A mysterious child lands in the care of a solitary woman, changing both of their lives forever in the captivating debut from Simon Jimenez. The Vanished Birds publishes with Del Rey on January 14, 2020. Read an excerpt below!
Nia Imani is a woman out of place and outside of time. Decades of travel through the stars are condensed into mere months for her, though the years continue to march steadily onward for everyone she has ever known. Her friends and lovers have aged past her; all she has left is work. Alone and adrift, she lives only for the next paycheck, until the day she meets a mysterious boy, fallen from the sky.
A boy, broken by his past.
The scarred child does not speak, his only form of communication the beautiful and haunting music he plays on an old wooden flute. Captured by his songs and their strange, immediate connection, Nia decides to take the boy in. And over years of starlit travel, these two outsiders discover in each other the things they lack. For him, a home, a place of love and safety. For her, an anchor to the world outside of herself.
For both of them, a family.
But Nia is not the only one who wants the boy. The past hungers for him, and when it catches up, it threatens to tear this makeshift family apart.
He was born with an eleventh finger. A small bead of flesh and bone beside his right pinky. The doctor calmed the worried parents and told them the nub was a harmless thing. “But still,” he said, unlacing a small cloth pouch, “a farmer needs only ten fingers to work the dhuba.” He coaxed the child to sleep with the smoke of torched herbs, and sliced the nub from the hand with a cauterizing knife. And though the mother knew her baby felt no pain in his medicated sleep, she winced when the flesh was parted, and clutched him to her breast, praying that there would be no memory of the hurt when he woke, while her husband, unable to resist indulging in his hedonism even then, breathed deep the doctor’s herb smoke, and was spelled by a vision of the future—in his dilated pupils his son, a full-grown man, handsome and powerful, with a big house at the top of the hill. The new governor of the Fifth Village. To commemorate this vision, he had the finger boiled of its flesh, and its bones placed in a corked glass jar, which he shook on wistful days, listening to the clack of good omens as he whispered to his baby, “You are going to run this place one day.” The boy burbled in his arms, too young to recognize the small and varied ways life was contriving to keep him put.
They called him Kaeda, the old name of this world.
Kaeda grew up proud of the scar on his right hand, the shape of it changing over the years. When he was seven, the healed tissue rippled down the side of his palm like a troubled river. He was happy to show the other children the mark when he was asked, and he giggled as they stroked the skin with furrowed brows, at once impressed and unnerved by its texture. Some children called him cursed; those were the children who learned from their parents to distrust the unusual. To them, he shoved his scar under their noses and confronted them with the fact of it, repeating the words of his father: “I’m going to run this place one day!” and through sheer force of will convinced them that the scar on his hand was a lucky thing.
He had a natural charisma. The caretakers doted on him, and the other kids played the games he wanted to play, believed what he believed. Everyone but a girl named Jhige, who never missed an opportunity to push back against his wild declarations, matching pride with pride as she countered his wild theories on why the sky was red, and why the smell of the air changed during the day; why everything smelled soft and sweet in the morning and sour as a kiri fruit at dusk. “And your scar isn’t special,” Jhige shouted. “It just means you were born wrong!” They wrestled in the yellow grass until the caretakers separated them. They fought like dogs most days, but despite the bruises he might nurse on the way home, he always emerged from the fights unbothered, certain that she was only jealous that it was he who was destined for greatness, and not her, though what greatness that was, he did not know, and would not, until the day the offworlders arrived.
Before that day, he was only familiar with the stories his parents shared: how every fifteen years the offworlders broke the sky with their cloth-and-metal ships and landed in the plains east of the village to collect the harvest of dhuba seeds. His father told him that this special day was called Shipment Day, and that on every Shipment Day, a great party was held for both the offworlders and the farmers. “A party you will never forget,” he promised.
His mother laughed from the other room. “Unless you drink too much.”
“The drink is half the fun,” his father countered.
Kaeda was unable to sleep the night before his first Shipment Day. His mind was too alive with the stories; the new faces he would see, the new hands not stained purple from the dhuba fields. He gazed through his small bedroom window at the black sky littered with stars, with no regard for the late hour, as he imagined what it would be like to leap from light to light. What places there were, on the other side. When his mother came to collect him in the morning he was exhausted, all his energy spent the night before, conjuring these fantasies. He dragged his feet into his sandals and complained loudly as they marched with the other villagers to the plains east of town, begging for rest until his father sighed and carried him on his back, where he drifted in and out, unaware of time or location, only the warm and thick smell of the man’s shoulder, like the embers of a dying fire.
And then the sky cracked and he woke up with a shriek and his father laughed and pointed upward and he followed his father’s finger up to where, against the slate of red sky, twelve thin green lines arced above the horizon line, the end points gaining in size until, not two minutes later, the giant metallic beasts touched down on the carpet of grass with ground-shaking thumps, one after another, the vibrations attacking his heart, swollen now as it occurred to him that he had never seen such large creations, nothing as intricate as their cloth wings and the hull panels that gleamed under the sun, or the sonic boom of their hangar doors that dropped onto the dirt like jaws mid-shout, or the people who emerged from within of every variant shade of skin, some lighter than his, others darker, dressed in clothing that seemed woven out of the stuff of starlight. With a nauseous rush the scope of his world telescoped outward to accommodate the breadth of these awesome quantities. His whole body shivered. And then he pissed himself. His father cursed and lowered him to the ground, cringing at the stain on his back.
The offworlders were shown to the banquet cushions in the center of the Fifth Village. Bowls of spirits and plates of dhuban pastries—long, purple, and flaky—were served on wide platters. Kaeda could not see the offworlders from where he sat—a minor disappointment, as he stuffed himself with sweet breads and bowls of juice, feeling warm and content between the motions of his parents’ bodies, pleased by the sound of hard snaps when his mother cracked open nuts with her muscular fingers, and the bellow of his father’s drunken, joyful laugh. He felt a satisfaction with the world so complete he even smiled at Jhige, who was with her own family on the other end of the long table, and she, startled, returned his smile with a small wave of her own before turning back to her uncle, who was in the midst of another tall tale about the Butcher Beast of the southern forest—horror stories with which the young would startle themselves awake later that night, and stare into the dark corners of their bedrooms, waiting to be devoured. The adults exploded with laughter.
After the banquet, when the hard drinking began, the caretakers and new parents brought the children back to their homes. But Kaeda wasn’t finished with the night—he had yet to meet an offworlder—so he planned his escape from the group. He told his friend Sado to lie to the caretakers and say that he had run home ahead of them, and before Sado could so much as nod, the boy was gone, hugging the side of the squat buildings, back to the bonfire and the harsh scent of liquor.
