- Do your teeth not hurt?
Curiosity was natural to 'Atter like hunger to the living. While others breathed air, they sucked the word in through gritted fangs, caught it in the nets of sharp-tipped ears, plunged their darting eyes into its fluttering flesh and drank, sounds, sights, smells breaking into molecules of tiny truths on their tongue. And now, the sharp dark dots were buried into Lo-O's looming figure, following every swaying movement of its centuries' old body as 'Atter nimbly threw their frame from branch to branch. Darting left and right, up and down, never in the same place - but eyes always piercing the same spot on the unmoving face of their peculiar companion.
'Atter was no vampire, though, no greedy parasite. They spat the gained truths right back out in handfuls, broken out of their shells, cleaned and sharpened between 'Atter's glinting teeth. Slicing through the air, aiming straight for the bone.
And so the truths rained, a shower of sparks springing off of the clanging flint of 'Atter's grin.
-They don't, but your flesh will later, won't it? The Mother let your teeth sink into it. Comfortable burrows, warm. But once it is time to open, you will curse Her.
Unperturbed, Lo-O took another heavy step – an exhale of a mountain, a foaming sigh of the ocean. 'Atter kept fluttering around it, branch to branch, but that was a redundant instinct. Lo-O was one of the Old. It was the Middle Children who hated 'Atter's song and answered with a chorus of stones and steel and sharpened bone.
And yet, they felt the familiar sweet sizzling in their chest as they surrounded Lo-O from all sides, spitting truths it already knew. Teasing and taunting was not natural to 'Atter like curiosity was; it grew over time, when it became clear the Middle ones would always resent their craft. 'Atter could not be hurt by rejection: The Primate Mother had not given them a heart big enough for aching. So 'Atter became entertained.
Lo-O took the pattering truths in with every inhale it buried in its chest with no release, each preceding the next swaying step, its entire body – a slow titanic wave of sluggish northern waters.
- You will curse her, and you will hate your long and miserable life as hot live blood finally fills your long-shut mouth.
'Atter lingered on one of the branches, swinging back and forth on their arm, tasting another truth on their long thin sting-tongue, rubbing their teeth together, warming them up before the flints strike each other once again, showering hot sparks into the world.
-I envy you.
No reply from the great and ancient ape, no darting eye, no bitter chuckle. Only the tight silence after each rustling inhale, waiting for its time.
Swing and leap – tiny claws clasping the next jointed branch, bark crumbling underneath them. 'Atter sensed the tree's undoing under their paws: pests would whittle it down by the end of the cycle, bore so deep into its hard flesh no hungry beak could bring it relief. And so they spoke their truth, already leaving the doomed giant behind.
-This tree will know an itch as deep as marrow.
Silence hurt – unlike the heart, 'Atter's body knew pain intimately, which is why, undying, they still preferred to avoid the angry bites of rejection. Silence hurt their mouth: a hot, gnawing toothache. Silence hurt their insides, with their incessant need to filter the world, in and out. So filter they did, their song uninterrupted. But there was something akin to silence in dropping handfuls of words that Lo-O had no need for: not about it, not about them. And 'Atter could only think to themselves for so long before they clanked:
- You must be scaring me. I do not want to tell you about you.
Lo-O shifted its eyes, only slightly, to take 'Atter's bare face in, before putting its mounting weight forward, sinking into its own shoulder once again, the bouldering fist – the foot of the hill. Its eyes were filled with grief to the very brim, and it moved and lapped with Lo-O's body, with no hope of ever spilling.
'Atter felt a bubbling rise in their chest; a pocket of air trapped under thick marshy sludge, trudging its way to the surface. They tried to push it down - although, no doubt, Lo-O already knew.
'Atter was familiarizing themselves with a new feeling: burning, scorching, making them fold into themselves, hide their limbs, hide their felt smaller. Inferior. All of a sudden, they wanted to keep things secret for the first time in their life. To be a walking ocean, fangs wedged perfectly between each other, as if created for their own eternal embrace. Immaculate silence. Something complete in itself.
