She learned about the arrival of the stranger on the same day she found out that the two-month-old grandchild of her cousin-in-law Aycee had been bitten by a green spider but so far had not broken out in sores, and that Hainela, who definitely had too much wealth for her own good, was planning to take a third husband. It was just another bit of news, mentioned casually as the women worked. The season of the stinging rains was upon them, and the Blue Heart clan was busy preparing for the move to their traditional below-ground homes.
The stranger was a man, from somewhere far to the west, where the world grew wild and thin. Roday thought about the stranger only as long as it took her to wonder, briefly, which family would take him in. The underground dwellings were small; already arguments had broken out, muted still but sure to intensify, over which line or circle had the stronger kinship obligation to this relative or that.
Since the season of the stinging rains struck only every three or four years, plans to enlarge and improve the below-ground nests always wriggled to the back of people’s minds as soon as the sun returned and the stink of burning faded from the air. For next time, they said, every time, determined to come back and dig out a new room, shore up a tunnel, widen an entryway, do something about the cesspit. Then more urgent matters would intervene.
Someone would take the stranger. To leave him aboveground, unprotected and kinless, would be barbaric. Rat Folks might do it. Roday wouldn’t put such a thing past the Pigeon High band, either, for didn’t everyone know they made a grand show of hospitality and feastings at gatherings where there were many eyes to see and tongues to praise, but turned stingy and cool once there was no acclaim to be won? Blue Heart people were true people. A place would be found for the man. All of the circles would give a share from their stores to provide his food. The young folks tasked with hauling water from the covered wells would make a few extra trips. That was the way things would be.
Which nest would invite Roday to shelter with them was a more unsettled matter. The other women did not speak of it to her, for that was not the Blue Heart way. They smiled when she came to help with the packing, though none of them needed her assistance, nor did any head of family allow Roday to do more than token work. They included her in their conversation and their meals, and Roday was grateful for the pretense that nothing was wrong.
Her own gear and stores were simple to pack. She could carry her belongings across the broken lands in one trip, on her own old back.
Aycee, the cousin-in-law with the new grandchild, had not spoken to her yet. Roday could think that was because of the busyness involved when a baby arrived; now, of course, all of that circle would be worried about the spider bite. No time to think about an old woman waiting for word. When the baby’s fever went down, perhaps, Aycee would remember to send a boy running across the settlement, his eyes alight with pride at the responsibility entrusted to him. The words would be few, casual: Why do you delay, cousin? We are ready to begin the journey.
Except that undeniable signs that the season of the stinging rain was again upon them had appeared before the new baby came to join this world. Indications had been noticed long before then—the brown sunsets, the bitter dew on the broad gumgrass blades. It is coming, people said, and even those who did not want to believe it were prudent enough to begin to dry and store extra food, as if for a long, hard winter.
“The stranger’s language is peculiar,” Roday heard, as she sat at the edge of a circle and occasionally touched a basket or bundle as it passed from one woman to the next. “You must bend your mind as well as your ears to understand him.”
“That is natural. He is from far away. Far away people speak oddly.”
“What does he look like?” Gheena asked. She did not make a show of dropping her gaze or blushing when the older women glanced at her. Roday approved of that. She disliked the fashion for bashfulness that had spread among the young; it seemed very silly to her. She would not have abided it in her own children, had they lived. Nowadays boys barely spoke in company, kept their eyes on the ground, giggled when they made any sound at all—it was all very ridiculous, but the fads of the young were beyond the control of the grown. At least some of the girls had more sense.
Tazy, who had seen the man when he had entered the settlement, escorted by the sentry who’d come across the stranger as he’d approached the river, said, “He is of middle height—about as tall as your elder brother. He is of middle years—about as old as my husband. He is very thin, and has no hair on his head—I could not tell if he shaved it, or if the baldness is natural to him. The oddest thing was his clothing, which was gray, and not from dust. He wore clothing made from the skins of some gray animal, but what animal, I could not say.” The women murmured. Blue Heart folks shunned gray as an unlucky color. “He seemed very tired,” Tazy finished.
