13430 words, novelette
Alone, on the Wind
I am the first wingbeat; I started the stones rolling. But now I need help. We can’t keep cowering here like hens on their nests. We have to act, and soon, because my memories have started sinking into now and we; I need to share them before they stop meaning anything at all. But you shy away from me. Why?
We have enough to do with the Dance of Stones. Folding dimensions so that the Stones do not drift away demands all we are. Memory tips the world out of balance too easily. Memory comes from regret.
But what if there won’t be a future without these memories?
The future comes from fear. It, too, tips the world out of balance.
But the world’s long out of balance! Now that I’ve given you the chance to share in events through me, you have to become part of them! We need to change something!
Change is eternal. Even without our help.
And what about life? Is that eternal, too?
Life must grow, to exist. If it does not grow, it falls back into death.
Exactly! That’s it. We’re falling. It’s already begun. Please, let me tell my story and then—then you can make your decision.
It begins with a youth named Tuela. Tuela was too fearful for a life among the Dancing Stones.
“Tuela!” called Rasn. “Come back!”
Rasn had always stood by me, even though I was the most difficult youth in eir group. If I stopped now and went back, ey would lay eir arm on my shoulder comfortingly, would explain to me that my siblings loved me and hadn’t meant it that way. And ey would’ve been right, because their laughter wasn’t mean. They laughed to hide their concern. They laughed to give me courage.
I didn’t know why Rasn hadn’t followed me that time, why ey hadn’t pulled me aside under some salt-glittering, moss-overgrown rock and, with a mixture of disappointment, anger, and pity on eir face, brought me back. I was almost grown, but I still behaved like someone freshly hatched.
The trail faded away under my feet as I ran ever higher, up against the bird-gravity. Finally I couldn’t go any further. Dizziness seized me as I looked around, and I clung to an overhanging rock.
Above me, only blank, black space, but if I leaned far enough forward and peeked over the path’s edge: at my feet, the Dancing Stones. I hated being so far out on their edge; there were no hand-ropes here, no bridges. No buildings to protect you. Despite all of that, I let go of the rock overhang as I felt the whole mountain tilt and tip forward, positioning the Dancing Stones directly in front of me. I wouldn’t fall; the mountain would hold me down as long as I kept my feet on the earth. Still, I felt my stomach lurch, and I had to suppress the impulse to throw myself flat on the ground and cling to it with every cell in my body. I took another shaking step, the tips of my toes jutted out over the trail edge, and I spread my featherless arms out like wings.
The wind snatched at the channels in my flightsuit and flared them out, ready to carry me away. Only one more short step and it would happen.
I breathed deliberately, slowly, felt the fear, and watched the first birds I saw as they lifted from their nests, circled a few times in the air, and began to check the orbits of the Stones in their territories. The Stones’ complex movements looked completely different from this vantage point on their outskirts than they did closer to the center, where my school was. Where I felt safe. Yet seen from out here, it was the center that looked hopelessly dangerous. The boulders seemed to cluster far too close to each other. Some were so big that over the course of generations glittering cities had grown up on them, and some had only one or two pink huts clinging to them among the waving salt-grass. Here and there a few boulders drifted faster, others slower; some turned on a shared axis, others just around their own. Most were bunched together in stable groups by a flock’s bird-gravity, and between them drop-seas hung in the air like iridescent eggs, the smallest just big enough that a group of youths could bathe in them, others as big as the mountain on which I stood.
I’d never enjoyed being outside. Wherever you went you looked into the abyss, into dizzying depths, always finding yourself at the center of that baffling twisting and turning drift-flow, and everything everywhere seemed to only just scrape along without colliding. Beyond this controlled chaos, there lurked either profound nothingness or the fierce smiling face of the Yellow World, hanging sometimes over and sometimes under us. Unlike my siblings, I’d never picked up the knack of always knowing which direction to look in when leaving home.
As always when I watched the Dancing Stones, I waited against my will for a convulsion, a collision, explosions and wreckage, the screams of the dying. But nothing like that happened. Of course it didn’t. The birds had everything under control, by instinct, and unlike conscious thought, instinct never broke down. Ever. The sun bathed the craggy meadow a few flight-minutes below me in a golden glow, and I saw the cloud-shadow of the mountain I stood on drift across it. I closed my eyes.
It was really only a step. Most youths did it as soon as they could walk steadily. I wiped away the tears that had forced their way out from under my eyelids. If I didn’t do it now, I would have to go on living like this: hobbled, always relying on help. Until the day I died.
Not far below me my siblings, with their crash helmets and their wind-flared, colorful flightsuits, passed by in close formation. I saw how two of them let themselves fall behind and drop into the ripple between manipulated gravity fields, shrieking and relishing the acceleration before Rasn called them back into line and they let an updraft catch them. Despite their quick pace, the group’s movement seemed almost stately as they wheeled through a passage between two Stones turning counter to each other.
And then they were gone. Rasn had left me out here alone, and I stood on the edge of a cliff. With outspread arms, knocking knees, and flapping flightsuit. It was the thought of the scornful and pitying looks I’d receive if I had to return to school riding piggyback again that let me finally act.
An air current seized my body and pulled me headfirst inexorably toward the center. Use your arms and legs. Don’t lose your nerve. Keep your goal in sight. Use the changing gravitational foci, torque, and any passages between the Stones that emerge. Theoretically I knew the right responses—I’d certainly read more about aerodynamics, bird neurology, the inverse square law, localized dimensional distortion, and heightened gravity than even Rasn—or any of the other teachers.
But the texts hadn’t told me what it’s like when you almost soil your flightpants for fear or when your own vomit flies past your ears and you can hardly hold your eyes open because you’re in a headwind without protective goggles. They didn’t say what happened when you suddenly forgot all the theories. When you no longer had any idea how to spread or bend your arms and legs to use a current, to steer, to dodge an obstacle. Or to land.
In spite of everything, I hit the field I’d aimed for. Or the field hit me. The landing broke my right knee and the pain was so sharp that I waited, yearning, for unconsciousness. But it didn’t come and I began to explore the pain and accept it. And even though I couldn’t get to my feet to leave without help, a feeling of elation suddenly seized me.
It happens, youths breaking something on their first flight attempt. I could count myself lucky that nothing worse had happened, as I hadn’t taken my helmet with me when I’d run away from flight lessons. I’d done it. I’d bested the airspace between two Stones under my own power and my injury would prove it. Despite my broken bones, now I wanted to stand up at any cost and make the rest of my trek back the same way: Alone! On the wind!
The attack came the same moment I’d made this resolution. An old bedraggled bird swept down on me, biting at my head and ripping off tufts of my hair and shreds of my skin with her long talons. A few steps away another pair of birds stirred in the morning sun; the female rattled an egg into place under her blue-black feathered belly and yawned hugely, while the male eyed me with distrust and stuck his violet penis out of his mouth in a threatening gesture. The bird above me spat out wild inarticulate noises and aimed her talons at my eyes.
I acted from pure instinct, striking out, getting a hold of the bird’s lower jaw, gripping under her upper row of teeth with my other hand at the same time. And I tore with all my might, until she cracked and my fingers bled from her sharp teeth, until her lower jaw hung loose and she made gurgling sounds. But she still wouldn’t leave me alone, and as I got hold of her pink feet, I smacked her against the rocks over and over until she was finally quiet and her age-grayed wings hung limp around her. The bird was dead and I was alive. Stupid animal.
We feel a hint of outrage. We shift anxiously on our feet. We remember; we were there. We could have intervened. But we knew what was done was done. We felt it as the egg shattered. As the child shattered. It was her last egg. She could lay no more. She was ready to move on. No being should ever hold back another who moves on.
The less thickly settled edges of the Dancing Stones, with their salt marshes full of juicy mussels, have been bird territory since this small world shattered. That’s longer ago than we can even imagine. Here they live and with the seven-layered kernel in their bird-brains create the Dance of Stones; here they nest in the ten thousands on every single boulder, and the childcatchers prowl their territories and search the nests for newborns.
But I was no childcatcher; I had never in conscious memory seen a nest up close. Only as I cautiously straightened up did I realize why the bird had attacked.
The nest was old, the grass in it brown and slimy, and it was just as tattered as the bird now lying dead at my side. The pale blue egg was hidden beneath tufts of grass. It looked like there was no longer any male to go with the dead female, and likely she had covered the egg to protect it against the hot sun at the beginning of the day or from cooling off during the night while she was away.
The egg was shattered. The youth inside was brown-skinned and very blond, just like me. It could’ve hatched any day. A tiny creature, lying before me in the frail blue shell as if it were sleeping, with little legs pulled up and balled fists. On its head was the egg tooth, pale blue and gleaming, with which it would’ve opened the eggshell. Many youths came to school with their egg teeth hanging on grass bands around their necks as good luck charms. I still had mine myself and felt for it, as if with only a little luck I could take back what had happened. I’d smashed in the youth’s tiny ribcage with my fall. My triumph had dissolved into nothing, transformed into two small dead bodies that lay near me in the grass.
On the first day I did nothing. On the second day, early in the morning, I licked the salty dew from the grass. I needed a freshwater drop-sea, but I couldn’t find one. With great effort and pain I hid the corpses in a hollow in the stone that I covered over with moss, so the childcatchers wouldn’t find them. Then I scattered the nest to the winds. The second night I spent shivering and alone under the open sky. I could die out here. That would be fair. I could hope for rescue. Rasn knew where they’d left me behind. They would search for me. But maybe they would come too late. I could try to make my way back to civilized regions on my own. All in all, this option seemed to offer not only the greatest chance of survival but also the greatest chance that my crime against society wouldn’t be discovered. I had to try to move a few Stones further at least. To somewhere where there was water and people. I crawled around, found a place I could push off from, and started on my way.
While I worked onwards Stone by Stone, I realized this was exactly why Rasn had left me behind: to force me to learn to fly if I wanted to survive. When I reached school on the fourth day, I was received like a hero. But I didn’t feel triumph. I only felt guilt.
Guilt means keeping the past alive. Regret.
Yes, I couldn’t forget what I’d done.
We had forgotten, until you told us about it again.
And now the memory makes us angry. Anger exerts too much gravity; the Stones could crash into one another. We do not want to hear any more. We must keep the balance.
Wait! Stay! I promise, at the end equilibrium will be restored again.
In the eyes of Rasn and the others I would have been a sibling-killer if I’d explained what had happened. And if I hadn’t been so obstinate, weak, and self-absorbed, things would never have gone so far. I was too much of a coward to face the consequences. But I atoned in my own way—by becoming the best flyer in my group. At any time of the day or night, I was out and about among the Stones, and out in space, too. I wanted to become a watercarrier, and that required the hardest training you could imagine.
Rasn supported me. Ey was proud of me and of emself, because ey thought ey had awakened such courage and drive in me. But I distanced myself from em internally. Ey didn’t know how deeply ey was mistaken about me and eir fear for my life filled me with contempt.
But the Yellow World didn’t make only em afraid. Everyone feared the desert sands of our big sibling, which are so acidic they eat flesh from bones. Everyone feared the heat and the storms that raged over the lowlands and ground the mountain ranges down to glass-smooth whispers. The gravity there dragged at us, making breathing a torture.
Only close to the poles were the storms less frequent and the days not quite so hot. There, water gathered under the surface where we could reach it. And there, cliffs rose up out of the sand, and in the cliffs were settlements of wild tribes, up to a thousand members strong—heavy thickset people with black eyes peering out from the eye-slits in their protective sand-masks. They killed without scruple. And they ate their dead.
In school I’d learned it was the inhabitants of the Yellow World who’d shot to pieces their own little brother-world, moving hand-in-hand with them through the heavens. Yet we’d survived and still danced in all of our wreckage right under their noses, while the Yellow pulled jealous faces at us. They wanted to destroy us, but in the end we’d fared better than they had. Our world is green and warm and the air the bird-gravity holds around us is salty and mild. The only thing we’re missing is fresh water.
And the Yellow’s only riches gather under the surface. Oceans of fresh water filtered through thick strata of earth and stone, rid of the ever-replenishing acid on the surface. They drilled for it, built caverns, moved ahead of the storms in their caravans to tap new wells.
In secret, by night, we took only what they’d taken from us. And when they stood in our way, we killed them.
It was my fourth mission, and I was proud to be with the watercarriers. I hadn’t killed so far, but a part of me hoped I would get the chance to prove myself this time. The more I put myself at risk, the less guilt I felt.
Like every other time, I was nervous before we set out. Seven of us, plus ten birds on their tough grass leads, we stood at one of the outposts currently facing the Yellow World, the invisible outer limits of the atmosphere a bare ten minutes distant.
The plan was always the same: we would fall toward the Yellow World and rely on our gliding skills, in the shadows of the night.
The birds determined our course, they made sure we had air, and with the uncanny sureness of sleepwalkers, they found the places that gave access to water. Under the protection of night we would search for an entryway, would kill the watch, would keep watch ourselves.
The birds did the real work. They would smell the water, would seek it out. They would unfurl as much of our spacetime as needed to draw the water up through wells, halls, and stairways, and let it flow up into the air. There it would gather, a new drop-sea hanging shivering over our heads, swelling and never overflowing. And before the morning dawned, the birds would let themselves and us fall up, back home, with our shimmering, priceless spoils. We would disappear over the horizon and the settlers down below would never discover who’d killed their watch and taken their water. So we had always done, and we’d never lost a watercarrier or been caught.
My flight companion had gleaming brown plumage and scuttled restlessly here and there on my back while we waited for the order to begin the mission. It was no comfort, the thought that he could bite me or drive his talons into my flesh at any moment. Bound together, we were at each other’s mercy. If I fell, the bird on his lead would be dragged down with me, and if he saved himself by rolling space together, making himself dart back upwards, he would have no choice but to save me, too, taking me with him. Most of the birds were well-trained and cooperative. Despite that, I didn’t like them so close to me, didn’t like their appraising, cold bird-gaze. My companion produced smacking guttural noises and stuck his penis in my ear. I knew that he only wanted to be friendly, but I didn’t like that sort of affection. I put my helmet on quickly and made certain the visor was shut securely against wind and sand.
Judging by feel, the Yellow World was below us now. Very far below. And between us and the Yellow World was nothing but a little vapor glistening in the sunlight.
“Ready?” cried Utjok.
I worshipped our squadron leader even more than I’d worshipped Rasn as a youth. Utjok was stronger, harder. Ey was considered one of the best.
We gave em the thumbs-up sign and I felt my bird clamp tight to my back. Utjok raised eir arm and as ey let emself fall, we pushed off one after another from the mossy outpost and dove headfirst toward the Yellow.
On my first three missions I’d had my fear under control, had almost savored it, like a well-deserved punishment I had to endure. But this time it was worse. As I felt us leaving the atmosphere of the Dancing Stones, the panic built into a massive wave and broke over me. It was worse than my first catastrophic flight attempt. I screamed in mortal terror, as though seized by a horrific premonition—one which would turn out to be accurate. The bird on my back had no pity for my distress. He was a dumb animal that, aside from the breeding instinct, was guided only by careful training. He bit me until he drew blood, and brought me to my senses.
