Extant: Part Two
Author's note: Third NaNoWriMo entry. Second part of Extant.
Eskele Bartok (Bartok School)Before I could even vaguely sense the misty light encompassing the world and the Bartok people, I was vigorously shaken awake by one of High Bartok Deshen's younger offspring. My eyes opened and the child's red and orange tentacles were prodding me in my stomach. Once the child realized I was awake, it went around and began prodding my back, up and up until I crouched around myself and yawned and stretched.
“Gishesh! Burel tika bur qep seec vae!”
With a laugh the child ran off, but I didn't get whatever joke may have been pinned on me. I rose and followed in the general direction the child had disappeared, and stepped into a very medical looking room and saw everyone hooking up to syringes embedded in the walls.
“I'm sorry,” I said quickly, and backed out. I felt like an intrusion to their private moment, but Deshen reacted before I had left the room entirely.
“No Human apologize. Human food scanner-drawer.”
The youngest child, Porwe, zoomed past me to the designated storage place and pressed a tentacle into the lock. The drawer slid open and I saw it was full of the same turnip-radish-root-vegetables.
I guessed that I was going to have to start liking them.
By the time it was light out, Porwe, Basen, Uheng, Kumali and I were halfway to school. Kumali was only traveling with us to give the impression (or so I understood) because none of her siblings knew anything about the Lichen-Botten. Once she disappeared into the “eskele martoke(school for mature learners)”, the two middle children Basen and Uheng walked into the “eskele ukere(school for intermediate learners)”, and Porwe and I walked the rest of the way to the “eskele parate(school for beginning learners).”
“Karae bora notke serun tule man.”
Porwe giggled in amusement. “Human hair funny.” But she quieted thoughtfully. “Like it, though. I no have.”
We were ushered by a school official into one of the first classrooms off the hall, and I was met by pairs upon pairs of curious eyes.
“Eskeleas, shean purete fur noq ee werj uak vee: Deirdre,” the teacher explained, introducing me.
“Akale Deirdre,” a chorus of voices followed.
“Deirdre, sit back classroom.”
I followed the direction in which her clawed foot was pointing, and I myself was shadowed by about twelve pairs of eyes, still wondering of my presence here. After I sat in the chair, a soft gelatin mold, the teacher directed the students' attention to the front. A virtual screen was positioned at the head of the classroom, and with a swipe of her antennae the same spiked letters which I had viewed upon the government documents were arranged in rows, big paired with small.
“Akalake sure qerb sea bute lit. Barba cerae unti polang xez.”
The children around tapped the screens of their desks with their antennae and began scrawling imitations of the characters on the main board. I sat away off in the back corner, uncomprehending of any of it.
“Deirdre, open desk – tap corner finger. Copy words on screen here.”
I followed her orders and reached a blank screen, only marked with black as my finger touched the virtual page. I looked at the screen up front, marked with foreign symbols, and attempted the first pair. I meticulously copied the scraggly curves that were halved by a definitive diagonal line, and then made it again smaller. When my finger slid too far or faltered any way in writing, I erased what I wrote in determined frustration and started again. Several tries it took for me to finally complete the first letter, where the other children in the class alongside me had already reached the second or third row. I didn't let their being ahead sway me in my determination to complete my first-ever school assignment, and I traced my finger carefully to accurately delineate the more professional models on the board.
I was stopped in that exercise and moved to a game of play with the younger Bartok children, but when the teacher even hinted at a free time, I rushed back to the desk and attempted the symbols again. My discovery of this element of the Bartok language – even if I had no ties to its meaning or creation – was an opening closer to the Bartok world. Being more like them would require them to treat me as an equal – all that I had ever yearned for and never received.
Porwe jumped around eagerly at my side when the children were allowed outdoors, at which point the Bartok child I had been escorted with dashed off to familiar and welcome friends and raced back to me, giving a rapid introduction that I did not understand and running after the other children in chase. She tugged at my arm often, pouting for me to play with them. I did, grudgingly; I was a bit disappointed at all the free time and down time that I was allowed when there was so much that needed to be practiced, so much that needed to be learned and taught.
While all of the other students romped around through the trees just outside the curtain of leaves, I sat at my desk and diligently drew every symbol on the board over and over again in my own virtual representation. The teacher came over and remarked with a light antennae tap to my head, “Human known work hard, yes?” and she laughed without awaiting my answer, gliding out to round up the remainder of her class.
That day we returned home the same way we had arrived, receiving Uheng and Basen into our wings first and catching up with Kumali as the last entrant to the group. We arrived into the house and immediately High Bartok Deshen approached me with curiously wandering antennae searching my skin.
“How like Human Bartok school?”
“I like it very much,” I replied. Deshen's eyes glinted.
“Glad like Human Bartok school. Human food?”
“Need food Human?” he asked again, gesturing and walking towards the sliding drawer. As hungry as I was from not eating at school while the other kids ate, I was too absorbed by the symbols I had drawn again and again, and wouldn't be able to understand it all with pairs of eyes clinging to my every move, my every breath and blink.
“No, I'm okay. I'll have food tomorrow.”
I nodded. “Yes, please. And thank you.”
“Welcome Human, why?”
“Thank you for deciding that I go to school,” I said, and Deshen's antennae fizzled approvingly. The rest of the family left the room and alone with the orange of the heat lamp and the words emblazoned on the inside of my eyelids, I could sleep.
I started awake in the middle of the night. A noise had caught my attention, light tapping and scuttling across the sheen of floor. Squinting through the darkness I just saw the last slivers of light as the door slid silently shut behind someone who had left.
Immediately I threw off the smotheringly hot layer of the flesh blanket and scurried after her. I couldn't have said what initially propelled me to go. Was it irritation at being left out? Was it a need to find out everything that Kumali wasn't telling me? Was it my desire to expel all crime and evil from the Bartok community? Or was it just that I was the alien, the foreigner, the human, and being the one-in-a-billion oddity I was bound to have curiosity that could lead me into possibly life-threatening situations?
My instincts, whatever they were, led me into the woods after Kumali. Being there twice – and in the dark once – I figured that I would have a relatively easy time finding my way to the Lichen-Botten meeting place. My assumption – unsurprisingly – was wrong. I walked in circles around the dome that was High Bartok Deshen's house several times before I remembered which direction to go.
After bushwhacking for a little while I heard their rumbly song and thumping dance accompaniment from within the fronds. Following the noise and leading myself to it by sound alone, I ended up in the fringes of the clearing, and hidden by brush I could look on in secret admiration and wonder.
What I took notice of first were the two shadowy figures that stood away from the rest of the group. Edging closer to them through the bushes I recognized Qewri and Kumali, and by the rapid motion of their antennae they seemed angry and in a quarrel.
“Eseki umlat kesn roteq vi? Akea?”
“Supe nauren elemet aleq keman!”
“Rute rute... Simole job? Xefuset!”
I was so startled by the voice and touch of antennae on my bare skin that I jumped, falling from my precarious perch – balanced on up-stretched feet – and tumbling to the ground, entangling myself in vines.
Both the antennae and the voice approached me again. “Human Lichen-Botten?”
I sat up, trying to snap the vines curled around my legs as quietly as possible. The Bartok who had spoken, the one who was curiously tracking my not-so-stealthy moves crept into the light cast by the communal flames of orange.
“I'm not part of the Lichen-Botten,” I whispered, but my words wilted as soon as they were spoken; upon seeing the Bartok yet again I recognized Qewri... in two places at once? Or had my human eyes not yet grown able to discern the faces and eyes of the Bartok people? “Who are you?” I asked, slowly and warily.
“I Zorren,” the Bartok said, then added, “brother Qewri.”
As soon as I managed to raise myself to a standing position, Zorren reached out and tapped the top of my head with an antenna: a gesture of welcome and introduction. Deferring to the traditions of the culture, I clumsily curled my arm and touched my fingers to his head, which I found to be layered with a tuft of feather-soft baby hair. Zorren laughed quietly, a full and rich vibration starting at the roots of his feelers.
“Human watch Bartok argue?”
A blush of embarrassment rose to my cheeks. “I was looking for Kumali,” I said.
Zorren's antennae trembled in amusement. “Human no excuse,” he said. “I come watch fight too. Human come fire? Kumali mad but no can talk.”
“Oh no, I probably shouldn't-”
“Human want Kumali chase you or just see? Chase make more mad...”
I smiled involuntarily, having run right into his trap. “Thank you for inviting me,” I murmured as he led me into the camp.
Zorren's antennae froze, giving away his surprise at my response. “Bartok always want Human.” I couldn't help laughing as soon as he said it. “Always want talk Human,” he corrected quickly, but not quick enough to erase his obvious slip in translation.
I sat cross-legged next to Zorren around the fire, ignoring the sudden scuttle as the already arranged Lichen-Botten rose and moved away from where I had positioned myself.
A few awkwardly silent moments later, Kumali and Qewri reemerged from the darkness, and angry as Kumali was upon seeing me intrude on her secret organization, her one private sanctuary to hold on to yet again, she made no remarks on my behalf – not in English anyhow.
In the time before first light, a few of the Bartok began departing, Kumali included. I knew she would waste no time waiting, and so rose in immediate reaction to follow.
I stopped and Zorren came up behind me, brushing an antenna briefly across the soft skin of my wrist before disappearing as quickly as a shadow in the light.
The next day at school Porwe dragged me outside during our free time and insisted, this time in English, that I play with her and her friends.
“It game tag, kind of. Teams sides, hide slime flags. Other team our side, tag in jail. Our team other side, try get flag.”
“I don't know... It doesn't really make sense to me.”
“We teach you!” she said excitedly. “Shamme hule tik.”
“Play with us!”
I was elected to be on Porwe's team. Out in the forest, the divide between the team territory was a thin stream no wider than my hand. Porwe ran with me deep into our side and gestured to where I should hang the flag. Then a little boy came running over to guard it and Porwe grabbed my arm and raced with me back to the team division line.
“Now,” she whispered, “try get flag.”
“What?” I was shocked. I thought that getting the other team's flag was the most dangerous task within the game.
“I come too. If tag, both in jail. Play antennae-tap to jail-break.”
We snuck out of sight of the border guards and made our way through the forest until we caught sight of a strip of blue-gray fluttering in the breeze. Porwe sprinted to it, but out of the shadows one of the other children jumped and tagged her, then ran over and tagged me. We were escorted to an area of trees marked as the “prison” in the game, and as we sat Porwe tried to explain to me the rules of a game called “antennae-tap”.
Once we returned to the classroom, we were given a new collection of symbols to copy on our desk screens, and again I spent much of the day perfecting my set, and once I was satisfied I spent some time reviewing the characters from last class.
At the end of the day when everyone had left, I still sat, writing the symbols again and again. The teacher, Eskele Bartok Humeya, came over and viewed my work.
“Deirdre want symbols tomorrow?”
I assumed she was asking if I wanted them to copy on my own as opposed to stating the obvious. “Yes, please, Eskele Bartok Humeya.”
She walked to a drawer like the one where the vegetables I ate were stored at home and came back with a flat pad that had a sleek glass face.
“Like desk school, but can carry.”
“When should I bring it back?”
I clutched it to my chest in hopeful surprise. “Really? Thank you so much Eskele Bartok Humeya.”
“Welcome Deirdre. Study hard.”
“I will,” I promised, and holding the pad tighter than a life raft, I ran through the trees toward home.