I. I was born of the First, in the height of spring. Removed from Her presence and christened by my sisters, I was set among the cots of the scholar-explorer castes. Our nursery-sisters teach us genealogy; navigation; astronomy; the intricate language of chemicals, both written and transient. These are lessons each child of the colony must learn as well as her cot-mate’s scent. My cot-mate smells of milk and honey, baby-scent and, very faintly, of Her Presence.
At the end of the day, I sleep: one of a hundred in a single line.
II. On the Second Day, we learn the art of sewing.
We spin silken threads out from our mouths and knit together emerald pavilions for our future sisters: princess-castes soon to be laid in their cradles. We learn of the colony’s history and its future: our First was one such princess-caste, one of hundreds of young queens on her wedding flight. She survived while others were caught by webs, snapped up by birds and devoured by monsters. Their names, and the names of the summer princes, are immortalized on the emerald walls of our home.
Consider your good fortune and remember your place, a nursery-sister says, as she tucks us in for the night. When we are older, it will be our duty to educate, to teach and feed these little sisters—the highest place and honour, save for those who tend to the First.
Remember that you are always of the colony, the nursery-sister says, they are not.
But it does not escape our notice—how much love and care are set aside for them even before they are born. The First blessed and christened the pavilion. On its green walls, our scholar-sisters lovingly inscribed the details of our history, from the beginning of time to our present lineage. Our little sisters sleep surrounded by ancient words, and by the ancestors of old.
III. There is an intruder in the nest. We little ones buzz with excitement—to war! To war like the Great Tales of Old! Spider and the Bee, the Wasp and Wolf. But our nursery-sisters hush us, haul us up by their pincers, and carry us to the most secret place deep inside the nest—in Her Presence.
We grow silent and shy. We have not seen Her since we were born. But She is gracious. She sings to us as if She were a sister, not Mother, not the First. She sings softly, softly, sacred and solemn hymns—ancient queens and summer princes, trial by air and rain, the deaths of the wedding flight falling around Her and the founding of our sacred place.
Our sisters return to us—too soon. We long to remain in Her Presence, in Her Grace. But it is not our place.
The intruder did not stay long, a warrior-sister reports. They tried to butcher it, but it did not oblige them. Its shimmering scales slipped off our warrior-sisters and it fled the nest into the open sky. Little flakes of protein from what should have been a feast.
There is a feast anyway: a wolf spider, attracted by the commotion and venturing too close to the colony. Our sisters butchered it and took it apart. They feed its meat to our entire line of scholar-sisters.
We sleep sound and full in our cots, next to our new little sisters. Tiny, delicate little orbs, as pure as silk.
IV. When our little cot-mates open their eyes, we sing to them. We sing of the winged intruder and how it was vanquished, we sing old tales of war and love and wedding flights. When our nursery-sisters come to feed us our morning milk and honey, they stop, puzzled, at the sight of the little ones in our midst.
What is this?
Our little sisters. Didn’t you put them here?
We don’t keep infants and older children together, a nursery-sister says. She reaches out to pluck a little one from our midst. The baby protests, squealing. She says: I want to stay.
The nursery-sister pauses. Her fellow-caste hesitate, shuffling their feet. It is odd behaviour, very inefficient and ungraceful. We twitch to see them do it.
I want to stay. I want to stay. A chorus of voices, overlapping each other, and the want in them almost drowns the echo of all the songs in our hearts.
The nursery-sisters grow slack, their mandibles hanging from their jaws. They look stupid—why don’t they say yes?
This is not allowed—
WE WANT TO STAY WE WANT TO STAY WE WANT TO—
The nursery-sisters rush in. They pluck the little ones from our cots. Soothe them with milk and honey until their bellies are round and full. They drop them back in our cots, soothed and sated little sisters curled up with happiness.
The remaining honey and milk is doled out to the rest of us. We are half fed and still hungry, but overjoyed our little ones remain.
V. Our new little sisters are odd things. They eat and they eat and they grow. The second day and they are half our size already, gobbling up milk and honey and even meat. Our nursery-sisters can deny them nothing.
It is a little funny, watching them scamper after the little ones as if after queens. They feed the little ones until their bellies are round. It is so funny, we do not mind the thinness of the milk, the gruel they feed us when our voices and our hunger grow too loud for them to ignore.
When they wake up (still full) our little sisters soothe us with songs of milk and honey, of feasts and green pavilions. When they sing, it is more than enough.
They are such beautiful singers. We cannot deny them anything.
