by Graham B.
A boy comes of age in a city beyond his dreams.
|In the days of empty skies when the endless winds blew the people about like seeds, the Winter Tribe trudged south following the snows, dragging their yurts behind on sledges, chasing the endless forty-one-hundred-day winter cycle and the wisps which danced silently in the sky.
It was said that the wisps were the spirits of tribal members who had passed on and watched over the tribe. It was also said that the wisps were drawn by the peoples’ love for each other. For of all the things the spirits missed in the world of the living, they missed most the warmth of love from a beating heart.
The Fishhawk family was the vanguard of the tribe, skirting the banks of the mighty Gangal River miles ahead of the tribe proper. The tribe needed meat, and the Fishhawk were proud of their position, which was so vital. The young men would scout the river and report the conditions their sharp eyes would see, to inform the tribe where they could settle to rest and resupply. Thus, the endless trek along the river continued through generations, chasing after fish which preferred the cool waters of ebbing Winter.
The boy was unremarkable at first glance, not having reached naming age. Born under a southern sky he showed budding strength and inquisitiveness when the Winter tribe had returned north, and now the thought of returning to the lands of his birth quickened his pulse. The boy, called Atony by his mother and his friends, left the yurt and began travelling east with his father.
As their furred boots crackled and popped on the steaming, icy tundra, Atony looked up at his father, cheeks aglow in the brisk air.
“Tell me about Ingangal again, Father!” he said.
Lucaio tilted his head and the eyebrows on his wind-weathered face lifted in the ways of parents indulging their children’s repetitive whims.
“It’s the greatest city along the Gangal River,” he said. “A place built from the very heartstone from the ground. It does not move like our yurts.”
“And people live there?”
“Many, many people, Atony.”
“They don’t look like us, right pappa?”
“No, Atony. They are of all shapes, sizes and colors. And they never move. They stay in one place, come winter or summer.”
The boy marveled at the thought. People who lived through winter and summer! He had already heard the stories of the people in the city near where he was born, a full winter cycle ago. Hunkering down in their stone houses during the deepest depths of the winter, and during the blistering heat of the summer which neither Atony, nor any of his tribe had ever seen. Only in the times of spring and fall could they emerge to enjoy the air that could whisper of life, and a gentle sun to smile on a green and fragrant landscape.
“Will we see the Summer Tribe here?” asked Atony.
“The desert nomads will not be there, boy,” he said. “They are ever over the horizon in their sandskimmners, letting the infernal sun cook their brains! We are fortunate to never see such folk.”
Lucaio looked at his son, his eyes colder than the Gangal, and Atony quieted. The two trudged on in silence, and the winter wisps danced in the sky ahead of their path.
Ingangal presently rose above the horizon, away from the Gangal’s flood plain. The stone walls were blasted by summer, and weathered by the winter winds, but at this stage of the cycle, people were out and about, wrapped against the brisk weather. A guard who had been lounging at the gate snapped to attention.
Lucaio waved, and the guard relaxed at the sight of a man and a boy dressed in fishermen’s furs. Winter people were expected at this time. There was a brief interrogation by the guard, who determined that the Winter visitors would only be staying a day or two and waved them through.
Atony marveled at the sights as he hurried next to his father. The people of Ingangal were squat and sturdy, looking weathered by their exposure to constant cycles. They went about their business at the street booths, arguing vociferously at minute changes in the price of goods. The women seemed to do the most haggling while the men looked bored. Many Ingangal held a yellow stick which they chewed as they walked.
“What is that, father?” said Atony, pointing to a booth which had the strange sticks arrayed in clusters which hung from the awning.
“It is a sweet confection the city people like,” said Lucaio. “We have no time or money for such silly things. Come!”
Lucaio headed for the booth that was selling coils of thin line which would work well for making nets. As Lucaio began to haggle, Atony looked at the sweet vendor. She was a woman with a lined face and laughing eyes which met Atony’s.
“Would you like one, oh fishingkind?” she said, holding a stick out to him. “It was from the last of the sweetgrass harvest before the frosts crept forth.”
“I have no money,” said Atony.
“That’s fine! The first one is a gift.”
The woman laughed as Atony took the stick and gingerly placed it in his mouth. He felt a cloying, fragrant sweetness flood his mouth and nose, nearly making his eyes water. He sucked on it greedily, and noticed the girl standing next to the sweet vendor for the first time.
She looked to be Atony’s age, about one cycle. Her skin was very dark, nearly the color of fire-blasted stones, and her frizzy hair, black at the roots, looked to be kissed by golden sun. Atony stared.
The girl stuck her tongue out at him.
“You smell like fish,” she said.
The vendor tweaked the girl’s ear.
“Now be nice to the visitor,” she said. “He has come a long way. He might have stories to hear! What do you say, boy?”
