Our feet gripped black rock with every step. Bags brimming with shelled ocean creatures clacked against our backs as we climbed, evidence of an abundant, if hard-won, harvest. We would feast well that night. Our voices lifted us up the side of the island, buzzing with anticipation as we compared plans for our preparations. Well, most of our voices, anyway. I kept silent, for several reasons.
First: I lacked the words to describe the outfit I would wear and the gold-leaved twigs I would weave into my hair. The effect would be lovely, but I could not make it sound lovely.
Second: I wanted to hold in my mind the feel of the cool ocean water swirling around my ankle and calf and thigh, wrapping its tendrils about my skin, tugging it, like urgent little hands encouraging me into the deep blue depths. I wanted to hold the image of the waves, the sunlight glinting on them, their ever-shifting geometry of blue and white and light. I wanted to keep in my ears the roll and roar of water crashing on rocks.
Third: I wanted to keep to myself. I always had, and though I wasn’t the only person on my island who liked to be alone, I was the most extreme in this desire. I couldn’t help it, and worst of all, I couldn’t explain it, not in a way that made sense to anybody.
What is the best way of saying it? Should I say that everyone walks around surrounded by their own sort of music, but music that no one can hear? Better, perhaps, to say that everyone drifted in a cloud of color, like the dust of some galaxy hovering just above the skin. And my galaxy of color – a blue pure and clear – was easily muddied by the galaxies swirling around other people (rock-black, or barnacle-white, or periwinkle-blue, or crab-pink, or Carnflower-yellow). Depending on the personality, it could take me days to separate out the contaminant and feel like myself again.
The people around me knew this, and so they let me be silent, tucked as firmly in my shell as the gastropods that clacked in our bags.
We crested the rocky path that had guided them us the island’s sloping sides, and stepped into the flatter, open patch of earth where our village stood. Pale white shells lined the street that took us into the open yard where our fellow villagers prepared for the festival, hanging strings of flowers and lanterns across the paved space, setting out tables, and roasting an enormous Flang-Ox, imported from a distant planet for this occasion.
I dropped off my bag of shellfish with Lyra Kitta, who was the undisputed mistress of cooking anything that came from the sea. The woman (she gave off a cloud of saturated yellow) smiled, and I smiled back, but turned away before any words could be exchanged.
The banners overhead seemed to flap right in my ears. The smell of flowers drifted around the CommonSpace. A starship – the Delegate’s personal craft, no doubt – hummed down to the landing pad on the eastern side of the island. I found my sister bent over a table, her fingers folding, creasing, and smoothing paper into impossible shapes around wads of bioluminescent lichen. I stood at her shoulder and watched as she finished folding a complicated flower, which held a fuzzy glow at the heart of its petals.
“Hey, Beryn. Decorations look nice.”
Beryn’s lip twisted up, an expression which showed she was pleased and proud, and her cheeks turned red, an expression which showed she was a little embarrassed to be noticed. It made her look lovely. “How was the fishing?”
“Is it ever bad? Although, Kiv pulled up tons of warped-looking clams that I’d have thrown back, but . . .” I shrugged. I’d argued with him one time about shoving imperfect shells into his bag when the shore was abundant with perfect clams, but he didn’t much care. Of course, he also made sure to pile the best ones into his dish when it was time to eat, so he rarely suffered enough to change his ways.
“I’ll make sure I get some of yours. I’m about finished up here, are you ready to get dressed?”
I nodded. A Golden-winged Brightscale flapped overhead, creaking and clattering. I tipped my head up, and scanned the blue sky for the flashes of ruddy yellow and the opaque skin of outstretched wings. Three Brightscale shapes cut through the air above the party preparations, diving for their insect prey, thin tails darting behind them, occasionally throwing out a scaly rudder.
I’d watched vids once of the birds on other planets, which had looked fat and strange compared to their flying lizards. The singing, though. Actual music. The Brightscale vocals struck the air like a tough work-shirt being shaken out. Not exactly what I’d call pleasant.