But the bubbles kept rising: a throbbing tickle in their chest, then throat, until finally one pushed itself against their lips, forcing them open with its perfect beady shape:
-I am not actually leading you. - 'Atter watched one pathetic truth escape their mouth, then another. - I'm the one following.
A shallow chest for shallow secrets. That was all that the Mother had given them. A body one claw deep could not carry a truth too great, nor hide it for too long.
-I envy you, - they pattered once again, the dance of their limbs between the trees more frantic, their voice sharper around the edges. For the first time, 'Atter understood the bitter resentment of the Middle ones. For the first time, truths burned their skin where the sparks had landed.
Lo-O knew the way. Past the young trees at the edges of the jungle, heirs to their fallen fathers. Paying no mind to trodden paths growing narrower, paler. Leaving the snares weaving through the thick grass far behind in its heavy, waving journey into the deepest cove of the wild. There, where no other primate could hear, waited the cradle of the winds, the heart of the rivers. Its final long-awaited resting place.
'Atter knew the jungle well. But the familiar jungle would burst with a symphony of drizzling words, their siblings coming together and singing the truth of the world around them. Countless versions of the same verse, a rhythm shared between hundreds of buzzing throats.
'Atter never went where no one could hear. Their truths held no danger for the living, despite what the jerky Middle Children had decided among themselves.
As the woods grew quieter around them, 'Atter found their exhales falling hollow into the dead air. Coals losing their heat before impact, their fires fading fast in the still thick new, prickly, lessening feeling burrowed deeper into their chest,pushed their voice to the very top of their throat, turning it into a shrill. Lo-O did not seem to notice; or maybe it had foreseen simply did not care. There was a sense of destination carved into the low sharp edges of its mouth that would soon move for the first time since the Mother's claw had given it shape. And Lo-O was moving toward that destination in determined obedience, wave after heaving wave.
They reached it, at last. The heart, the cradle. The perfect circle of a lake, fed by underground currents. The solitary patch of ground, surrounded by cycling waters. The immense tree. The bright and gaping crack in the middle of it, a forever-still flash of lightning caught and captured between two splintering halves. The Great Stem stood before them, wide open.
Fierce winds danced and whirled in its crevice, howling and whistling, ready to scatter, to sweep through the lands to reach all four corners of them. The waters swirled, ready to rise, to spill into the lowland. The world was waiting for Lo-O's exhale.
Lo-O reached for a low-hanging branch of the great tree, carried its body along it, hand over hand, cautious of the unquiet waters below. The tree sighed under its weight, but endured, granting its soothsayer a passage to the heart of the isle.
'Atter's feet touched the ground at the edge of the waters. Another humiliation: so small and insignificant was their frame once it was not moving swiftly, elusively, through the weave of the jungle. They took a few steps forward, small and unsure, curling their useless claws at their chest. The chest where bubbling was rising once again, pushing against their hollow rib cage. 'Atter tried to quell it, all over - out of a feeling entirely new. A deep acknowledgement, a silent humble gaze. A reverence. 'Atter felt open like a clam, moving their insides apart, making space for the mournful alien glory of Lo-O's decline. There was no space for their wants in that reverence.
And yet, the truths foamed just behind their teeth, bursting out of their mouth, too familiar and natural to keep at bay.
-I wish to stay and listen.
The Stem did not sigh under 'Atter's weight, the waters did not lap at them. They sat on the sacred isle, unnoticed by it. A speck of the world receiving its gifts. Unable to serve the cycling dance at the heart of the jungle. There only to watch, in unnatural silence, as Lo-O fit the wavering mountain of its body among the bulging, curving roots.
It took its eyes to the sky, to the clouds curling into rings overhead. It let its shoulders fall, its tight fingers loosen. The ocean in its eyes laved against the glassy vessel one last time.
