of Deneskan Beastcraft by an Aouwan Researcher
Written by Malka Older
Illustration by Gutti Barrios
Length 7570 Words
Highlight to read content warnings:
The sight of land on the horizon was marvelous indeed, the mountains as we approached grew ever more impressive, but none of it to me was as amazing as our greeting, at the mouth of the Kassel harbor, by a sea serpent of the Denesk Bestiary, arranged to guide us into the berth.
It would have been an impressive Beast even were it not my first glimpse of what I had traveled so far to study: enormous, though difficult to measure exactly as parts of it were always underwater; shimmering of scale in many colors, and with jaws that opened extremely wide to display long curving fangs. I was able to get a good view of these when it sank them into our bow to draw us over or around some of the more treacherous sandbanks. I have heard that it was the complexity of this harbor that first inspired Deneskans to align themselves into Beasts in order to make sea transport possible, but then, I have heard many other stories for the origin of the Bestiary as well.
Once the serpent had settled our ship most of the passengers, recognizably weary from our long sea-journey, hurried to prepare their goods and themselves to disembark, but I remained at the rail, hoping to see the serpent separate into its parts. However, it merely ducked into the water with rapidity. I had some doubt then as to whether it was, in fact, one of the renowned Beasts, but I did see, as I walked back the length of the ship, another vessel entering the harbor which it presumably had to succor as well, and in addition, I have never seen or heard of such a serpent before. Nonetheless, I have to confess that there is an assumption here and I did not observe its composition or decomposition.
As I made my way ashore I was struck by other wonders. Did I disparage the mountains? They now arrested my attention, looming over me higher and higher than seemed possible, as though they were about to topple, overbalanced; not toppling, they seemed surely to float in the air. Unreasonably, I peered at their peaks one by one, wondering if I might spy the crown of the great kraken among them, though I knew we must be too far from the capital, and the kraken, though enormous for its kind, far too small to stand out among mountains.
With a superstitious shudder, I returned my gaze to the nearer heights. It was a generous demonstration of the keystone importance of personal experience, for I immediately understood why Deneskans carve height into their confusing maps, for the painted cartography I had studied before I came gave no sense of these great masses. And yet, I also missed my paints, for the colors! I could not say whether it was the contrast with the great gray masses above that made the viridian of the plant life seem so brilliant and deep, or whether there was some trick to the light, perhaps hitting horizontally against the rocky face? Or perhaps the colors themselves were, truly, brighter and more beautiful.
And yet the Deneskans themselves rarely paint, or at least there are no acknowledged masters of that art from their land. The buildings I saw were all in the uncolored state of their raw materials, wood and stone, except the glass was occasionally colored with a fringe of transparent red or blue. No, Deneskans put their colors into their weaving, another fact which I knew before leaving and yet was surprised again by when I arrived at the guesthouse which had been arranged for me by the embassy.
(I gloss over here the unimportant logistical details of that arrival. Fortunately there was a surfeit of donkey carts. I had packed with parsimony, anticipating difficult travel and uncertain conditions, but even so my bags were awkward and the walk to my destination long. I did wonder whether the white-ankled donkey pulling my cart might be, perhaps, a conglomeration, and peered anxiously at its travails on the narrow streets, but it was a small animal and on the whole it seemed unlikely).
The guesthouse was a narrow, white-fronted house on a quiet street. I passed through the short hall from the entrance and found myself once again in the uncovered air: a large courtyard, paved with neat gray stones. Despite the opening to the sky — bordered, true, with an arm’s length of overhang — the walls were hung with carpets and weaving of the most vibrant colors and extraordinary patterns. I could not help stepping in slow mesmerized dance around to look at each one in turn, while my hostess, a slender woman of uncertain age, waited patiently by the lounges in the center of the space.
“Most remarkable,” I told her, trying both to express my admiration and to explain my strange behavior. “Extraordinary pieces.”
“Well,” she said, eyelids fluttering with what seemed to be pleasure at the praise, but then she continued, “and isn’t your Denesk well-spoken!”
I can’t deny being pleased to hear that myself, having worked so hard on it during my years at the Academy, and with this foundation of mutual appreciation we took tea and ate small, star-shaped cakes that she informed me were referred to as little brilliances. I was feeling very content indeed with the way the words formed themselves into sentences and danced off my tongue, the gentle rhythm of the conversation, the sense that I was speaking Denesk, and in the midst of that there was a whooshing noise of displaced air. We both looked up, although I was the only one who cowered. The courtyard permitted only a portion of visible sky, and as the noise grew louder what I saw was a flash of brown and barred gray that my mind reconstituted into the feather-tip of an enormous wing.
