The Thrum of the Locust

The Thrum of the Locust

by Axel Hassen Taiari

Swallow an egg and carry a hatchling. Carry a hatchling and spawn a broodling. Spawn a broodling and raise a brood. Raise a brood and expand the hive. Expand the hive and bless us all. I thank you, Mother, for this gift. I welcome the thrum within me as you welcomed us on your land.

This was the Mother’s mantra. Seven sentences dictated the purpose of our lives, leaving no room for those of us who were unable to fulfill our duty–or so I was raised to believe.

I thought of these holy words as I watched my younger brother retch his newborns. His wife held his hand as blind broodlings slithered out of her husband’s mouth. A swarm-lamia oversaw the proceedings, catching the little ones in her palms and warbling in tongues. I thank you, Mother, for this gift.

I had nothing to thank the Mother for.

I cradled one of the broodlings in my arms. It was white-shelled, like our current Queen. It clung to my wrist and squealed for food. Its slime felt good on my skin. Ugly thoughts raced through my head, then. Why couldn’t it be mine? My brother and his wife were distracted; they had three other neonates to care for. Three. All I needed was one.

I managed to chase away the visions and returned the newborn to its birth aquarium. I tried to ignore the look on my mother’s face, the sour way in which she stared at my flat belly.

The day after my brother’s retching, I sinned again. I bought stolen eggs from a corrupt lamia. Her greed for gold matched my hunger for life; we understood each other well. I had been doing it for many seasons–ever since Dad’s passing–but this time felt different. I was thirty circles of age. Our laws were clear: men between the ages of sixteen and thirty were permitted to swallow blessed eggs. Once a month and under supervision, they could present themselves at a den and bring a handful of eggs to their mouths. Men younger than sixteen were not men at all, and men over thirty were deemed too old to endure the carrying. I attended without fail, month after month, year after year, circle after circle, and watched my life tumble by.

Next year, I knew I would be turned away and shamed. Go home, barren man, they would say. Leave this den. Go home and find a wife. Perhaps your sons will carry one day, but not you. Your time has passed.

I had no interest in a wife, or in sons.

Buying eggs would soon become my only option. I knew they were stolen from temples or from the hive itself. It did not matter. As with every illegal purchase, the lamia whispered, “Brother, I pray you will soon feel the thrum of the locust.”

I placed the egg-pouch in my bag and headed home with a guilty grin. Beneath bleak suns besieged by clouds, the town was undergoing its annual metamorphosis. Men and women unfurled colorful banners and stretched ribbons from one window to the next. Market vendors eroded their vocal chords to sell their goods. Pilgrims from distant cities arrived on creaking carriages to the tunes of lamiae reciting incantations for the upcoming release. Children raced through the streets wearing brood masks woven from green silk. This year’s preparations had already begun.

I found the butcher’s son waiting on my doorstep.

“My name is Mindel,” he announced. Sweat drenched his chubby face. His hairline was so thin it resembled a brown swirl of retreating fog. A lattice of thick red veins spread across the width of his exposed stomach. Barely twenty circles of age and a carrier already.

“No,” I said, having guessed the purpose of his presence.

“Please,” he said, a hand resting on his belly. “It is for them. My swarm-lamia says it will be a good omen, and I cannot find any tusks on the market.”

“Of course. They have all been sold,” I said. “And we do not hunt during mating season.”

“I know. But I was hoping you could make an exception.”

I stared at his midsection. The skin throbbed and squirmed. “You are due any day. I do not take carriers on hunts, and I do not kill pregnant urudabb. The sanctity of life must be respected.”

“Please,” he repeated. “This is what I can offer you.”

He opened a pouch filled with gold coins. This was enough money to buy many eggs–more than I had ever bought in one go. My dealer would marvel at her sudden wealth.

The Festival was in five weeks. This was my last chance.

