A Beast Named Winter
"Hello, Law Caster. Do you like the weaving?"
Monia turned, prepared to answer the question with a
glare, but was taken aback by the teacher’s
appearance. He was by far the ugliest male she had ever
encountered. In addition to the scaly, discolored hide
common to old age, his spines had been surgically
removed and his cutting teeth had been clipped. She
realized her rudeness and glanced at the wall weaving.
"You can look at me if you like," the teacher said.
"I know that I'm a strange sight. In my younger days, in
order to show a total void of partisan ambition, it was
necessary to have all tokens of leadership removed.
That's considered barbaric in these modern days, but at
the time it was the only way to make all parties accept
me. I’m sure
someone in your position could appreciate the
Monia pointed to the weaving. "I was surprised to
find such a high-ranking scholar's reception area void
of the usual academic baubles and trappings. I thought
there was nothing elitist for a representative of the
masses to loathe, until I saw this exquisite weaving.
Definitely opulence, but of a more sublime kind."
"It was made by my grandmother and is one of my
"Such an intricate and subtle piece. What a shame its
beauty is marred by flaws. Was your grandmother an
artist by trade?"
"No, just a lowly memory teacher, as am I."
"So why did you summon me, Teacher?" Monia said.
"Even your revered status would not have pulled me away
from the work of the masses had my mother not asked on
your behalf. I do hope you haven’t
made me cross half a continent, through winter tunnels,
for a cozy chat about the Bio-Correction legislation. If
wasted a favor and much of my time."
"The forum still shows your official position on the
Law as open," the teacher said with a glint of humor in
his old eyes. "You might want to have them correct that
Monia strained to keep her spines from raising, then
took a deep breath. "This law will make the harvest of
our great science available to even the lowest worker
and will elevate our race as a whole, ending this
biological polarization that has been taking place.
Thousands of mutant hatchlings are killed by their own
mothers every season. Those who are not killed face a
life of ridicule and strife. If we can prevent it from
ever happening again, we should."
"Be calm, Law Caster. I have no intention of trying
to stop your supporting the legislative proposal when it
goes to the Council. But, as you said, this law would be
a far-reaching, race-affecting change and I think you
ought to be aware of every consequence. Only those with
complete understanding of a problem can find the best
Monia glared at him, but her spines didn’t
"Please come into my work chamber; you will be more
comfortable while we talk. There are also many more
elitist trappings to loathe."
Monia ignored the tease and followed the teacher into
a large, cluttered room. The unfinished stone walls were
lined with old skin books, antique reading globes and
art pieces from around the world. There were a few
modern conveniences, like star charts and a
communications card, but for the most part the place
looked like a museum.
The Law Caster scowled and settled herself onto the
mat provided. She took time to carefully arrange her
four walking legs beneath her, smooth her official
mantle and open both digging claws and both holding
hands in the posture of listening.
"How far does your family memory go back, Law
"A little further than average," she said. "I have
regressed ten generations on occasion. Nothing near what
such a renowned memory teacher as you can accomplish."
"That's why I wanted to see you. I can recall
memories as far back as six hundred generations, to the
days before the great cities. With my gift there are
many lessons to be gained. I would like to share one
"I am not a student of history, Teacher. I don’t
feel it has much bearing on our modern plights. Besides,
I do not sharetalk with anyone but my mate," Monia said
and closed her hands as if preparing to leave.
"I will only share my memories with you. I will not
intrude. If I do, you can stop at any time."
Her spines rose and she crouched slightly in the
beginnings of a defensive posture.
"Consider what is at stake, Law Caster. Your law may
decide the fate of our whole race. Can you afford to
leave any path unexplored?"
"I suppose details of my refusal would leak to my
"We're alone here and I’m
not aligned with any party, but I believe this is very
important. Please try."
spines relaxed and she leaned forward. The old memory
teacher pressed the side of his face to hers and the
For the first time in her life, Bigeyes was not
hungry. She stared at the newly harvested seed and
realized that even a single bite would make her sick. It
was a strange feeling. She had always been hungry. When
young, she had needed to eat constantly to grow. Once
matured she again needed to eat huge amounts while her
eggs were forming, but now they were ready to lay. The
eggs had actually grown so large that her sack was full,
tight and painful.
