Thort woke up at the same time he’d done since he started working on Styg’s farm. He woke up Evanor, dressed quickly, milked the gorms and dracs, and fed the puppies. Evanor also dressed quickly and hurried over to the kitchen to light the fires and prepare breakfast for Marza and Styg. She hoped they wouldn’t mind if she took a couple of loaves of the bread she’d baked the day before for the trip. She could go without eating for three days but Lem and Thort needed to keep up their strength. Evanor knew Marza would’ve said no if she’d ask her for the loaves, so she had baked two more loaves than she needed from the flour, hoping that Marza wouldn’t notice the missing flour.
After she had set the table for breakfast and heard Styg and Marza stirring upstairs, she left quietly to wake up Lem so they could get started on their trip. Lem dressed himself quickly and went down to say goodbye to the puppies, promising them he’d be back in eight days.
They set out from the barn along the pebble path and turned south on the main road. Lem was a good walker so they made pretty good time. As a matter of fact, they made Village 435 before dusk. They walked through town, along the main street. On the other side of town they found a good spot to camp out. There was good tree cover and a narrow gurgling stream nearby. Evanor took one of the bread loaves out of her bag and sliced it into thirds. She put one-third back into the bag and handed one of the thirds to Thort. She took a small piece of the remaining third for herself and gave the rest to Lem. Thort divided his third in half and gave one half back to Evanor along with a look that told her he’d be damned if he’d let her starve so he could eat. She accepted it, knowing there was nothing to be done about his stubbornness.
The stars off toward the horizon were crystalline in the clear night air. Insects in the trees and grasses nearby chirped and zzzzicked, as though it were the trees and the grasses making the noises and not the insects. Lem fell asleep between Thort and Evanor, and soon their snoring joined the noises of the trees and grasses.
They woke up at first dawn, grateful to no one in particular for the couple extra hours of sleep wrested from the night under the stars. After splashing the sleep from their faces and a cool soothing drink at the stream, they were soon on the road again. The stream glittered in the morning sunlight and kept them company as it ran parallel to the road they walked almost until they reached Village 436 early that afternoon.
Thort could see a church steeple in the middle of the valley below them. He decided they should walk around the town, rather than through it, since he had no idea what kind of people were there. There would probably be enough light for them to make it all the way around the ridge to the other side. Lem felt terrible about the sacrifices his parents were forced to make for him, but there was nothing he could do about it. Never you mind, his father would have said if he had been able to read Lem’s thoughts.
The second moon had just started its ascent above the eastern horizon when Thort and his family found a suitable camping site for the night. Evanor gave the last third of the first loaf to Lem, took out the second loaf of bread, and cut it into three parts. She gave one of the parts to Thort and put the remaining two in her bag. While Evanor was looking in the bag, Lem quickly divided his third in half and gave one half to his mother. When she began to protest, Lem gave her a look just like Thort’s from the night before. He was becoming so like his father, impractical and stubborn, and she loved him more than she could bear.
They woke as the light of first dawn tapped on their eyelids in an air of expectation. Lem saw a creek glitter in the valley below them. Lem led them down one of the gorm trails to the creek bank where they drank and washed themselves.
Lem carried a burlap sack and mittens in his bag to put over his head and hands in case somebody came near them. He was so quick putting on the sack and mittens that, even if you had seen him without the sack and mittens covering his skin, you would have sworn he had them on all the time.
They walked along a packed dirt road over a dusty plain in the midmorning sun. They drank frequently from the water bags they’d filled at creek a few hours before.
Before long, Thort saw some farm houses dotting the distant hills floating above the shimmering mirage of a lake. “Must be 437,” Thort said to Evanor and Lem. Lem smiled and reached into his bag for the sack mask and mittens, although it would be a good hour or two before they’d arrive at the village.
When they finally reached the edge of Village 437, Thort walked up to the first man he saw. “God’s greetings, brother,” he said to the man.
“God’s greetings to you too, brother,” the man answered guardedly.
“Would you be able to direct me to the Kivo place?” Thort asked.
“Who’d be asking?” the man asked suspiciously.
“Name’s Thort,” he answered pleasantly enough. “This here’s Evanor, my wife, and over there’s my son Lem.”
