Bogleech.com's 2018 Horror Write-off:
An Hour’s Reflection
Submitted by Nausicaa Harris
So, here’s a story.
Once, there was a charming alien who, when she came down out of space on leave, always wanted to be near the sea. Before she had gone into space, she had lived on the island where her people had dwelled for countless years and made very fabulous canoes, and she often wanted to feel a vessel dance over water instead of the night between the stars. And so she asked where she could find a sea and sail it for a few days, and was told to go south to the cliffs where dwelled the People of the Crescent Knife.
It was a little more than ten years ago – true years, the time it takes Ll’rynyi to circle Kyanha (Beta Hydri, in the naming of those who see our sun by night instead of day) – that the alien soared into one of the villages that the People of the Crescent Knife hung on the cliff. She asked if she could moor up her mechanical witch’s basket for several days, and lend her soft, brown, one-thumbed hands to the work of water and of wind, and the people of the village cautiously accepted. She was frightening, the ghost of a brood-host walking among them, but the glowing green gem around her neck spoke kindly and well, and she soon sang the responses of the Songs with her own mouth.
One of the people of the village was a tall young woman with plaited chaetae, who looked at the night above her and wanted to know its currents and its tides, and to draw up her vessel on the fantastic shores of night. She asked the alien, after the alien had visited several times, if she might lend her hard, gray, two-thumbed hands to the work of stars and space, and the alien said that the masters of the stars would be happy to teach her their mastery. The tall young woman worked off the last season of her apprenticeship, and grew closer-than-closest to the alien when the alien moored her witch’s basket. By the time the young woman packed her bags to cross the sea more sunless, the two had tied the ropes around each others’ shoulders and together plunged into the waves, and as the one-that-is-two they climbed the beanstalk and walked aboard the great beast that sailed the night.
And I was there with them, insensate, in the pupa still, for that young woman was my mother, and was determined I should be hosted with aliens and learn about other kinds of people, and other kinds of lives.
This is really more for others’ edification than my own, but it’s a nice mythic background.
The pupa split, and I walked on two legs instead of six, and from there I molted eight more times. This story happens right after that ninth molt, and it was a strange new time, the first time I’d molted with The Worms That Make You Trans (the direct English translation of the Ajnani term). My body was foreign to me, new spurs, vocal sacs, venom ... I’d just completed my shore-year on Ll’rynyi, and I had chosen my new Crew to sign on with and make myself a person on my own. That’s a year in the reckoning of Earth, and of the people who wander space with Earthlings, which is two-fifths the length of a true year, the time each ryny carries within their body, molting every 725,144,210,439,264,000 cycles of a caesium clock. Earth years have never felt right to me.
I was in my isyeye period, where I was integrating with my new Crew. Isyeye is a false word, taken from the stories of an Earthling called Le Guin, where she described a practice that she could never have known would become real; it means “making a beginning together”, especially for the crew of a spaceship, and especially for that of the Crews who live most of their lives in space. We had not yet left the planet, and I was still having some big-city jitters, my benevolent parasites helping but not all the way; I’d been living with my mother’s family in the village on the cliffs, and wasn’t liking the cycle of Earth’s moon I had to spend in the worm basket of the Jhinani empire, particularly with my newly-thickened !onek accent.
Second digression in as many story beats, but I want to talk about the weirdness of the Jhinani empire for a bit, in this age of starfaring – it’s not that there’s any pressure to present a Ll’rynyi with no empires to the aliens; it’s that the aliens don’t value what the Jhinani value. There’s an !onek joke that goes, “if we had time to fight people instead of the wind and water, we’d be kings and queens of the land, not the Jhinani”, but that’s just it – we gain face from knowing we can survive the elements, but the Jhinani gain it from noble combat, from making sure their names, their deeds, their words are spoken. And the aliens don’t value that. The aliens have worlds enough and time, to paraphrase a poet of Earth, and enough bad history with war and dominion, so what they value are the roe of peace – knowledge, travel, art, enrichment. The Jhinani are in an odd position where they have to either turn their face from the Starlords, and insist that their values are untouchable – and they know that the Starlords would not be mad but disappointed, which we all know is worse – or acknowledge that the deeds of their ancestors matter less – and that’s hard for anyone anywhere to admit.
