By N.O. Sweatman
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its content.
Numb. Euwaad didn’t want to think. Didn’t want to feel. Almost didn’t want to exist. Hardly breathing. His chest still rose and fell but it hurt. Hurt like Hail Fire. Had it been heart-beats or days. He didn’t know, but every time he caught a whiff of smoke, bile rose in his throat and it was an effort not to vomit. How could the aurora still look beautiful? How could Nisaayans still fly or flitters still greet the dawn with noisy chorus? And Ebenool was crying. Sobbing, completely heartbroken, as only a small man-child of two rotations had permission or had an excuse to do.
At some time in the past she had been there. To smile when he awoke, offer consolation over a grazed knee or congratulation on a lesson well learned. A part of life as natural as eating, sleeping and playing with his brothers and sister, as constant as God’s Eyes rising and falling. And now she was gone. He didn’t know anyone who didn’t have a mother. All his friends had mothers. It was the natural order of things. She had to be coming back. But the funeral pier had raged and now it had been extinguished along with his emotions. He understood his mute and unresponsive paternal parent who stalked the home with dull red eyes and slow laboured steps. Euwaad had never been ignored before, and his mother would have never let little Ebenool, crying plaintively, wander out of her suite of rooms.
It was this unacceptable situation that had final broken through his own haze of denial. He had loved the little scrap of humanity from first sight. A tiny forbidden thing. A third son. Someone that needed constant protection and sheltering. He didn’t understand all the words his mother had explained to him, but the implication had been clear. As the eldest, the first-born, it was his responsibility to look after his little brothers. And sister of course, but Tefraan was only a few heartbeats younger than he was, and didn’t need much looking after. How though would Ebanool survive? Would he even remember their mother? Possibly not. Even now Euwaad found himself struggling to remember. Or perhaps the memories were too painful to recall, and he was trying to forget.
“Come on mate. I will look after you.”
With effort he carefully picked up the tear streaked, sticky, toddling man-child. People said Euwaad was not a large lad for five rotations, had taken after his mother’s side of the family. Which in his opinion was the highest of complements. Not that he minded his parent, he was a good man. Always fair and a hard worker, but it was his mother that had held his heart in her hands and her good opinion was as valued as light itself. The news of her death had torn at his heart in a way nothing in his short life had prepared him for.
Sobbing Ebenool clutched his brothers golden locks painfully. Generously transferring drawl and nose wipings to Euwaads cowl. It didn’t matter, his mother could not tell him off for getting it soiled, and his parent had never previously noticed. What should he do now?
“I’ll take you to my room. Find you something to eat. Would you like that?” His brother hiccuped, gave a feeble nod, his grip tightening to the point of strangulation.
It wasn’t far, just further down the same tunnel from his mother’s suite. He needed to think, make a plan, but his brain struggled to comprehend the ramifications of the situation. Men couldn’t own anything. Would they have to leave the home now she was no longer with them? The thought made his already jelly legs quiver, but he couldn’t give up now. Only a few more steps to the fabric curtain that separated the sleeping niche he shared with his brother Dinraan, from the well-lit length of tunnel where other members had rooms or sleeping niches.
“What did you bring it here for?” Dinraan growled. He was fraying the edge of a thick weaving they used to cover themselves while they slept. Piles of separated individual fibres littered the couch and earthen floor.
“He was wandering in the tunnel, making a lot of noise. I don’t think anyone saw him.” Euwaad whispered.
Dinraan look as horrible as Euwaad felt. Huddled on a low couch the boys shared for sleep he turned his suspiciously moist face away. With crinkled covers and unswept floor, the area was in complete disarray. All evidence indicated no servants had seen to the room today. Without their mother to organise them Euwaad wondered if they would ever come again. It was a large House, without a hub how could it still function?
“Can’t you shut him up?” Dinraan ended his question with his own strangled sob. Fingers picking on the next thread to be severed from the cover.
“I think he needs food, I am hungry. You must be too.” Euwaad didn’t think he could eat, but now he had thought about it realised the unfamiliar knots in his stomach had a reason to be there. When had he last eaten? Before the funeral pier had been lit. When had that been?
