1. The Voru
Throughout the four years I had photographed the Voru shapeshifter, Cuzwast, I never knew that he had another family across the galaxy or how they got word of his death. But they came looking for answers while I, on the other hand, had been looking for a way out of the rain.
It had been a nondescript Tuesday, late March, when they arrived. The rain in downtown Victoria fell like a fine mist, and I ran back to my studio from the coffee shop across the street before a bone-deep chill set in for the rest of the afternoon. Images I’d scrolled through on social media showed Cuzwast’s children descending Earth’s gravity well in a drop-ship the size of a pick-up truck. Remarkably insectile in appearance, iridescent-layered ridges scalloped the vessel’s sides from bow to midship, eventually arcing out like gull wings trying to gracefully ride a summer storm. Already they had landed fifty kilometers west of Port Alberni and traveled to the southern tip of Vancouver Island, hoping to retrace the journey of their father’s life on foot. I learned this retracing was a death ritual of sorts, a rite that was an important aspect of Voru culture.
And they wanted me to be their guide.
This information was conveyed by a man who called himself Agent Khanna. When I opened the door to my studio he was there, standing in the center of the room staring at my overstuffed flat files and touching the memory cards I kept in a small heart-shaped dish in front of my computer. He introduced himself without a handshake, and promptly launched into business. “Your photographs documenting Cuzwast’s life have been useful as a cursory map of his hunting grounds, Miss Tsang—”
I waved off his formality. “Please, just call me Odette.”
“Okay. Odette,” he replied while eyeing a hardcover photo book on my desk of Cuzwast I had published after his death. “My point is, we could really use you on the ground as a guide since I’m sure there’s anecdotal knowledge we don’t have. It would be a great help to the Royal Mounted Police. My agency would be very grateful—I would be very grateful.”
“And which agency are you part of,” I pried. “CSIS?”
“Not for me to disclose, but I’m not a spy,” Agent Khanna smiled, though a tad grimly. His dour expression emphasized the bags under his grey eyes and the strands of white threading through his thick pelt of black hair, which he ran his fingers through like a comb. “Will you help us?”
I tilted my head in return, acknowledging his request. Not agreeing to it. For it wasn’t any different from the others I had received over the years. Tourists had asked me for guided expeditions of Cuzwast’s hunting grounds many times before, especially in the months following his death. The money offered was always difficult to turn down, but my answer was a consistent, I can’t. Sometimes with an added I’m sorry if I felt they were deserving.
I was about to give Agent Khanna the same answer, but he held up his hand to stop me.
“Before you decline,” he said, “I really can’t stress how vital you would be in this process, if not just to offer them some insight to his death.” Khanna looked at a photograph I had on my wall of Cuzwast and my best friend, Caro. It was a print I kept solely for myself. “I think Cuzwast would want you to tell the story of him that no one else can tell,” Agent Khanna said. “Am I wrong?”
Frowning, I thought of the memories of Cuzwast that were better off compressed and tucked away. I believed it best that children didn’t know all of their parent’s stories, otherwise it left an opportunity for disappointment. Or worse, regret. As I mulled over Agent Khanna’s offer, the bone-deep chill I had tried to avoid settled in as I imagined being the one to disappoint Cuzwast’s children.
Yet being a photographer means you’re driven by an irrevocable fear of missing out, and as my eyes drew over Caro and Cuzwast’s figure in that photograph, the fear of missing an exclusive opportunity to photograph the Voru washed over me; it led me to ignore the warnings of my gut.
I told Agent Khanna, “No. You’re not wrong. I’ll do it, but with a condition.”
And so, four days later, after signing a flurry of non-disclosure agreements, I was sitting in the passenger seat of Agent Khanna’s Honda Ridgeline with my camera bag in my lap. We were driving to land which belonged to the Pacheedaht First Nation, a place colloquially known among tourists as Avatar Grove.
“The Pacheedaht are wary of the government’s presence, naturally. But relations have slowly improved. They were amenable to us scouring the area once I mentioned the Voru would be with us,” Agent Khanna said as we drove along highway 14, skirting the west side of the island. The closer we got to Port Renfrew traffic became scanter. The highway narrowed to two lanes, and trees dripping with mosses hemmed in both sides of the road.
“We have RCMP and a company of Rangers closing the surrounding area down to traffic from San Juan Bay all the way to Bonilla Point, and then from the mouth of the river all the way to Todd Mountain,” Agent Khanna filled me in. “I heard the hunter who shot him died recently of a heart attack. First contact ends with a bullet to the chest, and the guy responsible gets off with a heart attack? Just,” he slapped the steering wheel as a car honked at us from behind. “Where’s the karma? You know?”
“I think we’re just lucky to get another chance with the Voru,” I said as the hunter’s face flashed in the back of my head, his cheeks and neck scratched up, bleeding from Caro’s long nails. “And… I’d guess we’re also lucky they don’t hold us accountable for Cuzwast’s death?”
“Oh, they hold us accountable,” Agent Khanna said matter-of-factly. He turned off the highway onto a dirt road and crossed the San Juan River bridge. “But Cuzwast’s kids apparently understand the nature of the life he had here.”
“Meaning, they know humanity doesn’t co-exist with other species all that well.”
“Meaning, they observed us from afar before coming to conclusions about who we are collectively as a species. We got lucky they didn’t judge us by the actions of one man or a group of men…or the in-action of others,” Agent Khanna turned to face me in the passenger’s seat, “which is why we don’t want to fuck this part up.”
I opened my mouth to clarify what he meant; to find out if he knew what had actually unfolded on the day of Cuzwast’s death, because neither side of the incident—the hunter’s or Caro’s—had ever been made entirely public. Security issues and such. Only general details had been released to appease the anger that overwhelmed the world, not just Canadians and indigenous nations across the continent.
Still, the man sitting beside me was Government, so he must have known what happened, some kind of judgment of what transpired. And did that mean the Voru knew the details of what unfolded that day, too?
I almost worked up the nerve to ask until Agent Khanna murmured, “We’re here.”
He pulled us into a grassy clearing. Two other trucks and a police cruiser were parked under an awning of firs and spruces at the southern edge. Pine needles and tree sap splattered onto the windshield of the Ridgeline as Agent Khanna shifted into park, followed by profanities as he put on the wipers and the sap gummed up the blades. Then he unbuckled his seatbelt and reached behind my armrest.
“This is for you,” Agent Khanna inhaled, hoisting an overnight hiker’s pack into my lap. There was a sleeping bag, a tent, and hanging on the side by a carabiner, a water canteen. A pair of walking sticks were strapped to the front. I had brought a couple sets of clothes that I could fit on top of the contributed supplies, and there was enough vacuum-sealed food for exactly six meals and a few snacks in between.
I frowned. “I could’ve brought my own camping gear.”
“Probably, but this is policy. Minimizes risk,” Agent Khanna said. “I’ve got the other tents in mine, and food for the Voru,” he jerked his thumb to his pack sitting on the backseat. “I know we agreed to the camera,” he eyed my bulky black camera bag (which he had searched twice already), “but you’ll have to leave your phone in the glovebox. It’ll be locked. And…”
He paused momentarily. “Well, if you feel uncomfortable, or think something is going…wrong,” he scratched the back of his head, “the code word is ‘cigarette.'”
I opened the glovebox. “You smoke?”
“I’m on the patches. My daughter wants me to quit,” he said lightly. “Work it into a sentence, mouth it, whatever, and I’ll get us out.”
“So you think something’s going to go wrong,” I shoved my phone underneath a pile of papers and saw an opened carton of Belmonts.
“The point is to be prepared,” Agent Khanna reached over my seat and shut the glovebox. “And not to start a war based on misunderstandings.”
“Because the lit end of a cigarette never caused a fire,” I said dryly. “Got it.”
We filed out of the truck. I slammed the door and threw my pack over my shoulder. Immediately my back strained, and I blew out a quiet oof. With the camera’s added mass, the backpack was more weight than I was used to, and so I crouched low, shifting my center of gravity toward the ground as I acclimated to my pack’s load. I shot a sidelong glance at Agent Khanna, who seemed fine with the considerable bulk of his pack; he stood straight as a board as he spoke with a man and woman both dressed in Carhartt pants and plaid button-ups with badges secured at their waists.
I recognized them; they were reservation police. Robin and Hyalmer.
Both had dark, close-cropped hair and large hands; they looked like they might be twins even though they weren’t related at all. My heart sped up, for I hadn’t seen the two of them out in the field since the time they responded to the scene when Cuzwast was shot. And they had also dealt with the brunt of the media fallout after his death, which had been more difficult than the investigation itself.
So it was unsurprising that Robin’s mouth thinned into a flat line when she saw me. Hyalmer didn’t say anything either but nodded politely as he got back into his cruiser.
I supposed it was better than nothing. At least Robin and Hyalmer didn’t object to my presence here, even though my history with Caro and Cuzwast was still a likely sore spot. Robin had been direct that she didn’t want me in the area ever again, while Hyalmer had been more forgiving of what had unfolded.
However, I suspected his forgiveness didn’t come from a place of kindness, but proximity; Caro and I had been friends and Caro had also been close with Hyalmer—she was his cousin by way of adoption. Hyalmer’s aunt—Caro’s adoptive mother, Lise—had been a band council event coordinator, and was the person I had initially emailed for permission to photograph inside Avatar Grove. Before my first outing, she’d told me she had a daughter who tended to spend more time in the grove than with her family.
“Though the trees are a kind of family,” Lise had mused reverently. “Anyway, if she likes you she tends to creep up on you and not let go. Be prepared.”
As far as mothers went, Lise had been as hands-off as they came, though not from a lack of caring but rather from an abundance of trust that had been present in her own childhood. She had been unable to have children of her own and, perhaps fatefully, met Caro outside a bar in Saanich when she was seventeen, begging strangers for bus money.
Though they became friends, and eventually a family, Lise’s time as a mother was still short-lived. A few years before Caro passed, Lise died of cancer—breast cancer that spread to her lymph nodes, the same way my mother died when I was sixteen.
From that point on, I noticed how things began to unravel. Caro’s relationship with Lise had been good as far as I knew, but her death had been hard on both Caro and Hyalmer. He had wept at the funeral while Caro and I had stood at the back as prayers were sung and visitors from some of the neighboring tribes gifted tobacco and other offerings. Her eyes had been expressionless, her arms across her chest the entire time as if the room had been unbearably cold.
When the potlatch began, she took a long look across the gathering and then left without saying goodbye to anyone.
It was odd behavior, even from her. So I had followed and asked why she left so abruptly.
Her response had been curt: “It’s nothing. My ex was in there. I didn’t want to get into all the emotions,” she said and walked off down the road.
I didn’t see her for four months until she found me one evening in the grove to deliver a surprising piece of news—
“Odette,” Agent Khanna was suddenly hovering over me, “are you okay?” He crouched down to my level. “Are you going to be able to do this?”
Blood rushed to my head and washed out the memory with waves of dizziness.
“I’m good.” I lied, scrubbed my eyes with my palms as the sensation mercifully passed. “I’m just adjusting to the weight.” I tugged the backpack straps at my waist and my shoulders. I lifted myself up.
That was when I saw them.
Twenty meters away was a group of Voru standing in a crescent under the shade of a gnarled red cedar. Each looked otherworldly, respectively. One was six-legged, and slithering behind its legs was a jagged prehensile tail that curved inward to a fatalistic tip. Its face was broad and flat, framed by a series of fleshy skin flaps descending the arc of its neck. The pattern reminded me of the overlapping ridges of a lobster’s shell. Where might have been a nose was a grouping of holes lined with fine hair in which air appeared to flow inward and out.
