Immig's Work | Introductory sample
Of the Shunii, it is said that they place the vintner before the wine, the dreamer before the dream.
Summer returned and with it our oppressors. After five years, we should have been expecting them, but we Shunii hope more blindly than most.
The ten score burrows of our settlement are a jumbled maze, dug into the slopes of a high gorge. To clamber up and down the steep, narrow streets is the price we pay for an inconspicuous vantage point. The whetwomen’s cavern and glass kiln, bakeries, a school and the Allhouse are concentrated in the upper reaches of the village from where a flat dirt track leads out, reminding us of whence we came yet joining our mountain fastness with no one and nothing. They surprised us by climbing a rarely trodden path from an abrupt gully and entering from below, where the village dwindles to a point. Since the Ula came as they always did, by night, it was as if they had sprung from our dreams.
Their speech forked its way into the bedroom of a young man, who grunted awake and went to the window. There they were, in the night’s shadows, long-legged and spindly, sizing up his dwelling, which was set on its own with no immediate neighbours. Efen’s burrow was considered to be the last in the village, but for once it would be the first.
One of the giant insects picked its slow gait across the stony landscape to peruse a piece of windswept trash; the others stared dully at the house while they pressurized sacs containing their corrosive saliva. The householder now had no more than a minute to protect his home.
Sleepy and shocked, Efen pulled open his front door and got busy. He dodged the ulawaisher’s stiff-haired appendages, hammering old bedding and bullrush matting over doors and windows until he sensed an ooze behind his right kidney and dived through the gap he had left in the covers. He locked himself within, in the darkness before the day, listening, thinking, panting, “Made, safe, shit.”
It was as well. The stone face of the burrow could be rebuilt and repointed, but not the heavy germoak frames and door. As for the windows, precious artefacts of the whet art, they were nigh irreplaceable.
“Hff, pff, Fen,” he heard one of the ulawaisher wheeze an attempt at Shunii speech. They remembered his name, then. One who had yelled at them the previous year and thrown rocks at them. Stupid, useless rocks. The Ula were ponderous, but so big —and their exoskeleton so hard— that it was maddeningly senseless to attack them. It allowed them a leisurely confidence about the peculiar raid on our homes.
“Ngy, ngy, Fen hass! Huuuuuh!” They raised their protuberances and it began.
Brief sprays, like the speculative licks of an amorous predator, lengthened to a dismayingly insistent drizzle. The bulbous-eyed creatures were soaking the house with their milky secretion; its hiss crackled as it passed across the dried skins Efen had draped over the windows. The only other sound was a stone knocked aside by a leathery pad, as a waisher Ula shifted its stance to redirect the liquid slime to a dry, untouched nook. Soon the house was weirdly drenched and all the householder could do was sit, lamp lit but unseeing, feeling the dread fill his heart at the awhing sounds of satisfaction which are the Ula’s conferral before eating.
They fastened themselves with slow deliberation to the suppurating walls and an obscene tasting and sucking moved Efen’s stomach. He looked about himself quickly as if his disgust might stave off the sweet stickiness fouling the air. He gripped his ears and wondered: How long, how much longer? And: Have the others heard the arrival? Would Ageman Oki get help to protect his burrow? Then there was Bennoum and Taaya, her crippled daughter. The Ula didn’t like it when someone failed to move smartly out of their way. Efen sweated and worried.
Thus it had been every year since the Shunii arrived to make their homes in these lonely mountains, settling at last after a hard exodus, and always just as the summer was giving relief after black winter, when the children were beginning to spend long days together in the streets, the adults breaking at last from heavy labour and exchanging a crack at each other’s expense. It was then that the Ula came to put out the shine in our faces.
It had been a place of mixed blessings. The water was fresh and wheat took immediately, but fruit trees resisted cultivation. The red clay reminded us of home, and open mining for iron ore at a nearby site turned up minor rock crystals that pleased the whetwomen. Their art, suppressed for so long, came back to life in the space of four seasons, two years. There were no gems as might come from the height of distant Johd, and the crystal light was weak and wavering, but it was a light and it was with us. Soon we had glassworking and the welcome noise of a forge. There was a school house where the essential geometries were taught and while we still had little use for his science, thanks to Immig we had an astromatic and a few mindworks of distinction. As long as the old man spun his numbers we could say that we were fashioning. After years of wandering and back-breaking subsistence, we had fallen guiltily idle in many ways and any such works done by our people were food for the soul.
What food there was for the belly was scanty and unpalatable, save for flatbread and fat autumn berries. Tharc were rare and we preferred to use them as pack animals. We hunted for og and some people kept birry-bundies, but they are mostly skinny and, of course, they squawk incessantly. Besides, they are the devil to catch. Well, we would be patient. We had no choice.
The long, hot season was our reward. When summer broke through the ugliness of winter, it was a treat for small, hot-blooded Shunii. The sun was a bell that rang sweet and long to our delicate ears. It was ours to dance to, jumping and hopping in the streets. If our burrows’ design permitted but little light to enter, inside we could depend on the whetwomen’s craft, and they were resilient to attack. If not unbreachable.
And now the ulawaisher’s vulgar tonguing of dripping masonry, ingesting the very stone and mix of his home, tormented Efen. Ironically, in doing so they would swallow down every insect that had burrowed in, laying larvae to wreak mischief in midsummer. But Efen begrudged them a single borer-bug.
Thanks to his quick thinking and agility around the over-tall waisher Ula, he had safeguarded the prized fabrics of his house and his own pelt; and in this season, at least, the ungainly creatures lacked any culinary interest in himself. It was the minerals of his dwelling that they wanted. They had merely swung a disdainful, barbed leg at him and flapped wings, jollied by his antics.
To the young Shunii householder, shut up inside and staring at nothing, the burrow felt like an extension of himself. It was as if his own body tissue was being consumed like soft mud by these gourmet vermin, these huge, flightless locusts. On and on went the wet tasting and the papery movements of their useless wings. In the stifling obscurity, Efen remained in an unmoving narcolepsy, drifting into a strangely comforting dream of falling trees.
When he came to, Efen could no longer bear to be cooped up like a bundy. He unbolted the front door and pushed past the mattress he had nailed over it, crying a weak, distressed shout. He staggered out to the shock of a midheaven sun and nothing to oppose him. There was only a dry heat coagulating the dribbles of digestive juice on the stone pavement, the buzzing of Schadenfreude flies and a birri-bundy, hopping pathetically, complaining, its eyes permanently blinded by the ineluctable spray.
Hours had passed and the waisher Ula had gone. When Efen stood still and listened, he heard the unmistakeable absence of sound from his nearest neighbours: utterly still in their burrow, just as he had been. He imagined a cawing and rustling about their way, but knew that well before morning came the Ula would have gone to take shelter in the high caves, before stalking home the following night. They shunned the sun as much as Shunii craved it. This more than anything made them alien to us.
Efen stumbled once and sat down on his rump, his heart thumping. For here was the summer that we longed for, where we had our loving — and to spend it once again under the yoke of the Ula would rake a cold, heavy shadow through the village.
Did he shout out defiantly? “I am Shunii, I am Light People!” No. He only looked down, knowing himself slightly foolish, and clenched his paws.
Twice they would come. They always came twice. In the first and sweetest days of the hot season, and at its end. The return was the worst of it.
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This story is dedicated to Ursula K. Le Guin