I was one of the town’s hunters, as was my father. No one knew the art of urudabb slaying half as well as our family did. Dancing around an urudabb, my sword clutched tight, dodging deadly spittle, charging at its sides in the hopes of slashing through the thick shell–there was an immaculate pleasure in bringing one of the gargantuan beasts to its knees, hearing its death rattle as its trunks slapped at the air like agitated vipers. How the ground shook when the colossal frame collapsed at my feet! Sheathing my blood-drenched weapon, bowing and blessing the steaming corpse of a chimera heavier than thirty grown men? I forgot everything in those moments. It felt good to forget, sometimes.

I wonder if that is what my father liked about the hunt–forgetfulness. Finding the place where demons go mute. Did he bask in it for too long? Was it the reason why he, the master urudabb hunter, got poison-misted? It was one of the first warnings he had ever given me. The creature’s charge is not its primary defense mechanism. Do not let your guard down, son.

According to the hunter who had accompanied him, my father did dodge the spray–the first one. Dad forgot that an urudabb’s expected behavior, like the behavior of any other being, is not a guarantee of anything. It may rebel against its own nature, deviate from what it has been taught by the others. The animal charged, sprayed, and instead of spinning around for a second charge, sprayed once more. There was nothing left of my father to bury.

We did not hunt the creatures for sustenance–their meat tasted like leather shoes–but for rituals and riches. Their remains fetched a great price on the market. According to out-of-towners, the organs brought a bounty of health and many children. For the villagers, consuming the spoils resulted in enhanced fertility and increased broodling growth, improving the little ones’ survival at sea.

Hogwash. I had tried it all many times: still breathing, cooked over a fire, left to putrefy in the suns, blessed by a shaman, a lamia, a generic reality bender, a voo-man, or a cultist. Nothing helped my barrenness.

Still the villagers came, and still they purchased. I did not complain. I hunted. I forgot. They paid. They believed. I bought stolen eggs. I hoped.

I set off on the ill-advised hunt before light leaked into the skyline. Mindel waited outside of the city gates. He was sitting on a rock, looking nauseous.

“You are not in hunting shape,” I said.

“I am,” he panted. “I must be.”

We erred through the plains all morning. We took frequent breaks. Nearly every hour, Mindel needed to pause and retch up some prenatal juices. I was terrified that he would give birth in the wild with only me to foresee the proceedings.

By noon, the twin suns scorched the fields with such strength we had to retreat under the browning leaves of an oak tree. Mindel had been taken by a foul mood.

“I thought you were a great hunter,” he said. Pre-retch slime clung to the corner of his mouth.

“My skills are not in question,” I said. “But this is not a good period. Most urudabb have retreated north to spawn in a colder climate. We will be left behind with stragglers and sick animals.”

“Their tusks will do,” he said.

We spotted our quarry late in the afternoon. We slinked through bushes, weapons in hand, and beheld the urudabb.

This loner was too small to be a bull; it stood as tall as two men and was as wide as a house. Thousands of blood-sucking breeze flies buzzed around the shaggy mass. Under the suns’ endless beating, its pelt had turned sand-yellow. Using its two trunks, the urudabb kept slapping at the dried ground in search of roots on which to sustain itself. The prey it hunted–rabbits, prairie dogs, goats, horses–avoided the open plains during these summer weeks, preferring to remain belowground or close to the rare watering spots.

Mindel’s anger was gone, replaced by a childlike smile. He removed an arrow from his quiver and brought it close to his bow.

“Wait,” I said.

The urudabb went to the ground. It lay still, panting, its strained breath audible from across the field. Its size and its sluggishness could only mean one thing.

“We cannot kill this one,” I said. “This is a pregnant female.”

“And so?”

I rose up and lowered my weapon. “And so we do not hunt pregnant urudabb. If you believe in blessings then you must believe in curses. The suns will soon set. We are going home.”

“No,” he said. “This is my last chance.”

Rage flared through me. He knew nothing of last chances. “To do what? Engage in a ritual? You are young, healthy, and already carrying. Your broodlings will swim with aplomb. They will do you great honor regardless of the trinkets you acquire. And if they do not, more seasons await. Come. Let us head home.”

The boy avoided my gaze. I turned away from him.

