Part Two: The Old Suspect
I noted a new smell in the air, like the times were changing and the plants were producing a new set of chemicals. The old Osminog had done what I’d directed, sacrificing the large harvest at the end of summer, and was working hard to give to me as much as it thought I demanded. After escorting Chirchirrup back to the tribe, I had brought a token – a discarded Osminog tooth, something I needed more of in case the old ones wore out – that I had left just in front of the fire pit, right next to the never-touched bucket of purified water. The Osminog seemed satisfied that its child had gotten back safely, especially after I told her it was proof. My word seemed to be trustworthy, even though I could have just as easily been the devil as not.
It had been a few weeks and Chirchirrup hadn’t come back. The old Osminog seemed to be getting lonely despite its daily prayers and one-way communication with me. I understood the predicament. Without Kyle, I felt excruciatingly lonely, too. The days felt longer, more useless. The need for companionship weighed on me. I remembered first leaving my family for a ten year journey alone, with one other person, realizing how deathly lonely that could become.
Months alone, with only an alien who thought you were a god and to whom you couldn’t speak with openly, would drive anyone to madness. Perhaps it was a just punishment, though, so I sat to accept it.
I looked in my cabin, the room filled with jars full of preserves and processed nutritional paste, dried seeds hung up on the ceiling for every type of plant that I would grow the next year, and my tiny bed shoved in the corner. I looked at my clothes hanging on the wall and determined that I needed to prepare new textiles before these became too worn to wear. None of the plants in this region seemed to produce anything that would be able to be easily spun or weaved, none of the animals grew fur, so it would be an interesting trial to process the hardy, broad leaves into something usable. Winter clothing would eventually be necessary.
The old Osminog dragged a leaf package filled with fruits, dumping them out near the fire pit as always. I put down my work and slipped on my gloves, laying down next to the hatch and peering out the crack at the alien, my only friend.
“Oh, holy gods, I have brought you a sacrifice. Please accept my token of thanks for having given me many gifts that I did not deserve. Blessings be to you!”
The alien plucked up four fruits and assumed its prayer position, its eyes peering up at the hatch where instruction tended to rain down more and more frequently as I got more and more lonely. I waited for the time when the Osminog would, inevitably, ask for instruction before I would speak.
“I want to apologize, oh gods, before I become a failure to you. I can feel the cold coming closer, see the bounties of the final harvest, and know that the winter is coming. I won’t be able to continue serving you when the cold freezes me. I will die. I wanted to ask if my failure to continue working at the tasks you’ve set me on will result in the death of my child.”
I curled up and thought about what to say. The Osminog couldn’t have known that I was preparing food for it, that I had already made a winter’s worth of preserves for it to eat. “What makes you believe you will die when winter arrives?” I asked.
“Many things, oh gods. Though I regret nothing, I have given so much in sacrifice that I have not left anything for the winter. Though I have been hungry on many winters, I had at least had a small store. But killing more quickly than lack of food may be the lack of the tribe. I have no one with which to huddle. My body will become stiff and I’ll die from freezing. The swamp will become cold and freeze. Without the huddle, there will be nowhere to put ice to melt into water. There will be no more mud to wallow in. Why ask me this, oh gods? You already know all things.”
I thought carefully, not wanting to break character. “Then why answer?” I asked.
“Are you trying to say that I should disobey the direct request of the gods? I find that unwise.”
“Then do you not trust my decisions?” I asked. The Osminog didn’t seem pleased.
“I… It is hard to trust you, oh gods. I do not even know to which god or gods I am speaking, or what my sacrifices are being made for.”
“Then why sacrifice?” I asked. I rolled my eyes, hating how esoterically I was speaking. I wanted to say something like, ‘You idiot, I’m preserving food for us to eat all winter, stocking up wood for a fire, and preparing to build a cover around the bottom of the house so you won’t freeze either,’ but that would make me seem less ethereal. Even so, I wondered if by consistently speaking to this creature I had already as much as crossed the line.
“For my child,” it said. “I would do anything for it. It is my first, last, and only child. I would risk anything for even the chance that you would help me.”
“And I have, haven’t I?”
The Osminog’s mouth closed tight for a second before it eventually said, “Yes. As far as I know, you’ve done what I asked.”
“Then why don’t you trust me?”
“Because though you have helped me so much, I don’t know why. What kind of gain do you get? Who am I helping and what have I done?”
I scooted around, wondering what to say. My movement caused the Osminog to flinch, but it now was confident enough to not jump up and run away. “Do you not like talking with me?”
“Who else is there to talk to?” it asked. “I’ve thought, and perhaps I hadn’t heard your voice before only because I was too busy listening to other Osminog.”
