Excerpt: Touya and the World

This is a smidgen broken off of a story I’m struggling to write. I’ve smoothed some of the edges to make it stand better on its own. Touya and the World will eventually be a novella, perhaps even a fully-formed manuscript. We shall see. I hope you enjoy this preview.

“They’re calling for rain today.”

Father dries a grape carefully with his napkin before eating it. It’s a windless day, so the puddles littering the ground outside are still enough to perfectly trap bits of the morning sky. Touya stares at these azure visitors through the window, ignoring Father’s stare.

Mam pushes the remaining fruit onto Touya’s dish. “Surely he can make the first few lessons?” she prods her husband. “The school’s close; he would make it home before torrents pick up.”

Father scowls. “Way things are it could pour any hour now. A missed lesson can be learned later, but there’s no bringing back a spoilt crop.”

Mam nods, giving Touya’s shoulder a sympathetic squeeze before taking the fruit bowl to wash. “You heard him. It’s the fields for you today, Touya.”

Touya chews his lip. What’s there to say? He skips most of his lessons as it is. What he will miss this morning is the Skin’s valleys; he was supposed to explore them with Olek.

“Don’t sulk, boy.” Father misinterprets his silence as he does most things that aren’t the earth and weather around it. His roughened fingers beat against the table. “Go find yourself some old clothes; today’s work will be mud-ridden.”

“Can Olek help?” Touya asks around the last mouthful of berries. They pop on his tongue, tart against the honey-sweet of the wheat cakes he’d eaten earlier.

Mam shoots Father a look before he can protest. “I’ll ring his family,” she says. “If you change quickly enough, maybe you can meet him in the fields.”

Replacing his plans for exploring valleys with a worm-hunting expedition, Touya grins and hops down from his stool. His bare feed slide on the old wooden floor as he makes for the stairs. There’s an old pair of dungarees he’s been hoping to dirty up and never wear again. Mam’s old galoshes are probably small enough to fit him, too. Changing shouldn’t take long, but his stomach is already flip-flopping with impatience. He has to get out before Father or he won’t be able to play in the puddles!

Earth and grass squelch beneath Mam’s old boots. Touya slides his feet back and forth inside them, giggling when the mud almost pulls his right galosh straight off. It’s hard to run, but Touya tries even if he falls twice. The mess doesn’t bother him; Father said today’d be mud-ridden anyway.

Father’s crops are all up on a hill. Touya wonders how much good that does against the rains. It’s probably better than the valleys, at least. Trudging up the slope, he pauses to look back at the flat yard. So many puddles are shining around the house. There aren’t any on the hillside with him. Father probably knows best after all.

At the top, Touya hunches down to dig in the mud and wait for Olek. The ground is bloated with water, every blade of grass heavy with the droplets. They look like little insects, too fat for legs and shiny all the way through. Enchanted, Touya pops a few with his fingers. He gets bored quickly. How long does it take to run to Olek’s house? Is Olek wearing his mam’s shoes too? Maybe he has to walk.

The Sea that Has no Sand floats above Touya’s head, blocking out the sun. Looking up at the wispy tendrils of trapped sky-water, Touya wonders if the cloud people still go to school on rain days. Are crops in trouble the way they are here on the Skin? When the sun hides at nighttime, Touya knows the air gets colder and the plants all grow dewdrops. They’re smaller than these see-through beads wetting his dungarees, and Father can pick them up with his machines and give them as a drink to the thirsty crop land. Everything needs water to grow, after all.

But what about the cloud people? The sun is always in the sky; it has nowhere to hide from the people living above the Sandless Sea. Do they get dew in the night times? Is there such a thing as night in the sky above the Skin?

“Touya!”

Olek is standing a little below the ridge, hands on his knees. He must have been running after all; he’s gasping and red-faced as he grins at Touya.

“Your pop’s coming, Touya! Better look at least a little ready.”

Father’s always frowning, so Touya isn’t really scared of his getting mad. But he stands, stretching his muddy fingers to the sky. He’s been watered too now; he can grow.

“Sorry we couldn’t visit the valley,” he says to Olek.