When I could think halfway clearly again, I found myself drifting aimlessly between the Dancing and the Yellow, surrounded by my atmosphere, which the bird had pulled out of the larger atmosphere as one pulls drops out of a drop-sea. The other members of the squadron were a good ways ahead; Utjok looked back at me. I corrected my course, joined up with them, and let myself fall into formation.
Two meager mealtimes later, we’d reached the first layer of Yellow’s atmosphere. I hadn’t had the energy to shake with fear the entire time, and I already had enough flight experience to get myself back under control. So despite the bird skittering restlessly on my back, I’d even managed to catch a little sleep here and there.
“We need to get out of the sun,” called Utjok eventually.
I shivered and wished we could fall a little further through daylit regions to warm up. But light might drastically reduce our chances of going unseen; we didn’t know how far their telescopes reached. So we moved along a wide-flung arc in the diffuse area between day and night, toward the point where, together with the desert stronghold we were aiming for, we would turn with the planet into the dark night.
As soon as the planet’s atmosphere was thick enough, we let our formation’s atmosphere go; the wind struck us unchecked and the air smelled metallic. My bird let go of my shoulders and glided with a pleased smile on his face only two arm-lengths above me, free. For a moment I was happy not to feel his talons any longer, yet suddenly I felt alone. In the palpably stronger gravity, without the support of the kernel in his bird-brain, I found it hard to keep my balance in my flightsuit, and the wind howled so loudly around my helmet that I felt as though I’d gone deaf. Whenever our goal took shape in the distance, we dove deeper still, until it disappeared just below the horizon again.
Utjok pointed behind us. “Something’s brewing back there. Make sure you don’t fall into a downdraft,” ey bellowed over the noise of flight.
I threw a glance back over my shoulder. It was true, the night behind us was pulling together into still blacker night, and our smooth gliding flight picked up a tailwind; the birds let out uneasy noises as the wind began to rip at their tails and wings and their tethers. We kept picking up speed.
Utjok made signs that we should shift course to the left. And then behind us, next to us, and, in the next second, right in front of us, a series of poisonous yellow flashes struck out of the blackness into the sand and opened our eyes to something we hadn’t planned on:
Riders—at least five hundred—in a long line, one after the other. The animals they rode they called armor-mules. Their hooves, eaten away by the acidic sand, oozed downwards into cone shapes like melted fat. The riders were wrapped against the storm, squatting on their animals like black ghosts; and we shot towards them at a speed that made controlled maneuvering almost impossible.
As one of the mules sheered off to run up a dune and the rider on his back stiffened, I knew we’d been spotted. One moment he looked like a playing piece on a broad gameboard and the next I could already make out the folds on the wraps he wore and what he was pointing at us—which could only be a firearm. In that moment, the best we could hope for was to stay in the air.
“Up! Higher up!” bellowed Utjok and gave the birds a sign. I felt us bear up against the wind that was trying to press us down, carried by a wave the birds hurled behind us. And the storm rose with us, and the sand, and the riders on their mules.
I caught a last glimpse of the rider from the dune’s crest as he was thrown through the air. I’d flown too low. I tried to throw myself into the upswell but coasted right under it instead. I felt my bird fish for me, but the Yellow World’s gravity was stronger; it grabbed me, tore my bird’s lead, and left me spinning while around me sand and riders and my squadron, too, plunged towards the earth.
You couldn’t say I regained consciousness. I regained pain. I couldn’t move my legs, and my arms stood at wrong angles to my body. My left hand lay unprotected in the sand, the skin red, weeping, and the burning was so piercing I retched bile that ran out of the corners of my mouth into my helmet. The sun stood high in the iron-gray sky and all around me was nothing but sand. On Yellow, very little grew that could cope with the acid in the ground, and from school I knew that without armor-mules or the right footwear, you had no chance in the desert. Where my flightsuit was torn away, my raw flesh baked in the sun; my tongue was swollen and my throat too dry to swallow. After a while, I discovered one single clear thought buried under all the agony: I would die down here.
The hope of returning back home as myself shrank down to nothing, just like my brain would shrink under the sun to a fraction of its present size. My vocal cords and my tongue would waste away, my ability to think would collapse, and I thought I could already feel my body fluids gathering together and concentrating to keep alive the part of me that wanted to survive at any cost. That wanted to go home. That was already thinking about laying eggs. I lay dying.
Is that all? How does this story justify change?
No, I’m not finished. Tuela didn’t die down there.
Maybe because the chain of events hadn’t yet led to the change we need. Maybe I was saved so I could bring it to that end.
We reject that. There is no higher power. If there is, then we are that power, or a part of it. We do not know. It does not matter to us. But still, we want to know why Tuela lived on.
Unfortunately, I can’t remember. I wasn’t conscious. But there is someone who was. Pierre told me about it. Let’s remember what he recalled.
Pierre paused at the kitchen gateway and looked up into the sky. The evening was still bathed in pale green light emanating from the Heights hanging slantwise over the horizon, but soon it would be pitch black. The wind drove sand and small stones and leaves before it.
As a boy, Pierre had been afraid of the Heights, of the ghosts that dwelt there. Elder Rock had told him about them. Many generations ago, it was said, the Heights had been a small planet, and this world had been covered in thick forests. But the tribes quarreled with the Deathbirds, there was war, and the acid that had rained from the sky had made a dead sand world out of the dark-green jungle world. Only a few had survived, and even for these, what was left over was barely enough. It was then that the Deathbirds left the world and took the small world for themselves, and the tribes cursed them because they were trapped here below. After the last cataclysmic acid storm, so the legends said, the surviving tribes looked into the sky searching for the small world and found only rubble remaining. The Heights were shattered; the Deathbirds had gotten their punishment.
At this point Elder Rock always dropped his voice and whispered, “But their ghosts still fly up there among the rubble. On especially dark nights, they descend. And if they catch anyone not keeping a close enough eye on the sky, they rip off his head and take it back up with them.”
Then Elder Rock would pull on Pierre’s ear and laugh. And afterward Pierre would lie awake and stare at the sky through the open sand-shutters, not daring to sleep.
Today, now that he was an adult, he welcomed the Heights in the sky in the evenings, because on any normal night they afforded a few meters of visibility in the blackness. It was only on nights like this that you couldn’t see them at all. The wind kept intensifying, whirling dust and sand into the upper layers of the atmosphere. Light emanated now only from the ever fiercer lightning strikes forking down.
The men and women from Pierre’s tribe ran across the stronghold’s courtyard. Their scarves and masks pressed against their faces, they fought against the wind hurling acidic sand at them, tied the animals fast in their stalls, and secured hatches and doors.
Pierre turned his gaze away from the black sky and ran over to one of the greenhouses to stack sandbags that would shield the milky glass from the impact of the wind and windblown debris. Then—a dry thunderclap and a new cluster of lightning strikes beyond the wall, hitting one on top of the other, first far out in the desert and then, instantly, right near Pierre. And then one of them crashed into the cripple-palm whose fronds spread over the courtyard and the greenhouse. It burned, burned blazingly, while the lightning strikes moved on. Pierre’s eyes ran, his ears were deafened by the roaring flames, and he groped his way along the ground, hands protected by thick gloves, ignoring the sand burning where it forced itself under his clothes as he crept towards the place where he had last seen the boy.
He lay so close to the trunk of the palm that the flames had singed his hair away. It was Jen’s son, still too young to have been given a name, though his nickname was Cakes, the word he said most often. He must have followed Pierre outside.
Pierre lifted the boy up, carried him, heart racing, into the second courtyard where the fires were kept alive in high glass chimneys, and climbed up the outer steps with him. Inside the walls the howling of the storm became high and wailing.
Jen was, as expected, in the upstairs hall, tending to cuts and acid-burned eyes. Her breasts swayed under the thin cloth of her nightshirt, her hair spread heavy and black over her back.
As she spotted Pierre she abandoned her patients. He laid the boy carefully in her arms. Some glanced over, curious. Most found it easier to avoid looking at them.
“I’m sorry. A lightning strike. He had . . . ”
Jen didn’t look at Pierre, turning her back to him and laying the boy on one of the smooth-polished stone benches that ran the length of the walls. She covered him up as though he could still feel cold.
It hurt Pierre to his soul. All of it. That he couldn’t help. That he couldn’t touch her. That the boy lay there. He felt guilty, although he knew it wasn’t his fault. He turned away and ran out again into the raging night.
It was dangerous to go up on the wall then, but Pierre had to check the telescopes. If they weren’t carefully wrapped and tied up, the sand would grind the lenses blind within an hour.
He pulled his mask over his face-scarf, hooked his belt into the safety line, and pulled himself along against the storm, hand over hand, until he reached the first telescope. Through the thick dust shimmered a last greenish hint of the Heights that Pierre used for orientation. At the second telescope the wrapping flapped loose against its bindings, and it was pure luck that it hadn’t yet been ripped away. Pierre cast a glance through the telescope before he wrapped it, more out of habit than hope that he would be able to see anything in this weather.
But he did see something. A snaking line of points of light. A caravan. A big one, with many mules shoving their armored feet along and just as many swathed riders.
But they weren’t expecting any caravans. An unexpected train of this size could mean only one thing: an exodus. And that meant war. In a day at most.
Pierre looked out, screening his eyes behind their protective goggles with his hands and staring intently in the direction where he had seen the caravan. Nothing but darkness. Again a series of lightning strikes flashed across the sky and Pierre used the opportunity to look once more through the telescope. Nothing. He waited. But even in the harsh light of the next stormfire, the desert remained empty. Not a single mule and not a man to be seen. There was nothing but sand and blackness out there.
It is hard for us to remember. But if we let ourselves fall far enough, we know the Dancing Stones were a sphere. That is true.
There was war. That is true, too.
They hunted us in their woods, slaughtered us, stole our eggs. The woods were all-concealing, and we liked the trees. In trees you sleep well. We would have gladly stayed there.
But they were everywhere and we never heard them coming. Only as the trees first disappeared did we truly see them. And we sallied forth.
There was much anger and bitterness and fear and destruction and death and no balance at all. We refuse to think about it any longer.
The kitchen gate into the courtyard stood open so that the first sunlight shone in and warmed Pierre’s hands. With him at the table sat Jen and Elder Rock. They blew silently on their mugs of tea, shoved dried fruit in their mouths and chewed, sucking it entirely dry of sweetness and flavor before swallowing the fibers. They were dirty and exhausted; they’d been on their feet the entire night. Jen’s eyes were swollen. Pierre didn’t dare look at her.
“There’s nothing out there,” said Elder Rock. “Lor was on the wall the entire night and kept watch.”
“But I’m certain. It was an exodus, an entire tribe. We have maybe half a day to prepare.”
Rock sank into himself just a little more.
“We’ll never manage it. Not after this past night.”
“Are you certain?” asked Jen. She seemed calm.
“I’m certain,” said Pierre.
Then no one said anything more, no one moved, until Jen suddenly stood up and clapped her hands.
“Well then. To work!”
If Jen said, ‘To work,’ then to work she would go and prepare for a battle. Five hundred in the desert against two hundred in the stronghold. They had a real chance. At least Pierre hoped so.
Elder Rock stood up as well.
“I’ll give the alarm,” he said tiredly and left the kitchen.
As the bright sound of the bells broke the air, Pierre asked, “How are you?”
Jen didn’t answer. Pierre suspected that in her silence she blamed him, just as he did himself. Because the boy had been with him. He stood up to take her in his arms. She let him.
“Oh, to hell with you,” she said sadly.
She sounded as exhausted as Pierre felt.
She’d never let him come to her bed since they’d married, hadn’t once allowed him to show tenderness and comfort her. Her first husband had been murdered as he stood waterwatch below in the outer entrance on a lightless night. His throat had been sliced so cleanly through that his head just barely remained resting on his shoulders. Her marriage to Pierre wasn’t going to improve now that her son from that old marriage was dead, too. Pierre let the hug go.
“I’ll have them double the watch on the reservoir.”
The day passed and no one believed any longer in the exodus Pierre claimed to have seen. There was no one out in the desert. Jen rounded up some children to help her prepare the death meal. And shortly afterward the inner courtyard was full of people sitting on the carpets, crying and talking in low voices about the dead boy. It was the first shared meal since the storm, and they ate it quietly. Pierre sat alone on a carpet under the palm, there where the boy had died whose bones, gnawed clean, now lay on plates and platters all around.
Jen went around and collected what the tribe had respectfully left over, to gather it into a bundle and hang it on the burned-up palm. Sand and wind would break down the remains over time, and when that was done, the mourning period would be over.
The sky took on the green shimmer of evening. Pierre sighed. Maybe in the end, the storm had brought them not misfortune but rescue. If there had been an exodus, then the storm had buried it in the sand.
A shadow fell across his face. Jen stood near him, the bundle with her son’s bones pressed to her breast.
“You can come to me tonight, if you want,” she said. For a moment a trembling smile played over her lips.
Pierre felt as if he’d waited half a lifetime for this invitation. But he shook his head.
“I can’t. Not tonight. I have to go out and search for them. Maybe there’s still something left.”
No one else would go. No one believed him. It wasn’t just a matter of the spoils that the sand would quickly dissolve. His credibility was at stake.
Jen nodded. She’d clearly expected this response, but her smile reverted to its usual hardness.
“Can I . . . come to you afterwards?”
She shook her head. “Maybe it’s better if we wait a while longer. Until I’ve . . . recovered.”
Pierre forced himself to nod shortly, then stood up and left.
He got a mule out of its stall and watered it generously before he loaded it with water pouches, ropes, blankets, a shovel, two lamps with milky glass, and his armored boots. At last he mounted up and drove the great bleating animal on with his heels. If his luck was bad, he would spend the whole night awake in vain. If his luck was good, he would bring spoils back with him. And if his luck was really against him and he stumbled into an ambush, than this would be his last foray out into the night.
But in the green light of the Heights, it looked as though the sand actually had swallowed everything: there was no hint that there had ever been a caravan there. Despite that, Pierre couldn’t bring himself to go back home, back to Jen, who would turn away from him again; back to the mocking looks if he returned empty-handed. His eyes burned from the traces of acid in the air, and he’d had nosebleeds for two hours. He wouldn’t be able to stay awake much longer. It was the second night he hadn’t slept.
Only when the pale light of dawn arrived did Pierre’s gaze find an irregularity in the landscape. The fluttering of a shining blue scrap of fabric in the wind. He remained standing a stone’s throw away, waiting to be certain that what he was seeing wouldn’t turn out to be a mirage and evaporate. But the fluttering held steady, and he rode closer.
In the sand before him lay a tall adult form in a blue coverall, arms and legs much too long and thin, no breasts but still so delicate he had to believe it was a woman. The skin on her hands was gold-colored, the hair that poured from under her tight-fitting helmet almost white. Pierre put his boots on and slid down from his mule into the sand.
As he opened the helmet’s sand-blinded visor, he saw narrow features with a wide soft mouth and long eyelashes lying like feathers on her cheeks. Her arms and legs were clearly broken in multiple places.
Pierre took a step back, waiting to see if the form noticed his arrival, if she would move. He could tell that she lived because her chest rose and fell convulsively. If he waited just a little longer, her breathing might stop. He stood there and stared, uncertain what to do. He knew no tribe whose people looked like this girl. The pockets of her suit were empty, and beyond that he found no clue to her origins. He knew he should kill her to end her agony. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Her body felt very light despite his exhaustion, and she groaned weakly as he laid her prone across the mule’s back. On her back the fabric of the suit had already been eaten away by the sand and had fused with her dissolving skin. She might heal, but only slowly.
Before he gave the mule a slap to start it forward, he stuck a piece of fabric he’d soaked with water in the girl’s mouth. Her raw back he left open to the still-cool morning air.
The caravan he’d seen last night had been giant. But this white lanky being on his mule seemed to be the last of her tribe. Suddenly the full force of her tragic fate hit Pierre and he began sobbing softly, throat dry. Killing her would be more merciful, even if she could survive. Somehow, he would have to try to make up for his weakness.
As I awoke, I was still I. It was cool and dark; I lay on my side and ached, but the ache was still dull, in the background. Directly in front of me a face hung in darkness; in that first moment I thought it was a bird. Its skin was almost black, and its head and chin were covered in hair of the same color. The face smiled and floated upwards and then I saw that it sat on a broad, massive body. I heard its voice, deep and rumbling, but it was articulate sounds that I heard, not the meaningless stammer of a bird.
Only then did I truly take in my surroundings. Stone walls hung with colorful carpets, two glass chimneys where small fires burned, a low roof, a wide door, and instead of a window, a closed hatch in the wall.
I’d fallen into the enemy’s hands. I was at their mercy. Apart from my injuries, the gravity of the Yellow World pressed me down all on its own, making it impossible for me to move or even to breathe deeply enough.
A massive dark hand was laid on my forehead. Strangely, this touch comforted me, and I shut my eyes and fell asleep again.
The next period is blurred in my memory. There were alternating phases of intense pain, deep darkness, and numbness. Other than the dark one with the deep voice, there was another thickset figure who attended me regularly. In front she had wobbling heavy-looking appendages on her torso, and the thickest, blackest hair I had ever seen fell down her back. She washed me and fed me salty broth and a spicy gruel that lay heavily in my stomach. With a set expression, she stretched my arms and legs into the right shapes and splinted them while the bearded figure held my screaming body down. She spread salve on my back and encouraged me with noises and gestures to move my broken bones, to bend, stretch, and lift. But she never smiled.
Only the bearded man did that. He smiled wide, with white teeth and with tears in his eyes when he looked at me. And after what seemed like a lifetime, I could hold a spoon myself, and even if I took a long time and spilled, I was full when I was done eating. I lived like a just-hatched youth, fragile and barely strong enough to bear eir own weight. And as with a youth, there was someone near me most of the time, too, keeping me company and watching out for me. Nights, the bearded one often sat on my bed and spoke in his strange rolling language, listening to me as I told him everything that went through my head. We smiled a lot and occasionally we exchanged gestures, and one night he took my hand for the first time and pressed it cautiously, as if he was afraid he might shatter it.
His strength was unsettling and at the same time aroused a strange elation in me. I felt I trusted him, trusted the enemy, and I told him my name.
He laughed, long and booming, until my own belly resonated with it and I had to laugh, too.
“And I’m Pierre,” he said in his language. I understood him.
Nights. It would be too easy to say I loved him because he was the only one who was friendly and took any interest in me. It was more than that. It was a tension between us, something strange, exciting. We talked for hours; he helped me train my muscles, massaging them devotedly when I lay sweating and exhausted on my bed after strength training, and I felt this satisfied me just as little as it did him, without knowing what it was I longed for. And one night we pressed ourselves against one another on my bed, entangled ourselves in our ankle-length shirts, and pressed our open mouths against one another like birds shortly before nesting time. This was the night I discovered Pierre had a penis. I’d never—not even once—thought that I could regret not being an animal.
The next morning, led by Pierre’s hand, I passed through long cool halls and several stairways out into bright sunlight for the first time, still uncertain on my legs and fearful of the strange world outside my small room. There, I’d often shoved the sand-shutter to the side and looked over an endless yellow plain to a far-distant horizon. And nights I’d gazed up at the Dancing Stones and longed for their green buoyancy.
Now we stepped out into a stone gallery and looked into an inner courtyard with white sand, colorful carpets, large hairy animals, and green plants three times as tall as me spreading their wide green leaves out like a roof under the glaring sky. Everything here was fixed in place, nothing drifted or spun or shifted around anything else, everything I saw was oriented around the same reference point, just as if we still stood in a room in a solidly-built house. Between the trunks of the largest trees stretched hammocks where people lay and dozed in shadows; and at a hearth something was suspended over the open embers, exuding a delicious savory scent. Around this wide hall under the open sky were solid walls built out of solid cliffs, and even the sky with its even, steely blue seemed solid and immovable. I can’t describe that moment as anything but the feeling of having come home, where you could depend on your feet and the direction of gravity. I fell in love with the Yellow World the first moment I set foot on it awake and aware. Pierre stood next to me, small but twice as wide and ten times as strong as I; I clung to him hard and laughed and cried at once, and he laughed his sustained booming laugh.
We searched out a free carpet, and before Pierre sat with me he rang a bundle of bright bells hanging from a tree branch. Then he disappeared into the dark behind an open gate and came back with fresh water, dried fruit, and bread.
He began to eat slowly and methodically. While I, in accordance with the custom of his tribe, kept him silent company, the courtyard filled with ever more dark thickset people who scrubbed their hands in a sandbasin, sat down to eat, and eyed me curiously. Finally a good two hundred faces were turned to me, expectant, and Pierre said quietly:
“Very rarely do so many come to eat at the same time. They knew I would bring you with me today.”
He stood up.
“I know you want to find out more about Tuela. Ask your questions.”
The first to rise was an old man.
“Rock, do you want to begin?”
The elder nodded and turned to me, but asked the question loud enough for all those present to hear.
“You were on an exodus, yes?”
I didn’t know this word and shook my head, helpless.
“You wanted to invade.”
“Yes,” I said truthfully and felt ashamed. I stood up with Pierre’s help.
“I’m sorry. We’re trying to survive.”
“We all want to survive,” retorted a young woman. “But we manage it without raiding.”
“We don’t have fresh water. We’re not interested in your land. We need water.”
“And how did you want to transport water for so many people? On your mules somehow?”
For the first time I realized they took me for someone from the caravan I’d seen in the storm, and I glanced at Pierre for help. We’d never explicitly talked about it; I’d just always taken it for granted he knew what I was talking about when I spoke about the Dancing Stones. He nodded at me encouragingly.
“The birds would’ve carried it for us. They make things light or heavy.”
The surrounding faces looked at me without comprehension and I’d no idea how to begin to explain. Or if I even ought to explain. Strictly speaking, I would betray Utjok if I did.
While I hesitated, Pierre spoke for me.
“She doesn’t belong to the lost caravan. She comes from the Heights. She belongs to the ancient tribe of the Deathbirds.”
My heart beat wildly, fear-filled. I saw their doubt. And then I saw their fear. Fear of us.
“They can fly. Like in the old legends.”
“No one can fly.”
“She has to prove it first.”
“Look at her. She’s so different from us.”
“And what if she’s come to destroy us once and for all this time?”
Pierre lifted his hands in an appeasing gesture and the people stopped speaking over one another. He counted off on his fingers:
“She crashed. Her flightsuit is torn to shreds. She has no weapons. She’s alone. She can’t do anything to us.”
“What does she want here?”
“What she said: she wanted to get water because her tribe up there in the Heights is dying of thirst.”
“I told you so! A raid!”
“Would we have given them water of our own free will, then?”
No one answered, and again Pierre did it himself.
“No. Because anyone who doesn’t belong to us is, obviously, our enemy. But I tell you this way of thinking is a mistake! Since I found Tuela, I’ve thought a lot. About our lives and about the old stories. No one knows exactly what happened then. Why the little world shattered, why we live in a desert. We blame them and they blame us, and that’s the only thing that tells us for certain anything even happened back then. But that was then. And now is now. We have to stop this. We have to learn from each other so we can make our lives easier, together. Tuela’s stranded here. She can’t go back. I want us to take her into our tribe. That would be a tiny beginning, a small change.”
Pierre paused before he spoke further, looked me in the eyes, saw the pain that had balled up in me like a fist at his words, that choked me and weighed me down.
“I want to take her to wife.”
In the courtyard was silence, and Pierre stood there with outflung arms and waited for a reaction.
It was Jen who was the first to speak.
“But I won’t let you go.”
Pierre let his arms sink, astonished.
“I thought you’d be pleased. I thought I disgusted you.”
“You’re right. I’ve no desire for a man to lie beside me. And I’d let you go with pleasure. But—” Jen pointed at me. “I’ve seen her naked. She’s strange, she’s . . . not even a woman. If I can prevent her mixing with us through my refusal, I’ll accept being your wife.” Then she turned to me. “I’ve nothing against you personally. But you can’t be a man’s wife.”
“I want some proof,” said Elder Rock, quiet but clearly audible. “I want some proof that she isn’t human.”
And Jen tore my long white shirt down the front. And I felt their eyes on me like burning ice.
“It’s completely flat. It doesn’t even have nipples,” said Jen matter-of-factly. The simple observation sufficed as proof that Pierre and I could never be a couple. I lowered my head, asking myself how I could have let myself hope for even a second.
“Pierre, she can’t bear children,” said Rock.
“Of course I can’t bear children. No one can do that before they’ve died,” I said, tired.
Pierre’s face remained earnest as he turned to me.
“But I still want to marry you.” Then he turned again to his tribe. “I found her in the desert. It should be left to my decision.”
“You owe us children, Pierre,” said Rock softly.
“I know. But I ask this of you, nevertheless. Jen, I ask you as a friend: Let me go.”
Jen’s lips were narrow and she had her arms crossed over her breasts.
“Just the thought makes me sick. And Rock is right. You owe me a son.”
With that, she turned and walked away.
And I stood there shivering in the evening air that was quickly turning cold, two hundred pairs of eyes fixed on me.
Elder Rock laid a drape around my shoulders so I could cover what I didn’t possess. He clapped me on the shoulder as if he wanted to apologize.
“We aren’t done yet. There will be further questions,” he said. “About your homeland and how we can defend ourselves against you.”
Pierre brought me inside again. I saw fear in his eyes and felt it begin to clutch at me, too.
In the following days, I stayed in my room and Pierre came by only occasionally, for a few minutes. He said there were difficult times ahead for us and he’d stave off the worst.
I’d be neither killed nor chased into the desert. But Pierre couldn’t prevent them from piecing the rest together, too, from connecting the dead waterwatchers with my appearance. They blamed me, and Jen, who’d nursed me back to health, was particularly furious. True, I hadn’t killed her husband or any of the others. But I’d taken part in the missions during which they were murdered. I couldn’t deny my complicity, and so they debated over me and passed judgment.
Later Pierre explained to me it was Elder Rock who’d had the idea that I should get a chance to settle my debt—and I was beyond grateful to him. But I recognized the real thinking behind this, too: Should my people send watercarriers here again, I’d have a chance to return home. And perhaps to begin then what had become Pierre’s and my greatest wish: To live together. I didn’t explain to Pierre that for me there was yet another way home. Because I feared that way far too much.
So it was decided that deep in the mountain under the stronghold, I would change filters, work pumps, keep reservoirs clean, and sound alarms if anyone tried to invade.
It wasn’t, as I’d hoped, Pierre and Rock who took me below. I hadn’t seen Pierre for days; he kept himself away or was kept away. Two men I didn’t know accompanied me. They stared grimly ahead and positioned me between them like a prisoner who threatened to fly away at any moment. Inside the stronghold we went down countless steps; the entire mountain the stronghold was enthroned on must be shot through with tunnels and halls which generations of inhabitants had driven down ever deeper until they had finally struck water.
The deeper we went, the colder and damper it became, and I began to shiver in my shirt. The walls were slick with algae and fungus, and the halls we passed through at the end were so narrow that we could only shove ourselves forward single-file, sideways.
Then finally the pathway opened onto a round reservoir; the walls were brick, the roof was arched, and after the tallow-lamp-lit darkness of the halls, harsh sunlight fell in through a row of narrow embrasures on one side. A catwalk the width of a man ran along the circumference of the reservoir, and at regular intervals in the walls were set brick-lined niches where rations, weapons, blankets, clothing, filter screens, buckets, poles, brooms, and other equipment waited to be called into service.
The waterwatcher received us in front of the reservoir’s opposite exit. His niche was furnished with a large sack laid flat stuffed with sand and rags, a couple of blankets, and a mule-grease lamp smoldering in its glass cylinder. Overhead was a leather cord that disappeared into a hole in the wall.
“The alarm pull,” the watcher explained, brusque, and I nodded.
As he gathered up his personal belongings, he threw suspicious glances at me as if I might attack him from behind and cut off his head without a sound, as we did on our missions. Then he climbed back up into the stronghold with both of my escorts. Only now did I notice the bars of sturdy bone which they pulled closed behind them. I was alone.
Sunlight reflections painted swarming snakes on the walls. Unable to think clearly, I watched them until they faded. Only then did I fill the oil lamp out of a leather bucket and set about taking a closer look at my new home.
The second exit I’d noticed earlier was not barred. The hall behind it was as narrow as the one we’d come through, but it was dry. After some minutes spent stumbling over stony ground, I stood in a stairwell leading up. At its end, I stood at a second set of bars separating me from a long cavern where a second waterwatcher wrapped in a blanket lay on his rag sack and snored. Over the watcher’s camp was fixed an alarm pull just like the one below in my niche. The light of the Dancing Stones shone in through the entrance and drenched the view in a sickly sheen. The scene was familiar to me; I’d already been here once before, and I asked myself how the watcher could sleep so peacefully. It was no wonder it was so easy for us to steal from them, when you could simply murder them in their sleep. I would’ve liked to have woken the man and reproached him for his carelessness. Instead I climbed down again, to sleep a little myself.
And then I had nothing else to do but make my rounds regularly, scrape algae from the stones, sustain myself on dried fruit, meat, and fresh water, and throw my waste out through the light embrasures. Occasionally someone came to supplement my supplies, and several times during the day I made a pilgrimage to the upper bars. But none of the watchers on duty ever spoke with me. They all stared past me, and many spat on the floor contemptuously when I appeared. As time passed, I realized that they weren’t guarding their water so much as guarding me.
When Pierre finally came, I was already at the point where I was talking to myself.
“Tuela,” he said simply as he appeared at the lower bars. I recognized the deep rumble of his voice more with my gut than with my ears, and a tingling shot through my limbs that couldn’t be explained by just surprise.
He unlocked the bars and stepped in, bringing cheese and fresh soft bread and a pouch of hot tea that did my throat good, sore as it was from constant coughing.
“You’re too thin,” he said as he sat next to me on the rim of the reservoir and watched me eat.
“I was always this thin,” I replied, chewing.
“No, you weren’t. You’ve got to get out of here. Very soon.”
