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Title: When the Bough Breaks

Date of first publication: 1944

Author: Henry Kuttner (as Lewis Padgett) (1914-1958)

Date first posted: Sep. 1, 2021

Date last updated: Sep. 1, 2021

Faded Page eBook #20210901

This eBook was produced by: Alex White & the online Distributed Proofreaders Canada team at https://www.pgdpcanada.net

This file was produced from images generously made available by Internet Archive/American Libraries.




Henry Kuttner

Writing under the pseudonym Lewis Padgett.


First published Astounding, May 1945.

The boy was a super-baby. His parents didn’t know it, though, till the strange little servants came back through time to set up a strange sort of school—and a strange sort of inevitable dilemma.

They were surprised at getting the apartment, what with high rents and written-in clauses in the lease, and Joe Calderon felt himself lucky to be only ten minutes’ subway ride from the University. His wife, Myra, fluffed up her red hair in a distracted fashion and said that landlords presumably expected parthenogenesis in their tenants, if that was what she meant. Anyhow, it was where an organism split in two and the result was two mature specimens. Calderon grinned, said, “Binary fission, chump,” and watched young Alexander, aged eighteen months, backing up on all fours across the carpet, preparatory to assuming a standing position on his fat bowlegs.

It was a pleasant apartment, at that. The sun came into it at times, and there were more rooms than they had any right to expect, for the price. The next-door neighbor, a billowy blonde who talked of little except her migraine, said that it was hard to keep tenants in 4-D. It wasn’t exactly haunted, but it had the queerest visitors. The last lessee, an insurance man who drank heavily, moved out one day talking about little men who came ringing the bell at all hours asking for a Mr. Pott, or somebody like that. Not until some time later did Joe identify Pott with Cauldron—or Calderon.

They were sitting on the couch in a pleased manner, looking at Alexander. He was quite a baby. Like all infants, he had a collar of fat at the back of his neck, and his legs, Calderon said, were like two vast and trunkless limbs of stone—at least they gave that effect. The eye stopped at their incredible bulging pinkness, fascinated. Alexander laughed like a fool, rose to his feet, and staggered drunkenly toward his parents, muttering unintelligible gibberish. “Madman,” Myra said fondly, and tossed the child a floppy velvet pig of whom he was enamored.

“So we’re all set for the winter,” Calderon said. He was a tall, thin, harassed-looking man, a fine research physicist, and very much interested in his work at the University. Myra was a rather fragile red-head, with a tilted nose and sardonic red-brown eyes. She made deprecatory noises.

“If we can get a maid. Otherwise I’ll char.”

“You sound like a lost soul,” Calderon said. “What do you mean, you’ll char?”

“Like a charwoman. Sweep, cook, clean. Babies are a great trial. Still, they’re worth it.”

“Not in front of Alexander. He’ll get above himself.”

The doorbell rang. Calderon uncoiled himself, wandered vaguely across the room, and opened the door. He blinked at nothing. Then he lowered his gaze somewhat, and what he saw was sufficient to make him stare a little.

Four tiny men were standing in the hall. That is, they were tiny below the brows. Their craniums were immense, watermelon large and watermelon shaped, or else they were wearing abnormally huge helmets of glistening metal. Their faces were wizened, peaked tiny masks that were nests of lines and wrinkles. Their clothes were garish, unpleasantly colored, and seemed to be made of paper.

“Oh?” Calderon said blankly.

Swift looks were exchanged among the four. One of them said, “Are you Joseph Calderon?”


“We,” said the most wrinkled of the quartet, “are your son’s descendants. He’s a super child. We’re here to educate him.”

“Yes,” Calderon said. “Yes, of course. I . . . listen!”

“To what?”


“There he is,” another dwarf cried. “It’s Alexander! We’ve hit the right time at last!” He scuttled past Calderon’s legs and into the room. Calderon made a few futile snatches, but the small men easily evaded him. When he turned, they were gathered around Alexander. Myra had drawn up her legs under her and was watching with an amazed expression.

“Look at that,” a dwarf said. “See his potential tefeetzie?” It sounded like tefeetzie.

“But his skull, Bordent,” another put in. “That’s the important part. The vyrings are almost perfectly coblastably.”

“Beautiful,” Bordent acknowledged. He leaned forward. Alexander reached forward into the nest of wrinkles, seized Bordent’s nose, and twisted painfully. Bordent bore it stoically until the grip relaxed.

“Undeveloped,” he said tolerantly. “We’ll develop him.”

Myra sprang from the couch, picked up her child and stood at bay, facing the little men. “Joe,” she said, “are you going to stand for this? Who are these bad-mannered goblins?”

“Lord knows,” Calderon said. He moistened his lips. “What kind of a gag is that? Who sent you?”

“Alexander,” Bordent said. “From the year . . . ah . . . about 2450, reckoning roughly. He’s practically immortal. Only violence can kill one of the Supers, and there’s none of that in 2450.”

Calderon sighed. “No, I mean it. A gag’s a gag. But—”

“Time and again we’ve tried. In 1940, 1944, 1947—all around this era. We were either too early or too late. But now we’ve hit on the right time-sector. It’s our job to educate Alexander. You should feel proud of being his parents. We worship you, you know. Father and mother of the new race.”

“Tuh!” Calderon said. “Come off it!”

“They need proof, Dobish,” someone said. “Remember, this is their first inkling that Alexander is homo superior.”

“Homo nuts,” Myra said. “Alexander’s a perfectly normal baby.”

“He’s perfectly supernormal,” Dobish said. “We’re his descendents.”

“That makes you a superman,” Calderon said skeptically, eyeing the small man.

“Not in toto. There aren’t many of the X Free type. The biological norm is specialization. Only a few are straight-line super. Some specialize in logic, others in vervainity, others—like us—are guides. If we were X Free supers, you couldn’t stand there and talk to us. Or look at us. We’re only parts. Those like Alexander are the glorious whole.”

“Oh, send them away,” Myra said, getting tired of it. “I feel like a Thurber woman.”