“What valley?” Olek pretends super well. Touya isn’t so good at it.

“The one we were going to instead of school—”

“Ssh!” Olek looks around. “We should be glad we get to miss school! C’mon, let’s get to working!”

“Why be thankful for the always things?” Touya mutters, but he listens to Olek. Olek’s always been more worried about getting in trouble. That’s probably because his father smiles more. Anger is scarier when you don’t see it all the time. Father can’t even hear them from the bottom of the hill where he’s turning on the whizzers, but Olek is clearly worried he might.

Olek and Touya always miss school. Their parents don’t know, of course. The principal sticks to writing notes about their empty seats. That’s something to be grateful for; if Rector Torrence actually tried ringing their homes, Olek and Touya would be in for it. A lazy teacher is so much better than dewdrops every night.

But Touya has always been taught to be grateful for the dew. Be grateful for the dew; be fearful of the rain. Dew is just enough. Rain is too much.

Father’s work isn’t easy. Touya and Olek tug the stubborn shoots that the whizzers leave behind. Clouds gather across the sky as they sweat and yank and fall backwards with large bulbs in their grimy hands. One bulb is bigger than Touya’s fist, but it takes two to make a full ration of stew. When he rubs the grime away, it looks like the clouds up above: round and the purest pearly white. It hasn’t rained in a while, so the clouds are stretched shiny. They probably don’t smell like the bulb in Touya’s hand, strong enough to sting his eyes but just the right amount of sweet to make his stomach growl. Rector Torrence recently said the clouds are made of minerals and gas the volcanoes are always making down here on The Skin. Even though the cloud people never come down, they couldn’t live in the sky without The Skin and its just-right conditions.

Everyone on The Skin is working crops today. But a good rain will mean rest for the cloud people. Mam’s grandmam lived in the clouds once. She used to tell Touya stories of the long droughts in the sky, the months between the rains. Dew isn’t enough for the clouds like it is down on The Skin. Dew means a drought in the sky. During drought times, cloud people have to go down to the Sandless Sea. Great-grandmam said it took two days just to get there and back, but at least the clouds stayed wet. At least they wouldn’t shrivel and burst, and everyone could keep breathing up there in the sky.

Touya used to think it was luckier to live here on The Skin, even if the rain can ruin everyone’s crops. But Mam says the cloud people have automated their cloud-dousing work now. Life up there would be easier, she complains. Father doesn’t listen. He’ll never leave his crops. Father belongs on The Skin where he can dig his hands into earth and pull them out with his food.

Touya and Olek both like The Skin better too. Maybe Olek wants to visit the cloud cities someday, but Touya knows he’d come back. Life in the sky is limited to the pearly, shining clouds where you can breathe. But The Skin is an endless adventure. It stretches and shifts and breathes. It never runs out of water, filled as it is with lakes and swamps and gushing steam cracks. Sure it doesn’t always feel good to walk on—Mam complains it feels like walking on flesh sometimes down near the valleys, that even the rocks aren’t truly solid. But Touya is in love with The Skin’s strange surface, with its scabby canyons and dark, smelly caves. He loves the mushrooms glowing in the night like stars stuck in the ground. How could flowers the cloud people have be prettier than a night full of fungi?

“Touya! You have to keep digging!”

Touya blinks as Olek jabs him with a dirty elbow. He’s still holding a bulb in each hand, but Olek has a mountain already. Father’s whizzers have stopped, too. Frantically, Touya starts to dig. But there’s nothing beneath the dirt, just bits of broken roots and a worm.

“Gross,” Olek sniggers as Touya pulls the worm out. “Think it was eating your bulbs?”

“Worms only eat dirt,” Touya replies. It’s one of the few lessons he really paid attention to in class. “Then they make dirt out the other end.”

“Super gross.” But Olek’s eyes are shining like the clouds as he takes the squirmy worm.

Touya shrugs. “It’s just like The Skin. Send water to the sky, then drink it back in.”

Before Olek can answer, Father’s bellowing Touya’s name. There are other words, but he’s too far across the fields. Touya only hears one other word:

Rain.

