Tiny shavings of iron and brass stuck in Dven’s proboscis. He cleared the debris with a forceful snort and swallowed the filings along with his own mucus and blood. Ettick rarely blended the shavings well enough, but Dven didn’t complain. Most females didn’t bother making the drinks for their mates, and not every couple could afford brass.
After breakfast Ettick left for council meetings. Dven longed to go with her. Not that he would understand important topics like harvest and population—his brain was half the size of a female’s—but the idea of companionship soothed him like a warm summer breeze caressing his exoskeleton.
Instead of plunging deeper into the colony with Ettick, Dven wandered the forest near their home. The hairs along his legs hummed and his tiny brain put words to the song: A father’s work is solitary.
A year of mineral supplements made his body heavy and slow. The bundles of fallen branches weighed down his thin arms, threatening to snap them like the dry twigs beneath his arolia. The gathering exhausted him, but a need to collect material blossomed in his lymph with the persistence of a clump of crocus in spring.
For lunch he had a second shake, which he made himself. He couldn’t expect Ettick to soil herself with collagen from rotting corpses. The fragrant leaf pulp didn’t mask the taste of death, but animal collagen was necessary for a nest of any quality, so he choked it down and wiped away tears of disgust and curled up in the scent Ettick had left on their bed.
His real work came in the afternoon. He went out to the shed and set himself to the task of chewing the wood. Of all the tasks associated with nesting, chewing was the only one that actually required solitude. Dven’s friends could have come into the forest with him, had they chosen to, but they could not enter the shed. Even Ettick had to stay away. The saliva and regurgitation was too personal, bordering on obscene. He settled into the task and allowed images of larvae to fill his mind. Ignoring the burn in his jaws, he chewed for warmth, protection, and comfort—the things Ettick’s intelligence and status couldn’t buy.
In the evening, he complained of his loneliness to Ettick.
“Soon the larvae will come, and you won’t be lonely,” she reminded him, patting her ovipositor.
“But what about now? You must know how this feels. Why can’t you stay with me?”
Her eyes looked rounder than usual, sadder and more beautiful, as she wrapped one of her wings around him. Dven never felt lonely when cocooned in her.
The urge to build came suddenly in the dark of a hot summer night. Dven wriggled out from beneath Ettick’s wing, careful to not wake her.
Surrounded by piles of finely processed pulp, he curled in on himself.
In the morning Ettick carried out his shake, but he refused to drink.
He settled his heavy abdomen against the hard floor, flexed the joints of his six legs, and looked at his mate with glistening eyes. “It’s time.”
He longed for her wings to cocoon him in safety, but his head drooped with exhaustion and it was too much effort to speak. Or maybe he just knew she wouldn’t stay, even if he asked.
She stroked him with one of her powerful wings and took the drink away, leaving him with only the sound of his cracking exoskeleton to keep him company.
His body expelled the metal from his lymph. It slithered out from beneath his new scales in delicate ropes. It entwined over and under itself, creating a solid frame to hold his pulp. He shuddered with every centimeter that left him. Ecstasy drove him to strain until he fell into a trance. He regurgitated collagen and his consciousness into the pile of pulp until there was no border between father and nest.
Ettick laid her eggs, and three larvae hatched. They nestled into the pulp of father and consumed him with hungry mouths. The sensation—all tickles and joy—delighted Dven. They took whatever wisdom he had, but they also took his worry and impatience. They nibbled away his loneliness.
When they grew, Ettick took them from the nest. The new solitude allowed a wave of exhaustion to sweep in. They had sucked his consciousness nearly dry. His mind floated in a fuzz of confusion. But when Ettick returned the larvae he pushed his discomfort aside and held them as they slept and suckled.
When the time came for them to transform, they created pupae on Ettick’s porch, no longer returning to nuzzle against Dven’s warmth. Days were dry loneliness. Nights were painful longing.
Ettick opened the door to the shed and pushed a breeze through with her strong wings. “Why don’t you leave the nest? I’m lonely without you.”
Dven understood loneliness and didn’t want Ettick to feel the pain of it, but he had forgotten how to be anything beyond a nest.
He let grief grow in himself until it rusted the metal vines. They broke away from him like brittle limbs. A female shook out of his scales and spread new iridescent wings to dry.
When Dven emerged from the dark, her new eyes barely recognized Ettick.
Ettick spread her once comforting wings, but they were smaller than Dven’s and held less shimmer than she remembered. Had she really found Ettick to be the pinnacle of beauty? She glanced at the three pupae hanging on the porch.
“They’ve grown,” Dven said.
“So have you,” Ettick whispered. Her head hung down. “You’ll leave now.”
The urge to go burned at the tips of Dven’s new wings. She gave them a flutter and flew into the blue sky to learn what life beyond dreams of children and solid nests could be.