art by Tais Teng
A Song Never Tasted
by Barbara A. Barnett
Barbara A. Barnett is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop whose short fiction has appeared in publications such as Fantasy Magazine, Shimmer, and Hub. She lives with her husband in southern New Jersey, works for a theater company in Philadelphia, and frequently bursts into song. You can find her online at www.babarnett.com.
Akorsa lurked beyond the reach of the firelight, where darkness swallowed the bold pounding of the villagers' drums. Like the drunken young men who gorged themselves on hunks of meat torn from the harvest festival's spitted lamb, Akorsa watched the unwed women dancing around the bonfire, searching for one who would satisfy the hunger throbbing inside her. But the women passed in a blur, blond hair flaming into red, tanned skin fading to pale, curved hips thinning until svelte--all the same to Akorsa. After a thousand years of roaming the earth, she had tasted every kind of song these women had to offer.
A lifetime ago, villagers like these would have welcomed her to their celebration and extolled her name: Akorsa, immortal oracle to Inamis, goddess of the moon and femininity. Akorsa would have shared the songs of Inamis and filled the people with new knowledge, and they in turn would have offered Akorsa her fill of food and drink and shelter for the night. But in those days of old, the people grew greedy for more than they should know, and the oracles began demanding exorbitant recompense for such songs.
Akorsa's stomach cramped--a sharp, painful reminder of the price they had all paid for bartering with the knowledge of the gods. She had never shared the greed of her fellow oracles, but she had also been too weak and fearful to condemn them openly; and so she now suffered as they did, cursed to feed on the songs of the human soul, afflicted with an appetite in accordance with the goddess she had served.
Akorsa stretched her face toward the moonlight to ease her pain, then returned her ravenous gaze to the young women dancing around the fire. No food could sate her now but the moonlight and the songs of the women Inamis had once protected.
The festival drums silenced, then began anew. While the village matrons stoked the fire and banged the drums, men crowded closer to the undulating dancers, who spun with arms raised, beaded hips swaying, feet kicking up clouds of dirt. The eager among the dancers smiled at the men they hoped to claim as husbands; the shy kept their gazes lowered, their cheeks as red as the flames. But whatever their outward manner, the same music enveloped their souls--a song of hope, of the desire to be chosen and loved, and the accompanying strains of dread that one would instead be forever alone.
Akorsa knew the tune all too well. Like every song, it had once brought a pleasure that made her guilt bearable, a taste so rich that, for a moment, she could forget she had taken a life in order to feed. But over the centuries, the true nature of the gods' curse had become clear: without the divine songs the oracles had once shared, humanity's music grew stale, and the oracles' hunger grew worse.
With a chastising bark, one of the village matrons steered a girl into the crowd of dancers. Around her hips, the girl wore the red beads of one who had reached her sixteenth year, and her skirt, rumpled yet flowing, threatened to tangle between her feet. She danced with her head held high, thin braids of sand-colored hair trailing down her back as she gazed toward the full moon. The other young women regarded her with whispers and giggles and pointed fingers until one among them finally cried, "Hirneen dances to the music of the devils she hears!"
No man will choose her, Akorsa thought. Hirneen moved to a beat other than the one the matrons pounded--a slower beat, as ancient as Akorsa, yet new to her ears. It pulsed from within the depths of Hirneen's soul, and Akorsa's body throbbed in time with it. Here was a song she had never tasted, one that promised new flavors, melodies and rhythms that would make every song before it taste like dust.
One of the elder women cried out, and the unwed men answered with primal shouts. They broke the circle of dancing women, slinging arms around those they wished to claim. Gasps of surprise and laughter broke out, then fists and grunts among those who had been eyeing the same woman.
Amid it all, Hirneen continued to dance, though the drumming had ceased.
Akorsa took a step forward, then another back, ensnared by indecision. Instinct demanded that she feed on the girl's song, but a voice from deeper within told her it was too beautiful to destroy. And while her body warred with itself, someone emerged from the nearby darkness. Akorsa recognized the boyish figure, the untamed locks falling over his shoulders and down his back--her brother Neashem, once oracle to Omethe, the god of youth. With inhuman grace, Neashem wove through the villager's feral chaos, toward the bonfire. Toward Hirneen.
