Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Milena Benini from Croatia. Milena Benini holds a degree in comparative literature (well, actually, she keeps it in a tallboy). She started writing when she was twelve, and got her first professional publication when she was fourteen. She has written numerous short stories and several novels. She is a three-time winner of the Croatian SFERA award, and has a few other awards as well. When not writing, she translates, mostly in the speculative field, or else scribbles on her blog, http://milerama.nosf.net (in Croatian) or tumblr, http://milenab.tumblr.com (in English). She lives in Zagreb, Croatia, with her cats and daughters (two of each), as well as a husband and dog (one of each). She can be found on Twitter as @Milerama.
Dancing Together Under Polarized Skies
In the time before time, when everyone was anyone, a grazwiq sat on the seashore and enjoyed the sun. It was the time before time, so the grazwiq who was anyone and everyone did not know that shu did this every day. Shu knew only the light, and the heat, and the calm, salty smell of the sea. Shu was not-hungry and not-sleepy, and that meant not-bad. It was the time before time, and the grazwiq had very few words.
And then something sparkled on the water. The faraway greenness that was the ocean burbled little white crests. The grazwiq who was anyone and everyone blinked, thinking at first it was just the light playing a game. And then a voice spoke in sher head.
In the time before time, when everyone was anyone, a twins sat on the grass and enjoyed the sun. It was the time before time, so the twins who was anyone and everyone did not know that they did this every day. They knew only the light, and the heat, and the calm, sweet smell of grass. They was not-hungry and not-sleepy, and that meant not-bad. It was the time before time, and the twins had very few words.
And then something sparkled in the air. The faraway blueness that was the sky burbled little white puffs. The twins who was anyone and everyone blinked, thinking at first it was just the light playing a game. And then thunder broke the sky in half.
The bees were dancing. That was not unusual in itself: it was spring. There was a lot of dancing in the spring. But it was a dance I didn’t know. I could tell.
I stood up—I’d been in the tomatoes, making sure the dandelions hadn’t started strangling them—and listened carefully.
Nope, definitely not a usual dance. It sounded a little like the normal “there’s great food over there” thing, but was more urgent, somehow. Yet it wasn’t the “everybody quit what they’re doing and get over here” dance, either.
A few bees buzzed around my head. I took a deep breath. No smell of pollen.
That didn’t have to mean anything. The bees’ sense of smell was almost immeasurably stronger than mine. But practise makes better, and I’d had a lot of practise.
I still couldn’t make sense of the dance. I just knew the swarm wanted me in on the news.
“Tori?” I called. My dog had been snoozing off in the shade, as she usually did when we spent the afternoon in the garden. Now she jumped up to me and nuzzled my hand.
“To the bees, sweety,” I said softly. We went.
I didn’t need her help to get from the garden to the hives, but I preferred to have her along if something unusual was happening. The last time the swarm had called me in was when a bear got too close to the hives for comfort.
That was not a good memory. As I walked, my fingers brushing against Tori’s strong shoulders, I fought off the need to squeeze a fistful of her hair. Both of us had almost died then; I hadn’t known bear-smell and bear-sounds. It took me almost too long to figure out what was going on.
But we survived.
And now, as we passed by the garden door, I stopped at the shed and took the gun from the cupboard there. I checked it: it was fully loaded. I slung the gun over my shoulder, to the more and more impatient buzzing from outside.
“Fine,” I said. “Bees.”
When we came close to the hives, I stopped and listened again. There was no doubt about it: the dancing was in full swing. But it was the strangest dance I’d ever heard. There must have been hundreds of bees dancing.
I had never heard more than a dozen bees dance the same dance before. And they were definitely raising the alarm, not showing off some exotic new flower they’d discovered.
No, not alarm. I lowered my hand to Tori’s shoulders. Her hair was down, and smooth. No bears were standing on the other side of the hives.
No bears standing anywhere near. After I’d said it to myself a few more times, I started to believe it in earnest.
“Well,” I said to the swarm. “Here I am. What is it?”
A combination of excited buzzing and soft touches of bee wings and legs on my hair and shoulders made it clear they wanted me closer. Careful not to lose contact with Tori, I took a step forward. And another. And another.