Lo-O opened its mouth, slowly. Sharp teeth rising, tearing through the flesh, painted red by it as its last farewell. Long sharp blades sliding out of each other's grip smoothly, effortlessly. Lo-O did not whimper, did not cry. But as blood filled its mouth, rained down its chin, it looked to the sky again, clouds reflecting in its unshed tears, the deep-running ocean closer to spilling than it had ever been before.
Lo-O drew the world in through the gaps between its fangs, eyelids lowering, fluttering. For a moment, everything stilled. The great ancient ape drank reality in full, holding the passing second in its deep chest, dragging all life with it out of the flow of time.
Then, it exhaled.
To start, it borrowed the sigh of the great tree, old as creation. As truth started rising from within to escape Lo-O's body, it sighed deeply, letting go of the slithering jolting pain hot in its mouth, of the long, silent life it had lived. It seemed the ancient trunk behind it had opened once again, releasing the long-held breath of time.
And although soon the sound had started to die down, the breath continued, too deep to be exhausted by a single relieving lamentation. Heavy heat climbed up Lo-O's insides. Thick suffocating smoke packed its chest, swirled up its windpipe, crawled into its mouth, came tumbling out in slow grave waves. This was what the world had been waiting for.
Smoke flowed down Lo-O's chin and onto the ground, wreathed through the grass, enveloping lonesome gentle blooms. It slipped into the circling waters. It moved in low-hanging clots, some drowning, some drifting on the rising waves, crossing the lake to the land beyond it. The waters rose, bubbling, boiled over, carrying the smoke down with them, to spill into four rivers that would reach all corners of their old, old land. Winds burst out of the crevice, dressing into heavy dark wisps, pushed through the rustling crowns in their chase to the ends of the earth.
'Atter did not hear the crashing waters, the whistling gusts. The smoke, twisting, twirling around them, climbing up thin limbs, packed their ears full and tight. It slipped into their mouth and burned their insides, tightening their throat. Poisonous and suffocating, it filled every corner of their being.
There was a thought of fire crackling in it, but only enough to burn air out of the living things' lungs, shallow truths out of 'Atter's hollow chest.
The dark clouds kept tumbling down out of Lo-O's maw, agape and no longer bleeding. They became the dark waters, blending with rushing streams. They hid in the winds, their whispers carried far. They hung around Lo-O and 'Atter, thick as the deepest reeds. They clawed at 'Atter's eyes. There was nothing but the swirling, burning darkness wherever they turned their gaze.
That's when Lo-O began to speak.
In the twisting clouds around them, 'Atter saw the terrifying deaths and births of unknowable stars. They felt the edges of the galaxy at their fingertips. They sensed the shifts in earth, deep below, dormant, an echo of the future. They knew the boiling heat of the world's core. They knew the cold that would come when it ceased. They knew the deadly breath of a bursting sun, surging through them, turning their bones to ash. They knew the grand life of slowly eroding mountains; they knew the fleeting fate of pawprints in the sand. They knew the thunderous breath of ancient sleeping giants and the small-voiced hour of the meek. 'Atter knew the nothing in between the everything, the sucking gaping hollow, the endless fall between the building stones of reality. They knew the why and the how and the varied spaces and scales mocking each other, fit in one. Life at large, life in the tiniest morsel. Life beyond both of those, as much as it was within. In the shapes of suffocating darkness, in the deep tumbling flowing voice of the great ape, 'Atter watched the infinite truths that would not linger to fit in their shallow chest. The truths were moving through them, 'Atter's body – an open gate, a temporary frame, the world - an unending wave on its course through the mind of a meager soothsayer whose craft was the span of a singular life.
Their mouth moved still, out of habit, in futile attempts to filter, to give voice to the forceful life pulsing ceaselessly through their chest. But the bubbles burst on their lips in a powerless sputter. 'Atter sat in the eye of an intoxicating storm, eyes wide open and burning, mouth moving helplessly under the endless flow of secrets of creation.
