In a remote corner of Eastern Province, a young man begins an adventure he will soon regret.
She spilled the truth while hurrying out for yet another childbirth, which rubbed salt in his wound somehow. Though to be fair, Han should’ve had his suspicions.
“Could be a late one, dear. Don’t wait up.”
He returned to his book. She paused on the threshold.
“Han, darling. I probably should’ve mentioned this a while ago…”
“You’re eighteen now. Time you knew. I’m not really your mother.”
“What do you mean?”
“I should have brought it up before. I’ve been very busy.”
“You’re not my mother?”
“I did mean to tell you. Time just gets away. Sorry about that.”
“You’re... I’m... Wait on, I might not have a father but…”
“An actual father.”
“He visited a few years back. Medicine man. Oh, what was his name…?”
“That’s it. Gave you to me as a baby. I should’ve mentioned it sooner. Been so busy.”
“Lin-Chee is my father?”
“Always on the move. The nature of his work. People need potions, especially in the outer regions. Can’t trust those machine doctors.”
“And he’s… and I’m… So, I do have a mother?”
“I expect there was a problem with you-know-what.”
She hushed him, waving hands as if neighbours might hear.
“Well, you must have got it from someone, Han.”
“Do we know if she’s still alive?”
“Let’s not go on about it. Bless me, is that the time? Must hurry. Sorry, dear.”
Han could not sleep. He lay on his bed.
No one answered. This neither confirmed nor denied the existence of a deity he’d been doubting for at least two years.
Absence of reply gave him no comfort. Han wished he could attain a state of blissful ignorance: the kind that his schoolfellows enjoyed.
Certainly his teacher would have no trouble sleeping. The reverend, known to everyone as Rev, never suffered from the burden of information. She possessed a gift for not explaining. She failed to explain storms, seasons, oceans and clouds. Her loose grasp on the fundamentals of animal reproduction was matched only by her failure to explain why some trees lost their leaves and others did not. Rev’s answer was always God. She even failed to explain that. If his teacher had ever held a science exam, Han could’ve submitted a blank paper and earned top of the class.
He knew he ought to feel sorry for Rev, whose children all grew up and moved away. Yet at least they could claim to have an actual mother. For eighteen years Han had been addressing Sufi by that title.
The village midwife tended him and housed him, without once mentioning she wasn’t a relative of any kind. Perhaps if Han were more observant, he might have noticed a certain lack of resemblance. The disparity in colouring, height, hair and features should have helped him to put one and three together. When that medicine man dumped an unwanted infant here, Sufi must have taken money to help find foster parents. She changed her mind, accepting Han as a foundling. She meant well, even if she proved better at delivering babies than raising one.
At least she shielded him from prying eyes when it mattered most. Not a soul in the district knew about his little problem. And it was no mean feat to keep secrets in Ogra. Neighbours overheard each other’s quarrels and tantrums. They worshipped together. They worked together. Often they dined together. Han loathed each minute of it, though he accepted that everyone was miserable. They put on false smiles at the well. They faked good humour while helping to harvest communal crops. No one enjoyed his company, so he felt justified in returning the favour.
Yet his mother—or rather, Sufi—continued to fear for him.
“One of these days they’ll find out. You know what happens to children like you.”
Han did not know, though he suspected. Sufi hinted that such creatures lived up north where the air was thin and the drought eternal, though she gave no details. Failing to reach the bottom of this mystery, he lumped it in with Rev’s scientific non-explanations. Meanwhile he deduced a connection with that great and terrible event never to be mentioned in polite company, though as it was never to be mentioned he couldn’t mention it.
If growing up in a hamlet fifty miles from a provincial city on the edge of civilisation counted as life, then Han Young hadn’t yet been born. Situated in the backblocks of nowhere, his community occupied a shanty town beside a creek bed. Rev told her pupils that the closest city was a metropolis where church spires reached as high as clouds and the roads were polished metal. She confidently failed to explain why their village lacked such amenities. Her answer amounted to yet one more God-willed-it-something-or-other. If he could have peered into Rev’s mind, he might have found only cobwebs and a few quotations from scripture. Han did not try. Instead he consulted the old books Sufi kept at home. These described Winfrey as a city that used to be a town called Griffith until the flood of humanity two centuries ago—following the Great Fire—spilled from urban areas and engulfed outlying districts. In the years that followed, remote places like Ogra fell further behind.