The other Voru next to it had similar draconian features and piercing white eyes that looked like slits of snowy quartz. However, the main differences between these siblings laid in the variated texture of their grayish skin. While the one with the prehensile tail was smooth, with few bumps and ruptures, the other—sans tail—looked craggy as a Scottish mountain range. This Voru chewed a group of leaves that had fallen off a tree until its face scrunched up and spat them out into a gooey wad on the ground.
Beyond that moment of disgust their expressions were inscrutable. I wondered how I would be able to guide them if I couldn’t understand what they wanted.
Luckily, it appeared the Voru had thought of that. Agent Khanna approached with the last of Cuzwast’s children, who had two arms, two legs, ten fingers, and a set of opalescent eyes that glared in my direction. From tear duct to pupil, the surface was a glassy white that changed to streaks of blue depending on the angle of the light. Its eyelashes were long and thick, like inky black ferns, and skin that was variegating shades of grey like the other two. The only scrap of clothing it wore was a form-fitting pair of black neoprene shorts. Save for the eyelashes, the humanoid Voru appeared to be depilated, though whether by choice or design, I couldn’t be sure.
“Odette, this is Horokyan,” Agent Khanna said. “For the sake of communication Horokyan has assumed a bipedal form with the pronouns, ‘he’ and ‘him.’ His siblings, Syff—the one with the tail—has chosen to be female, and Zim is male. This is just for communication,” Khanna re-iterated. “Horokyan explained earlier that gender doesn’t have anything to do with their reproductive organs or their physical and emotional features. But,” he shrugged at me, “English.”
“Human languages can be messy,” I nodded at Agent Khanna.
“Every world I have seen there are unique sets of limitations,” Horokyan said, the timbre of his voice deep and languid. He spoke in a measured meter, his lips curving around the sounds as if he was ensuring every word came out fully formed, everything said properly. His earnestness was hypnotic. “There are also, conversely, unique sets of possibilities,” he added and then closed his lips with brevity, leaving a moment of silence between the three of us.
“Well said,” Agent Khanna cleared his throat. “So, I know we cleared it already with you Horo, but you’re fine with Odette photographing the excursion? If you want to back out, now’s your chance.”
Horokyan caught my scowl. “This was one of her conditions for accompanying us,” he said and then addressed me directly: “Do as you wish.”
What I hadn’t considered as we began the hike was how unsuitable the human body is to lead a group of multi-legged creatures; Agent Khanna and I moved so slowly compared to Syff and Zim that they often darted ahead on the path and stopped to wait as we caught up. And whenever I wanted to stop and take a photograph of the Voru, they were already far down the trail. I resisted pulling out my telephoto lens, knowing the camera would swing around on its straps and slow me down even more.
The only Voru that remained in close range was Horokyan, who was challenging to fit into frame; it would have been better if he moved as fast and as far away as Syff and Zim. His body was so tall and elongated that, even at my six feet, I had to crane my neck up just to glimpse his face. For whatever reason, he kept a relatively average, human-treaded pace, leisurely moving through the vista of Sitka spruces and cedars like he was a lean, silver-boned tree.
“So, where exactly are we going?” Agent Khanna said in a moment between the two of us. The Voru circled at the bottom of a set of rain-dusted stairs. Syff and Zim pawed at the dirt mounds adjacent to the boardwalk, and Horokyan looked on at them like a tired parent.
“To the place Cuzwast and I first met,” I replied as we descended the stairs. “It’s six or seven klicks from here. Not far, but also not nearby.”
“Good, I guess,” Agent Khanna said and then surreptitiously eyed the Voru ahead of us. “I wonder how this feels for them.”
“How it feels?”
“To be walking this path, knowing their father was here. Do they, like, feel him in the air, or something? Is it biological? Or just spiritual? Or is it both?”
“Why don’t you ask?” I said as we dismounted from the steps onto a wooden landing. Horokyan stood still, compared to Syff and Zim, who dashed another few hundred meters ahead. Syff, the tailed one, used all of her legs to leap across a bridge without touching the wooden slats.
Horokyan turned to us. “I heard your questions,” he said.
“Oh?” Agent Khanna blushed. “I’m so sorry. We didn’t mean to be rude—”
“This is fine,” Horokyan replied. “Do you want an answer?”
“Yes, we do!” I said enthusiastically, trying to hide that I was already breathless, and my thighs burning. “But we have to keep walking, so we get to our destination before the sun gets low.”
Horokyan matched my pace along the boardwalk while Agent Khanna walked directly behind. “Our death rites are spiritual, but do not follow what I believe your people call scripture,” he said. “We do not codify anything through written symbols. Our bodies are ledgers of all the history the Voru have endured.”
“That’s similar to humans,” I said as I tied my hair back. “Our genes pass down generation to generation.”
“Indeed. But where I believe we differ is in how quickly our cells regenerate. This is part of what allows us to assume different forms,” Horokyan replied. “The other part is that cells are uniquely affected by environments. When we walk in the land of our ancestors, we are transformed by our surroundings, like they once were when they walked the same path. More technically, a genetic trigger is pulled when our cells are stimulated by microbial changes in the foreign environment, and immediately begin working out ways to adapt to our new surroundings based on genetic heritage and useful biomimicry. It is…like trying to find the right key for a lock.” He scratched his chin pensively. “This is the way the Voru do what you call shape shifting, and once we learn a new shape it stays with us forever. The ritual we are performing now is called an amskyan, a sacred ancestral transformation.”
“Did Cuzwast ever do an amskyan?” Agent Khanna asked.
“Many. On many different worlds,” Horokyan replied. “We accompanied him on several occasions.”
“Then why did he come to Earth?” I said, cautiously. “There aren’t any other Voru here, so no reason to do an amskyan, right?”
Horokyan paused and then looked down at me with his opalescent eyes. “There are many things about my family I do not understand.”
“We’ll do our best to get you answers, Horo,” Agent Khanna replied swiftly. “Right, Odette?”
I smiled up at Horokyan to affirm Agent Khanna’s promise.
“I’ll do my part,” I said.
But my gut didn’t feel right. Horokyan hadn’t addressed the other way Voru transformed.
As Horokyan walked ahead, sensing the end of our conversation, I turned to Agent Khanna and whispered, “If he’s never been to Earth and done this ‘sacred transformation,’ how can he be human right now?”
It was an important question because I had learned from Cuzwast’s presence on Earth: Voru couldn’t shapeshift into whatever they wanted. There were two known methods to assimilate a new form into a Voru’s repertoire:
One was performing a death rite for an ancestor. An amskyan as Horokyan had described.
The other was for a Voru to kill their subject and consume its body.
Agent Khanna’s response was a grimace. “I can’t tell you that…I shouldn’t.”
“You got me a shitload of clearance just to be here, right?” I retorted. “And I’ve already signed my life away. You can tell me more.” I looked around. “Who am I going to tell? I may even know more than you.”
We walked another minute in silence, and then Agent Khanna acquiesced. “The Cliff Notes version is that we believe there’s another group of Voru that may be trying to figure out a way to get to Earth through…violent means.” His grimace deepened. “I’ve been working to gather more intel as to what our party’s intentions might be.”
“What does that mean?” I hissed. “You think there’s going to be an invasion?”
Agent Khanna held up a finger to his lips. We waited for Horokyan to walk over the bridge and down the next hill. “There’s little to go on right now. But if a Voru is killing humans to assume human identities, we need to know why.”
“You think Horokyan might have killed someone,” I whispered. “But that can’t be right. How could he have snuck down the gravity well unnoticed?”
“You’ve seen their ships on the newsfeeds. They don’t output any waste or drive plumes. Their technology makes us look like cave people. Short answer, Odette? We—I—don’t know. But if Horokyan has killed someone or plans to, I need to find that out.”
I narrowed my eyes. “So is this really a gesture of goodwill? Or an intelligence operation?”
“I think you can figure that out.” Agent Khanna waved me off. “But I’d recommend you focus on your part and let me worry about everything else.” He headed toward the bridge, and my chest tightened.
He didn’t seem to know the answers to my questions either.
Before we pitched our tents for the night, I showed the Voru where I first met Cuzwast.
“A bear den?” Agent Khanna asked incredulously. “You know this is a bear den, right?”
“It’s not like we were two ladies meeting over tea,” I replied. We stood in front of the den canopied by Douglas Fir boughs. The fir needles were soft, pliant, and fell to the ground while releasing a resinous, citrusy scent. Syff and Zim examined the hole with intense curiosity; the oblong apertures in their faces widened and narrowed with each breath.
Horokyan suddenly turned to me, “They are subvocalizing that they want to know what species our father was when you met.”
“Ah, sure,” I said. “He was a wolf. Um, in fact, I only ever knew Cuzwast as a wolf. He…”
I paused. My mind had stretched out the memory’s timeline as it had aged, and I struggled to convey the briefness of it, but also the tenderness that passed between us on that day.
“Well, he saved me from a bear. Hence,” I motioned, “the den. I was still new to wildlife photography, and wildlife in general. I’d asked the Pacheedaht if I could photograph the trees in the grove. They agreed—but warned me not to go far off the trail, as there had been a rare bear sighting in the area. So, I went about photographing,” I pointed to the ancient cedars and firs towering above us. “Before I knew it, I was down here, trying to get a good angle for a shot, and a black bear shows up, clearly upset that I’ve stumbled in front of her den.”
“And Cuzwast?” Agent Khanna said curiously. “How’d he fend it off?”
“He threw himself between me and the bear before it attacked,” I replied. “That gave me enough time to get out of the way. I was worried he was going to be mauled, but when I got to higher ground I saw he was right behind me, and the bear was headed in the other direction.” I touched the palm of my hand as the others looked on, remembering how coarse his fur had been when he finally let me touch him a few days after our dramatic meeting.
What I didn’t mention to the group was that timeframe was also when I had met Caro; I had been hiking around, hoping to spot Cuzwast when I saw her sitting on a nearby rock. “He thinks you’re a friend,” she had said. I hadn’t understood who ‘he’ was until Cuzwast appeared and sat down beside her, and she scratched him behind his ears. Eventually Caro motioned for me to come do the same.
She didn’t give me her name at that meeting, only an offering: “He thinks we can trust you.”
So he did. They both did. Even though they shouldn’t have.
Agent Khanna cleared his throat. “I’m guessing this cave is unoccupied now?”
“That particular bear left the area years ago,” I stood in the mouth of the den near scratched-up lumps of stone. The ground was softened with forest dander, and a small concavity was pressed into the pile. “There’s signs of nesting though. A mother with babies, likely,” I pointed to the interior—
And then retracted my hand as a shadow blurred across my vision, followed by a heavy THUMP!
I was suddenly cut off from the others, and the obstruction would not be an easy one to circumnavigate. Syff had suddenly rolled around in front of the den; she began to violently gyrate like a cyclone. Her tail lashed out, almost piercing a hole in my clavicle as the tip whizzed over my skin and punctured the rock immediately behind me.
“Odette,” Agent Khanna yelled as little bits of rubble and moss showered the top of my shoulders. “You need to move! Now!”
There was little I could do in that regard. Syff was everywhere at once, and edging away from my spot seemed just as dangerous as staying in one place. I froze as her tail came around again; a quick, sharp crack reverberated in the air. This time Syff’s tail had delved into the rock next to my hip, like a screw looking for purchase in raw material. The sound was followed by Agent Khanna throwing his pack onto the ground. He was preparing to retrieve me as Syff let out a stream of air from her facial cavities that sounded like an airplane jet. She leveled this stream at Agent Khanna, nearly knocking him off his feet; so powerful was her body and the energy that emanated from her shifting skin.
It made me realize that twice in one day I’d been lucky, more than many photographers who documented conflict could say; the odds certainly hadn’t been in my favor.