I heard the string of his bow snap. The urudabb roared loud enough to rattle my bones. I spun around and Mindel was nocking a fresh arrow.

Across the field, the urudabb had risen to its full height–an awesome sight. It extended its trunks high above its head and tasted the air for prey.

“Don’t,” I said, and reached for Mindel’s bow. He pushed me away and I fell on my back. By the time I got up, he had already fired.

The urudabb challenged us with a second roar. The creature charged in our direction in a flurry of dust, each stomp making the earth hiccup under its raw power. Running was no longer an option. I readied my scimitar and stood next to Mindel. The idiot was grinning.

Mindel shot another arrow–it bounced off the urudabb’s armor-plated skull.

“Move,” I screamed, and shoved him violently before diving to the right.

The urudabb crashed through the bushes and missed us by inches. I remained prone, knowing the beast was about to spray poison in its wake by curving its trunks above its head.

Did Mindel know? He should have known, but greed clouded his judgment. He had stayed up, desperate to bring his target down.

Great squirts of poisonous spit splattered his face. The boy collapsed to the ground and clutched his head. Smoke rose from his liquefying flesh. He rolled around like a madman and howled in pain.

The urudabb was turning around for a second pass but realized its prey had been hit. It shambled up to Mindel and loomed over him. Its distended stomach brushed along the ground. Four eyes–each one as big as my head–studied the thrashing boy. I feared that the animal, pregnant and desperate for fresh meat, would begin feasting. It poked Mindel with its front-tusk. The two trunks probed the length of his body.

I waited and prayed.

The urudabb snorted, and started walking away.

At the time, I did not understand why it chose to do so. The similarity of their stomachs was lost on me.

I stood and ran to Mindel as soon as the beast was out of sight. Parts of his skull peeked out from beneath his dissolving skin. He opened his mouth to speak and dribbled black blood instead.

The necrotic spit was going to spread to his organs in a matter of hours. Given half a day, his body would be consumed. He needed a shaman to put a stop to the rot. My pitiful pouch full of bandages and salves would prove worthless against injuries so grave. The town stood a handful of miles away. Though we had been walking around all day, I had no doubt I could carry the boy. Whether he would survive the trek would be a fate left to Mother.

“Mother,” I said out loud, remembering. I placed my hand on Mindel’s stomach. His swarm writhed frenetically inside his belly, frenzied by their host’s condition, begging to be let out. I unsheathed my knife.

Mindel’s eyes burst open and he begged, “Please, no, please.”

I drew a wide half-circle on his stomach. I slid my fingers right below the skin and peeled it back. The boy screamed until his throat gave out. I plunged my hands into warm blood and guts. One by one, I picked up each broodling until five of them rested in my lap. Two of them were stillborn. I returned them to their carrier’s belly.

Mindel had fallen silent.

I held three squealing broodlings covered in blood and birth matter. They struggled and whined. I pressed them against me and repeated like a wish, “You are safe now, everything will be fine, you are home.”

The witnessing was the date on which a boy of sixteen circles became a man and was brought by his father to the Queen’s chambers.

Dad had knocked on my bedroom door at sunrise that day, and we had headed for the nearest hive pit. The armored guards let us pass with smiles and honorable blessings. My father held my hand as we descended the stairs.

The hive-slime’s soft blue glow welcomed us. The warmth of life imbued the air we breathed. It felt as if we were entering the veins of a giant organism.

Breathing cocoons and fluorescent slime lit our descent. Dripping web-strands parted like organic curtains before us. Distant tunnels resonated with the echoes of many legs and claws clinking against hard earth. I understood the true vastness of the colony for the first time. We passed dozens–if not hundreds–of broods, each one with a singular purpose executed with flawless devotion. My father pointed out the shifting physiologies of the few sub-classes we saw: elongated wings for the hunters, thick pincers for the workers, and additional legs for the gatherers.

“What would the hive do if we were not here?” I asked my father. I knew the hive preceded our presence, but could not picture it without us.

He stopped walking and considered the question. “If we did not carry?”

“Yes.”

