What’s that glow?
Another flash! Thunder rumbled through his chest. Raindrops pelted the window of his seaside cottage. Alai-Tiul peered over the treetops backing the shore at green pulses that surely weren’t lightning. But what? Emerald reflections danced… wavy blobs on the greenhouse panels, like sunlight glancing off the scales of a startled fish.
A threat to the village? To my family?
Rain thrashed tarps stretched across the yard. Films of water slid down those angled planes flooding gutters, downspouts, and funnels into the cistern.
Alai held his breath for a moment, lips tightly closed around a broad jaw, shoulders sticky from the humidity, pupils of his dark brown eyes fully dilated. Other than that strange glow and the blazes of lightning, he could see nothing beyond the yard’s gate. The moon, two days from the first quarter, would not help; it had already set.
What could explode?
The largest tarp flailed, its raucous snap not unlike those merchant ships with poorly trimmed sails attempting to approach the fickle harbor mouth of Hill Village. Alai blinked to attention. The tie-downs are too loose. Water will be lost. At his feet, the dog flicked her ears in discomfort, wedging her head further beneath a chair. A new blast of rain pummeled the gossamer fabric like a million miniature drummers marching in the darkness. Teeth clenched, he exhaled through his nose as the tarp bowed under pressure and the system recovered.
Another lightning strike, now much closer. Alai made a small turn of his mouth. Please don’t flare up. After baking for months, no amount of rain would stop a runaway brush fire.
A squint, but he could no longer see the green glow.
If anyone asks, I’ll say I went checking for fires. I’ll bring the dog. He shook his head. Resist the urge. Exploring where he should follow the elders’ instructions; leave the unknown to them.
Meddle not with what we do not understand, the elders taught. A glow, or an odd explosion, is not his responsibility. His responsibility is only to inform them. The elders protect us.
He pulled himself from the window and rested his gaze upon his wife and son sleeping. Their side-by-side curves gave the thin linen blanket an appearance of desert dunes at night. Only the tops of their heads were visible. Alai forced a smile, his left elbow supported by his right hand: strong fingers, dirty nails.
He grows fast and acts brave, but he’s still our little boy.
The rhythmic inhale and exhale of their bodies calmed his mind. The boy had matured so much in the past few months. Last year, Alai couldn’t convince the boy to join him on the bay. Now, he energetically stands at the bow of the small dinghy and casts nets on his own. He insists on hauling in the quivering bundles of smaller catches despite turning red in the face. He even enjoys mending nets with his mother during those languid midday hours when the red sun grows so intense that nothing can be done except sit still in the yard under the shade of the tarp, lean into the next sea breeze, and speak calmly to one another.
At a furious clap, the boy sprung upright – his confident pose betrayed by a quivering lip. Alai stepped to the window; an orange flicker from the forest confirmed the threat. He grabbed for his boots.
His wife threw off the blanket. “What can we do?”
Alai swung the front door open and reached into the narrow vestibule where he kept a slick jacket for fishing. “Staying inside is safest. Or…,” he said, as the rattling in the yard reminded him of a lesser concern, “maybe check that the tarp tie-downs are taut. We don’t want to lose a drop.”
She approached the doorway, pushing back frazzled curls tumbled askew from recent slumber. “Want to chew some gum nut seeds to help your vision?” Her hand pointed to one of the jars on the counter.
He shook his head as he buttoned up his jacket.
“Thanks, but then my eyes would be too sensitive to work with the flames.”
“Well, take her with you.” She motioned toward the dog, whose headless body stretched out from beneath the chair.
“Nah, I’ll be fine.”
“Always worse when we worry,” she mumbled, resting her hand upon his shoulder and adjusting his collar. “But be careful, bear.”
His hand grasped hers.
“I will, bee.”
“Stay inside, son.” But he couldn’t avoid noticing the pleading eyes. “And keep an eye on your mother from the window here. If she has any trouble with the tie-downs, I need you to help her out.” The boy clamped his mouth shut and nodded.