She dropped the seed and flinched as it flipped
itself over and pushed roots into the soil. Instinct
urged her to grab it, but she held back. Within the span
of a couple breaths, the seed had pulled itself so far
into the dirt that only its hard crown was visible.
Reminding herself of the task at hand, she started up
the hill. She had decided earlier that morning to climb
a large outcropping of rock in order to see farther. It
seemed like a good idea then, but now she was tired,
aching and not so sure it was going to be worth the
trouble. Groaning as each step jostled her sack, she
forced herself upward.
When Bigeyes pulled herself onto the rocky shelf her
quivering legs gave out causing her to pitch forward and
nearly over the edge. She tried to keep her balance by
lunging backward, but the bulky egg sack hanging between
her rear legs made her fall into a pile of sharp rocks.
Her scream echoed off of the cliff wall and was loud
enough to summon every flock of tippers in the valley.
She shivered at the thought of the vicious carnivores
and watched the sky while checking herself for blood or
broken eggs. Satisfied that her babies were still
intact, she crawled to the edge and looked over. Spread
out before her were more swaying pod trees than she
would have believed possible. It was a stunning sight.
Luckily for Bigeyes, most of them had dropped their
third crop, making their foliage sparse enough to see
Even more amazing to Bigeyes was the number of
seedeaters. They seemed more numerous than the blades of
grass. Random rays of sunlight glinted from the bright
red and yellow spines of her kin as they bobbed, darted
and dug between the tree trunks. They were so busy in
the pursuit of food that they seldom even looked up from
the ground. Bigeyes realized she had been the same just
days before and wondered what changed. Many other things
had changed since she molted. The air was cooler, clouds
filled the sky and there was more wind. The tippers were
even suspiciously absent. It worried her, but she had
more pressing problems. She had to find nesting males.
Even though it had been difficult, Bigeyes was
satisfied with the results of her climb. She could have
wandered for days and only found two or three nesting
males, but from this height she could see more fresh
mounds of dirt than she could count. She looked first to
the fringes of the valley, the rocky areas where it
would be hard to dig a nest. These spots might see less
traffic from nest-ready females and meant a better
chance for one as ugly as Bigeyes.
The sun was still high and she decided on a course
through the rocky hills that would take her past two
single mounds and leave her, just before dark, at a
strange mound cluster surrounding the base of a large
pod tree. The climb down exhausted her as much as the
ascent, but when she hit the ground she kept going
toward the closest nest mound.
When she approached the first site her heart jumped.
The digging male was scarred and discolored, with what
appeared to be only one good eye. She took a deep breath
and began her display by circling the mound and hole
slowly. She started clicking and cooing at a barely
audible rate, letting her desire for him emerge slowly.
He stopped digging and climbed from the hole to look
around, obviously interested.
Bigeyes laid her dried gift seed before him and began
turning in slow circles to show off her full egg sack.
The male sniffed and came closer.
Her heart hammered and her breathing quickened. She
saw his focus shift from her egg sack to her huge eyes,
more than double the size of any other female, and held
He leapt backward hissing.
Bigeyes followed him, so excited that she considered
depositing her eggs in the hole anyway. She scooted the
gift seed closer to him.
His spines flared and his cutting teeth snapped.
The smell of male and fresh dirt made the urge to
deposit her eggs almost maddening. She eyed the deep,
black hole, but knew that if she dumped her eggs the
male would destroy them. She considered starting her
mating dance again, but decided it would be a wasted
effort and moved on.
The ground grew rockier as she pressed on under the
weight of her eggs and disappointment, but she couldn’t
stop. She had a good distance to go before to present
herself to the other males before dark.
After a long uphill grade, she found the second site.
It was a nearly completed nest, but the male who dug it
was dead. He lay on his back, spines down, typical of
tipper attacks. Even though she'd never been close
enough to witness one, she had many old memories of the
vicious strikes. Five or six of the winged beasts would
descend on a lone seedeater. Two would attack the head,
poking at the eyes and face, while trying to dodge the
defensive spikes. Then two or three others would attack
one side, wedging their long bony beaks under their
crouching prey, dig their powerful talons into the
ground and push.
