This piece appears in the latest issue of the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 20 Childhood
To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member or purchase a copy at your local bookstore.
Rules are rules. They exist for a reason. They are meant to be obeyed.
If, for instance, you are going to adopt or foster an Earthling child, you have to obey certain rules. Yes, certain requirements must be met. Your home must be clean, at least on the day of the inspection. You must be at least 21 years old, because babies can’t look after babies. You must have some source of gainful employment. Why would you think fostering an alien baby is any different? The rules ought to be even more stringent, really. It is good manners to host visitors as you would family, or perhaps even better.
The first thing to know about taking care of alien babies is that you must have a large, well-manicured lawn. What for, you ask? Well, sooner or later an alien baby must return to its mother planet and the mode of transportation to that planet is the mother ship. It is expected that you know that and keep it in mind. You are the alien baby’s Earth mom; it has many other mothers elsewhere. So yes, on the subject of lawns: keep it freshly mown with well-trimmed edges so that when that mother ship arrives — silently in the night, with its deep unearthly glow — you will not be ashamed when your neighbors come out of their houses, wearing robes and shoddy slippers. Even drowsy eyes can pick up a mess. You will not be ashamed by the photographs in the newspapers. Your lawn should be photogenic, prepared for media coverage.
Another rule: your house must not have any satellite dishes. You know those things that look like turned out giant’s ears, eavesdropping into every terrestrial and non-terrestrial conversation? Those are a no-no. Studies have shown that even unused and abandoned dishes retain their pings. This is a well-known phenomenon in Rocket Science: even when satellites die, their pings do not. You don’t want your alien baby using your house as a transmission center for sending messages back to his mother planet. Though we welcome the alien baby we would prefer to keep communication to a minimum. Always remember: country first, our planet first.
And remember this too: no television antennas either. Perhaps a close friend or family member installed those for you. Perhaps they fell to their death in the act. Now is not the time for a moment of silence. If you would like to commemorate the many who have fallen while installing those spiky, dozen-fingered blighters, please take that moment at a later time. Those antennas are useful for sending back information to mother planets. Our alien guests will grab and twist every antenna-finger to tell their people sensitive things about us, if we let them. If they are living with you, they will certainly know all sorts of things about you. They will know your favorite cereal — whether you are a sweet cereal type or a cheerless, unsweetened, heart-healthy kind of person. They will know about your bowel movements too, how regular you are and if you tend to get discombobulated when you feel backed up. Yes, of course they’ll know all that stuff, you probably don’t want an entire planet knowing these things.
But that is not what we are talking about here; we are talking serious business. Let’s say we plan to attack their planet tomorrow, to seize it and make it our own, to force them to come harvest our potatoes, our almondsand tomatoes, our oranges and grapes, and so on and so forth. As you well know, in warfare, surprise attack is the mother of victory. So here we are, planning to strike with the utmost surprise, and your house guest — your innocent alien baby — gets a hold of this information and decides to give their people a heads up. What do you think they’d do if they get this actionable piece of information? Of course they would strike our planet. And you bet they wouldn’t show mercy. Before you know it, they’ve annexed our home — our dear mother Earth — and taken us to their red, dusty planet and forced us break rocks all day while we sing “By the Rivers of Babylon.” Please, no antennas on your roof.
You must also be sensitive in your choice of entertainment. You don’t want to go about hurting the feelings of our little alien baby. No Syfy channel on your TV please. And none of your old DVDs and space-themed movies from yesteryear. You know the ones I’m talking about. Those boxed-up video cassettes in the basement. Star Trek, Star Wars, Space 1999, Planetof the Apes,Logan’s Run. Get rid of them, every single one. It would be regrettable, if peradventure they stumble upon them. You don’t want your guest seeing itself through your eyes. Think about their feelings. Do you realize that most of these those movies — yes, most — portray aliens as kind and generous and loving? Well, some do but in a few others, they are shown to be humorless savages, creepy and wide-eyed, just saying, “Take me to your leader.”
You should know that your baby will experience…perhaps we don’t have the word for it. Surely, the Germans do — they have a word for everything. I am talking about nostalgia for the mother planet, otherworldly homesickness. Your alien baby will definitely get this feeling sometimes, no matter how much of a good Earth parent you try to be. Don’t worry too much about it. It is in no way a commentary on your parenting skills. What your alien baby needs is simply for you to sit them down and gently sing this folk song:
Papa went to the market eeya
Mama went to the market eeya
Papa will buy some savory moin-moin
Mama will buy some savory akara
On their return I will say Papa welcome
On their return I will say Mama welcome
And we shall feast igomiligo
And we shall feast igomiligo
By the time you are done your alien baby will be fast asleep, snoring slightly, an odd, peaceful smile on their face.
What kind of atmosphere do you need for your alien ward to thrive? Think of your alien baby as a fruit. Grapes need a certain type of weather and soil to do well. Alien babies, contrary to what you might think, do not require any kind of special climate, so please, do not interfere with the room temperature. No air conditioning, no fan. The occasional mild breeze should do the trick. Just keep your home free of dust mites and dander, and any furry dust balls that might trigger a sneezing fit. You probably don’t know this, but here is a useful fact: when alien babies start sneezing, nothing can stop them except the finely ground feathers of the alien bird Okanukapi. When you touch the feather dust ever so lightly, patting their nose three times, the sneezing will stop. But how many people have Okanukapi feathers in their medicine cabinet? If you keep your house free of dust, you’ll both breathe easier.