VI. They are so big and beautiful. Double our size, their mouths big and white and gleaming. Our nursery-sisters pour into the nursery to feed them and groom them and lick their baby-skins to gleaming. They love that we love their voices, their songs of flight and the chemical blue.
But I want more, one of the little ones says, no longer so little. Her mouth is gleaming. One of us reaches up to soothe her—poor little thing, to be governed by such an appetite when we are content on gruel. The little one bends down as if to kiss our sister. Then swallows her whole.
We scream. We flee for the doors. But the little ones sing: Calm. Calm. All will be well. Don’t you want to stay, to eat milk and honey with us, to have cake and tea, as sisters should?
That night, we sleep with our numbers halved, curling up next to our sisters’ bellies.
We think we can hear the swallowed ones through their skin.
VII. We are such small things that they begin to swallow each other. A part of us knows we should be horrified, we should be screaming, we should be begging our nursery-sisters to save us from these monsters. We should be weeping to the First, who is giving birth to our princess-sisters in their tiny little cots in the other nursery. But one little sister picks me up and rocks me to sleep. How much she loves me. The smell of me. Childhood and silk and milk.
Another little sister rocks awake. She is hungry and she wants—
Give it to me, she says. Give it to me. The other monster-sisters clamour with the other sister’s wish. My little one holds me fast.
I don’t want to eat you.
My little sister opens her mouth.
The commotion brings a nursery-sister running. She stops, terrified, to find only one very large child, and the rest of us huddling behind our cots. My little sister simply cleans her mouth.
Where is the other nursery? my little sister asks.
The nursery-sister takes her hand, and guides her to that blessed chamber.
VIII. She comes back, huge, distended, silk dripping from her mouth as if she were a little child still. She spins a blanket above her, from head to toe.
We watch. We huddle together on the other side of the room. We try not to think of all the little ones and siblings inside of her, of her gleaming mouth as she seals herself inside the blanket. Her own pavilion.
We wait, sleepless, terrified and hungry.
IX. For a blessed while, our monster-sister sleeps.
X. It is like a dream. She is silent, and with her silence we wake.
The nursery-sisters, the warrior-sisters sing their funereal songs for our dead and converge on the pulsing pupae. When my little sister hatches, they fall on her. But she knew, and I knew, that such things are futile.
She is so changed. Her bright blue wings, the scales that slip from them, her large compound eyes and the wolf’s fur on her skin. But I know her by her smell. I know her by her voice, as she fought her way to me and extended her proboscis.
I’ll always love you, my little sister says, as the nursery-sisters come howling at her feet. Monster. Murderer. Cuckoo-child. She flutters her wings, and scales slip from her. The warrior-sisters cannot grab hold of her, and she flees to the door, opens the blue azure of her wings and then—
XI. And now my heart is empty.
Oh my heart.
I want to hear Her voice again, listen to Her singing of butterfly queens. I want our time in the nest.
I would feed my sisters to Her, one by one, just to hear Her. But She is gone, and my soul is empty.
XII. The colony doesn’t have nearly enough princesses to make up the wedding flight. To give each winged explorer enough chance of survival.
I am one of few sisters, small and stunted, my growth delayed. There is much discussion among the First and Her Council. It’s not ideal, but it will have to do.
They feed me. As much meat, as much milk and honey as my abdomen can accept. My education, after all, is a princess’s education, and there is not much they have to make up for. They will turn me into a princess, into a queen, and place a diadem on my forehead when I emerge from the pupae.
I know. I know what the end will be. If I survive, I will be the First to a colony, I will give birth to a hundred thousand daughters. I will sing of Her, of Her Name, of Her chemical trace. She or Her children will find us and we will welcome them with open arms. I will feed them child after child, as much as their tiny hearts demand.
I will hear Her voice again.
Story copyright © 2016 by Elaine Cuyegkeng
Artwork copyright © 2016 by P. Emerson Williams
Elaine Cuyegkeng was born in Manila, Philippines, where there are many, many creaky old houses with ghosts inside them. She loves eusocial creatures both real and imaginary, 80s pop stars, and caffeinated drinks with too much sugar. She now lives in Melbourne with her partner and a rose named Blue. She has been published in The Dark and Rocket Kapre.
P. Emerson Williams is an artist, musician, actor, and writer who works on a creative continuum that draws upon an interest in the arcane and esoteric. His passion is for embodying the mythic in visual media and melding visual art with narrative form. He has collaborated with writers James Curcio, Nathan Neuharth, and illustrated Bedlam Stories: The Battle of Oz and Wonderland Begins, the first novel in Pearry Teo’s series. As a musician he has worked with SLEEP CHAMBER, Jarboe, Manes, and kkoagulaa among many others.