Chapter One – Found
Surrounded by a torrent of debris in a storm-swollen river, fighting the freezing water, blustering leaves, and stabbing sticks, I fought to live. My determination was rapidly deteriorating, but fear kept me kicking, flailing. In an instant as sharp as glass, something narrow and frighteningly jagged crawled from my left shoulder to my right ear. The screeching pain removed most of the air in my lungs from the shock. I tasted blood and I felt it cascade into my lungs, even with my mouth closed. I could no longer breathe, even above water. Only by the sheer luck of the current did I drift towards bare rock. Crawling, I turned myself downwards towards the slope, and threw up the blood and swampy water. In the dark, I didn’t understand the full extent of my injury. But the last thing I perceived that night were thick black channels of my own blood drizzling down the stony ground.
In my throws of confusion and blood loss, darkness passed over me. I had no concerns for the morrow. Time abandoned me as quickly as the heat in my body. Dreams floated through my mind. Was I viewing my last thoughts? Either that, or part of me was not yet willing to let go of life, and still dared to hope.
I saw you, Aria. So clearly. Your smile. Your hope. I reached for you. But I could not feel your touch. I could not even whisper your name. Every one of us, every member of both our families was dead, and you would be last. With that realization, my dreams faded and all emotion vanished.
But though I stood knocking on Death’s mighty door that night, begging to be let in, He did not answer.
The very next thing I remember are hearing someone call out, far away:
“Hey, Aaron, wait for us!”
The words did not immediately register; an unintelligible roar. They sounded like my dreams, like the buzzing of flies. Another sound quickly filled the void: the hoof-like thunder of violence pounding upon dirt. It was rhythmic at first, but it quickly filled my ears until it deafened me.
Then, it stopped short, and a small bout of silence led to a single breathless phrase.
“What is that?”
I felt nothing. Even when a very powerful force lifted me into the air and placed me delicately upon my back, forcing my frigid equilibrium to square off against gravity. Not a sliver of reality returned.
I saw daylight without seeing. Strong and terrible, it blinded my still-closed eyes.
“What is….? Whoa. Whoa.”
“Look, there’s blood everywhere. It must have been attacked by something.” There was a short pause. “It’s… dead.”
I felt a thick dull object compress my chest against the ground, and the intense agony made me clench inwards.
“No, look! It’s still breathing, look. It’s alive!”
I wanted to tell the voice to stop shouting in my ear. But it wasn’t shouting, exactly, and it was nowhere near my head. The sun disappeared from view, overcome by a shadow cast from a strange source, way up high. At once, I knew exactly what had discovered me.
Denvi. And ka denvi at that. Several of them, by the sound of it. I wasn’t yet dead. But I soon would be. And for an entirely different reason.
I opened my eyes. At least, I tried to. Still blinded by the scales of sunlight, I could only see the outline of an enormous figure standing above me. I could see a head, bent knees, wide shoulders. Almost beyond my sight were two similar shapes beside the first, strong ivory towers that reached into the sky. Nothing in detail.
“Chris, stay back. Shh! You’re going to scare it.”
“No I won’t!”
I closed my eyes again. Was I simply going to accept this fate? Part of me must have, as I felt no fear. No feeling in my legs or arms. Despite the warmth of the sun and the bright spring day, I felt winter in my throat and earth in my lungs.
“Aaron, we’ve got to take it to my Dad. It’s gonna die if we don’t.”
“Eww,” said the youngest voice. “I’m not touching it. It’s naked.”
The voice above me made a clucking sound.
“It’s not naked, Chris. It just doesn’t have a shirt. Besides, it’s obviously a little boy. Who cares?”
“We don’t have anything to carry him in. Dad taught me never to jostle a patient, since it could make their injury worse, you know? Do we… have anything I could use?”
“Should’a brought a backpack,” said the youngest.
“Yeah,” answered the voice directly above me. “Um. Oh, hey. Hold on, Ian. Use my shirt.”
At last, a vital spark of fear shot through my heart when another great force embraced my prone body and lifted me straight off the ground. Instead of becoming little more than red splatter within a terrible fist, or the force transforming into a claw to rend me into pieces, I felt myself descend into tender rest, as if placed into a warm cradle. Admittedly, the cradle smelled like someone in desperate need of a bath, but I could hardly complain; for the first time in days, I felt some source of comfort.
“It’s gonna get your shirt bloody,” said the youngest voice.
“So?” came the haughty reply.
“It doesn’t matter. Come on, we’d better hurry.”
I felt a sudden acceleration, like nothing I had ever experienced before. I gasped; it felt as though I had been strapped to a falcon in freefall. I recovered my breath, and began to feel the wall upon which I leaned, heaving inwards and outwards with the effort of a heavy jog.
I didn’t know what these ka intended to do with me. But like no other time before, I knew in my heart that I would never see you again.
* * * * * *
The sounds that echoed around me would have been frightening at any other time: the honking of terrible horns; the rumble of great machines; the delightful songs of birds that would have pried me to death for breakfast if given the chance; the murmur of other denvi laughing, speaking to each other.
One concern crossed my mind: would this ka reveal me to other denvi? Would I ever have freedom again? But then it occurred to me: I might not survive the next few hours. Very little else mattered if I died.
The journey felt like hours, my ripped skin fully exposed to the wind and sun. I wasn’t sure if I still bled freely, but the sapping cold I felt in my extremities told me more than enough.
“Chris! You’re faster than us! Run ahead and go tell dad that we’ve got a dying patient! He should be in his office!”
“Don’t move him around too much!”
