by Leigh Ann Cowan
“I was a boy when the strangers first came. Bright lights filled the air. The ground seemed to shake. A thing bigger than eight huts together descended toward the field outside my small village. My family and neighbors rushed outside, forgetting their tasks of weapons-making and weaving, and of cooking and dyeing, to stand awestruck. We gaped at the humongous monster as it landed with a deep, throbbing hum, crushing the seedlings we had planted only days before.
“Then all was silent,” whispered Mangled One, pausing for effect. The little ones watched him with open mouths and wide eyes. “I should stop. It is too frightening for you.”
“No!” chorused the children, shaking their heads at the elderly man. “We want to hear the story!”
“All right then,” said Mangled One. “But you’ll have to listen carefully, and don’t interrupt…”
The gray thing didn’t move, nor did it make a sound. It sat in the field as the dust slowly settled around its flat feet.
“Silver Tongue,” my mother said quickly in a low voice, giving me a stern but worried look. “Get inside. And don’t come out until I say, you hear?”
“Mother, what is that?” I pointed to the monolithic thing.
“Never you mind, my son,” she frowned, ushering me into our hut. She hurried me to the vegetable pottery and emptied one of the larger ones onto the floor. “Get in this, Silver Tongue, and do not come out until I say.”
I obediently clambered into the pot. She put a finger to her lips, and placed the lid over the pot, leaving just a crack so a sliver of light could enter. I was a rather small child at seven star cycles, but perhaps that was why I survived.
After what felt like an eternity of my being still and quiet, I began to hear commotion. Strange popping sounds echoed loudly and were followed by shrieks. A few twangs meant an arrow had been fired. Crashes and thuds resounded as things were thrown and broken. Familiar names were called out frantically. Strange, guttural cries rang out. Terrified, I clamped a sweaty hand over my mouth. Blood pounded in my veins. I willed my heart to slow so no one would hear it beating wildly in my chest. I knew I would be caught.
But I wasn’t. And my mother never came for me, even when there was no more screaming. Hunger gnawed at my stomach. The light that seeped through the crack mother had left was beginning to diminish; night was falling. So I curled up in an attempt to get comfortable, and tried to sleep.
When I woke, I knew it was light again. I blinked blearily at the peeking day-starlight that filtered into the pot. Everything was still and silent. I wondered if everyone had left me because they didn’t want me anymore. The longer I waited the more I began to believe it. Tears sprung into my eyes and hunger yet again troubled me. My mother had ordered me to stay within the pot, but I was sure she wouldn’t mind if I were to grab a handful of the vegetables she had poured out the day before.
So I crept out. Cold silence hovered in the air. I kneeled down on the floor of the hut and began to pick up the little yellow produce. As I leaned my head back to shove a few in my mouth, I caught sight of something outside the doorway. Chewing, I stared hard at the lump, wondering what it was.
I knew I would be in trouble if I was caught, but curiosity had gotten the better of me. Moving closer, I saw that it was Looks At Sky and laughed. The old man was always falling asleep in the strangest places. I crawled over to him and shook him–then leapt back with a startled yelp.
Looks At Sky was dead, his eyes opened wide in surprise. Blood stained his chest. I jumped to my feet and quickly glanced around for someone to call for help.
But like Looks At Sky, everyone was laying across the ground or over each other. Some were slumped against hut walls; some were half in and half out of their doorways. Crafts and foods had been destroyed and scattered across the ground. Blood was everywhere. No one moved.
“No Wars?” I whispered hoarsely. I kneeled beside my tribe leader and pushed his head scarf up to reveal his eyes. They were glassy, staring at a horror beyond this world.
I looked around me. “Snake Flower?” Dead.
“Peaceful Girl?” Dead.
“Day Star?” Dead.
Everyone was dead. I began to panic. I counted the tribe members, looked for familiar faces. Everyone was here, even–
“Mother!” I fell to my knees at her side, put my hands to her cold face as my tears finally spilled. She was at the edge of the village, closest to the field. She had probably tried to communicate with the beast, and it had killed her, just like everyone else. The huge thing was nowhere to be seen now, though deep scars had set into the soft dirt of the ruined field. Strange, round footprints led to and from it.
I don’t know how long I stayed at my mother’s side, nor in what direction I had begun to wander. All I knew was that I somehow ended up at another tribe’s gate with blisters on my feet. Here, huts were made of wood, as opposed to our clay ones. The roofs were of straw and grass, and several fire pits were dug throughout the village, above which pots of stew broiled. This village was twice the size of mine, and housed many people who wore bright clothes and had facial piercings.
A woman saw me standing at the edge of the village, and she quickly brought me to the attention of several others of her tribe. The woman, accompanied by a man with a hunting knife, approached me. Her dialect was strange to me, but she spoke with words I understood.
“My tribe is dead,” I stated when she asked where I had come from. “The beast killed them.”
The man and woman shared a glance of confusion, but led me into the village. She sent him off to summon the tribe leader while she fed me hot stew from a bowl fashioned from the skull of an animal.
She asked me my name and tribe name.
I shook my head, indicating that I did not wish to speak to her. She became silent and refilled my bowl with the spicy food.
A withered old woman was escorted to me by the man who had first approached me and another more muscular one who appeared to be her bodyguard. I set the skull down to show her respect, as I would had No Wars approached me.
“What is your name?” she asked in the weird dialect.
“Seelvor Tong,” she repeated it incorrectly, but I said nothing. “What happened to your tribe?”
I recounted the story, beginning with the beast that had descended from the sky. I told how my mother had saved me, the horrific screaming, and how when I woke everyone was dead. By the end of my story, a group of adults in colorful clothing surrounded me. A couple of women looked at me with tears running down their cheeks; several men looked shocked and angry. But the tribal leader sat dispassionately as she listened, never once interrupting.
Then she spoke: “My tribe name is Galloping Forest. I am Seventh Rain.”
I nodded, wiping my tears with a yellow cloth someone had passed to me.
“You stay here,” she continued. Then she turned to several of the men who seemed to have more piercings than the rest. “Rising Moon, Quiet Son, Runs Fast, to Sky Readers village, go. Find out what happened.”
“Yes,” they said in unison, standing and setting off immediately. I picked up my skull bowl and continued eating. I refused to look up.
The woman who had first approached me, whose name was First Daughter, took me into her own home and gave me a bed. I couldn’t sleep that night. The low murmurs of the Galloping Forest tribe members could be heard until the early hours of the morning. The three men who were sent to investigate my claims must have returned and spoken of what they had seen. Eventually, the conversations died down, and it was silent. I now realized just how silent the world could be.
I laid awake, listening to the nothingness and staring up at the thatched roof. My brain begged sleep, but my body was too restless. The day-star began to rise, and yet I was still wakeful. First Daughter began to stir, then got up from her creaky bed and passed me to the firepit in the center of the room. She poked the embers with a charred stick, sending up red sparks, and added dry grass to it. Then she set about preparing breakfast.
I watched her.
She was very quick and skillful about it, and breakfast was ready before the sky turned blue. The delicious smell had filled the hut. First Daughter sat back on her haunches and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. She glanced over at me.
She must have seen the firelight dancing in my eyes. She beckoned me to come to her, so I rolled onto my hands and knees and crawled the short distance to her.
“Hungry?” she whispered, taking care not to wake her daughter, whose bed I had slept in.
I accepted the fresh bread and sliced meat, steam still rising from them. My mouth watered, and I ate it quickly. I was disappointed, as it tasted nothing like what my mother had made. The thought saddened me. I would never eat anything by my mother’s hands again, nor hear her voice, nor feel her warmth as she hugged me close. My heart ached as I tried to remember those things.
First Daughter held out more food to me, but I turned from it. She moved closer to me and put a hand on my head comfortingly. It did nothing to console me, and at the time I did not appreciate her effort. She wasn’t my mother, I had thought with distaste.
I pushed her hand away and walked out of the door. The village looked drab compared to their exotic clothing. I saw plants hung up on lines strung from the roof of one house to another; I assumed that dyes were made from them. I wandered around, ignoring the looks I received from the tribe members. Children with nose rings followed me curiously. The older the child, the more piercings he or she seemed to have. There were many children here; in my tribe, I was one of the only five children. I ignored the mothers who reprimanded their children and hurried them away from me. As far as they were concerned, I was a stranger and a curse. I envied those children–their parents were still alive and well.
“Silver Tongue,” called out First Daughter. I stopped and looked to my right, where she stood in her doorway. I had walked in a circle. She beckoned to me, but I remained where I was. “Hungry?”
I glanced up. The day-star had risen high in the sky, but was not yet at its peak. It was time for mid-day meal, I supposed. I shook my head at her, earning yet another sad look. All I wanted was to eat something I knew. I thought Galloping Forest was so close a village to my own. How could we have such different tastes? Though now I know it was in fact a five-hour walk to that village.
I sat in the shade of First Daughter’s hut, and she went back inside with one last pitying look, and I finally fell into a much-needed sleep.
Jostled awake by rough hands. A startled cry escaped my throat as I was pulled to my feet. The man I recognized as Seventh Rain’s bodyguard gripped my arm tightly, as though he expected me to run away. His face was emotionless, but his eyes betrayed uncertainty. “Come,” he said in a deep, reverberating voice.
I didn’t have much choice in the matter. He began to walk, taking long strides that were difficult for me to keep up with. His vice-like grip on my arm was beginning to hurt. He was bringing me to the front of the village, where I had appeared the day before.
A throng of tribe members stood facing the entrance; their backs were to us. As we approached, several looked over their shoulders and stepped aside so that we could pass. The hunched figure of Seventh Rain stood at the fore of her people, studying the strangers.
My breath caught in my throat as I looked at them. They were so different from us. The three strangers wore clothing that was unlike any I’d ever seen; hardly any skin could be seen on them. Each of them had a slightly different skin color; one had skin as dark as wood, and another’s was as pale as starlight. The other one seemed to have a flesh tone in between. Their hair was different, too. One had fire for hair, it seemed, and another’s was so curly it seemed unreal. Their eyes, noses, and lips were all different. Then I noticed the strange sticks they held down at their sides.
“Silver Tongue,” said Seventh Rain slowly. “These creatures?”
I shook my head. “Do not know.”
The stranger with wooden skin stepped forward, and I heard shuffling behind me as the whole village stepped back warily. He spoke, and I recognized the guttural noise as what I had heard the day my mother had been killed.
“Killers!” I screamed, spinning on my heels to run. I was stopped short due to the man’s grip on me. “Killers! Killers!” The memory of my fallen tribe flashed past my eyes–the blood, the glassy eyes, the cold bodies. The villagers began to murmur in shock and fear, moving back even further. They looked ready to run.
Seventh Rain spoke calmly. “Silver Tongue.”
I quit fighting, breathing heavily. I looked at the strangers wildly, saw them watching with unreadable expressions. My eyes trained themselves on the tribe leader as she continued.
“With them, you will go. Galloping Forest remains safe if you will go. So go.”
I gaped at her. I hardly realized that her bodyguard was dragging me to the strangers until we were almost upon them. The wooden-skin raised his stick, and the others followed suit. They looked dangerous–they were killers.
“No!” I wailed. “First Daughter! No! Save me, please!” But if First Daughter was in the crowd, I could not see her. I should not have expected her to save me, anyway; she had her own child to look after.
Seventh Rain’s bodyguard offered me to the wooden-skin. One of the strangers behind him said something in their foreign language, and the wooden-skin studied me. He replied, then reached for me and took a surprisingly strong hold of my wrist.
I let out a scream louder and shriller than any before, as though the touch burned, and struggled to free myself. Seventh Rain’s bodyguard quickly backed away. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I threw all my weight to the ground in an attempt to be too heavy for him. I clawed and bit him, but he seemed unaffected. His clothing was made of unfamiliar armor that protected him.
One of the other strangers quickly approached and grabbed me, and the wooden-skin released me. He stepped towards the villagers again, but this time, they raised their bows. The wooden-skin backed away and said something. I, still screaming and struggling, was taken with them, out of the village.
“First Daughter!” I cried again. “First Daughter!” But she never came.
And I never saw the Galloping Forest tribe again.
“What happened next?” prompted one of the children as the old man lapsed into silence. Mangled One jolted out of the fantasy and looked at the eager children.
“What happened, indeed? Listen:”
When I realized escape was impossible, I ceased my efforts against them and walked. The one with fire hair continued to hold my hand, but not as tightly as before. We walked for several meters through tall, dense trees. I had never seen so many trees in my life, but I had heard stories from my elders about this sea of life. They had spoken of it wondrously, but I thought it was terrifying.
Almost suddenly, the forest began to thin. The trees’ girths became smaller, and gave way to grass. Then we came upon a meadow. I dug my heels into the ground, beginning my fight anew when I saw what we were heading toward. The fire hair cried out and tightened her grip on me, but I kept pulling, forcing her to drop her stick and grab me with both hands.
The huge gray thing sat in the meadow, waiting menacingly. While the fire hair continued to struggle with me, she spoke in her strange language. Another alien came and tried to speak to me in a softer tone. He said something to the fire hair, then sprinted off towards the monster. It opened its great maw on its underbelly and swallowed the stranger. The fire hair refused to release me, and her dark companion merely stood to the side and watched our struggle. Their expressions were unreadable to me.
The one that had been swallowed returned, this time with two smaller figures. The smaller of the two was carried in his arms, and they all rushed back to the edge of the clearing. When they neared, I saw that the smaller figures were children. I stopped fighting and stared in surprise. It had never occurred to me that these strangers would have offspring.
The older child appeared to be a few star cycles older than me. He bared his teeth at me, and reached out to touch my hair. He patted me as though I were his pet, and said something in a scratchy voice. He squatted in front of me in his strange clothing, placing his hand on his chest. He said something slowly, emphasizing his chest with his hand, still baring his teeth.
I scowled at him.
He said it again, even more slowly than the first time: “Luk-man.” Then he repeated it: “Lukman. Lukman. Lukman.” Each time he gestured to himself.
Finally, I realized that he was trying to tell me his name. “Lukman,” I said, bewildered by the harsh syllables that rolled off my tongue.
He seemed to be delighted, as well as the other aliens that surrounded me. I noticed suddenly that three more had joined them. They began to buzz in their language. Lukman pointed to me, babbling in his scratchy voice. While the others quieted, he continued to speak to me. He didn’t seem to realize that I couldn’t understand him. He gestured to me, spouting off nonsense, then gestured again. He was asking my name.
“Silver Tongue,” I said tentatively, gesturing to my own chest with my free hand. The fire hair still held me.
Lukman frowned and started talking again. “S–Sil?” he stammered.
“Silver Tongue,” I reiterated. “Silver Tongue. Silver Tongue.”
“Silver Tongue?” he asked. His smile returned, and he spun around to face his family. He repeated my name slowly for them until they could call me as well. Hearing them stumble over the syllables made me see that they were genuinely attempting to communicate with me. Perhaps they were not the killers, but the slaves of the giant in the meadow, I thought.
The man who had brought the two children kneeled beside Lukman. He pointed to his chest this time and said slowly: “Jaxith.”
“Jaxith.” He nodded, the corners of his pink lips turning upwards. He said something to the fire hair.
She spoke to me, pointing to herself. “Se-mi-ra. Semira.”
She seemed flabbergasted. She pointed to herself. “Semira.”
“Fire Hair.” I pointed to her hair. “Fire.”
She shared a confused look with the others. I looked around for something to communicate with. I spotted a patch of bare ground nearby and dragged Fire Hair over to it. With a finger, I drew fire, then pointed to her hair.
Jaxith turned his head to one side to look at my drawing from another angle, then his eyes lit up. He covered his mouth with a hand as he laughed, a strikingly familiar sound, shouting a word. He laughed as he said something to Fire Hair, and her hand went up to her red hair.
The others joined in laughing, but Fire Hair jutted out her lower lip. To me, she insisted, “Se-mi-ra. Semira. Semira.”
“Semira,” I frowned.
The small child whom Jaxith had been carrying approached me. It held out a tiny white flower to me. I stared at it. The flower’s roots were still wriggling, and I realized that it was a Ygit–a poisonous insect that disguised itself as a flower.
I took it between my thumb and first finger, careful to avoid the stingers, and stared at it, trying to figure out what to do with it. Fire Hair held out her hand for it but I held it away. These creatures knew nothing of this world, it seemed. The flower insect became more desperate, writhing in my grip. I understood how it felt. I dragged the reluctant Fire Hair over to a tree and gently placed the insect on its bark. When I released it, it scurried away up the trunk. I watched it go longingly.
The child stood next to me, gaping up at the flower insect. Fire Hair’s grip loosened on me, then fell away. I turned and looked at her. She stepped away from me. Jaxith and the others said something in alarm, and Jaxith reached out for me. Fire Hair held out an arm to stop him, saying something that sounded important. She never took her eyes off of me. Was she letting me free?
I backed away uncertainly, but none made a move to stop me. Still no one moved or spoke when I had reached the edge of the trees, nor when I had moved beyond that. Then I turned to leave, but stopped. Where would I go?
A twig snapped somewhere to my left, and I cocked my head towards the sound. A graceful tree guardian stood nearby, looking back at me with its big, solemn eyes. Colors rippled across its skin; they were good colors. It wanted to tell me something. The guardian looked at me for a long moment, then moved its elongated head to look at the strangers. I didn’t think they could see the guardian; it was hidden by a clump of trees. The guardian had come to tell me to stay with the creatures, I was sure. The colors of its skin foretold peace and prosperity. Without much choice, I looked back at the strange people, who still stood watching me.
I looked back to the guardian, but it was already well on its way back to deeper woods. My mother had always warned me to never disobey any guardian, for the consequences of doing so could be dire. There were many stories about foolish travelers who refused to listen, and often they met untimely demises.
I watched as the child plucked another Ygit. With a burst of courage, I marched back and grabbed its wrist, forcing it to drop the thing. The insect scurried away into the grass.
“Dangerous,” I said, touching his nose. My mother had often done that when I did things that she didn’t approve of. On a whim, I named the child. “Plucked Flower.” I reiterated to him that what he had done was bad.
Lukman walked over to us, again babbling excitedly. Even though I couldn’t understand a single word of it, he seemed to be talking to me. I no longer feared the strangers. The guardian had told me they were no threat. It was not these strangers who had killed my tribe.
I took Lukman’s hand and the child’s hand, and allowed them to lead me toward the monolith that had first landed in my tribe’s field. The adults followed us, and we were swallowed by the monster.
Inside, its breath was icy, and I shivered as it touched my bare skin. There was a strange smell in the air, and the monster’s stomach was empty but for the light that shone down from somewhere. It looked nothing like any animal I’d ever seen..
Lukman began to ramble on again. As though I could understand him.
“Talks A Lot,” I named him. He stopped mid-breath and looked at me. I gestured to him. “Talks A Lot.”
“Lukman,” he said.
I shook my head. “Talks A Lot.”
He nodded, seeming to resign himself to his new name. I pointed to the child that had released me and was now digging into a box full of strange objects. “Plucked Flower.”
It seemed the only way we understood each other was with hand gestures and names. So I decided to name all the creatures according to my people’s culture. I pointed to the dark one who seemed to be the leader: “Wood Skin.”
They repeated it. While most of them seemed eager to learn and listen, others seemed to be uninterested.
I came to Jaxith and had to think. He watched me expectantly, then I pointed to him. “Laughing Summer.” He had a warm laugh, and he seemed so far to have a kind personality. Laughing Summer stumbled over his name, and I corrected him until he could say it before moving on.
This female had the palest eyes I had ever seen, and I stared at them in awe for a long moment. “Little Moons.”
“Slim Face,” to the woman whose face was thin and pointy.
“Echo,” to the woman who repeated anything I said several times.
Another man drinking something belched loudly, drawing a disgusted look from several of his companions. He shrugged and became “Has No Shame.”
The last woman was another difficult one. I eventually decided to don her “Big Eyes.”
Plucked Flower came up to me with a strange, colorful device. I accepted it and stared at it dumbly. Plucked Flower pressed it with a little finger; the thing lit up and buzzed in my hands. I shrieked and threw it away from me, holding my hand a distance from me because it still tingled. My first thought was that I had been poisoned by the thing.
Laughing Summer immediately picked it up. “Silver Tongue,” he said, holding up a hand. He pressed the same button Plucked Flower had, and the lights began to flash and swirl again. A soft buzzing sound found my ears. The lights danced and spun in a small bubble on the end of the thing in Laughing Summer’s hand; it was quite entrancing. I stared hard at it, trying to figure out what it was.
I recognized that it was child’s toy when Plucked Flower began to bring out more devices that lit up and made sounds. Some had wheels and moved of their own accord; others resembled strange creatures that I had never seen. Before I knew it, I was sitting with Plucked Flower and Talks A Lot, examining and learning of these strange things. Talks A Lot, of course, rambled incessantly.
After we had played for a while, Fire Hair called us to eat with them. It was a warm, funny-tasting dinner. There were vegetables I had never seen before, and something brown that tasted like meat. I had never before seen browned meat. I came to like the taste of the strangers’ foods.
Sleepiness overcame me once I had eaten. I remembered I hadn’t slept for over a day. They put me into a circular bed–another first for me, and the softness of it sent me instantly into a deep slumber. My last cognitive thought was, “I wish my mother were here.”
The next morning, Little Moons took it upon herself to start teaching me their words. In return, I taught them my language. They seemed to find my pronunciation hard; our language was more melodic than their rough tones. Even when they said something correctly, it was still hardly recognizable as one of my people’s words.
By the end of the day, I knew the words for most of the objects we could find, yet they hardly retained anything I had taught them. It was disappointing, to say the least. While I could remember “window,” and “metal,” and “washroom,” they could not remember my words for the trees and sky.
As we ate dinner that night, I listened to their conversations and caught several words I had learned. But I still could not understand them. They did try to include me in their conversations, but it took much repeating and hand gesturing before I inferred their meaning, and it took even more time to convey my words back. So, eventually, I immersed myself into concentration on eating, and they took the hint.
Over the next weeks, Little Moons began to teach me strange symbols to scrawl onto thin pieces of white cloth. I realized soon that they were letters, and that each had a name. When she reordered them and sounded them out, they became words. Little Moons also drew pictures next to the words. They were simplistic, but recognizable. They seemed delighted by how quickly I caught on, though I thought my writing was clumsy.
Before I knew it, nearly a star cycle had passed. I was eight star cycles then, and was able to carry on a conversation with them on just about anything. I taught them what plants were safe to eat and how to prepare them when their food supplies began to dwindle.
I learned that they came from a planet far away, and that they had to leave because they had different beliefs than everyone else. I asked why, but they couldn’t seem to give me an answer. They had reached my planet after thousands of star cycles of travel; they had slept in tubes that kept them alive. They showed me a great room full of them, all empty.
The giant monster I had first feared was actually their spaceship. They hadn’t been the only ones in it; in fact, there were hundreds of them, one for each of the sleep-life-tubes. Has No Shame privately told me that those who didn’t die in their sleep woke up and went insane. Many of them ran off into the wilderness with their gun-sticks. I assumed, on my own, that the insane ones had killed my tribe.
I learned, eventually, that Big Eyes’s eyes actually were not big, but magnified by glasses, as they called them. I tried them on, but the world around me suddenly distorted, making me dizzy. I couldn’t understand how they could help Big Eyes see better.
I learned all their true names, but still called them by the names I had given them. To them, their true names had no meaning, but were simply just a part of them. Laughing Summer and Fire Hair had twenty-three star cycles to their life; Talks A Lot had twelve; Plucked Flower, whom I finally learned to be Talks A Lot’s younger brother, had four; Wood Skin, Echo, Has No Shame, and Big Eyes all had about thirty star cycles; Little Moons had forty-seven; Slim Face had fifty-four.
Has No Shame, the best shooter, taught me to fire the gun-sticks. They were powerful weapons, more powerful than any arrow or stone. He told me they were for protection, but their people had often used them to attack and as weapons of war. The gun-stick was a fearful piece. Has No Shame also introduced me to alcohol and drinking games, though I found neither of them pleasurable. Fire Hair scolded him for teaching me.
Laughing Summer was a story teller. His stories were often comical, but also had lessons. One such story was of two creatures called a tortoise and a hare. The tortoise was very slow, and the hare very fast, and they decided to have a race. The moral of the story, it was carefully explained to me, was that slow and steady wins the race.
Big Eyes was the pilot of the spaceship, and she made sure that everything worked correctly. She was also able to communicate with their home planet, although it took several days to exchange messages due to the distance she called “light years.” When she was in good humor, she would show me how certain technologies worked. My favorite thing to do was flash the colored lights, controlling the power with the flick of a switch.
Wood Skin was a serious man, but he also was one of the kindest. Once when I had been practicing my letters, I had run out of the white cloth. There was a stack of them on the table, so I took some of them, even though it looked as though they had already been marked on. Big Eyes walked in and saw that I was writing on them, and snatched them away with a squeal, her eyes larger than I had ever seen them.
“Silver Tongue!” she’d snapped at me. I looked up at her in confusion as she began to rant at me in her foreign language, words rolling off her tongue faster than I could comprehend. Wood Skin, probably having heard the commotion, entered the room and came to my rescue. He spoke quietly to Big Eyes, who began to argue. Wood Skin seemed to win, however, because she gathered up the white cloths and haughtily left. He smiled at me and patted my head, saying something that might have been to put me at ease, though my ears still rang from my reprimand. He took me to a small drawer near the window and opened it, showing me where hundreds of white cloths were hidden. He gave me some and went away to whatever he had been doing before.
Echo was a very quiet person, and I never got to know her well. She was always off on her own, documenting plant and animal species. Sometimes she asked me questions pertaining to a creature she had found, to which I would reply with something simple. She appeared to be disappointed with most of my answers and skulked away to continued sketching the things in her book.
Little Moons and Slim Face were sisters, I learned, though I couldn’t see any resemblance. Little Moons had a more outgoing personality as opposed to Slim Face’s distant one. Little Moons relished in correcting my pronunciation and teaching me more. She often found pleasure in having me read to her. I think she was in love with my voice; she urged me to speak as often as I wished. Slim Face, however, seemed to want to have nothing to do with me. She only answered to her true name, Cheche. She ignored me whenever it was possible.
Talks A Lot and Plucked Flower became my friends quickly, and shared everything they owned with me. Talks A Lot frequently convinced me to wear his strange clothing, but I quickly rediscovered each time how much it limited my movement and I removed it, preferring to wear my own.
I lived with them in their spaceship for several star cycles, learning of their customs and language. Soon I felt as though I had always been their family, and I’m sure they felt the same with me. My late mother and tribe were rarely in my thoughts. As we grew older, Plucked Flower began to look more like a boy; Talks A Lot stretched taller and began to grow hair on his chin. My body began to mature as well, and my voice became deeper. Slim Face and Fire Hair made clothes for us boys.
Fire Hair then was nearly seven months into her pregnancy; she and Laughing Summer had fallen into something Little Moons called love. Sometimes, when she wasn’t overly emotional or irrationally angry, I would sit with my hands placed gently on her protruding stomach, waiting to feel the baby kick. It was fascinating to me.
“Silver Tongue,” called Wood Skin from outside.
I went to the captain immediately, leaving Fire Hair to her sewing.
“Will you help me pick these?” he asked, standing up and arching his back tiredly. He was standing in the garden with his pants legs rolled up to his knees, revealing his dark skin.
I nodded and set to work, pulling up the strange orange vegetables called carrots. I tossed each one into the basket Wood Skin had brought outside with him. It was happy work, and I sang old songs I vaguely remembered from my childhood, humming the parts my tongue lost. Little Moons came outside to listen and sew in the day-starlight.
I stopped abruptly and turned my head toward the forest that surrounded us. I stood slowly, peering intently at the trees.
“Silver Tongue?” Wood Skin asked.
I held up a hand to silence him. As if on their own accord, my feet began to move stealthily towards the tree line. There was something there, I could feel it. As I passed the first tree that marked the edge of the forest, I turned to the right.
The tree guardian was there, just as it was several star cycles before, looking at me solemnly. Only this time, colors that foretold danger pulsed on its skin. Reds and oranges intermixed with swirls of black, darting angrily across its flesh. A distant twang that awakened a past memory echoed through the trees, drawing my attention. When I blinked and turned back to the guardian, it was gone.
“Silver Tongue,” Wood Skin called, approaching me. “What’s wrong?”
With wide eyes, I looked at him over my shoulder. Little Moons had stopped sewing and was watching with interest. Laughing Summer came out of the ship, shirtless, with a gun-stick slung over his shoulder.
Words from my language rapidly poured from my lips, my mind racing. What was the danger the guardian was trying to warn me of? Was it them? Or was someone going to attack? Was I in danger, or all of us? Or was a horrible accident about to happen?
“What’s going on?” Laughing Summer frowned, coming up behind Wood Skin, who had stopped a short distance from me. I eyed his gun-stick.
“Put it down,” I ordered.
Both men seemed surprised. Laughing Summer didn’t move.
“Put the gun-stick down,” I repeated, a tremor of fear entering my voice.
Laughing Summer stared at me, but didn’t lower the gun-stick.
“Laughing Summer,” I pleaded, taking a step back. Could they not hear my heart hammering in my chest?
He gently put the gun-stick on the ground, never taking his eyes off of me. “Are you okay, Silver Tongue?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “You know I’d never hurt you.”
I glanced over at where the guardian had stood only moments before. I wondered if I’d imagined it.
“Ah,” Laughing Summer suddenly uttered as though protesting something, his face grimacing. He stumbled sideways into Wood Skin, who grabbed him in surprise. Little Moons let out a shriek. I gaped at the bolt that protruded from Laughing Summer’s ribs.
“We’re under attack!” Wood Skin bellowed. “Get inside! Go, go!”
Laughing Summer groaned in pain, clutching at the arrow’s shaft. His face was deathly white. Wood Skin hoisted him up and began to drag him back to the ship. Another twang signaled an arrow being fired; it just missed Wood Skin and plunged into the ground, quivering.
“Silver Tongue!” Wood Skin yelled over his shoulder. “Move your ass!”
I scooped up the gun-stick Laughing Summer had set down and sprinted after them, hating myself. They wouldn’t have shot if he hadn’t put it down!
I listened for the next sing of bow. It came, and threw myself to the ground. The arrow flew over my head and lodged into a far tree. Wood Skin and Laughing Summer had made it to the spaceship. I pushed myself to my feet, clicking off the safety button of the gun-stick.
I pointed it in the direction of the twang, anticipating their next move. If they were a good archer, they would move away from their last attack point, almost always towards a more protective spot. I knew the culprit would be hiding in the thick clump of trees to the right.
I fired; felt my eardrum pop painfully, but I didn’t care. All I cared was to see a dead archer. I heard a high-pitched scream. I had hit my mark!
A young girl stumbled out of the trees, clutching her shoulder. She dropped her bow and fell face-first to the dirt. Several bolts spilled from her quiver. She was still.
I dropped the gun-stick, mouth gaping. It was a girl of my kind. She was my age, only about thirteen star cycles. My hands shook, and I felt sick. Has No Shame burst out of the ship, his own gun-stick ready, and took one glance from me to my kill.
“Shit. Come on, Silver Tongue,” he said quietly, grabbing my arm and pulling me towards the door. He put his arm around my shoulders, turned me around, forced me to look away.
“What happened?” demanded Talks A Lot as Has No Shame led me toward the kitchen. As we passed a mirror, I saw my reflection. I was pale, sweaty, and shaking. I looked as though I had come down with a horrible fever–and I felt as though I had. I had just killed someone. That girl was what the guardian was trying to warn me of.
“Take care of him, Lukman,” Has No Shame said gruffly, pushing me into his arms. This was the most serious I had ever seen him. “Keep him and Ghaith inside. Dureth, come with me…Shit.”
Wood Skin left with Has No Shame, a grim expression shadowing his face. Plucked Flower attempted to follow, but Talks A Lot grabbed him and scolded him. For once, Talks A Lot had nothing to say. I sank to the floor, shaking horribly.
“Laughing Summer,” I said when I saw him across the room. He was laying motionless on the floor. Slim Face and Fire Hair were tending to him while Big Eyes was busy recording an urgent message to send back to their home planet. Echo stood helplessly aside, trying to get out of Little Moon’s way as she rushed about looking for clean linens to use as bandages.
Laughing Summer yelled out as Fire Hair tried to pull out the arrow. It didn’t come out, and Fire Hair fervently apologized, tears streaking her cheeks.
“Stop!” I shouted at her. They all looked at me; Fire Hair held a hand to her lover’s shoulder. “You can’t pull it out! That’s the way it was made–you have to cut it out!”
“No,” Fire Hair shook her head.
“Bring me a knife,” Slim Face said quietly. “Give him something to bite down on,” she told Fire Hair.
Talks A Lot brought her a sharp kitchen knife.
“No,” Fire Hair repeated. “You’re not a doctor! You can’t do this! He needs a doctor, Cheche!”
“The doctor’s dead!” Slim Face snapped.
Laughing Summer moaned in agony. “Just do it,” he cried hoarsely.
“Help hold him down,” Slim Face ordered. Talks A Lot took hold of his ankles. Echo stepped forward to help, and Little Moons finally returned with clean cloths. Fire Hair rolled a cloth up and pushed it into Laughing Summer’s mouth.
I stood shakily, sick to my stomach. I retched a little, but nothing came up. I needed fresh air. As I left the ship, I saw Wood Skin examining the girl’s dead body as Has No Shame stood guard, gun-stick at the ready.
I stumbled towards the edge of the woods. The air wasn’t helping. I choked on my tears, and heard Has No Shame call out my name in alarm. I leaned up against a tree at the edge of the forest, and finally vomited. Then I continued deeper into the forest, not really aware of anything. All I could think about was the girl I had killed. She was my own kind; I was a traitor. The worst kind of traitor–the kind who instigated wars. I had lost my mother, but to another species. Her mother had lost her daughter to her own race. What horrors, what grief had I unleashed unto her family?
I deserved no less than death myself.
In the distance, I could still hear Has No Shame and Wood Skin calling me. I had to leave. I could no longer go back to them. I was a murderer of my own people. If Laughing Summer died, it was my fault. And then I would be a murderer of my family, too. My legs gave out under me, and I couldn’t get back up.
On my hands and knees, I looked up at the sky, tears slipping down my cheeks.
“Mother, why’d you leave me!” I shouted up at the treetops. “If you hadn’t hidden me, I’d be dead with you! I hate you! I hate you so much! You should have let me die with everyone else!” I sobbed and lowered my face to the leaf-covered ground, clutching my hair. My shoulders shook with each chest-wracking sob. “I should have died with you.”
I heard twigs snap as someone approached. I looked up.
The tree guardian looked at me solemnly.
“Why me?” I asked it pitifully, a tear sliding down the side of my nose. “Why do you keep coming to me? Go bother someone else, please.”
It kneeled regally before me, pointing its ears toward me. The colors on its skin were now neutral. It had nothing to foretell.
I heard a new voice in the distance: “Bell Star!”
The guardian turned its head in that direction. I stood and ventured towards the voice silently, never looking back. The guardian did nothing.
A young woman was wandering through the trees, calling Bell Star’s name. With her was an older man; he was probably her father. She was surprised to see me emerge.
“Excuse me,” she said, inclining her head to me respectfully. “Have you seen a girl around here? My sister’s been gone hunting for quite a while, and I worry she’s gotten lost.”
Without a word, I took her hand and began to lead her back towards the clearing. The older man followed. It was only the thing I could think to do, for I didn’t trust my voice.
“It’s dangerous around here, you know,” the young woman whispered to me. “Aliens have been running around recently. My sister thinks she can take them on herself, though she swore this time she’s only gone hunting for food.”
As we reached the clearing, I uttered the words, “I killed her,” and released her hand. Wood Skin was no longer kneeling at the girl’s side, but she had been laid out so that she only appeared to be sleeping. Her bow and arrows were placed beside her. The men stood nearby the corpse, watching us as we appeared from the forest.
The young woman gave a strangled cry and ran to her sister. She dropped to her knees the moment she reached her and lifted her into her arms. “Bell Star! Bell Star!” she screamed as though it would wake her. The girls’ father hobbled as quickly as he could. He kneeled and picked up his daughter’s bow, tearful.
The elder sister turned to me and screamed for an explanation that I couldn’t bring myself to give. I began to cry again and sank to the ground, unable to look at them. I had no one to blame but myself. Because of me, Laughing Summer was hurt, and from my own anger stemmed a girl’s death. Listening to Bell Star’s sister’s wails hurt me even more.
Plucked Flower ventured out of the ship, unsupervised by Talks A Lot. He slowly neared the sister, almost unnoticed. He looked down at the dead girl for a moment, then spoke brokenly in my language to the sister and father. Plucked Flower was the only one who seemed capable of learning my language; I had spent much time trying to teach him.
“Excuse me,” he said.
They looked at him. The sister held a contemptuous expression. “Alien,” she growled menacingly. Her hand moved to her hip, where a knife surely was hidden. I shifted, my heart leaping into my chest.
“Not Silver Tongue’s fault,” he said, stopping both me and her short. He pointed at the girl. “She shot Jaxith.”
“Jax?” frowned the father.
“She shot first,” Plucked Flower insisted. “Silver Tongue shot in the trees,” he pointed to where I had fired, though that was something he should not have known. He must have seen from the window. “Silver Tongue not know she’s there.”
The elder sister scooped Bell Star up into her arms and began to trudge away sadly, acknowledging that her sister had been the attacker. The old man picked up the arrows as well and followed silently. I stared down at my feet as they passed.
“Murderer Of His People,” she dubbed me. The worst title one could bear.
After a few minutes, the sister’s sorrowful wails began anew, and I covered my ears.
Plucked Flower came over to me and wrapped his arms around me comfortingly. “Jaxith is okay, Silver Tongue.” He patted my head.
“You shouldn’t blame yourself, kid,” said Has No Shame, putting his strong arm around my shoulders. I felt Wood Skin’s familiar hand on my head, though he said nothing.
“Let’s go inside,” Plucked Flower suggested. “It’s getting dark.”
“We must leave,” I sobbed, wiping my never ending tears. “They will come to kill us. They do not see us as equal beings here.”
“We can protect ourselves,” Has No Shame assured me, pulling me to my feet. “We’ve got superior weapons.”
I wasn’t so sure. There were far more of my kind than the eight of them living here.
They led me back to the spaceship, Has No Shame’s arm still resting almost lazily on my shoulders. He suspected that I might run again.
Inside, Laughing Summer had been moved onto a bed and covered with clean, white blankets. He was still a bit pale, but otherwise looked fine. He was sleeping with Fire Hair sitting at his side. Fire Hair stroked her protruding stomach as though comforting her unborn child.
I treaded quietly over to them, and Has No Shame let me go. No one said anything, but I could feel them watching me. I vaguely remembered a time when I was sick, and my mother had taken care of me. She had…
Words formed on the tip of my tongue, and I closed my eyes. I let the words spill forth in a gentle waterfall. It was a song she had sung to me, a comforting song:
May the guardian call to you,
May he deem you well.
The guardian is more true
Than the ring of bell.
Back to the desert sand,
Your sickness shall exile.
My son, again you will stand
With your charming smile.
May the guardian call to you,
May he deem you well.
The guardian shall come through
And grant me you to revel.
My son, again you will stand
With your charming smile.
Here I will wait for you
Until that time may come.
When I opened my eyes, Laughing Summer was looking at me. Startled and embarrassed, I stepped back and put a hand over my mouth. I suddenly found myself laughing, for no discernible reason. Laughing Summer smiled.
“I’ll live,” he said, a bit hoarsely.
“I am glad,” I replied, lowering my hand.
Then he went back to sleep, eyes fluttering closed.
Once his breathing had evened out, I walked back into the main room. Wood Skin and Has No Shame were waiting there, talking quietly. Plucked Flower and Talks A Lot sat a little ways away from them, but it was obvious that they were listening.
“We’ll need to be careful from now on,” I said loudly, drawing their attentions. Before they could reply, I said, “No one can go out alone. Go out with as many others as possible. My kind don’t like to attack groups. But they will attack children, especially since I’ve killed one of theirs.
“Always carry a gun-stick with you. The more the better. Our arrows are often accurate and strong, but they are no match for your weapons. Start wearing thicker clothing again. If you were to meet with the blade of an arrow, at least you’d have a softer blow–and a better chance of survival. We never know when we’ll be attacked.”
Wood Skin nodded. “We will be careful. What will we do for food? There is not enough in the garden for us to live off of, not in the long run. We’ll need to hunt.”
“Hunt in groups,” I replied. “They will hear the explosions of the gun-sticks and fear our power. That might deter them–at least for a longer while.”
“Speaking of food,” said Talks A Lot suddenly, “I’m starving!”
“Shut up,” Has No Shame said, tossing his boot at the young man’s head. “We’re all hungry.”
Talks A Lot scowled and threw the smelly thing back. Then he returned to his task of darning a sock, though he was doing a poor job of it.
I couldn’t help but to smile. Perhaps everything would be okay.
“And was everything okay?” asked Round Stone. “There is a happy ending, no?”
“Perhaps there is,” said the old man vaguely. “We are nearly to the finish now. Listen:”
For several days, all was quiet in the forest. But inside the ship, tensions were rising. Being stuck together inside for so long seemed to wear down the aliens’ nerves. Even the calm Wood Skin’s patience was short, and he often spoke curtly and resumed glowering. Squabbles broke out constantly. A fist fight between Talks a Lot and Has No Shame had to be broken up by Little Moons and Plucked Flower. There was nowhere private except the washrooms, which I frequented despite having no need to be in there. At least I could get a bit of peace there.
No one was allowed to set foot outside without accompaniment; this also served as an irritation. But they adhered to it to alleviate my fear of attack. Perhaps they also knew deep down that it was inevitable for another attack. The more of us there were, the less chance that my people would build up the courage to wage war. Hunting trips were far less fruitful since we did not dare stray too far from the camp. The gardens outside were practically abandoned and overgrown, though it had only been a short time. Yet we were safe, and rationing ensured we did not go hungry.
A month passed with no incidents, and the group had formed a peace treaty amongst themselves. Fire Hair’s baby was born. It was a tiny girl–a squirmy thing. To my horror, she was hideously deformed, and I lamented that the atmosphere of my planet, which they had told me was different from theirs, had caused it. The babe had a large head, hardly any hair upon it, and eyes much too large for her face. Her tiny lips were puckered, and her gums harbored no teeth. Even her limbs seemed horribly out of proportion. I spent much time fervently apologizing to Fire Hair and Laughing Summer, not understanding their confusion in regards to my pleas for forgiveness. Then, once I had tried to explain, they laughed at me and assured me that the baby was completely healthy and normal. I disagreed, though. Infants of my people were relatively quiet and curious; they rode in their mother’s sling and watched the world around them. This one wailed. Loudly. All the time.
Fire Hair and Laughing Summer had named her Nomble. I named her Crying Loudly. I translated it for them, and Laughing Summer laughed while Fire Hair scowled. Most of us went out as a group when Crying Loudly was awake; it was much more peaceful. It seemed that Crying Loudly’s birth had brought a mutual desire to go outside, never mind whether it was a large, armed group or not. It seemed the only way to silence the baby was to feed her, dress her, or sing her to sleep. None of those were delightful tasks, however, and none were guaranteed at any given instance to work. There were times when I seriously considered asking Has No Shame to bash me over the head with the end of a gun-stick so I could sleep through the night peacefully.
Wood Skin, Has No Shame, and I each grabbed a gun-stick. We were going hunting, since our supplies were running low. We thought it would be best to go and return as quickly as possible, meaning the stealthiest and quickest of us would be going. The others were ordered to stay inside. Slim Face and Echo observed that they would never set foot outside again, lest they meet Laughing Summer’s fate. Talks A Lot pointed out that they had, in fact, set foot outside on numerous occasions to escape Crying Loudly’s wails. We set out and did not hear the argument that was sure to ensue.
The forest was quiet, as usual. The animals were mostly tree-dwellers; that made the gun-sticks all the more valuable. They were much more accurate than bolts, and could kill much more easily, making a quicker and less painful death, I hoped. The only downside was that the blast would often scare away other prey.
We had gotten quite a few catches, which Wood Skin carried slung over his shoulder, when we heard a gun-stick shot in the distance. Wood Skin wheeled around in the direction of the spaceship, which wasn’t too far, but Has No Shame held up a hand and whispered, “It didn’t come from that direction.” Then he pointed ahead of us.
“Everyone should be back at the spaceship,” Wood Skin frowned.
“I think they are,” Has No Shame replied quietly. “It might be the others.”
“You really think they’d survive this long on a hostile planet?”
I frowned. My planet was not hostile–if you knew how to behave. If it weren’t for me, they would surely have died long before now. But I kept silent and listened to them converse.
Has No Shame said, “Of course they could have survived. They have guns. They can hunt. Just because they lost their minds doesn’t mean they don’t have survival instincts.”
Another shot rang out, this one closer to us. Has No Shame was right. It did come from somewhere in front of us.
“It could just be one person,” Wood Skin murmured. He and Has No Shame began to crouch to the ground slowly, as though they were trying to keep from making noise or show movement. “Get down,” he hissed to me, and I dropped immediately. Has No Shame rolled his eyes in a way that meant he was biting back a rebuke.
I heard crunching approach. “There’s more than one,” I whispered, pressing my ear to the ground. “It sounds like…five or six, maybe more.”
“Shit,” Has No Shame spat. He positioned his gun-stick to point straight ahead, anticipating an attack. Wood Skin did the same, and I followed suit, keeping my ear to the ground.
The footsteps grew closer and closer, then stopped. Several shots were suddenly fired, so close to us that my ears popped. I moved to leap to my feet and run back to the clearing. Wood Skin pushed me back down, his callused hand heavy on my shoulder. He stared intently into the trees, as did Has No Shame. Several more shots–and an unmistakable cry of agony.
A huge creature burst into our view, colors flashing desperately on its skin, silver blood streaming from multiple wounds. It screamed again–so horribly, I released my gun-stick to cover my ears. Then it crashed to the ground and convulsed, colors fading. Its eyes were wide open, staring just as No Wars, my village leader, had. Just as my mother had. The horror of that day suddenly gripped me–I couldn’t look away from the sight of the tree guardian lying dead before me.
Gun-sticks had killed the sacred guardian of the forest. I was hardly aware of the whoops and yells of triumph as aliens ran into the clearing, waving their gun-sticks over their heads. Shifting my arm so that I could not feel the cool, menacing metal of my own gun-stick, I swallowed repeatedly against the guilt that obstructed my throat. When that didn’t work, I focused intently on the new arrivals. They were a mess–clothes in tatters, covered in mud and sweat. Then I saw that some of them wore traditional pieces: a hat scarf here, praying beads on that one’s arm, a healer’s belt there…And several of them wore things that were unique to my village–bracelets given to daughters by their mothers, a baby’s sling, a bone star cycle counter. Hot rage coursed through my terse body, muscles trembling as I fought it, as I realized that these aliens had killed my family, and had stolen meaningful belongings from them as prizes.
The eleven aliens began to dance around the guardian, pulling all-too familiar hunting knives out of the confines of their clothes. They were going to eat the guardian!
I screamed and tried to push myself up. I had to stop them!
Wood Skin grabbed me and pressed his hand over my mouth, stifling my protest. I struggled, but he only held me tighter. The aliens had yet to notice us even though we were less than a meter away.
“You’ll get us killed,” he hissed into my ear. I watched helplessly as the first strip of sacred meat was shoved into a mouth full of rotten teeth. Silver trickled down the alien’s chin, and he let out a shrill whoop that seemed to incite the others to begin feasting. They converged on the prone guardian, and sickening sounds of tearing flesh made me feel faint. One plunged his knife into the guardian’s soft underbelly and gutted it as though it were an animal.
“Let’s get out of here while they’re distracted,” Has No Shame said. He began to scoot backwards, gun-stick still pointed at the group. Wood Skin also began to move, trying to awkwardly pull me with him. I came to my senses and went willingly. A bitter taste clung to the back of my throat, and I forced my stomach to hold its contents. There was nothing a mere child like me could do to avenge my family’s death.
When the men judged we were far enough away, we stood up and began to swiftly make our way back to the ship, not caring that leaves and sticks crunched loudly under our feet.
“We should move to another place,” Wood Skin said. “There’s no way we can keep hidden like this. And they are too unpredictable.”
“But where else would we go?” Has No Shame asked. “We don’t have much energy left to burn. Shit! Binder will probably tell us that it’s impossible.”
“We’ll make her make it work. We don’t have much of a choice, do we?” Wood Skin replied, raising his voice.
Has No Shame fell silent and glanced over his shoulder to see me falling behind, gasping for breath. My stomach had apparently decided it was a good time to renew its rebellion. Each swallow only made me feel sicker. Has No Shame slowed a little and put an arm around my shoulders. I gripped the back of his shirt, and he slowed until he was walking briskly, swinging his gun-stick at his side. Wood Skin must have heard our steps slow behind him, because he lessened his pace as well. The gesture calmed me, if only a tiny bit.
At our pace, we arrived back at the clearing, where the ship waited as loyally as ever.
“Shit,” Has No Shame said suddenly, halting in his tracks. Wood Skin and I looked at him in alarm. “We forgot dinner.”
I chuckled a little, but Wood Skin wore a serious expression. “Well,” he said, “we can’t go back for it now. We’ll have to make do with what we have already.”
“So, carrots and crackers. That’s good eatin’,” stated Has No Shame sarcastically.
Wood Skin rolled his eyes and kept walking. I followed, suppressing a giddy laugh despite the serious situation. I was glad that my stomach had ceased rolling at the welcoming sight of my home. When we reached the spaceship, the ramp lowered to allow our access. Someone had seen our approach from the window. We entered.
Talks A Lot bounded up to us excitedly, but his grin quickly faded. “Where’s the food?” He ducked his head from side to side as though to catch one of us hiding it behind us.
“A wild animal came and ate it,” grumbled Has No Shame, tossing his gun-stick into a corner, where it clattered against the others. The women shot him a look from their seats across the room, but luckily Crying Loudly was not startled from her sleep.
“Huh?” whined Plucked Flower and Talks A Lot in unison, looking at Has No Shame in disbelief. “Why didn’t you just shoot it, then? More meat!”
“He was just kidding,” I informed them. “What really happened–”
I was cut off with a sharp glare from Has No Shame and Wood Skin both. Wood Skin ever so slightly jerked his head, silently ordering me not to breathe word of what had happened out in the forest. I swallowed my words and winced as Crying Loudly began to do what she did best.
“Ugh,” moaned Plucked Flower, covering his ears. “She’s been crying all day!”
“What else is new?” Talks A Lot mumbled under his breath, severely put out by the lack of sustenance.
“Where’s Binder? I need to speak with her,” said Wood Skin over the baby’s screaming.
Fire Hair could be heard in the background, trying to shush her child, but it didn’t seem to be any use. Crying Loudly wailed on and on, and Wood Skin, pressing his fingers to his temples, wandered off to find the pilot of his ship.
My stomach growled. I looked around the kitchen, but there didn’t seem to be much to eat–crackers and carrots, as Has No Shame mentioned. The water supply was dwindling as well. A faint pop echoed in the distance–actually, it must have been very near if it could be heard through the thick metal walls of the spaceship. I moved to tell Has No Shame, but he was already at the window, peering out intently with his nose on the glass.
The others didn’t seem to hear anything; they were too preoccupied with Crying Loudly as she was passed from person to person in an attempt to calm her. Fire Hair was sitting with her head in her hands, whether from a headache, exhaustion, or struggling with her emotions I did not know. With an uncertain glance at Has No Shame’s serious face, I went to Crying Loudly and took her gently into my arms. She was squirming miserably in her papoose-like bindings, so I loosened them a bit and began to hum. Like Little Moons, Crying Loudly seemed to take to my voice and quieted.
Everyone gave a quiet sigh of relief. Laughing Summer snored away on a chair on the other side of the room. Fire Hair had dark rings under her eyes, and she leaned back with an exhausted but grateful look.
“Is everyone here?” Wood Skin asked as he entered once more, this time with Big Eyes trailing him.
I quieted my humming but otherwise continued. Anything, I thought, to keep the child silent for a while. Once again I reminded myself that there was something wrong with her, despite everyone’s claims that there wasn’t. No baby would scream so much if there was nothing wrong. I could not understand why no one was worried but me.
Slim Face shook Laughing Summer awake, and he snorted, looking around slackly and muttering incoherently. “What,” he mumbled before his eyes found Wood Skin.
Looking important, he began, “We’ll be leaving to a new location.”
The five who had not gone hunting voiced startled opinions and comments. Wood Skin held up a hand to quiet them. “I will explain more later, but–”
“Yeah,” Has No Shame said, still at the window, “I hate to cut your lovely speech short, but we need to get moving. Now.” He ducked at the sound of a gun-stick shot, and the glass shattered and rained down on his bowed head. “Shit!”
Crying Loudly woke and began to cry in my arms. Fire Hair leapt towards me and possessively took back her child, looking wide-eyed at the shattered window. It was a look not unlike the one my mother had worn when she had hidden me all those star cycles ago. Big Eyes looked to Wood Skin for orders.
“Start the ship,” he said. Big Eyes dashed away.
“Oh no,” muttered Echo, moving about and collecting the journals she had left lying out, clutching them to her bosom. “Oh no, oh no.”
More gun-stick shots, louder than before.
“Everyone, get down,” Wood Skin cautioned.
Has No Shame moved over to the corner closest to the door, where the gun-sticks had been stored. He grabbed one and crawled back to his position underneath the now broken window.
Slim Face, Little Moons, Laughing Summer, Talks A Lot, and I also grabbed a gun-stick each. Fire Hair, her baby still clutched tightly, Echo, and Plucked Flower were directed by Wood Skin to move into the next room, where they would be safer. There were no windows in that room.
Has No Shame cautiously stood up and peeked out of the window, then slowly raised his gun-stick and put the barrel on the ledge. After a moment of careful aim, he fired, and immediately ducked again. Shrill whoops and more fire could be heard outside. Has No Shame chuckled mirthlessly. “Right in the neck.”
A well-aimed, but possibly accidental, shot flew in through the window, shattering an overhead light. Little Moons shrieked in surprise, raising her gun-stick as though it would protect her. Slim Face reached up and raised the window she was under, squinting one eye shut. She and Has No Shame both slid their barrels out of their windows, then fired. More shrieks from outside.
“They’re running,” Laughing Summer whispered, breaking out in a grin. “They’re afraid of us.”
Has No Shame and Little Moons laughed, but hers was more of relief.
“Right then,” Talks A Lot joked, “Cheche and Nadim are our official new warriors! Nadim totally killed three of them–two with one shot! Cheche missed, though,” he added, giving the older woman a wayward glance. She scowled at him as Has No Shame chuckled proudly.
“Let’s go grab their gun-sticks before the others come back,” I said seriously. “The less they have, the better.”
Wood Skin nodded and pressed the button that lowered the door. Over his shoulder, he told Little Moons to see why Big Eyes hadn’t started the ship yet. Laughing Summer, Wood Skin, and I set out to retrieve the weapons, our own gun-sticks at the ready. Has No Shame and Talks A Lot aimed their gun-sticks out of the windows, covering for us.
I looked around nervously, suddenly realizing just how dangerous the loss of the guardian was. Without the guardian, there was nothing but my instincts to warn me of impending danger–and that wasn’t much. Then there was the fact that killing a guardian was the worst thing one could do. The balance had been upset. Opportunity for chaos was everywhere now. It was likely, it struck me, that the forest would die, as it was left with no protection.
Laughing Summer grimaced with disgust at the corpses, and kneeled down to pick up a gun-stick. I did the same, wiping some blood splatter off of the handle onto the grass, wrinkling my nose at the putrid smell that came off the dead alien. They smelled as though they had never bathed–which, I presumed, was likely true since they had arrived here. Wood Skin grunted as he bent, his fingers outstretched towards the gun-stick still held loosely in the dead man’s hands.
Or, he had looked dead.
As Wood Skin bent over him, the man’s eyes snapped open. Before Wood Skin could react, the barrel of the gun was pointed at his chest, the trigger pulled with a deafening bang.
“No!” Laughing Summer cried, lunging forward, but the damage had been done. Another shot rang out from behind us; blood splattered both the insane man and Wood Skin, who fell, clutching his abdomen. Laughing Summer then hoisted him up, as Wood Skin had previously done for him, and began to drag the man back to the ship. A sheen of sweat had already coated his waxy skin, his intelligent eyes dulling.
“Shit! Silver Tongue, get back inside!” Has No Shame screamed from his position in the window.
I saw movement in the trees. “There’s another one!” I called back to him, aiming my gun-stick into the trees. I fired–and missed.
I began to run towards the trees on instinct. I wanted to shoot the insane aliens dead, see their blood. Ignoring Has No Shame and Talks A Lot screaming behind me, I soon reached the tree line. Then I slowed, listening and looking around myself warily.
My finger pulled the trigger as a figure leapt out at me, and I hit my mark. With a yelp, the alien went down and was still.
My victory was short-lived. A hand snatched out and grasped my gun-stick. It was wrenched away from me, leaving me defenseless. I gaped at the alien that had appeared from seemingly nowhere, a lopsided grin on its face. More materialized from the trees, whooping and waving their gun-sticks. All of them wore sickening smiles, as though they were playing some kind of game.
With a sinking feeling, I realized that I had been baited.
Shots rang out, and several bodies began to fall. Has No Shame was still shooting, trying to give me an opening through the ring of aliens that surrounded me. The insane people didn’t seem to be aware that they were under attack; they danced around me in a ring as though celebrating. My heart was racing; there were many more than the group that had killed the guardian; there must have been at least thirty! I desperately tried to find some kind of opening that I could break through. The shooting had ceased as Has No Shame reloaded. Then I remembered that there was nothing left to use for reloading. We had been using the last of the stock for the hunting expedition today.
The spaceship suddenly shuddered and groaned as if a great weight had just burdened it. Then it roared to life, lights flashing on its underbelly. Only then did the crazy ones stop mid-dance and turn to look, lowering their gun-sticks to their sides. They still ignored Has No Shame, who had probably taken Talks A Lot’s gun-stick, and was shooting down the few that blocked my path.
Clouds of dust churned as the engines started–finally, I realized that Big Eyes had gotten the ship to respond. They were leaving!
“Silver Tongue!” called Laughing Summer, appearing at the doorway. The ramp was hanging open even as they lifted off, which probably was affecting the ship. He held onto the side of the opening to keep himself from falling out, and extended his other hand to me. “Run! Come on!”
I took off towards him, my feet flying faster than I ever thought they could. But the ship was ascending faster than I could run; I made a leap for his hand. Now I could hear the screams behind me. The insane aliens had realized what was happening, too. Shots missed me by mere inches, but I had somehow managed to grab Laughing Summer’s hand.
He groaned as he tried to pull me into the ship, but nearly lost his grip as a bullet struck the metal right above his head. I reached up with my other hand, scrabbling to find a grip on something as I felt myself slip through Laughing Summer’s hold. His fingers tightened over mine, so tightly it hurt.
The ship swung in mid-air, wobbling dangerously. The engine shuddered, protesting its awakening from star cycles of slumber. Laughing Summer pitched forward as the ship lurched again, only just managing to save himself. We were connected by only our fingertips, but still he held on. I could clearly see the fear in his eyes, and I was sure mine reflected it.
But I let go, only feeling a bit guilty at the look of horror that crossed his face. There was no way he could have pulled me up, I knew. It was my own fault for going into the trees, for not being quick enough.
My split-second musings were interrupted as I smacked hard into a tree branch; I hadn’t noticed that the ship had been drifting away over the forest. Winded, I fell to the ground. I felt my arm snap underneath me, but I grit my teeth and didn’t cry out. The crazies, as I decided to dub them, weren’t around–for now. I still had a chance to escape, to catch up with the others. I forced myself to my feet and raised my eyes to the sky.
I could hear the ship far above me, but could not see it. Its droning engine was fading as fast as my hope. The sound eventually gave way to crunching footsteps and the constant shrieks that accompanied the insane aliens.
I pushed myself to my feet and started in the opposite direction of their approach. It was difficult to focus on treading lightly due to the pounding in my skull, but I knew I had to try. I no longer had a gun-stick–no way to protect myself if I was caught. I had to flee. Behind me, they found my trail; I could hear them chasing. I knew the river from which we got our water was ahead. I raced toward it, pinning my useless arm to my side with my good hand. Perhaps if I reached it, I could cross it and they would not follow.
But when I arrived, I saw that the river was swollen from the earlier rain. Now it was too deep and the current too fast. I would have to follow the river until I found safety. If I reached a village, I could rally the tribe members and they would string their bows and hurl their spears. There was still a chance! I came to the riverbank and immediately turned left to follow the stream.
My breath came fast and hard, sweat poured into my eyes. My broken arm hurt terribly. The pain burned up and down my shoulder, jolted with each stride. The aliens were still behind me, spurring me on. I didn’t know or care whether I was leaving a trail for them to follow, or if I was being raucous. I could be imagining that I was being followed, for all I knew. I could hardly think.
I fervently hoped that the others had gotten away safely, that the engine hadn’t given out, that they hadn’t crashed into the forest. As long as my family was safe, everything would be okay.
All to suddenly, the river ended.
I skidded to a halt, all too aware of the shrill screams growing louder behind me. My eyes darted about desperately, looking for a place to hide, a place to go. The waterfall in front of me cascaded for what seemed like forever, and ended in a frothing white sea of foam. The sheer cliff face could not be descended with a broken arm. But the forest offered no protection, either. I looked over my shoulder, feeling sick, and saw that they had finally caught up. The one in the lead, wearing a nasty grin, raised his gun-stick as he squealed incomprehensible words.
I could not afford to think of consequences–I threw myself over the edge, and knew no more.
The children gaped at Mangled One. Several young eyes flicked down to his twisted leg, then back up to him as he continued speaking.
“To tell the rest of the story,” the old man said, “I’ll have to switch tactics!”
There was a flurry of confused mumblings, but they died away when Mangled One waggled a finger in the air.
“It’s not much of a change, no need to fear,” he said. “I will tell it as though I were a bystander.”
“Why?” demanded Hallowed Birth, brow furrowed.
