“Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me-”
Wikus’ ability to sing had gone steeply down hill in proportion with his transformation, but he clicked away as best he could in some semblance of a melody. The words weren’t quite prawn speak and they certainly weren’t english, but it wasn’t like he was singing for an audience.
“-Happy Birthday dear Wikus, Happy Birthday to me.”
A gust of wind roused itself and Wikus held up his hands quickly to shield the one stubby candle he’d been able to find in days of searching the district’s trash heaps. He wasn’t keen on the thought of having to re-light the thing and start all over again. Sand and dust eddied over the floor as the desert gusts picked through the cracks in the shanty walls. Wikus held his breath as he watched the flame shiver and sputter until the wind died down, then he relaxed, but didn’t move his hands away.
“Make a wish Wikus.” He told himself. He was too worried abut the flame going out to close his eyes, but that was alright, he didn't have to concentrate to remember what he wished for.
‘It’s a good wish.’ Wikus thought, holding onto his heart’s desire in his mind, pouring all his hope and yearning into a single moment of fantasy. Then he leaned his head down and with a spitting, hissing sound blew out the candle. ‘Probably the best one I’ve ever had.’
The winds started again but Wikus ignored them, yanking the little candle out of his can of cat food with a squelch and bringing the wax to his mandibles were he went to work scraping away any meaty juices that had clung to the taper. He could remember being very little and doing the same thing, fighting with his friends over who got to lick the frosting and cake crumbs off the colourful bits of wax.
For a moment he tried to remember cake, tried to compare it to cat food, but it had been too long.
When he was sure the candle was clean he put it in his pocket. He’d stash it in his little cigar box of treasures later. With his ritual completed Wikus smiled and moved from kneeling to sitting cross legged on the dirty floor, digging into his can happily. He tried to savor it, but he was hungry and he knew it wasn’t going to last long.
The light which pierced through his windows was fast changing its tone from afternoon to twilight. The day was ending, and Wikus was glad he’d managed to arrange everything in time. Finding the candle had been a near thing.
If his wish came true, he’d only have to spend two more birthdays as a prawn, but in the meanwhile this little ritual felt incredibly important to him. It was kind of funny that he felt so intense about it now seeing as he hadn’t paid all that much attention to birthdays in the last decade of his life. He just needed this. He needed something to hang on to.
As the room continued to darken Wikus glared at his empty can with a sigh, bringing it up to his mandibles so he could peel the tin apart and lick at anything that was left inside. There wasn’t much.
Shortly thereafter Wikus curled up on his cot under layers of newspaper and rags. He usually didn’t shut himself in so early, trying instead to spend some time socializing with other prawns at one of the district’s many fire pits. Tonight though he wanted to let himself indulge. It was his birthday after all, so for a long time he lay there in the relative quiet of nighttime, letting himself get lost in all the memories of what he had had and his wishes for what he might have again.
It took ten months for Wikus to break. Ten months on a new planet, with a new people, a new home, a new life.
On the day Wikus had arrived on the Prawn home world Wikus had believed he’d grown well accustomed to being a Prawn. After all, he’d lived amongst these aliens for three years in districts 9 and 10 and subsequently spent more than a year in close quarters with them while traveling on one of their intergalactic space ships.
Though as he’d joined the mass of prawns jostling to leave the ship, he realized he’d been mistaken. He had no idea what it was like to be a Prawn.
What he knew was how to be a refugee. He understood the constant nag of starvation. He was used to being too tired from a day of surviving to talk with his fellows, sitting instead in exhausted silence around a fire and exchanging glances which belied a mutual understanding and weary camaraderie.
He did not know how to fit into Prawn culture as it should be. Lively and orderly and plentiful. It was not a utopian society by any stretch of the imagination, but from the moment he stepped off the gangplank and on to foreign soil he knew that this was how things were supposed to be. Warm, damp, industrious, urban.
The capitol on the planet’s largest continent was unlike any earth city he’d ever known, completely impossible to compare. Tall towers surrounded him, wrought in metals of black and blue and grey, their entryways standing off of wide clean streets paved in something glossy and pale, their upper levels connected by loping bridges in sturdy, elegant designs. Plants which to him seemed exotic and fanciful were cultivated on boulevards, and from any open window colourfully patterned curtains fluttered around excited citizens who waved and cheered at their long lost fellows. It was amazing, extraordinary, and all he felt as he stood stock still amidst a throng of rejoicing refugees was that he was very small and very alone.