However, as Syff’s tail looped around, I doubted I could count on luck for the third time. I put up my arms as her tail headed for the bridge of my nose, and I closed my eyes, wondering if I’d ever use my arms again, provided that they stopped the blow from boring my face…
Until I was moving.
A hand curled around my waist. My feet were lifted off the ground. Forest dust and lichen flew into my mouth along with a few gnats. The din of Syff’s grunting and growling filled my ears and the grip around my waist tightened. I felt fingers brush away a strand of hair that had stuck to my lips.
A moment later, I touched solid earth. The soft humming of flies in the air returned, the knock of a woodpecker played its rhythm. A presence flanked my left side. I opened my eyes, adjusting to the disorientation, and peered up through the cage of my forearms:
Horokyan was next to me. He had pulled me to him, so we were thigh-to-hip. There was a new puncture hole in the rock where I had been standing only a moment ago. And now, he stationed himself in front of me just as Syff’s tail whipped around again for another hit. His arm curled over and around my shoulder like a goalie protecting the corners of his net.
Horokyan winced as he took the hit. The tip of Syff’s tail smashed into his forearm, the tip sinking deep into his flesh before it lifted and then dragged across his chest. Dark, bluish gashes marked the encounter on his skin. Syff jerked, and Horokyan’s groan got louder and lower until she pulled free and began her vicious whirl-winding movements again.
“A few steps at a time, to the right,” he said. I nodded and stayed close, feeling his torso rise and fall as with trepidation we skirted around Syff’s undulating body. Once more, she got close to Horokyan, and he acted as a buffer between her and me. The siblings collided, her tail snapped like the quick crack of a towel, and then she instantly rolled in the other direction. This repeated several more times as Horokyan and I moved a few steps every thirty seconds until we were a good distance away.
Agent Khanna blew out a huff of air as we came around. “Thanks,” he said to Horokyan. “I owe you.”
I clutched my chest, my shirt bunching between my fingers. “Is Syff okay?”
“This area is charged with my father’s energy. She feels his presence and her body is responding,” Horokyan replied and stepped back a few more paces, as did Zim. “This is all part of the amskyan. It can be quite physical. I would suggest we all wait for it to finish from over there.”
We moved behind a bulwark of decomposing logs. Syff continued to writhe and wriggle around on her back and turn on her side. We watched. And we waited.
Time trickled past. I’m not sure how much. But eventually a faint glow appeared underneath Syff’s skin that intensified as she continued to shift and roll from side to side. Her body and its surfaces began to ripple, and I felt a sudden warm sensation on my arm while holding up my camera and observing the sentient fabric of her skin learning a new shape through the scope of my lens.
After a few quick shots, I put the camera down and noticed Horokyan was staring at me. I frowned and looked down; absent-mindedly, I had been touching his arm with my shoulder, and his skin was now almost uncomfortably hot despite the cool weather. He also looked down at our closeness, but with a look on his face that I couldn’t discern. Annoyance? Indifference? His eyes quickly flicked back to his sister.
“She’s at the final stage now,” Horokyan noted.
Whatever it was, I ignored it, and lifted my camera again right as Syff started shapeshifting.
Two of the legs at her midsection absorbed into her body, so she only had her front and back haunches. Her tail shortened, and the glowing underneath her skin was subsumed by patches that looked, at first, like dark mold until follicles emerged and elongated. They grew in number as the patches expanded and eventually lightened into grey fur brushed with a sprinkling of umber.
Owl-eyed, I looked on: Syff was a wolf in the image of her father. Her irises glowed like Cuzwast’s had, the same glassy blue-white and streaked with black around the pupil, like abalone.
“Well done,” Horokyan said huskily. He walked to Syff and crouched down in front of her, looking her over. Hesitantly, he touched the crown of her head, his fingers gingerly spreading out and rubbing the space between her ears.
“She looks exactly like him,” I breathed. “Like Cuzwast.”
Horokyan smiled. “That is not surprising. She followed him wherever he went… Almost,” he looked down into the mulch of the forest floor. “She is also sorry for nearly hurting you. The amskyan is a moment of complete physical and emotional vulnerability and we don’t always have control over our bodies.”
“It’s fine, I’m fine,” I nodded at Syff. “No one got hurt too badly.” I looked at Horokyan, who had already healed from her blows. “That’s all that matters.”
Agent Khanna frowned. “So she has fur. What happens next?”
“She’ll wait for Zim and I, until we transform,” Horokyan replied. “We all have different questions and feelings concerning Cuzwast, and we’ll wait until the other finds their answers.”
“And how long is that supposed to take?” Agent Khanna said. “Are we talking, days? Or months? Years?”
Horokyan looked away. “It is unclear. Every Voru is different.”
Syff barked then, catching our attention. We watched her new nose wrinkle, tasting the air.
“A good scent, it seems,” I said.
Indeed it was. Syff took off in the direction of the coast, her tongue already dangling out of her mouth like an unruly wind sail. In a few short breaths, she had disappeared behind the thorny stems of a salmonberry bush.
“Wait!” Agent Khanna shouted. “Horo, where’s she going?”
“Not far,” Horokyan squinted at a patch of sun poking through the trees. “She wants to test the limits of her new body.”
“She…” Khanna opened his mouth. I thought an argument would come out or a plea for some common sense.
But he unexpectedly shut his lips. “Fine,” was all he uttered, his expression taciturn.
Horokyan and Zim headed back up to the boardwalk, satisfied with Syff’s development. Though I could tell from the look on Agent Khanna’s face, he was less than pleased to have an alien species under his supervision running off as the sun was about to set. He combed his hand through his hair and sighed loudly as if to alert me that his mood had depreciated to new lows, and somehow I should fix it.
“Don’t sulk. She’ll be back,” I nudged Agent Khanna with my elbow. “Let’s set up camp. And if we’re lucky, maybe she’ll bring us a fish.”
2. The Photograph
That evening the moon was full. And it was cold.
Early spring nights on the island are often frigid and damp. We hadn’t made a fire, as per the camping regulations set by the Pacheedaht, and most of the wood was wet from the spring rains anyway. Instead, Agent Khanna removed a plastic accordion lamp hanging from the side of his pack—a large one that captured sunlight during the day and worked off of photovoltaic batteries at night. He set it in between our two tents, since Horokyan had refused our offer of pitching a shelter for himself and his siblings.
A good sign was that Agent Khanna had become more chipper about Syff’s disappearance after a few hours passed, even though she still hadn’t returned. The Voru, it seemed, were restless creatures. Horokyan left the campsite to get a better look at the ancient cedars. Zim eventually sauntered off into the bush after being thoroughly displeased by a vacuum-sealed pack of rice and legumes. Agent Khanna didn’t bother arguing, just huffed loudly to air his disapproval and then turned his attention back to the glowing lamp, perhaps wishing it emanated heat, as well as light.
“It’s my daughter’s,” he explained as we sat down across from one another. “She was peeved at first when she saw me taking it—her mother took her camping with this when she was still alive.”
“You told her it was to help the Voru?”
“I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help giving her a hint. I promised I’d bring it back autographed or something,” Agent Khanna shook his head and then smiled. “I’m not supposed to share classified information with her of course, but she is—she was obsessed with Cuzwast.”
“Like a lot of people.” I smiled back. “He was an icon.”
“She has your book, you know,” Agent Khanna unpacked his sleeping bag. “She said you stopped taking photos for a few years after Cuzwast died.”
“Photography is my way of making sense of things. But his death resists sense,” I said, thinking not just about Cuzwast but of Caro, of Lise, my mother, and their quick departures from this world. Being a voyeur of death was tiring, but this wasn’t a sentiment I could convey to Agent Khanna. The exhaustion from my encounters with the dying was not something words sculpted as succinctly as pictures. As much as people try to write about death, I have found it is a bodily experience. Words tend to shift around the body like a wind current passing over and underneath an object. By contrast, a picture is confrontational; it’s light and shadow that frames the corporeal and the ethereal into a flattened simulacrum. A picture hits us, and we absorb it. Death does the same thing.
“After Cuzwast died,” Agent Khanna eventually said, “my daughter asked me why someone would want to shoot the first alien to ever visit Earth, especially when he tried so hard to fit into our world, for all the things he did to fit in… she wanted an explanation.”
“What was your answer?”
He shrugged. “I told her that people hurt each other, hurt living things when they don’t understand them. But that’s a sort of shit answer,” he said and rubbed his hands together. “Do you? Have an answer, I mean?
I stared into the yellow light. “No,” I said. “I don’t.”
After a few more minutes around the lamp, Agent Khanna said goodnight and disappeared into his tent. I followed suit and tried lulling myself to sleep by thinking about Nikon lenses, flashbulbs, the weight of a good cotton rag paper. Mundane things that would welcome drowsiness like the warmth of a familiar friend.
But when I finally closed my eyes, all I ended up seeing were flashes of Caro: her chatoyant eyes that changed from hazel to brown in different kinds of light. Caro scratching Cuzwast’s chin as he licked her hand.
Caro in her cabin.
Caro next to her mattress, weeping.
I sat up.
Licked my lips. My pulse jittered as I pushed the memory down. I looked into the corners of my tent, like how my mother told me to look at the horizon whenever I felt carsick.
But shame tends to provoke a different type of sickness; it’s difficult to will it away without looking it directly in the eye. It felt like I swallowed a piece of ice that settled in my stomach and wouldn’t digest. I moved my jaw from side to side, I rubbed my eyes, and the coiled tension in my muscles was evident from the way pain suddenly flared in my molars and in my sinuses. Droplets of sweat dewed my forehead.
“Shit,” I whispered. My body was sore, and I knew that a long rest would make the next day’s hiking easier. But any hope for sleep was now far away.
So, I dressed, and stuffed my arms through my lightweight down jacket, and peered outside my tent…
Momentarily I stiffened. I wasn’t the only one awake.
In lieu of sleep, Horokyan was sitting on a log a few meters from the campsite. His feet dangled slightly off the ground as he gazed up at the canopy, where the sky above the tree line appeared to glow pale green, like the flesh of a cucumber. Stars were visible overhead, and I recognized an opportunity in that quiet moment. I grabbed my camera, stuffed my memory cards in my pocket, and trudged out into the gelid air.
The lamp in between my tent and Agent Khanna’s had dimmed considerably, as the batteries had limited life. But even so, I oddly saw the vegetation in more detail than I had in lamplight. Interspersed across the camp were the yellow hoods of skunk cabbages amid the twisted tendrils of sword ferns. Cowslip grew in the wet, fecund logs that had fallen the previous summer. The ground was mostly soft underneath my boots, but as I walked, a stray dry branch cracked, and Horokyan’s eyes lifted at the sound.
“Hyllan kella, Odette. Do you want to sit down?” He patted the spot on the log next to him. Even under the indigo-green cast of night, I saw his skin was no longer grey but assorted shades of brown cast in archipelagic shapes across his body.
“Maybe,” I leaned against the log. “Only if I can ask you questions about the Voru.”
He thought for a moment and then nodded. “This is permissible. I assume I am also allowed to ask questions of you?”
“Sure, you bet,” I hoisted myself up. The log was slick with moss and lichen, and the seat of my pants instantly became wet and cold as I shimmied around on the log to get comfortable.
Once situated, however, a minute passed. And then another. Horokyan waited as I clutched my camera and nervously turned the f-stop ring back and forth. The question I most wanted to ask—how was he human?—was lodged in my throat like a tight, dense bud. It wasn’t ready to come out yet.
So I was relieved when Horokyan finally spoke: “Agent Khanna appeared displeased with the ritual earlier,” he said. If he was bitter, he betrayed nothing.
