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The range of climates on my planet -- Artekka -- is staggering, but in the sector where I was born dust rises like steam from the fields, and the dogs groan all night from the painful dryness in their throats and from the bites of legions of sand fleas. We take for granted the sounds of their groans filling the night, just as we take for granted the sound of the wind blowing across the plains and the sound of sand raining on our homes. The founders named my sector Bakshami: "dustfire."
As a young girl I'd learned to accept the land of dustfire and to feel safe there, but I never thought about whether I loved my homeland. I lived there the way all my ancestors before me had, and the way I assumed all my descendants would. That was just the way it was.
During the driest season the dryness ate at my eyes until they itched so much I couldn't stop myself from scratching, even if I'd already scratched my lids bloody. My lips cracked, and the air I breathed bore a mix of sand and dust so light and buoyant it seemed almost capable of levitation on a windless day. The only time I'd ever seen a person -- a stranger -- cry, the sight amazed me because I couldn't believe that water from his eyes could be wasted in such a way, over nothing.
Bakshami was not without charms. By day the long, sleek dust clouds with edges as sharp as razors circled the sky like the rings of certain planets, and at night the moons illuminated the sand dunes and lit up the dusty clouds in the air and shone on the fervent faces of the storytellers as they regaled us with tales of worlds beyond even the faintest stars in the sky. The leaves of the dry but regaltansan trees would rustle prettily as we listened to stories, and my youngest sister, head in my lap, would smile in her sleep.
One languid evening while my family relaxed at the storytelling, I looked up and saw a wave of sand in the distance rise and swallow a man. The man, a stranger, had been walking with difficulty near a dune; the wave devoured him and then settled down immediately. The man disappeared, and all was peaceful, the moons gleaming off the still sands just like always.
I jumped up: Everybody looked at me, surprised. Nobody ever interrupted the storytellers. "I saw a stranger get buried by a sand wave!" I pointed, and all of us ran across the sand toward the point where I thought I'd seen the man.
Much later, under the light of lanterns and two full moons, we finally found him buried in the desert. Though he wore clothes similar to ours, he was not a native -- his skin was pale and his face long -- and even the most experienced among us could not guess his origin. He carried trinkets in his pockets, though trinkets meant nothing to my people. You couldn't eat or drink them, and they were heavy to carry. In my hot, wretched village we rarely saw any strangers at all, let alone dead ones.
I couldn't understand this man who had broken the rules of rationality and visited my sector, where the heat and sand could kill a stranger. I lived in a world where we each followed the rules of tradition. The traditions possessed their own type of rationality, a rationality proven by time. I understood that perhaps the dead man's traditions might include traveling, but if so, then why not travel to a sector like, for instance, Artroro?
As a child I'd heard often of Artroro, lush and green and filled with sweet waters and ripe fruits. I'd heard tales at the nightly storytelling, listening to the way those R s rolled off the tongues of the storytellers and the way the storytellers' eyes grew greedy as they spoke of that paradisiacal sector's wet splendors. We all felt excitement imagining a place where no one among us had ever set foot. If I were ever to leave Bakshami, I supposed Artroro was where I would go.
Because it was the second largest sector, and because Artroro's army was renowned for its fierceness and courage, Artroro dominated many of the other sectors, and many sectors paid it fees for their "freedom." Bakshami, which didn't interest the Artrorans, paid no fees. Artroran was the planetary language, the language all children on Artekka learned after they'd mastered their native tongue. Many people spoke the language as well as they spoke their own tongues. In this one way, my otherwise fragmented planet was united.
The inhabitants of Bakshami had never needed an army -- who would want to take over a land of such dryness and desolation, a land filled with a peaceful populace whose greatest talent was reproducing and whose greatest joy was their evening storytelling? Our people owned no valuable resources, and Bakshami had never held any particular strategic value in the constant push and pull among the largest sectors. Although I say our greatest talent was reproducing, most of our children died young, and many of our elders possessed a talent that the rest of Artekka revered and envied. The residents of Bakshami lived to around two hundred -- short by the standards of Artekka -- but while not long-lived, our elders were wise, even those, maybe even especially those, who seemed crazy. In reality they possessed wisdom; however, in legend they possessed powers of seeing and knowing. Inhabitants of other lands traveled for years to seek advice from our wise men and women. Of course in other sectors they'd invented fancy contraptions to fly across the skies and between the stars, but we never used mechanical transportation in Bakshami.
