To Have and to Hold by Sarah Tollok

“Well, I’d imagine that they can’t understand how two of our species decide to commit to spending their whole lives together—or at least trying to—without doing… you know, what they do.”

It was a gorgeous day for a wedding. The clouds above undulated in pinks and purples, gossamer candy floss that looked good enough to eat, the planet’s two moons peeking through, glowing brightly in the midday sun. The scent of the local flora wafted on a gentle breeze. It reminded Dawn of the lemon poppyseed muffins her grandfather used to bake, if they had been served on a table that was set with a big bouquet of lilacs. Dawn fiddled with the oxygen cannula that she wore in her nose to allow more of that beautiful scent in, mindful though to not be too careless with it since it supplemented the thin atmospheric oxygen levels of Legia’Q. She didn’t mind the cannula itself but hated how the holster for the tank she wore on her back messed up the flow of her dress.

Once inside, the two human guests were greeted with looks of surprise and interest from several of the older attendees, their third eyes tracking the two women as they moved about. The younger generation were used to having friendships with off-worlders, but some of the older folks kept to themselves and never stepped foot on a starship, let alone another planet.

Dawn and Fiona were shown to some seats by a polite young attendant who tried their hand at some English and seemed rather pleased with having been able to communicate. Dawn complimented their pronunciation.

Not knowing that Dawn spoke Legian, or possibly not caring, an elder just behind the Earth women commented to their companion about how at least these two off-worlders were polite enough to wear hoods over their skulls instead of parading around bare.

“What makes them so special as to be invited to a joining?” said one to the other.

“Remember how Sha’L had that accident off-world? When some idiot didn’t get their breathing mixture right? If that human hadn’t acted as a living filter for them, they wouldn’t be here today. Of course Sha’L would feel obligated to invite them.”

“Well I hope they appreciate the honor that has been bestowed upon them by attending this joining,” the other replied.

Dawn couldn’t resist. She turned and replied in Legian, “I am indeed honored and humbled. I will also be doing one of the readings today. Enjoy the ceremony.”

The two elders squinted at the human women with all three of their eyes. They then bowed their heads in a gesture of recognition that was somehow both respectful and dismissive before moving on to talking about how a cousin has been mismanaging the family farm.

“Aunties are going to gossip at a wedding no matter what planet it is,” Dawn explained to a confused Fiona.

The last few guests filtered in, the temple doors were closed, and the scrutiny of the only two off-world guests died down. The musicians started to play a lilting, ethereal tune that reminded Dawn of the clouds of Legia’Q.

“So how long is the ceremony before the main event?” Fiona whispered to Dawn.

“Well, not long, I think. From what Sha’L told me, the two of them will give gifts of thanks to each other’s life-givers to show gratitude for raising the person that they love. Then there will be a series of readings that capture their relationship.”

“That’s the part you’re doing, right? What’s yours?”

“Mine is only a few lines from one of Greta Thunberg’s later speeches about the interdependence of life. But they wanted me to read it in the original English and then in Legian. We discussed the proper translation at length so that it carries the same strength and passion as it did in English. It was fascinating, really, how the slightest shift in the volume and placement of the click in the mouth can change the connotation significantly. I had to practice it a lot because it’s hard to do properly without a forked tongue, but I think I finally got it.”

“Okay Ms. Polyglot Inter-planetary Linguist, I get it; languages are cool. Now climb out of that rabbit hole you were heading down and get back to the ceremony.”

“Sorry. So after the gifts and the readings, they read something that they wrote for each other. Then they each have an attendant, someone they love and trust, approach and ask the other’s mate if they are sure, and if they have searched their minds for reservations. It’s basically, ‘speak now or forever hold your peace’ but for the couple, not the audience.”

“They ask them that in the middle of the ceremony, in front of everyone?” Fiona whispered, mouth dropping open.

“Yes. And it’s a very serious moment, not just a formality. Sha’L said there is no shame in backing out at the last minute, and it doesn’t mean that the two won’t someday still be together.”

“That makes sense considering what they are about to do. I mean, there would be absolutely no secrets between them after they go through with it, right?”

“Exactly. Oh, look! Here they come!”

The music changed from quiet background noise to that of a procession, a combination of ancient drums and a sleek instrument that looked like icicles suspended on silver threads. The musician dipped gloved hands into a metallic liquid and then gently stroked the hanging crystals, each note continuing until the liquid dripped off completely. The sound resonated, but without the vibrations of something like a plucked harp string.

Fiona gripped Dawn’s hand and squeezed.

“Oh my god, I read a paper on this instrument! The sound comes from a chemical reaction between the liquid metal and the crystals! If that musician is at the reception afterward, you need to translate so I can ask more about it!”