“He feels responsible for what happens to you, to Syff, and what happens to me,” I said in a tone of reconciliation. “I think he just doesn’t want any of you to get hurt, like Cuzwast did.”
“This is understandable,” Horokyan replied. “The way he died was…undesirable.”
I nodded, staring into the hollowed recesses of a tree stump and traced the pattern of its bark with my eyes. A few more klicks from where we sat, Caro had screamed when she saw Cuzwast’s body on the bank of the Gordon River. Like Syff, she had writhed and thrashed. I had tried to hold her to curtail her fury, her pain. But I didn’t know that she had the strength to push me aside with the force of a gale wind, especially in her condition…
“Odette?” I noticed Horokyan looking down upon me, his expression puzzled.
I recovered, “Your father’s death touched people in all different ways, all over this world.”
“Thank you for your kindness…and your honesty,” Horokyan replied slowly. “You may ask me a question, if you wish.”
I hugged my shoulders, the cold nipping through my jacket. “Syff…and Zim…” I tried to conjure up a worthwhile question. “What are they like? And what do they think of us? Not me or Agent Khanna, but humanity?”
Horokyan tilted his head to the side as he appeared to mull it over. “They’re skeptical of humanity—at least, Zim is. He was born in difficult circumstances, abandoned by our mother when she grew restless, depressed with her life. Syff has a more forgiving nature. She’s protective of the things she likes, and relentless in pursuing the things she wants…She likes you.” His lips curled into a half-smile.
“I guess that’s a relief. I thought I was going to become a kebab earlier,” I chuckled, and then continued, “So, the next million dollar question: Why wolves? Why do you think Cuzwast decided on that form?”
“A good question,” Horokyan said. “Though I cannot speak for him. Likely it was convenience that won over since the Voru’s primordial form—the shape my brother wears—is cumbersome and requires great energy to sustain. But when my siblings and I studied the various species on your world we concurred on two things: the first was that wolves contained the most similar hierarchical and cultural markers that govern the Voru: intelligence, a thirst for freedom, and yet unwavering loyalty to the pack even amid significant differences.”
“All the things humans try to cultivate in themselves, but sometimes distinctly lack,” I said dryly. “What’s the second?”
“The second was, in the long ages that have changed this planet, the mammalian form from which the wolf derives has managed to carve out its existence in ever-changing terrain,” he said, and then added serenely, “I cannot help but be intrigued and awed by a species in which I see parts of myself, and the Voru people.”
“A very empathetic answer,” I smiled. “In case you’re interested, the wolves on Vancouver Island were known to be unlike other wolves. They swam here from the mainland and subsisted off of fish and hunted seals. Cuzwast is the anglicized version of a Ditidaht word, č̓uč̓uwax̣sł,” I tried to pronounce it the way Caro had. “Anyway,” I reddened, “it means ‘wolf.'”
Horokyan smiled back. “That’s a stroke of providence: His name in the Voru’s oral language was Amyanz-se‘o, roughly akin to what humans would call a ‘sea wolf.’ More literally it translates to ‘creature of the sea,’ or ‘water,’ and implies a quad-legged creature…probably based on a word picked up somewhere near the tri-star system, Tir Vanek,” he muttered. “Amyanza, ‘water, submerged’…Amyanz-se, ‘creature submerged.’ Amyanza’o…”
He spoke to himself for at least a minute.
A minute of Horokyan’s mutterings quickly turned into five. I shifted on the log, waiting.
After ten minutes had passed, I decided it best to leave him to contemplate alone—
“That’s an aside,” he suddenly surfaced, speaking as if there hadn’t been a gap in our conversation. “Foreign languages tend to meld into our speech wherever we do an amskyan. The phrase I used earlier, hyllan means’ fortunate,’ and kella approximates to the term ‘blessings,’ from the last planet we visited.”
“Does that mean English will become part of the Voru language then?”
“Perhaps,” he said. “It depends on how long we stay.”
Horokyan looked up to the moon. He breathed in deeply and turned to me:
“Now,” he said, “my turn to ask a question.”
“Was my father good?”
“Oh,” I said. The tight bud in my chest reappeared. “I’m not sure how to answer that.” To my ears, the underlying question read, Did my father kill anyone?
“…Ye-es,” I said, “I think he was good. He helped me. I believed he was my friend.”
Horokyan nodded, but his eyes were dark and distracted, confirming that I was right: he was searching for another answer.
“I can tell you this,” I said. “When he first arrived on Earth, he was in China. So no one this side of the Pacific really knows for sure what he did there, or what happened. Apparently after a year or two, he swam to the Maldives and then island hopped across Oceania for a while. About another year later, some land surveyors got video footage of him south of here across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. And finally in 2016, a man from Sooke reported that a wolf carcass had been found here, on Vancouver Island, on the side of Pat Bay Highway. The body was—”
“Desiccated,” Horokyan said. I nodded. So he knew of the second way of a Voru’s transformation.
“They didn’t show pictures, and I never sought them out,” I replied, though I’d read on the Internet descriptions from people who had, and it was unlike anything they’d ever seen before.
Unnatural was the choice descriptor; patches of fur that were covered in an unidentifiable mold that wormed through the wolf’s maw, its eyes, its belly. Extreme thrombosis near the heart and veins in other parts of the body that were dark and purple. Flesh the color of a ripe persimmon.
“I never saw Cuzwast hurt anything wantonly,” I said. “And he would always eat in private. He was skinny— painfully so at times, which made me wonder if he felt guilty for what he’d done to become a wolf.”
I stretched my arms up toward the pine boughs. “So was he good? I don’t know. No one is entirely good or entirely bad, just an aggregate of various experiences,” I shrugged. “Maybe he wasn’t a good father to abandon you. But in that arena, he was probably as good as mine was.”
Horokyan said softly, “What was your father like?”
“He…was an artist. More like a journalist,” I folded my arms across my chest, resting them on the camera’s hot shoe. “He photographed wars, conflict zones. I never met him—well, I take that back—I did, once, at a lecture he gave in Glasgow. I shot a picture of him on my phone from across the room. Didn’t introduce myself. But at least I know what he looked like,” I touched my pocket and remembered my phone was in the Ridgeline’s glovebox.
“You didn’t wish to know him beyond that encounter?”
I shook my head, and Horokyan leaned forward.
He sighed. “I understand that sentiment.”
“You do?” I frowned. “How so?”
A howl plumed nearby before he could answer. The sound was followed by an agitated scuffling, a roar, the disturbance of leaves.
I jumped off the log. “What was that?”
Horokyan didn’t reply. His body was rigid, his eyes fixed on the ground. His brow was furrowed, the spaces where his eyebrows would be twin peaks. He muttered something I couldn’t understand.
I reached out, about to touch his shoulder, where Syff had grazed him…
And right then, Agent Khanna scrambled out of his tent, shoeless, in an unbuttoned Arcteryx shirt and cargo pants. His breath was a wispy cloud in the cold air.
“You heard that?” he asked, tucking a flashlight into his belt.
“I did. Horo and I were here,” I turned from the campsite, back to Horokyan.
But he was gone. He’d already taken off in the direction of the howling, crossing over a fallen timber into the darkness.
So, of course, we followed.
Agent Khanna was ahead, running with the flashlight in his hand. I kept his pace and my hand on the tip of his shoulder, so we didn’t lose one another. The air cut past my ears like razors, and the water pearling on the ferns scraped my clothes with moisture as we cleaved through the dense foliage. I kept my other hand on my camera, holding it firmly to my side. The solitary beam of light bobbed around as Agent Khanna came to a halting stop—
And I smacked into a surface of hard stone.
“Shit,” I jerked back and rubbed my nose, which had taken the brunt of the impact. “Khanna, did you run me into a wall?”
“It’s me, Odette,” Horokyan replied. I backed away, thankful that Horokyan or Agent Khanna couldn’t see the state of my face. Heat welled in my cheeks, in my chest. The bridge of my nose throbbed uncomfortably.
Agent Khanna said sharply, “Where’s the noise coming from?”
“Over there,” Horokyan touched my shoulder and then rotated my waist to face the right direction. “Both of you should stay behind me,” he stepped ahead, “in case.”
Horokyan took three paces, bending underneath the arc of a low branch and around a slab of granite covered in lichens, toward the muffled grunting. I slowed my breathing, and warmth tingled through my chest, all the way down to my fingers as Horokyan’s hand curled around my shoulder.
“Odette,” Agent Khanna whispered. His voice blended into the vibrations of the forest floor. A woody snap and the thin crunch of leaves. “If there’s an encounter, I want you to run back to the camp. There’s a sat phone I have in the side pocket. You can alert the Rangers—”
“You’re thinking the worst is going to happen. It may be nothing,” I hissed back.
“With the Voru,” Agent Khanna said, “it’s always something.”
We walked another twenty meters, and the noise got louder, its timbre guttural and wet, like a nuzzling of flesh. A moist dissection. I wrinkled my nose at the dissonance of the gauzy air brushing against my cheek and the thick odor it carried.
“Like sewer gas and bad cheese,” Agent Khanna’s voice sputtered, covering his nose with his sleeve.
Horokyan suddenly stopped, and we froze behind him. “I don’t think you should look,” he said hoarsely. He swallowed in a remarkably human fashion that made the hair on my arms stand up.
Agent Khanna was the braver of the two of us; he passed me and stationed himself squarely next to Horokyan, waving his flashlight across the forest floor like a sonar device. Even with the two of them in front, Horokyan was tall enough that I could see ahead, underneath the ridge of his arm. I watched, unblinking, as Agent Khanna honed his flashlight on the abject sound:
For a flicker, the trace of Zim’s craggy legs appeared on top of a large lump, and I said, “There, you just had it. Go back a bit,” and Agent Khanna slowly moved the flashlight back over the unmoving mass.
He pointed the light at Zim’s face just as the Voru was looking up from the knoll beneath his legs. Zim recoiled, his sylvite eyes blinking and withdrawing under the sudden exposure. Dangling from his teeth were masticated bits of pink organs. Blood was smeared across his maw and even along the breathing holes up the length of his face.
Underneath him was a petrified black bear, its throat ripped open in an angry, ragged slash.
Agent Khanna stumbled back and tripped. He fell into the wet ground. His flashlight fell with him, and pointed to a series of lumps across the understory as he landed on his shoulder blade next to a fir’s root system. If it hadn’t been for the flashlight, I would have thought they were anthills or termite nests.
But his sudden outburst of horror affirmed they were something else.
“Oh God!” he shuffled back on his hands and feet. “God!” he exclaimed again as he backed away from the smaller bodies of the mother bear’s babies. I squinted and saw what couldn’t be unseen: fur matted with blood and intestines strewn from their bodies.
I bent over and emptied my stomach into the leaves of a wood fern.
Horokyan touched my back as I wiped my mouth with my sleeve and said, “Zim is saying that the food you provided has insufficient biomass to generate enough energy to sustain his body in your gravity. Until he transforms he must consume adequate nourishment.”
“He’s a goddamn shapeshifter!” Agent Khanna spat as he stumbled to his feet. “He can turn into something else—Horo,” Agent Khanna calmed his voice to an even monotone, “get him to stop, please. Bears are endangered on the island.”
Horokyan dropped his hand from my back. “The damage is done,” his voice was equally plain, though his expression abruptly twisted in a manner that suggested impatience. “I feel obliged to ask: would it be different if Zim was a wolf, Agent Khanna? My father hunted in this area. Your government had permitted him these liberties.”
“My government isn’t the one who rules—who administers here.” Agent Khanna struggled for his words, “Horo, your father wasn’t…he wasn’t really a wolf. He was…”
Agent Khanna didn’t finish his sentence but rather looked away like he was ashamed to have had the thought.