It was there, at the end of the alley, before the path opened up into the plaza, that he saw her: a woman, alone on a bench, silhouetted by the fire.
She held a wooden flute to her lips. Her fingers spidered up and down the length of the instrument, playing music that reminded Kaeda of the sound of wind whistling through a cracked-open door. He watched her from the shadows. Even sitting down, she seemed tall. She was black-skinned, her hair shaved to the scalp, and was dressed in an outfit simpler than her friends: a white top with a collar cut down to the chest bone and dark bottoms that hugged the curves of her legs. Each note she played on her flute made the bonfire ahead of them dance, or maybe it was the fire that was influencing the music, or the stars, or all of it, working in concert, together. The song was the night itself. It was in his people’s laughter as they danced by the fire, and it was in the smell of fruit and smoke in the air; it was in the light, caught in the beads of sweat on her collarbone. It was everywhere. The woman’s breath flumed through the wooden tube, and bellowed heat into his belly, gladly mesmerizing him, until her large eyes shot up and saw him.
The music stopped.
She spoke with two voices, one in a language he did not understand, and the other his own. It sounded as though she were haunted by her own ghost, she her own distant echo. He was too young to recognize the doubled voice as a quirk of her translator device, believing instead it was a kind of offworlder magic.
“Did you like it?” she asked, referring to the music.
He nodded. She stood up and approached him. Her shadow was long; it ran past him, into the dark fringe at the end of the alley. There was an instinct in him to run, as though some part of him knew that if he should stay there would be no turning back, but he ignored this instinct and planted himself to the ground, stubbornly so. She crouched before him, eye to eye. Close enough for him to smell the flowered chemistry of her skin.
“Take it,” her doubled voice said, handing him her flute.
Their fingers grazed as he took the gift. He held the flute to his chest with a knuckled grip as she looked down at him with the smile that only adults were capable of—one both happy and sad—and he watched her turn away and stride toward the bonfire, while the shape of her branded itself to the back of his skull. He did not know at the time that the shape would remain there for years, only that he was at once pleased and frightened by the heat he felt when he watched her go.
He pressed the flute to his lips, the mouthpiece still wet.
In the morning, the fire pit was cold ash and the travelers were gone, taking with them the seed his people had harvested. The flute stayed by his bed. He told his parents that it was a gift, which, much like his eleventh finger, his father interpreted as a sign of good things to come and his mother accepted as yet another weary fact of the world. He played it when he was feeling lonely, lying on the stalked roof of their home, blowing into the mouthpiece until he was hoarse in the throat, never getting the notes quite right; filling his nights with clumsy, earnest melodies. Songs that repeated themselves, maddeningly.
First began the dreams of innocence; him showing her his land, teaching her the rules of the games he and his friends played—“keep one foot above the knee and a finger on your nose and sing the harvest night song backwards.” In those dreams, she was the listener, and never talked down to him. She liked his finger scar and told him he was very brave. Then came the other dreams; the quiet, wet dreams, of her sitting on the foot of his bed, a finger pressed against his big toe, then sliding up the hill of his foot, up his bare leg, trailing a path of electricity, until the short circuit, the explosion.
And then he was fourteen.
Kaeda began to work the dhuba fields. He worked alongside his parents, who taught him how to squeeze the gelatinous purple seeds from the heart of the stalk, to cradle the fragile things inside the woven bowl, to hack the emptied stalk down with a machete, at the base, with three precise strikes. When he was more capable, he was assigned his own field farther down the road, where he worked alongside Jhige and others he knew in passing. The work whittled the youthful dough off his body, replaced it with hard and useful muscles that pressed against his skin like many little fists. Women noticed; some men. Jhige noticed. Their childhood rivalry had by then eased into a playful camaraderie. The jokes they shared tinged with something unknowable and exciting, as each would sneak glances at the other through the rows of stalks they worked, watching the way the other’s body moved.
Late in the moisture season, on their way back to town, she asked him—quickly, as if to overcome her own nervousness—if he was attracted to her. He tripped over a knot in the dirt. He said yes. And he was. But that night, as they groped each other behind one of the storage shacks and sucked skin bruised, it was another woman that Kaeda kissed, the heat of the bonfire licking his face as she whispered with her doubled voice the burnt secrets of this world.
His relationship with Jhige was short-lived. It was obvious to both of them that his mind was elsewhere. He looked past her when they lay together, would hold her hand limply when they walked through the village to meet their friends, and when they fought, he would be the first to walk away, as if he could not be bothered to come up with a retort, much less a resolution. The end was quiet, and sudden. In the plaza he saw her holding hands with another boy, who worked another field. Yotto. A kind boy, and, in Kaeda’s opinion, a stupid one, with a clumsy blade swing. A poor choice for Jhige. But he said nothing to her about this, and walked past the two of them without comment. It would be years before they were on speaking terms again.
He had other lovers in the interim, none of whom he stayed with for longer than a month, always finding them wanting in some aspect; not tall enough, not strong enough, not clever enough, but always the true reason remained the same underneath it all: none of them were her.
Lying on the thatched roof of his home, staring up at the stars, he could convince himself that somewhere far away, she was thinking of him too.
They cracked open his first jug of spirits on his fifteenth birthday and poured the contents over his head, a sour baptism that shepherded him into the world of adults who drank at night and floated to the purple fields in the morning. “This is when your life begins,” his father cried, gripping the boy’s face in his callused palms, kissing him again and again on the forehead, drunk, along with the old refrain, “You’re going to run this place one day.” It occurred to Kaeda under his father’s smothering kisses that all these good omens were always in some distant point in the future, never now.
“Just you wait and see.” He waited.
Kaeda was twenty-two when the next Shipment Day arrived. He was working in the fields, squeezing the last of the seeds from the stalk, when Sado elbowed him and pointed up at the sky. Twelve green lines cut across the clouds, disappearing behind the horizon of tall stalks to the east. “They’re here,” Sado said. Kaeda nodded, his hands now trembling as he stripped the skin off the next stalk, anxious to finish off his quota. They dragged the wheeled containers of seed back to the village. His friend warned him not to get too excited, that even if she was there, the chances were good that she would not remember him, to which Kaeda grinned and replied, “I hope she doesn’t,” for he did not want her to see the boy from years past, but a man worthy of her night.
“After she turns you down,” Sado said, slapping him on the shoulder, “come drink with me and all the other lonely bastards.”