Dinraan gave a spiritless nod. That wasn’t good. Dinraan loved food. Ate everything he was given and was proud to be as tall and heavier than his first-born brother. Mother had reassured Euwaad he would grow to be a man as tall as his parent, and she was always right. How had she let death catch her? It had to be a mistake, but she wouldn’t have left Ebanool. Nor his sister, not intentionally, not if she had been able to help it.
Wrapped in his own personal misery he passed a group of servants. Bavo, his mother’s drone had given them some instructions and they had dissolved into tears. As his mother’s drone the older servant had been given the responsibility to teach Euwaad letter symbols and script. Not wanting a lesson, Euwaad slipped discreetly into the cavernous kitchen. Muffled foot fall, too many echoes. Tantalising aromas, usually overpowering, were distant hints, indistinct impressions. Even the kitchen, his mother’s favourite place, was desolate.
Servant’s whispered, huddled in small groups. His mother hadn’t given them jobs, assigned tasks. They were at a loss. Euwaad found some Great Tree fruit in a side store room. Yellow, the size of a man’s fingers, not heavy and already in a bowl. Unnoticed. Not challenged he left with his arms full. He was half way back to his niche before vaguely wondering if he should have grabbed a pestle or small cutting stone. Did food for a little person need to be mashed or at least in small pieces? An obscure impression lingered that a young child may not be able to eat the same sort of food regular people could. Milk may have been important, but he couldn’t say why.
“He can’t stay. He’s too noisy, is going to get us into trouble.”
Dinraan’s winging was loud and insistent. Ebenool had curled himself on the floor in the shredded remnants of the cover and was almost asleep, but became promptly alert and interested at the sight of the fruit. He hadn’t said a word.
“Can you eat this?” Euwaad set the bowl down.
The answer was instantaneous. Ebenool swiped an offered item and shoved it to his mouth. Dinraan enthusiastically fell upon the bowl and the next moments were full, with the condition of the niche deteriorated further as three hungry man-children devoured the sweet food. People joked that ripe fruit from the Great Trees gave you a feed, a drink and a bath. The sticky juice ran down chins and onto cowls, coated fingers and objects Euwaad had been sure none of them had touched. For the first time since he had heard the devastating news, continued existence felt a little like life again. And then he felt guilt to be still having a life when his mother did not.
“He can’t stay here, look how messy he is.” Dinraan had juice over his face and fibres coating his fingers. Pulling them off, he rolled them into balls and flicked them at the luminescent bryophyte on the ceiling. Some stuck, others returned to the floor of the niche.
Ebanool was a mess. But he looked at Euwaad with his mothers eyes, and the scent of her perfume still lingered, mixed with juice in his soft fine hair.
Euwaad nodded. “I’ll take him for a wash. Come on Ebenool.” Euwaad was tired, he hoped the chubby little legs would could walk the distance.
“Don’t bring it back.” Dinraan yelled.
It took a lot of encouraging and cajoling. Nobody stopped them. Nobody saw them. Euwaad made sure, and the journey gave Euwaad time to think. Necessity cutting through the dull confusion. He couldn’t take Ebenool back to the niche. It was too exposed. The suite of rooms his mother had inhabited had a door, wooden with hinges, a lock. Ebanool had been secreted away. Hidden. Out of the sight of servants, who were supposed to be loyal to the house, but his mother had not trusted them all. In quiet conversations she had whispered her concerns. His parent did not liberally demonstrate his affections. Dinraan and he were loved, he knew that, but couldn’t have said why. But his parent’s affections, even acknowledgement, of the little man-child had been non-existent. Only the first two sons were allowed. It was the law. A third son, if discovered, could result in the whole House sold into slavery. Few people had access to his mother’s rooms, but the door had been left open. His parent would not benefit from exposing an illegal son. Who would? Euwaad didn’t know, but they would all suffer if Ebenool was discovered.