“Shhhh! Now who’s nerding out?” Dawn whispered. She turned and nudged Fiona, watching the couple’s approach with awe. “Look at how beautiful Sha’L and Pluur’V look! Those robes are so intricate. I know that Sha’L is not much for showy fashion, but you have to admit they are standing a little taller in that fabulous outfit.”

The couple approached one another and immediately joined hands, all seven digits, each with three separate finger pads on the end. Sha’L leaned in and whispered something, and the front of Pluur’V’s neck momentarily pulsed green. The elders made shushing noises, laughter among Legians.

The gifts exchanged were nothing lavish: plants that would be placed in the garden of their families to remember them by, some small pieces of jewelry, and other items that reflected their personal interests.

The readings included journal entries of family members about childhood memories of the betrothed. Journaling was a daily meditative practice for all Legians and they often referred to their own contemplative revelations in everyday conversations. It was cute to hear about each of them as little ones and adolescents. Pluur’V again blushed as one of their relatives told of how they used to stage joining ceremonies with dolls, and how their life-givers had to stop them from doing it in the community yard because they would pull down their hood during it, having to explain to the young Pluur’V that some things were too intimate to do in public like that. A story shared about Sha’L depicted them in their surly teen years, rebelling against everything and telling anyone who would listen about how they would never be joined, and how all that talk flitted away like winged shur’gs on the evening wind when they met Pluur’V.

There was a reading of mythology that was a favorite of both when they were little, about a river that was made of happy tears. It would tempt bathers into staying in it forever, but one would only gain great wisdom once they dragged themselves back onto the shore. It was about the fleeting nature of great joy and the value of plain contentment.

Then it was Dawn’s turn.

Dawn was sweating under her hooded gown. The audience members looked at one another with confusion when the speech was first read in English, but they paid rapt attention when Dawn switched to the Legian translation. Some even closed two of their three eyes, a sign that they were thinking deeply about the message. When Dawn was done, even the gossiping elders looked at her with friendlier expressions. Although she was used to breathing through the nose cannula, when it was paired with performance anxiety and the need to very carefully modulate her voice, Dawn found herself winded by the end of her reading. The nod of approval and gratitude from Sha’L let her know her effort was appreciated and that she did just fine.

Dawn had to spend some time catching her breath as the couple made their personal vows. The earnestness in their voices, though, transcended any need for translation. The way that they looked at one another as if, on all the worlds in all the known and unknown galaxies, this was the being they wanted to be closest to for the rest of their days. They were so in tune with one another. They blinked in unison, they clasped hands tighter at the same time, and even their breathing appeared to sync up. Fiona teared up at the emotion that flowed between the two even though she didn’t understand a word of what they said to one another.

Then the attendants stepped forward and asked the all-important questions of surety. Only then did the couple let go of one another’s hands and tear their eyes away from each other. By then, Dawn was able to translate again.

“They are asking if the other is sure, if they have searched their minds for any reservations, for it will soon all be laid bare.”

The musician stroked their gloved hand down the longest length of crystal. Pluur’V closed their eyes and considered the question for the entirety of time that the note hung in the air. They opened their eyes, looked to Sha’L, and expressed that they were sure. Pluur’V’s attendant then repeated the same question to Sha’L, again the musician played the note, the question was considered, and Sha’L agreed that they were ready as well.

“So this is it?!” Fiona asked, grasping Dawn’s wrist in anticipation.

“Yeah,” Dawn smile-sighed in response.

The attendants stood behind the two lovers and gently pulled back each of their hoods, exposing the rosebud-like series of overlapping scales at the pointed crowns of their heads. Sha’L and Pluur’V each closed two out of their three eyes, leaving only the center one open and fixed on the other. They leaned forward, their eyes only a few centimeters apart, their heads touching.

It started slowly, the faintest of quivers to the petal-like scales, so subtle that it could have been imagined. But then the outermost layers folded outward, flowers in bloom. The inner portion of the petals were like mother of pearl, an iridescent pale emerald for Pluur’V, aqua for Sha’L. One by one, the layers of the flower slowly opened, each revealing a deeper shade than the last.

Dawn and Fiona joined the rest of the audience in leaning closer, each awaiting the same moment. Yes, part of it was curiosity, but both Earth women were also swept up in the deep emotion that filled the air of the temple.

And then there they were, the innermost part of each flower, the exposed brains of Sha’L and Pluur’V. They looked like galaxies no bigger than apples, the deep black-green surfaces teaming with hundreds of tiny shooting stars. The Earth women each knew from medical manuals and stories what to possibly expect, but nothing could have prepared them for the sheer beauty of it.