A hand tugged my elbow, and I looked over. Beryn laughed at me. “Come on, sis. You can watch the sky all you want once we’re dressed.”
I followed Beryn along another shell-lined lane out of the ComSpa – between houses, flower baskets, and garden plots brimming with the vegetables that thrived so close to the saltwater. I snagged some Berry Lemons that dangled over a fence, and Beryn wrinkled her nose as I chewed the mouth-puckering citrus.
“Ugh, how do you eat those?”
“They’re good as long as you only have one or two. They get sweeter as you chew them.”
Beryn shuddered, then shouted greetings at a group of young men walking one lane over. Their returning shouts were lively with anticipation. I ducked my head and drew up my shoulders as the exchanged conversation between my sister and the young men turned suggestive. I walked on ahead, shielding myself from their voices and the burning colors they carried towards me.
I finished the walk home – a small, round house, with stone steps winding up to it, and rocks and trees pressing up to it at the back – and had time to start getting dressed before Beryn made it back. The minutes of quiet and dark between the white walls soothed me senses, enough that I could see the ghosts of our parents and our grandfather in their old familiar places, scattered in chairs around the dining table, cooking in the kitchen, reading and watching vids in the family room.
Beryn burst through the door, brimming with laughter, and the peace and the ghosts scattered to the shadowy corners.
“Are you ready to do that braid?” Beryn asked.
“After you’re dressed. You still want to do my makeup?”
“I insist,” Beryn called through the open door of her room, where she was rapidly discarding her usual utilitarian pants, shirt, boots, and vest, in favor of a dress much less practical but much more likely to entice dance partners. I could hardly judge, as I had done the same, although my sister certainly threw herself into attracting partners with much more enthusiasm. As I cast an eye over my sister’s dress, I realized just how seriously Beryn was taking courtship rituals.
Strange, to feel wistful for something I loathed. But no it wasn’t the courtship I wanted. It was some connecting thread to run through my life and through Beryn’s.
“So, is there one in particular that you picked that low neckline for, or are you still trawling?” I brushed out Beryn’s thick, straight hair, so unlike my own waves that bordered on curls. Then I plucked a bundle from near the front of Beryn’s head, and began to braid.
Like finding clams in the ocean water, I enjoyed this work, how tactile it was, the textures under my fingers, the manipulation of things that required practice and skill.
“There is one in particular, but he’s not very settled on me in particular yet.” She made a face, like she was hedging away from an idea she didn’t like very well. “You know, after Hyre, I’m trying to be a bit more cautious.”
Utterly untrue, as far as I had seen. If anything, getting so close to Hyre had just made Beryn more incautious than ever. The closeness to him had been good for my sister, even if it hadn’t ended well. She wanted that again.
“I’m sure you’ll find the right person.”
Beryn hitched up one shoulder, and then drew into herself to hide the hurt that she still bore. I cursed myself for being so direct, and clamped my mouth shut until the last strands of hair passed through my fingers.
Then it was Beryn’s turn to work her magic with powders and creams, and on this special occasion, tiny flakes of iridescent seashell. I lifted my face up to my sister’s skilled hands, repressing shudders as the foreign substances settled on my skin. Was it a lie, or was it a costume, an integral part of the celebrations? I let my sister apply the glittering mask in the hope that participation in at least this rite might be enough to make me a part of the community, even in just the most perfunctory way. It was, I knew, little more than a nod to those around me that I was making an effort, but it was surely better than nothing.
Night and day transferred their authority, in the sky, in the air, in the earth. The last golden tinge that had saturated every house, rock, and tree yielded without objection to the cool blue shadows, and then to colorless darkness.
The bulbs in lanterns over the square cast a light that was supposed to echo that sunset glow, but it leaned too warm and felt more like fire. I stayed at the edge of things, first eating some of the beautifully prepared shellfish (Lyra Kitta had preserved an especially fine bowl for me, and placed it in my hands with the same ceremony she used when serving the Delegate) and then drinking something sweet, sour, and touched with fire.
