The Color of the Vepo
By Rachel A. Greco
Cold and colorless.
Those were my first impressions of the Vepo’s world.
The Vepo stole me only twelve bloomings of the sun after my Burst, when my wings had just learned the touch of the egg-smooth sky and my nose the scents of the flowers bending their slender necks to look up at me.
I did not yet know that there were creatures living in the shadowy waters beneath the Murmuring Meadow. My blissful life consisted of sipping nectar, zooming over flowers, and talking with the other Petloûda.
The day the sweetness of my life soured, I sat on my morning-pink flower, dangling my legs over the petals, my new butterfly wings fluttering in the breeze. The sun’s flickering rays on the dark water dazzled me. I drifted closer as if enchanted and reached out to touch the sun’s prancing golden-white fingers on the surface. But a cold, wet something grabbed my leg and yanked me down into the water.
I screamed and thrashed, but the water now encased me like a colder and darker chrysalis at my Burst.
I squirmed against the slimy tentacles holding me against a soft body as it dragged me into the belly of the sea.
A bubble appeared over my mouth, and I sucked the air greedily. I tried flapping my wings, but they were trapped against my back.
Dark shapes appeared out of the sunlit water and surrounded my captor and me. My air bubble expanded as I gasped at the eight tentacles where their legs should’ve been, curling and uncurling in the water. They had four smaller tentacles for arms.
Their faces were even odder. It was as if they wore a mask made out of bark; a hard skin covered their face and then tapered off into thinner tentacles curling around their heads like breeze-blown hair.
Stranger than the swirling tentacles or bark-hard faces was the lack of color anywhere on the creatures. Their bodies came only in shades of grey. I gaped, cringing inside. Creatures without color could not be good.
The beings stared at me as well, but more with awe than horror as if to suck up all my color for themselves. And they couldn’t even see my most vibrant feature—my wings.
One of the beings glided forward, and a rattling sliced the eerie silence. Strings full of giant, sharp-edged teeth it and the others’ waists. “We are the Vepo,” the creature said in a deep, gurgly voice that I took to be male. “We will take you home, Komandi, and you will be our color.”
“My name’s Alaelea, and I have a home.” The air bubble made my voice sound faint, or perhaps that was just my terror.
The creature gazed at me with eyes as black as a moonless night. “You did. But you are Komandi, the colored one, the answer to our Asking. Our home will be your home.”
Although he spoke the same language as me, I only understood half of what he said. Why did the Vepo possess no color? And why didn’t they call me by the name I’d carried on my tongue when I Burst?
“Come.” The man who had spoken turned and faced the shadowy depths. “Let us return.”
The Vepo closed around me then swam down.
No. I couldn’t live in a world without the sun’s warmth, without the varied hues and tones of the flowers, where I couldn’t take flight at any time into the sky, where I was seen just as the color in my hair and wings instead of a valued member of the Hive.
I writhed and beat my wings, trying to reach the surface, the meadow—my home and all things beautiful.
“There is no point resisting. You will come with us, and you will make us colorful again,” my captor said in a higher-pitched voice than the male’s. Her tentacles tightened on my arms and waist.
I gazed at the sunlight dancing above, innocent of the dangers beneath. Its dancing hues already appeared more grey than gold, and the roots of the flowers were more white than brown.
I watched the sunlight get further and further away until it shrank to a white, shimmery blob. I now couldn’t make out the flowers above the surface or their roots, only chilly, grey water. Home was further away than the great Sleep to someone who had just Burst like me. But I didn’t stop trying to squirm out of my captor’s grip.
When we reached the ground, I stopped writhing, exhausted, and glanced around. Structures like opaque bubbles bloomed on the ground.
“Welcome to the Sands of Sanctir, your new home,” the male who had spoken earlier grinned at me with teeth as sharp as a wasp stinger.
Swarms of the tentacled creatures streamed out of the bubble structures, propelling toward me and my captors. They too were all various shades of grey.
The creatures gawked at me, and I longed to flee. Or at least to wrap my arms around myself, but my captor still clasped them.
Many of the Vepo murmured in those gurgly voices, “It is her. The colored one, Komandi.”
“The Creator has answered us. He has brought color to us at last!” One of them proclaimed.