Though Horokyan seemed to pick up on what he really meant. “An invader,” his voice turned cold. “Alien.”
“That’s not what I meant!” Agent Khanna replied in a rush. “The people living on this land want to preserve its natural balance. As visitors, we have to respect that. If Zim wants to fish, or hunt a seal, there’s an abundance of game on the coast. But bears are off limits.”
“Zim should have asked for permission to hunt—I will concede that point,” Horokyan said brusquely, but his voice also expressed regret. “And he will ascertain permission if future kills are required.”
Agent Khanna nodded slowly. “Sure. But let’s keep it to this one instance, Horo. Please. This is already going to be a nightmare to explain.”
“We will leave you then, for tonight,” Horokyan looked at me as he spoke. “I will handle my brother.”
Something caught in my throat. I didn’t want Horokyan to go, but I wasn’t sure what to say either. Or if it was my place to speak in this matter.
So I said nothing.
When they left, Agent Khanna turned to me. “You should get back, Odette.” He kneaded his hands together and then frowned, sensing my stare had fixated on him. “What is it?”
I bit my lip, measuring my response as I looked into the mother bear’s black eyes. “I don’t know what the right answer is in this situation. But what if we should have just let them be?” I folded my arms across my chest as Khanna frowned. “You want Horo to trust us, and I’d reckon, the Voru to forgive us for murdering their father—”
“So why get on their case now?” Agent Khanna finished.
“Exactly. You seemed so intent on making them feel welcomed, and…this… wasn’t right,” I said, looking at the bear again. “But also, how is it wrong?”
Agent Khanna sighed wearily. “Have you ever heard of the ailanthus tree, Odette?”
I scowled. “I’ve seen a few in New York.”
“Well, the ailanthus is another name for the tree of heaven. It’s from China, and it’s extremely hardy—and invasive. It grows all over New York City, and it’s been displacing the native trees in the area for years. Thousands of species have been displaced—lost entirely since the introduction of the ailanthus. It’s destroyed local biomes, displaced wildlife—”
“Invasive is a completely arbitrary word. This,” I gestured to the bear, “was not that.”
“Maybe, maybe not. But the fact is: the Voru aren’t wolves, Odette. What they are, is intelligent creatures who can think like we do. They’re calculating, thinking beings, able to assess and measure risk just like we do. And this isn’t their land, so they have no right to do anything to it. Otherwise they could take advantage, like Zim did tonight.” He picked up the flashlight and tucked it into his back pocket. “I would’ve thought that was obvious.”
I pounced on his claim. “Nothing about this is obvious, except the fact that we didn’t think to bring enough food!”
“Disagree,” Agent Khanna said flatly. “Zim’s got an eye for the hunt. You can tell he enjoys it.” He folded his arms across his chest, and I rolled my eyes at his incredulity. “Look, regardless of what you think, everyone has hidden motivations. Whether those motivations are good or bad is another issue. But we can agree on the former, right?”
I thought of my own motivations for being here. “I…can agree to that.”
“Then you should start believing the Voru are capable of having hidden agendas, Odette. You’d be a fool not to.” He clapped his hand over his mouth, trying to suppress a yawn. “Anyway, I’ve had enough philosophy and guts for the night. I’m headed back, okay? Get some rest, when you can.”
“Sure,” I muttered as he walked off. “And thanks for the insight into your pristine moral compass.”
I lingered at the scene. I couldn’t bring myself to leave.
Now that my stomach was empty, it was easier to look at the gored bear. I took a few steps, stopping every few paces to observe the scene from a new angle. Circling the massacre made my heart ache, not just for the mother and her dead cubs, but also for the Voru.
“They’re nowhere people. Drifters,” Caro had said about the shapeshifters. We’d been lying on a flat slab of limestone as I’d taken pictures of Cuzwast, who’d laid between Caro and me. “Cuzwast said when you can shapeshift into almost anything it leads to a cognitive dissonance of how the universe perceives you versus what you think you are, inside.” She pointed to her chest. “Many Voru have lost a sense of their personality; they become de-sensitized and violent, and caught up in their own exceptionalism thinking they hold the power of gods.”
“Cuzwast talks to you? Like, in English?” I’d asked, feeling a momentary surge of jealousy. Later, I even entertained the thought she’d made that all up. Empirical evidence at that time was lacking: I had never seen Cuzwast speak, let alone in English, or do anything beyond the capabilities of his wolf form.
But Caro had simply shrugged at my question and laid back down in the belly of the rock. She folded her hands underneath her head and watched the clouds pass; she never appeared to care whether I believed her or not. She didn’t seem to care what anyone thought for that matter, except Cuzwast.
In the end, I did take her at her word. The truth was in her eyes. And it was in the manner Cuzwast nudged my hand with his nose, his signal for affirmation.
So as Syff appeared next to me and nuzzled her nose into the crevice of my thumb, I couldn’t help but think of Zim and wonder: was he simply a lost soul? Or did he see Earth as something he had a right to consume, as humanity did?
I shook my head as if it would rustle the answer loose, but nothing came. Agent Khanna had been right to retire when he did. I rubbed my temple, finally feeling waves of fatigue as Syff nudged me again. This time I frowned at her and followed where she pointed with her nose:
Underneath a fallen branch a small lump quivered.
A cub. “One survived,” I breathed.
Syff whined her call to action as the baby slowly trotted across the understory. It prodded its mother with its paw, trying to evoke signs of life while I remained in place, sitting down in the leaves, next to her. Eventually Syff whined again as the cub became more agitated; she tilted her head to the side, her ears folded into submissiveness. She blinked at me as if she expected me to do something.
I said patronizingly, “Things die here—the only thing they change into is dirt,” I lifted a handful of soil to her nose.
Syff lowered her head and then slinked off like a shadow back into the forest.
Instantly, I regretted my tone. My words.
I muttered a curse for my ignorance. Syff knew something of loss and of change. It was wrong to assume the Voru didn’t understand the finality of death just because they could alter the shape of their bodies, and their lifespans were much longer than a human’s. If there were universal experiences, I imagined the pain of losing a loved one spread across galaxies…
That, and the fear of being alone.
A breeze picked up; the smell of rot permeated the scene and a chill ran through me as I removed the lens cap from my camera and shifted to a crouch in front of the mother bear. Her static, lifeless eyes reminded me of the lecture my father had given before he died on a job in Iraq:
Observers too emotionally invested in their subject will inevitably change the observed system, contrary to everything a good documentarian—a good photographer—stands for.
Life and death were part of the same system, and the only way humans, and maybe Voru, would ever be able to understand its cycles was through a language we could mutually comprehend. I happened to be one of its speakers. There was no shame in that.
Even so, I felt the need to tell the dead mother bear, “Forgive me.”
And then I snapped her picture.
3. The River
The next morning, the sun was a distant grey bead I watched rise through the fabric of my tent. I sat up, and my joints ached from the many kilometers we’d crossed in such a short period. My nose was sore from colliding with Horokyan; I gingerly touched it and winced. Maybe broken, but not the worst injury I’d sustained in my line of work, and it was an injury I didn’t mind.
I laid back down in my sleeping bag. Horokyan’s face appeared as a shadow where the filtered sun glowed through the tent wall. I focused on the shadow, imagining he was in here, telling me in his low voice about his travels across the galaxy—
But the shadow was Agent Khanna. He lightly rapped his knuckles on the hood of my tent. “Odette, you should see this,” he said through the fabric and then left.
I groaned and scrunched up into a ball as heat poured through my chest and then dissipated. A fresh layer of sweat gathered on my face, and I drank the water left in my canteen. It was just a daydream, I told myself, the mind processing traumatic events.
That was all it was and all it could be.
Quickly I dressed in a fresh pair of hiking pants and my thick Patagonia fleece. I tied my limp hair back into a messy bun and crawled out into wet soil.
As I stood up, my hand passed over a slick surface. I gasped, rubbing my thumb and forefingers together, recoiling at the stickiness, and then wiped it off on a patch of grass, thinking it was sap residue. Though it was rather dark, like molasses, and smelled brackish, more earthy than sweet.
When I looked up, I immediately saw where it came from, “We’ve added to the party?”
A bear was sitting near the lamp, next to Horokyan. But it wasn’t precisely a bear.
Though similar in shape and with some uncannily ursine features, this bear-not-bear was devoid of fur. Instead, the coat was a slick mahogany surface, patent and glossy.
The abalone eyes I instantly recognized as Syff’s.
“She decided to adopt,” Agent Khanna shook his head while Horokyan’s mouth curled in amusement. On Syff’s flank was the bear cub pawing the air at the sight of a passing cabbage moth.
Zim, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen.
“I told you Syff’s relentless when she wants something,” Horokyan said. “She’s taken the form of an Ovanó’te.They have dozens of glands which produce electric charges to hold the dark substance you see to her main body. By controlling the currents through the brain, it allows the Ovanó’te to control this material, and shapeshift.” He smiled at Syff. “They’re very maternal creatures.”
“It’s a lot to take in without coffee,” Agent Khanna said to me. I agreed but was also relieved to see that Syff appeared unaffected by the previous night.
“I suppose it’s…charming, in a way.” I tried to scrape off the residue of the sticky substance with my nails. Some of it came off but left a dark stain in its place.
“Charming as a wasp’s sting.” Agent Khanna wiped his hand on his pant leg, indicating he had a similar encounter. “Breakfast, and then we head out, okay?” He then turned to me: “You have an idea of where we’re headed today, Odette?”
A byzantine knot formed in my stomach. After photographing the black bear, I came back to my tent with a clear realization of where we needed to go next.
“We’ll have to circle partway back to the clearing where we first met. We’ll keep close to Gordon River.” I looked over my shoulder. “Where’s Zim?”
“He’s not permitted to sit with us at meals given his transgression last night,” Horokyan spoke firmly. “He will rejoin us on the path once we begin moving. Syff has insisted he walks at the back, which I fully support.”
“Family drama never ends, does it?” Agent Khanna mumbled. “Let’s pack up the tents while they eat.”
When Zim was allowed to rejoin the caravan, he trailed behind Horokyan and Agent Khanna, with apparent disdain for his position in the group. The color of his eyes spoke for him: they had turned a dark rainwater gray since I last saw him in full daylight.
Though I didn’t have my eyes on Zim while he trailed behind us, his presence was un-ignorable. I later learned from Horokyan that a Voru’s position in the line-up during an amskyan denoted a level of dignity and respect and was also a deterrence for laissez-faire behavior on an alien world (“For all the good it did,” Agent Khanna had grunted). The Voru were trying to walk the land of their ancestors, after all, and to sully it with ill intent could affect their ability to activate whatever part of their progenitors was in their genes.
“It felt unnecessary to mention it at the time,” Horokyan said. “It’s not a tradition always followed, though at times invoked if there’s unfavorable aspects to a relationship that have developed.”
“Here we call it the ‘walk of shame,'” Agent Khanna proffered.
Horokyan nodded, “The prospect of shame is a powerful motivator amongst most Voru. It can block the success of an amskyan, if not managed carefully.”
I understood the sentiment.
However, the term ‘walk of shame’ in this case may have been an understatement. While we hiked, Syff’s new charge ambled along, sometimes going off the path into the brush, and Zim eyed the bear cub with particular intensity. Every once in a while, Agent Khanna would look over his shoulder and catch Zim’s stare trailing after the cub.
“It’s like that cub is Voru popcorn,” he said to me. “I don’t get it.”
“I don’t think there’s much to get,” I said. “He’s a big creature. Like Horo translated, on a planet with gravity like ours…moving around zaps a lot of calories.”