“The hive does not need us, son. It is a self-sustaining being with which we chose to bond. We carry for pleasure and honor, yes–but also as retribution. We settled on these lands centuries ago, as you know. Mother, our first Queen, let our starving ancestors drink her milk. Our history tells us that without her help, our people would not have survived. In time, the waste of broods fertilized our fields. Their hunters fed on predators, ensuring the safety of our grass-grazers. We carried eggs to help the hive thrive and expand faster. It is how we gave thanks. I do not know who the first carrier was, but he was a great man.”

“But without us-“

“The hunters would simply drag wild animals back to these tunnels and inseminate them using the Queen’s eggs. We host willfully, and thus the hunters can dedicate themselves to gathering meat for us all. Young broodlings would migrate instinctively at the end of summer, as they do during our Festival. The hive has been in symbiosis with nature for eons. We chose to become a part of it. Is it not beautiful?”

We resumed walking, and soon came upon a tunnel entrance blocked by six royal guards. Their patterned wings unfurled in defiance. One of the guards probed Dad with its antennae and stepped aside. The others replicated its movements.

We entered the Queen’s chambers.

She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Her size dwarfed that of the biggest urudabb. Resting on a pool of slime, her white body stretched from one wall to the other. The translucent abdomen juddered with the tremors of on-going birth. Shadowy shapes twisted and struggled inside of her. The Queen’s eyes remained closed as if she dwelled in a persistent state of pleasure. Feeders scuttled back and forth and brought morsels to her mouthparts, holding up the offerings as the Queen chewed with her enormous mandibles.

Seeing my smile, Dad ruffled my hair. He walked toward the end of her abdomen. Kneeling at the altar of her body, swarm-lamiae in burgundy robes gathered eggs.

“Blessings,” my father said.

One of the lamiae nodded. The laying chamber’s glow highlighted her features: pink scars and deep wrinkles interrupted by bursts of facial hair almost as thick as my father’s. Brown mucus seeped from her wart-covered nostrils. Her teeth gleamed with an unnatural whiteness. “Is this your witnessing day, young one?”

“Yes, madam.”

“Here,” she said, placing a basket in front of me. “Help yourself.”

I dug into the pile, brought a handful of eggs to my mouth, and swallowed.

The lamia ran a black nail across my forehead. “May you soon feel the thrum.”

Dad had to coax me away from the hive with promises that we would come back soon. I wanted to sit by the Queen and watch her with crystalline devotion. Given the chance, as a boy I would have remained there for days, a witness to the marvel of her being. Here was the hearth of life by which we lived, the sun around which our existences gravitated. The idea of carrying a brood paled in the shadow of this goddess made flesh.

The town was long asleep by the time I returned from the hunt. I snuck through the desolate streets under scarlet moons. At home, I opened my pouch and placed the three broodlings in the bathtub. They were not moving. I grabbed a bucket then ran to the garden well and back. I poured the water into the bathtub. Two of the broodlings let out shocked yelps, then started swimming.

The third one sank to the bottom.

I fished it out and placed its tiny body on my knees and pushed on its thorax with two fingers, pressuring the twin hearts to renew their beatings, for the water to leave its lungs.

I buried it in the garden later that night.

After the surviving broodlings fell asleep, I sat on my porch and wove my lies.

Mindel’s blood was still on my hands.

The following morning I entered the butcher’s shop wearing a shroud of sorrow. With my eyes to the ground I said, “I deliver ill news.”

Mindel’s mother began weeping. She ran to her husband and pounded his chest with her fists. “I told you,” she screamed, “I told you it was too late for him to go hunting.”

I sat with them and explained how we had tracked the beast all day long. We were both exhausted. I said Mindel had been brave and saved me by pushing me out of the urudabb’s path. Their son died with no fear, had ordered me to run and flung one final arrow before being hit by the spray. The father asked about his son’s remains. I shook my head and reminded him of the urudabb’s legendary poison. He grabbed my hand and thanked me. I replied, “I am sorry,” meaning one thing, Mindel’s parents understanding another.