At that same moment, the audience members all around them lowered their own hoods in solidarity. Although none of their own heads bloomed as completely, some of their outer layers appeared to be gently folding open in resonance with the couple.

The two then separated just slightly, and Pluur’V reached up into Sha’L’s open skull and carefully lifted their brain out, a translucent chord of connective pathways still trailing behind. Sha’L shushed in laughter as their own brain came into their line of sight. Slowly, gently, they reached for and lifted out Pluur’V’s brain. Gazing at each other with a love beyond words, and without hesitation, the two brought their brains together to touch.

Instantly, the light flashing across both of their brains went from a faint twinkling to an explosion of fireworks. Within seconds there were wispy tendrils of light arching from one to the other. These increased exponentially, weaving and dancing until the two spheres were indistinguishable from one another. The couple were truly joined. When emotion flitted across the face of one, it was matched in perfect unison on the face of the other. There were bursts of happiness, moments of sorrow, fleeting hints of hurt, then back to happiness again.

“Wow,” Fiona breathed in the quietest whisper she could manage.

“Yeah,” Dawn replied.

“Right now, they are two people but also one. It’s amazing. Thank you so much for bringing me.”

“I brought you because I knew you would appreciate it, you big romantic,” Dawn playfully bumped shoulders with her date.

The way Fiona’s eyes dazzled at the teasing, Dawn felt like she lost her breath again, and this time it wasn’t from public speaking.

“I also brought you because of all those talks we had on the observation deck, just the two of us, about how enormous space is and how little we and our lives are in the big scheme of things, and how it made you feel lonely. I figured it would feel good to see two people be the exact opposite of lonely.”

Fiona swallowed hard and bit her lip, then laid her head on Dawn’s shoulder, whispered, “Thank you.”

After what seemed like a lifetime and yet also not possibly long enough, the fireworks started to slow. The neural threads connecting Sha’L’s and Pluur’V’s brains unwove from one another. When the last connections retreated, it was slow and with a kind of reluctance.

Sha’L and Pluur’V each came back to consciousness in the same moment. The two regained their individuality, but, of course, they were both forever changed and linked to one another. They each placed the brain of the other back into the safety of their heads, and the petals wrapped back around, sheltering them once again.

The couple faced the crowd, nodded their heads together one last time, and the crowd all hummed and clicked with exuberance in response.

Fiona tried her best to mimic the sounds that Dawn and the others made, although her instinct was to clap until her hands stung, “That was the most beautiful, amazing thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life!”

Dawn was going to tease Fiona for the tears that were running freely over her freckled cheeks, but it would have been hypocritical since she shed some as well. Instead, she threw caution to the wind and kissed one of those cheeks. Fiona froze momentarily, eyes wide and her mouth dropping open, but it quickly turned into a shy smile. Then she blushed so hard it reached the tips of her ears.

The elders behind them shushed in their direction. Dawn and Fiona giggled in return.

The party that followed was very much like an Earth wedding with libations, feasting, and dancing. The couple even had the first dance. Fiona cried all over again at the grace and synchronicity of their movements.

A surprising number of Legians wanted to meet with the Earth guests. Many thanked Dawn for saving Sha’L during the breathing mix mishap, and others complimented her Legian. The Legians also not-so-subtly stared at the hands of the off-worlders, some even commenting about “How do you accomplish anything with only five straight fingers?” And “You DON’T have terra tasters on your feet?!”

With Dawn’s help, Fiona, a musician herself, had a wonderful conversation with the crystal instrument player and was invited to their studio to try out several Legian instruments. However, the crystals used today would be off-limits, as they were highly valuable and they changed with each playing. Therefore, they could not be played just for the sake of Fiona’s curiosity.

There were so many guests for the newly joined couple to visit with, it was a while before the only guests from Earth were able to properly give their congratulations. Surprisingly, it was Pluur’V who spoke up when they finally did get some time together.

“Thank you for giving that beautiful reading,” said Pluur’V.

“Wow! Your English really progressed since last we spoke,” Dawn remarked, “Did Sha’L give you a crash course in the last few weeks?”

Pluur’V’s neck blushed again, “You can say that. When we were joined, Sha’L shared their knowledge with me. English was useful, so I allowed it to be written within me. My tongue is not used to it, though. That will take practice.”

As Pluur’V spoke, there were a few stray clicks peppered in still.

“Oh my god, you mean you can trade skills, too? Is it like making a copy of a file in a computer? How detailed does it get? Is it all involuntary? You said ‘allowed,’ so there is a process of consent? That’s incredible!” Fiona caught herself about to launch into another question, “I’m so sorry. I’m just grilling you about something so personal and intimate and I just met you and it’s your wedding day! I’ll shut up now. I wish you all the best throughout your life together.”

