art by Melissa Mead
by Marie Croke
On the first day of building her Sand-child, Abi took grains from the Jurida Desert, breathing joy into their tiny souls. On the second day of building her Sand-child, Abi found grains at the base of the Nieradka Range, breathing anger. On the third day, Abi drained silt from the bottom of the Enmdi River, breathing love.
And so it went, with breaths for kindness and shame, for calmness and hate, for all that which made a person a person, until Abi stood back to admire her child. Perfection, he was not, but to her he was beautiful. He would be the happiest child of the village. Contented with the creation of long hard months of work, Abi called her husband to see their Sand-child.
"He has no eyes," said Kel, "How will he see?"
Abi looked back, "I left that for you, as you wished. I have labored long enough, now it is your turn to open our child's eyes to the world." She rested her hand upon Kel's shoulder and nudged him encouragingly.
"Are you sure you've given him all he needs? The world can be harsh."
"He has all he needs to be happy," she said, more confidently than she felt. She had scoured the world for grains of all types so that their Sand-child would be full of life beyond their village, but despite all her labor, she worried. Useless misgivings, she told herself, but that did nothing to ebb her feelings.
Kel stepped forward and placed his hand upon the Sand-child's head. Abi left him then, to have his moment alone, to give the Sand-child the last of what was needed. The eyes Kel chose were bright red stones from the edge of the desert, from the base of the mountain of trials, and they glowed bright and intelligent the moment he breathed upon them and placed them into the Sand-child.
"Mother, what makes the sand so hot?"
Abi smiled down at Akelbi. "The sun warms the grains, pulling in its rays so that they will not freeze cold when night comes again."
He pursed his speckled lips, then said, "So why do you wear sandals upon it? Why not enjoy the warmth as I do?"
She stopped, staring down at Akelbi's feet as if for the first time. "It is too hot for my feet. The sun is powerful and will burn the unaware."
He wiggled his toes, digging them into the sand until they all but disappeared. "Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to not be able to enjoy the warmth." Then he laughed, "But I wouldn't really want to." He ran ahead, waving to his older flesh and blood friends.
"He is happy," said Kel, coming up behind her and kissing her neck. She nodded, but didn't agree.
When it rained Akelbi stayed indoors. Abi told him he could fall apart, that his grains were not meant to hold so much water. So he'd stare at the droplets, the heavy plopping ones and the smaller pinging ones, making noises with his mouth.
"I'm sorry," said Abi, on one such day.
He looked at her with those red-stone eyes, "Why?"
She raised her head, confused by his confusion, and stuttered over her answer, "Because, you cannot play in the puddles as your friends can."
Akelbi laughed, "I enjoy watching. And the sun always comes back out to warm me again."
"That's my boy," said Kel, "Always seeing the good in everything."
It was more than that, but Abi didn't say that out loud. She merely watched out of the corner of her eye, waiting for the moment her child might run into the rain, forgetful of what could happen, uncaring of what could happen.
The red-stone eyes unnerved some of the younger children of the village. Kel refused to believe it, but Abi saw it. When she mentioned her worry, he became angry, telling her she was disapproving of his efforts with their son. It wasn't what Abi meant, but she didn't know how to explain, so she kept quiet.
"Why do the other children have short names, like you and father?" asked Akelbi, crouching down to collect rocks as they walked through the edge of the desert towards home.
"Because only their mothers created them. In their image, with flesh."
He stopped again and bent down, picking up a rock that reminded Abi of Akelbi's eyes. "You mean their fathers don't help make them, like father did with me?"
She shook her head. "No, not everyone is so lucky. We could not have children in the normal way, so I spent my months creating you out of the sands of the world. Thus your father could give you eyes from which to see and experience the world."
"Good. I don't like some of them. I like being me. I like being different." He held up one of the rocks he'd found, "It is like me, created by its own mother, so why does it not live as I do?"
Abi plucked the small stone from his fingers. "Because it was not loved enough to have emotion breathed upon it." Then she clasped Akelbi to her chest, his body rubbing her raw as it had done when she'd rocked him as an infant. "And I have loved you, and breathed upon you everything I wish you to know and experience."
But his eyes were sharp, and dug into her skin, causing her pain. She gasped and her eyes watered, but she only held him tighter. And when he asked her why she rained, she said it was only because she was happy.
"I caught him trying to put raindrops into his eyes," said Kel, "He said that it was supposed to show he was happy." His tone was condemning.
Abi bowed her head and stopped beating the cat skin. "The drought season is almost upon us, and the rain will disappear for a long while. He will forget by the time the rain comes again." Then she lifted her hand to begin cleaning the skin anew, hoping she'd hid her own uncertainty of her statement and relief that Kel had been there to warn Akelbi.
He grabbed her wrist, stalling her hand and the switch dropped to the ground. "And if he doesn't? What if no one is there to catch him trying to hurt himself? Why does he do these things, Abi?"