I retreated to my house and spent the day caring for the two broodlings. After a night out of the womb, the color of their shells was coming through. One was black and the other was yellow. I refreshed their water and dropped chunks of meat in the tub. They kept trying to bite me. Encoded deep within their blood was the primordial inkling that I was not their carrier. They saw me as a predator.

The Festival was three weeks away. My brother had invited us for food and to spend some time with his swarm.

Upon seeing me, my mother frowned. “You look pale.”

Nightmares. Looming fatherhood. Mindel’s voice. “I have been feeling unwell,” I said, and patted my stomach.

After dessert I hid in the waste shed and stuck two fingers down my throat. I thought about Mindel, Dad, the little one rotting in the ground. I thought about who I had become. I threw up until nothing remained, then made myself vomit some more. My mother knocked on the door and asked if I needed help.

“No,” I replied, still on my knees. I faked confusion. “It has been happening a lot this past week. What is wrong with me?”

When I emerged, my mother crossed her arms and said, “You must see a swarm-lamia.”

The lamia’s den towered above the nearby dwellings. Ebony-black wood curved and bent in ghastly fashion. Misshapen spikes erupted from the outer walls. Stone gargoyles guarded the soot-stained windows.

Mother had accompanied me. My protests and reassurances were met with her secret hope masquerading as resolve.

“You must remain outside,” I told her. This particular den belonged to the same lamia who sold me stolen eggs.

“I will not.”

“I cannot bear to see your face should she announce that I am not carrying. I know it too well.”

She did not have an answer for that, so I entered the dark hall.

The lamia sat in the back of her greeting room, her crooked spine bent over a tome. Concoctions bubbled amidst a clutter of ever-burning candles and dust-covered tomes stacked in precarious piles. I offered a polite cough. She said, “I smell you. I have no eggs to offer today.”

“And I have no interest in our usual transaction.”

She turned around and I brought forth a pouch full of coins–the money Mindel had given me for the hunt.

“What do you need?” Her eyes were stuck to the pouch. I knew the deal was sealed.

“A simple drawing,” I said, and removed a second pouch from my satchel–my own savings. “And your word that I am a carrier. Nothing more. I am sure there are many reagents you wish you could afford, yes?”

“I cannot do that.”

“Yet you can sell eggs? Remind me, what is your order’s punishment for breaking your holy vows? Perhaps I should ask one of your sisters.”

She scoffed. “You would not dare. Your guilt reflects mine, barren one.”

I stared into her eyes and grinned. “Yes. I would be made an outcast. You would be hung. Let us both prosper instead. Accept my generous offer.”

She stuffed the pouches under the folds of her robe. She drew an arcane symbol on my forehead–the official sign of being a carrier. “Praise the Mother,” she spat.

When I exited the den, my mother ran and hugged me. She kissed my forehead. She held me the way she used to when I was a child. “My son,” she said, her voice breaking, “My son.”

My mother was not a bad person. She was a product of our culture. Unlike the nature of the urudabb responsible for Dad’s death, hers was a steadfast entity. It is why my father and my brother loved her, and why she loved them back. What she wished me to be was not what I was capable of being.

The broodlings had to grow stronger. Most men lost at least half of their newborns during the early days. The inherent heartbreak in carrying and the threat of death lurking around the corner was an accepted compromise: to bring forth life and to strengthen the hive, one had to be willing to pay the price.

I refused. I had paid too much already.

We repeated the same exercise night after night. I tied a piece of bloody meat to a string and dragged it through the tub’s water until neither broodling could swim anymore. I fed them, let them rest in their respective boxes for an hour, and repeated the regimen.

The yellow one was, by far, the strongest swimmer. It had grown much faster than its black sibling. Its legs churned through the tub’s water as easily as the heathens’ mechanical ships through the seas. For every lap the black broodling managed, the yellow one could handle two or three with no sign of exhaustion.

The black one’s legs were thinner. Its mandibles were undersized. I tried to feed it bigger portions. I massaged its legs and allowed it to rest for longer periods of time. Nothing helped. I wondered what was wrong. Had it left the womb too early? Did it suffer from residual damage? Was it simply the runt of the litter?