Pierre took my hand and looked at me out of great sad eyes.
“Should you be here with me at all?” I asked.
After all, I was someone put here to atone for the murder of several watchers. I coughed drily.
Pierre grinned. “I cheated a little.” Then he shook his head. “You really don’t look good.”
“Thanks,” I said. I wanted it to sound coquettish and carefree but I didn’t manage. It came out as a true thank you, one that acknowledged how much he worried about me.
“Can you swim?” I asked and wondered at myself for not having had the idea before. At home in the Heights I’d often swum in the drop-seas.
Pierre shook his head. “What’s swimming?”
“Letting yourself be held up by water. Moving through water.”
“Yourself? All of you?”
I nodded. “Come, I’ll show you!”
In a quick motion, I stripped off the fur vest and my unlaundered, greasy shirt, and stepped up to the rim of the reservoir. The water we had at home originated on this world, maybe even from this reservoir. But at home the water was bright and transparent. You could see all the way through and laugh over the strangely wobbling boulders on the other side. Here below, the water was opaque and black and you didn’t know how deep it was. Or what was under there. I hesitated. But then Pierre stood next to me, his penis erect, aroused and full of anticipation. And we let ourselves slip together into the icy water and I showed him how it held us up. At first he was a little fearful, holding onto the edge, but soon he swam with powerful spluttering strokes and savored the gliding motion. After that, we lay wrapped in my blanket and made love while golden snakes danced over the walls and Pierre’s black shoulders gleamed in the light that reflected off of the water.
And again I described for him our Dancing Stones: the sky’s depths, the blue of eggs, and how the childcatchers collect the youths as soon as they leave their nests and threaten to fall over the Stones’ edges.
“Don’t the parents pay proper attention to them?” he murmured, sleepy.
I didn’t have an answer for that, because that question had never occurred to me. What would happen if you left the youths to the birds? What would they become? I shook my head.
“Who would they learn to speak from? How would they leave their Stones without flightsuits? When the Dancing Stones were still all one piece, it might have been possible. But now . . . ”
I described how we grow up with our siblings. How we play. How we learn to fly. But I didn’t describe how we die to him. The thought frightened me. For the first time in my life it was actually important to me that I live. Because I wanted to be together with Pierre, because I wanted something we could call “our life.” Pierre didn’t tell me what would happen if someone caught us. He’d gone to sleep.
And they did catch us. There were eight of them, and they appeared, heads glistening, gasping for air, in the middle of the reservoir. There must have been a hidden inlet below, perhaps a brick channel or a crack in the stone. The water had to come from somewhere, after all. They swam better than Pierre; they were practiced. Their arms cut with quiet liquid noise through the water and pulled their heavy bodies up onto the catwalk where they smacked their shivering bellies and backs to warm themselves. They laughed until someone ordered them tightly to lower their voices. I knew the voice.
It belonged to Utjok, who was the last to get out of the water, slender, and shivering just as much as the thickset men ey had come with. Ey was, as always, the leader.
I wanted to jump up, wanted to hurl myself at em. But Pierre held me tight, shaking his head silently. We were only two. Utjok pulled a sack out of the water by a long rope one of the men had bound about his hips, and passed out pickaxes and knives to eir new squadron. I’d no doubt ey would kill Pierre if ey discovered him, just as we’d killed without hesitation on our missions. And suddenly I was uncertain ey wouldn’t kill me, too, when ey realized we no longer stood on the same side.
Pierre and I pulled ourselves further back into the shadows of my niche silently and waited. They took the path down through the inner bars, tearing them right off their hinges with the help of a pickaxe and a rope.
As soon as the last man had disappeared, I reached up and tore at the alarm pull. The leather cord was rotted through; its end came loose in my hand.
Pierre didn’t even take the time to throw on a shirt.
“I’ll go around outside. Rock’s there! He can give the alarm.”
I held tight to his arm. “They belong to the lost caravan. I know it—we saw them on our approach.”
Pierre nodded. “I know, let me go!”
“Utjok was leader of my squadron. Somehow, under the surface, they must have . . . ”
“I know! There’s no time for this now.”
Pierre pulled away without kissing me.
“And me?” I called after him. “What if more of them come? If they discover me?”
Pierre paused. “Come with me,” he said and we went together, shoving ourselves as fast as possible through the narrow passage, naked.
The upper bars were locked. Rock lay not even an arm’s length from us. The alarm pull was sliced through, just like his throat. His wrinkled face lay in an already congealing pool of blood. He must have been dead for hours. In his fist, Pierre found the key.
“Why didn’t they just come in through here?”
“Eight of them? We would’ve seen them from the wall. The Heights stand in the sky.” Pierre pointed to the full bags and saddles standing ready in the cave. “Early tomorrow morning we three would have been gone. On our way north,” he said sadly.
So that was what he’d meant when he’d said I had to get out. He and Rock had had a plan.
Despite the fear taking hold of me, I rejoiced inside. For the first time in countless days, I breathed the fresh metallic-tasting air of the surface; for the first time in days I felt the wind on my skin. We ran on, naked and barefoot, through the acidic sand. By the time we reached the narrow outer steps, our soles were bleeding, but there was no time left to worry about that. I struggled upwards against the gravity, Pierre hauling me after him and cursing because we were so slow. When I realized he’d signed his own death warrant by taking me up along with him it was already too late.
I knew the wallwatcher awaiting us above. He’d spat in a pouch of dried meat before handing it through the bars to me with a smile. And I’d spat back, hitting him on the chin. He spotted me before he saw Pierre. And while they overpowered us on this side of the stronghold, the strangers invaded from inside and killed more than fifty sleeping people before they were stopped.
Again they blamed me. No matter how Pierre and I stated our case, I’d killed Elder Rock, I’d let the strangers in. As evidence, it sufficed that their leader was a white gangling freak like me. Naturally I'd been in contact with em the entire time and planned everything out long beforehand.
Utjok, eir new squadron, and I were all sentenced to a dishonorable death. We would be pitched from the stronghold wall. The sand would quickly dispose of our remains. The tribe could afford it; there were more than enough other dead to consume. But there was worse in store for Pierre. He would be sent into the desert on foot with enough water to last only a few days. His chances of survival were far slimmer than mine.
When the moment came I begged to be allowed to wear my old helmet. Utjok had lost eirs in the vast labyrinth under the surface, and someone had removed the blinded visor from mine. But it was better than nothing.
I felt no fear as I stood on the battlements naked and chained next to Utjok and eir people. The survivors from Pierre’s tribe stood close behind us in their full number, robes fluttering. I would die, and I didn’t mind. In those last moments of my life I felt only gratitude at being allowed to see the soft shine of the Dancing Stones one more time with my own eyes, and the longing to finally return suffused me.
There was no ceremony, no pronouncement of the sentence. A row of people stepped forward, spiked staves held tight in their hands. With astonishment I recognized Jen among the executioners. In a moment of rage I considered grabbing her stave and dragging her with me into the depths. But it was unlikely that would work. The wall was too high; Jen’s center of gravity was far too low.
I concentrated. More important than revenge was somehow managing to control my fall. Even without a suit and the chance to lie as spread-eagle as possible on the wind. Jen shoved first Utjok and then me down with one hard, focused strike apiece.
And we flew, flew too fast; I saw the strange men and my former squadron leader tumble down before and beside me, rebound off of stones, saw as they dashed against the ground far out, naked like the child whose ribcage I’d squashed more than a lifetime ago. The same thing would happen to us now.
