Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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All That He Plants Takes Root

by Michael Hitchcock

Martin was dreaming of Do'aash again. Dreaming of the Dancing which welcomes home the Spring. Dreaming of the Meltwater, which sings of the Sun's new warmth. Dreaming of the little white Snow Flowers, which would just now be bowing their heads and swaying in the breeze in clusters along the paths between the houses of his village.

He dreamed his way past the village and into the greening Pastures above it. Into the fields that would still have snow filled hollows surrounded by the long brown Grass which was warm to lie upon in the sun. And then he dreamed his way higher still up the rocky incline then over the Karst and into the Teacher's Garden in which he had first heard his riddle-song, which he left Do'aash to solve, three long years ago.

Martin shivered and again felt the chill of this night. He removed his boots and peeled the cloths from his feet. Thoughts of the Teacher had torn from him his dreams of the first warm breezes of Spring and all the comforts of home, and given him back to the endless Forest through which he had wandered for four rainy days and icy nights under the last harsh Winter Winds.

He scratched his toes until Blood oozed from the abraded skin, but they were itchy still. He pushed closer to the small fire, searing his feet and face, but leaving his body merely warmed. Though his feet were dry, they still felt soft and damp.

Martin heard the Wind whipping through the Trees and speaking. He was surrounded by shouts and screams. Some spoke his name. He clenched his teeth against the chill, paining his cold hollow eyes.

He huddled under his cloak, clinging to his own warmth. Though his eyelids closed and his head drooped to his chest, Martin fought off sleep. But fatigue overcame him, and by Midnight, he fitfully slumbered.

Martin soared over Great Wood. He spun higher and higher into the Sky, laughing at the Sun. He looked down at the Trees, realized his height, and his heart started rapidly beating. He lost his breath and started to fall. Martin watched the sky turn orange. Fire-blackened stumps and thousands of dead Birds covered the land as far as he could see.

Then he was flying with dozens of people. They looked neither at each other, nor at the Earth. The Sun rose on the Ocean, imbuing the Sky and the Sea with identical golden light. The people with him squinted, and covered their eyes. When Martin expressed the beauty he beheld, his companions tore him asunder.

Then he walked into a darkened room. He saw a bed and, when he pulled away its curtain, he saw a corpse lying there. He became the body and could feel the decay that consumed him. A Vulture stood upon his chest and pecked at his motionless eyes. Martin screamed, waking himself.

He slapped his face with his cold hands and rubbed saliva into his eyes. He added a branch to the fire and fanned its flames with his breath, slow and long, as he'd been taught. The Wind was still and the Forest was silent. Martin was alone. Since leaving Ilse, the Rabbit he'd eaten today was the largest creature Martin had seen. He'd seen neither people nor signs of them. Not even a Barrowright Hillock.

As he sat by the sputtering fire, dozing with a full belly, Martin watched the frost-rings forming on the Trees. He imagined his own lips, blue and lined with frost, and wondered if such a death was painless.

He placed another branch on the fire and saw Do'aash play in the snow. He saw the frozen lakes of his home and wondered, aloud, "Ilse, would you have liked it there?" Then he heard the quiet crunch of a footstep, followed shortly by another.

He continued to smoothly stir the coals and his posture stayed relaxed. But his heart beat loudly and his breath whistled, filling his chest, but leaving him panting for air.

Head inclined to the fire and moving only his eyes, Martin looked around, but he couldn't discover the source of the steps. He giggled to himself but stopped and gasped, as he heard a footfall again.

Martin saw an impossible creature just at the edge of the firelight. When he closed his eyes in horror, he could still see its misshapen face. Above its toothy mouth, was a rotted nose; rough edges around a hole. The beast's dark eye stared and strained from off-center upon its forehead. It wore a shaggy wreath bound in its ragged hair, and over its entirety was a shroud of leaves and twigs that masked its body's form. It swayed eerily back and forth.

His breathing rasped unevenly. He realized he'd been motionless and he coughed in alarm. He began to stir the embers with his stick again, sharpening it in the flames.

The monster sighed. Martin's eyes spun and he dropped his staff. He fumbled for it in the air, laying his hands on it twice, but he only saw the after-image of the flames, and it clattered upon the rocks.