Outside, pounded from above by tiny thuds like many clapping mittens, he took a moment to get his bearings. Most of the year, the ground was cracked dry, with just a sprinkling of beach sand sliding across the flagstones. Tonight, it had swelled to a soft pulp, glistening eerily where puddles reflected the dull blaze from the forest. A wooden shed and the greenhouse bordered two of the other sides of the rectangular courtyard while the fourth opened to the forest through a gate in the low fence. All three buildings were set back behind the dunes where no storm ever pushed the crashing waves of high tide.
A shovel and an axe from the shed, one choked down in either hand, balanced his march through the gate. Each stride splashed through a puddle or squished over a lump of mud. Rivulets traced contours; drops slapped against foliage. Surprising anything could burn. In a few minutes, a crimson glow drew him into the brush. The sky shook with waves of lightning and thunder. Still overhead.
The silhouette of a very large man flickered in front of the flames. Wielding an axe to fell a narrow tree close to the blaze, the lumbering actions of Bemko-Tiul were more recognizable than his impressive size.
“How’d you get here so fast, neighbor?” Alai yelled over the rainfall.
The man swung around and beamed at him. He motioned a thick hand towards the flames. “They’n told me this could happen, even in a heavy rain, but I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t come out here myself. Never’n seen nuthin’ like it. Not in all my years here!”
In all his years. Alai smirked at the expression, compounded with the awkward attempt at the slurring, local dialect, both evidence of Bemko’s irrepressible hope to fit in. Alai craned his neck as he approached the enormous man. Although he stood a head above most others, his fair complexion shocked people more. Light eyes and a prow of a nose, both distinguishable in the orange paleness of the fire, were alien to the Southern Continent. No feign of having lived here a long time or attempt at the local dialect could disguise them.
Alai’s eyes darted from the flames to dense foliage at imminent risk of catching fire.
“Shouldn’t we ask for help with all this?”
“Can’t, can we? Whole forest would be alight before we got anywhere. A clock hand cannot be turned back by any number of others,” Bemko replied, quoting an oft used saying of the villagers.
Alai nodded. He admired the man’s unrelenting desire to find his footing in Hill Village despite his unknown origins. Bedridden for months during his convalescence after suffering a debilitating head injury – a large package dislodged from above in the hold of the ship he had toiled – Bemko’s thick neck and massive shoulders undoubtedly prevented a broken spine. He could remember nothing of his history, even when he managed to walk again. The captain of the merchant vessel could only report “North of the Red Kingdom” about his place of origin, making him even more of an oddity.
“Call me Bemko.” That’s what he told everyone, including Alai when they had first met. “They say my shipmates called me Bamma.” But he preferred the name in the ship’s register; a modicum of connection to who he once was. As for his clan name – omitted from the ship’s records – he couldn’t remember it, and nothing of his few personal effects could help to clarify his identity except the chest of pinewood and plastic straps in which they were kept. A carving of a bushel of hay within a crescent moon led Bemko to deduce he must have been born under the hay moon. That’s all he knew.
The two men went to work across the gulley, downwind from the fire, removing smaller trees and brush and deepening ditches to expose mud where the years had clogged them with forest detritus. An earthen broth collected in the trenches. They worked efficiently alongside one another, familiar with the others’ intentions, removing fuel from the fire and widening the waterlogged gap. They spoke only intermittently about flames, wind, and mud.
“Can’t spread further downwind now,” Bemko howled.
The fire itself hesitated. Thick arms and brute force accompanied by the agile reach of narrower limbs, Bemko hurled shovelfuls of mud at its base while Alai hacked down vulnerable brush. Alai could see that the flames were now starving for fuel.
Bemko leaned on the saturated shovel handle, panting but cackling happily. His soaked clothes didn’t seem to smother his spirits. “Now ain’t this an odd way to be together?”
