It was the choices I made earlier that day that started this whole thing. Regret isn’t what I feel; however, my conscience is far from clean. The thoughts that torment me always spiral back to this one question: is it the little things, the people, and the bonds between them that matter most, or is it the greater good, the bigger picture, and the ethical but difficult choices that are intended to write a stable, peaceful future? I fear the answer is much more complicated than I want it to be, and that even if I knew it, nothing would change.
I have another choice to make. No matter what I do, I will lose people I love. My heart shall inevitably break, so I only hope that my spirit is stronger.
-Bobbi Oswald Thunderbird
The mosses were shriveled and brown when the moonlight first brushed the face of Joha’s newborn child. The cacophony of night creatures announced the returning rain, as the healer and midwives left for their own shelters while mother and daughter found refuge in Sonjalaär’s tree.
Strong gnarled roots caged the ground below the flood season’s waterline, and a ladder of rope and wooden rungs hung down from a large bulging knot in the tree, where an oilskin curtain was pushed aside to reveal a hollow living space, humbly furnished and illuminated with patches of bioluminescent lichens growing across the walls and rounded ceiling. The tree’s sole inhabitant, the hestian woman Sonjalaär, piled more furs and blankets on her cubbyhole bed in the wall and helped the new mother lie there with her infant.
Once settled and away from foreign gazes, Joha began to whimper, without any hint of a maternal smile. She clutched her newborn to her chest and whispered a pained mantra that only she and her mate, kneeling beside her, could hear.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” she repeated, stroking along her baby’s rich brown bone crests and across to the shiny black nub of a horn protruding from her forehead. The child’s wide eyes were crystal blue like her mother’s, lined with a dusty flaxen tan that spread across her cheeks in splotches and freckles the color of her father’s pale skin.
There were six people that slept in the tree that night. Aside from the three that were the couple and their child, the home’s usual occupant hosted two more guests, the first humans to ever set foot in the space.
Bobbi Oswald Thunderbird, the adrenaline in her blood finally running thinner, sat awake at Sonjalaär’s side on a pelt of a coarse-haired beast. On the floor behind them lay Bobbi’s cousin Storm, her sleeping bag draped in a tent of insect netting.
Bobbi didn’t know what to say, or what she was allowed to say, so she stayed silent. Sonjalaär’s curiosity, however, prompted her to speak.
“How is it that you can understand our tongue?” she asked with a tilt of her head.
Bobbi looked the hestian woman in the eyes and was surprised how she had not noticed how vibrant a pale chartreuse they were before, with dark heavy lashes and crimson eyelids adding to the mesmerizing beauty of the creature before her. If she had been allowed, Bobbi would have taken a picture, to capture the lavender of her skin, the iridescent patches of earthy yellow, the ruby accents on her limbs and face and her glossy black horn, all dimly illuminated by the pale blue light of the lichens.
“Joha and her trade forge taught me,” Bobbi answered. “I’ve traveled with them on and off for a year now, with a few other humans.”
“So there are more of you who can speak with us?”
“Yes, there are some, but not that many. We each specialize in a different study, so the focus is not on language for all.”
“What about her?” Sonjalaär asked, gesturing towards the sleeping figure of Storm.
“She helps us with transportation,” Bobbi said. “She cannot speak Helklestian, but one of our companions knows a little. Tomorrow you will meet her and the other person in our research group; they’re coming with the rest of the trade forge to make sure Joha and the baby are alright.”
“Research group? What are you researching?”
“Put simply, this land and everything that lives here.”
“Yes, that’s what my particular study is.”
“I could teach you those things,” Sonjalaär offered. “I also want to know—” She froze, statue-still for a few moments, before blinking and seeming to brush off whatever thought had seized hold of her. “I also want to know about you humans.”
“There is not much I can tell you,” Bobbi admitted.
“Why not?” Bobbi could hear a tinge of offense in her tone as Sonjalaär sat up straight, her long neck making her a whole head taller than Bobbi.
“I don’t know what to say, to be honest. There are things I cannot tell you for your own sake, and I would reveal too much by trying to explain. Please understand.”
Sonjalaär leaned closer then, leaving their foreheads centimeters apart. Bobbi caught her breath and stared straight back into Sonjalaär’s eyes, focusing on the wide, vaguely heart-shaped pupils as they dilated and contracted in the relative darkness. Somehow, Bobbi knew that she was being evaluated in that moment, so she held her ground. Sonjalaär hovered the tips of her long antennae near Bobbi’s temples, but made no moves to touch her. Instead, her eyes blinked a question unspoken. Bobbi nodded firmly, forgetting that it was a human gesture and not hestian. Either way, Sonjalaär seemed to understand.
It was an odd sensation, the touch of the antennae. Physically, they were warm, but where Bobbi truly felt them was in her chest, in a welling of emotions she couldn’t name if she tried.
If souls existed, then she could surely feel hers being drawn towards Sonjalaär’s own, mingling in a conversation which knew no boundaries of language or species.
Bobbi hadn’t noticed her eyes were closed until the feeling subsided and she opened them once more, to find Sonjalaär sitting back on her heels, a soft smile glittering in her eyes and dancing upon her lips.
“You have good intentions,” Sonjalaär reflected. “That’s what your heart sings.”
Bobbi placed a hand over her chest and wondered what exactly the antennae’s empathic abilities had sensed. She knew very little about their function or accuracy.
“You must walk with a wisdom borne of pain,” Sonjalaär said. “Your spirit is scarred and fearless.”
“Does that mean you trust me?”
“So that I can know you as well, what can you tell me about your own spirit?” Bobbi asked, almost hesitantly.
“I couldn’t say,” Sonjalaär mused. “We cannot read our own spirits. You know, long ago we could, until a god, Allatteel, took away this ability, leaving each hestian’s life with a new, mortal purpose of self-discovery.”
“I see,” Bobbi conceded, making a mental note of the mythology. “But hasn’t someone else read your spirit for you before?”
“Not in many rotations,” Sonjalaär replied stiffly. “I’m not comfortable with sharing my spirit with anyone now. Certain things are best kept to oneself. It’s like you just said: some knowledge should be withheld for others’ sakes.”
“So we’ve both got secrets, then,” Bobbi smiled, feeling almost shy.
On the sides of Sonjalaär’s head, the two triangular cooling flaps twitched upwards slightly, a subtlety Bobbi had come to recognize in hestians as amusement or curiosity.
“We both have spots as well,” Sonjalaär pointed out. Bobbi blinked a moment, before realizing the hestian was referring to her many freckles, akin to the splotches of mustard yellow iridescence covering Sonjalaär’s body. Bobbi placed a hand between them on the pelt, palm down, and let out a single huff of quiet laughter. “Yes, you’re right,” she said.
Sonjalaär placed her own hand right beside Bobbi’s, one of her thumbs brushing against Bobbi’s pinky.
There was nothing more to say in that moment, so they slowly let the night envelop them in sleep.
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