Reading the Wind: Chapter One
1: We Speak
Herb-scented smoke from the early evening fires lifted my heart while drumbeats lifted my feet. Cool spring air bathed my skin. My skirt swirled about my knees, slapping my calves as I danced behind Liam. A light sheen of sweat coated his back and thighs, shining nearly gold in the last full rays of the sun.
It was the last night of our semi-annual visit to town; a night reserved for the two bands of roamers to feast and compete together.
Twenty-five of us from the West Band had started this stick dance. Just an hour in, no more than ten remained.
Our bandmates chanted with the drums, helping us dance the divide from dusk to night, holding bright torches. The pace increased yet again, the drums seeking to exhaust us, the chant to buoy us. Dark-haired slender Sasha fell away next, followed by red-blond blocky-and-strong Kiara. They rolled free of our feet and took torches, joining the chant, cheering for us, for the band. Every time I began to fade, Mayah’s voice wormed into the part of me that could quit, blocking it, whispering “Shuffle, two, kick, three, turn, jump, jump…”
As the stars winked awake my blood rose. My kicks grew higher, my dip and swirl lower and faster. The drummers increased the tempo until sweat poured from them like it poured from us.
The clacking of wood on wood warned us just before long brightly painted sticks swooshed under us, horizontal, a foot above the ground. The sticks swirling under our legs demanded precision and height from our jumps. A crowd passed the sticks back and forth, hand to hand. The watchers were all roamers, most from our band, some from the East Band, friends and a few skeptics, two judges.
More dancers fell away, feet tangling, bodies rolling.
More sticks. The East Band had danced first. They’d managed five sticks – we already danced over ten. The joy of competition tore a grin from me. And it was the band’s win –normal band members danced with us when we passed the East Band’s mark. No one could blame our win on Liam and me. We were free to play; it didn’t matter now that we were faster and stronger.
Contest had changed to exhibition.
A few of the East Band left the circle. Not all. Just the ones who hated Liam and I for our differences.
Three of us remained, then two. Me and Liam, jumping, kicking, close to each other then away, a dance between us more than for the others. Fifteen sticks, and still we didn’t stumble. The stick-bearers grinned and raised them so high my skirt flew up past my knees. Drummers began to call for replacements. Chanters called our names: “Liam! Chelo! Liam! Chelo!”
Liam threw his head back and laughed, and I joined him, giggling, so short of breath the laugh tore pain from my torso. Pain or not, our laughter reflected joy in moving well, joy in success, joy in being with each other and surrounded by family.
I held out my hands, palms down and he shook his head, not yet.
He grinned at me, his dark eyes bright with exertion.
Faces, grinning. Kiara and River and Sky and Abyl.
Hop, high, down, just the toes, then up again over two sticks. Cheers all around us. I reached a hand to steady Liam and we leapt together as one, holding hands. We side-hopped over the seated circle of first watchers, just above their heads, landing hard, almost falling. After, we stood, slick with sweat and glowing in the firelight of twenty torches.
A cheer erupted all around us, a celebration of our prowess and, perhaps, relief that we were done. The Last Night celebration of Spring Trading was now officially over, and the rest of the evening could be given to connecting band to band or band to townie.
I stopped by my wagon to change from my dancing skirt into pants and a shirt, and to slip light leather sandals onto my feet. My home was small, but it was mine – just a tiny kitchen and an everything-else room just longer than I was tall and half as wide; light enough to be pulled by a single hebra. I’d painted the inside pale blue with clouds and birds and, here and there, the tip of a tree. A silver space ship arced across the ceiling, for my brother, who had gone into the sky.
Dressed for a trip into Artistos, I hesitated briefly in my doorway, centering. I glanced at the wagon Liam shared with his parents, Akashi and Mayah. It stood very close to my smaller wagon, signifying we were all in the same family group. Mine, like Akashi’s, was decorated with maps showing us as geographers. Light poured from the window in Akashi’s wagon, illuminating the designs. My fingers caressed the paint, running across the slight ridges where mountains and lakes dotted the terrain here on Jini, the largest of the two continents on Fremont. I had hand-painted them on the side of the wagon, not sure even at the time if I was painting myself into a profession or into Akashi’s family. As usual, Akashi apparently knew my feelings, even the contradictory ones. He had simply smiled and helped me get tough parts, like Islandia’s Teeth, painted right.
I shook my head, pushing aside the memory. Right now, I had to find Kayleen.
Liam emerged, dressed simply in a pale-green hemp tunic and brown pants. Like me, he stood a head taller than most of the original humans on Fremont. A shock of blond hair hung over dark eyes, and a long braid twisted down his back nearly to his waist. He broke into a warm grin as soon as he spotted me standing in the shadow of my doorway. My grin answered his, and I immediately felt almost as much like we were one connected being as I had in the dance.
“We did great!” He reached for my arm, his voice tinged with pride and satisfaction. “Dad said he was watching from the hill. He thought we’d dance all night.”
“Well, and I thought you’d never stop,” I teased. “I thought we’d just go until one of us fell.”