“Wouldn’t have been happier to see anyone else here tonight.”
“Well, who’d you expect to come out this far from the village anyway?”
Alai shrugged. He knew of no other villagers who would venture out this far, let alone act on their own volition as they just had. A common devotion came to mind: The elders guide us. The elders protect us. But Bemko, like himself, suffered the malady of self-sufficiency, so they were relegated to this remote corner of the village as a result.
“Nah,” Bemko continued. “Same for me, neighbor. Same for me. What do you say we get back to some dry clothes and sleep?”
The smile Alai shared with Bemko faded. He looked over his shoulder and jutted his chin towards the cliffs.
“You don’t think we should check on them other fires off there? I thought I saw something glowing green back that way.”
“Aw, they’re too far off to be a bother, I reckon. Especially with the wind blowin’ towards the cliffs. And,” Bemko paused to squint skeptically at Alai, “I doubt you’ve seen anythin’ green, neighbor, ’cause that’d be the bark of another tree, now wouldn’t it? You’re just tired, you are.”
Alai cringed slightly at Bemko’s attempt to force another local expression but recovered before his neighbor noticed.
“I’m sure it was there. A great green glow. Maybe we should take a look?”
“Well now you’re singin’ children’s songs, aren’t you?”
Alai felt rainwater squeeze out from his furrowed eyebrows and drip down along the crease of his wide nose.
“Children’s songs? What do you mean?” This time, it was definitely not a saying of Hill Village.
“What? You don’t sing that one here? Aw, nevermind it, anyway. Sometimes when people say something, memories come to me but I can’t explain ’em.” He shook his head with a grimace as if a thorn had pricked his finger. “But you know what they tell us, neighbor. ‘Control your curiosities’, they say. If you really think you saw something, just let the elders know it in the morning. That’ll be enough.”
Alai reluctantly agreed. He knew he must, but it helped to hear it. Bemko understands. They trudged back towards the coast, knocking clumps of mud off their tools and boots with each step.
A few minutes later, Alai shuffled into the vestibule of the cottage where he hung up his jacket and removed his boots. Entering the cottage, he saw his wife at the kitchen table with a steaming mug and a psalm of Our Order open in front of her. Her body arched forward; she stared at him with a fixed gaze. The dog crawled out from beneath the bench, poking her snout up into the air to sniff at the smoke from Alai’s trousers.
“Shall we alert the elders?”
“No, it was only a small fire.”
She sighed and bowed her head between outstretched arms that ended with the clutched mug.
“You put it out by yourself, bear?”
“I’m fine, bee. Bemko was with me. We put it out together.”
She stood up and walked over to him. Her vivid eyes grabbed at him as she pressed back the wet clumps of hair on his head.
“You’re alright?” And then, without waiting for an answer, “I never expected the blessing of rain to bring with it a strange sensation of fear.”
“We’re perfectly safe, bee.”
“Come have some root tea and relax. The kettle is still hot.”
“You should try and get some sleep now.” When he caressed her soft cheek, she tilted her head and nuzzled into his wet hand.
“If you’re sure there’s no chance of a fire,” she muttered, kissing his palm, “I can try to go back to bed.”
“I’m sure. I thought I saw something down by Sharkjaw, but Bemko says it’ll just blow itself out into the cliffs.”
“Well, Bemko’s got a knack for knowing these things.”
“Yeah,” he wagged his head a bit. “I could check things out in the morning anyway, just to be sure.”
He caught that special grin she used when she knew he wouldn’t be satisfied until he checked things out.
“After tonight, you could certainly use a walk to calm your mind.”
She stretched up to give him a kiss before shuffling to bed. As he stood there, Alai could hear the rain still beating upon the roof. Beyond the kitchen table, a plastic pane door overlooked the covered patio and the ocean beyond. Behind him, the two beds where the family slept, partitioned by heavy curtains.