Then Christopher had appeared at his elbow and put a hand on his back and looked at him with such open warmth and happiness that Wikus had bottled his small horrors and shoved them away, glad to follow his friend home. He would have to learn then to live with him as a Prawn should. Adjust again.
Ten months had passed since then and those small horrors were still there, evolving into these moments that he fought to keep contained.
He’d been on his way to the kitchen to get something for Christopher and Oliver and himself when this moment had hit. It had sent him to the floor, his back against a wall, hugging himself with his head on his knees.
He’d just been thinking about how nice the day was, how pleasant the weather and how pretty the sunshine against a blue sky too deep in colour to be earth-like. They were moving out of what Christopher had called winter, although it had been rather milder than Johannesburg’s version of the season.
‘Spring, then.’ Wikus had thought as he’d made his way into their home, and in an instant that thought had caused a chain reaction of memory.
He’d always loved spring. He remembered springtime with Tania, going on long walks in short sleeves after spending months in sweaters. He remembered the togetherness of Easter weekend with his parents, then the quiet joy of Easter Monday with just his darling angel.
Suddenly he’d had to sit down right then or else he would have fallen. As the memories had shot through his brain an aching feeling had boiled up in his chest unbidden and he’d clenched his mandibles like he used to clench his teeth.
So there he was. On the floor with neither the courage nor the strength to stand again.
Oliver’s voice was cheery and oblivious. Wikus shuddered. ‘Fuck, pull yourself together Wikus. Don’t let him see you like this.’
He’d been doing such a good job of being alright.
‘For Oliver’s sake, don’t let him see you like this.’
“Wikus?” The little boy was very quiet.
Wikus kept his head down as the tried to find his voice, tried to reassure the little one but his words were garbled, his mouth suddenly feeling just as foreign as it had in the first few weeks he’d owned it.
Although he didn’t hear Oliver leave he heard him return, Christopher hurrying in with him.
“I don’t know what’s wrong father, did he hurt himself?”
“It’s alright little one. Go outside again, Wikus and I will be along in a moment.”
There was rustling and shuffling as Oliver reluctantly obeyed and Christopher crouched in front of Wikus. He rested his hands on Wikus’ knees and for a time said nothing at all.
Wikus’ throat worked to try and swallow down the sadness and, oddly enough, the guilt which had built there.
“I’m sorry.” He clicked at last, ashamed. “I’m sorry, I just remembered something.”
“Tell me.” If Christopher was upset with him for his mood swing he didn’t sound it.
Wikus cautiously let his head come up so he could look his friend in the eye, and it calmed him to find an easy acceptance in Christopher’s gaze.
‘He is not Tania.’ Wikus thought critically. ‘But he can make me happy.‘
Another twinge of guilt struck him for even attempting to compare his former spouse to his new partner, but he wouldn’t let it linger. If he let too many of these memories come, he would never emerge from his melancholy.
“I was reminded of spring back on Earth.” He explained before his nerve could fail him. “There’s a holiday, Easter. I’m sure it means nothing to you, you don’t have to worry about it, it’s just that thinking about it, it just... It was a very strong memory.”
Concern caused Christopher’s antennae to tilt forward slightly, his graspers twitching and his secondary arms flexing and un-flexing unconsciously for his desire to comfort his mate. It killed Wikus to see Christopher unsure, after all the Prawn had done for him. He tried to stand, preparing to tap into his inner reserves of strength and set his pain aside, for his family’s sake, but Christopher’s firm grip on his knees kept him on the floor.
Christopher crooned slightly as he began to speak. “Remember, Wikus, the promise I made when I came back and offered to take you home with me? I swore to you, Wikus Van de Merwe, that you would want for nothing here, that you would be happy. I know that you are not happy Wikus, though you are trying to be. Please talk to me. I cannot be good to you if I do not know what is hurting.”
“It will pass, Christopher, let it pass.” Wikus’ voice was strained and he tried again to stand, frightened at the possibility that he he would truly break down in glorious technicolour if his friend pressed the issue further. “I can’t talk about it yet. It’s... It’s a lot of loss to deal with. A lot of loss.”
It was a long time before either of them spoke again.
When he did speak Christopher squeezed Wikus’ knees gently before reaching up to touch his face and stroke his antennae with tenderness. “Alright, I will not force it, but do not suffer in silence Wikus, there is no need.
“I know you still do not understand all the nuances of our culture, but I hope you have at least realized that you are family, and as family, I will do whatever I can to help you. Even if that is just to listen to your memories or to hold you so you know you are not alone.”
Wikus had to work his maxillae for a moment before he found his voice. “Thank you.” Was all he said, and Christopher leaned his forehead against Wikus’ so their antennae could flick against each other and intertwine.
