Before her mind died, my mother told me to speak all my memories into a conch shell before my clan gave me to a male. She showed me her own fragile talisman, let me rub my fingers along its slick white surface and smell its sea-salt fragrance. She said, be sure to examine it for holes other than its mouth, lest the words whispered into it leak away. If they do, the memories will be forever lost when pregnancy takes your mind.
I was female then, and the certainty in her stone-gray eyes had softened my fears of impending senility. No anadi, no female, can escape the mind-death. It may claim you while you carry your first child or wait until your sixth, but it will claim you. So we were taught, and so Nature ordains.
The conch did not restore my mother's memories after my second brother abandoned her body, wailing to Ke Bakil's bright sun. I mourned her as if she had died, in lieu of mourning for myself.
I was born anadi and beautiful, and so my clan anticipated my sale with great joy. Those born anadi usually remained thus. The warm breath that carried praise blew soft across my scaled skin as my family examined me for flaws with each occurrence of the flame in the northern sky. How they adored my long mane of pale glitter and gold! How they loved to spread it over my shoulders and breasts and comment on how well it matched my body, painted by Nature with the iridescence of sukul, the color of a white shell beneath the light of a full moon. Kediil, they said to me, when the gods wove you, they used a warp of moon's rays and a weft of sun. You are spun light, with the sea in your eyes. When you go to your mate, you will enrich your family with several new anadi, and perhaps even another eperu.
For this, then, are all females born: to increase the family, in their bodies and their mate-prices.
My father noticed the first sign of my impending maturation, and the crease in his brow and his flattened ears marked his unease. "You've lost weight," he observed. "Have you been exerting yourself too much?"
"No, ke riiket," I said. No, honored Father.
One of my aunts, her mind only partially claimed even after three children, touched my cheek. "Your eyes are different."
And then puberty came, and with it the change my family had been praying to avert.
I was Turning neuter.
As the days waxed long and the fat sloughed from my hips and breasts, I escaped the camp for the solitude of the plains where I could dance in the scrub alone, unafraid at last of the heat or the fragrance of my sweat. The mind-death would not claim me now, not in pregnancy, not during the effort of my body, not in the grip of the sun and air. I would not be sold for my clan's wealth; instead, the first among eperu would train me to hunt and harvest, to herd and run and thrive.
I had no more need for conchs or spells. Nature had delivered me from useless talismans into freedom, to the spiced scent of Its grasses at ripest summer.
"You seem eager to stand apart."
I turned, faced the elegant figure of ke Mardin, first among the eperu, the neuters. The sun shone in Mardin's sand-hued skin and winked in the polished gems braided into its red mane, and the breeze brushed its tail and the grasses in one long stroke. Mardin was only another element of the world, the amber plains, the wind-torn clouds.
"This is living, ke eperu," I said, touching my breastbone in the neuters' greeting. "This is life. This place, this smell, this aloneness."
"Kediil, Kediil," the eperu said, shook its head once. "We should have known you would Turn. Your spirit lives in your heart, just like any eperu's."
I blushed white at the ears. This praise fell warmer and sweeter on my skin than any other, for I had never believed my spirit lived in my womb, as an anadi's did. "When may I start the learning, ke Mardin?"
"So hungry?" Its wry smile did not disguise the kindness in its eyes. "You know it is best to wait until the sky flame returns before assuming this Turning is your last."
"I will do as you think wise, ke eperu," I said, resting my eyes on the horizon. How novel distance is to those whose lives are spent hiding from work and light in tents!
Mardin stood beside me, shoulder to shoulder. It had been born eperu and stayed thus all its life, one of the few who had no trace of an emodo's thickness of sinew or an anadi's heavy frame. I longed for its lissome grace to be blown by the wind into my body.
"Jokku wisdom must sometimes give ground to the heart's desires," Mardin said. "Follow me and I will teach you the knowledge that can only be learned from a hard run."
Beside a pool in the shadow of the mountains, I dropped to my knees. Cupping my hands in the still waters, I trapped the essence of the clouds and brought it to my lips. Then I rolled onto my side, bruising the short grasses beneath my body, and napped beneath a wind that tickled my naked skin with floating seeds.
As the other eperu danced around a fire that kicked away the vespertine dark, my companion passed me a clay goblet of spirits. My fingers traced the sharp division between rough clay and slick glaze as I accepted, and the moon-cold bit my tongue through the sharp liquid as I swallowed. I clapped for the neuters whose shadows rarely touched their feet, so often and high they leaped.
