The world is water.
From horizon to horizon, water. Trade winds go from west to east, and carry weather and fish with them. Wind and weather bring us news of the world, in the form of all manner of things that float. A string of islands are our own, we and the cousins. Fifteen islands, from tiny Ike to the largest, Yuhime. Ours is the northernmost, Liipil, an island that catches the winds, the volcano beneath dead as our ancestors. As you go south, the land becomes more active, and the cousins become more numerous.
The world is water, and we are at its center.
The youngling who had been assigned to the northern heights plummeted into the village, calling shrilly. “Wings! Wings! The ikei are returning!”
“From where?” I asked, straightening from my crouched position over the morning’s treasures.
The youngling pointed with one wing. West by north. “Did you see which they were?”
“Sun behind them.” That would be no, then.
“Find Lilleloi, tell her,” I told the youngling. “She’s in the fields.” Without further comment, it crouched and leaped upward, beating wings frantically upward. I watched the youngling’s attenuated body and great wings catch the breeze and soar upward, sun glinting off of waxy leaf-scales. I wrapped up the day’s gather into a large leaf and carried it in one arm, using the other to help me climb up to the platform where I stored the sea-treasure I had not yet completely studied.
After putting my work away, I swung down, landing heavily at the base of the great starflower tree that the platform was built in. “I’m getting too old to do this,” I muttered. I was going to have to start climbing down rather than swinging, soon. I had years yet before I would be too heavy to use the platforms altogether, when I would have to have those younger than I fetch and carry from the platforms.
Not too old yet to run, though. I trotted through the village, joined by younglings and adults, down to the landing field. We’d fired it less than a month ago, before the winter rains had made it far too damp to burn. It was a good and welcoming landing place for the ikei, our pelagics who spent most of their time at sea, circling the world with the trade winds, following the great sea-herds of whales and fish. It was better than we had managed some years, when the summer had been far too wet for the burn and we’d had to settle for clearing the field by hand.
Kii and Liiloka had brought food with them, voyage-fruit and sweet tik-tik, and we settled down to eat and wait. A flock of younglings arrived, swirling down to land lightly, grabbing and squabbling over tik-tik. A few stretched out, settling to turn the leaf-scales on their backs to the sun.
Kii stumped over to me, her massive body and her fronds of lichen making her seem like a particularly mobile boulder. She held a quarter of a voyage-fruit out to me, and I accepted with a murmur. “Anxious?” she asked, her voice low as distant surf.
“Every year,” I said. “Every year I think is going to be the year that Thiol does not return.”
The elder snorted. “Foolish to get attached. I try new ones every year.”
“He makes fine eggs,” I told her. “I haven’t had one be fallow since he became my favorite.”
A shout came from the gathered younglings, and several of them fluttered up into the air. I turned my eyes to the sky.
There they were! Dark wings against blue sky, bodies stout with months of feeding and flying. Their wings were enormous, spans ten times the lengths of their bodies, and patterned wildly underneath. I strained my eyes, looking. So many patterns, stripes and swirls and eye-spots.
None red with yellow streaks. Thiol was not among them.
But there were only twelve of them, a twentieth of the number we expected to return. This would be the largest group, most of them young, having banded together for their first year at sea. The older ones would return by ones and twos over the next few weeks. For now, we fussed over the ikei who had returned, gathering around them, running hands over their wings as they preened and crowed. Their long heads with the bone crests at the backs were objects of much fuss and admiration.
I stood apart from the crowd, as did those others who had favorites who had not yet returned. None of us were interested in finding out which of these ikei might fill us for the time they were here, because we already had our choices. Lilleloi came to me, crouched down and gestured for me to join her.
Lilleloi was younger than me, with the litheness of youth still on her and her back still more leaf-scales than lichen. She had found a favorite the year before, and from the way her stubby tail twitched she, too, was nervous that he would not return. Merely inexperience; her chosen ikei, Jerul, was younger than she and strong enough that unless accident befell him he would return.
“Does it get easier?” she asked me now.