Akorsa cursed under her breath. Two oracles left in all the world, and still Neashem trailed her through both city and countryside, stealing her prey for his own when it suited his hunger. He took Hirneen by the hand and led her away from the other villagers, out of the firelight and into the darkness. Akorsa followed, her body so in tune with the moonlight that she steered clear of it with ease and remained unseen, a part of shadows.
"Where are you taking me?" Hirneen asked Neashem, her eyes wide and awestruck like the gazelles that roamed the grasslands. The song within her grew hesitant in its rhythms. "Who are--"
Neashem tried to hush her with a kiss, but Hirneen pulled away, and her song took on the erratic tempo of fear.
"You're the one I saw in the flames," she cried, struggling to free herself from Neashem's grip. "The devil in the flames!"
Akorsa leapt from the darkness, yanked Neashem off the girl and shoved him hard against a thorn tree. Her hand closed around his throat, and she lifted him until his feet dangled above the dry earth--even weakened by hunger, she still possessed an oracle's strength.
"You've grown careless," Akorsa said.
Hirneen fled, past the bonfire and through the crowd of villagers, ripping her song away with such violence that Akorsa's body shrieked with hunger.
Neashem laughed. "And you've grown weak, sister. So many of them escape you now."
"Do not call me sister," Akorsa said, tightening her grip on his throat. She remembered how Neashem had been the first to betray the gods and demand money for their songs, all while she stood idly by, silenced by his smiles and promises. "Would that I had not allowed that bond to hold my tongue all those years ago."
Neashem laughed again, then offered his most charming of smiles. "Let me go, sister. We are all we have left."
A panicked shout came from the fireside, then eyes searching the darkness, hands reaching for weapons. The villagers had heard Hirneen cry of a devil by now, and they would see such a creature driven from their home.
Akorsa threw Neashem to the ground and fled into the blackest of shadows, where twisted trees blocked out the moonlight, and where she could huddle alone in the darkness, unseen, as cold and starved as the starless sky.
Akorsa awoke to chiming pinpricks of warmth against her skin--the song of a stream. She staggered from her hiding place in the brush beneath a scrub tree, squinting, one bone-thin hand shielding her eyes. The morning sun made her weak, and her knees threatened to buckle under the weight of her hunger. The water she heard would at least offer replenishment when drunk, if not taste, and so she started toward it.
As she neared the stream, a woman's singing mingled with the water's music--a light, airy voice and a wordless tune, rising and falling with the current. Akorsa crouched low in the waterside brush, crawled toward the sound like some pathetic dog seeking scraps of food, then peered between dried leaves and thorny branches. She had not heard someone singing in harmony with the elements for so long that, after the previous night, she had no doubt who it was.
Hirneen sat on the stream-bank, bare feet tucked beneath her. She swirled a finger in the water, as if to direct its tune. The sunlight revealed so much more of her than the moonlight had the night before: the honey color of her skin, her freckled arms, the way her sleeveless top hugged her body's curves. Hunger stabbed at Akorsa, so sharply that she bit her lip to hold back a whimper. Her body demanded something more filling than the tasteless tune of water.
"The devils shall drink, and the people shall sleep," Hirneen sang, putting words to her melody. "Sleep forever, and sing no more."
Akorsa grinned. Here was a curiosity strong enough to slacken her hunger--at least for now. The words Hirneen sang were ancient, ones that should have been beyond the learning of a simple village girl who had never communed with the gods and their oracles.
"You know the Song of Senasorra," Akorsa said from her hiding place.
Hirneen sat up with a start, clutching her arms in a way that broadened Akorsa's grin--as if such slender limbs could protect her. "Who's there?"
"I saw you last night," Akorsa said, "dancing like the tides with the pull of the moon."
A slight smile touched Hirneen's lips, a mix of hesitance and curiosity. "I know your voice. You saved me from that man. From the devil in the flames." Hirneen crawled toward the brush that hid Akorsa. "Who are you?"