With a basket balanced on my head, I reached for the brown fruits hanging from the smooth gray limbs of the nearest tree. Their pungent odor stung my nostrils, but I looked forward to the flavor of the oil the other eperu were pressing, closer to the camp.
The summer's heat had abated, but the world rarely grew too cool during the day. Beads of sweat dropped from the arm that steadied the basket, which sat easily. My body had grown accustomed to frequent use; I had learned to inhabit it.
The sky flame returned, brilliant green and blue sheets quivering on the horizon. Mardin found me dancing in rapture by the horizon's eerie green light. It did not pause, but stepped into my circle and joined me in my celebration. Its hands strayed to my hips, and, warmed by our exertions, we fell to a different sort of pleasure.
Mardin propped itself on one of its elbows and looked down at me as I panted. "Enjoy?"
"I thought only breeders had that," I said, well pleased.
"We are all one," Mardin said. "Not so different from each other. Our bodies are all born with the same potentials. Why then can the eperu not keep this? We are best suited to enjoy it."
I thought of the dizziness I'd often felt after pleasure as an anadi. Other females had been known to faint. As eperu, I knew only an expansive peace, and the familiar, friendly ache of an exercised body. "And what other secrets have you been hiding from me, that I might now know as a true eperu?" I asked, teasing Mardin's chin with my fingertips. "Or are these secrets only known by you, wisest of the wise?"
"They are eperu secrets, truly," Mardin said. "But you have remained eperu throughout the cycle of the seasons, so they are yours now as well."
"And what are they?"
Mardin laughed. "As if I could tell it all to you now! And as if telling would be enough! You must partake of the secrets that are now yours to truly own them. They hide in plants."
"And what," I asked, still stroking Mardin's face, "will these mysterious plants whisper to me?"
"Each one has its own wisdom," Mardin answered. It nipped my finger, then took the tip into its mouth and sucked until it drew my claw. A moment later, it continued, "Some open you to Nature's embrace. Others slow the world, or quicken it. Some clear the mind, or defray the cost of too much dancing the previous night. Some are so potent they will stop your heart; others so gentle your mother's touch is harsher."
"All this power in plants?" I asked, breathless, for Mardin had a talented mouth. "Surely not."
"Taste and see. Eat and learn. The knowledge is yours now, to take, to keep," Mardin said, its arm running down my hip. Soon we both set aside any thought of plants at all.
The following morning I rolled onto my side with a groan and rubbed my eyes. There are still limits for the tireless eperu, and we'd found them. The finding had been pleasant, though, so who could complain?
Mardin's feet appeared beside my head. When I looked up, its head blocked the sun. "Good morning, sleepy."
"That's a strong-shining star," I said. "Wake me when the real sun rises."
"Silly eperu," Mardin said. "I am twice your age near enough, and I am on my feet. Lift your head and greet your lover. It has a gift for you."
I dragged myself upright and Mardin pressed a steaming cup into my hand. The rising moisture dampened my nose and brought to it the fragrance of spices and something bitter. I lapped once at its surface, then took a long drought. Bright energy flooded my body.
With a gasp, I looked up at Mardin. "The first of the secrets?"
It touched my lips, its eyes full. "Drink and learn."
In any Jokku clan, there is an eperu whose knowledge of the earth's drugs cannot be surpassed. In our clan, that master was Mardin. For the lore-knower to also be the first among eperu was unusual, but Mardin had only recently taken the position of first.
This suited me well. With the knower as my lover, I learned quickly. It was just as Mardin had said: there seemed to be a plant for everything.
Learning of plants was not my only new duty. As the sturdiest of the three sexes, the eperu were called upon for many labors. One of them was the birth watch, for though our hands were not as clever as an emodo's, we had the endurance to see an anadi through her pregnancy and to turn the baby if it had become twisted.
This skill, like every other, had to be learned through practice. Mardin took me to the birth tent to oversee the final hours of my aunt's pregnancy, the same aunt who had seen through her clouded eyes the change in my face.
"There. Slip your hand in. It should be simple."
I hesitantly pressed my greased fingers inside my aunt's body, took a breath, then pushed deeper. I gasped.
"What do you feel?" Mardin asked.
"Feet! Tiny feet!" Just like mine, with four tender toes and thumb, the claw on the latter not yet grown, precious miniatures.
"Not good," Mardin said. "You will have to turn your cousin if she is to have egress."
"Is it female?" I asked.
"I don't know," Mardin said, grinning. "Is it?"
