The Hhest, my ancestors, called this soft twilight Ssayat Tlichat – the Awakening Hour, holy to harvesters and hunters and travelers and priests. Holy to the hundred thousand ghosts of the deep desert’s heart, whose numbers I will soon join if no one answers the bell I rang at the shrine. I did ring it, somehow, with a dagger in my chest. It’s still there; I fear to remove it.
Oh, Khassa. I want to close my eyes to stop seeing his face, but they have dried open. I can only lie still, bleeding out drop by drop into the cooling sand, and pray silently as the sun gurgles wine red on the teeth of the dunes.
I listen, until the vibration becomes a song under my skin, to the droning chorus of waking predators, and the answering frenzy of their prey, snatching up the last fruits of the day. I think I even begin to see the glimmer now, of the watering hole that nourishes them all. And I follow the stalking shapes that approach me slowly from that oasis with the calm, detached curiosity of the nearly dead.
Long, spindly arms dangling, red robes whipping, tapered horns seeming to trail meters behind them, the two Hhest slide gracefully down the ridge of sand. They are Arzetl, priestesses of Ma Arza, Mother of Sands. As they turn, their reflective scales shimmer in the dying light, colors ricocheting like buckshot off my retinas. Broken off bits of the broiling sky, they burn their way toward me.
I have come to this place to find them. My cousins, grown distant. No, not grown. Forced. There are centuries of Hesstuman bioengineering between us. Khassa said I was mad to believe they would recognize me as one of their own. But here they are, and he was wrong.
Long shadows flow over me as they stoop down, impossibly slender for their height. In the time before humanity, before the Synthesis, we would have been matched in size. Observing each other with the same segmented gaze. The tiny, needle-narrow teeth that would have lined my snout – we call them mouths now – would have greeted them with the same perpetually peaceful half-smile. So much lost in the name of peace. Progress. The Hhest will welcome you home, alright, Khassa told me the night we argued for the last time, as a sacrifice for Ma Arza.
My love, my executioner, have you returned safely to the citadel? Have you decided when to share news of my disappearance? Not my death. Not the righteous murder of a Recessivist… yet. I do not believe you’d wish others to know you’ve been sleeping for so long with a heretic. But I will never forget that you admitted it to me once: sometimes, in your dreams, you wear the downy skin of your human ancestors. When I told you I’d still want you, even if I too were transformed – though I’d have to be careful with my claws – you shuddered with revulsion. I would kill you, you said, then laughed too quickly, and pressed your thighs to mine – the same flesh, neither soft skin nor hard scale but something perfectly in-between. Forever just warm enough, forever a lie.
I would have gone into the desert without him, to the Arzetl shrine, and waited for the holy ones to hear the bell. If they accept you, he said, that’s the end of it. You can never come back. As if I didn’t know I’d be shot on sight, reviled as a traitor for shamelessly rejecting all that the Synthesis has done to correct us. The exothermic Hhest unable to work in the heat of the sun; the fragile humans vulnerable to thirst and disease. What have we not achieved together? Besides, of course, children. They’re still working on that.
I did not expect, after last night’s fight, that Khassa would offer to go all the way to the shrine with me, to say goodbye. But he arrived this morning with amulets for each of us – the black one to close the scorching eye of the Mother of Sands; the blue one to open the eye that soothes with tears of compassion. The knife I would not know about, until it was driving up through my breast.
It is the taller of the two Arzetl who speaks, and I squeeze my brain to understand the sequence of clicking syllables. Chiin is a diminutive; young something. Young what? How arrogant to think that hours of poring over archaic texts would prepare me for the spoken Hhest language.
The priestess hunches her gaunt, gleaming shoulders, and as she leans over me, she dangles something on a long piece of cord: a rectangle of black ceramic etched with intersecting lines and curves. One segmented golden eye follows its pendulum motion, almost facetiously.
Carved into the ceramic is the Hhest glyph Ssoistu. Turn Away. This was the amulet Khassa had been wearing, to deflect the gaze of Ma Arza. The amulet that remains about my own neck is the blue one, which bears the glyph Tatchq – Your Child.
The high-pitched, whining rasp I hear frightens me, until I realize by the pain in my chest that it’s my own laughter. I’m silenced when my ear is caressed by a series of growling clicks, terminating in a low, pleasing purr. I do not flinch when the shorter Arzetl gently touches my face, though her long claws are as cold as Khassa’s dagger. I am capable of very little movement. But I am capable of surprise.
The cord around my neck snaps when it’s cut, like the string of a bow. My amulet is passed to the tall priestess, who speaks a long incantation over it, so low it rumbles in my guts. She arranges the ceramic pieces on the sand beside me, one on either side of my body. In another moment, in a flash of searing pain that finally opens my mouth in a scream, her sister has pulled the blade from my chest. This too receives a benediction before it’s laid above my head. Mazed with agony and loss of blood, I don’t understand how I can be conscious enough to be observing this. This or the almost tender slicing of the clothes from my body, which are then neatly placed at my feet. I am being… prepared.
No. No! I am her child, like you! I was coming home! I try, and fail, to shape the words in their language – any language. There is no sound left to me but whimpering.
The rising moon, a dispassionate crescent, gazes down at my nakedness. The Arzetl do not need its light to finish their work. It is the tall one, kneeling across my body from her sister, who reaches into the wound that Khassa so conveniently made, and pries out my heart.
I feel nothing of this. I feel nothing at all anymore. The sea of stars cradles me in its narcotic swell as the sisters solemnly devour their portion of my sacrifice. They rise together when they’re done, their jewel-bright eyes nictitating as they regard me and each other with calm, timeless, crimson smiles. I comprehend two words of their parting utterance with perfect clarity: “Ma Arza.”
The Mother comes in multitudes, through the night and into the day. Singly and in pairs and in packs. Clothed in chitin and fur and feathers, with claws and teeth, mandibles and beaks. And the hundred thousand ghosts that drift forever through the sand and the scrub and the stone welcome me home.
Sun Hesper Jansen is a writer of science fiction and fantasy, magical realism, and poetry who divides
her time between south-central Wisconsin and northern New Mexico. She is the author of the blog
‘Away from the Machine’ (awayfromthemachine.wordpress.com) where she writes on/as literary
therapy for multiple sclerosis.