We are unadorned and smoky, like our world. I will tell you a story. On Bihan, there is a native plant called a zeshi, which has a fragrant pink-colored bloom. This flower folds over and over on itself, forming a small labyrinth, a maze of sweetness and color hidden from view. Enter the tiny shensh, a poisonous interloper no larger than a passing thought. The shensh crawls down into the zeshi flower and hides itself between the folds, where it begins consuming the zeshi from within. But the zeshi can flood itself with sticky nectar, enough to trap the invading shensh. The zeshi then turns the tables and feeds upon the shensh.
"So, what are you?" asks the human called Ben J. He knows just enough about our social structure to ask me this. He knows that females like me live in groups of about a dozen, with one male. Each female has her own particular place in the group, and brings her own particular talents and strengths. It wouldn't occur to any of us to be jealous of a sister; it would be like being jealous of a part of our own body. On the other hand, outsiders we kill. Ben J. wants to know what my place is in my group. I give him a children's answer: "I am a storyteller."
Ben J. leans back in his chair, taking up an enormous amount of space without seeming to try. He spins a ring of keys around on his finger, then grins at me, mockingly. He spreads his hands and says, "So tell me a story!" He draws out the last word.
I tell him, "Once there was a man who searched after the truth, but the more he looked, the less he saw, because his eyes were soft but the truth is hard."
Ben J. just looked at me for a moment, and then tilted his head back and laughed. He casually kicked the bars of my cage with his military-style boot, making a sharp, loud bang, and said, "You are one fucking crazy Zeeb."
They call us Zeebs, for striped creatures on their world called zebras. They call us this because every Bihana--women like me--have dark red skin and bald heads criss-crossed with deep ebony stripes. Every Bihana's stripe pattern is distinct. The only hair we have is a small patch of black at the base of our skulls. Our stripes continue down our spines, finally diminishing at the hips. We have yellow eyes, and bodies that, due to our high metabolisms and our genetics, stay the same as we age. Though to ourselves our appearance is unremarkable, the human males find us fascinating in a strictly physical way. They have no regard for us, but they desire us. We are what they would call voluptuous, and we secrete a pheromone that makes them stupid with desire when we are in season. The rest of the time, the effect is less. That is the only mercy there is, here.
When they came, our male tried to protect us. His name was Meshka, and he was crafty and fearless. The humans were arrogant and out of their element. He used that to ambush them, and he turned a great many of them to nothing but cinders. One night as I lay with him, I kissed a line along the scar across his face. When I spoke in his ear, and the word I spoke was our word meaning peace within one's self; peace within one's world. You don't understand, yet, the power of my words, but you will. It was the best gift I could give him. The humans murdered him the next day, and rounded us up.
Our world is hot and harsh. The main colors here are red and black. The sky stays smoky. We are creatures of this world.
Even in captivity, we have tried to fight them, but it is almost impossible. There are things we can do, but the price is high. One of the humans was running the blade of a knife along the bars of my cage, taunting me, and he managed to cut off the tip of his own finger when the blade slipped in his hand. He screamed. He was bleeding all over, bright red human blood, not the reddish-orange blood that flows in us. The human turned in quick circles, holding his hand and screaming. The fingertip landed near enough to my cage that I reached out and took it. I put it in my mouth. Bihana have the ability to concentrate heat within ourselves, and I made my mouth searing. The stink of burning flesh filled the room, and when he stopped screaming and turned toward me, I spit out the blackened speck that was his fingertip. They starved me for two weeks for that.
My sister came into season and one of the humans let her out and began doing what he pleased with her. He was kissing her hard--something foreign to us--and had pushed her up against the wall. Bihanas have just three fingers, and no thumbs. Instead, we have a sheathed claw that is smooth and black. We are no stronger than human females, but we have this weapon. She took the human by the shoulders, unsheathed her thumb-claws and sank them into his arms. She wouldn't let him go, and she had got him all the way to the bone. Another human came in and hit her with his porcupine ball and down she went.
