This is a story about wishes and feathers.
Reh Izo came from Toynejo, where they believed in wishes. Lopi knew Reh came from Toynejo because of her accent, and because of her rings, and because of way she always accepted packages with a little jerky nod. That was a Toynejo habit, that jerky nod. When they had first met, the old woman had worn rings on every finger, and on occasion Lopi had seen Reh stroke, then twist, one ring or another. Everybody knew Toynejo people wished with rings. And Reh pronounced the sound of o as if it were ou, and the sound of e as if it were ey. Clearly she was from Toynejo, but Lopi never asked her about it. They didn’t speak about personal things.
At first, they had hardly spoken at all. Lopi made her delivery every other week, sometimes every three weeks. “Hello. Delivery. Sign, please.” “Thank you.” Of course Lopi had known the old woman was sick. Healthy folks did not have airsticks delivered to them regularly. Of course Lopi had known the old woman was not wealthy. The airsticks she received came from a discount medical supply firm, and were the cheap sort, the kind that didn’t need to be transported in coldbags. Plus that, there was the place she nested in, a couple of rooms half underground that never saw daylight, in the back of a big house that held three other families, one floor each for them. The entrance to Reh’s nest was at the end of a narrow alley. The door signal didn’t work, so Lopi had to knock, and knock loudly. The old woman was a little deaf.
Lopi was not surprised that Reh Izo had come to Zormevan to live, for the people of Zormevan were kind. Everybody knew that, the same way they knew that the people of Cando were misers and that the people of Toynejo believed in wishes. Since Lopi had grown up in Zormevan, this kindness was not something she noticed every day. It was mostly when Lopi traveled outside the city, or met travelers passing through Zormevan, that the kindness of her home city was made sharp. Outside Zormevan, people stared. Strangers passed comments, sometimes to each other, as if she could not hear them or understand them, sometimes directly to her, as if she could not be hurt by their words. People stopped her, stood in her path as she walked, or even put their hands on her to force her to halt, so they could ask about her face. In Bogroco they did that a lot. The people of Bogroco believed in directness. That was another thing everyone knew.
Reh Izo never stared at Lopi’s face, or asked her any questions. The first time Reh had opened her old wooden door, she’d looked, and then looked away quickly. She had not met Lopi’s eyes as she accepted her package, or when she had taken the stylus to sign the delivery tracker, or handed the tracker and stylus back. She had given her that quick, jerky little nod that Toynejo people did. And she had said, “Thank you.” The second time Reh Izo opened the door, she had made eye contact with Lopi, though she hadn’t smiled. Reh Izo, Lopi came to realize, rarely smiled. But perhaps when one was ill and far away from home, there wasn’t much to smile about.
On occasion, when she was making other deliveries in the neighborhood, Lopi saw her outside, in the front garden that all the nests in the building had access to, sitting on one of the benches, turning her rings. Lopi wondered if the old woman was wishing for health, or money, or for something else altogether. Of course she would not ask.
She did notice when the rings began to disappear from the old woman’s fingers, first the one with the blue stone, then the simple silver knot, the sort of token young people in early love gave to each other, then the two plain yellow bands. She was selling them, Lopi thought.
In the garden, too, on occasion she saw the old woman scraping an airstick, carefully, with a tiny bright knife, her head lowered to inhale each curl as it came off the block.
Reh Izo was in the garden once when Lopi had to make a delivery to the nest on the second floor of the dwelling. They nodded to each other as Lopi went by the bench on her way to the steps. The man who opened the door of the second floor nest greeted her kindly and offered her tea, which Lopi kindly declined. Handing back the delivery tracker, the man directed his eyes over Lopi’s shoulder. “It is good to see her sitting in the sun,” he said. “We worry about her. She is so alone.”
“You are kind to be concerned.”
“My wife cooks for her sometimes,” the man said. “And she is kind, as well. She helped my son with his mathematics homework, long ago, when he was in first school.”
It surprised Lopi to hear that the old woman had lived in her small nest here for many years. She had thought, because Reh Izo’s accent was so strong, that she must have arrived from Toynejo quite recently. But, she supposed, some people lost their accents more easily than others, the same way that some people learned the steps of a new dance more easily than others.
It surprised her much more when she discovered that the old woman was not an old woman at all, despite the evidence of her white hair, her bent back, her tentative movements, her deafness.
Lopi learned of her mistake midway through the second year she made deliveries to Reh Izo’s nest, when the packages of airsticks came every week, and Reh’s thin, shaky fingers had lost all but two of their rings. The woman had dropped the stylus and not been able to bend to pick it up; as Lopi stooped, she thought, What if she can’t open the package, and she needs a new airstick right now, and as she straightened, she said, “Would you like some help opening the box?”
