“I’m home!” Slate Ahn announced as he came through the front door of his stone hut. He was tired after three days spent hunting in the Blue Forest, and had little to show for the effort, but looking forward to a bed.
The little hut stood snug and silent, dark and empty.
“I’m home,” Slate repeated sadly, to himself.
He set his things down to start a fire in the fireplace with an instabrick, and then lit a candle from it. The family of furry squee that shared the tiny hut shrieked and ran from the light, following Slate when he took the gnars he had caught into the kitchen. Slate wasn’t overly fond of squee, as they were always gnawing on his toes when he slept and leaving their droppings everywhere, but he appreciated them being around if only for the company. He had otherwise been alone for almost seven months now, ever since his brother and then father had left to find work in the south. And while Slate occasionally spoke with the other villagers in Alleste, their numbers were dwindling, too. Everyone was leaving to stake their claim in the new prosperity the south of the island was experiencing, and it seemed as if it wouldn’t be long until the whole village was empty. Rumors of technological wonders and the ease and abundance they afforded made it sound like life was changing exponentially for the rest of the planet Alm, while the farthest reaches of civilization, places such as Slate’s Alleste, on the remote island of Aelioanei, seemed to be regressing for standing still. And so did Slate. All he needed was word from his father that he had secured a foothold in the south, and he could leave his lonely, backwater life behind.
It hadn’t always been like this. Slate could remember days in his youth spent collecting flowers with his mother and fishing with his brother. Days when the village was bustling, when there was always some new light gossip to keep things interesting, and everyone knew and was there for one another.
After skinning the three gnar he had snared and discovering they were even scrawnier than he had imagined, Slate cooked the meat in the fireplace with some potala. He could easily have eaten all three of the animals, he was that hungry, but finding even that much meat had been difficult. He had to ration what little there was.
“I bet they never go hungry down south,” he said to the reflection of himself shining in the bottom of a hanging brist pot, as he put the other gnar into the one cabinet in the kitchen that the squee hadn’t yet infiltrated. “I’m going to eat myself sick when I get there.” Slate grabbed his thin face and then tried to make sense of the mess of brown hair he had trapped under a hat for three days, to no avail.
With the excitement for the night spent, he sank his lanky body into his father’s chair next to the fireplace. He took from the table next to the chair The Legend, the only book in the house, in fact one of the few books in all of Alleste, to read again one of its stories for what could easily have been the hundredth time. Whenever he read The Legend, he heard the words in his mother’s voice. She had read from it to Slate and his younger brother, Greene, every night when they were children. The tales in The Legend were about the Nelahim, the fabled race of Gods that lived on Alm in the previous age. They were filled with heroes and villains, soaring victories and crushing defeats. And Slate and Green’s mother had always been able to tell them as if the universal lessons they taught were her own. Ruth Ahn passed away when Slate was ten years old, but six years later she still lived on vividly when he would read her book.
After finishing the tale of Hent and Ote, one of the shorter legends, about a pair of friends who were separated their whole lives by circumstance, only to be buried in neighboring graveyards, and have trees grow up from their respective graves and eventually intertwine over the graveyard wall, Slate closed the book’s cover carefully, and set it back down on the table. He looked out a thick-paned window at the rising moon and sighed.
Not so much because he was tired, but because there was nothing else left to do, Slate rose to sort the fire out for the night and go to bed. As he was crossing to where the poker was resting against the mantle, he noticed an envelope on the floor by the front door. The weekly postal delivery must have come while he was away. The envelope probably contained more money from his father, Slate thought. It was nice of his father to send, but there was little in Alleste to buy with government notes, apart from Mrs. Gainee’s preserves or Old Man Crowthall’s awful zhin pies.
Upon opening the envelope, Slate was surprised to find that there wasn’t any money inside. When he shook it upside-down to make sure, a single piece of folded paper fell twirling to the ground. Slate unfolded the paper as he walked back to the fireplace for better light. He stoked the coals he had just worked to extinguish and squinted to read.
At first, he couldn’t believe what he had read. Perhaps the room was too dark. Slate knelt down to be closer to the orange glow from the fireplace and read the letter again. He hadn’t misread it. His father had found steady work in Airyel, on the southwestern coast of their island. And he was ready for Slate to join him.
Slate had to read the letter a third time to make sure it was real. He rose slowly, as if from a dream, and then sat back down on his father’s chair in disbelief. Was it really true? Could he finally leave Alleste? The loneliness, the hunger? The squee?
As reality started to sink in, Slate was so overjoyed that he couldn’t help but cry. All the sadness he had been holding in washed out as he read the letter over and again, until his tears fell over a huge smile. This was Slate’s ticket out. He felt like his prayers had been answered.
There was no specific address in the letter at which Slate was to find his father, as he was apparently still securing permanent housing, but Gael Ahn could be found at his new jobsite, one of the Jarry Company mines that was fueling Airyel’s boom.
“Can you believe it?” Slate asked the squee that had been making its way over the mantle.
The little animal stopped and squeaked as if to say, no, he couldn’t.
Slate didn’t wait until morning to leave. He was too excited to sleep. He added The Legend and what little food was left in the hut into a sack that had been packed for months, making sure to leave some seeds out for the squee, made sure the fire was completely out, and then locked the door behind him before skipping down the front path beneath the glow of the full moon. He nodded good-bye to his and then every other house he passed as he made his way to the end of Main Road. At the intersection of Main and Honeymarrot, Slate turned back to see forested Alleste sitting silent in the moonlight, little trails of smoke rising from its chimneys, and bowed farewell. He then turned around and started south down the Janos Trail toward what he was sure would be something better.