the scent of panic at our precious Feeder’s disappearance, worrying the soldier humans may have detained them during our brief lapse of attention. The pheromones stir up several neighboring humans, who agree to help us search. When we finally locate the Feeder, the younglings have buried them in sand, leaving only their eyes and haustellum exposed.
After third a planetary cycle of locomotive transport, Feeder Aminatu Ali drops us off near a large domicile surrounded by a high iron gate. It is said to belong to the leader. Here Feeder Aminatu Ali bids us farewell, explaining a need to return quickly to feed her younglings–an understandable responsibility for any Feeder. Outside the leader’s domicile, humans shout and carry wood pulp signs. Judging from the scents and sounds they extrude, they all seem angry and determined–an understandable reaction, considering the state of feeding on the planet. I marvel that their Feeders do not respond instantly at such a display. We meet a youngling human who claims he is eleven years old. His name is Courtney. He distributes packages of food to many of the protestors. Feeder Courtney is the youngest feeder we have met. We wonder how a youngling has been bestowed with the power of a feeder.
My mom is over there. See? The one holding up the sign that says Pro-Choice is Pro-Life. She’s awesome, my mom. She’s been bringing me to protests since I was four years old. I’ve even been in the newspapers.
When I was like seven, I had a great idea. I decided to make sandwiches for the other protestors. I mean, protesting is hungry work. So, like twice a month, I pack a cooler with homemade tuna, cheese, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and I hand them out. People started giving me money. Like, I didn’t even ask for it. Right? I still don’t, but people give me like one or two bucks for a sammy. One time, this guy asked me what I did with the money from the sandwiches. I told him I saved it for my college fund. He asked me what I want to be when I grow up, and I said a lawyer, so I can help all of the poor disenfranchised people. And he asked me if I could spell disenfranchised. I mean…of course I can. So guess what he did? You’ll never in a million years guess. He gave me a hundred dollar bill. A whole freaking hundred dollars!!! Then he told me of course I was going to be a lawyer because I talk good game.
When Feeder Courney takes a breath, we ask if he planned to go inside the gates to see the leader of the country.
Wait, is that why you’re here?
We respond affirmatively and explain that we wish to discuss the dire circumstances we have found some of the planet’s citizens.
Dude, you’re never going to get inside, not unless you’re like a world leader or famous or something. But hey, the president isn’t the person you should be talking to anyway. Sure, he creates policies that influence who gets jobs and who has access to resources. But, it’s like my mom always says, the president is just one person. The rest of us have a responsibility to take care of each other.
In my class there’s this kid named Jeremy whose dad drops him off in a Ferrari. I went to his house for a birthday party once and I couldn’t believe how big it was. His house had like seven bedrooms and five bathrooms yet only his mom, dad and him live there. If you had seen all the food he had for his party your mouth–or whatever that is–would have just fell open. And when the party was over, I saw his maid throwing a lot of the food away. But I have this other friend, his name is Peter and he takes the bus to school and he eats the same thing for lunch most days, if he has lunch. Like, why couldn’t Jeremy share all the food he’s just going to end up throwing away? How can you just be okay knowing your stomach is full while someone else is hungry? That isn’t the president’s fault, and believe me, he has plenty of faults. Like my mom says, let me count the freaking ways. The fault belongs to me and everyone else who can help, but don’t. And this problem doesn’t stop at our borders. It happens in countries all over the world. You should hop over to Europe, or Asia, or Africa, and you’ll see what I mean.
We consider the words of Feeder Courtney. Our younglings do not reach this level of wisdom until their haustullems have formed their outer skin. We note the locations mentioned, but learn they are only accessible via intraplanetary flight or pod transport. I record the locales for future teams to investigate.
The mood is somber while we wait for the pod. We find a quiet spot outside a home. Feeder TikTik distributes tubs of Feeder Mama’s sauce, the taste of which gives us all a strange comfort. We are eager to partake as the journey has been a difficult one.
Soldier, in a rare display of insubordination, speaks unbidden to Feeder TikTik. “Honored Feeder, this planet is unwell. Why does their leader guard his compound against his people, barring them from any nourishment they might draw from his body or mind? Our Master Feeders sit in great halls with open doors, haustellums extended to friends and visitors alike, enriching our people with the exchange of scents and ideas. How can we exchange gifts with these aliens? They suffer starvation and poison, the basic needs of their bodies denied.” Soldier quivers and strobes the colors of battle, exuding courage pheromones. My skin automatically hardens in response. “We should send for the fleet and our master feeders. We will shame this man called ‘president’. We will go into every home and building and feed these people from our own haustellums.”
Instead of reprimanding Soldier, Feeder TikTik exudes the scent of compassion, for an outraged Soldier could easily provoke an invasion. “Beloved Soldier, this has not been an easy journey. Calm yourself with this barbecue sauce and consider your own words. Would you have us overturn another way of life with so little consideration? Certainly the human Feeders have not fully performed their duties,but what would they learn if we carried out that task on their behalf?”
As Soldier suckles barbecue sauce, her colors dull, and the danger passes. But her point lingers like the scent of courage, the hardened skin. It is not so easy to step back from the need to act. And now it is my turn to find Soldier’s bravery.
Outside the nearby home, a line of vehicles assemble as many humans file inside.
“Honored Feeder,” I say softly, “perhaps we have time for one more interview before the pod arrives.”
