Today she would learn Summoning.
As she emerged from the indifference of the market to turn down Bridge Road, the earthy smell of fresh baked bread wafted past. After the bakeries a short distance remained to the bridge marking the boundary of town. Only Kaisa and her mother crossed the rickety bridge with any regularity. Sometimes Kaisa saw traders or soldiers walking hurriedly past the dirt turn-off to her house. Once or twice she even saw schoolboys daring each other to go past the stone road markers on the forest side of the bridge. She always laughed at those faces pale with fear from stories of burned and twisted bodies found when people dared enter the peebles' forest.
Today only the tight-lipped and mysterious trees with their rustling silence kept Kaisa company as she approached the little black-painted cottage with its scrubby vegetable gardens and roaming chickens.
"Kaisa, honey," her mother greeted her, "I made you that beautiful embroidered blouse to wear when you go to market. Didn't you like it?"
"But it's too hot for long sleeves," Kaisa protested.
"Honey, I know its hot, but people just feel more at ease if we keep covered and don't flaunt our --our difference."
Kaisa's cheeks flushed red. Her mother always bore the brunt of the stupid townspeople's prejudice. Even when she brought them their monthly allotment of energy stones, the townspeople stared disdainfully at her mother from dark, fearful faces. They accepted her presence briefly, only because of their need, fighting repulsion at the chance touch of the Summoner's tainted, pink skin. We are Summoners, we do what must be done. Kaisa swore to herself she would wear the embroidered blouse to town next time, and just bear the sweat in silence.
After supper, Kaisa followed her mother into the locked shed behind the cottage. Little thrills of anticipation went through her as the long black robe of a Summoner draped across her shoulders. Ever since she was a little girl, the swirling patterns of obsidian beads sewn into the robe fascinated her. Feeling the hem swirl about her ankles, fingering the glassy coolness of the beads, Kaisa allowed her long pent-up excitement to course through her body. Tonight she would follow her mother into the deep forest, forbidden until now Mother never discussed her mysterious duties, so Kaisa resorted several times to approaching the old men's tables at Moon Festival with her questions. But the old men could not --or would not -- tell her more about the creatures that lay constantly on the edge of her awareness. Tonight she would see for herself. A cool, pink hand brushed Kaisa's hair behind her ear.
"There is nothing --," her mother tried to say, "I can't really prepare you for this. Just remember that you are a Summoner's daughter, you do what must be done." The words hung in Kaisa's memory, echoed by the taunting chants of classmates. Look at the freak! Look at the Summoner's daughter! The words that hurt her then now swelled her chest with pride. Her mud-for-brains classmates would never understand how duty and pride formed the very core of Summoning.
The forest was much cooler than the town. At first Kaisa tried to keep from brushing against the slimy, damp leaves as big as her head, drooping in clumps from every tree. But when she saw how her mother walked proudly, solemnly, as if welcoming the leaves' touch, she tried to mimic her mother's courage and forget her own nervousness. For she would be Summoner as well soon, and Summoners walked the forest with out fear.
She found herself in a natural clearing of sorts. Here the surrounding trees were bare. The pale, green moon shone through to the forest floor. Her mother gestured for her to stand to the side, then stepped to the center of the clearing. The sound began as a buzz, like a spotted fly caught in her hair. Then her mother opened her arms to the moonlight and the sound swelled to a chorus of melodious arpeggios and shifting, evasive tendrils of sound. It wasn't so much that Kaisa heard her mother singing, it was more as if every cell in her body vibrated with it's own urgent note. A note that flowed across the clearing through her mother and returned back to her colored by the dusky-sweet smell of sticky dough, pale gray eyes, the remembered coolness of a soothing hand on Kaisa's brow, and countless other bits and pieces of the woman who was Summoner for Parrotsburg. It was then that she realized they weren't alone.