So, for now, we’re still in the position where the old guard of the Jhinani – the ones who lost slaves in the Order of Shattered Chains and authority and prestige in the Order of Return and Regret – are lashing out at the star-eyed young empress in the best way they know how, namely, belittling anyone provincial and trying to get the guard to harass them if there aren’t any Starlords in sight. And I’m a particularly fun mixed case – bright augmented reality glasses and a smartfiber jacket marked with all the signs and sigils of the Starlords make me, in their eyes, a traitor and a threat, but my crescent knife and my accent, devoid of rhotics and with the affixes slipsliding every which way like unsecured cargo on deck, make me uncivilized and simple.
It sucks complete ass, and it’s why, back then, I pretty much refused to leave the majority-!onek river district, or the beanstalk station where my new ship was docked, unless my new captain, Ribe Ebbert, directly ordered me to. But my isyeye came in the long, slow cooling-off that is autumn on Ll’rynyi, and I was at least going to enjoy my thrice-damned Hour of Reflections. I’d made myself a mask this year, as I always did, and this year it was a rrakḧagelll̈ekh, like the glowing design I’d had etched into my still-soft chitin after I molted. My alien mother has a number of tattoos, ink dug into her skin, where it sits beneath the layer that is continually replaced, and I’ve always envied how convenient it is. For rynyr, we have only a very short window where the integument may be decorated so permanently without causing serious harm, and even then the pattern only lasts a year, as the etching is cast off with the old exuvium.
Making a mask bears a lot of significance in Ajnanigaraï cultures, because of a facet of language and culture – the noun asola, which I’ve translated as “face”, refers both to what’s on your head and to your power, your presence, as you’ve already heard me use it. To make a mask is to change your face, and thus to change how you relate to the world. I’d made the rrakḧagelll̈ekh my mask over my shore-year; I needed a monster that was big and powerful and would rise from under the mountains and devour my foes and be big enough to contain all my emotions. (Having to have emotions is transphobia. And that sentence, while of course true, likewise marks me as an heir of alien worlds where gendered traits could not be swept away in a molt.) Looking through the eye-holes of that mask, I was armored and well-armed, and no dreadful events would force me to drop my weapons, as goes the Ajnani translation of an English song I like. The dusk stretched ahead, and the Crew of the Hydri Queen went forth from the ship in their masks, sixteen strong, and fell down the beanstalk and set our locomotor appendages again upon the soil.
We’d ended up in one of the wide and wild public parks the Jhinani keep in their cities, not a full-scale hunting preserve but untamed enough that you could hunt your own dinner, if you wanted. Not that we needed to, especially at the Hour of Reflections; the smells of fried food on sticks and sour berry soup twined around our nostrils and antennae (depending on species). Festival food, the clattering masks of the park-goers lit by the colored kite lanterns, the basso-profundo rumble of a Jhinani choir singing seasonal songs felt through my feet as much as through my tympani – it spurred me to animation. My Crew had all seen the planets of the Eventhre Reach, and many had seen Hours of Reflections among Ajnanigarar offworld, but I was the only ryny among them, and it was their first Hour on Ll’rynyi. I was taking it upon myself to be guide and wayfinder, and offer the perspective of compound eyes. (Okay, our quartermaster and fs child also have compound eyes, but they aren’t nearly as discerning as mine, both in a cultural sense and in the sense that their species relies more on touch and smell.) I was teaching them the words to the song the choir in the park was singing, “Lightning Strikes Up” – the real Ajnani words, not the various translations their docent AIs provided them. I want to call it a pop song, but Ll’rynyi got mass media right at the extranet stage, and we haven’t developed genre in the way that worlds where large-scale distribution required whole entangled systems of production did. “Lightning Strikes Up” has been a popular Hour of Reflections song for a year or two, but it’s simply the crest of the current wave of the shifting Ajnani oral tradition, and still follows a mode of folk music that’s been going for decades.
It’s not a particularly happy song – it’s about what we do with our fear of death – although it’s got a happy tune and an ending that’s not totally depressing, but it’s full of the monstrous imagery of the holiday, and it got us all singing together. Captain Ribe said our observer drive would be sending us halfway across the Reach if we were trying to make a jump in this kind of mental harmony.
