The sound of a thousand beating wings surged through the air like an oncoming storm. The sky darkened. I looked up from the fire I was building in the great hearth. The bird-people were coming toward our village.
“Look, Gar.” Roon came running. He and I were the same age, but we two boys had grown apart since I had been chosen Fire Keeper. “Where are they going?”
I had no answer, and we stood together watching the beautiful strangers soar by. We had never before seen them at such close range.
The bird-people look much like us, but we Kotaks are tall and strong, with dark brown skin, straight hair, and dark eyes, while the bird-people were honey-colored, small, and delicate. They flew high above us with their slim legs tucked up to their chests and their copper-colored wings gliding over the wind in slow, graceful strokes. The first of them flew so high I could not see their faces, but as more came, flying so closely their wings nearly touched, some broke off from the group and flew lower, in a wide circle, as if they were curious about us. Their faces were narrow and lighter than ours. Their hair was lighter too, and pulled back tight against their small heads. They stared down at us with huge wide eyes.
“Hello!” I called and waved my fire stick, hoping one of them would speak, but all I heard was a delicate warbling sound more like music than speech. All over the village, Kotaks came out of their houses and stood silently watching the bird-people pass by.
Three days later, I was again building the evening fire, when my father Tu came out of the forest carrying a bundle wrapped in his shirt.
“Gar, call your mother,” he shouted. “I have found an injured child.”
I ran for the saba, where the adult women meet each afternoon for the holy rituals. When I called, my mother Téle, who is also the Mother of our village, opened the wooden door. Her sharp eyes sought past me for what had disturbed the daily prayers. When she saw Tu place his bundle near the hearthstone, she strode across the common.
“Who has been injured?” she demanded.
“This child is one of the ones that fly.” Tu pulled aside his shirt and pointed to her back where tiny feathered appendages lay useless. “I found her crawling out of the desert. She has wings, but they have not grown.”
“Am I to heal an animal so you can have a pet?” Téle said
“When I reached her, she spoke, I am certain. Can we refuse healing to one who speaks?”
Téle met his eyes. “I refuse healing to no one. But this is a dangerous matter. More so if the bird-people can speak. This is the third time they have flown over our village just before the time of planting. None have ever spoken. And now we have one of their children.”
“May I put her in the healing houle?” Tu asked. I held my breath.
“Yes,” Téle said. “Stay with her. I must look inward.” She turned back to the saba. The women waiting in the doorway stepped aside, and someone closed the door behind her. Except on special occasions, only grown women are permitted inside.
The flames from the evening fire were sprinkling sparks in the darkness when Téle emerged and entered the healing houle. Because she did this, I knew she had seen a way to heal the child. For six nights, Téle went to the healing houle. On the seventh night, she came to the hearth when the women’s saba was finished.
“Tell Tu the child will recover,” she said.
I ran. Tu let me come inside where the bird-girl lay under a woven blanket. She cried out when she saw me. Her bright green eyes fastened on Tu. He murmured something and stroked her face. I told him what Téle had said.
“I will stay with her until she can walk,” he said. “Have you seen any bird-people today?”
“None,” I said. “What happened to this child? Can you talk to her?”
He shook his head. “Her language is too different. If her people do not come for her…” his voice trailed away.
I did not understand how the beautiful bird-people could leave a child behind to die, but I said nothing. I was ready to take on the duties of an adult Kotak, so the childish questions I might have asked a year ago died on my lips.
The weather was warming and the men of the village were planting the hooma, while the women prepared the vegetable gardens. Tu was excused from work to care for the injured child, and I spent more time with the men, learning about the planting and which prayers to say for a bountiful harvest. Every evening, I lit the village fire, and one night, as I sat by the hearth, a movement quick as a shadow startled me. I turned and saw the bird-girl beside me.
“You are better,” I said, ducking my head so she would understand I meant no harm. She didn’t answer. I nodded and ducked my head again. She pointed at one of the large square stones around the fire pit.
“Yes,” I said. “Sit.” I gestured with my hand. She sat down, hugging her blanket around her thin shoulders. As the firelight shone on her honey-colored skin, I saw for the first time how beautiful she was, more a young woman than a child. My tongue suddenly felt too large for my mouth. Her green eyes followed my every movement. Her golden brown hair hung in waves past her shoulders. I wanted to reach out and stroke that golden hair. Instead I said, “My father found you.”