Kaeda laughed. He let out the first holler of the song of homecoming, and smiled as the song spread down the marching line of farmers, their voices full-throated in anticipation of the coming celebrations. They brought the wicker containers back to the collections building to be weighed and stored, and once the last container was delivered, they ran to their homes and dressed in their good breeches and dress robes. The bonfire was well under way when they arrived. Kaeda picked up a jug from the long table and took a great swig that burned courage down his throat before he went in search of her. The shadows of the dancers by the fire made the whole plaza pulse, shifting the ground beneath his feet, and as faces flashed by, none of them hers, the fear gnawed at his stomach that maybe she had not returned—but then, in the corner of his eye, he saw the alley, thrown in light, and her, on the bench, watching the dancers and the fire with a calm smile.
He knew time moved differently for her, but still it shocked him how much she resembled his dreams of her—how little she had aged. He straightened his posture and pushed out his chest, a show of bravado that was undercut when he introduced himself and stumbled over the simple syllables of his own name. Still, the offworlder smiled at him, the light caught on the curve of her soft lips, and his chest cracked open. Everything he had been holding in for the last fifteen years came tumbling onto the ground by her feet. A tangled mess of want.
“Hello,” she said.
Her name was Nia Imani. She told him it was an old name from back when Earth was whole, but when he asked her if it was her mother or her father who gave her the name, she smiled and spoke instead about her work.
He already knew the basic nature of her travel. The governor covered the subject with every tired welcome speech he gave in the fields. But still he listened with rapt attention as she described the sensations her body experienced when her ship departed from this reality and folded into another. She told him it was called Pocket Space. The place where time moved differently. He imagined what she asked him to imagine: a black ocean, with currents and eddies and rapids that stretched the seconds into hours into years. Some currents stretched time infinitely, and other currents not more than moments. But always, there was an imbalance of time. “We can travel long distances this way,” she said, “but every time we return, things are different. The route we’re taking now, we arrive on the Assiduous Current and leave on the Diffident. These currents have a specific time differential. It takes me eight months to bring your harvest to its destination and to return here for the next shipment, but for you—”
“Fifteen years,” he finished, knowing the number well, having walked slowly through each of them. “And what is it like, when you go home and your friends are older but you are not?”
“Sometimes sad,” she said, then, smiling, “but sometimes good.” She told him she was hired by the Umbai Company for six shipment cycles; this was her second.
“So you will be back four more times.”
“Yes,” she said. “Just four.” Then, “Are you sure we haven’t met before?” and he assured her that yes, they most definitely had not, afraid that the truth would catch him; that the spell of the night would shatter and she would pat him on the head like the little boy he was and say good night. But she pressed no further, and instead asked him about the nature of his work. He puffed out his chest again. “I’m the best on my field, fifth fastest in this village.” He told her about the moisture seasons, when the barren fields were covered in a thin layer of white mist, the best time to replant the stalks, and how the roots fed on the wetness in the air and the sugar in the rutted dirt. “We harvest the seeds when the sky sucks up the moisture. A day of work will turn your hands purple.” He showed her his palm, the mauve patina that stained it, and when she glided a finger across his hand, he shivered.
“You’re proud of your work,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“I am,” he said, which wasn’t always true. Most days he found the work mundane, sometimes tedious, never exceptional; but tonight, as she listened to his every word, the work seemed important; bigger than himself. He spoke until there were no more words to say, the topic exhausted, but the air between them still violent with energy. Her hand lay next to his trembling fingers on the bench. He swallowed.
“You are very beautiful,” he said.
The words fell out of his mouth like rocks.
But she picked them up anyway, one at a time, and she told him that he was beautiful too, and there, in her eyes, he saw the same want. He followed her through the dancers, past the long tables where people ate, past Sado and the other single men who drank and comforted one another and who bit their lips in jealousy as he and the offworlder walked away from the party together. Past Jhige, who held his gaze for only a moment before turning back to her husband, twining her arm around his thick waist tightly.
They walked down the shadowed road, his feet drunk and stumbling on the ruts in the dirt, while Nia strode beside him, straight-backed and poised, eyeing him from the side with a beguiling smile. He wanted to stop, to take a moment to memorize her against the backdrop of his town, but she slipped her hand down the front of his breeches, gripping his erection, and pulled him down the slight hill, behind a large rock, where she ground him into the earth with her hips, her hands pressed firm against his chest, forcing him to stay right there, his hands cupping her breasts, her waist, anything to keep him anchored to this dream, until it was over, and they lay together on the grass, naked and spent. She lay her head on his chest, a hand on his navel, her weight pinning him to the ground in a way that he liked. Both of them adrift on this moment. From a place of utter satisfaction, he began to hum a song. The song reserved for the end of a long day. When she asked him what it was he hummed, he told her about the song of homecoming. “It’s what we sing on our way back from the fields when the work is done,” he said. His fingers stroked the grain of her scalp. “The song of bargaining. Take my day, but give me the night.”
“It’s pretty,” she said with a sigh. “Sing it again.”
And he did, looping the song onto itself like a string around his finger, a rope that hugged their bodies together, until she fell asleep. And as she slept, he listened to the night. The crackle of bugs. The breeze that whistled through the fields and lifted up into the sky. Her breath. The incoherent mumble of her dreams.
And he knew what it was he wanted.
He nudged her shoulder till she stirred.
“Can I come with you?” he asked.
Her eyes opened just enough to see the haze of him.
“Where?” she asked.
His heart galloped. “Anywhere.”
She blinked once, and shut her eyes.
“Maybe,” she murmured. She turned away, and pressed her back against his chest. “We’ll speak in the morning.”
“Okay,” he said.
Kaeda listened to her snore in loud, rumbling breaths, but this too he loved. They weren’t just dreams, he thought with pride. And soon, he drifted off as well, with his hand on her hip, where it was warm.
He woke to laughter.
It was midday. The sun was hot on his naked body. Two farmers, both men he knew, kicked his feet and told him it wasn’t healthy sleeping outside with no clothes on. “You’ll get bugs up your crack,” they said. More laughter. Blearily he looked around. She was gone, the only proof of her the depression in the grass beside him. He yanked on his pants and sprinted toward the fields—“Bugs!” the farmers cackled—and arrived just in time to see the last of the ships lift off. The crowd of villagers that had come to see the departure waved goodbye at this last ship as it faded to a prick of light in the sky, before disappearing. The children shouted “Goodbye!” in chorus, as Kaeda’s hands dropped to his sides, his heart unspooling beneath him. He didn’t see his mother approach, not until she knocked his bare shoulder with a baffled expression. “Where is your shirt?” she asked. “Go put on your shirt, you stupid child!” And the other families chuckled as she pushed him out of the fields, back to the village, while he stumbled forth, knuckling his wet eyes.