During mating season the tippers did well,
because up until a pair nest bonded, the males were
alone and egg-heavy females were easy to tip over.
The carcass was being picked clean by a pack of
screamers. They eyed her carefully, and she considered
scaring them off, but feared their shrill screams would
Sickened by the sight, she stood to leave, but the
pain in her egg sack forced her back to the ground. Each
movement felt as if she too were being eaten alive by
tippers. She rested and stared longingly at the nest.
Bigeyes had passed several such depressing deposits,
where pain-maddened females had dropped their
unfertilized eggs into old or unused nests to rot. The
thought made her feel ill. She hoped she would never be
driven to do such a terrible thing. With a groan, she
stood and moved on.
As the sun sank low, she approached a rocky hill and
looked up at the mounds of dirt surrounding the large
pod tree at its summit. She had almost dismissed these
strange males when planning her route. Building a nest
under a seed pod tree did not seem wise. Never in any of
her memories had she seen one built in such a way.
She watched for awhile and became increasingly
puzzled. There were seven mounds that she could count,
yet only one male. And instead of several nests, there
seemed to be just one big hole directly beneath the
cage-like roots of the pod tree.
underside was covered with ugly scales and although his
clutching and digging hands seemed to work, two of his
four walking legs were badly scarred. He limped
terribly. She wondered if he'd been born with such
problems. If so, racial memory told her he would be a
bad mate. Just as she was about to begin her mating
dance, a second male passed very close to her, carrying
a seed, a leaf and a stick.
She followed him up to the edge of the big nest and
watched in amazement as he wrapped the seed in the leaf,
then added it to a large pile of similarly wrapped
bundles. He immediately turned to leave, still carrying
the stick and still ignoring her. Was he bringing food
to the nesting male? That was a female’s
Her intention had been to dance for both of the males
at once, but now she was confused. She watched the
departing male with the stick and noticed that he was
quite small, but had the coloring of a full grown male.
He didn’t go
far before stopping and jamming the stick in the ground.
For the first time since her eggs began growing,
curiosity won out over mating. She followed the digger
and watched him from behind a large rock.
He repeatedly jammed the thick pole into the dirt.
Not straight up and down, but at an angle close to the
ground. He eventually seemed satisfied with its
placement and with great effort, began pushing the stick
around in a circle. She immediately heard sharp, popping
noises and could see that the pole left a trail of loose
dirt behind it. It occurred to her that he must have
been digging a seed. But why use a stick?
The small male stood up with the seed in his hands
and she immediately understood. It would have taken
Bigeyes at least twice as long to dig beneath the seed
and coax the roots loose enough to pull it free.
He started back toward the big nest hole, but stopped
next to a pile of clatter leaves and laid the seed on
the ground. With its roots snapped, the seed was
helpless. It would have to grow new ones before it could
flip over and dig into the ground. The male chewed off a
large flap of the clatter leaf, picked up the seed and
his stick, then trundled back to the nest.
Bigeyes followed close behind him, not caring if she
was seen. Her pulse raced, making the pain from her egg
sack even more intense, but she didn’t
care. She wasn’t
sure why the two males were behaving in such a strange
way, but it excited her.
When the seed saver reached the nest, Bigeyes began
her mating dance. Instead of the demure approach she had
been using, she got the attention of both males with a
loud chatter. She laid her gift seed on the ground and
ignoring the pain, began a vigorous, twirling dance
Both males were mesmerized by her display. They
stared and made no attempt to chase her off until she
was practically on top of them. Then the scarred male
looked away from her swaying egg sack and at her face.
Like with the other males, the change was instantaneous.
He backed up a few steps and hissed loudly.
The protest startled the smaller male into a similar
reaction. His eyes widened and he backed away. Bigeyes
realized she was wasting her time again and stopped. Her
legs were quivering and the pain was constant. She
dropped to the ground in a heap.