A few small, brave Vepo tried to wiggle their tentacles toward me, but one who had accompanied us from the surface slapped them away. He spoke in a language I didn’t understand, then said in our shared tongue, “She is not for your own enjoyment. Her color is for all Vepo.”
The young Vepo shrank back, though their small eyes never left me. Would this be my life now? To be gawked at by strangers? Once again I peered up at the surface, but instead of the un-ending sky and smiling sun, there was only the faintest shimmer of light. My chest felt tight, and I took a shallow breath, and then another and another until I could breathe properly again.
“You will all have time to gaze upon Komandi,” the male who’d spoken at the surface announced. “Now, we must take her to her glake.” Another word I didn’t know.
The throng of Vepo pressed in close to my captors and I, staring at me as if I alone held all their dreams and hopes. It was tragic that they didn’t have color, but not tragic enough to steal me away from my home.
The crowd followed us to the glake, which turned out to be one of the opaque half-bubbles. My captor and the other Vepo stopped in front of one that rose taller than me, but not by much. I could see into the glake, but just enough to notice a few dim floating blobs inside.
“This will be your home, Komandi.” The leader gestured to the bubble with one of his arm-tentacles.
“My name’s Alaelea,” I muttered.
The male continued as if he hadn’t heard, and he might not have, with the whispers buzzing from the crowd. “Neki will remain in front of the opening so no one bothers you and in case you need anything.” His black eyes pricked me. “One of us will retrieve you when this night journey is over.” He bowed. “May peace guard your ways.”
I returned the farewell by habit. Even though he had abducted me, I still wished peace for him.
My captor pushed her way through the crowd toward an oval opening in the hard, smooth material of the glake. She carried me through the opening and deposited me on a plant-strewn floor. I wrinkled my nose at the prickly smell of the plants and stood. They crunched under my feet.
My captor left, and I noticed another Vepo floating there, face away from me. He or she held something thin and straight with a tooth tied on top like one of those encircling their waists.
“Come on,” the leader shouted outside to the crowd. “You will see more color when this night journey ends.”
They didn’t leave, though. I could see their tentacled forms drifting outside the room, no doubt trying to suck up as much color from me as possible before the sunlight died.
I ignored them and surveyed my circular, one-room chamber. The opaque material stretched above me enough that I had to flutter my wings to reach the curved top. Oh, how delightful it felt to stretch my wings! I fluttered them until a stench more potent and foul than the plants tugged me to the far side of the room.
A large ribbed shell piled with fatter plants than those covering the floor and two dead fish sat there, eyeing me mournfully. Sometimes back home vibrant blue and yellow fish jumped out of the water below our flowers, but we never ate them. The Petloûda never ate anything with eyes. I turned from the shell, my stomach tightening like a snail in its shell.
The floating shapes I had glimpsed outside the glake were living fish. They were smaller than those in the shell, and their lovely, long fins flowed in the water as they glided by like freshly spun dresses.
I glanced down at my own dress. The white seemed brighter than I remembered, probably because of all the faded shades down here. The part by my legs was torn from my pointless kicking and thrashing.
I sat down, covering myself with my gilded wings, attempting to hide from the shapes lingering outside. I stared at the splotches of color on my wings, missing home.
I missed the softness of my flower, the stars’ rhythmic blinking, and the rustling of the Orchai birds as they settled on stems for the night, ready to burst out in a flutter at dawn. But mostly I missed the murmured ‘good nights’ of my fellow Hive members as they settled into their own flowers, knowing I was not alone.
I couldn’t imagine living without color, but how could taking me from my home be pursuing the peace that our world stands on? And why did the Vepo have no color?
Velka came the next blooming of the sun, as sprightly as a spring breeze and as old as our world.
I was as testy as the females that guard the pupa in our meadow. I had spent a restless night weeping and aching for home, then a morning being paraded around for the Vepo to ogle. And when I was brought back to my glake, the same large shell sat on the plant-strewn ground, now containing a creature the size of my head with large spikes. My stomach thundered, so I had eaten some of the plants beside the horrid creature.
While I sat staring morosely at the spiked creature, my stomach still angry at me, a Vepo propelled itself into the room. The string around its waist held more teeth than any I had seen and rattled with every movement. One of its arm tentacles clasped a sharp stick, and all of the others wound tightly around several seashells:
“Peace to you, Povi,” she said in a voice more gurgly than the others. “The name given to me by the Creator is Velka.”