Atony hesitated, and the girl’s large, dark eyes bore into his. He felt a twinge inside, like the first time he had ever felt a fish wiggle on his line.
“I’m Atony,” said the boy, and he gestured in the way of the Winter Tribe in greeting.
“Seuna,” said the girl.
“My family are the Fishhawks,” he said, not knowing what else to say. “We feed the tribe. That’s why I smell like fish. It’s an honor.”
Atony looked at the vendor, who was busily selling sticks to passersby.
“You don’t look like her,” he said to the girl.
“She isn’t my mother,” said the girl. “That’s Lilla. She takes care of me.”
She suddenly smiled, and the corners of her eyes turned upward in mysterious mirth.
“Do you want to see something, Atony?” she said.
Atony was drawn by even deeper twinges, like fish wiggling in his belly. He nodded and turned to his father to ask permission. Lucaio was in a deep argument with the vendor over the price of hooks. Atony went with the Seuna, and it wasn’t until much later that Lucaio looked about and missed his son.
Seuna led Atony through a maze of narrow alleys filled with stacked stones and sun-hardened wood until they reached the far wall of Ingangal, which perpetually faces the coming advances of the seasons. There was a small opening in the wall for drainage, too small for a man, but big enough for two children of one season’s age to fit through. Outside, the tundra stretched out to the horizon, but Seuna hurried to a large pile of building stones. The stones had been arranged as a sort of shelter.
“I like to come here, sometimes,” said Seuna as Atony joined her, breathless.
There was something inside the shelter. It looked like a sledge, but much lighter of build. Instead of a yurt, there was a single mast that sprouted from the center. In the bottom of the sledge there were large folds of canvas.
“What is it?” Atony said as he ran his hands over the hardened wood.
“A sandskimmer,” said Seuna. “Lilla says it brought me to Ingangal a half-cycle ago. I don’t even remember. She said there was no one else aboard.”
“Half-cycle? That means you came during the summer, the time of the sands!”
“Lilla thinks that my mother might have fallen off on the sands, and the wisps blew me here.”
“You know of the wisps?”
“Of course! The spirits of the Tribe who fly before us and protect us from danger. They brought me here to protect me.”
She looked at Atony and smiled, and her sun-bleached hair was radiant.
“Maybe they brought me here to meet you,” she said.
One of her hands found Atony’s upon the sand skimmer’s runners. Atony felt a flush, as if the summer had caught up with him. He smiled at her.
“Do you think the skimmer will work on tundra?” he asked.
Seuna gave him another of her radiant smiles.
“I never tried. I’m not strong enough to pull it out, but with you helping me…”
It took the children several minutes to drag the skimmer onto the slick, icy tundra and set up the sail. Wisps danced around the two as they worked. Finally, all was ready, and Seuna helped Atony climb aboard.
Seuna smiled at him again, and slowly, hesitantly kissed him. The wisps began dancing madly and a wind rose to fill the sail, making the skimmer creak. Atony tore his eyes away from Seuna in wonder. He heard the runners hiss as they moved across the ice, and the wind grew from a whisper to a roar. The children gazed at the horizon, wondering what they would see next, and not looking back at Ingangal as it disappeared behind them.
Lucaio was overcome with grief over his missing son. He dragged his sledge to the walls of Ingangal and went about looking for Atony day and night. As the season crept on and the days slowly grew warmer, he still looked. The Fishhawk family entreated him to return to the tribe, but he listened to not a single word and stayed in Ingangal, a nomad now at rest. Many days passed, and the Winter Tribe had to move on ahead of the encroaching summer.
The days grew warmer until Lucaio shed his furs. He spent many a day atop the wall, looking out to the horizon for the return of his son, with the sun climbing ever higher. Lucaio’s hair and beard, now long and unkempt, became sun-bleached and golden. The weathered creases of his face were joined by a tan so dark as to look like fire-blasted stone.
When the summer heat grew so great that his sledge and yurt burst into flames, he paid no notice, for nothing mattered to him, and his sorrowful eyes ever looked upon tundra that slowly gave way to green fields and rising sweetgrass. In mid-Summer, when the fields had turned to yellow sand, shimmering shapes appeared in the distance. For the first time in ages, Lucaio felt a stirring of hope.
Summer Tribe was arriving at the mid-season on their sandskimmers to trade in Ingangal. Lucaio’s heart sank when Atony was not among them. But a woman with sun-kissed hair arrived with the tribe. She saw Lucaio sitting alone on the wall and climbed up to him. She smiled at him, her eyes turning up at the corners, and after gesturing to him in the greeting of the Summer Tribe, she asked him about a girl who would be about one cycle old. Lucaio answered that he had lived in Ingangal since last Winter and had never seen her.
The woman quietly sat down next to him and looked out at the horizon. Lucaio saw in her eyes a grief that was a mirror of his own and above their heads, a single wisp danced in the sky.
Word count: 1993