by L.E. Symms
Chira inspects Pet’s dorsal gland for any speck of rich juice she might have missed, massaging his back to expel the warm liquid. She filters out the tangy nourishment, dribbling cleansed water back to him. Dreamily, she clings below his neck, warm in his heavy fur. Her unborn babies buzz within her.
Pet sighs deeply as he always does after she feeds. The sound rumbles through her silver body, tickling her dozen delicate feet and rustling the dainty hairs lining her plump abdomen. Her antennae touch the sweet scent curling up from him, clean and satisfied.
“What would I do without you, little one?” he says tenderly.
Chira giggles, her light laugh singing in her translucent wings. Pet always calls her little, even though she’s a big sister. Perhaps he’s never seen a tiny little sister sprite. Perhaps he doesn’t know. He only compares to himself: big and lumbering on his two massive legs, cozy fur sticking out all over.
“I’ve got important business this evening.” Pet often speaks his thoughts to Chira. “A barbarian is coming. Wants novelties, he says. Trinkets to sell back in his own country. Maybe I can interest him in spitting fish — or candy bugs. Novelties,” he scoffs. “Odd, those barbs. But I could use some of their money.”
At the knock on the door, Pet scoops Chira off his back and deposits her in her dish of water. She sings softly, full and warm, all four wings buzzing a tinkling melody through the water.
She ignores the two men — her beloved furry Pet and the thin barbarian swathed in his hot and gaudy clothes — until she feels them leaning over her. She rubs her wings harder, burbling the water in song to please Pet. Isn’t he her food for sister babies? Without him she could only make skinny sons, good for nothing but a single mating flight. She is glad to have Pet. Many sprites aren’t so lucky.
“Interesting,” the furless barbarian says.
“A sprite,” Pet explains. “We all have one.”
The barb leans down, his stiff eyebrows level with Chira’s glowing red eyes. “It’s singing!”
The barb is not so bad, Chira thinks, once you get past the raspy voice and naked cheeks. Swelling with pride, she chirrups to him.
“This, I could sell,” the barb says.
“No,” Pet is quick to protest. Chira warms to his protectiveness.
“No,” Pet repeats so there will be no mistake. “I couldn’t sell this sprite. She’s my pet.”
Chira laughs, the happy sound tripping through the water. His pet? She had thought it was the other way around.
“But if you could get more?” the barb asks.
Pet considers this. “We don’t hunt them. They come to us…”
Because you need us, Chira whispers.
“See if you can find more,” the barb says. “I can see how they go over back home. I’ll give you jewels in payment. The finest gems. Dug out of the mines just south of here.”
“What would I do with those?”
“For your wife perhaps?”
Pet does his best to ignore the barb’s silliness. His woman isn’t interested in trinkets, only in food for the children. Perhaps the barbarian wives enjoy such things, but they are an odd breed, living with their men and doing their best to leave the children for others to raise.
“I need coins,” Pet insists. “Money.”
The barb is clearly disappointed that he won’t be able to unload his gewgaws. “Seems that’s all anyone wants these days.”
“It’s the only thing we can trade for food. I won’t take anything else.”
After the deal is struck and the barb leaves, Pet confides his distaste to Chira. “Those barbs are repulsive. Eyes like mud, and that cold, dry skin of theirs — well, it’s a blessing they cover it with their shirts and trousers. They must live a strange life in their northern islands, always wanting novelty. And always taking things. Metal ores, healing waters, fish…” He garumphs in disapproval. “They’ve fished our river until there’s just about nothing left to eat. We can’t live on forest fruit alone.”
Chira buzzes agreeably. She always tries to agree with Pet. It’s the bond they have.
“At least if I can get a few barbarian coins off him, I’ll have food,” Pet says. “Barbarian food. It’s not fish, but it’s tasty enough.”
The next morning, in the dark before dawn, Chira lets her babies fly. It is a large brood. She has fed well on Pet’s juices for weeks.
A few sons are born first. She ignores them as they swarm out the window. Somewhere they’ll find a big sister to mate with.
