Monday, July 09, 2012

Lunch Break

I left Rikanta this morning. It was time. After stopping to say goodbye to Mr. Haggadan, who gave me a vague, absentminded reply from the depths of a machine I couldn't begin to identify, I packed up my things and returned to the road.

It was a quiet morning. The average size of the towns along the road has been decreasing over the past month or so, and the traffic on the road has done the same. I saw only two other travelers before noon. They were a pair of rat-like mammalians - twin brothers, if I had to guess - with narrow, pointed muzzles and the striped robes of Gillivan monks. They gave me a polite nod each, then went back to a vehement debate about something. Both spoke at the same time, far too fast for me to understand.

For the next few hours, I walked in silence. A lone flying hyena flew overhead at one point, but unlike the ones from previous days, it made no sound. Other than that, it was just me, the road, and the sun.

I had seen no shade since leaving Rikanta, other than the pale shadows cast by weeds and the occasional small rock, so it was a relief when I finally saw the silhouette of a tree on the simmering horizon. It was one of the giant acacias that you find occasionally in the Desert. They grow from tiny seeds that can blow for miles on the wind. The few seeds that land near some source of water, and aren't immediately eaten by a jackrabbit or Desert rat, grow into tall, elegant trees with wide canopies. This tree was in the center of a depression in the sand, ringed with boulders that suggested a bowl-shaped layer of rock near the surface - perfect for collecting rainwater underground. The tree's roots probably went all the way down to anchor themselves in the stone. Through gaps between the roots, I could see the glint of water in the dark under the tree and hear the peeping of small frogs.

It seemed like a good place to stop.

I set my bags down near the trunk and sat there for a while, just listening to the sounds of the wind in the leaves overhead, the frogs singing in their hidden pool, and the occasional cry of a bird in the distance. It was quite peaceful. It took me a while to notice another sound added to the mix - a low, steady drone, somewhere between a fly's buzz and the deeper rattle of a locust.

At first, I thought the dark shape above the horizon was yet another flying hyena. I realized my mistake fairly quickly; the sound, and the decidedly non-mammalian shape, made it clear that it was an insect of some sort. It looked fairly small at first. It got closer much more slowly than I was expecting, though. In a few minutes, it looked twice as large as before, and I could tell that it was still quite far away. The sound of its wings was deafening by the time it actually arrived. It landed under the tree with one last rattle of its wings and the thump-click of six segmented feet.

The fly was the size of a tiger, leathery black all over with vivid bronze streaks across its pointed abdomen. There were fringes of bronze-colored fur around the plates of its exoskeleton, more fringes around its clawed and padded feet, and a thick tuft like a mustache in the middle of its face. I could see my own face reflected a thousand times in its compound eyes. The six pairs of claws on its feet were quite impressive, longer than my fingers and quite sharp.

If the dagger-like mouthparts and lean, tiger-striped body hadn't made it obvious, the claws did: this was one of the predatory species of flies, and it was large enough to hunt antelopes. I got ready to run if necessary. I'm not sure if it would have done any good.

The fly stared at me for a moment, as if surprised to find me there, then made a quick series of buzzes - bvRRzfbvt - from somewhere below its chest. When that provoked no response, it tried what looked like a sort of four-clawed sign language. I shrugged to show that I didn't understand. It mimicked the gesture, shrugging the complex joints at the base of its wings, then seemed to give up on communication and settled down on the other side of the tree trunk to rest.

When the fly showed no indication of wanting to eat me, I decided it was time to eat lunch. I'd bought a few root vegetables in Rikanta. They grow them interchangeably there; instead of separating the different species, they just toss carrots and potatoes and turnips and any other interesting seeds they have into the same field and harvest whatever comes up. I had a couple of potatoes, in various colors and sizes, and a pair of purple-orange things that seemed to be a hybrid of carrots and sugar beets.

It's considered polite in nearly every part of the world to share food with strangers, but the fly showed no interest in the vegetables, nor in the loaf of bread I pulled out next. I also had most of a jug of beef stew in my bag. When I poured some of this out into my largest mug and set it on a nearby rock, the fly noticed. It reached into a large mail pouch hanging from its neck - I'd been distracted by the claws and eyes and stripes and hadn't noticed the pouch - and pulled out a metal lunch box. There was a pattern of little rabbits stamped into the lid. Those huge claws opened it with great care to reveal a selection of fruit and small cheeses wrapped in paper. The fly plucked a few out and offered them to me.

That's how I found myself eating lunch with a giant fly. We sat there in the shade, sharing food in a companionable silence broken only by the frogs under the tree. The cheese and fruit were delicious - the perfect blend of sweet and strong, with the faintest overtones of metal polish from the lunch box. The fly gripped its own food with a bewildering array of jointed mouthparts and sucked up the stew with a long, crooked proboscis.

Most of the Golden Desert's inhabitants don't travel at noon, at least not on foot. It's just too hot. When I finished eating, I sat for a while and read one of my ambiguous novels. (The story in it at the moment is Toad's Labyrinth, one of my favorites by Oswina Dennenjay.) The fly put its lunch box away and pulled a miniature concertina out of its bag. The rapid, buzzing music it played for the next few hours reminded me of the sound of its own wings. I didn't recognize any of the melodies.

Finally, when the sun was approaching the horizon and the shade of the tree had moved to fall on the rocks to the east, I shouldered my bags and got ready to move on. The fly tucked the concertina back into its own bag and did the same. It gave me a brief, friendly nod before lifting the great veined windows of its wings and taking off in a buzzing blast of sand.

The fly had arrived from the empty Desert to the left of the road. It left in the opposite direction, rattling off across the dunes at a right angle to my own route. I have no idea where it was going. I waved as it left, and I'm fairly sure that I saw it raise one claw in reply. I could hear the buzz of its wings for a long time after it was out of sight.

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