Drums beat, strings hummed, and brass blared. Beryn was among the first to join the dancing, and she whirled around the center of the town square, first with one young man, then another, always smiling at the thrill of the motion, always with her dress floating around her legs, her braid just occasionally succumbing to gravity long enough to brush a shoulder. The flecks of seashell around her eyes flashed like stars, even in the falsely warm light of the lanterns. Beryn understood how to make things beautiful, that was certain.
Soon, dancers flooded the square, and I saw my sister only in flashes. As the crowds at the perimeter of the square thinned, I glimpsed the stranger for the first time. The figure stood wrapped in shadows, and dressed all in black. I couldn’t quite decide if that slender build was male or female, and the features of their face offered no additional clues. Was the skin smooth because little hair grew there by nature, or was it expertly shaved? The face held a childishness that defied categorization, in the person’s large eyes, small mouth, and a jaw-line swallowed up by the curve of the cheek. But in the eyes – that sharp wariness, that hard edge of observation tinged by a sort of wry cynicism, none of that was remotely childish.
Their eyes flashed over to me, and I knew I couldn’t pass off my hard stare as a quick glance, so I lifted my hand and waved. They, too, lifted their hand, in a motion so solemn that I felt that my jaunty little hand-flap had become foolish by comparison. They smiled.
And then smoothly wove around the edge of the square, around the edge of the lights, and right up to me. In a walk halfway between feminine sway and masculine strut. I abandoned my attempt to define the stranger.
“Hello,” they said.
“Hi. Are you visiting for the feast?” It happened sometimes, that explorers from other, wealthier planets visited during one of their feast days, to gaze upon the quaint celebrations for an evening before blasting off to some other rotating ball of life. Usually those travelers dressed in overworked finery, drank too much, and danced unfamiliar dances. The colors they gave off often ran more metallic, and less saturated than the islanders’.
“I like watching a good party. It seems you do, too.”
I raised my eyebrows and clutched my drink closer to my chest. “Someone has to quietly observe the motion of the universe, right?”
The stranger bit their lip as if to suppress a laugh. “Yes. Someone does. You never dance, then?”
“Not out there.”
No, when I did feel the music move through my feet and my arms, I stepped away to a darker, quieter place, away from the press of bodies. A place where I could see the water, feel the breeze, and spin without slapping someone else in the face.
The stranger watched the dancers, and tipped their gaze up to the lights and banners overhead, and sipped their drink. When I glanced over, their expression held something bright and contemplative and vaguely religious. I relaxed into the quiet, and sipped my drink again.
“I’ve seen a lot of things,” they said at last, “a lot of feasts and festivals and parties that looked just like this, but you know, I never get tired of seeing them.”
“What kinds of things have you seen?”
We looked at each other, the traveler and the villager eye-to-eye.
“Nothing but distant stars in every direction, ships large enough to swallow small moons, cities built of every conceivable material trying to crack the sky, gas planets, rock planets, ice planets, even the unremarkable and miraculous little ball First Earth. I’ve seen the Li’Put Ice Fields, and space dust sheeting off ships as they break atmo with a pale sun rising behind them, and digital libraries with every scrap of information the galaxy has ever produced. I’ve seen the most gripping athletic competitions, the suppression of entire peoples by single dictators, and death in the loneliest corners of space. I’ve seen the skin, the flesh, and the bones of humanity, all the glory and all the horror.” The traveler peered at me, and I met the gaze, although my heart stuttered as I did. “What I wonder is – what do you see, looking at someone who’s been to every conceivable corner of the galaxy?”
“Dark blue.” The answer came thoughtlessly out of my mouth, the part of my mind that would have suppressed it too caught up in thoughts of dictators and towers and stars. I immediately pressed the glass full of sweet and sour fire to my lips. It was precisely the shade emanating off the stranger, but I knew that it was by most standards a strange response.
The traveler didn’t answer, and when I looked over at them, I saw their large eyes wide with surprise. When they spoke again, it was very slowly, as if every word had grown heavy.