“Lermi’s nest is hosting him. They’ll feed him up.”
“Oh, is Lermi going to—” Gheena cut herself off.
Roday pretended not to hear. She busied herself with checking the lashings on a bundle that had already been checked three times. Silla murmured that it had not yet been decided, and then Tazy announced that she was hungry and she was sure everyone else must be, too, and so the topic was changed.
Roday tried not to think about it. If Aycee had no space for her, fretting about it would not help. Sometimes, looking at the sky, noting the warning color of the clouds, she would say to herself, After they are gone, I will do it quickly. I will not wait for the rain to blind me, to burn through my clothes and eat up my skin. As soon as the last straggler is out of sight, I will cut my throat, and that will be the end of it. She worried she might not have the strength to do it cleanly. Then there would be nothing for it but to make her way to the river and let herself fall in.
It was wrong to hope that if Aycee did not invite her to shelter in her family’s below-ground dwelling, some other family would. That sort of hope only bred anguish. She was useless. To hope was merely to torture herself.
That evening, Roday made no fire. She sat outside her nest on the southernmost edge of the settlement, and looked at the sky. The sunset had been as brown as nightsoil. The air was damp. She thought she could feel it sting already. The Blue Hearts would have to begin the journey across the broken lands within a day, two at the most.
She must not expect a messenger from Aycee. She knew that. But when she caught sign of movement in the darkness, the brush of a foot on bare ground, the breathing of someone who was not her, the treacherous hope assailed her again. But it could not be a boy; the footsteps were too heavy, and so, too, was the breathing.
She waited. The starlight and the glow from other people’s fires allowed her to see only shadows. One of the shadows was more solid than the rest. This one approached her, where she sat with her legs folded properly and her back supported by the pack she had made ready days ago.
It was not a boy. It was not any member of her cousin-in-law Aycee’s circle.
The solid shadow stopped a decent distance from her, but close enough that Roday could make out the roundness of his bald head. Lermi must have provided him with clothes, for he was dressed in the manner of a Blue Heart man. She could not tell the color of his garments, though she was sure they were not gray.
“Old woman, I see you sit.”
Roday was shocked. That was not the manner in which people addressed each other. Even a stranger should know that, even a stranger from very far away, where the world grew thin and wild.
“Old woman, you sit.”
She could not judge whether the man understood his mistake. The second time he spoke, his tone was softer, his voice lower, but the words were almost the same.
She recalled Tazy saying that the stranger’s language was peculiar, that one must bend the mind as well as the ear to make sense of it. Her ear had always been good. She had no great difficulty with the blurred, mis-tongued sounds he made. If she turned her mind sideways, she could see how it might be possible the man meant to speak courteously. With a pang, she remembered her duty to a guest. He might have a good excuse for his behavior; she did not.
“I sit,” she replied. It seemed the thing to say.
Immediately the man sat down, right there where he’d been standing, on the bare ground. He sat with his ankles together and his arms around his knees. Roday wondered if he did so to show her he meant no violence, or if that was simply the way his people sat.
“Welcome,” she said. “Have you eaten?”
It had been a greeting-question, one of the necessary courtesies, but it was well he had answered so. She had nothing to offer him other than water.
It was difficult to make out the stranger’s expression. This was not entirely due to the darkness. Every time she glanced at him, his eyes met hers, and so she had to look away. What odd people they must be, away in the west, she thought.
It was not polite to ask a guest true questions, but Roday considered it likely the stranger did not know this. She wondered how it was that Lermi allowed him to roam so freely, not even a full day after he had arrived in the settlement, and was setting her mouth to inquire, when the man spoke again.
“My name is Lowan. I have come to ask.”
This shock was almost as great as the first, his name given so nakedly. Roday hoped she’d managed to keep control over her own expression. She waited.
“I owe two lives, to make balance. You are old woman, so I ask.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Not,” she said, enunciating very clearly.