I stretched my fingers deeper, ran them over the little body. The area between the legs was smooth. "Anadi or eperu," I said.
"We shall call your cousin female until she arrives and we can know for certain. Can you feel how the turn is to be made?"
I thought I could. I grasped the little tail and made my best effort. When I could spread my fingers over the tiny face, I pulled back. "I think it is done."
Only then did I hear my aunt's mewling, see the sweat covering her body, the sweat so deadly to the breeders. Horrified, I checked her face, but with her eyes closed I could not tell how she fared.
"Aunt?" I asked, but she was gone, deep into the needs of her own body.
"See, the baby comes," Mardin said to me.
And indeed she did, almost too quickly for me to catch her before she hit the ground. And female she was, my newest cousin, perfect in every way . . . save her sex. Mardin cleared her mouth of mucus and she let out a sputtering cry. I thought bitterly then of my brother who had delivered my mother into the slavery of the mind-free, and checked my aunt.
Blank eyes met mine. This birth had been the one. My aunt, who had fended off Nature so long, had at last been claimed.
"Mardin!" I said. "Isn't there something we can do about this? Some plant that will save the breeders? Look at her! She was a person half a day ago, and now . . . now all her intelligence has fled to that child."
"No! I will not be quiet," I said, knowing the look in its eyes. "Surely Nature is not so cruel. Surely there is a way! There must be something. . . ."
"Hush!" Mardin said, grabbing my arm with such force I jumped. Startled into silence, I watched as it cleaned my cousin in a basin and swaddled her in a cloth before handing her to my father, the Clan's head, waiting outside. Then it gently washed my aunt, who could no longer wash herself, and helped her to the arms of the anadi.
Only then did Mardin take me by the arm and march me outside, and it did not stop until we were well, well away from the glittering tents. It sat me beneath a gnarled gray tree and crouched in front of me.
"You must watch your mouth before the others, Kediil."
It sighed. "Because there are plants that safeguard the breeders from the mind-death, and their use is forbidden."
I stared at Mardin, mouth ajar.
It sat beside me then, our shoulders and hips touching. "That this knowledge has been passed on through the lore-knowers is a mystery to me, for it would seem less trouble, less heart's pain to simply forget it. We have been silent -- we must be silent -- for we cannot allow the breeders to know. But every lore-knower knows how to let an anadi keep her mind."
What Mardin said was such an abomination that I knew that something dire prevented the release of the information. The exchange of knowledge among eperu and from the eperu to the breeders was a sacred thing, for the emodo and anadi could lose their minds at any time, depriving them of the understanding they would need to live on. Only the eperu could be trusted to remember, and we did, and this was half of our function, our reason for existing . . . the other half being to do the work that would otherwise shorten the mind-span of the breeders.
I took several long breaths through my nose, observing that spring waned by the heat that tickled my throat. "Tell me," I said.
"The plants that give the anadi and the emodo their shield also take from them their ability to breed."
"They . . ."
"Sterilize them, yes," Mardin said. Its lopsided smile did not reach its eyes. "The plants save the anadi or emodo at the expense of their ability to have children. It seems to be an unavoidable side effect."
"Surely it would be worth it," I said.
"Worth it!" Mardin sighed and took my hand, the one that so lately had turned my cousin, still sticky. "What anadi wouldn't want to keep her mind forever, cousin? What emodo wouldn't prefer to hunt for his children's meals, knowing that the exercise won't hurt his ability to sing them lullabies that night? Every anadi and every emodo faces the risk of the mind's death at one time in their life or another, no matter how strong they are, how sturdy, what sex they were in puberties. But if all of them chose the safer way, who would have the children?"
"You say that the race would die," I said. I shivered.
"I say that the way we have chosen was chosen for a reason," Mardin said, squeezing my fingers.
I noticed then the drying layer of mucus on my forearm and stood abruptly. "I need to wash."
Mardin did not stop me. Perhaps it knew that I needed to bathe more than my arm. My spirit felt dirty.
Though I wished with desperation to avoid any contact with those I was forbidden to save, my fingers were slender and I found myself on many birth watches. In some, my aunt or cousin or sister survived to gaze with tenderness on her child, to whisper sweet words to the tiny hairless ears. On some heart-stopping watches, Nature caught the mind only to lose its grip, and after a few stuttering sounds the clarity would return to the anadi's eyes with a sharp overlay of fear. How I ached to see that fear!
And of course in some, in many, I saw Nature take some or all of the female's mind, leaving her only the comfort of her new infant.
