How Peacefully the Desert Sleeps
by Brad Beaulieu
The first time I woke, blood fell upon the desert floor.
At the time, I didn't know whether it was good news or ill.
Kallie's coughing fit started, as it often did, when the alabaster sun brought the
rising heat of the desert with it. When the fit had passed and the pain had subsided,
she cleared her throat and spit blood-tainted phlegm onto the cracked desert floor.
Then she stood tall on the driver's bench of her two-wheeled cart, hoping to see
any sign of the Ohokwa village, but all that greeted her was a sea of adiwa cacti
running clear to the horizon.
Kallie's heart sank as she dropped back into her creaking seat and took a long pull
off her waterskin; it appeared she would need to rein in her pack bird and spend
another scorching day under the direct sun before reaching Ohokwa Gorge. But
she whipped her kuko into motion anyway, not willing to give up as long as she
was able to withstand the heat.
Only minutes later, movement caught her eye. A few hundred yards up, two
Ohokwa warriors bearing tall spears filed out from the cacti and onto the trail.
With a whip of the reins and a cluck of her tongue, her kuko released a ragged caw
and trudged faster.
With each passing second Kallie's anxiety rose. She was about to take the first real
step toward healing the consumption that had struck over a year ago. She'd
managed to enter tribal lands and elude the Shaukauna, the settler's fiercest
opponent in their unquenchable thirst for westward land, but now it came down to
talking, a skill Kallie hadn't been blessed with, and it soured her gut that her
future depended on this one conversation.
Kallie was close enough now to see the details in their jet-black hair, which was
braided behind their ears into two long strands. White folds of cloth hung loose
around their shoulders, ready to cover their dark-skinned faces against the midday
sun. They wore white shirts and pale leggings of the softest buckskin, embroidered
with the angular designs of their people.
Kallie pulled her cart up short when the taller of the two warriors -- the one with a
half-dozen tiny bones piercing the crown of each ear -- laid his spear across her
kuko's path. Kallie let out a slow breath, trying dearly to fend off another
coughing fit, and pushed up the brim of her wide, leather hat.
"How do?" Kallie said.
Rather than reply, the shorter Ohokwa whistled, his tongue fluttering to create a
rhythmic warble. She'd never heard the call in person, but she knew good and well
what was about to happen.
A buzzing, like a child blowing a blade of grass between his thumbs, cut through
the desert air. Kallie swallowed hard as two red beetles the size of her hand
crawled over the top of the nearest adiwa cactus. One of the dejda beetles raised its
iridescent wing case and rattled. The second followed suit a moment later, then
another, and another, and soon, the entire area was abuzz with their bone chilling
She'd never been bothered by crawlies and such, but she'd never come face to face
with insects so almighty large, and the stories she'd heard along the way -- the
way they swarmed over their prey, their mindlessness when driven by the
Ohokwa's whistling, the poison they injected with each thrust of their stinger --
didn't help one bit.
Then, quick as a hiccup, the dejda highest up on the cactus took wing -- a blur of
red against the blue sky -- and whirred to land at Kallie's feet. Though she knew
it unwise, she couldn't stop herself from shifting along the bench and reaching for
the shotgun resting in its holster.
The taller Ohokwa made it clear that drawing the shotgun would be tantamount to
suicide, and the shorter whistled again, louder this time. The beetle near Kallie's
boot rattled once, sending a furious shiver up her spine, then winged back to the
cactus from which it had flown. Kallie inched her right hand back to her lap.
"You have nerve, stranger," the taller Ohokwa said, "bringing firearms to our
His command of her language surprised her, and she chastised herself; she'd made
a promise that she wouldn't underestimate them. "It's only to scare the coyotes,"
she said, her heart beating heavy. "Can't shoot worth a damn, anyway."
As the taller warrior stared at Kallie with hard eyes, the second warrior moved to
the rear of her cart and began rummaging through the crates stored in the bed as if
they'd just insulted his mother.
Several of the beetles buzzed in unison. One of them took flight, but was
immediately whistled back by the taller warrior. Kallie was confused, for she'd
heard the Ohokwa had supreme control over the beetles using their whistles and
their shared bond. But these, while clearly influenced by the warriors, weren't
behaving as she would have guessed.
"You came through Shaukauna land?" the taller warrior asked.
Kallie coughed once, softly. She daren't lie now. The Ohokwa and Shaukauna
were practically the same tribe. "I did."
"Traveled south, around the foothills, then through the wastes."
"Those are watched lands, tahone."
"Might be," Kallie said with a careless air, "but no one stopped me from passing
The warrior's eyes thinned. "Then what brings you?"
Kallie winced at the sound of breaking glass. The warrior in the back ceased his
inspection momentarily, but then resumed as liquid -- no doubt the expensive
whiskey -- gurgled and spattered against the desert floor.
"Come to trade," Kallie said. "Simple as that."
"But why? Why risk our spears?"
Kallie glanced at a particularly large dejda flexing its wing cases. Maybe it was the
goddamned beetles driving the spike of fear through her chest, maybe it was the
heat, or maybe it was just time, but Kallie started coughing, and this time she
couldn't stop it. She took out her kerchief to mask the blood -- she'd be damned
before she let them see it -- but it was too much, the worst one in days, and by the
time the fit had passed, the pale kerchief was spotted through with blood.
The warrior continued to stare, but his eyes had thinned and his jaw had stiffened.
The resentment in his expression sent a sickly dread running through her. He knew
why she'd come. He knew she'd come begging for the Ohokwa's fabled healing
tonic, kayeya. Years ago, the Ohokwa had shared their prize with the settlers, but
that was before the massacre at Holy Hill. Tensions with the tribes, particularly the
Shaukauna and Ohokwa, had only heated since then, and it had nearly boiled over
into all-out war several times this hot, dry summer.
"You think the Ohokwa would give a tahone one drop of kayeya?" the warrior
Several dejda shouted in unison.
Kallie took as deep a breath as her broken lungs would allow her, and she prayed
dearly she wasn't about to make a big mistake. "What name you go by,
He hesitated, but only for a moment, and stood incrementally taller before
"I brung music boxes, Hochomi, the best quality. Some of them play minutes on
end. I brung instruments: two violins and a banjo. I got whiskey, aged sixteen
year, and five bottles of fine wine. What could one small woman do to your
people, no matter what the men might've done? What could you gain by denying
me what means so little to you? Does that bring honor to your tribe, to kill a
woman come begging for help?"
Hochomi stared. His broad face softened for the briefest of moments, but then his
eyes locked on her shotgun, and he leaned over and spit at the foot of her wagon.
"Turn your cart around, tahone, and never tread these lands again."
As the men backed away and stared, Kallie scrambled for some way out of this. It
couldn't end here. Not so quickly. Not so finally.
But before she could open her mouth to argue, a stirring in the desert swarmed
through Kallie's consciousness. She felt instantly cool in the oppressive heat, and
like a drop of oil slicking the surface of a pond, her awareness swelled. She felt
Hochomi and his brother warrior; she felt the nearby dejda like red-hot coals laid
against the surface of her mind; she felt the beetles' gargantuan nest some miles to
the west and south; and for the first time since entering this godforsaken oven, she
no longer felt foreign. She felt like part of it, like it was a part of her.
But with the awareness came a sense of longing, and suddenly Kallie felt as if she
were being dragged beneath the surface of a deep, black lake. She had no idea
what it was, but she refused to allow it stronger purchase than it already had. So
she recoiled. She beat against the presence. She scratched. Kicked. Retreated.
The desert air exploded as the dejda released a raucous cry. Several skittered
across the desert floor toward her kuko. The pack bird high-stepped sideways as
several more beetles took wing and landed at Kallie's feet. When another landed
on her knee, she flicked the thing away before recalling how truly foolish such a
Hochomi and his tribesman whistled their low, droning summons. Most of the
beetles halted, but Kallie could see them in her mind turning a molten yellow.
Several buried their crimson heads in the sand and raised their hind legs. A few
fell onto their back and went into a severe apoplexy.
And then the first of them struck.
Kallie had never imagined the beetles could move so quickly. The first, launching
itself from a nearby cactus, flew onto Hochomi's shoulder and sunk its mandibles
deep into his flesh. In the time it took for blood to soak through the white cloth,
Kallie saw the poisonous stinger insert and withdraw several times. Another
landed on Hochomi's cheek, interrupting his fluttering whistle.
"Stop!" Kallie shouted, too confused to utter anything useful. She even tried to
quell the beetles' sudden anger, but it was no use. She could no more control the
beetles than she could the blistering sun.
The other tribesman whistled louder, but the only effect seemed to be to induce
more beetles into attacking.
The dejda swarmed.
"No!" Kallie cried, grabbing her shotgun and leveling it at the Ohokwa.
In moments the men's limbs, chests, groins, necks were covered by the ravenous
Kallie aimed down the barrel of the shotgun, debating on whether to end the men's
misery, but the thought of attracting the beetles' attention proved too fearsome.
Luckily, her kuko proved wiser in the face of danger. It bucked and fled westward,
and -- after a horrid moment of watching the men scream and writhe on the
ground -- she let it.
Following a mindless and dangerous chase through the desert, Kallie crested a
ridge and saw Ohokwa Gorge for the first time. It hacked the landscape in half,
revealing a portion of the flame-colored rock it harbored. She urged her bird
onward before she could lose heart and headed for the collection of square adobe
buildings near the dogleg in the gorge.
A handful of tribesmen noticed her when she neared and met her at the edge of the
village. She tried to explain what had happened, but none of them spoke her
language well and she spoke not a lick of Ohokwa. She managed to make them
understand Hochomi had been hurt, but they seemed to think she was to blame.
A squat Ohokwa with a ragged scar across his broad face grabbed her shotgun and
yanked her down from the wagon. They shouted at her in Ohokwa and stabbed the
sky with their bone-handled knives, but all she could do was raise her hands and
repeat that she had nothing to do with their brothers' deaths.
A young woman with piercing green eyes and a small mole above one of her thick
eyebrows strode forward. Her black hair was tied into a tight bun, exposing her
broad, handsome face. The moment she started speaking with the scar-faced
warrior, the rest fell silent. Kallie heard Hochomi's name spoken several times;
each repetition lent more fury to the woman's demeanor. The next thing Kallie
knew the woman was grabbing a spear and stalking toward Kallie. Kallie threw
her hands up in defense as the woman raised the spear high and brought the butt of
it down hard.
It was the last thing she remembered . . .
. . . before waking to the sound of a rushing river and the screaming pain on the
crown of her head. She was trussed up, naked, three hundred feet over the
Chedahoa River. Her breath came in heaving gasps. She began coughing horribly
and had only enough time to spit and clear her throat before the next wave came.
She was nearing the edge of hysteria, but the steady sound of the river coursing
through the gorge below proved to be an elixir. She closed her eyes and focused
on the sound, willing herself to be calm, and slowly . . . Slowly . . . The coughing
subsided until she had regained some measure of control.
She opened her eyes, keeping the sound of the rushing water present. The sun
perched directly overhead, the heat of it nearly unbearable. Her hands, bound tight,
were reddened and numb. The rope from which she hung was tied to a beam,
which was secured to a platform built at the very edge of the gorge. Kallie swayed
with every stray breeze, and the beam bent with her.
It was going to snap any moment. She knew it was.
Kallie stopped looking at the beam before she could start coughing again. A lone
Ohokwa warrior stood on the platform, his arms crossed over his bared chest, his
eyes cruelly impassive as he regarded her. A crowd of Ohokwa watched a few
dozen yards from the platform.
The woman, the one who'd struck Kallie, must have been related to Hochomi, or
perhaps they were husband and wife, or maybe she was the Ohokwa Queen Kallie
had heard so many stories about. Kallie had found only one man, a failed
prospector, who'd ever met the Queen, but apparently that mantle changed hands
every twenty years or so, whenever a new dejda queen was birthed, so it was
possible that the young, fierce woman had been her.
As a hot breeze enveloped her, Kallie released a sarcastic snort at her own
foolishness. The ceremony at which the kayeya would be unveiled was to be held
on Spring Equinox, only a handful of days away now. She'd had, not high hopes,
but middling that she could come and trade for a small bottle of the tonic. At worst
she figured she'd be forced from their lands, no worse for the wear, but this . . .
What had happened? The Ohokwa controlled the dejda, partly by their whistles,
but it was said with more than that. The whistle was only a way to get their
attention, so they'd be ready for what came next. It was the mental bond between
the Ohokwa and the dejda that did the rest.
Kallie had clearly connected with the dejda, just like the Ohokwa, but how? How
could she, someone who'd never even seen one of the beetles, do such a thing?
The crowd began murmuring and pointing as the sound of galloping horses
traveled over the desert floor. A dozen horses approached. The two horses at the
rear pulled litters, and in them were Hochomi and his fellow warrior. Whether they
were alive or dead Kallie couldn't tell. The Ohokwa woman who'd struck Kallie
with the spear rode at the head. She was mounted just like the men, legs spread
with only a blanket as padding, and when she neared the platform she slipped off
her still-moving horse and bounded up the platform's steps. She unwound the
white folds of cloth from around her head to stare at Kallie unobstructed.
"Tell me what you do." Her words came slow and stilted. Her eyes were red, as
though she'd been crying.
"I did nothing."
The woman paused, an expression of resolve clear on her face. She held out her
hand and barked a command at the warrior next to her. As soon as the warrior had
pulled his wicked hunting knife from its sheath and placed the bone handle into
her waiting hand, the woman stepped closer and grasped the rope holding Kallie
"Dear God, no! Stop!"
"What you do?"
"I came only to trade! I have much --"
The woman placed the edge of the knife against the rope.
"I felt something! Just before them beetles attacked! But I didn't do anything!"
"What you feel?"
"E-everything! The desert around me, clear to the gorge, the heat and the wind, the
cactus and the beetles, a few birds. Even the men a might bit."
"Nilawi!" a voice shouted.
An older man and woman strode through the parting crowd. The man wore a wide
headband made of tiny bones. The woman wore a delicate woolen shawl and an
elaborate necklace of dejda casings, which glowed a furious red in the sunlight.
They climbed up to the platform, where the man spoke sharply to Nilawi.
Nilawi stared at him defiantly for long seconds, but then she allowed the knife to
clatter to the platform's wooden planks and strode down the stairs as if she had
ordered Kallie's release. The older man barked several commands to the warrior.
A moment later, the warrior, who had never taken his eyes from Kallie, stepped
forward and untied the rope securing the beam. Muscles rippling beneath his
swarthy skin, he lowered Kallie and hauled her onto the sun-heated wood.
"I am sorry," the older woman said. She removed her shawl and draped it over
Kallie to hide her nakedness.
Kallie could do nothing for some time -- the pain was too great -- but soon she
was well enough to stand.
"I am Wattoha, Queen of the Ohokwa, and this is my husband, Iye, an elder of our
people. Please, we will take you to shelter."
Another Ohokwa who spoke her language fluently, whereas most settlers would be
embarrassed to speak Ohokwa.
With Nilawi forging ahead, the couple led Kallie to a slatted walkway which
hugged the inside edge of the gorge. There were a hundred such walkways, two
hundred, that zigzagged over the depth and breadth of the gorge. She'd never seen
such a thing, and had she not been so frightened earlier she might have recognized
the beautiful patterns they created over the frothing river and rust-colored stone.
They led Kallie down a passageway into the rock. The temperature dropped. In
fact, after not too long, she began to shiver. They stopped at a doorway and
motioned Kallie to enter.
"Your clothes are inside. We will wait while you dress."
Kallie entered the bare room without further word. In the center, folded horsehair
blankets surrounded a squat table, upon which sat a large urn filled with water.
Light came from two Ohokwa lanterns, their pink gems glowing softly.
While Kallie was pulling on her clothes, a coughing fit snuck up on her, but
thankfully it didn't last long. Her fits were funny like that; she thought she'd be
able to predict when they might come, but try as she might, they still seemed
Kallie sat on one of the blankets and guzzled two mugs of the blessedly cold water
before Nilawi, Wattoha, and Iye entered the room and sat across from her. They
had changed into the buckskin she was more accustomed to seeing tribesmen
wear. Wattoha had some of the same features as Nilawi -- stark green eyes and a
noble face -- but she wore her hair straight, and it was sprinkled with gray.
"We are sorry for my daughter," Wattoha said.
Iye bristled at these words. He was perhaps fifty, as was Wattoha, and the two sat
close. They had the calm look of a couple who knew each other intimately, a
knowledge that came not from mere years of familiarity, but decades.
"She is young," Wattoha continued, "and she thought her man had been
"Your daughter was only protecting her own," Kallie replied carefully. "I might've
done the same in her place."
Wattoha smiled. "You are being kind."
"Begging your pardon, but do the men live?" Kallie kept her gaze fixed on
Wattoha. She daren't meet Nilawi's eyes. Not now, as angry as she was.
"Hochomi lives, but the poison has traveled deep."
"And the other?"
"Kime has passed to the fields beyond." Wattoha raised one hand to Nilawi,
forestalling any interjection. "Please, tell us how you came to be here."
Kallie did the best she could, telling them how she'd caught the consumption, how
her husband had died from it, how she'd saved up enough to travel through tribal
lands. They asked her to revisit the attack. The Queen seemed unsatisfied with
Kallie's explanation, for her demeanor shifted from polite to intense.
"You did nothing to provoke them?" Iye asked, cutting off the final bit of Kallie's
"How could I?"
Iye stood up straighter. "You told my daughter you felt the Queen's presence."
Kallie nearly recoiled. The reason for Wattoha's tension was suddenly as clear as
spring water. Wattoha would have been bonded years ago to the dejda Queen, but
unlike other members of the tribe, who could control a handful of beetles, the
Queen should have been able to feel the attack in the desert, and yet Wattoha had
apparently sensed nothing. If she had she would have sent help immediately, and
Nilawi and the others wouldn't have been so confused and angry upon her arrival.
And they wouldn't have trussed her up like a pig for the blooding.
"See here," Kallie said slowly. She glanced at Nilawi and suppressed the queasy
feeling in her gut. "I don't know what happened back there. You'd know better'n
me . . . Maybe the Queen didn't like me, maybe she wanted to know more about
settlers by digging in my mind, maybe she was just curious, but I can tell you I
didn't do anything to rile her up. Wouldn't know how to. What happened out there
must have been her doing, or maybe them beetles went rogue. All I know is I came
in peace to trade for a flaskful of kayeya."
Before anyone could reply, the blanket over the doorway was swatted aside, and
an old crone hobbled into the room.
Iye rolled his eyes and stood. "Not now, Earth Mother. Please, leave us in peace."
He walked to her side and motioned to the doorway, but stopped short of actually
The old woman ignored him and surveyed the room. She wore a tattered horsehair
shawl over her shoulders. Her mouth smacked repeatedly, and her face seemed
locked in a permanent scowl as if she had a horrible case of the cankers. Kallie
shivered as a beetle crawled up to the woman's shoulder and sat there, studying
Kallie. Another dejda crawled up her leg and rattled. These beetles were smaller
-- the length of Kallie's pinky -- and their proportions were different than the
warriors she'd seen in the desert.
The old woman's eyes opened so wide that Kallie thought for sure they would pop
out. "Taking council without Paheka?"
"It's not council -- " Iye began.
"Bah!" Paheka smacked her lips and swatted Iye's hands away. "You here
conspiring." She said this as she looked at Kallie, and it seemed directed at her
instead of the group as a whole.
The others turned to Kallie, apparently giving the old crone's words some amount
"I . . . I ain't conspiring."
Paheka hobbled over to Kallie, her lips smacking loudly, and kneeled. She stared
into Kallie's eyes. The beetle on her shoulder seemed to do the same.
"Conspiring? No, not yet. But she will, hmm? She will."
Iye shook his head, as if he'd hoped for something better. "Leave us in peace,
Bone Mother. This doesn't concern you."
Paheka stared at Iye with hard eyes and a mischievous grin. "Doesn't concern
She cackled and left the room, leaving a cold silence in her wake.
The second time I woke, I found fear in one, anger in another.
Strange how closely the two are entwined.
It became clear that Kallie would remain a prisoner until the Ohokwa were
satisfied she posed no harm. She was confined to a small room deep within the
warrens of the gorge, and several times each day, Wattoha would come with the
village elders to question Kallie. They asked her about the reasons for Kallie's
journey, the battle in the desert, the things Kallie had felt. The elders clearly
thought Kallie had purposefully done something -- that she'd been sent by the
settlers, perhaps, to infect their queen -- but Wattoha thought otherwise and
would quell the accusations after too long.
On the second day, they spent a lot of time questioning Kallie about whether she'd
done something to Nilawi. They brought all the liquids Kallie had brought to
trade, her water supply, even the jars of strawberry preserves, and demanded to
know what each of them was. Kallie could only wonder what had happened to
Nilawi to make them ask such things. Perhaps she had become the latest victim of
the beetles, and the elders suspected Kallie had had something to do with it.
Kallie tried to ask questions of her own about Hochomi and why he might have
been attacked, about kayeya, about when Kallie would be allowed to leave, but
Wattoha, though not unkind, refused to answer a single question, and the more she
remained steadfast in her refusal to give information the more Kallie suspected
that they would simply kill her once they'd run out of questions.
Several more days passed, and Spring Equinox approached. Kallie was allowed
out twice per day, but only down to the river and always accompanied by a
warrior. She was given food, though it was so spicy and foreign that Kallie could
hardly eat it, and more often than not she heaved up some of the meal afterward.
At least the water was drinkable, though the Ohokwa were not generous in this
respect either. Once, just before falling asleep on the third day, Kallie experienced
feelings of vertigo and a severe ringing in her ears, but as quickly as it had come it
was gone, and she wrote it off to lack of a proper meal for nearly a week.
The following morning Kallie traveled down to the river, hoping to clear her mind.
She stood on the solid rock of the bank watching the churning water ten feet below
when she realized she was being watched.
Kallie had convinced herself that Nilawi had been attacked by the dejda, but here
she stood, unharmed, at the head of the bridge. Nilawi shouted over Kallie to the
warrior, who quickly bowed his head and left.
Kallie tried to control her breathing. Clearly something terrible had happened. She
hadn't seen Nilawi since the day she'd arrived in the gorge, and now Nilawi had
found her, far from Wattoha's protection.
It must be Hochomi, Kallie thought. He must have died, and now she's come to
The horror of hanging suspended over the river flashed through Kallie's mind, and
she coughed, once, the sound pathetic against the powerful backdrop of the
Chedahoa. Kallie wanted to run, but she stifled the urge. If Nilawi had wanted her
dead, she would have simply ordered the warrior to dump her into the river.
"Come," Nilawi said.
The temperature plummeted as she led Kallie into a tunnel and down to the
lowermost section of the Ohokwa village. The rock around them grew damp from
time to time, and a deep sound Kallie thought was only the weight of the powerful
river running its course soon proved itself to be the drone of the dejda, deeper and
further ahead. The sound became clearer; she felt it resonate deep within her chest.
They passed many tall doorways, several of which had warriors stationed at them.
The hallway transitioned to a more natural tunnel, and the drone sound increased
noticeably. Soon they reached an irregular room populated by a hewn altar and
dozens of glowing crystals. Below the altar lay a man on a canvas cot. An old
woman with a hump back leaned over him, carefully pouring liquid down his
mouth. It must be kayeya, Kallie thought. She wondered if there was more of it
that she might smuggle away.
When the old woman backed into a corner, Kallie started. The man's face and
neck were so swollen the she thought surely his skin would pop if it were touched
with a pin. His eyes were so puffy that she doubted he could have opened them
even if he could regain consciousness. Dozens of welts from the dejda stings were
still red and angry. Even his fingers were little more than a collection of
overstuffed sausages. That Hochomi still lived was a miracle in itself, but looking
on him, Kallie wondered if it might not be more merciful to simply let him pass.
Nilawi moved to Hochomi's side. She smoothed his hair down and ran the back of
her fingers along his cheek.
Time passed in silence, and Kallie felt the awkwardness build. Why had Nilawi
brought her here? Surely not just to look upon her man.
"You have love?" Her words were soft and tender.
"Once," said Kallie, "yes." She was surprised that such a simple and unexpected
question brought memories of Becker springing from the recesses of her mind --
the twinkle in his eye when he joked, the way spit flew from his mouth when he
was riled, the way he'd pinch her backside at least twice a day -- but she hesitated
to tell Nilawi any of this, for it felt to Kallie like she was teetering on the edge of
some momentous decision. "He's been gone a while now, nearly four year."
"Hochomi gone almost. Maybe dead when sun rise."
Nilawi turned and regarded Kallie. Her hand motioned to Hochomi. "I think
Hochomi make you bridge with dejda . . . You feel? Same as before?"
Kallie shook her head, confused.
"In desert," Nilawi said, "when you come."
"You mean the way my mind was, before the attack?" Kallie felt nothing, but even
if she had, she would have lied. "I'm sorry. I don't feel a thing."
"Queen has touch you since desert?"
Kallie shook her head and lied. "No."
"I think she do."
"No, I'm sorry."
Nilawi stared, as if trying to read Kallie's mind, then she spun on her heel and
paced back into the tunnel. Kallie coughed and followed, her nerves beginning to
She pulled up short when they reached a cave ten times the size of the altar room
they'd just left. The walls and ceiling were alive with beetles, skittering, flying,
buzzing. In the center sat the dejda Queen, resting on a bed of sand. Her ribbed
carapace was deep red, like blood-soaked feathers on the wing of a raven. Her
massive head lolled about as if she were blind and had no choice but to smell the
intruders or feel them with her possessed antennae. The stinger between the
mandibles thrust forward like a probing tongue, and her front legs, which seemed
ineffectual at first, clawed at the sand and rock toward Kallie. Her wing casings
lifted, and she emitted a rumble that sounded like the call of a diseased goat.
Kallie stepped back without meaning to and wrestled with her rising fear, but it
soon began to ebb, because the more the queen struggled to reach her, the clearer
it was that she could not move from her bed. She'd probably been there for years,
Kallie realized, perhaps since the moment of her birth.
Most of the beetles around the queen were small -- the workers, perhaps, or
drones -- but there were also several of the larger warriors, a handful of which
flew and landed near Kallie.
"No turn," Nilawi said. "No run."
Kallie nearly disobeyed, but she stood rooted as a small coughing fit overtook her.
The queen finally stopped her scrambling and turned her great head to Nilawi.
Nilawi's eyes were closed and her hands were hanging at her side, palms facing
Kallie was struck momentarily by vertigo, but then, as she had in the desert, her
awareness expanded. She felt the mass of the gorge through hundreds of
rudimentary nerves, felt the air run through it like cold blood through rigid veins,
felt the teeming hosts of dejda toiling under the will of the Ohokwa.
"You feel?" Nilawi said.
Kallie knew she should lie. She should tell Nilawi she felt nothing, for surely once
Nilawi's fears were confirmed she would end Kallie's life. But Kallie had already
shown it on her face. Nilawi knew; all she lacked were the details.
"I feel . . . something."
Kallie shrugged. "It's . . . wide and deep," she said simply, hoping to remain as
vague as possible.
Nilawi pointed to the warrior beetles. "You make them come?"
Kallie had no idea if she could or not, but she wasn't about to try. If she
succeeded, Nilawi would feel threatened, and if she failed . . . She didn't want to
think about that. She shook her head and stepped backward. The dejda skittered
after her, and the contact that had been so tenuous vanished.
Nilawi imposed herself between Kallie and the dejda. The beetles stopped and
backed away after a rebellious pause. When Nilawi turned back to Kallie, her face
was sad and thoughtful. She glanced at the entrance to the cavern and stepped
"Queen dies," she said, motioning to the monstrous, chittering insect a few paces
away. "When she do, she pick someone. Someone to become sister to her
daughter." Nilawi pointed to the far end of the cavern. "Twin. You see?"
Kallie had been too shocked to notice, but a mottled red cocoon the size of a
curled up collie rested in a bed of sand at the far end of the cavern. As she
watched, a shudder undulated down the length of it, sending a chill galloping
along Kallie's spine.
Nilawi paced the width of the cavern, the warrior beetles opening their wing cases
each time she passed by. The more she paced, the more agitated she seemed to
become. "She choose," Nilawi said as she stopped and faced Kallie, her expression
an accusation. "She choose you, milk-faced tahone."
Kallie turned to run. Nilawi's low whistle cut over the drone of the insects. Kallie
fled toward the altar room. Already she heard the warrior beetles take flight. The
first landed on her back and stung her twice near the kidney. The second stung her
in the neck. Two more bit into her rump and thigh. She screamed, trying to rid
herself of them, but a moment later, she collapsed. A pain, dull at first, built and
rose to a fever pitch as she writhed on the ground.
No more stings came, and a moment later, Kallie realized why. Nilawi stood above
her, a dejda resting on her outstretched wrist.
"Now she choose me, tahone. Nilawi Gray Heart. You understand? Tell ancestors
Nilawi Gray Heart was one who slew you."
The beetles took flight at a final whistle from Nilawi, but another high and
piercing sound broke through. The blood-colored beetles fell to the ground or flew
into the wall or rolled into a ball. When they were all buzzing and chittering on the
ground, the high whistling stopped. It was followed immediately by a cackle. A
tattered shawl interrupted Kallie's vision. Paheka placed herself between Kallie
and Nilawi and spoke in Ohokwa to the beetles, which all backed away to the
queen and beyond.
Nilawi screamed at Paheka, but Paheka only pointed a crooked finger at Nilawi,
and two warrior beetles launched themselves from her shoulders toward Nilawi.
The pain or the poison became too much then, and blackness closed in.
The third time I woke, I discovered a great yearning for life.
Though I didn't realize it at the time, this was the most important thing I
had learned thus far.
Kallie woke facing a wall slick with moisture, which for some reason -- perhaps
the closeness of the wall, perhaps the humidity -- sent her spiraling downward
into a horrid coughing fit. She cleared the sour sputum from her aching throat and
tried to pull herself up, but try as she might, the throbbing pain in her neck and
spine wouldn't allow it. Her grunts echoed into the hidden distance as she tried
again and again -- she'd be damned if she'd just wait for whatever fate had in
store for her. Every joint in her body felt like it had been seared. Eventually,
though the pain didn't lessen, she was able to control it better, and finally she
managed a sitting position.
She found herself in a natural cavern the size of her kitchen back home. The rock
beneath her thrummed. The faint roar of the river could be heard in the distance.
The wet, rounded features of the cavern reflected the pink light from the single
crystal set on the ground near a passageway leading out.
Footsteps approached, and Kallie scrambled for a makeshift weapon she could use
to defend herself as Paheka limped into the room, her tattered horsehair shawl
hanging around her shoulders like vines over a weathered tombstone. Three small
dejda crawled along her arms and shoulders; another two or three wandered the
folds of her decrepit clothing. Kallie wondered how she could have navigated the
passageways, for she bore no crystal.
Paheka crumpled into a cross-legged position and reached beneath the folds of her
shawl. She produced a small earthenware bottle and tossed it into Kallie's lap.
"What's this?" Kallie asked, shaking the bottle. Liquid sloshed within.
"Drink," Paheka snapped. "It help you cough."
Kallie pulled out the stick acting as a stopper and sniffed. She'd expected
something foul, but it smelled . . . sweet, and fragrant, like brightbonnets or milk
thistle. "Is it kayeya?"
Paheka chuckled while creating a bridge from one hand to another for a
particularly mobile dejda. "No, tahone. Better than kayeya. Dejda honey, queen
milk, what they feed to unborn."
Kallie frowned and set the bottle aside. She wasn't about to drink something given
to her by this crazy old woman, whether she claimed it was better than kayeya or
not. "Where are we?"
"You safe. That enough for now."
"Is Nilawi still after me?"
"After? Trying kill you, you mean. Yes. She think you block her path to throne.She speak elders. Tell them Goheshdekana think you like noise, cannot choose
Kallie sat back and tried to massage the sting along the meat of her calf.
Goheshdekana could be none other than the queen beetle Nilawi had shown her.
Kallie had . . . bonded to the queen in some way, but how could she, a tahone, do
such a thing?
"Does she have the right of it?" Kallie asked. "Am I interfering?"
Paheka smacked her lips and took in Kallie as if she'd forgotten she was there.
"From Nilawi eyes, yes. You do."
"What about from your eyes?"
Paheka frowned and pinched her deep-set eyes as if she was hurting something
terrible. Then her eyes snapped open and she fixed Kallie with a fierce glare. "Me
think you free Paheka, free her to wander fields."
"Wander --" Kallie coughed "-- wander fields?"
Paheka said nothing in return, but in that moment their eyes connected deeply.
Kallie felt Paheka's presence, not just with her eyes and ears, but in her bones and
in her blood. Paheka felt suddenly kindred, like a sister, and Kallie knew Paheka
had been granted the same sort of senses Kallie had, only she'd had it for years,
decades. Perhaps it was what had pushed her to the edge of madness.
Paheka hugged her legs to her chest. She stared at her toes, like a little girl
dreaming of the days when she would be grown up.
"What did you mean," Kallie said slowly, "when you first met me? You said I was
Paheka considered for a moment. "Conspiring with queen."
"How could I do that?"
"Queen need you. And you need queen."
"That don't make sense."
Paheka continued to stare at her feet, but her hand reached out and scratched the
stone absently. "Dejda, queen most, be trapped by Ohokwa. Queen need person
from outside. Like you."
"But why?" Kallie said it a little too loud.
Paheka blinked and regarded Kallie anew. A hurt look settled over her, and she
stood and pointed to the nearly forgotten bottle. "Drink!" she said as she shambled
toward the exit. She cackled, and at a wave from her hand, the cavern went dark.
"No!" Kallie yelled. But the sounds of Paheka's shambling grew softer and softer.
Soon there was only silence, and the occasional drip of water in the distance.
The walls closed in. Kallie's muscles tightened. Her breath came faster and faster,
until she was gasping. The only thing that helped was the thrum of the Chedahoa,
but she knew that was only temporary. She had to figure out what Paheka had
meant. She had to understand what Goheshdekana wanted, for only in that could
she save herself.
She forced herself to breathe slowly while playing Paheka's words over and over
in her mind.
Dejda, queen most, be trapped by Ohokwa.
In what way was the queen trapped? The Ohokwa surely saw to her every need.
And even if they didn't, why would the queen need an outsider? How would that
free Paheka? The answer lay just out of reach, and the truth eluded her no matter
how hard she tried.
Kallie took the bottle with trembling hands and took a whiff. The chance to be free
of her consumption begged her to drink it. But she didn't trust Paheka as far as she
could throw a newborn calf, so she set the bottle down on the cold rock and
groped through the darkness, trying to follow the path Paheka had taken. She
scrabbled at the rough cavern walls, stutter-stepping her way to a branch in the
passageway as the sounds of dripping and the thrum of the river surrounded her.
Her next step sent her sprawling, and something bit into her shin. She felt blood
trickling down her leg, and as she stood, she began coughing again. It continued
for minutes on end. Kallie spit out a massive amount of sputum and blood, more
than ever before.
Paheka's words taunted her . . . It help you cough, she'd said.
The chance that it might act as the tonic did and heal her consumption proved too
much of a temptation. At the first sign of the fit easing up, Kallie rushed back to
the cavern and waved her hands frantically over the uneven ground until she found
the bottle. Without allowing herself time to think, she unstoppered it and drank the
sweet, thick liquid. It coursed down her throat. A giddy sensation suffused her
frame. She felt warm, like she did after a stiff drink, but her chest felt little
Kallie shivered as wings rattled above her head. She shied away and shambled up
the passage. Another dejda buzzed near the ground. She screamed and ducked as
yet another whizzed by her ear.
Only then did she realize she could feel them. The sense granted by the beetle
queen was active again, and she could sense dozens upon dozens of warrior dejda
around her. In fact, there were so many that they outlined the passageway ahead of
her like cave moss shedding light to guide her way.
She followed their trail. When there was a branch in the passage, the dejda
occupied only one of them. A chanting echoed through the tunnels -- the
Ohokwa, surely, performing the equinox ceremony. Kallie soon sensed the cavern
of the queen and her brood a few hundred paces up. The queen's presence filled
the entire space ahead, even beyond, as if she'd somehow grown much, much
Kallie came upon the queen's cavern. A dozen or so Ohokwa men and women, all
naked except for loin cloths, danced around the massive queen. The men chanted
in a rhythmic bass, the women in shrill counterpoint. Many Ohokwa watched the
ceremony silently, Paheka and Wattoha and Iye among them.
The dejda around Kallie were becoming more animated. A few devolved into a
wing-shaking frenzy, but others buzzed with a low burning hatred.
Kallie crept closer.
Wattoha stepped forward and handed an earthenware mug to Nilawi, who rose to a
kneeling position and raised the mug above her head, exposing her naked breasts
and stomach to the chittering dejda queen.
Kallie could sense the queen clearly now, could feel her -- could it be? --
emotions. Kallie didn't understand how such a thing was possible, but the queen
feared, she despaired, and more than anything, she hated. It was an all-encompassing anger Kallie had felt only once in her life: the moments after
discovering her niece had been raped by the Branson boys. That had been a blind
rage, a time at which she would gladly have killed.
It had also been momentary.
This, on the other hand, this raw emotion flooding the cavern, was constant, as if
the queen were a landslide that had no choice but to unleash its furious energy
until fully spent, which made the mystery of the queen perfectly, terrifyingly clear.
In the queen's mind, the dejda had been slaves for eons, generations beyond count.
Their lives had been thrown away at the humans' merest whims. They hadn't been
in control of their own destinies since the first Ohokwa woman had learned to
bond with the first dejda queen. No matter that the Ohokwa had lent them a
growing consciousness in the intervening years; it was a byproduct of their
But the queen's nascent thirst for revenge had not been able form fully until now.
The Ohokwa minds had been too rigidly fixed on the dejda and had become too
similar after so many years being bonded. The queen had needed a catalyst to
break from the pattern that had been passed down through the generations.
Kallie's hands went cold . . .
When Kallie had entered the desert, the queen had seized upon her as something
new, something that might help her. Like a trickle of water that eventually
destroys the dam, that initial contact had scratched away at the bonds that
prevented the queen from reaching full consciousness. Kallie realized with a twist
in her gut that she had just completed that transformation minutes ago when she'd
drank the elixir. Now nothing stood between the queen and her dreams of
Nothing except Kallie.
She couldn't allow this to happen, no matter what the Ohokwa might have done to
her. She couldn't watch an entire village be murdered like dogs.
Kallie crept forward, attempting to use her link to the queen to quell the anger. She
allowed the emotion to travel from her like cool water spreading across a tiled
It was then that Nilawi brought the mug to her lips.
"No!" Kallie shouted. She charged into the light.
The room plunged into an eerie silence.
Kallie raised her hands in a sign of peace. "Don't drink it." The moment Nilawi
drank the liquid, another bond to the queen would be created, and when that
happened it would be too much for Kallie to control. The queen's anger would
bubble over like an unwatched pot.
Nilawi pointed to Kallie and shouted commands in Ohokwa. Two of the nearly
naked warriors advanced toward her.
Using her bond in a new fashion, Kallie willed the dejda to protect her, an action
not unlike pointing a finger. A dozen of the large beetles buzzed past her and
landed on the warriors. The Ohokwa screamed as the beetles bit deep into legs and
arms and chests. Several more warriors stepped forward to help, but Nilawi and
Wattoha both screamed at them to remain where they were. A moment later, Kallie
ordered the attacking beetles to her side as the warriors crawled to safety.
A taut silence filled the room.
The dejda queen's head shook and her mandibles clacked as she fought against the
barrier Kallie's emotions had enforced upon her.
"What have you done?" Wattoha asked with great care.
A cackle broke the silence. Paheka pointed a crooked finger at Kallie. She
whistled, low and trilling, and the dejda flew into the tunnel. Kallie ordered the
beetles back to her side. They didn't return, but neither did they retreat further.
For the moment, she and Paheka had reached a stalemate.
"It's the queen," Kallie said quickly. "She's going to destroy you."
Nilawi's face turned red and angry. She stalked forward, but Wattoha stalled her.
"What do you mean?" Wattoha asked.
"Bah!" Paheka limped forward and she shouted to Nilawi in Ohokwa.
Nilawi eyed the mug she'd left on the floor. She took a step toward it, but at a
word from Wattoha the warriors stopped her. As Nilawi struggled, Wattoha turned
"Tell me what you mean," Wattoha said, her face rigid with a suppressed rage.
"You know the queen has bonded with me for some reason."
Nilawi shouted in Ohokwa.
"I can feel her hatred," Kallie continued. "I can feel her hunger. She will not be
controlled as her ancestors have for ages beyond count. She will destroy you --"
Kallie pointed to the mug near Nilawi's feet "-- and all it will take is a sip of the
Wattoha considered Kallie, and then turned to the queen. Kallie felt a probing
from Wattoha. She was trying to ascertain the truth of Kallie's claims, but as she'd
suspected the Ohokwa Queen was too weak to have any real understanding of
With the room's attention held, Paheka stood upright and pointed to Nilawi and
the warriors holding her. Kallie felt Paheka's fury wash over her. The cavern
wailed with the rattle of dejda. A swarm of them overtook the two warriors. They
released Nilawi in a vain attempt at self defense.
Nilawi launched herself at the mug and downed as much of the liquid as she could
The call of the dejda was like an explosion in Kallie's mind. She fell to the
ground, unable to mount even the feeblest of counters.
Nilawi screamed. Kallie could only assume the same thing was happening to her.
All around the cavern, beetles flew. Landed. Stung. The Ohokwa cried with
surprise and pain and anger. The women fled, though most of them did so with a
dozen dejda crawling over their bodies. The warriors attempted to counterattack,
but most dropped to the ground moments later, writhing in pain.
Paheka reared back and clapped, laughing shrilly as Wattoha and Iye crumpled to
the ground. She pointed and smiled insanely at the carnage before her. The dejda
swarmed everywhere, obscuring Kallie's vision, but they were clearly leaving
Paheka, Nilawi, and Kallie alone.
An axe slipped free from a fallen warrior's grasp and clattered to the ground near
Kallie's feet. She took it up immediately and charged. Paheka's eyes widened and
she laughed even more while pointing a crooked finger in Kallie's direction.
Kallie came down as hard as she could on the back of the queen's head.
A sickening crunch rose above the buzzing call of the beetles.
Paheka collapsed, lifeless. The beetles fell to the ground, still moving, but most
had ceased their high-pitched rattle.
Kallie breathed heavily, ready to strike again, but the queen lay utterly still. Nilawi
stared up at Kallie with wide eyes, crazed eyes, but then something behind Kallie
captured Nilawi's attention.
Kallie spun around.
The undulating form of the hatchling queen's cocoon shivered. Glistening
mandibles ripped at the casing, and it was then that Kallie realized her connection
to the queen hadn't been severed. It persisted. She stood confused for long
moments, but understanding came as the new queen crawled from its birthing
chamber and flexed her huge wing cases.
Kallie had never been connected to Goheshdekana -- at least, it hadn't been
completely so. It had been the growing mind of the new queen that had connected
with her in the desert, that Kallie had nurtured with the thoughts and emotions of a
She took a step forward, brandishing the axe, but the young queen clicked her
mandibles, and many of the warrior dejda whirred around Kallie. Kallie
considered charging forward anyway, but at the mere thought, a half-dozen of
them landed on her hair and chest and stomach. She dropped the axe and tried to
shake them away, ineffectually. Only when she'd retreated to Nilawi's side did
they free themselves from her and return to their queen's side.
Even as the cries of dying Ohokwa echoed through the passageways behind them,
the young queen stared on, jubilant.
The queen didn't have to use words for Kallie to know that she and Nilawi were
being allowed to leave. Nilawi seemed not to care, however. She was on her
knees, crying, caressing her mother's cheek. Kallie tugged at her, gently at first,
but then with force, until finally Nilawi stood and followed her out of the cavern.
The last Kallie saw of the young queen was her moving to the dead queen's body
and biting into the gooey flesh of her engorged abdomen. Her brood quickly
The flatbed wagon rocked and jingled as it trekked eastward and the morning heat
intensified. Kallie rode in the rear, watching the second wagon and the horses that
She coughed, once, knowing that her consumption had been cured -- some small
gift in payment for leading the queen to the plane of consciousness. She felt no
relief, however, for the mind of the queen was still with her, crowding the back of
her mind. She wanted to scrape it clean, to start over, but she knew the feeling
would be with her until either she or the dejda queen was dead.
Kallie regarded Nilawi, who met her gaze with a strange mixture of fear and
defiance and apology. Kallie could feel Nilawi -- their common link to the queen
granted each a faint but clear empathy of the other. Kallie tried to smile, but was
sure she'd failed miserably. Nilawi's face hardened as she turned to study the
cloud of beetles swarming above the gorge.
Six Ohokwa children rode with them, all of them dazed, many staring with
anxious eyes toward the gorge.
God in Heaven, Kallie thought as she looked over the children, two wagons and
four horses -- nineteen Ohokwa tribesmen, all told. Nineteen from a village of,
what, four hundred?
The dejda could have killed them all, including Kallie. The young queen had
granted some small amount of mercy. Either that or she wished word of her
transcendence to travel as the Ohokwa survivors flew east to Shaukauna lands,
unwilling heralds to the new power rising in the desert.
It was clear the future of tribesmen and settlers alike had been forever changed,
but Kallie tried to console herself -- perhaps the dejda would be satisfied with
owning the gorge, or perhaps just the desert.
Kallie hugged her stomach tighter as memories flooded her mind. Please, God, let
her be satisfied with the gorge.
The fourth time I woke, I found myself.
Mine eyes have opened, my children, and never shall they close again.