"I am the moon." An oracle's name would bring only fear, and so Akorsa lied. "I am the drumbeat you have heard all your life, pulsing in your veins."
"Then show yourself."
Slowly, Akorsa rose from the brush, her ancient grace undiminished by hunger. She stepped toward Hirneen, whose expression softened into one no human had ever offered a creature such as herself: a look of pity.
"You're so pale," Hirneen said.
Akorsa's next step faltered, its grace lost in uncertainty. She glanced at her reflection in the stream, then quickly plucked twigs and grass from her black, knotted hair. The daylight wreaked such violence upon her appearance: a tattered shift of fading sapphire, boney limbs and a pallid face. She was a walking cadaver compared to this round-cheeked girl.
"I have not eaten," Akorsa said at last.
Hirneen removed a water skin belted at her waist and offered it to Akorsa. "Here, drink."
Akorsa sat beside her, took the skin and tilted it to her lips. The water felt like ice melting over the fire that was her mouth and throat, always burning while the rest of her body froze. Hirneen stared at her while she drank, cheeks flushed, eyes wide with unabashed fascination. The girl's song began to change, leaving behind the stream's tinkling accompaniment to pulse in time with Akorsa's hunger. Akorsa sucked the last drop of water from the skin and handed it to Hirneen, though she held onto it long enough to brush the girl's fingertips as she took it back.
"You spoke of the Song of Senasorra," Hirneen said, the flush in her cheeks deepening. "I do not know it."
"Yet you sing its words."
"The words come to me, with the visions in the fire."
"The visions?" Akorsa leaned in close, the way the young so often did to exchange laughter and secrets. "Many claim such gifts, but no one has possessed them in a thousand years. Not since the fall of the oracles."
"I saw you once in the fire, while the elders led the evening prayers." Hirneen traced a finger down Akorsa's cheek, along the grooved scar left by a man's knife when he found Akorsa straddled over his daughter's dead body, drained of its music. Fear tinged Hirneen's song, though it differed from the erratic panic that had made her flee the night before--this was fear mixed with wonderment. "The elders call you a devil," she said. "Only a devil would touch an innocent with visions, they say."
Akorsa laughed. "Only the unwise blame all of life's mysteries on devils."
Gently, Akorsa removed Hirneen's hand from her cheek and entwined their fingers together. So much warmth, so tempting to hold onto--if only she could without the need to feed on its source. They sat in silence for a moment, faces almost touching, lips parted ever so slightly. The scent of Hirneen's breath offered a teasing hint of what her song might taste like: as sweet as ripe berries, as lush and warm as wine. One brush of their lips, one deep taste, and that song would thaw Akorsa's icy skin, moisten her dry, dusty mouth, satiate her as the stale tunes she had fed on for centuries could not. And if she waited, if she let the music build to a frenzied passion as she had when every woman's song was new, she could taste it at its peak.
Or I could let this song live on, she thought. Hundreds of years of travel, and this was the only new song she had found, the only one that had not grown stale without the touch of the gods. It is as alone in this world as I am.
"What else did you see in the flames?" Akorsa asked, though she feared the answer.
"That you are alone," Hirneen said. "One of the last of your people."
"People." The word felt strange in Akorsa's mouth, like a garment that did not fit. "We have been called many things throughout the ages, but seldom 'people'."
"You cannot help what you are."
Akorsa chuckled ruefully. Was it such naiveté that made Hirneen's song so different, that enabled her to pluck words and images from the fire, as if she too were an oracle of old?
"In your vision," Akorsa asked, "did you see what I truly am?"
"I saw that you are beautiful," Hirneen said, a flutter in her voice, a bird-like trill in her song. "Like the moon."
A pang beyond hunger wracked Akorsa's body--the wailing, discordant song of guilt. Guilt to be called beautiful as she had been in the days before mortal and oracle alike angered the gods, before the other oracles were hunted and killed by the mortals on whom they had been cursed to feed. Guilt to be called beautiful by a girl whose words eased her loneliness, but on whom her body demanded she feed. There was no choice but to be done with it.
