We gather on the road heading out of town as dawn stains the sky. None of us speak. We walk. I think. It’s a little like how we used to march into the hills when the sounds of shelling got close.
I wonder if Kaezel remembers the same as I do. I stretch my tendrils out to them and they brush me back. They don’t hold on, of course they don’t. Not now when I taste-sound of everything we left in the ashes at the end of the war.
Today, we reach the graveyard before sunrise. The bells in the church ring, but they’re digital. They do that whether or not there’s anyone to handle them. We wait until the misty air goes silent again. When it does, when we move, the dew makes the veils along our under-mantles damp.
The grave at the heart of the yard is covered in dead flowers. They reek that sickening sweet way all rotting things do. The color has gone out of them. A few have stained the stone with their decay.
I gather armfuls. Some of the flowers are sharp. Some struggle and give up the last of their pollen. Kaezel coughs. They almost drop the old box we’re using to dispose of this… of this stuff.
Aurin climbs to the top of the monument. He unfastens the wreath and drops it. The pins holding it leave his newly-sloughed tendrils bleeding. Before the war, I might have found something poetic about his glaucous blood dripping on the moss. Now, I set aside the stuff I’m holding. I reach out to cover his wounds.
I have a few injuries myself, smaller ones. As we taste-listen to each other, he holds my tendrils to his mouth and he breathes against me, just slow, just to cut the signals from my pain receptors. He has to feel my memory though, the thing that’s been lurking after me–us–the whole morning.
I don’t want to waste time, but in this moment, stranded with the thoughts of the brood-mates we’ve lost, I cannot pull away.
We’re still twined when the human soldier levels their rifle at us. “What the hell are you doing?” Their voice cracks against the stillness.
We wait, unsure of who will answer. Aurin taste-sounds of a slick longing to know that this moment will pass. Most of the others have gone so still. Kaezel hunches behind the monument, though their tendrils drift out along the edges.
I decide that I speak enough human language. I step forward. Aurin wraps his lower arms around my torso and follows. He offers me comforting mother chemicals. I don’t remember the last time he did that for anyone.
But I can’t thank him now. I have to force what I want to say through my throat’s ganglia until the sounds take the coarse shapes I need. “There are dead flowers on this grave. We have come to remove them.”
“Who said you had the right to do that?” The soldier clenches the rifle so hard that it quivvers.
“We have taken it upon ourselves.”
“Look, I know General Rine was thing to you people, but that doesn’t give you the right to violate his goddamned grave!”
Violate, violate, violate–that’s a serious word. It means immoral actions, actions beyond forgiveness. “We apologize that we have taken so long to act. We realize this is also the house of your god. That seems to us to be all the more reason-”
The soldier lifts their head. Their wide, white-framed eyes blink against the sunrise. “What?” they say. Then, “Oh, damnit.”
Corporal Rosenthal and some of her–she prefers the feminine, I confirmed this–soldiers meet with us. They show decency enough to do so properly. We gather on a porch below an arc of marrow trees. A congregation of witnesses sways in the shade below. This way, all of the broods in the valley will know what’s decided.
When Aurin and I decline the awkward chairs they bring, the soldiers stand as well. Aurin thinks of loneliness as he observes them. They’re so careful to place themselves apart from one another after all.
Rosenthal tells us that she has only come here because of Rine’s grave. A human who lives nearby reported the cleaning of it as vandalism and perhaps a “hate crime.” I know “hate” and I know “crime,” but I also know that the two words together may change to a third meaning. I ask.
“It means, ah, it means…” Rosenthal rubs her left auricle. “A crime that was done out of hate for who somebody is, not for any other reason.”
“We understand that Rine is dead. We cannot change that.”
“Actually, it’s more like you had no empathy for him as a person.”
One of the other soldiers mutters something about “them” being “big on” empathy.
I’m appalled that our actions have been taken this way. Though I admit in my taste-sounds I’m also appalled that I must deal with beings who require the term “hate crime” and use it so simply.
At the least of everything, the humans have kept their words from the end of the war and all but withdrawn their military from our side of the planet. Corporal Rosenthal is the first of their soldiers we’ve seen in the valley town for years.