I didn’t lose consciousness, although the breakneck fall tore the breath from my lips, although my instincts balked against experiencing my death while conscious. Despite everything, I stayed with myself as my backbone broke, as my organs burst, as my lungs collapsed. Around me eight bodies struck the ground with dull finality. Utjok didn’t manage it. Eir skull was smashed to pieces.
Do we remember the first moments after our birth? They fade so quickly and there are no words for them, because we experience entirely new feelings that we have to learn first. None of us still remember the day of our birth.
But a piece of Tuela remembers, a piece that we retain until it is time to reach a decision whose necessity we begin to divine. We remember.
At first there was a distant many-voiced whisper. Then eyes opened and looked into a familiar face. The name that belonged to it wanted to be spoken. But there was no throat any longer, no vocal cords, and the tongue had retracted, had begun to turn into a tract deep in the throat which felt an unprecedented sensual itch at the sight of this face. Greedily the bird-mouth gaped open to receive its lover, and a demanding gurgle rose from it.
But he did not understand us and shrank back, letting Tuela’s helmet fall into the sand, and we slid from his lap into the biting sand and screamed in pain.
Quickly, Pierre picked us back up, shoved a scarf under us that would protect us for a while, and dripped water in our mouth. A hot wind stroked over the feathers already shoving through the skin of our cheeks. The separation took place quickly. Our new feet kicked out of the old neck, wings unfolded themselves, and last of all, the spine binding us to the old body dissolved with a quiet, definitive pain.
In that moment Tuela began to fade and she had to hold herself together with effort. She holds on now, still, and we help her by encapsulating her life in this story. We begin to feel the urgency she felt. We want her plan to work.
Pierre picked up our new body carefully, wrapping it loosely in his scarf, and we slept as he carried us away from the stronghold deeper into the desert. He went to his own death, but that did not bother us. We just needed a little peace. We slept lulled by the soft swing of his steps, slept until agonizing thirst woke us and he gave us water. We beat our wings, fluttered up, and turned our first reeling rounds on the steady wind of the Yellow World.
Seated on a stone, Pierre watched us, full of astonishment. And as we landed in his lap, a little clumsy and awkward yet, he let us quiet the other longing, too, let us drink our fill from him as birds do. He shook as he gave us semen and, after, we watched him cry many salty tears that mixed, bubbling, with the sand.
When he had cried himself out, the Dancing Stones stood slanting over the horizon, and his mouth moved. He spoke, but we no longer had ears that could hear him. We heard now only our own distant whisper deep in our skull, but we heard no wind, no hiss of sand. Not his booming voice that had moved Tuela to laughter. The world was silent and Pierre’s lip movements struck us as ridiculous and lewd and we tried to laugh. Pierre stopped talking, staring at us.
What must he have seen? Tuela’s head without the body he had loved sat before him on bird feet and blinked at him. The hair had fallen out of that head. Instead it grew light-colored feathers. She wanted to say that he shouldn’t speak, that there were more important things now, but his expression told her she uttered only sounds, meaningless guttural bird sounds, wet and ugly, that made them both sad.
Tuela felt it would be a relief to give up the past; the temptation was great, the promise of the eternal moment enticing. She could have turned around and flown away, back home. Forever. She was tired, as dying is hard work against which one cannot shield oneself. But although we suffered growth pains, the pain of rejection, and the pain of loss, we were not really dismayed and we felt that home would accept us.
But there is something still better than forgetting—more life! Togetherness! Trees to sleep in!
The realization of how simple it would be to have all of this forced Tuela anew to hoarse laughter. Our lung volume had shrunk and pulled back into the inside of our cranial cavity. That chamber of bone was still there and in its interior there was a new pitch-black dot with seven layers, one for each dimension, harder than stone and as all-encompassing as an entire universe. We felt its pulse, felt how our thoughts reached for it. This awareness was what made us heavier or lighter; suddenly the gravity of the Yellow World no longer pressed us down. We weighed less than nothing; our flight was elegant and we savored it. We understood the Dance of Stones and how we brought it about; we saw the warping of space in and around us, and it pleased us.
Once, in school, Tuela had dissected a dead bird. She had removed the cherry-sized seven-hulled kernel from its brainstem, had cut it open. She had found a smaller cherry inside, and inside one smaller yet, and so on to infinity. Life is exactly as large inside as outside, and the flight to the center of a molecule takes just as long as that to the edge of the galaxy. They do not realize everything is just as light as it is heavy, just as large as small. Just as sweet as sour. It is easier than thinking. It is easier than wanting. It simply happens.
Pierre no longer sat on his weathered stone. Instead he hung helpless in the air under us with his arms paddling; we had picked him up with us, and we admit, his fear amused us. And then we started on our way. We hoped we would be welcome.
The we seemed so self-evident to us now that the interest in everything single and separate quickly faded. Only not in Pierre. We took him with us, we rescued him from the desert as he had rescued Tuela, and now we are responsible for him. We watch him as he lies in the salt meadow of a Dancing Stone and looks down at the Yellow World. He teaches us writing and we drink from him still, and he lets us. Although Tuela no longer hears his rumbling and booming she does not lose herself and stays near him. Why? Why am I still interested in him?
Because I still feel somewhat to blame for him? Because we both owe our tribes a child? Or because nothing of him will remain if he dies, not even his dream of a life together. His kind die so much more thoroughly than we do.
Pierre is not dead. You are together, so far as it is possible. What more could he and Tuela wish for?
We said already: More life! What we all strive for as soon as we die. We want to create life!
Only you are not biologically compatible.
Right. But we’ve learned life emerges from death, as Tuela died in the desert.
Think about it, feel it: Our power to hold the Dancing Stones is just as big as small.
There are no boundaries in any direction.
Stone that grinds to salt under its own weight.
Pierre’s tears that sizzle in acid sand.
Dancing Stones and the Yellow World.
Water gushing out of the dark in shimmering seas.
We could sleep in trees again, under a steady sky.
We could make one living world out of two dying ones.
Sun gave way to shadow, the wind came up, and suddenly it was cool. Pierre awoke as the storm tore at his hair, and instinctively he shielded his face with his arms. But it was no storm like Yellow’s. It was the thundering of millions of wings around him. The smiling mouths, winking eyes, and shimmering feathers of the Deathbirds were everywhere, surrounding him. He stood up cautiously so as not to startle them; he walked around the Stone on which his tiny hand-built hut of tough grass stood. Nothing but whirring, calling, rejoicing birds everywhere.
Pierre ducked, covering his head as they came nearer and their wings brushed his shoulders. He thought about the old story: If you don’t watch out, they’ll take your head!
Then he felt himself lose contact with the ground, felt as he began to drift away from his Stone. He tried to hold tight to the roof of his hut but his hands missed their grip. Dammit, did you have to wear your flightsuit here even when you were sleeping?
Then the bird that had been Tuela set down on his back, bent over his shoulder, blinked, and kissed him tenderly. He hadn’t seen Tuela for days; she’d been troubled and preoccupied, but now she looked as though she’d never in her earlier or her present life been so happy. She let a little piece of grass paper fall into his hand.
We go below. We go home, stood there in her still-uncertain scrawling child’s script.
Originally published in German in Space Rocks, edited by Harald Giersche, 2011.
Karla Schmidt is a German cross-genre author of short fiction, novelettes, and novels. Her work has been nominated for the German Science Fiction, Kurd LaBwitz, and German Phantastik Prizes ("Alone, on the Wind" was nominated for all three). In 2009, her short story "Weg mit Stella Maris" ("Away with Stella Maris") won the German Science Fiction Prize for Best German-language Short Story.
She lives with her husband and two daughters in Berlin. In addition to editing for publishing houses and self-published authors, she develops material for Schule des Schreibens (School of Writing) and teaches in its novel-writing workshop.