“Was that —” I wasn’t sure how to finish the question.
“A kestrel, yes.” Dame Zilun’s voice included a note of pride, perhaps even smugness. “Messages from the Duchy, most likely. That kestrel often passes over us as it wings in from the mountains.”
And it’s real? I wanted to ask, or How is it possible? But I could feel that to speak my astonishment would put me apart from her, collapsing the artifice I had built up with my near-fluent Denesk. I put myself in mind of Vered’s axiom: Question small and answerable, ask questions that they know how to answer and that are close to their ground. I scavenged for such a query, and came up with: “How many people…” I wasn't sure of the verb. “How many people is it?”
“If it’s the kestrel out of the Duchy, nine.” That same well-contented tone. “Some kestrels are fewer, you know, but the Duchy wouldn’t spare the expense.”
My heart was quickening with the sense of discovery. “And how do they choose them?”
I saw immediately in her face that I had asked something too obvious. “Well, the people volunteer, of course!” She was staring at me as though I had revealed myself a child, because it was a thing a child might have asked. “Naturally, not everyone who wants to finds a place, they will sometimes trial two or three combinations before they find the most apt.”
I nodded, keeping in any further questions and comforting myself that I would pack clay over that fracture over the next days, careful again until she could let herself forget my difference. But the stumble reinforced my exhaustion, and a short time later I asked her permission to retire to my room, which proved comfortable, and dine there privately.
I set off for the university the next morning with my anticipation sharpened by the newness of the streets, the shapes of the houses, the odd fashions on the people I passed. I stopped at an open bakery window for two of the fluffy cakes called chaffies, and arrived eager and sweet-breathed.
Nonetheless, the first week was undeniably dusty and frustrating. Professor Laskin, with whom I had corresponded and who had shown his worth and considerateness in the choice of the guesthouse, certainly tried to be helpful, even if he seemed quite surprised that I was a woman. He introduced me to the professors pertaining to my inquiry, and helped me to understand the unfamiliar system of the library.
But my questions were both fundamental and basic, and so very far from the expertise of those Deneskan academics who studied the Bestiary. It was like I was asking how it was possible that trees existed, or how to make my own rocks. For them, Beasts were a fact, and they studied their histories, or tried to puzzle out whether the Beasts mentioned in famous ballads were true or exaggerated. I wanted to understand, or witness. That first day in the guesthouse courtyard I had seen, if it was true, people fly through the air on their own feathered wings. I had to know.
More than that, I had very much hoped for the insight that comes with practical experience, but the professors directed me only to lectures and texts. When I asked about the possibility of joining a Beast, I was met with shock.
“Women are more suited to the Head position,” Professor Laskin told me, “and that requires considerable experience.”
“But how can they gain experience if…”
“By moving from smaller Beasts to larger, by assisting with Beasts, and so on.”
“I’d be happy to start on the smallest Beast you can find,” I assured him, “or to assist without incorporating —”
“Cohering,” he corrected me, but he did not seem any more inclined to help me find a place.
Only when one professor, an elderly man in the department of biology, told me that he didn’t think it was possible for non-Deneskans to cohere into Beasts did I realize that was probably what they were all thinking. “Wouldn’t it make a genial experiment, in that case?” I suggested, but he just laughed.
It was dispiriting. It would certainly be acceptable for me to return home with the same kind of abstract treatise that my few predecessors in such visits had brought back, enlivened with some sketches of the serpent and the kestrel as I could manage. But I had hoped for something more; hoped, perhaps to bring back the secret of these marvelous creatures so that our country too might benefit from their added strength. I rather thought the elegant provosts of the university who had approved my application for this travel hoped so as well, although they had never said so much. If it was impossible…but even worse than learning that would be not learning it, because I couldn’t even find a way to try.
I was on the point of searching for Beast crews and begging to be allowed to assist or observe, with the difficulty that I did not know precisely where to find them.