As Martin crawled to look for his stick, he felt the thing's breath on his face. He sprang towards it, using both his arms and legs, and, howling, he swung his fist.

He spun to the ground, scantly missing the fire.

"Nothing there!" he rasped.

The strange sigh continued and, strengthening, became a breeze.

"Leaves..." he whispered. "Shadows on leaves..."

Martin stared into the Night, tightly clutching his staff. Both his body and his heart twitched at every noise. He lay down, keeping one eye opened. He heard only the hissing fire over his wheezing breath. The rest was silence.

He fitfully dozed under the light of False Dawn.

Martin was awakened by bright grey Day. He didn't remember falling asleep. His knees and elbows ached, cold and swollen. His ears burned and his hands and feet were ice.

He stood and he stretched, causing his body to creak. Though the Forest had thinned, neither the land nor the sky gave Martin a clue of the direction the Summer Lands lie. He looked to the horizon and walked towards the largest hill.

Martin heaved his pack onto his back and walked. He stumbled through patches of Gorse and into Briar filled hollows, scratching his arms and face. Ignoring the itching and burning, he continued towards the hill, which appeared higher with every hour.

He climbed up the rise. He fell. The ground was slick and unstable. He continued to climb, crawling on his belly, grabbing handfuls of Earth and Grass. He heaved himself onto the summit, falling on hands and knees.

In front of him there grew a Flower, dancing in the Wind. Green-hued veins branched to the tips of its five white petals. It was ankle high, directly under his nose. He lowered his head and a strong smell of Honey brought to him thoughts of Summertime. He sang again his riddle-song:

The Bird flew into Sea
And swam to icy lands.
It then flew into Desert
And ran upon the sands.
Thinking not of Boa or Egg
It played around the Skies.
And it recognized no reflections
In gazing mirrored eyes

As he sang, a tiny yellow Seed was shaken from the Flower. He watched it bounce and roll across the rock. He looked below the broad round leaves to the ground from which the Flower grew.

"How can this be?" he asked.

In the cold first days of Spring, on a mountaintop, Martin of Do'aash had found a white Flower rooted in Granite. And he began to weep.

He placed his arms upon the ground in front of his knees and rested his head on his hands. Martin lowered his body and squatted on the ground, pulling his knees up his sides.

He murmured into the dirt, "Lost." He cried and beat the ground with his fists. "Where do I go now?" he asked.

"Ilse!" Martin screamed in the thin mountain air. "I should have stayed! How will I ever be whole?"

Martin whispered, "She was right. They all were..." He stopped himself with sobbing, then shouted, "You were right, sweet Ilse!"

Martin crawled to the Cliffs and looked on the Valley below. He screamed, "I know that I'm no hero!" and lay on his stomach, closing his eyes and sobbing.

Martin thought about what it was like to throw Clay in Rou, with its long and slow river. He thought about what it was like to weave the nets in the salty Sea's Breeze in Deefier. He thought of the many places gifted to him by the very Riddle-song that had barred him from his own home.

He looked across the lands spread before him and cried, "But what do I want to do?" He thought of Do'aash, and of the Teacher and of the time he would sing his answer. "What would make me happy now?"

Martin thought of the golden Seed, bouncing on the rock, searching for somewhere to root. He wept again.

A distant scream was carried on the Wind. Martin stood and abandoned the precipice, listening. He ran to the summit and waited.

"Please," he whispered, holding his breath.

Martin stood in the breeze with the warmth of the Sun in his hands. He swallowed but his throat was swelling shut. His vision sharpened. He stood rigid, until another scream released him. "Oh, thank God!" Martin cried, as he ran towards the sound, forgetting, for now, the Seed.

Martin descended from the hill before he knew that he was running and somewhere he shed his pack. His weightless legs effortlessly propelled him. But in his chest, where his breath had caught, urgency compelled him.

Martin saw two men chasing a woman. They stopped when they saw him. The woman shook with fright, kneeling on the ground. Her gaze flashed back and forth.

The slower of her pursuers approached, heels barely touching the ground. "An impressive chase!" he said as he traced the handle of his blade on the fabric of his shirt. "But I'm afraid we've marked her as our prey." He licked his lips and trained his bulging eyes upon her.

Martin followed the fat man's gaze and noted her dark eyes and hair.