Each of these incidents added a stone to my spirit. I felt as heavy as the earth.
The day I left the clan was a day in the deep summer, with the sky so hard and flat a blue that we knew it would storm by afternoon. Most of the eperu rested in camp, for traveling during those summer storms was ill-advised for any Jokkad, no matter the sex.
I dozed in the sunlight near the tent of stores, enjoying the warmth on my skin, just barely tasting the spiced fragrance of grass and the scents of my family through the intense heat. On these storm days, I liked to rest in the open until the first few drops struck my belly, reminding me that I was Jokku, not one with the soil. Such had been my plan that day when a dozen cries jerked me from my reverie.
"What is it?" I asked one of the eperu running past.
"Quick, come! Thasenet has fallen!"
My breath jumped in my mouth and I leaped to follow. Thasenet was a favorite in the clan, our jeweler; his hands and feet were dexterous even for an emodo, and his quick wit and gentle spirit won everyone's affection. When I arrived, I found him sprawled on the ground, mane and tail splayed. He looked as if he slept, but, hunched over him, both Mardin and my father looked dismayed.
The first time Thasenet twitched, I thought I mistook my sight. By the third, I knew what ailed him; his motions were the uncontrolled flopping of a mind that no longer knew its limbs.
"How?" I asked, despairing.
"He went out, looking for sand and clay," one of the other emodo said, his face stricken. "We think he ran too hard. Running from something."
"An eightclaws," Mardin said, pointing at the fallen emodo's back. I saw a shallow slice along the back of his thighs. "The fear and the run took him."
Nature surely crowed today. To take an emodo's mind is much harder than to take an anadi's. I stepped back.
"Kediil," Mardin said, for perhaps it saw my soul in my eyes. "We could not have helped him."
But I knew it lied.
I turned, fumbling my first step, and almost fell. But then I was running, knowing it would never kill me, never steal my mind from me. Deep into the wilds I ran, away from Jokka, away from my clan, away from the tents where the eperu were forced to watch their family die, one by one.
The summer storm did eventually come. It found me far from home, curled up in a nook of rock near the bones of the old mountains.
I feared that the others would come for me. Each day I traveled further, until my foot touched ground in places too far for the other eperu to travel.
This freedom from civilization, from the pathos of my view of the camp, suited me well. I hunted my own food. Drank water from swift streams and still ponds. Slept in trees soft with leaves.
Brewed my own drugs, and sipped them to forget, or remember, depending on my desire at the time.
Climbing the slope of one of the gray mountains in fall, I tore my loin-skirt. Once I reached a plateau I could sit upon, I examined it and realized it was beyond saving. I untied it from my hips, ran my hands over its soiled surface. The cloth had frayed at the edges; the tassels had unraveled.
I cast it over the edge of the rock and watched it fall, fluttering, to the earth. Then I turned my back on it and continued my efforts.
That winter I sought the plains again, for the mountains were colder than I liked. I reacquainted myself with the bitter scent of grass stunted by the season, with the stiffness of its blades when I rolled on it. Still there was enough to eat, spread in caches I had buried, and I thrived in the silence of the plains. My own company satisfied me more than I had anticipated, and even the few animals that interrupted my solitude proved an unwanted distraction.
Winter had half-ended when I clawed open another of my buried treasures and found in it not just the dried meat I had left, but a small box of precious wood. Perplexed I drew it out and sniffed it, but the acrid scent of the salt had obscured any evidence of the Jokkad who had placed it there. I glanced at the area and found no footprints -- nor had I really expected any, for the earth over the cache had grown its own layer of grass, undisturbed since late summer at least.
I opened the box, found in it a new midnight blue loin-skirt, a damask with entwined thorn vines in deep brown edged in silver. Little silver blossoms, petals stylized into three teardrops, had been embroidered over the weave. With this loin-skirt were twin silver chains, one with moonstone beads and another with hematite.
I ran my finger over the smooth stones, ignoring the itch that presaged tears. I knew who had left the box. Mardin would never directly ask me to return, but knowing that it missed me was enough. I folded the cloth and returned it to the box, the box to the cache, the soil to the hole. Then I ran again, tears dripping from my teeth.
The sky flame came at winter's end, marking the beginning of the new year. I noticed then the first sign: I wanted the fat off the grass-eater, not just the meat. My body waxed with the heat, and by spring's end I knew. My first puberty had not delivered me to my final sex. I was Turning again, much later than most Jokka. And as my people had only two possible puberties, this new sex would be the one I would live as all my remaining years.
