Octavia E. Butler, who died in 2006 at the height of her career, left an award-winning legacy of novels, short stories, and nonfiction that spoke boldly about the possibilities of the future. Butler's will left her papers to the Huntington Library. Among them, archivists recently uncovered two previously unpublished stories. Butler’s lifelong concerns with power, race, and gender are in full flower, even in these early works. We hope you enjoy this excerpt from the story titled "A Necessary Being," featured in Unexpected Stories, out on June 24. --Betsy Mitchell, former editor of Octavia E. Butler
The Rohkohn Hao, Tahneh, was sharing her evening meal with her chief judge and discussing the current drought when she first learned of the foreigners who had entered her territory. There were three of them, not traveling north or south over the long strip of coastal desert as she would have expected, but coming from the east through the foothills. Apparently, they were following the narrow dwindling river that had in better times kept Tahneh’s people well supplied with water. The hunter who brought the message described the foreigners as a huntress, a judge, and, startlingly, a young Hao. Tahneh looked sharply at the hunter when he said it.
“You’re certain that it was a Hao and not just a high judge?”
“So the message said, Rohkohn Hao.” And the man quoted. “‘The foreign Hao is male and very young. Perhaps even too young to have been acknowledged by his people. His coloring is unmistakably pure blue and he is much taller and larger than the judge who is with him.’”
Tahneh heard this silently, her face turned away from the hunter. She felt just the beginnings of dread as she began to believe the report. A stupid child-Hao out almost alone on land that belonged to her people! What could his own people have been thinking of to let him wander around so unguarded?
“How far is he from here?” she asked the hunter.
“Two days, perhaps two and a half, Rohkohn Hao. He’s traveling slowly. He had just emerged from the mountains when a group of our hunters saw him and sent word back to us. Since he is coming toward us, our fighters could reach him from here in only a day.”
“Is there any possibility that he saw our hunters—saw them signaling us perhaps?” Tahneh had trouble keeping the hope out of her voice. Even a young Hao would have the sense to take his friends and run if he realized that there were other Kohn in the area. He would not know whether Tahneh’s Rohkohn were hostile or friendly and he would not be foolish enough to wait and find out. If only he had seen her hunters’ light signals.
“He could not have seen them, Rohkohn Hao,” the hunter assured her. “Our hunters made certain that both he and his friends were asleep when they sent their message.” The hunter seemed proud that members of his caste had acted so carefully, so correctly. He added, “Our hunters also ask that we hold our answer until we receive another signal from them—so that we don’t accidently alert the Hao and his party.”
Thorough hunters, Tahneh thought bitterly. A tribute to her insistence on training and discipline. Her body whitened and became slightly luminescent. This was a sign of the approval that she should have felt, but did not feel, a sign to the hunter that he and his fellow hunters had done well.
“Is there anything more?” she asked.
“No, Rohkohn Hao.”
Tahneh let the light go out of her coloring, let her normal blue return and the hunter, understanding that he had been dismissed, turned and left her apartment.
She sat still, ignoring the silent chief judge who sat beside her and staring into the fire of her large fireplace. This particular judge was a friend as well as the top official of her government. She had had liaisons with him before his marriage and after the death of his wife; he was a good companion. But she wished beyond expressing that she had not invited him to eat with her this particular night. In another moment he would speak and say the things she did not want to hear.
After a moment the chief judge’s normal blue-green coloring soared to brilliant white luminescence with his joy. “At last, Tahneh, at last!” The words came out in a harsh whisper. “We must send more fighters—judges—to capture him before those hunters frighten him away!”
Tahneh watched him silently, knowing that his elation would soon be shared by the rest of her people. Another Hao at last. A young one to be the successor that her body had been unable to produce, a child who could probably be captured without the danger and loss of life that would be involved in capturing an experienced adult.