“And mine is Alaelea.” Not that she would care, as they all insisted on calling me Komandi.
Velka’s leg-tentacles suckered her to the ground. “That’s a lovely name. I just call everyone younger than me Povi, and that’s pretty much everyone.” She laughed—an odd, gushing noise, bubbles streaming from her mouth.
“Are you going to eat that?” One of her hair tentacles pointed at the creature lying in the shell.
I shook my head. “I don’t eat anything that has eyes.”
She stared at me, her own eyes as light as clouds, then nodded. “That might be wise. However, I’m too near Sleep to change my ways now. So if you’re not going to eat it, may I?”
“Sure.” I handed the shell to her.
Velka continued speaking while crunching on the shell. “Naiku,” she held up the creature, white strings dangling from where she’d bit it, “are delicious. But Tatina, which are larger and have flippers, are far superior. One almost killed me. Not intentionally, of course. They don’t have teeth like the mighty Nekark.” She touched one of the many teeth drooping from her waist. “But it gave me a fright, nonetheless. The Tatina migrate, you see.”
Her eyes traveled over me as she spoke. “When the cold currents arrive, the Tatina come through here on their way to the great northern seagrass meadows. The older ones can be as large as an adult Vepo. They usually just glide above us on their way north, but sometimes a few younger ones drift down to have a better look at what strange creatures we are.” She grinned. “And this Tatina swam down and knocked me over while I was picking up some shells!”
She gave a great gushing laugh, and I smiled, more at the sight of the bubbles whooshing around her than the scene she retold, though it was amusing.
“Well, I was so frightened and angry, that I whirled around. I didn’t have a spear with me, but my mate, who now Sleeps, taught me a few things. By then the little Tatina was gliding away, and I realized, much to my chagrin, how foolish I’d been. One would think the closer to Sleep you are, the less foolish you become, but that’s not the truth.” She shook her head.
Velka had finished eating and held up a flat seashell with spikes. She rubbed the sharp stick thing over it.
I leaned forward. “What are you doing?”
“Oh, this is just a venok, what you call a diversion, to keep this old Vepo’s tentacles busy while her mouth flaps like seaweed in a strong current.”
I smiled at what appeared, as far as I could tell, to be an apt description of the vivacious female.
“I pick up interesting shells and smooth or cut them with this,” she held up the sharp stick, “and join them together with sito, the sticky liquid from my tentacles, to form different kinds of creatures.”
She shrugged. “It calms me until I see my mate, Levok, again. And the young ones enjoy them.”
“The shells are beautiful,” I said. They’d be more exquisite with color, but Velka couldn’t help that.
“Perhaps I’ll show you some of my finished creations sometime. They’re nothing fancy.”
“I’d like that. I don’t have much else to occupy me.” I stared down at my toes.
“Yes, it’s a shame they took you from your home. But how else will we get color?” Velka frowned, flicking a glance at my wings above my head. She was the first Vepo who hadn’t gawked at me, who treated me like another creature worthy of knowing.
“How did the Vepo lose their color?”
“That, Povi, is a story for another time.” One of her hair-tentacles grabbed the now-completely smooth shell, and the tentacle that had held it grasped a flower-shaped one. “Would you like to hear how I helped my Levok fight a pod of Lonaks?”
Velka talked well into the somber grey that slithered into the space before night, always smoothing or cutting her shells. Because I had nothing else to do, I listened and sometimes asked a question. Soon fascination gripped me for this people who were so different than the Petloûda, yet still people who ate, breathed, laughed, and loved.
Before she left, Velka glanced again at my wings. “May I see your wings? I hear that’s where most of your color congregates.”
“You’re the first one to ask.” I stood, my legs sighing at the movement. I turned around so she could better see the swirls and splashes of burgundy, turquoise, mauve, ochre.
She sucked in, making a loud sloshing sound, and moaned. “Magnificent, Povi, magnificent. Now I can Sleep in peace. My only regret is that Levok didn’t see it before he Slept.”
“How did the Sleep take him?” I asked, turning around.
“That is also a story for another day,” Velka replied.
And she told it to me the next day, as well as many others every blooming sun after. Her mate featured in many of them, but I loved the story about him greeting Sleep the best.