“Uh-oh,” Olek says. The worm wriggles back into the dirt, and Touya is alone. He knows he should go back too. The ground is rumbling too now, its voice only a little scarier than Father’s on an angry day.

Touya peers down the hill. Father’s in the shed behind the house, locking up his whizzers. He probably won’t look for Touya for another hour. The bulbs need to be washed and hung. Maybe even two hours. There’s so much time to dream and watch the rain fly.

A fat droplet splats on Touya’s elbow. He looks down at the puddle, heart wriggling like the earthworm. Everything is starting now. Thick drops are pulling away from the puddles, slow and sticky for now. Soon they’ll be rushing showers. Touya runs for cover, hopping up on a stone where the rain can’t fly. Just in time, too. The puddles turn to torrents and the muddy ground soon follows. It surrenders its water to the thirsty clouds and deep blue sky. Touya sits surrounded by walls of flying rain, safe on his stone. He pulls out a book, grimed up by an hour of work, and begins to read.

When the Fire Falls

The fire falls when the night is bright. Lightning paints the sky with angry orange and the air starts to hiss. Our nights are usually quiet enough to hear the neighbors snoring. The sky is always kind of purple whether it’s night or day. We don’t get sunshine; things just get a little less indigo. Indigo is my favorite word on the spelling homework sheet. Our sky is a grumpy one, hidden by big ugly clouds that have always been there. Momma says we’re the ones who put them there. Maybe that’s why the sky spits brimstone at us. We shut it out so very long ago.

The fire falls when the night turns orange and hisses like a cornered cat. We crouch and hide so we don’t get burned.

Keep your head down, and don’t touch the door. Those are old words for nights of fire. It wasn’t just the doors, but whole houses made of wood. There’s not a scrap of wood in my house. We learned to make homes of stone. It’s that same chalkboard-gray rock that we sit on and eat on, and even sleep on if our mattresses don’t finish airing. I don’t like it very much, but it’s better than wood. Teachers still make us learn the old words, though. Mommas and poppas are always saying it, too. Don’t touch the door. Then they make us say it back…when we’re in school at least. I had to write lines of it once because I bent Timothy Low’s last reed pen in half.

I’m so sick of the old words, I almost want to touch our door when the fire comes. Yes, I want to just reach out and touch that stupid, craggy door. Especially tonight, with the sky hissing and growling so loudly. I wonder if I can feel the fire through our big stone door.  

My fingers skitter across the frame and I sigh. Cold, cold, cold. I guess it hasn’t started firing yet. I stretch my feet out until my toes complain. Then I stand and pull grandpop’s old slate cover from the window.

The sky looks like lava. Lightning splits the night all over, and the clouds swirl in purple darkness like they want to suck the world up into their bellies. The cloud edges are starting to glow. That means the fire’s coming. I should really put the slate back and get away from the door. But the sky is so beautiful. My breath is stuck somewhere between my ribs and my heart won’t stop shivering. I think I’m falling in love with the fire-night sky.

Then the first sparks begin to fall, and I realize I’m just scared.

The first firedrops could be a stamped-out cigarette. Our neighbor smokes, and I’ve seen the butt of his nasty -stick skip and spark across the ground just like that. The first drop I see smacks against the dirt ground with a chuff and a sigh. It pops into a thousand littler sparks. They dance and die just as fast, leaving dots behind my eyelids. The fire is falling faster now. Hissing and snapping, they eat the air and burst into flames. Those flames roar hungry and snap up anything they can touch. The Carlsie’s mattress is the first to go. I guess they didn’t take it in quick enough. When I see how ferociously fire can snap soft things up and spit them out black, my brain turns traitor with the awful what ifs.

What if fire learns to eat our homes of stone? What if it never stops falling this time? Will the air get too hot to breathe? What if the sky doesn’t forgive us this time? What if my friends didn’t make it inside? Nothing looks pretty burned black, and I’d miss them so much.