Calderon nodded “O.K. Blow, gentlemen. Take a powder. I mean it.”

“Yes,” Dobish said, “they need proof. What’ll we do? Skyskinate?”

“Too twisty,” Bordent objected. “Object lesson, eh? The stiller.”

“Stiller?” Myra asked.

Bordent took an object from his paper clothes and spun it in his hands. His fingers were all double-jointed. Calderon felt a tiny electric shock go through him.

“Joe,” Myra said, white-faced. “I can’t move.”

“Neither can I. Take it easy. This is . . . it’s—” He slowed and stopped.

“Sit down,” Bordent said, still twirling the object. Calderon and Myra backed up to the couch and sat down. Their tongues froze with the rest of them.

Dobish came over, clambered up, and pried Alexander out of his mother’s grip. Horror moved in her eyes.

“We won’t hurt him,” Dobish said. “We just want to give him his first lesson. Have you got the basics, Finn?”

“In the bag.” Finn extracted a foot-long bag from his garments. Things came out of that bag. They came out incredibly. Soon the carpet was littered with stuff—problematical in design, nature, and use. Calderon recognized a tesseract.

The fourth dwarf, whose name, it turned out, was Quat, smiled consolingly at the distressed parents. “You watch. You can’t learn; you’ve not got the potential. You’re homo saps. But Alexander, now—”

Alexander was in one of his moods. He was diabolically gay. With the devil-possession of all babies, he refused to collaborate. He crept rapidly backwards. He burst into loud, squalling sobs. He regarded his feet with amazed joy. He stuffed his fist into his mouth and cried bitterly at the result. He talked about invisible things in a soft, cryptic monotone. He punched Dobish in the eye.

The little men had inexhaustible patience. Two hours later they were through. Calderon couldn’t see that Alexander had learned much.

Bordent twirled the object again. He nodded affably, and led the retreat. The four little men went out of the apartment, and a moment later Calderon and Myra could move.

She jumped up, staggering on numbed legs, seized Alexander, and collapsed on the couch. Calderon rushed to the door and flung it open. The hall was empty.

“Joe—” Myra said, her voice small and afraid. Calderon came back and smoothed her hair. He looked down at the bright fuzzy head of Alexander.

“Joe. We’ve got to—do something.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “If it happened—”

“It happened. They took those things with them. Alexander. Oh!”

“They didn’t try to hurt him,” Calderon said hesitatingly.

“Our baby! He’s no superchild.”

“Well,” Calderon said, “I’ll get out my revolver. What else can I do?”

“I’ll do something,” Myra promised. “Nasty little goblins! I’ll do something, just wait.”

And yet there wasn’t a great deal they could do.

Tacitly they ignored the subject the next day. But at 4 p.m., the same time as the original visitation, they were with Alexander in a theatre, watching the latest technicolor film. The four little men could scarcely find them here—

Calderon felt Myra stiffen, and even as he turned, he suspected the worst. Myra sprang up, her breath catching. Her fingers tightened on his arm.

“He’s gone!”


“He just vanished. I was holding him . . . let’s get out of here.”

“Maybe you dropped him,” Calderon said inanely, and lit a match. There were cries from behind. Myra was already pushing her way toward the aisle. There were no babies under the seat, and Calderon caught up with his wife in the lobby.

“He’s disappeared,” Myra was babbling. “Like that. Maybe he’s in the future. Joe, what’ll we do?”

Calderon, through some miracle, got a taxi. “We’ll go home. That’s the most likely place. I hope.”

“Yes. Of course it is. Give me a cigarette.”

“He’ll be in the apartment—”

He was, squatting on his haunches, taking a decided interest in the gadget Quat was demonstrating. The gadget was a gayly-colored egg beater with four-dimensional attachments, and it talked in a thin, high voice. Not in English.

Bordent flipped out the stiller and began to twirl it as the couple came in. Calderon got hold of Myra’s arms and held her back. “Hold on,” he said urgently. “That isn’t necessary. We won’t try anything.”

“Joe!” Myra tried to wriggle free. “Are you going to let them—”

“Quiet!” he said. “Bordent, put that thing down. We want to talk to you.”

“Well—if you promise not to interrupt—”

“We promise.” Calderon forcibly led Myra to the couch and held her there. “Look, darling. Alexander’s all right. They’re not hurting him.”

“Hurt him, indeed!” Finn said. “He’d skin us alive in the future if we hurt him in the past.”

“Be quiet,” Bordent commanded. He seemed to be the leader of the four. “I’m glad you’re co-operating, Joseph Calderon. It goes against my grain to use force on a demigod. After all, you’re Alexander’s father.”

Alexander put out a fat paw and tried to touch the whirling rainbow egg beater. He seemed to be fascinated. Quat said, “The kivelish is sparking. Shall I vastinate?”

“Not too fast,” Bordent said. “He’ll be rational in a week, and then we can speed up the process. Now, Calderons, please relax. Anything you want?”

“A drink.”

“They mean alcohol,” Finn said. “The Rubaiyat mentions it, remember?”


“The singing red gem in Twelve Library.”

“Oh, yes,” Bordent said. “That one. I was thinking of the Yahveh slab, the one with the thunder effects. Do you want to make some alcohol, Finn?”

Calderon swallowed. “Don’t bother. I have some in that sideboard. May I—”

“You’re not prisoners.” Bordent’s voice was shocked. “It’s just that we’ve got to make you listen to a few explanations, and after that—well, it’ll be different.”

Myra shook her head when Calderon handed her a drink, but he scowled at her meaningly. “You won’t feel it. Go ahead.”

She hadn’t once taken her gaze from Alexander. The baby was imitating the thin noise of the egg beater now. It was subtly unpleasant.

“The ray is working,” Quat said. “The viewer shows some slight cortical resistance, though.”

“Angle the power,” Bordent told him.

Alexander said, “Modjewabba?”

“What’s that?” Myra asked in a strained voice. “Super language?”

Bordent smiled at her. “No, just baby talk.”