I had returned to the harbor several times to watch for the serpent, but had not yet been able to discover where it transformed or which of the many workers arriving at the dock in the morning might be a part of it. I did learn, from my readings, that Beast crews had to take time apart, known as isolate, between coherences, to avoid some dire but unspecified consequences of spending too much time cohered. With that knowledge and a small telescope I was able to discern from my seat on one of the lesser-used piers that there were at least two visibly different serpents, presumably taking their turns day to day in their work.
The kestrels were even less accessible, flying directly to the roof of the Duchy House and decohering there, out of sight and quite protected by the bureaucracy that represented the arm of the kraken in Kassel.
I had by this time read enough to be sure that the donkeys pulling their carts were certainly not Beasts in the Deneskan sense, and I was at a bit of a loss as to where to look for more, until by chance one evening there was a fire three streets over from the guesthouse. The alarm went up, voice to voice, and Dame Zilun and I hurried over to see if we could help. The house had ignited strongly, the walls blackening as we watched, heat buffeting us back, and then I realized that it was not only the heat, but a strong wind, and a second later I saw the wings and the swooping neck of —
It was a dragon. Dragons, in Aouwa, do not exist, and I had always believed that to be a universal condition of the species. I had taken reference to dragons in the annals of the Bestiary as figurative or exaggerated, large lizards perhaps.
The dragon before me was blue and copper in the light of the flames and when it roared, the blast of icy air almost knocked us over. It flatted the fire like a firm hand crushing it into the ground. In the sudden darkness, I could just make out the movements of the Beast, snuffing around in the ashes so delicately as not to tip over any remaining upright structure. I heard a gushing sound, presumably a more targeted bit of frigid temperatures to quell any embers. The people around me showed no fear or even awe, crowding in on the dragon immediately with thanks, and a few moments later it launched itself into the air in a great dark glinting movement and I heard the displacement of its wings.
I found myself quite out of breath, and it took me some time to compose myself. Fortunately Dame Zilun suggested hot cream tea to soothe us after all the excitement, and that gave me time to build a Veredian question for her. At first, however, I could muster courage only for a comment. “An impressive Beast,” I managed.
“He is well enough,” she agreed. “The municipality keeps him on full-time, you know? I understand in many places the dragons are only volunteer, but it’s times like these that we appreciate it.”
That alone gave me an entirely new area of research to open up at the library, and I decided to respond instead of sticking to my planned query. “Indeed? Volunteer dragons seem…” I meant to say unwise, but my brain caught up with the phrase volunteer dragons and shut down the whole act of speech for a moment.
“It is foolish, yes!” Dame Zilun seemed tickled that I agreed with her so thoroughly. “Especially on the coasts.” Why especially on the coasts? I wondered, but she clearly thought it obvious. “Lulled into complacency, you know. But even if it were only for the house fires like that one, a solid, well-trained, well-cohered dragon is worth the effort.”
I swallowed. “Do you know any of his…er…components?”
“Who? Oh, Integument?” She seemed to think about it, which amazed me; I thought if I had known anyone who made up part of a dragon, that fact would always be close to the top of my mind. “Hmm. One of my sister’s former students was the Tail some time ago, but I think he’s moved on, and I don’t believe I know the new one. I’ve seen the Wings of Integument in the market, though, they must live near here.”
I was attentive at every visit to the market after that, but I had no real idea what the Wings looked like and was never sure if I’d seen them.
Then there was the day that I woke, bathed, dressed, and stepped out of the guesthouse only to turn and step back in and walk myself, buzzing with shock, back to the courtyard where Dame Zilun was finishing her leisurely morning meal. I could not find the right words or question. Vered had surely never been in a situation like this one.
“What is it, my dear?” She asked, and, when I, unable to form a coherent answer, had gestured her outdoors, she looked at the enormous, dark red horse rising over the docks with merely a puzzled frown. Then her expression cleared. “Ah yes, I believe there’s an emissary from Welfes who should be arriving soon; the ship must have been sighted.” She sniffed. “The Duchy Arm likes to parade the brave Kassel colors, but the ambassador won’t care. They are only passing through here to see the kraken.”
I was of the opinion that anyone would be impressed by that monster. “That…is the Duchy Arm?”