Sha’L and Pluur’V made circular hand gestures which Dawn knew roughly translated to no worries. It looked like they wanted to spend some time answering some of Fiona’s questions, but they were called over by Sha’L’s life-givers to pose for family portraits, which were getting laser-etched onto a plate of something that looked like pink aluminum.

Dawn and Fiona took long tumblers of some delightful orange beverages out to the veranda and were pleasantly surprised to find that the venue had recently installed enviro-umbrellas that were programmable to the needs of different species. Dawn fiddled with the settings and both women were relieved to be able to set aside their oxygen tanks and relax properly.

Fiona took a long sip, turned to Dawn, and apologized for hitting her friends with so many questions.

“It’s fine. They were cool with it,” Dawn mimicked their gesture as best she could with only five fingers and explained it to Fiona.

After a drink from her own glass, Dawn confessed, “If you want to know about cultural faux pas, especially when it comes to the lovely ceremony we just witnessed, I once asked Sha’L,” Dawn took another sip for courage, hoping that the tangy drink had something in it that would help, “I once asked, ‘So when you are holding one another’s brains, did anyone ever use it as an opportunity to kill the other person? Just like…’”

Dawn made a motion of squishing something with both hands.

“Oh, good question! Like that would make one hell of a political assassination! Sounds like the plot of an action movie… someone playing a long game of revenge by getting the other to fall in love with them and then… splat!”

“No! Not a good question! It was the worst question ever! Sha’L went deathly pale—which is actually a lovely lavender—and physically recoiled from me. Like, by the look on their face, I thought I had just ended our friendship and possibly caused an intergalactic chasm to open up between our civilizations. It was like they were profoundly sad and disgusted and were questioning everything they had known about me and all of humankind.”

“C’mon, it couldn’t have been quite that bad. I mean, even if no one ever did it, someone had to have thought about it at some point. Murder is horrible, but it happens.”

“Not here it doesn’t,” Dawn quickly countered.

“Wait”—Fiona scrunched her eyebrows together in a way that Dawn would have thought was absolutely adorable if it hadn’t been a reaction to one of her most embarrassing and shameful moments—“they never, ever kill one another? Like, there’s never been a war or a love triangle gone bad or anything?”

“Nope. Never. In fact, during times when there have been serious disagreements on the planet, and regular diplomacy wasn’t working, war was still never an option. Instead, each side would ask for a volunteer amongst those most informed about their side of the issue, and they would then join with the representative from the other side. Both sides would agree, before the joining, that they would go along with whatever the decision or direction of those two would then be. A simple answer didn’t always come out of it, but they also never ever ended up going to war. Understanding won, every time.”

“Wow,” Fiona whispered, gazing through the clear umbrella and up at the stars above them. “If only everyone could think like that, everywhere. All those wars and petty power and territory grabs… all those people lost along the way. Just, wow.”

“Yeah,” whispered Dawn in return.

“Do you think, if we were capable of such a joining, that you would want to…” Dawn stopped short when she saw Fiona’s eyebrows just about leap into her hairline.

“By ‘we,’ I mean humans, not like you and me, necessarily, of course. Do you think you could do that with… someone?” Dawn looked down into her empty tumbler and pretended the bottom of the glass was terribly fascinating.

When Fiona responded, Dawn could tell without looking that she was smirking, “I don’t know. I mean, we humans aren’t raised with such incredible empathy, so my unsavory secrets could range from petty to really horrible. I feel like I would need many, many hours of therapy before ever opening myself up to someone else like that.”

“Mmm,” Dawn pondered, “but the benefit would be actually knowing and feeling that the other person loves you and accepts you for exactly who you really are. There would be no guessing or insecurities. You could actually feel loved. That’s got to be worth the risk, right?”

Dawn looked up at the stars then, trying to hide the tears welling up in her eyes that she hadn’t expected to come so hot and fast.

“Well,” replied Fiona, closer to Dawn’s side than she had expected, “since we aren’t built with flower petal heads and brains that can link up and put on a synaptic fireworks show, I guess us humans just have to do our best to show one another our love. It’s not quite as spectacular, but it’s still good.”

Fiona slipped her hand into Dawn’s, interlaced their fingers, gave a little squeeze.

Dawn could have sworn that in that moment something opened up inside her, and the stars shown a little brighter.

Sarah Tollok, a multi-genre writer, lives in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She has had works published in Intangible Magazine, Second Chance Lit, Orange Blush Zine, Sledgehammer Lit, ZiN Daily, and Six Sentences. One of her stories will be featured in Improbable Press’s upcoming anthology, Dark Cheer: Cryptids Emerging, Green Edition. She will also have a story included in a 2023 anthology project with Alan Squire Publishing.