My mother and father were not at the Natal Gate on the day I stepped through the Wick into this life. They were not there to tell me the sound of my name as their daughter. This absence of parents at the Natal Gates was not uncommon in Underchal, where I am from. In other countries, parents made preparations for a child’s arrival weeks in advance. Parties were planned with flowers and expensive chai. The Natal Gates of all the other nations above Underchal have comfortable and decorated reception rooms, gardens with mazes to walk, and relaxation services. The Natal Gates of Underchal had only shallow waters, heavy skies, and Wick wives to greet the newborn walk-outs into this world.
Three Wick wives were standing at their posts at the edge of the low warm waters on the day I walked out. I was some distance away from them but I knew at once none of them were my mother or father. None of them held the sound of my name in their throat. The absence of that sound caused such a hollow, baffling emptiness within me that I nearly flipped my magnetic polarity and walked right back into the Natal Wick I’d just worked so hard to step out of.
Flipping magnetics at walk-out was a common occurrence in the country of Underchal which kept our populations low but our eagerness for children all the higher. The endurance needed to survive the agony of namelessness long enough to locate one’s parents also built a certain determination of character distinctly Underchalian. When faced with the swell of silence on the shore of my new life, I did not retreat back into the perfect comfort of Wick. There was a sound that was mine to hear and I would hear it. And even then, on that first day, in that first moment, I could hear that other sound… the trumpet scream, only an echo then, calling to me from between the stars. That sound too was my name. Another name. I needed to find both.
One of the Wick Wives paused in her pacing of the shoreline to stare in my direction. She was tall but stooped, unsure of what she was seeing. Then, at once she broke into a run towards me, arms waving. The others followed after. The three women halted at the shoreline and called out to me across the waters between us. They would not, could not step closer. It was for me to step to them. From where I was, inside the humming blue glow of the Natal Wick, I could see the whole expanse of that single time place. I could see how meticulously the braids that coiled round each woman’s head had been braided and I knew they’d braided each other’s hair that morning by a window filled with morning light. I knew also that they had sat at large cloth looms to weave the fabric of the grey, sun-stained robes they now wore, the hems of which were now muddy and soaked as they sloshed through the waters, waiting for me to join them. Their feet were bare. As were mine.
Standing in the humming blue glow of the Natal Wick I could see even my small self standing in the quicksilver water at the entry into life. I was half their height, a naked pale blue thing with a cloud of curly white hair springing off in all directions. The waters I stood in were shimmering with a radiance which came to a muted distinct stop mid-way from shore. I was still in the Wick. At its very edge, enshrouded in its perfection. Those three figures on that other shore could see me, could wave to me, but they could not call me out of my standing place. Only my mother or my father could call me out of the Wick. But they were not there. Who then would call me forth?
In the end, it was an aching that called me forth. A need to hear my name and know my parents pushed me to step forward out of the radiant quicksilver waters into the muted, darker waters of the simple shoal before me. With that single step, I felt a clicking, like a door closing. The humming glow of the Natal Wick stopped and all I heard were the sounds of this world. Visions of the vivid details of the three women faded all at once and they became to me as I was to them, a vague speck of shape in the distance. Crossing the shoal was a struggle. The waters were shallow but it had within it, dozens of tiny cross currants, spinning to confuse me in my directions. The voices of the Wick Wives never ceased as I eddied round in those whirlpools, slowly weaving my way to them.
All three sets of hands took hold of me the moment I was close enough to reach. They pulled me into a triangular embrace, all three humming a deep-throated note of comfort. The Wick note. They held me there and hummed me down until they were certain I would not eddy back across the waters the way I’d come. Though it was soothing, that sound also chaffed at me. I turned back to find the comfort of the Wick but saw that now it was just a blue humming glow on the horizon. Unreachable, unreal.
Once my restlessness subsided, the eldest Wick Wife drew a small grey robe over me and knelt down before me. With round eyes wide and her face close to mine, she said,
“Agi.” pressing a hand into her own chest. It was not the sound I longed to hear but I understood it was her name.
I tried to say it back to her but could not. Agi smiled at my effort and put a firm hand on my chest. The ache of longing subsided faintly at her touch.
“By Gaia’s Grace, welcome.” She said, “Welcome to Wick Aaron Downs.” She gestured into the air before me. In that gesture, the air seemed to shimmer awake and race through me. A quaking of knowing rumbled, thread by thread and I understood. This was Wick Aaron Downs of Underchal. This was my home, the land of low waters.
A bright sky held huge white clouds which met shallow shoals for as far as my eyes could see. Wind-blown trees leaned in as if listening from tufts of thick blue-green reeds. I looked up. This was Wick Aaron, the land of the chai beetle, a small, iridescent creature that flew in synchronized swarms in the hot, heavy air, singing a strange, single-note song that felt almost like the sound of my name. Almost…
A breeze blew sending long the reeds swaying all around us. In those tall grasses, I saw a long-legged bluebird watching with still, tilted attention. I knew without knowing how that he was a Herrit bird, found only in Underchal. As if hearing me think upon him, the bird lifted its long beak into the sky and rolled out an eerie, forlorn call that rippled out and met the swelling sound of the chai beetle in a perfect duet of tones. The breeze lifted, setting the trees to rattle. The whole day became a song. But my name was not in it.
Agi stood up and took me by the hand, leading me to a small bobbing boat nearby. Walking alongside us, one of the other Wick Wives reached into a pocket of her robe and asked,
“Should I confirm her omaic frequencies?” The woman pulled out a circular device from her pocket the size of her palm and pressed a button to bring the instrument to power. It lit up and blinked ready to receive information. I stared at the smooth metal disk in the young woman’s hand. I did not understand her words. But while holding onto Agi’s hand I was able to understand that the device held a roster of frequency records of all the inhabitants of Wick Aaron Downs. It would somehow locate the identity of my parents. I wanted the girl to use the device at once.
Agi shook her head and guided me to climb into the boat.
“No need.” She said, letting go of my hand and climbing in after me, “Save your energy. And stay at your post here. Nira, you come with me. You are the fastest rower. Come, Nira. Climb in, climb in.”
The youngest Wick Wife looked surprised to be chosen to row but held silent and climbed into the boat.
The Wickwife holding the metal disk frowned but put the device back into her pocket. “Are you sure you know which family you are rowing to, Agi?”
Agi nodded, glancing at me with smiling eyes, “With that curly hair and those grey eyes, this girl belongs to Meg Rua. She’s a Rua. I’ve no doubt about it.”
Without holding Agi’s hand, I understood only two words of what she’d said. “Meg Rua.” My face must have lit up at the sound of them because Agi smiled again and nodded.
“That’s right. You’re Meg Rua’s girl. No doubt about it. I rowed her out to her mother and now I’ll row you out to yours. I know the way. She will be so pleased. So pleased.”
Agi settled into the boat facing me as Nira climbed in behind her. The third Wick wife did not argue with her elder. She simply shoved the boat from shore into gliding across the water and resume a slow pacing of the shoreline. Agi and Nira set themselves to rowing.
The farther away we grew from that Natal shore, the deeper I felt the color blue sink into my skin and bones. Leaving the Wick without a name was an unbearable strain that only grew stronger the farther away we got. My whole body reflexively turned back towards the direction we’d come. But Agi tapped at me with a firm command, ordering me to turn round and hold her gaze.
“Nothing back there for you anymore, little one. Look forward. Listen!” She pointed up to the swarm of chai bugs that roiled in the air above us as we crossed the open waters. I studied the luminous flying creatures and their entrancing song. It had a hypnotic rising of pitch that occurred so slowly you only realized the roar of it when it came throttling to a stop. In that pause, the memory of the sound would echo away, only to start the slow whispering cycle all over again. It was a wild, single-note song that rang free in the open air. But something in its rising and falling swell troubled me. Agi noticed my distress, nodding gravely.
“Coleoptera Camellia Sinensisuchail.” She said, “The Chai beetle of Underchal. The bain and gift of Underchal.”
She reached out and thumped my chest, sending another quake of energy through me as she said,
A swell of language bloomed fast in my mind. The language of Underchal. A language of leaning trees and gentle winds and soft persuasions. A slow, ornate, and entrancing language, like the song of the chai beetle. Coleoptera Cammellia Sinensisuchail.
I stared at that swarm, studying them. The cycle came to its throttle stop. In the sudden silence, the sound was heard in echo until the sound began again as a whisper once more, rising to a throttling stop all over again. The cycle of sound sent my mind into an eddy of circles that was not unpleasant. But even so, I watched the tiny creatures swoop and sing with a growing concern. Agi watched me watching them as if recognizing the complexity of my realizations. She gave me another tap on the chest as she said,
“Your mother works at the factory.” She pointed to the swarm of beetles in the sky, “The Chai bug factory of Wick Aaron.”
The word “factory” sent a shadow through me. I did not fully grasp its meaning but I understood that it was not an outside sort of place. It was an ominous thing and it was not only my mother who worked there. Everyone of Wick Aaron worked there. Everyone but Wick Wives.
Suddenly, a beetle dropped out of the swarm and landed with a thunk into the boat. It struggled to right itself and take flight again but was weighed down by a bulging, wobbling self-made burden swelling out from under its breastplate. Nira paused in her rowing, scooped up the beetle, and with nimble fingers pinched off the bulging liquid burden, setting the beetle free to fly away back into the swarm. She then tossed the tiny liquid sack into her mouth and swallowed it with a wink at me. I stared at her, then back at the swarm above. Again the shadow sank through me. The chai beetles had something to do with why my mother was not here. Confusion pressed in. I felt myself shift into a deeper shade of blue. My body pivoted full around, away from Agi to lean in the direction we’d come. Agi tapped between my shoulder blades with a firm command. I tried to turn round to face her again but my magnetics pulled me back towards the Wick. Agi began to hum. Her voice was like the thinnest of threads, keeping me from diving over the side of the boat and swimming back to the Natal waters.
As we approached a coastline of trees, Agi dragged her oar in the water causing the boat to shift its front tip right.
“This is the turn-off, here, do you see it Nira?”
Nira nodded and the two women guided the boat towards a hidden opening among moss-trapped trees. A heavy sky hung over the thicket of swamp forest as our boat disappeared within it.
“About three hours till that storm breaks,” Agi said, “and about three hours to the Rua raft. Should get there just before rain and night falls.”
Huts appeared along the river as our boat glided by. People stepped out onto their porch docks, recognizing those robed figures as Wick Wives. Their expressions were filled with hope that those women might pull up to their dock and deliver a new arrival to their family. Anticipation turned to melancholy waves as the two women rowed on, deeper into the swamp.
The sun was setting when the bark boat finally ran aground in front of a small unlit hut. Agi leaped with surprising vigor out of the boat onto the sand and called out to the lights in a neighboring hut.
“Astor! Naff! Tamick! Anyone home? Come out quick!”
The pounding of feet brought two dark-haired boys lumbering onto their porch dock.
“Where is Miss Meg?” Agi pointed to the dark still hut.
“Gone to work with ma, not ten strokes ago.” The eldest answered. He gestured in the direction where several boats could be seen about to vanish among the trees in the distance.
“Run, Naff! Go and fetch her back! She’s got a daughter in need of naming! Hurry!”
The boy blinked, confused, then suddenly saw me, the small girl pinched with deep blue pain at the edge of the boat. He bolted down the dock that traveled the shoreline towards the caravan of boats in the distance. Tammick followed after his older brother.
Agi ordered me out of the boat. Her voice was a comforting command after so long a journey. I crawled over the side of the boat and managed to stand up. Agi beckoned me to follow her down the wobbling dock to the door of the dark hut. Nira pushed the door open easily and the three of us sloshed into the round single room. A layer of water covered the soggy wooden floor. A single hammock hung above that watery floor from roof beams along with several other netted sacks. One single chair stood in the corner of the room.
“Close the door and light the candles, Nira.” Agi ordered.
Nira reached into a small pouch at her hip and took out a lighter. I watched as the silent woman stepped to all the candle fixtures on the wall and set tiny fire flames to each one. The new glow distracted me for a time from the unbearable pressure in my whole body. The blue at the base of each flame drew me to the candles. I fumbled over a bit of netting lying like a trap in the water and went splashing down to the floor. When Nira reached out to help me, Agi stopped her with a hard grasp on her shoulder.
“No. We can not touch the child now. Look how blue she has become. She is blue enough to flip her magnetics at any moment. And if you touch her, she might just flip you back into the Wick along with her.”
Reluctantly, Nira backed away, leaving me floundering and sending me into a deeper frustration. The blue was unbearable. I could feel how frightening I must look to them, but all I could do was glare in anger. I could not recall how we’d entered the room and I began to search for a way out along the walls, knocking candles off the wall and into the water with a sizzle. When I finally reached the door, it suddenly flew open sending me splashing backward.
A tall stunned woman with a cloud of white curly hair in grey overalls stood in the doorway. She looked at the two wick wives standing in her hut then finally at me on the ground before her. She dropped to her knees, pulled me to her, and whispered, “Maru!”