With the Taste of Oblivion in Her Mouth


by M. E. Garber



The old Greeter, Lobran Tikk, squatted three paces from the alien being. Dust and the vague taste of distant smoke tickled her throat, flavoring the standoff like a threat, but she swallowed her cough. She leaned onto the stucco of her domed hut, watching the alien’s four red-tipped trunk-tendrils ripple as it sniffed–or tasted–the air.

Behind it, a thin haze hung in the sky, marking where Derlin Village had been. Nothing remained but ashes. Not a single survivor to tell the tale. Only this being, who’d arrived as the billowing flames had died to smoking embers.

Taller than two men, thin as a palm tree and topped by clusters of oversized, insect-like eyes, the alien did nothing but stand just outside the village boundary, waiting. Its trunk-tendrils never drifted far from its only clothing–a belt of some kind, hung with black sticks that she assumed were weapons, circling its “waist.” The creature radiated menace without motion.


For three days its nubbled orange hide gathered and released shadows with the arcing of the sun, while it waited, silent and still. It didn’t sweat, or stink, eat or drink, or blink its eye clusters.

Lobran Tikk gave a tiny shake of her head. As Greeter, it was her job to receive or turn away all visitors here, at the boundary. Friend or foe — it was her decision the villagers behind her awaited.

But the potential cost…. Her gaze strayed to the plume of dissipating smoke.

And yet, this creature had done nothing overt to incite fear. It respected their boundary, and waited.

Sudden anger spiked her limbs like the pain of her bones during rainy season, and she stood. With no good reason to turn it away, she would engage their visitor, and decide.

She wiped the dust from her hands on her thighs. Leaving her walking stick behind, she took three deliberate steps towards the alien. Her reflection refracted dozens — hundreds of dozens — of times in its odd, blue-white eyes. The sensation crept up her spine that the being’s entire attention rested upon her.

She extended her hand towards it. And paused.

Would her touch be considered friendly, or hostile?

Hoping for friendly, she finished her movement. Her palm rested lightly on its dry, puckery flesh. She made no motion toward the toolbelt an arm’s length higher. Lobran Tikk waited, unmoving but for a slow welcoming smile she forced onto her face.

“Greetings” she said.

Murmuring came from the half-hidden villagers as one of the thin tendril-trunks lowered to rest upon her forearm. From within it emerged a blue tongue, long and narrow, and coiled like a butterfly’s, that dabbed at her skin once, twice, four times. The residue stung, then sank into her flesh.

Lobran Tikk couldn’t prevent her startled yelp as communication passed from it to her. It wasn’t words, but more like… taste… made into emotions and images.

She tasted joy of voyage, of journey, like fresh greens and bright lemons. Then long boredom, stale as an abandoned hut’s air. Next came soft florals that bloomed into almost overwhelming intensity — wonder, and discoveries. It was overwhelmed by sour fear. A deeper, astrigent bitterness welled into bile and foulness. The death of friends. Then a taste echoing her own, dust and smoke; Derlin Village, burning.

And then… nothing. Only air, or clouds — things that had no taste. An absence.

It extended its blue tongue once more, dabbed it on her wrist.

A question, like a melon not quite ripe but not yet spoiled: “Who are you?” And then, a ripple of darker flavor, of a deep rot suffusing the whole. “Predator?”

She removed her arm from the alien’s flesh and stepped back, shaken.

Derlin Village had always been quick to anger. Warlike, even. It was entirely likely that they’d attacked first. And yet… they’d been neighbors, if not exactly friends. And this being had annihilated them? She shivered with a sudden wash of inadequacy.

Who are we? How could she answer?

Only with taste.

She looked again at the weapons on the being’s belt, matte black even in the brightest sunlight. Dread sank deep into her stomach, a cold and alien sensation. She could not fail.

“Please wait,” she told the alien, and hoped it understood.

As Greeter, Lobran Tikk ordered her villagers to work. She oversaw preparations for a strange feast. Each hut received responsibility for a single dish, and Lobran Tikk gave excruciatingly detailed instructions to the cooks. Her villagers did as she bade, and soon savory scents mingled with woodsmoke and sweat.

Tables were set up just inside the village periphery, and from beneath them, children laughed and sang in the perceived safety of their shade. As evening fell into dusk, the populace gathered, bringing their prepared dishes with them.

At her cue, the villagers brought small portions from their tables to Lobran Tikk, who guided their guest’s tasting of their answers. She gave one tap on its tentacle-trunk for each tongue-dab. It seemed to understand.