Their buzzing anxiety recalls a glimmer of her own mating flight. Hot with frenzy, strong wings still wet from the river, she led a bevy of frantic males in loops and dizzy whirls. Only a few could follow her. That was before Pet. She’ll never mate again. From her one mating flight, she carries all the sperm she’ll ever need.
The big sister eggs are next, round and glistening like teardrop pearls. Chira keeps them warm and wet with a buzzing of her wings until finally the little sisters struggle out into the world. They shake out their wings and gather the big sister eggs with murmuring gentleness. There are just enough little sisters to carry the eggs. Enough to find an eddy in the river, a space for a nest. Enough to keep the big sisters warm when they hatch, to tend and feed them until they mate and search for a pet of their own.
“Take care with your big sisters,” Chira calls as they swoop out into the dawn with their precious cargo of eggs.
They are gone, and Chira has forgotten them already. Her body is busy preparing for a new brood.
Chira sings and feeds. She is happy. Babies buzz within her again before the barb returns.
“Those sprites were a big success.” The barb is enthusiastic. “I could sell hundreds. They sing so pretty.”
Pet nods eagerly. “Of course, of course.”
“But I wouldn’t want to take too many,” the barb warns. “It could deplete the population. We learned our lesson after fishing the river too aggressively. We’ve changed our ways. You know how we do our logging now. We don’t clear-cut. We only take the choice trees, for fine furniture. The sprites may just be pretty pets, but I don’t want to make the stupid mistake of over-harvesting them either.”
“There are always more than we need,” Pet says. “I walk by the river and a hundred come flitting around.”
Chira knows it is true. She is lucky to have Pet. There are never enough like him to go around. She is jealous of Pet holding other sprites, but they are for the barb, she reminds herself. Pet wouldn’t be so cruel as to find himself a new sprite. He loves Chira, as he should. Anyway, his body would never accept a new sprite when he already has one.
“There will always be sprites,” Pet assures the barb. “As long as the river flows, they will come to us.”
“Sprites don’t flit around me,” the barb complains. “You seem to know where to find them.”
Chira imagines the barb walking by the river. Imagines the sprites hiding in the leaves and giggling at his tinny smell. She giggles herself, a lilting song of laughter.
Pet is rich. He has built a gracious home. Two tiled rooms on the bank of the deep and lazy river. It is so close, the cool water sometimes flows over his floor, but the river has always been clean, and Pet enjoys the burbling sound.
It is a home his woman and children are glad to visit. He plies them with treats. Luscious meats bought with his barbarian monies. Bread and rice from the barbarian homeland. Even candies to entice the children. Now that the fish are gone, everyone is buying barbarian food. There is work to be had in the logging and the mines, so no one goes hungry.
The barbarian coins buy Pet luxuries too. Lace curtains that flutter in the breeze, fine wood furniture and a sparkling fountain for Chira. She needs no more than a humble bowl of water to keep her body wet, but the fountain encourages her to sing. Pet likes that best of all.
Sometimes Pet laughs about the way he lives. The bother of all his luxuries. When the water rises, he must get his fine wood furniture off the floor. One rare spring, the river runs muddy, and he must leave the chairs stacked up for days while he cleans away the unfamiliar silt.
After that flood, it seems nothing is the same. When Chira feeds, Pet’s juice is bitter. She massages deep with her strong forelimbs to bring it all up. Pet must have it out or it will weaken him, and where would she be then?
“I’ve never had trouble catching sprites for the barb before,” Pet says, confiding his worries to Chira. “They were easy enough to net, if I waited for them. Now I wait, but they don’t come. If I only knew where they hid…”
He sighs as she draws out the last of the bitterness. She settles into the sweet juice that will give her sister babies.
“And the river,” he says. “The barbs say the mud isn’t from their logging, but I wonder… ”
Chira clings to his thick fur, barely listening. She drains out his worry. She has no concern for the river. She has her Pet. All she’s ever wanted.
