Poison

By Beth Bernobich

Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1 here

Yenny slept alone that night, tucked into the darkest, most remote corner she could find. When Eko and Sri returned, they said nothing, but their clothing reeked of grease and sour smoke, and Eko had new bruises on his face. That night, Sri held me in her arms and stroked my trembling body until I slept.

Dreaming, I imagined myself on the island again. I was darting along a narrow track, a spear gripped in my left hand, hunting. Sunlight dappled the trunks and leaves. A rustling sound marked my quarry's passage. I ran faster, certain the kill was nearby.

Without warning, Yenny's ripe scent rolled through the air. My skin rippled -- the forerunner to change -- but instead of my body changing, my weapons did. My knife wilted into a handful of leaves. My spear writhed, turning from wood into a sinuous vine that angled around and plunged between my legs.

I woke with a gasp to the hot stinging scent of fire, and the red light of sunrise leaking through the shutters. Eko crouched over the fire grate, his back toward me. He glanced in my direction, then back to the new iron kettle, which rattled and hissed.

He woke up early, I thought. Wanted tea.

A whispery moan sounded. Yenny.

I scrambled to her side. Yenny had thrown back her blanket and lay twisted over the bare floor. Her breathing rattled, just like the kettle, and when I touched her cheek, I flinched. Fever. Sun-scorching fever.

"Thirsty," she croaked.

Eko came at once with a mug of cold tea, which he fed to Yenny while I propped up her head. When she had finished, she sank back into my arms, muttering. Eko refilled the cup and set it aside to cool. The water was boiling by now. He added tea leaves to a waiting bowl, and poured the boiling water over them. By his looks, he must have been tending Yenny's needs for some time.

"Is it the drugs?" I whispered.

Eko shook his head. "Sleepy drugs aren't like that. I think it's because of the needles. If he didn't bother to use clean ones . . ."

Silently I cursed Yenny's client. "Will she die?"

His mouth thinned out. "I don't know. But I do know she needs a doctor."

"Then we take her to one," said Sri, who had come to our side without our noticing. She knelt by Yenny and touched her flushed cheeks. After a moment, Sri shook her head, frowning and chewing her lip.

"Clinic?" Eko said.

"No," said Sri. "She needs a tuhan doctor."

She spoke as though the choice was obvious, but my pulse beat faster at her words. A tuhan doctor meant traveling into Keramat, a place sometimes more dangerous than Bagluar for our kind.

Before I could speak, however, Eko nodded. "You're right," he said. "The clinic would make her wait. And wait. And wait some more." He thought a moment. "I know one who would see us."

"How much does he cost?" Sri said.

"She," said Eko. "And she costs a lot."

I glanced at Yenny, who lay parched and groaning. "Do you trust this doctor?"

He nodded.

"Then we go to her -- and now," I said.

We gathered all our coins from their hiding places. Three gold rupiah. A double handful of copper. More handfuls of silver ones than I could count. More than I thought existed in the world.

"Is that enough?" I whispered.

"Has to be."

I shook my head, worried by the doubt in his voice.

Sri stuffed cartons of mango juice into our knapsack, while I filled our canteen from the rain barrel. Eko divided the coins into three heaps, which we hid in our clothes, tied into bundles so they didn't jingle. We ate a quick breakfast, and Sri forced Yenny to drink cupfuls of juice. Yenny seemed to revive, but Eko shook his head and frowned.

"Fever does that," he murmured to me. "Gets better and then worse. Better we go now, while she can still walk."

He led the way through Bagluar's dangerous mazes and into a drainage ditch, where we entered the tunnels. He and I helped Yenny when her strength flagged. Sri scouted ahead with our lantern. The journey seemed to last for hours, and in that time, Yenny's skin went from burning dry to clammy and back. Every so often, we stopped and coaxed Yenny to drink.

At last we reached a ladder, nailed to the tunnel walls, that led upward to a metal hatch. Eko climbed up and prised open the hatch. He reached down a hand, and with me pushing from behind, we helped Yenny to climb up and out.