And behind it certainly fell. Tumbled in fact. Plummeted.
Under the church’s influence, his village lapsed into self-sufficiency, shunning city ways. Scripture showed the path to righteousness, meaning hard labour and hand-tools. Han suspected that absence of any power source also played a part. He noticed how villagers who left tended to return only for short visits. Mumbling about an urgent appointment, they soon re-departed.
He rose at daybreak. From a hut that he’d long thought of as home Han surveyed the village, with its barns and stables. Fellow villagers went about the daily routine of milking cows and chewing straw. Whoever he really was, he did not belong here.
When at last Sufi returned from delivering babies, she found him packed and ready.
“Don’t go, dear. Be a carpenter. Find a local girl to marry.”
“I’m leaving, mother... I mean, um... Look, I’m off to find others like me.”
Her hands flew to her mouth, stifling a cry.
“People can be cruel. Seen husbands kick wives out when you-know-what appears in one of the children.”
Han did not know what: just another topic never to be mentioned. He realised that the person he’d always thought of as his mother was not one of life’s great salespeople.
“Is it true my own kin wanted to get rid of me?”
“You’re not a monster. You didn’t have an extra eye or six fingers. You survived. Miracle enough. All the same…”
“I showed early signs?”
She lowered her voice to a whisper, as if neighbours kept an ear cocked for gossip. Sufi often told him that mornings were the worst time of day for eavesdroppers, though afternoons weren’t much better. At sunset everyone went to bed—maybe exhausted from all that snooping.
“You changed colour when you cried. That would’ve frightened your parents. Can’t blame them.”
He probably could, once he recovered from the shock.
A thought struck Han, as thoughts often did, like a low-hanging branch in the face.
“Do you suppose I might have a brother or sister?”
He remembered how, as a child, he discovered that by changing colour he could hide from others, especially those who picked on him. Taking on the tones of any hiding place, he could turn near invisible. Would siblings possess such a talent?
“Don’t know. I’m just thankful it cleared up before you went to school. But it might come back among strangers.”
Han sighed. Unbeknownst to his non-mother, long ago he taught himself to switch his hiding ability on and off. By rounding a corner and then disappearing, he had fooled various bullies into crossing spider-webbed thresholds or lured them into muddy potholes covered by leaf and twig. He purloined prize items from the meanest of them and planted these in their enemies’ bags. Failing to lessen the gloom of school lessons—he could hardly vanish in class, or they would know his secret—more than once he escaped sports practice concealed in patterns of brickwork. Being dragged into a cricket match felt like a foretaste of the afterlife: an infinite boring eternity where everyone dressed in white and no one knew all the rules, yet they were supposed to feel privileged just for being selected.
“Can you remember which direction my father was headed?”
“It’s so long ago. Bound for the capital maybe. It would take him ages to get there. Such devilry they get up to in Branson. Wicked lords and ladies.”
Han finished packing his small store of possessions and made ready to go.
“It’s too far,” said Sufi. “There are no transports in the district and no flying cars.”
“No. It must be two hundred miles, at least.”
“I would walk five hundred miles.”
“You mustn’t. That would take you to you-know-where.”
Even as she refrained from uttering the term ‘wastelands’ his non-mother shuddered, involuntarily glancing around for listeners.
“Maybe,” he said, “I’ll find one of the great beasts. I could try and tame it.”
“Abominations, if they exist. It’s too dangerous alone. Savages on the road. Raiders. Or worse—unbelievers.”
“I can take care of myself.”
Han stood at the door of their hut. Hesitating a moment, he felt sure he’d forgotten something.
“Um... thank you. For all of... well, you know.”
Casting a glance around the village, he shook his head. It couldn’t get worse than this.