Thousands of Ones swam the dark water of Deep Lake, trailing sleds filled with seed, crested heads rising and falling with each slow stroke. Lutchir bobbed in their midst, attention focused on canyon walls rising into evening mists. Old Ones said the Canyon extended to the edge of the world. It was the mother who created them and the father who held them in his nest. Rainwater gathered from vast barren plains spewed from its edges to form Deep Lake, bringing clay with which to build.
Lutchir paused with his sleds and gulped air into float pouches beneath his arms. After thirty days' journey east and back, gathering Calmot seed and roots, his shoulders ached. Membranes between his toes itched where small swimmers had dug into them.
He tipped his head back and dangled his top-crest in the cold, sour water. The carved entrance to the Wall caverns wasn't visible. Lutchir thought of his brother, Cereb, home in a dry nest looking after six hatches. He remembered Cereb's hatches' softness, how they cuddled on his lap to sleep.
"You can't rest here," an old female complained.
Lutchir motioned her around and flopped his top-crest forward. Skin gray from long exposure to water, she reminded him of a clay sculpture in the final stages of shaping and smoothing.
The female snorted. "Grubs feed on you." She pushed past, splashing water in his face.
Lutchir deflated his pouches and swam again.
"The Wall is close," a deeper voice said. Lutchir raised his head. A female swam on her back beside him, a young mature with black eyes and glossy skin. Her abdomen protruded like Bright Mountain. Lutchir couldn't help staring at blue streaks running the length of it to their nucleus--a circular opening ringed in red. The area was extended and swollen, ripe with eggs.
Fatigue faded quickly. He wanted to touch her skin, slide his hands down her abdomen, open his egg pouch--No. The choice was hers. He forced his eyes to her face and concentrated on her mouth's wrinkled corners.
"What?" he asked.
"I smell the sourness of waste pellets," she said. "It is a message in the water, telling us where we are. Like you. You are a messenger too."
"Messenger?" Immatures ran messages between nests. How could she mistake him for a messenger? His top-crest was red, a sign of maturity and readiness to accept eggs. "You mistake me for another. I am--"
"Lutchir," she said, "of Andar Matriline."
"Yes, but I work clay into sculptures."
"I am of Ivaan. Oculi. Do you remember me?" Mint odor of her neck glands saturated the water and his pouch sagged open. He covered it with his palm to keep out swimmers.
The Oculi he remembered was just a hatch, a member of his uncle's kin.
"I saw you work clay at your kin house," she said. "You made The Empty Wall."
"That was long ago."
"You worked Tangle of Bodies and The Hungry Ones."
"Yes," he said, a bit irritated. He remained troubled by the Tangle sculpture. Ones' bodies wound together in an unnatural pose, like swimmers grappling for seed waste.
She leaned, snout brushing his top-crest, and exhaled loudly. "The Tangle speaks to me of more than hunger, Lutchir."
Black fliers hissed and dove for seeds trickling from a basket Lutchir had failed to secure completely.
"What do you mean?" He moved into the main flow of Ones, sleds bumping against others. Oculi kept an even pace.
"I didn't understand at first." She motioned toward the struggling masses. Wet skin glistened, a gray river against dark water. "These are the Ones of the Tangle."
The words stabbed Lutchir. After his memory dream, the sculpture had so consumed him that he'd worked by the light of Large Moon and on into the day. "That sculpture depicts a memory of hunger," he said. "Something that happened long ago."
"Bones show through skin," Oculi said. "Eyes fold back into their heads. Hands grasp out." She touched the side of Lutchir's face with a single finger. "It is more than hunger. Their teeth eat the flesh of other Ones."
"The Ones have gone many days without food," Oculi said, speaking slowly as if talking to a new hatch. "The Tangle eats itself."
Ones eating flesh? Lutchir looked into her eyes, dark eyes like the caves that extended from the Wall toward the northern plain. This was the same Oculi. Lutchir remembered her round gray hatch-face peeking over his work stone. He had been proud of his clay, pleased with the shape and life it characterized. She had stared at him with those deep, black eyes and asked why the clay was eating itself.
"What you suggest," Lutchir said, "is grotesque. Ones do not eat flesh. How can you believe this happened?"
"I don't believe it happened," Oculi said. "I believe it is..." She released a guttural moan. "The words are not there."