The elders asked no payment for their services, but they did require outsiders to follow the policies and customs of Bakshami. The policies forbade weapons, and the customs allowed for no fancy contraptions. So the outsiders journeyed by foot through the dustfire to learn from one of the elders what the future might hold. Some of the wealthiest left behind enormous riches, riches that would mean something in their own lands but meant little to the elders, except perhaps as decoration for bare walls. Any Bakshami who wished could travel to the hotlands -- the hottest part of our sector -- and the elders would give them whatever riches they desired. But few wished to waste their time in this way.
Because life in Bakshami didn't change much, the seeing and knowing powers didn't ignite the ambitions of my people. On Bakshami so little was hidden or unpredictable that most of us saw and knew our futures from birth. We went about our simple lives. Our elders believed that our goodwill, and our neutrality in planetary wars, would protect us indefinitely.
That night after the village had fallen asleep, I sat with my dog in the sand in front of my house. My dog, Artroro, or Artie, was bigger than any dog I'd ever seen, and fiercer by far than anyone in my quiet sector. Artie's white fur grew fairly long, and for some reason it stood straight up on the top of his head, making him appear even bigger than he was. Artie was my best friend, and to sit with him in the sand usually made me at peace. But this night I felt fear.
The sun started to rise, but still I did not go in. Instead I fell asleep with Artie, dreaming of strangers raining down from the sky like rocks.
The next day, we heard rumors that strangers had been spotted in a number of other villages. We heard they wanted to barter, trading trinkets, food, or jewels for items we owned. They apparently eyed my people as if we, too, were items for barter. And no one knew why. My people held a number of meetings about the sightings, but no one knew what to do. When approached, the strangers used sleight of tongue to avoid direct answers.
We didn't speak of the distrust that set in among us; outwardly, we went on as we always had. We were a culture of habit, one of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet. We had been happy and unchanging for the whole of our history and had no intention of letting one dead man and a few strangers alter that.
At the time the sands buried the long-faced stranger, I was almost a young lady, no longer quite a child. I'd always been much like other children. On the other hand, my adored oldest brother had always been different. The seeing and knowing powers of the elders did indeed ignite his ambitions, inflaming his. He wondered obsessively what it would be like to travel to the hottest regions of Bakshami where the wisest elders lived and speak to someone who could tell him what would become of him if he left the sector. I was born adoring him, and it was as if I was born with a pain in my heart, a pain I assumed came from his ambitions to leave our family and travel. Those few who did leave rarely returned and were rumored to have become corrupted, which meant that when they got old they would certainly not develop the seeing and knowing. But instead they got to see forests and to know the taste of fresh fruits every day, instead of once a year when we celebrated the sun's farthest point from Bakshami.
My brother had the blackest and most lustrous eyes on Artekka. Thus his name, Maruk, "black-bright." My eyes were almost as black and as bright as his, and from babyhood I clung to my brother. Thus my name, Mariska: "little black-bright."
I was born into the Ba Mirada clan. There were about seven hundred of us. It was a new clan, founded by my grandfather Samarr when he left his old clan to form his own, as was traditional for the most legendary elders, the wisest ones. There were thousands of clans, millions of people in Bakshami, and not one of us had ever murdered another.
Discussion at night was often of things past, while discussion at morning meal was usually of the present. Not long after the sand ate the stranger, breakfast talk revolved around this: The sector of Forma, which adjoined Bakshami, had invaded and annexed a neutral sector on another Forma border. Such invasions weren't particularly unusual in other parts of the world, but Forma had always been an ineffectual and unimportant sector not prone to expansion.
Every morning, my parents would discuss Forma with each other and then, even having asked him the same question yesterday and the day before, they would ask my grandfather what the chances were that Forma might invade Bakshami. And always Grandpa Samarr would say the same thing: The chances were what they were, and nothing he could say would change that. And so I realized that knowing and seeing had limited power.
Grandpa was a thin man who steadily grew thinner, and every morning he grew more impatient with my parents' questions. We expected him to die at any time. When I was born he lived deep in the hottest areas of Bakshami, and he'd already reached the unprecedented age of three hundred.
I was twenty-four and a half; Bakshami come of age and set out on their own at twenty-six. I'd lived a typical Bakshami childhood. My brothers, sisters, and I played with dolls as many Bakshami did even into adulthood, and most nights we sat outside to join the audience at the nightly storytelling. We were happy children, plagued by the heat but comforted by our family.