She gave me an incredulous look, and I saw the fissure when she remembered that I wasn’t Deneskan. “Well, of course not. The Duchy Arm is the Heart but…Oh, I had forgotten that you hadn’t seen our Municipal Beast before.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’ve always thought it a bit impractical, you know. Has to be right on the shoreline. What if we want something that can deal with an inland threat? Or go out to sea more? True, we have the serpents for that, but…”
As she chattered on I eyed the Beast, which had turned to look out towards the oceanside horizon, and I realized that it was in fact only the front half of a horse, the rest of it being underwater. Part fish, perhaps? It did seem impractical, but I restrained myself from saying so, remembering that while I will freely complain about the failings of the tram system in Noudra, I prefer outsiders to praise it as the marvel that it is.
I walked, still feeling somewhat anesthetized with the unreality of it, to the harbor. What reason in stopping at the university, when what I wanted to understand was right in front of me? I arrived just as the Welfesian ship was entering the harbor; the half-horse watched it from on high, then swam — I saw the tail then, scaled and finned where it slipped above the surface — to meet it. One giant hoof was placed on the deck — gently, the ship barely rocked — and then the horse changed and compressed, and then it was gone and the deck of the ship more crowded than it had been moments before.
I stayed and watched until the ship had cast anchor and the boarding party had come in two longboats, the Duchy Arm escorting the ambassador. The horse did not reappear, and I felt it increasingly difficult to imagine how I would monograph this experience in a way convincing to my fellows. But as a scholar convincing them was, ultimately, less important than documenting, so that evening I scrounged some of my precious store of paper and ink — Deneskans carve their writing into wood, meaning supplies of my sort were hard to come by — and memorialized it as I could.
I might not have gotten any closer to Beasts than that, and the results of my journey might have been as incremental and subject to polite skepticism as every other academic on the topic, had it not been for the arrival of itinerant scholar Lusufil at the university. I met her in the hall one day, dressed in a most velvet shade of purple, and as we happened to fall into conversation I explained to her my research interests.
The itinerant scholar is an innovation particular to Denesk, as far as I know; one who is not attached to any one university but roams amongst them and also spends time in the smaller towns. As I understand it from my observation of such scholars when they visited, the universities appreciated them for bringing ideas and news (and gossip) from one institution to another. Lusufil herself explained to me that during the time between universities, in towns, she would present some recent research to the locals, but while it might seem like her role was to teach or at least promote the universities, learning from the townspeople was in fact much more important to her. In this way she ensured that individual universities not become too isolated from their peers, but also the entire body of scholarship in Denesk did not become closed off from those without the vocation.
I had only been talking to her for a short time — long enough for us to find a table and order tea and rosebud cakes — when she patted my hand and told me I needed to pursue my research beyond the city.
“I know a place for you, as it happens,” she told me. “There’s a Beast in Vulup that could use a crew member for a short time. A smallish town,” she added, correctly guessing I had no idea. “North of here, along the coast.”
“And…and…you’re suggesting I work as a crew member?” A terribly constructed question my professors would have been appalled by.
“Isn’t that what you want?” She blinked at me. “Mind you, it’s not work, at least not as I understand the Aouwan sense of the word. It’s a volunteer Beast. Strictly occasional and unpaid.”
(I barely heard that last bit, not that it mattered.) “I am not a Deneskan. Will I be able to…cohere?”
“It’s an excellent question and I look forward to the answer! Do write me, won’t you?”
“The usual way. Oh, you mean to connect?” Lusufil took a message cube from her satchel and began scratching on it with the most ornate penknife I had yet seen, turning it and sliding the faces as she filled them. “You can take this as an introduction from me. You’re looking for…” she hesitated in thought for a moment, remembering a name or sorting possibilities. “Bidren, that’s the Head.”
“The…Head.” Aware of my inanity, I tried to think about Veredian questions or fractal inquiries or fructiferous discussions or any of the other research concepts I had learned, without success. Then I remembered Lusufil was a scholar herself; surely I could speak more directly? “I have been researching as hard as I can, but I still do not know what it means to become a part of a Beast.”
I meant that I had no idea what steps to take or preconditions to fulfill to do this, but she snorted and said, “That’s why I’m pointing you to this opportunity! And, of course, because they need someone. Now, this is a badger, for managing occasional digging. They’re in need of a Digestion as the usual one is expecting a child soon.”
I looked up from my tea. “I thought women only took the Head position.”
She scoffed a little. “Certainly, in these cities with more people and fewer Beasts and each very exciting and prestigious, they can take their pick of crew members. But in a town they’ll take what they can get.”