Akorsa kissed Hirneen, savoring the warmth of her mouth against hers, careful not to draw on the girl's song just yet. Hirneen sank back against the ground at her urging, mimicked the way Akorsa's hands moved over her. She made only the faintest of moans in response to Akorsa's caresses, but the song within her became deafening, an aching drone and a pounding of drums. Akorsa slid her hands beneath Hirneen's skirts, kissed her along the neck, lingered where she could feel Hirneen's veins pulsing against her lips. She even offered her own sighs of pleasure in response to the girl's inexpert touch--it had been so long since someone had shown her pity instead of violence, fascination instead of fear. Unlike so many others, this girl offered her more than a song on which to feed. But the music within Hirneen grew into a frenzy of sounds and rhythms, stirring Akorsa's hunger to an unbearable, throbbing peak.
Please, Inamis, Akorsa thought, one final plea to her goddess. If you cannot forgive me, then at least spare this girl. Slake my hunger just this once, until I am far from here.
But Inamis remained silent, and Akorsa could wait no longer.
The voice came from far off, beyond the sight of the stream-bank. Akorsa recognized its strains all too well: a mother's call, one like the faraway oceans she had seen in her journeys. For now, it was only a song of concern, waves lapping gently to the shore. But upon finding Hirneen like this, with Akorsa on top of her, the tide would shift. The waves would become monsoons, dragging Akorsa to sea until she drowned in a song she had tasted in more than one way--the raging chorus of a mother who would do anything to protect her own.
Akorsa fled from the song as Hirneen had fled from Neashem the night before.
Akorsa ended her retreat further upstream, where the water met a rocky hillside, just beyond the village outskirts. She crawled into the shade beneath an outcropping of rock and hugged her knees to her chest, sucking in dry air to slow her thundering pulse, each breath in time with the gentle tinkling of the water's song. But as soon as she calmed, she thought of Hirneen's clumsy touch and the berried taste her song promised, and her hunger stirred. Only now, Akorsa found herself hungering for more than another song--she wanted a body against hers as she slept, the feel of a heartbeat to accompany the drumbeats.
But the gods will never let that be, she thought. Why should I expect Inamis to forgive me now for the sake of one girl?
Her path was all too clear: if Hirneen was to live, Akorsa would have to leave the village before she was tempted to try taking her again. Yet, there was also Neashem. He would still be lurking nearby, and he would not leave such a song untasted.
Akorsa's next breath caught in her throat; no one but Neashem had spoken her name aloud in years. The voice was Hirneen's, echoing off the stone-pocked hillside, carrying with it a wave of shimmering notes that sent shivers through Akorsa's body.
The voice was too close to escape from, the outcropping too small to hide her; it seemed Inamis would not let her leave this village without one last temptation. Slowly, Akorsa rose from her hiding spot and brushed away the coarse sand and pebbles that had embedded themselves in her exposed skin.
Hirneen ran toward her with an excited gasp, fumbling over the stream-bank's rocky terrain, any grace she possessed lost in eagerness. When she finally stood before Akorsa, the corners of her mouth twitched--a barely successful attempt to fight off her smile.
"Why did you run off without me?" she asked. She looked away, bit her lip, then turned back again, the smile undeniable now, as broad as the music building inside her. "My mother almost found me there. She would have been--"
"How did you know my name?" Akorsa started to back away, but the steep, rocky hillside behind her barred her path. "I never told you."
Hirneen's smile faded. She stepped forward, closing the space between them. "I heard it whispered in the flames." The scent of earth and sweat was strong on her, the harmonies of her song thick and primal to match. "The visions and the verses and always your name, ever since I was a child."
Leave now, Akorsa told herself. Inamis will not spare her. But Hirneen's song enveloped Akorsa, pulsed against her skin, and held her transfixed. Akorsa brushed a wisp of hair from Hirneen's face, wondering at her songs and her visions, unheard of since the days of the oracles. Here was a girl who knew the words of the gods and the names of their oracles, yet who so naively thought Akorsa would bring her no harm.
