“Taste of Birdsong” by Jason Kimble

Sovani cursed the late autumn for sabotaging his hunt. His ears had not yet sealed, but this late in the season, they had folded over enough to muffle and distort the world. He couldn’t pinpoint the creak and rustle of a young migirtju tree that cut through to him. Lost from its copse, no doubt, but clearly ready to drop migir before the snow fell. If he could find it, his winter store might last through the end of winter.

There. The rustle again. The migirtju must be lost; it had circled around north of Sovani. Well outside any copse’s migration path. Sovani stepped softly and changed direction to match. The prospect of bolstering his stockpile of the tree’s warming fruit made Sovani’s still-burgeoning winter skin tingle.

His skin tingled differently as he closed. The creaking rustle transitioned into a thrumming purr. Taklit. This is what they did, after all: mimicked tree sound to lure prey. That should be rodents or procyonids, scavengers desperate for winter food and warmth and too foolish to question the arbitrary path of sounds. Today the prey was larger but no less foolish in his desperation.

Sovani ran, but during inbetween his ears were not sharp enough to catch the bounce-off from the rock, his skin still too dull to catch its vibrations until he stubbed his foot. His skin was alive enough to send the sharp bolt of pain from the gouge in his flesh as he toppled, sensitive enough that each drying blade of grass raked his back.

Sovani screamed into a world growing silent with the coming snowfall. His voice echoed back at him in the hollow of his folding ears. The clacking and snip of the taklit’s mouths slipped into the reverberations. Sovani stiffened. The predator’s body heat traced a line across the sensitive hairs of his winter skin. Sovani flinched, pulling himself into a ball, at the snap of another step. He tried to will his back not to sense the vibrations of the onrush of movement. He hadn’t thought taklit hunted in pairs, but at least six mouths would end this nightmare faster than three.

The ululation of taklit call responded to a cry that was not a predator. It was one of The People, though Sovani did not recognize her voice. High and aggressive and filled with challenge, the new voice grabbed the tree-mimic’s attention. Sovani let loose his knees when the click-purr was filtered enough to tell him the taklit’s back was turned.

“Now you run!” called the newcomer.

Sovani didn’t hesitate. He pushed to his feet, ignoring the needle pricks of grass on his palms, and bolted. This time, he had the wit to focus on his winter skin despite the pain. Excluding the distraction of fall’s dying sounds, Sovani could feel the shifts in the air, turn away from bark and boulder, until the bare circle of chill on his right told him there was a warren. Sovani rolled inside even as the booming roar of taklit was followed by a shriek only the voice of People could manage.

His skin seemed to dull, then, as his ears tried to parse the quiet after. He had wallowed in panic to save his own hide, and the brave other, whom Sovani could not name with any of his senses, had taken his place. This was his skill, to cower and sulk while the strong and the brave served the tribe. He made his life at the expense of his betters. Little doubt now why only Cetpa had wished him luck in the wander.

There was a dragging rustle. A click and scratch. Sovani tensed, listening for the snap of jaws again.

“It’s gone.”

Her voice stretched taut with pain as it sliced into Sovani’s ears. He pushed out into the open.

“You’re hurt,” he called, his voice answered with a sliding whisper of loose earth that helped him pinpoint the other.

“I bleed,” she admitted, steps padding in his direction. “But the taklit no longer can. I expect I’ve the better of that trade.”

She was close enough now that her presence prickled the hairs of Sovani’s winter skin, a patch of warmth in the growing cold. She lived by her own strength. Sovani, at least, could do something to help her keep that strength.

“I found behaab nearby,” Sovani said, sweeping his hand so her skin would register the direction. “To stop the bleeding?”

She gave a soft hum, her temperature pulsing once to signal her agreement.

Sovani did not speak until they reached the behaab, its leaves a filament of tepid tendrils against the deeper chill of the air. He worried his words might betray his weakness. He waited as the other daubed on the clotting, healing sap, until the slashes of dribbling heat from the newcomer had eased with her blood, thickened enough to stop the wound.

“I am Sovani,” he said, matching the word with the pattern of tap and snap that was his skin name.

“I am Beyharide,” the woman said, her own skin name wafting the hairs of Sovani’s forearm.

He hesitated. His was a weakling’s debt, best repaid with derision. But he could not deny it any more than the quiver of wind between them.

“I owe you my life,” he admitted.

There was silence, of both voice and body, until finally Beyharide said, “Maybe we could start with a bit of rest and a bite of migir.”

* * *

Sovani grew up knowing there were other tribes of People, each following the migration of separate copses—some trailing his own preferred migirtju, others bound to the soft torthai or rubbery odskocit or even the spine-encrusted stachelig. The route of Beyharide’s copse had brought her here a few weeks before Sovani, and like Sovani, she’d reached the age for wandering.