She looked at the ground.
“Why did your people leave you? Were you lost?” I spoke slowly, but she shrank from my voice. More questions crowded my mind, but before I could ask them, she fled to the healing houle. As she ran, the blanket dropped to her waist and I saw the folded wings, small and delicate, resting between her shoulders. They looked soft and feathery, like a bird’s wings, and they were reddish-brown, like the color of honey left in a bowl overnight. Later Tu came to sit with me.
“I will ask your mother to take the child into the saba,” he said. “The women can speak to her with their minds.”
“What will happen to her?”
He shrugged. “Her people are gone.” He gestured to his chest, showing me that he understood this with his heart.
On the day Téle agreed to take the bird-girl into the saba, the afternoon passed slowly. At day’s end, Tu and I sat together at the hearth, silent with our thoughts, until the women came out of the saba. Téle came last, holding the bird-girl’s hand.
“You were successful?” Tu asked.
Téle nodded. “Her name is Dresa. Her people have left our land and will not return. We have offered to keep her as our own.”
“Has Dresa agreed?” Tu asked.
“She has. She can join Pel’s household.” Pel is my father’s sister, the best potter in our village. She was not blessed with children.
“Will you teach her our language?” Tu asked.
Téle nodded. “We will teach her.”
When I heard this, I felt happier than I could easily explain.
Dresa went to the saba several times each week and soon she could converse with us in our language. She became one of us. She wore the simple garments of our women that fastened at her shoulders and hung straight to her knees. Her wings were hidden, and as with many things that go unseen, we forgot they existed. Pel taught Dresa to fashion cooking and storage bowls from clay and how to decorate them with stylus and dye, and she was quick to learn this art. Soon, Dresa improvised new designs. Her drawings had softer edges and rounder shapes than any we had seen. On her bowls, tall trees sheltered birds with fluttering wings, women danced with children, animals we had never seen flew through the air.
Everyone loved Dresa, which made me happy, but I felt anger when I learned that Roon often left his own work to hang around Pel’s house while Dresa painted her pottery. The next time I saw him leave the fields early, I followed him into the outer courtyard. He turned to face me.
“What do you want, Fire Keeper?” he asked, taunting me with the name of my sacred duty.
“It is not what I want, but what Dresa wants,” I answered.
He laughed. He was taller and heavier than I, and the outcome of a fight was far from certain. At that moment Pel came out of her house, and we both went on our way, Neither of us wished to be caught fighting, which is not honorable among adult Kotaks. Still, Roon taunted me every chance he got. He spent as much time with Dresa as he could, and I was beginning to feel I had lost her to him when one day she invited me into the house when Pel was at the gardens. We sat in the large room where she sat surrounded by her pots.
“Where did you learn about these things you have drawn?” I asked her. “I have never seen such animals.”
Dresa ducked her head as any Kotak would. “I remember what my mother told me when I was little,” she said. “I could see the pictures her words formed in my head.” She touched a finger to her forehead. “Pictures of our home. I draw them so I never forget.”
“Is the winged woman your mother?” All her pictures included a flying woman, sometimes in the center of the design, sometimes a tiny figure in a corner.
“No,” she said softly. “That is Kirin, my twin.”
When I saw tears in her eyes, I put my arm around her shoulders. Her skin was like silk against my skin. She did not pull away. My skin grew hot and my mouth felt like the open desert beyond the forest. I dared to move a little closer.
“It is common among us,” she said, paying no attention to my quivering heart. “It is a special relationship. I lived with my mother and Kirin and all our people on the southern continent of your world for many years. It is warmer there, more like our homeland, but the air is too heavy for us. We could not thrive, and it was decided in council to return to our home. My mother, Kirith, is the leader of our people, and she called for a ship to take us back to Salantia. Twice we flew to the north, to the cold flat land where it is easiest for the ship to land, and both times the conditions were not right. We had to go back. This time, I am certain the ship came. I no longer feel my people, except in my heart.”
She was so sad. I patted her shoulder and she turned toward me. Her shining eyes were downcast. Her head rested on my shoulder. I barely dared breathe.