He laughed, not like in the dance, but soft and low. “We’d have worn out the drummers.”
“I don’t think that even we could have danced much longer.” I stepped briefly into his arms, then pushed away, unwilling to be lost inside of his embrace. “Let’s find Kayleen. I’m worried about her. She seemed so…” I searched for a good word. “…so listless yesterday. She didn’t get excited about the maps we found in the cave on the way down and she barely ever even looked at me.”
He put a hand on my shoulder and looked past me, as if lost in thought. “She is trapped here. We are free.”
For just a moment I was glad that she hadn’t seen the dance we just finished. Then a flash of guilt at the thought ran through me, making me shiver. “Let’s go.” I squeezed his hand. The three of us had to look after each other, but it was so hard when Liam and I were out of town all but two weeks a year.
We jogged side by side, heading into town from our encampment in Little Lace Park. The Lace River ran down a short cliff to our right, full with rushing winter-melt water, singing into the gathering darkness. Here, we were protected by both physical walls and the data barriers that Kayleen and Paloma worked so hard to maintain. We could walk freely, without sorting every sound for the dangers that roamed or grew in the wilds. The end of the spring gathering meant the beginning of our summer travel season, our season of dangers.
Twintrees and lace maples and redberry bushes lined the path, reaching new spring branches across, trying, as always, to reclaim any part of Fremont we humans struggled to tame. Night birds sang their early evening songs, twittering and calling to each other.
Kayleen still lived with Paloma in one of the four-houses a block away from Commons Park. When I knocked on their door, Paloma opened it, smelling of spring mint and redberry. “Chelo and Liam! Come in. How are you?”
“We’re fine,” Liam said.
Standing in her doorway, I remembered a hundred times I’d stood here before, starting when I could barely reach the knob. This close, streaks of gray showed in her blond hair and wrinkles blossomed like flowers around her blue eyes. “Is Kayleen here?”
She shook her head. “Almost never.”
“Are you all right?” I asked.
She shook her head again, short and sharp, then smiled and said, “Sure. Will you come in for tea?”
I wanted to stay and talk to her. But finding Kayleen was more important. “Do you have any idea where she is?”
“She’s probably down by the hebra barns – she has a young one she’s taken a fancy to, and spends much of her time there.” Paloma twisted her hands together. “She goes out after work every night, and only comes home to sleep. I don’t even know what or when she eats any more.”
I winced. “I’m sorry.”
Paloma sighed and took my hand. “The nets work well right now. We’ve asked less and less of her. Even Nava leaves her alone some days. Kayleen’s been helping Gianna with the satellite data, and she identified the tracks of the last three good sized meteors almost perfectly. Gianna is almost the only one she talks to any more.” Her voice dropped lower, infused with sadness. “I’m sure she misses you.”
Even though there was nothing accusing in her tone, a tug of guilt gnawed at me. I looked up at Liam. “Maybe we should stay in town next winter.”
Liam turned to Paloma, his voice apologetic. “We can’t stay now. The band needs us the most in summer.”
“She would like to see you more.” She paused. “Me too. You can stay here if you like. I…I’d like your opinion about Kayleen.”
It touched me that she asked. But who else could possibly help? “We’re leaving tomorrow. We have to go, surely you understand.” I glanced down at my chrono. “We should get to the barn.”
Paloma smiled. “I know. Look, I’ll talk to Nava and see if Kayleen can come visit you for awhile this summer. Is that okay with you?”
“Of course.” I returned her smile and touched her hand. Small comfort, but all I could offer. “What about this baby hebra she’s adopted?”
Paloma smiled again, as if she, too, were enamored of the little beast. “She has. A young one with the prettiest green highlights in her brown striping when the sun shines on it. Kayleen’s training her. She already follows Kayleen around the pasture, and she’ll be ready to ride by midsummer. She named her Windy.”
I smiled, picturing Kayleen with the young hebra. “I hope I meet Windy.”
Liam held Paloma for a moment, kissing the top of her head, and then I embraced her, breathing her in. Her head came to my shoulder, and for the first time ever it struck me that I could protect and help her more than she could protect and help me. “I hope everything works out all right,” I murmured.
Part way down the street, I turned to look back. Paloma stood in the door, watching. She gave us a little wave.
I held my precious sun-fed flashlight, but left it off to protect my night vision as we jogged down to the barns. Even though warm night air tickled my skin, the winter had been harsh and long, and only about half of the fields had been planted so far. We passed a few people heading home from late-night chores, exchanging polite half-waves. Already, town life seemed strange.
As we neared the barns, Stripes called out a greeting to me, and two or three other hebras whickered. Their tall graceful forms made black silhouettes outlined by the soft light from the barns. Their heads swiveled toward me. I went to Stripes and buried my face in her neck fur. She’d been in the common herd once, but Akashi had bought her for me the first spring after I joined the band. As he’d offered her lead to me, his eyes had twinkled with joy. “You need someone you know you can count on.”
I breathed in Stripes’s dusty barn smell. “We’ll leave tomorrow,” I whispered into the long ear she swiveled down toward me.
As if in response, she dropped her big head over my shoulder, nearly an embrace. Her hot breath trickled along the back of my neck.
I pushed away gently and looked around. I didn’t see Kayleen, or any other human movement. “I don’t think she’s here,” I whispered.
Liam called out, “Kayleen!”
Low evening lights made circles on the rush floor in the long, tall barn. The hebras each came up to be greeted, turning their long ears toward us and asking silent questions with their wide, intelligent eyes. Two or three of the females had spindly-legged spring babies beside them, but I couldn’t tell if one might be Windy. They were all beautiful.
Kayleen was not with any of them.
At the end of the aisle, I called again, “Kayleen, are you here?”
Still no answer.
We stepped out the back door into the big practice ring, and I called a third time. “Kayleen?”
Liam stepped out into the corral, and leaned against the metal bars of the big practice ring, looking back at me. “I don’t see any sign of her.”
The sun had already set into the sea. A single light bolted high on the outside of the wooden barn illuminated his face and shone on his blond hair.
I walked over near him, and clambered up on the bars, sitting on the top one. It made me taller than him by almost a meter. “Do you remember last fall, when I told you Kayleen seemed so lost – somewhere – that I could barely get her attention?”
He turned his face up to me, and in the spare light his eyes shone with worry. He reached a hand up and set it over mine where it clung to the bar. “Yes, I remember.”
“I’m scared for her. Maybe, like Joseph, she’s become too different.”
“Have you talked to Gianna?” he asked.
“Not this trip, not enough to ask about Kayleen. Besides, Gianna is so much older. It’s not the same as having friends. Our bandmates support us, and I think Kayleen’s very alone.” A brief shock of bitterness crossed my heart. “And you know who’s here. Garmin and most of the other people our age haven’t changed in how they treat us, so there’s no reason to think they’re any kinder to Kayleen.”
“I know.” Liam hopped up next to me on the bars. “But its not like the East Band loves us. Surely some of how she’s treated is up to her? If she’s distant with us, imagine how she must be with everyone else.”
I moved closer to him, brushing thighs. “I’d still like to help her if I can. I think… maybe she’s living too much in the nets and not enough in the real world.”
His profile in the half light swelled my chest. Simply looking at him made me feel I could float from the bars and land on the barn roof. “Being with us in the wild, she wouldn’t be in the nets so much. You have to pay attention out there.”
Liam sighed. “Well, I wonder if she’s focused enough for that? I wouldn’t trust her to travel by herself. Someone would have to come back for her, and we’ll be way out by Rage Mountain this summer. It would be too hard.”
I nodded. “You’re right. I feel responsible, though. It’s not so much my fault that she’s left behind, it’s an artifact of her skills, and besides, she wanted to stay with Paloma. But I feel like I should be able to help her. She and I used to be so close…”
“She has to let you help her.” He reached an arm over my shoulder and pulled me close, unbalancing us a little so I gripped the rail harder. “We’re all legal adults now, if barely, and you made sure we’d be treated that way. Now Kayleen has to act like one. You can’t solve every problem.”
I never could. It had always taken us all. I missed Jenna’s watchful eye and weird way of helping us learn, and I missed Bryan’s silent strength. I even missed willful and lost Alicia with all of her pain and anger. Most of all, I missed Joseph. He would be able to help Kayleen in ways I couldn’t – he, too, rode the wind. And more. He flew space ships. Where was he, and how different from me had he yet become?
Liam must have felt my need, because he held me close and began to hum softly, a sweet song of summer fields. I looked up at a sky full of stars gathered around Faith and Summer. I searched for a third moon, which would have been a sign of good luck, but didn’t find one.
The light from the barn switched off.
“Why did the light go off?” Liam asked.
“Because I couldn’t stand to watch you two any more,” Kayleen said. “Because I’m crazy and I do crazy things. Because I live too much in the nets and not enough in the real world.” A pause. Her voice, ripped with pain, floating down from the top of the barn. “I can’t be trusted to travel by myself.” The pain in her voice dropped down onto our heads like stones.
I sat up. How much had she heard? “Kayleen?”
She didn’t answer.
I turned on my flashlight and shone it up, looking for her. We called her name, and Liam took my light and scrambled up onto the roof. After a while, he called down, “She’s not here.”
He climbed back down and stood a little distance from me, his arms by his sides, the closeness between us turned awkward by her sudden absent presence. She was fast – if she wanted to ditch us here in the dark, in her place, she could. I looked up at where the light had been, and spoke, hoping she was still close enough to hear me. “Kayleen. We’re just worried about you. I miss you.”
The hebras stamped quietly in their stalls and a cool wind blew softly through the rafters.
Liam added, “Come out. So we can talk.”
We waited, still standing a little apart, listening carefully for any sound that might be our friend, our sister. Twenty minutes passed, in which we said nothing, afraid she would hear, or that she wouldn’t hear.
We walked back, side by side, not touching, not saying anything.
stream created August 29th, 231.