The rose-tinted grey shapes moved so slowly at first she could only see them out of the corners of her eyes. Frozen by the swirling music binding Kaisa to her mother, the fear that was her first reaction to the peebles' presence never got a chance to send her flying from the clearing. The aching harmonies dissolved into an intricately balanced chorus of voices as the peebles closed in rings around her mother. Just as the nearest peeble touched the Summoner's outstretched hand, the peebles in the outermost ring flowed in bass descants into the inner ring. The peebles in the inner ring responded in baritone and alto cacophony. Music throbbed through her veins, crescendoing until Kaisa thought her heart would burst with the intensity of sensation. A single, sustained note from the peeble touching her mother broke through the chorus, and then suddenly there was only silence.
The shining red, irregular-shaped forms of energy stones lay in the Summoner's hands where the peeble had pooled itself. Into the deepening green of the setting moon the now reddened, surviving peebles crept from the clearing. Rising from the emptiness left by the final voice, Kaisa felt a heavy, baritone keening from every direction. Every cell in her body ached in sympathetic response.
"Mother," said Kaisa when they emerged from the forest into their cabbage garden. "At the end, why were the peebles crying?" Her mother did not answer.
After three days her mother broke the silence weighing so heavily over the cottage since the Summoning. Kaisa was on the back porch shelling peas into a metal bowl, letting the rhythmic click each pea made as it hit the bottom occupy her mind. With a startling thump, a pack landed heavily next to her. Kaisa looked up into her mother's grim eyes.
"I think it's time," her mother said. The black Summoning robe was wound around the pack's handle. Kaisa stood up, maybe now her mother would answer all the questions simmering in her mind since that night. Maybe now her mother would tell her peebles didn't really feel anything when they were turned into energy stones, that the low keening was all in her imagination.
"It's time for you to register with the census man at Miller's Pond. You can leave this afternoon in our roundabout." Her mother spoke in a tone Kaisa had never heard directed at her before, a tone usually reserved for townspeople.
"It is unlawful for anybody to Summon without being duly registered and catalogued. You must take an oath before the census man and the guard, you must swear to fulfill your duties faithfully. Miller's Pond is the closest census office. When you get back, we will discuss with the Parrotsburg Council where you will serve your apprenticeship."
"I always thought you would teach me."
"A Summoner does not learn at her Mother's house. A Summoner shows courage and independence." Something of her mother's more tender side shone through the gruff commands. "Be careful, Kaisa. There are those who travel the roads who don't respect Summoner black."
When Kaisa stood and lifted the pack, her mother caressed her cheek with one dear, callused hand.
"Come back to me safely, Summoner's daughter," her mother said, unspoken affection making her eyes shine. Then, she turned around and walked quickly back into the house, leaving Kaisa alone on the porch a heart racing with excitement and anxious fingers wound about the pack's handles.
The first few hours of the journey Kaisa could hardly keep her mind on the road. She was to begin duties when she returned! Though her mother never really explained much about her own initiation, Kaisa assumed her own mother would teach her. If not her mother, than who? Maybe they would assign her to Vanderfield, the nearest town to the east. Malika was getting old, she hadn't even made the trip to Parrotsburg the last few Moon festivals. Kaisa hoped her teacher wouldn't be Malika. Vanderfield's Summoner was a gnarled woman with blue eyes so pale they looked empty. There were even rumors that the man who fathered Malika's daughter had died under mysterious circumstances.
Kaisa could easily imagine Malika in Summoner black, cackling in glee as dark red peebles retreated into the woods, keening in pain. No! It wasn't pain. Everybody knew peebles couldn't really feel. Kaisa gave herself a little mental shake. Peebles were just semi-animated globs of goo that thankfully, for humans' sake, could make energy from sunlight. She needed to concentrate on getting to Miller's Pond.
When the sun began to disappear behind Pike's Mountains, Kaisa adjusted the roundabout's front solar panels and began to look for a place to camp for the night. After a few minutes she pulled off the road at a place where a line of reddenberry bushes created a natural covering for the roundabout. As she slipped into sleep underneath the Summoner's robe and the winking stars, her thoughts were of the peebles and the peculiar harmonies they sang underneath a moon-filled sky four nights ago.
Kaisa awoke the next morning, her right shoulder aching from close contact with a vindictive root and her throat unpleasantly dry. Two men stared at her from the rutted, dusty road.