“Kirith knew it would be hard for me. I flew before I walked, but then I grew too quickly, and my wings would not support me. Florin is only half my size but much stronger in the air. It is the curse of your beautiful world, Gar, that we Romillians cannot grow properly here. Some, like me, grew too tall too fast. Some were born without wings. Many babies died. It is a terrible tragedy, to lose little children.”
I stroked her golden hair. She looked up at me. “I am lucky to have found you.”
“Tell me about your twin,” I said, because I could think of nothing else to say.
Her face clouded. “We started out together for the north. Florin and I flew side by side. We flew for hours. When we approached the forest, I was losing strength. I tried to keep up, but soon everyone was ahead of me. I sank lower than the trees. Then we came to the desert beyond your forest. Florin called my name and I tried to follow the sound of her voice, but I fell to ground in the desert place before we reached your village.”
My heart pounded as hard as when the wild bull had chased me in the forest. “They left you.”
Her face was still against my chest. “We had to get to the ship. If Kirith could have carried me, she would have, but no one can fly with such a burden.”
“They could have waited until you were older.”
“Then more children might have been born.”
I put my other arm around her and held her close. “I am sorry for your grief,” I said, “but happy that you came to live with us.”
“Oh, Gar, I am blessed.” She smiled at me again. “I thought surely I would die, and instead your people welcomed me. I have a wonderful life here. But the more I go to the saba, the more I think of Florin and what we would have become. Without her, I cannot be whole.”
Her words made my throat tight. “You are more beautiful than any in our village.”
I wanted to protect her from every memory that made her sad. I wanted her to look only to me. I didn’t understand why she needed her twin so badly. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t make her happy. I had no more words to offer, so I stroked the gold-flecked hair until Pel came to ask her to fetch the water for the next meal. With a touch on my shoulder, she was gone, leaving me to my thoughts that went round and round like the moon in the night sky, returning each month unchanged and mysterious.
In the fall, I noticed the women were spending more time in the saba. At first, I thought it was my own impatience, for I wanted more time with Dresa, but then I heard Tu talking with another man about how the saba had changed.
“Why has it changed?” I asked when his friend left.
He pretended to be startled. “Were you spying on me again?”
“I was repairing the irrigation ditch,” I said.
He grinned. “Our Dresa has upset the saba, it seems, from what Pel has said.”
“The saba is secret,” I said, to annoy him.
“Yes, but not how the women feel about it, as you will discover. My sister tells me that, with Dresa, the saba has gained power. It has also gained length, which has caused some to complain. Not Pel, of course.”
“But Dresa is not a Kotak. How could she affect it so?”
“Who has been talking about the saba?” Aunt Pel appeared, looking stern. “What business is it of yours?”
“It is not,” I said. “Forgive me, Aunt, I have chores.” I turned to leave, but Pel laughed and grabbed my arm.
“It’s all right, Gar. Come, let’s sit here in the shade.” She sank onto the grass under the nearest tree. “It’s a new thing for us, to have a woman of another people in our holy circle. It has changed us. I’m not certain where it will lead.”
“What makes you uneasy, sister?” Tu asked.
Pel looked over my head as if she saw something in the air. “Since Dresa joined us, the power of our saba is great. We travel farther in our minds. We have found people who live in villages like ours in a valley on the far side of the mountain.”
Tu asked her, “What is the use of this traveling with your minds?”
“It is good to learn.” She stopped and looked down at the grass.
“Something bothers you,” Tu said.
“We have looked into the heavens,” Pel whispered. “We have seen above the place where the clouds form.”
“Is this new?” Tu asked.
“We have always looked inward and down into the heart of the Great Mother who nourishes us. We have learned much about what is within us and below us, but never have we looked so far above.”
“What did you see?” I asked Pel. “What is beyond the clouds? Did you approach the lights of the night? Did they blind you?”
Tu jammed his elbow in my ribs, but Pel did not take offense. She closed her eyes.
“Beyond the clouds, so far there is no way to know the distance, are other lands. They hang in the night. People live there, people like us and not like us. With Dresa in our saba, we see these lands and these strange people. They make me afraid.”
“Have you seen the Romillians, Aunt? Have you seen Dresa’s people?”
Pel looked at me with troubled eyes. “No. But I believe Dresa has.”
