I posted this story a couple of weeks ago to announce my Patreon campaign, and I repost it here with portraits of three of the characters. One of them doesn’t get a portrait because he’s a jerk.
You’ll note that the orthography — the way the words are written — differs from the eReader version. Such are the travails of a typesetter who puts a diaresis over an ‘h’.
It’s Hard to Find Someone
A note on pronunciation: The language of Tetej and its surrounding culture uses a lot of aspiration, so one would pronounce “Ejtḧangh” a bit like “Edge to hang huh”. The hs are both pronounced in the back of the throat, as in Arabic. Th is therefore not a digraph, but two separate sounds. To avoid confusion, I have used a diaresis (¨) to separate the letters as a reminder to native readers of English.
Hjatḧa woke up in the late morning and stretched before opening her eyes. The sun, trailing a string of the smaller moons, poured light through the window. It was a friendly but sudden awakening as the sun rose through the feathertree outside the window. Beside her lay Kwatḧash, the impregnator she’d met last night. He was beautiful and sleek, asleep there on her pillow, his chest rising and falling, snoring unselfconsciously. Hjatḧa was still struck by his pretty face, lit now by the dappled light as it was last night by the flickering light of the incense candles, his eyes flashing as he composed little poems about the rhyme in their names. As the night went on, they both found looser tongues under the influence of incense, and the poetry turned more direct. Kwatḧash promised to rhyme all night, and he did.
Hjatḧa sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing her eyes. They were still itchy from the incense, but it made her feel good — A warm cozy feeling. Her sister had once told her, “The best nights are followed by itchy eyes!”
She stood up and stepped into the bathing pool beside the sleeping dais. The cool water rolled over her, sweeping away the stickiness on her short, matted fur. The orange-dyed spots she’d painted on last night smeared and faded in the water, leaving her natural light gray. She turned up the tub’s filter to remove the dye and submerged her head, her long hair first floating on the surface and then following her into the cool quiet.
She opened her eyes. Distorted through the silvery surface she saw Kwatḧash approaching the pool. Her vision scattered like birds as he dipped his toe through the surface. It was momentarily the only solid image, the black, velvety fur of his foot dappled by the sunlight. Then suddenly, he was clear, under water, smiling, face to face, the morning light filtering through the silvery surface.
They rose to their knees into the air, gasping, the water streaming down their silky bodies and off the ends of their noses, their long hair making waterfalls behind them. They snuggled up to each other, arms around waists, smiling, their noses touching.
Hjatḧa felt a muscle twitch inside her abdomen. “Hm,” she smiled, “I’m pregnant!”
“Neat!” said Kwatḧash. “You hungry? Gotta eat for two, after all!”
Shemgḧeh had thrown shehself into work in the craftshop ever since the miscarriage. The baby’s gestator had piled lied upon her lies, using the baby’s death as an excuse to rain blame and spite on Shemgḧeh, the baby’s protector, calling sheh a “sterile pouch-clit” before walking out. That had been after the doctor’s appointment, where Shemgḧeh learned that sheh’d have to have a complicated abortion. The gessy girl had never loved Shemgḧeh anyway. She’d seduced sheh in that way they do. Their impregnator — if that was their impregnator, who even knew now? — had grown tired of the whole affair early on, running off with some slut. Shemgḧeh hoped he got another gessy pregnant and had to deal with it all again, seducing some new protector who could benefit from the bitter lesson. Every prote should know how unsafe it was to trust someone.
Shemgḧeh’s angry reverie was interrupted by an alarm. Shehs mind snapped back to the present instant. The whirring lathe was overheating. The whubwhubwhubwhub sound of a half-finished part distorting at high revolutions drowned out Shemgḧeh’s profane shout of frustration. Sheh hit the emergency stop button and threw shehs measuring scope at the lathe, wedging the expensive and delicate tool, broken and ignoble, into a corner of the machine’s workspace.
Shemgḧeh turned and stormed out, still wearing shehs heavy apron, yanking the face shield from shehs chest. Sheh flung it at her colleague Mehkeweh, who approached, hand held out tentatively with a look of concern on shehs face, mouth open with some word of support or helpful question. A word as stillborn as Shemgḧeh’s baby had been.
Too embarrassed to turn and apologize, it dawned on Shemgḧeh that sheh didn’t even know if sheh’d hurt Mehkweh. Shehs eyes burned from the tears, shehs thick, calloused finger hurt where sheh now realized sheh’d burned herself on the now-ruined work. And shehs pouch itched.
Is that all this was? An itching pouch? What was sheh, a teenager? Why did this always have to come at the worst time? And why in summer? Sheh didn’t want to have to go find a new couple. It was always so tedious. It was too hot to carry a womb.
