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Gathering Shards (sample)
Julia H. West
Originally published in Oceans of the Mind, Issue XII, Summer 2004.
Lasai leaned against the trunk of a tipil tree, his legs folded beneath him, his hands loose on his thighs. A breeze fluttered the leaves, and the tiny brass cymbals Lasai had hung in branches throughout the grove rang in a constant ting-a-ting-ting. These movements, varied but constant, trembled at the edges of his vision.
The barest translucent flicker of white, different from the silvery shiver of the leaves, brought Lasai back to himself. He shook the red silk cord tied to the tree branch above him, and the cymbals ting-tinged in rhythm. The white grew, solidified, became a young female Ebchian clutching a tiny one to her bony breast. Her lips drew back from her fangs in agony, and she limped badly as she followed the cymbals' seductive music—food and ease for her soul—into the grove. By the time she reached the tree next to Lasai's, the translucent white had given way to golden tan, and he could hear the chuff, chuff of her labored breath. So she'd died quickly, and didn't know she was dead.
"Come, come, come," chanted Lasai, shaking the cymbals in the tree again. "Hear what I have for you. Ease for pain, ease for sorrow. Ease for anger, ease for fear. Come, come, come."
The Ebchian stopped and raised empty eyes, eyes that slowly gained color and vitality and sentience. "Fire from the sky," her voice came, nearly unintelligible. "Running, terror, pain. Must protect my hatchling."
The tiny Ebchian, a mere wisp of white until then, stirred as a golden blush swept over its insubstantial body. "Papa," it called, even less aware of its death than the mother. "Where is Papa?"
A Seeker, thought Lasai. No doubt running through ruins, looking for her mate as the fire came down. Seekers were hard, as reunion was required before they let go. But this one was strong, and should draw the beloved as the cymbals' blessed music had drawn her.
Lasai spoke again, in her language, a language dead before his race found this planet, but familiar now from all the sad and anguished tales he had heard. "Come, rest, ease your hurts while I seek your mate."
The Ebchian sank to the grass beneath the tipil trees, revealing the ugly burn across the muscle of one thigh. Lasai rang the cymbals again, and the Ebchian closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them, the wound had disappeared. Lasai nodded his approval.
"We were so hungry. Kelchet crept out after dark to sniff for something to eat. He never came back that night, he never came back that day, so I went to find him. I had to bring Talknor along—he's barely hatched, too small to care for himself."
Lasai tugged the red silk cord, the cymbals chimed, and he nodded and nodded. "Yes, yes," he murmured.
"What horror we found! The Assembly gonenaught but rubble and a crater. The houses all broken, the people.…" her voice faded.
"Yes, yes." The tipil leaves flickered like blinking eyes.
"The only people I saw were dead. Bodies, all bloody and torn, right there on the street. Nothing alive—not even scavenger neki. I hid. I gave Talknor water from rain puddles so he wouldn't squeak. I heard nothing, but I felt … I felt the Enemy watching." Huge golden eyes stared into Lasai's.
"I followed Kelchet's odor as well as I could, in the dark and the rubble. He'd gone to the Market, but it was destroyed. Blasted so thoroughly I couldn't smell anything edible left."
"He'd gone to the Residence after that. It was not crushed like the other places, but was empty, cold, odorless. The Crystals were gone from their sockets. Kelchet hadn't lingered; nor did I."
Lasai asked, "You followed Kelchet. Did you find him?"
She keened, a high-pitched sound that overlaid the cymbals' easing ting-ting with pain and terror. "The Enemy came in their spaceships, their odor like fire. Their machines ate houses and people alike, and spat flame. I ran, with Talknor, though their weapons burnt my leg. And then it was fiery, so hot…" She waved her muzzle from side to side in distress.
Lasai pulled the cord and the cymbals chimed. "So, so. But it's over now," he soothed. "Continue your search. Find Kelchet."
The Ebchian turned, sniffing eagerly. "Yes! I smell him. He is near."
An opalescent glimmer at the grove's edge coalesced into a tall golden-brown Ebchian who grew more substantial as he ran toward the female. Lasai relaxed against the trunk of the tipil tree, pulling the red cord and watching the tender reunion of alien ghosts dead for a thousand years. Aah, much joy here to leaven this planet's burden of pain and terror. A Seeker satisfied was a strong positive force. "Come, come, come," Lasai chanted. "Join forever. Rest in peace and joy."
Intent one with the other, the golden hue of the ghosts' skin faded, the definition of muscle and bone blurred, and translucent wisps drifted toward Lasai and the chime of cymbals. They touched him, one, then the other, then the tiny awareness of the child. Warm and cold at once, a chaos of alien hopes and pain and being. Lasai took chaos into himself, held it, cherished it. He closed his eyes and felt the otherness tingle through him. Then the souls were gone to promised peace, and the small residue of their lives added to the essence of thousands of their brothers and sisters integrated into his body and mind.
Much later he opened his eyes. He leaned, as always, against the tipil tree with legs folded beneath him and hands loose on his thighs. Exhausted. Leaves fluttered, cymbals chimed—and something else moved, at the edge of the grove.
A being, its skin ghostly white, eyes too small, body too tall and too thick. No. Lasai shook his head. A human, one of his own kind. A living woman, not a ghost, staring at him pale of face, with eyes shock widened.
"Wha-what were those things?"
He did not comprehend for a moment, had to taste and smell the words, turn them over and examine them. He had not talked to a human in seasons, and human words were buried deep in his memories.
She spoke again. "Were those … Ebchians?"
His hands twitched and he took a deep breath. He pushed himself unsteadily to his feet, clutching the tipil's trunk to keep from falling. Remembering human manners, he offered the woman a hand. "I am Lasai. How do you do?"
"I'm Melny van Dam. I'm an archaeologist in the city northeast of here." She took a deep breath and asked again, "Were those Ebchians?"
She waited, probably expecting more. A tall woman, and slender. Her dark hair was tied back with a piece of string, and she was clad in a rumpled coverall and shouldered a bulging daypack. Now that her color had returned, her skin was sun browned almost to the amber shade of the Ebchians.
"They tell me in the city that you know the language of the Ebchians, know the names and locations of their cities. Is this how you learned… ?" Her voice trailed off. Then she squared her chin. "Were they ghosts?"
"Yes," said Lasai calmly.
Cover photograph and design by Danica B. West, copyright © 2011 by Danica B. West. All rights reserved.
To read the rest of the story:
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Other stories by Julia H. West from Callihoo Publishing:
The Peachwood Flute (collaboration with Brook West)
Weeds (collaboration with Brook West)
|Banner by Danica B. West
This page created 22 September 2011
Last update 21 March 2014