The Sky-Eaters’ Nest
by Jess Lewis
Come on over here and tell ole Vic what’s the matter. I can see something’s bothering ya, you ain’t that good at hiding it. Ain’t that young ’un from over on Swallow Way giving y’all trouble again, is it?
No? Well, what’s eating at ya?
Oh, I see. The changing winds got ya all shook up. I understand—change is a lil scary, and a vortex brings a lotta change. I felt the same way right before my first polar vortex, too.
When I felt that first nip-a cold at my heels, all the tales of my Zaza’s first vortex came to mind. Whole species lost to ice. Folks scrambling to keep fed. Zaza didn’t go out beyond their stretch of woods the whole vortex. When the first solar flares melted long strips of earth, they stood in the doorway to gather the warmth on their skin, wiping their bloody-chapped hands on rags. The next month, they witnessed all types-a new things shiver into life. It was like the world gave birth. Felt just like birthing me, Zaza said.
Thing is, when birth happens, it ain’t pretty. Ain’t no chorus of whipporbills, ain’t no cheering in streets. Not even a gasp hanging mid-air. There’s just a shriek in the night and a whole lotta silence as you clear away gunk so the lil thing can breathe.
So, what does a world sound like when it’s being born?
In the first decade after the Great Sinkin’ of ‘35, there was only chaos: marshes seething awake, forests rustling to life, mutants claiming their places. But from those screams of earth came a new world, glittering with possibility. People who hadn’t given up found groups to brave the wilds with as they fled their crumbling cities. They scattered all over the Earth, finding their way into new lives. Built all the things they had before from near-scratch. Some settled down in ruins they could retrofit and build off, creating the first Comms. Others vowed to explore all the newness laid out before ’em—biologists and geneticists and other such folks. And then, there were the Sky-Eaters.
Y’all heard tell of the Sky-Eaters, right? Hailing from The Land of Zel, a land so far above us that those who live there could reach up and pluck the stars. Always tucked in the shadow of the twin moons, where they feast on moonbeams, sky fruit, and acid fog. But I bet you ain’t heard tell of how they came to be.
Way back in my nomad days I met a mod-herder out near Forty-Two with a cart full-a quick temp mods. Stuff like skin grafts and talons and mirage beads—don’t you roll your eyes at me, Miriam, this was near about two decades ago. It was a different world back then. These things were brand spanking new.
Anyway, this mod-herder and I got to talking over supper. We was both nomads, turns out. After our third bowl of fireberry, cheeks burning as red as the twin suns over our heat lamp, he started talking about these folks he’d just traded with. Bright-eyed, with long hair they’d braided with mallowsilk and draped wovens that moved without wind. Sky-Eaters, they called themselves—of course, he’d heard the legends, too. He’d traded the Sky-Eaters a bunch of grafts for their story. Wove the yarn right then and there on that cold night, like he could scarce keep it in—a story about the birth of the world and the birth of the Sky-Eaters.
Most people won’t tell ya that the Great Sinkin’ didn’t happen all at once. It wasn’t no big catastrophic moment that threw the world into—well, all of this. It happened over a couple years, until the world reached a tipping point. Most of the young ’uns and scientists didn’t wait for the sirens to skedaddle. They’d been long gone by the time that happened.
Yonette and Jacy left the city with the other scientists, before buildings started to crumble. Yonette led the way alongside the river circling their city, following the path that their lab’s chief researcher, Dr. Anne, gave ’em. They walked and walked, trudging through underbrush and silt, until they arrived at a remote research site.
Over the next month, seven folks gathered at Amoreia Institute. They’d come from all over North Carolina and Tennessee to lend their skills to Dr. Anne’s cause, from biochemists to entomologists. On that first night, Dr. Anne held her cup-a grog high and declared they’d be the ones to stabilize the world through discovering it. It’s funny now, but they really thought they could tame it by sussing it out. But mostly, I reckon it was a distraction.
Each day they’d venture out a little further, gather samples, and observe morphing habitats before setting up camp. They’d weave the yarn of their field notes over suppers of cricket meal gruel. Yonette kept to Jacy’s side, and both kept to themselves when they weren’t delivering findings.
But alone together? They was totally different people. As soon as the others left, they both lit up like solar flares in second winter. They gabbed on like they were back in their little apartment cuddled up on the couch watching fresh snow fall. Just like then, they’d hold each other’s hands to keep warm and cackle at the dumb barely-jokes that flowed between them. When they talked about the time before, it was like they could turn a corner and be back in Firestorm Collective picking up chapbooks and two vegan brownies wrapped in plastic just like any other day. It hadn’t really dawned on em that this wasn’t any other day, and there wasn’t any kind-a going back.