The humans' favorite weapon is a porcupine ball they carry on their belts. It has a long handle, and a half sphere on the end. When they swing it and it hits someone, dozens of barbed spikes erupt from the ball and into the victim. My sister was put back in her cage with the porcupine ball still in her back. It isn't immediately fatal. Pulling the barbs out takes flesh with them. The wounds become infected, the victim can linger for days, even weeks, and the pain is excruciating. Our cages were close enough together that I could hold her hand. I held it for two human weeks until her blood stopped pulsing in her wrist. One of the things we do not want the humans to know, is that we can cry.
Ben J. is back. He's looking at me and I know the look. I glance at the porcupine ball at his hip. It would do me no good to try to steal it from him, because, as we have learned, they are fingerprint-identified and if anyone but the owner tries to use it, the barbs explode into one's hand. One of my sisters lost her arm this way. Then they shot her in the head, because she wasn't appealing to them anymore.
I told him that I am a story teller. Here is another story, and it's a true one. On Bihan, there were once flying vermin called quanzi. In our world, the air is hot and full of ash and soot. The quanzi found their way into the flesh of damaged throats and bred there. When the larvae hatched, the host would choke violently and the new quanzi would fly out, stronger with each generation. When the quanzi left the dying host, it was called "speaking death", because the first thing young quanzi do is to look for another victim. In time, very few of us were left, but the survivors had a natural immunity, a mutation causing an extra membrane to develop in our throats, and the quanzi starved to death and vanished from our world.
Ben J. is opening my cage. He calls me a Zeeb and holds me by the wrist, hard. I told him that I am a story teller, but that was a children's tale. Here is the truth: I am a shamaness. I am a particular kind of shamaness, as my mother and grandmother were before me. My gift is to manifest words. I can animate any word I choose, and our language is twice as extensive as that of the humans. It begins with the feeling of something gathering itself just beneath my second heart. As I concentrate, it grows stronger, and moves up my body, from the inside. My ears ring and my dark red skin and black stripes shimmer. Then, for a moment, I can't breathe, my throat is blocked, as if it were full of quanzi, but it isn't quanzi, it is the word I have chosen to animate. Finally, it fills my mouth, and when I speak it, whatever word I have chosen manifests itself in physical reality. So, you see, when I spoke in Meshka's ear our word that means peace within one's self; peace within one's world, he had that, there in my arms. I saw it in his face, he was alive with it. That is my gift.
Ben J. is moving against me, calling me "Zeeb bitch" and grunting. I put my lips to his ear. After a while, I feel it gathering inside me. Under my second heart, up my throat, into my mouth. I press my lips to Ben J's ear, so close to his vulnerable human brain, and I speak the words that mean "porcupine ball". He falls instantly to the ground, bright red human blood gushing from his ears, his nose, his ugly mouth, even his eyes. He is dead before he can react, his head riddled and destroyed from the inside.
I take his keys from his belt. Quietly, I let myself out of the cage room and slowly, silently, make my way down the empty corridor to the door out of this place. I am pushing the door open, almost free, when I hear a voice behind me. It is a human voice saying, "Stop right there, Zeeb."
One of the guards is swinging his porcupine ball, almost lazily, and walking toward me. His smug face is nearly bored. I have never tried to use my shamanic talent twice in a short time before, but I concentrate as hard as I can. He will be on me in just a few steps. I double over, in pain. It has never been like this before. Still, I concentrate. He is swinging the porcupine ball, it will only be a few seconds before I feel it bite into my body. The word I have chosen rises up in my throat, choking me for a moment. Then it is in my mouth, the word I have summoned, the word that I am forbidden to speak this way, but which I am speaking now as the human takes aim at me, a smile at the edge of his lips.
I speak the word, the word that manifests and animates the small thing that will bring down this human, this place, this entire world except for me and my sisters: