weekly (Another Night…) – 1
Fourth day of the Nouri week.
Seventeenth day of Falgong.
Ninth month of the Usch calendar.
Historic season of monsoons.
Ono no Komachi
Hana no iro wa
Utsuri ni keri na
Waga mi yo ni furu
Nagame seshi ma ni
Color of the flower
Has already faded away,
While in idle thoughts
My life passes vainly by,
As I watch the long rains fall.
-From the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, poet unknown
The leathery rustle and scratch of Hazhiâ€™s wings finally rasped through the subdued buzz and rumble of the alley outside. Voices and cart axles and cattle grumbled and griped and groaned as they trudged home under the last of the dying sun. The only thing that didnâ€™t complain was the wind. It had fled this place long ago. Now there was only heat.
Lying in bed, plastered by the thin sheet, his sightless eyes wide open to his own private darkness, Manadan sighed wearily.
He listened to the Sik-Wa up above uncurl and work through its morning cleaning, focusing on something other than his own empty thoughts. There was the Thip! Thip! of Hazhiâ€™s tiny, ridged tongue as it scraped the eveningâ€™s moisture and any accumulated dust from its bone and skin wings.
Manadan pondered, for the thousandth time, the fragility this act belied. The Sik-Wa normally flocked in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, and their migrations and cattle feedings woke terror in the strongest hearts. Living, tangible embodiments of things that go bump in the night, they were hated and feared and almost entirely misunderstood by the ignorant masses, who, in their own terrifying numbers, often burned and poisoned and hexed the dark, distant, undefended homes of these creatures.
And yet, despite its grip on the emotions of the popular mind, despite its foreboding appearance of a dark cross between a rattlesnake and a bat, despite its hunger for flesh, a Sik-Wa was no more dangerous or fearsome than a common dog, when approached intellectually. In fact, it was less so.
More numerous by far, found in every corner of the world, made of a thousand strains and pure of none, the dog could be taught to sit, fetch, attack, or even guard, but, except for some notably unusual examples, the beast never understood the why behind these actions. Almost without fail, a piece of meat or a sweet, or the unexpected sight of a terrified quarry, could make it forget its training, and even switch its loyalties.
A true companion to the Dâ€™nom, Manadan thought darkly, bitterly over-generalizing as was his wont in the early hours.
Hazhi squeaked quietly, taking breath through his three nostrils before resuming his cleaning.
Even without sight, Manadan knew the last of the daylight had now seeped from the wan, colorless sky. Still, he only allowed himself another four minutes of pointless rumination. All things in moderation. Including what passed for sleep.
Stopping that train of thought, he refocused on Hazhiâ€™s sounds. Thip! Click! Thip! Click! The Sik-Wa had worked down to his tail, the tongue lifting each scale just enough to clean beneath it, before it snapped to once more.
Cleanliness. Again, the comparison with the ubiquitous and simple-minded dog was in the Sik-Waâ€™s favour. This, too, was misunderstood, however, even by most of those few who recognized it.
The Sik-Wa did not clean themselves for any foolish, vain considerations of appearance, nor had it much to do with mating or tribal hierarchies or the rest. It had all to do with survival.
Its wings, the long-evolved specializations of long-forgotten hands, stretched from the jointed, embedded proximal digit in each side, outward to the furthest reach of its respective ulterior dorsal digit.
This film of skin was thinner than a butterflyâ€™s wing and more easily ruined. The smallest speck of dust would accrete to the slightly gummy surface in the night, along with the occasional unfortunate mite or fly, and if a Sik-Wa did not remove them, the first for safety and the last for sustenance, any of these could start a tear in its wing during flight.
A single tear that went unnoticed would ground the animal, and it was invariably dead within the day. Sik-Wa metabolism required constant feeding. It could not maintain its strength beyond a twenty-four hour span, and it needed that strength to remain suspended either in flight or on its daylight sleeping perch. On ground, it was far less nimble than its earth-bound cousins and considered a delicacy among those predators who frequented the lower reaches of its customary homes.
Except Hazhi, Manadan reflected as Hazhiâ€™s tail swished audibly through the air above him in a final drying move.
Manadan had waited in that filth-covered tomb for weeks, waiting for a specimen to examine. Heâ€™d woken just as Hazhiâ€™s strength gave out, and heâ€™d watched the slithering, twisting fall, entranced. He later described the perfect, surprisingly slow, helixical descent, in his journal. The immediate aggresion of the voracious grilk and other bottom feeders had spurred Manadan from his wonder, however, and heâ€™d managed to save the Sik-Wa for his own examination and divination.
As it turned out, the Sik-Wa was one of the more unusual creatures which Manadan was convinced was not, in fact, initially produced by magic. One more reason Manadan enjoyed its company. This, along with the creatureâ€™s surprising natural intelligence and understanding, saved Hazhi from the collection of specimen jars and display cases in the university cellars.