In the city, ain’t much changed other than the god-awful weather and the lichen-critters. But beyond Northern Crick, there wasn’t nothing left of the world before. The forest Jacy’d grown up in had turned into marshes dense with not-quite-oak trees that leaned into the center of clearings like they was bowing to a God no one could see. Even the trail marker trees couldn’t be sussed out. They were laden with leaves Jacy’d never seen before—more kindergarten snowflake chain than pinnatisect or sinuate.
That night, Jacy choked on tears as he tried to describe the forest he’d known as a kid, all the secret places he’d made where he didn’t have to play at being a girl. He found hollowed out tree trunks and built lean-tos on ’em. Spent days draping ’em in moonflower vine and kudzu, lining their dark walls with rocks and drawings of birds. In a lot of ways, he’d spent his childhood in those self-made hollows, feeling held in the wombs of grand oaks. When he needed it, the forest held him close, and now he didn’t recognize it anymore. All the places they’d made together were gone. Yonette held his hands and put her forehead to his shoulder as he vibrated with sobs.
“It sounds beautiful,” she said, tearing up herself, not sure what else to say, “I’m so glad you had it.”
They fell asleep just like that, holding one another in a place neither recognized.
Deeper they went, the more’d changed, ’til they was all scratching their heads. Jeanne wrote down every detail she could, Andrew sketched til his fingers bled, and Jacy hauled along five zones’ worth of field books. But it didn’t rattle Yonette’s spores one bit. When everyone else’s heads hung low, her strong jaw pointed towards the horizon. As she leaned forward to study a new slime mold dangling in long strands from tall branches, her dark skin absorbed the pinks and purples of the spore-laced sky. She refracted light that danced with the mullwood petals. It scared the other scientists, though they never told her. When Jacy caught wind of it, he let it roll off his back, though some of the sideways glances made him grit his teeth.
It wasn’t too long til they saw more than they bargained for. Whole towns slumped over in decay from the acid swamps, beetles with patches of gray fur and curious blue eyes that chattered in greeting, vines that shook with no wind when Jacy stepped close. Once, over by Toxaway Lake, they near about got sucked up into a bat-o-wallow den. Walked right past the death ivy, through the nest, and started feeling the sticky clench of sundew silk on their boots. Thankfully only two got stuck in silk traps and all that got left behind was a few pairs of boots. Less than a day later, they got all tangled up in a slime canopy. And then, they got stung up by a hoard of jaded laurel wasps. Through it all, Jacy and Yonette stayed close and kept their spirits up through hushed conversation.
Even in all-a that, it wasn’t real until Yonette had to cut her box braids out. Three months had passed and she couldn’t put it off any longer. All of a sudden, the weight of everything she’d lost came crashing down. The long day gabbing in a kitchen, the deft pull and part of her friend Sarai who’d hung back in the city, their cackle as she went on about some new HRT augmentation technique she’d found in mycological study.
“Just think, it’d do exactly what I’d need—as long as you’re on progesterone, though. It binds with proge—what?” she’d say.
“You keep on chasin’ your mushroom juice,” Sarai would say from behind a smirk.
“It’s just a theory!” she’d protest.
“Babe, I mean this in the best way, but you’re built outta pipe dreams,” they’d say.
Where was Sarai now? Maybe in one of the experimental bunkers that she’d heard Jeanne whispering about. Or back in the city, where she’d seen solar flares scraping the tops off buildings. It didn’t matter because they would never see them again. Jacy held her while she cut off the braids with shaking hands, unwove the fake hair from her own, and buried them near camp. No matter how hard she tried to find joy in not having nothing pulling at her scalp, it felt like an absence. Neither could mention Sarai without breaking down.
Months went by, but all they could really suss out was that there was some kind-a rapid evolution occurring. But they was scientists. They been down this road before, they thought, and they were just a couple data points away from a revelation. They found mollusks in the river beds, spore films over the canopy. Even tree roots moved underfoot, as if shaking off a gnat. Lil bitty pieces that fit into the puzzle. They made fuzzy bits a mite clearer, but no one could put their finger on the whole image. I reckon it was somewhere between the bearfly colony and the bat-o-wallow grove that the world started wearing on ’em. But it was Lil Bear Swamp that broke ’em.
One midmorning in late summer, they made their usual trek out into the wild world. As they moved into denser air and thicker undergrowth, the ground grew unstable—patches of soft sand, patches of hard clay, white rock jutting out here and there.
“There’s no explanation, especially since this has all the markers of a swamp,” Daysha, a geologist, said.
No one blinked. With each step, the stench of rotting meat grew. As they rounded the last bend and pried back the wall of bonemallow vine, their eyes watered. Jacy’s hand, which held back the vines, began to shake.
Everyone stopped. Hesitated at the cusp.
Jacy turned his head to the side and vomited.