“I know, I know.”
“Your dad’s not home today?”
“No, he’s at work filling out papers and stuff. Hopefully we can sneak in through the back.”
Sneak? Interesting. Was sneaking something these ka usually did? Or did they do it because of me?
I dared to open my eyes again, now that my angle had improved and my blindness somewhat faded. Above me was a horrific view. Beyond a chest covered in gray fabric was the slender jawline of a young ka, his gaze aimed directly towards his travels. A short round nose, messy brown hair, light freckles, green-blue eyes. Everything in the right place, nothing at the right scale. For a split second as his feet rounded a corner, his eyes graced upon mine.
“Don’t worry, little boy,” he said to me, his voice quiet and oddly determined. “My dad’s going to take care of you.”
‘Little boy’, he said. Kani. I hadn’t been called that since Grandmother passed.
“Is he okay?” asked one of the ka, not the youngest.
He came into view, and looked upon me as one would look upon a corpse. This one’s face was more youthful than the ka that held me, with a thinner build, red hair, freckles from ear to ear. His chest was also blindingly bare, but of course it was; he’d given me his shirt to lay upon. I wasn’t certain what expression he wore from my prone position, but it was apparent that his awe was just as sure as the one who held me.
For the first time in many hours, I attempted to speak. Although air escaped my lips, no sound accompanied it. I tried again. Nothing but a rasping noise, the sound of gurgling saliva and blood. In slight panic, I lifted my hand as best I could to my mouth. I could breathe, but I could not speak. I must have appeared as terrified as I felt, as both ka winced at my reaction.
“No, no, please don’t touch it,” said the ka who held me. “Come on, Aaron, hurry.”
The second half of the journey did not take nearly as long. I looked to my left, and saw for the first time the weight of a denvi hand, slender and enormous. Its fingers curled around me, blocking my view of the road ahead (and blocking others from viewing me in return).
Strangely, the thought hadn’t arisen until that moment that this ka was holding me in the crux of his arm like a newborn child. The black-blue shirt beneath me covered much of the arm, yet within my hand’s reach was a portion of the golden white, covered in invisible hairs and spotted with a single tiny mole. Whether out of curiosity or sick madness, I reached out my hand and gently slid it against the arm. When my hand felt its warmth, I realized that I smeared it with a trail of still-wet blood.
“Hey,” said the panting ka above me with a light laugh, to my great distress. “That tickles.”
I mouthed the word “sorry”, but only breath came out.
The ka denvi arrived at a gigantic building, two stories tall and covered in smooth white clay. Instead of going through the main entrance, the ka passed into an alleyway beside it. I saw power lines above tall wooden fencing, as well as a wide windowless wall of stone.
The ka called the place a ‘doctor’s office’. I knew the phrase, but not in context. I had only known healing through bitter herbs and roots, a chalky denvi pill two or three times when fevers threatened to kill a younger me.
If denvi medicine could cure this, I thought, it would be a miracle.
A door clunked open loudly, startling me, and the sunlight above me disappeared as the ka stepped into the building. Instead of the blinding light of the early morning, the atmosphere was replaced with dim halogen and the scent of denvi cleanliness. The air turned cold, freezing what blood still pumped through my veins. Denvi preferred living in spotless and pristine environments, sometimes disturbingly so; that place was devoid of color, incredibly alien.
Down a hallway, turn right, down another hallway. Past ringing telephones, laughing voices, and the sickening smell of bitter chemicals.
“I told him, Ian! I told him about the dying patient!”
“What is this about, Ian?” asked a gruff deep voice. It sounded displeased, which turned my stomach. “No. Absolutely not. The clinic is no place for dead animals.”
“Dad, just… just look at him, okay? It’s not an animal, it’s…” The ka shot a glance back down the hallway before whispering: “It’s a little boy!”
I heard a giant rise from a creaking chair.
“What do you mean, a little…”
I may not have been completely naked, but I have never felt more exposed than I did at that moment.
I then stared at the tallest denvi I have ever laid eyes upon, then and since. I thought the ka that held me was gigantic; his father stood over him like a skyscraper. Though age greatly separated the two denvi, the older male appeared remarkably similar to the ka that held me: slender face, round nose, intense eyes, and a beardless complexion. His fatherly frustration melted into amazement as he witnessed me for the first time.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he whispered in shock, turning away. He reappeared instantly donning a thin pair of frameless glasses. “My goodness… Ian, where did you…?”
One of the ka closed the door behind them.
“It was Aaron who found him. We were walking down the canal when we saw him next to the water. What is he, Dad?”
“I have no idea…”
His rough finger touched my stomach, and his fingers gripped my knee. He then felt my forehead, and must not have liked what he sensed.
“I mean, I… I don’t know if I can fix this. Look how deep that wound is.” I heard him sigh. “I have stitches, but… I’m not a surgeon. I’ve never stitched anything like this.”
“Well… can’t you just, I don’t know… bandage it?” asked the ka.
“And just leave a hole in his throat? If the wound is infected, it could kill him no matter what I do.”
“Please, Dad,” the boy continued. “You have to do something, I don’t want him to die!”
Emotion hit me, and it hit me hard. Beside the thought of never seeing you again, I couldn’t imagine a world in which someone besides you would care whether I lived or died. I wanted to cry out, but I only produced a whisper.
The great denvi pursed his lips and looked at me.
“Can you… understand me?”
I tried to whisper: “Yes.” No sound emerged, but he understood.
“If it were up to me,” he told me. “I’d take you to UCHealth immediately. It’s the best hospital here in town. You’ll have the best chance at survival if we take you there right now.”