Reh Izo had stared at her then, not at her face, but at her, breathing heavily, breathing heavily simply from standing. She blinked twice, and then she said, “Yes, thank you. You are kind.”
It had been a crisp, cloudless afternoon, Lopi remembered. The air outside, the air most people never noticed, had smelled of the buds hanging thick on the sourbark trees that grew all along this street.
It was the first time Lopi had been inside the woman’s nest; there was a front room, and a doorless doorway to an unlighted corridor, which probably led to a small kitchen and a smaller washroom. The front room held a bed, which, in Toynejo style, rose only a hand’s-span from the floor, unmade, with a sag in the center that must have taken years to become so pronounced, plus a low table and a couple of chairs, a set of shelves, and a pair of chests. Lopi put the package on the table, then offered Reh Izo her arm, to help her to the nearer of the two chairs. She settled the old woman, silently; and silently, after the old woman was seated, Lopi took the cutter from her belt and slit open the package, folded back its flaps, and removed the first airstick from the top of the stack. Of course it was encased in plasfoil. “Shall I open it?”
Lopi slit the foil, drew out the airstick, and placed it in the old woman’s hands. It was then that she remembered the little bright blade she had seen Reh Izo use. She looked around for it, but it was not on the table, nor immediately visible on any of the shelves.
“May I borrow your cutter?” The woman’s breathing had not grown easier.
“Let me do it,” Lopi said, and kneeling, carefully scraped a thin curl from the stick. As it deliquesced, Reh inhaled the bluish vapor. They added a coloring agent in the manufacturing process, Lopi knew. The vapor itself had no scent, no taste. She pared another curl, and another.
“I used to be a sand runner,” Reh said, with a tiny, cautious laugh. “Came in third in the under-thirty ten-liga race, the year the Games were held in Cando. Can you believe it?”
The last time the Games had been held in Cando, Lopi had been twenty-four years old. She did not say this. Shame began to heat her; she hoped Reh would not notice. She simply nodded, and asked, “Are you feeling better?”
“Yes,” Reh said, after a moment. “Thank you. You are kind.”
“Is there anything else I can do?”
“No, thank you. I am sorry to keep you from your work.”
“I am not sorry,” Lopi said, and as it seemed that Reh Izo did not know how else to end the conversation, Lopi smiled kindly and took her leave. She did not know if Reh perceived the kindness in her smile; the other woman–not an old woman, not an old woman at all–had learned some of the forms of spoken kindness of Zormevan, but not all of them, and even the people of Zormevan did not always know how to read Lopi’s expressions, given the misalignment of her features, and the fatty tumors that grew on her forehead, which made it difficult for her to raise her eyebrows, or frown, though the people of Zormevan, kindly, responded to her as if the expressions they could not understand must, of course, be kind ones.
The next time Lopi knocked on the door of Reh Izo’s nest, the woman seemed stronger. She accepted the package with her little jerk of a nod, signed the tracker without losing her grip on the stylus, and then asked Lopi if she would care for some tea.
“Thank you,” Lopi said, for though such offers were frequently only conversational formulas, she sensed that Reh desired to be kind, and it was kind to allow another to show kindness.
When Reh brought the tea, in brown cup without handles, Lopi saw that she wore no rings at all. Lopi gave her the customary words of gratitude, and sipped the tea. Then she said, because she felt sorry, and because she thought that since Reh was of the Toynejo people, she would not notice that the question was not proper, and if she did not notice, then no harm would be done, “Have you sold them all, then?”
Immediately Reh looked down at her hands, and Lopi felt hot again; the woman had understood the question was improper. But Reh answered mildly, “Yes, I suppose I’ll have to start selling the furniture next,” and turned her head slightly to the left, to signal a joke, and Lopi said yes yes in a soft voice, as was proper in response to such a joke from an acquaintance. To give someone the opportunity to make a joke was not unkind, and Lopi felt better. The tea was odd, though, much too sweet for her taste.
“It’s all right,” Reh said. “It’s almost over, anyway. I think the money I have will last me out. The landlord has been very nice, very understanding.”
Reh Izo had placed the new package Lopi had brought on the table, and gone through the dark, doorless doorway to make tea, walking slowly, breathing hard, but seeming in much less distress, much less air hunger, than the week before. “You look better,” Lopi said. She had managed to drink less than half of the tea in the small cup. She steeled herself to take another sip.
“Thank you,” Reh said, and smiled in a way that Lopi did not understand.
Lopi stared into her cup. There was so much tea left.