The man dipped his head. “I killed three. Later, I saved one. No rest, you understand?” It occurred to Roday that he was not only making an effort to enunciate clearly, but also to speak slowly and to use short sentences and simple words. Perhaps he had tried to speak in a more natural way among Lermi’s circle, and encountered only confusion. “Now two remain.”
Roday did not follow his meaning. He wanted something from her, had come to ask for something, but she could not fathom what.
He truly was alarmingly thin, Roday thought. Tazy had been right about that. She could see the man’s hands; they looked as frail as those of someone who had suffered a wasting fever. But he did not sit like a weak man, nor speak as a weak man would. This one was accustomed to being strong. He would recover quickly, now that he was safe among civilized folk, and now that he had been freed from the unlucky gray clothing.
“You killed three people.” She had intended for it to be a question, but good manners still constrained her tongue.
“Why?” Ah, now she had taken the irreversible step; there was no way to pull that word back from the air.
The stranger did not move, except to lower his head a bit more. Any woman or man of the Blue Hearts would have been deeply insulted. This one answered. “It was by chance, mischance, not plan. The three were companions, yes? One, I loved. I said the way was safe. They were afraid. I pushed them.” He jerked forward, conveying the idea of a physical shove. “And the way was not safe. The earth was soft. It swallowed them. I was the last. I stood on the good ground and watched. They screamed for me, but I was afraid to go closer.” He spoke softly.
“Is that why you have traveled so far? You are banished? Outcast?”
Now she made a pushing gesture, with both hands. “Your people. Said go. Not return. I mean, return not.”
“No,” he replied, after a moment. “I said to me, go. I said to me, must balance.”
On occasion it happened that a person of the Blue Heart Clan killed another person of the Blue Heart Clan. Consequences varied. The killer might be killed in turn by the family of the victim. The killer might hand over heaps of gear and store in recompense, or bind himself or herself to serve the dead one’s family for a period of years. The killer might offer a child of his or her own circle to the bereaved ones, to take the place of the person death had eaten. Somehow, she did not think the stranger was speaking of this type of balancing, but to be sure, she asked, “The one you saved, you gave him or her to the relatives of one of the people who died?”
“No.” He sounded puzzled. “Why?”
It was not that, then.
“What happened to the person you saved?”
Roday cupped her chin. Three dead, by his fault. Three to be hauled back from death, by his action. It was a strange way to reckon obligation. “So when you have saved two more, you may return to your people?”
Even in the darkness, she saw him shake his head. “I owe two lives. When I have paid, I can rest.”
That seemed very selfish to her, but she said nothing.
“I broke me, when I killed the three. I need to fix.”
But such a thing was not possible, Roday thought. A shoe might be mended, or a pot, a basket, a snare, a fishing net. People could not be fixed that way, lives could not be so mended. Only in dark-of-the-moon tales did such repairs occur, as when the brother accidentally turned his younger sister into a sourbark tree, and then restored her with a magic stone, so that all was put back into place, and the death had not really happened. The man was trying to live in a story. Almost, she laughed. “Why do you come to me?”
“Old women know most. I have traveled and traveled. Now I cannot travel more unless I cross the river. I come to ask. Do I stay here, or do I go on?”
There were other old women in the settlement. The stranger had left Lermi’s nest, where he had been given shelter, food, new clothes, and no doubt medicine for his wounds and travel sores, where those supervising this attention would have been old women, unless something had happened to Lermi’s mother-in-law and her sister that Roday hadn’t heard about, to ghost around from one nest to the next, until he made his way to the southernmost fringe of the settlement and her.
“You came to me because I am sitting alone.”
“My nest is barely part of the settlement. Walk a little farther that way—” she jerked her head “—and you will find the wilderness.”
“I built no fire tonight. I was looking at the sky.”
“And all of this means wisdom to you?”
“Yes. Yes.” He leaned forward, hugging his knees more tightly.
