The nHhesti call this hour Ssayat Tlichat, the Blessing Hour, holy to hunters and travelers, holy even to the hundred thousand ghosts of the deep desert heart. By the rising of the second moon, I believe I will have been all of these things. I observe the hour pinned to the sand, bleeding out in slow drops now, mind and body one dew-gathering web of nerves, watching the world transform.
I watch the sun gurgle wine red on the teeth of the dunes, and dream of the beguiling light it must be casting, somewhere maddeningly nearby, on water. I listen, until the vibration becomes a song under my skin, to the droning chorus of awakening killers, and the answering frenzy of their prey, snatching up the last fruits of the day. I think I even begin to see the glimmer now, of the water that nourishes them all.
And I follow the stalking shapes that approach me slowly from that oasis with the calm, detached curiosity of the soon-to-be-dead.
Long, naked arms dangling, red robes whipping, tapered horns in my delirium seeming to trail meters behind them, the two nHhesti-Arzetl slide gracefully down the ridge of sand. As they turn, their reflective scales shimmer in the dying light, colors ricocheting like buckshot off my retinas. Broken off bits of the broiling sky, they burn their way toward me.
My desiccated eyes, powerless to close, bless the beneficence of their shadows as they stoop over me, impossibly slender for their height. Generations ago, more closely matched in size, we would have regarded each other with the same segmented gaze. The tiny, needle-narrow teeth that lined my snout would have greeted them with the same perpetually serene or secretive half-smile. So much lost in the name of peace. Progress. I fear this body – this nHhesttuman husk – is altered beyond recognition. As Khassa’s would be, almost identical to mine. Khassa, my comrade, my once-beloved, who has by now returned safely to the city to share news of my death. An accident, not an assassination – no righteous murder of a reactionary. I do not believe Khassa would wish others to know that he had harbored a heretic for so long. Or that one day, he’d admitted that sometimes, in his dreams, he wore the soft, downy skin of a human. When I told him I would still touch him even if I had my own ancestors’ cool, scaly palms, he shuddered with revulsion. I would kill you, he said, then laughed too quickly, and pressed his thigh to mine – the same flesh, neither skin nor scale but something perfectly in-between, forever warm, forever a lie.
He knew I would go to the desert without him, to the Arzetl shrine, and wait for the holy women – my long-lost sisters – to hear the bell. If they change you, you shouldn’t come back, he said, as if I didn’t know I’d be shunned, threatened, reviled like any Regressionist. I would have to take shelter with all the others who’d chosen to return, to refuse to feel shame in our antiquarian, impractical differences – the exothermic nHhesti unable to work in the heat of the sun, the fragile humans vulnerable to injury, thirst and disease. I hadn’t expected Khassa to say he’d still love me, any more than I expected him to offer to go with me. But he arrived the next morning with amulets for each of us – one black to close the scorching eye of Arzahal, Mother of Sands; one blue to open the eye that cools her children with tears of compassion. The knife I would not see until he plunged it into my chest and ran. Narrowly, he missed my heart; it was never in the same place as his.
It is the taller of the two Arzetl who speaks, calling me ‘little brother’, hunching her gaunt, gleaming shoulders. Her horns in truth are not nearly so long as I’d first hallucinated, but they’re longer than my vestigial stubs. As she leans over me, she dangles something on a long piece of cord. One segmented golden eye follows its pendulum motion, almost facetiously. Carved into the black piece of ceramic is the nHhesti glyph ssoisto – ‘turn away’. The blue amulet, which bears the glyph tatchq – ‘your child’ – remains about my own neck.
The high-pitched, whining, rasping noise I hear terrifies me, until I realize by the agony in my chest and throat that it’s my own laughter. A series of growling clicks, terminating in a low, pleasing purr, caresses my ear as the shorter Arzetl touches the tube of a waterskin to my lips. This other language is familiar only in the way of dreams but I take its meaning eagerly, and in my avarice drink too deeply. A quick, long-fingered, reptilian hand flies to my mouth, stifling me before I can splutter. The sun’s descent has opened wide, hungry ears, and the night’s hunters are fleet. I try to nod my comprehension, but my head is heavy with exhaustion and blood loss, and my brain spins with all the lost things I must re-learn. Especially if I stay…
Half-conscious, I catch the arc of the rising moon, a dirty umber crescent in the dusk. A sea of stars seems to lift me in its narcotic swell, but as coolness slithers over my arms, I realize it’s the Arzetl, carrying me between them. I look down to see the toes of my boots suspended inches above the sand. As my eyes close, soothed just enough by the small amount of water they can now expend, I picture myself drifting silently between the women as they walk. Their jewel-bright eyes nictitate, migrating to regard me and each other with timeless smiles, reflecting red moonlight, welcoming me home.