"Because it is not true." Lutchir swam with new enthusiasm. "I'm done talking."
"No. Listen. The clay has told me more."
He rushed ahead, putting his sleds between them. More than Ones eating each other? Small teeth pinched the membrane between his left and middle toe.
Oculi said, "You are a messenger of more than you understand."
Lutchir shook his foot. Emotions clouded his mind.
Lutchir stared ahead. Sun openings beckoned high above the water. He spotted the lower, gaping hole of main entrance. If the dreams were not memories, what were they?
I am the sculptor, he thought. The dreams have spoken to me, not her.
Her smell lingered, tantalizingly close, but Oculi was considerate enough not to bother him again.
Cereb's hatches pushed through the entrance moss of Lutchir's nest without so much as a scratch at the door stone. Whistling and chirping, they sprinted to their uncle. Lutchir didn't have time to rinse clay from his hands before they were upon him. Six orange-eyed faces chattered simultaneously about the sunny day, the new seed he had given them, the clay they brought for his nest.
Lutchir tried to crowd them onto his lap. A year ago they all would have fit comfortably, but now they spilled over like a waterfall. Gammed, the smallest, nestled against his arm and lanky Friead clung to his waist, almost touching the floor.
"You are big," Lutchir said.
Friead pressed its snout into Lutchir's ear. "I ate the most, so I am the biggest."
Lutchir paused. He'd never thought in those terms: eating and growth. Friead was a strange hatch who often talked nonsense. Like the time it fashioned an egg from clay and carried it everywhere, insisting it was a hatch.
"Can we work clay?" Friead asked.
"Tell us the dream," Gabord said.
"I've told you too many times," said Lutchir.
"Tell us how the Wall used to be," Gabord insisted.
"The Empty Wall," said Baund. "Before there were Ones."
"Yes!" the others clamored.
Lutchir shifted his legs, trying to keep the hatches contained.
"It was a dark night," Lutchir began. "Blue Star had sunk below the edge of the Canyon, and even Small Moon was absent. I curled up in my hollow early."
"And you dreamed of Ones that lived long ago," said Gabord.
Friead snorted. "Let Lutchir tell it, stoneface!"
Lutchir spoke loudly. "I walked through many corridors at once. Narrow tunnels crowded with voices and visions."
"Did you see the Wall?" Baund asked. Little Gammed wriggled excitedly.
"Yes," Lutchir said. He wanted to describe how the pieces of himself had gradually come together into a circle of bright light, like the nexus of a river system, like the blue streaks on Oculi's abdomen. A whiff of mint touched his nostrils and need rose up inside him, a sudden craving to fill the emptiness in his brood pouch with eggs.
"Tell us about the clay," Gabord said.
"I worked the clay." Lutchir worked his fingers in exaggerated motions. "It took shape beneath my fingers."
"Was it better than a swimmer mask?" Gammed asked.
Lutchir took a deep breath. "First, I built the Wall near the top of the Canyon, high and thin. Then the lower levels with curved arches and wide stairways." He followed the form of the walls in his memory, each sun opening and door, extending downward, farther and farther until--a chill shook him. Why hadn't he realized this before? The Empty Wall was larger than the Wall he knew. Larger, not smaller.
Oculi's words came to him: It is not a memory of the past. Nervousness tickled his pouch. He felt like a hatch preparing for its first swim.
With a brief scratch and whistle, Cereb entered the dwelling nest.
"Greetings, brother." He lifted his lip in pleasure "The smell of female lingers." He handed Lutchir a green swimmer mask. "An adornment for your nest, since you are too busy with sculptures to make normal wall hangings."
"Go work the clay," Lutchir pushed the hatches from his lap. "I talked with a female during my return."
Cereb turned, eyes narrowed. "A mature?"
"Yes. Oculi. Do you remember her? She is Ivaan."
Cereb hummed pleasure. "She makes tight baskets." He picked up pieces of broken clay and stacked them. "She is ripe?"
"Yes. I almost forfeited her by seeming too eager."
"Then she is interested?"
"Yes." Lutchir paused. "But she talked about my sculpture. Its meaning."
"She was testing," Cereb said. "Females want a clean nest and fancy walls with lots of color and shape.
"She has strange ideas."
Cereb straightened the few clay pieces decorating Lutchir's sun wall. "Only a strange female would be interested in these sculptures of yours."