She remembers a long-ago day, her mating done, when she searched for a pet who could give her juice and babies. She recalls her first sight of him, lumbering along the flowing waters, his deep brown fur glistening, his wide face under a heavy brow. He’d lost his sprite, and Chira could feel the ache in him, smell the rancid odor of his uncleaned gland. She and a hundred others swooped onto him. Somehow Chira managed to worm her way in, all twelve legs clinging to that perfect fur on his back, buzzing the warm buzz she knew would soothe him.
His body chose her. At his accepting scent, at the tickle of his rough fur, her limp forelimbs quickly hardened. Her wings went wobbly as he carried her home on his back. She had her pet. No need for strong wings ever again.
Later, that long ago evening, after a meticulous cleaning of his dorsal gland, after massaging masses of fresh juice with her now sturdy forelegs — he placed her in the simple blue dish and she made the waters sing.
She glides down to her fountain now on her sluggish wings. In the dreamy warmth she splashes, rubbing her wings to tickle the water.
The next night, Pet brings a surprise. “I’ve found some. At the river’s shore, where the water spills up in the pools. They were buzzing in the mud. Funny I never noticed them there before.”
He holds a sprite on his arm, a scared little snip of a thing. Chira squawks and refuses to look. Another sprite riding on her pet?
“No, no, little one.” Pet laughs at her jealousy. “I’m not keeping this one. But it’s so tiny and frail. I’ve never seen such a small one. I was hoping, maybe, you could help it.”
Chira stands aloof when Pet places the intruder into her fountain. But the new sprite is only a little sister, no threat to Chira. This sprite has no strong forelimbs to massage a pet, could never let babies loose in flight.
“Little sister,” Chira cries, jealousy turning to concern. “You should be at your nest!”
“He split the nest open,” little sister sobs. “He took all the big sisters in a sack — and me. The other little sisters burrowed into the mud and got away.”
Chira warms the little one with her wings, holding her close. For the first time she is afraid. She has never thought about her babies, on their own in the world. A glimmer of memory worms into her now. Of little sisters and big sister eggs, of the warm wet before dawn when her broods would fly.
Afterward, she completely forgets them as she begins her next brood. Children, once flown, were not something a sprite mother had need to worry over.
Would Pet slash open their nests too?
“How are things at home?” Chira asks, hoping to cheer little sister — and cover her own fear.
Little sister shivers. “There’s mud in the river. We can barely see to swim and hunt the water bugs. All of us are hungry. But our big sisters were finally about to fly. To mate. And maybe find a pet. Until he cut us open. Now our big sisters have no chance of ever finding pets. They’re trapped in that soggy sack of his.”
Chira is heartsick. Her wings droop.
She cradles little sister, doing what small things she can for her, but there is no way to save her. The big sisters of the nest were about to fly; little sister was close to death anyway. But it was cruel to keep her from the warmth of her sisters in her last hours.
By morning, little sister is dead.
Pet plucks the carcass from the water between thumb and forefinger. He sighs. It is not a sigh Chira likes. For a moment, she’s revolted by Pet, but she must forget and love him or she will have no more sister babies.
Chira massages deep. Pet has had very little to eat. His juice doesn’t flow like it once did. Chira should have had another brood by now. Instead, she is skinny and ravenous. The ridges of her exoskeleton stick out in gaunt folds.
“You work hard, little one,” Pet tells her. His voice is tight, his back muscles so rigid, she can barely dig in to drive up the juice. “Old Gare, up on the hill, lost his sprite a few weeks back. He’s looking bad, all weak and withered. I wouldn’t give him another month. He’s been out by the river every day, hoping a sprite will come. But there’s nothing.”
Chira doesn’t believe this. There were always too many sprites. Old Gare could find one if he tried.
“At least my eldest daughter has found a sprite,” Pet muses. “Too long she’s been at home, cleaned by her mother’s sprite. I will have grandchildren at last. If only she wasn’t moving up into the hills to work in the mines. Perhaps her new sprite is one of your own babies,” Pet suggests with a sad eagerness, as if this might make the parting easier.
It means nothing to Chira. Chira loves her babies while they are with her, but she wouldn’t know her own daughter if she landed on the windowsill. There has always been the next brood, buzzing warm within her.
If only there were babies inside her now.
Chira splashes and sings in her fountain, but she keeps a nervous ear on the talk around her. The barb comes once more. It is not a happy visit.
“You have to understand,” the barb tells Pet. “It’s not that I want to put you out of business. But I can’t buy sprites from you anymore.”
“Why not?” Pet demands. “Is it the price?”
“No, no, of course not,” the barb assures him. “But your sprites … they aren’t healthy. The last batch died within a week. I can’t sell dead sprites.”
Chira laughs. Pet must have found a flock of sons let loose by some poor big sister sprite with no pet to feed her. Sons never lived long. They couldn’t even make the water sing.
“Are you buying from another supplier?”
“I’m not buying any sprites,” the barb answers cautiously. “They’re all sickly, and small.”
Chira shrivels at his words. All sons and little sisters. Are there no big sisters left?
“I can still get you spitter fish and candy bugs —”
“No one buys those anymore.” The barb hesitates. “I’m getting out of the business. I’ve only come by this last time to let you know. There’s more to be made in mining than importing.”
“I’m too old to be working in the mines,” Pet pleads. “I need money. I need to buy food.”
“I wouldn’t take a sprite unless I knew it was healthy.” The barb hovers over Chira. A smile ripples his pale gray lips, a tilt of greed to his stiff eyebrows. “If you want to sell this one…. You’ve been a good friend. I wouldn’t let you down in your hour of need. What do you want for it? Fifty? Let me be generous, I’ll give you seventy-five.”
Chira chirps in a panic. Oh, Pet, she wails. Don’t sell me, you silly. Who will sing for you? And don’t forget old Gare, dead and buried now. You need me!
“I can’t,” Pet insists.
“But as you said, what are you going to eat? You must sell something.”
Chira flaps against the fountain waters, driving herself up in the air on her wobbly wings. She lands on Pet, in her safe haven on his back, but he shakes her off. She aims for the window where the barbarian lace curtains snare her. Her wings are too weak for real flight, and there is no point to fleeing. She can have only one Pet. Can never bond with another.
Pet comes to rescue her. He holds her gently in quivering hands. There is a desperate calculation flashing over his face. He must have money to buy the barbarian food, or he will starve.
But he will die without Chira too. Unless another sprite finds him in time.
“I can’t.” Pet cradles Chira in his warm hands.
“Come now,” the barb grows impatient. “A hundred then.”
A gamble. Pet has no choice.
He dumps her into her fountain, and the barb pops a cage over it. He has come prepared for this purchase, it seems.
The coins change hands. Pet keeps his back to Chira. His shoulders hunch in misery.
She keens as the barb carries her jouncing and bouncing away from Pet. She crumples to the bottom of the fountain. No more juice. No more sister babies. No more Pet.
In his own fine house overlooking the river, the barb sets Chira on a high shelf by a sunny window. It would be a perfect spot, if she had a pet to sing for, a pet to feed her.
“There, there, pretty one,” the barb soothes. “Are you afraid I’ll take you north? No, little one. You sing to me here in your own warm land. This is my home now, too.”
Chira pines. Chira has babies, but they are all sons. They stick in the bars of the cage and die.
The barb feeds her, of course. He is not cruel. But his offerings of fruit are only enough to keep her alive.
The barb has many friends. They dress in flowing gowns of bright colors. Gaudy swirls at the far edge of Chira’s weak vision. They sip cold drinks on the veranda and laugh in the evening.
Chira sings so they will look her way. The admiration of barbs is all she can live for now. But her songs are all lamentation, and she attracts very little attention.
Only on one evening does a woman in a blue swirl of glitter and jewels peer into the cage as Chira chirrups her plaintive tune.
“Adorable little thing.” The lady in the blue dress tinkled the ice in her drink. “But I don’t understand the furries’ absolute compulsion about them. Carrying them around on their backs all the time.”