What kind of games should you play with your alien baby, you ask? Definitely not hide-and-seek. They can hide, but when you seek them you can never find them. When you get tired of seeking and plead for them to come out, they won’t come. Soon it will no longer be a game, and you may need to go to the authorities. Follow-the-leader is also out because they will always follow the leader. They don’t know how not to follow the leader. You will never stop playing, you will be old and gray and still in the same game of follow-the-leader. More on this later, but let’s just avoid it for now. Tag is not such a good idea either because being called “It” is not good for an alien’s self-esteem.
Another question you may have: what to feed an alien baby? Mars Bars, of course! But corny jokes aside, what on Earth do alien babies eat? You can feed alien babies practically anything. They have the constitution of an ox.
While we’re on the subject, you’ll be relieved to know that an alien baby is very much like a self-cleaning oven. They do not need a daily bath. You need not towel them dry, nor powder their necks. They are low-maintenance babies. The dreaded stinky diaper is not something you need to worry about. Alien babies are pretty much self-contained. They have an industrial blender where their alimentary canal should be.
Here’s what you need to worry about, though: play dates. Unfortunately, alien babies don’t play well with others. There is something about them that unnerves our Earth babies. It is something the Earth babies sense instinctively. They immediately begin to point and yell. It’s like they’re looking at something crazy! Like a dog with two heads. They usually don’t stop yelling until their moms remove them from the scene. This is strange since Earth babies are not ordinarily a discriminating group, but there we have it. A quiet neighborhood without Earth babies would be an ideal location to raise your alien baby.
In what faith should you raise your alien baby? This is a really complicated question. The truth is that no one knows whether aliens have souls. Many theologians have spent years examining this question from different angles. Many have asked, If aliens do not have souls, does that mean they do not sin?If they do not sin, does that mean there are no heavenly consequences for their actions? If there are no heavenly consequences, then should we take it upon ourselves, sinners that we are, to hold them accountable for any violent acts they may commit? This is like asking whether there is more sand under the sea than in the desert. Of what use are such questions? Have you exhausted the sand in the desert? Teach them to help an old lady cross the road, to raise their hat when a lady passes by, to never spit on the street, to pause when a funeral procession goes past, to say “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’m.” Teach them to never look down at any individual with disdain or look up to any fellow in fear. The alien will never be human. You are bound to fail but here’s the good thing — an alien child never forgets what he’s been taught.
While our emphasis here is more practical, we will grant that you do have a certain responsibility in this direction. You shouldn’t just abandon the baby and run off to church, or the mosque, temple, ashram, or meditation center. Just teach them to worship in the way you worship. Look at the world we live in today. Very few follow the religion in which they were raised. Don’t worry that your ward may proselytize, return to their little planet up there and try to convert their kin to their new faith. All the things of Earth belong to Earth and the things of space belong in space. And what do we know really? Who knows what they worship up there? What do they bow down to? How many times a day do they pray? And if they do not pray at all, has it made them any worse or better than humankind?
It is impossible to raise a child without having to discipline them. As we all know, discipline comes in different forms: the raised voice, the reprimand, the ruler on the knuckle, the time-out, the confiscation of electronics, the demand for an apology. These are the most dreaded aspects of parenting that neither parent nor child look forward to. But you do not have to worry about this because your alien child does not need you to discipline them. They will never break the rules. Yes, that is a fact and you can take it to the bank. You are never going to catch your alien ward with their hand in the cookie jar, literally or metaphorically. They will not sass you back or slam the door.
This might surprise you. Some parents have even found this fact to be frustrating, and have actually started to wish that their ward would break the rules. Some even look for ways to make them break the rules so they can feel they are actually fulfilling their parental duty. Indeed, many have concluded that their only real function as parents is to correct their children when they stray from the straight and narrow path. It comes as a surprise then, when they discover that alien children don’t need to be disciplined. Their society follows a strict command and obedience structure, you see.
Sit, you tell them, and they sit.
Do not ever open that door, you say, and they’ll never touch it.
Always tuck in your shirt, you say, and they always will.
Always say please and thank you, and they’ll say it without fail.
Always tidy your bed when you wake up in the morning. They will tidy their bed without fail.
Don’t forget to always keep that door closed, and they never forget.
Alien babies know how to obey rules. They thrive on rules. The worst thing that you can tell an alien baby is that they are free to do as they like. Do not be surprised if they beg you to tell them what to do. Freewill makes us human and it is the absence of freewill that makes an alien an alien. For them, the chain of command is important. An alien child is never going to test boundaries or try to see how far they can push you. You set the rules. Tell them what to do, and how to do it.
Finally the day comes. You always knew it would, though you didn’t realize that it would come so soon. Your alien ward must return to their mother planet. The ship lands on your well-manicured lawn. Your eyes grow misty, but perhaps it’s just your seasonal allergies, triggered by the freshly cut grass. Your alien baby runs to the spacecraft. You linger at your front door. You wave, and they wave back. You watch the door close. The spacecraft takes off. You wave again, and keep waving at your alien baby until the spacecraft has completely disappeared. Your hands do not feel tired. You feel no ache and so you close your eyes and continue to wave.
E.C. Osondu is the author of the collection of stories Voice of America and the novel This House is Not For Sale. His fiction has appeared in the Atlantic, AGNI, n+1, Guernica, Kenyon Review, McSweeney’s, Zyzzyva, Threepenny Review, New Statesman and many other publications and has been translated into over half a dozen languages.