"The boy's in love," said the fat one.

The other man stepped forward, leading with hips and shoulders, rubbing his goatee. "Go back! Go over the hill and wait for night, boy. When we're finished, you can have her."

Martin opened his mouth to speak but the first man interrupted. "I know why you want her, boy. Hips like that are rare, and she has the chest to match. Come back at Midnight, and have her then. She'll still feel warm. I promise." Turning his back to Martin he approached the woman, raising his fist.

"I challenge," said Martin.

"I'll spill your guts on the grass," the fat one replied.

Martin raised his hands to his face in the ancient gesture of aegis. The other men laughed and mimed. But Martin fixed his eyes upon the fat one and said again, "I challenge."

"Oh, don't worry, love," the bearded one laughed, "Golden Boy will save you. And if he don't," he bit his lip, "I'll save you for myself." He laughed in her face making her flinch.

Martin locked his gaze on the fat one. "I challenge," he said once more.

The bearded man glanced at his companion, and then straightened and growled, "You're making me angry, boy, and now you'll die in pieces."

"I challenge," Martin said, still staring at the fat one.

"What will you do?" the second man giggled stepping forwards. "Kill me with your stare? Or do you threaten us with Songs and Spells? Will you slay me with your Words?"

"Yes," Martin said to the fat one. "I'll kill him. And when you see his Fate, you'll fail your blade and flee to find Moon's Landing."

Martin bowed and plucked at the grass. The bearded man chuckled.

Martin stepped twice to the right, and again to the left, whistling his riddle song and moving his arms in rhythm. He cast the grass over his shoulder as he spun in place.

The fat one joined in the other's mirth. "A simpleton!" He screamed. "A fool!" And both men bent with laughter.

Martin rushed the bearded man. Then, before the man could more than raise his hands and gasp, Martin grasped him by the shoulders. Martin seized his cheek within his teeth, and shoved him away, jerking his head as he did so.

The bearded man stood gurgling and staring blankly. He stepped back and lost his footing, then collapsed upon the ground.

Martin watched the dark blood flowing over muscle and bone. It beaded around the edge of the wound and then, all at once, streamed out.

Martin spat out the flesh with its flapping tail of ragged skin, which landed at the fat man's feet. He stood still until Martin stepped forward, raising his eyebrows. The fat man turned and fled.

"My name is Martin of Do'aash," he told the shivering girl.

"Dvorshche Katia limyir."

Martin shook his head.

"It's Kate. My name is Kate"

"Kate, I didn't kill this man."

"I don't care. I don't care." She turned her eyes to Martin, but was focusing beyond him. "He said I shouldn't go alone."

"Who?" He prodded the fallen figure with his toe. "Him?"

"No. Yes, him! He convinced me- my teacher said not to... but he said he'd keep me safe," she sobbed.

Martin straightened his arm, steadying Kate by her shoulder.

"And then I didn't trust... he kept... and touching me too much. Tried to force... and then I ran. I kicked them!" She stepped forward and fell onto his shoulder. "Can I trust you, Martin? I can. I do. So brave." She swooned and Martin carried her.

"So brave..." she mumbled.

"Yes, you are," he whispered in her sleeping ear as he found his pack and draped her with his furs.

He watched the fire make her features dance and crawl with shadow until it burned itself to coals, which bathed her in their soft and steady light.

Lulled by the Ocean in her breath, Martin slept without dreaming.

He opened his eyes to the bright light of the Sun rising over the Valley wall.

"What's your name?" Kate asked as she handed him an Apple.

"Martin," said he.

"I'm Kate," she answered, bowing. "I'm sorry I woke you."

"You didn't wake me. You tread on the Winds."

"Martin, yesterday I..."

He waited a few seconds. "You what?" he asked her, smiling.

"Martin, please take me to Eukre, my home."

"I will," he answered, smiling. "But may I put my boots on first?"

They laughed together. "You may," said Kate. "But in the future I shall not grant you such license."

"I understand, fleet Queen," said Martin, miming kissing her feet. "But where is Eukre found?"

"Six week's journey into Morning." said Kate, pointing to the horizon.

Martin looked behind. "Do'aash, my homeland, lies fifteen weeks into Evening."