Lutchir lifted The Tangle of Bodies from its display and placed it on his worktable.
"She is concerned about this clay."
Cereb glanced up. "I only know hatches. How to feed and clean them. How to keep them busy and teach them Wall ways. If the female likes it, put it against your sun wall."
"Do they seem hungry to you?"
Cereb's snout wrinkled. "Oculi is a big female."
Lutchir ran his fingers over the sculpture. Some mouths grasped at arms, but they weren't biting. Were they? He looked closer. Maybe some teeth touched skin, but only a few. Other mouths pointed to the sky, exposing short wide molars.
Feeling nauseous as if he'd consumed rotten seed, Lutchir replaced the sculpture.
Lutchir stared at the clay on his work stone, a simple sculpture depicting Calmot floating on water, seed pods extended. In the midst of Calmot leaves, a female chewed a pod stem. The perfect sculpture for a male's sun wall.
A scratching sounded from his doorsill, followed by low trumpeting.
Lutchir carved veins in leaves with a swimmer bone. "Greetings," he said.
The entrance moss parted and Oculi peeked through. She stepped quietly inside, top-crest brushing the ceiling. Lutchir remembered her being large, but hadn't realized her true size. She dropped her carry sack near the door and walked to his work area. Her smell permeated the room.
Lutchir returned unused clay to the wet pot. His heart raced. Females had visited before, but none showing definite interest. He scooped dried fragments from the table and piled them neatly.
Oculi ignored Lutchir's sun wall and his excitement waned. Maybe she hadn't come to evaluate him as a mate. Instead, she inspected Lutchir's memory-dream sculpture display. She ran her muscular hands over the thin bodies of The Meeting, caressed the stark silhouette of Night Watcher, drooped her snout above the Empty Wall and touched individual sun openings as if counting.
She stopped at the Falling Wall, a sculpture that showed part of the Wall tumbling toward the lake below. Her finger traced a wide crack in the clay.
"I am here to tell you this message," she said. She moved the sculpture to the worktable.
"I don't want your opinion."
She leaned until her snout almost touched his. "You are afraid of my opinion." Her voice was deep and her breath smelled tart from the morning's brown meal. Lutchir felt his legs and back flush. She was right. He was afraid.
She pointed to the Wall's upper section, six dwellings down from the rim. "This is my father's nest." It was part of a section separated from the main wall, poised in mid-collapse. "There is an entire section of the Wall not shown in your sculpture. Five kin areas missing."
Lutchir felt heat deep in his abdomen. "In the past--"
"No," Oculi said loudly. "Walls do not rise out of the lake. What you show in this sculpture is not a memory, just as the Tangle of Bodies is not." She touched Lutchir's arm. Her ripe scent made his pouch quiver. "Come with me."
He wanted to refuse but a mixture of desire and fear pushed him. Why was it important he understand? Caring for hatches did not involve understanding memory-dreams.
Blinking agreement, he followed.
Light streamed through sun openings along the main tunnel, reflecting off the dry stone walkway. Lutchir trailed Oculi along his nest level's arced path into the thrumming chaos of the market. Ones pushed and pulled in every direction until the crowd seemed a turmoil of conflicting currents. Voices shouted, loud trumpeting challenges sounded. Everywhere there was color and texture: wall hangings, courting sculptures, root gourds.
His shoulders brushed hard backplates, his snout packed with stale breath and gland odors. To one side a dusky female argued with a group of males over the trade value of her dried moss. An angry male backed into him, pushing him into Oculi.
His hand touched her side and heat raced from his pouch. When he maintained contact longer than necessary, Oculi adopted an expression he couldn't translate. Her hands went to her belly as if to protect--or offer--her eggs.
Lutchir followed her along the wall to the stairway arch. The steps were crowded and when he exited the stairs, Oculi was already well up the sloped tunnel leading to the next set of stairs. Lutchir continued until he found himself in an unfamiliar area with unknown matrilineal markings and a smaller market.
"Where are we?" he asked.
"Near old section."
Lutchir was thirsty and hungry. He wanted to rest, but Oculi pressed on.
They skirted a group of immatures watching a female weaving picture mats. Plain stone openings gave way to elaborately decorated nest doorways. Young mature females crowded near male nests to evaluate their collections of ornaments.
A male lounged at one doorway, pouch partially open. His door space was covered with clumps of tall brown reeds and clay depictions of black fliers and rainbow crawlers. Other sculptures were of hatches and eggs, seeds and moss mats. Lutchir's top-crest warmed. The male's doorway was cluttered and the work poorly done.
Oculi had disappeared.
"Oculi?" Lutchir continued up slope, feeling a growing sense of loss. Was she annoyed with his inattentiveness? Had she abandoned him for a displaying male?
Several ripe females exited a nest up the walkway and Lutchir overheard them discussing wall hangings. At Lutchir's approach, the male stood erect, top-crest bright red and swollen. He hissed a low tone.
"Oculi?" Sweet pouch oil scents assaulted Lutcher's snout. He let his own pouch sag. Was Oculi thrilled with the wall hangings also? He tried to stay calm, but his head buzzed.
Oculi appeared in the doorway and Lutchir moved forward. "I am with you," he said.
A loud trumpeting sounded and the male charged, knocking Lutcher to the ground. Acrid mucus spattered Lutchir's face, blinding him in one eye. He rolled and struggled to his feet.
Chattering females encircled them. Lutchir stood tall, but he was smaller than the resident male. He spat, but his rival turned and was merely hit in the flank.
"This nest is mine," the male said. He trumpeted, ready to charge again but a ripe female brushed past and entered his nest. The male breathed several times, staring intently at Lutchir, before blinking his approval and following her inside. Relieved, Lutchir turned his attention to Oculi.
"You need not challenge," Oculi said. "My eggs are yours."
Lutchir wanted to feel happy, but he was too exhausted. "I need rest," he insisted. He rubbed at his eye, which watered to wash out the poison, but his vision was still blurred.
Oculi pointed to the oldest portion of the Wall where the stairs narrowed and wound upward in a tight spiral. "We climb to the top," she said. "Here." She cracked open a pod and they shared sweet, crunchy seeds. Lutchir took a long drink from a trough, but Oculi only sipped.
Lutchir rubbed his injured eye. The stairway led to another sloping tunnel. Sun openings grew smaller and farther apart until the tunnel brimmed with shadows. They followed a male and several hatches into a wider market area. Lutchir stopped and leaned against the wall to catch his breath. Oculi, grudgingly it seemed, stopped too.
The last set of steps was cracked and covered with spongy brown moss. Lutchir was sure no One had been this way in a long time. They climbed slowly. The float pouches beneath his arms gaped outward. Even Oculi breathed loudly.
At the top of the steps, the air was cold and empty and the sun hung low in the sky. Blue star glowed brightly; Big Moon was full and rising. In one direction, the plain stretched as far as Lutchir could see; in the other, the flatness was carved into sharp valleys lined with red moss.
"This is the top of the world and the bottom of the sky," Oculi said, her breath forming white clouds. She walked to an upright stone near the cliff edge and looked down. In the far distance, Bright Mountain jutted upward.
"I came here as an immature," she said. "Sometimes I saw imue flying or sadum herds running in the moss."
"I have never been here," Lutchir said. Deep Lake didn't look so big from this vantage point, its water not so black.
"That is Calmot," Oculi said, pointing to orange colored water in the distance. "The water is brown near the Walls. Father told us the brown water was safe. No gulpers."
Lutchir had been warned as a hatch. Gulpers swallowed Ones without chewing. In the old times, swimming brought death as well as food. Now it was safe. The gulpers had disappeared.
Oculi pointed to a portion of the Canyon wall that curved outward and sloped toward the lake. Water spilled through a narrow channel. "I understood the message of your clay when I saw this."
Lutchir had to lean farther than he wanted. The curve was exactly like his sculpture, each portal the same. Crevices criss-crossed the stone, coming together in larger and larger cracks near the projecting lump. Not as wide as in the sculpture, but clearly present.
"My father's dwelling is there," Oculi said, pointing to a portal just beyond the widest crack. "Do you understand? The dream-memory is not a remembrance, it is of a day--" She trumpeted softly. "A day-not"
"Day-not?" Lutchir was puzzled.
Oculi seemed irritated. "Not of a day that has been, it is a day--it is in my mind and I cannot explain."
Lutchir gazed at the network of crevices. He had only wanted to bring clay to life.