Yonette stepped forward to Jacy and put her hand on his shoulder, breaking the paralysis. Jeanne clung to her arm. Yonette’s eyes snagged on a strange rock curling from around the tree trunk they leaned against—five moldy stalagmites that had grown weird due to an ecosystem shift, maybe? She squinted as Jacy leaned into her. No, not rock. Something softer, because there were five shiny pink ovals that were sliding off—
Yonette looked up.
She had seen movies where a person finds out their mother died and crumples to the ground wailing. She’d roll her eyes as they screamed on the ground because, frankly, it always seemed like an overreaction. But now there she was, knees skinning on rock, voice shaking with sobs.
So many hands reaching, so many mouths gaping. Hundreds of mottled bodies lined the edges of the swamp, jutted up from its center, wound into roots that arched above the green water. On the ones whose skin hadn’t sloughed off yet, she could make out red lines on wrists and foamy residue on mouths. Jacy later said they was at all different stages of decay, so they must’ve made the pilgrimage in waves and decided this was the place to die.
Even through tears, Yonette couldn’t help noticing that their bodies fostered new life. They swelled with petal-laced mushrooms, bubbled with snake dens, fused with willow bark. Yonette felt something in her change.
The team turned back, marked a path around Lil Bear Swamp, and didn’t talk for three days. With each day the weight on their hearts grew heavier. When they reached a ramshackle Comm called Lil Pine, they decided to stay. A few weeks, at least. They said it was to synthesize data, but I reckon they needed to rest their hearts.
But where the others pulled back, Yonette and Jacy leaned in, intent on sussing out all they could about this ever-changing place. Ever since Lil Bear Swamp, they was drawn to the wilding world like a magnet. I reckon it was how they coped. When they was out in the forests tracking yet another mutant, they felt calm. Sad, but calm. Every chance they could get, they was running off. After a month, they could mark each tree, each foxfly, each bonemallow vine as they grew talons or eyes or wings.
’Bout near three weeks before the First Polar Vortex, one of the villagers ran to the scientists’ encampment with red, wide eyes. Told ’em that while he was picking pomberries, the ground began to move like a pot of water about to boil. The other scientists didn’t need to raise a hand—Yonette and Jacy were on their feet and strapping on their bags before the villager could finish.
They had to step light to keep the ground from shifting out from under ’em as they walked in the direction the villager pointed out. The wind had rose, like the moment before a spore swarm. They followed fresh-disturbed earth until they found a grove of trees whose trail markers looked strange.
Mounds of earth marked the place between this strange grove and the rest of the forest, because every darn thing outside-a that demarcation was just like they’d left it a week ago. But inside? Whew, howdy. Dense-packed trees that were straight as arrows last week now twisted all types-a directions. Some made loop-de-loops and others split right down the middle. For as far as they could see. A whole kilometer, at least.
“It looks like they’re trying to get away from something,” Yonette said.
Jacy stepped toward the closest, tracing the edges of the white mark he’d made just last week. The edges of the triangle billowed out like they was stretched. More blob than triangle, now.
“Whatever changed did it quick,” Jacy said. He pulled out a notebook and pencil nub, flipped open to a scrap of unfilled page. Yonette pulled out her silica pouch and tweezers and stepped onto the roots of the next tree, which twisted in a 90-degree angle—if she wanted, she could sit on the trunk and watch the sky light fade.
“I wonder what caused the change,” Yonette said as she looked for just the right few specimens to pluck. “Maybe the weather? Been nippy and wet lately. More than usual.”
“Naw,” Jacy said, biting his lip and squinting at the bark pattern, sketching furiously. His thick braid slipped forward, which he batted away. “Too subtle to be a catalyst for something like this. There’s something else here. In the air. Can’t ye feel it?”
“Yeah, it’s like the slime mold canopy,” Yonette said and plucked her first specimen—a place where the mark met clean bark. She dropped it in the silica and plucked a few others from across the tree. “Like there’s movement but no wind.”
Jacy’s head shot up and all five-foot-four of him grew rigid.
“Stop, seriously—can’t you feel that?”
Yonette stood up, feet anchored in the tree’s roots. She cocked her head to one side in response.
“Darlin’, did you drink your chicory this morning, ’cause you’re acting a little sleep deprived.”
“Listen, Yonette,” he said, which made her head turn. He only ever used her name when life or limb was threatened. She held herself at attention.
And in listening, she felt it. The shake of a great beast waking.
“Look—” Jacy gasped and pointed up.
Up they looked.
Some change comes creeping in, bit by bit. So gradual ya wake up one day thinking, “Wait, when did things get so strange?” Other change comes bursting out, all at once.
On the next tree, each of a thousand long, thin leaves began to rustle, though there was no wind. They gathered their green into themselves, one by one, curling into balls before bursting into the sky all at once. They flapped up and away in a winding cloud that churned across the sky. The flock of leaves flew away, quick as a sigh. The two scientists held their breath. Their notebook and pouch grew slick with the sweat from their palms. They could not hear their thoughts over the sound of the flock.