“Not that I understand the name,” Beyharide said as they sought a winter berth. “I traveled much farther following migirtju than I will waiting for them to swing north again.”

“It’s relative,” Sovani tried. Their ears were fast closing, so they spoke and skin-talked at the same time. Beyharide’s gestures and heat fluxes were larger, sharper than Sovani’s own. Everything about her impressed. Certainly the central heat she gave off put her at a much more imposing height than Sovani.

“I suppose,” Beyharide conceded. “We wander far from them, until we choose to return in the summer.”

“If,” Sovani corrected. The hairs on his leg quivered in response to a tense vibration of Beyharide’s own.

“You don’t want to?” Beyharide asked.

“We’re meant to choose, yes?” Sovani asked, careful to hold his back easy so the skin-talk wouldn’t carry the tension he felt.

Beyharide did not speak, though a tickle of air at his shoulder said, That’s what they told me. Followed by the incredulous percussive of Beyharide’s hands clapping out, Only dead leaves abandon a tree.

Sovani took the cue and dropped speech, his own ears barely a day from sealing for the season.

And seeds, Sovani added with a ripple of body heat and a puff of breath.

This was the way, after all. People might never join another tribe, but with an unclaimed copse, they might start anew. At least, that was the story.

* * *

Sovani had always found it cruel that touch grew keen just as the world bit at him with cold. Of course that was the point. The faint touch of the rest of the year was too dull for People to notice when cold threatened a digit or exposed patch of flesh before limbs and skin had already gone dead. Without nerves primed to sense and map the thermals in a wide radius, the threat of losing yourself in a blizzard—losing the warmth of other People—was too much to consider.

Sovani wasn’t certain he could find sympathetic warmth even with his winter skin, mind. Cetpa, his sister, had grown tall and powerful, her worth obvious to the senses of any season, but Sovani was scrawny and timid. Sovani climbed migirtju limbs too slowly. Carried too few migir with every trip.

“I hope you grow strong in your wandering,” Cetpa had said, but Sovani’s ears had been full and open then, and Cetpa not skilled enough to hide the tremble threaded in her tone. Her words called for hope, her voice for despair: I fear this will kill you.

“There is always strength in the wandering,” Sovani had returned, pitching his voice farther to the bass, bolstering his tone with confidence. If I die it is the will of the world.

“Claim it as your birthright,” Cetpa had said. Sovani’s ears caught the slight trill on the last syllable: I will mourn you as none before or since.

She had hefted the sack of migir to him. It was lighter than what he would need, but any heavier and he’d never have been able to carry it.

Beyharide, however, had strength to carry more than she might need. Sovani wove a story of losing half his store to an earlier taklit attack. Sweeping the air with a vicious battle he never fought covered the weakness in both his back and his heart. There was no twitch of doubt from Beyharide, at least. His contribution to their store was smaller, but enough that they knew the winter would not claim their lives from empty, frozen stomachs.

Is it against the spirit of wandering to spend the winter together? Sovani wondered in a series of twitches and a wave of cold across the surface of his skin. After three days, they had found but a single cave they might bolster against the cold. Sovani had moved to cede it to Beyharide, but she would have none of it.

If we never tell them, does it matter? Beyharide replied, her fingers spread wide to trace lukewarm patterns in the air between them. Sovani was grateful to let the matter fall to the side.

They felt the blizzard slithering its way south with enough time to build a door to Beyharide’s cave. It was hard work for Sovani’s lighter frame, but he pushed himself. Turned his mind away from the heavy crush of rock on flesh. Even greeted the rake against his skin when he found bark that must have been shed before the migirtju left.

The shiver of Beyharide along his back said, We should lie close tonight.

He did not respond.

For the warmth, she added.

That close, though, and his small, insignificant frame would be clear. She would know he could never have carried the migir he claimed, that the second taklit was a mirage woven with over-warm hands. He had been clever to wrap the migirtju bark across the windbreak to better hold the cave’s heat, but clever would not help if she knew how little he could provide.

He swished the air, radiating a thermal hum and blowing in the direction of the fruit: The migir sheds more heat than either of us. Place it between.

There came a confused brush of Beyharide’s palms sliding across her forearms, which tickled Sovani’s.

We can protect it better like that, he added with the tattoo of snapping fingers.

Beyharide conceded the point with a thrum of heat at her palm.

Sovani slept easier, the warmth of unsplit migir piled between the two of them. Though easier was by no means easy.

