By Nghi Vo
Illustration by Pauline De Hoe
“Do you love me?” The question was in the whispery roar of her wings, the sleek blackness of her body, and the direct gaze of her multitude of eyes.
“Do I have a choice?” I responded bitterly, and though her people were infamous for their sternness and their martial temperament, she hummed with humor.
“Of course,” she said. “It is the last choice that you have, after all. I would not take that away from you.”
I could have made some kind of joke about that, but instead I tapped my two front legs restlessly on the ground. My other six legs, whole, hairy and complete down to the final segments, were numbed, and would never move again.
“I don’t love you,” I said, after thinking about it. By the time I spoke, my forelegs had fallen dead as well, and I might as well have been except that I still saw, I still spoke, and I hated her face.
“That is a pity,” she said, and began to drag me over the sand.
She hollowed out a chamber with her powerful forelegs, moving the heavy grains aside until there was a vault perfect for my bristling bulk. I kept a stubborn silence, feeling viciously pleased when the sands shifted underneath her or cascaded back into the hollow. She was almost as long as I was, but she was not large, and she worked until the sun went down.
My silence quailed when she reckoned the chamber large enough, and when she approached in the dim twilight, I finally spoke to her again.
“Have you done this before?” I asked.
“No,” she said, almost tenderly. “You will be the first.
She mounted my body, rustling the stiff hairs of my abdomen, almost nuzzling them aside until she found the perfect place. There was no pain, but there was a sense of pressure and penetration, and then there was stinging warmth inside me where I ought to have felt nothing.
“Are you a male or a female?” she asked, stepping away almost daintily. “I cannot tell.”
“Does it matter?” I sniped, and she shook her wings, a gesture I could not interpret. “I suppose not.”
She grasped one of my legs in her jaws, and dragged me backwards. When we came to the vault, she moved behind me and shoved. Pushing and prodding in a manner I can only call fussy, she tucked my limbs half under my body until I was well inside, and then she started to close the vault up again, sealing the entrance with sand, debris and a small measure of her own spit.
“I am alone,” I called to her plaintively, frightened even under the effect of her venom. It was meant to keep me calm, but only so far as keeping me still so that I could not do her or hers any harm. They are not known for kindness, after all.
“No, you’re not,” she said, and completed her work.
My people hunt because we are restless, and I should have been. The memory of the last thing I ate, a little sand flea that was less than half the size of my head, echoed in my body, fading every time it passed until I only remembered remembering it.
I wondered if that was a result of her venom or if it was merely that without the hunting restlessness to drive me, my thoughts became unnatural and strange.
Perhaps it was the effect of her grub, growing inside me. Perhaps it would eat the memory of my food the same way it would eat me.
Time meant little enough to me when my body still worked, and in the wasp’s hollow, it meant even less. The only thing that changed was the quickening of the egg inside me. It did not grow, but it pulsed, and I could feel when it began to stir.
“Little killer,” I murmured without much heat. It was, but so was its mother. So was its entire race, and so, for that matter, was mine.
When it began to move, I was surprised to feel a ghost of the pressure and stinging warmth when the wasp had punched its egg inside me. The grub was growing restless inside its egg, and I knew that even if I could no longer reckon time by the water in the sand or the burn of the sun, it would be soon.
“I hate you,” I whispered to it. “I am going to die so that you live.”
I felt a vague sense of agreement from the grub, a message secreted from the rubbery shell of its egg and transmitted to my slowly decaying organs through a series of complex chemicals and movements almost too subtle to feel.
The day the egg ruptured to let the grub out, I thought of saltwater, which a colorful butterfly had talked about before I devoured her. She talked about moisture that stung, that fell together into a pool rather than clustering in distinct drops. It had seemed fantastical to me, a flying beast’s whimsy, but now I thought about water that could sting, because that was what had opened inside me.
“Hello,” the grub said, twisting free of its shell. It was making room for itself inside me, pushing organs aside in its quest for freedom.
“I’m hungry,” the grub announced, and I stayed silent as it began to eat.
When I hunted, before I was dragged to the vault, I knew I was alive. Now I was not so sure, though I knew I was not yet dead. The grub ate with the voracious appetite of the very young, pushing my viscera back and forth, twisting and turning to find more. I was being hollowed out, but my kind are hard to kill if our hard outer parts are not cracked. I did not die, and I listened mutely as the grub ate. The grub must have sensed some of my confusion, because it paused.
“It is better for me if you stay alive. The longer you live, the greater I will grow.”
It ate, and as it ate, it thrummed with a kind of music, a melody of hunger and growth.
I will grow large, and I will grow dangerous, the song said. I will fly, and I will mate, and there will be more of my kind, and we will eat the world.
My people have songs too, of hunting and hiding, of a world described in shadows and motion. I ate flying things, and sometimes their memories became mine, but it was only with the grub’s song, the song of a creature which had never known life outside of my body before, that I understood what it might be like to gain the still desert air.
I was still alive. The grub ate less frequently now, as it had grown large enough to stretch the bonds of my shell.
“You could be faster,” I told it one night.
“You could be larger,” the grub retorted, turning over restlessly. “I do everything as I am meant to.”
I could not argue with that; as a matter of fact, I lacked the strength to do more than be bitter, something that I hoped soured my viscera for the grub’s tearing maw.
“I’m still alive,” I said aimlessly.
“I’m glad,” the grub replied.
There was a long period of slowness and stillness. My kind only grow larger, but the wasp’s child needed to put out limbs and eyes, and its body needed to pinch tight in places and swell in others. I could feel the inside of my body become dry and dusky as the grub began to spin, all of its energy gone towards its body’s change.
“Are you frightened?” It took me the better part of an hour to find the words and to use them, and when I did, it seemed an unfitting thing for something dead or nearly so to talk.
“Very,” the grub sighed, slipping another thread of silk around its body. “Everything will be different, outside.”
“Outside me, you mean,” I said.
“Yes. You are the world.”
Time passed, and without even the grub’s eating to mark it, I drifted. I did not die, even though there were fine cracks through my shell, and the precious little moisture left to me by the grub had long been leached away by the sand.
I wondered if I would always be like this, if where before I had been a hunter, eight limbed and terrifying, now I was a husk that would not move, would not twitch, would not hunt. It did not disturb me like it would have before; now I was something else entirely.
I was a ghost, I realized, and the dreams of the changing thing inside me mingled with my own memories until I could remember both the hopping sand fleas that tumbled in the dunes and a dream of flight that was still to come.
When it broke through me, it was flattened for a moment against the sand before breaking it loose. The air was cool, and the sky was lightening with the rising sun, but I understood these things only distantly, like a secret told to me in confidence long ago.
“I am female,” she said in surprise. “You were large enough that I am female.”
“It was no wish of my own that you are large or female,” I said. Now my voice was just a whisper, and soon enough, I thought I would rise from my own body to go scuttling across the sands.
She moved away, testing her sodden wings that I knew would dry stiff and splendid in the last of the day’s light.
“I’m beautiful,” she said solemnly flicking her wings across her back. “I am beautiful, and it is because of you.
“I do not love you,” I said stubbornly. It was an echo of something I had said to someone, but I no longer remembered who.
“That’s fine,” she said with the confidence of a hunter, a venom-bearer. “I love you, and I will always remember you.”
Soon enough, she would fly away to hunt, to mate, and, if she was lucky, to find someone whose size and color matched her memories of me.
For now, however, she merely sat on my ruined bulk, watching the sun rise through her multitude of shining dark eyes, and together, we waited for her world to begin.