Oculi scratched the smoothest face of the upright rock beside her. "Day," she said. She scratched repeatedly. "Day, day, day." She pointed to the first scratch. "The day we talked, swimming to the Wall."
Lutchir blinked. He understood. She pointed to a day in the center of the markings. "Oculi and Lutchir are on the Wall looking at the Canyon. The Wall has small cracks."
She pointed to the next scratch. "Day-not. Lutchir hatches Oculi's eggs." She touched his pouch and a seething heat entered his midsection.
She pointed to the next scratch. "Day-not. The hatches are matures."
"I don't understand," Lutchir said. A cold breeze brushed his pouch. "Why is this important?"
Oculi's excitement evaporated. The blue lines on her abdomen dulled. She stared.
Lutchir felt happy she had chosen him for her eggs and sad that she had ideas he couldn't understand. His pouch went stone cold, on the verge of cramping.
"You must see," Oculi said at last. She repeated her marking again, talking slowly. Lutchir tried to focus on her actions. She touched the final mark. "Day-not. The cracks are big. The Wall is falling into Deep Lake."
A thing clicked into place in Lutchir's mind: a terrible realization of cracks growing larger and the wall tumbling to the lake, crushing any Ones who swam beneath it. Only there were no Ones. The Wall was empty of Ones like the lake was empty of Gulpers.
Day-not, his mind roared. How could he envision such a thing?
"Do you understand?" Oculi asked.
The Wall and the Canyon and the plain swam before his eyes. His legs weakened. He sat on cold stone. Day-not, his thoughts nagged. Day-not. Day-not. Day-not. The cracks are large.
"It is true," Lutchir whispered.
Lutchir walked in the darkness of dream-memory. The air seemed uncomfortably warm and made him think of rain. These are the Ones of the day-not, Oculi's voice said.
He met soft resistance and tried to go around. The obstacle crumbled about his ankles in a wave of rounded, hard shapes. He smelled dust. Light flared. The hall was filled to pouch level with ripe seed. Lutchir blinked and darkness returned.
Scrabbling. High-pitched chatter. The distinct sound of seed pods cracking. Light flared and died a second time, leaving a clear after-image. Now the corridor was crowded with hatches and empty husks.
Oculi stood before him, darker than the darkness so that he saw her outline as a shadow within shadow. He reached forward, touched her distended abdomen. It began to glow, a gentle, warming translucence.
My eggs are yours.
The cracks are large, another Oculi said sternly.
The tunnel echoed soft sounds of snouts chewing, mouths smacking. Lutchir wanted to claw through hard-packed soil to a different tunnel. These Ones were not eating seeds or roots.
He saw a wall painting of his father's wide face. Grief clenched him and shook tears from his eyes. Lutchir missed his father's strong, tangy scent.
A blinding brightness appeared everywhere at once and he saw that he'd reached the center of a great confluence of tunnels. Standing in the circle of light was like standing in an egg. Lutchir waited.
Oculi's voice echoed. "You are the messenger--ssenger--enger-er--r." Lutchir cringed. A metallic smell came forward and his fingers ached. He heard the trumpeting hiss of suffering Ones and lowered his eyes.
White clay mounded upward from the floor. Lutchir reached out and the clay changed shape beneath his fingers, working with its own life. His hands followed quickly. A male appeared in the clay, flat on his back, pouch filled with eggs. Lutcher molded details into the arms and fingers, added muscle lines to the legs and structure to the face and snout. The male's eyes opened and Lutchir saw that his creation was himself. His own face stared up without expression.
He tried to pull his hands away but couldn't control them. Instead, his fingers worked the mouth open until the creature trumpeted pain. Stop this, he tried to say, but the circle remained silent. This is not a memory.
The male's pouch opened, exposing translucent eggs with quivering, luminescent embryos. The eggs rolled onto the male's clay hands. Shells cracked and miniature hatches scrabbled out, gnashing impressive sets of fully formed teeth. Their bodies were lithe, stringy things, no bigger around than a Calmot stalk.
Lutchir thought of the hungry Ones in The Tangle of Bodies, trumpeting their pain and madness in the process of destroying themselves.
"No!" He forced his conscious thoughts into the dream. "It must stop." He closed his hand and brought it smashing down on white clay.
Lutchir awoke, whimpering and sick. He rubbed the moss liner of his sleeping depression to reassure himself the experience was over.
