Parasite’s Grief

By Katharine Tyndall

When her limbs started to fail I realized I was killing Leucal. She couldn’t walk far without stumbling. She’d try to get up but her ten limbs would struggle, as if a terrible weight lay on her back. My weight, I thought to myself. Through my link to her brainstem I tried to help her, clumsily reaching through her mind and moving her limbs when I could feel her frustration. I didn’t take full control yet, though we both knew it was inevitable. The weakness is a common first sign of the change; as her brain lost the ability to steer her body, I learned to control it. Eventually, she would transfer her body to me. 

In the place where our minds connect, I could feel her slow dread, the steady pulsing of her consciousness that her life was almost over. I could feel her exhaustion from fighting the loss of a body that became more of a shell every day. She felt fear of death, concern for my future, but no bitterness about the change, or jealousy that I would live on. I was amazed at her ability to be worried about my life after her, when she was the one dying. In our moments of stillness I could feel her love. She would curl her ten pillowy limbs around me as she did when I was young, cradling me in the white cocoon of her body. I tried not to let her see how much I hated myself for doing this to her. 

The way Leucal expressed love to me was more complete for its wordlessness. The way she interpreted the world through her cilia-covered surface made her communications to me a flood of sensory information. Memories and hormones and literal warmth passed through our mental link in the moments we grieved our fading partnership. I couldn’t help but feel that my own expressions of tenderness were inadequate. She was my home, my incubator, my carrier and protector, the blind but infinitely perceptive body that both of our minds lived in. I was the thinker, the seer, the steerer, the one who invented games for us to play, who represented us in the community. There was no decision we didn’t make together, no action we hadn’t discussed through our shared connection. Some Teloschi philosophers have claimed language is actually an impoverished form of communication, that our symbiont relationship to our Hyella is the most complete way to transmit information. I only realized how right they were when Leucal was gone. 

We took a lot of time together before the change. We still participated in the community, but treasured most our time apart, enjoying long, meandering walks with only each other for company. As Leucal increasingly lost control of her legs, I took over, steering her while she tasted the air. Each day I felt her physical strength fade while her mind hummed along as it had before, warm and content and loving. Our favorite path led around the smoking lake, enjoying the rich steam that rose off the waters and the sight of the soft purple crusts of organisms clinging to the rocky shore. As we walked, we shared memories of our time together. One day, Leucal showed me her memories of life before me, and how I came to be. 

She was born in the same nursery cave she and I often visited to lay her own eggs. Of her ten nest-mates, only eight matured, and one of those ran off before the pairing to join the wild Hyella who live on the high plains, to never take a symbiont and to live his own life. No Hyella is forced into pairing–the choice is theirs. But Leucal never wanted to face the world alone. When she was small, paired Hyella would come and tend to her and her siblings, and she showed me how she envied and admired them. In that childish way that we all want to grow up faster, she desired a symbiont more than anything else. She shared a memory with me, of curling up with her siblings in their nursery, together but lonely, anxious for the day they would find their Teloschi. 

In her third year, in the warm season when the methane storms subside, she and the other Hyella made their journey to the low valley where the Teloschi mate. The Teloschi whose Hyella have already passed on, who have full control over their bodies, do their part of the dance at the head of the valley, where warm winds rush over the low mountains and draft downward. The young Hyella gather on the valley floor, undulating, dancing, feeling the change in the wind as the Teloschi release clouds of spore. The Hyella dance for hours in the valley, spinning until the point of exhaustion and beyond, taking in as many spores as possible to better their chance of infestation. 

She recalled for me the feeling of her dance, the hope and excitement as she felt the spores in the air, the way the tiny molecules pricked her as she swayed soundlessly in the valley. The little burning sensations as the spore came in contact with her cilia, as she willed her immune system to give in, not to fight the onset of infestation, so that she could meet her partner and start her life. All day and half the night she danced, until she was tripping over her limbs with exhaustion, too tired to raise her forelimbs to the wind. She felt the whole outside of her burning with spores. She prayed she had collected enough. Not all Hyella manage to catch their Teloschi their first year, and as the weeks went by and she waited for signs of infestation, she lost hope. First one Hyella in her nursery announced their pairing, then a second and a third. She had resigned herself to waiting until next year, when she finally felt the chemical pulse on the top of her body that signaled infestation. Hyella cannot shout for joy, but she radiated such a cloud of happiness that the whole nursery cave knew the moment she discovered me.  