Agent Khanna’s eyebrows flared. I had decided to take the Voru at their word while he had retained that Zim had underlying malice to his actions. More than anything, I wanted to trust Horokyan, that he was the person he appeared to be, the person who cared for and trusted his siblings.
Although Agent Khanna’s doubt was well-placed. There was still the unanswered question of how Horokyan had obtained his human appearance, an appearance which seemed to change by the hour. Before leaving camp, I had noticed briefly that he’d been shorter—still taller than me, but closer to Agent Khanna’s height and more muscular than thin and lanky. He had claimed the gravity was affecting him, as well as the cold nights, and so he’d adapted accordingly. Agent Khanna had lent him a navy cotton sweatshirt that morning.
And now, as we walked, Horokyan had grown a head of short, dark brown hair.
We hiked along a dirt path parallel to the Gordon River for an hour and a half until it eventually forked into two new trails. The one to the left went to Caro’s cabin, and the other crossed the river by means of an improvised wood bridge. I stopped at the fork’s edge and heard the water chortling like a distant birdsong. Odors of material decay and hydrogen sulfide mingled with the vegetal perfume of the riverbank, carried by the gentle lisp of a breeze. Thickets of saltbush and ninebark grew on the east side of the river and were on the cusp of blooming small white flowers. It was a quiet, unassuming spot.
“This is where Cuzwast was shot,” I said to the group.
Everyone paused, mid-breath, mid-step. My camera dangled from my neck like a heavy amulet as I remembered the hunter: his rifle leaning on his rotund belly, his baseball cap, and his wraparound sunglasses. His cheeks, bloody. Slashed into ribbons.
“Zim says he feels a connection here,” Horokyan said suddenly, without any apparent sadness or distress. He turned like we were staging a theatre production. “Odette, we need more direction. Who was where?”
“Cuzwast was over there,” I pointed across the bridge to the other side of the bank. “The hunter was about ten meters from that side of the crossing. He had two dogs with him. A Mastiff and a German Shepherd…”
I squinted my eyes shut, not so I could try to remember more details, but so I could dull the sharpness of the memory.
Horokyan came up from behind. “Take your time.” He pressed his hand against my shoulder. “What else?”
“He…” I breathed. A shiver ran up my spine. “He was afraid. A friend of mine, she had been injured by one of the dogs. Bitten on her leg. They were vicious, barely trained.” I recalled the marks on Caro’s knee and ankle. The hunter tried calling them off, but they wouldn’t listen.
“Cuzwast snapped at them—in his wolf form. It looked like he was about to attack. The hunter had raised his rifle and took the shot immediately. I…I had been….”
I had been behind a rock, trying to get a photograph of the encounter.
After Cuzwast was hit, events unfolded quickly. I had leaped out of my hiding spot and ran to Caro, throwing my arms around her as she screamed over Cuzwast’s body. The hunter, realizing what he had done, had backed away, shouted over the bridge that he had a permit to hunt and that he’d gotten lost, wandering into the grove looking for a rest stop or a hiker who could point him in the right direction.
But his rationalizing had only made Caro angry. She had growled at him like she was a wolf herself. I felt the rippling strength of Caro’s muscles as she pushed me aside and charged the hunter, struck him in the gut, and then stood over his body, scratching his face with her nails. One of the dogs went after Caro, and she had snarled at it, causing it to tuck its tail between its legs and back away.
“It took all of my strength to pull her off the hunter,” I recounted. And it had required several attempts, which involved talking her down, rocking her back and forth until her incandescent rage had subsided to overwhelming despair.
I had told the hunter to go. His parting remark was that he would be back, with the police, and an assault charge for Caro even though Canadian police don’t have jurisdiction in Pacheedaht territory.
Even so, the looming threat had felt real when he hobbled away…
“…I reported what he’d done to the Pacheedaht’s police force, and they were going to charge him for trespassing, and illegal hunting. But the hunter hired a lawyer-lobbyist group from outside the reservation, which harassed the entire community. They threatened never-ending lawsuits against some of the families and officers,” I said, recalling Robin and Hyalmer in the clearing. The hunter had threatened to sue them both and even followed through with the initial paperwork. Though the civil case had little to no legal foundation, the hunter and his lawyer had persisted, fighting back against the illegal hunting charge until the outcome was appealed to a federal judge.
“Eventually it was settled outside of court,” I said quietly, though nothing had truly been settled. The anger that had overwhelmed the Pacheedaht community from both sides had never been addressed. No one had ever apologized. “People who loved Cuzwast were angry at the rez police, claiming they didn’t patrol the area enough. And a bunch of pro-hunting groups were angry because they believed they had the right to hunt something that doesn’t fall in the legal definition of human or,” I shuddered at the word, “game.”
Horokyan dropped his hand from my shoulder.
The quiet reverence in his face was gone, which I had expected. Now his brow wrinkled, and some of his newfangled hair fell across the ascetic grimace on his face.
I took a breath and felt heaviness in my chest. The weight of my shame hadn’t disappeared like I’d hoped it would.
In fact, it had only multiplied.
I said quickly. “I’ll keep going if you want—”
“No. Stop. That’s enough,” Horokyan said. His eyes were no longer glassy blue and white but large black discs; his skin began to marble violet, blue, and black. He walked away, taking staggering steps toward the seam of the river.
“Horo—Horo! I’m so sorry!” I called out.
My words didn’t reach him even as I repeated them. With each step, his arms shortened to nubs and then abruptly lengthened and stretched out like they were putty. His fingers brushed the ground as he limped, the length of his legs suddenly uneven and off-kilter. Spikes grew from his spine and then immediately retracted.
“The look of a Voru barely holding itself together,” Khanna said somberly.
Indeed it was, until the various colors and bumps dissipated. Horokyan’s skin grayed as he crouched into a fetal position. All his human features and anatomy melted down into a short, round monolith that looked like a grave—the tip of him just reached my waist. He didn’t react when I put my hand on the crown of his new body.
Agent Khanna spoke from behind, “What do you think we do now?”
Zim beckoned us with a grunting sound from the edge of the river bank: he had crossed the bridge to assume his place for his amskyan. So it was decided. I walked to the bank with Agent Khanna. Syff stood off to the side with her cub, near Horokyan. With a curious glint in its eye, the cub rubbed up against Horokyan like he was a scratching post and even dragged its tiny claws across his surface.
Still, he didn’t react. He was a stone egg, smooth and cold.
I went to Horokyan, bent down, and kissed the top of the stone as tears flowed down my cheeks. I whispered another apology and then backed away behind Agent Khanna. “He…he won’t see Zim’s…amskyan,” I said in between sobs.
“Nothing we can do about that, except hope he eventually comes out of it,” Agent Khanna said and then handed me a tissue from his pocket. “We all have regrets, Odette. God knows I do. But at least you were upfront about yours. There’s courage in that.”
He turned to face the bridge, though there was sadness marked on his face, in his shoulders. I wished I had something to say to Agent Khanna; an apology for all of our arguments, a thank you for his kindness.
But I couldn’t conjure a response, so I blew my nose in the tissue and then stuffed it in my pocket.
Zim’s craggy skin reacted differently to the amskyan; it wrinkled like a bedsheet and made me think his body was still in the process of deciding what it wanted to be. His front legs turned into wings of a prehistoric variety, then those melted away back into the molten current of his skin as arms—with hands! Too many fingers to count emerged. Talons, gills, tentacles, webbed feet, appendages that didn’t seem helpful, ones that might have, given context, rapidly appeared and disappeared.
“Before we left the clearing, Horokyan mentioned to me that Zim is special amongst the Voru,” Agent Khanna said. “He’s the only one to have done an amskyan for every relative in their extended family. I think he’s running through the archive of his various other forms, assimilating Cuzwast’s shape into his repertoire.”
They‘re nowhere people… I heard Caro in the back of my head.
“How many people do you think are in his extended family?” I asked.
“Millions,” said Agent Khanna and then shrugged. “I’d reckon it’s millions. It looks like a lot.”
The ritual progressed, and after twenty minutes, it was like staring at a kaleidoscope without blinking. I had to take a break.
I headed toward a bent tree with a hollow carved out of its trunk and sat myself down on the makeshift throne. My bones were heavy as residual shame from earlier draped over me like a wet blanket.
Caro had forgiven me right away, but her forgiveness came more from needing my help rather than wanting to absolve me of any guilt. I knew how Robin and Hyalmer felt about me. And the Pacheedaht community as a whole had never officially welcomed me back after Cuzwast’s death. All I had to show for that period was a picture of a massacre. A picture that I had stored away on a flash drive in my studio and never shown anyone…
A grating screech suddenly emanated from Zim. I looked up.
He wasn’t a wolf. Not exactly a bear either. He wasn’t entirely anything.
Patches of fur grew on some parts of his body but not on others. He had the back haunches of a wolf and the front paws of a bear, but his midsection, his head belonged to another species oscillating between reptile and mammal. He jerked and twisted like Syff had but also whimpered in between long, extended growls. I headed toward Agent Khanna, who had taken a few more cautious steps back.
A good call on his part. Abruptly, the whimpering stopped, and Zim’s jaw maliciously snapped in our direction. His eyes were lined with swollen purple veins. My gut stirred, saying something was about to go horribly wrong—
Zim charged, drool spilling from the corner of his mouth. His uneven legs slowed him down a little, but he was still able to gain considerable speed, breaking apart the wooden ramparts of the bridge.
But once across, he didn’t run in our direction…
He headed straight for Horokyan.
I didn’t think.
I ran. I ignored Agent Khanna screaming at me to stay out of the way.
Time compressed. In one moment, I was leaping toward Horokyan, reaching for his new monolith form like I was trying to catch a falling vase.
In the next moment, I couldn’t tell the difference between ground and sky. The world was vertiginous, swirling green and brown. My instinct was to cover Horokyan with my body and come what may when Zim and I collided.
But when I reached Horokyan and had him in my arms, I continued to sail through the air.
My shoulder broke my fall; the side of my skull took the secondary impact and my camera bounced against a few of my ribs. I slid against the dirt, through soil and mulch. My ear and cheek burned from the friction of wood chips and dry twigs that snapped under my weight. I tasted dirt in between my molars. The smell of dead leaves and mycorrhizae filled my nose.
The world was briefly black, oceanic in its scope, but also flat as a wall.
I heard my name echo in the darkness.
It sounded like a motley of voices. Caro, Agent Khanna, Horokyan. They were speaking in different languages, all of which I couldn’t understand. It was a cacophony of harsh sibilant trills and soft, feathery consonants. Puncturing vowels and intermittent silences trickled from their mouths.
And then they all blended into a singular voice, asking: Are you alive?
Are you alive?
I was with Caro in front of her cabin. We had just finished building it; a wooden box on stubby stilts, made from Doug Fir with a tight grain pattern. On the ground: an assortment of handsaws, tubes of used caulking, and paper boxes filled with odd nails and screws. Her hands were dirty; she had planted an Indian plum bush next to the small set of stairs leading to the door.
Cuzwast was there, too. He sat between us, observing our finished work as Caro and I shared a thermos of coffee.
“No object in space every truly stops. It just matches the orbit of another object. Sometimes I think we’ve started orbiting you,” Caro said and looked down at Cuzwast, “And then sometimes it feels like you’re orbiting him, and he’s orbiting me.”
“We can all orbit each other. Move through space together,” I said. “We’re friends.”
She smiled and threaded her arm through mine. Then she asked if I would take a picture of her and Cuzwast together, on the rock a few meters away from her cabin.
I set up my tripod and positioned them where a sunbeam was cutting through the canopy. Caro made a few faces at first, and then she finally regained her composure and smiled so brilliantly that I was taken with the beauty that went beyond her physical appearance. Cuzwast even turned his head, his wolf eyes staring into her in a way I didn’t fully understand at the time. But it gave me chills; I think that’s why I chose to hang that picture in my studio, even though he would be dead later that day.