He disappeared into his work. Two thumbs choked the dhuba seeds out of the stalk’s throat. A machete cracked against the spine of the stalk; the beam bent at an angle; body weight took it the rest of the way. One hundred kilos of dhuba seeds spilled into five containers, the containers wheeled back to town, half the number placed in cold stasis, the other half sent to the mill, where callused fists ground the jellied seeds for hours into fine paste in a vaulted room filled with the sound of wet smacking and volleys of dirty jokes. The broken stalks were shaved of their sharp ends and painted red, bound together, and used to build houses for new families, of which there were more every year.
Jhige gave birth to twins. Kaeda was there, wetting the towels, studying the devotion of her husband, Yotto, who bowed penitent by her bed, whispering, “Soon, soon, soon,” to her, shouting, “Now! Now! Now!” The babies came eventually. Healthy girls, seven pounds, each a proud owner of their mother’s sharp nose. Kaeda congratulated the new parents, and as they cooed over the next generation, he stepped outside the doctor’s hut and rang the bell to signal the success of the new birth. The toll was heard throughout the village. Candles were lit by dark windows. He glanced into the hut at Jhige and Yotto, and he sighed. Every week it seemed another friend was sprouting children of their own. The town spread down the hill, the houses spilling into the valley below. And every week, an old one dying, making way for the new.
Kaeda’s father died one year after Nia left. It was a drunken accident. A friend had given him a playful shove, and he, in a stupor, lost his balance and snapped his neck on the edge of a wooden table. The man who killed him walked out of town that same night, overcome with guilt. He never returned. He was presumed dead when the next moisture season arrived, and with it the jawed beasts that stalked the surrounding hills and woods. “Good,” Kaeda’s mother said when she heard the news of the man’s disappearance, and that was all she had to say on the matter. She returned to the dhuba stalks with her machete and curled lip, for there was still more work to be done. Stoic around the other villagers, she thanked them for their kind words, but refused to entertain their nostalgia, or their prayers. It was only after the fieldwork was done, and she was home, just her and her son, when she let loose her sorrow. She shouted, and she wept in Kaeda’s arms, and filled that house with such mourning there was no room for her son’s own grief, which he let harden like sediment on the bottom of his heart as he attended to his mother’s tears. He curled into himself under his blanket at night, and retreated into memory. His father’s warm shoulder the day they went to see the ships. A finger pointing up at the stars. He found his own places to cry. Places only Jhige was privy to, for they had begun to sleep together again.
The affair began a month after his father’s death. Jhige had switched assignments with a friend, and for the first time in years worked alongside Kaeda in the fields. “To make sure you don’t fall behind on your quota,” she said when he asked her why she had switched, and though he tsked and told her he didn’t need a caretaker, already he felt better. They worked in quiet, and with time, they began to reminisce about the games they had played as children.
“You convinced everyone that the night smelled sour because the moons were made of kiri fruit,” she said.
“You knew the truth,” he said.
“It didn’t matter.” She wiped the sweat off her chest and chuckled. “They preferred the lie.” She picked up her bowl of seeds, then let out a long sigh, the weight of their history pressing all the air out of her lungs. “It was lonely, growing up around you.”
“You were my only friend.”
He said this more to himself. A quiet realization.
“That,” she said, “I will never believe.”
But she smiled anyway.
It was inevitable: days later, before they parted ways on the road back home, she grabbed his arm, and told him a time and a location, without saying what for, she did not need to. He was there, and he was ready. The fumbling of their youth was gone, now the measured movements of adults who knew the dance, and where the hands and feet must go. His hands fell through the bristled curls of her black hair and they made love on a bed of rumpled clothes. The moons were red that night. He told her the moons were red because they were burned by the heat of the sun, and she laughed, and shoved his bare shoulder, and whispered into his salty skin, “Shut up, shut up, shut up.”
Three seasons of love passed.
Jhige’s husband found out about the affair, whispered in his ear by a friend who had seen the two lovers one night in the millhouse. Yotto gave her a choice, and when she chose Kaeda, he marched to his challenger’s house, pounded on the door, and no sooner was it opened than he threw Kaeda to the dirt, where they wrestled each other bloody until his mother stormed out of the house with a machete gripped in her right hand. The light from inside threw her broad body into harsh relief. She held the blade against Yotto’s veined neck. “Let him up,” she said. When the two men were on their feet once more, she lowered her blade. She told Yotto he was allowed one good hit, and no more, and before Kaeda had a chance to protest, a fist knocked him back on the ground with a spout of blood, and the husband walked away, throwing the rage off his shaking shoulders. Kaeda’s mother stood over him and dropped the machete by his feet. “Fool,” she said, and knelt, and with her sleeve rubbed the blood off his chin.
She brought him inside. Fed him.
“I loved your father,” she said from across the table, her arms crossed over her chest. “But he died an idiot’s death. I never forgave him for that. Promise me you won’t make the same mistake, or your spirit will never be welcome in this house.”
Quietly, he said, “I promise.”
She gripped his hand.
And that was the end of it.
A month later, another house was built in the valley, where Kaeda and Jhige lived with her two daughters. From his old home, Kaeda moved his clothes, some furniture his mother insisted that he take with him, the glass jar of finger bones—he felt too guilty to leave them behind—and one wooden flute, which he told Jhige was a gift from an offworlder he had once met. He was thankful when she didn’t pry further into its history. The instrument was kept out of sight, in one of the drawers of his bureau, and taken out when he was alone and feeling melancholy—but even then, it was never for long. He never played it.
For all their childhood, Yana and Elby would live in two homes, one at the bottom of the hill, and one near the top, never understanding the polite tension between their three parents when their father came to collect them on his free days, not until they were older. They got along with Kaeda. He couldn’t have children—some bodies just can’t, the doctor had said—but he treated them like they were his own. He never hit them or raised his voice, and he made them laugh with his silly faces. This excused the times he was distant; the nights they’d hear his footsteps wander throughout the house; the frantic pace of them, as if there were something he’d forgotten to do, but he couldn’t remember what it was, or where.
When he was thirty-seven, the twelve green lines boomed across the red sky once more. He was there, in the crowd with the rest of the welcoming committee, as the violent gusts of wind heralded the ships’ arrival. Jhige’s girls, now eight years old, ran in circles around their mother while the offworlders emerged from the bellies of their ships. “Just look at the governor,” Jhige said, nodding at their leader, who bowed before the offworlders as though they were gods. “He is the first to greet them, yet he almost never walks the fields, he never visits the homes; he is oblivious. Look at how low he bows. Like he is made of jelly.” When she got no response, she turned to Kaeda. “What is it?” She touched his hand, breaking his gaze. “Where are you?” she asked, in a whisper.