“And the woman will go back to her role after the baby is born?” I asked, more cautiously. I had read something about women rarely participating after they had children, but I must admit that in that moment when the goal of my journey seemed within reach I felt an unseemly overture of fear. What if it was a trick, a trap that would clasp me forever into the flesh of a Beast…
“Yes, yes, for an emergency Beast, like a dragon or a kestrel, it wouldn’t do. They never know when they might get yanked into coherence. But this badger is strictly for planned digging, for wells and such.”
I had the choice between twenty hours on the railroad, which looped well out of our way to connect with the spur from Zwent, or twelve on what I was told was a busset that would follow the coast as directly as possible. I chose the latter without having a clear idea of what I was choosing. In the event the vehicle was something like a tram, but rounder, and where I expected to see fuel or steam there was nothing. Instead, when it was time to depart, a monk sitting at the front, by the driver, started a little metronome, and we rolled forward. I noticed later that a similarly outfitted monk sat in the back; I later attempted to ask for an explanation of this curious mode of transportation, but never received a satisfactory one.
A trip outside the major city could hardly make a foreign researcher like myself quail; nonetheless, I had not been looking forward to the journey. Twelve long hours to arrive in an unknown place, find an unknown person, and perform an unknown task that might be inherently impossible. I could not even begin to imagine what my sequence of actions would look like at the end of the trip, and so expected to spend the ride fretting.
But the odd rhythm of the craft was unexpectedly soothing, and my eye and imagination were seized by the land we passed. I had become somewhat inured to the mountains during my weeks in the city; freed from the surrounding buildings, they overwhelmed me again, while on the other side — past the slumbering profile of a tidy older woman dressed in rich viridian shades — I caught glimpses of the myriad edgings of the ocean, from boulders to sand. The woman across from me descended in Koll, and the seat opposite was empty for a while, and then a family boarded at a town whose name I did not catch and a man sat there and worked over time to keep his two small children entertained until he gave up and stared out the window while his wife cajoled them from the seat in front. I turned to the other side and watched the wrinkled mountains.
Some hours later, I stretched my cramped body from the seat and staggered out, with a wave at the impervious monk, at Vulup.
It was well into dusk. I had descended from the vehicle on a grassy sward which sloped towards the sound of the sea, and below me three points of red flame in a line suggested the main street of the town, the black bulk of houses obscuring them in shifting patterns as I approached.
I had not often ventured from my Kassel guesthouse at night, Dame Zilun being a sedate sort and I myself inclined to rest after the newness every day. I had been peripherally aware that there was nocturnal society centered around the public hearths, but I had never pushed myself to experience it. After my long journey I was weary and aching, but the crowds around each fire fascinated me, and I could not resist slowing to watch the clusters of women, men, and even children, who talked, drank, and ate in the halo of heat. At the second bonfire two women and a man pounded different types of drums while a man bellowed out a song, and I hung transfixed for several verses before I remembered to ask someone on the outskirts of the audience about a guesthouse where I might spend the night.
The room was smaller and damper than the one Dame Zilun offered, but truthfully I remember little of it. I removed my sweaty travel clothes, submerged myself in blankets on the narrow bed, and fell asleep listening to drumbeat and surf.
In the morning there was a knocking on the door of my room, and a young man scarcely out of boyhood pushed in a multi-layered cart topped with a tea set and decorated at every level with options for my breakfast. I was utterly charmed, and with the fresh sea air through the window was already feeling that it had been a wise and responsible choice to leave the city. This gave me the courage to ask where I might find the — I hesitated — badger? He showed no more surprise than if I had asked for the best teahouse, and told me that I was in luck, as it was their practice day.
“Naturally, they can’t properly practice, as Lefwen is out waiting for her baby and it wouldn’t do for the Beast to work without digestive possibilities,” he gave me a knowing look which I attempted to replicate, “but they’ll be around the middle hearth, squawking and planning and trying to recruit a temporary Digestion.”
Another doubt assailed me: if this was a position that no one wanted, would I be the gullible foreigner tricked into it? “Why don’t you do it?” I asked, as disingenuously as I could manage through my unease.
“Oh, I’m not nearly old enough,” he said, eyes wide. “Besides,” he lowered his voice, “I’m hoping to work on a serpent one day. But that’s not part-time like the Descant.”
“Descant. The badger. Only incorporates when she’s needed, you see. The serpents have to go out every day, for the fishing.” And with the cheerful nod of someone who has spoken clearly and completely enough to leave no confusion whatsoever in their wake, he swung the cart out before him and left me to my breakfast, some flat brown cakes that tasted a bit like sorghum biscuits but weren’t.