Perhaps this girl is blessed as the oracles once were, Akorsa thought. An immortal voice of the gods.
Akorsa took Hirneen's face between her hands and closed her mouth over hers, allowing herself the smallest taste of her song, a salty splash of warmth in her mouth. Hirneen returned the kiss, and her song swelled, growing as desperate as her searching hands. Akorsa's body responded with its own violent song of hunger, but of all the music she sensed within Hirneen, that of mortality tasted strongest.
Akorsa shoved her away.
"What did you..." Winded, Hirneen grabbed the rocky hillside for support. Her song twisted ever so slightly, a barely perceptible change of tempo and tonality. A variation.
Akorsa knelt by the stream and splashed gritty water into her mouth to wash away Hirneen's taste. "Your people are right to call me devil," she said. "You would not survive my hunger."
"Nor mine," came Neashem's voice from atop the rocky hillside.
Akorsa let out a defeated sigh. Of course Neashem would choose now, before she could leave the village and pretend that, just maybe, he would follow without feeding on Hirneen.
"Had I wanted to feed," Akorsa said to him, "the girl would have been dead before you arrived." She stood to face Neashem, who crouched at the edge of the hillside, staring down at Hirneen with a hungry, mischievous look on his dimpled face. "You're slowing down, brother."
Neashem grinned. "Am I?"
He leapt down from the hillside, toward Hirneen, and though Akorsa darted forward at the same moment, Neashem reached the girl first. He forced Hirneen face-first to the ground, arms pinned behind her back. Hirneen cried out and struggled, but Neashem shoved her face into the pebbled sand to muffle her shouts.
"If you won't feed," he said, looking up at Akorsa, "then I will."
"You will do no such thing." Akorsa approached him, slowly. Neashem had always been faster, impetuous--the wrong move too soon, and he'd likely kill Hirneen without bothering to feed.
"You look so weak, sister." Neashem turned up Hirneen's face, now streaked with tears, marred and scratched by sand and stone. "We could share her, if you like."
Hirneen whimpered, and the cacophonic strains of her fear aroused a sharp pang of hunger within Akorsa. For a moment, Akorsa wanted nothing more than to feed, but then she focused on Neashem--a horrible reflection of herself, skeletal and pallid and beyond forgiveness. A desire stronger than hunger surfaced within her, a variation on the song she had heard at the approach of Hirneen's mother: the desire to protect that which she would love.
Akorsa knelt beside Neashem. She leaned forward, as if to feed on Hirneen, who squirmed and sobbed beneath him. Neashem chuckled, started to speak, but Akorsa jabbed her elbow back into his stomach. She spun and grabbed him by the neck, banged his head into a rock, then dragged him to his feet and shoved him against the rock face of the hillside.
"Let me go, sister," Neashem said, his voice dripping with its usual arrogance. They had been in this position so many times, with Akorsa's hand wrapped his throat, and every time she had let him go, afraid to be the last of their people. Afraid to be alone.
Neashem smiled, his face full of a youthful innocence that the dangerous glint of his eyes belied. "You would not kill the last of your kind, would you?"
Anger and a thousand years of hunger hardened within Akorsa. She was weak, yes, but also tired of yielding so much to an oracle who, for all of his years, was still no more than a cocksure, impetuous boy. Even with him, she was alone.
A twist of Akorsa's wrist, and Neashem's neck snapped in her grip.
Hirneen scrambled to her feet. "Is he dead?"
Akorsa let Neashem's body fall to the ground; there would be no time to sing the burial rites. Her hunger, forgotten in her cold rage, stirred at the sound of Hirneen's voice, and she hurried away without answering.
"Wait," Hirneen called, following after.
Akorsa winced. Her song of unending hunger blasted through her like an icy chill while Hirneen's song reached out with a hunger of its own, a seeming desire to meld with Akorsa's and create something new. Akorsa trembled, but continued on as she should have a thousand years before when Neashem led her people into angering the gods, when she should have left their circle and condemned their greed.
"The devils shall drink, and the people shall sleep," Hirneen sang. "Sleep forever--"
"Stop." Akorsa's stomach cramped, and she doubled over. "Stop, please."