* * *

Beyharide still outlifted him, but Sovani found himself more and more capable of labor as the winter passed. Whether he was growing stronger or piling up vengeance his body would one day exact upon itself he wasn’t sure. Either way, as the migir dwindled and the wind and cold on his flesh waned, Sovani’s fears that Beyharide might abandon him as a parasite diminished.

Still, he kept what migir that remained between them at night, though it was no longer warmer than the body of another. Beyharide’s heat wavered above the fruit’s outer edges. He hoped his own fainter aura did not raise suspicions in her.

The ground softened, and the rich smell of snowmelt and mud cut through the slits of Sovani’s just-opening nostrils.

The work of pulling down the windbreak from the cave entrance was not so painful as building it. Spring encouraged Sovani’s winter skin to fade and dull even as his nostrils widened.

We let the husks sit too long, came Beyharide’s sharp mix of pherospeak. Sovani returned a whiff of agreement to cut through the pungent aroma of rotting migir husks. As soon as they had worked the wind break open, they set to removing the waste from the winter’s fruit.

The air of decay abandoned to a western breeze, Sovani caught a familiar, subtle mix of powdery spice.

Khaipaus. He signaled Beyharide by emulating the aroma.

A desperate glee filled his nostrils in response. Khaipaus traveled much farther afield than most copses, its migration pattern capricious and its bunches ephemeral. No People could sustain themselves by following it, but all of them found the trickle of its juice worth the chasing when the opportunity presented itself.

He led them both through the swirls of tart and wafts of pollen, navigated the lingering must of humidity. Sovani tensed a moment at a whiff of taklit, but it was far away and its vocal skills of no use in spring. They veered away from the danger and swung back around until khaipaus overtook the air.

Before they could breathe deep enough to count them, the powdery swath of khaipaus scattered.

Quick, Sovani puffed out. Flatten your scent. Go right. I’ll go left.

It was a skill Sovani found especially helpful back with the tribe. Masking his scent in the spring reduced his profile, offered no threat or challenge to his peers. With Sovani hidden in the wash of their stronger scents, they were content to let him linger close, where he gathered the migir they discarded as beneath their notice.

Sovani slunk with practiced skill through the muck that tickled his nose, breathing deep enough to pinpoint a pair of khaipaus where they cowered under the acrid cloud given off by a lohtka’s wide leaves.

Sovani slowed, focused on his glands, smoothing his own telltales as he slinked forward. He grabbed a rock, rubbing his oils on it, and threw it away from himself. Its stronger smell drew the khaipaus’s attention. They bolted, but straight to Sovani, who managed to snatch one in each hand.

Beyharide hadn’t been as good at masking herself. Sovani could smell her from here. He pressed his musk out to catch Beyharide’s nose: I have them. Come quick.

Beyharide reeked of a breathless exhaustion as she arrived, though the redolence of excitement soon overtook the former smell.

Pick, Sovani wafted. And she did, stripping the khaipaus of their meaty berries.

When Sovani caught the whiff of Beyharide’s Done, he let the small plants go, to trace a line of spice in their retreat.

The berries were the perfect balm to wash down the dullness of overripe migir.

Beyharide couldn’t hide the admiration that creeped from her pores as she asked, How do you do that?

Practice? Sovani returned with a faint earthy perfume.

A heady mix of excitement filled his nose as Beyharide closed on him, an undercurrent of piquant amusement as she asked, What would it take for you to teach me?

He threw her a quick tang that spoke of nonchalance he didn’t feel: I’ll share what I know and what I catch, of course. No cost.

A thread of sour indicated some kind of disappointment from Beyharide, but Sovani hoped he might erase it if he could teach something new to her.

It was contrary to Beyharide’s inclinations to suppress her natural musk, but eventually she had the basics. The spring passed in a friendly competition, with Beyharide’s gains in stealth matched by Sovani’s gains in endurance, until near the apex of the season they felt truly matched.

So much so that one afternoon, as they lingered under the bouquet of an odskocit grown elderly enough to root, Sovani toyed with the notion that perhaps the two of them, far from the press of tribe, could make a life in this, together.

Too late he caught the whiff of the idea seep from his skin. Beyharide’s own aroma filled with tension.

An idle notion, Sovani assured her with a calming essence.

Of course, Beyharide returned, her musk falling back to calm.

The next morning, Beyharide was gone.

* * *

He should have remembered the fear that shivered across Beyharide’s skin as winter fell and he suggested the wandering could end without a return. She was what the tribes valued. Of course she would want to rejoin them.

She had also learned Sovani’s lessons, for he could smell no trace of her to follow, only the swirls of dew and pollen.

He no longer dreaded his chances at survival, at least. The winter’s labor and the spring’s hunts, and perhaps a natural growth that was late to find him, left him wider in the shoulder, stronger in the legs and arms, than he had been when winter fell.