A few moments later, we all stood in a dirty courtyard littered with broken clay pots and choked with weeds. When we stepped away from the tunnel's hatch, a tide of beetles skittered over the stones, away from our feet. Though the sun was already high, it was quiet here, but from beyond the courtyard entrance came the whine of electric cars, the blare of their horns, and the shriller clang from bicycles. We had traveled away from the wharves; only a hint of salt-tang carried into these quarters. Instead, I smelled dogs and sweet flowers, soap and engine oils, new cloth and many, many umatu.

Yenny was crouching among the weeds. Her face had turned pale, and she was sweating again. Sri gently held the juice carton to her lips and made her drink. "Can you still walk?" she asked.

Yenny wiped her hand across her face. "I can try."

With Eko leading us, we threaded our way along Keramat's back streets and half-deserted lanes. Here I saw the light to Bagluar's shadows. Clean whole temples with monks in their sun-golden robes. Farmers carrying baskets of eggs and sweet potatoes to market. Fishermen with carts loaded down with squid and crabs and eels. Scribes at their stalls. Water sellers and vendors with cones of spiced noodles and curried rice. A different world from Bagluar. Different too from the laboratory.

We came down a windswept alley, to a point between a thriving bazaar and a wide avenue, where the traffic hummed past. Eko pointed toward the street. "Around this corner. Twelve steps to the left, and we'll be at the doctor."

Sri gave Yenny another few swallows of juice. We checked over our knives and knapsack. My skin had stretched tight, the way it did whenever I dared Bagluar's darkest streets alone.

A fingerful of steps to the alley's entrance. Another scan in both directions, then we were openly walking down a street choked with cars and bicycles and motorbikes. Tall buildings loomed like mountains above us.

"Here," Eko hissed. "This one. I remember the number." He pointed at a set of stairs leading upward to a moss-covered portico. Ferns and orchids grew from stone pots beside the door, and a brass sign hung from a black rod.

We helped Yenny up the broad curving stairs, and through glass doors the color of old amber. Inside, Eko gestured toward the left-hand corridor. "This way."

He went first, reading more signs, until we came to a plain white door, with a sign beside it. "Here," Eko murmured. He opened the door, and we guided Yenny inside.

We found ourselves in a room lined with benches. Bright weavings covered the walls, except for one entirely covered by gray-white glass. A few umatu sat on the benches, hands clasped, waiting. One of the umatu, an older man, glanced up; the others paid us no attention. I sniffed at the mix of soap and sharp bitter smells. Clean. So very clean.

A window opened in the glass wall. A stout woman dressed in a pale green smock leaned over the counter. "We don't take charity cases," she said crisply.

Wordlessly, I handed my money sack to Eko. He took out his and gave them both to Sri, who stepped toward the glass window. "We aren't charity," she said. "How much does your doctor charge?"

The woman's mouth twitched. "Routine exam costs fifty silver rupiah. Pay in advance."

Sri counted out the money with a steady hand -- a heap of silver coins so large that I had to turn away, even though I would spend twice and thrice that much coin for Yenny. So much, gone so quickly. The woman glanced from Sri to Yenny. Her throat worked, as though she had words stuck inside, but all she said was, "Put your money away. Let me talk to the doctor."

She vanished from her window. Sri packed away the coins and came back to us. The other umatu were now watching us, their eyes curious or bored or suspicious. From the next room, I heard several voices talking in soft tones. A moment later, a different woman beckoned us through another door. We followed her through two short twisting corridors, into an even smaller room, where she left us.

The rich have no colors, I thought, staring at the white walls and white doors, and a high narrow bench covered with crackling white paper. Yenny crumpled onto the floor, groaning. Sri crouched beside her, stroking her hair. Eko paced the room, lightly touching the trays of metal objects, the glass jars, the stacks of white napkins and paper cups. I stood, watching Yenny's sweating face.

A soft rap sounded at the door, and we all started.

A third woman entered the room. She was dark-skinned, like Eko and Sri, but square-built, with soft plump hands, and warm brown eyes buried in wrinkles. She wore a vivid green smock over her blue trousers, and she smelled of soap and medicine, just like our keepers.

"I'm Doctor Iskandar," she said.

Her voice was tuhan -- rich and mellow and slow. And because she seemed to expect an answer, I pointed at Yenny and said, "My sister is sick. She's got a fever."