Especially if it would just come to nothing.
Hjatḧa and Kwatḧash held each other with an arm around each other’s waist as they entered the club. Kwatḧash was dressed in smooth, straight trousers, a deep, satiny red, tight to the thighs and buttocks with a heavy gold torque over his bare shoulders. His eyes were outlined in kohl and his hair brushed straight down his back, a few strands coquettishly out of place on his forehead.He’d dyed his arms in jagged gold stripes. Hjatḧa’s dress held tight to her body, ending at the top of her thighs, its material a shimmering cloth that changed color from purple to red when it rippled. She had dyed the fur on her slender, bare arms in blue spirals against her natural grey. Her thin wrists were covered in heavy gold and opal bangles. Tights woven of the same material as her dress, but in dark blue and black, covered her legs. Both were barefoot for dancing, her feet dyed in whorls and his in the same gold stripes as his arms.
The owner of the club, an impregnator of fifty with a legendary memory for people, gestured them into the door with a smile of recognition. Kwatḧash grinned his off-center, charming grin as they entered, passing him a handful of shining rings in thanks. But Kwatḧash’s grin vanished as soon as they passed through the curtains and out of the owner’s view. “That preg creeps me out.”
“Why?” Hjatḧa asked, “I think he’s sweet!”
Kwatḧash scowled. The smell of incense tickled their nostrils as they passed through the last curtain. It was sweet with spicy, fresh undertones, a specialty of this club.
“Because he tries to look like a prote. See how he’s all bulked up? It’s disgusting.”
“Oh, come on,” Hjatḧa teased, “He looks pretty! Maybe we should ask him!”
He stopped walking and she took one more step before turning back to face him, a half-smiling question on her face.
He looked directly into her eyes, unblinking and humorless. “I’m serious,” he said. Her smile slowly drained away as he continued. “It’s not right. That preg’s trying to act like something he’s not. Like, would you want him in bed?”
The question was supposed to end the conversation. The fact that Hjatḧa paused before answering set Kwatḧash back a step.
He dismissively flicked his fingers off his thumb in her direction and strode past her, into the fog of incense.
“…No?” Hjatḧa said to herself.
She scowled. It wasn’t the first time she hadn’t gotten to know a preg well enough first.
Shemgḧeh squinted. Shehs eyes were already puffy from the incense. Sheh was dimly aware of having embarrassed shehself earlier, but the spiciness of shehs chosen incense, recommended by a pretty and bubbly gessy with a pretty and bubbly name that sheh’d already forgotten, kept shem more interested in the present. Dancers filled the middle of the floor, two distinct masses, one of gessies and the other of pregs. The pregs moved in synchrony, their angular jewelry a diagram of their motions. Around them like a school of fish were the gessies, moving closer and withdrawing together. They writhed as a mass suggestively, parting occasionally for a single flamboyant individual to stretch her smooth body suggestively while her companions cheered her on with whistles. Often, a preg would join her in the dance, cheered by his companions.
Sweat glistened like tiny jewels on the fine, velvety fur of the dancers, the dyed patterns streaking as the sweat dissolved it. The music thumped and whirred. The flashing, shiny white teeth of the dancers, their passion for each other, however fleeting, drew shehs gaze and sheh smiled for the first time in weeks, not even aware of it.
Shemgḧeh stared, shehs mind quiet, enjoying the sheer sexiness of it, shehs inhibitions diminished by the incense. No one was quite shehs thing, but they were beautiful, especially when they paired.
But then Shemgḧeh’s eyes jumped. Shehs smooth, short fur stood on end in arousal. A new gessy had just leapt the center of the circle. Sheh hadn’t noticed her before, surrounded as she was by the other gessies. But now she strutted forward and spun on a toe, bending backward to touch her own heel with her fingertip, the other foot pointing at the ceiling. Something in the way she moved, her motions matching the pattern of the elegantly blue and grey spirals on her fur, cheered by the whistles…
And then a preg moved out of the crowd, strutting forward, each step in perfect time, a cocksure smirk on his face. He had a dancing fan in one hand, an old one, and it spiraled almost all the way into a circle as he snapped it open: each leaf of the fan a generation of this preg’s fathers, endorsing him in trust to raise his own children and pass it on. He peeked over the top, as though spying on the the gessy then, when their eyes met, he flicked his wrist. The fan spun about its center and disappeared into his other hand, folding itself neatly in perfect time with the beat of the music. It was so sudden and precise, the gessy lost the beat for a moment in a gasp.
It was the hottest thing Shemgḧeh had ever seen.