“He was velapi, stubborn, that one,” Velka said the next afternoon, shaking her head. “Fighting a Nekark is dangerous and risky.” She patted the teeth on her waist. She had told me earlier that each Vepo received one tooth every rotation of the sun on the day they had Burst out of their eggs.
“These teeth may seem sharp, but it’s the venom you have to be careful of.” Velka pointed a tentacle at me as if I wanted to go hunt a Nekark. “They shoot it out of their eyes, and it can kill you quicker than blinking. They’re also extremely fast and can swallow you in one bite.”
I stared at her, the seashells she had been teaching me how to shape forgotten in my hand.
“But Levok loved danger. Not as much as he loved me, of course, but it was who he was.” Her face-mask softened, her eyes dreamy.
“Just before he left, he told me his love for me was deeper than the Nekarkan Sea, and he would wait for me in the world of sleep, if it took him. He always told me that, but he spoke more fervently this time, and his tentacles clutched me close.
“Three night journeys later Jaiku, another hunter, brought back Levok’s body and the sinew filled with the teeth of the Nekarks he killed, which I still have.” She stroked the teeth tied around her waist again. “That night journey we placed his body in a giant shell and sent him deep into the sea to sleep peacefully until the Creator returns.”
Velka stared off for a long moment, her eyes as far away as that sea, then she returned to the room with a shudder. “But you don’t want to listen to the ramblings of an old Vepo. Tell me about the flowers. And you mentioned your home is called the Murmuring Meadow. Why?”
So I did. The words burst out of me like a swarm of butterflies. I was eager to tug my world, which felt so far away, a little closer, and share some of its beauty with this kind woman, who had shared some of her world with me and treated me as an equal.
Then, as I did every time she came over, I asked, “What happened to all the color here?”
Velka said like she always did, “That’s a story for another time.”
The only color in my life among the Vepo was Velka. She kept me alive with her stories and thirst for mine.
The only time I was allowed out of my glake was when a female guard took me around the Sands of Sanctir for the Vepo to gape at. Although I understood their eager gazes, it didn’t mean I enjoyed them. I usually gazed at the surface, so far away, longing to burst through the cold, grey water into the sun-soaked sky, but my guard always kept a tentacle firmly wrapped around my arm.
My guard would bring me back to my room with the politest words. I, too, was nothing but polite. Anything else would just exacerbate my predicament.
“May I return home today?” I asked every morning when a different Vepo entered to give me food. Since that first time I spoke to Velka, no odd creature stared at me from within the shell, merely plants. I suspected Velka’s vigorous tongue had told someone, and was immensely grateful to her.
“No, Komandi,” the Vepo would always respond with a bow. “I’m sorry, but this is your home now.”
I spent the snail-slow time until Velka arrived or after she left staring out of the opaque walls, wondering if another group of Petloûda had Burst yet, contemplating Velka’s stories or what had happened to their color—assuming they had some in the first place.
Sometimes I examined the color budding in my room. There wasn’t much, but more existed than when I first arrived, and it continued to grow, slowly seeping into the bland walls and floor.
I first noticed the color a few sun bloomings after the Vepo captured me. When I woke, I realized the plants on the ground possessed hints of brown.
Velka noticed it too when she entered. Her eyes bulged as she gazed at the spot of brown seaweed. “That’s not a very nice color. Your wings are much more beautiful.”
“Did you know this would happen?” I didn’t; everything is colored in the Petloûda’s world. There’s no need for more.
“Me? No. I’m just a foolish old Vepo who knows a little about hunting and a little more about seashells.”
She obviously knew more than this, but I was keener to quench my curiosity than expose this lie. “Did the Vepo who took me know my color would spread?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t even know they were going to take a Petloûda until the group left. By then, it was too late.”
“Too late for what?” Had she wanted to stop them? I wouldn’t have been surprised, as she was the only one who treated me like an equal.
She sighed, sticking sito onto two shell creatures with the tip of a tentacle. “It matters not now.”
Color continued seeping from me into my room until it all shouted of vibrant life. The color grabbed Velka, too.
“Who knew I looked like that?” She said the first time color completely coated her as she stared down at her light-blue skin.
Velka’s skin reminded me both painfully and joyfully of the sky waiting to hug me. “You’re beautiful,” I told her.