A moonless night beckoned through the portals of his nest. He crawled from his hollow and walked. What did it mean? At day-not Ones eat themselves, the wall falls, the city is empty. Why?
The market lay dark and deserted. Heaps of baskets and other trade goods were piled around the perimeter of the square like lumps of dead clay waiting for a sculptor with the proper vision. Lutchir trumpeted a sound so low it barely echoed.
The next level was also quiet. Lutchir passed gradually from new dwellings with their fancy arched entrances to older ones with doorways topped by a single long slab. Why can't I dream something practical, he thought: a new building technique, a more attractive stone archway.
He found himself standing before the door of his matriline nest. The humming of scavengers seemed lesser here or perhaps he just didn't notice it as much. He scratched lightly on the step and waited.
His grandmother peered through the mosses, sleepy but alert enough to recognize him. With stiff serenity, she pulled the hanging grass aside and returned to her nest. Lutchir felt a moment of regret. She hadn't spoken to him in many years.
Working the clay is like weaving, she'd once said. Like building stone walls. It is secondary to raising hatches.
We have enough hatches, Lutchir thought, but the walls are falling down. He said nothing.
Near the back corner, Aunt Chilo slept in a hollow lined with dried moss instead of grass, breathing loudly through her distinctively squat Andar snout. She looked older than he remembered and a sudden sadness pulled at him. Day-not would be no kinder to her than to the wall. He had seen family members dead--it was cause for much grief--but had never before seen one in the process of death. Another unpleasant understanding. Was there nothing uplifting in the day-not?
"Chilo." He touched his hand to her leg. "Chilo, it is Lutchir."
Chilo rolled to a sitting position. "Lutchir?" Her eyes reflected starlight from a nearby portal.
"Yes," he said. "I must talk."
Chilo belched and struggled to her knees. "What is so important you must wake me? I worked under the sun today. I dried seed, filled baskets, made storage space. I need sleep."
"It is the clay," said Lutchir. "You taught me to work it. You supported my choice. I need to understand."
"I've told you everything," Chilo said. She swatted a flier and scratched at her leg.
"No. I think there is more."
"Memory-dreams are rare, Lutchir. Dreamers rarer. If there is more I--"
"Remember the Empty City?" Lutchir leaned close to his aunt. "The city is bigger in that sculpture. Do you remember a time when it was bigger?"
"No, but I haven't lived since the beginning."
"It was not bigger in the past," Lutchir said. "It is bigger in day-not."
Chilo rubbed her eyes. "I don't understand what you say, Lutchir." She peeled a bit of flaking skin from her knee.
"Day-not is a day that did not happen." Lutchir paced. "My clay shows what happens in day-not. The Tangle of Bodies shows hungry Ones in a day-not with no food. But how can there be no food?"
Chilo blinked slowly. "There is always food. Look around, Lutchir. The city is filled with hatches and we are full of seed."
Lutchir remembered the harvest, hands breaking Calmot stems, baskets filling with pods, waters churning with leaves and stems. By the time they'd gathered for the return trip, brown chewers were gobbling Calmot remains as lifeless as the Empty City. The Calmot was a little farther away each season.
"We take every seed," Lutchir said, thinking of Friead's comment about eating and being biggest. Eating and growth. The city gets larger while the Calmot shrinks.
"Ones eat the seed, Chilo. The canyon does not extend to the edge of the world." He remembered how small it looked from the top of the Wall. "There is not enough Calmot in the day-not to feed our hatches."
"Is that why I'm awake?" Chilo said. "Of course Ones eat seed. Sleep, Lutchir. You need sleep." She snorted and dropped back into her hollow.
"Chilo?" Chilo lay curled in her nest, already nearing sleep. Lutchir scratched at the floor with his middle toe. More hatches mean less seed, he thought, feeling a sickening pressure in his stomach. It was like a bubble inside him.
He tried to belch but nothing came up.
Lutchir mixed mortar between his fingers, then added water for a thinner consistency. He spread mud over the back of the clay fish Cereb had given him and turned it in his hands. He pressed it onto the stone of his sun wall. "For you, Oculi," he said, feeling a curious mix of relief and sadness. He understood the meaning of the most recent memory dream-he must take Oculi's eggs, but not let them develop. Less hatches meant less Ones to eat Calmot.