And then another preg, out of step, the gold-striped fur on his arms bristling with obvious jealousy, pushed his way into the center of the circle. He shoved the preg dancer, who stepped aside, confused but conciliatory, as though someone had bumped him accidentally. The new preg, his eyes a solid red from overinhalation, shoved the surprised preg again and spat an insult Shemgḧeh couldn’t hear. Something clicked in shehs head: there might be violence. Move.
Shemgḧeh stood up, pushing shehs stout stool back like it was paper. Around the club, several other protectors stood in near-unison, their heads suddenly, if only temporarily, clear of the effects of the incense. Sheh recognized one of them, Amatoheh, an architect and mason who sheh’d worked with a few years before. They looked at each other, just a glance and gestures of the head conveying all they needed to each other, coordinating themselves to break up the fight. They moved immediately to prevent impregnators from taking sides. Any one of the protectors had the same mass as a pair of the dancers and they moved forward, suddenly no longer clubgoers, but peacekeepers.
The band conductor half turned and squinted into the limelight, aware that something was going on but not yet ready to break rhythm. She happened a glance toward Shemgḧeh as sheh strode through the dancers, who parted around sheh like water around the bow of a ship, their faces either lowered in deference or open and asking for instruction.
Shemgḧeh stood easily a head and a half taller than the dancers and sheh wasn’t the largest protector moving into the crowd to break up the fight. Their naturally bald heads, dyed for the occasion in patterns of squares, converged in some spots in the crowd and diverged in others, herding and separating the impregnators and gestators to dissipate the aggression that they fed each other.
As soon as the conductor’s eyes met Shemgḧeh’s, she understood and stopped, one drumstick in the air behind her head, cocked and ready to strike the beat that didn’t come, slowly dropping the arm to her side. The rest of the band stopped a beat or two later, otherwise unaware that something was happening. The conductor turned her body and squinted toward the dim dance floor to see what was happening while the last beats of the band dribbled to a hestiant clatter. The war harp’s string kept its low rumble. Shemgḧeh could feel it through the floor.
The absence of music brought all eyes to the band, then to the center of the floor. Protectors walked from all sides. A preg repocketed a surreptitious weapon, but it was too late — Amatoheh looked him straight in the eye and the preg looked down and excused himself from the dance floor to stand against the wall and wait his interrogation.
Shemgḧeh caught Amatoheh’s eye and blinked a thank-you, then waded back through the crowd toward the instigating preg with the gold triangles.
“Your name.” sheh said. It was not a question.
The preg was stoned and aggressive, but couldn’t help but answer. His solid red eyes might have been glancing around nervously, but in the poor light Shemgḧeh couldn’t tell.
“Kwatḧash hjang Geḧngḧeh hjang Metangḧeh hjang Ejtmetḧeh,” he said, deliberately keeping his voice steady. He was trying to sound confident and aggressive, but couldn’t bear it in the face of a protector bearing authority.
“Are you going to go home now?” asked Shemgḧeh.
“I… I came with someone.” Shemgḧeh could see Kwatḧash’s fur bristle with embarrassment, his attempt at assertion wilting into plaintiveness.
“Does she want to go home with you?” Shemgḧeh turned shehs head and looked at the gestator behind him, the amazing dancer, standing beside the preg she’d been dancing with. Sheh’d forgotten how sexy the couple was. The adrenaline was wearing off and the incense was coming back.
Hjatḧa was glaring at Kwatḧash, not even looking at Shemgḧeh.
Kwatḧash clamped his mouth shut in shame and looked at the floor, gritting his teeth.
Shemgḧeh turned halfway to Hjatḧa and her preg, keeping Kwatḧash in the corner of shehs eye. The room had grown quiet. Protectors covered the doors. Some were quietly talking with other clubgoers. Some of the former dancers gestured as they told what they’d seen. The protectors gave them pats on the shoulder and nodded for them to sit at tables and wait for the all-clear.
“And what about you two?” Shemgḧeh asked the pair. The authority was leaving shehs voice and sheh saw the preg of the pair relax a bit. Sheh heard some of the dancers starting to chat again. Someone across the floor laughed at a joke.
“Hjatḧa,” she said. The familiar form of the name.
“Geḧmash,” the preg told sheh, introducing himself like they were just meeting, leaning just a touch too close. Shemgḧeh could feel the heat of his body on shehs lips. She hadn’t realized sheh was leaning closer to the two.
Hjatḧa turned to him without quite turning away from Shemgḧeh and smiled, flirting. “Nice to meet you, Geḧmash”.
Shemgḧeh watched for every fraction of a second that sheh thought appropriate, then turned back to Kwatḧash, the instigator of the fight. Sheh took a deep breath and set shehs shoulders to regain authority, just barely faking it as the incense began to swim in shehs head again, “go home and sleep it off or I will make you so ugly you’ll never get laid in this town again.”
