That night, Obsita was swarming, which was comforting for us. Exhausted after days of patrolling, hungry for food and company, it was gratifying to return to the tribe. Raids from the vespers and avis were thick in Saltus recently; they stole from our oothecas, murdering our burgeoning young. Of course, all of us were permanently at threat, and the knowledge of it lay thick amongst us – heavy as approaching thunder – but we were not afraid. As warriors, we were strong, ready; our instinct to protect.
The sultry night air filtered into the club, leaving a residue of moisture on our flesh. Strong drinks were required, and hopefully, if we were lucky, something more. Many of us were experiencing the pressure of the season – of Tempore – which was so much more than our usual urge to defend the tribe. Our mating instincts simmered, barely contained, and arguments rose amongst us. We tried to restrain ourselves. Conflict weakened us – we knew it. We also knew what would put an end to our frustrations. A few hours in Obsita would help. Not all of us, but hopefully a few, at least.
Kash-Ha removed her sword, as men passed by – some in pairs or groups; some singly. Their conversations stopped as they observed us, heads swivelling, absorbed in our arrival. Kash-Ha handed her weapon to the worker at the entrance, who placed it together with the others in the locked store. Relieved of any extra weight, the eight of us left the dank, dimly-lit reception. As the door opened into the plant-laden bar area, the creaks, chirrups and hums of conversation escaped into the foyer, along with the melodic whine and unbroken drum beat of the bambusa band on the stage.
‘Come,’ Kash-Ha said. The tallest and strongest amongst us, she led us into the room and towards the bar.
We carried ourselves proudly, weaving through the teeming tables of males who, again, surveyed us with interest. Of course, they were captivated – our entire way of existence was alien to them. As soldiers, we risked our lives, fighting and guarding the territories that surrounded the village, while they observed the ordinary daily routines of a worker.
I was glad to be born a woman. In our prime, all of us, our muscular forearms were gilded with spikes, and glistened under the lights. I scanned the watching faces. Most of them were familiar, and since I reached maturity, I’d rejected one or two. Some of the males were so puny it revolted me. I noticed that on this occasion – because of Tempore – their numbers were depleted. It was expected at this time of year.
Rast-Ku concentrated on a far corner, beyond the dance floor.
‘Dish-Hu is gone?’ I asked her, as she leaned on her four legs against the bar beside me. Last time we came to Obsita, Dish-Hu – particularly muscular for a worker – danced with Mu-Pla, as many of us stared with envy. She was not with the patrol tonight.
‘She is resting during Priapus,’ Kash-Ha told us all, days before. We understood, but we missed our companion. In a few more days, she would be back – Priapus was inconvenient, but only a short-lived burden.
‘His own fault. Caused by weakness.’ Rast-Ku only responded to my question after a long pause. ‘Not quick enough.’
She turned away from me, her head gliding in a smooth one hundred and eighty degree rotation, to study the bottles lining the bar. In her unwillingness to talk further, I sensed her shame as it coalesced with sadness.
‘Rhizophora sap. No ice,’ she said to the worker tending the bar. ‘Make it large.’ I indicated with my arm that I wanted the same. He nodded in response.
‘Is there food tonight?’ I asked.
‘No – finished.’
I sighed. No matter. The drink would replenish my energies.
Rast-Ku’s unhappiness bore heavy on me. ’In a few days, Mu-Pla’s ootheca will bring forth – ’ I searched for the right sounds. ‘It will be a time of celebration. You will see.’ I was trying to brighten the mood, but I understood the other woman’s pain. Rast-Ku had many sons and daughters, but a mother loves all her children, and feels the loss of just one. It is why the women defend so well.
Our drinks were placed before us.
Rast-Ku, slowly turned back to me, her eyes black orbs resting on the top corners of the inverted triangle of her face. ‘I hope you are never in my position, Chu-Ku.’
Unable to meet her gaze, I concentrated on my drink.
Since our arrival, the buzzes and trills of the men, situated in the semi-darkness, gained momentum. Meanwhile, our gathering of eight found ourselves caught in shimmering cascades of green and white illumination. This contrast between light and shade was intentional. We were on display, but we did not mind. We were proud of our roles as defenders of the tribe; of our strength and physiques – our long necks, our mighty wings folding around the curve of our distended abdomens. Kash-Hu untucked her wings with a flourish, and cool air momentarily soothed my face in an invisible flurry, before she folded them away again. I caught her eye with a smile, as the music stopped, and a heavy stillness filled the room.