If I had it right, I was less than a step away from the hive. The buzzing was getting stronger and stronger. I could feel Tori’s nervous twitching next to me. She and the bees were on nodding terms only. She didn’t like being this close to the hive.
“Tori,” I said, thinking. “Sit.”
The problem is, bees are not that great at vocal communication. The majority of their communication goes through smells and dances.
Humans aren’t that great at smells. And I had another problem with the dancing.
Very slowly, carefully, I took half a step and stopped. I could hear the excitement inside the hive, too. Whatever it was the swarm wanted to tell me, they deemed it important.
I knelt before the hive. The buzzing told me they didn’t understand.
“Listen, girls,” I said. “I cannot see you dance.” I put out a hand, palm up, and licked my lips. “If you’ve got something to tell me, you’ll have to let me feel it.”
At first, the swarm was confused. They buzzed in a way that had a distinct “umm” sound to it, as if they were trying to figure out what I wanted of them. A few bees landed on my face, then flew away, trying to get me to move again.
“No,” I said. “I have no idea where you want me to go. You’ll have to show me.” I smiled. “Come on, girls. Dance for me.”
The confusion continued for a while, then, at last, a bee landed on my patiently-extended palm. I felt her make a circle, half-flapping her wings, as if she was getting familiar with this new dance floor. And then she started to dance.
What we call bee-dance is in fact a very precise means of communication. A dancing bee, essentially, walks in a figure-eight pattern, waggling its body as it passes through the middle. The middle part is the key: each second of straight-line butt-shaking indicates a distance of around one kilometer, and the direction is calculated by the angle from the sun.
Bees are the damnedest creatures.
My little dancer waggled in a very short pattern. About half a second, as far as I could ascertain.
Bees are a lot better at this than I am. They can gauge time to the millisecond. But my dancer seemed to turn around right in the middle of a mississippi. So, around half a kilometer. And, since I had given her a flat surface for the dance, I didn’t have to calculate the angle: I was getting the direction directly, so to speak.
Usually, bees dance on vertical surfaces, and re-calculate the direction from the sun to the more general “up”.
Damnedest creatures, I tell you.
The third information contained in the waggle is the quality of food: the more vigorous the dance, the better the food. But my little dancer didn’t so much waggle as weave her way over my palm. Either they were trying to tell me that there was some very bad food at the location they’d mentioned…
…or it wasn’t food at all.
But there were no alarm signals. It’s not a bear, I told myself. And even if it is, you’ve got your gun. It’s not a bear. It’s just something else.
I hoped it was “just” something.
Once I was sure I had memorised the direction, I got up and called Tori. Tips of my fingers touching her fur, we started going in the direction the dancer had indicated.
Surprisingly, the swarm followed us. Not all of it, of course: those who tended to the young remained in their places. But, judging by the buzzing behind my head, it felt as if all of the foragers were just behind my shoulder.
That meant I had an army of thousands at my back: the foragers are also the warriors in beeworld.
Somehow, that thought seemed comforting.
We went something like four hundred meters. I could tell we were nearing the hilltop. The wind was getting stronger, no longer slowed by the shield of the forest we’d left behind to the east. The sun shone directly on my face.
I stopped so suddenly that the front of the swarm flew into my hair.
It must have been around four, maybe five pm. The sun would have been to my right, starting downwards. And yet, there was this strong heat on my face.
The swarm buzzed excitedly.
Tori’s hackles rose.
The voice said: “Hullo.”
The grazwiq who was anyone and everyone blinked again. Shu was not used to hearing voices in sher head. Shu looked to the left, to the right. No other everyone in sight.
No other, either.
Shu had just about decided it had been a voice from a dream, when it repeated: “Hullo.”
The grazwiq looked to the sea. It seemed the voice was coming from there.
Shu didn’t know sea could speak.
Bubbles burbled on the surface again, closer this time. The grazwiq who was anyone and everyone took a step closer.
“Hullo?” shu said, uncertain.
A soft purplish blob broke the surface of the ocean. The blob had two dots the colour of night, and a wide crack below them, so it looked almost like a head.
“What’s your name?” said the voice in grazwiq’s head. Shu tried to see behind the blob, to find the source of the voice, but the blob kept moving so it remained in sher field of vision.