“How important is all this to you?” And they swept their hand out at the dancers in the square, the lanterns, the tables of shell-fish harvested from the water that I smelled even then. The gesture even seemed to cover the houses beyond, the rest of the island.
The right answer would be to say it was my whole life, it was everything, and I loved it. The music swelled in my heart, my sister’s fingertips still brushed my cheeks where the shell fragments lay on my skin. All of those things were wonderful, valuable, true. But something else slipped out of my grasp, something I avoided every moment of my life, something less wonderful.
“I’m not sure. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
“Do you want to see the things you hide from yourself?”
I watched the dancers, wreathed in light, pulsing with life, stepping and swaying to the unceasing pound of drums. Drums made of the skin of an animal once also alive. The dancers’ bellies all filled with the ocean creatures that hours before had crept in the ocean water.
Their feet kicked up dust, sweat dripped from their faces, down their necks, in shimmering lines.
I felt my own skin lying across my flesh and bones, warm and soft. And the things further inside, that scurried and scampered away from my gaze.
“Yes. Of course I do.”
“You can’t go back,” they said. “People go out to the edges of the galaxy, and they never return the same way they left. Often not for the better.”
I drained the last of my glass, and set my shoulders. This stranger was truly strange.
My sister flashed by in the dance, still bounding impossibly high, a hand encircling her waist. She didn’t see me. She hardly seemed to see the man she danced with.
“I want to see.”
The stranger stepped in front of me, and raised a small light in front of my face. It blinked in a rapid, off-kilter rhythm, and a heartbeat later it went dark.
The music halted. The dancers stilled. The talk and laughter all around hushed. No one around me did anything but breathe. And the stranger was gone.
I stood, and felt the dark of the night pressing at my back, and the brightness of the lanterns shining on my face. I wanted to turn around, to gaze into the dark with the light behind me, but I kept hold of myself, and instead watched as every person in my village turned to face me. A chill breeze lifted the hairs on my arm. The ocean waves crashed against the rocks around the islands. Then the whispers began.
Soft, soft were their voices. I stepped closer, straining to hear.
“…too good for the rest of us.”
“Never tried to fit…”
“ . . . a useless thing.”
“Proud, but at least you take pride in what you do.”
I turned to that voice, and saw Lyra Kitta in the crowd, staring at me like all the rest, but at least the suspicion and distrust in her face was tempered by – not understanding, but at least an attempt at it. Others shuffled her to the side, and I lost sight of her.
“You always pried, asked about things that were none of your business, if you ever bothered to talk at all.”
“You just don’t fit, and never will.”
“. . . wouldn’t share your notes with anyone in class.”
The voices rose, overlapped, words all pulsing to the same rhythm, a song of everything I had ever imagined they thought of me. Impossible, impossible, no one ever said these things aloud, they were the dark things that everyone kept secret, until they burst out in a radically different form. In strange rumors, in suspicion, in little slights against me here and there. Later, in accusations that built into some larger thing that would consume me, because I was other, and when the good times petered out and the harvest wasn’t so great, it was the other that always bore the blame.
The fiery colors that I’d kept away from all evening swirled and crashed around me in a storm of bitter words. People smiled as they spoke the things they’d thought and never said.
I tried to push through them, to escape. They didn’t stop me, but they didn’t step aside either, so I had to shove aside unyielding limbs and torsos.
Then Beryn stood in front of me, every inch of bare skin gleaming with perspiration. Her plaited hair curved down from the back of her head, wrapping around her neck, falling down her shoulder.
“Beryn, please . . .”
“You always needed more than I could give,” Beryn whispered.
I shook my head, my voice stalled in my throat.
“You always had to be sheltered from everyone. When the bad came to us, you crumbled. And when you needed help, it was always me, even when I didn’t have anything left to give to you. I’ll thank you for this – you made me tougher. But without me, you’d be nothing. A paper flower, dissolving in the ocean.
“I’d be better off without you.”