A clothing line shrieks as the bigger brimstones melt through its metal. I duck my head between my elbows and knees. My eyes and ears are squeezed shut, as tight as tight can be…but I don’t know how to shut my mind’s eye. It keeps going, showing the black and fire-bitten leftovers of the people and the things that I want to keep, want to keep, keep! Because—because I love them. I love them, and it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to love with a sky like ours.

Warm arms cover and squeeze me. Momma’s here, holding me tight. I guess the storm finally woke her up; she and Poppa sure know how to sleep through a firefall. I guess they’ve just had a longer time to get used to it.

“Baby,” Momma’s saying as she rocks me. “Baby, it’s okay. It’s just a firestorm. It won’t hurt you.”

But it can hurt me. Nobody’s stupid enough to stick around outside at night when the sky turns orange, but I’ve seen what a firefall did to Mary-Maree’s dog last year. It was horrible, and I couldn’t eat for the rest of the day because I felt so sick. Maybe I’m safe inside our house, but it’s just a wall and a bit of stupid rock that keep me that way. Right outside that, the sky is hissing and spitting; it wants to eat me. It just can’t right now. I turn my face into Momma’s robe. She smells like lavender.

Momma says, “Do you want to sleep with me and Poppa tonight?”

I nod.

Poppa hasn’t woken up at all. He stays asleep even when I crawl shakily over his legs to nestle between him and Momma. His rib bones poke against my back as he snores, and I grab one of Momma’s spare pillows to protect myself. Momma’s hair makes my nose itch, but I don’t mind too much. The tickly warmth and quiet start to settle into my mind’s eye, drowning out those pictures with a lack of loneliness. There’s no way I can sleep, but at least I feel better. I spend the night awake. Sometimes, I drift between a doze and a dream. When I drift, I see pictures of sunlight and mellow, blue sky with fat white clouds that look like rabbit tails. It’s all so beautiful that I cry myself awake.

Rain patters on our slate roof. That means the firefall is over.

It feels like morning, but probably not morning enough to be awake. I don’t care. Wriggling away from Momma and Poppa, I slip onto the floor. The dreams I saw dozing stick in my heart. I almost feel like if I go outside in the rain, I could see a bit of blue.

Mist and smoke burn my eyes as I step out the door. Mist because cold rain is hitting hot rock. Smoke because the fire is a sore loser and it doesn’t die easy. My throat is starting to hurt. I wrap my scarf three times around my chin and nose…not too tight, just right. That’s something else they taught us in school. It’s more useful than the old words about wooden doors.

The sky isn’t indigo now. It looks more like mauve. That’s another new word for purple that I learned; someday I’ll know them all. Mauve means morning, and the sky is growing softer with it. Sometimes the clouds glow with a bit of leftover lightning. This lightning is quiet and pale, like worm ghosts in the sky. The rain is falling slower. That’s a shame; fresh water isn’t something we get a lot of.

The falling water makes the air sweeter each minute. I lift my face and let it splash on my skin. Rainfall is the treasure chest that we get after surviving the dragon of firefall. It always feels like the sky decided to forgive us for clogging it up with clouds. Or maybe we made the fire, just like we made the grumpy, swollen clouds. Maybe the sky hurts even worse than we do.

I wish the fire would talk. If it could tell us where it came from, maybe we could fix things. The clouds have covered our sky for so long, and firefall is such a lasting part of our lives. We’re supposed to learn about what caused the clouds next year in school. Maybe I’ll steal my cousin’s book and read ahead. All I know is that the last blue sky disappeared when Grandpop’s poppa was my age. That’s like forever ago. How do you fix forever?

My brain is going in circles. I pick up my feet and run, pretending I’m a knight chasing firefall away. I run and run to the top of the hill standing over our town. The ground is still hot against my bare feet, but I can feel it getting cooler. If my toes start to burn, I can jump in a puddle. They’re not too deep and still make steam where the ground is rocky. My feet got tough enough to run barefoot when I was small. I had to run on them every day. Maybe I’ll toughen up too every time the fire falls.

At the top of the hill, I pull to a stop. There’s more rock than mud up here; it holds onto the heat of fire too well. I have to dance, one foot to the other, as I stare up at the sky. I’m looking for blue.