I laughed aloud, the noise bothering my Osminog friend far more than any other I had ever made. It squealed and pulled into itself, making itself as small as possible.
“Perhaps you and I have more in common than you initially thought,” I said, continuing to laugh. Oh, if Kyle were here, he’d laugh. He’d look at the irony that the Osminog sought its frightening god out of loneliness. But, then again, I’d have not needed the Osminog’s companionship and not listened to its voice because I’d have been busy listening to another human. “Perhaps I haven’t listened to Osminog before because I was too busy listening to… to no one.”
The Osminog seemed scared. “No… no one? Do you mean that gods are lonely?”
My happiness went away as quickly as it had come. What would I be willing to say to this creature? What could I say?
“What do you think of me, Osminog? Tell me the truth.”
The Osminog looked up at my hatch. “You’re either the Protector or the God of Predators, but I can’t tell.”
I sighed, making the Osminog nervous. “You can’t tell between righteous good and most heinous evil?”
“It’s not that,” the Osminog said. “It’s that I can’t tell whether you are telling a great truth or a terrible lie.”
I laid on the floor, looking at the fruits and seeds hanging on the ceiling. I genuinely liked this alien, even if it was just out of loneliness. I clenched my teeth and used my hands to say, “Tell me something true, then, and I will tell you something true.”
“What would you have me tell?” it asked.
I thought about it, thought about what anyone would be able to talk about. I wanted to know the Osminog as a person, wanted it to get to know me better. “Tell me about your bearer.”
The Osminog settled into the mud. “You would will that I forgo the sacrificing for this?”
I didn’t, really, but I couldn’t go out to harvest with it, not in the day. I couldn’t let it see me, couldn’t let it know what I was.
Then, I came up with an idea.
“You cannot see me,” I said. “To look at me is a terrible thing. Do you agree?”
“I… I don’t understand. Are you the God of Predators?”
“I am what I am, and that is mostly lonely. But you cannot see me. Understand?”
The Osminog nodded. “I suppose. But what does that mean? Do you want me to go pick more fruit?”
“Yes. Go pick fruit. At some point, you will hear me tell you that I’m near. Do not seek me out, but remain where you are, picking fruit. I will call to you. Just tell me your story and, afterward, I will tell you something similar. Our days will continue as they always have afterward.”
The Osminog agreed. “Yes, I will do as you ask.” It stood up and walked away to the bushes, heading in to pick the luscious fruit that were the last harvest of the year.
I opened the hatch after, scrambling down in my small clothes that would be better for getting wet in the rain, carrying a bucket to put my fruit in. I followed the small sounds of the careful Osminog, finding some unpicked fruit and calling out, “I’m here. Please, tell me of your bearer.” I began to pick the fruit, tossing them in my bucket
The Osminog picked. “My zzzzawhir was relatively old when it bore me. I loved zzzzawhir, but didn’t get to see it off when it reached the age I am now. That was part of the reason I only had one child, to preserve our bond, but now I realize it doesn’t matter. The bond with the assistants who actually raise you, who ask you to raise their children, is perhaps more interesting and, though in a different way, just as strong.”
I started to speak, but I realized that I had thought zzzzawhir was the Osminog’s name. It evidently was a title, something you call your own bearer. Something like mother or father, but the singular parent of an Osminog.
“What did your zzzzawhir call you, then? What did she decide your name was?”
The Osminog continued to pick, then answered, “She called me Click-uruk-zee-ck-ck.”
“Six of Blue?” I asked. I picked some fruits afterward and tossed them in my bucket.
“I was the sixth child, and the sky was very blue that day, they said.”
I thought a moment. “That’s a very long name.”
“I suppose. But you, oh gods, what are your names?” she asked.
I picked some fruit. “You cannot say my names.”
“Then tell me what I should call you. Protector? Predator? Sky?”
“I am fine with the ways you have already addressed me. I may tell you my name eventually, when I think the time is right.” A few more fruits plopped into my bucket.
“Then, oh gods, may I ask for the truth you promised to tell me? May I ask that you tell me who you are, even if that comes in the form of your real name?”
“If I tell you my name, you will run in fear.”
“So… so you are the god of Predators!”
“Now, I didn’t say that,” I said, calming her so that she wouldn’t get carried away.
She scrambled a bit. “Then tell me who you are!”
“My name is Antoinette,” I said, speaking aloud my human name. Just as I had predicted, the alien ran in fear, squealing.
I giggled and picked some more fruit, filling my bucket quickly and taking it back to the cabin. The Osminog would eventually get over her fear, at which time she’d come with a sacrifice for me to can. For now, I was satisfied with our relationship, hopeful that nothing would happen to the humans I’d left behind.