Leucal and the other newly-paired Hyella would gather apart from the others, whispering to each other through the touch of their limbs. She recalled losing sensation as I grew over her cilia, gently reaching a limb up to the top of her body to feel the translucent green-blue scab that would become me, tracing the miniscule bumps where my three eyes and mouth would soon form. She showed me how proud she was of her dance, and of me, how carefully she tended me in my first months to make sure I grew strong, the excitement as I finally latched to her brain and she felt my first glimmers of consciousness. She said my first thoughts were tiny flutters of warmth as we lay together in our new nest. 

I felt almost sick as she showed me my birth. She was the only home I had ever known, and somehow I would have to keep going after she was gone. I tried to hide my guilt and despair but she sensed it, curled around me on the shores of the smoking lake, remembering how it felt to cradle me when I was just a cluster of cells. 

I awoke one morning a few days after our visit to the lake to Leucal dying. Her consciousness flickered, the little energy she had left drained into the point where we connected, no longer sustaining her, but rather healing the place where my adult body had fused itself to hers. 

She was barely aware as I piloted our body out of our dwelling, up the cliffs, moving our  many legs in rhythm. I passed the nursery caves where she had been born and laid her young, scrambling on past the cliffs covered in clinging purple crusts, to a craggy ledge where thick layers of vegetation tumbled over the rock walls. I was growing accustomed to this body - our body - my body: the feel of the heavy, soft feet falling and spreading, encompassing the textures of the ground with trillions of cilia, in a grip so secure that the slick edges of the cliff face did not deter us as we climbed. We reached the top and the great open plains, a plateau extending perfectly flat as far as I could see. The land was covered with red hair-grass that swayed and rippled in minute breezes, a sea broken by waves where the wind moved it. A herd of wild Hyella stood a short distance away, grazing in the hair-grass, grasping clumps of strands in the crook of their limbs and sucking the microbes that lived on the surfaces of each strand into the tips of their cilia. Forty Hyella, huge and pure white in the red grass, their limbs constantly moving in the strands, brushing against their neighbors as the herd moved as a single unit, led by the largest–the matriarch–at the very center. This was the wild way. A slow way, gentle and peaceful, living in close herds, transmitting feeling and thought to one another by the touch of a limb, sensing the wind for dangers of storm and spores. 

I felt Leucal drifting in and out of a near-death slumber. Gently I woke her, prodding her consciousness, now a small, flickering thing in that body which was becoming mine. There was a glimmer of awareness as she awoke for the last time. Warmth, life, joy, as she sensed me, felt the wind of the high plains and tasted the scent of the wild herd. I tried to send her as much of my love as I could through our link. I clung to her, trying to hold that spark of consciousness in place. I wanted to smother her in my love, weigh her life force down in our body, extract promises that she'd never leave me alone. Love and smother as I might, in an instant she was gone, and I was empty. The last things I felt from her as she slipped away–calm, love, and wonder.

I can’t recall the first hours of being truly alone. I know I stayed in silence on the high plains for a long time because I remember stumbling down the cliffs in the dark, wishing Leucal would help me guide these legs that now seemed clumsy. We–I–made it back to the dwelling and curled in our–my–nest, gasping with grief. Before, when she’d only been dying, I could always feel some piece of her, even asleep, when she’d felt like little more than a warm pulse. Now my body echoed with her absence. She was a cave that I was lost inside. The place where our bodies connected felt different, as if a door which had once been half-open was now thrown wide, and I could pass through with my entire self, into the chasm which had once been her. I could feel every part of her now, feel her directly. Where before I had only gotten glimpses of her cilial perception when steering her body, I was now overwhelmed by the feelings of these tiny hairs sensing the composition of the air and the nest, sensing what was outside our dwelling by the miniscule changes in air pressure and chemical content. 

I became aware for the first time of a sense of discomfort in the crooks and crevices of her–my–body, where I had neglected to groom her in the last days of her life as carefully as she had once done. Now dust and dead cilia had accumulated there, and they itched. I burned with guilt for not tending to her. Had she died feeling uncomfortable? I hoped she had already been too far gone to notice. My first act of care, of tender ownership of the vessel that had once been her, was to groom, meticulously, for hours, until this body felt like something loved. 