No, not just the flock—some other sound grew louder as the leaves became a speck on the horizon. A rumble had started from below.
The roots began to move, left and right at first. Dirt clumps tumbled away and gathered at the mound Yonette and Jacy had crossed. The bark, too, was alive, they realized. It seethed awake, shifting this-a-way and that-a-way until it looked like a sea alive with the breath of a storm. Then, the roots began to move, up and down, up and down. Until they shook free of the soil. Until they wrenched themselves away from the earth. Until the trunk twisted out of the ground and away across the still air, a mass of churning bark.
The roots they stood on writhed then withdrew. And then they propelled.
For a moment they suspended there, weightless in midair. Just a few dozen feet above the earth. In those moments of birthing, there’s an itching feeling deep in your belly, a feeling that tells you there ain’t no coming back. In those moments, ya got a choice—cling, or let go. These two? When they launched into the air, they didn’t try to get away. Naw, they fell back into the turn in the tree trunks, a perfect seat.
They flew closeby. As they clung to the trunk for dear life, they watched the whole world unfurl below. There was the village, with its hundreds of ant-like people milling about. Next to it, the river snaking—from what now must be kilometers away, it glowed like a slip of sun. And just beyond, the forest ripping itself up and following its flock.
Yonette’s shoulders fell. She let out a long, ragged breath. She looked up to Jacy, who already studied her. Even from a hundred yards away, she could see his smile, his eyes glossy with possibility, his mind alive with questions. He’d managed to hang onto his notebook, which poked out of his coat—his fingers twitched to draw all he saw now.
Yonette listened to the trees rustle-in-air and could’ve sworn she heard the low hum of conversation.
Their trees floated near at least a hundred others for what felt like hours. When the sun began to stain the sky with pink, their ascent slowed. Each trees’ roots reached out and out until they grasped at another’s and curled tight. They wound until the trees became a latticework of root so solid it looked like ground. The leaves settled on their branches. Jacy peeked over the edge—the roots dangled with clear pods of strange fruits, nuts, and berries. Without thinking, he launched off his perch and whipped out his notebook, sketching the new landscape in a fever.
“Jesus, be careful,” Yonette said.
Jacy laughed, all a-glow.
“When in Rome!”
Yonette couldn’t help but smile. It took everything in her not to gather him up in a hug right then.
Moment by moment, she took in this new world above the Earth. Underneath her fingers she could hear the trill of the trees’ conversation. She, too, had been transformed once. She, too, had ran away once. And so, Yonette understood. The leaves reached out to touch her. They curled on themselves, forming fingers that stroked her hair, her face, her shoulder, that bade her stop and rest. To let them braid her hair with mallowsilk, and whisper melodies of dead cities, and trace patterns of the future in her mind.
Jacy met her gaze, tear-laced eyes framed by a glowing face.
Yonette let out a long sigh that had been gathering in her for months.
The others would manage, she reckoned.
Now, follow my hand to—there.
See that little speck up there? The one tucked in the shadow of acid clouds swirling round the sun? That’s where the Sky-Eaters live to this day. Now they’ve got a whole bevy-a folks up there with ’em, making their life way far above.
Legend has it that years in the sky made their brown skin iridescent and their brown eyes all-seeing. That when they drift down to the surface on saplings every few years, they know who belongs to the Sky-Eaters by whether they got fear or wonder in their eye. When the mod-herder was done weaving his yarn, I seen the fear. Couldn’t even bring himself to look ’em plain in the eye, he told me.
Birth is a dual-edged type-a thing. When something new comes screaming awake, it rips its path through our lives and lands smack dab in front of us, covered in stink and slop. But under all that is this ball humming with possibility, ready to be shaped by kind hands and curious minds. Ye can’t have one without the other, not really.
So when newness rips its way through your life, don’t shy away. Remember what Yonette of the Sky-Eaters did: look at it, straight-on. See it fully, warts to willybugs. And maybe, just maybe, listen a ’lil while. Never know what you might find—not even seventy years ago, Yonette and her love found a new life in the sky.
Jess Lewis (they/them) is a trans non-binary and pansexual writer, designer, and organizer who hails from the hollers of Western North Carolina. They currently live in the deep South, where they explore futures of liberation and how to get there.
When they’re not imagining queer utopias, designing future tech, or facilitating capacity-building workshops, they’re organizing programming for The Outer Dark Symposium on the Greater Weird. Their work has appeared in a range of publications, from Solarpunk Magazine, to HyphenPunk, to Nox Pareidolia 2 from Nightscape Press.
Visit their website at https://www.quarefutures.com and follow them on Twitter and Instagram @quarefutures.