by Amy Hammack Turner
No male pheromones have ever affected the farmer so strongly. At the entrance to a side corridor, she stops in her tracks, antennae waving, oblivious to the press of eager workers behind her. Though she is still young, she has mated many times, and knows how to sort out the signals of age, health, and ancestry. All of those signs beckon strongly, joined by something mysterious. She turns and follows the tantalizing scent.
The narrow passageway opens into a wider space. The echoes of her clicking mandibles show her a chamber bigger than any she has entered before. The clicks bounce from the walls in randomized patterns. The scents coming to her antennae from all directions reveal that this is caused by pots of various sizes and shapes stacked along the edges of the chamber. She smells and mindsenses potters at work in the middle of the chamber. Here in an open space containing only a few individuals, single minds broadcast more strongly than usual, with the collective mind of the community fading to a background hum. In the foreground, the potters focus on their work, mixing extractions from their thoraxes with soil to form malleable clay, shaping the clay with their forelegs and mandibles.
The tantalizing pheromones come from the biggest male potter. His mind is as unknown and as enchanting as his chemical scent. As she approaches, he stops work, and comes to meet her. Since she is a farmer, he expects that she has come for pots, and begins to lead her towards the ones that are ready. Then the pheromones that she emits make her desire clear, and his strengthen in response. To her surprise, they do not mate immediately. Instead, he leads her away from the pots, into a small side chamber.
The pleasure of the mating is bright and intense, as if a ray of sunshine has penetrated deep into the nest to find the couple. Afterwards, she dozes, completely satisfied. The big potter returns to his work, but she lingers and falls into a deep sleep. When she wakes, the male rests pressed against her and her time-sense tells her that it is morning already, almost time to go out with her crew. The male stirs and offers her food from pots in the chamber. They feast on sweet fruits and chewy dried flesh, foods that are occasional treats in the farmers’ usual diet of grain.
She has never been apart from her crew all night, but none of them seem to notice when she joins them in the main corridor. They go out together into the welcoming morning sun, as they have so many times. She always feels a shiver of anticipation as she leaves the dark, quiet safety of the nest, with its layers of familiar smells, and ventures into the expansive outdoors, with its barrage of images, scents and sounds from all directions, and the danger of predators.
Yesterday, it was too stormy for farming. Today the cloudless blue sky shines bright and new, full of promise. She joins the usual work, one of hundreds of bodies weaving familiar patterns as they pull weeds from the fields and make piles that will compost into fertilizer. Soldiers stand sentinel. Early in the year, the grain has not grown tall enough to hide them from the hungry winged killers. A new enthusiasm colors her customary caution. Without knowing the reason, she keeps memories of the potter hidden behind the thoughts that are open to the crew and to the community, thoughts that build their collective knowledge of their home and their work.
That evening, her tired limbs find their way home not to her crew’s sleeping gallery, but to the potters’ workshop. The big male seems less surprised to see her than she is to have returned. The chamber that they shared the night before has nobody’s scent but his and hers. That is the way of the potters, she learns later, to sleep and eat one or two to a chamber. She counts six sleeping chambers along the perimeter of the workshop—the number of her legs, the highest she can count. Every morning, going back to the fields, she crosses the scent paths that potters have made from their chambers to their workstations and to the galleries leading to food and water stores in a lower chamber, and to defecation chambers yet lower.
As time goes on, the farmer and the potter share memories of their days apart. She shows him the bright greens of the fields and forest, the flowers with their gay ultraviolet patterns, the joyful dances of the stream, the wind, and the ever-changing clouds. From his mind, she experiences the hypnotic rhythm of building pots, the companionship of workers together for many seasons, the satisfaction of watching the supply of pots grow, of trading them for the finest offerings of the farmers and hunters. He shows her how, many seasons ago, potters lined chambers with their waterproof clay, and nestmakers dug tunnels to divert rainwater to those deep chambers. She already knew about the stores of water, but not the details of their construction.
She wonders briefly if it makes any difference that she no longer eats or sleeps with the crew. No, the crew is too big, too fluid, to pay attention to individuals. New workers from the nursery constantly join, replacing those who were eaten in the fields or on the trails. She is one of hundreds, unnoticed in presence or in absence. If she stayed with the potters all day, the larger community would not notice. But she could not do that. She is a farmer. She had experienced the tight comfort of her crew’s sleeping gallery as part of being a farmer, but now finds that she can sleep with the potters without being a potter.
When she arrives one evening, the potter leads her to a different chamber. A very old male lies on the ground, weak legs unable to support him. He will die soon, and the nestmakers will carry him out to a refuse pile. She shudders when the big potter puts his mouth on the old one’s mouth and feeds him digested food, as the nursery workers feed larvae. She was a nursery worker before she grew large enough to be a farmer, and it disturbs her to sense an old one fed like a larva. She moves uneasily around the room, not knowing if anything is expected of her. One middle leg brushes against a shallow pot positioned under the abdomen of the old one. Like a larva, he needs to have his excrement collected and carried away. The thought of being too weak to walk even as far as the defecation chambers disgusts her.