There are many written accounts of the change. It’s unsurprising that it occupies so much of our art and record, as a crucial phase of life. For a while, before and during, I read these accounts whenever possible, hoping to make sense of the experience, and the pain. Now it is over, I can say there is no change like one’s own change. 

None of the sources I read spoke of the guilt I felt. Do most of us not feel it? I know that it’s natural, a part of every Teloschi’s life to go through the change. We cannot live without our partners. But Hyella can live without us–live larger, longer, peaceful in the high plains and the open air. Our paired Hyella choose us, choose the dance and all that comes with it. We are paired, we are partnered, we share the joys and pains of life, help each other to thrive. And yet there is an end, when my infestation of Leucal’s body overcame her, where it took her life. With my growth to adulthood I sapped her last reserves of strength, until I took control of the body which had once been hers and made it mine. She gave it to me, lovingly, as her life partner. Her parents did the same thing before her, and the children she had will likely meet the same fate. I read one philosopher’s account, which said that the distinction between Teloschi and Hyella is an artificial one, and that it is more accurate to see ourselves as a single entity, as a “we” which becomes an “I” as we absorb the life and experiences of our partners and take them forward after they are gone. I wanted to find comfort in it, but I could not reach Leucal to ask her. 

The young Hyella are growing up now in the community, divine little creatures, feeling their way sight-blind through the dwellings and pools and fields. They haven’t mastered their cilial chemicoception yet and bump into things while they walk. I nearly stumbled over one on the path by the smoking lake while lost in thought. He was tiny, only old enough to be from Leucal’s last clutch of eggs. I felt him sense me. Through the places where our limbs touched, I felt an uncontrolled rush of feeling; awe at meeting an elder, embarrassment at getting in the way, longing for his turn to dance, to have a partner of his own. I wanted to ask him why, and if he was really sure, or if perhaps he wouldn’t prefer to leave the nursery caves and go to the plains, join a herd, spend his life grazing. I held back, because I knew the question was for my benefit alone. 

In the Teloschi elders’ village, where those who have already undergone the change choose to live together, I met Varrel, who will be my mate at the dance tomorrow. She went through the change many years ago and tells me she still thinks of her partner, still sends thoughts to her in that body they once shared. 

“But she had her time,” Varrel says. “She had her years before me, and her years with me. The children she made are growing and will be paired themselves, if they aren't already–and I hope one of my children will pair, someday, with one of hers. But I think you and I have it harder. Our Hyella never know what it’s like to lose us, to share body and soul with another and then have to keep going after they’re gone.” 

“Do you think it’s worth it for them? Do you think they would be better off living without us?” I ask her. As I have asked her many times.

“Your Leucal and my Dreya loved us both, deeply. They looked forward to joining with us, they cherished and protected us, and they wanted their children to know what we had together, and to have it themselves. Why don’t you trust her judgment, now that she’s gone?” 

I don’t know why. In life I trusted her more than anything else in the world, and without her, my life is filled with doubt. But I trust that she loved me. 

Varrel and I practice our steps for the dance. She offered to be my first mate, the one who mentors me in the steps. We spin around one another in imitation of the dance the young Hyella will take tomorrow. Shifting our weight to our front feet, we grasp our next pairs of limbs, and the next, until we stand together on four legs and clasp the rest, coming together in an upright circle. She has beautiful eyes, three golden jewels set in her translucent blue face, forming a pattern of veins where her Teloschi body meets what was once her paired Hyella. We pinwheel together in a circle, gently resting the next pair of feet down, and the next. I am shaky on my feet, unaccustomed to balancing aloft. She is surer, and steadies me as we turn. When she looks at me while we dance, I wonder if I could love her. 

Three turns in the circle tomorrow at the top of the valley, and then, when the wind rises, we press our bodies together and release our spores. The cloud of spore will rise from the pairs of elders and catch the downdraft, sinking into the valley to where the young Hyella await their chance at pairing. I wonder if one of Leucal’s will be there in the valley, dancing, hopeful, waiting to meet the partner of her life.