There would be bodies. Her mother had already warned her about the smell, about the morbid pull of curiosity. You’ll want to look, she had said. But don’t. You’ll only spoil your appetite.
In her unease, Isa had no appetite left to spoil. She paddled through the darkness, having only old habits to guide her. There was nothing to see but blackness, nothing to hear but the whispering waters against her paddle. She tried to remember her mother’s words, the pieces of advice scattered like bread crumbs to lead her home.
They want you to believe you don’t belong here. They think your humanity will make you weak, but you can prove them wrong. You will show them you belong.
Belong. It was a strange word—one that never seemed to fit. Did she ever truly belong here among the shapeshifters and specters? Here where the river was dark with spirits and the sun was an unconvincing myth? Those whispers from the water echoed her doubts, but there among the murmurs was another voice, clearer in its familiarity.
They want you to doubt. They want your questions to shake you. They want you to believe you belong to a world you have never seen. But this is your home to claim—if you want it.
Wanting was a luxury Isa had never known, though it had built her world. Wanting had driven her mother to the underrealm, driven her to eat their dark feast and trade sunlight for shadows. Isa had been born into these shadows, born of flesh fed by the underrealm. For a time, that had been enough to claim her place. But that time had passed with her mother. Her mother’s wanting had brought them here; her heart and passion had made it home. But Isa did not have her heart. Without its steady rhythm, could any place be home?
Faint torch light flickered far across the water. Isa paddled closer, drawn to the light like the many crawling, scuttling things of the deep. She could sense their movements in the cavern around her. As the light grew stronger, she could see the dark shapes moving along the walls and ceiling, their bodies long as her canoe, their legs, eyes, carapaces gleaming.
At last Isa drew up close to the rocky shore. She pulled her vessel safely up from the whispering waters, away from the paths of hurrying insects. They had cleared trails through the dirt, the torchlight drawing them to earthen tunnels that glowed with a still deeper light.
This was as far as Isa had ever come. Every other year she had sat with the canoe as her mother changed for the feast, disappearing among the swarm. She only knew the feast as a time of boredom and waiting. But not this year.
Isa followed the eager procession of insects, jostled by their long bodies through too-narrow tunnels, until at last they emerged into a wide cavern. Here, the polished stone walls gleamed in the glow of countless torches, illuminating a seething heap at the centre of the chamber that rose high above her. The insects hurried into this heap, hungry for the feast, the air above them filled with warm light and the stench of decay.
Isa looked up high to the top of the writhing heap. There, atop a tower of bones stripped bare by the frenzy, sat two great beetles. One, purple-black, was feeding on the maggots born of the heap. Beside him, his queen gleamed in emerald tones. She watched Isa, her gaze steady over twitching antennae.
“Yes, your Highness,” Isa said, quickly dropping into a low bow. “I have come to join the feast.”
Isa looked up into those emerald eyes. Under their gaze, her answers suddenly felt fragile, empty.
“This is my home,” she said at last. “I wish to stay.”
Isa’s tongue sat empty. She thought only of the whispering river, the voice that carried above all others, speaking in death with more heart and strength than Isa had ever felt in life.
“This is my home,” she said again. “This is the world my mother chose. I choose it, too.”
The emerald queen considered her in silence. Then as Isa watched, those insect features melted, twisted, shaped themselves into a new form. Isa looked up into a human face, beautiful and tragic.
“I know of the choice between worlds,” the queen said. “I know of the strength of mothers, too—how they can tie you to a world of their choosing. But what of your strength?”
Looking into the queen’s face, Isa thought of her mother’s features, her strength. Isa had inherited her eyes, her nose, when what she needed most was her heart.
“My strength is my choice,” Isa said. “I choose to stay.”
At the queen’s words, a path cleared through the heap’s frenzy. The bodies of countless dead creatures were exposed—raw and rotten—and despite her mother’s warning, Isa looked. There in the heap was a familiar form with eyes and nose much like her own, though bloated with death and decay.
You’ll only spoil your appetite.
Despite the grief and revulsion churning her stomach, Isa stepped forward. She climbed into the heap, the way wet and slippery with death, but she continued until she reached her mother’s body. Much of her torso had already been eaten away, but her ribcage was intact, its strength guarding her great treasure.
You will show them you belong.
Isa reached into her mother’s chest and pulled from it her heart. It filled her hand, heavy and still. Could this thing be the same heart that had brought her mother to this place, that had brought Isa to this moment?
She bit into it.
Isa’s mouth filled with a warm wetness, with the taste and smell of rot. But as she ate, her senses changed. Each bite became sweeter, more satisfying, tasting of pomegranates. That taste fed a deep hunger that had gone unnamed. It was an awakening—the answer to questions she had never thought to ask.
Fed by her mother’s flesh, a new strength flowed through her. It sprang from her own heart, reaching out into the many limbs that stretched from her new-formed body. That strength surrounded her, joining her to the frenzy all around. Her senses fill with life, with connection, with the thrill of the feast.
She ate, savouring the sweetness of home.
~ Miriam H. Harrison
© Copyright Miriam H. Harrison. All Rights Reserved.