Wrapped against the seaside chill, more noticeable there than in the city, I ventured out to take stock of the town in the sunlight. A superficial glance could have situated me in any small town of Aouwa, wooden houses with tilted roofs, but the foundations rose in stone up to waist level, and merely turning my head inland showed me the mountains. And the hearths, not nearly as evident in the daylight but still burning low and warm against the cold.
There were four people standing to the north side of the middle hearth, and I approached with the morning air feeling a bit too clear and my hands trembling in consciousness of how lost I was. “I’m looking for the — the badger.”
The largest man turned towards me, shoulders broad and bulging. “Don’ see a badger here, do ye?” (I am attempting to convey the rural accent of Denesk with this orthography; it is clearly inadequate, but let it stand that I had a fraction more difficulty in following than in Kassel, and felt subsequently that much more unsure of myself.)
“T’s all right, Swanwith, I’ll take this,” murmured a woman, a little older than myself, who dodged in front of the man’s swinging braids. “That’s the Forepaws,” she told me, with a flick of her eyes that looked like resigned annoyance in his direction, as she led me to the other side of the hearth. “I’m Bidren, Head of the badger Descant.” There was a pause, into which I should have inserted my name, but I knew as soon as I spoke it that she would conclude I was Aouwan. I hesitated, and she went on as if knowing whom she was speaking with was incidental. ”What would ye speak on?”
“I heard — that is — The scholar Lusufil suggested I speak to you about the open position…”
“Oh, ye’re looking to join?” Bidren scanned me with combined delight and appraisal. She was a compact woman, solid muscled and decisive, apparently unconcerned about my opinion of her. A competent woman, the kind I like, and I found myself warming to the idea of working with her. “That would be — we’ve been waiting for weeks to find someone and we’re all tired of it, that’s why Swanwith was so shortpants about it, he thought ye were another jibing at us. But could ye stay until Lefwen gets back? It’ll be months.”
“Yes, I’m —” I stopped, suddenly reluctant to say that I was studying them. But I had to tell her, my training at the university was very clear on that. “I’m a — a scholar, researching Beasts.”
“Oh?” She sounded not offended, but mildly curious. “Why?”
I fumbled for a way to explain that they were marvelous and strange and no one understood them, and she waved away my embarrassment. “Never worry, ye can explain later. And ye want to cohere with a crew for your research, is it? Well, we’d be happy to have you if you’d join us. As long as it’s more than once or twice, mind. If you’re willing for the months, then…”
“But —” How could they decide so easily? “You don’t know me at all.” Bidren was shrugging quizzically. “I’m Aouwan,” I said, all but shaking her. “I don’t even know if it’ll work for me.”
That at least seemed to surprise her. “Ye’re from Aouwa! My friend’s cousin went there, on a trading voyage. Said it was…different.”
“It is different,” I said as mildly as I could. “For one thing, we don’t make Beasts.”
“Ohhhh.” Something had become clear. “That’s why ye’re researching them!”
“Deneskan scholars research the Bestiary too.” It was so ordinary to her, she couldn’t even imagine studying it. “But yes, I am trying to learn about it, understand how it happens. Of course doing it myself would be the best way to learn!” Or so I thought at the time. “But I’m Aouwan, so…”
“I’ve never heard of an Aouwan cohering in a Beast, it’s true,” Bidren said thoughtfully. “But then, I’ve never met an Aouwan before today.” She grinned at me. “We might as well try! Let’s get them all together.”
“But —” She was already in motion. She rallied the group by the coals, knocked on a couple of doors, and in a few minutes there were seven of us on the hillside not far from where I had arrived the night before. I was a little overwhelmed by greetings but I did manage to notice that one of the new people was a very pregnant woman. “But — oh, are you — er…” I had forgotten the name, but the woman, young and cheerful despite the weight she was heaving around, smiled at me.
“Yes, I’m the Digestion usually. Wish it did me more good with my digestion right now!” There were some chuckles that sounded like it wasn’t the first time the joke had been made. “Came along to support, help ye find the way of it, and also to thank ye for doing this. Hard to find someone for this length of time, most people want to join for a day to try it out or forever and not this awkward in-between.”