“What’s with the sack over his head?” the man asked. There was no way Thort was going to get a simple answer to his question.
“My boy’s skin is sensitive to the sunlight,” Thort responded glumly, hating to lie in front of his son. Evanor understood but Thort wasn’t sure that Lem understood. “He’s kind of sickly.”
“Kivo don’t get many visitors,” the man said. “Keeps to himself.”
“He owes me money,” Thort said.
“You need your wife and sickly son to help you get it from him?” the man asked, apparently enjoying this little interaction and trying to stretch it out for all it was worth.
Thort had had enough of this. “Do I look to you like someone who needs his wife and son to get something owed to him?”
The man sized him up and down, and said, “No, now that you say it, I guess not… You go straight on that there road to the edge of town. You’ll see a gorm trail to your right after the third field. The trail goes halfway up the hill to the tree line. Nobody else lives in that area. Nothing much grows there but rocks and drac turds. You can’t miss it…”
“Much obliged brother,” Thort tapped the brim of his hat with his index finger.
Thort led his family down the road and counted three fields. Sure enough there was a gorm trail leading up the hill. His eye followed the trail up the hill to the tree line. He scanned the tree line until he caught sight of the distant cabin roof, all by itself on the hill. They walked up the trail. There were a few places on the trail where loose pebbles and rocks made the footing treacherous. Evanor slipped once but Thort caught her in time. Lem walked up the path like a gorm and was waiting for them at the end of the trail.
Once they got to the tree line the walking was easier. As they approached the cabin, the inside lights seemed to overflow the windows and push back the encroaching dusk. They could hear the clinking of utensils and voices. Thort went up to the door and knocked on it. The voices and the clinking went quiet.
“Who’s there?” a muffled male voice said behind the door.
“It’s Thort,” Thort replied. “Is that you, Kivo? We met at the general store in 435 a few months back… You said you’d only gotten a third of the yield you should have from the seed we were looking at…”
“You’re the one with the blue boy?” the muffled voice asked incredulously and opened the door without waiting for an answer.
“Hi Kivo,” Thort smiled. “This here’s my wife Evanor.”
“Why is your son wearing a sack over his head?” a little girl standing behind Kivo asked. She was roughly as tall and thin as Lem and the same color.
Lem pulled the sack off his head and the mittens off his hands. He stuffed them into his bag and said, “My name’s Lem. What’s yours?”
“Yani,” the little girl answered simply. “Do you want to play in my room?”
Lem looked up at Thort and Evanor. Thort nodded. “Sure!” he said and they ran up the stairs together.
“Glad to meet you Evanor,” Kivo grasped Evanor’s hand in one of his hands and Thort’s in his other hand. Then he turned to the woman standing beside him. “This is Thana, my wife,” he said proudly. “… I thought you’d never come! It’s been months since I invited you… You all must be starving! We’re just sitting down to dinner…”
Thana said to Evanor, “Kivo told me all about your family. I’m so glad you finally came to visit us. I’ll set places for you at our table and you’ll get some good food in you bellies. Afterward I’ll make up your bedding and you can sleep.”
“Bless your kindness,” Evanor said. “Let me help.”
When the two women had finished setting the table, Kivo called the children down to supper. They ran down the stairs and sat beside each other at the table. When everyone had sat down at the table, Kivo raised his tankard of brew to Thort and Evanor, who also raised theirs, and said, “Welcome to our humble home. You are welcome to stay with us as long as you like – as long as you like the food and the company, that is!” Kivo laughed, pleased with himself over his joke, and the other adults joined him in laughter.
After the laughter had subsided, Thort spoke hesitantly, “We can only stay until the morning after tomorrow… We must get back… I promised.”
“But you just got here!” Kivo objected sadly.
“I know,” Thort said with matching sadness. “I wish we could stay longer.”
They ate thick brown vegetable soup, gorm stew, sweet dumplings with gravy, fresh baked bread, and a wildberry cobbler for dessert. Thort and Lem had second helpings of everything. When Thana asked them whether they had room for thirds, they both patted their full stomachs and shook their heads no.