I shook my head, raising my hand to search through the lichen at the back of my head, an old habit. “Never. But the reunions are worth it.”
“I worry. What if he’s changed his mind? I’m not like you, not beautiful yet.” She was fussing, opening and closing her hands. I took a bite of my voyage-fruit.
“They forget about us, you know. Pelagics forget who they are on land as soon as they lose sight of it. I’ve talked to Thiol about it. He says that this life stops when he takes to sea, and resumes when he comes back. He only vaguely remembers the journey once he touches land. Jerul won’t have changed his mind.”
She put her elbows up, pointing them to the sky. “I hope not.”
That night, as the sun set, we gathered in the village. I climbed up to a platform and watched the younglings show off for the ikei, dancing with their wings spread, patterns painted on them to mimic ikei patterns. Adults watched from the shadows beneath the trees. There would be no couplings tonight, or any night until we were sure that most of those who were going to return had done so. Those with no favorites wanted the widest choice possible; those with favorites would wait until those favorites had returned. If the favorites did not return, they would choose another, probably from this group of young ikei.
Some of the younglings had caught a small cousin, a six-limbed swimming thing with wide membrane between its pairs of forelimbs. They showed it to the ikei, who fanned their wings gently in approval and put their eyes close to it, their long heads tilted so more than one could see at once. One flicked out his tongue to run it over the cousin’s back. “It’s not afraid,” the ikei said. “It is a pet?”
“As much a pet as any of the cousins can be,” came the answer from the shadows.
The ikei considered the cousin, held by a youngling indistinguishable from the others, a youngling like this ikei had been the year before. The younglings crowded around the ikei, rubbing their sharp faces on them, under their chins and beneath the wings where the most fascinating smells came from. Those smells would change in the next few days, as the ikei got into the mood for coupling, but for the moment they were quite attractive to the younglings. The oldest, those who would go through the change this season, stayed the closest, breathing in the ikei scent deeply.
Over the next few days, more ikei arrived. Wings, more wings, and I worked with one eye skyward, waiting to see. The older ones arrived, in pairs and threes and ones, and then they stopped arriving. Coupling began.
I withdrew from the others, the coupling urge an ache in my nethers and disappointment a pain in my throat. He was old, I told myself. The sea had claimed him, as it claims the ikei. Being pelagic is dangerous, especially for the older ones. There are storms, and there are some large cousins who follow the ikei and prey on them when they can. Thiol must have fallen to one of them.
I did not choose another ikei, deciding to forgo coupling this year. I’d produced at least three eggs every year for the last twenty-three years. I could afford to skip a year. I studied the treasures, reading what they had to tell me about the ocean currents as well as what the others who inhabit this world were up to. Someone was having a war, I could tell, probably the same people that used hollow gourds to float their fishing nets. There were sharp triangles tangled in some of the nets and debris, the remnants of weapons.
The southern current was shifting, as it occasionally did, coming farther north than usual and carrying with it some interesting seeds. I brought some to the story circle, telling the six or seven younglings that were interested and the four adults who were my story-keepers what I saw, and what the far-traveling seeds were telling me.
A pair of ikei settled nearby, turning their heads this way and that. I hissed. These were young and had not had a chance to couple. An older female uncoupled was quite attractive to them, but I was having none of it.
At my hiss, they withdrew a few steps, but stayed close enough to hear. I addressed myself to the adults, ignoring the younglings and the ikei. There was a good chance that at least a few of these younglings might mature into adults rather than ikei, and when they did they might become story-keepers for me, but until then I wouldn’t have anything to do with them.
“This, see how it’s split? It only does this after more than a year in the water.” I pointed to a crack in the husk of the heavy nut I had in front of me.
“How do you know?” asked an ikei.
I hissed again, and continued. “We only get these when a southern current shifts north–”
“The ikei has a good question,” one of my story-keepers said. “What is the provenance of the story?”
My hand lifted and then fell again. “It came to me from Ihui, from Liiopu, from Uikullu, from Gillo, from Kuiio, from–” I stopped, fell silent. Was that right? “From Yothul.”