She glanced away, and was, for the first time since I had met her, speechless.
Color slowly soaked into my surroundings, casting rays of joy over the Vepo. They sang odd, babbling songs, smiled more, and even laughed. They still stared at me and my wings, as I contained more color than the Vepo had seen in one place, but not as much now that they shared in my beauty.
As color wafted from me to the Vepo, compassion for them flowed the other way. It warmed me in a way the sun never could to see them shout over a new color or sing with each other as their world bloomed anew. It was like watching a Bursting of an entire world, and it was glorious. Yet, my heart still ached to go home. If I did, even if it were possible, I doubted my color would remain. The Vepo and I both couldn’t have it.
“It’s wonderful what you’ve done for us,” Velka said once from her usual spot suckered to the floor. “I’ve never seen the Vepo this happy before, and I’ve been around a long time. It’s like a group of hunters returning from killing a Nekark, but so much more.”
“I didn’t have much choice.”
“Maybe not in coming here. But you did have some in sharing your color with us.” She gestured to her blue body.
I shrugged. I didn’t remember intentionally giving it away, and I hadn’t necessarily meant to; it had just happened.
“Well, it can’t hurt the Vepo,” I said. “I might as well be of use here. It’s better than wasting my time.”
Velka gazed at the coiled shell in her hand as if it had bitten her. “Maybe,” she said slowly. “But they’ll never let you leave now that they have color again.”
My shoulders slumped. The familiar longing of home and the plight of the Vepo tugged my heart in opposite directions. “Will the color remain if I leave?” My voice rose with my hopes.
“I doubt it.” She spoke the words I had already guessed to be true. “You are Komandi, after all, the colored one.”
I grimaced at the title. “Please not you too. If I hear that word one more time, I think I’ll rip my wings off.”
Velka laughed. “Don’t worry. You’ll always be Povi to me. Although,” she looked at me speculatively, “tearing off your wings would be one way to solve the problem.”
The thought of doing so sent shivers up my back into my wings.
“Can you tell me the story today?” I asked, more out of habit than hope that she’d acquiesce.
She clucked with her tongue. “Not today, Povi. We’ve talked enough about heavy things. If we continue, I’ll be so weighed down that Levok won’t recognize me in the world beyond Sleep.”
A few night journeys later, I gave up trying to attach two rosy-pink shells that were supposed to be flower petals and stared out the walls. A few Vepo drifted by, but none looked at me now that color oozed out of me like honey.
My mind was in the Murmuring Meadow, as usual. How could I return to my hive without leaving the Vepo in darkness? If I could return at all…
Velka entered, more frenzied than someone attacked by a horde of hornets. Her tentacles eddied around her, and her green eyes were lightning bolts. “That Nuovki is a fish-brained coral-head!” She plopped down with a loud squelch. “He deserves to be hung up on one of the Thousand Arches for five days and nights.”
I sat cross-legged across from her. “He’s the one who’s supposed to be the next king of your colony, right?” I’d heard her mention him before, but not with this much vehemence.
“Yes, and if he’s not careful, he’s going to end up just like King Kelovsi, the one who drained away all our color.”
I stared at Velka, afraid to speak, afraid to breathe. Was this it? The moment that she would finally tell me about why the Vepo had lived in shadows before I came?
Her summer-green eyes pierced me, and her tentacles stilled. “Oh, alright. My energetic mouth has gotten me into trouble again. Larger than a clam it is, Levok always said. But you deserve to know, and it won’t change much, if anything.”
She scraped at a shell with her stick, and dove in. “We broke the peace the Creator ordered us to keep. And not just once, though that would be bad enough, but over and over again. And not just with other creatures, but with our own kind.”
I gasped. This was worse than I had expected. “You fought? And with other Vepo?”
Velka nodded sadly, gazing at the shell and stick wrapped in her stormy-blue appendages. “With the fish-headed Vepo. We don’t even remember who exactly started it. It happened so long ago, over ten thousand night journeys.
“We used to trade with the fish-heads for food and other provisions. At the market, one of our kind and one of theirs exchanged abrasive words, and the seas soon blushed red with their blood. I wasn’t there. I’m not that old, but every Vepo knows the story.”
