6.2

The first place I always go, that seems the most natural, is a warm, dark enclosure, embracing me on all sides. The warmth clings to me… I think it’s actually coming from me, and staying on my skin as it seeps out… and there’s something peaceful about the whole experience. It’s not perfect, though… in fact, I know something is happening outside this warm pocket I’m occupying… but I can’t get out to face it. Or I don’t want to, maybe… my stillness seems involuntary, but mental and spiritual, not physical.

Something comes in from outside, though. First, I feel like I’m being watched. The eyes on me are sympathetic, maybe even affectionate, but also a little afraid. That feeling passes, and then I feel like I hear a voice. It’s quiet and muffled, too soft to penetrate whatever’s protecting me, but it’s vaguely familiar. I don’t know what it says. After that, I hear soft footsteps, and then I’m totally alone.

This place is inside me, and it draws me in when I’m fully meditating. Going there is fully intentional, and even though there’s some dissonance, it’s also soothing. It’s like a womb, I guess. But after the gaze passes, and then the voice stops talking, and the footsteps go away, then I just stay there for a while, completely protected and motionless. Eventually, though, a bright light envelops me, and I move on to the second place.

 

Edzie arrived home in a sort of troubled fugue state, Varda’s words still ringing in her memory: “It won’t do Boyle any good to keep endearing himself to outcasts.” Tension rippled through her shoulders and neck, and her senses, normally so attuned to her surroundings, were all turned inward. She barely registered the sounds of her mother doing some sort of work in the gardens behind their dromo.

Edzie entered the gathering room, its fire reduced to embers in the central hearth, and headed straight for her own room. In the interior shadows, she loosened the tails of her brivsa and tugged the hood from her head. She stopped, motionless, in the center of the room, feeling strangely suffocated by the cool inside air.

She remained there for a moment, held in the grip of some emotional paralysis, and then moved toward the darker shadow underneath her bed, drawn by some unexpected compulsion. She had to crawl to get between the wooden legs of her furniture, but it only took a few seconds for her to reach the base of the wall, where she scratched at an irregular patch of earth. Her fingers found purchase, scraping away the dirt, and in a small cavity, she found what she was looking for.

She withdrew her hands, and in the shadow of her bed, she gazed upon the old plastic knife, her clandestine gift from a man named Dormoroy Gesk.

The plastic artifact was crusted with dirt, but Edzie only had to wipe it a little to expose the black shine of its surface. It seemed to pulsate in her hands, drawing the ambient light into itself. It was so absolutely alien, so otherworldly and forbidden, that her tactile response to its surface was a tightening of her chest, a loss of focus and a sudden drawing of her breath.

Good people miss out on a lot of beautiful things, it seemed to say, its voice an echo of a city she would never see. She drew it closer to her face, and caught sight of herself, looking back from its surface.

Footsteps… the sound of activity in the gathering room. A rush of anxiety struck Edzie, and she scrambled back toward the wall and stuck the plastic knife back in its crevice. Her hands moved with a panicked haste, shoving the earth back into the crack, and she extracted herself from the shadow of her bed and turned toward her doorway. A moment passed, and then Elkansa appeared, blocking the glow emanating from the hallway.

“Edzie?” Her mother wore a wrap, pulled tightly around her breasts, and a pair of weathered pants gathered neatly about her knees. “Is everything okay? You’re covered in dirt.”

Edzie stood there for a moment, at a loss. She struggled to find some explanation, and then thought back to what she had been doing that afternoon – her time with Stray and Boyle, her conversation with Varda. She knew Stray would be returning home soon, and she was desperate for some kind of closure or reassurance.

“I’m fine, mom. But I was talking to Varda, and she told me about Alynn, and… do you know what she says about Stray?”

Elkansa frowned, stepping just through the doorway. “I don’t… well, I have an idea. What did you hear about it?”

“She doesn’t want him to be friends with Boyle because she thinks of him as an outsider. Nothing but a voraish.”

Elkansa groaned. “Argh. Ridiculous. She’s being a sluicule. Sorry for the language. She never appreciated what Stray does for that boy.”

Edzie felt frustration growing in her voice. “Mom, she can’t just treat him like that! You have to go talk to her!”

Elkansa folded her arms. “Excuse me? I don’t have to do anything. It’s not my business how she treats him… he’s her son, after all.”

“NO! I mean STRAY! You need to go tell her that he’s part of the tribe, just like the rest of us, and he deserves to be respected!”

Elkansa looked steadily at her daughter, and then shook her head. “Edzie, you need to calm down. We can’t keep every person from getting whatever ideas they get.”

“People?” Edzie wanted to stomp on the floor of her room, but she knew it would make her look like a child, so she remained tense and motionless. “It’s not people. It’s one person, who happens to be our neighbor, and used to be our friend. And she should be set straight.”

“Edzie, stop yelling.” Elkansa remained stern, serious, and unflappable. “We’re a small tribe. People know that Stray isn’t originally from here. Some of them may judge him for it. The best we can do is be there for him, and he’ll get through it.” She paused to see if she was getting through to her daughter, and then went on. “Everybody I know loves Stray. He’s friends with the Mistras, he’s patient with the other kids, he’s growing into a fetching young man. He’ll be fine.”

“UGH.” Edzie marched through her room and pushed past her mother. She was angry almost beyond words, but it didn’t manifest as an outburst… instead, Edzie crafted her anger into daggers, furnishing the most hurtful attack on her mother she could muster. “You think he needs someone telling him to make the best of it? I thought you would be strong enough to stand up for him, like the mother you promised to be. Now I have to do that job, too.”