After the old one has eaten, they go to their own chamber for their own meal and to mate. Later, she notices that other scent trails lead to the old one’s chamber. This is something that potters do, feed their old ones, carry away their excrement. She does not want to do it. She left that behind when she left the nursery to become a farmer. But the potter does not expect her to help, only to go with him from time to time.
Like his body, the old male’s mind is weak. She senses memories of long seasons of potting, of a female who once slept in this chamber with him, and is surprised that he smells content to lie in his chamber, remembering. There are no memories of the sky, of the outside world. Only farmers, hunters, soldiers, and pioneering nestmakers dare to leave the nest.
She remembers the time before she became a farmer, when she worked the nursery. The sweet scent of the freshly laid eggs tickles her mind, and her mouth recalls the delicious taste of the eggs that the nursery workers ate in order to regurgitate them to the newest grubs. They also ate food brought by farmers and hunters, which they used to feed the older larvae, knowing that recently they had been limbless, helpless grubs. The food they regurgitated into mindlessly gaping mouths would transform the larvae into working members of the community.
She knows that soon it will be time to lay her eggs in the nursery chamber. Probably many will survive uneaten, because a large group left recently to build a new nest, and more workers will be needed in this nest. It feels pleasant to imagine her eggs among the others, as pleasant as eating, sleeping, mating and working.
One evening, the big potter leads her into a chamber she has never entered before. She smells two others, a male and a female, and then, coming from a deeper part of the chamber, something completely unexpected, the scent of four newly hatched larvae. Confused, she backs out, retreats to her chamber. The big potter follows, his mind pushing urgently into hers. He knows that it is almost time for her to lay her eggs, and expects her to lay them here. He has enlarged the chamber.
Her mind scurries from thought to thought as if pursued by a winged killer. She realizes that the potters feed their own legless, squirming larvae, as they feed their helpless old ones. They must carry away the grubs’ stinking excrement to the defecation chambers. Full-grown community members do the work that belongs to the newly metamorphosed, those not yet old enough to do more skilled work.
Again, the big potter’s mind pushes into hers. Yes, he wants her to lay her eggs here. They will feed most of the thousands of eggs to the few larvae they allow to hatch. After the hatching, she will stay with the grubs in this little chamber, because grubs need to eat many times a day. The male will help with the feeding. They will all be here together. His projections of this future are filled with pleasure, but she is afraid. It isn’t right. She isn’t a potter; she can’t stay underground all day. She needs to work under the sun, needs to be surrounded by her crew’s mind, part of the community mind.
She listens for the community now, but hears only a distant hum, overridden by the male’s powerful thoughts, the quieter but ever-present minds of the other potters that have become as familiar as her own. Suddenly, this seems wrong too, this intimate knowledge of other individuals. How has she lived with it so long? How has she stayed away from the comfortable anonymity of the farmers’ foodstores, of her crew’s sleeping gallery?
She has been drunk on the pheromones of this big male, but now she is sober, sober and uncomfortable. She does not belong here.
She bolts for the opening of the chamber, pushing the big male out of her mind. She scurries down the corridors, back to her crew’s sleeping gallery. Will they accept her? Yes, her pheromones identify her as one of the crew, nothing more is needed. They cannot sense her sordid history, as long as she keeps more acceptable thoughts uppermost in her mind.
She will go out to the fields in the morning. Soon, perhaps tomorrow evening, she will lay her eggs in the nursery. Later, she will mate with others that she meets in the galleries, others outside of her crew. She will mate with each male only once. Her offspring will be farmers, soldiers, hunters and nestmakers, while the potters raise their own young in their unnatural chambers. Perhaps she will be eaten soon, snatched away from a trail or a field by a winged or legged killer. Perhaps she will live for many seasons, but wake one morning too weak to work, die and be carried out to a refuse pile. Until then, she will be guided by the familiar, comforting community mind, and not listen to the mind of any individual, however strong it may be.
In the seasons that follow, she thinks from time to time about the potter. The memory tastes like the sweet fruit that they shared, smells like pots drying in the warm air of the vast potters’ workshop. She imagines him in his dark chamber with another female, feeding wriggling grubs, carrying away pots of smelly waste. She wonders if he thinks of her, if he remembers her mind’s view of shining fields under the bright sun.
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About the Author
Amy Hammack Turner retired last year after thirty-eight years as a cataloger at Duke University Libraries. She lives near Hillsborough, NC with her husband David, their dog Sasha, seven chickens, seven turtles, and countless bees.