"Come, we're starting to lose the Day." She took Martin by the hand and pulled him up the rise towards the morning Sun.

"How long have you been away from home, Kate?"

"This is my fourth Spring away. I'm so glad to be going home again."

"Why did you leave?"

"There wasn't a why. I left. Now I'm going back." Kate laughed, "But, Martin, how did you come to be here? I prayed and prayed as I ran yesterday, but I knew I would die, for no one lives in this dry Valley."

Martin looked behind him across the gold Grass and Gorse and up to the prominence where he had found the Flower. He saw the white stone patches of Mountain stone rising through the green Grass and surrounded by Blueberry bushes. And he looked at the bright Sky above and behind it.

He smiled at Kate again, and looked into the miracle of her living eyes, wide with expectation. And her full lips, parted with the exertion of the climb. And her body, strong and smooth, with only blue Sky behind it.

"I came here to conquer my fears."

"You? Big, strong, broad-shouldered Martin of Do'aash?" She giggled at him and placed her hands upon her hips. "What could frighten such a hero?"

"I'm afraid of heights."

"Heights?"

He nodded and pointed to the high precipice, smiling.

Kate squinted at him and pointed at the other side of the Valley. "But yesterday you ran down from there to save me."

"Don't praise the Birds for flying, Kate. I heard you scream and I ran. The next thing I remember was the fat one touching his knife. Any other time, Kate, for any other reason," he laughed, "I usually slide down on my butt!"

"Martin," said Kate, "I know you weren't scared. I watched you come down the slope so fast, Martin, I thought I dreamt it."

"I had to."

"I was one of the best climbers in Eukre. I have no fear of heights. I couldn't have done it, Martin. Whatever you are, you are not afraid of heights."

"Fine, we disagree about the heights."

"So you admit, you have no fear?"

"I was scared of those two men, Kate."

"Martin, shut your mouth!" she laughed. "You ran down the wall of the Valley and you fought them."

"I knew I risked my death."

"You left your knife in its sheath!"

He rolled his eyes. "I was frightened, Kate. I forgot I had it until I--"

"Martin," she shouted. "Admit it! You have no fear."

Dimples appeared on both sides of his mouth with an extra crease on the left. The lines of the Sun kissed his eyes. "I can't admit what isn't true. Can't you understand?"

"I understand you're impossible." shouted Kate, as she punched him in the shoulder and quickly walked ahead.

She looked ahead at the long horizon and the beginnings of the Forest. She put her hand over her stomach and smiled. "Martin!" she turned and called. "If you were truly impossible, you'd come and walk by my side."

Martin walked alongside Kate, smiling with her, and watching her face. "Like this?" he asked.

She took his hand and smiled. "That's right, Martin. Like this."

Martin felt the comfort of home in her grip. His heart beat faster and he remembered every woman who ever loved him; every woman who ever wanted to love him.

He wondered if he could kiss her. He looked at her soft and full lips and her white teeth behind them and he knew he could kiss her. He felt her round hip brushing his and thought about what it might be like to clutch her in passion. He wondered if he could marry her and he giggled a little. First he must kiss her.

She giggled with him and pulled him faster. "Martin! This is one of my favorite flowers!"

She knelt in front of a small patch of purple Flowers and smelled them. "They smell so bad!" she laughed.

Martin knelt beside her and leaned over the furry-stemmed blooms. "Oh! This smell reminds me of helping dye fabrics in Croaot."

Kate laughed. "Oh, yes?"

"We would ferment our Urine in a jar and then soak the Leaves of Wood Cabbage. It smelled like your flower does!"

Kate pulled him by the hand to a Tree. "And this Martin," she said, running her hand over the smooth bark, "is my favorite tree. It's so smooth!"

"Ah," said Martin, "this bark is perfect for starting a fire. It saved my life on more than one rainy Winter's day!"

"Wow, Martin!" She laughed and pulled him by the arm. "And what does this Rock remind you of? Or the Grass underneath it? Or the Sky or it's Clouds?"

"What?"

"Does everything remind you of something, Martin?"

He looked into her eyes again. Her beautiful brown eyes that reminded him of home. He nodded and looked down. "I look at a Tree or a Rock and I think of other Trees or Rocks. Just their names alone remind me."