Long shadows crept across the valley floor as the
males hissed and chattered. Bigeyes lay where she
dropped, unable and unwilling to move. After a few
minutes the noise died down and the seed saver came
forward. Much to Bigeyes’
surprise, he pressed his face against hers. She hadn’t
felt the cold, tingling sensation of sharetalk since she
left her nest mates and it made her gasp.
"We're not looking for mates," he said. "We do not
have time to build a nest. Go away and let us work."
"If this is not a nest, then what is it? Why do you
dig under this big pod tree?"
"We're building a shelter."
"What's a shelter?"
"The winter is coming and we will die if we don’t
have protection. So we are building a shelter."
"What is winter? Will it eat us?"
"You are tired. You can stay there until
morning if you wish," the seed saver said, then moved
back to his tasks. The sharetalk left her feeling
exhilarated, but still weak.
As Bigeyes watched the pair work, one bringing more
seeds, one digging deeper beneath the roots, she
wondered about this Winter beast and why they needed to
hide. When night came on full, the males stopped working
and went to sleep. Bigeyes was very tired, but the pain
in her egg sack kept her from sleeping. She worried and
felt certain that if she waited too long, the eggs would
fester inside her and she would die.
She found it strange that these two males were in a
big rush to finish their shelter, yet they seemed
determined to sleep the whole night. She rose and crept
closer, looking over the pile of seeds. There were many
more than she could count. The pile was almost as large
as she was. Then she saw the seed digging stick leaned
against a pile of dirt and had an idea.
Someone poked Bigeyes from a deep, exhausted sleep.
She opened her eyes and saw both males staring at her.
The seed saver poked her with his digging stick.
When they saw she was awake, they dropped to the
ground and pressed both of their faces to hers. The
thrill of sharetalk raced through her again.
"Where did these seeds come from?" said the limper.
She was sore, stiff and confused. Every breath
brought a fiery stab from her egg sack.
They were obviously referring to her new seed pile
nearly as half as big as theirs.
"I dug them for you."
"During the night."
"You dug all these seeds at night?" the seed saver
said. "By yourself?"
"Yes. Then I piled them on a clatter leaf, pulled
them here, cut up the leaf and wrapped them like yours."
"How did you dig them?"
"With a stick. I think my digging stick works a
The males broke contact and looked at her stick.
Seedsaver examined it closely. They came back and
pressed against her again. She could sense excitement
and knew that she had pleased them with her efforts.
able to find a stick as long and strong as yours. Mine
kept breaking. So I found this shorter, fatter stick and
sharpened one side of it. When I pull on it, the roots
"How did you make the edge sharp?" Seedsaver asked.
"With my stripper teeth."
"Your stick is very clever," Limper said. "But we
want to know how you found the seeds at night?"
"What do you mean?"
"It was very dark. How did you see them?"
"There were no clouds last night, so the stars were
bright and I could see them easy enough."
"You can see in the dark?"
She was caught and considered lying but couldn’t
deny the pile of seeds, the obvious result of her
strangeness. Embarrassment and shame made her want to
"Well, can you see in the dark?"
"Yes. A little bit. Not as good as daytime."
Contact was broken and Limper sat down on the ground
to stare at her pile of seeds. The other one stepped
closer to her and looked closely at her eyes. Such
scrutiny of her deformity usually caused her to feel
uncomfortable, but not this time. He did not wear an
expression of disgust or fear and pressed his face to
"Why did you do this?" he said, pointing to the pile
"I hoped if I helped build your shelter, maybe..."
"Collecting our seed pile took all season. You got
half as many in one night. If I fertilize your eggs,
will you do this again tonight?"
"If you fertilize them, I will do anything you ask."
Winter was more vicious and terrifying than any beast
Bigeyes could have imagined. Winds howled for weeks
without pause. Storms produced dancing sheets of
lightning that marched up and down the valley hitting
every pod tree and churning up the soil like a giant
digging stick. Their pod tree was hit as well, leaving
only a blasted stump, but the shelter Limper had
designed protected them. He found a way to weave long,
tough cords of clatter tree bark into strong, rigid
walls. Then all three of them spent several days packing
dirt and rocks around the outside. When the lightning
came, the walls shook and sprinkled dirt on them, but
The rain and cold were Winter’s
cruelest tricks. Even though their shelter was on the
crest of a hill, allowing most of the water to flow
away, it was still wet and cold. They all huddled
together, shivering for days on end.