I was blind. I should have asked myself what was right.

During the days, I took to walking around with thick pillows stuffed between my stomach and garments. When strangers approached and tried to pat my belly for luck, I backed away from them. “Apologies,” I would say, “I am very protective of Mother’s gift.”

The word spread around town. I was a carrier.

I knocked on my brother’s door ten days before the Festival, cradling the black and yellow broodlings in my arms. There was no time to delay the reveal any longer. After the initial shock and tearful congratulations, my family swallowed my story as easily as expected. My mother kept asking why I hadn’t called upon a swarm-lamia. I told her the gagging convulsions had snuck upon me in the dead of night and I had been too weak to do anything but crash to my knees and retch. My brother nodded, relating to the painful event better than I could. I fielded numerous questions about the night and answered with platitudes so shallow they could not be doubted. The specifics held little importance. Truth carried no weight in the presence of unexpected joy.

I had long lost count of my lies by then.

The yellow broodling died. At dawn, I found its body lying by the bathtub. It had crawled out of its box and had wanted to swim, too eager for the sea.

I checked on the black one. Its shell glinted in the frail sunlight. It did not recoil against my hand. “No swimming today,” I said.

I dug another hole in the garden.

I refused to ask myself if I had trained the yellow one too hard. I knew the odds. The cemetery east of town mirrored reality: during the retching months, hordes of mourning men with vacant eyes wandered the paths and knelt by their chosen burial spots. A fertile carrier could bury dozens of broodlings throughout his life. I had lost only two and yet I could not stop weeping.

The Festival was upon us. Trumpets greeted the rising suns. Drums thundered all over town.

My night was spent watching the black brood and feeding it when it roused from sleep. It had grown as long as my forearm and no longer accepted food with reluctance or angry shrieks. Still, it was not a swimmer. It grew tired easily and clawed at the edges of the bathtub until I picked it up. I took frail comfort in the fact that I had anything to release at all.

We met by the town hall. Mother was beaming. She had donned a purple dress weaved from Queen silk–as is tradition for the matriarchs.

I bowed before my sister-in-law, then hugged my brother. He looked radiant in his white robe. He held me close and whispered, “I am sorry.”

I gave a bitter smile.

“Still,” he said, petting the black broodling, “I am happy for you.”

I nodded even though I wasn’t happy for myself. He had carried four, and four remained. They stood by his feet like obedient dogs. I had carried none, taken three, and one remained–half the size of its cousins.

Upon reaching the beach, something broke within me. I felt sick to my stomach. The waves looked ferocious. Tall rogues crashed upon the sand. Thick spume amassed along the shore. Hundreds of families had gathered here. Their laughter rang all around. It sounded like the cries of the seagulls overhead, ready to feast.

The barren men stood on an isolated dune at the edge of the beach; a pack of wraiths wearing funeral-black garments and mourning the loss of what they could not have. I had spent many Festivals in their company. We never spoke, only shared the occasional nod when passing each other in the street as if to say I see you even though others may not.

My family and I walked up to the foam line. My broodling whined. I shielded it with my hand so it would not have to face the seething sea.

The first adult brood appeared over the hill. Before long, dozens of adults had joined us. They stood by our sides and stared at the horizon. They reared on their hind-legs and gazed in silence. Did they remember their trek? We could not understand where they went during those long seasons. We only yearned for their return and never tried to ask, where did you go? What did you see? Why did you have to leave?

Knee-deep in water, the head-lamia bid the air around her to shimmer. She wore a simple black dress as is typical of her coven, but her face remained hidden behind a ceremonial bone-mask–rumored to be an artifact crafted from Mother’s remains. She raised her arms for silence. The congregation hushed.

Men kissed their spawns. Many of them were crying.

The head-lamia began reciting the Mother’s mantra with a voice amplified by reality bending. We joined her. I knew the barren men would remain mute out of shame, but deep inside, their words would ring louder than anyone else’s.