"Then quit them, Martin. No more names today; no more words. Watch, listen and feel today, that's all you'll need."

He opened his mouth and drew breath to speak, but laughed and closed it again.

Kate laughed too, and said, "That's better, Martin! No more words at all! You'll see how unique things without names are!" She gently covered his mouth with her fingertips. "No more words."

They walked together holding hands and smiling. Martin obeyed her in keeping his silence until that afternoon, when they came across a still, clear Pool.

Martin leaned over the Pool and gazed at his reflection as Kate sat slaking her thirst. "There is something I fear," said Martin quietly.

"I shouldn't ask, because I know about your fears," sighed Kate. "You'll probably say you're afraid of the dark. Or is it houses, Martin? Maybe that's why you dwell alone over Valleys!" She sighed. "Is it children, Martin? Do their half-grown statures repulse you? Though I'll regret it, I know, I ask you, Martin, what do you fear?"

"Though the darkness is full of dread, and houses and children are knotted rope around a swimmer's wrists, my fear is far worse than these."

"What then?"

"I'm afraid that I might fail."

"Fail at what?"

"My quest."

"Your quest?" she asked.

"Yes, my quest."

"Well?" She folded her arms.

"Well what?"

"Martin, the Fruit is better falling ripe. Tell me when you're ready." Kate bent to pick some Thyme. Then Beauty stopped her in her place.

Martin sang:

The Bird flew into Sea
And swam to icy lands.
It then flew into Desert
And ran upon the sands.
Thinking not of Boa or Egg
It played around the Skies.
And it recognized no reflection
In gazing mirrored eyes.

And then there was silence.

Moments later, the Birds began to sing. "You look surprised." Martin looked at her and smiled.

Kate breathlessly replied, "Martin, it was pretty. What was it? It was short. I wish it were longer."

"It's my riddle-song."

"You wrote it?" she asked with widened eyes.

Martin looked down. "No, not me. The Teacher wrote it." He looked at Kate. "In Do'aash, the Teacher spends his Winter writing riddle-songs. Then at Spring's Beginning, every child on the verge of adulthood receives one."

"When you get your riddle-song, what then?"

Martin sighed, "We say goodbye and scatter as Seeds on the Wind."

"When do you return?"

"When we've solved our riddle, we come home prepared sing our answer. Until then, we dedicate our lives, letting nothing distract nor deter."

"Do all of you receive one?"

"All of us. My Mother and Father have told me many times that I owe their riddle-songs my life."

"What were their riddles?"

"I don't know them. In Do'aash riddles are secret."

"You don't share them? Then how do you ever solve them?"

"The Teacher gives us all a hint, but mine is..." Martin sighed and looked at his face in the Water again. "Before I left, he said, 'Still Pool under full Moon; that's what a riddle is.'" Martin grumbled, "So once a month I look, but I only see myself. I've been three Springs now, and still, I have no solution." Martin shattered his reflection with his palm and watched it bend and distort into shape.

Kate slowly walked towards Martin, smiling with tearful eyes. She placed her hand on his back and said, "Martin, three Springs? How long does it usually take?"

"The fastest was nine weeks. The Teacher spent thirteen years. But most of us need six years to solve it."

Kate's voice was firm. "You can't think you've failed, you've been gone only three."

"Maybe so. But I fear I'll fail." Martin opened his mouth and widened his eyes.

Kate punched him twice on the arm. "All day long to fish, and that's the best you've caught?" She began to yell, "Martin, you're not scared of failing. You could never fail! Such a stupid man who makes such stupid jokes--" She yelled and shoved him into the Pool.

"You're better than the Teacher!" Martin laughed. He splashed towards her and lifted her in his embrace, spinning her around as he soaked her.

"Beast!" she screamed and tickled Martin's flanks, making him giggle and drop her.

He reached for her again but his hands slipped across her flesh. She ducked through his arms and ran ahead. Martin chased her, roaring with joy.

When he caught her, he tickled her stomach and under her arms. She cried laughing and tickled his ribs. His knees collapsed and he staggered.

"Close your eyes," Kate commanded.

Dizzy with her scent, and joy, Martin did as she said. He saw his heartbeat in the red pulsing glare of his eyelids, and he felt the Sunlight in his heart.