Euwaad had arrived. Glancing around he picked up Ebanool and shoved him into a partially concealed crawl space. A place where boulders joined. Rough hewn tunnelled rock gave way to another more natural landform. Jumbled huge boulders with linked gaps. Negotiable for a child or person of smaller stature, if you knew the way. Enlarged in places by muscle and hard work his parent and twin brother had discovered the passage when they were children. Following the erratic contours, Ebenool’s little legs struggled and Euwaad was required to lift and carry the now sleepy man-child over the bigger gaps. At least he had stopped crying. The air became damp as the noise of flowing water cascaded down a waterfall. Puffing and panting they reached the hidden caverns.
It was a magical place, full of beauty and wonder. Carved by rotations of variations in the amount of water flowing into the underground cavern. For at least four of the twenty eight months in the rotation the area flooded, and during the months of fire the river did not flow and the pools stood cool, still and stagnant. Currently it was the month of Scorching Winds so the waterfall fed three pools, joined by the stream that flowed through middle. It’s ceiling was unadorned by even the humblest of Stalactites but sparkled with an abundance of small animals that glowed, as long as you kept relatively quite. Edible moss and fungi grew along the stream and epiphytes made colossal pillars on some of the exposed rock faces.
Euwaad was not surprised to find another small figure had come to this sanctuary.
“Oh, you have brought Ebanool. That was smart.” Tefraan had the tracks of silver tears etched down her flushed cheeks.
Sitting heavily next to his sister Euwaad lay his sleepy brother between them. He snuggled into his sister’s skirts. “Mother’s door was open, he had come out into the tunnel. I don’t know what to do.”
Tefraan shivered. “Open. On purpose. Did anyone see you bring him here?”
Ebenool muttered something incomprehensible.
Euwaad ran his hand back through his fringe. “Only Dinraan. He won’t tell. Mother would have wanted me to protect him. He doesn’t have anyone else.” Seeing his sister suffering was making it harder to control his own pain.
“I will help, if I can. Ed, there was another baby. Did you check mother’s room for him.” Tefraan bit her lip.
Euwaad hadn’t thought of that. Another baby? Where was his mother finding them?
“Was it a girl?” Euwaad asked hopefully.
Tefraan shrugged. “I don’t think so. If it was there would have been no point in hiding her.”
Euwaad nodded. A girl-child was always a good thing, didn’t have to be taken to be made a drone or char. Ebanool was asleep, looking angelic and making small snuffling noises.
“There was no one else in our mothers room’s. The door was wide open. Do you think Ebanool will be safe here? We can bring him covers and food and it’s hard for adults to get into this place.” Euwaad eyed the fast flowing water, it didn’t look ideal, he would have to teach his brother how to swim. Another baby? Another illegal baby. He couldn’t do anything about another baby.
“If we take him down further, to the last pool, it’s shallow and has a lot bigger area for him to play. At least until the months of Storms, then it will all be flooded,” Tefraan suggested. She stood with purpose.
“I should go back and get some stuff for him.” Euwaad decided.
Tefraan nodded, gathered her drowsing brother into her strong arms and headed down stream.
Euwaad checked his mother’s rooms. There was no baby, but small cloths and covers used for young children and a few soft fabric stuffed animals sewn with exquisite stitching. He had one his mother had made for him tucked under his couch. They were all quickly gathered and joined with his siblings in the underground cave.
Explaining to Ebanool that he would need to stay in the cave was difficult. The little boy kept asking for his mummy. Why had she gone? Where had she gone? Euwaad didn’t understand himself. Tefraan started to cry again, as he showed Ebanool how to keep his head above the water.
“Don’t go back in the water until I can come back and teach you some more. Stay quiet and I will come back, with more food.” Euwaad promised.
They didn’t leave until he had fallen into an exhausted sleep. Returning together Bavo found them.
“The inspectors have come, and another man. Some high ranking Commander. Say nothing. Think only of grieving for your mother as the traditions demand.” The usually calm drone was agitated.
A commander. In their home. Euwaad had never even seen them but his mother’s warning came back to mind in a flood of terror. They were searching the house, and Euwaad’s childhood was over.