The Splitting – Lorna Wood
We were I then. I floated in the element, a sticky, warm, viscous fluid full of nutrients. The smallest food dissolved and slipped in through the pores of my integument. When larger organisms drew near, I lazily flipped my cilia, swooshing them down the nearest gullet. I was—we are—omnivorous. Creamy, crunchy, gelatinous, sweet, salty, even bitter—all delectable.
I was swelling, exuding pheromones that eddied around my cilia before being carried out farther and farther.
Inexorably, they were drawn to me, desperate to see my ripeness, stroke my taut integument, absorb my exudate. The element sloshed as they thrashed and corkscrewed through it, but I could only float, waiting.
They came from all directions. Their pheromones were faint at first, like the memory of an especially tasty organism, then stronger. The element became a love potion, maddening my inflamed ganglia.
One day they were there, gray, ropy, tumescent, all singularly focused on my need, which was also their own.
They wriggled, observing my body quiver involuntarily as the waves they created washed over me. My gullets opened and closed, instinctively synching with the rhythms they created.
Seeing my response, they began to touch me. At first they barely grazed my cilia with the tips of their tentacles, but even this was exquisite torture. I could feel my cloacal vacuole swelling, my insides gathering themselves.
Sensing my acceptance, they presented gifts: organisms I had never tasted before, balms for my strained integument. Although I felt far too full to be hungry and too stretched to be touched, my gullets opened convulsively to their offerings, and I let them gently cover me in healing ooze.
They became bolder. Lewdly training their eyestalks on the integument around my cloacal vacuole, they saw the telltale stretching and quivered vibrating, triumphant laughter through the element. Then they wrapped me in their tentacles and squeezed.
For a few seconds, I was in agony. My overloaded ganglia telegraphed fire to every part of my distended body, but there was no release, only the pain of the squeezing, coupled with my need for them.
Then, suddenly, my cloacal vacuole burst, expelling a thousand baby thems into the element. The force of the expulsion loosened their grip, and I saw their eyes turn fleetingly in the direction of their successors, but they were in the throes of it now and could not let go. Murmuring their greedy desires, they snaked their swollen tentacles everywhere around my quivering body, even down my gullets and into my cloacal vacuole.
I could already feel the change, the we-ness, as it were. And I no longer felt tight, inside or out. Still, I needed them even more than they needed me. The expulsion had left an emptiness that needed filling.
I began to suck with all my gullets. Their tentacles seemed the only food I would ever need, but I needed it insatiably. My quivering condensed into a focused, peristaltic pulse in every gullet groove. The tentacles became mush. Involuntarily, I released enzymes, breaking them down further. My integument tightened inexorably around the opening where the expulsion had occurred, and when the chemicals had broken down the tentacles in the cloacal vacuole and harvested their DNA, they were severed and the vacuole closed.
All the time I heard their cries, saw the anguish in their eyes, bobbing in terror on their stalks, but I could not help them. I seemed to need all my energy to pull against their attempts to withdraw the tentacles. I told myself I would help them later, if I could, but this was foolishness. I was still hungry when all the tentacles were gone, and it would have been cruel as well as wasteful to leave their little bodies floating helplessly. I pulled them in too, though I took no special joy in it.
For a moment, all was quiet. Even the element seemed absolutely still and empty. Then the pains began.
I was ripped in half. My nerves snapped, then regrew, my integument split, and my tender insides were torturously exposed until it too could regrow. It took a long time. I don’t know how I stood it, or her, my sister-self, either. We sent each other comforting element waves, signaled back and forth with our neural transmitters, eventually talked.
It’s peaceful now. We enjoy floating side by side, ingesting. One day, we’ll be a colony.
Lorna Wood is a violinist and writer in Auburn, Alabama, with a Ph.D. in English from Yale. She was a finalist in the 2016 Neoverse Short Story Competition and the Sharkpack Poetry Review’s Valus’ Sigil competition. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Between Worlds Zine, Dark Magic (Owl Hollow Press anthology), No Extra Words, Wild Violet, These Fragile Lilacs, Experimementos, Cacti Fur, Birds Piled Loosely, Every Writer, Blue Monday Review, and Untitled, with Passengers, as well as on Kindle, where her author page is amazon.com/author/lornawood.