I shook my head, hard and fast. If I went to a denvi hospital, even if I survived, my life was over. And yours as well, most likely. If the humans learned about me, about us… I would never see you again, and Elder Ordi would make sure of that. The bastard would bury both of us before ever allowing humans to discover our home… even if it meant better lives for them all.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “Now… I’m not a bad doctor. But I’m only human. And I can’t make any promises.”
I nodded, accepting that. Truth be told, it was because he was human that I dared to hope. And somehow, I think the denvi doctor anticipated my answer. He shook his head, and sighed. But then he gave his son a determined look.
“If you’re sure,” he said. “Place him on the table, Ian. I’ll do my best.”
The ka named Ian stepped towards a strange cushioned piece of furniture that appeared to be more of a bed than a table. Though immense pain flashed through my body, Ian took me gently with his great hands, removing me from the warmth and placing me down on the surface. I felt the crinkling of paper beneath my back; I had no idea what purpose it served. I gazed silently at the ka named Ian as he watched me in return, his face flush with concern. Beside him was the ka named Aaron, who tossed the freshly-bloodied (but fortunately dark-hued) shirt over his shoulder.
“All right, all right,” said Ian’s father, sitting back in his chair. “Okay, let’s see. Ian, boys, I need you to stay quiet for a moment.”
All the young denvi took a few steps backwards, and Ian’s father wheeled himself to sit directly over me. Into his ears he placed a strangely-pronged metal necklace called a ‘stethoscope’. Though I would later be informed that every denvi doctor wore such a thing, and that they were quite harmless, I thought he was about to smash me flat with the hammer-like tip of the tool. He pressed the wide circular end of the device upon my stomach and chest, and both the cold and the pressure made me scream. Or, it would have, had I the ability to scream. Instead, he saw the reaction on my face.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I don’t know how else to do this. If you can, try to breathe normally. I have to hear you breathe.”
I obeyed as best I could, drawing in air against all odds; the tool made exhaling easier than it should have been. None of the denvi said a word.
“Okay,” said the father at last, sparing me from the tool. “His lungs sound clear. Only a little rasping.”
“What does that mean?” asked Ian.
“It means he isn’t gasping for air from internal bleeding. It seems like whatever cut his neck missed the vitals… except…”
He leaned in closer to me, peering through his glasses.
“Can you speak?” he asked me. “Can you make any sound at all?”
Again, my mouth opened, and I created the words with my lips. I placed my hand to my neck, being cautious not to touch the torn flesh, and mouthed the words: ‘Neh angia, neh angia’. No sound emerged. It finally dawned upon me why.
“You can’t…” said the father. “You poor thing.”
“What, Dad? What happened?”
The father pulled away from me.
“It’s possible his vocal cords were severed. The wound is certainly deep enough. He’s lucky that whatever caused this didn’t tear open his carotid artery.” He traced the left side of his neck with his finger as he spoke. “I just… I don’t think he’ll be able to use his voice.”
My expression turned dark, and I let my hands fall. I’d never speak again. I’d never be able to yell, or cry, or sing, or read out loud.
Or tell you how much I love you, one more time.
“I’m sorry,” Ian said, stepping towards me. He reached out his finger and gently touched my forearm. “I didn’t hurt you when I picked you up, did I? You couldn’t have told me if I did.”
I couldn’t focus on him. I was too busy trying to process the world. Life, in that moment, what remained of it. I think, at long last, as the cold faded, shock had started to set in.
“Let’s see,” said the father, moving in close again. “Damn it. I don’t even want to try suturing this. Steri-strips will have to do. I’m sorry, little guy, but I have to make sure those wounds don’t become infected. When I put the antibiotic on, it’s going to hurt. Probably… a lot. But I’ll put Lidocaine on it immediately, so the pain won’t last long. Is that all right? Do you understand?”
I didn’t at all, but I nodded as best I could anyway.
“I just hope this works. You said you found him near the canal?”
“Yeah. He probably almost drowned. But it doesn’t matter. He’ll get better,” Ian said steadfastly, bending himself to put me and his eyes on an even level. “I know he will.”
I blinked a few times, and out of sheer hopelessness, I reached out to him. With his wide thumb and forefinger, he took my outstretched hand and most of my lower arm.
“It’ll be okay,” he said. “I promise.”
I’d only known this ka for maybe fifteen minutes. And I didn’t believe him. But tears formed anyway.
Chapter Two – Strange Place, Strange People
“I think it’s better if everyone stayed quiet about this little boy for now,” said Ian’s father, driving a colossal vehicle called a ‘car’. Of course, I knew what a car looked like from pictures. And I had nearly been struck by one on the way down the mountain. But I had never been inside one, much less one that was moving. “At least until he improves. Agreed?”
“Yeah,” said all of the ka.
Ian held me carefully in his arm, supporting me with a thick, light-blue towel. Ian’s father had undersold the truth: putting on those first bandages turned out to be one of the most painful experiences of my life, worse than actually being sliced open. The “hydrogen peroxide”, as the denvi called it, was a clear liquid, clear as water. It was not water. He applied the substance to my skin with a cotton swab. At first, it was merely cold. But within a second, the wound in my neck stung as if I’d been set ablaze. Within ten or so seconds, I passed out. To my shock, I woke to see sunlight shining down on my face, my frail little body once again being carried by the human boy. I reached up, and discovered thick but delicate bandages completely engulfing my neck, my shoulders, and much of my chest, to the point where I could not have raised my arms above my head. The intensity of the pain had been replaced by a strange and pleasant numbness, and I had zero desire to move, lest the burning reignite.