He smiled too wide. “I am here,” he said.
It was easy enough to get away that night, for the girls never took long to tire and needed to be brought home early. Kaeda threw an arm around Sado’s shoulders, drinking and laughing with his friends, playing the part of the reveler who was having too much fun to go home. When Jhige came to collect him, he told her the party was just beginning, and he considered himself a brilliant strategist when she relented and suggested that he stay, while she brought the girls back by herself. After he was certain she was gone, he excused himself from Sado’s company under the guise of fetching more drink, and lost himself in the crowd. He crossed the bonfire plaza to the entrance of the alley. On the bench, Nia sat, watching him approach, studying him calmly, her face unmarked by time. She wore light-red clothes that fell over her body, as though she had washed herself under a melting moon. She was, as ever, beautiful. His stomach boiled just looking at her.
“You never said goodbye,” he said.
Her eyebrow lifted, and her second voice said, “You’re a handsome sleeper. Would’ve been a shame to wake you up.” The second voice had by then lost its magic—he knew the truth of her technology. She shrugged, and her beaded necklace clinked against itself. “It didn’t seem necessary, considering I’d see you again so soon.”
“I’ve spent the last fifteen years hating you.”
Her smile fell, her expression hardened. “Keep your hate,” she said. “We spent one night together. Just one.” She made a gesture with her hand he didn’t understand, then looked away, into the fire. He saw something in her face he never thought he’d see. Exhaustion. “I’m not a god,” she said. “I’m not here to answer your prayers.”
He sat down beside her. The anger was there, but quieted.
“Why do you sit alone?” he asked.
“I like parties,” she said, “but I don’t like crowds.”
He nodded, but he didn’t understand.
“Do I look different?” he asked.
“There are mirrors for that,” she snapped.
He sucked his teeth.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “The journey here was hard.” She rubbed her face, making valleys of her skin. “I said I was sorry.”
“Fine,” he said, too proud to say it was okay.
“I’m tired, Kaeda. I leave in twenty hours. I need to have a good time. Please make this easy for me.”
“What do you want?”
“To spend the night with you.”
“I do,” she said. “You’re attractive. More than those men, at least.” She nodded toward Sado’s table, the bachelor heads rotating slowly whenever a woman passed by. They both laughed, the laugh cut short when she put her hand on his. “And I like you.”
His breath hitched.
He hated that.
How one touch from her could undo him.
They didn’t walk through the celebration like last time. On Kaeda’s suggestion, they walked farther down the alley, away from any eyes, and went off the main road. They headed toward the millhouse. Inside, they walked past the rows of troughs where the seeds were mashed, up the steps to the loft, behind bound piles of purple stalk spines. It was different from last time, or the same, with Kaeda noticing new aspects of her; like how she refused to make eye contact when he was inside her, as though he was not there, or she was not there, she on some other planet, loving some other person. But despite her distance, still he gasped and bucked and held her like she was his own beating heart.
“Look,” she said when it was over, and they lay together, exhausted. She stretched his pubic hair between the comb of her fingers. He asked her what was wrong. “You have some gray,” she whispered.
She sounded almost sad.
In the morning, he offered to walk her back to the plains, but she touched his arm and told him she would prefer to go back alone. So he returned to the plaza, where he helped clean the trash from last night. He beat the cushions free of crumbs and fell in step with the others as they carted the bowls to the river to be washed. When overhead he heard the sky crack, heralding the departure of the ships, he did not look up. Wouldn’t. Not until the last of the green lines had faded away and it was safe to miss her again.
His mother passed away in her sleep at the end of the moisture season. It was her heart. A neighbor found her with one of his father’s old sandals gripped in her fist, which she had up until that night kept by the front door, as if at any moment the old man might return from the fields looking for them. Kaeda lit the pyre and tossed her ashes down into the moisture pits, and with those ashes his guts followed like lengths of rope, whipping into the dark below.
He slept that night with his head on Jhige’s lap. She stroked his hair as she hummed the old songs they used to sing as children. The songs children learn from their mothers, to help them make peace with the dark.
The dead were remembered, and the living went on. Soon their daughters were old enough to work. Elby, the stronger and more serious of the two, joined the hunters, and Yana, the talker, cracked her knuckles and set to work in the millhouse.
They were not the only ones with new assignments. After a back injury had rendered him useless in the fields—thrown out after he’d carried a heavy container of seed—Kaeda was assigned to the collections building, where he manned one of the seed scales, tallying the weights of the containers the farmers brought him. He worked around the growing paunch of his belly, distended from large plates of meats and pastry, his sweet tooth another new discovery with age. Yotto visited often, the violent past between them now settled. They were even able to joke about the time, years ago, when they fought in the dirt for Jhige’s love.
It was late into the moisture season when Yotto sat on Kaeda’s work table, fiddling with his hands, and asked him about their daughters. “Have they said anything to you? About . . . men?”
Kaeda shook his head, finding the man’s worry amusing. He told Yotto there was nothing to worry about, even though he knew Yana had her eye on one of the hunters; he saw no reason to trouble the man with things he could not change. “Best you keep your mind on other things,” he said.
Comforted, but not ready to leave, Yotto picked at the gray in his beard and asked how much longer Kaeda planned on working in collections. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said. “You were born for the fields. Everyone knows it.”
“Soon as my back is ready, I’ll be out there again,” Kaeda assured.
But when his back healed a month later, he remained with collections, having discovered that he liked being able to sit and rest. There he made the tallies while Jhige continued to squeeze the fields, her body a livewire network of muscle and tendon. When she lifted her containers up onto Kaeda’s scale, she would prop her elbow on his desk and brag about how long she had outlasted him on the field. “One year and five days,” she said, when he was forty-nine. “Two years and twenty,” she said, when he was fifty.
“Three and eighty,” he said, cutting her off with a smirk, when he was fifty-one.
She leaned across the desk and kissed him on the corner of his mouth. “I win,” she whispered, for even after all this time, their rivalry was still strong.
When he was fifty-two, at the end of the dry season, he sat on a bench in the plaza, alone, while the others attended Shipment Day in the fields. He wanted Jhige, Yotto, and their daughters to enjoy the event together without him, for once. In the plaza he watched the propping open of the long tables, and the building of the fire pit, and he wondered what Nia would think of him, now that his hair was a thick shock of white and his once work-hardened muscles were now hidden beneath a layer of sedentary fat.
Later that night, when the fire was at its peak, and they sat together at one of the long tables, still easing into conversation, he asked her this. She was younger than him by sixteen years now. Never had her youth been more apparent. Perhaps that was what she was thinking about as she studied him while rubbing her smooth cheek. “You look very distinguished,” she said.