"What do we have here, Jasper?" asked the taller one, turning to his grizzled companion with a smile that showed missing teeth. "Have we a pink one? Yes, its sleeping so prettily, all alone." His eerie voice sent a shiver down Kaisa's back. The one called Jasper made no answer, just stepped closer, looking almost hungrily at Kaisa's bare, pink arm.
"No, Jasper," the tall one barked at his companion. "Don't want to scare it." Then, turning back to Kaisa, "You aren't scared? Pinky just a bit surprised, isn't it? Never seen Jasper and Bet before, has it?"
Kaisa nodded, wishing she was closer to the roundabout. The men didn't have trader's belts, nor did they wear guard uniforms. Even if she retreated past the road markers, these two looked crazy enough to follow her. The tall one took another step towards her, one hand outstretched. Kaisa scrambled from the blankets, flicking her eyes towards the welcoming coolness of the trees.
"It's a little flighty, isn't it? Doesn't know we mean no harm. Doesn't care about Jasper and Bet, does it? Doesn't care if Bet's tummy rumbles?" The two men again took another step closer. A sour, musky smell permeated the air.
"Are you hungry?" How had the silent, hungry-eyed Jasper gotten between her and the roundabout? She swallowed dryness down her throat. "I've got food, let me just go get it," she said while trying to keep an eye on both men at once.
"See, Jasper, I told you. It'll help us. It's not like the others," said Bet with a gross parody of a wink. Kaisa managed to evade Jasper's sudden lurch towards her, but couldn't outrun Bet's long reach. His scabby knuckles clamped her forearm, dragging her to a stop. Kaisa's lungs labored to breathe past the knot in her stomach.
"No! Pinky doesn't run, its got to show us its roundabout, yes? Pink ones don't walk, oh no they don't," Bet said with an extra squeeze. Jasper inched closer, the tip of his tongue emerging from between cracked lips. Bet drew a knife from somewhere in his pockets, pricking Jaspar's shoulder lightly in emphasis.
"Not yet Jasper, not yet." Then he turned to Kaisa, jerking her roughly to her knees. "Pinky won't try to run, will it? Where is Pinky's roundabout?" Bet gave her a little shake, absentmindedly pricking his left hand with the knife. Kaisa pointed one, shaking finger towards the reddenberry brush. A smile crept across Bet's wrinkled features.
"Jasper," he commanded. A trickle of saliva stained one side of the other man's mouth, but he didn't move.
"Jasper'll go see to our roundabout. See if Pinky is telling us the truth."
Bet's grip tightened on her forearm as the other man turned around slowly, pushing through the reddenberry as if he didn't notice the tiny thorns against his skin. Jasper uprooted an entire bush, revealing the front wheel of the roundabout.
"Yesss," Bet hissed slowly, relaxing ever so slightly. Kaisa pulled from his grip in a violent twist she had learned, the painful way, on the playground. She didn't hesitate, there was no other chance but to hope they wouldn't follow her into the forest.
She ran, crashing blindly through wet round leaves, expecting Jasper's hungry eyes to appear in front of her. She didn't know how long fear coursed through her blood, but when she finally slowed to a panting walk, the forest was utterly silent. A trio of saplings, covered in bushy pods, provided a haven for Kaisa's exhausted collapse. The horror she had blocked now crashed over her in sobs that were squeezed painfully from her lungs and chest. Kaisa would have given anything to feel her mother's cool touch, soothing away her tears, but she was utterly alone.
When the tears stopped, she heard the humming. The sapling pods crackled and broke, sending fluffy tufts of pink into the wind as Kaisa scrambled to her knees. Yearning vibrated through her blood in delicious chords; there were peebles nearby, and they were singing.
Curiosity overcame her momentary hesitation. The lure of bass descants underpinning soaring soprano duets flowed through her. The leaves swayed in a light breeze, opening a path to Kaisa as she moved towards the sound. In a heartbeat, she found them.