Her fingers grazed his head so lightly he thought he imagined it. The sensation made him shiver.

"Do you give your trust?" she quietly screamed.

Martin mumbled, "Eyeshowthgds mundiveyedart."

"What?" he smelled her say.

"I show the Gods my undivided heart," he breathed.

She touched his eyelids first. She slid her fingers over his ears, then past his cheek, and lips.

He moaned involuntarily. He could only hear her fingers sliding across his skin. He could feel his own face through her, but he couldn't feel where his own body ceased.

Martin was falling into trance when he began to sneeze and cry.

Kate laughed heartily, jumping away. Martin wiped his nose, removing a blade of Grass.

"You bastard!" he shouted.

"Bastardess!" she laughed.

There was a snapping and rustling in the brush and Martin jumped between Kate and the thick scrub before she could say a word. He laughed then as a Pheasant flew low and heavy above them.

"Martin! You're so fast!" she laughed with him.

"I was afraid that--"

She punched him again. "Martin, you are forbidden to use that word!"

He closed his mouth and walked on.

"But Martin," asked Kate, rushing to follow him, "What were you afraid of?"

He turned to look at her. She was too beautiful. Her thick hair fell in dark waves around her oval face. He looked at her round eyes and her thick lips, both held open wide.

"Two years ago, the first Spring of my wandering, I ran from a Bear. I ran for my life. I had no thought at all. Not of the Teacher, nor of his Garden, not of my riddle-song, nor of anything. I ran, Kate, and I lived. And when I was finished, I laughed. It was the happiest time of my life."

Kate sat and folded her arms across her chest.

"Kate?"

She looked at him, into his open blue eyes. She saw no lie there, and yet-- "Martin, no one can outrun a Bear!"

"I ran for my life Kate!" He sat next to her. "No one runs as fast as he who runs for his life."

"Martin, in Eukre, we worship the Bear as the Father of us all. And we know him, Martin! The wisest of us all are allowed to live with him. And even the rashest know, no one can outrun a Bear!"

Martin watched her cheek redden. The hardness of her stare shamed him. "Nevertheless, I outran him."

"Martin, don't lie!"

"I turned to meet it, I caught it with my arms and I threw it behind me. Then I fled as fast as I could."

Kate stared at Martin and opened her mouth. When he pulled on the collar of his shirt to expose the five deep red scars carved through each shoulder, she closed it again.

"The rest of my story was true."

"How, Martin? How could you throw a Bear? And how could you make it sound boring? Tell me the tale again!"

Martin looked at his boots on the short grass. "It was my first Spring away and I set off towards the Evening's Sea. I felt something had been following me, but I never saw any sign so I took it as my longing for home.

"The second day of this feeling, I saw him, twice my size and so quiet. And though we don't worship him in Do'aash, we understand him. So I walked down the path tall and steady. After twenty paces, I threw myself to the ground, and then stood and walked again, feigning a limp.

"I heard a rustling, and I turned around and saw the Bear loping towards me. I waited for it to leap at me and I caught its head in my hands. As it knocked me over and dug its claws into my shoulders, I sank my thumbs into its eyes, and I put my feet on its stomach.

"When I hit the ground, I tensed my legs and pushed, and the Bear fell somewhere behind me. I ran until I could no longer hear its thrashing." Martin looked at Kate. "I didn't want to tell you because I didn't want you to think I thought I was," he paused, "more than I am."

"Does everyone in Do'aash think about thoughts?" Kate looked at him and laughed. "You cannot know what I think of you, Martin. And no matter what you try to show me, I will see what I see."

Martin stood and held out his hands and turned around in front of her. "And what is it, Kate, that you see in me?"

"A man in need of rest."

Martin laughed. "You couldn't be more wrong, Kate. I could walk again twice as far as we have today."

She touched his belly with one finger. "But could you do it without thinking of your riddle?"

He looked down at her finger and sighed. "Maybe."

She held out her hand, "Come, brave one! Won't you ask me more about Eukre?"

Martin smiled as he walked holding her hand. "I will find out soon enough how it looks and sounds. And these are discoveries I prefer to make on my own. But, tell me, Kate, in Eukre, what do you do if you love someone?'

Kate laughed again. "Martin! You love them. What else could you do?"

