Hundreds of little eyes stared at her.
The junction of tunnels here had a rich sound, and the soft buzz of her bagpipes echoed in every direction. Just like yesterday, and the day before, she relaxed on a pile of stones, lost in the music, sifting her memory for favorite tunes from the timeworn canon. The bellows for the pipes was a ballooned mammal-skin bag on the floor, massaged by her large clawed feet; her small front claws tickled melodies on the chanter. Leathered intestines connected all the parts, snaking along her feathers from the bag up to her massive jaw.
The little eyes belonged to the lengs—she named them that when she arrived, months ago. Like her they were raptors, quick and sharp-toothed, but the lengs were short, while her head often scraped the tops of the tunnels. Also, they were kind of dumb.
But unlike her, they belonged here.
What she missed most was the company of poets, and her fellow musicians: her friends. She was so far from home.
The lengs were bright yellow and green and had no language or culture; no need for anything beyond insects to chase and devour. They rushed about, up and down the rocky corridors, ducking in and out of cracks and fissures in the walls.
But when she played her bagpipes, their scurry paused. They gathered and listened, transfixed.
As always, today their attention was so complete that as she finished her concert, not a leng flinched when she reached out with her clawed foot and gently squeezed the nearest audience member until its neck snapped. Her dinner. The price of admission. This technique was much easier than hunting them on foot, as she had in the first days after she fell—fell into the crevasse, into this dark maze.
Her claws tik tik tikked on the stone as she carried the dead leng back to the Mouth. This was her routine. The Mouth was where she ate, where she slept, where she dreamed and remembered—but she refused to call it home. A home was lined with leaves and bursting with family. The Mouth was just a hole in the wall.
But it had a view. The only view. The single place, in all her exploring, where she could see the sky.
The tunnel widened and abruptly ended in air. She settled into her chipped-away crook, right at the edge, where the cave gave way to cliff and dropped down to the sea of clouds far below.
She took her time with her meal, carefully pulling the leng’s feathers away before each bite. The taste wasn’t really worth savoring—in the early days she had swallowed them whole. But rituals were valuable, to fill the hours, to keep her sane.
A scrape echoed from somewhere down the dark hallway, quiet, but distinct from the low fluting of the wind across the cave mouth. She looked up from her dinner and peered into the black; the luminescent moss on the walls glowed, but her eyes had adjusted for the sky.
The shift of movement was brief, if it was there at all.
After touring some of the smaller tunnels the next day—she still sometimes found new junctions she hadn’t yet explored—she returned to her concert spot. The bagpipes were there, awaiting their daily workout, hung high to keep safe from the nibbling lengs. Her performance schedule varied with her hunger. Generally, curtain was in the late-afternoon, allowing time for the return trip to the Mouth, then eating and digesting while the sun set beyond the sea of clouds.
A few of the smarter lengs had figured out what her arrival and bagpipe prep meant; their eyes glazed over before the music even began. Then one by one, as the melodic buzz filled the caverns, the others gathered and pressed in close.
While playing the song “My Legs Can Fell Trees”, something down the corridor caught her eye, half-hidden behind a boulder. A mammal—an ape in clothes, at least a head shorter than she was. It stared right at her, as motionless as the lengs. She only noticed it because its glasses caught the light of the moss.
Without skipping a note she opened her mouth and tilted her head, allowing the ape to see her tongue and teeth—a friendly greeting which, judging from its immediate disappearance, the ape did not understand. Nevertheless, clothing and eyewear suggested intelligence, perhaps even civilization.
She had seen one or two of these apes when she first arrived.
In her confusion after her ship crash-landed, she slowly, groggily became aware they were watching from the bushes. As soon as she could stand up and think straight, they darted away, and she gave chase awkwardly, with bagpipes in claw. She wanted to ask them if they knew the name of this world.
Then she fell into the crevasse.