Alexander burst into sobs. Myra said, “Super baby or not, when he cries like that, there’s a good reason. Does your tutoring extend to that point?”

“Certainly,” Quat said calmly. He and Finn carried Alexander out. Bordent smiled again.

“You’re beginning to believe,” he said. “That helps.”

Calderon drank, feeling the hot fumes of whiskey along the backs of his cheeks. His stomach was crawling with cold uneasiness.

“If you were human—” he said doubtfully.

“If we were, we wouldn’t be here. The old order changeth. It had to start sometime. Alexander is the first homo superior.”

“But why us?” Myra asked.

“Genetics. You’ve both worked with radioactivity and certain shortwave radiations that effected the germ plasm. The mutation just happened. It’ll happen again from now on. But you happen to be the first. You’ll die, but Alexander will live on. Perhaps a thousand years.”

Calderon said, “This business of coming from the future . . . you say Alexander sent you?”

“The adult Alexander. The mature superman. It’s a different culture, of course—beyond your comprehension. Alexander is one of the X Frees. He said to me, through the interpreting-machine, of course, ‘Bordent, I wasn’t recognized as a super till I was thirty years old. I had only ordinary homo sap development till then. I didn’t know my potential myself. And that’s bad.’ It is bad, you know,” Bordent digressed. “The full capabilities of an organism can’t emerge unless it’s given the fullest chance of expansion from birth on. Or at least from infancy. Alexander said to me, ‘It’s about five hundred years ago that I was born. Take a few guides and go into the past. Locate me as an infant. Give me specialized training, from the beginning. I think it’ll expand me.’”

“The past,” Calderon said. “You mean it’s plastic?”

“Well, it affects the future. You can’t alter the past without altering the future, too. But things tend to drift back. There’s a temporal norm, a general level. In the original time sector, Alexander wasn’t visited by us. Now that’s changed. So the future will be changed. But not tremendously. No crucial temporal apexes are involved, no keystones. The only result will be that the mature Alexander will have his potential more fully realized.”

Alexander was carried back into the room, beaming. Quat resumed his lesson with the egg beater.

“There isn’t a great deal you can do about it,” Bordent said. “I think you realize that now.”

Myra said, “Is Alexander going to look like you?” Her face was strained.

“Oh, no. He’s a perfect physical specimen. I’ve never seen him, of course, but—”

Calderon said, “Heir to all the ages. Myra, are you beginning to get the idea?”

“Yes. A superman. But he’s our baby.”

“He’ll remain so,” Bordent put in anxiously. “We don’t want to remove him from the beneficial home and parental influence. An infant needs that. In fact, tolerance for the young is an evolutionary trait aimed at providing for the superman’s appearance, just as the vanishing appendix is such a preparation. At certain eras of history mankind is receptive to the preparation of the new race. It’s never been quite successful before—there were anthropological miscarriages, so to speak. My squeevers, it’s important! Infants are awfully irritating. They’re helpless for a very long time, a great trial to the patience of the parents—the lower the order of animal, the faster the infant develops. With mankind, it takes years for the young to reach an independent state. So the parental tolerance increases in proportion. The superchild won’t mature, actually, till he’s about twenty.”

Myra said, “Alexander will still be a baby then?”

“He’ll have the physical standards of an eight-year-old specimen of homo sap. Mentally . . . well, call it irrationality. He won’t be sane, any more than any baby is. Selectivity takes quite a while to develop. But his peaks will be far, far above the peaks of, say, you as a child.”

“Thanks,” Calderon said.

“His horizons will be broader. His mind is capable of grasping and assimilating far more than yours. The world is really his oyster. He won’t be limited. But it’ll take a while for his mind, his personality, to shake down.”

“I want another drink,” Myra said.

Calderon got it. Alexander inserted his thumb in Quat’s eye and tried to gouge it out. Quat submitted passively.

“Alexander!” Myra said.

“Sit still,” Bordent said. “Quat’s tolerance in this regard is naturally higher developed than yours.”

“If he puts Quat’s eye out,” Calderon said, “it’ll be just too bad.”

“Quat isn’t important, compared to Alexander. He knows it, too.”

Luckily for Quat’s binocular vision, Alexander suddenly tired of his new toy and fell to staring at the egg beater again. Dobish and Finn leaned over the baby and looked at him. But there was more to it than that, Calderon felt.

“Induced telepathy,” Bordent said. “It takes a long time to develop, but we’re starting now. I tell you, it was a relief to hit the right time at last. I’ve rung this doorbell at least a hundred times. But never till now—”

“Move,” Alexander said clearly. “Real. Move.”

Bordent nodded. “Enough for today. We’ll be here again tomorrow. You’ll be ready?”

“As ready,” Myra said, “as we’ll ever be, I suppose.” She finished her drink.

They got fairly high that night and talked it over. Their arguments were biased by their realization of the four little men’s obvious resources. Neither doubted any more. They knew that Bordent and his companions had come from five hundred years in the future, at the command of a future Alexander who had matured into a fine specimen of superman.

“Amazing, isn’t it?” Myra said. “That fat little blob in the bedroom turning into a twelfth-power Quiz Kid.”

“Well, it’s got to start somewhere. As Bordent pointed out.”

“And as long as he isn’t going to look like those goblins—ugh!”

“He’ll be super. Deucalion and what’s-her-name—that’s us. Parents of a new race.”

“I feel funny,” Myra said. “As though I’d given birth to a moose.”

“That could never happen,” Calderon said consolingly. “Have another slug.”

“It might as well have happened. Alexander is a swoose.”


“I can use that goblin’s double-talk, too. Vopishly woggle in the grand foyer. So there.”

“It’s a language to them,” Calderon said.

“Alexander’s going to talk English. I’ve got my rights.”

“Well, Bordent doesn’t seem anxious to infringe on them. He said Alexander needed a home environment.”