Doctor Iskandar glanced from me to Yenny. "Obviously. Well, let's see what's wrong, other than fever."

She stared into Yenny's eyes and ears and mouth. She asked Yenny to cough, breathe, cough again. She laid a hand over Yenny's forehead, then pressed fingertips against Yenny's wrist while she counted to herself, frowning. "Not good," she muttered.

That much I knew. I bit down on my tongue, forcing myself into patience. More touching and staring. Many questions, which Yenny answered in soft slow words. How old are you? Have you been sick before? Have you seen a doctor before? When did you notice the fever? When did you last menstruate? That one caused Yenny to stare silently until the doctor shrugged and went on to the next question.

Finally Doctor Iskandar turned away and opened one of the white cabinets. She took out a plastic cup with a lid. "First you pee inside this," she said. "Let your friend help you into the next room, so you can have some privacy. Seal the cup with this cap and leave it on the counter."

Her words made no sense. Sri and Yenny stared at one another, but then Eko whispered something to Sri, who nodded and took Yenny away to the water closet. Doctor Iskandar washed her hands and pulled on plastic gloves. From another drawer, she took out a needle and plastic tube. When Yenny and Sri returned, she gestured for Yenny to sit on the paper-covered bench. "Now we need some of your blood. Do you understand?" She spoke a bit loudly, as though we might be deaf.

"For testing," Yenny said, with a slight edge. "I understand."

Doctor Iskandar paused in her preparations. "You said you'd never been to a doctor before."

"Not ones like you," Yenny said.

Doctor Iskandar's eyes narrowed. "What were they like, then? Are you talking about the free clinic doctors?"

"Maybe," Yenny said.

She paused, this tuhan doctor, and studied us each in turn. "I see. Well." Her mouth tilted into a brief smile that was not a happy one. "Most likely, you have some kind of infection. And while I have my suspicions, we'll draw blood twice, and test twice, just to make sure. Give me your arm. Hold onto your brother. This might hurt."

She drew some blood into the tube. Telling us to wait, she left the room. We waited and waited, until I thought I might have to hunt down the doctor, but at last she returned.

Her eyes were wide and bright. Her mouth was pressed into a pale thin line. "You are not umatu," she said briskly.

"No," Yenny said. "You asked me more questions than an ant has children, but you did not ask me that one."

Doctor Iskandar blew out a hard breath. She looked angry. Frightened. No, excited and nervous. Her scent was sharp with those emotions.

"I shall be certain to add that question to my list," she said after a moment. "As for you, let me start with what I do know. You are tikaki. You are probably the only tikaki in the city, or even the entire province, as far as I know. How you got here, I can guess. Why you are still here, and not shipped home with the others, I do not know. You may tell me if you like, but the important thing for you to know is that you have a rare and nasty infection, the kind that addicts get."

"I'm not--"

Doctor Iskandar held up a hand, and Yenny broke off, lips pressed together.

"I never said you were a drug addict," Doctor Iskandar said mildly. "But you have an infection much like theirs, usually caused by dirty needles, and it threatens your heart. You came soon enough that I can treat the infection with antibiotics and some visits to check its course. There is one problem." She paused and glanced at me. "The tests also show you are pregnant."

Yenny's lips turned pale. Sri's hands fluttered up to her face. Eko's expression did not change, but his breathing quickened. As for me, all I could hear was a thundering in my head. A child? But how?

"Do you know the father?" Doctor Iskandar said.

Yenny nodded, shook her head.

"Is that a yes or a no?"

Yenny met her gaze, but she did not answer.

"Why can't she have the medicine?" I asked.

Doctor Iskandar glanced from me to Yenny and back, as though considering how to choose her words. "Part of it's her physiology. I've read enough articles from the study they made of your people. These antibiotics are dangerous enough for an umatu woman who's pregnant. For tikaki . . ." Another pause. "For you, it would mean the child dies."

I didn't need to understand all her words to understand the choice. "Take the child away, then. Can you do that?"

Doctor Iskandar blinked. "Yes, of course. If that is what you wish. We could set you up today and--"

"No!" Yenny pushed off the bench. "I won't kill the child."