It’s kinda ironic, actually, that the actual weird shit in this story involves me going off alone, but I want to lay out all the stuff that was going through my ganglia – and frankly my worm basket – at this time. Stuff about the treachery of clocks. Stuff about how weird my family situation is, and how remarkable the witchcraft is that allows two women to meet when they come from worlds so far apart that the light that shone on one at the hatching of her child still has yet to reach the other’s homeworld. Stuff about how weird my world is, and how strange it is to navigate the politics of a world that knows the stars are home to other kinds of people. Stuff about the new carapace I was building around myself on isyeye with a new Crew, and how that weirdness was welcome.
I didn’t go off alone because of the emotional soup; the sight of the masks, the taste of festival food, and songs sung by folk unaccustomed to click consonants provided the right seasoning for me to swallow that soup. (I like soup as a metaphor.) I went off alone because of the non-metaphorical soup, and the fact that it had by now traversed my entire digestive system. The Jhinani are good at public latrines, at least, and they’ve gladly adopted the chemical sacraments with which the aliens exorcise the demons of disease. I did my business, and as I was trying to make my way back to the group I stopped by one of the wide, temporary lean-tos that filled the park for the festival. It wasn’t one of the usual standbys – selling neither food, masks, nor souvenirs, telling neither riddles, stochastic models, nor stories. It just said, “WAITING”, and I’ll admit that my first impulse was to think, Is this absurdist theater? But I poked my head in, nonetheless.
Heads turned towards me as I moved the door aside. “Ah. Our rrakḧagelll̈ekh has arrived at last. You’ve kept us waiting. You coming?” It was a very matter-of-fact question, asked by someone wearing the mask of a canopist. The four mismatched compound eyes were covered in tiny mirrors, and I watched my reflection repeated dozens of times as I said, “… Am … am I your rrakḧagelll̈ekh? Do you need … confirmation?”
“We have all the confirmation we need.”
“Uh … then, sure, okay.” If there was one thing I’d learned from my shore-year, it was that taking the risk was usually a good idea. (I did also quickly post found smthg cool; b back whenvr; turng on my geoloc8r now & will send out a flare if theres trouble in the ship groupchat; I’m not an idiot.)
“Then we’re all ready. Come on.”
This is absolutely the part in the horror movie where I get eaten by ghosts, I thought to myself. Always kinda figured that’s how I’d go.
Our party numbered eight, which is an inauspicious number in many Ajnanigaraï cultures – it’s the number you get when you take away all a ryny’s thumbs. The canopist was the leader, followed by a tentacle-bearded giant and a long-jawed ghost. Then came a pair of cruel mercies with their mirroring masks, then a kokh’ror-headed moonmolter walking claw in claw with someone wearing the featureless mask that has become visual shorthand for an indigo stain. I came at the rear, and I felt like the long, lashing tail of a rrakḧagelll̈ekh as I wandered behind them, clad in Crew jacket and trousers instead of the shapeless straw coats everyone else wore. We composed the classic carnival of monsters, I began to realize, as we wandered deeper into the wilds of the park. The other seven chanted the nonsense-chant that Jhinani priests use to lose themselves in contemplation, which was a little weird for me to be part of, but it’s not one of the practices they ever attempted to force on the peoples of the high south, and I ended up going along with the uuuu-nnnna unala.
The bristled vines hung heavy and fragrant, waving as we went deeper into the dark, until we reached a place where they enfolded a little circle in the brush. There was a fire burning there, and low stones formed seats around it. I stopped short, struck with a sense that this place was wrong, forbidden, unspeakable – every fluke in my body was screaming, “YOU SHOULD NOT BE HERE.” I couldn’t even attempt to propitiate the local spirits, and apologize for my trespass – this place was, in the world of spirits, what a black hole is in the world of atoms, and it sucked away at my perception. I pulled my jacket tighter around me, and looked and noticed the other people gathered here.
