Morn, Fir of Marla: 28 Xiven
“Aunt Aayin, I got them!” cried a bouncing boy, no older than ten. He skipped in bare feet, splashing in the mud, straight up to a stern woman in the doorway of a thatch hut.
“What in Orinel’s sway—don’t jump with those!” Aunt Aayin started forward to grasp at the small bottles he held in his arms.
“I wasn’t gunna drop ’em!” But after she wrangled one bottle out, he offered the other three more freely. Aunt Aayin sighed at him, tutting at his muddy feet, before turning away into the hut. Before he could even try to step inside, she shouted, her back still turned, “Don’t you dare even think about stepping in here with those dirty feet, child!”
The boy jumped at the sound of her voice, but hovered his foot back outside to start rubbing the mud off on the side of the hut. It shushed him when he stained it brown.
“Kayin!” Again, she didn’t even need to turn around. Though he knew he was in trouble, Kayin smirked to himself and instead darted off around to the other side of the hut, maybe twenty steps away, to a simple, wooden drying rack. On it hung a few rags and a couple floor mats still dripping from the morning frost, so he took one that wasn’t quite as soggy, and returned to his aunt, who still fiddled with her medicines. He scrubbed at his feet with his rag for a few moments until they were clean—or, well, cleaner.
“What’s that one do?” Kayin asked, pointing to the lightest bottle she now held in her hand. Aunt Aayin gently tapped the bottle to pour out some sort of white cream. Right as he grimaced, she smiled and began to rub it into her face, massaging it until it disappeared into her skin. He tried not to gag at the overtly floral scent.
“Mild Potion of Regeneration,” she said.
“Re—like again, and generate…like make? Make again?” Aunt Aayin beamed.
“Yes. Regenerate my skin. Keeps me looking young,” she said. “Did the doctor ask for payment?” Though now that she said something about it, she did look kind of old. What would a smelly cream do to hide all those cracks on her face like a dry riverbed?
Kayin stuck his foot to hover in the doorway, as if to ask if it was clean enough; at her nod, he stepped inside, onto the makeshift brick. He tossed the soiled rag by the bucket of water beside the door.
“Yeah, I just told him where we keep the extra edia. What’s that one do?” He pointed to the green-looking bottle on the table.
“Kayin, no!” Aunt Aayin let out an exasperated sigh and set down her bottle, staring at him as if he did something wrong. He stared at her, blinking.
“You said to pay him!”
“Yes, but not tell him where we keep our extra food!” She sighed, then pointed to the rug on the floor beside her. “Sit.” With her voice that taut and strained? Kayin opted to stay in the doorway. “Kayin, he could steal from us if he knows our hiding spot.” Kayin furrowed his brows.
“But stealing is bad.”
“Stealing, um—stealing wives, lives, and knives is bad.” Aunt Aayin nodded again, and gestured for him to sit on the rug again. Curiosity got the better of him; even though he was probably about to get yelled at, he stepped forward to kneel onto the carpet. Aunt Aayin sat across from him, feet curled beneath herself.
“That secret spot is only for us and our food.”
“But the doctor is a good person, right?” asked Kayin. Aunt Aayin nodded; he could tell, just by the way her gaze softened, that she knew his next conclusion. “Good people don’t steal.” Unless maybe the doctor wasn’t a good person….
“Sometimes good people do bad things,” she said carefully, “when they’re really hungry, or really desperate.” Kayin relaxed a bit when his aunt released some of her tension. He still stared at her, frowning.
“You mean,” he thought aloud, “like—like…. Like when Dania yelled at me yesterday? When she said she didn’t have dinner a few times?” Aunt Aayin raised her brows, seemingly impressed.
“Exactly. She didn’t mean to yell at you, of course. She was just hungry. She’s your best friend. And some day, she’s going to be your wi—” Desperate to not hear that word again, Kayin pointed to the potions on the table.
“What’s that one do?” Aunt Aayin was caught off guard, and glanced behind her to the table, before looking back to him with a knowing expression.
She sighed. “The green one? Helps my joints creak less. The blue one helps my eyes work at night, and the black one keeps me awake.” Kayin’s shoulders sagged a little when she just listed the effects, rather than let him guess. He had other questions, though.
“Why don’t Dania’s parents have to take those?” She seemed completely distracted from using the “wife” word, now, and regarded Kayin carefully.
“You know we aren’t like the other families here, right, Kayin?” What was that supposed to mean? Kayin now started to pick at the calluses on his toes; his feet tingled, the feeling returning to them like they always did when he stopped sloshing around in the icy mud and finally warmed up. He experimented with the sensation by testing different toes. “Kayin? Do you understand?” He looked up to her and shrugged.