Roon hated me. I knew it by the look in his eyes when he saw me with Dresa, and I was not the only one who noticed. Fighting over food or livestock or the right to ask another to make a household is not polite behavior, but it sometimes happens. And so, ways have been devised to assist the Mother of the village to decide the outcome of such altercations. Since the Mother of our village is also the mother who bore me, it was important to be as correct as possible. When Téle discovered my rivalry with Roon over Dresa, she decided that the village would have a night of feasting and dancing, called the hora.
During a hora, after the feasting is done, as the stars open their eyes, all the adults of the village gather around the hearth fire. They dance and jump and exhibit their skills in acrobatics in which we Kotaks take great pride. The dancing continues all night. As people become exhausted, they drop out, until only one of the two who are in conflict is left standing. That person then has the right to whatever was at issue. In this case, either Roon or I, could then ask Dresa to make a household with him. If she refused, the other would have permission to ask her. She was, of course, not required to accept either of us. All this was explained to Dresa by Pel.
On the night chosen by Téle for the hora, I lit the fire as I always did. Everyone in the village gathered for the feast, and we spent hours eating and talking and watching the little ones race around playing their games before they fell asleep on their parents’ blankets. I ate little, for I was determined to win the contest. I saw, from a distance, Roon watching me and scowling fiercely. Dresa stayed close to Pel and my father and did not look at either of us. I imagined that this custom of ours might seem crude to her, but she said nothing.
When the dancing started, I built up the fire so the flames leaped toward the sky. When this was done, Tu came and indicated that he would see to the keeping of the flames so I was free to concentrate on my dance. For this I was grateful. As the flames grew and stretched toward the darkening sky, the younger men began to dance, jumping and leaping as high as the flames themselves. A group of young women joined in, and after a time, all were dancing, young, and old, and our moving bodies filled all the empty space around the hearth.
Tu and Téle came to dance beside me in the inner part of the circle and even Dresa joined in even though she had never danced before. We leaped higher and danced longer than anyone had ever done. We danced until the tallest women and the strongest men fell into each other’s arms to sleep while the dancing fire whispered all it had seen of that night and the nights gone by and those yet to come.
Tu stayed awake to feed the fire, and at the darkest part of the night, only Roon and I still danced. We leaped over the sleeping bodies around the hearth and turned over and over in the air, landing on our feet and immediately jumping up again to see who could leap the highest. When the first gray light appeared, I could no longer feel my legs. By then, the dancing fire had been lulled to embers. Téle, wrapped in her blanket, watched from the hearth, along with another elder woman.
I was determined to keep going, and I was certain Roon felt the same. Now we danced slowly, moving around the circle with heavy feet. Then I saw him on the other side the courtyard, readying for a run. I turned my back to find the best place from which to start my own run, even though I was not certain I could leap again. Roon came toward me, his face contorted, his arm upraised. He ran as if he intended to jump straight up into the air, as we had both done earlier in the evening, but his foot struck something—a stone, a corner of a blanket—and he stumbled. He flailed his arms trying to save himself, but he fell flat in the dust. I danced around the circle toward him. He tried to rise, but instead cried out and grasped his left knee with both hands.
Téle rose and went to him. I danced closer so I could hear her words.
“Are you injured?” she asked him.
He made a terrible face and nodded yes.
“Then Gar has won the dance,” she said.
I fell on the ground while Tu gathered some men to help Roon to his sleeping place so his leg could be tended. Téle pulled me to my feet and walked with me to my sleeping place, and there I slept for most of the day until it was time to light the evening fire again.
The next afternoon, when I returned from working in the fields, I went to Pel’s house to see Dresa. She met me at the door wearing her best shawl and the turquoise pendant that Pel had made for her in the shape of a great bird. I thought she was pleased that I had won the contest.
“Dresa,” I began, even though my mouth felt like dust.
“Wait, Gar,” she said. She touched my arm. “Something wonderful has happened. Even more wonderful than you winning the dance. Which I was happy about.” She smiled and the light from the window shone on her golden hair. “But something else has happened, and I want you to come to the saba today. You and Tu are invited. It is a special day.”
“Téle has agreed?” I asked stupidly.
“She asked me to invite you. Will you come?” She stood and extended her hand.
“Of course.” I was breathless at the thought of being in the holy saba with her.
She took my hand as we walked through the village toward the houle that holds the saba. At the door, Tu waited. When he saw us, he grinned and winked.