I caught her before she could shove past the doctor. "Stop," I said. "Didn't you hear? That umatu made a baby on you. He stuck you full of needles."

Yenny tried to wrench away, but could not. "I heard. I know he made sick. But the child can't be his. He's umatu."

"What about the others?" I said.

She glared at me. "Umatu. All of them. You should know. You watched enough."

I snapped my mouth shut, angry with Yenny and her stubbornness, angry with the doctor because she had no medicine for our kind.

"So you had sex with umatu men," Doctor Iskandar said. Her voice carried no hint of her thoughts. "How many times?"

"Handfuls," Yenny said harshly. "Handfuls and handfuls. Why? Their seed is dead to me."

"Then who could be the father? Do you have any idea?"

Silence. Yenny's gaze dropped to her hands. She held them tightly, fingers tangled with fingers. I could almost hear the secrets begging to come out.

Doctor Iskandar studied her a few moments longer. "You're probably right. They tried -- with consent, I'm told -- to inseminate your females from umatu sperm. It never worked, according to the articles, which leaves us a mystery. More important, we still have to deal with your fever. Just to be certain, I'd like to run another blood test, and get some chest X rays."

"No." Yenny's head jerked up. "I want to go. Home. Now."

Doctor Iskandar frowned. "That's not a good idea. You need treatment."

"You mean poison," Yenny said.

Doctor Iskandar opened her mouth, closed it. "Yes and no. I see your point, but the medicine's not poison to you, just for the fever. Besides, remember that if you are sick, your baby will be sick."

Meaning the child would die, no matter what.

Yenny muttered something. When Eko touched her arm, she leaned into his arms, and I glimpsed tears on her cheeks. We are tikaki, I thought. Our keepers thought we could survive anything with our magical bodies. But not this.

"Listen," said Doctor Iskandar. "Stay a few moments longer. Please. I can give you an injection now, and some pills to take home. They'll help with the cramping and fever without harming the child. Government-tested, you know." Her mouth flickered into a smile, as faint as starlight. "It will give you more time to make your decision."

"I've made it," Yenny whispered, but in the end she agreed.

Doctor Iskandar summoned her nurse. They held a brief conversation, filled with more nonsense words. The nurse left and came back with another needle, and a tube filled with clear liquid.

"Get a week's supply of those new antipyretics," Doctor Iskandar told her, "the ones from Anwar Pharmaceuticals. Plus the three-day course of oral antibiotics. I'll give the injection myself."

She waved the nurse away and turned back to Yenny. "One more shot and we can send you home."

Yenny hardly flinched at the needle. She no longer looked angry, or frightened. She looks used up, I thought, touching my sister's warm hand.

We waited another triple handful of moments. Doctor Iskandar checked over Yenny's eyes and mouth again, then touched her wrist, counting. "Better," she murmured. "Not good enough."

"What does that mean?" Sri asked.

"It means your friend will not die of fever today, but she will be quite ill in the days to come. The antipyretics should bring her fever down, but they won't cure her. Truth be told, she'll need IV antibiotics within the week. Ah, here we go."

The nurse had returned and handed the doctor a plastic sack. I heard a rattling sound, like beads in a gourd.

"Pills," Doctor Iskandar said. She took two bottles from the sack and held up one that was colored blue. "These are the antipyretics. They should ease her pain and lower the fever without harming the child. Starting tomorrow, you must give her three every day -- one in the morning, one at noon, one at night. Remember, blue for the pain and fever. Three pills a day."

"I can remember," I said sharply.

Her smile reappeared for a heartbeat. "I imagine you can. Now these--" She held up the second bottle, which was colored green. "These are the antibiotics. They can help battle the infection but with some risk to the child. If your sister changes her mind, she takes these at the same time as the blue-bottle pills. One at morning, one at noon, one at night."

"She won't take them," I said.

"Maybe not," Doctor Iskandar said. "Call it selfishness. I want to sleep better tonight, knowing I gave her every chance."