A disturbance in a distant booth attracted our attention, and a lone body strode to the dance floor. His frame was smaller, more slender and sinewy than the females assembled in the room, but this was expected. None of the males of our species could match our beauty or brawn, but we respected them for what they were: each tribal member was an essential part in the success of our existence. His face and torso were a particularly vibrant shade of green, and his matching emerald eyes were met with hisses of admiration. I’d never noticed him before, and assumed he’d reached full maturity since our last visit. No other male moved forward tonight, and I could sense a shift in attitude amongst the patrol. Hope transformed to anticipation – none of us would reject him if he made a move.
On the empty dance floor, an orange spotlight lazily glowed above the green fronds of the Pteridophyta that filled the area, and the moist earth beneath it. The space around this section was hazy with an intoxicating, woody scent, and the bowing, fragile vegetation added an ambience of intimacy. He moved fluidly into the lit area, and as he lifted his arms, the Pteridophyta brushed against him, its leaves quivering with each touch. Alone on the dance floor, immersed in amber luminescence, the worker appeared even more inviting. The music tentatively began again, and ripples of expectation transferred from the audience at the tables to us at the bar. He danced as if in a trance, transferring weight leisurely between legs, his body bobbing delicately like the necks of the Avis at war, but with far more elegance. His arms raised and lowered in alternating patterns in the air. We were hypnotised. Aching.
As the power of the drumbeat intensified, he directed his attention to me. Mesmerised by the deliberate repetitions of his movements, I held my breathe as he drew nearer and nearer. I caught sight of Kash-Hu. Her surprise was evident, but rather than stepping towards the dance floor as I expected, she edged back.
Rast-Ku encouraged me forward with her arm. ‘It’s your time, Chu-Ku.’
‘What shall I do?’ I asked, searching her eyes for an answer.
There was no hesitation. ’What is right.’
On the dance floor, he caressed my face with his antennae, and I followed him deeper into the foliage.
‘I am Lan-Si,’ he said, continuing to swathe my head and forearms with the tender kisses of his skin on mine. I could think of nothing but his touch.
‘Chu-Ku,’ I said.
He pulled me towards him.
‘You are a handsome warrior, Chu-Ku.’
‘I am strong.’
‘I know. And I am fast.’ He laughed. I’d not had very many dealings with men, but his demeanour was attractive.
And we began then, a new dance of a more primitive form. He swung me around so my wings were against his chest, and together, in harmony, we swayed; an ancient rhythm that is the headspring of our kind. Those oscillations enslaved me. I could think of nothing but that moment: the delicious pressure of his body, the solidity of his forearms on my back, his triangular head above me. From the depths of my daze, I discerned the beating of the drum, in unison with my own heart, and the blood pounding in my head.
‘Chu-Ku’ he hissed, ‘Chu-ku’
He slowed, and with the change in cadence, there was a shift. I stirred, as if from an enchantment, my earlier hunger reborn. There was no graduality – it simply consumed me in a powerful wave: like love, like joy, like grief, like the arrival of a new life. In a swift turn of my upper body, I grasped his face. I looked deep into his eyes; witnessed a twitch: the knowledge of what was about to happen rendering him almost immobile. I observed his remonstrations with himself; they flickered over his face in an instant. He’d been taken off-guard – as caught in the moment as I. He forgot who he was with.
He pulled back. Once, twice. But I was faster, stronger: my arms twice as wide as his. He ceased resisting – understanding the futility, weak from our dance – and I opened up the two plates concealing my jaw, and sank my teeth into the soft centre of his face, which broke apart more readily than I could have ever imagined. The taste was delectable, his flesh more succulent than the fattest caterpillars of late spring. As his head disappeared morsel-by-morsel, his brain secretions dribbled from my mouth onto my chin. Our lower bodies remained in the positions of our original love dance – his torso and legs continuing to convulse – but now a large drop of fluid, the colour of the forest leaves, oozed from the open wound of his neck onto my breast. Gradually, the reflexes of his body halted. As he dropped to the floor, reality seeped in; the knowledge of what I’d done.
I looked up, saw the patrol watching. Rast-Ku’s eyes were blacker than ever under the green aura of the bar. She nodded at me, and I understood. It was time to finish the job, to ensure I consumed the utmost nutrition required for the eggs I would soon lay in an ootheca; to guarantee the best possible future for our people. Bending to the floor, I gorged, devouring Lan-Si whole: his neck and arms, his abdomen, legs and wings.
And all the time, with each mouthful, I thought of Rast-Ku and her son, Dish-Hu; I thought of Mu-Pla in her time of rest, and how I would soon join her. Finally, as I held my now swollen abdomen, I spared a thought for Lan-Si, who sacrificed himself, although unintentionally. In our union, he was now part of me forever.