The home is small and brightly lit, and people come and go. Inside, voices ring with curious emotion, at once melancholy and joyous, thoughtful and bright with hope. We knock on the door and are greeted by a stout human whose thinning gray pelt indicates advanced age. She introduces herself as EmmaMae Jenkins.
Have you come to pay your last respects? That’s awfully kind of you. Tell me, how did you know my sweet Jerome? He never mentioned you.
We explain our mission and she listens quietly and with intent.
I see. Well come on in and meet everyone. Make yourselves a plate.
We meet many people, sitting and standing, talking and sobbing, and there are even a few younglings who run through the rooms before being coaxed into silence by elders. In the room that Feeder EmmaMae Jenkins has designated for feeding, there is a table covered end to end with containers of different aromatic and colorful foodstuffs.
My friends and family wanted to organize this luncheon for me, you know, to take off the strain of having just lost Jerome. But, I wouldn’t hear of it. It’s not that I am a control freak or anything, it’s just that I wanted to be the one who got the blessings for feeding the people who came together for my sweet man. We’ve been together for fifty-six years. They weren’t easy years, mind you, but they were contented ones. I never doubted that Jerome loved me. That’s a lot more than a lot of people can say.
Jerome was the smartest man I’ve ever known, but he couldn’t cook to save his life. So, I showed my love by cooking for him and our four children, ten grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. My specialty is lemon pound cake.
We ask why so many people gather after the death of a loved one to partake of a banquet, considering it is such a solemn time.
To celebrate his life, of course. We use food to celebrate everything. Births, graduations, social and professional achievements, and even deaths. Although this isn’t the celebration of his death so much as the celebration of the culmination of his life. Look around. All these people knew and loved my Jerome. Least I could do is feed them.
Several of the attending humans nod their heads or make sounds of assent. A couple of them raise their beverage cylinders and collide them against others, which roughly correlates to the bonding-scent among our people during moments of strong collective feeling.
It is then that we receive notification that the pod is landing shortly and it is time to leave. We thank the great familial Feeder EmmaMae Jenkins and depart, with several slices of lemon pound cake.
While we await the pod’s descent in an abandoned stretch of grass, Feeder TikTik grazes on organics while Soldier and I carefully nibble cake mixed with sauce. The Feeder’s haustellums are wrinkled and translucent from age and use. I suddenly wonder what they’re thinking, after the extravagant display of Feeder EmmaMae.
“Feeder,” I ask them, “Soldier was rash before, yes. But I wonder too. There is new technology here, but how can there be a gift exchange when their Feeders leave some hungry?”
The Feeder quivers with gentle amusement. They release a scent-memory from their youngling days, an impression of warmth and closeness, being held in the Brood Feeder’s haustellums while the fluid coursed into their body. And after that, a ravenous, tearing hunger, and the burden of responsibility. “You and Soldier see the unfed on this planet, you who have never known hunger, but I see a species that feeds each other from birth to death, dancing between feeder and fed. They are not perfect, they do not always know how desperately they need each other, but there is goodness here too. Look at Soldier!”
Soldier is hunched over the pound cake, crumbling pieces into barbecue sauce, stirring it until it softens. Feeding herself. Never has there been a Soldier who feeds herself.
I strobe anxiously and grasp one of Feeder TikTik’s haustellums for comfort. “Honored Feeder, this technology will change us.”
“Yes, of course it will. Why do you think we have such an interest in this planet? If we open trade with the humans, our people will travel independently, feeding themselves powdered Feeder secretions. No need to bring a Feeder along. There are precious few of us already. We hold our people back.”
“But what will Feeders do if human food replaces you? Would you give up your power so easily? Your honor in our society? If we do not need your haustellums, will we still be a people? Surely some will become alone and solitary.”
Feeder TikTik doesn’t answer me. Instead, they extend a haustellum into my body and deliver perfect nourishment, comforting me, soothing me. “Beloved Scholar, we would give up our power gladly. We would see you able to stand apart from us, to go as far as you may. Because this is the nature of Feeders.”
It occurs to me that our Feeders have a special loneliness. I have been fed by them my whole life, but have never given them anything back. It is all I can do to hold myself together. “I wish we had never found the humans. I wish I had stayed on the pod.”
“You don’t mean that, Scholar,” says Feeder TikTik. And they are right. I don’t mean it. “We will bring human technology to our planet. The only question remaining is whether we will give them a gift in return. Tell me, Scholar: who do we leave our gift with? I place the decision in your haustellums.”
I recollect our journey, all the strange alien names: Aisha, Bogolomov, Xiang, Ben, and the rest. They are young and old. Life and death. Feeder and fed alike. So hungry, but never alone in that hunger. And then Feeder TikTik, old and wise and deeply kind.
I turn to Feeder TikTik and deliver my ruling. “We were to give our gift to their Feeders. Well, they are all Feeders. Give it to them all.”
Feeder TikTik is so pleased with me they quiver from peak to tail. “Very good, Scholar. Then let it be done.”
I release a memory scent then, a powerful teaching memory about interstellar travel. A roadmap to find us, if the humans choose. Feeder TikTik pumps nourishment into me as I continue to extrude the scent into their atmosphere. Given time, it will find them. Given time, they may find us.
And when they do, we will be ready to share nourishment. All of us.