“Paid far more for that sprite than it was worth,” Chira’s barb told his guest. “I felt sorry for the old furry. He desperately needed the money. But the way the old guy bargained, you’d have thought I was asking him to sell a kidney.”
“Maybe that wasn’t so far from the truth,” a rich baritone interrupted.
“Ah, you’ve been studying them,” Chira’s new owner remembered. “Dr. Ash, isn’t it? Comparative anatomy. Isn’t that your field? So glad you came tonight. It’s good for us displaced compatriots to stick together.”
“What exactly do you mean about selling kidneys?” the blue-swathed lady asked.
“It’s in my latest paper. What I’ve found in my dissections. The furry kidney only filters wastes out of the blood. It can’t concentrate it for excretion. The furries depend on these bugs for that. For the sprites it’s a high quality source of protein.”
The blue swirl couldn’t quite hide her disgust. “How could anything like that evolve? It’s too complicated. Too prone to failure.”
“Which is the nature of life.”
“It’s not optimal.”
“It doesn’t have to be. It just has to work better than anything else that’s evolved. Without a sprite, the dorsal gland of a furry will ooze a watery urine. Eventually the furry will die of dehydration, no matter how much he drinks. They both benefit from the association — in fact, each species would die out without the other.”
“But on the back?” the blue lady laughed at the professor and his overwhelming urge to lecture. “That’s not where my kidney is.”
“On the contrary, that’s exactly where yours are. It’s just the exit that’s someplace else.”
“Well, it’s hardly the same,” she retorted. “But if Dr. Ash is right, it means you,” she gestured with her ice-tinkling glass at Chira’s barb, “killed off that furry friend of yours by taking his pet away.”
“They always attract new ones,” Chira’s barb shrugged.
“Not any more,” the professor said.
“Well, no, not any more,” Chira’s barb was forced to agree. A ratchet of guilt pulled at his eyebrows.
“You collected too many,” the lady said. “It was such a fad back home.”
“It may have been the mud from the logging,” the professor said, but no one listened to his erudition.
The lady in her blue swirl dress peered into Chira’s cage, hiding her disgust. “At least they sing prettily,” she said.
The professor had no lecture prepared on that subject, and Chira’s barb had already slunk away to another group of guests who wouldn’t suspect him of murder.
Late that night, when the guests are gone, Chira’s barb gently pokes her. “Last time you plumped up, you let loose that messy crop of babies. Here.” He props up the edge of her cage a crack so her skinny babies will escape.
In the dark hour before dawn, her sons wiggle out and fly free. Chira ignores them. But after their whirring frenzy passes out into the night, she creeps to the crack. Yes, she can just slip through. She is much thinner now.
She glides out the open window, over the veranda and into the glow of dawn. Without her fountain, she will dry out quickly. Her weak wings won’t carry her far, but she eagerly searches the air for the scent of home, a whiff of the familiar.
Suddenly, she finds it. She turns her body and beats her wings with her last strength. Down the hillside, over the river she glides. Luckily, the breeze is behind her, or she would never make it.
It is not as she remembered. The lovely draping trees are gone, but she finds the two tiled rooms, the open window and the swaying lace.
Pet will have a new sprite. There will be no place for Chira, but she is bound to her Pet. It will be enough if she can stumble over his windowsill and smell the sweet scent of his juice.
But the cool tiles are coated in mud, the fine wood furniture jumbled topsy-turvy against a wall where the river left it. Pet is not there, has not been there in some time.
Chira’s wings droop over the windowsill. She remembers a day in bright sunlight, a lumbering pet by the river surrounded by a cloud of eager sprites. She recalls the rancid odor of him, made sweet by her ministrations. She remembers Pet’s long sigh rumbling through her body.
She crumples on the windowsill. In a day, maybe two, she knows the wind will carry her dry carcass away.
The author writes, “My publishing career so far consists of a science fiction story in Quantum Muse and a more mainstream story in The Record. In my other life, I’ve spent years acquiring advanced degrees in biology and whatnot, and am currently doing research in magnetospheric physics. Readers can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish