by Ken Poyner
Wonjel listened a moment to her mother busying herself upstairs, then turned back to watch Nika putting away toys. Nika seemed to enjoy putting away toys more than anything, more than even playing with toys. The small, slightly stooped under-girl whirled about looking for things out of place, and then put them back where they should be with a giggle and a glint of self-satisfaction that Wonjel wondered whether she herself would ever have. Nika maintained a joy in such simple things. Maybe it was not Wonjel’s place to have such self-satisfaction.
“Make sure Nika has on her tan tunic”, Wonjel’s mother called from upstairs, her voice not unpleasant, but knifing through the air. Wonjel’s mother was in the throes of what she called ‘getting ready’, a ritual that preceded any other ritual or occasion. Nika had a tendency to slip off her tunic, but Wonjel almost always made her keep it on when she was in the house.
Wonjel patted down her yellow dress, and glanced at the yellow sash her mother was sure to make her wear. Nika would wear the tan tunic she usually wore. Nika was not of the People. Nika was of the under-species, a class of hominid without the soul of the People, without the gifts for learning and reciting. The People could weave and plant and reap and herd, and reading was becoming popular even amongst the moneyed classes. Poor Nika. Her people dwelt drearily at the edge of the Arid Places and would come, if they were lucky, to be playmates for the People. Nika did not know her own history, and her words were blurt and spit, expression that was discouraged in better company. The under-girl had a face not too unlike her more evolved masters but her skin was thicker and her mind not of the People’s geometry. Her soul seemed to have leaked out long ago.
Surely, Nika understood that there was excitement about today, but she could not know what the excitement itself was for. She luxuriated in the electricity of others, in the spice littering the air, though she had no idea why the electricity was there, why the spice was lingering on the edges of everything. Later, Wonjel would help Nika comb her hair, and would make sure her tunic was on right side up and inside in, centered on her shoulders, and securely clipped on.
I put away the things. I know what is out of place. I know what needs to go back into its place. I see Wonjel be happy and I am happy. Happy Wonjel, happy Nika. I hear the noise of Wonjel’s mother, but I do not understand her want. She makes great motions when small ones will do. The sound at times is fearful. I do not fear Wonjel’s mother. I had a mother. I do not remember mother. But I do remember clinging, and of being in my place.
Wonjel has a father. I keep away from Wonjel’s father. I keep away especially when he is alone. He has the way of claiming things. He is full of anger and invasion and I do not understand how he is made happy. I put away the toys. I use a clumsy device to order my hair. I understand its use when I see it, but when I cannot see it the device becomes dull and without name and sometimes Wonjel helps me. She orders my hair and tames the device and I see myself as Wonjel must see me. It helps Wonjel to help me.
I would want a mother like Wonjel’s mother, but without the softness of scent. I would fear a father like Wonjel’s. A father of howl. Wonjel’s world is more complicated than I have the wonder to waste upon it.
It is the yellow that calms the Whu-ta-k’in. There is something in its radiance. Something in its soothing appeal. It is why the People worship yellow. Why golden hair is a gift from God. Why the roofs of houses are painted yellow. Why paddocks are shielded in yellow. Why the prize breeding stock is outfitted in yellow. Why the People, on the day of the Whu-ta-k’in migration, all stand in yellow and watch as the massive flight comes through and the Phe-butoo are exchanged.
The Whu-ta-k’in can be fierce. The size of two well formed men, they glide on their butterfly wings, in a swarm of thousands. The sudden beat of their wings can down a small child, can deafen the most gossipy of old women. The creatures gather out of the forests North of the Arid Places, rising up each as one lone ingredient, joining the stream that flies across the Northern forests and the Arid Places and into the land of the People; and then on to cross the uncharmed sea to settle again in the Southern forests where they live, solitary in the season amongst shadows. There they wait for the sun and moon to kiss once more, and with their great gathering then they travel thunderingly North to begin their cycles again.
Town to town the news is sent by runner of the migration’s location, and the People put on their yellow vestments, their yellow hats, their yellow sashes. The swarm will last a day, the air having the sound beaten out of it by Whu-ta-k’in wings, the incline of the atmosphere tipped by Whu-ta-k’in grace, the sun shied back by Whu-ta-k’in strength. To be in yellow is to be safe from the Whu-ta-k’in. But to be without yellow is to be a spot of reason in the Whu-ta-k’in’s madness of hunger. There is not much to sustain the thinning beasts on the flight, and many fall exhausted off, decreasing the number so that the best and strongest of wing can survive.
For some of the People, there is an industry in finding those of the swarm that succumb to the journey, a salvaging of the holy bodies. Relics collected. Charms made. Spices extracted. Wings, if found whole, stretched out and mounted on filaments of whorl, a tool of reclaiming.
But the rest of the gathering searches out the food that will carry them to the next town, to the next thatch, to the next hillside. They will take livestock not protected by yellow; they will snap a stray dog; they would haul in one of the People if the People had not learned generations ago the miracle of yellow. Yellow.
The Whu-ta-k’in do not abide yellow. They see it. They sense it. They leave it be.
“Be sure to put on your sash.”
Wonjel’s mother would remind her several times that day, and then herself fix the sash with a double knot. Wonjel had golden hair, aided by home-made dye, and a yellow sheath, and the sash was surely not needed. The more brazen of the People would not wear the sash. In their yellow tunics alone they would stand honored beneath the hurtling Whu-ta-k’in, chests pushed forward, faces upturned to look into the talons of the massive butterflies, or those who might be giant cousins of butterflies. Their courage would beam yellow into the souls of the migrating leviathans, soothing them, calming them, sending them peacefully away, sending them on to the quality of their business.
“Nika, now you have nothing to put away. Why do you love so to put away my playthings?”
Nika looked at Wonjel and cocked her head to one side, the way she did when she understood the meaning if not the message. “Place. Like place.” She knew more, but could not say more. The words were matted thatch that stuck somewhere between the thinking and the making and lay dormant and exhausted in the heart and throat of the under-girl. She would hurl them if she could, just to see if they would bound or crawl, bounce or shatter.
Wonjel went over to her toy cabinet and took out a small wooden doll and two riding blocks, tossing them to the center of the floor. Nika clapped her hands and made a slight hop and ran over to pick up the first block, while eying with delight the second. Waddling on her powerful under-girl legs, she aimed for the cabinet and centered on it with all of her concentration. When she had put up the first block, she went for the doll. She had tricked the second block.
Wonjel and Nika stood side by side between Wonjel’s parents. Nika had maneuvered herself to be nearest Wonjel’s mother, not Wonjel’s father. They were not alone, and he was focused on the collection of the People, but Nika had summoned memory. Wonjel held Nika’s hand, and Nika enjoyed the warmth of the hand, the feel of the skin – much smoother than hers – pressing itself into the recesses of her leathery palm.
“Now hold on tight. Nika can get spooked in a crowd. You do not want her wandering off too soon.” Wonjel’s mother was a maelstrom of unnecessary concerns, a temptation for forgetfulness. She would make rhymes for tasks, and sometimes the tasks would be changed to meet the need of the rhyme.
Wonjel adjusted her grip, but knew that Nika would go nowhere.
All along the town’s center lawn, the People were standing, stretched on both sides, in family groups one or two deep. It was a small town. They had been told by the last town’s runner from the night before that the swarm would be passing that day; it had left the last inhabited place the day before and had rested the night on the open plain of Zigor to rise that morning and pass through this hamlet of weavers and farmers and herders and hoarders of the word, before passing on, ever deeper South, their hunger growing, their anger needing ever more each day the yellow the People would provide.
Who knew what sanity to the soul of the Whu-ta-k’in the yellow brought? The People knew. How they knew it they knew not. Part of what becomes a people is the mystery that holds a people together. The People understood that the charm to hold the Whu-ta-k’in at bay, the key to making them a tool to be used and not a murderous bane to be hidden from, was the color yellow. Brilliant yellow. An unnatural color, the product of combination, elements mixed that only those who might weave or paint could manage and rely on in quantity. The People learned it from the grandfathers who had learned it from their grandfathers who had learned it from a blinding, holy beginning. There was no questioning it, especially as the swarm rose and could be, depending upon the act of the People, the beginning of things or the end of things.
And there they were! A shimmering cloud at first, but then a sense of undulation, and soon eddies of motion. The swarm seemed a living thing, not a collection of living things. It tilted on its axis and envisioned the vision of the town. It took measure and took stock and stuttered in its purpose long enough to consider its options. It spied the lawn and its borders of yellow, and – long accustomed to its promise – narrowed and began to focus on the wide strip of public welcome. As it closed, its life became the sum of its lives, and then the collection of lives, and soon each life alone, shored up with the next.
Across the green, one boy in yellow stepped out with his playmate in his tan tunic and walked with him hand in hand to the center of the lawn. He spoke a moment and pointed to the ground, obviously telling his playmate that here was his place, he would stand here. And then more children walked out, male and female, with under-male and under-female, boy and girl and under-boy and under-girl. When her mother tapped her sharply on the shoulder, a signal of time and not of command, Wonjel walked out with Nika still in hand; and when she reached the edge of the growing crowd she pressed Nika to the back of another under-girl, who looked around, but did not brace, her confusion and unwillingness to risk the punishment of disobedience stinging in her eyes like a house-pest in a funnel trap. Nika reached out to grab this under-girl’s post like shoulder.
“Here. You stay here.” And Wonjel was gone, a yellow blur back to her parents.
Her mother patted her again on the shoulder, pulled one strand of dried hair back into place. “Mom,” Wonjel asked, looking up at the chin of her mother, “can I name my next Phe-butoo Nika?”
Wonjel’s mother, who had returned her attention to scouring the edges of the swarm above, glanced down to her daughter as the swarm began to bend down towards the public green, and said, “Why, of course you can, dear. You can call it whatever you want.”
Then the swam banked sharply down, folding like a river folds when it is stumbling in declining gravity, and the Phe-butoo began to be taken up: sometimes in wholes, sometimes in halves, sometimes in pieces, the deep rumble of their screams hardly noticeable in the roar of so many wings so close together. The aerial ballet of the Whu-ta-k’in was breath taking, and in their yellow guards the People watched entranced and nearly crystalline as in intricate choreography the flock took in this season’s indentured members of the Phe-butoo under-species, beginning the yellow-filled half of this year’s ritual, wherein the playmates of a thriving community were exchanged.
Nika did not so much like putting things back into place. But the comb was a marvelous machine. She could drag its bristles along her arm and have the most wondrous sensation. The tingles were a water that ran over her without the wet. And Wonjel laughed when she did it, which made her laugh too, and she sat naked on top of her tan tunic giggling and laughing and perhaps hearing all of what lept from Wonjel’s lips, but not quite knowing where in her brain the patterns of Wonjel’s sound should be housed; and so she let them go and laughed and laughed and laughed.
AUTHOR BIO: Ken Poyner often serves as unlikely eye-candy at his wife’s powerlifting meets. His latest collection of brief fictions, “Constant Animals”, can be located through links on his website, www.kpoyner.com. He has had recent work out in “Corium”, “Asimov’s Science Fiction”, “Poet Lore”, “Sein und Werden”, “Cream City Review”, and a few dozen other places. When power lifting season is in recovery, he spends his time acting as a comfortable place for any number of his four cats to crash and dream.