A thin soup started the meal. Made by the poorest widow, it was thin and spare, but proudly served by the widow herself. Three tastes of this.

Next came the wealthiest family’s dish: a porridge of water-oats and fish, both obtained by trade from the distant coastlines. Thickened with much goatmilk butter and seasoned with exotics — cardamom, peppercorns, cumin — it was bold and adventurous. She allowed only one small taste.

Lobran Tikk followed that with mustard greens made by Cheefa Sturr. It had been her husband’s and her mother’s favorite food; since both had died in the plague, Cheefa salted it with her bitterest tears, and stirred in loving memories with the fatty cured meat. It had the appropriate effect on the alien; its tongue hesitated, then came back. Just a tiny, shuddering second dab, and it turned away.

Toltar Kinn made the sweetcake loaf, seasoning it with all the joy and happiness her many healthy children and loving husband had brought her. Both her mothers had helped, beating their generational love into the mix before baking it in the oldest beehive oven in the village–the one that flaked bits of the past onto every loaf of the present. The Greeter allowed four tastes, to savor all of time and history.

And finally, the rinsing bite. All the children under ten summers had taken part in this creation. They’d measured, pounded, beaten, and mixed, using so much sugar the dough was nearly inedible. They’d baked the wafers until the edges crisped to black.

Just like us, she thought, watching as the alien tongue probed, twitched away from from the oversweetness, from the harsh bite of the burnt edges, and then found the tiny sweet spot in the center. It was a tenuous balance, like the innocence of the children. Generosity without consequence, tinged with hope of more.

The blue tongue retreated from the latest offering, quivering.

Greeter Lobran Tikk closed her eyes, measuring her decision. Around her, the villagers spoke softly. They shared the remains of their community meal, and soft laughter began to flow.

She smiled. They’d done well. Her villagers deserved this feast, which this alien had caused. They were good people. Deserving of her best, in return.

Lobran Tikk opened her eyes to look past her village, toward the horizon. The smoke from Derlin Village was invisible in the star-strewn night sky, but she worried over it still as she fingered the final gift, the one she’d prepared herself. Should she offer it, or not?

Her villagers were happy, seeming to have forgotten the reason for the impromptu feast. She was proud of them, and pleased by her people’s response. That emotion decided her.

Yes, she would thank the alien for this gift it had unwittingly given her.

She lifted the clay cup from the table beside her and with both hands offered the clear, clean water to the traveler. Lobran Tikk herself had lifted it from the depths of their deepest well, hauling on the heavy rope while humming a song of thanksgiving. The basis of their village, this well’s water tasted of home, familiarity, and sweet clarity. Of both cinnamon and lemon, warm and yet clearing. It was the draught of friendship, and welcome. She allowed the alien to drink freely, as with anyone she welcomed into the village.

As the alien drank, slowly, emptying the cup, it gave her time to wonder over the question again: Who are we humans? We are our memories, our meals, our actions and reactions. More than salty, sour, or sweet, we are all the flavors the universe can hold.

A realization settled onto her, reminding her of the satisfaction of a grand meal completed but not yet served: I can do no more.

She lifted her chin, and awaited their fate. She ignored the salty tang of worry by recalling the security and comfort of hot, freshly baked bread.

A tendril-trunk reached for her arm. She stiffened, but didn’t hiss or jerk away as the tongue dabbed her skin.

Warmth, like cinnamon and — yes — like fresh bread, sank in and spread. Comfort. Familiarity. “We are alike,” it communicated. “Friends. Home.”

Lobran Tikk smiled as she led their new friend into the circle of the feast. People made way before them, patting her shoulder and whispering their thanks as she passed. Lobran escorted their guest to the feasting table, and the villagers crowded after, eager to experience the taste of communication.

Lobran Tikk watched with joy, like the memory of sweetness, as a small child gaped and smiled in delight. Swallowing down the last bit of ash caught in her throat, she wondered what new flavors the the future would bring.



“With the Taste of Oblivion in Her Mouth”  ©  M.E. Garber

M. E. Garber grew up reading about hobbits, space-travel, and dragons, so it’s no wonder that she now enjoys writing speculative fiction. She used to live near the home of Duck Tape, then near the home of Nylabone. Now she lives near the home of Gatorade with her husband and a hyperactive dog. Find out more at her blog:  http://megarber.wordpress.com

Digital painting “Cosmic” © Leozo, http://leozo.deviantart.com/

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