As soon as the last word left our mouths, the head-lamia clapped her hands three times. Shamans spat rings of flames as fireworks erupted over the town. Families cheered, and carriers tossed their broodlings into the sea.

I placed mine on the sand. It approached the foam and scampered in the opposite direction. I kneeled, caught it, and made it face the right way.

My family paid no attention to me. My brother’s broodlings were already in the water, struggling against the waves. Hundreds of others splashed around, encouraged by their carriers. The sea boiled with life. Lamiae unleashed deafening wails as more fireworks boomed at our backs. Shamans tainted the sky black and commanded spectral manes to dance in the clouds.

“You can do this, we trained,” I said. My eyes stung. “Don’t make this harder. Please.”

The broodling darted away once more and I told myself I had no choice. I had come this far. I grabbed it, ran into the water, and threw it.

The little one shrieked loud enough to break my heart. It cried like it had in the bathtub. It tried to paddle back toward me, got swallowed up by a wave, and reappeared upside down with its belly exposed. Seagulls circled. It shrieked again. The waves were winning.

If I were not meant to be a carrier, then what was I meant to be?

If it was not a swimmer, then what could it be?

Understanding came to me, then. It came to me in the way the broodling yelped, how it labored against the water, how it did not follow the others–could not follow the others, was not wired to. It was different. I thought of Dad’s urudabb, of the nature we burden others with.

Yes, I understood. Undersized mandibles and weak legs did not necessarily make it a runt.

And its cries–it cried for me.

So I ran further into the water. I screamed mad words. I rebelled against my nature. I fell. I swam amongst the broodlings. The waves tried to drag me under. I fought. I gagged, surfaced, breathed, and kicked. I reached with pleading hands.

I swam back, and emerged from the water with the broodling in my arms, sobbing and laughing, promising it the world. My brother, his wife, other men, their families, the lamiae–they did not notice me. The chaos was no excuse. Enthralled by themselves, and the extension of themselves, their blindness was the proof I needed to realize that we were not a hive, no matter how much we pretended to be.

My mother did see me. She was weeping. She had brought a hand to her mouth, realizing what I was doing.

“I cannot,” I said, “I am not-“

I tried to come closer, but she backed away, shaking her head.

I mouthed the words “I am sorry,” even though I was not, at least not for this, and started running toward the town. I left the swarm-lamiae to their twisted chants, the shamans to their tricks, the families to themselves.

At home, I packed as much as I could: scimitar and bow, flints and arrows, dried meat and fresh clothes, a shovel and a satchel. The little one would not stop nibbling at my face. I ran past the tunnels leading into the hive, past the butcher shop, past the city gates, and into the wilderness.

I trekked back to where Mindel had fallen. The faintest outline of his body remained in the sand; the prints of a past all but erased. I collected his bow and arrows, as well as some tattered shreds of clothing, and buried his belongings in lieu of a corpse.

I saw the urudabb again. It stood in the exact same spot Mindel and I had found it. Two cow-sized newborns chased each other as their mother followed with watchful eyes. Not once did I get the urge to remove my weapon from its scabbard.

I then walked north for many days, halting at dusk to hunt for food, feed the broodling, and rest.

At last, I stumbled upon a tranquil river. The edge of a forest loomed in the distance. Food would not be a problem. The suns hung high above my head. I had time to work. I dropped my bag, set the broodling down, and started digging. By nightfall, I was facing a hole in the ground, no larger than a grave.

What I saw there was much bigger, though.

I saw great stairs descending into a maze of tunnels. Cocoons and slime grew on subterranean walls. Workers and hunters and gatherers labored as family. I saw a thrumming hive, and at the heart of it all, a black Queen guarded by her loving father.

_______________

Axel Hassen Taiari was born and raised in Paris, France. Publishing credits include Fantasy ScrollGamut, The Big Click, and others. His stories have also appeared in multiple anthologies including Exigencies (nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award) and Warmed and Bound. He is the co-author of The Soul Standard, released by Dzanc Books in 2016. Read more at www.axeltaiari.com

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