Multiple rings of rosy-hued peebles sang in intricate chorus, seeming to ripple in welcome as she entered the clearing. Kaisa was held in thrall, her body vibrating in sympathetic rhythm with the peebles' music. After a moment, or maybe an hour, she found herself somehow in one of the inner rings, adding her voice to the pulsing altos.
During her mother's Summoning the notes were flavored somehow with human scents, the smell of cooking, her mother's cool skin, as if somehow her mother focused and controlled the peebles' music. The temptation to force her own taste into the music welled up in Kaisa's lungs, her hands ached to conduct the central motif. The sure knowledge that she could focus these peebles as her own mother had flowed through the rippling notes.
Through the minor chords of a building climax Kaisa felt strange, unnerving sensations on her face, and the smell of mulched leaves and burnt skin gagged her. A hazy memory of keening and reddened peebles rose up in b-flats and a rhythmic bass pulsing. The memory made her hesitate just as the harmonic culmination sent waves of electricity shooting through her veins. Her momentary hesitation let the power dissipate and Kaisa knew that she was no longer the focus of the peebles' music. Before fear had a chance to build, bass arias boomed over the clearing as peebles in the outermost circle flowed into Kaisa's ring.
At the first touch of the cool mass on her skin, Kaisa drew in surprise at the slimy otherness of the peeble's skin. Her first sense of distaste quickly turned to wonder as a thousand fingers of energy began to ripple and caress. Her circle of altos arpeggioed in delight, a low murmur underpinned with warm soprano tones torn from Kaisa's own throat.
Kaisa abandoned herself and flowed with the rest of her circle as the inner ring of crescendoing sopranos took over the melody. With the release of energy, pulled from every screaming cell in her body, she collapsed to the ground. The peebles joined in unison into one, impossibly high, clear note, bursting through the forest in a rainbow of harmonics, then dissipating into the leaves. The quiet that followed lay like a stifling blanket over the clearing. From the silence, reddened peebles began their slow movement away, revealing a gray puddle in the center.
Kaisa rose gingerly to her feet, light headed and out of breath. The gray puddle made no movement when she prodded it with her toe. But as she touched it with one cautious finger, an echo of the peebles' last harmonics vibrated through her finger and the gelatinous puddle pulsated. Noontime lit the clearing, trees murmuring and caressing the air with their broad leaves as the sun shone down on her. Kaisa drew back with a gasp. Where the sunlight touched the grayness, a pink hue began to form. It was a peeble.
"Got it!" said Bet's gravelly voice behind her, and familiar scabby knuckles closed over her arm. "I told you Jasper, I told you Pinky would lead us to it."
Jasper, eyes dark with anticipation, emerged from the trees. He immediately bent down and scooped up the newly created peeble, licking his lips. Kaisa felt an abrasive rope knotted around her wrists from behind.
"No chances this time, sneaky Pinky. Too sly the first time for us, wasn't it?" Bet tugged on the rope, pulling Kaisa off balance. Jasper finished stuffing the peeble into a filthy leather bag, then expectantly turned towards Bet.
"What do you want from me?" She had to keep them talking. Then maybe she could find another chance to escape. She shivered as Jasper stepped closer, hunger turning his pupils into tiny pricks of darkness.
"Jasper wanted to kill it. But I said no, Pinky'll lead us to the newbies, keep the other soft ones away, yes?" Bet said.
"You can have anything you want; just can't you let me go now?" Kaisa tested the knots binding her wrists, finding them very tight indeed.
"No, oh no, we can't, can we Jasper? Now Jasper and Bet don't have to beg from the towns. Pinky'll help us with the newbie."
Kaisa had no choice but to follow, stumbling through reddenberry bushes and over tree roots as her captors pulled her from the clearing. Jasper ranged silently ahead, appearing for a moment, then disappearing again in the foliage. Neither of the two men seemed at all worried that they were inside the forbidden forest. Jasper and Bet certainly must have spent time here before; they traveled a well-worn path through the trees with confidence born of experience
For the first time, Kaisa questioned whether the scary tales were true; maybe nothing would happen if a town person ventured into the forest. Had generations of people been kept inside the boundaries of the towns and roads by a lie? If that was a lie, was it possible that there were others? Kaisa stopped her thoughts there, she couldn't believe her mother would tell her lies. But then she remembered the terrible keening she heard after the Summoning, and shuddered.