“That’s the only reason I haven’t gone crazy,” Myra said. “As long as he . . . they . . . don’t take our baby away from us—”

A week later it was thoroughly clear that Bordent had no intention of encroaching on parental rights—at least, any more than was necessary, for two hours a day. During that period the four little men fulfilled their orders by cramming Alexander with all the knowledge his infantile but super brain could hold. They did not depend on blocks or nursery rhymes or the abacus. Their weapons in the battle were cryptic, futuristic, but effective. And they taught Alexander, there was no doubt of that. As B-1 poured on a plant’s roots forces growth, so the vitamin teaching of the dwarfs soaked into Alexander, and his potentially superhuman brain responded, expanding with brilliant, erratic speed.

He had talked intelligibly on the fourth day. On the seventh day he was easily able to hold conversations, though his baby muscles, lingually undeveloped, tired easily. His cheeks were still sucking-disks; he was not yet fully human, except in sporadic flashes. Yet those flashes came oftener now, and closer together.

The carpet was a mess. The little men no longer took their equipment back with them; they left it for Alexander to use. The infant crept—he no longer bothered to walk much, for he could crawl with more efficiency—among the Objects, selected some of them, and put them together. Myra had gone out to shop. The little men wouldn’t show up for half an hour. Calderon, tired from his day’s work at the University, fingered a highball and looked at his offspring.

“Alexander,” he said.

Alexander didn’t answer. He fitted a gadget to a Thing, inserted it peculiarly in a Something Else, and sat back with an air of satisfaction. Then—“Yes?” he said. It wasn’t perfect pronunciation, but it was unmistakable. Alexander talked somewhat like a toothless old man.

“What are you doing?” Calderon said.


“What’s that?”



“I understand it,” Alexander said. “That’s enough.”

“I see.” Calderon regarded the prodigy with faint apprehension. “You don’t want to tell me.”


“Well, all right.”

“Get me a drink,” Alexander said. For a moment Calderon had a mad idea that the infant was demanding a highball. Then he sighed, rose, and returned with a bottle.

“Milk,” Alexander said, refusing the potation.

“You said a drink. Water’s a drink, isn’t it?” My God, Calderon thought, I’m arguing with the kid. I’m treating him like . . . like an adult. But he isn’t. He’s a fat little baby squatting on his behind on the carpet, playing with a tinkertoy.

The tinkertoy said something in a thin voice. Alexander murmured, “Repeat.” The tinkertoy did.

Calderon said, “What was that?”


“Nuts.” Calderon went out to the kitchen and got milk. He poured himself another shot. This was like having relatives drop in suddenly—relatives you hadn’t seen for ten years. How the devil did you act with a superchild?

He stayed in the kitchen, after supplying Alexander with his milk. Presently Myra’s key turned in the outer door. Her cry brought Calderon hurrying.

Alexander was vomiting, with the air of a research man absorbed in a fascinating phenomenon.

“Alexander!” Myra cried. “Darling, are you sick?”

“No,” Alexander said. “I’m testing my regurgitative processes. I must learn to control my digestive organs.”

Calderon leaned against the door, grinning crookedly. “Yeah. You’d better start now, too.”

“I’m finished,” Alexander said. “Clean it up.”

Three days later the infant decided that his lungs needed developing. He cried. He cried at all hours, with interesting variations—whoops, squalls, wails, and high-pitched bellows. Nor would he stop till he was satisfied. The neighbors complained. Myra said, “Darling, is there a pin sticking you?” Let me look—”

“Go away,” Alexander said. “You’re too warm. Open the window. I want fresh air.”

“Yes, d-darling. Of course.” She came back to bed and Calderon put his arm around her. He knew there would be shadows under her eyes in the morning. In his crib Alexander cried on.

So it went. The four little men came daily and gave Alexander his lessons. They were pleased with the infant’s progress. They did not complain when Alexander indulged in his idiosyncrasies, such as batting them heavily on the nose or ripping their paper garments to shreds. Bordent tapped his metal helmet and smiled triumphantly at Calderon.

“He’s coming along. He’s developing.”

“I’m wondering. What about discipline?”

Alexander looked up from his rapport with Quat. “Homo sap discipline doesn’t apply to me, Joseph Calderon.”

“Don’t call me Joseph Calderon. I’m your father, after all.”

“A primitive biological necessity. You are not sufficiently well developed to provide the discipline I require. Your purpose is to give me parental care.”

“Which makes me an incubator,” Calderon said.

“But a deified one,” Bordent soothed him. “Practically a logos. The father of a new race.”

“I feel more like Prometheus,” the father of the new race said dourly. “He was helpful, too. And he ended up with a vulture eating his liver.”

“You will learn a great deal from Alexander.”

“He says I’m incapable of understanding it.”

“Well, aren’t you?”

“Sure. I’m just the papa bird,” Calderon said, and subsided into a sad silence, watching Alexander, under Quat’s tutelary eye, put together a gadget of shimmering glass and twisted metal. Bordent said suddenly, “Quat! Be careful of the egg!” And Finn seized a bluish ovoid just before Alexander’s chubby hand could grasp it.

“It isn’t dangerous,” Quat said. “It isn’t connected.”

“He might have connected it.”

“I want that,” Alexander said. “Give it to me.”

“Not yet, Alexander,” Bordent refused. “You must learn the correct way of connecting it first. Otherwise it might harm you.”

“I could do it.”

“You are not logical enough to balance your capabilities and lacks as yet. Later it will be safe. I think now, perhaps, a little philosophy, Dobish—eh?”

Dobish squatted and went en rapport with Alexander. Myra came out of the kitchen, took a quick look at the tableau, and retreated. Calderon followed her out.

“I will never get used to it if I live a thousand years,” she said with slow emphasis, hacking at the doughy rim of a pie. “He’s my baby only when he’s asleep.”

“We won’t live a thousand years,” Calderon told her. “Alexander will, though. I wish we could get a maid.”

“I tried again today,” Myra said wearily. “No use. They’re all in war plants. I mention a baby—”

“You can’t do all this alone.”

“You help,” she said, “when you can. But you’re working hard too, fella. It won’t be forever.”