She came with us to the building's front door -- in case of interference, she said. All the time she talked about caring for children, what to eat, when to see a doctor, what signs meant the child was growing well, and which ones meant it sickened. Eko's attention had already shifted to the streets and planning a route back to the tunnels. Sri hovered over Yenny. I took Yenny's hand in mine. Warm and damp, but no longer scorching. The shot was working.

A touch on my shoulder made me start. Doctor Iskandar bent close, and underneath the soap and medicines, her scent was like summer flowers. "If she gets worse, bring her back to me," she said. "No charge. No matter what she decides about the child. Do you understand?"

"I understand."

It was only later, after we had turned from the busy streets back into the maze of alleys, that I realized she had not asked for payment this time either.


We retraced our path through the tuhan city and its tunnels, back into Bagluar and to our shelter. Sri urged Yenny to eat. She did, but I could see she had no appetite. After drinking down the last of our juice, Yenny crawled into her bed-nest and closed her eyes. The rest of us ate a meal of bananas and cold curried rice, the remnants of Yenny's latest bounty. Sri poured tea from the last kettleful that Eko had prepared that morning.

The rice tasted like ashes, and the tea like stale water to my tongue. Afterward, I knelt by Yenny's side. She breathed like one floating between asleep and not-asleep. Her skin felt cooler to my touch, but sweat matted her hair, and a salty-sour scent overlaid her sweeter one.

Eko and Sri busied themselves around us, but I hardly noticed what they did. I took out the medicine bottles from the plastic bag. Blue for fever. Green for the sickness in her heart. Both were poisons of a kind, I thought. One strong enough to damp Yenny's fever. One strong enough to kill both the sickness and her child.

"We need more juice and things. I'll go for them now," Sri said. She took a few coins from our money sack and slipped away.

Eko lingered a few moments longer, his gaze on Yenny's sleeping form. "I have some friends," he muttered. "People I know. They might tell us more about that umatu."

I nodded. "I'll watch over her."

He paused, as though he wanted to say more, then followed his sister down the ladder.

I spent the next hours by Yenny's side. At times she slept. At times she woke, restless and thirsty. The tide rolled in, and from a distance came the whistling of gulls, the harsh cry of a solitary crane, and the hiss and gurgle of the waves. Yenny's scent called to me even now, while she lay sick and unaware, making my skin tighten. I withdrew from her side, picked up Eko's flute -- now complete -- and blew into the song-holes, mimicking the night-birds from home.

I have no home.

I laid the flute aside and took up my spice box. From its depths, I breathed in the scents of my homeland. Each breath recalled a different memory -- of leaves crushed underfoot, of petals whirling through the dark green air, and of the touch of hands upon me as I slept. Memory gave way to dreams, handfuls and armfuls, all drifting downward like leaves from cloud-high jungle trees.

A floorboard creaked. My dreams scattered like a handful of seeds.

Hours had passed while I dreamed, and sunset was fading into twilight. Another muted creak came from below. A heavy foot stepped on our ladder. I set the spice box on the floor, took the knife from my belt, and circled around so that I was in shadow.

Soon a hand appeared at the trapdoor. Another. With a groan, a man climbed through the trapdoor. It was him -- the umatu -- his hair tangled and sweaty, his clothes stained with Bagluar's filth. He stumbled to his feet, panting.

Yenny stirred, not quite awake. The man straightened up, suddenly aware of her presence, and his lips drew back in a hungry smile. When he started toward her, I called out, "What do you want?"

He stopped, spun toward me. For a moment, we stared at each other. Then he said, "Who the hell are you?"

"What do you want?" I asked again.

His hand twitched. He had a knife, I thought. But then he lowered both hands. "You must be her brother," he said. "She told me about you. Good things."

He had a wheedling tone. I said nothing.

The man glanced at Yenny, then back at me. "Look, I know you don't trust me, but we had a deal, me and her. Two months, every other day. Last time, she acted unhappy, and well, we had some words. I got worried, so I tracked her down."

"Liar," I said. "You aren't worried. Not about Yenny."

His hand twitched toward his knife. "That's not nice, kid."

I saw Yenny's eyes flutter open. I hefted my knife, tilted the blade upward so it caught the last rays of sunlight. The man's eyes widened. Then he grinned a false grin. "Nice knife. I've got one, too. Want to see?"