When I discovered the swollen peaks on my chest, I sat on a rock and hugged my knees, hiding them from myself. Nature had decided to give me back my birth sex, ordinarily a sentence to a life of cloistered fear.
But now . . . now there was someone who could save me. And I had only a few weeks to find our camp again before summer came to stalk my thoughts with the spears of heat and sweat.
There wasn't time for wasting. I shook back my mane of glitter and gold and began my journey back.
Mindful of my increasing fragility, I traveled with deliberate care to the plains, stopping at the cache to pick up the box.
It wasn't there.
I rocked back on my pads, stunned. I hadn't realized how much Mardin's faith had meant to me until it had been withdrawn. With a shiver, I covered the hole again and stood. The eperu would help me. If not for what I was now, then in the name of what I had been. It had to.
A handful of days later, I stood beside a smooth tree within sight of the camp: tiny tents I could cover with my hand. I worried over how to approach them, for if I came too close, my father would usher me into a tent to keep me safe until he could sell me into another clan. As anadi, I belonged to my family, and my fate was not my own. I was not eager to hear their praise over my shimmering mane or moon-shell skin, nor to know just how many anadi and eperu I would fetch with my mate-price.
I slept during the worst heat of the day, aware of my shortness of breath, frightened by it. I worried I would not reach Mardin in time. I dreamed that I would die, but my body would not cease to move.
I woke to a delicious coolness, and found it was the shadow cast on me by the first among eperu. I climbed to my feet, let Mardin's eyes travel down me. I knew what it saw: that my breasts had become heavy, my hips broader and softer. I had not lost my slender figure yet, but given time and inactivity, even that would go. I was, for now, an eperu with breasts and hips.
In defiance, I touched my hand to my chest in greeting, instead of to my belly.
Mardin cast its head down, uttered an obscenity. My ears flicked back in surprise, for I'd never heard it curse before.
"Mardin," I said, then stepped toward it. "Mardin, help me."
It stared at me with wide eyes, then shuddered. "No."
"Please, Mardin," I said. "You know the ways. Help me keep my mind."
"Your father would kill me."
"I don't have to go back!"
A sudden silence, and the wind blew between us. It did not pick up the eperu's red mane. The sun did not play on its sand-hued skin. This time it was Mardin who seemed alienated from the world, not me.
"No one ever need know," I said. "You can tell me the secrets. I will partake and be safe, and the clan will still count me lost."
"But where will you go?" Mardin asked.
"Wherever the world takes me," I said.
Mardin's head fell. "But then I would never see you again."
I took another step toward it. "You could come with me!"
And I had known that answer before it had given it to me. Knew that it could no more abandon the camp than I could stay . . . for Mardin had become first among eperu for good cause, and it counted the anadi and emodo of my family its responsibility.
"Please, Mardin," I said again.
"You would have me give you the plants. You would sterilize yourself and run into the wild, where neither the clan nor I could have the benefit of your presence. All so you could keep your thoughts."
I shivered, horrified by the lack of tone in a voice I'd always found so rich. Yet I held up my head. "Not just my thoughts. My life. Yes, this would be my choice . . . though there are parts of it I would regret."
When Mardin lifted its head, its wry smile brought an itch to my teeth. My breath caught in my mouth. "Ah, Kediil. Truly your spirit lives in your heart."
It took my hand.
I woke late that night to find Mardin gone. The fire that had died unnoticed during our pleasures had been rebuilt. On it was a warming pot; beside it, the midnight blue loin-skirt and the hip chains.
I dressed and sat before the fire, waiting for the waxflower tea to steep. Then from the clay cup the eperu had left, I drank, my claws trailing along the glaze on the sides, and tasted a sharp liquid with a sun-hot bite. I thought of the life spreading before me . . . free to travel the broad back of the world, to meet other Jokka, to do with my life whatever seemed most appropriate. Tomorrow would be time enough to begin this joy.
Tonight . . . tonight I would dance in the scrub alone.
Copyright © 2002 M. C. A. Hogarth
M. C. A. Hogarth lives in stormy Florida on a plot of land owned by the neighborhood sandhill cranes. She spends days with databases and telecommunications equipment, and comes home to art sketchbooks and notebooks of poetry and fiction. Her previous appearance in Strange Horizons was "Money for Sorrow, Made Joy." You can read more about her work at her Web site. For more about the Jokka, see Cheldzan Jokku.