Return 15

Though the walk was long, the way was not unfamiliar. We had left a trail through the rubble, where our boots and feet wore against the stone grass and pushed the pebbles and ash away from our marching line. Parched, aching, exhausted, we kept on. We returned, shoulders bent, hands empty, hearts heavy, not knowing what we would find. The creature’s expression upon pointing us home had been both love and shame, a guardian, disappointed.

It was night as we crested the last hill, and looked out at Songfall, below, the glimmering pool, the cookfires, the warm glow of the camp beckoning.

We ran as children do, excited, hurrying to the garden and the small huts, hopeful to see our little ones. Though our numbers had been lessened, and our pride had been burned away by our fear, we were eager, imagining that they had been returned to us — and they had, joyous day.

Had we but known.

The Captain and Luroteo neither welcomed us, nor turned us away, but it was our children whose attitudes shook our hearts. They looked upon us, their hollow eyes without trust, and they refused our arms, our comforts, our love. When we asked why, we also learned why our winged protector had looked at us with such sadness, when pointing us home.

The children would not tell us, would not reveal the source of their upset, and clung to one another, rather than sit in our laps and cuddle in our arms. In the end, it was Luroteo who bore the sad telling.

He led us to the pool itself, down near where the fallen thing had sung its last. He took up a cup of the clear, singing waters, and walked a path away from Songfall, a path too worn for comfort, to a circle cleared of all, where we had laid to rest our sickest, our eldest, those whose time was over. There, within the clusters of rock, he poured out the cup against the tiniest pile of stones, a cairn.

Big enough only for one.

She had died hungry, unable to be fed, as her mother had left to search for her. Only the Captain and Luroteo had remained, and they could do nothing for the little one, even as its cries had dimmed. The Captain explained that the water from the pool had sustained it for a time, but without proper food, it simply failed to thrive. The other full-bellied women clutched at their bodies in terror and loss, and the wailing that came from the bereft exceeded even the song that the fallen one could sing for them, that night.

Over the next few days, the mother pled with the creature, begged, wept, tore at her clothes and beat her breast in agony, and at last, laid herself around the cairn, putting her cheek to the stone that bore Enim’s name. In the end, a second cairn had to be built. We did not move her, but instead built it in a curve around Enim’s, the hollow at her belly fitting to her daughter’s stones, and all overlaid by new ones, until each of us had put a hand on the grave.

The weeks that followed brought yet more births; the cries of infants and joyous mothers once more filled the camp. As women grew round in season, they visited Enim and her mother, and laid a pebble on the cairn, in remembrance, as a sort of pilgrimage, to honor those who had gone before. The air gentled, and the garden thrived. Our birds and flocks grew.

Life moved on.

We dared to celebrate.

The children left in the morning, and came back at night, even the infants.

Now and again, a child was left behind, usually one of the eldest. That child was taken in by Riesa, who held it as it wept to be cast aside, who washed its tears and gave it work for grown hands and thoughts for grown hearts.

In that time, we did not realize the winged creature had left us to our own devices — even Luroteo, who had once spent weeks at its side, contemplating the pool, was occupied by other tasks and did not seem to recognize the difference.

It was only the Captain that ached, who clutched his feather at night, who dreamt of a forgotten child alone in the red dark, and knew what we had lost.

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