However, the part I always struggled to remember was how Caro had giddily smiled as I scrolled through the pictures of her and Cuzwast. A photograph is a story. And a story is supposed to transform you into something you weren’t, I’d told her. This was something I’d learned from my father, even if from a distance. He claimed that the purpose of photography was to tell the story of the world in such a way that could evoke shame, love, fear, and regret in someone who had different experiences. From across the room where I first saw him, he had said to the crowd, At its conceptual core, the photograph is the device by which we build our memories and prioritize what we want to remember. Now, more than ever before, we live through the photograph and expect perfection.
He wasn’t entirely wrong. I had lived most of my life by his philosophy. But as I listened to the whispering voices percolating up around me, I realized that to live through photographs isn’t living at all. Photography is a tool, a way of seeing. But when there’s no light in our lives to see by, the camera fails. Forgiveness is the only way to get through the darkness.
Gradually, the layers of voices died away until only one remained.
It was Agent Khanna’s. “Odette?”
I opened my eyes and knew that I was very much alive.
4. The Cabin
“Your breath smells like…chemicals,” I muttered. My head felt like it was underwater.
“Hah!” Agent Khanna rolled his eyes. He stood and brushed soil off his knees. “If you didn’t wake up in ten more seconds I would’ve had to call in the rez police. But…” he looked past me, toward the bridge, “we’ll get to that later.”
Slowly the world came back into focus. My chest was wet, as was my lap and part of my leg.
I looked down, thinking I’d wet myself in the process of diving for Horokyan, and it looked as if I had: there was a gray puddle in my lap, though it sat on top of my hiking pants and didn’t absorb into the fabric. “I think Horo’s changed again,” I said to Agent Khanna.
“He’ll have to wait,” he replied tersely. “Unless he’s going to change back to his human form. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do when the siblings start fighting.”
I stood up, and Horokyan slid down my leg, pooling at my feet. He was going to be of little help, I reckoned, when I saw the situation:
Zim was prone on the ground with a gash in his belly bleeding heavily. Syff hovered over him, flint-eyed, and the corners of her mouth extended, crimped, in pain. She had changed back into a wolf, and her snout and chest were mottled with dark blood.
Between Syff and Zim, the cub lay inert.
“He killed it while he was gunning toward Horo,” Agent Khanna said. “Syff kind of…lost it for a moment. She tore him up good.”
Syff whined at the cub, circling it in figure eights, nudging its body with her nose at different angles. Nothing. Her tail dropped, and her ears folded down. She let out a howl, and I shuddered, hearing uncanny echoes of Caro’s voice crying over Cuzwast’s body.
And Zim. He whimpered in a way I hadn’t expected; long, high-pitched, and tremulous. I didn’t know what it meant, but his injury healed quickly like Horokyan’s had, and he started circling the cub without touching it, perhaps taking size of what he’d done.
After his reckoning, he approached Syff. I imagined him clamoring for forgiveness through subvocalization as he waited to enter her space. Though it was impossible to tell if he indeed had a modicum of remorse. There was only the inscrutable language of bodies; the two circled one another three—four—times, taking long and dragging steps. But they never took their eyes off one another even as their binary orbit became loose and almost broke off altogether. When Syff finally bent her head down, it modeled an encounter between wolves; she extended her neck, her nose reaching forward as Zim breathed a stream of air out of one of his facial cavities. The hair in his nostrils waved like eel grass underneath the tide; the whiskers at the peak of Syff’s eyebrows arched in a lugubrious expression. She blinked one eye then broke away, retreating into the bush.
Soon after, Zim headed in the opposite direction. His lumbering body cut through the heavy brush with the grace of a bulldozer.
I said to Agent Khanna, “Maybe that meant remorse.”
“Maybe. He didn’t finish his transformation,” Agent Khanna replied. “For all we know he could be having the world’s biggest temper tantrum. And there’s no way to tell, because Horo’s a puddle.”
I looked down at my feet. An absent puddle.
My chest tightened. The Voru were scattered, and this time Agent Khanna didn’t have a witty or exasperated remark. He didn’t seem upset either. He just let them go.
We buried Syff’s cub underneath a willow tree close to the river. Lacking a shovel, Agent Khanna and I scooped out a small trough in the soil with our hands and then settled the cub into the ground. We built a cairn around its corpse, piling the stones up until they reached Agent Khanna’s chest. It took most of the afternoon to construct, but the cairn had an air of dignity and closure that Cuzwast’s memorial had lacked.
In fact, few people knew where he was buried, much less how his body had been laid to rest. People had posted tall tales on Reddit that his body had simply vanished or disintegrated into dust and was spread across the Ganges. Many thought he’d ended up in an Area 51 lab. I’d even read a heartbreaking—though easily disproven account— that his body had been turned into a taxidermy sculpture and was sitting somewhere in a freeport near Geneva as part of some affluent investor’s art collection.
However, it was moot, I told myself as I sat down into the grove of the willow tree’s roots. Agent Khanna was probably one of the few who actually knew where Cuzwast was buried. And yet, he hadn’t shared that information with the Voru on our trip.
“Today goes beyond the definition of disaster.” He rubbed his eyes. “I’m going to have to explain this to my supervisor.”
“You have a supervisor? I thought you just liked being on edge all the time.”
He smirked. “Everyone has a supervisor, Odette. Mine just happens to be the government of Canada.”
“You mean the Queen, technically.” I leaned into the trunk of the willow tree. I drank from my canteen and then handed it to Agent Khanna when he realized his was empty. “I don’t know if that debacle was necessarily a disaster. It was messy, and heartbreaking…but something happened there that I think might’ve been good.”
“You think they made up? Just like that?” Agent Khanna snapped his fingers and then shook his head. “I don’t buy it. Nothing is that easy, let alone making up with family.”
“The only thing that outweighs your skepticism is your cynicism,” I said. “They’ve spent several lifetimes together, so maybe it does come more easily to make up after they spend some time apart. Time to cool off.”
But whether that meant a few hours or a few years was something I left to the unknown. Speculation was useless.
“Fine. Maybe they did or they will…in which case maybe we could learn something from them,” Agent Khanna sighed. “My daughter and I had a big fight before I left to come here. It would be nice if we could make up that easily.”
“What was the fight about?”
There was a sideways pull of his lips. “She’s at that age where she’s coming into her identity, trying to understand it. She wants to know more about her heritage.”
“So? That’s not too difficult, right? Just a process.”
“In some regards, no, it’s not.” Agent Khanna plucked a leaf off the willow and threw it into the river. “But it’s not exactly easy either. I’m from a war-torn place, and I migrated here…” His voice dipped. His eyes were far away as if momentarily caught in a memory.
“I’m of the opinion you should never look back,” he eventually surfaced. “Her mother was Canadian, and as far as I’m concerned we’re from here,” he pointed to the earth beneath us. “But she wants to go back, meet people from the other half of her life.”
“Maybe she wants to learn about your life,” I prodded. “Is that so bad?”
“There’s nothing to learn about my life. My life is my ideals,” he said stoically. “I wish that was enough.”
“Not for everyone, it isn’t. Values are important, but they don’t tell a story all on their own.” I twirled a piece of my hair around my finger. “People crave stories, and to eventually pass stories onto someone else, so other people can consume them, learn from them. It’s what makes us human.”
“Perhaps. I suppose confession is good for the soul,” Khanna said pensively. “It seemed to do you a lot of good in so short a time.”
I curled my legs up to my chest. “I’m not out of the woods yet. But it does help if you want to give it a try.”
“How would I even begin?”
“You could start with your name,” I said. When he opened his mouth to counter, I added: “Your first name.”
He pursed his lips into a small smile. “Ariel,” he replied.
“Pleasure to meet you.” I held out my hand. He grasped it, and I chuckled, for it was smooth and warm, like new beginnings should be.
But suddenly, Agent Khanna’s lips thinned. The color drained from his cheeks. He looked down at the willow’s roots, and cradled his hands in his lap.
“Odette,” he said. “The mission is over.”
“What? Your mission?” I frowned. “What does that mean?”
“The morning after Zim killed that black bear, Horokyan told me about a sect of Voru called the T’chorians. They kill people to take their form and they’ve been known to commit xenocide. Horo was clearly remorseful, which is why he told me—I think to persuade me that Zim isn’t one of these T’chorians. Anyway, he said they’re far away from here and he gave me coordinates for us to point the Webb telescope at them and keep tabs. They—the T’chorians—don’t know we’re here. They don’t know where Earth is, I mean, and they’re too far away for Zim or Syff to communicate our coordinates by subvocalization. Not that they would, according to Horokyan.”
I eyed him dubiously. “And you believed what Horo said?”
“Yes and no. I passed along the intelligence and the decision from my agency is cautiously take Horo at his word until new information presents itself. But, on a personal level, I believed him when he said he’d never killed anyone. So,” he rubbed his eyes, “we’re in the clear, for now.”
“And there’s no reason to be here.” I looked down into the river.
“Not anymore. I talked to my supervisor on the sat phone for a bit, after I found out the new information. She spoke with her director and managed to get me this extra time to supervise the Voru’s amskyans, but…” Khanna shook his head. “They aren’t a priority. And there’s a number of higher-ups who want me back at the office and the Voru back on their ship, in a place where we can monitor them.”
I folded my arms across my chest. “Be honest: do you want that, Ariel?”
Khanna didn’t answer. Instead, he took a package out of his bag. “Nicotine patches,” he said and slapped one on his forearm and leaned back into the willow’s trunk. “Odette, at the beginning of this expedition, I confided in you why I was here. But there’s one piece of information I didn’t share: there’s a family of Voru that have been living quietly in Tofino for years now. My agency’s managed to keep it a secret.”
I inhaled sharply. “Is that how you learned about the breakaway sect of Voru? The…”
“The T’chorians,” he replied. “Yes, this group of local Voru told us about them. They also didn’t know Horo or Syff and Zim, which is why I needed to ascertain who Horokyan was, and his family’s intentions for being here.” Khanna stood and took out another patch. He pressed it over the skin above his wrist. “I should have told Horo about the Voru family when he shared his information with me. But I didn’t.”
Khanna shook his head. “I couldn’t. It’s classified intelligence.”
Then he paused.
“No…” he said slowly. “Not that I couldn’t. I was afraid. I was afraid it wasn’t my right to be vulnerable on behalf of all humanity. I was afraid this wasn’t my information to share, and of course I was—I am—afraid I’ll lose my job. But seeing Horo melt, listening to you tell him how Cuzwast died…I’ve been realizing that vulnerability is a strength. And just because humans are the reigning species on this planet doesn’t mean we should forsake courageousness, and truth. We manage to share this world with other species, albeit poorly, but we’re learning. We can figure out how to share with the Voru.”
“Perhaps this is the more important question,” I said. “Is this Voru family open to communication?”
“They are,” Khanna replied. “But they also don’t want the whole planet knowing about them. You’re the only civilian I’ve ever told.”
I shifted uncomfortably at the weight of this new information. “So why don’t you find Horokyan and tell him yourself? Or why not have the other Voru family reach out?”
“They’re not quite like other Voru. Apparently they can’t subvocalize, and they don’t want to draw attention to themselves by reaching out through email,” Khanna said wryly. “And I could try to find Horo. But I think you’ll have a better time finding him, and telling him all this. You can’t deny there’s a connection between you two.”
“Maybe,” I sighed. “Maybe there was a connection. But it’s done now.”