Lo-O's ocean flowed and emptied itself into rivers and ponds across the land, carried by the streams pushed further and further out of the now beating heart of the jungle. Its pain subsided. With the unfathomable truths of many centuries leaving its body, Lo-O felt lighter than it had ever been allowed. Its life had stood still in its veins, cold and heavy, waving but never spilling a drop. An isolated basin, its waters seized and unmoving, never feeding other lakes, never replenished by rushing rivers. Now, it was leaving Lo-O's body freely, and forever. Lo-O let it, swaying on the soothing waves, floating further and further away from the piercing divine mind it had been gifted with. Its eyes were turned to the sky, past the dark swirling cover, towards the striking, calming blues. The corners of Lo-O's mouth moved – for the first time since creation – to give shape to the weightless bliss of an emptying vessel.
The last cloud of smoke escaped its tired chest. The ancient body fell into the rough and loving embrace of tangling roots.
'Atter grasped a handful of rough weeds, their first tightening around the crumpling leaves. These pitiful flowering weeds, somehow untouched by the smoke that had burnt all 'Atter's little secrets out of their being, leaving them empty and aching. These flowers, unperturbed by the suffocating clouds that had rolled over them.
The truths Lo-O exhaled in their wane seeped into the soil, were carried into the oceans by running rivers, scattered across the sky by rushing winds. Those were the truths the world had been born out of. The truths it carried at its core. The lowly weeds held them in their stems. Ancient secrets were coursing through their simple, finite bodies. And 'Attter, a soothsayer, who knew which bug will be this weed's undoing, could not keep those secrets on their tongue long enough to remember the taste. Words would die on their lips. To say one thing without all of the rest was nothing; to say all of them a tonce, they would need a mightier chest.
'Atter pulled harder, thin stems breaking in their fist. They pulled, unforgiving, baring the deep thick root. They will swallow the bitterest of roots, their juices running strong and heavy in 'Atter's veins. Their heart will grow aching, it will weigh them down. They will walk the earth on their knuckles, they will keep their truths to themselves. There will be lapping oceans at the bottom of their eyes.
Or, if the roots refuse to give them their wisdom, 'Atter will drink the deadly waters of deep oceans. They will partake of the burning salt, of the crushing weight.
They will climb the highest mountains to where there is no longer air. They will fill their being with nothing, and they will remember what it was like to be everything.
They will beg the Primate Mother. She gave Lo-O its shape, She can put her claw to 'Atter's feeble form. She can make them new, reborn. She can dig deep into their chest, carve out enough space for the world to fit in.
As they crumpled the weak, all-knowing flower in their grasp, tore the thin rough leaves to shreds, 'Atter knew none of these were going to come true.
They looked over their shoulder, at the limp, hollow form that was once so monumental in its swaying march through the thicket. Lo-O's face was marked deep by its final, unchanging content. Circling waters brushed gently against its fingers, lowered into the stream when its palm had fallen powerlessly onto the ground and unfurled forever.
'Atter spoke their shallow truths, resenting them for how soon they would be lost in the abysmal flow of time.
-I envy you. I envy you. I envy you.
They fell asleep on the sacred soil, open to the winds, their meager body curled into itself, trembling. They dreamt of the swift spring breezes filling Middle Children's lungs with tingling subtle truths. They dreamt of the farthest rushing streams carrying whispers and hints of the great unbearable ocean. They dreamt of lakes and rivers of their younger siblings' lives, springing from sea to sea, nourished by pattering rains. They dreamt of the life of recollecting, of endless oblivious search. Of finding echoes of the great ancient heartbeat in the tiniest pulsations of life under one's fingertips.
They slept, decades upon decades rolling by, lulled by the sweet and heavy smells of uprooted sacred weeds. And in their sleep, unaware, they envied their middle siblings much, much deeper than they did the life of Lo-O, with its single, drawn-out breath.