“And you,” he said, “like yesterday.”
She smiled. “How long have you been waiting to use that line on me?”
“Five years,” he admitted.
They laughed, and after a toast, drank their bowls of spirits.
That was the last night they slept together. He had enough in him for one bout. As they lay in the chill night, clothed, he too cold to be naked, he wondered aloud how difficult it must be, to always be moving, always arriving at a place where your lovers were either old or dead. She told him it wasn’t difficult at all. And as her left hand formed and re-formed a fist, she said that the day she stopped moving would be the day that she died. She turned her head toward him, her brow knit, and asked him why he was laughing. He wiped his eyes and told her he didn’t know, though in truth he did, but didn’t wish to share the reason for fear of insulting her: that her words were absurdly dramatic. She was content to let the moment pass. Come the next morning, they parted without saying goodbye; both knew they would meet again soon.
When the governor passed away from a stroke the following dry season, it was time to hold the ruling elections. It surprised no one but Kaeda when he was elected. He had unwittingly begun his political ascent during his tenure in the collections building, where as he tallied the container weights the farmers learned his name, and spoke with him, and trusted him as one of their own, whose purple palms told the story of his field experience. He ran against the son of the deceased governor, an ineffectual man who ran solely out of the familial pressures of his aunts and uncles, who were hungry for a dynasty. It was clear from the outset which way the vote would swing; the governor’s son bowed out of the race before the final votes were even tallied, and spent the rest of the night in the bar claiming that the election was rigged from the start, buying drinks for anyone who would listen, though the few who entertained him were either not convinced or didn’t care. “My father was right in the end,” Kaeda said to Jhige the day they moved into the governor’s house on the top of the hill. “This place is mine.” He tossed the jar of finger bones into the moisture pits that afternoon, where it joined the rest of the dead, the prophecy fulfilled.
As governor, he made annual visits to the other villages to meet with the other leaders to discuss trade agreements and field borders. Monthly coordination meetings with the appointed heads of the millhouse workers, the hunters, and the traders, paired with weekly one-on-one meetings to listen to gripes the heads had with one another and with him. And daily, at seemingly every hour, there was someone knocking on his door, a villager in need of mediation for whatever neighborly territorial dispute was waged that day, his house the new temple of grievances. All this he attended, including the walks through the fields, the first cutting of the hunted flank, the harvest speeches and benedictory words for all the newly born children. By day’s end he was drained, as was Jhige from her work in the fields, and when the sun was down and the air was cool, they would sit together on the porch and say nothing, staring blankly out at the village that was theirs, Jhige gazing at the sections of field still to be tended, while Kaeda’s gaze was lifted higher, at the field of stars, tired beyond measure, and wondering what could’ve been, had he been wiser in his youth—had he chosen his words with more care.
Months would pass without his noticing.
On Nia’s penultimate arrival, he gave his speech to the gathered crowd on the sacrifice the offworlders made, traversing time and space to spread their harvest. When the sky cracked and the green lines arrived and all the children whose names he didn’t know gazed up at the approach of ships with widened eyes, he was overcome not with nostalgia but an intense worry for these children, and the years of reckoning that lay before them. He wanted to warn these children that time was not their friend; that though today might seem special, there would be a tomorrow, and a day after that; that the best-case scenario of a well-spent life was the slow and steady unraveling of the heart’s knot. But he held his tongue. He let them enjoy the lights. “Let us welcome them with open arms,” he said.
Nia almost didn’t recognize him when she emerged from her ship, not until she was close enough to shake his sixty-seven-year-old hand. Her eyes widened, but only just, at the liver spots.
“It’s nice to see you,” she said.
They spoke by the fire like old friends. Commiserated about the difficulties of leadership. How draining it was to run a ship, a village. Took turns refilling each other’s bowls. They fell into an easy quiet, as they enjoyed the heat lick of the flame, and the bitter-strong taste of their drink, the anxiety Kaeda had felt earlier in the day settling down as he sat beside her and admired the dancers and the bonfire as it wavered through the hours. And when it was time, she gave him a brief hug before she returned to her ship, the warmth of it remaining even after she had left him.
He returned to Jhige at the long table, a little startled when, as she rubbed the lobe of her right ear between thumb and index finger, she observed that he and the offworlder seemed close. But she said this with no jealousy in her voice, the smile she wore one of amusement. A simple, matter-of-fact statement that cleaved him in two.
“No, not close,” he said, stealing a last glance at Nia as she walked away from the fire. “We’ve met only a few times.”
They would meet only once more, on his eighty-second year.
The year the sky broke, and the Fifth Village received an unexpected visitor.
It was the moisture season, and still many months to come before Shipment Day, and with it, Nia’s last cycle. The village was quiet but for the wing-rattle of night bugs and the distant howls from the forest. Kaeda was asleep in the governor’s house, his eyelids fluttering, dreaming of the day his father took him to see the ships, when he woke to a sonic boom that rattled the shutters. He sat up, dazed, unsure if he was still dreaming until Jhige’s trembling hand found his in the dark. He grabbed his cane by the bed. When they stepped out onto the porch, they saw it—a ball of fire peeling across the sky. The two of them watched with stolen breath as the ball arced downward and landed in the fields south of the village with an impact so great that it shook the earth.
A crowd had already formed in the plaza when they arrived. Amid the crying children and the parents who demanded answers Kaeda found Elby. He sent her and the other hunters to investigate the crash, the smoke of which he could see rising above the roofs in the dark distance. Elby sprinted off while he and Jhige went around to each family to calm them and assure them that they would be safe. The wait for news was endless. He sat on one of the benches, rubbing the ache from his knees, worried for his daughter, until she and her hunters returned through the village gates, carrying with them the body of a naked child.
It was a boy. His body was the only one they found at the site. All else was hot and black. “He was just there,” Elby said, “lying next to the rubble.”
Bruised and bleeding, but not broken, the boy was brought to the doctor’s house, where his glancing wounds were cleaned with wet cloth and wrapped in soft bandages.
He was a small, skinny thing—no older than twelve. Cheeks gaunt, his flesh so emaciated Kaeda winced, worried that if the boy tried to stand, his leg bones would snap in half. But there was no fear of him standing, for the boy was in a deep sleep, unstirred even by the loud and frantic conversation of everyone around him.
For three days the boy slept in the bed of the doctor’s hut while rumor spread through the village of his identity, be it demon, demigod, or harbinger of war; rumors born from nothing but fearful imagination, gaining weight and truth as they spread throughout the homes, from mouth to ear. Kaeda paid little mind to the rumors, and continued his visitations to the doctor’s hut despite the warnings of his advisers. “They once called me cursed,” he said to the sleeping child, holding up his scarred hand for proof. “Best not to listen to what they say. There’s no end to the stories that cowards tell.”
