Meaning rushed in upon me. Color flushed back into my whole body. My mother picked me up and walked me to her hammock, singing the sound of my name. As she fell into rocking, her voice became a hum, then it became a silent song between us. That humming filled me with buzzing comfort from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. Language and logic streamed into my awareness in waves. A sense of geography of the whole swamp unfolded.
A dark haired woman appeared in the open doorway. The two boys who had run after my mother peered out at me from behind their own mother. And behind them, others came crowding in, eyes wide with curiosity. Their boisterous congratulations had no power to disrupt the circular song my mother held me in. I fell asleep to her silent humming.
I did not wake as neighbors kept gathering into our hut with pitchers of fresh chai. I did not wake when harmonica and hand harp were played or when the young boys, Naff and Tammick along with all the other children of the neighborhood gathered around me and my mother to ask questions. I missed hearing Agi declare my use name to be Margo. I missed the toast as the whole room raised a glass to cheer my public name aloud. I did not even wake at the bellows of laughter that came when my mother had everyone play a guessing game as to who my father might be.
I slept through all the celebrations. I woke at the sound of thunder striking like a whip. As the neighbors recount it, (and they recounted this moment for years to come), at that crack of thunder, I bolted straight upright in the hammock and stared out at everyone with the wide grey eyes my mother had given me. In the silence just before a roar of rain began to fall I called out a single word, “Alakalem!” And then, with another crack of thunder a bright purple light flashed like a whip around the room, sending everyone turning about to find the source of it. I then dropped back into deep sleep as quickly as I’d bolted out of it.
That is what they said happened. But that is not what I remembered. I only remember the light and the creature that emerged from it. From that tangled wisp of purple a giant animal approached me. Its eyes were dark as swamp water and framed with wire thick lashes. Its skin was grey and cracked, caked with mud. It’s nose was so long it touched the ground. And its feet were like tree stumps. It stood in an expanse of rolling hills of hot red sand. Not WickArron. Not Underchal. This place where this animal dwelled was not even on my planet. It stood in a desert on a world somewhere far between the stars. At the sight of me, it gave a trumpeting cry of joy. And the sound of that cry in my mind was a word. The word, “Alakalem!”
That crack of thunder brought a rain that did not end for more than a week. Everyone called it a blessing from Gaia upon me and my mother because it allowed her to stay home with me rather than answer the summons of the factory horn. In such downpours the factories had enough sense not to call their workers out into perilous dangers. And so the day of my walk-out was a holiday for everyone.
Agi and Nira had to stay on in our hut waiting for a safe moment to row back to their posts at the Natal Gate. Hammocks were rounded up for both of them. Astor and her boys were in and out of our hut all throughout the raining days as were many other neighbors, so that I quickly learned that one person’s hut was everyone’s hut. Only the hanging mesh bags were respected with privacy. All else was shared. The two wick wives were treated as honored guests and everyone in the neighborhood attended to their comfort, much to their discomfort.
My mother had kept up the guessing game as to who my father was. Neighbors came by just to make another guess, some in earnest and some for laughs. To every guess my mother just shook her head smiling and say, “You’ll never guess.”
“Then you really must tell us.” Astor finally said one morning after the game had gone on long enough. “We’ve listed every eligible man in these Downs twice over now. So whoever this girl’s father is he is not from around here, is he?“
Meg shook her head, agreeing while also reaching over to correct a mistake I’d made in the weaving technique for my own mesh bag.
“Don’t drop a loop, Maru. Make the weave tight, see.”
Her fingers were thin and nimble, fixing my mistake before I could even see it.
“Well?” Astor asked, folding her hands to her chest.
My mother took a long deep breath and exhaled with a distinct sadness.
“You remember that going away party for Gaelin a few months back?” she asked.
Astor thought a moment then comprehension broke upon her face.
“Oh, by Gaia’s Grace. One of Gaelin’s cousins came down from Chal to help him move!” Astor said.
Meg grinned, sighed again, and said, “Well, he came down in his own boat, didn’t he? All by himself. And as the evening got late, well, he asked if I didn’t want a lift home and I discovered that, yes, yes I did.” My mother looked at me and smiled.
“Oh, Meg! That man was an ink diver.” Astor said.
“His name was Bairn.” Meg said softly.
That name was like a stone into a pond through me.
“She’s got his smile.” Meg said, “And she has that same entrancing laugh. It was his laugh that won me over.”
“Ink divers work for months at a time out in open waters. Who knows when he’ll be back? He’s not even from Underchal.”
Meg paused in her work as if fighting sadness.
“Well, when he does come back, I’ve got something to show him, don’t I?”
“Did he say he would come back?” This question came from Agi whose hands were busy twilling a bundle of swamp reeds into the rope I would use to make my mesh bag.
“He said he wanted to,” Meg answered, “and I told him I wanted him to too. So maybe he will.”
“You’ve got to get word to that poor man.” Astor said, “He’ll be fit tied if you did not even try to tell him!”
“I want to! But I don’t know where I’d even send such a letter.”
At this Agi suddenly dropped her work and stared blinking with surprise.
“Agi?” Astor asked, “Are you okay, sister?”
“I- I- What did you just say, Meg?”
“I said I want Maru’s father to come back.” Everyone gazed with concern at Agi.
“After that, what did you just say?”
“I said I would not know where to send a letter to an ink diver.”
“Ink diver?” Agi looked confused, “No, no, that wasn’t quite it… it was… It was a letter to someone else… to someone in the North.“
Nira put a hand on Agi’s shoulder, her wide brown eyes bringing the woman back to the room.
“Oh, Gaia! How strange. I just remembered a dream. A dream I’ve been having since we’ve been here.” She glanced at me, a question on her face, “How long have we been here?”
“This will be the fourth day.” Meg said, “But please do not count. Stay as long as you like!”
“Thank you, dear.” Agi picked up her reeds and with a shake of her head resumed twilling twine, “You must send a letter to Gaelin. Aren’t he and Bairn cousins? Gaelin will know how to reach him.”
“Oh! Yes. Of course!” Meg said, “I’d not thought of that! I’ll write to him tomorrow.”
“Did he say where is people were from?” Agi asked. She glanced again at me as if she wanted to ask me something.
“He said his mother’s people are from Chal. And his father’s people came from…”Meg lowered her voice to a whisper, “from Trine.”
Agi put her work in her lap again.
“From Trine? That’s it. That’s who I dreamed of! The Sava Council of Trine!”
Astor laughed, “Is there still such a thing as the Sava Council? I thought it was all bed time stories.”
“So it is. And that is exactly what I told them in my dream! They wanted me to write them a letter. I told them I would not even know where to send it.”
“A letter about what?” Meg asked.
“Don’t know.” Agi said, “Just kept saying, “If you have heard, send word. If you have heard, send word.”
“Heard what?” Astor said.
“I don’t-“ Agi looked at me, her question crystalizing, “Margo, do you remember the word you said on your first night?”
I remembered perfectly. Alakalem. But my mother’s distress kept me silent.
“Oh, don’t trouble her with those kinds of questions.” Meg said.
My mother did not like this conversation. Her distress was my distress. But Agi waited for me to answer her question for myself. I shook my head and told my first lie. The first of so many. Agi gazed at me with a penetrating silence. She sensed my lie, I was sure of it. A complex tension filled the room. To break it I asked, “So we are called Underchal because we are under a country called Chal?”
Meg and Astor laughed, relieved by my childish question. But Agi watched me, as if she knew I was deliberately diverting the conversation.
“Underchal isn’t just under Chal. We’re under all.”
“How many countries are above us?” I asked keeping the teaching going.
“Chal, Burl, Nance, Ro, and Trine.” Meg and Astor sang it like a well-known school rhyme.
“And I’m half Trine?”
This question was smarter than the others, not so amusing.
“Well, no.” Meg said, “Your father is half Trine so that would only give you a quarter of that nation, if that. Watch you don’t drop another loop, Maru.”
My mother reached over and saved my mesh bag from unraveling yet again.
Agi stopped her twilling and looked at my mother.
“If she’s got relatives in Trine, you ought to try and-“
“Oh, Gaia, relatives in Trine! I have to find her father before I go looking for any other relatives, eh?”
“But if she does have family in Trine, she might be able to get training.”
Meg and Astor looked up from their work at Agi. Agi held her ground, her wrinkled face poised and stubborn.
“Training for what?” I asked.
No one answered.
“Training for what? I asked again.
Agi cleared her throat as if summoning courage.
“Training for working with the spin lights.” She said. “Trine is where people go to learn how to use their inner lights to vault to other worlds.”
“Trine’s not the only place for such training.” My mother said, “We’ve still got a few Retan troupes of our own that tour the coast line.”
“Of course, but what connections would she have to send word to a Retan ship? They probably get dozens of such letters from hopeful parents all the time. If Margo has kin in Trine she’d have a better chance there than trying to track down a ship.“
“If Margo was to study the spin lights it would be in the way of her people!”
“Her father’s people are her people too.”
My mother did not answer. I could feel the heat of her anger and knew her silence was because Agi was a guest. I also gathered from this exchange that my mother did not like for me to have any Trine harmonics. She wanted me to be completely Underchal.
“Forgive me, Meg,” Agi said, “It’s just that I have rowed out with my own arms so many good young people with beautiful spin gifts. I have watched all of you lose those gifts for a lack of training.” She looked between Astor and Meg, their expressions braced against frustration.
“I have watched you all lose your beautiful spin gifts and for what? To make sure the upper countries have all the chai they want? Margo has the spin gifts. We all saw it. Will you send her to stand at the factory line if there’s a chance she might-”
“Oh, Gaia, she’s a few years away from factory work!”
“She will be as tall as you are in a year and you know it.” Agi said.
I could sense this was an accurate prediction. I’d already grown quite a bit just within the rainy season. And I sensed I’d learned all the vocabulary words my neighbors had to teach.
“I see no point putting silly notions into her head when the factory will be her future as it is for everyone who walks out of the Wick Aaron natal gates.” My mother kept her voice smooth.
The sloshing of feet through high water interrupted Agi’s reply.
Naff and Tammick arrived with Nira, each of them holding baskets filled chai beetles, heavy with their self-made little burdens.
“Indeed she will need training!” Meg said, “Come here, Maru, I want to show you how to harvest chai. This is what we do at the factory.”
Agi retreated into resigned twilling of rope. The two boys set their baskets into our hammock then climbed into one hanging nearby and settled in to lounge and watch as my mother introduced me to the heart and soul of Underchal’s economy, and the work my life would pivot around.
“Oh, no you don’t.” Astor said to her sons, “Nira, give those boys your basket. They will harvest it for you. We don’t let guests work.”
Nira reluctantly handed her basket over to the idle boys who sat up and set to work at their mother’s orders. Meg reached up and took out an empty jar hanging in a mesh bag and settled it into the basket between us.
I gazed down at the milling beetles, burdened with the silvery milk sacks. Their little legs and wings were useless under that weight and they all flailed about in frustration. It was a sad, distressing sight.
“See how they struggle?” Meg asked, “We are going to help them. That is what we do at the factory.”
I watched her reach into the basket and picked up a tiny beetle. She flipped it over to expose the bulging silvery sack. With light, quick fingers, she pinched away that sack and placed the chai into the pitcher where at once the liquid burst open. She then held out her hand flat. This allowed the beetle a platform to right himself, smooth out its pointy coat tail wings, and fly off. Meg picked up another and another, her hands becoming like a machine, freeing chai beetles from their chai sacks.
“Give it a try, Maru.”
I cautiously reached into the basket. Sensing a helping hand, a beetle clamored into it. I imitated how my mother plucked away the sack but unlike her beetles, mine squeaked in pain.
“Not too rough. They are delicate little creatures.”
I tried again but again the beetle squeaked. This one gave me a tiny bite of complaint. Alarmed, I dropped the bug, sending it crashing hard into the water below our hammock. My mother reached down and scooped him up easily and sent him flying off. She then resumed her machine-like speed.
“How do I release them without hurting them?” I asked.
“Let them do for themselves what is theirs to do. See-“ Meg gave a firm pinch to the chai sack of the beetle in her hand.
“Just hold firm.” She said, “and wait.”
The beetle began to struggle against her grip until finally finding enough courage to thrust itself free.
“Don’t take the chai from the beetle. Let the beetle take itself from the chai. Then, keep the gift, and let the giver go.” ” Meg tossed the milk sack into the now half-full jar, then opened her palm. The beetle groomed and seemed to almost bow in thanks before flying off.
I tried this technique. It worked. Meg nodded approval and tossed the next chai sack into her mouth rather than the jar.
I did the same as she did. The bundle of chai burst open at once. The liquid had no taste, only grip. It was an electromagnetic current which at once sent warm comfort all through my body. I ate the next several straight out until I was quite full. Soon the ceiling of the hut was filled with beetles flying free. The swarm began to sing their strange single-note song. Nira opened the door and ushered them all outside. The rainfall had thinned at last to a faint misting. The sun broke through the moss-draped canopy and a sense of release filled the air. Naff and Tammick grew restless to finally go outside. Astor did not try to stop them. The sound of other children calling out to each other after being cooped up made me turn to my mother, wondering if I was allowed to join them. In response, she softly began to hum my name silently between us, creating a deep floating comfort between us. All thoughts of playing with others vanished.
When all the baskets were empty and we had several pitchers full of fresh chai, Meg reached into a mesh bag for lids and screwed the jars tightly closed. She handed a jar to Agi who took it with a small bow of her head, acknowledging the peace offering.
“Thank you. Your daughter will need different training than this, Meg. She is a Retan dancer born.”
My mother did not argue. She sighed and gazed at me. The sorrow and hope in her eyes sent tears to sting my own.