I wanted to stammer more cautions and reluctance but my researcher’s instinct overcame me, just as my professors had said it would. “What is the way of it?” I asked, and then, as she started to answer, pulled out my paper and a pen. That led everyone else to gather, paper not being the common form of scribing in Denesk, and they watched as I tried to write, but what she was saying — about feeling and reaching and communicating within the Beast — didn’t make much sense to me. Even so, it was far richer and more direct than anything I had found back in the archives, and I was sorry when Bidren touched her shoulder and said, “She’s not going to understand until she tries it.”
“But.” I was saying that so much today, and the Deneskan word was starting to sound strange in my ears. “But what do I do? How do I feel like a badger?”
The Deneskans had spread out around me in what, I realized, was a rough configuration of their shapes within the badger. Bidren turned and leaned around the men who claimed the Heart and Spine positions to smile at me. “Don’t worry about feeling like a badger. Descant’s an experienced Beast of long history, she’ll slot you in. Best thing for ye to do is focus on the action of it, what we’re to do. We’ll eat, then you digest, but again, that’ll come to you once ye’re in. Then, we’re going to dig.”
It was only her smile that held me to keeping my mouth closed and nodding, and then —
I am not going to be any better at describing this than all the books I sweated and swore at in the university.
No. I can be a little better. At least I know that I am writing this for people who have never experienced coherence, who don’t even believe it could happen.
It was not instant, but it didn’t take much time either; like stepping forward swiftly without thinking, or like shifting your eyes from something far in the distance to something right in front of you.
I don’t know if I felt like a badger, because I don’t know what a badger feels like. For the same reason, I can’t say whether I felt like a digestive system. But I gurgled with emptiness, I sloshed and gulped, and also I was aware of powerful arms, that were Swanwith’s but attached to me, and I could see with Bidren’s eyes, Descant’s eyes. The food was there, Bidren ate it, and it arrived to me as bulk and energy. I set about squeezing it and straining it and sending it where it needed to go, all the time aware that Descant was trundling on four legs up the hill, Swanwith and the Hindpaws behind me moving in the easy rhythm translated between them by our Spine. I could feel the grass beneath my heavy pads and the slope, but distantly because my focus was still on the matter I was crushing and the nourishment I was extracting. Food was more complex and tactile than I had ever imagined. We set to digging, Descant dug, Swanwith dug with his arms and shoulders and the Heart beat and I settled what was left of the food and Bidren looked and thought and the Hindlegs braced us and the Spine carried messages among us, and then I felt them let go, and we were sitting on the hillside, six people and a very large hole, and Lefwen waving at us from below.
Bidren walked with me back to the village. “Ye should drink a lot, it’s hard work, and rest up today. Where are ye staying? Oh, it’s all right, Nung’s guesthouse, but why don’t you come stay with me? We don’t coalesce often enough to need serious isolate, and we’ll be cozier like that.”
I might have protested further, but my insides were feeling increasingly queasy at that point, and Bidren was a reassuringly solid presence. She explained cheerfully at the guesthouse and shuffled myself and my belongings to a wooden house, a single stripe of rose-colored glass in the front window. For the rest of the day I sat by the courtyard fire while she plied me with hot tea and plain food, rising only for my trips to the privy.
“It’s a normal reaction, the first time,” she told me, rubbing my arm. “Yere body’s sorting out what’s what. It won’t happen every time.”
By then I already felt considerably better, if weighty with exhaustion and wonder. “It’s so…” I couldn’t finish.
“Now ye know why we do it,” Bidren smiled. “That, and because we need it, of course. There’s two homes as have been waiting on wells this past month. Ye have a rest, day after tomorrow we’ll start with the first.”
Wrung dry as I was, it seemed a long time till the next coherence, which I wanted with a hunger like that of a lover.
Indeed, those first few weeks, when I was not a part of Descant I was thinking only of when I would feel again her badger power, the throb of our organs and the supple plurality of coherence.
I would like to be able to claim that this was academic eagerness, but I am ever aware that if I have succeeded in my further researches, there may be others who follow in this course and experience the shocking difference of experience that comes from coherence, and may not have such a kind and able guide as I had with Bidren.
“It’s a common thing,” she told me gently. “When people first start, they often want to cohere all the time.”
I flushed. It was the time, perhaps a month into my tenure with Descant, when Bidren had let slip that, in case of some urgent digestive need, it was possible to temporarily cohere just, for example, the Head and the Guts, while the necessary was managed. I had intimated that perhaps we might do that immediately and often.