As the warmth of the morning seeps in, I make more words with her. “Should you not find the persons who left the flowers? Those had died also. They were not fitting any empathy for Rine.”
“Wait, so what you’re saying is that you, all of you, want there to be flowers on the grave?”
“That is so,” I confirm. “We would not leave it bare for long. That is an insult.”
“But, cut flowers are also an insult? An insult to the point that they’re not happening with all of you on guard. I mean, you people have been at this every day for a month.”
I confirm again. Those of the audience who joined us on other mornings do as well. The soldiers start softly at rising trills.
Rosenthal looks back and forth across all of us before she continues. “Alright then. So, let me just say we deeply appreciate your investment in what you think’s right, especially, you know, considering it’s him.”
“We thank Rine,” Aurin says, his voice flat and forced though he taste-sounds quite confused.
I give him a reassuring lick and speak frankly to Rosenthal. “The solution here is that living flowers must be placed on the grave.” Must is a strong word for humans who prefer ought and should and probably, but I must know that correct things are done in this situation.
The human soldiers cast about in their confusion. They do not twine for guidance. It falls to Rosenthal alone to answer once again. “You know, that’s fine with us. Maybe a little weird, but still fine.”
“Perhaps there might be a specimen of the plant in your name,” I suggest, hoping the offer is somewhat conciliatory. Humans do like to see echoes of themselves in the strangest places.
“Roses?” Rosenthal touches her auricle again. “Huh. Actually, I don’t think roses will work.”
I flutter my tendrils. “How not?”
“Well, they’ve kind of got this association with romance to most humans.”
Ah, romance. One of the many human speciations of affection. I choose not to venture into them so that the conversation may stay intelligible to the audience. “You would know better then. We have some local inflorescences we could propose as well.”
“That!” Rosenthal snaps her fingers at how much this pleases her. “That is a great idea.”
We choose towering blue-tipped lycopsids as our contribution to Rine’s memorial garden. Rosenthal says that they resemble swords and for this reason are a good choice to honor a general, a fighter. The humans bring something called lilies, white and perfumed and so delicate they will have to live in glass bubbles.
We gather on the road heading out of town as dawn stains the sky. None of us speak. We walk. I think–so many things.
Yesterday, Rosenthal pointed a weapon at me. Today, she makes amends by offering me a shovel just like hers.
It is a well-made, properly-angled shovel. I appreciate it beyond the fact I need it for what I do this morning.
Aurin and Kaezel twine with each other and our brood-mates even as they dig. The human soldiers keep their careful distance. We stand across from each other, Rosenthal and I. We handle the shovels as delicately as we can given what lies beneath us.
“Compromise is good,” she says. “And like, I’ll take yours any day.”
I decide that my best answer must be: “We are satisfied.”
“Please do ask what you are thinking.”
“I wouldn’t expect anybody to spend so much time making sure their frigging opposition got a decent resting place.”
I would never shun a being’s last rest over something like petty enmity! My response, visceral as it is, I swallow. I know–I know from the dirt on my tendrils to the inner lines of my nerves–humans don’t quite understand how this world works. Calmly, I explain. “His last act was to protect many of your people here. We… I ,respect this.”
The streaks above Rosenthal’s eyes turn mobile for a moment. “But Rine died in battle, didn’t he?”
“More or less. He offered us his flesh if we would leave the last of his brigade untouched.”
A watery quiet slips in between the diggers on the human side of the grave. The soldiers buckle and stammer where they stand. They watch me with their enormous eyes.
I stood among the canons in the hills the day my brood fought Rine back one last time. I listened to him surrender and sang when he did. I was there and now I remember how sweet his skin, how lucious the insides of his bones. It makes my mouth weep sweet, warm chemicals to think of him now.
Rosenthal stares back at me across the ground we’ve torn up. Her own gaze has gone glossy in the pinkish morning light.
I try to do that human thing, the one where they turn the corners of their tiny lips up.
My gesture is not returned. I might not have done it quite right. But, in a moment more, she nods.
We go back to digging.