“You do not need to thank me. But you can tell me what it is you do on Easter. I remember humans speaking of it, but you are right to believe the word means nothing to me.”
Wikus hissed and chittered quietly in laughter. His sudden burst of good humor almost startled him. “I does not matter.” He answered after a moment. “I suppose I always liked Easter Monday the most myself, and we can celebrate by doing what we were before I came inside.”
“Sitting in the sunlight?”
“Enjoying each other’s company.”
The look in Christopher’s eyes was the one which Wikus considered the prawn version of a smile. His graspers fluttered in a pleased way as he stood and offered his hands to help Wikus do the same.
“I like this Easter. We should celebrate it often.”
Wikus chirruped happily as he agreed.
He let the memories die down and let the pain bleed away. He was not stupid enough to believe that he was over the loss with one half-hearted conversation, but he was glad to move with Christopher back out into the sunshine. Happy to sit down with Oliver and play with real toys in the grass. He was happy later that night when they dined together on real food with flavors he never would have tasted on Earth. He was happy when he bid Oliver goodnight. He was happy when Christopher took him into his own nest that night and blanketed his body with his own.
He was not healed, but he was willing to be happy. The rest would come in time.
‘It’s very cold.’ Wikus thought. Then he paused, and almost laughed at himself as he recalled how cold he had been in the past, long ago in the district. Indeed the night was downright balmy by comparison.
Still, he twisted and curled up tighter under the nest material he had drawn over himself. From beside him he heard Christopher click in amusement and felt him shift closer.
Wikus chittered unhappily. “Yes.”
The nesting material shifted as Christopher moved, drawing close to his mate until they were flush to each other, their plates flexing unconsciously to better accommodate one another. One of Christopher’s hands came around to rest on his distended abdomen, the smooth side of his claws stroking the strained portions of his exoskeleton with care.
“It should grow warmer in the coming days. Tomorrow is the longest night of the year.”
“Solstice.” Wikus muttered distractedly. Christopher paused in his gentle petting.
Wikus blinked away his drowsiness at the sound of the question. “The longest night of the year, on Earth it’s called a solstice.”
“Ah.” Once again Christopher began to stroke Wikus’ belly. “We have another word for it here.”
“Is it a holiday?” Wikus tried to recall if he’d heard any of their friends discussing tomorrow with greater interest than they would any other day. “You haven’t mentioned anything special about the day before now.”
“It’s an old holiday. People don’t really celebrate it anymore.”
“Hmm.” Christopher’s hand found a particularly nice spot to rub at and Wikus pushed his belly forward in encouragement. “People don’t celebrate it much on Earth either. If they do it’s usually just to look forward, towards better days to come.”
There was a small purr from behind him, Christopher trying to worm closer if such a thing was even possible. His hand continued it’s stroking but was moving away from Wikus’ abdomen, venturing down between his legs.
With a happy little chirp Wikus bent one of his legs to grant his mate better access. Though Christopher had made no attempts to penetrate him after he’d conceived more than a month ago, his mate still took every opportunity to touch him, running his fingers over his cloaca, dipping just the tips of his claws inside the opening. To be touched like that while carrying an egg turned out to be nice in a way that was intimate while not being particularly sexual. It had taken Wikus some time to get used to the way that made him feel.
For awhile he had worried that his sexual appetite for his partner had been permanently crippled by his decision to carry an egg, but Christopher assured him that it would return once he laid his egg in the next few weeks. That was just how their people were.
Christopher’s hands were gentle as they felt around his entrance, alternating between palming the sheath which held his penetrating organ and rubbing against his opening. It was soothing to Wikus and he started to fade into a sleepy stupor, happy to let his mate reassure himself of the health of Wikus’ body.
“There are good things for us in the future.” Christopher murmured after a few minutes, his hand coming to rest curled around Wikus’ abdomen once again. “Our first child together, Wikus. A new addition to our family.”
Wikus shivered pleasantly at Christopher’s words. “Yeah.”
They were quiet for a long time, Wikus almost asleep when Christopher’s chittered question drifted over him. “Are you still cold, Wikus?”
It took a moment for Wikus to process and reply.
He thought about all the times he had been cold in his life. Times when illness had left him sick and shivering. Times when horror and grief had chilled him. Times when he had been certain that his world had been ending
He covered Christopher’s hand around his middle with his own, uncaring of his own disfiguration, and thrummed a little in reassurance.
“No.” He murmured at length. He threaded his fingers between Christopher’s and squeezed their alien hands together, content. “No, I think I’m finally warm.”