A blackened branch scrapes against my toes. I can feel myself smiling as I lift it up, up, up. “I’ll be less scared next time,” I whisper, but to me it’s a shout. I know the clouds can hear me because they rumble. I shake my ashy stick. “One day, I won’t be scared at all!” Then, I stick my tongue out, just in time to catch a raindrop on it. It’s so, so sweet. Sweeter than ice cream.

And that’s when I see it—just for a moment, quicker than the first sparks that dance and die on our broken, raw roads at night—I see a bit of blue. It’s the bluest blue I’ve seen, bluer than Timothy Low’s eyes when I make him cry. The clouds around it are puffy, rimming white.

I’m definitely falling in love with the sky. I cry and laugh at the same time until my cheeks and belly ache. But it’s the good kind of ache. I lift my stupid, wooden stick again and realize how small I am. I am small, but I want that blue sky.

Keep your head down, and don’t touch the door. I think the adults say that because they don’t know what else to do. Maybe they’re just as scared as I am when the fire falls. But there’s rain after a firefall, right? Every single time. Maybe there’s always this tiny patch of blue above us and we’ve just never seen it. We never will if we always keep our heads down.

“I’m going to find you!” This time, I really do shout. From now on, I’ll raise my head and lift my voice. I’ll look up, not down. When I grow up enough, I’ll look for the blue sky with more than just my bare feet and a burnt stick. Maybe the fire always falls because the sky can’t do anything to change it. Maybe it’s always been up to us. If we were the ones who put the clouds in the sky and brought the fire raining down, shouldn’t we be the ones who make things right?

“I’m going to fix you,” I say, whispering again. The blue sky is gone, fading back into a mix of indigo and mauve. So much purple and so many words for it. Are there just as many words for blue?

Not even adults know why the fire falls. I guess that means I’ll never learn the answer in school. Momma says we live in the end of everything, that this is just our world taking one last breath. Poppa tells her not to scare me. He says life has always been like this, that we made up blue skies and storms with just rain to give ourselves something to dream about.

Adults should learn to agree on things like this.       

I am Dusty Liesl Strathmore. I’m not an adult, not yet. But when you’re little, you know things adults have forgotten. I know it doesn’t really matter why the fire falls; what matters is when it does. When the fire falls, we need to watch the sky.

When the fire falls, we need to find out how to put it out. We need to learn how to live again.   

Beans

“If I count less than ten thousand and thirty-four beans in this capsule when you return it to me, I’ll spill them out again.”

Those are my rabse’s first words to me on the most important day of my life. They are muted by the cold patter of beans across the galley floor. As I watch them roll gently across the scuffed metal paneling, he throws a pair of chopsticks down with equal derision.

“Use these. I catch you using your fingers, I pull the nails off.” His bare feet strike naked, angry footsteps back to the door, and I jolt when he slams it. Through its window, my rabse is smaller but no less capable of making my heart shrink into an aching ball. Age has turned his skin more mold-colored than green, and the feathers of his mustache and twin-tailed beard are dried out and sparse. He has no hair on his head, only purpled age-spots.

But I am afraid of him.

“Rabse Aleem,” I struggle to keep the plea out of my voice. “Forgive me!”

Lips curled in disgust, my teacher turns off the artificial gravity and the lights. One sliver of yellow luminescence follows his voice into the galley: “Ten thousand and thirty-four, Ashak. Consider your failure and return when you have learned.”

The small ray disappears as he shuts the sliding window. I am alone.

My name means “Red Knuckle”. I was supposed to kill a man today.

I killed three.

I make a game of my punishment to ease the passing time, twisting my body to avoid touching as many airborne beans as possible. Rabse Aleem instructed me to stretch, after all. My heightened senses adjust quickly in the void-like darkness. Cradling the capsule under my right arm, I reach out with my left snatch a bean with Rabse’s old wooden eating sticks. It is a smooth, hard little thing, slipping twice from my grasp before I manage to capture it. My fingers buzz with the desire to use more strength, to crush the small bean. But then Rabse would find only ten thousand and thirty-three when I finished. He would force me to gather them again. I do not want to miss tonight’s hunt.