“I wonder if we had another baby . . . if—”

Her sober gaze met his. “I’ve wondered that, too. But I should think mutations aren’t as cheap as that. Once in a lifetime. Still, we don’t know.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter now, anyway. One infant’s enough for the moment.”

Myra glanced toward the door. “Everything all right in there? Take a look. I worry.”

“It’s all right.”

“I know, but that blue egg—Bordent said it was dangerous, you know. I heard him.”

Calderon peeped through the door-crack. The four dwarfs were sitting facing Alexander, whose eyes were closed. Now they opened. The infant scowled at Calderon.

“Stay out,” he requested. “You’re breaking the rapport.”

“I’m so sorry,” Calderon said, retreating. “He’s O.K., Myra. His own dictatorial little self.”

“Well, he is a superman,” she said doubtfully.

“No. He’s a superbaby. There’s all the difference.”

“His latest trick,” Myra said, busy with the oven, “is riddles. Or something like riddles. I feel so small when he catches me up. But he says it’s good for his ego. It compensates for his physical frailness.”

“Riddles, eh? I know a few too.”

“They won’t work on Alexander,” Myra said, with grim assurance.

Nor did they. “What goes up a chimney up?” was treated with the contempt it deserved; Alexander examined his father’s riddles, turned them over in his logical mind, analyzed them for flaws in semantics and logic, and rejected them. Or else he answered, with such fine accuracy that Calderon was too embarrassed to give the correct answers. He was reduced to asking why a raven was like a writing desk, and since not even the Mad Hatter had been able to answer his own riddle, was slightly terrified to find himself listening to a dissertation on comparative ornithology. After that, he let Alexander needle him with infantile gags about the relations of gamma rays to photons, and tried to be philosophical. There are few things as irritating as a child’s riddles. His mocking triumph pulverizes itself into the dust in which you grovel.

“Oh, leave your father alone,” Myra said, coming in with her hair disarranged. “He’s trying to read the paper.”

“That news is unimportant.”

“I’m reading the comics,” Calderon said. “I want to see if the Katzenjammers get even with the Captain for hanging them under a waterfall.”

“The formula for the humor of an incongruity predicament,” Alexander began learnedly, but Calderon disgustedly went into the bedroom, where Myra joined him. “He’s asking me riddles again,” she said. “Let’s see what the Katzenjammers did.”

“You look rather miserable. Got a cold?”

“I’m not wearing make-up. Alexander says the smell makes him ill.”

“So what? He’s no petunia.”

“Well,” Myra said, “he does get ill. But of course he does it on purpose.”

“Listen. There he goes again. What now?”

But Alexander merely wanted an audience. He had found a new way of making imbecilic noises with his fingers and lips. At times the child’s normal phases were more trying than his super periods. After a month had passed, however, Calderon felt that the worst was yet to come. Alexander had progressed into fields of knowledge hitherto untouched by homo sap, and he had developed a leechlike habit of sucking his father’s brains dry of every scrap of knowledge the wretched man possessed.

It was the same with Myra. The world was indeed Alexander’s oyster. He had an insatiable curiosity about everything, and there was no longer any privacy in the apartment. Calderon took to locking the bedroom door against his son at night—Alexander’s crib was now in another room—but furious squalls might waken him at any hour.

In the midst of preparing dinner, Myra would be forced to stop and explain the caloric mysteries of the oven to Alexander. He learned all she knew, took a jump into more abstruse aspects of the matter, and sneered at her ignorance. He found out Calderon was a physicist, a fact which the man had hitherto kept carefully concealed, and thereafter pumped his father dry. He asked questions about geodetics and geopolitics. He inquired about monotremes and monorails. He was curious about biremes and biology. And he was skeptical, doubting the depth of his father’s knowledge. “But,” he said, “you and Myra Calderon are my closest contacts with homo sap as yet, and it’s a beginning. Put out that cigarette. It isn’t good for my lungs.”

“All right,” Calderon said. He rose wearily, with his usual feeling these days of being driven from room to room of the apartment, and went in search of Myra. “Bordent’s about due. We can go out somewhere. O.K.?”

“Swell.” She was at the mirror, fixing her hair, in a trice. “I need a permanent. If I only had the time—!”

“I’ll take off tomorrow and stay here. You need a rest.”

“Darling, no. The exams are coming up. You simply can’t do it.”

Alexander yelled. It developed that he wanted his mother to sing for him. He was curious about the tonal range of homo sap and the probable emotional and soporific effect of lullabies. Calderon mixed himself a drink, sat in the kitchen and smoked, and thought about the glorious destiny of his son. When Myra stopped singing, he listened for Alexander’s wails, but there was no sound till a slightly hysterical Myra burst in on him, dithering and wide-eyed.

“Joe!” She fell into Calderon’s arms. “Quick, give me a drink or . . . or hold me tight or something.”

“What is it?” He thrust the bottle into her hands, went to the door, and looked out. “Alexander? He’s quiet. Eating candy.”

Myra didn’t bother with a glass. The bottle’s neck clicked against her teeth. “Look at me. Just look at me. I’m a mess.”

“What happened?”

“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all. Alexander’s turned into a black magician, that’s all.” She dropped into a chair and passed a palm across her forehead. “Do you know what that genius son of ours just did?”

“Bit you,” Calderon hazarded, not doubting it for a minute.

“Worse, far worse. He started asking me for candy. I said there wasn’t any in the house. He told me to go down to the grocery for some. I said I’d have to get dressed first, and I was too tired.”

“Why didn’t you ask me to go?”

“I didn’t have a chance. Before I could say boo that infantile Merlin waved a magic wand or something. I . . . I was down at the grocery. Behind the candy counter.”

Calderon blinked. “Induced amnesia?”

“There wasn’t any time-lapse. It was just phweet—and there I was. In this rag of a dress, without a speck of make-up on, and my hair coming down in tassels. Mrs. Busherman was there, too, buying a chicken—that cat across the hall. She was kind enough to tell me I ought to take more care of myself. Meow,” Myra ended furiously.

“Good Lord.”