Although I had nearly been consumed by a flood, I’d thrown up quite a bit of what I had swallowed. I was thirsty, very suddenly so. Although I doubted there was anything that could be done about it, I had to let the ka know. Again, part of Ian’s arm was uncovered by the towel, and I gently patted it.
“Hmm?” He looked down. “Oh, hey, you’re awake! Are you okay?”
“He is?” asked Aaron, looking at me as he sat at Ian’s side.
“Can I see?” asked Chris, turning around in the front seat.
I called upon my voice by mistake, mouthing the words ‘I’m thirsty’. Hearing nothing, my hands instinctively touched the cotton muffler at my throat.
“You’re…” Ian said. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“I think he said… something about being dirty?”
“You can read lips?”
They looked back down at me, and I shook my head as well as I could.
“Nope, guess I can’t,” said Aaron with a chuckle.
I pointed to my mouth.
“Yeah, you can’t speak,” said Ian. “Or… something about your mouth?”
I nodded. I cupped my hand and raised it to my puckered lips.
“Oh!” Ian said. “You’re thirsty! Dad, do we have any water in here? Like a water bottle or something?”
The father looked around a bit, despite the distraction of the road beyond the windshield.
“I don’t think so,” said the father. “But I don’t think a water bottle would be good for him anyway. You’d probably drown him. We have an eyedropper at home, that might work.”
“All right.” He turned back to me. “Do you think you’ll be all right until we get home?”
I nodded slowly, closing my eyes. I nearly let my chin lean forwards, but the sting in my neck kept me motionless.
The drive only took a few minutes. But as I watched the landscape beyond the vehicle’s window fly by, tree after tree, sign post after street light, I realized just how far away I was traveling from you. I know our decisions had brought me to that place. My decisions. But I had run out of choices to make. If I tried to return to our village, especially with that kind of injury, I would die within a day. Maybe with the help of these denvi, once I regained my strength, I would have a chance to return to you.
The car stopped moving when it arrived at a well-kept building of white wood and red brick, at least from what I saw from my perspective in Ian’s arms. Chris and Aaron rose, exiting the vehicle without being prompted.
“Remember, guys,” Ian said. “Don’t tell anybody about him. Even Uncle Ty and Aunt Amy. Just tell them I have a doctor’s appointment to go to or something.”
“You’re not wrong!” Aaron said with a quick smirk.
“See you, boys,” said Ian’s father. “And good job today.”
The doors shut, and both ka ran for the home’s front door and disappeared inside. The car then continued its movement.
In truth, I was becoming a bit alarmed. The deep rumble of the denvi vehicle, the pain in my body, the exhaustion from the entire terrible week, it all conspired against me. The urge to sleep even overrode my desire for water. But if I drifted off into sleep now, would I wake up? And where would I be when I awoke?
Ian noticed my distress. Looking down, his breath fell upon me.
“Are you okay?”
“Let him rest, Ian,” said Ian’s father. “That will be the best thing for him.”
“All right,” Ian said, watching me. “Don’t worry. You can sleep. I’ll make sure you’re comfortable when we get home.”
Trust is a strong word. I wasn’t sure I had much for the boy or his father yet. But his few simple words granted me the permission I needed to surrender. I closed my eyes, and was out in an instant.
The very next something I experienced was a powerful smell. A collection of smells all wrapped into one, in fact. They weren’t individually terrible. Together, they clashed.
One was some kind of bitter cleaning solution, what denvi use to clean their floors and furniture. The second was unfamiliar, primal, the kind of odor that marks someone. I’ve been told that denvi only sort of experience such smells, that dogs are better at identifying people this way. Do you remember when you told me mine was like juniper? I never could help having that dull smell, no matter how much I bathed or what soap I washed with. But this one was thick, the smell of an older child and something buried, like orm roots. The third smell that consumed my senses was by far the strongest: a mixture of savory herbs and flavorful stock.
My eyes opened. A dim white ceiling greeted me first, made yellow by a light source from somewhere in the room. My eyes tracked the ceiling to the far wall, upon which sat two rows of wooden shelves. On these shelves was a colorful assortment of plastic toys and books, well-used boxes with bright graphics and frayed corners, and plastic cases with a variety of English words upon them. Beside the shelves was a wide window framed with dark-red curtains, through which I could see trees, telephone lines, and the light blue of a beautiful spring afternoon.
I tried to lift myself to get a better view of my surroundings, but the roaring pain in my neck pinned me down. I dared not move, but I again attempted to make sound, any sound at all. When I mouthed the words, I could hear the delicate wind of spoken language, but it did not have my voice, nor did it have any great volume. Then, for the first time since, I nearly gagged as the inside of my throat erupted in irritation and pain. After all the blood and damage, it was only natural. If the doctor had been right about my throat, that my vocal chords had been “fractured” by whatever hellish thing I hit in the river, then perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to force my voice to function. I settled back into my light-blue bedding and simply stared.
My ears yearned for recognizable sounds. Muffled voices echoed from elsewhere inside the denvi home, all too indistinct. Every four seconds or so, I would hear a sharp click from somewhere behind me. I didn’t recognize it. It was hollow and tinged, like the metallic ping of a bell. I hated it. With every click, it felt like something in the back of my head was being struck with a ball-peen hammer. But since it didn’t approach, I deemed it annoying but nonthreatening.
Somewhere deep within the bowels of the house, the sound of rushing water echoed. Whenever their plumbing flowed, said the gatherers, denvi would be present.
I decided that the sound was too distant to concern me. Until, of course, I reasoned that distance didn’t exactly matter when all the denvi who lived there knew what I was, where I was, what I looked like, and my current state of health.
I’m unsure how long I laid in that strange rectangular room by myself. For all their faults, I mused, the gatherers had been right about one thing: the denvi adored ninety degree angles. Every room that I had seen thus far had been perfectly rectangular, perfectly geometrical. I didn’t mind it. It had to make their construction projects simple, at least. I knew many who regularly complained about them, though.
Every room is the same, they often said. The only thing different about each room are the colors on the walls and the obstacles on the floor.
If the rooms are all the same, I would always ask, then, what makes them so hard to navigate?
Nothing important is ever on the floor, they would answer. It’s always up above.
I had never been too sure about that. But the gatherers’ toolkit made things quite clear, and never changed: steel grappling hooks, tough leather belts, and as much thread as you can shoulder. Climbing was the only way to survive in a denvi home. Olem, climbing was the only way to survive anywhere. Combined with the ability to remain hidden in the shadows. If a deni had any trouble with these two skills, they were better off staying home.
I never was a very physical person. I couldn’t be. You know that. So I taught the deni children how to read and write, content to enjoy the odd scraps of paper the gatherers would bring back. When you convinced them to find some for us, of course. For a few moments, I wondered if I would ever get to teach again. I wondered if I would I ever get to live in a villageagain. Or, come to think of it, would I even see another living deni again?
A sound. The click-thud of a closing door. Footsteps.Big ones.They distanced themselves at first, but then reappeared as deep thumping upon the solid floor nearby.
I froze. Every instinct inside me demanded me to move, to flee, but the pain grew unbearable the moment I even dared to lurch forward. I relaxed, and the pain dulled. Death was just around the corner and I couldn’t move a muscle.
A great door suddenly clicked open directly behind my head, shocking me. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. If the skeletal visage of Death had actually entered the room, I’d never see him coming. Was that better or worse?
Great footsteps on carpet closed the door behind them. I heard the sound of a quiet sigh, and within a second, felt the brush of stirred air as a very large someone strode past where I lay. I dared to open my eyes for just a split second, and I saw the dark-haired head of a familiar ka ignoring me, walking further into the room.
The veritable weight of his presence unnerved me, certainly, but I realized that my position was somewhere high off the ground, as if on some shelf. If I had been lower down, in a crushing position, my psychological state would have been considerably more fragile. Once the ka named Ian passed by, I could no longer see him from within my bedding. He began humming some tune, considerably off-key, and I heard the crunch of metal springs beneath dozens, maybe even hundreds,of pounds.
I didn’t want him to find me awake. But I preferred he didn’t go to bed and leave me in a state of uncertain panic for two to three hours, either.
I didn’t know if the boy would see it, but I had to try. Despite the discomfort, I raised my right arm, waving my hand back and forth to grab the boy’s attention. In that moment alone, I was glad you weren’t with me; you would have stabbed me with your hairpin to make me stop. I felt incredibly foolish. But it soon had its intended effect.
“Oh!” said a quiet voice.
The metal springs complained again, and deep-thumping steps brought the ka denvi into view. I don’t quite know why I expected his appearance to differ from only a few hours before. Though my imagination had turned him into a hideous monster as I slept, he simply… wasn’t. The dim yellow light that shone from behind him cast his massive shadow upon me. Despite this, more than enough daylight entered through the window that I could see him in detail. Bright green eyes, long messy hair that grew past his ears. I could only see his face, his collar, and part of his shoulders, so I knew I must have been quite high off the floor.
“Hi,” he said to me.
I offered a small wave in reply, blinking to make sure this boy was truly looking down upon me and not some other poor fool.
“Oh, good, you can wave.”
I couldn’t nod real well. But I could smile. Slightly.
“How are you feeling? Are you in pain?”
I shrugged my shoulders, which made me wince.
“I’m sorry. I wish I could give you medicine to help. Dad isn’t sure how much we can give you yet. He said he’s gonna do some research about it, though, maybe give you some… relative to your size, you know? Do the bandages help, at least?”
I moved my lips. I think he took that as a “yes”. He watched me for a bit longer than would be considered polite. I even closed my eyes for a second as if tired, just to look back and see he hadn’t stopped staring. I think I glared at him. That gave him the hint, and he shook out of his daze.
“Uh…” The boy chuckled, moving on. “Oh. Hey, do you… want me to get you anything?”
Again, I lifted a cupped hand to my mouth. Recognition lit up his face.
“Oh yeah! Sorry, I forgot! Wait right here.”
Not that I had a choice. Just as abruptly as he had entered the room, he stepped out; the entirety of him suddenly not being in front of me was almost as jarring as him being there. I heard his footsteps travel a short distance, a door open, something clatter, and a waterfall cascade into a hollow bowl. Ten seconds later, the ka returned, closing his door and coming back into my view.
“Here you go,” said Ian cheerfully. In his hands he held a large plastic tube and an even larger vessel filled with pure water. “Drink from this.”
It wasn’t just a tube, exactly; a tube with a plunger within that could fill and empty just by squeezing the plunger through it. Ian brought the tube to my mouth, and as his thumb pressed upon the plunger, my lips immediately met with moisture. I inhaled the first fist-sized drop. Metaphorically. I hadn’t had a clean drink of water in maybe two days; I’d thrown up all the unclean river water I’d dare drink before then. A second drop emerged, and I lapped it up. A third, fourth, and fifth drop formed, and I took my time with them, enjoying every second of the incredible crisp liquid. Finally, I leaned my head backwards as a sixth drop formed. I thought it might spill across my chest. But Ian was watching the procedure closely, and simply by pulling on the plunger, the drop withdrew back into the strange tube as if by magic.
“Is that all?” Ian asked. “Do you want more?”
I raised a finger up.
I pushed my hand forwards a few times.
“Oh. I’ll wait. Sorry.”
He was considerate, I’d give him that. Perhaps I wasn’t an animal to him after all. Once I regained my composure and felt there was room for more, I waved at him.
“Here ya go.”
The tube lowered and produced a droplet, which I sucked up with gratitude. I did the same with a second, a third, and a fourth. I then raised my hand to make the water cease, which it did.
Now, I thought to myself, what do denvi do? Then I remembered; I’d seen it in a picture from a torn magazine once, and I’d seen Grandmother do it a few times. I lifted my hand, formed a fist, but left my thumb extended. I didn’t really know what that meant. But I’m glad Ian did, and a smile formed on his face.
“Yay,” he said. “Good. Good. Hey, are you cold? Or hot? Lift up your arm.”
I didn’t, but the boy took it in his fingers anyway. My left arm, too. It hurt.
“Hmm. What about here?”
He felt my stomach with his forefinger. I lost a bit of air as he pressed down. He then lightly squeezed my right foot. It was then I knew for sure that I had lost my ratty shoes. I didn’t much care; they hadn’t offered any real protection. I was just grateful I still wore any piece of clothing at all (specifically, the pants that clung to my waist).
“Yeah, you’re cold. Do you want me to get you another towel? Help keep you warm?”
My hand waved a negative and fell back down to my side. Despite the blood loss and relative nakedness, most of me was badly sunburned, and for the first time in a week, I felt fairly comfortable.
“Um, let’s see,” he whispered, lowering his eyes to my level.
I turned my head as best I could, and saw the curious light of his eyes not more than a few arm lengths away. I’m not going to lie, it was slightly horrifying, being able to seemyself in that reflection.
“Dad says that it’s super-important that your patient stays comfortable. And he said that sometimes a distraction can help lessen pain. If you want, we can watch a movie on my TV. I’ll watch with you to make sure you’re okay.”
I knew what a “movie” was, if only because of the word. At first, I gave him a halfway shrug. Until my plodding mind comprehended what the boy was offering me. When would I ever get the opportunity to watch a denvi movie otherwise? I quickly nodded to override my shrug.
“Yeah? Cool. Uh, hang on, let’s see…”
Ian looked around his room for a moment, and then stepped outside again. His thundering footsteps faded, then I heard him faintly shout to someone. Everything grew quiet. A door very far away slammed, and Ian’s footsteps rebounded towards me until he entered the room. He passed me by, fiddling with something wooden and metallic. I had no idea what to make of it, so I remained still.
Ian then came into view.
“I got you a chair,” he said. “You’ll have the best seat in the house. Like sitting in your own theater.”
I nodded, not fully understanding. I only knew of “theaters” by the word. But if they had anything to do with movies, they must have been fantastic places to visit.
“Okay, here we go,” Ian said, his slender yet gigantic hands reaching for me. One hand descended beneath my right side, and the other crossed over me beneath my left; I half-expected to be smothered. Instead, I went airborne, descending into that strange and massive room. I didn’t have too much time to marvel at the movement before my bedding and I came to rest upon an inclined surface. Although I couldn’t say so, it felt wonderful to be seated. Ian’s hands disappeared, and there, standing upon its own table, I looked upon the largest and most foreboding black rectangle in existence.
The descent hadn’t frightened me all that much. No, it was the tower of a boy that loomed over me that attracted my horrified gaze. Dressed in a gray shirt and shorts, I could see Ian in much greater detail from my new perspective, from his knees all the way up to his head. It was like looking through some strange piece of warped glass, making the child only appear to stand as tall as a tree. But no. In reality, I was lying prone, under the complete command of this very real denvi.
I was right about lower altitudes, but perhaps not about him.Contrary to every tale I had ever heard about them, this human named Ian didn’t pose a threat to me. He didn’t intend to, at least. His size did, sure. But his demeanor did not.
He crossed the room between me and the rectangle, taking some device in his hand. The pitch-black rectangle suddenly gave way to a pair of bright blue words that I couldn’t pronounce. They made no sound, but the two words then became a blue illustration of a television that playfully bounced back and forth across the screen. The television was active and ready.
“Okay,” Ian said, stepping towards the shelves that hung next to the window. “I’ve got a couple of movies to choose from. What do you think? Star Wars? Lord of the Rings? Maybe a Disney movie?”
I hadn’t the slightest clue what any of those words meant. Without any hint of preference, I almost shrugged again, but then an idea popped in my head: I had a very important question (a number of questions, really), and without a voice, there was going to be only one way I could ask it.
I raised my hand to stop the boy. Before he could ask why, I pressed my fingers together and wobbled them back and forth against the palm of my opposite hand. I watched Ian’s face for any sign that he understood.
Ian cocked his head to the side.
“You want to… write something?” he asked. He then smacked his forehead. “Oh! I’m so dumb! Why didn’t I think that you could? Hang on, let me find something you can use.”
Ian stepped away from my view, and the sounds I heard resembled rummaging through a filled drawer. The silly boy mumbled to himself in the meantime.
“No, not a pen. Too big. Nay, pencil’s too big, too. Maybe if I snap it in half, I dunno. Marker? Eh, they’re all dead. And you can’t write with a cray… Ah!”
Something snapped, surely too delicate and light to be a whole pencil. More rummaging. Then the boy reappeared, kneeling before me.
“Here you go.”
His hand hovered close, and between his fingers was a short gray stick a bit thicker than my thumb and twice as long as my hand. I recognized it immediately, as I had used them all the time: it was the lead of what the denvi called a “mechanical” pencil. I took it gladly.
“And here, you can use these.”
With his other hand, he placed a thick pad of light-green paper up to the edge of my lap. I’d used these as well. They called them “sticky notes”. People in the village generally used them not only as writing material, but as a source of adhesive that comes off easily enough with a thin knife.
I began writing my question when there came a knock at Ian’s door. I panicked somewhat when Ian said: “Hi.”
I looked; a familiar face looked back.
“Ian?” asked Ian’s father. “Is our patient awake?”
“Yep,” Ian said. “I was going to watch a movie with him, but guess what? He knows how to write.”
The denvi’s face brightened.
“Really?” he said. “That’s wonderful! I’d love to join you. Is it all right if I come in?”
“Is that okay?” Ian asked me.
Despite the water I just drank, my throat ran dry. But I nodded all the same.
The denvi opened the door and stepped into the room, and I imagined him hitting his head on the top of the door frame. I’m exaggerating, obviously, but I had never seen someone standing so tall before. I’ve never asked him to know for sure, but the good doctor had to stand more than seven feet tall, at least.He carried a large wooden stool in one hand as if expecting to enter whether I liked it or not. After placing it beside me and sitting down, Ian leaned backwards and plopped to the floor on his bottom. With both of them seated, I felt considerably less intimidated.
I pressed my hand against my forehead and closed my eyes, thinking for a moment. It would have been so much easier with a voice. I then pressed the graphite to the paper. Aware that the denvi would likely not be able to read my regular handwriting, I struck out my first words, rewriting them as large as I dared. It took me a moment to get used to my seating position, but I soon found a way to scribble without too much discomfort. Finished, I tore off the paper from the stack and handed it to Ian, who took it expectantly.
He squinted at the note, and for a moment, I thought I might have to rewrite it.
“Why would…? Because you were gonna die, silly.”
“What does it say?” asked his father.
Ian handed the note over.
“It says, why did you save me?”
The denvi above me placed a hand to his chin, and seemed to understand the intent of my question a bit better than the boy.
“Something tells me you don’t have very much experience with people like us.”
I shook my head.
“What do you mean?” Ian asked.
“Well, I’ve never seen someone like him, have you?” Speaking to me, he said: “You probably didn’t expect to be found by the boys, did you?”
I paused, and wondered if what I wanted to say would get me in trouble somehow. I carefully traced letters to paper anyway, pausing for a moment when I realized that they wouldn’t be familiar with my language. I pulled the note from the stack, and hesitated on who I should hand it to.
Ian’s father reached out first. He took his glasses from his pocket and studied my writing.
“My family,” he read. “…is dead because of humans.”
Ian’s eyes opened wide.
His father remained impassive when I nodded.
“You have every reason not to trust us, then,” he said.
I looked away.
“…but your whole family?” Ian asked, pulling forwards. “How?”
“Ian,” said the father. “I don’t think that’s our right to ask.”
They looked down upon me, and saw me busily writing. Mother, Father. Han and Sareil, the little brother and sister I would never know. Most of my students. Grandmother, your father Andre, and your brother Xande. I had already mourned for those I loved. As for the rest, what little grief I had for them was spent, and I could write without emotion.
I know this was always difficult for you to understand. But you, the children, and Grandmother were the only people I even wanted to care about. As for the rest, well… they could all go to hell. Writing about the dead wasn’t terribly difficult when most of them had made it very clear and public that they hated me.
It’s not the most satisfying form of revenge. They died, and I remember. But it has kept me warm some nights: I can remember them however I want.
I handed my response to Ian’s father.
“’Mostly sickness,’” he read.
I wrote another.
“‘Bad water and food.’”
“‘It’s not your fault, though.’”
I wrote another; despite the pad of paper being nearly as wide as I was tall, my arms were short, and I had little energy to say everything I wanted.
“’You are better than my family ever was,’” Ian’s father read. “What do you mean by that? I’m sure that’s not true.”
“Yeah, all we did was pick you up out of the canal and patch you up,” Ian said.
I frowned. I wrote more.
“‘You don’t know my family’.” The father shrugged. “Oh, well, I suppose we don’t.”
Ian squinted, wrinkling his nose.
“Were you running away from home or something?”
“They threw me out.’”
“Ian,” his father growled, scolding.
“…what?” he whined back.
They didn’t need to know everything. I put pencil to paper.
“‘My leg doesn’t work well’.” The father frowned. “Hmm. I did notice something before.”
“You can’t walk?” Ian asked.
“‘I can walk slow.’ Do you know what’s wrong with your leg?”
“‘I became very sick.’ When?”
I wrote again.
“’As a baby’. Both of your legs? Or just one?”
I held up a finger. Then two, wiggled my hand, and shrugged.
“Hmm. Does your knee bend normally? Or is it a little crooked?”
“No. Very crooked.”
“Do you mind if I lift up your pant leg and take a look?”
I wobbled my head, motioning down. Ian’s father gently grasped my wretched left foot with one hand and lifted up my pant with the other. I watched his face as he examined it.
“Can you keep it lifted? By yourself?”
I did my best, but my leg immediately began shaking from the strain.
“Whoa,” Ian whispered. “It’s like… his knee looks backwards.”
“Hmm. Atrophy, too.”
“What’s atrophy?” Ian asked, peering down at my leg along with his father. His breath hit me immediately as he zoomed in; he was so close, I could have kicked his nose.
“See the muscles of his calf? And his thigh. Compare the two. See how much more developed the right is than the left? Oh, here. Sorry.”
He gently took my leg with his thumb and forefinger. I nodded, grateful for the relief from shaking. My instincts told me to be worried about how closely they were examining me, but at that point, I preferred someone tear off my bum leg altogether and save me the trouble of hauling it around.
“See? It’s atrophied, which means the muscles have shrunk. Or just never grew strong.”
“Atrophy.” That was a new word to me. Now I could describe why my leg was ji kalok ys nanol. So skinny and bent.
“It does look like it bends the other way… May I?”
At his request, I quickly shook my head and twisted to pull my leg away. I could hardly bend it myself without discomfort, I didn’t want a denvi to do it for me.
“Sorry, understood.” He seemed to ponder for a second after releasing my leg. “Have you ever injured your back or your neck? Broken any bones? Or was it just from falling ill as a child?”
I shook my head at the mention of broken bones, and simply shrugged off the rest.
“Interesting. I wonder if it was something as simple as polio.”
“Polio?” Ian asked. “What does polio do? Isn’t that gone?”
“Nearly gone, yeah. Before immunizations, it used to kill thousands of children a year all over the world, and often crippled those that survived. Now it’s nearly eradicated from humanity, but… maybe not from his people. Polio and meningitis can act just like this, with muscle weakness, paralysis, genu recurvatum.”
“Genu wha-huh-tum?” Ian asked.
I would have asked the same thing.
“Genu recurvatum. Hyperextension of the knee.”
“Oh. That’s the technical term?”
“Yep. Although, maybe it’s not as bad as it looks.” He looked to me. “You can still feel your leg, move it, and bend it. Right?”
I nodded. I’d never heard of polio before. Or “genu wha-huh-tum.” Or “hyper-whatever-he-said.” But I knew the word “paralysis.” My left leg had never lost all of its feeling, or its ability to move. It was weak and misshapen, though, and it had been for as long as I could remember.
“How do you move around?” Ian asked me. “Hopefully not just limping.”
Instead of writing it, I extended my arms (wincing at the pain) and pretended to walk, making motions as if someone had placed sticks beneath my arms.
Ian’s father nodded.
“Crutches,” he said. “Hey, whatever works, right? You’re a tough one.”
I wrote three words of doubt.
“Hey, I don’t doubt it. I know a tough guy when I see one. You’ve got the upper body strength to prove it, I can tell.”
He poked me in the chest, and I offered him a small grin in return. There really wasn’t much muscle there either, but it was a nice thought.
“Wait…” Ian said. “With the rain last night, you weren’t actually trying to swim in the canal, were you?”
I shrugged. I had only really intended to follow the bank of the river in the direction it ran, but the slippery mud and gravity conspired against me.
“You can swim? With that leg? Wow.”
“It’s all in the arms,” Ian’s father said, flexing his own. After a chuckle, he pointed to his neck and asked: “Do you have any idea how you got hurt? Did you hit something? Or fall?”
“Yeah! Or did a cat get you with its claws or something?”
I wrote many notes in a row. Ian’s father gathered them all in his fingers.
“‘No animals. I fell into the water. I hit something sharp, metal maybe. Couldn’t breathe. Threw up blood and passed out.’” Ian’s father nodded. “We’re definitely going to have to keep an eye out for infection. Canal water is dirty stuff, but it’s worse if you hit something rusted. If you get a fever or start to feel nauseous, you tell us right away.”
“But he can’t.” Ian said, scratching his shoulder. He paused. “He can’t tell us.”
“Hmm. And it’s hard to hear someone shout on paper. Maybe we can find something he can use to make sound with. Like a bell, something he can hit.”
“Good idea. And I’ll listen for it if he needs anything.”
“Does that mean you’re volunteering to be the night nurse tonight?”
Ian sat up straight and offered me a mighty salute.
“Yes sir! I’m at your command, sir!”
I laughed. Tried to. Though my lack of voice should have been expected by then, it wasn’t. As the two denvi motioned to stand, I closed my eyes. I dug deep and forced a growl, demanding it emerge from wherever it would. It actually did. Though filled with mucus, blood, and (for all I knew) gravel, my upper throat could still make a hoarse rasping noise.
I sighed; it was something.
“Oh,” said Ian’s father, standing immense over me. “You know what? We’ve been incredibly rude.”
“Huh?” asked Ian.
“We’ve completely skipped introducing ourselves,” said the father, placing a hand on Ian’s shoulder. “I’m sure you know this little scamp by now, this is Ian. My name is James. James Petersen.”
“Oh yeah. Sorry! I didn’t even think about that.”
“Can we ask you your name?” James asked.
I nodded gratefully, and wrote it in English. Ian took the page from me and read it aloud.
“‘Lenn’. That’s a cool name. Can I call you Lenny?”
I raised a dull eyebrow at him. It made him giggle, for some reason.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lenn,” James said, playfully prodding his son’s head at the odd joke. “When my wife gets home, I’ll introduce you. I hope we’ll be able to help you, I really do.”
I didn’t thank them, then. I should have. They had given me medicine, a bed, water, and kind words. Only two other people in my life had ever done likewise. One was long dead. The other I had left to endure misery alone.
Gratitude never was my forte.