Many of them wore masks, blending the features of rynyr and animals native to our world, and I think the only thing that kept me from running was the alien cultural context that gave me the word “furries” and all the goofy harmlessness that entails. (Also, fuck English for making that a pun.) They wore actual clothes, in old formal fashions from what seemed like all the nineteen nations of the Empire, and looked like a furry AU version of the Jhinani imperial court of perhaps a century ago. A closer look exposed other monsters of older tales in the throng – here a cairn walker whose mask looked to be made of actual stone, there an exhalite who stank of ozone and salt. Here were the trumpet and lantern heads of those-that-stand-in-torpor, there were the pale distortions of those-that-ask-for-passage. I’d been living with aliens long enough that I actually tried to squint, despite my lack of any structure that can narrow my field of vision, because here was a skybait whose flames looked too auroral, and there was a time-divider whose body looked too blurred, to be practical effects.
And then I looked up, and saw something huge blotting out the stars, something that the vines seemed to pull down into our circle. I sat on one of the low stones, glad my mask hid the fixed, dead-eyed grin of someone recognizing that she was completely in over her head.
Someone sitting across the fire spoke up. They wore a shapeless hooded robe, in the style of a Stakyi bishop, but not even the Stakyi are that wide at the shoulders. Small kokh’ror ̈r aren’t that wide at the shoulders. “Our young friends here finally made it.” Their voice reminded me of how the aliens sounded trying to sing in Ajnani earlier that night – they could make all the right sounds, but they were struggling to not make sounds that rynyr can’t make.
“Took a while to collect our rrakḧagelll̈ekh,” said the canopist.
“And how is she doing?” asked the person in the hood.
Desperately racking my ganglia to figure out what species you could be under that robe, because you sure as void aren’t a ryny, and while there are some aliens you could be, you don’t sound like you’re using a docent, I thought. “Well enough,” I said aloud.
“Well enough. Then let us begin.”
The person in the hood reached up to one of the tougher vines and snapped it off, and stuck one end in the fire. “On this night, which is our night,” they began, holding up the brand.
“On this night, which is our night,” repeated the crowd, and I prayed that my lateness in joining in would go unnoticed. (I’m not really sure what I was praying to, since my lares would with any sense be staying away from a place that would spaghettify them as surely as I would be spaghettified if I fell into a black hole.)
“We meet in the strange places of the world …”
We meet in the strange places of the world …
“To know that we yet live …”
To know that we yet live …
And tell our stories.
The person in the hood handed the brand to the moonmolter I had walked with, who then spoke in a grumbly kokh’ror voice to match their mask. “I speak, I, the Moonmolter, the bristly and bulgy, the savage and strong, the loving and loyal, whose hearts pound hard, who will break all foes, who roars from the pain of life, the riot and the revel of it. I found my mask in the winter of last year. My clutch feared me, and I feared me, and I wanted blood enough within me to bear that pain, and other pains. I put on a kokh’ror’s shell, and molted over it, and now I molt and unmolt like the cycle of the moon, and reveal myself for myself. I can make love and make battle, armored and well-armed.” And dreadful events shall not force them to drop their weapons, I thought. Maybe they heard that song in the same translation.
The moonmolter handed the brand to the indigo stain to their left, whose voice was hollow and came from slightly in front of their mask. “I speak, I, the Indigo Stain, the puppeteer from the depths, the shadow on the wall, the bodiless, the cunning, who must be accepted, invited, and lo, how foolish is such an acceptance. I cannot be anyone without another to be through, to mark and mar, to feed from and own as a whole. I found my mask in the summer of this year. I could not play the part that others asked, and with my need for the activity of others’ minds, the part they cast me in was parasite. I took that mask upon myself, and slithered over obstacles, and did monstrous things and was loved despite them. I am stained indigo, and that stain is a welcome one.” They handed the brand to one of the furries behind them, and I noticed that they leaned to the side and touched their mask to that of the moonmolter.
The brand passed from hand to hand. I heard so many stories from the furries (which, in English, is but one vowel away from the more accurate descriptor “fairies”) of the useful metaphors they had found in the conjunction of animal and courtly role. I heard the canopist speak of their failing body and the repair they found in the canopic jars; the long-jawed ghost spoke in a cheeringly thick !onek accent of how their long jaws let them voice their questions loudly. The tentacle-bearded giant spoke of standing high above those who would trample them; the cruel mercies spoke in turns in Ornahal accents – surprisingly, for there are no cruel mercies in the myths of the northern desert – of appearance and assumption. The cairn walker spoke of need for a body that felt no pain; the exhalite, for vengeance and redress; the time-divider, for freedom from constraint; the skybait, for artistic vision. Those-that-stand-in-torpor spoke of a need for isolation; those-that-ask-for-passage spoke of a fear of it.
