This story appeared in Warp & Weave, a literary magazine published by Utah Valley University, in spring of 2018. It is about 5000 words. It is about a lost toy, among other things.
Lightness (part 2)
After about two more hours, Kossiekh came into view at the base of the eastern range. Irla fixed his eyes on it as it slowly drew nearer. He could almost imagine it was a mirage, forever floating out of reach.
“Ah! Our welcoming committee.”
Five figures were running towards them, and soon resolved into boys with their hair in long tails, wearing fur-trimmed wool coats and caps. They crowded round, jumping and chattering in the local tongue.
“Hey, you’re only a little older than us!”
“Where are you from?”
Zholeg introduced Irla and explained how he was helping on this circuit since Tib was sick. They exchanged news and banter, then started singing, and over the course of a long song they made their way into town.
The youngsters scampered off through the nearly empty streets as Zholeg led Irla up to a house, built of earth like all the others, with neat new plaster. Zholeg knocked and a lace curtain behind the glass window moved aside, showing a face like a hazelnut framed by black hair.
“They’re here!” The curtain fell back and the face disappeared.
“That was Paskek,” said Zholeg. “She always watches for us.”
The door opened, showing a stout woman with graying braids. “Come in, come in! Herlúf will see to your beast. But this is a youngster! Oh, poor Tib. Give him our best wishes. We hope to see him back here next time? Mobvítis will miss him, the rascal. Well, sit by the stove and be warm, dears. How was your journey?”
The house was all one single room, though there were folded screens leaning against walls, and the enormous stove and oven jutted well into the room, making a kind of division. They sat together on a bench running from the stove along the wall, covered with brightly embroidered blankets and cushions. Irla tried not to stare as he looked around. All of the houses he had visited in Útíma had rooms like his.
The woman gave her name as Shoni and she introduced Irla to her daughters while her husband was outside. Paskek had only barely turned twelve and reminded Irla of his little sister. Mobvítis greeted him cordially, while Hímaúz unnerved him with her gaze before nodding and going back to the stove. Paskek stayed and waved her hands as she talked about their plans for the spring planting.
Soon the man of the house, Herlúf, came in with the village’s resident Jackrabbit. He introduced him but Irla didn’t remember his name. Irla only had to answer minimal questions about himself and his brother because the family knew plenty of men from their village also fighting down south, and their talk soon turned to matters of the war in general, which needed no contribution from him. He was glad it wasn’t long before Mobvítis called them all to supper. Hímaúz watched closely as Irla took his first spoonful of red chile. After he started eating with no sign of discomfort, Hímaúz nodded and didn’t look at him again for the rest of the meal.
When they finished, they all helped clean up and moved back to the other side of the stove. Shoni brought out a little harp and the evening wore on until the local Jackrabbit took his leave.
And then, with only a couple of candles burning and the stove down to embers, it was time for bed. Irla and Zholeg helped lay out the mattress, pillows, and duvet. Herlúf and Shoni slept in a curtained bed on a platform over the oven.
Irla was the last to step behind the screen to change clothes, and he wished he could just close his eyes and be back in his own bed at home.
“Hey Irla,” murmured Zholeg. “Are you falling asleep back there? Come on in so we can all get warm.”
He wondered if he would be able to sleep at all.
Hímaúz was standing by the bed. Mobvítis, Zholeg, and Paskek were already under the duvet. Irla sent a silent prayer heavenward and climbed in.
Hímaúz blew out the candle and climbed in next to him. “You’re not a farter I hope,” she said.
Paskek stifled a giggle.
“Oh, leave him alone,” said Mobvítis.
“He’s fine,” said Zholeg, yawning. “He doesn’t snore either.”
Irla decided he would just lie on his back and hope he didn’t turn on either side. Paskek had snuggled up to him and draped her arm over his chest without any hesitation (at least she had no breasts yet), while Hímaúz had pressed her back up to his right side and was still after only a moment’s nestling down.
Irla lay awake for a time, listening to the breath-rhythms change, keeping his eyes closed. Now that the time was upon him to be fully alone, he let it sneak up on him instead of tensing himself in preparation.
