This is Part 20 in an ongoing serial. Visit the ‘Serials’ tab at the top of the page to read parts 1-19.
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Time passed — slowly.
Without Luroteo, a great and dismal sadness seemed to settle over the camp. It was not until Riesa began to round that we behaved as anything more than lost children ourselves. She had taken to staying in the Captain’s hut during the long nights, and working in the gardens during the day. One afternoon, as she stood up and stretched, it was obvious what had happened — the Captain seemed shocked nevertheless — and from that moment on, we were determined yet again to find our joy.
Under the greydome sky, we persevered.
The days and nights were filled with light and music; we took every opportunity to celebrate, spending many evenings in revelry and love once the children returned from their journey.
The Captain, who had seemed lost and fading, after Luroteo’s disappearance, reawakened, with new strength, new purpose. He sang again, sang with us in the gardens, with Riesa at the pool, with the children as they came back from their journey.
One morning, as the pale of dawn suffused the dull sky, we woke to find several of the older children left behind. We found them in the gardens, listlessly touching the plants, meandering as though half-asleep. It was heartwrenching to see them struggle to come to terms with the change in duty, in life, in expectation. We showed them what they were to do, and they did it, singing quietly, watching one another with sad eyes.
What was harder, still, was the sight of the rest of the children that came home that night straggling into camp, pale and wan, stumbling, all of them that could carry were carrying an infant — some were carrying two, one on each hip, while toddling ones sobbed as they walked, wanting nothing more than their mothers’ comforting arms.
We had long since learned not to ask them of their task. We tried to ask those who no longer went, but their attempts to explain were like children attempting to explain a dream from which they’d awakened, and no longer remembered. They knew they were in the Desolation. They knew they were together. They knew it was important. But that was all.
Days and days of this went on, and though the children eventually stopped crying when they came back home, they looked more and more tired as they returned.
We grew used to it, as we grew used to the grey sky, and the rocky earth surrounding our oasis, and our garden that bore fruit but could never bear seed.
The months began to flow by, like water, and Riesa grew ever more round. The Captain made plans, made his hut larger, provisioned it, crafted a bassinet, helped to weave blankets, worked hard to make Riesa comfortable. He would often reverently lay a hand to her belly, and simply look at her. In this way, without words, he would tell her of his love. She was no longer a child, and she worked alongside him, stood in the gardens, made little clothes, carried water, and sang with joy.
All this time, the feather sat near the hearth, white and perfect and shimmering and forgotten.
One night, as they made ready for bed, Riesa froze, looking startled as the first of the pains at her back came. She could not sleep, not for all the tea, the hot rocks, the oil rubbed into her back and belly. The Captain looked helpless; he sent for the women who had birthed and who had seen births, and they came and filled his hut, and sent him away to pace the night, to talk with the other men. Without thinking, he took the feather as he went, clutching it in his strong hands, fingers curled around the rachis, familiar, comforting. Those who had recently gained children sympathized with the Captain, promising him that all would be well, even as these moments seemed fraught with effort and pain and worry.
The women cared for Riesa, on into the night, letting her eat and sleep when it was clear the child was not yet ready, and the Captain paced, finally nodding off to sleep in Luroteo’s old hut, holding tightly to the feather.
There in the red dark, with no candles or song or lover to hold back what he had avoided these long months, the Captain dreamed.