It took more work to strip the thinning khaipaus of their berries, but he managed. He needed less of them on his own, anyway. He supplemented with rooted plants as he could, when the heady aroma of their flowers dropped away, replaced by the subtler incense of their fruits.

That change was signal, too, of the coming summer. Sovani built what stores he could before his nostrils began to thin and close. The dark world grew gray as the thick film that protected his eyes from fall’s debris and winter’s wind and spring’s pollen thinned.

Spotted patches of color came next. Pops of red, smudges of pale yellow, all of it backed by variegated green. Sovani drew in deep breaths through the slits of his nose, trying to hold the scents and the colors together during inbetween. He knew the world balked at such combinations, but the pairing of khaipaus and violet, earthiness and brown, these brought the inbetween alive until his eyes were clear of all obstruction and the world came into focus.

It was in these final moments that he caught the bold musk he thought forever gone. Beyharide.

The flesh of his nose already threatened to close for the year. He pressed his fingers up, trying to pry one more moment. Enough to give him a direction: there.

Sovani ran, through the blurs of green leaves and over the speckled gray of stone, after the fleeting glimpses of black and reddish brown that streaked ahead. Beyharide was stronger and faster than him. He would never catch her, could never draw her attention. He ran all the same.

He called out Beyharide’s name as he bolted up the incline, past blots of indigo on vines of zureklop, though neither of them could hear it. Swept and clapped her skin name when he pressed between the umber trunks of a pair of dying stachelig, though both their flesh was now too dull to feel it.

Greens and oranges mingled and melted into the clear blue and yellow of the sky at the hill’s peak, Sovani trying to will his pores to waft the pungent cologne of Beyharide’s pheroname, but if he couldn’t smell it, breathing hard from the sprint uphill, he knew he would not catch her attention with it.

He broke through the last of the cover to the empty, high crest of the hill, and the movement stopped. Beyharide stood waiting.

Her meaty hands rested on her hips, thick legs set wide for support. Her breasts hung flat against her broad torso. In the bright sunlight, Sovani’s eyes found their final summer focus, rising along the lines of Beyharide’s dark form. Sovani took in the fine, black hairs along her forearms and over her lip. The latter were surely the way she had felt the taklit so keenly during inbetween to dodge it. Or, dodge it well enough to keep both eyes: bite scars arced along the left side of her face, ending at a slight droop to that side of her mouth.

You are the most beautiful creature any season knows, Sovani signed.

I’m sorry I left, she signed. Sovani regretted that the muscle he had added came without the fat that spoke of success and surplus.

The droop at one side of Beyharide’s mouth didn’t stop her smile. She waved him over, pointing to the valley.

Sovani joined her on the scatter of tiny yellow flowers, followed the line of her finger into the distance. Two copses of migirtju passed near each other on their way back to their summer homes. Tall, wide trunks swayed from side to side. Branches waved with the motion of rootstep. Oversized droplets of leaves quivered in the wind. Sovani recognized his own copse, felt his stomach drop as he realized the other would be Beyharide’s. The end of wandering approached on slithering wooden roots.

I made assumptions, pressures that someone like you never needs to entertain, he signed.

Beyharide furrowed her bushy brows again, then shook her head.

Look again, she signed. Her hand cradled the back of his head, brought his eyes to a lower angle. He was glad it was not fall, when she would have heard his small gasp.

Meandering through the space between the two larger copses was a grouping of younger migirtju trees. Their bark was pale, their leaves specks, but it was clear they had gathered together and moved in a path that did not follow either of the larger copses.

Sovani squinted, pushing his newly settled sight. He could pick out the spots of moving shadow in the branches of the larger copses, but the new copse was empty.

Unclaimed, Beyharide signed. You found the cave, the bark for the windbreak. Stacked the migir to warm our winter. Traced and tricked the khaipaus. You are clever. It was my turn. I knew if we were to be together, I had to find us our own—

Together? Sovani signed, matching the sweep of his paired hands with the one she had made.

She smiled again, leaning close. Sovani returned the smile at the flash of light in her eyes, and kissed her.

Beyharide tasted sweet as the trill of birdsong with the earthy heat of unsplit migir, the tang of khaipaus bouquet wrapped in the prismatic spray of a summer storm.

Jason Kimble left the tornadoes of Michigan for the hurricanes of Florida, because spinning air is better when it’s warm. He lives there with his finally legal husband. In addition to his previous appearance in Betwixt, he made the shortlist for the James White Award in 2016, and his most recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Sockdolager, Clockwork Phoenix 5, Cast of Wonders, and Escape Pod. You can find more of his nattering at processwonk.wordpress.com or by following @jkasonetc on Twitter.

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