On the third day the boy woke from his long rest. Kaeda heard the toll of the doctor’s bell from across the village and shouldered his way into the hut, moving people aside with his cane, into the sickroom, where he found the child curled into himself at the foot of the bed, arms hugging his knees to his gaunt, brown chest, as the leader of the millhouse bombarded him with questions of where he was from and what he wanted. The boy was unresponsive. He sat with his back pressed against the board, peering at the strangers from above the ridge of his smooth forearms with eyes as wild as his knotted black hair. The millhouse leader’s voice rose with each question, red-throated, until Kaeda had had enough, and he ushered everyone outside, where he was swiftly surrounded.
Every villager was in attendance. All of them shouting variations on the same theme: that the boy was trouble and that he did not belong here. Shouting, until Kaeda raised his hand and silenced them. He looked out into the crowd. Of course they were frightened, he thought. This was their village’s first unexpected arrival since the time before Shipment Days. Even he did not know what to do. “I understand how you are all feeling right now. I feel the same way. I assure you that the child is only a temporary presence. Come Shipment Day we will hand him over to the offworlders. But until then we must remain calm, and remind ourselves that he is only a child.”
“Shipment Day is three months from now,” Goro, one of the fishers, said. “Who’ll keep him till then?”
The villagers exchanged glances while the dry grass skittered against the hot breeze.
“I will,” Kaeda said.
Jhige was less than thrilled when her husband returned to their home with the offworlder at his side. She gestured for the boy to wait in the living room and pulled Kaeda into their bedroom, where she let him know through whisper-shouts how furious she was that he had not consulted with her first. She listened to his apologies without expression; the explanation of his frustration with the others, and how they were so quick to judge the character of an unconscious child. And when he was done, she made a hard line with her mouth, and he worried that his words had made no impact, until she muttered, “Go see if he’s hungry.”
In truth he had always intended to be the one to take the boy in, ever since the night of his arrival, as he had a difficulty resisting anything that came from the sky.
Living with the boy was an adjustment for them both. He did not seem to understand their language, and never spoke in his own; a mute presence in their home, deaf to their attempts to help him. The first time he had to go to the bathroom, he relieved himself in his bed. Jhige washed the sheets while Kaeda showed him to the outdoor pots and pantomimed how to use them. He was unlike any child Kaeda had met. His movements were small and exact, his footfalls almost inaudible. It was easy to forget he was there at all, Kaeda remembering only when he would hear a small cough from the corner of the room and would see the boy covering his mouth with both hands, his shoulders trembling, as if expecting a beating. They had fewer guests those days. Yana refused to pass the threshold of the house. Even Elby, fearless hunter that she was, made a point not to linger in the same room as the boy for too long. “The others are right,” she whispered, as she glanced into the living room, where the child stared out the window at the sky, as if he had never seen a sky before. As if it were impossible. “There’s something not right about him.”
“He’s a little odd,” Kaeda conceded. He rubbed the old scar on his hand. “But odd isn’t bad.”
The boy’s oddness was intriguing. Kaeda took the child with him on his long, rambling walks beyond the village, both to give Jhige some air, and to scratch at the mystery of him, and see if he could not make some connection. It was a game of sorts. The boy followed him without resistance, almost unconsciously, snapping from his trance only when Kaeda would reach into his satchel and hand him a sweetcake.
During those walks, Kaeda spoke enough for the both of them. First there were the gentle, probing questions. Questions of where the boy was from, if he had family. And then, when it was clear that the boy would offer no answers, Kaeda spoke about himself. He started with the simple facts. As they climbed the foothills with his cane and the quiet boy’s careful footstep, he shared the names of his parents, and how he had known Jhige since he was a child. How he was governor, and that it was his job to keep everyone safe. Over the days, and weeks, the longer they walked, the more he shared, as if the boy were an empty bowl that he was pouring his memories and thoughts into, all with the knowledge that the bowl did not understand, or nod, or question. In the twilight hours above the fields he indulged in sentimental thoughts; thoughts Jhige often teased him for, but that the boy took in as he did the breeze and the light. Childhood adventures in the yellow fields. The difficult harvests. And quietly, at dusk, in a murmur, the fears he’d carried with him over the years.
“This is the only sunset I’ve ever known,” he said one afternoon, smiling as he pulled grass from the dirt and twirled the dry blades around his fingers. “I’m lucky it’s a pretty one.” Words that glanced off the boy without impact as he chewed his cake and stared past the red sky at a point Kaeda could not see.
It was late in the afternoon, the two of them sitting on the cleft of a hill, watching the deep red approach of night, when they heard the music.
From beyond the tree line came the farmers, marching down the dirt road with the containers of dhuba, singing the song of homecoming. They seemed to march directly from out of Kaeda’s memory. He was swiftly caught up in himself, wracked with emotion as he listened to the melody’s swell, delivered by farmers young and strong, his eyes tearing up at the words Take my day, but give me the night. He sniffed, and wiped his face. It was only then that he glanced at the boy, remembering that he was not alone, and he saw something surprising: the boy’s eyes were shut, and his ear tilted toward the song, as if he were basking in it.
“So you like music,” Kaeda said with a smile.
When they returned home, he brought the flute out from its dusty corner of the bureau. The boy was confused by the object until Kaeda demonstrated for him a trill of notes, inspiring in the boy a startle of widened eyes, his hands reaching out toward the instrument.
This was how the flute lessons began. Kaeda taught him how to play when he had the time; how to hold it, how to purse the lips, and as he taught, he would remember with winces of pleasure and regret the image of Nia at the entrance of the alley, her musical silhouette. He taught the boy the old songs.
He was a quick study, even with the language barrier. It was clear he was an experienced hand with music, if not with the flute. It wasn’t long until he exceeded Kaeda’s skill—a matter of days, much to the old man’s delight and jealousy—and was able to play new songs, ones that Kaeda had never heard before, and were beautiful in their own right. Jhige was touched when the boy played for her a sweet and sad tune one evening, and when Yana stopped by with a fresh supply of food and she heard the music coming from the boy’s room, for the first time in months she crossed the threshold and sat at the table to listen for a while.
Kaeda had only intended to lend the boy the flute. It was not a gift. But the flute remained on the boy’s lap when they ate, and he took it with him into his room when he slept, and as the house swelled with his song, Kaeda’s mood darkened with the petty thought that the flute had betrayed him, that it had used him to get to its true owner. He knew this to be true the day Jhige referred to it as “the boy’s flute.”