Kwatḧash stammered, stumbling for an answer that would give him back his dignity.
Shemgḧeh didn’t let him. “Gessies don’t like pregs who fight. They like pregs who dance and fuck and say funny things.”
The band started to play something easy to get people back into the rhythm.
Kwatḧash was regaining his courage and spat petulantly at Hjatḧa, “Sometimes they like faggot businessprote pregs instead.”
Without the band’s former volume to vibrate its sympathetic strings, the the war harp’s rumble was finally dying out.
Shemgḧeh rolled shehs eyes. “Last chance.” The eyeroll was too far, too dismissive, too involved. Sheh realized shehs mistake too late. Sheh’d instigated the impregnator, just as the club was getting back to normal.
Kwatḧash responded to Shemgḧeh but continued to look at Hjatḧa with his red eyes, face strained and a sneer on his lips, “I didn’t like you anyway, you bitch. I should have known that you’d like this faggot bullshit. I’d better not see you the next —”
— and that was enough. Shemgḧeh picked Kwatḧa up around the middle, tucked his lithe, triangular frame under shehs arm and walked out the front door,held open by the proprietor, while Kwatḧash squirmed and squealed. He kicked and punched ineffectually against Shemgḧeh’s thick, tough skin. Sheh walked toward the door, past another protector, smiling and shaking shehs head knowingly as the dance floor began to gain momentum again. Someone laughed at the scene as the conductor thumped the band back into action.
Shemgḧeh smoothly twisted shehs torso to give Kwatḧash some momentum and released him, arcing him into the night air and then into an undignified heap, his airborne shriek of fury cut short by a grunt of pain when he hit the rain-polished street.
The owner looked on from the side of the door, his shoulders tense and fur raised until Kwatḧash picked himself up indignantly, shouted what was probably “Faggot” and limped down the street into the night.
The owner looked up at Shemgḧeh’s broad face and smiled a sincere and gracious smile. “Thank you.”
“No problem. I’m happy to help.”
“I, uh, there are always a couple of guys like that.”
Shemgḧeh took a deep breath and scowled authoritatively. “I’m not surprised. You’re putting yourself in danger by flaunting your eccentricities. There will come a time when there aren’t enough protectors around to stop something like this.”
The owner’s smile froze, suddenly practiced. “You’re right. I’ll reconsider my life choices. Thank you for looking out for me and helping me improve myself.”
Shemgḧeh could hear how many times he’d said this before.
“I’m just concerned about your safety … what did you say your name was?”
“Pejtḧesh hjang Kwameheh hjang Tḧekḧeh.”
Shemgḧeh nodded and said, “Pejtḧesh, please be careful. Your lifestyle choices affect all of us. All of our safety.”
Pejtḧe looked down in studied submission. “Thank you, protector. I’ll reconsider.”
Shemgḧeh frowned, opened shehs mouth, then closed it again, unable to find a rationale that sheh’d be happy with repeating, then turned and walked through the door. Sheh didn’t want to crush the preg’s spirits but his flamboyant lifestyle had been the cause of a fight. It was, sheh told shehself, more important that everyone was safe than that this one Pejtḧesh be comfortable with his own peculiarities.
Sheh’s broad brow furrowed, angry at Pejtḧesh for making sheh repeat the shaky argument, but it was the argument sheh knew, and it kept people safe. Or so everyone said. Shemgḧeh walked through the heavy curtain and into the thumping drumbeat. As sheh emerged back into the club, the music began to pick up. The dance was again in swing. Shemgḧeh looked across the dance floor but the gessie Hjatḧa and the preg Geḧmash weren’t there, or at least weren’t in the center where sheh could see them. Sheh took in a deep breath and let it out with a sigh, finally relaxing and letting the incense back into shehs consciousness past the last of the adrenaline. Sheh scratched at shehs pouch absentmindedly while scanning the tables.
Sheh saw the two dancers in a booth together then. Sitting on their delicate chairs at the table, they’d pulled up a third, empty, protector-sized stool. They had a bowl of water and were washing each other’s faces gently. Beside the bowl of water was a brazier holding a newly-lit cone of incense.
A little nervously, sheh approached. When Shemgḧeh had met shehs last couple, it had been like this. They’d been beautiful and sweet at first.
Shemgḧeh walked to the table hesitantly. Geḧmet flashed an open smile to sheh. Broad, almost knowing, showing his even, white teeth. When Hjatḧa followed his gaze to Shemgḧeh’s eyes, she licked her lips and smiled charmingly.
Sheh took a deep breath. “Hey, you guys OK?” sheh asked, taking sheh’s place on the big stool, trying to keep the fur on shehs arms down.
They could all feel the war harp through the floor again.
Maybe this time it would be different.