“Yothul? That’s an ikei name.”
I cast my mind back, delving into the memories given to me by those who had gone before. “Yothul is in the line, having brought back a fresh one. Yothul was blown south by a storm and discovered the place where these nuts came from, a place occupied by Stubbed Ones. He was attacked, but threw these nuts to defend himself, and escaped while clutching one. He carried the nut to Kuiio, who was able to do experiments and determine how the nut looked after it had been floating for certain periods of time.”
“Then ikei do contribute to the lines, then.” That was the ikei who had first spoken.
“The ikei are respected for their contributions.” It was as polite as I could manage to be. I gave the one who had spoken a regarding stare. “What is your name?”
“Rawil,” he said. “I find it interesting that there is at least one ikei in a line.”
“The ikei see much, but they cannot tell us any of it,” I said. “This much is known. We do occasionally get contributions from them, but only the most extraordinary ikei can remember anything about what they see while pelagic. Their contributions are usually in the form of physical objects. Like this.” I picked up the nut and hefted it.
The ikei opened and then closed his wings, colored with swirls of white and violet. Younglings looked back and forth between us as the ikei shifted uncomfortably. Finally, he turned away, picking up his claws in a dignified stalk.
I hissed at his back and went back to talking.
Two days later, there was a commotion from the northern heights as two excited younglings plummeted down, shrieking. “Ikei! Ikei! Coming down! Hurt!”
I took in a sharp breath. Could it be? A cloud of ikei rose from the village, leaving their afternoon assignations without so much as a parting word, rising to find their brother. They returned a few minutes later, one with claws wrapped around the hips of the ikei who had been struggling, another gliding and bearing most of his weight on his back. I couldn’t tell who it was.
I couldn’t tell until the one beneath set down, the ikei having trouble slipping from his back to tumble into the dirt. Red and yellow. He lifted his head, met my eyes.
I couldn’t move, couldn’t go to him. He was the responsibility of the ikei for the moment, and they gathered around him, muttering and keening. He was so thin. He looked like he’d hardly eaten for the last few months. They ran wing-fingers over him, his wings, his head. Eventually, two took off, angled south, came back with large flapping fish in their claws. Thiol dipped his head and began to eat, ripping at the flesh with claws and teeth.
Afterwards, the ikei drifted back to interrupted assignations, and I was finally free to approach. He was in the shade of a shorebreak tree, kneeling with wings sprawled outward loosely. He looked up as I approached. “Polliu. More beautiful every year.”
I crouched beside him. “Thiol.” Now here was a place sticky as sap. We never spoke of infirmity or death with the ikei. But speak I must. “What happened?”
“What happens to all of us, in time,” he said. His light voice was exhausted, and he had fish scales around his mouth. “I did not catch as much as I should have at first. Because of that, my strength dwindled, and I could only take fish that were sure catches. A run of bad luck and a storm that came up, and I was grounded for a while on a small island. I thought I was done, but once I started flying again the air started feeling familiar. So here I am.”
I looked at the ikei, and thought. Here was something new. Old ikei, and Thiol was one of the oldest, would go out one year, and then simply not return. But he had gone out, and come back, and he was tired and fragile. “You won’t be going out again.” My tone made it a question.
He raised the center ribs of his wings, dropped them with a rustle. “I will go out again. What else is there? This how we live, and how we die.”
I looked away from him. He was ikei, and I was not. But we had started out in the same place. “You could stay.”
“Here? What is there for me here?”
The disgust in his voice made me wince. I had some affection for this ikei, but he was what he was and would always remain. “Nothing but fruit-eaters and younglings, and talking story.”
“Talking story is always good. But I will die as I lived.”
Looking at him, his elegant head and the few leaf-scales that still clung to him, brown and dead, his long body bent and gaunt, I had an irrational surge of emotion for this creature. A cold flush spread over me, and I knew that my pupils had narrowed to slits, showing Thiol sunset iris. I turned away sharply, rose, my tail thrashing from side to side like a club.
“Wait, Polliu,” he said, and in his voice was a plea. “Many rivers run to the sea.”
I turned, considered. He was willing to negotiate, then. His first reaction to the suggestion had been a reflex, as I thought it might have been. Ikei do not change easily. It is one of the things we have in common. I dropped down beside him once more, abruptly forgiving him. He reached out a wing to gather me in, and I snuggled in beside him. His body was warm, and his wing covered with fine hair. The patterns on the underside of his wings were made in that hair; under it, his wings were as featureless as a youngling’s.
I reached out, stroked that hair, purred as he sighed and relaxed. The smell of him was faint, but there was something of the coupling scent in it. Another few days, I thought, and even as frail as he was he might be persuaded to fill me one final time. I would not have to resort to that impertinent ikei with a mouth full of questions and disturbingly intelligent eyes.
Yes, for the moment, all was well.
I cried out sharply, Thiol’s curved member penetrating me, fulfilling the coupling ache. We were still then, resting, his wing-fingers on my shoulders, the underside of his head on the top of mine. A bird shrieked somewhere nearby, leaves clattered together as the breeze gusted. We were half-standing, braced against a tree; Thiol had not the strength to cover me as was customary, so we were improvising.
So far, it was a very pleasurable improvisation. This was different, the angle was strange, and it touched parts of me that did not often get touched by another. I sighed and ran my tongue up his neck, and then squealed as he writhed in me without moving the rest of him. “Oh do that again…”
After some time, the encounter came to its conclusion, and I surprised both of us by sharing a tik-tik with him. We do not take food together, we and ikei. Once they come to land, ikei do not eat until, half-starved, having grown thin with coupling as many as eight times a day for three handfuls of days, they depart and become pelagic again, to ride the winds and gorge themselves on the bounty the sea offers.
But by common, silent agreement, the ikei had been feeding Thiol, and the youngsters had taken up the habit of bringing him part of their morning’s catch. He was heavier now than he had been when he’d arrived, and this morning I had caught the hot scent of him and led him away to this cove.
Juice dripped down his chin, and his tongue came out to catch it. We lay in tall grass, and the surf nearby beat against the shore in an irregular rhythm. He looked over at me, and his eyes narrowed fondly. “And I suppose you will request that of me again,” he said, the tone a caress even as the words jested.
“As many times as you feel capable,” I told Thiol. “If these are to be my last eggs out of you, I want as many as I can.” The words were false though well-meant; I knew that there was no chance Thiol would be up to as many couplings as it would take to for me to get three or even two eggs this time. We would be doing well to get one, and that only if we worked at making up for lost time.
He snorted. “Polliu, it is you. I will be capable of whatever is required of me. You will accept nothing less. It is, after all, why I am your favorite.”
My chuckle was a deep rumble in my throat. It was true. He had become a favorite by first not taking no for an answer, and then by never denying me anything I’d asked. Thiol’s voice turned contemplative. “I have never seen the process of egg-laying, or of hatching. Or even of younglings changing, other than my own change.”
“Are you thinking of staying?” I asked quietly.
He ducked his head, to scratch the top of it with his claws. “I am.”
I turned my eyes skyward, thinking about this. Then I blinked. “Thiol, look at that. Is that–”
He followed my gaze. “A great cousin! But what is it doing this far north?”
“I don’t know, but–” I sucked my breath in as I saw the great cousin, six-limbed and terribly dangerous, go into a dive. My cry of denial was wordless as it dropped out of sight briefly and then winged back into the sky, carrying a struggling youngling in its front claws. “Cover. Quickly.” I got to my feet, dragged Thiol onto his claws, yanked him into a nearby stand of shorebreak trees.
“You hide while the great cousin is on the attack?” Thiol’s voice was astonished, and disapproving.
“It will not attack structures, and if it finds no prey it will not linger!” There had not been a great cousin in our skies while the ikei were on land since–
My mind raced through stories, sorted memory from memory, built a chronology from converging and diverging lines. Seventy handfuls of years. Eight hundred and forty coupling seasons, my mind whispered.