Before he could reach for his knife, Yenny rolled into a crouch. The man jumped, then his lips pulled back again. He was sweating. "Hey, you woke up."

"Get out," Yenny said. "We're done."

His grin faded. "What's the matter? Don't you like the money? You liked it before."

"I don't like you."

"Liking's got nothing to do with it," he said. "Look, I'll pay double next time. Promise. But I don't want to skip any of our nights. That was our bargain. We're almost done, and I don't want to miss-- I mean, I want to make it up to you, girl. And I can explain everything, but first, I just need a few more times with you. It's important. Trust me, will you?"

He broke off and lunged for Yenny. Yenny dodged him, but the man cursed and spun around, much faster than I would have guessed. Swiftly I stood.

And changed.

Fire licked my skin and blood and bones. Within a heartbeat, my nipples shrank to dark points; a heaviness sank into my belly. Lower. Lower. Bones shifted. My scrotum swelled. My stub unfolded into a penis. Yenny's eyes brightened and her lips parted, as though she could taste my new scent on the salt-heavy air.

"Doa selmat," she whispered, smiling. "My brother is born."

Darting in, the man grabbed her wrist. "Enough with the games. You come with me."

Yenny twisted away, but he held her tight. They struggled, both cursing and fighting and kicking. I circled around, knife ready, but could not find an opening. Then Yenny bit down on his hand. He yelped and let go. She darted away.

"Damn it, bitch. All you had to say was no."

"I did," Yenny growled. "I did when I found the needles in your suitcase the last time I came to you. Needles and glass tubes. Do you think I would not remember how it was in the laboratory with the doctors? You are one of them."

"What the--? No, I'm not a fucking doctor. I told you. I like to watch you sleep. Can't you understand?"

He was lying. I saw it from his sweating face, his eyes that flickered and twitched like nervous bugs. He wasn't a doctor, but he didn't want just sex, not with his tubes and needles.

I swung my fist around and landed a hard blow in his ribs. His breath whooshed out. Before he could hit back, Yenny snatched up a loose board and swung it toward his head. He ducked one, two blows, before Yenny caught him on the shoulder. He stumbled backward, fumbling for the knife at his belt. I darted in, slashed his hand with my own knife, and caught his when it fell. Swearing, he lashed out with a kick. I fell backward. Before I could regain my footing, he scrambled down the ladder.

Yenny let the board drop and sank to her knees. "Get him," she said. "Before he tells the others."

She looked ill, and I hesitated a moment. Yenny gestured sharply. "Go!"

By the time I swung down the ladder, the man was already out the window and running fast. Two, three bounds got me to the window. I leaped through and pelted after him.

Along the wharves, through a maze of back streets, across an open square with half-burnt buildings looming against the purpling skies. He was faster and more clever than I expected; twice he nearly lost me. We were one and two handfuls of streets away from our home, when he dodged around yet another a corner, with me a double handful of steps behind.

A high-pitched scream stopped me.

Hunters. Their strong scent struck like a fist against my all my senses. I heard a gurgle and a crunching sound. Then the stink of fresh blood rolled through the air. Without another thought, I dove into the nearest doorway and hid among the heaps of broken tiles.

Breathe soft, heart still.

My breath fell silent. My scent changed to dust and salt and the faint ripe odor of decay. Handful by handful, I counted the moments, using the rhythm to keep myself from sobbing out loud. All the while I heard the sounds of their feast -- teeth clicking, tongues rasping flesh from bone. Not once did I stir, not even to wipe away the tears. Shadowed dusk changed to moonlight, and still I waited, past first and second moonset, until no trace of pemburu scent remained in the air. Only then did I rise and creep back home.

Yenny was there, awake. So were Sri and Eko.

"What happened?" Sri asked.

"Hunters," I whispered. "He . . . They took him."

Sri stroked my hair, and murmured in comfort. Eko's mouth lifted into a thin smile. "Good. Maybe that will scare the others." He drew a heavy breath and looked from me to Yenny. "And there are more. You see, I went hunting, too. I talked to people. They said others with money had heard about your scientists, and about you. They wanted your blood and tissues to make new drugs, expensive ones for the tuhan."