The desire to laugh evaporated like dew, leaving bitterness and burning behind. “Do you know what is going to happen here? Do you see the bundles and packs? In a day, the clan will store away all that cannot be carried, will pick up all that can, and go to another place. It is a five day trek, at least, across the broken lands. Do you understand why the people must do this?”
“You must have glanced at the sky once or twice as you journeyed here.” Her words and her tone were both far from polite, but Roday was shielded by anger, and shame could not touch her. “Do not tell me you noticed nothing.”
“The clouds,” he said, tentatively.
“And the air? When the air is damp, have you not felt a burning in your lungs, a soreness in your eyes, a painful itching spreading over your skin?”
“The season of the stinging rains is upon us.”
This meant nothing to him. She could see that by the way he continued to sit, tense, but with the tension of eagerness. She tried to explain. “This rain sears. It burns flesh and grass and earth. I see it does not fall where you come from, but here, it returns every few years, and living things must go below ground in order to survive. You are a guest. Someone will give you shelter. Perhaps Lermi, perhaps another. Across the river, few people live. Some No Water people, who left the main band in my mother’s time. Some Rat Folks, in the summer. If you want a boat, you will have to haggle with them. And the Gray people, they live there, too.” She raised her hands and spread out her fingers. “Perhaps you have never seen one. They have six fingers on each hand, six toes on each foot, and they never blink. Blue Hearts do not trade with them. There. That is all the knowledge I have. Leave me in peace now.”
She had spoken slowly, despite her anger, but still she had said a long piece, and when the man shook his head, she knew he had not caught the meaning carried by her words.
“The rain,” she said. “A bad rain is coming. This rain burns. We call it the stinging rain so as not to frighten the children. This rain kills. Tomorrow someone will say to you, I invite you to shelter with us. Go with that person and her or his family. That way you will live.”
He let go of his knees, and placed his hands flat on the ground. “To live, not important. I need to fix me. To live, not enough.”
“Fool,” she said, softly. “To live is everything.”
He let out an exclamation then; she had succeeded in shocking him. “So strange, you people. Understand not.”
He might not understand her, but Roday understood what he wanted very well. All children believed in the dark-of-the-moon tales, and many young people did as well. When a woman or man reached middle years, however, clinging to such fancies was ridiculous. “You saved one. Killed three, saved one.”
“Yes. A boy. He fell, from. . . high place. Small boy.” The man’s voice quickened. “I climbed down. Very far, very hard. I carried him up, very far, very hard. One life, yes.”
“That was good. But what did you fix?”
“You.” She met his eyes now. “Are you less broken? Did you fix anything?”
“I—you understand not. I need three.” He held up his left hand, showing three fingers.
“Three will make no more difference than two, or one.”
He slapped the ground. “Three fixes. Three makes balance. You are bad old woman. You eat hearts. You kill babies.”
A witch, he was calling her, in his blurred, childish way of speaking. Suddenly the entire conversation struck her again as very, very funny.
“You laugh! Bad. So bad.” He pushed himself up.
“I am a dead woman,” she said. “When the burning rain comes, I will die.”
“Yes! The sky will punish you. You are bad.”
“No. I am useless and alone. I have no below-ground dwelling of my own. My family was poor. We always sheltered with relatives. Both my husbands were poorer still. The second one had no relatives at all. He was an orphan from across the river, taken in by the Blue Hearts, as you have been.” Roday paused. “He was kind to me, though. So each time the season of the stinging rains came, we sheltered with my relatives. But the old relatives are gone, and their children and grandchildren are the heads of the nests. The nests are full, and more than full, and I am of no use. You are a guest. That is different. Whoever wins the honor of hosting you will gain praise. But when the Blue Hearts go from this place, tomorrow or the next day, they will leave me behind.”
She did not know how much he grasped of what she said, but the stranger did not stalk away. He stood and gazed at her for many breaths. “Why?”
Roday picked up a dead leaf resting near her foot. “This is me. I am this.” She flicked it away, and did not look to see where it fell.