Jasper appeared suddenly to her right, a grin cracking his face to reveal terribly rotted and notched teeth. Bet jerked Kaisa into a faster pace that caused tall, spiky kaxis to scratch at her legs and arms as they broke through dense underbrush.
When Bet finally stopped, Kaisa gasped in surprise. The trees thinned out completely along the edges of a structure right out of old mens' Moon festival tales. If she could believe her eyes, she was staring at the decaying remains of a First Colonists' ship. She heard Bet laugh as the exhaustion, fear, and shock combining in her blood finally reached her brain and she fell to the ground unconscious.
Kaisa awoke with the newbie peeble's humming vibrating along her left arm. There was no other sound. She risked opening her eyes, fearful that silent and hungry Jasper was waiting just out of eyesight to pounce. When neither of the men appeared, she propped herself up on one elbow and tried to get her bearings.
Both she and the newbie were lying atop a metal table, surrounded on all sides by unfamiliar, rusting instruments. The setting sun peeked through a palm-sized hole in the ceiling, and Kaisa realized she must be inside the - the ship. Purposefully she slowed her breathing, concentrating on the strangely comforting vibrations from the newbie.
"Wakey wakey Pinky" said Bet from a doorway to her left. He chuckled and stepped inside, carefully closing the door behind Jasper who followed him. "Waiting for Pinky to open its eyes, yes I was. Wanted its help with the newbie. Jasper wanted to eat, but I said, no."
"I don't know what you want from me," said Kaisa, sitting up completely. She judged the distance between Bet and the door. Bet's voice, oily sweet until now, took on a grating harshness.
"No more tricks! It shows us the secret now!"
"What do you want? I don't know any secrets!" Kaisa could feel tears forming at the corner of her eyes. Bet reached the table in one angry stride, grasping her head between grimy hands and roughly jerking her face towards the wall behind her. Fear brought a coppery taste to her lips.
"See! Pinky can read it. Pinky knows!" he growled. Kaisa swallowed the copper and looked. There, spelled out in the same black pictographs that labeled the stores in Parrotsburg, was a story. A story she had heard, in one form or another, at every Moon Festival since she was five years old. But as she read, Bet's hot breath on her neck and ears making her heart race, she noticed differences.
Just like the Moon Festival tale, this version told of how the First Colonists founded the cities, giving their ships up to rust and trees. How they rejoiced at the fruitfulness of their new home -- until they discovered the total lack of mineral deposits. The pictographs told of the first winter after all the First Colonists' fuel had run out, and the cruel desperation of starving people.
But then, where the old men whispered of the first Summoner appearing from the forest with her promise of energy stones and the binding of the forest against townspeople, the walls of the crumbling ship told a different story. Kaisa made out something about peebles, and how they drew energy from the sun. There was the strange metal table she was sitting on, mixed in with unfamiliar symbols about procedures. She could just make out one panel about children. But then there were whole panels of pictographs she couldn't quite understand, something about peebles and humans and a pact.
"It tells us now," came Bet's insisting voice from behind, "Pinky shows us now how to make the newbie into the red stones." Kaisa realized he was talking about energy stones. Bet wanted her to show him how to use the metal table to make energy from the newbie. For a second, all she could think of was the terrible keening of the peebles she had heard after her mother's summoning.
"It tells us now," repeated Bet, "or I gives it to Jasper." He released her head, turning her around to face Jasper. Two eyes like pricks of darkness and the acrid smell of musk filled her throat as Jasper crowded closer to the table. With all the urgency of the fear roiling inside her, Kaisa wished her mother was here.
"I don't know. It doesn't say what to do." Kaisa scrambled as far away from the men as the table would allow.
"It's knows! It just won't tell Jasper and Bet."