“You people,” Reh said. “If you don’t like it, don’t drink it.”
“I don’t wish to–”
“You’re not. You won’t. Do you think I’d get my feelings hurt over a cup of tea?” She shook her head. “There’s being polite, and then there’s being ridiculous. Half the time, I swear–” She silenced herself. “I’m sorry. Different people, different customs.”
“Like the wishes,” Lopi said, boldly.
“Oh. You saw?” Reh laughed her shallow, cautious laugh. “I am done with wishes, too, I think. Besides, it’s hard to work a wish alone. The really big ones need two people.”
Lopi had heard of that. A friend would slide a ring on the finger of the one who needed the wish; the friend would wish, without saying in words what the wish was. The ring must not be touched afterwards. When the wish came true, the friend would come and take the ring back. Or so Toynejo people believed. You would have to trust someone very much to do that, Lopi thought. The other person might wish anything at all, and you would not know it.
“What about your family?” she asked.
Reh’s eyes widened, only briefly, but Lopi could read that expression with no problem: surprise, and dismay. “No,” Reh said. “I have no family. I got away from them. Do you understand?”
“I’m not sure.” In Zormevan, it was not possible to get away from one’s family, even if all of its members had died. One always belonged to one’s family.
“Not everybody is kind. In the world, I mean. Understand?”
“I’m not sure,” Lopi said again.
“It’s all right. Not your problem. But I do not speak to them. They do no speak to me. I have no family.”
“But you. . .” This was beyond bold. This was something one said only to an intimate. “You will die soon.”
“In Zormevan, the family comes, to help with the passage.”
“My family wouldn’t help, believe me. They would make things much, much worse.” Reh took the cup from Lopi’s hand, and set it on the table, near the unopened package. “The people you call my family nearly ate my soul. I have had to spend many years growing my courage. I have enough now, I think.”
“But family is–”
“Nothing. An accident of birth.”
Zormevan people did not think that way. Lopi found it hard to comprehend.
“What about friends?” She looked at the cup on the table. She felt bad that she had not finished the tea.
“Friends have always been a disappointment,” Reh said, quietly. “Long ago, I stopped hoping.”
Lopi felt very sad, but it would have been unkind to say so, for that might have made Reh sad, even though she was a Toynejo person. So she said nothing.
Again it was clear that Reh did not know how to properly end a conversation, so Lopi said that she had to get back to work, and Reh gave her quick little nod, and they parted.
And now we come to the feathers.
Reh Izo did not get better. Lopi had always known that Reh would not recover; stiffening of the lungs was a progressive, incurable condition. Some people lived with it for years, though, even as long as a decade. But the next time she came to deliver a package, it was not Reh Izo who opened the door, but a neighbor from the first-floor nest. Reh Izo was in bed, with three pillows behind her back. Her face was the color of puff-bread dough. “It will not be long,” the neighbor said softly, accepting the package, signing the tracker. “We have contacted her family. They are coming.”
“Yes. It took a while to find them. The comm addresses in her reminder were very old. But we located one. He will gather the others. Don’t worry. We will keep her here until they come.” The man was young, and clearly a bit nervous. This was natural. He, and all the other families in the building, were performing one of the most critical kindnesses that anyone ever could.
“You searched her possessions?”
“It was necessary, to find her family.”
“Did you ask her?
The man looked puzzled. “She does not speak much, now. It is difficult for her.”
Yes, Lopi thought. Yes, of course it would be. And even if Reh Izo had managed to say No, no, don’t, this man and the others in the building would not have understood. Lopi wasn’t quite certain she understood herself
“May I see her?” she asked.
“You are a friend, I see. All right. Come in, but only for a moment. She is weak.”
Lopi did not say, yes, I am her friend. Lying always made her feel queasy.
Reh Izo lay propped up on the pillows, her eyes closed, her breaths coming with the sound of dance sticks clicking against each other.
The people of the building had already started to bring in feathers.
If you fill a room where a person is dying with feathers, this will help delay the moment of death until all the members of the departing person’s family are able to arrive. Everybody in Zormevan knew this.
Lopi looked at Reh, lying in the bed, her eyes closed but her body shaking, turning, her hands clutching at the covers, as if she were battling an enemy.
Lopi looked at the room, feathers piled in every corner. Soon, they would cover the floor, the table, the chests, the shelves, the bed.
Different people, different customs.
Different people, different magics.
“I’ll come by again later, after I finish my route,” Lopi said.
“All right,” the young man said.
“It is good to be kind.”
“Yes, it is.”
Lopi did not hurry to make the rest of her deliveries. She needed to think. Could one person be a friend to another, she wondered, without that other person’s agreement? Could you be a friend to someone who did not want you to be, or did not believe that it was possible for you to be?