Then Beryn stepped aside, and so did the people behind me. I rushed through the opening, that led out of the square and into the darkness. All the heat in my body seemed to have gone to my face, and my throat closed tight. It was as if someone had taken a chisel to the bone in my chest, tapped it with a hammer, and cracked me open.
When I’d crossed out of the lantern light, the music started again, right where it left off. The joyful calls of the dancers rose above it, and the chatter of the villagers dogged my steps as I stumbled away from it all, towards the steep fall of rocks at the edge of town.
I stood on the rocks, with the ground tumbling away at my toes. I shivered, and my skin prickled with cold. The blue orb of my spirit cracked and crumbled around the edges, shredded. The stars wavered and shook in the black sky above, and vanished entirely in the peaked waves below.
The stranger walked up beside me.
“None of what you heard came from them, you know.”
I cursed and wiped the dampness from my face. Tears, sweat, it hardly mattered.
“Of course, I can’t promise that none of them ever thought those things. But nothing in this galaxy can tell you what someone else is thinking.”
“Why would you go around showing people their nightmares?”
The stranger shrugged. “Changes in the galaxy ride on the changes in people. And people don’t change unless they see the truth. Not everyone can, you know, but you might if you keep refusing to back down. And there are places in the galaxy that need someone who can see the human soul.”
I pressed my hand to my mouth, holding in the venom I wanted to spit.
“Go home. Think for a little while.”
I stood, rooted to the spot. I wouldn’t do what they told me to, not ever. Finally, the stranger sighed, and walked away.
When I was sure that they’d gone, I walked to the top of the path, and in the dark, I climbed down to the side of the ocean.
When the sun rose, I stood on a rock, with salt water swirling around my ankles and calves.
I’d pulled from my chest everything I’d heard the night before, and held it up under the starlight, and inspected it in trembling hands. Like a thorn I’d worked free of my arm. Until I started to understand.
I didn’t belong, but not because I was different. They were all different, every person in my village, in one way or another. Everyone had that little fleshy bit like the meat in a crustacean, a tiny gleaming muscle that kept in its shell, unseen by the rest of the world. I was apart because I carried that little part of myself like it was all that mattered. I sheltered it in my hand, batted away anyone who dared take a peek. I had built a shell, and pretended that no one else had one.
As the water lapped my ankles, I wished I’d slept. Ideally, I would fall asleep standing where I was, dawn breaking over me and the water and the rocks.
Up near the village, I heard a ship hum to life. Following a tendril of thought that I couldn’t quite identify, I walked up the path to the houses, and then through the detritus of the feast left in the ComSpa, winding through houses until I traced the source of the hum.
The stranger stood at the boarding ramp to their ship, dressed much as they had the evening before. They didn’t smile at me as I approached, but they didn’t look surprised to see me, either.
“What do the people do, who see the edges of the galaxy?”
“It comes down to two things. Either they go home, and try to forget what they saw, or they keep looking.”
“Is that what happened to you?”
The traveler made a face. “Something like that.”
“You don’t just travel, though, do you?”
“There’s a bit more to it than planet-hopping, yeah.”
I looked hard at them. The ship’s thrusters hit a warmer cycle and dropped down a pitch. “When you showed me that light, was it because you wanted me to come with you?”
The traveler got that same look they had the night before, when I had said that I saw them as dark blue. Like they were looking out into the cosmos, and trying to scry the future out of the whirling masses of galaxies.
“There are things happening out there, and I’m collecting people to figure it out, maybe help things turn out a bit better than they might otherwise. I’ll be honest – I’m a bit of an interfering twerp, and I have a skill for almost getting people killed. But the people who come with me get to see things that nobody else does.” They winced. “A lot of it bad, if I’m continuing on this thread of honesty.”
“You didn’t really answer my question.”
“I show a lot of people a lot of things, and most of them never step foot on the shuttle or the ship. So, mostly the answer is no. If you want to come with me, you can. And if you change your mind at any point, I’ll bring you right back.”
For some reason, I felt better hearing that. “I’ve always wanted to get off-world.”
The traveler extended their hand, and I walked up the ramp.