The newbie's humming stopped as Jasper moved in, grasping a good-sized blob of the peeble in his hands. He heaved the newbie onto one of the less-rusted out metal instruments. Saliva dripped out of a corner of his slack mouth as he pulled an energy stone from his bag
The newbie thrummed dark, minor chords of despair. Kaisa could feel fear begin to roil in desperate up and down her spine. Somewhere outside the metal walls, a tentative, delicate tenor motif lit the air. Bet hissed in fear, stepping back towards the door. Jasper began pulling and pushing rusting bits of metal around the newbie. Now a soprano descant answered the tenor, colored by bass harmonies.
"No!" Bet cried out. "Don't bring the soft ones!" A tiny corner of Kaisa's brain wondered for a second at Bet's fear, then was captured and held by the crescendoing music.
Without thinking, Kaisa reached out to Jasper. She felt the music burst within her as the bass rose to drown out the other voices, flowing, releasing all her fear and the power of the bass crescendo into Jasper as she obeyed the pressure building inside her. With a strangled noise, Jasper crumpled, melting into the ground.
Kaisa turned towards Bet.
"No! No! It's supposed to help!" he wailed. Kaisa pushed herself off the table, reaching for him. Bet took off. Kaisa could see him disappear into the trees through the open doorway.
The newbie arpeggioed its delight. Obeying a strange instinct, she reached for the rosy mass, plunging her hand in up to the elbow. She heard the peebles outside spin off an intricate series of choral whorls and slides, and understood her connection for the first time as her own voice, tinged with golden harmonics sang to her from within the newbie's humming. She sang wonder and surprise in duet with that voice. The peebles answered with a chorus of joy. The knowledge of her part as a necessary focus sang through her with major chords of delight, then was colored dark with an antiphon of grief that the peebles themselves had lost the ability to focus their energy without a Summoner.
The First Colonists' motif entered the choral dance and again understanding vibrated down the length of her arm. The black pictographs she had tried to read before came suddenly and startling clear. Disbelief temporarily muffled the chorus, then Kaisa gave herself to the overpowering hum of the peebles' revelations. She thrummed acceptance of her genetic legacy, born from First Colonist experimentation with human and peeble genetic tissue. Kaisa heard the promise made by her forefathers to leave the forest in peace to the peebles sung in bass and tenor duet. Then cried bitter tears when the sopranos told of the terrible price the peebles paid in eerie and jarring atonal notes. A hundred years of grief forced tears from her eyes. Grief that had bought peebles respite from alien invaders' advances on their territory. Kaisa heard and understood when the voices combined for a last chorus, the refrain echoing in her ears even as silence surrounded the skeletal ship again.
"Our children," sang the peebles. "We grieve for our children."
Kaisa gently carried the newbie out into the forest, laying it down among broken pods and soft grass. She watched it flow, infinitely slow, back into the forest to follow the rest: the first living child in generations created among the peebles. A precious, new life, bringing hope to its centuries old and weary brethren. Created because the peebles had finally rebelled against the terrible pact that condemned them to sacrifice their children for the humans' survival on a planet with no natural resources.
We are Summoners, we do what must be done, came the echo of her mother's weary and resigned voice.
"No, we don't" Kaisa answered out loud. She looked up into the evening sky, seeing the pale green light of the moon's face peeking over the tops of the trees. Miller's Pond was no longer an option for her. She didn't know how yet, but she was going back to Parrotsburg and stop her mother's Summoning. She would make Mayor Honkakoski listen to the peebles' music, and force the people of Parrotsburg to finally see her pink skin, despite their guilty disdain.
She couldn't bear to ever hear the peebles cry again in the moonlight. Nor could she ever sing again without the thrumming of the newbie coursing through her body. Some part of her was caught up in that bit of new-born hope. Kaisa leaned against the warm bark of a tree, feeling the leaves wrap around her fingers in moist welcome. Somehow she would make her mother understand. Kaisa swore a promise to herself, to the trees, to the newbie. Somehow she would be the last Summoner's daughter. A bass arpeggio rippled through her like a promise. Somehow.
I am an English as a Second Language Teacher in San Francisco with speculative fiction short stories published in The Orphic Chronicle, Jackhammer, and the Writer's Hood.
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