“But it’s dangerous,” she went on. “That’s why, even the emergency Beasts, the regular ones, they have rules for isolate time, to keep their crew from getting too dependent, forgetting themselves maybe.” She smiled at me easily. “We’ve all been through it. But you have to know. You’re taking this back to others.” (I had already become so accustomed to Vulup pronunciation that it sounded more regular to me than Kassel speech). And she made me copy carefully all the rules for isolate, the amount of time and the distance and the frequency and the alternatives and exceptions.
There was plenty of room at Bidren’s house. She lived with her aged father, a carver who, though nearly bedridden, still did some scribing or decorative pieces for the village, sitting in a daybed by the courtyard hearth and joking gently with anyone who came to visit or commission. But three of her siblings had moved out to marry, and I had my choice of the two empty bedrooms, so even without leaving the house we were able to stay out of sight of each other for the times that were required, which wasn’t so often since our coherence also was not over-extended.
I would have thought that being a badger, a part of a badger, a part of a badger that I would have previously always categorized as rather ignoble or at least unmentionable, would be a life-change that I would never fully accustom myself to. Instead, it swiftly transformed into an easy way of life. We cohered every three days usually, sometimes every two if there was demand for a large dig. In between I would work on my notes or, often, follow one or another of my crewmates on their activities. Like everyone in the village I helped to bring the fishing catch in, and so got to know Minatory, the sea serpent, and his crew. I joined Bidren as she delivered carvings for her father or discussed commissions, and helped Etherred, the Hindpaws, with his schooling.
While being the Digestion (I write this word as a proper noun, the way the Deneskans do) of a badger seemed an easy enough adjustment, cohering with a crew of previously unknown individuals into a single entity was stranger. Imagine a study group, but — more. Or a family, but — all intent on a single purpose, through different roles.
Swanwith, gruff as he was, grew welcoming after some time. He was impatient with any activity other than digging, and could be abrasive in his scorn for it, but he was also pleasant company at the pub after a coherence and unexpectedly kind when he found me one day, on the beach, quaking with homesick tears. I soon knew that Guillard, the Heart, could be irritatingly querulous, and Justral, the Spine, seemed to hold the Beast together more than he did. Etherred was young and arrogant: though I offered to assist with his studies, and did so, I soon knew that he would be the continual grit in the smooth turning of Descant’s wheels.
It was that feeling of the irritation among a group of earnestly participating colleagues that put me in mind of the university — my university, back in Aouwa. I thought of my student group, and how the one philologist annoyed me to no end and yet could not be shaken free from our knot. I thought of the professors, who seemed sometimes to interlink into a seamless cloth; and yet, hadn’t I seen Scholar Ifelanial sniff at Provost Aleolan once, and in a way that suggested a long history of unseen sniffs?
It was this likeness that led me to believe, even so early on and long before I had learned anything about gestating Beasts, that it might be possible to create a form of the Bestiary in Aouwa.
And yet, I hesitated, because it seemed more of a flaw in our crew than a situation to emulate. And perhaps it was my fault, not Etherred’s. I remembered that Dame Zilun had said (how long ago it seemed!) that there were trials to find crews that could work together. Perhaps they were enduring my imbalance until I was gone.
I could not bring myself to ask that, and in my evasion I broke my illusion of understanding again.
“How is it possible for Descant to have so much disagreement within her?” I asked Bidren, and she looked at me like a foreigner for the first time in weeks.
“Don’t you have different parts of you wanting different things?”
It was a shock, when she said it, how true it was (and I remembered Vered’s corollary: sometimes, one must admit to not knowing, so as to learn). Part of me wanting to eat, part wanting to sleep; part of me wanting to love, part of me reluctant; part of me hearing a distant beat from the nearest public hearth; part of me entirely focused on her words. And at that moment, especially: part of me knowing it was nearly time for me to leave, and part of me wanting to always stay.
© Malka Older
Malka Older is a writer, aid worker, and sociologist. Her science-fiction political thriller Infomocracy was named one of the best books of 2016 by Kirkus, Book Riot, and the Washington Post. She is the creator of the serial Ninth Step Station, currently running on Serial Box, and her short story collection And Other Disasters came out in November 2019. She is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and her opinions can be found in The New York Times, The Nation, and Foreign Policy, among other places.