Her voice quieted. “The war lasted longer than 2,000 night journeys. Our king at the time was proud and loved power more than food or color. All he cared about was conquering the fish heads.
“It faded slowly, the color. That’s why no one noticed for a while.”
Velka shook herself and resumed removing pieces from the shell. “When the two kings could see past their power long enough to see not only the Vepo, but the color dying around them, it was too late. The color was gone, and so were most of the Vepo. The two kings met and created a peace treaty. They also ended the trade with our two people, so now we never see the fish-heads. Except occasionally on hunting trips.” She rubbed one of her suckers for sito. “Every rotation of the sun since the war’s end, our colony has united in asking the Creator for color.”
I shivered, trying to imagine that much death and brutality, but couldn’t. My world had only contained peace, laughter, and flight.
After I tried to understand what could have caused the Vepo to fight among themselves and couldn’t, I stated the obvious, “That’s horrific.”
Velka nodded. “Indeed. But many in the colony believe our Asking has been answered in you, Povi.”
“How could it? They stole me from my home and all my loved ones. They broke the peace again.” Something dark and insistent surged inside me, begging to be let out. I threw my shell to the ground, and it drifted slowly into the plants. The sight of it falling slowly instead of shattering made the dark thing inside me growl. I picked up the shell and slammed it into the wall.
As the pieces of something once beautiful crumbled in my hand, I ripped my hand away, gaping. Never before had I done anything so…violent.
“I agree with you,” Velka told me. “That’s why I’m going to help you leave. Tonight.”
I turned, the shell and my fit, forgotten. “What?”
She didn’t look old with the way her tentacles tightened on her stick. “I will help get you home tonight. You should be living a life of color in your Meadow. It’s our fault we have no color, and we must accept the Creator’s consequences.”
“But…but you’ll lose it all.” My heart wrenched as I again remembered the Vepo’s newfound joy. How could I take that away from them?
Velka glanced around the room at the color, not with sadness, but with determined acceptance. “I’m close to Sleep, so it doesn’t matter much to me. But this isn’t right, what the colony is doing. You want to go home, right, Alealea?”
The use of my name—the first time in this place—brought tears to my eyes.
“Of course,” I whispered.
Velka de-suckered herself off the ground. “I will return tonight.”
I spent the time until Velka returned hovering around my room, craving the depths of the sky and attempting to ignore the horror that would crash down on the Vepo when I took color away from them.
“Alaelea?” Velka drifted through the opening when the fish in my room glowed orange. “It’s time.”
“Where’s the guard?” I asked, floating close.
“I told her to leave because I wanted to share some special stories with you.” She shrugged. “It’s not quite the truth, but at least I didn’t have to break the peace.”
“You won’t be punished?”
She waved a tentacle. “It doesn’t matter. I’m close to Sleep.”
She put a tentacle over my mouth. “It doesn’t matter. Come.” Another tentacle wrapped around my wrist, pulling me out of my cage.
“Go,” Velka said once we were outside and she’d released my wrist. “No one leaves their glakes while the night journeys over us. Go enjoy your colored life for me, for all of us.”
I gazed up at the surface, my wings fluttering, revealing how much I hungered for home. Then I glanced back at Velka, at her odd, hard face that didn’t seem odd or hard anymore but that of a friend. “But…but I can’t leave you.”
“Yes you can, and you will. I’m just an old, talkative Vepo with no mate.”
“No you’re not. You’re my friend, and I’ll never forget your stories. You were the color to my life here.” I squeezed one of her tentacles.
Her smile looked as weak as a Petloûda’s newly-burst wings. “We are not so different. Now go.” She gently pushed me up.
And up I half-flew, half-swam. It was difficult and slow, but no one saw me. I pushed through the pain in my wings and legs up to my people, my home. Taking my color with me.
I glanced down once. I could still see Velka, but her color was already fading, just a hint of blue now in her skin. In a few more flutters it would completely disappear. Unless…
The Vepo and I both couldn’t have my color, but if I gave it to them, then it would be theirs forever.
Maybe they had stolen me, but they had been desperate, confused, snatching at anything—even a little Petloûda, to fill themselves up, not knowing that color already lived among them in their smiles, laughs, tears, stories.
When I reached the surface, I let the color slide off me like a raindrop onto the Vepo below, leaving me as grey as they once had been. I didn’t need it where I was going.