"Sleep forever," Hirneen continued, "and sing no more."
Akorsa's legs grew weak, her body cold. She forced herself forward, though slower than before.
"The devils shall drink," Hirneen sang, "but when one is redeemed, the song shall change eternal."
Akorsa fell to her knees, clutching her stomach. These were words she did not know, and their meaning eluded her, swallowed by a blur of pain and hunger. Behind her, Hirneen's footsteps approached. Akorsa tried to crawl away, but Hirneen's song fell over her like a caress and drained the last of her strength.
"The song must change as the world must change," Hirneen said, no longer singing, though music dripped from the words. "And so the gods must forgive she who would save but one song. They shall write a new verse, and my song shall change eternal."
Hirneen knelt beside Akorsa and stroked her hair. And so the gods must forgive. Was there truth to those words, or were they invention? Perhaps Hirneen was mad, one who by chance glimpsed truth in her delusions. Or was she simply one who longed for the death Akorsa's embrace would bring? Whatever the answer, Akorsa's pain-racked body offered only one response: her hunger hardened like rock within her, unwilling to be denied any longer.
"I'm so sorry," Akorsa whispered, and met Hirneen's eager mouth with her own. Hirneen lay back as they kissed, and Akorsa pressed down on top of her. She fed on Hirneen's song, drinking so deeply that melodies and harmonies and drumbeats filled her like never before. They pounded through her like blood, leaving her tongue with the taste of berries and wine, both bitter and sweet. Hirneen's body arched to meet Akorsa's. The girl clutched at her and tried to cry out, any distinction between pain and pleasure muffled beneath Akorsa's lips. For the first time in centuries, Akorsa's body flooded with warmth.
Hirneen went limp beneath her. Pain no longer gripped Akorsa's body--only a horrible sense of completion, of being filled with a song that was not hers.
"Forgive me," Akorsa said, then kissed Hirneen on the forehead. "I would not have seen your song end so soon, but the gods still punish us all." She brushed a strand of hair from Hirneen's face, and the girl stirred--a slight move of her head, then the gentle rise and fall of her chest. Once, twice, and then yet again.
Akorsa jumped back. A new song began to pulse within Hirneen, faint at first, but stronger with each breath. Akorsa had drained every last note, every crescendo and every silence, and yet Hirneen lived. Had Inamis answered her plea after all?
A fluke, Akorsa thought. It had been so many centuries since she had fed on a new song; she must have been overwhelmed, must not have drunk as deeply as she had thought. Her body, though, told her otherwise. She had never been so suffused with warmth, and her skin tingled as every song she had ever tasted fused with Hirneen's, a medley of flavors made new.
The song stirring within Hirneen became soft and teasing, as if there were somehow a smirk in its melody. Hirneen opened her eyes and smiled. "Would you leave me lying on the stream-bank yet again?"
Akorsa laughed--a sound of joy for the first time in a thousand years.
"The gods have forgiven you," Hirneen said. "And so my song shall change eternal."
Hirneen sat up, eased herself into Akorsa's embrace, and kissed her deeply. Akorsa tasted a new song on Hirneen's lips, effervescent and sweet. But she would allow this one to build before drinking much more, let it sound as a counterpoint to her own.
And when this song ended, a new one would begin.
This story was first published on Friday, January 14th, 2011
"A Song Never Tasted" grew out of a one-hour writing exercise in which the topic was to write about someone using an alias—an element that ironically fell by the wayside when I decided to turn what I had written for the exercise into a full-fledged story. I dove into the first draft without a clue as to who or what Akorsa was. All I knew was that my exercise blurb suggested something vaguely vampiric, and I wasn't particularly interested in writing about vampires—at least not in the traditional sense. Surprisingly, the soul/life-force/spirit-as-music idea that became such a central part of the story wasn't there at first—just a hint of it with Hirneen quite literally dancing to the beat of a different drummer. But as a musician, that struck me as the most interesting part of my exercise blurb, so I ran with it.
- Barbara A. Barnett
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