“Odette,” Agent Khanna said dryly. “You’d give in after all this? Based on what I know of you it wouldn’t be true to your personality.” Ariel rubbed his eyes again. “Besides, I need you to do this because I haven’t slept well in two nights and I’ve been having weird dreams from the patches. I’m almost useless at this point. If I don’t get to sleep tonight I might melt into a puddle next.”
I laughed. “Then what’s next if I do find him? Will you take us to Tofino?”
“Well, you can go where you like. You’re a citizen. But if Horokyan somehow found out about this family and demanded from my agency that they need to meet, we would be pressed to make that happen. None of the higher-ups would be happy there was a leak, but in the end we want relations with the Voru for a variety of reasons. And I would assume the Voru would want you there to continue as a liaison,” he said. “But for me, personally? I need to get home, see my daughter. Try to do that whole ‘making up’ thing.”
“Oh,” I said, “I meant to ask you: what’s her name?”
Despite his fatigue, Ariel’s smile widened; a glow tinted his cheeks.
“Isabel,” he said. “Her name’s Isabel.”
Later that evening, as the day purpled into dusk, I unzipped the front of my tent and left, as Agent Khanna—Ariel—had instructed. I headed back to the fork in the trail, toward Caro’s cabin. I took my backpack and my camera with me; the memory cards were still lodged safely in my jacket pocket. The ground was wet from a light scattering of rain, and my boots squished in the mud. Slugs as thick as my thumb meandered across the trail, and I took long strides, trying to avoid them.
Caro’s cabin was in the middle of a clearing—if it could be called that. Encompassing the cabin were cedars with thick masts, the bark on their boughs red and crusty like rusted bandages. Around the foundation’s posts was a strewn assortment of litter: protein bars, cigarette butts, a few condom wrappers. I picked up the pieces and put them in a plastic bag in my pack, though I was sure there was more in the area that could’ve been cleaned up. I hadn’t been to Caro’s cabin ever since…
Well. A long time.
I stood outside for a few minutes, taking in the state of the structure. It had always looked a little dilapidated, but now it looked like it was heading toward the end stages of decay. There was a sizable hole in the roof, and mosses and leafy detritus growing over every surface and crevice. The glass in the single window I’d installed was broken.
More immediately, the door was ajar. The lock had been broken off and laid tossed in the dirt with the garbage. I peered inside before stepping through. The room was dark, save for the hole in the roof that let the moonlight through. The table and chairs Caro had owned were pushed up against the south-facing wall. Her french press was on the table; the glass had shattered. Two ceramic cups were placed neatly adjacent. The floor, even partially rotted, was surprisingly clean. Someone had kept it in good order, and I knew it wasn’t me. So who?
Occam’s razor suggested the likely culprit was the one right in front of me; my heart jumped up to my throat when I realized I wasn’t alone, and I clapped my hand across my mouth, suppressing a scream, though whoever was there had to know I was here. I wasn’t exactly silent.
Indeed, my presence was known. A figure next to the bed frame stirred, orating a series of foreign words that held the cadence of prayer. The form hunched over the hole in the floor next to the mattress in the corner.
“Horo?” I whispered. “Is that you?”
Horokyan turned. “Hllyan kella, Odette,” he said sullenly. “I thought you might come here.”
“Hll-yan ke…lla,“ my lips stumbled over the words. “You did? How did you know about this place? I never told any of you about it.”
Horokyan didn’t answer but gingerly touched the space on the floor beside him. “Will you sit with me?”
My heart sped up again as he looked down into the cavity underneath the portion of rotting floor. “I’ve tried not to think about this place,” I said as I crouched down. “I’ve tried not to think of a lot of things. And I’m sorry for that. I’m so sorry for earlier today.”
“I know and I forgive you,” Horokyan said. “Though I hope you can forgive me, too. I haven’t been entirely honest with you.”
“I’ve been searching this galaxy for this place—this cabin—and the person who inhabited it. A few hours ago, I finally felt her presence.” He looked to the small mound of dirt beneath the floor, our feet. “She was my mother.”
I became rigid. “Caro? My Caro?” I scowled in disbelief. “How? She was human—”
“As human as I am now.” He held out his arm, covered by Agent Khanna’s rain shell. “She was assuming the form of a human, but she was Voru.” Horokyan smiled bitterly. “My father, on the other hand, he was human.”
I muttered, “I don’t…I don’t understand. Cuzwast wasn’t your father?”
Horokyan sighed. “It goes like this: My mother and Cuzwast were mated, and she loved him—there was never any doubt about that—but she was a restless soul, and sometimes there was a subsequent depression that went along with that restlessness. She wanted to explore the universe in search of a better, more verdant world, whereas Cuzwast wanted to remain on the scrublands of our home planet and care for Zim and Syff—Cuzwast was their real father,” he said with a sidelong glance at me.
I realized my mouth was gaping. I closed it.
“Sorry,” I said. “Go on.”
He continued, “My mother eventually left the Voru home world and found a planet where people like yourself exist. Bipedal mammals. Humanoids, save for a few notable differences. At the time of her arrival, they were a bit more advanced than your people are now.”
“There are humans,” I said flatly, “that evolved separately from Earth?”
“In brief, yes. Not exactly like Earth humans, but form followed function as life does on all inhabited worlds,” he said like it was a known law of the universe. An axiom. A footnote. “That was where my mother met my father. It was where she found her human form and where she had me. It was the three of us for years—at least a handful of centuries in your Earth years,” he said. “Until Cuzwast came looking for her.”
“And he found you,” I said, trying to wrap my head around all the facts. “Was he angry?”
“Surprisingly, no.” Horokyan smiled lightly. “But he did insist on staying with us, and he brought Syff and Zim with him. My mother and father agreed to this, and for a while we all lived together. Though Zim was never fond of me like Syff was—she always wanted a large family, whereas Zim charged me earlier today because he’s laid the blame at my feet, for tearing our family apart—”
“That isn’t your fault,” I interjected, remembering: They’re nowhere people…
“Perhaps,” Horokyan shook his head. “But it’s pointless. My mother eventually grew restless again. While researching the next place she wanted to go, she came across your planet and was instantly enthralled by your world and your people. Of course, keep in mind that with the distance across worlds, she was looking upon your Earth when there was still ample green space. When she actually arrived here, your people had destroyed a good portion of it. But, based on what I’ve seen, it’s still far more viridescent than where I was born.”
“And then Cuzwast followed her again, to Earth. But leaving you and Syff and Zim behind,” I finished his thought. “That must have been difficult for all of you.”
“I had reached maturity by that point, and I had my siblings…but, yes, it was very hard not knowing what happened to them, why they didn’t leave us their coordinates. Why they didn’t…” he looked to the ground, not finishing his sentence. “I have spent a long part of my life searching for something, and I thought it was her. But now that I’m sitting here, I wonder if that was it at all.” He looked back up, and this time straight into my eyes.
An ache washed over me, and I pictured Caro’s face. Human. Voru. “What was her real name?” I asked. “Her Voru name?”
“Cax’roia-Lo,” he looked to the ground again. “Odette…Can you tell me how—how she died?” His voice broke, “Was it the same hunter?”
“No…no,” I swallowed the lump in my throat. “It was a miscarriage.”
Horokyan’s eyes snapped up to mine. “What?”
“She was pregnant. I never asked how it happened or who it was, but I knew she had been with someone from the reservation,” I said, remembering her leaving the potlatch.
My ex is here. Hyalmer. Their closeness, his sadness. I had eventually put two and two together, but now it made more sense with context: Caro had broken it off with him around the time Cuzwast arrived on Earth.
I recounted to Horokyan that after Cuzwast had died, I hadn’t heard from Caro in months. But one day, I had got a phone call, which had been odd since Caro didn’t have a phone in her cabin. It had turned out she traveled to a bed and breakfast in Port Renfrew. Her voice had been frantic, and she had asked me to come and bring towels, antibiotics. All sorts of things.
“I got everything, and then drove like a maniac to Port Renfrew.” I hung my head. “By the time I got there, she had already miscarried. I got her cleaned up and we brought the fetus—the baby,” I cringed, “back here.”
Horokyan nodded stiffly. “The cycle repeats itself,” he said. “So this here—”
“That’s your brother’s grave,” I said. Horokyan flinched. He hugged his shoulders as they shook.
I continued, “She was devastated and took her life a few months later. I’d tried to persuade her to move in with me, and get her to a therapist, but she didn’t want to leave the grove. She refused to see the baby’s father and never told him what happened. I visited her whenever I could…” My voice petered off.
It hadn’t been enough. The last time I saw Caro, she had been crouched over, next to the bed weeping. It had been the last time I’d held my friend, who was so much more than my friend. She was a sister.
Horokyan stood. “Thank you for telling me, Odette.” Tears brimmed in his eyes, and for a moment, I worried he might change into a slab of stone again. I thought of holding him and telling him stories of all the good memories I had of Caro and Cuzwast. Though words didn’t feel like they would do his mother’s memory justice.
However, it gave me an idea. “Wait, Horo, let me show you something,” I reached for the memory cards inside my jacket pocket. “I carry these around, always. It’s my way of remembering everything. The good,” I held up the first card in my hand, “and the things I want to forget,” I held up the second.
I loaded the first card in my camera and began to slowly scroll through pictures. “These are the photographs of Caro and Cuzwast no one else has seen. No one knows of their existence except for me,” I said. “And now, you.”
There were pictures on those cards that I hadn’t thought about in years. Images that had never made it to publication, but were by my artistic standards, worthy. I had managed to snag a photo of Cuzwast running through the forest, pictures of him hunting for fish. Horokyan cracked a smile when I showed him pictures of Cuzwast sniffing the ground and swimming in the ocean.
And then there were the photographs of Caro.
I never realized how many photos I’d taken of her. They almost equaled the number of photos I had of Cuzwast, and I smiled as we parsed through them: Caro building the foundation of her cabin, Caro harvesting wild leeks and blackberries…
Caro sitting on the rock outside her cabin, smiling, with Cuzwast sitting next to her.
“One lives in the hope of becoming a memory,” Horokyan breathed and then abruptly put his hand on the scrolling dial. He turned to me and frowned. “Odette?”
“I’m…I’m fine,” I replied. “I just realized we never did your amskyan.“
“But I have, haven’t I?” He held out his arms. “There was no rule I needed to become a wolf.” Horo frowned. “There’s something else.”
Tears suddenly welled in my eyes and I blinked them away. “I think I just feel a bit dizzy from…everything. The things I still have to tell you, the things we still need to do. It’s all so much. I don’t know where to begin.”
“There is never a beginning or an end. Only a moment of experience from which you look backward or forward.” Horokyan said and touched my shoulder. “May I?”
I nodded, and he wrapped his arms around me, pulling me into his chest. He began whispering prayers in the Voru language and, when he finally took a breath, I whispered into his ear the secret Ariel had given me.
Slowly, night turned into dawn; we stayed in Caro’s cabin until the sun came up. I told Horokyan of Tofino, and that Ariel was on our side; that he could be counted on as our friend.
We sat at the table, moving the chairs, putting the broken pieces of the French press in the sink, and letting the morning breeze brush against us. When first light came in through the broken window, Horokyan began whispering his prayers again, stopping to listen while I talked about the world ahead of us, all the places I wanted him and Syff and Zim to visit, the parts of the universe I one day wanted to see. I knew then that the connection Ariel spoke of was real; the myriad of languages Horokyan spoke together sounded like a music of forgiveness trailing off into the morning. A music of love.
Copyright 2023 Claire Scherzinger
About the Author
Claire Scherzinger lives in the woods in Washington State, where they practice writing daily. Their work has been previously published or is forthcoming in Mythaxis, Samjoko, Andromeda Spaceways, and Planet Scumm. They exist online at www.clairescherzinger.com.