Like all children with grandparents in the hotlands, we'd looked forward to our grandfather's return. I had still been entrenched in childhood when he came to our home, a wizened old man with the darkest skin I'd ever seen, a sort of bluish brown. He'd left the hotlands because he believed he would die soon, and, following tradition, elders always left the hotlands to come home to die.
I had not yet started the great ritual, or education. My parents decided that since their children were fortunate enough to live with a legend, he would lead our education ritual. Usually, parents educated their children, and grandparents only helped. Unfortunately, my parents couldn't admit that by the time Grandfather came to live with us, much of his brain was battered by age. He insisted that he could soak up the meaning of a book by turning each page and looking at it quickly, or, when he was in a hurry, simply riffling through the book, first backward, then forward, and even, for full effect, upside down. Out of respect for him, we accepted his way of reading.
In a supposedly lucid moment, Grandfather told me that over my lifetime I would have several important guides, as well as some lesser guides, and that the most important guide would live in a place opposite from the village in which we lived. He did not say whether this guide would come to me, or whether I would go to my guide. Elders were famous for such cryptic remarks, remarks in which lay whatever truths one might find. After he spoke, my grandfather happily returned to skimming through a favorite tome upside down.
Grandpa's words about my future had startled me because he'd spoken quietly, though he usually talked as if he were making an announcement to the whole town. At that moment, standing in my grandfather's shadow in the sun, watching him turn his book upside down, I felt a sort of splendid fear, imagining that I might receive guidance from someone who was now far away, even if I did not then know what far away meant, or imagining that I might be torn from the sand and dust of my childhood in search of guidance. I did not become like my brother, however. For Maruk, the desire to visit Artroro hung constantly before his eyes, so even when he looked directly into our mother's eyes he really saw the fruits of Artroro, and even when our father lectured him about how he should study hard with our grandfather, in his mind he was drinking water as clear as the water of Bakshami but a hundred times more plentiful. He imagined bathing every night instead of worrying about picking the fleas out of his hair, and he thought about how he would reproduce with one of the robust women of Artroro, creating a new race that would unite our people and all those in between our two states. They would create the largest and most varied sector on Artekka. I dreamed similar dreams from the comfort of my bed, as I was drifting off to sleep. But in truth I was most pleased with my betrothed, Sennim -- the meat-seasoner's son -- and I had no intention of ever leaving Bakshami.
My grandfather seemed enormously happy to be with us. Sometimes he groused and muttered, but just as often he sat in his chair smiling or even laughing with delight over nothing in particular. I might walk into the room and find him alone, guffawing at some private joke. He was unsentimental about his time in the hotlands. He said that "the damn traditions" were the cause of the only decadent village in the sector. The village where the elders lived was infamous. As a favor to outsiders visiting the elders, this village was the only one in Bakshami that served intoxicants and contained a library. In the village, Grandpa had started to like getting intoxicated and reading, especially books that didn't weigh too much.
Grandfather didn't tell us much about the outsiders who visited him for advice except to say that they were fools to come, and he was a fool to listen to them. But my father told me that the outsiders who braved the hotlands -- where, it was rumored, the sun reflecting off the nearby Glass Mountains could set fire to wood a hundred measures away -- were honorable, and that Grandpa was only joking. My father believed in tradition. He was the most decent man in our land of decent men.
Sometimes at night after storytelling, my mother would let my sisters, my brothers, and me sit on the verandah with her, our father, and Grandpa. To keep out the dust and the fleas, the verandah was surrounded by a veil of fabric spun partly with strings of special glass. Seeing the moons through the veil was like seeing them through a sparkling layer of clouds. Sometimes as we sat quietly I felt a sadness set in, and I knew that though by tradition death of old age was no cause for sadness, my parents already mourned Grandpa, and so did I.
Meanwhile, talk about Forma among the people of my village began to reach a frenzy when that sector accused mine of encroaching on Forman land. We kept no advanced weapons and had made no meaningful protective alliances, so rather than talking about protecting ourselves, we all discussed what my parents called "bringing the Formans to their senses." Each day I would follow my brother Maruk as he followed the grown-ups and listened to their discussions. "We must make them realize that their accusations are wrong," the grown-ups would say. Or, "They won't attack us because there would be no logic in that, no logic at all." They were sensible discussions that, in retrospect, had no root in reality.