“A good day,” he said.
Dresa pressed my hand and disappeared through the doorway. I looked at Tu. He shrugged. “I know nothing. But let us enter and see what our women are doing.”
Inside was a large round room, dark except for the light of a fire burning in a shallow pit in the center. There was no front or back, so what I had heard was true—in the saba all are equal. Feeling warm bodies all around me and smelling the sweet flesh of the women made me very aware of my maleness. I stuck close to Tu and groped my way to a place on the ground. Murmurs rose from the circle of women which was four or five deep to accommodate everyone. The women moved to let us pass. Tu sat first. I heard a giggle, then a thump, as he took his place.
Finally, I was safe on the ground with Tu on my right. I dared a glance to my left and was relieved to see Aunt Pel smiling at me. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I stole glances around the circle. Dresa sat across from me. Her eyes were closed, but when I looked at her, she opened them and smiled so sweetly my heart unfolded. Téle started to chant. The women swayed. A hum arose. I concentrated on quieting my own breathing. I noticed a tiny point of blue light in front of me. I blinked. It grew larger. I stared at the blue light, which hovered in the air over the flames. The blue light grew as large as a doorway. The chanting stopped.
Téle’s voice boomed in my ear. “Tonight we build a bridge to the saba of the Romillians of Salantia. As we join our minds together, our hearts guide our thoughts. If your heart guides your thoughts, walk through the door that has opened.”
I wanted my heart to guide my thoughts. How will I know? I thought wildly. A heartbeat later, I heard Dresa’s voice: It will be so if you intend it.
“Thank you,” I whispered. Then I forgot to think because the blue light had become a door. I went through, head first, as children dive into the wide part of the river on the hottest days of summer.
I felt warmth. Turning toward its source brought me face to face with the saba. The women in the circle nodded at me. Tu raised his eyebrows. Dresa smiled her secret smile. Téle passed with closed eyes, a thin blue flame emitting from her forehead. I floated, and the circle passed before me. I felt for the ground but it was gone.
Why do you worry so? Dresa’s voice was amused. Then I was alone, staring at a bright multi-colored light coming toward me from dark space. The light became a winged creature. As it came closer, copper-colored wings brushed the air, rushing past as a storm rumbles down from the mountain. As the creature slowed, its wings beat faster, causing its body to stand upright in the air.
The flying person was female, with a sternly beautiful face and long waving hair a shade darker than Dresa’s. My heart rattled as I watched this creature alight. Was she in the saba? I wondered. Can everyone see her? The Romillian walked forward, her wings folding against her back, into a circle of golden light. I gasped when Téle appeared and walked into the golden circle. She faced the Romillian. Both women bowed.
“The saba of our village welcomes Kirith of Salantia, leader of the Romillian people, who flew over our land in peace,” Téle said. “We welcome your return in spirit as we meet with you in spirit.”
Kirith bowed low. “We welcome you to our saba,” she replied. “We accept your greetings in spirit as we meet with you in spirit.”
I stared at the women, finally realizing that this was the saba.
“We meet because of your efforts,” Kirith said. “We came to your land in response to your call, because we had perceived your desire to know what lay beyond your world.”
“We did not realize our desire for knowledge had brought you to us,” Téle said.
“Romillians go where we are needed,” Kirith said. “We travel to worlds whose inhabitants are ready to open their eyes wider. But, as my daughter has told you, we could not survive in your land. So we did not contact you while we lived there. We thought it best not to open a door that led nowhere. I am grateful for this chance to see my beloved daughter again.”
“Our effort was successful because Dresa joined her mind to ours,” Téle said.
“Where is my daughter?” Kirith asked.
I felt the circle expand. Into the golden light moved Dresa. She walked slowly, her wings extended. As she entered the circle, Téle stepped back. I held my breath, watching the winged women face each other. Kirith lifted her arms. Her wings extended. She stepped forward. Dresa walked into her embrace. They pressed themselves against each other, wings quivering. Excitement pulsed through the air. Dresa moved a step away from Kirith and knelt before her mother. Kirith reached down and raised her by the shoulders. They both turned and faced the doorway that Kirith had come through. A shimmer of light appeared in it. I held my breath. Another being approached the door, wings outstretched. It was smaller than Dresa. As it touched down, it folded its wings and stood motionless.
I knew when I saw the delicate features, gold-flecked hair, the huge green eyes glistening with tears. The center of my forehead throbbed. Dresa and the newcomer faced each other. They stood motionless, devouring each other with their eyes. Dresa moved first, a firm step with outstretched hands. They embraced, clinging to each other, stroking backs and shoulders as if their hands were magnetized to the other’s flesh.
The love between them was a living force. It burst out of Dresa’s body in a stream of bright pink and engulfed Florin. From Florin’s chest emitted a burst of pale green that mixed with the pink and filled the space between them. Even I, who know nothing of such matters, felt the joy of their great love.
Dresa and Florin moved apart and bowed to each other. They vibrated so fast their bodies no longer had clear edges, but became spirals of moving color. As they came together, the vibration increased again until, at the moment they touched, even their faces were moving light. I watched two sparkling columns of light meet, touch, and blend until they were one seething mass of color.
The single spiraling mass of light slowed. Outlines of limbs appeared, then wings. A face formed in the light. And I saw, not Dresa and Florin, not the long-separated daughters of Kirith, but one beautiful woman, who was like Dresa, but not Dresa, who was as tall as Dresa, but so much more beautiful my throat ached with tears. The twin daughters of Kirith had somehow merged into one exquisite adult.
I wanted to go to her. I wanted her to touch my hand. I wanted her to tell me her secrets, for in her face I saw knowledge surpassing anything I could imagine. Even Téle, wisest of us all, was a child compared to this shining creature. All this I knew in my heart.
I called to her in my mind. She turned toward me. Her eyes were as large as our village. I found myself standing on a shore of green water that rippled softly, inviting me to explore the treasure in its depths. Dresa, I whispered as I walked into the warm green sea. The water closed over me.
I opened my eyes. Before me lay the homeland of the Romillians. Beautiful winged creatures soared through the pastel air, making pictures with their wings. The pictures were of forests and waterfalls, of a golden sea where great winged fish soared over waves, of high-domed crystalline structures, of Romillians dancing and laughing, mothers with children, lovers walking on soft grass. Never had I imagined such things could exist, pictures so vibrantly colored and exquisitely wrought, they could have been alive.
As I watched the pictures shimmering in the air, I heard sounds, soft lyrical tones that floated on the wind. I looked for what could be making these sounds. Then I understood—it was the wings of the Romillians. The pictures moved. Breezes swayed the delicate trees, water bubbled over rocks, the waves crashed, the gentle voices of the Romillians laughed and crooned. I was overcome with joy. The pictures had come alive to the music.
This is my world. Dresa’s voice echoed in my heart. This is why I must return to my home. Part of me wishes I could stay here with you. But what you see is our art. I was meant to create pictures like these for all my people to see. My heart has always known this. Now that I have joined with Florin, my heart is whole. I will return to my world and make pictures of your land and your people and of you, my brother, so all will know of your strength and kindness. I am not leaving, but returning. Do you understand, Gar?
How could I not understand? I would have gladly left my home and gone with her if there were a way. Now that I had seen it, I wondered why Dresa had not died from grief in her exile.
I felt her smile. I will always remember you.
The land of the Romillians faded. I floated in the warm green sea. Then I fell asleep. When I awoke, I was in my sleeping place. It was the darkest part of the night. Nothing stirred except Téle who sat by the open door with her back to me, swaying back and forth as she watched the silent moon sail across the deep dark sky.
Four summers have passed since Dresa left us. Rain has been plentiful, our village prospers, and Téle has become a grandmother. Our son was born two winters ago, one winter after Mart and I decided to make a household together. I had hoped the child would help my mother forget how the saba had been when Dresa was with us, for Pel told me that the women no longer see above the clouds. But sometimes when Téle looks at me, I see the questions burning in her eyes.
How could a living person become light? How did Dresa leave us?
I have told her all I could. About the green water, and the land of the Romillians, and the pictures that lived and breathed. But I did not speak about the deep love Dresa had for her twin, nor about the great longing that somehow made possible things that cannot be.
Sometimes even now, I see her stare at me, as if she is trying to snatch the knowledge straight from my mind. I want to say to her, “It was love, Mother, that did it.” But these words are not enough. They don’t explain what happened that night, and I have no other words that do.