During this time, they spent much time in sharetalk
and Bigeyes learned a great deal. Limper had survived
two other winters, the first by a lucky accident that
left him trapped under some rocks with a pile of rotting
seeds, and the second by his own efforts to create a
shelter when he realized that Winter would return.
Limper had tried to warn other seedeaters, but they
thought him crazed by his injuries, or were just too
busy to care. Only when he had found Seedsaver, did
someone believe him. The undersized male who learned to
dig with a stick already had a small seed stash and a
full belly, which gave him the time to hear Limper’s
Limper grudgingly allowed them each two seeds per
day, reminding them over and over that even when the
winter was over, food would be scarce until the pod
trees dropped their first crop. Bigeyes didn’t
understand exactly what he meant by that until the
spring actually arrived.
A day finally came when Limper declared winter was
over. They ventured outside the shelter many times
during those long cold days, but never strayed far from
the tree. This time they climbed to the crest of the
tallest hill in the area and looked around. The breeze
was gentle and the sun burned high and bright in the
sky. The clouds were white and scattered. Bigeyes was
The landscape had vastly changed. New streams had
appeared and old ones were gone. Fuzzy green growth
covered not just the ground, but every chunk of rock and
blasted tree. Limper said that it would grow into the
tall grasses, which the young ate until they were old
enough to eat seeds.
The strangest thing about their new world was the
quiet. There were no noisy clatter leaves, no sounds of
popping seedpods, no screamers and as far as she could
see in any direction, nothing moved. There were no other
seedeaters to be seen. For the first time Bigeyes really
understood. They had all died. And they would all die,
every winter, without shelter. Only the eggs survived.
Before winter came, Bigeyes helped Seedsaver finish
the nest left by the dead male. She detached her egg
sack and buried it very deep, feeling sure they would be
safe from anything, but after seeing the devastation
winter had brought she began to worry.
Bigeyes wandered for hours trying to find familiar
landmarks that would lead her to the nest site, but
never found it until Seedsaver joined in the search. She
had been in the right place, but the whole nest area was
buried under a thick layer of mud. Old memories flooded
through her, of some long ago hatchling struggling up
through the dirt and aching for air. With the memory of
starving lungs still roaring through her, she began to
She dug for days, sometimes losing hours of work as
huge piles of mud slid back into the hole. Seedsaver
helped some, but Limper constantly chiding them both
about the wasted time and effort.
Bigeyes knew she had been right when four days after
she started digging, the first of her babies struggled
to the surface and immediately began to eat. There were
eleven hatchlings, and to protect them from hungry young
tippers, she lured them back to the shelter with piles
of the tender grass.
When the males returned from their search for a
better shelter site they were stunned to find the
hatchlings contentedly munching on piles of grass inside
a crude corral. Muddy and tired, Bigeyes carried a big
stick and hovered protectively over the little ones
while watching a distant flock of tippers.
Limper and Seedsaver pressed their faces against
"We'll have to build a bigger shelter and gather many
more seeds," Limper grumbled.
"Yes, but we may have help," Seedsaver said and
pointed to the hatchlings.
Even though they were very small and would not molt
for a long time, it was easy to see that three of the
little ones had their mother’s
big, ugly eyes.
Monia swayed when the connection was broken. It felt
strange being back in the warm, dry office. The memories
had been so strong and vivid.
The old one said nothing as he rose to fetch her some
cool water. The Law Caster’s
head swam as her own family memories flooded through
her. So much struggle.
"I have to leave."
"Yes, I know."
changed my mind about anything, but obviously have a
good deal to consider."
"That's all I ask, Law Caster."
Monia stopped before the intricately woven wall
covering in the waiting area and turned.
"These flaws are no accident, are they?"
see any flaws," the old one said and went back into his
Monia stepped out of the burrow into the dark, noisy
bustle of a winter tunnel. Many in the crowd stopped to
stare, attracted by her Law Caster’s
mantle, and they all had their mother's big, beautiful