One day my grandfather secluded himself in his private hut in back, where he used to contemplate and sometimes sleep, and we didn't see him for days, until we thought that perhaps his tomb would need to be readied quickly, but finally he emerged and announced he planned to die any moment now but would take the time to give us some advice.
"This advice has nothing to do with the seeing power. It's just an old man's logic. You must hide from the Formans. Go to the hotlands. Now let an old man have some fun before he dies. Where's that book I was reading?" He grabbed a book and riffled urgently through it.
That was the longest day of the year. The air blew cooler, and the clouds ringing the horizon turned pink, blue, and pale green. My grandfather stayed inside, "reading," and when my siblings and I got sent in for bed, he looked up and shouted at me, "The great ritual is a crock!" Then he turned to my middle sister -- Leisha -- and shouted, "The ritual is a crock!" He nearly screamed at my brothers: "Long live the ritual!" He turned back to his book and didn't seem to notice us, even when we rubbed our cheeks against his and wished him good night.
"He's having a bad day," whispered my parents. "Now go to bed."
As my siblings and I combed our dogs and picked the fleas out of each other's hair before bed, we spoke of the day's events. Katinka was just out of infancy; Jobei was Leisha's twin -- in time of birth only, not in looks or disposition.
"There's going to be a war," said Maruk. Leisha, Katinka, Jobei, and I leaned forward, scared but fascinated, as if we were at storytelling. Maruk had wanted for many years to become both a soldier and a storyteller one day. His eyes bugged out and he repeated, "There's going to be a war." When he could see how scared we were, he leaned back with satisfaction, and then a shrewd look came over his face. I marveled at the beautiful blackness of his hair and eyes. Since everyone in Bakshami possessed black eyes and hair, one learned to distinguish between the nuances of the various shades of black. His eyes were huge, and the blackness held no other colors, no blues or browns or reds. He made his eyes into slits as he sat thinking.
"A war?" we all said.
"I have predicted it," he said grandly.
"But I won't fight in a war," I said. "I'm getting married, and then I'm becoming a dog trainer."
"They need dog trainers in a war."
I rarely challenged him, but now I did. "How do you know what they need in a war?"
"Because I plan to be a general, and I will decide what is needed. You can train my dogs for me."
When my mother came in to braid our hair for the night, Leisha asked whether there would be a war. "There will be no war," Mother said, the same way she sometimes said to the younger ones, "There will be no more horseplay." She continued, "and if there was, I would put a stop to it." She was supremely confident. The rest of us glared at Leisha for mentioning this supposed war to our mother.
We could all braid our own hair, except little Katinka, but we liked to spend this time with our mother, sitting on our bedmats as she sang soothingly and smoothed our wild locks. Every night, for as long as I could remember, she sang us a new song, a song different from and yet the same as yesterday's song the way a day is different from and yet the same as the day before and the day after.
That night I sat up at the window, listening to the sand rain on the roof and watching the rings on the horizon slowly shift, fading and deepening in color, stretching and thickening as the dust blew toward the sky as if called by the heavens. I was struck as I had never been before with my world's peacefulness, with the way the houses in the distance blended into the landscape as if they were not artificial but had pushed out of the ground like the immense glass hills of the hotlands that I'd seen in pictures. And I thought of everyone in my house sleeping as the light from the moons shone on their faces. If there was ever a war. . . if there was ever a war. . . and then I couldn't think of anything more. There had never been a war in Bakshami.
The next day Grandfather didn't come out of his room, and in a few hours a sweet smell wafted from his room and through the house, and we knew he had died. Death is a time of sweetness in Bakshami. We believed that after the deceased's tomb and its contents eroded into sand, this sand all blew away toward the hotlands, where it became a part of the Glass Mountains, the most glorious sight in Bakshami.
In his room Grandfather had carefully laid out his possessions into six piles. In the pile he'd left me I found maps of several places, some familiar and some not: Artroro, Soom Kali, Restophlin, and Mallarr. He'd also included a note saying I might possibly go to some of these places, but not to others, depending. The sight of the maps scared me as much as it excited me, and the two warring feelings, fear and excitement, caused my stomach to feel such pain that I had to lie down for the rest of the afternoon, without even looking at the other things he had left me. I resented Grandfather because I didn't think he was seeing, but rather was causing this future, this travel to places far away. And why a map of Soom Kali -- the Land of Knives? It was the largest sector on the planet, and rumored to be the most violent. It was only the strength and proximity of Artroro that kept Soom Kali at bay.
"That he should give a child such a thing!" my mother said.
"It's only a map of a place she'll never see," said my father. "And she won't be a child much longer."
"It isn't a map of a place, but a map of danger," replied my mother firmly. "I would not even have allowed him to give such a thing to Maruk." My parents had resigned themselves to the idea that Maruk might someday face the dangers for which he longed.
Even my father, who revered his father, couldn't disagree.
Mallarr was another sector; Restophlin was one of Artekka's twelve sister planets. These planets were all settled by people from the same place, what we called the Hooded Galaxy, which I'd once seen from the only telescope in Bakshami. The galaxy was a pink-hued swirling mass of stars that seemed to bend over, like a hood over somebody's head. At some point, all parents took their children on a pilgrimage to peer through the telescope to see the Hooded Galaxy, and to identify a few of the stars around which revolved the sister planets of Artekka.
The day after Grandfather's death, my parents, who operated a glass-making shop in addition to their civic responsibilities, spent hours finishing up his burial case. My sisters and brothers spent the day contemplating his notes and the things he'd left us, in my case the maps and some trinkets and treats from each of the lands of which he'd given me maps. From Artroro he'd left me one half-eaten piece of dried fruit that tasted both fruity and nutty at the same time and stuck to my teeth in an extremely satisfying way; from Soom Kali a carved knife; from Mallarr a flea comb for my dog, whom I'd named after Artroro; and from Restophlin a box of diaphanous cloths of pastel colors. The knife, encrusted with a few jewels, was not a cooking knife but one of those useless glittery things that Maruk so favored. He collected fancy knives from other sectors and said that someday he would open a museum. I shook out the cloths one by one, handling them carefully.
But for days I didn't join my siblings in studying our inheritances. I lay in bed in a fever of overwhelming fear brought on by Grandfather's predictions and the threats of the Formans. In the past, nothing had ever changed in my sector; now it seemed that change would come. My entourage of friends, my handsome betrothed, might all be lost. And what would become of me, the mayor's daughter!
Later, at the death ritual, I sat with Artie. I couldn't understand why I felt so much loneliness at an event whose only purpose was to recognize the inescapable. I could see Grandpa clearly through the smooth parts of the glass tomb, and he looked not pale as I'd been warned he might, but as full of vigor as I'd ever seen him. I waited to hear his thunderous snore, the one I could sometimes hear even from my bed, and that my whole family had sometimes suspected was proof of the life force that would make him outlast us all. He looked as if he could be playing a practical joke -- he'd liked to pretend to be asleep and then pounce on us children.
Death's sweet smell filled the ritual parlor. I knew from other deaths I'd witnessed that the smell would grow stronger and stronger, lingering even after the body had disintegrated. Whenever I visited burial grounds the wondrous smell filled the air and brought a smile to the lips of all visitors. But even this smell didn't appease my loneliness as I sat with my family in the parlor, listening to the speeches of Grandfather's friends. Each speech ended with, "May Samarr's grandchildren know peace always."
At the end of the funeral we all played drums. Children in Bakshami learned the traditional rhythms as soon as they were old enough to control their hand movements. We played drums at solemn rituals, at celebrations, and sometimes just for enjoyment.
The brief rainy season was far away; still, rain fell in fast, harsh drops that night, the storm clouds obscuring the rings at the horizon. Afterward, the wind blew the rings away and cleared the clouds, so that the sky was black as our eyes. And one of the elders who lived in the village, a woman who'd been the oldest except for my grandfather, said that instead of going peacefully as one of dignity ought to, Samarr was putting up a fight; thus the storm.
The day after the ritual, tradition dictated that everyone talk about the bereaved. Yet talk of Forma dominated our lives, and the storytellers, previously the center of our nightly gathering, sat quietly and uselessly to the side.
"Let that be a lesson," my father told us at home. "What's of value one day may hold no value the next."
My youngest sister, Katinka, whose translucent skin shone with the slightest tinge of sky blue and whose baby fat still clung to her smooth cheeks, said, "What about me? Will I have value tomorrow?"
"Yes," said my father. "Tomorrow, and tomorrow after that, and after that. As long as your mother and I live, my children will be treasures of great value."
Copyright © 1995 by Cynthia Kadohata