When her work was finished, Lopi went to a jeweler’s shop on Mada Road and bought an inexpensive ring, a braided band of some gray metal with no trade value. She had to guess at the size, but she was guessing at a lot of things today.
When she returned to Reh Izo’s nest, the nervous young man from the first floor had been replaced by an older woman with a bustling manner. More feathers had arrived; Lopi saw that the chests had been piled over and the shelves stuffed full. “I have come to say goodbye,” Lopi said.
“That is kind.”
On the bed, Reh Izo still turned, and turned, pushing at the air, kicking at the covers with no strength. Lopi took Reh’s right hand, and slid the cheap braided metal ring on her first finger. It was a little loose, but it would hold. Lopi wished.
Though the feathers the neighbors had gathered had all been washed, they still made the nest smell like a farm coop. Most of the feathers were gray, the best color.
“The ring is my gift for her passage,” she said to the bustling woman. She did not feel as queasy as she had feared she might. “Please do not remove it.”
“Of course not,” the woman replied. “It is good to be kind.”
“Her family should arrive soon. Perhaps tomorrow.”
Because this woman was older, and did not seem as burdened by the task as the young man had been, Lopi asked, “Have you ever thought. . . that there could be different sorts of kindness?”
“I’m sure there are many sorts.”
“And many sorts of courage?”
“Certainly.” The woman waited patiently, perceiving that there was a further question.
“What about different sorts of families?”
Now the woman frowned. “I’m not sure I understand.”
The sort of family that ate your soul. Lopi could not say those words. “Nothing. I must go. Thank you for your kindness.”
“It is good to be kind.”
Lopi went outside, and waited. Night was coming, and the air was turning cool. Ah, yes, she thought, people do notice that about air, whether it is cool or warm, humid or too dry. Sometimes. Sometimes they noticed it. She sat on a bench in the garden, not the bench Reh Izo always sat on, the one closest to the narrow alley that led from her nest in the back of the house to the front, but the one across from it, on the opposite side of the garden. She could be seen, she knew, from the windows of the nests on every floor of the building. She did not think anyone would come to chase her away. Everyone in the building knew who she was, even if they did not know her name. She was the woman with the face one did not stare at, who delivered packages.
The lights were on in all the nests. This was customary, when someone was dying. As night drew closer, more people would join the older woman keeping watch over Reh Izo. Some neighbors were probably still out gathering feathers. They hadn’t yet covered the bed.
A day, she thought. So the older woman had said. Reh Izo’s family would arrive in a day. The trip from Toynejo did not take that long, not unless one came on foot. But the other neighbor, the young man, had said that the relative they had managed to reach had to contact the rest of the family. In Zormevan, that would have taken less than a few minutes. Different places, different customs.
The sky became black. The lights stayed on. Lopi saw people, Zormevan people, enter the alley. From where she sat, she could not see them walk to the back, but she did hear them knock; she heard the door open, and close. Zormevan people, only Zormevan people.
She waited. She did not know how wishes worked in Toynejo. The people of Zormevan did not believe in wishes. But as she sat on the bench, growing colder and colder, she wished again.
Despite the cold, and the hard bench, she was nearly asleep when she heard the cry. She rubbed her eyes, and straightened her back. The cry came again, louder. Someone must have opened the door. Three or four voices cried out now, in the wordless, three-note call of dismay Zormevan people used when a terrible unkindness had occurred, an unkindness that could not be repaired.
Lopi stood up. The backs of her legs were numb.
She walked to the alley. Her head was a little numb, too. The door of Reh Izo’s nest was open; light streamed out. The cries streamed out, as well, a chorus of disappointment and regret.
Lopi went inside. The floor was covered with feathers. The bed, too, she saw, had been piled thick with them. Only Reh Izo’s face was exposed. Lopi had to dig under the feathers to find the coverlet. She pulled it back. The ring had not fallen off; it was still there, on the first finger of Reh’s right hand. Lopi removed it.
People said that the dead looked peaceful. Reh Izo did not look peaceful. She looked like someone who had fought a long, hard battle.
“It was what she wanted,” she said, to the neighbors, five of them, the nervous young man and the older woman, not bustling now, but holding hands with the others, their heads lowered. They glanced at her, but said nothing. Lopi thought to speak further, then changed her mind. They had only been trying to do the right thing. To add to their consternation would be very unkind. Heading for the door, she did say, “I was her friend.”
As she left, she heard the chant of sorrow for thwarted kindness sound out once more. They would continue it until daybreak. That was the Zormevan way.