Before the morning was complete, Oculi entered Lutchir's nest. He watched her blue-striped abdomen swaying with each step, red ovipositor extended and swollen. Even with the heavy weight of the message pulling at him, he wanted to touch her, pull her close, feel her strong push into his pouch and the heaviness of her eggs inside him.
Oculi's lip curled. Lutchir touched the ridge of her back to help soothe her uneasiness.
"I was busy during the night," he said. He had spent all morning working clay and hadn't had time to clean.
She walked to the work stone where Lutchir had arranged several sculptures in sequence with his new piece positioned at the beginning. The sculpture depicted a male lying prostrate, back arched, arms extended, surrounded by cracked and broken eggs. It was both beautiful and hideous. Lutchir ached at the sight of it.
"What is this?" she asked.
"The Prostrate One," he said. His breathing came in gasps and it was difficult to concentrate. "A day-not message." An urge to dismiss all meaning and simply take hold of her warred with his self-control.
He ran his hand over the figure. "Is it clear to you also?"
Oculi's eyes stared but her expression remained blank.
She touched the male's face. "This is a male with bad eggs. His female must have been small."
"Look closely," Lutchir said. Perhaps the details weren't so noticeable to her. "That male is me."
"Her matriline is tainted."
"No," Lutchir said. "It is day-not. Those are your eggs."
"This is a false message," she said and now her expression altered, becoming a rigid mask of determination. "Your dream has been misinterpreted."
Lutchir shivered. "It was genuine," he said.
"You have a large pouch for large eggs," she said. Her eyes glistened.
"I have to take them from you," Lutchir said, hoping for courage. "I have to expel them."
"They are big hatches in the day not." She touched his face and his pouch sagged open.
"No. The eggs are never hatches." She had forced him to see the messages of his other sculptures, why would she reject this?
"You forced me to understand," he said. "The Night Watcher looks over the empty canyon where the wall used to stand. The Falling Wall is at the end of all Ones. The Empty Canyon is empty because all Ones are dead. The Tangle of Bodies shows Ones hungry because there is no food. The Meeting shows females fighting over the last seeds of Calmot." He stared into Oculi's eyes. "The Prostrate One--" He touched her and she shivered. "--shows me destroying your eggs."
Oculi placed her hand over her abdomen. "These eggs are mine and yours, Lutchir." She snorted and her mint aroma enveloped him. "They will be messengers like you and understand the day-not."
She stepped forward. His pouch swelled, ready to take in her warm ovipositor. His hearts pounded. She pressed him tight against the worktable and his thoughts whirled. He wanted to take her eggs, fertilize them, and keep them safe. He wanted to care for tiny hatches in his nest like Cereb. He didn't want to be a messenger or understand the day-not.
"We are all part of the message," he said softly.
"Not my eggs," Oculi rumbled. "Not your hatches." The Prostrate One fell to the floor and shattered.
Trumpeting pleasure and sorrow, he opened his pouch and allowed the warm soft eggs to enter him. He knew that he couldn't expel them. He had failed his own message.
Lutchir's hearts ached. Grasping his heavy abdomen in both hands, he climbed the final few steps to the top of the canyon and took a deep breath. No moons shone but blue star seemed particularly bright.
He leaned against the upright rock at the cliff's edge and looked down. Far below, Deep Lake lay as black as Oculi's eyes. He tried to see Calmot, but it was too dark.
Even now, looking out over an empty world and knowing that it would be empty soon, he could not expel his eggs. Each time he considered rejecting them, Oculi's face flashed through his mind and all intent dissipated like the pink haze of a dying storm.
He reached down and grabbed dry clay that crumbled through his fingers. If the Ones of the canyon could not listen, were there others who might, who would understand the day-not and how actions in the present could determine the survival of an entire people? Would they give up their eggs?
He picked up a stone fragment and scratched next to the marks Oculi had made. Everything would be different if she had not made those marks. He would be happy. Even so, he could not regret. What was happiness compared to understanding?
"You are a messenger of more than you understand," he said loudly. The echo returned to him with renewed determination and he scratched the stone again. Perhaps he could not destroy his own eggs; perhaps the Ones could not understand, but he was still a messenger. He would leave a message for other Ones, not in clay but in rock, a message that would survive into the day-not, that would exist as long as the canyon remained Mother of the world.