"And how many men have you," he swallowed, "loved?"

"None, Martin! And in Eukre it's childish to ask such a thing."

"No men? But you can have as many men as you desire!"

"Yes, Martin, that is so. And thus far I have truly desired none."

Martin looked again at the horizon and thought of his Ilse. How he had wanted children with her. And he thought of Sri, and Tanila, and of Annya, back in Do'aash, his first.

"In Do'aash, we are taught that if you do not wish to spend your life with a person, it is a mistake to share sex with them." He laughed. "But we are also taught that it is a mistake made by most."

Kate stood. "Most." She smiled. "Not all, Martin."

They walked on together in silence through the afternoon, each absorbed by what they saw and by their own thoughts, and in the feeling of the other's hand they clasped in their own.

Later in the early evening, when they were collecting Deadwood to make a fire, Kate looked at Martin. He was holding an armful of branches in his left arm and was looking towards the evening sun.

"Martin, what do other people from Do'aash do while they're trying to solve their riddle?"

Martin stared into the golden light of sunset.

"In Do'aash we have a story. Hro was the first man. He lived in the Garden of Creation by the side of God. God made him a mate, Ko. Then he created the world and he sent Hro into it. Many years later Hro came back to the Garden of Creation and joyfully lived out his days with Ko in the bosom of God."

"And then?"

"He died."

"Where was he for all those years, and what was Ko doing while he was away?"

"Everyone must decide those things for themselves, Kate. Only the beginning and the end of the story matters."

"Not to Hro and Ko," she said.

"Kate, you were very brave yesterday."

"Me? But I did nothing."

He dropped his bundle and began to pile the driest twigs in a heap. "You ran, Kate. Few people would have had the courage to do that."

"What choice did I have?" She asked, helping him lean the larger branches onto each other.

"You had much easier choices, Kate. Surrender, begging, or suicide, would all have been easier than fighting and running."

He struck his Flint and they blew on the fire together. They lay next to each other and watched the sky darken and fill with stars.

Stroking his face, she watched his stomach very slowly move. "Did you know, Martin? Your hair smells like milk." She brought her nose to his ear and inhaled.

"Kate, I have to tell you," Martin said.

"What?"

"I think you should know, before we..."

"What?" she nervously asked.

"I..." Martin sighed, "If I say, you might think ill of me."

"Go on." She swallowed.

"I..."

"What!" she shouted.

"I was afraid of the Bear."

She stared until his smile made her laugh. "You liar!" she shouted, punching his arm.

He smiled and turned his back to her.

She slapped the back of his head. "There! You deserve it for your pretense!" He turned back towards her giggling and she studied his face. "The way you smile, Martin, I think you like being hurt."

"If pain was the cost of this--," he whispered.

"Of what?" she whispered back.

The fire popped and hissed and finally Martin spoke. "Kate, I'm afraid to tell someone I love them,"

"Afraid?" said Kate. She leaned close and cradled his chin, whispering soft as a dream, "I know."

He embraced her and breathed in the fragrance of her neck, her cheek, and her lips.

She stroked his hair, pulling it, and ran her hands across his neck. She kissed his nose, then his chin. "Kiss me, Martin!" she insisted, pulling him by the hair.

They touched half-opened mouths. Martin pulled away, but Kate caught his lip with hers, and reclined, pulling him down onto her. Then they truly kissed.

Martin parted his lips and opened himself to Kate. Her tongue explored his mouth. Martin fell breathlessly onto Kate's shoulder and whispered her name between tastes of her neck.

They were kissing still, when the fire went out.

When Martin awoke he saw the blue light of the moon bathing Kate. He wondered at her lips and the idea that he had kissed them; that she had kissed his in turn.

He listened to her breathing and thought she would never know him. He knew she thought he only rescued her to have her. Despair overcame him and under the bluing Sky he fitfully slumbered.

Martin was on a mountaintop, the mountaintop, from which he first saw Kate. He looked down at the little white Flower and smiled. "Hello, old friend," he said and quickly covered his mouth, for with every word came hundreds of little yellow Seeds. And from the motion of his arm came a hundred more.

He ran down the hill to save Kate again, leaving a carpet of little yellow Seeds to drift where they may and at the bottom of the hill he was back in Rou with Ilse.