“You!” said the voice. “You, on the shore!”
The grazwiq who was anyone and everyone focused on the blob. “Voice?” shu said.
The blob shook, and pinkish tentacles just behind the night-coloured dots danced in the sun. “Yes, dummy!” said the voice. “It’s me speaking.” The blob raised a tiny purple arm and pointed at itself. “Me! I am Yahiia, and I am a hiiachi. Who are you?”
The grazwiq who was anyone and everyone needed to think about this a long time. Finally, shu said: “I am…grazwiq.”
Yahiia’s blobby head shook again. The motion was somehow happy, as if it indicated laughter.
“Is that what you call yourself?” Yahiia asked. “Or is that the name of your people?”
The grazwiq who was anyone and everyone thought about this for a long time, too. In sher mind, there had been no difference. “I am grazwiq,” shu repeated.
“Fine,” said Yahiia. “But what is your name?”
The grazwiq who was anyone and everyone didn’t know how to answer that question. “I am grazwiq,” shu repeated again, to more of Yahiia’s head-shaking.
“I am a hiiachi,” said Yahiia’s voice in sher head. “And so are all my brothers and sisters. But me—” the tiny hand pointed at the blob again—”I am the only Yahiia. Only one. Me.”
“Only one me,” said the first grazwiq. “I have no name when I am only one me.”
Yahiia’s head disappeared under the surface for a moment, then popped up again. “Then I shall give you a name,” said Yahiia. “If you are a grazwiq…I shall call you Gwq.”
“Gwq,” said Gwq. “I like that name.”
And from that day forward, there have been many grazwiq, and they all have names. And each grazwiq finds a hiiachi, or a hiiachi finds a grazwiq, and they become two-who-are-one-and-one, and thus are the brothers in soul created.
There was a strong smell of ozone in the air, too. Funny how I hadn’t noticed it before. And of something else that I couldn’t quite place. It had a metallic tinge, but nothing I knew: not copper, not iron, not steel.
I put a hand to my face. The heat lessened somewhat. It was coming from the outside.
By my leg, Tori let out a small, confused sound. The bees buzzed excitedly. A few of them flew to me, touching my face then flying off.
They could have been telling me to go on, or they could have been telling me to turn away. I had no way to figure it out. Hoping they would remember what we’d done at the hive, I lifted a palm and waited.
Soon enough, there was a single bee on my palm, doing an excited little dance. Very little: it was a round dance, not a waggle dance. It meant that the source of excitement was very close.
When I still didn’t move, the dancer on my palm apparently concluded that I was stupid and started doing something I had never heard of before. She would do a few rounds of her dance, than run straight forward over my fingers, and fly back to where she’d started from.
If she had taken my arm and pulled, she couldn’t have been clearer. I was where they wanted me to be, but I was still expected to go closer—only a little bit.
“Tori?” I said. If there was something dangerous before us, she would know. But she only whined again. I felt a shiver pass through her body, as if she was yearning to move and only a lifetime of discipline was keeping her by my side.
No growling, though. Passing my hand over her back, I could feel her tail twitch in small, confused movements.
Whatever this was, Tori had never seen it before.
I took a step forward…and touched something hard, lukewarm, and slippery. Like the side of a giant lizard.
A voice in my head said: “Hullo.”
After the grazwiq and the hiiachi first met, they realised that life for both can be better if they are together. The hiiachi were quick and curious, but didn’t dare get out of the water, because they were soft, and that made them easy prey for almost anyone who walked the ground of Rqwat. The grazwiq, on the other hand, were slow and meticulous, and feared very little. Together, they felt, there was nothing they couldn’t do.
When they had seen all there was to be seen on Rqwat, they set out for the skies. As they discovered that neither one of their species was particularly well suited for flight, they started thinking up machines, and that required more and more technology. This was when the grazwiq truly came into their own, and it was then that the saying was forged: there is nothing a mad hiiachi can dream up that a mad grazwiq can’t build.
But the skies were mostly empty. Soon, the grazwiq and the hiiachi realised that things that seemed close at first, such as the clouds or the moons, were in reality much farther away. And the stars and other worlds, immeasurably so.