Yenny shivered. "Why? Our blood is poison to umatu."

"That's not what the scientists thought," Eko said. "They thought they could make serums, a kind of magic, to help the body change itself, grow new parts, whatever."

Strong magic, I thought. But why the baby? Why give money to Yenny? Then I thought of the dormitories, clean and bright, and how other keepers might breed us like animals, just for their drugs. This umatu must have stolen seed from the laboratory, hoping to earn money from those tuhan doctors. Seeing Eko's face, I knew he had guessed as well.

"He's gone and it doesn't matter," I said. "Not today. Today Yenny still has the child. And the fever."

Yenny's gaze veered away and she clasped her hands over her elbows. "I won't give up the child," she whispered.

Eko touched her cheek. "You must. There's no other way."

She shivered again, glanced toward me, and away. I sniffed. A flicker of doubt colored her scent. "What is it?" I asked.

"Nothing," she said.

"Liar," I murmured.

Her mouth went tight, and then relaxed into a sad smile. "True. But I have my reasons."

"I don't care about your reasons," I said. "I care about you."

She shook her head. "It's dangerous."

"Tell us," Eko said. "And let us share the burden."

Her breath caught, and she glanced at Eko, who stroked her hair, his expression tense and waiting. At last, in a low quick voice, she said, "I know a way. Or I've heard of a way . . . But it is dangerous." Now she turned her bright gaze to me. "Tell me, Daksa-brother, how dearly do you love being my brother and not my sister?"

My stomach quivered. "What do you mean?"

"I mean." She paused. When Eko touched her cheek again, she leaned her face against his palm. "I mean that the way involves both pleasure and a burden."

Understanding, I licked my suddenly dry lips. "I will take that burden, then."

Yenny stepped away from Eko and placed her hands on my shoulders. "Doa selmat," she whispered. "Kiss me, my brother."

I took her in my arms and pressed my lips to hers. We exchanged kiss after long kiss, until our lips burned, while other hands brushed over us. Sri caressed Yenny. Eko lightly kissed my arms and neck. When at last I drew back to take a breath, Yenny slid off her shirt and trousers, and I did the same. Already slick with desire, we lay down on the floor. I crouched between her legs, and Yenny took me inside.

"Daksa-brother," she murmured.

"Yenny-sister," I whispered back.

Our bodies moved in ripples, like one wave following its cousin. My hands traveled over Yenny's body, and hers over mine, first light and soft, and then faster and with more urgency as we strained toward our climax. Yenny was babbling, crying, laughing. And I, I was a dancer, a hunter, a lover, a brother.

With a harsh cry, I arched backward. Hot liquid streamed from my body into hers -- more and more, like a fountain, like the ocean itself, and then . . .

And then, like the tide turning, I felt a great rushing and churning inside. The mouth of my penis opened, stretching wider, so much that I gasped in pain. Something wriggled inside it, a tiny round object carried by the flow of liquid returning from Yenny into me. Still my body rippled and twisted and reached for new shapes. The pain gripped me so hard, I no longer could see around me. When the pangs at last dissolved, I collapsed onto Yenny, still inside her.

"Your child," Yenny whispered. "Yours and mine together."

Very slowly she withdrew from me, as my penis folded into itself. More changes followed. My bones ached. My breasts swelled, my nipples pushed outward, my skin brightened to the color of new honey. I held my breath for a long handful of moments, and then I exhaled.

Our child, I thought. Hers and mine. Ah, no. Not hers but his.

Yenny-brother's skin had darkened to a dusky brown. His face had thinned, and his chest was flat and hard with muscles. A warm length pressed against my thigh.

"Does it hurt, my love?" he asked.

"Yes. Oh yes, it does."

Yenny caressed my cheek. The child within me stirred.

 

Copyright © 2002 Beth Bernobich

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Beth Bernobich is a writer who likes to reinvent herself, often in several directions at once. Most recently, her fiction has appeared in Full Unit Hookup and Beyond the Last Star; she also has a story forthcoming in Polyphony 2. This is her third appearance in Strange Horizons; her previous stories here can be found in our Archive. For more about her, see her website.