“Teleportation. That’s what Alexander says it is. Something new he’s picked up. I’m not going to stand for it, Joe. I’m not a rag doll, after all.” She was half hysterical.

Calderon went into the next room and stood regarding his child. There was chocolate smeared around Alexander’s mouth.

“Listen, wise guy,” he said. “You leave your mother alone, hear me?”

“I didn’t hurt her,” the prodigy pointed out, in a blobby voice. “I was simply being efficient.”

“Well, don’t be efficient. Where did you learn that trick, anyhow?”

“Teleportation? Quat showed me last night. He can’t do it himself, but I’m X Free super, so I can. The power isn’t disciplined yet. If I’d tried to teleport Myra Calderon over to Jersey, say, I might have dropped her in the Hudson by mistake.”

Calderon muttered something uncomplimentary. Alexander said, “Is that an Anglo-Saxon derivative?”

“Never mind about that. You shouldn’t have all that chocolate, anyway. You’ll make yourself sick. You’ve already made your mother sick. And you nauseate me.”

“Go away,” Alexander said. “I want to concentrate on the taste.”

“No. I said you’d make yourself sick. Chocolate’s too rich for you. Give it here. You’ve had enough.” Calderon reached for the paper sack. Alexander disappeared. In the kitchen Myra shrieked.

Calderon moaned despondently, and turned. As he had expected, Alexander was in the kitchen, on top of the stove, hoggishly stuffing candy into his mouth. Myra was concentrating on the bottle.

“What a household,” Calderon said. “The baby teleporting himself all over the apartment, you getting stewed in the kitchen, and me heading for a nervous breakdown.” He started to laugh. “O.K., Alexander. You can keep the candy. I know when to shorten my defensive lines strategically.”

“Myra Calderon,” Alexander said. “I want to go back into the other room.”

“Fly in,” Calderon suggested. “Here, I’ll carry you.”

“Not you. Her. She has a better rhythm when she walks.”

“Staggers, you mean,” Myra said, but she obediently put aside the bottle, got up, and laid hold of Alexander. She went out. Calderon was not much surprised to hear her scream a moment later. When he joined the happy family, Myra was sitting on the floor, rubbing her arms and biting her lips. Alexander was laughing.

“What now?”

“H-he sh-shocked me.” Myra said in a child’s voice. “He’s like an electric eel. He d-did it on purpose, too. Oh, Alexander, will you stop laughing!”

“You fell down,” the infant crowed in triumph. “You yelled and fell down.”

Calderon looked at Myra, and his mouth tightened. “Did you do that on purpose?” he asked.

“Yes. She fell down. She looked funny.”

“You’re going to look a lot funnier in a minute. X Free super or not, what you need is a good paddling.”

“Joe—” Myra said.

“Never mind. He’s got to learn to be considerate of the rights of others.”

“I’m homo superior,” Alexander said, with the air of one clinching an argument.

“It’s homo posterior I’m going to deal with,” Calderon announced, and attempted to capture his son. There was a stinging blaze of jolting nervous energy that blasted up through his synapses; he went backwards ignominiously, and slammed into the wall, cracking his head hard against it. Alexander laughed like an idiot.

“You fell down, too,” he crowed. “You look funny.”

“Joe,” Myra said. “Joe. Are you hurt?”

Calderon said sourly that he supposed he’d survive. Though, he added, it would probably be wise to lay in a few splints and a supply of blood plasma. “In case he gets interested in vivisection.”

Myra regarded Alexander with troubled speculation. “You’re kidding, I hope.”

“I hope so, too.”

“Well—here’s Bordent. Let’s talk to him.”

Calderon answered the door. The four little men came in solemnly. They wasted no time. They gathered about Alexander, unfolded fresh apparatus from the recesses of their paper clothes, and set to work. The infant said, “I teleported her about eight thousand feet.”

“That far, eh?” Quat said. “Were you fatigued at all?”

“Not a bit.”

Calderon dragged Bordent aside. “I want to talk to you. I think Alexander needs a spanking.”

“By voraster!” the dwarf said, shocked. “But he’s Alexander! He’s Free X type super!”

“Not yet. He’s still a baby.”

“But a superbaby. No, no, Joseph Calderon. I must tell you again that disciplinary measures can be applied only by sufficiently intelligent authorities.”


“Oh, not yet,” Bordent said. “We don’t want to overwork him. There’s a limit even to super brain power, especially in the very formative period. He’s got enough to do, and his attitudes for social contacts won’t need forming for a while yet.”

Myra joined them. “I don’t agree with you there. Like all babies, he’s antisocial. He may have superhuman powers but he’s subhuman as far as mental and emotional balance go.”

“Yeah,” Calderon agreed. “This business of giving us electric shocks—”

“He’s only playing,” Bordent said.

“And teleportation. Suppose he teleports me to Times Square when I’m taking a shower?”

“It’s only his play. He’s a baby still.”

“But what about us?”

“You have the hereditary characteristic of parental tolerance,” Bordent explained. “As I told you before, Alexander and his race are the reason why tolerance was created in the first place. There’s no great need for it with homo sap. I mean there’s a wide space between normal tolerance and normal provocation. An ordinary baby may try his parents severely for a few moments at a time, but that’s about all. The provocation is far too small to require the tremendous store of tolerance the parents have. But with the X Free type, it’s a different matter.”

“There’s a limit even to tolerance,” Calderon said. “I’m wondering about a créche.”

Bordent shook his shiny metallic-sheathed head. “He needs you.”

“But,” Myra said, “but! Can’t you give him just a little discipline?”

“Oh, it isn’t necessary. His mind’s still immature, and he must concentrate on more important things. You’ll tolerate him.”

“It’s not as though he’s our baby any more,” she murmured. “He’s not Alexander.”

“But he is. That’s just it. He’s Alexander!

“Look, it’s normal for a mother to want to hug her baby. But how can she do that if she expects him to throw her halfway across the room?”

Calderon was brooding. “Will he pick up more . . . more super powers as he goes along?”

“Why, yes. Naturally.”

“He’s a menace to life and limb. I still say he needs discipline. Next time I’ll wear rubber gloves.”