And the story of that time–
“No,” I moaned, and “no,” again.
A story was about to repeat itself. For the first time since my own change, I wished for wings. But I was stubbornly earthbound, and Thiol was looking at me with confusion and concern. “The ikei,” I started, and stumbled. “The ikei will attack. They will die.”
“They will drive the great cousin from our island,” he told me.
I moaned, raised my elbows, doubled over. “They will die. Seventy handfuls ago–it took almost ten handfuls to recover, and the ikei were three times as numerous then.”
It was disaster, and as I raised my head to the sky I watched story repeat itself. Ikei were powering up to the great cousin, who looked startled at the response but answered threat with violence. It gave a crackling roar, and dove at the ikei.
Blood fell from the sky, and Thiol trembled next to me. He could not go. I hung onto his wing, and he was not strong enough to shake me off.
Ikei died. Those of us who had chosen hands instead of wings, and Thiol who had chosen wings and then me, could do nothing but watch.
In the end, the great cousin fell as well, crashing into the sea, gravely wounded. It chose an unfortunate place to come down, near the silty mouth of a river; I could hear screams as the cousins who lived in the dim shallows and were fierce hunters came from miles around, drawn by the blood.
Twenty-five ikei survived. It was a bitter trade.
“There are other tribes to the south. We will try to recruit some of their ikei,” Lilleloi said.
“Do you remember the last time that was tried?” Liiloka, her egg-mate, said sourly. We were gathered under the three large platforms, arguing about what must be done. “I do. The tribe that tried it was slaughtered for trying to steal ikei. No, all we can do is wait, and recover. It will happen eventually.”
Kii stirred herself. We all turned to her. “Those who have not coupled this season, choose an ikei and couple with him enough times to get at least an egg or two. We must replace lost ones. I will kill any who try to keep their ikei to themselves.” We bowed our heads. Kii’s voice, when it was used, was our ultimate arbiter. And though she was old, and large, and slow, none of us doubted she could kill whoever she chose. She could not climb platforms any more, but you could not stay in the trees forever.
Thiol was away from me for a while, comforting his brothers, and I waited for him to return as the sun set. “All are claimed, except for me,” he said diffidently.
“Then I claim you,” I told him. “Once is not nearly enough, if I want even one egg.”
I’d had an idea for a position that I could couple with Thiol in that should not require much energy on his part. We tried my idea, and to my immense gratification, it worked. It worked well enough that he and I made up for lost time that night and the following morning, and after he stopped to wolf down strips of great cousin that the younglings brought the next morning, we continued.
Around us, life moved on. The great cousin had died in the night, and we would eat well off of its body for some time. The ikei, now that it seemed more demands were going to be made on them, chose to partake in the feeding, keeping up their strength so that they could leave every adult gravid with as many eggs as it was possible to carry.
It was not without precedent in story, but there were mutters anyway. The coupling season was being lengthened beyond the usual, and there were many who were not easy with it. The younglings were restless, a number of them starting to show signs of the change beginning to come on them. Some of those weren’t expected to come into their change for at least another year, in some cases two. I laid a private bet that most of those younglings would become ikei, and I was not disappointed.
The village became quiet once the younglings slipped off one by one to make their change. Most would fly into the interior valleys to make their change, and those that became one of us would walk back, having lost their wings and most of their tail in the process. The ikei would fly back, of course.
And so it was, and so it was. We never knew what prompted the ikei to make their flight; something about time of year and weather. The ikei became restless, coupling dwindled to nothing, and they gathered on a beach near the village, walking up and down the length of it, looking out to sea.
So few of them. Thiol was beside me as we watched from the trees, and his long head turned and turned, trying to catch the breeze. “A good day for it,” he said, and his voice was grave. “Feel, the wind’s coming.”
At first, I barely felt it, and then the coolness ruffled through the lichen at the back of my neck. Thiol squeezed his eyes tightly shut, and moaned as if in pain.