He was lying with her in the afternoon, taking a break from the Harvest. They had just shared their sex and Martin was dreaming of Do'aash. "I know that you don't love me."

"What?" Ilse pulled her hand away and covered her breast. "I do love you, Martin."

"Only because I rescued you. If I hadn't..."

"Martin, if you hadn't rescued me, I wouldn't have survived. This is unworthy. In the beginning, I loved ..." She sniffed and started again. "There's more to you than just your courage; I love a man, not his traits."

"I risked my life in saving yours. You love the hero you've always dreamed of, not the man that I am."

"But you rescued me! Rescuing me is part of you. I love you. What's wrong with that?" She gazed into his eyes, barely a trace of blue iris encircling her pupils.

Martin touched her cheek. "I love you, but I'm not the man of whom you dream. You'll be saddened when you learn I'm flawed; our love will not survive it."

"Our love will live until I die."

"No," he said. "We'll part and I couldn't bear it. When your infatuation ends, I'll lose you. Our love won't last forever."

"Nothing does, Martin. Why force it to an end? Even things that are not yet will dwell with Yesterday's Sunsets."

"There's nothing here for me!" he shouted so loudly she flinched. "I'm sorry." He continued quietly, "I have to sing my answer."

"Can you not solve a riddle from Rou?"

"Where's your Desert, Ilse? Where's your Sea? How could I solve it from there? How would the Teacher know?"

"You don't have to solve it at all."

"And be a boy forever? I want to be a man."

"Marry me. That's what makes a man in Rou." She grasped his arms. "You have a life in me now. Stay."

Martin stood. "Marry you?"

She pulled his hand to her stomach, "Martin, we need you."

Martin pushed her away. "Not until I solve my riddle."

"I can wait."

"And not until you've had more men. I will not be your first."

"But you are!"

"I would have married you," he sighed. "If only you came from Do'aash."

"Why?"

"You'd understand. But it's not just my riddle, Ilse. I'm helping everyone I meet! Like when I met you! I'm becoming--"

"A hero?"

"No. I'm not... I'm--"

Ilse stood up and advanced towards Martin. "You're leaving me so you can be a hero? You're no hero, you're even scared to love!"

Martin awoke shouting, "I am not!"

Kate held his hand. "What did you see?"

Martin looked up at the Sky. The Sun had almost cleared the horizon and the Clouds and Sky were different shades of gold.

"Do you believe in dreams, Kate?"

"They never lie. What did you see?"

He stared into the rising sun, frowning. "Did you dream something too?"

"Martin, I dreamed that you were chasing a man across the world. He was always ahead of you. Every step you took would shake yellow drops of sunlight from your hair, and many things grew from the soil behind you where the sunlight had seeped into the ground.

"When you tired of the chase you stopped by a pool and the man came to you. He asked, 'Boy! Who are you?' You wept, but before you could answer a Bird fell from the sky with a broken wing.

"You removed your shirt, cut off a strip, and then wrapped the wing. While you smiled down at the Bird the man walked away. Do you understand what it means?"

Martin smiled down at her, "Maybe, Kate. But let's not think of it again until we make it to Eukre." He kissed her and moved his hand to feel her grow wet for him.

"But, Martin," she said, rocking against his exploring fingers. "The dream--"

"Do you want me again, Kate?" He asked with the warmth of the Sun in his hands.

"Martin," she whispered as she pulled him onto her. "Yes!"

"Do you need me?" He swallowed but his throat was swelling shut. His vision sharpened.

"Martin! I do."

"Say that you need me." He grew hard and still above her until her words released him.

"Martin, I need you!"

"Oh, thank God," he whispered as he entered her, forgetting, for now, their dreams.

THE END


© 2009 Michael Hitchcock

Bio: Mr. Hitchcock works in a shoe store, consults for an educational software company, sells books on amazon.com, and takes occasional work acting or singing. The rest of his life thus far has been just as varied. Once, during a six day long performance art project where he pretended to be his own son from fifty years in the future, he went to a comedy show and was asked to go onstage. Everybody laughed. (Presumably this was a good thing... Ed.) Michael's work has appeared in the July 2008 issue of Dog Vs. Sandwich.

E-mail: Michael Hitchcock

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