“That won’t help,” Bordent said, frowning. “Besides, I must insist . . . no, Joseph Calderon, it won’t do. You mustn’t interfere. You’re not capable of giving him the right sort of discipline—which he doesn’t need yet anyway.”

“Just one spanking,” Calderon said wistfully. “Not for revenge. Only to show him he’s got to consider the rights of others.”

“He’ll learn to consider the rights of other X Free supers. You must not attempt anything of the sort. A spanking—even if you succeeded, which is far from probable—might warp him psychologically. We are his tutors, his mentors. We must protect him. You understand?”

“I think so,” Calderon said slowly. “That’s a threat.”

“You are Alexander’s parents, but it’s Alexander who is important. If I must apply disciplinary measures to you, I must.”

“Oh, forget it,” Myra sighed. “Joe, let’s go out and walk in the park while Bordent’s here.”

“Be back in two hours,” the little man said. “Good-by.”

As time went past, Calderon could not decide whether Alexander’s moronic phases or his periods of keen intelligence were more irritating. The prodigy had learned new powers; the worst of that was that Calderon never knew what to expect, or when some astounding gag would be sprung on him. Such as the time when a mess of sticky toffy had materialized in his bed, filched from the grocery by deft teleportation. Alexander thought it was very funny. He laughed.

And, when Calderon refused to go to the store to buy candy because he said he had no money—“Now don’t try to teleport me. I’m broke.”—Alexander had utilized mental energy, warping gravity lines shockingly. Calderon found himself hanging upside-down in mid-air, being shaken, while loose coins cascaded out of his pocket. He went after the candy.

Humor is a developed sense, stemming basically from cruelty. The more primitive a mind, the less selectivity exists. A cannibal would probably be profoundly amused by the squirmings of his victim in the seething kettle. A man slips on a banana peel and breaks his back. The adult stops laughing at that point, the child does not. And a civilized ego finds embarrassment as acutely distressing as physical pain. A baby, a child, a moron, is incapable of practicing empathy. He cannot identify himself with another individual. He is regrettably autistic; his own rules are arbitrary, and garbage strewn around the bedroom was funny to neither Myra nor Calderon.

There was a little stranger in the house. Nobody rejoiced. Except Alexander. He had a lot of fun.

“No privacy,” Calderon said. “He materializes everywhere, at all hours. Darling, I wish you’d see a doctor.”

“What would he advise?” Myra asked. “Rest, that’s all. Do you realize it’s been two months since Bordent took over?”

“And we’ve made marvelous progress,” Bordent said, coming over to them. Quat was en rapport with Alexander on the carpet, while the other two dwarfs prepared the makings of a new gadget. “Or, rather, Alexander has made remarkable progress.”

“We need a rest,” Calderon growled. “If I lost my job, who’ll support that genius of yours?” Myra looked at her husband quickly, noting the possessive pronoun he had used.

Bordent was concerned. “You are in difficulty?”

“The Dean’s spoken to me once or twice. I can’t control my classes any more. I’m too irritable.”

“You don’t need to expend tolerance on your students. As for money, we can keep you supplied. I’ll arrange to get some negotiable currency for you.”

“But I want to work. I like my job.”

“Alexander is your job.”

“I need a maid,” Myra said, looking hopeless. “Can’t you make me a robot or something? Alexander scares every maid I’ve managed to hire. They won’t stay a day in this madhouse.”

“A mechanical intelligence would have a bad effect on Alexander,” Bordent said. “No.”

“I wish we could have guests in once in a while. Or go out visiting. Or just be alone,” Myra sighed.

“Some day Alexander will be mature, and you’ll reap your reward. The parents of Alexander. Did I ever tell you that we have images of you two in the Great Fogy Hall?”

“They must look terrible,” Calderon said. “I know we do now.”

“Be patient. Consider the destiny of your son.”

“I do. Often. But he gets a little wearing sometimes. That’s quite an understatement.”

“Which is where tolerance comes in,” Bordent said. “Nature planned well for the new race.”


“He is working on sixth-dimensional abstractions now. Everything is progressing beautifully.”

“Yeah,” Calderon said. And he went away, muttering, to join Myra in the kitchen.

Alexander worked with facility at his gadgets, his pudgy fingers already stronger and surer. He still had an illicit passion for the blue ovoid, but under Bordent’s watchful eye he could use it only along the restricted lines laid out by his mentors. When the lesson was finished, Quat selected a few of the objects and locked them in a cupboard, as was his custom. The rest he left on the carpet to provide exercise for Alexander’s ingenuity.

“He develops,” Bordent said. “Today we’ve made a great step.”

Myra and Calderon came in in time to hear this. “What goes?” he asked.

“A psychic bloc-removal. Alexander will no longer need to sleep.”

“What?” Myra said.

“He won’t require sleep. It’s an artificial habit anyway. The super race has no need of it.”

“He won’t sleep any more, eh?” Calderon said. He had grown a little pale.

“Correct. He’ll develop faster now, twice as fast.”

At 3:30 a.m. Calderon and Myra lay in bed, wide awake, looking through the open door into the full blaze of light where Alexander played. Seen there clearly, as if upon a lighted stage, he did not look quite like himself any more. The difference was subtle, but it was there. Under the golden down his head had changed shape slightly, and there was a look of intelligence and purpose upon the blobby features. It was not an attractive look. It didn’t belong there. It made Alexander look less like a super-baby than a debased oldster. All a child’s normal cruelty and selfishness—perfectly healthy, natural traits in the developing infant—flickered across Alexander’s face as he played absorbedly with solid crystal blocks which he was fitting into one another like a Chinese puzzle. It was quite a shocking face to watch.

Calderon heard Myra sigh beside him.

“He isn’t our Alexander any more,” she said. “Not a bit.”