Alone without Taka—here in this bed between two girls— he thought of his sister Pashra, only a year younger than Paskek. He wondered what she would be doing around the house and around town without him. He remembered her laughing in the observation car when they had ridden the train to Tyban to take their big sister to school, her worried frown as she confided in him her fears of what their sister might get into in the big city . . . At some point these thoughts lost their sense, and Irla did not try to hold onto them anymore.
But when he awoke it was dark, and he had no idea where he was—for a moment he almost forgot who he was. But had he made an undignified sound?
He was afraid he had. Oh, to be home and away from all this!
There was an arm around him and a whisper. “Shhh, you’re all right. Easy now.”
Hímaúz: that was who was next to him, he remembered. He whispered back, “Did I wake you?”
Her hand spread kindness over his forehead. “Not Paskek, I think. She’s a heavy sleeper. Bad dream?
Well it’s over now, whatever it was. Let it go. You’re safe.”
Irla debated with himself for a moment before deciding to relax. He let his breathing slow. He reminded himself that he was not likely to see Hímaúz or any of these girls ever again.
That was a pity, really.
“I get frightened at night sometimes,” he whispered.
“The dark? So did I, not too long ago. And you’re not at home. Well, as I said, you’re safe here. Do you need to get up for anything?”
“No, I’ll be all right.”
“Then lie still. Here, take my hand. There. You’re safe.”
They both lay still.
“Thank you,” he whispered after a while.
Her hand squeezed his.
And then . . . he felt jostling and opened his eyes.
Morning. The others were getting up. Mobvítis was crouched by the stove, kindling new fuel.
Hímaúz took his hand again and pulled him out of bed. He shivered as she handed him over to Zholeg, who threw a blanket over his shoulders. “What say? Brave the cold for the outhouse or get dressed first?
“Get dressed first.”
Zholeg laughed. “Very well then, I’ll be the first outside. Ha! Twenty-four miles today! Are you ready? I’m not.”
“Wind’s picking up,” said Mobvítis from the stove. “Might bring some snow.”
Zholeg made a face and stepped to the back door. “Brace yourselves,” he said, and slipped out the door in a blink. Irla pulled his blanket close.
Breakfast was blue corn dumplings and fried onions with fermented camel milk and even a dish of buttery stewed apples. They ate quickly and then packed up. Shoni kissed Irla on the cheek before they left and slipped a honey candy into his hand.
As they walked down the main street, Zholeg squinted at the streaked clouds above. “I’ll take my liberty of doubting their prognosis. I don’t think it’ll snow today.” He returned a wave from a passer-by.
“Good,” said Irla, who was thinking that he might survive this after all. This evening they would be staying in Parmeshvi.
They trudged along as they had the previous two days; Irla’s legs, at last, honestly sore. Zholeg was noticeably quieter, which suited Irla fine. They headed due north for a while between fields before the path began following a meandering stream. Irla thought of Taka, of Hímaúz, of girls, of walking.
“Up ahead,” said Zholeg, “those hills sticking out from the ridge? That’s the Narrows. We’ll follow the stream through a canyon—that’s where our lunch stop is. A bit later than usual, but it’s over halfway.”
Irla grunted, settled into the numbing rhythm of the stride and let his thoughts drift. Gradually the land started to rise on both sides and the path came in close to the willow thickets beside the stream as it meandered. Their midday shelter was a cabin built where the stream met a tiny tributary, and their hasty, fireless lunch was improved with pies that Shoni had packed. As they walked on between the cliffs, Irla asked Zholeg if the boys from Parmeshvi raided the Jackrabbits, too. Zholeg replied that in the summer the hut served as a base for a training complex that ran the length of the whole canyon. He pointed out cleared patches where gardens were planted, and corrals for beasts.
“Do any from Kossiekh join in?”
Irla wondered which language was spoken the most, but didn’t ask. As their path turned this way and that beside the stream, Irla watched the scenery and a little squadron of crows to distract himself from wondering how the night would go.
[end of part 2]
I write under the pen name Gerrit Stainer. I am a Utah native, descended from Mormon pioneers, Dutch settlers in Sleepy Hollow, Salem Witch Hunt victims and even some Varangians way way back. Writing since adolescence, I also play drums and make walking sticks.