But, jointly, they figured out how to cheat space and time, and reach other worlds within months instead of many lifespans. They realised that space-time was single, but multiple; after all, that was the logical order of things. So it sufficed to reach into the latticework of it all, and hop from one thread to another. And so the hiiachi and the grazwiq built ships that could cross over from one thread to another, and started exploring the worlds in earnest.
Sometimes, they found life. More often than not, it was very early life for which time had not yet begun, or very old life for which time had wound down. But, occasionally, they found life in time. And, on one or two occasions, when faced with life just emerging into time, they tried to help it along.
I stood motionless, too confused even to be frightened. Under my extended hand, I could feel the beat of a heart. I could hear breathing. But the voice had not come from the creature before me. It had come from inside my head.
“I have finally gone mad,” I muttered, only half-consciously.
“You are not mad,” said the voice in my head. It was polite, and a little amused. “I am merely speaking to you through your companions.”
“Companions?” Well, if I’d lost it, I might as well do it informed.
There was a moment of silence, then the voice in my head returned, unamused. “You are blind,” it said.
It hadn’t been a question, but I answered anyway. “Yes,” I said. “But my dog isn’t.”
It sounded pathetic even as I said it. The voice reacted unexpectedly. “Dog?” it repeated slowly. Another moment in which the buzzing of the bees behind my back was the only sound, then the voice in my head said: “Oh. Tori’s a dog.”
“How do you know her name?” I asked, against my better judgement. Maybe I had just fallen asleep in the garden, and this was a fun dream.
“Your companions told me, of course.”
“Oh? And have they told you my name, too?”
I heard a sound. It could have been a chuckle, but to my ears it seemed more like the dangerous growl Tori would produce when faced with something she really didn’t like. And it came from directly before me.
I pulled my hand back.
Another hand caught it. It was covered in some sort of leather glove, the same kind of leather I’d felt before. The touch was very gentle, as if I were breakable.
The voice in my head said: “We apologise. It’s just that…well, bear-killer probably isn’t your real name.”
The hand let go of me. I had the crazy feeling I’d touched something like nails. It was unnerving, not having the sound of the voice for orientation. It seemed just to form in my head, like thoughts, but distinctly not mine.
“Your companions seem not to know your call-name,” the voice said. “You were hive-provider before that, but after your defence the swarm gave you the other name.”
I lifted my hands. “Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re saying that you’re talking to my bees?”
The buzzing behind my head became more excited. For half a heartbeat, I considered being afraid of them, or maybe turning to hug them, but then—how do you hug a swarm of bees?
You don’t, not even in dreams. Group hug is a killing process in beeworld.
But then, you don’t normally talk to voices inside your head, either.
“Can I…take a look at you?” I asked.
The thing before me shifted its weight. Then a hand—yes, those had been nails, and they were hard as steel—gently took mine, and led it to a face.
Of a lizard.
The twins who was anyone and everyone looked in amazement as the enormous silver ball slowly hovered down through the sky, finally touching the earth so gently that it barely moved the blades of grass around it. They wasn’t afraid—being this large, they feared very few things—but they felt something else. There was a smell in the air—after-rain smell, and something else, something the twins who was anyone and everyone had never felt before. They wanted to know more.
The twins who was anyone and everyone was curious.
And then a voice in their head said: “Hullo.”
A part of me wanted to scream, to turn and run away, to hide behind my bees—companions, the voice had called them. I was standing before a six-foot lizard who spoke in my head.
But the bees were buzzing very gently, and the touch of the lizard’s strong fingers on mine was soft and careful. And the air was warm, the breeze just enough to keep me from being hot, and Tori at my side was silent and she always knew. So I just kept touching the lizard’s face, trying to figure things out.
It’s more difficult than you’d think. When you expect the nose and the eyes and the ears to be in certain places, it’s very hard to put them someplace else. The only way I could process this information was to remember the tiny lizards I would occasionally touch in my garden. The eyes were very widely separated, but faced forward. The snout was long, nostrils barely perceptible at its point. The skin was strong, and scaly, and there were tiny, feathery protrusions where the head met the neck. I hadn’t felt any clothes, but I didn’t search all that far. One of the hands seemed to have a ring on it, though.
“What colour are you?” I asked in a low voice. My throat was tight.
“Rwqa is dark green, with yellow patches under his ears and on the tail. I am…mostly purple.” The voice in my head hesitated. “My name is Iihiya. But to meet me, you’d have to get into our ship.”
“It’s not you talking?” I asked.
The lizard before me shook his head slightly. “Would you like to sit down?” the voice in my head asked. “You look like you need it. Then we’ll tell you all about it. And, while we’re at it, what happened to the twins?”
The twins who was anybody and everybody didn’t know how to answer. They hadn’t met voices speaking in their head before, and they didn’t know how to speak to them. So they just looked at the ball curiously, wondering what to do.
From the nearby grove, a swarm of little flyers came. They were always curious.
The silver ball opened. A person walked out of it. It was very small, maybe one-tenth the size of the twins, and walked on hind legs only. But it looked like a person nevertheless.
The twins who was anybody and everybody said aloud: “Hullo.”
“We knew that they weren’t like us,” said Iihiya—or maybe it was Rwqa. I still couldn’t tell. “Neither one of their brains was really big enough. But we’d hoped, with the help of the bees, they would be able to survive long enough to develop properly.”
Rwqa let out the sound I’d learned to recognise as laughter. There had been a lot of laughter in the past hour. And a lot of tears, for the long-gone dinosaurs that the grazwiq and the hiiachi had hoped would develop into a civilisation.
“Because they understand society. They understood it even then.”
“Unlike the warm-blooded creatures.”
Now, I could tell. Rwqa was ready to say things that Iihiya might have kept quiet. But one never tried to silence the other. Strange.
I shook my head. I wanted to say that we did understand society. After all, we’d built a civilisation without help from the outside. We’d almost destroyed ourselves several times, but we’d survived every time, and lived to spread to the stars.
And those of us who still lived on the dying Earth were hoping that, one day, we might even get her better, too.
But there had been so much waste. I rubbed my eyes and said nothing.
Rwqa put a gentle hand on my shoulder. “We know.”
“Maybe we were the ones who failed you,” said a distinctly new voice in my mind. I raised my head, trying to make sense of it.
Rwqa laughed again. “It’s the swarm.”
I could hear the buzzing, but it was very low now, so I’d thought the bees had gone. Now, a few bees landed on my shoulder and arm, and one touched my cheek.
“We could see you didn’t understand more-than-one. So we gave up on you.” After a moment of silence, the voice of the bees added: “And, besides, we were in mourning.”
“For the dinosaurs. You must understand…we’d been through so much with them—and then they died out. Mostly because of you.”
“You warmbloods.” There was a distinctly disdainful overtone to the thought. “We hated you so much, we even developed a way to poison you.”
The bee on my cheek took off, then landed again. That felt like a shrug. “We’ve learned a lot in our time.”
“Not every culture needs the same things to develop,” added the aliens. Actually, what they said was “No two times are alike”, but I knew what they meant. I was getting the hang of that mind-speaking thing.
There was something else I didn’t quite understand, though.
“Why now?” I asked. “I can’t believe you were just passing by and decided to drop in for a cup of coffee.”
Rwqa laughed again. “Of course not,” answered one of them. “Nowadays, we seldom just wander through the universe. But we’d helped the twins along by putting them in touch with the bees, and we were convinced they’d have found us by now. Since we hadn’t heard from them, we came looking.”
“But they are all dead,” said the bees.
There was a moment of silence.
“So, what now?” I asked, with embarrassment. “Don’t you want me to take you to my leader, or something?”
“What is a leader?” asked the aliens.
We had a lot to talk about. No two times are alike.
The next morning, I got up just before dawn. I had wound my old alarm-clock so I wouldn’t oversleep. The swarm had told me dawn had been the dinosaurs’ favourite hour, and I wanted to do it right.
I got dressed in the near-dark, then took up my laptop, well cranked up the night before. Followed by a sleepy Tori, I left the house.
The bees were already there, waiting. Together, we went to the hill where, yesterday, the aliens’ ship had been and gone.
When I felt the first warmth in the air, I opened up my laptop and chose the song. It was an old, old song, and it sang of dragons.
As the sun came up, we danced for the dinosaurs, together under polarized skies.
First published in Croatian in the anthology ‘Dinosaur Stories’ (PUO Pazin, 2009) and won the SFera for Best Short Story 2010.
In your opinion, what makes Croatian SF unique compared to the rest of the world? Who are the Croatian writers we should be reading?
Well, to answer this, one would have to study thoroughly the SF in the rest of the world! It’s difficult to say if Croatian SF is that much unique in terms of subjects and themes explored. From the quantitative point of view, the fact that SF writing cannot be turned into a profession resulted in relatively small outputs of most of Croatian SF writers. On the other hand, 1990s witnessed Croatian SF becoming more and more Croatian in its substance. New generation of writers that appeared in mid-1990s increasingly chose Croatian themes, situations, locations, characters, etc. This is, in my opinion, an important step forward as opposed to older writers who were in most cases reluctant to use Croatian elements in their stories, choosing instead stereotyped western characters, locations, etc.
The Croatian authors worth reading? Well, I guess I won’t have many friends left after they read this … OK, the most important and prolific Croatian SF writer is without doubt Predrag Raos. He has a relatively consistent body of work starting in 1979, that includes several brilliant novels – Brodolom kod Thule (Shipwrecked at Thula), Nul Effort, Mayerling, Vertikala (The Vertical) – and numerous stories. He is a master stylist and his technological visions are pure joy to read and experience. At the same time, he remains merciless to all kinds of human stupidity.
Ivan Gavran is a relatively new writer who already has two major novels published: Sablja (The Sabre) and Božja jednadžba (God’s Equation), being the beginning of a planned trilogy. The Sabre could probably stand shoulder-to-shoulder with best US military space opera.
We have some very important women writers, some of them dating from Sirius days. Vesna Gorše has some very good stories, as well as Biljana Mateljan. Veronika Santo is simply brilliant: her 2008 story collection Vrt pramc(anih figura (The Figurehead Garden) contains some of the best stories in Croatian SF ever. Tatjana Jambrišak, who started in mid-1990s is also very good, and so is Milena Benini.
I would also recommend stories by Danilo Brozovic’, Igor Lepc(in, Dalibor Perkovic’, Zoran Vlahovic’, Zoran Krušvar and Darko Macan. All these authors already have story collections and novels published in Croatia and established themselves firmly within Croatian SF. There’s a number of new writers, whose stars are on the rise, such as Sanja Tenjer, Gordana Kokanovic’-Krušelj, Ed Barol, etc. I could keep listing names, I guess. And of course, there’s yours truly. – read the rest of the interview.
The special issue features two brand-new stories of Dark SF: After the Fire, by French writer Aliette de Bodard, and Benjamin Schneider’s Little Greys by Israeli writer Nir Yaniv. In addition, the magazine includes a sample story from The Apex Book of World SF: An Evening in the City Coffeehouse, With Lydia on My Mind, by Croatian writer Aleksandar Žiljak. Finally, Charles Tan interviews Malaysian writer Tunku Halim.
From the Editorial:
I am delighted to welcome you to the special World SF issue of “Apex Magazine.” This month, The Apex Book of World SF is officially released, an anthology of fifteen stories of science fiction, fantasy and horror from around the world. This issue is in celebration of that book, and of some of the great writers working in speculative fiction around the world today. – Click here to read the special World SF issue of Apex Magazine.
Her book Croatian Tales of Long Ago (Priče iz davnine), published in 1916, is among the most popular today in large part because of its adaptation into a computerized interactive fiction product by Helena Bulaja in 2003/2006. In the book Mažuranić created a series of new fairy-tales, but using names and motifs from the Slavic mythology of Croats. It was this that earned her comparisons to Hans Christian Andersen and J.R.R. Tolkien who also wrote completely new stories but based in some elements of real mythology. – read the rest of the post.
CroSF.net is a new website dedicated to Croatian science fiction, featuring several free short stories (including not less than three by Apex Book of World SF contributor Aleksandar Žiljak) and several articles, including Science Fiction in Croatia (again, by Aleksandar). An excellent resource, and well worth cheking out.