After supper Yani and Lem went outside to sit on the porch steps and look at the starry night sky. A meteor shower erased thin pencil lines in the black sky. 763.3 was rising over the eastern horizon. It was beautiful to behold. Lem glanced sideways at Yani. She was also beautiful to behold. She would be his wife when the time came, he thought. Time comes and time goes and sometimes time stays awhile.
Yani glanced sideways at Lem while he was looking at the sky. He sees me. Yes, he sees me, she thought. And he sees what is and what will be. Yani played with the fingers of Lem’s hand, lifting them and letting them fall. “Do you have any pets?” she asked him.
“Just the gorm puppies in the barn where we live,” Lem answered.
“But they raise them for food,” she asked. “How can you eat them after you’ve seen them?” By seen Yani meant that Lem had looked into their eyes and seen their souls.
“I also play with the dracs,” Lem said softly, almost to himself. “I’ve looked into their eyes and seen their souls…”
“But nobody eats dracs!” Yani protested. “They’re only good for transportation and…”
“The dracs I’ve seen would eat me if they could,” Lem explained patiently, “and that would be alright with me.”
“I see,” she said, and then brightly, “Do you know what they call us?”
“What who calls us?” Lem asked knowing the answer.
“You know,” Yani said, “the others, not our parents.”
“Yes I know,” Lem said, also knowing the answer. “They call us Rats.”
“That’s funny!” Yani laughed in a most delightful way. “We don’t look a bit like rats.”
“You know what they mean,” he said. “It’s short for Rationals. I heard someone say it to my father.”
“Do you know what we call them?” she asked brightly.
“No,” he truly didn’t know.
“Saps!” she squealed with uncontrollable laughter. “Short for Sapiens, you know, Homo Sapiens!” Yani put her hand over her mouth in an unsuccessful attempt to stifle her mirth.
“If only people didn’t have names for each other,” Lem said quietly, “maybe they could see each other better.”
Thana called Yani in to go to bed. Evanor came outside and told Lem he’d sleep on the sofa. There were fresh sheets and blankets and soft pillows for them. Lem went inside with his mother. A couple thick blankets were spread on the floor beside the sofa for his parents. They turned out the lights and undressed in the dark. Within a half hour only a soft snoring could be heard.
The next morning, Thort got up with Kivo and went out to the field with him. Kivo said, “As long as you’re here, I could use your help moving some rocks from the field.”
“Glad to help,” Thort said. They moved four boulders off to the side of the field in two hours and then went back home for a hearty well-deserved breakfast, prepared by Thana and Evanor.
At breakfast Kivo and Thana suggested they all go for a hike up the mountain behind the cabin. They could pack picnic baskets for their lunch and the children could breathe some fresh air. Both Lem and Yani were excited by the prospect. Yani whispered to Lem that she’d show him her secret hiding place.
It was a beautiful day for a hike. They packed the picnic baskets with cold meats, bread, vegetables, and fruit and filled the water bags, and set off on a rather steep winding gorm path up the hill leading to the base of the mountain. The grasses were dry and sparse but every once in a while, one of them would spy a small flower, blue or red or orange, delicate but courageous in its survival above the tree line and he or she would tell the others to stop and admire it. The view of the village and the surrounding valley below them was breathtaking.
After an hour Kivo proclaimed that they had arrived at the perfect spot to have lunch. There were some large flat boulders by the side of the winding path that had fallen in such a way that they made a kind of picnic table and bench.
While they were eating the lunch they had packed for the hike, Kivo told Thort and Evanor that if things ever got too tough or dangerous for them in 435, they could come stay with them. There was enough room on his property to build another cabin. Thort answered in a low voice, not to frighten the children that, if things got too dangerous in 435, they were likely to spread to 437 and all over the sector or to all the sectors, but he thanked Kivo just the same and said he hoped he’d never have to take him up on his kind offer.
After lunch the children were excused to run off and play nearby (within hollering distance). The women were talking softly and Kivo told Thort that he gets awfully drowsy after lunch and, if Thort had no objections, he’d stretch out on the ground and take a short nap. He called out to Thana, “No more than an hour!”