On the beach, ikei were spreading their wings, and all at once, oh–
Exploding outward in dizzying colors, their voices crackling out of them, they climbed and climbed and then the sky swallowed them. In my fascination, I almost forgot Thiol, crouched beside me, until I heard him moan again. “Ah, Polliu–”
He was folded into himself, wings clutched tight to his body, wing-fingers exploring his head. His eyes, his black eyes, were weeping blood as his inner eyelids flicked open and closed over and over again. He was trembling violently. “Polliu,” he whispered.
I understood, then. “Go,” I murmured. “Go.”
He trembled, but he unfolded himself then, wings still clamped tightly to himself. He stumbled out of the trees, almost tripping over his own claws. That cool wind was still blowing, and Thiol, when he reached the beach, turned his head into it and raised his eyes to the sun, staring. He spread his wings, and took a few running steps, lifting himself into the air one last time on those wings.
He rose, and he was so beautiful. Beautiful, and blind, and dying.
Ikei never die on land.
He got scarcely half a mile away, still within sight, before he fell into the sea and it swallowed him whole.
There was rage in me, and I growled at the sea. “Fruit-eaters,” I snarled. “Fruit-eaters, and talking story!” I walked away from the sea, up the hill, up to the ridge, heedless of how my lichen curled. I walked until the rage ceased, and when it abruptly left me I was in a blackwood grove, the trees and their red bark twisted, flowers growing fragrant among them.
I did not know this place, but it knew me, and the stones stacked up told me what it was. A sacred place, a place of those who had gone before. “I tried,” I said. “I tried to keep him.”
A stirring of air. Disapproval. I hung my head.
I do not know if I imagined that disapproval, or if it was simply the weight of all of the stories I carried, heavy in my belly with the eggs that were beginning to form there. I licked the air, tasting. “The ikei must fly,” I muttered, addressing the ground. “They must fly, or they die.”
It was there in the blackwood grove that I sat, for a night and a day and a night, and grew a story within me. The story fed on me, on what I had known of Thiol, on the things I had noticed about ikei in the many years I had been seeing them come and go. It fed on my own dim memories of being a youngling, of having wings. It fed on my unexpected rage at his death, and my bewilderment that I felt anything at all about it.
It fed, and grew round in me and big as a tik-tik, as a journey-fruit, as an egg.
When the story was whole, I rose. I did not understand the story yet. I would not until it was spoken. So it was that I walked down the ridge and into the valley and into the village, and called my story-circle around me.
The story started like this:
“This is the story of Thiol, who was first a youngling and then an ikei. This is the story of his life, and his death.”
The story broke its shell and came spilling from me. The world is water, and we are at its center. And when we became not one people but two, when one of us chose the land and the other the air, we forgot that we had once been one.
So I told Thiol’s story, an ikei story, using my voice to add an ikei to the lines. When I was done and silence fell, I rose and walked away, going to my platform.
I would tell Thiol’s story over and over again over the years, as the seasons changed and the wind brought the ikei back and then swept them away once more. My attachment to Thiol faded gradually, as I lost the feel and the being of him, as he was woven into his story and into the lines. I kept a little of him: how the hair under his wings had felt to my hands, how coupling with him had felt, the way he would blink affectionately when he looked at me sometimes.
Most of him went into the story and out of me, and it was better that way. Still, sometimes, when the wind turns and touches my lichen in just the right way, he will come back to me, a swift-moving shadow on the endless horizon, a shape in the fog. I watch wordless as he fades again, and wonder if this is a blessing or a curse, or perhaps both.
I turn my head, taste the wind; the ikei will return soon. I am ready to catch their stories, to weave them into the lines. I will wait for Thiol, even though I know he is not coming.
I will wait for Thiol, until I have wings once more.
Kris Millering is a graduate of Clarion West 2009. Millering’s story “The Isthmus Variation” was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in 2010, and was named to Locus‘s 2010 Recommended Reading List. In 2011, “The Isthmus Variation” was included in BCS’s second best-of anthology.