My rabse has used beans in our training since he selected me. I am his youngest recruit; my parents had wanted to be rid of me as quickly as possible. Apparently, I’d tried to smash my brother’s skull in as he slept. Rabse Aleem is an executioner, someone who only kills other killers. It is odd he would choose me. My instinct to destroy cannot decipher between the condemned and the just.

But Rabse Aleem is a persistent man. After I was injected with The Gift, he taught me patiently how I was to use it. Beans were his choice examples: I was only to break the rotted beans. Every good bean ground to dust with my Gift meant a week cleaning spilled beans in the galley. If I crushed a bean with my bare hands, my rabse would punish me cruelly. He would bind me to a chair and blindfold me, so that I could not use my Gift or my clever, strong fingers. Rabse Aleem himself would spend the day with me, singing to me and speaking such sweet words that I screamed and shook. He would bathe the bruises I created by beating against my chains and stitch the cuts I inflicted on myself. He would love me, and I would want to kill him for it.

These punishments are the worst form suffering; I don’t want my rabse to die.

My knuckles skim the metal table that is welded to our floor. Our abbey is beyond the 37th system ring, a place well-known for vagabonds. There is always a need for executioners, but we most only kill the guilty. I could not survive in this abbey without Rabse Aleem, for it is impossible to understand the difference between an innocent and the man who killed his wife with a table like this one. Bouncing off the tabletop, I manage to catch two beans with a single swipe. Now I have gathered 5,000. I should reflect on how I disappointed my rabse.

I did not fail with the execution method: the target’s heart is to be suffocated. It is supposed to be painless. This is simple; I do not desire to cause pain. Death is the temptation I wrestle with. It is so beautiful, and people are so ugly. When I see a living person, I imagine how pretty they would look if they were a little less alive. Usually this is only a daydream; if our eyes happen to meet, though, I become hungry.

A bean brushes my wrist. I hiss at the unexpected contact. It makes my skin crawl to imagine being surrounded by things that can touch me without permission. Beans are bad enough, but living people are worse. People can look at me. People can love me.

Rabse Aleem knows I cannot stand being loved. That is why his voice is always cold, why he throws things at me and spits on my feet. He is cruel to me for my sake, not for his.

For my sake?

I feel the chopsticks crack into the shell of bean number six thousand and two. Now I will be punished. Rabse Aleem will love me until I scream and writhe in the chair. He will do this because I have made him angry. But why does he punish me so? Which is his true face: the sneering one behind the door, or the gentle whisper to ease my tears? Does he prefer to beat me, or to bind my wounds?

No, no, no. I shake my head, but the insidious doubts are already gnawing at my nerves. They clatter against my heart like beans on the floor, a hissing roar that rises to drown me. I grab two fistfuls of beans and pulverize them with my fingers.

I don’t want my rabse to die. I don’t want him to love me.

The lights blare around me. When my eyes clear, I am sitting on the floor with a nearly full capsule of beans in one hand and a pile of meal in the other.

The servant does not even blink. He tells me that Rabse Aleem is waiting.

Barefoot, I glide down the hallway to his study. The walls are covered in portraits, all children like myself. But my picture is not among them; it is sitting on my rabse’s desk. How did I never notice?

His eyes are cold when he turns to me.

“Come, demon child.”

I want to run away, but I walk into his open arms. My cold, bloodied heart grows hungrier every second. Looking up, I meet my rabse’s gaze. His eyes are too soft, his arms are too warm, and there is not enough hatred in his smile.

“Let me go,” I hiss.

“I will never do that.”

The words are not a threat. He thinks they will make me feel safe. Liar, liar, liar! I am screaming inside, battling with my voice against the rush of falling beans.

“Ashak?” He holds me at arm’s length. I look at my picture on his desk. He is standing next to me, one arm around my shoulders. There is pride in his face, hope and kindness. If I could cry, my cheeks would be salt stained by now.

I swallow against sorrow I cannot feel.  

“Ashak,” he says again. “What did you learn today?”

I wrap my hands around his throat.