How nice it would be if witches were real, if magic was real. Or if the Blue Heart people were as ignorant as this stranger’s folks, and believed in such things. She’d willingly be a witch, pretend to have the power to blight this, curse that, blast the other, shrivel the next – to frighten people so deeply they would not dare abandon her. To be feared was to be powerful, even in old age, even bereft of kin. Unfortunately, the Blue Hearts were too wise to fear what did not exist.
Roday was tired, and beginning to feel cold despite the wrap over her shoulders. She wanted to crawl inside her tiny, one-woman nest, and settle herself for sleep.
“Go on,” she said. “It is late.”
“I owe two lives.”
So he hadn’t wearied of their conversation yet. She fought the urge to sigh. “Yes. I wish you success.” She also wished she could be present when the man discovered that saving three lives did not make him feel any better about the three friends he had lost, that no matter what he did, he could not restore the world to way it was before those deaths occurred. But that was something that could not be.
“No woman is a dry leaf. No man, no woman.”
Roday was tired in body and in mind. “Go back to the nest that is hosting you,” she said. “Be grateful you have fallen in among civilized people.” She did sigh, then. “Leave me in peace.”
“The boy,” he said. “The boy I climbed for. He lives.”
“Yes. You did a good thing.” Roday shut her eyes.
“He lives,” the man insisted, as if she were missing his point.
Perhaps she was. Her stomach was empty, and her bones ached. She wished to sleep, without dreams.
“You say, fix not.” He paused. “You are old woman, and old woman knows most. You tell me. The small boy, he lives. I fix that.”
“Very well. Saving a life is an admirable act. I praise you.”
Those were not the words he wanted. “I fix that.”
“You said, to live is everything.”
She had. It wasn’t a strange thing to say, when one’s own death approached. “All right.” If she agreed, perhaps he would go away. “You fixed that.”
“The boy lives.”
“You will live,” the stranger said. “You will be two.”
She opened her eyes. “What?”
“I am guest. You people think strong for guests. Shelter, yes?”
“Shelter,” she repeated. “From the rains, do you mean?”
“Shelter, yes. Who shelters me must shelter you. I will say. To them, I will say this.”
Astonished, Roday gaped at him. Her heart beat terribly. Hope, that treacherous hope, had returned. “Why?”
“I search long. I trek and trek. I find you. You are two.”
He stared at her. She thought he smiled. “You want not to live?”
“I want to live.”
“Yes.” Oh, yes, she did.
“So. Boy lives. You live.” He took a breath, and did not let it out for a long moment. Finally, he said, “I fix that. Enough for boy. Enough for you. Enough for three, when I find.”
“But not enough for you.” Roday couldn’t stop herself.
The stranger did not reply, and she did not repeat the words a blow of conscience had forced her to utter. He inclined his head. It was not a nod, but a gesture of farewell. He moved silently into the darkness, toward the flickers of flame that illuminated the nests of the settlement, more quietly than he had come. Roday listened until she could no longer hear the minute brush of his steps on the grass and dirt.
She continued to sit under the sky, growing colder under her wrap. There was nothing for her to do but wait. Her belongings were already packed. In the morning, the women of the nearest circle would send a child over with breakfast. And then she would wait some more, to see which grand family would send a messenger to invite her to join them for their midday meal.
But no, she must think as well as wait. The stranger—Lowan—had made her kin, not only to himself, but to the family that would shelter the both of them. Her obligations to that family Roday could perform without strain. They wouldn’t expect much. Lowan would not expect anything, being unlearned in the ways of the Blue Heart clan, but his ignorance did not remove her obligation.
There would be time, during the season of the stinging rains, while the young folks played pebble-and-bowl games to pass the time and the older ones recited genealogies to the children, to think of a way to arrange for a third person for Lowan to save. He might, perhaps, injure himself in doing so, which would make him feel even more virtuous. Roday smiled slightly. She knew the man would find nothing but disappointment at the end of his quest, but it was what he wanted, and what was a grandmother for, but to do all in her power to provide her grandson with what he desired?