She slid beneath the covers and exhaled into a comfortable position. The boy mumbled in his sleep. Alai fondly recalled that momentous conversation just a few weeks ago when he and the boy were out in the boat with the dog, setting nets in the bay.
He had asked the boy what the elders were teaching them in camaraderie class that week.
“Well,” the boy had answered, “a bit about that Cloudburst thing.”
“Mmm ... hmm. Old story, that.”
Cloudburst. The moment when the world’s information – and the people who relied on it – disappeared inexplicably hundreds of years ago. Cloudburst. It had ushered a new, pragmatic era of life on Earth, renewed man’s bond with the natural world, and hastened the principles of the elders’ teachings, Our Order. The event and its aftermath were described in that class as something terrifying. Rarely was it spoken of otherwise.
The quiet sway of the boat had seemed to let the boy consider that old story.
“Father, would all that stuff come tumbling out of the sky just like when it rains?”
“So the elders say, boy. So they say.”
“Would it come down hard like in a torrent, or softer as it sometimes does?”
“Well, I don’t know. It was called Cloudburst, so a torrent would seem more accurate.”
The dog shifted in the bilge, absorbing coolness from the water that had accumulated there. Water dripped off the hull as they calmly undulated on the surface of an easy ocean.
Alai had looked from the corner of his eye as the boy meditated on the idea of an incomprehensible amount of information disappearing instantaneously. A cataclysmic lesson, they had been taught, that ended an era of dependence on complex technologies by a technology-obsessed society. Those people had fallen helplessly into extinction, nearly. Some, it was said, had burrowed themselves away, lying in wait. For what? The elders spoke little about those people, except of their interdiction and their name: Apostates.
“But you wouldn’t see it, as they’re just thoughts and knowledge and such.”
“No, I know. But once it’s fallen, did it all disappear like rain into the ocean? Gone forever?”
“Yes, son. It’d just disappear. Like rain into the ocean.” Alai had looked out at the hazy line that separated the sea from the sky. “And if I told you it got just a bit fuller down there and a just a bit emptier up there,” he looked up to the sky, “you’d never know it to be any different.”
“And they never got it back?”
“Hardly any of it. They say they all just thought the others were holding on to it when it slipped away.”
“And then all those people disappeared too?”
“So they also say. At least, I’ve never seen any of ’em.”
“I can’t understand it.”
“Nobody can, son. We don’t have to. Life is simpler now. Understandable. We have what we need here. The village is safe. The elders care for us. It’s better this way. All that stuff…,” Alai concluded as he had leaned over and grabbed the oars with a grunt, “it just confused people.”
“Yeah. That’s what Elder Tiul told us.”
Alai had focused on the eddies forming behind his drawn oar as they made their way back to shore. Big thoughts for a young boy. But in those silent strokes to shore, he had pondered how much of those assurances he believed himself.
The boy turned in bed. He is healthy. But health is temporary. Just a bit of luck. All it took was one bad season – a fall, like Bemko had – to take that luck away. No certainty. Yes, the village would always protect them. Elder Gallia-Tiul would always protect them. But to be strong and independent, to not be a burden, to be able to help others in a time of crisis rather than rely on being helped, that is what Alai wished for his son. It may never happen. But it would be more than what he had had.
Less struggle. Cleaner hands.
I would that he were free to make his own way.
Distant thunder jostled Alai from his thoughts. His heavier yard clothes, navy overalls with deep pockets and reinforced knees, were wet with patches that appeared black in the candlelight. Beneath his suspenders, a linen shirt clung uncomfortably to his chest. He returned to the window, but his eyes sagged with exhaustion. Anyway, there was nothing left to see; thunder rolled further off and lightning flashed less frequently. The rain steadied to just a scratch of bristles across the roof. The tarps, now barely visible in the courtyard, sagged deeply under the weight of rainwater. His mind relented to weariness. With his own spot fully occupied, he dragged himself over to the boy’s bed, undressed, and set his head down upon the pillow.
The green glow. I must know what it was.