“EDZIE!” Elkansa was yelling now, trying—unsuccessfully—to keep some kind of hold on her daughter. “WE’RE ALL PART OF THIS TRIBE. BE AN ADULT.” She advanced a few steps. “IF YOU EVEN CONSIDER RUINING OUR FAVOR IN THIS COMMUNITY, THEN BY DISSADAE… YOU DO NOT EVEN WANT TO KNOW WHAT I WILL DO TO YOU.”

Edzie strode through the gathering room, past the soft fire, her head spinning with the shock of the argument. She couldn’t hear her mother’s footsteps, but she was confident that Elkansa was following, intent on averting whatever mayhem Edzie had in store. She reached the front door of the dromo, still imagining herself as a righteous avenger, confronting Alynn on Stray’s behalf. In this frame of mind, she stepped out in the daylight.

It was at that moment that her calculating nature caught up with her indignation, and instead of embarking for Boyle’s house, she veered to one side and knelt in the shadow of her own dromo, caught in an eddy of uncertainty. Her eyes drifted over the grass and dirt as she assessed the situation… first, she realized how little power she had in the face of Alynn’s protectiveness, and the thought was devastating. All she would accomplish would be to anger her own mother, and cement her reputation as a miscreant, and widen the gulf between Stray and Boyle. She wanted, more than anything, to punish Alynn for her mistreatment of Stray, but she had no leverage… her anger was a blade without a handle, its edge pressed to her own palm.

“EDZIE.” Elkansa’s voice emerged from the entranceway. At first, Edzie didn’t acknowledge it.

“ED. ZIE.” This time, Elkansa’s tone brought Edzie to attention. It wasn’t her usual voice of reproach… indeed, there was something panicked and hurt in it, and it made Edzie shiver in spite of herself. She half-stood and turned back toward the dromo, suddenly concerned.

Elkansa’s hand closed around Edzie’s upper arm, so rough that Edzie thought it would dislocate. She didn’t resist, but Elkansa was pulling so hard it didn’t matter… Edzie found herself unmoored from the ground, practically thrown back through the entranceway. She stumbled, and Elkansa held her up, giving her only a moment to find her footing. When Edzie looked up, she found Elkansa was pointing at something on the ground near the fire pit.

There, lying in the dirt where Elkansa had thrown it, was the black plastic knife.

“Mom…” Despair washed over Edzie, and she stuttered, incoherent, paralyzed.

“I can’t… I don’t believe…” Elkansa, too, was beyond words. She pulled Edzie in front of her, and they walked toward the contraband together, Edzie fast in her mother’s grip, feeling a desperation in her touch. She found herself standing over the knife, looking down at it, crusted with dirt, like a venomous lizard camouflaged as part of the floor.

“You would bring that… thing… into my dromo, poison my walls with its filth… how did you get it, Edzie? Who has these?”

“Mother…” Edzie was momentarily beyond defiance, so she lapsed into apologetic honesty. “Nobody has them. I got it from the bandit, Doromory Gesk, when we captured him in the woods, three winters ago.”

“And you kept it secret from me, all this time? What about Stray?”

Elkansa couldn’t take her eyes off the knife, but Edzie could see that tears were beginning to form beneath them. She seemed so numb, so distraught, that Edzie found her own distress waning in the face of her mother’s dread. Gradually, as Elkansa seemed to fall apart, Edzie began to regain her composure.

“Stray? Stray wouldn’t abide something like this. I don’t think he’s even capable of lying.” Edzie leaned down to pick up the knife; Elkansa’s grip on her shoulder tightened. “Mom, it was something special. A secret I kept for myself. You don’t have to put me to trial for it.”

Elkansa’s grip loosened, and Edzie knelt to pick up the knife. She did her best to look disgusted at its strangeness, but all she could muster was an expression of indifference. Elkansa remained motionless for a second, and then took the knife from Edzie’s hand… decisively, but without violence. She looked Edzie in the eye as she spoke.

“Edzie,” she said, apparently calmed by her daughter’s composure, “this is not just some trinket. It was a great crime to create this, and it is a great crime to have it in your possession… the kind of crime that can change the whole shape and culture of a society. These kinds of fetishes… the synthetic, molded and mass-produced infatuations of sick minds… these have destroyed too many lives to count.” She paused, making sure Edzie was paying attention to her. “Like Stray’s father, who let himself be carried away by his damned fascination.”

“Tamlis…?” Edzie was struck by this sudden admission, though she had heard a few such rumors already.

“Yes,” Elkansa said. “I’ll say no more about it, except that it is fortunate… perhaps a blessing from Dissadae himself… that he never made a co-conspirator of Stray.”

The word crime struck Edzie with significant force, and she redirected the conversation. “So what will happen to me?” she asked. “Can they exile me for having this?”

Elkansa scowled at her daughter. “Doubtful, but it’s possible. At any rate, they would place a great curse upon you, and you would carry the ill will of the tribe for many years… perhaps your whole life, as long as the incident was remembered.”

Edzie felt a trace of desperation in her breast, but she remained steadfast, looking into her mother’s eyes without flinching. Elkansa seemed to consider the topic for a moment, and then she made a decision. “That is if I were to let it happen. But you are my daughter, and I won’t let you ruin your own life, no matter how hard you try. I’m taking that travesty and keeping it safe until early morning, when I will dispose of it well outside the settlement.”

Edzie almost raised her voice to object, but presently thought better of it. She had set these events in motion by revealing the knife’s location, and now it was best that she let it go. Elkansa was probably right, now that both of them knew about it… it needed to be purged from their lives. Still, she was disheartened at the loss of her treasure, and her resentment for her mother burned in her throat, already inflamed by the earlier fight.

Elkansa was already heading to her room, knife in hand, when Edzie called to her. “So, mom, I just wondered… what would happen to you if the tribe learned I had this?”

Elkansa only hesitated a moment. “That’s of no concern to you,” she said sternly. “You’re the one whose future needs saving here.”