“You mean like how you don’t have to go to the war?” She gave a gentle nod, but still waited for more answers. He hummed. “Um, like how we eat more often than the others, like sometimes twice?” He was getting closer to the answer, he could tell, from her nod. But she still remained silent. Kayin fidgeted. “You mean how we’re not from here....” Dania, Tailor, and Sithie, the kids he played with in the village, made fun of him for that one. Said he and his aunt didn’t know any better because they were foreign, made him feel stupid when they just “knew” things about their traditions and he couldn’t understand them. And it was worse when they explained things and he still didn’t understand them. Sometimes they just made fun of Dania because she was supposed to control him when they grew up and she got stuck with the “stupidest boy in the village.”
Aunt Aayin always told him to ask questions, but that usually just got him in trouble. Like why did everyone else completely char their edia to eat it, when cooking it only a little was just as fine, and tasted better? Aunt Aayin said it left more “nutrients.” The village elders scolded her for risking some sort of illness. Aunt Aayin stopped cooking at the village fire after that, and forced him to eat the less-cooked edia when he tried not to. He never got sick, but he hated how it made people stare at him.
“All of that is right, Kayin,” Aunt Aayin said. “We are very different from others here.” Kayin scraped some mud out from under his toenails. “I’m too old to fight in the war. I catch more edia than the other families, and I keep them in our secret hiding spot so that we can eat more often. Do you understand?” Kayin now found a new spot to stare at: his cot, right beside Aayin’s, just a few steps away.
“Why don’t others hide more edia in their secret spots?”
Aayin sighed. “Before you were born, there was a sickness that grew on edia that could only be killed with fire, and it would return if you didn’t keep it on fire. That’s why they char the edia, and why they’re afraid to leave it.” Kayin stopped picking at his pinky toe and looked back at her. “Others don’t have a secret spot. They don’t save edia for later.”
“Are we sick?”
“No, Kayin. That illness is gone. Everyone else is just…afraid.” She sighed and looked around the hut, to the open door. “Being afraid will make people do a lot of things that don’t make sense. Like steal when it’s wrong.” Kayin frowned, her words turning over and over in his mind. Her explanations made so much more sense than what the kids told him.
“Like—like doing what everyone else does, even when you know there’s something better.” His statement made her let out a short laugh.
“You’re very smart, Kayin.” He was the one to laugh now, but his was far dryer, far more sarcastic.
“We have to change our hiding spot now?”
“Yes. But it’s going to be fine.” Aunt Aayin sighed. “There were only two edia in there. I might be able to get a few more medicines from that.” She glanced back to the vials on the table. Kayin squinted at her wrinkles as he touched his own skin, frowning. Her skin was so different from his, so much darker, a cool tone while his looked closer to the color of dried thatch. He was always jealous of how Dania’s dad said she looked like her mom. Who did he look like?
“I’m sorry for ruining our secret spot,” he decided to say out of habit. He was supposed to apologize now, that much he knew. Aunt Aayin returned to his gaze, her lips in a thin line.
“Thank you. I’m still very frustrated about it, but you understand now?” He nodded. “Good.” She gave him a smile before rising to her feet, grunting as she did so. He sprung up to stand quite a bit faster.
“Where are we from?” he asked now. Aunt Aayin rested her hand on her back as she straightened up.
“It doesn’t matter. We’re Yatorans now.” She braced against the table to finish rising.
“Where did we live before we came to Yatora?”
“It doesn’t matter now.” She waved at him, urging him to go outside and continue the To Do list she gave him when they awoke. Kayin remained in his spot, though.
“Are my mom and dad still there?” She returned to her medicines, reaching for the blue one to rub more creams on her various joints.
“It doesn’t matter now,” she repeated.
Kayin decided to press the issue a little further this time around: “Did we leave them, or did they leave me?” Aunt Aayin didn’t hide her irritation when she looked up at him.
“Both, Kayin. Now go to the clothier like I asked you before.”
“Why?” Maybe she’d yell the answer at him if he bugged her enough.
“Did you hear me?” Dangerous tone.
“Are they even alive?”
“I don’t know, Kayin. Now go to the clothier.” She had a hand on her hip, now. Kayin stood his ground, just for a little longer. Maybe he’d get answers this time, if he kept asking, like she taught him.
“Did they love me?” Instead of anger, this question seemed to break her irritation. Her brows furrowed, and she let out the tiniest “oh.” Aunt Aayin sighed, reaching to him to pull him into a tight hug. She grasped him so tightly, like the time that Dania’s father got drafted to go to war and he and Dania couldn’t stop crying about it. He wasn’t back yet, but this hug, just like that one, settled his stomach just a little bit. But it also hurt. Asking that made her sad; he’d rather she be angry.
“Yes, Kayin. They loved you and I love you. Do you understand that?” She pulled away to hold his shoulders, force him to look up. He shrugged.
“I guess.” How could someone leave someone if they loved them? It didn’t make sense.
“That’s what matters. Now go. Birat is expecting you.” He obeyed this time.