Thort not only had no objections, he thought it was a pretty good idea and told Evanor he’d have himself a nap too.
Yani and Lem had run just beyond the bend in the path and stopped. “Where’s your secret hiding place?” Lem asked Yani.
“It’s here,” she answered.
“Where?” Lem asked, seeing nothing but the rock slabs embedded in the side of the mountain and the tops of the trees beneath them on the other side of the path.
“See it!” Yani said, a little impatient. “Look, I can’t explain it in words, only in pictures…” She said, “Here, look at my finger!” She pointed with her index finger at something in the air. “Are you looking?” Yani asked, looking sideways at Lem.
“Yes,” Lem said, wondering where she was going.
Yani moved her other index finger next to her first and then spread them apart as though her arms were resting on a transparent glass surface. “Are you still looking?” she asked him again, not trusting his attention span.
“Yes I am,” Lem answered, a little less patiently. “Stop asking me each time.
Yani next moved her arms and index fingers up and down in parallel. “Are you…”
“Yes,” Lem cut her off.
And then something amazing happened. Yani’s two arms and two index fingers disappeared. “Are…”
Lem didn’t answer. He was at a loss for words.
By now the right side of Yani’s body had disappeared. She seemed to wiggle just a little bit, as though she were slipping through a narrow passage between two huge invisible rocks, and then she was all gone.
“Where are you Yani?” Lem called out.
“You try it,” said a detached voice sounding very much like Yani’s voice. “I’ll help you.”
Lem pointed with his index finger. He moved his other index finger next to his first and then spread them apart as though his arms were resting on a transparent glass surface. He next moved his arms and index fingers up and down in parallel.
And then something amazing happened. Lem’s two arms and two index fingers disappeared. The right side of his body was starting to disappear. He wiggled a little bit, as though he were slipping through a narrow passage between two huge invisible rocks, and he was all gone.
Now Lem could see Yani. She was sitting with her back against the wall of a cave. “Where are we?” Lem asked Yani.
“I don’t know what it’s called in words,” Yani smiled smugly, “but isn’t this a great secret hiding place?”
“It sure is!” Lem responded in awe. “Can we see our parents?”
“Sure silly!” Yani said. “Just look sideways”.
Lem tried looking sideways and, sure enough, he saw his mother talking to Thana and his father stretched out on the grass next to Kivo. They appeared to be sleeping because he heard a muffled snoring. “Can they see us?” Lem asked.
“No silly!” Yani said. “They don’t know how to look sideways.”
“Stop calling me silly!” Lem said in exasperation. “It’s name calling, like Rats and Saps, and it keeps you from seeing me!”
“Alright silly,” she giggled.
He ignored her joke at his expense. “How do we go back to our parents?”
“You go back sideways, like you came,” she said. “Here, take my hand … I’ll lead you back.”
Lem reached across the cave to take Yani’s proffered hand. His arm seemed to stretch like rubber. His stomach felt a little queasy, as though he might need to vomit. As soon as they were hand in hand, he was standing next to her and his arm was just as long as it should be. He didn’t feel queasy any more. Holding Lem’s hand, Yani turned toward the cave wall and walked through it to …
… the other side. Lem saw the rock slabs embedded in the side of the mountain and the tops of the trees beneath them on the other side of the path.
Lem and Yani ran around the bend straight to the picnic rocks where their mothers were talking and their fathers were just waking up.
Kivo said to everyone that he thought it might be a good idea to get back down the mountain while there was still light. They packed the remainders of the food in the picnic baskets and carefully descended the gorm path.
That night they ate a light meal of cooked cheeses, toasted bread, and tankards of brew to make the sleep easier. Lem and Yani thought from now on, if anything bad happens to us we will find each other.
What with the fresh air, the exercise, and the brew, the sleep engulfed both families easily.
The next morning Thort and Evanor got up and prepared their departure. Thana made them a nice breakfast and stuffed their bags with good food for the trip back to 435. Thort hugged Kivo and Thana. Kivo hugged Thort and Evanor. Lem hugged Yani for a long time. When he parted, he pointed to his eyes and then to Yani’s eyes.
They set out on their long journey back to Styg’s and Marza’s farm, home such as it was.