“Why not?” countered Mangled One. Then, as though to himself, he said, “Why, indeed? But no matter, thus it goes:”
A deep, throbbing hum reverberated through the air; bright lights shined down upon them, blinding them momentarily. Several villagers screamed in terror of the humongous gray beast that descended from the sky. It landed at the edge of the field, then shuddered and went still. A moment later, the huge maw on its underbelly dropped open with a hiss.
“What is that?” cried the voice of a frightened child, piercing the silence.
Mothers began to usher their children away, and uncertain men and young women stepped forward with spears raised. Harvest Moon, the village leader, moved to the fore of his tribe, head raised high. His eyes betrayed no fear, but he seemed taken aback when figures began to emerge from the mouth of the beast.
They came with strange sticks held at their sides, but with their other hand raised. They all looked different; some with brown hair, others with black, and still others with wheat or fire colored hair. All their eyes and skin tones were different as well. The strangers wore silver clothing like none anyone had seen.
One spoke in a garbling, throaty language, startling some of the villagers. Several shrank back with fear, while others adjusted their spears menacingly.
“Who are you?” spoke Harvest Moon in his most intimidating voice. He slammed the butt of his adorned spear to the ground as if to punctuate his demand. The strangers frowned and seemed nervous, whispering amongst themselves.
“They wish to know where they are,” Mangled One said quietly, limping up behind Harvest Moon. He leaned heavily on his crutch, slightly dragging his twisted leg.
Harvest Moons glanced at him in surprise, then returned his gaze to the strangers, who noticed Mangled One’s approach and watched silently. “These are the aliens you’ve told us about?” He seemed a bit bemused; the villagers had deemed Mangled One crazy when he had first started speaking of the aliens star cycles ago. No one had believed him; instead they privately joked that his head had been hit rather hard sometime before he was pulled from the river.
He nodded, a lock of long hair falling into his face.
“Mangled One,” Harvest Moon said, “you can communicate with these creatures?”
He nodded. “I picked up a bit from my time with them.”
“Ask them why they have come.”
Mangled One did so, and the aliens broke out into ecstatic grins. “He can understand us!”
“We’ve come to escape persecution,” answered the one who seemed to be the leader, shushing the others with a wave of his hand.
Mangled One limped forward, relaying their words to Harvest Moon between grunts. He halted when he reached the halfway point between the villagers and the strangers. This was so that he could translate easily between them, direction both of the side’s attentions to him rather than each other.
“Ask them what they want with us,” Harvest Moon called from his safe distance. He seemed greatly apprehensive, but knew he had no choice but to rely on Mangled One. It was a tough decision for him, but as the chief it ultimately fell to his judgment.
Mangled One asked, and the strangers replied: “We want to know where we are. We would also like to know if you have any information regarding the whereabouts of the previous colony. They seem to have disappeared several years ago.” Almost as an afterthought, one asked, “Will your kind be hospitable to us?”
Mangled One turned to Harvest Moon. He listened to him, something he had never done in the six star cycles Mangled One had lived here. He regarded him with a thoughtful expression.
“Mangled One,” he said at last, “you would perhaps know more than I what has become of the last–colony, as you called them. You can tell them that we are the Yellow Mud tribe, and that we will be as hospitable to them as they are to us.” It went unspoken that Harvest Moon would not hesitate to wage war if he believed his people to be in any sort of danger.
The leader of the aliens nodded at once, and he seemed grateful. “We can trade very valuable objects for any help you give to us,” he said.
“As for the others,” Mangled One said, shifting his weight, “I have not seen them for six star cycles. The last I saw of them was in the forest. I was running from them. They were not like you. They were shooting me and trying to kill me. They also killed my family.”
The aliens seemed stunned and speechless.
“Mangled One,” Harvest Moon called. He turned slightly to indicate that he heard, and was listening. “Will you please remain as translator for us?”
The chief nodded, then looked as though he were about to add something. After what looked to be internal conflict, he added: “And you will teach us their language?”
Mangled One hesitated. “Yes, if you will learn.”
Harvest Moon broke out into a small smile. “If you do well, we will praise you, Mangled One. Your name will be heard all across our lands!”
He nodded, feeling his strength draining slowly. He was very tired. Crippled as he was, his strength was often fleeting. He was too tired to even feel the elation that he was finally believed, and completely missed the furtive stares he was receiving from quite a few villagers.
“You have a gift,” Harvest Moon said, still keeping his distance. “You should share it.”
The alien leader informed Mangled One that they would return with gifts, and left back to their spaceship. He sat down to wait for them and watched them go, and felt an ache deep in his chest for all that he had lost. Six star cycles was a long time.
Shortly after the arrival of the newest colony of aliens, Mangled One had found himself in a conference with the elders of the village. Never had any of them listened to his words so intently, enraptured by merely the sounds of his voice. The elders questioned him, only interrupted when they truly did not understand the strangers’ actions or words when he spoke of them.
It was perhaps the most Mangled One had ever spoken in those six star cycles. By the end of the night, for that was how long the conference lasted, his throat was raw and hoarse, and he could hardly make another croak.
During the meeting, it had been decided that Mangled One would be a teacher, and he would begin immediately, teaching the villagers of the customs and language of the aliens. Harvest Moon was adamant that they would not be at a disadvantage to the aliens should they attack, despite the reassurances from Mangled One that they were generally a peaceful people.
So it was that a pavilion was built within the week, and adults and children alike were sent in groups to begin their education. Until they had grasped Mangled One’s diligent teachings, he would act as translator between Harvest Moon and the aliens’ leader, Gregory. The children learned the quickest, and they had, after sneaking out to the alien encampment, made quick friends with the alien children.
Within a star cycle, Mangled One had finished his work. Every villager had at least a basic grasp of the alien language, and could communicate effectively. The barrier broken, the aliens and villagers began a constant trade, usually consisting of seeds or other valuables. Only minor squabbles broke out occasionally, but that was to be expected in everyday life, and no one thought much of it.
It was only when Great Yell came and informed Mangled One that a group of nine armed aliens had asked to see him that he was bewildered. Never had so many aliens asked of him at once. They usually preferred to send a couple to exchange words or barter for supplies, and even then he was usually left out of the dealings. Mangled One had reverted back to his state of the previous six star cycles, spending much of his time alone. Could something have happened?
He limped hurriedly up towards the front of the village, where visitors were made to wait until someone came to collect them. His eyes concentrated on the ground in front of him, willing his mind off of the stabbing pain in his leg that occurred whenever he walked. By the time Mangled One reached his destination, he was panting.
“There they are,” said Great Yell, stopping a ways away from the group. He nodded his thanks to her without looking up and continued forward with his eyes trained on his path, wondering what they could have wanted.
“Yes?” he asked in their language as he approached, then looked up. He drew in a sharp breath.
Eight aliens beamed at him, while the ninth stared down at his twisted leg curiously. Mangled One recognized each one of them, despite the fact that he hadn’t seen them for many star cycles.
“Silver Tongue,” Little Moons said in a cracked voice. She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. Despite his ruined leg, he had grown taller than even Talks A Lot, who was still as lanky as ever. Plucked Flower had grown into a masculine young man. Laughing Summer and Fire Hair looked the same, though a few strands of their hair had grayed. Echo, Little Moons, Has No Shame, and Big Eyes all looked older, faces shriveled like dried fruit. Slim Face and Wood Skin were not present, and a sinking feeling told him all he needed to know.
“Is this Crying Loudly?” Mangled One asked, smiling down at the honey-blond haired girl. Her green eyes flicked up to his, then she buried her face in her father’s pants leg.
“It is,” Fire Hair choked out in a voice hardly above a whisper. “Oh, we’re so glad to see you again, Silver Tongue.”
“Shit, what happened to you?” asked Has No Shame, looking pitifully at his leg.
Mangled One smiled. “I landed feet first at the bottom. Luckily, the aliens that were foolish enough to follow me over the waterfall fell head-first. They were carried away by the current to who-knows-where, while I just managed to pull myself to the bank. The villagers here found and rescued me.”
“Waterfall!” Little Moons exclaimed. “That’s so dangerous!”
“But I’m alive,” he laughed. “And you are, too.” He felt a happy tear slip down his cheek. He hadn’t felt so happy in so many star cycles. “And I’ve missed you all so much.”
The nine of them drew Mangled One into a hug, tearful as well. He let his crutch fall to the dust, leaning heavily into their embraces.
“Will you come back with us?” Plucked Flower asked in a very different voice. “Our ship is just in the forest over there…You should rest your leg,” he added after a pause.
“There’s no help for my leg,” Mangled One laughed. “How did you come across me?”
“You’re famous,” replied Laughing Summer, tousling Mangled One’s long hair. “And so young, too.”
“You need a haircut,” fussed Big Eyes, looking as though his hair were an abomination.
He laughed, wiping his face with a hand. His arm was wrapped around Talks A Lot’s shoulder, keeping him upright as his crutch still lay cast aside. “Perhaps it is a little long,” he agreed, eyes shining. He was acutely aware of the stares from several villagers, namely Harvest Moon’s.
But he found that he didn’t care. Mangled One–Silver Tongue–was reunited with his family.
Tags: Leigh Ann Cowan, Science Fiction