(In the interest of full disclosure, some of this – and this is mostly a direct callout for the giant – sounded to varying degrees like a metaphor for kink content. And, like, cool, but it did make the scene a little uncomfortable.)
The brand came to my claw close to midnight, when by rights I should have been deep in torpor. Captain Ribe had @ed me maybe half an hour ago, saying, Whatcha up to? Everything peachy? I’d replied, weird … spontaneous … support group, i think; situ8ion any fruit of ur choice and she’d left it at that. I clutched the brand for a moment, unsure of what to say. The gathered masks turned to me, silent, and somehow the situation was not awkward, but patient, expectant.
“I speak,” I began. “I, the Rrakḧagelll̈ekh, the burrower, the time-eater, the Conqueror Worm.” That sparked a susurrus from the gathering, though whether it was from the alien literary reference or recognition that the analogy wasn’t entirely apt I’m still not sure. “The mountains are my egg and my home; I, the child of the powers of the deep earth, I drink the world’s hot blood safely, like milk from a broodhost. My hosts bear the name of the soil –” I cringed a little at that one, behind my mask; it was a markedly unsubtle reference to the etymology of the name of my second mother’s species – “and I grow large and larger in their care. In the earth, I am unchallenged. I found my mask in the spring of this year. I am a child of the water and the wind, but my broodhost is the soil, and feeding from the witchcraft of the earth I have grown grand and terrible, and I need monstrousness to contain myself. And I am lucky, in that those around me know what a huge and monstrous thing I am, and they want such a thing to be part of their clutch.”
And then I handed the brand to someone behind me who had not spoken, and waited patiently and listened to the group finish their stories, and I felt overwhelmingly at peace, which I hadn’t felt in a long, long while. And at the last, the brand was returned to the person in the hood. The hood flapped with their breath, as they said, “On this night, which is our night …”
On this night, which is our night …
“We have gathered, and told stories …”
We have gathered, and told stories …
“And now we hide our strangeness …”
And now we hide our strangeness …
“Until the world needs us once again.”
Until the world needs us once again.
And then the masks began to vanish, one by one, back into the brush. It could have been the motion of skilled woodsfolk, but I don’t think it was. It was more like the way holograms fade when you turn down the opacity, or mist burns off on a bright morning. The classic monsters with whom I had come began to get up from the circle, and started to walk silently into the night, back in the direction of the festival. The hooded person sat, immobile.
I opened my mouth, letting loose a question that had just formed. “Uh, honored? You didn’t … get to tell your story?”
Everything in this story has, so far, been explicable. It was a weird support group for furries and monster aficionados that met at the Hour of Reflections. The skybait and the time-divider had dealt with aliens and were skilled holographers. The person in the hood had some elaborate supports in their costume. I was up late and dealing with a lot of weird emotions, and was probably indulging in some self-deception along with the metaphor that everyone there was using. I really don’t want to imply – because I really don’t want to believe – that I actually stumbled into the actual Monster Mash, because I don’t think those things exist in the world of atoms, or at least not anymore.
But I’m still trying to come up with an explanation for what happened then.
A shape moved, high overhead, and a something as huge and massive as the night snuffed out the fire with a blur of motion and a noise like “shaaaaaaaa”. The person in the hood raised the brand to their face, and … I’m being hesitant because this still sounds absolutely stark fucking bonkers, not to mention a twist found in ghost stories on pretty much every planet. But.
I watched that firelight, in a single, brief, instant, dance off a leg the size of a ship’s mast, before the leg moved up and away into the night, as silent and awful as the end of the world. I had to look away, and so my gaze turned to the person in the hood as they blew out the flame, leaving the clearing in darkness. I stumbled back through the park, found my way to the beanstalk, and went back up to the ship in a daze.
And I swear, by the powers of the water and the wind, that that fluttering hood was their face.
It’s still late summer on Ll’rynyi right now, and I’ve currently got some shit to deal with. But when autumn rolls around, I’m gonna do my best to make it back to that lean-to in that park.
’Cause I really think I need to go to that support group again.