Judging by the apes’ movements, she now suspected they knew the chasm was there. They ducked and dodged, leading her straight to the opening. But she couldn’t be sure, and she always preferred to give the benefit of the doubt.
After the fall she waited for her wounds to heal, passing the time by repairing her bagpipes. When she could finally move again she was ravenous, hunting as many lengs as she could manage on her sore legs, eating the luminous moss when the hunt failed.
She saw it again the next day. It was in the same spot, behind the boulder; this time it watched from the beginning of the concert as the lengs gathered, squeezed in, and got comfy.
Civilized or not, she did consider whether the ape would be good to eat. It would certainly fill her belly for days. And it would be easy enough to kill. (Judging from the way it gripped its knife when she looked over, this possibility had occurred to the ape as well.)
As she neared the end of the final tune—a classic called “The Poet’s Silver Jaw”—she slid her leg out and grabbed a nice fat leng. When she looked up again, the ape was gone.
It was tiring, keeping her claws pulled up to avoid the tik tik tik that would surely alert the ape to her scouting. She was gambling she knew the tunnels better than the ape, but concert time was approaching, and she had yet to find it.
She chose her hiding place carefully.
Eventually the ape arrived. It peeked around its boulder, realized no performance was imminent, and scratched its chin. After a deep breath, it glanced up and down the dark hallways and wandered off.
She followed. There was no rush; she had already guessed where it was going. That tunnel led to an area she had named the Remains.
Geology wasn’t her strongest subject in school; even as an adolescent she devoted most of her energy to practicing her pipes. She was pretty sure, though, most of these tunnels and caves were old lava tubes. It was also obvious that the lava, in many places, had flowed over things: roads, houses—a little piece of someone’s civilization. But, if she had ever been taught the skills to figure out the age of the lava flows, she hadn’t paid attention that day.
The Remains was the area of least destruction. It was once some sort of building, and many of the rooms still had books and furniture and office machines. Anything not made of rock showed nibble damage from the lengs. The little raptors were everywhere in the Remains, gnawing holes in walls, unafraid of the light, and their squeaks and noisy bustle made quietly sneaking around easy.
She found the clothed ape, in a large room apparently undamaged by lava, lit by makeshift lanterns. It was swiping at lengs with a broom, trying to keep them away from its food stores. She hid behind a large metal box by the door.
The room was filled with evidence of the ape’s battles with the lengs. Holes in walls were boarded up, and chewed open again, dishes were repaired with tape, furniture was riddled with nibbles. The clever ape had even killed a few—one of the dead lengs was on the ground, near the door. She reached out, curled her claws around the limp body, popped it in her mouth and swallowed.
She didn’t know whether her newfound neighbor lived in the maze of caves by choice or, like her, wanted to escape. The Remains was clearly not its natural habitat, since there were no others of its kind to be seen. She could try communicating—just the thought of a conversation was a thrill—but she decided to retreat, and wait. Her first experience with the apes was fresh in mind.
Her tummy was satisfied by the dead leng; there was no need to hypnotize one for dinner.
She played her bagpipes anyway. The little lengies really seemed to enjoy it.
A few days passed with no clothed ape. She busied herself with her routine, evenings at the Mouth, days exploring the maze. But she steered clear of the Remains. The ape was a conundrum, a delicate puzzle that discouraged rash moves.
When it appeared again at the start of an afternoon concert, it held a box: black with metal highlights, about half a head in size. The now-fearless ape waded in among the lengs, and held the box in the air for several tunes before slinking away again. She tried to add this behavior to the ape-puzzle, but was unsure what the box was, how it fit.
She wasn’t concerned—until the next day when she arrived at the concert junction and her bagpipes were gone from their hook.
Only one other creature in the tunnels could reach that high. Furious, and hungry, she tik tikked past the ape’s boulder and toward the Remains.
Then she stopped.
The sound of distant bagpipes droned through the halls. The tune was familiar—”The Engineer’s Lament”, she had played it yesterday—but it was hard to tell where it was coming from. All the lengs stopped to listen too. They cocked their heads, back and forth.