Alexander glanced up and his face suddenly suffused. The look of paradoxical age and degeneracy upon it vanished as he opened his mouth and bawled with rage, tossing the blocks in all directions. Calderon watched one roll through the bedroom door and come to rest upon the carpet, spilling out of its solidity a cascade of smaller and smaller solid blocks that tumbled winking toward him. Alexander’s cries filled the apartment. After a moment windows began to slam across the court, and presently the phone rang. Calderon reached for it, sighing.

When he hung up he looked across at Myra and grimaced. Above the steady roars he said, “Well, we have notice to move.”

Myra said, “Oh. Oh, well.”

“That about covers it.”

They were silent for a moment. Then Calderon said, “Nineteen years more of it. I think we can expect about that. They did say he’d mature at twenty, didn’t they?”

“He’ll be an orphan long before then,” Myra groaned. “Oh, my head! I think I caught cold when he teleported us up to the roof just before dinner. Joe, do you suppose we’re the first parents who ever got . . . like this?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, was there ever another superbaby before Alexander? It does seem like a waste of a lot of tolerance if we’re the first to need it.”

“We could use a lot more. We’ll need a lot.” He said nothing more for awhile, but he lay there thinking and trying not to hear his super-child’s rhythmic howling. Tolerance. Every parent needed a great deal of it. Every child was intolerable from time to time. The race had certainly needed parental love in vast quantities to permit its infants to survive. But no parents before had ever been tried consistently up to the very last degree of tolerance. No parents before had ever had to face twenty years of it, day and night, strained to the final notch. Parental love is a great and all-encompassing emotion, but—

“I wonder,” he said thoughtfully. “I wonder if we are the first.”

Myra’s speculations had been veering. “I suppose it’s like tonsils and appendix,” she murmured. “They’ve outlived their use, but they still hang on. This tolerance is vestigial in reverse. It’s been hanging on all these millenniums, waiting for Alexander.”

“Maybe. I wonder— Still, if there ever had been an Alexander before now, we’d have heard of him. So—”

Myra rose on one elbow and looked at her husband. “You think so?” she said softly. “I’m not so sure. I think it might have happened before.”

Alexander suddenly quieted. The apartment rang with silence for a moment. Then, a familiar voice, without words, spoke in both their brains simultaneously.

“Get me some more milk. And I want it just warm, not hot.”

Joe and Myra looked at one another again, speechless. Myra sighed and pushed the covers back. “I’ll go this time,” she said. “Something new, eh? I—”

“Don’t dawdle,” said the wordless voice, and Myra jumped and gave a little shriek. Electricity crackled audibly through the room, and Alexander’s bawling laughter was heard through the doorway.

“He’s about as civilized now as a well-trained monkey, I suppose,” Joe remarked, getting out of bed. “I’ll go. You crawl back in. And in another year he may reach the elevation of a bushman. After that, if we’re still alive, we’ll have the pleasure of living with a super-powered cannibal. Eventually he may work up to the level of practical joker. That ought to be interesting.” He went out, muttering to himself.

Ten minutes later, returning to bed, Joe found Myra clasping her knees and looking into space.

“We aren’t the first, Joe,” she said, not glancing at him. “I’ve been thinking. I’m pretty sure we aren’t.”

“But we’ve never heard of any supermen developing—”

She turned her head and gave him a long, thoughtful look. “No,” she said.

They were silent. Then, “Yes, I see what you mean,” he nodded.

Something crashed in the living room. Alexander chuckled and the sound of splintering wood was loud in the silence of the night. Another window banged somewhere outside.

“There’s a breaking point,” Myra said in a quiet voice. “There’s got to be.”

“Saturation,” Joe murmured. “Tolerance saturation—or something. It could have happened.”

Alexander trundled into sight, clutching something blue. He sat down and began to fiddle with bright wires. Myra rose suddenly.

“Joe, he’s got that blue egg! He must have broken into the cupboard.”

Calderon said, “But Quat told him—”

“It’s dangerous!”

Alexander looked at them, grinned, and bent the wires into a cradle-shape the size of the egg.

Calderon found himself out of bed and halfway to the door. He stopped before he reached it. “You know,” he said slowly, “he might hurt himself with that thing.”

“We’ll have to get it away from him,” Myra agreed, heaving herself up with tired reluctance.

“Look at him,” Calderon urged. “Just look.”

Alexander was dealing competently with the wires, his hands flickering into sight and out again as he balanced a tesseract beneath the cradle. That curious veil of knowledge gave his chubby face the debased look of senility which they had come to know so well.

“This will go on and on, you know,” Calderon murmured. “Tomorrow he’ll look a little less like himself than today. Next week—next month—what will he be like in a year?”

“I know.” Myra’s voice was an echo. “Still, I suppose we’ll have to—” Her voice trailed to a halt. She stood barefoot beside her husband, watching.

“I suppose the gadget will be finished,” she said, “once he connects up that last wire. We ought to take it away from him.”

“Think we could?”

“We ought to try.”

They looked at each other. Calderon said, “It looks like an Easter egg. I never heard of an Easter egg hurting anybody.”

“I suppose we’re doing him a favor, really,” Myra said in a low voice. “A burnt child dreads the fire. Once a kid burns himself on a match, he stays away from matches.”

They stood in silence, watching.

It took Alexander about three more minutes to succeed in his design, whatever it was. The results were phenomenally effective. There was a flash of white light, a crackle of split air, and Alexander vanished in the dazzle, leaving only a faint burnt smell behind him.

When the two could see again, they blinked distrustfully at the empty place. “Teleportation,” Myra whispered dazedly.

“I’ll make sure.” Calderon crossed the floor and stood looking down at a damp spot on the carpet, with Alexander’s shoes in it. He said, “No. Not teleportation.” Then he took a long breath. “He’s gone, all right. So he never grew up and sent Bordent back in time to move in on us. It never happened.”

“We weren’t the first,” Myra said in an unsteady, bemused voice. “There’s a breaking point, that’s all. How sorry I feel for the first parents who don’t reach it!”

She turned away suddenly, but not so suddenly that he could not see she was crying. He hesitated, watching the door. He thought he had better not follow her just yet.



[The end of When the Bough Breaks by Henry Kuttner (as Lewis Padgett)]