“It’s not his,” he snapped. Jhige stared at him.
The music infiltrated his ears at night. It brought forth nightmares of Nia, at the foot of his bed with tears in her eyes as she asked him where the gift she had given him had gone; of him assuring her that he had kept it with him for all these years, and that he could prove it, if he could just find the damn thing; nightmares of him upturning his house, ripping out the floorboards, scoring the mattress with his machete, until he woke up with his hands clawing at the air. On the worst of these nights he stumbled out of his bedroom still half dreaming, using the wall for support as he limped down the hall, and had gotten so far as to twist the knob of the boy’s bedroom door, thinking he just wanted to see the flute, to hold it one last time, make sure it was safe, before he was stopped by the sound of muffled weeping from inside the room, and he emerged from his half-dreaming state and backed away from the door. He returned to his bed empty-handed, hoping that his acceptance of the situation would bring easy sleep. But in the morning, he felt much the same. Tired.
His pockets empty.
He did his best to hide his distress from the boy. Forced smiles when there was no reason to, and he cooked up many sweetcakes for him to eat while his own appetite shrank. During meals he shuffled his extra food onto the boy’s plate and watched him eat. And at night, as Jhige stroked his hair, she asked him the question she al-ways asked when he was in such a mood; where he was, and where he was going. To which he would give the same answer he had always given.
I am here, I am here.
The flute song wafted through the moisture season, and brought down the dry, until the dirt crumbled and the stalks turned brittle under the hard sun; the village holding its collective breath for the approach of the offworlders, and their release of this stranger, while Kaeda waited out his days in dread.
When the sky cracked and the green lines broke across the wisped clouds, he knew this was most likely the last Shipment Day he would ever witness. The last time he would meet Nia Imani. In the fields, after he gave the welcome speech he had rehearsed on his walks the weeks leading up to this moment, he coughed phlegm into his sleeve and wondered why now, at the end, he wanted nothing more than to get on one of those ships and leave with her; why this desire still lay dormant in his heart after all this time; why it still flared bright. Nia hugged him when she left her ship. She was younger and stronger than ever, and he felt so small in her arms. When she released him, he made his request, and was surprised when she told him, without a moment’s thought, that she would take the boy. “Interesting,” he said, smiling a little. “I was expecting more resistance.”
“And why is that?” she asked, returning his smile with one of her own.
“You never struck me as the generous type.”
Her smile wavered. The old hurts were returning, and he could not help himself. “I’m sorry,” he said finally.
“It’s fine.” Nia shifted her bag over her shoulder and walked toward the village, where the party would soon be held. “Consider it repayment for the company.”
Come the bonfire, they spoke only briefly—plans of where to meet tomorrow for the handoff of the child. Nia kept her company with the other offworlders while Kaeda remained with his own at the long tables, glancing at her from the other side of the fire, hoping that their eyes would connect and give him an opening to apologize for his behavior earlier that day. But she never looked at him, not once, and was gone before he could find the courage, or the time, to approach her on his own.
He did not sleep that night. He paced the halls of the house, passing the door to the boy’s bedroom, until morning.
It was a brutally hot day. The heat like a weight on his back as he made his way to the village plaza, where Nia waited for him. The villagers sweeping up the ash pit and clearing the tables snuck glances at the two of them as he approached her. He nodded to her, and she nodded back. And though now he had her full attention, he did not know what to say. A whole night of thinking, preparing for some grand speech, some resolution, but the words were gone.
“Where is he?” she asked.
“This way,” he said.
They climbed the steepening path to his house. He struggled with his cane, but refused the assistance of her offered arm. He was short of breath when they reached the top, his heart full and pushing against the lax muscles of his chest. He showed her to the living room, where the boy stood with the travel bag at his feet, packed with spare robes, some cakes, and other things Kaeda thought the boy might like to own. He was about to ask Nia if she would like a drink, but before he had the chance, she picked up the boy’s bag and headed for the door with a hand on the child’s back. Kaeda followed them. She spared a glance at his cane, and said, “You don’t have to come down with us. We can say our goodbyes here.”
“No,” he said. “I will come. I can manage.”
“If you’re sure.”
The three of them walked through the village, past the wary eyes of the other villagers, while Kaeda struggled to keep up with Nia’s quick pace. The boy didn’t so much as look back at him to make sure he was still there. Kaeda grimaced through the joint pain.
It was all falling through his hands.
In the field of yellow grass, where the ships waited, and where the last of the dhuba was carried off, the two offworlders turned toward him. Nia told him it was time. Kaeda nodded, and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and told him he had enjoyed their brief time together. He smiled at the boy in a way that only adults were capable of, one that was at once happy and sad and full, his grip on the boy’s shoulder tightening as he told him how lucky he was to go with her. The boy stared at him blankly, the old man’s words beyond him; words that were increasingly choked with tears as it dawned on Kaeda that he had never stood this close to the hangar doors of Nia’s ship before.
He had never felt the cool air seeping out of the ship’s dark maw. Never smelled that peculiar lace of fresh metals, or heard the idle rumbling of its belly and the snap of its folded sails as the posts swayed in the wind. Nia asked him if he was all right with such startling kindness that he was seven years old again, and he was twenty-two, and he was thirty-seven, his whole life sandwiching into this one moment, startling him with a powerful need to take her hand and walk into the ship and fly away and live the dream of his youth. He slapped the wetness from his eyes. No! he thought. I’m happy! I’m happy! He gave the boy a pat on the head and he shook Nia’s hand and wished her safe travels, words chipped carelessly from a mountain of impotence, before returning to his home, his namesake. A long walk punctuated by the sound of the ship smacking the sky, its green trail dissolved by night, no remnant of its passing, only the red moon swollen with kiri juice when Kaeda shut the windows and eased himself into bed beside his old friend. He gazed at her. The dream was gone, and only now, at the end of the day, was he awake. And as Jhige wondered aloud where the boy had gone, he took her hand and pressed his face into her coarse palm, comforted by the skin callused by the days of work. The sweet smell of the harvest. The taste of a banquet. And he told her, “I’m here, I’m here,” and he kissed her like they were young again, behind a storage shack in the conspiratorial dark, no lick of flame to distract him. Nothing but the two of them, while in the vaulted dark above their sky, in her ship of cloth and metal, Nia opened the boy’s travel bag and found among the folded clothes and wrapped pastries a long-forgotten object—unable to breathe as she held the flute in her trembling hands, and felt in its cracks the decades.
From the book THE VANISHED BIRDS by Simon Jimenez. Copyright © 2020 by Simon Jimenez.
Reprinted by arrangement with Del Rey Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.