Extant: Part Two
Author's note: Third NaNoWriMo entry. Second part of Extant.
The New Bartok TimesThe morning air was bitter and my breath condensed in a cloud of frost as I walked across the open stretch of field. Even after several years no one had wanted to go near the damage in the establishment center. The missile which had impaled the school had wilted to a forty-degree angle, and dew from the previous week's rain dripped from its smoked end. Shards of metal marked the ground at random intervals, a careless scatter of unintentional grave-markers. I myself hadn't walked the ground in I don't know how long, but my heart led the way even if my mind didn't know where to go.
A few weeks after the attack Kumali and I had returned and created a proper memorial for her fallen sister. Through the mist of dawn I could just make out the flower painstakingly crafted out of metal and inscribed with the words of the Lichen-Botten life ritual, which I discovered was a tradition of the original woods-dwellers.
As I approached the small memorial site, I descended to the ground in a kneel, closing my eyes for a moment and inhaling the sweet aroma of the soil after the rain. It was a wonderful thing, to me anyhow – the rain. The other Bartok had feared it in the first year it had happened, not knowing its origin. Vowpia, though ridiculed she had been so long ago, had gone back to school and advanced in the sciences, and concluded that the rain was a consequence of the disruptive missile impacts upon their planet.
I opened my eyes again and let my gaze wander across the scatter of objects commemorating Porwe: the bit of slime blanket she had always used in her forest team chase game; the accessories that had been added to her neck coils when she was an infant; her first grade report.
I touched my hand to the metallic pinwheel flower and closed my eyes again, briefly. Rising to my feet, I tapped my fingers to my head sequentially and looked to the sky in salute before walking back along the path from which I had arrived.
It was not too long after that when I heard the children's laughter and I knew I was almost late. I started to run until I saw the small cluster gathered in the clearing, squirming excitedly as I came into view.
“Sorry I'm late, class,” I said, out of breath. “Is anyone missing?” I quickly counted around the circle, touching my eyes briefly to each student and tallying them up on my memorized attendance list.
“Wentli,” Frasic noticed the instant I thought it.
“Yes, Wentli. Does anyone know where she is?”
“She was feeling sick yesterday,” Qaza admitted.
“Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Well, I hope she feels better by tomorrow. In the meantime, we have a lot of things to learn today. We'll start with our poetry lyric projects. Who wants to start us off?”
I wasn't surprised but I was still delighted that every student strained their arm skyward for a chance to be picked. “All right, all right. Let's see.” I covered my eyes with my hand and spun around in a few circles, spurring giggles from some of the students. When I was good and dizzy, I threw my arm out and pointed. “Whoever I'm pointing to...”
“Crytan!” two of the girls cried encouragingly. Crytan's cheeks went blue in embarrassment at their support but he stood and came up to the rock, stepping up upon its flat surface and nervously scratching an antenna in preparation. I circled around behind the rest of the class. The girls started giggling but I gently shushed them and expectantly turned to our presenter.
He looked down and took a deep breath before he began. “Waters waking on the dusty isle; my mind cannot begin to see the words that Uka had to speak, it's complicated to believe.”
Quickly he jumped down from the rock and scurried back to his seat in the half-circle of students, hunching his shoulders and curling his antennae around his cheeks against their applause.
“Wow, Crytan. Great job! That is a very beautiful poem you've composed.”
Crytan's antennae swirled a bit in a diffident smile. “Thank you Eskele Deirdre.”
The other kids whooped and clapped a few moments more before their hands shot up again. “Pick me!” “I'm ready!” “I want to go next!”
I laughed. “Hold on, we'll all get a chance to go.” I clamped my hand over my eyes again and spun around, pointing my finger.
For a brief moment, looking at him, I saw him as the small and frightened Bartok infant he had been so many years ago during the war, grasping at his mother's leg in fear, but I was quickly transported back to the present. Though I had grown under the shelter of his parents a few years, he had been too young to remember when I returned to school as a mentee to the newly designated teachers. He was strong now, a rapidly growing child with no memory of the circumstances of his birth.
“Halex! Halex! Halex!”
He scrambled to his feet and jokingly swaggered to the rock, prompting laughter from his peers before he ascended the stone and adopted an entirely serious composure.
“That which I do not recall is what has shaped my infancy. Traces found, left all around are still but unexplained. Sheltering – protective measures – yet all I seek is open ground, for that is where they've hidden my truth.”
He remained on the rock for one silent moment before he jumped down, and the cheers rose back into audible range. As he returned to his seat, his friend beside him clapped his shoulder and they chuckled with rapidly unfurling antennae.
“Great work, Halex! A very honest poem, I see.”
He looked at me, meeting my eye as if he was much older than his years. “Mom said to only write what you know.”
I nodded slowly. “Indeed. I agree. All right, who wants to go next?”
As all of the remaining hands were thrown to the sky, I closed my eyes and started to spin again, smiling at the giggles the children leaked through their happily twirling antennae.
“Goodbye Eskele Deirdre!”
“See you tomorrow!”
I waved to all of the students as they rose to their feet and ran in pairs back through the woods toward their homes. “Goodbye everyone! See you tomorrow!”
After all of the children had departed, I crouched at the rock and took a few minutes and wrote my schedule for the next day on my portable pad. When I was done, I tucked the sleek computer plate under my arm and started off for my own home. The hike was peaceful and quiet, and the day had grown warmer as the hours had passed.
It took just a bit longer than usual to reach home that day, but it made it all the more worthwhile to be swept into Zorren's anxious arms and pulled through space into the depths of his wondering eyes.
“How are you?” he asked, his antennae reaching to brush the tips of my hair.
“I'm great,” I smiled. “We are seeing Kumali today, right?”
His antennae tipped forward in a nod. “Of course. As soon as I get this done.” He gestured to the array of makeshift technological screens across the wall. Since Botten had stepped down from his previous leadership position over the chaos following the war, Kumali had risen in his place and designated Zorren as the archivist, following his previous status with the Lichen-Botten. The rest of our long-ago neutral group had spread out into the many fields of work that needed to be filled: medic, teacher, scientist, architect. Kumali had recently been very busy but insisted on seeing us.
I stepped outside and wandered into the forest, harvesting a few espret and several stems of the kuyheq plant. Coming back into the house, I entered the eatery and pureed the vegetables, making myself a spiral colored mush that I spooned into my mouth thoughtfully while I listened to Zorren send satellite messages and file the official records.
Just as the sky was starting to get dark, the lights coming from Zorren's office went dark and he came into the eatery. “Are we ready to go?”
I walked over to him. “We're ready.” I threaded my arm through his, and he skimmed the crown of my head affectionately with an antenna and we walked out, heading for Kumali's abode.
We reached her modest house a short time after night had fallen. The lights inside were on dimly, though, and the small gesture allowed us welcome passage into her home.
“Deirdre! You made it!” Kumali tapped my cheeks with her antennae in mock scolding. “How have you been? What have you been up to?”
“I've been well – we've been well. The kids are wonderfully bright and talented. Halex is really coming out of his shell, I've noticed.”
“That's wonderful. I always worried how the first months had shaped him.” She ducked her head, fiddling with her antennae. “I'm sorry; I brought you here but now I have nothing to talk to you about.”
“Oh, no, I don't mind,” I said. “It's good to see you in any case.”
She nodded. “I went to the memorials today.”
I tipped my head in agreement. “Me, too. Well, I went to Porwe's.”
She sighed. “I miss them, but only Uka holds them now.” She glanced up. “There's a ritual gathering in a few nights. Will you be going?”
I looked sideways at Zorren for confirmation before nodding. “Of course. If there's not too much work, that is.”
Kumali's antennae curled in a chuckle. “Don't worry – I won't load Zorren with too much work the next few days.”
“Good,” Zorren mused. I playfully hit him on the arm, but I understood that at times he had an exhausting amount of filing and organizing.
Kumali joined in the laughter for a few beats. “It is good to see you. Since we all split apart, you know.”
I ducked my head solemnly. “Yes. I haven't really caught up with any of the others, but it'll be good to see them at the gathering.”
Her antennae twirled. “Indeed. It's a great idea.”
“So we'll see you... How many days past first-light?”
“Two. And it's at night.”
“All right. We'll see you there.”
As we exited with farewell waves, Zorren steered us in a direction opposite to the way home.
“Where are we going?” I asked. He turned to me, shadows dancing across his face. His antennae dipped low to reach me.
“Star-gazing,” he whispered. I stretched out and brushed his cheek with the back of my hand.
“What are we looking for up in the stars?”
“Our family,” he murmured. “They're always watching over us from up there.”