Slowly, a few of them started inching in one direction. The others cautiously followed—then suddenly they were moving as one, fast, reaching full speed in seconds.
She joined the wave of lengs, at first trusting their instincts at every junction turn, then her own ears, as the music got louder. Her tik tik tik mixed with the lengs’ rainstorm of tiny claws.
They were headed for the Mouth.
Her legs were made for sprinting, and were beginning to tire when she turned the final corner and saw sky at the end of the tunnel. The lengs pulled ahead. The circle of sunlight grew, but she saw no one—no ape, no piper. Only when she was closer did she notice the ape’s black box. It was hanging from a long stick, jutting out from the cliff like a fishing pole ready to drop its bait into the endless sea of clouds, far below. The bagpipe music was coming from the box.
Helplessly she roared a warning as the lengs streamed to the edge. They were too dumb to stop, too focused on the sound to notice the danger. The front line of lengs jumped, and the rest followed.
Then something unexpected happened.
The moment the lengs hit the air, their arms stretched out, spreading open little folds of skin. The tiny creatures almost seemed confused by their newfound skill: they couldn’t fly, but they could glide—awkwardly, and with a rather rapid descent.
She collapsed and peered over the edge, watching them drift down to the clouds. They disappeared like dots of mist into fog.
The recorded sound of the pipes was head-splittingly loud.
And she was angry.
When she stomped into the Remains the ape was surprised—it had no idea she knew where to find it. The bagpipes were on a table. There were no lengs to be seen. The ape was sweeping up and it dropped the broom and backed into a corner, speaking in a muddy language. She tik tikked into the room.
The ape glanced at the bagpipes—no, the knife on the table next to them. With a swift swipe of her powerful leg she smashed the knife to the floor and the blade broke. She opened her massive jaw and roared at the cowering animal.
Killing the only other civilized creature hadn’t been the plan. She recognized its intelligence and respected it. But the ape, by callously destroying her source of food—her audience, her little lengies—didn’t reciprocate that respect. Death was a reasonable punishment.
Moaning its muddy words, the ape held up one hand and, with the other, pointed at the metal cabinet next to it. In a final show of respect before the kill, she hesitated.
Keeping its eyes on her, the ape opened the cabinet door and pointed to the two eggs inside. They were striped yellow and green, the same color as the lengs. The ape tapped its head, then waved towards the hallway.
It had found the leng hatchery.
This bid for survival impressed her. She had never found where the lengs nested, and she certainly wanted to.
She backed off and tilted her head, opening her jaw to reveal tongue and teeth—a friendly sign of agreement that, for some reason, made the ape twitch.
The hatchery wasn’t far from the concert junction. She had tikked by it a dozen times and never noticed the small gap below the stone. The ape got down on all fours and squeezed in. Moving the stone took all her strength, but she followed.
The breach opened into to an enormous cavern, the largest she’d seen, and the ground was entirely covered with nests and eggs. The brightness surprised her; when her eyes adjusted, she looked up and saw a crack high above in the ceiling—through it, she could see the sky.
There were hundreds, maybe thousands of eggs; plenty of food to last until she could find a way to reach the opening, and escape. Some eggs were recently hatched, and the quiet squeaks of newborns chasing bugs echoed off the walls.
She had a new routine now. It revolved around building the scaffold higher and higher, closer and closer to the sky, and playing her bagpipes for the leng chicks. The music was no longer necessary to catch them—they were completely unafraid of her. They even followed her around as she scavenged building materials from the Remains. But she liked playing for the little lengies. They really seemed to enjoy it.
The ape—that reckless, imprudent ape—had held up its side of the bargain. She ate it anyway. It tasted like mammal.
© 2020 by Matthew Schickele
Matthew Schickele is a Queens-based writer of music and words: chamber music, songs, speculative fiction, opera, and electronic music. @Squidocto www.MatthewSchickele.com