Extract from KHE by Alexes Rasevich
I pulled my cloak tight, as though that could keep me safe if she awoke from her trance and grabbed for me. On my knees, moving slowly, I began to gather my few things. If the snow had stopped, I’d try to make it to the kler. Even that fearsome place seemed better than staying here with her. All I had to do was get past her to the cave opening.
The babbler sighed deeply. I swung my head around to look at her. My hands were clenched into fists. Her eyes were open and clear. She stared as if waiting for me to do something she both dreaded and expected.
“The storm is full-fledge,” she said calmly. “It won’t stop for three days. You head out into it now, you will freeze to death.”
“I see mud on your foot casings. The snow probably turned to rain awhile ago.” I cocked my head and listened, but heard no telltale drip of water. “Has the rain stopped, too?”
The babbler picked at the mud on her casings. “I was hungry. The stream plants are delicious, but you get dirty fetching them out. I found that sled and those goods while I was out.” She tilted her head back and stared at the rocky ceiling. “You do remember that I was a weather-prophet. Long, long ago. Before—” Her emotion spots erupted brown-black with anger.
As quickly as it had come, the color vanished from her neck. When she spoke again, her voice had the flat cadence of weather-prophets on the vision stage. “The storm will rage three days, then lessen. On the fifth day, it will rain slightly. On the sixth day, the sun will warm the land and cloaks will not be needed.”
The fire had nearly died out. I fed it more branches and sat back. I stared at the babbler, trying to judge how much of what she said was true, how much was madness speaking—and how frightened of her I should be. Had she really been a weather-prophet? Could she still do it?
“The storm will be at its height tomorrow at mid-day.” She waggled a long, pointed finger at me. “I wasn’t just a prophet, you know. I was First. I could always taste the weather before anyone else—better than anyone else.”
The emotion spots on her neck flared bright green, the color of pride. If she hadn’t really been a prophet, she certainly believed she had been.
Her mouth crinkled, spreading her lips over her teeth. “I’ll tell you a secret. Coming snow doesn’t taste cold at all.”
Best to let her talk and stay on her good side. If she were right about the storm, I’d be stuck in our shared shelter for several days.
“What does snow taste like?” I asked.
“Like blood—what did you think?” She laughed and hugged herself.
“I see by your clothes that you’re a country doumana,” the babbler said. “No doubt you stare up at the sky and watch the clouds, judge how the wind is blowing, see what colors circle the moon, and guess your weather that way. Then you consult the vision stage and let a weather-prophet tell you how close to right you’ve come. But if you’ve got the knowledge, you just open your mouth and taste. Rain is like sour fruit, makes my mouth pucker. Heat taste like dirt.” She patted my leg with her filthy hand. “There now, isn’t that a good gift I’ve given?”
She’d given me nothing, but I said, “Yes. Thank you.”
“Oh, the doumana thanks a babbler. That’s a pretty bunch of manners they taught you at Lunge commune.”
Before I could say more, her eyes rolled back in her head and she went rigid again. I couldn’t know how long this fit would last. I crept past her out the large chamber we shared, to the smaller front cave. Snow was falling hard and fast. I wasn’t going anywhere for a while.
The babbler’s voice came from behind me.
“What did you say your name was?”
I made my way back into the large chamber.
“Khe,” I said, and suddenly very much wanted for her to have a name. When babblers were cast out from their communities, they left everything, even their names. Babblers didn’t mind, so they said. Insanity robbed them of the will to care. They said babblers didn’t even care about their own lives and died quickly once they’d departed. But the state of this babbler’s clothes and body made me think she’d been away from her kler a long time.
“When did you leave your community?” I asked.
The babbler’s full lips curled back from her teeth. “Long ago. Two years? I’ve forgotten.” Her eyes lit with a sudden thought. “I was fourteen then. How old am I now?”
She licked her fingers to wet them, turned her left arm so the inside faced up, and smeared away the dirt covering her wrist. I leaned close to her arm, to see. We both stared at the cluster of small blue dots on her skin, two rows of seven and a third row with four.
“Eighteen.” She seemed delighted with the discovery.
I blew out a breath. She’d survived four years on her own. Maybe I could survive the Barren Season and into First Warmth.
“How old are you?” she asked.
My emotion spots flamed. I didn’t know how to answer her. I turned over my arm so she could see the dots on my wrists, four rows of seven and a fifth row of six.
“Thirty-four,” the babbler said and wiped her hands against her mud-splattered hip wrap. “One more year and you’ll return to the creator.” She stared at my neck. “Not too happy about that, are you?”
My heart clenched like a fist. To return to the creator was a joy, but not when almost two-thirds of my life had been stolen away, my span unnaturally shortened not by accident or illness, but by greed. Lifetime I wanted back.
I glanced away and took a deep breath, drawing the stale air of the cave into my lungs and holding it, then letting it out slowly, the way Tav had taught us to calm ourselves, back when we were hatchlings. Long before my defect was discovered. Before my abilities set Simanca’s eyes aglow.
“Put some wood on the fire,” the babbler said. “It’s almost out again.” She hugged her arms around her thin chest. “I haven’t had a fire for…who knows how long? No firestarter. Lucky for me to have found this sled with so many useful things packed on it. I’ve been cold.”
“It’s my sled,” I said. “I built it. Those are my things.”
“Hmm,” the babbler said. “Put some wood on the fire anyway.”
I fed small sticks to the embers, glad for the warmth. When they caught and flared, I added a few broken branches. We’d have to conserve, though, if the storm was really going to last as long as the babbler predicted.
“You can stay,” she said. “It never gets wet in here. And the wind doesn’t blow through.”
I rubbed my neck, comforted by the familiar touch of my own skin. “Thank you.”
The babbler bit the tips of her dirty fingers. “Are you going to stay?”
“Until the storm stops.”
“Are you going to pay?”
“What?” I asked.
“There’s a cost for hospitality.”
My stomach tightened and my neck itched.
The babbler hummed under her breath, a long low sound: arrumm, arrumm.
“I don’t have food to offer.” I said. “I only have what’s on the sled.”
“I could maybe spare one of the knives.”
The babbler stopped humming and pointed one dirty finger at me. “All this time, I’ve been alone, without the sound of another’s voice.” She leaned close. “You must tell me your history as it happened, completely and in detail. Then you must listen to mine. Conversation and companionship is the price I ask.”
Alexes Razevich was born in New York and grew up in Orange County, California. She attended California State University San Francisco where she earned a degree in Creative Writing. After a successful career on the fringe of the electronics industry, including stints as Director of Marketing for a major trade show management company and as an editor for Electronic Engineering Times, she returned to her first love–fiction. She lives in California with her husband. When she isn’t writing, she’s probably playing hockey or on a trip somewhere she hasn’t been before.
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Ashes and Rain
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