"He is growing and learning fast, just like the other village children--"
"But he's not entirely like them. He laughs when he should worry, he smiles when he should be upset, and when I explain some things, he nods as if he understands and then later I have to explain it again." She tried to pull away from his anger, knowing it was built on a frail insecurity, but he held her fast. "Do you tell him things about his eyes because they were my contribution? Did you never want my help after all?"
"No! No, I wanted you to be a part of our Sand-child, part of Akelbi. I made him piece by piece in the knowledge that you would be sharing in the joy of creating. I just--" She bit her lip, not wanting to admit how badly she felt something was amiss. "You don't think his attitude is a good thing? He is a happy child. And we have raised him to be intelligent and knowledgeable. The things you speak of happen to all children, none of them learn the first time. With patience, I know he'll understand. "
"Patience. Yes, you are right. He is one of the sweetest children of the village. I've heard others speak of him jealously, but I don't think any of them have your constitution to create a child like Akelbi."
She wished she had his steadfast belief. She wished her insecurities could be smoothed as easily.
They walked the uneven steps of the mountain, each of them on either side of Akelbi, holding his hands.
"The other children say that sometimes it hurts. What does that mean?"
Abi looked over at Kel, a tiny plea in her face. He nodded, though she could have sworn she saw a flash of something else, perhaps annoyance or anger, before he smiled down at Akelbi. "It means that the trial may make you uncomfortable at times. But that is for other children, likely not you."
"I don't mind being uncomfortable. I don't like the things Giv or Una say sometimes, but I think that's fine. They are each different, and I will never share their same thoughts. I--" Akelbi paused, his brow pulled down, though only one who knew him could tell with his blotchy coloring. "I wouldn't mind being like them for a time though, to see things they way they see them."
"Your eyes are special," said Abi, "To be able to see the world as only you can." She looked up to Kel and was surprised to see the lack of gratitude there. He glared as if her words had stung rather than complimented.
Kel said, "The reality is no one can truly see things other than how they were made to see things. I cannot see as your mother does, nor she me. If you approach your trial with your own strengths, instead of wishing or wanting others, then you will succeed."
Akelbi laughed, "I think it would have been interesting, not that I would want to have another's sight. I would never be able to face anything with strength other than my own. I believe in how mother created me."
Abi cringed inside at Akelbi's faith, her mind reeling in her worry that perhaps she had not created him as strong as she thought she had. The mountain became steep beneath their feet, the rocks eating at Abi's feet through the soles of her sandals.
"I will take you from here," said Kel, tugging Akelbi ahead.
Abi stood in the foot-worn path of the mountain of trials, waiting. At first, she let Akelbi's confidence ease her worries. He would return, no longer a Sand-child, but as a Sand-man, after his weeks of finding himself upon the mountain. But the belief was frail, and the longer Kel took to return, the more her fears rose until she could stand it no longer. She pressed forward, determined to bring her child back, not trusting that everything was well enough for him to take the next step.
Kel met her before she'd gone ten paces. "Where are you going?"
She paused, breathless, "He's not ready. I don't think he's ready."
The expression she'd seen flash over his face before came back and stayed. It was not annoyance, though, and nor was it anger. Pity, she realized.
Shaking his head slowly, Kel reached out with both hands and took her shoulders, "You created him to handle the world. Akelbi knows this. I know this. Why can't you know this?"
She wanted to scream the answer at him, but it hid in the recesses of her mind, burying itself somewhere she could not reach so that Kel would not know, leaving only a tendril of dread that refused to be pacified by words, no matter how smooth they sounded. He refused to let her pass by, and she gave in as she always did, letting him convince her that Akelbi would return. Just as she'd let him convince her to create the happiest boy in the village, instead of staying as childless as flesh had tried to degree to them. So she laid her head upon his shoulder before they descended the mountain, breathing in his scent and praying to the sands of the earth that her fears were unfounded.
They waited for one week. Then two. Halfway through the third, a dark cloud gathered heavy in the south. Abi watched it for a day and a night, thinking it must certainly turn back during the drought season. Then a persistent wind brought it close and a dark day tipped the balance.
The first drop fell upon her shoulder as she stared towards the mountain, straining to see a figure that would be too far away to make out. The drop was cold, chilling her to her bones, sending waves of nauseating premonition through her mind. She did not wait for Kel to return home, he would have convinced her to stay. The fear that Akelbi would be unafraid to dance and be torn apart in the rain spurred her feet into motion. She ran towards the mountain and took the path as the thunder cracked and the beginning of the downpour hit.
The rain soaked her through, and the wind buffeted her as she ascended the mountain. Her thighs burned from the effort and she found herself shivering despite the warmth that still hung in the air. She called for Akelbi, her voice quickly becoming hoarse. Each puddle she passed, she imagined Akelbi's body fallen apart, its grainy pieces rushing down the mountain in the rivers that were forming. Again and again she cried out, sobbing between breathes, hating herself for letting Kel convince her to leave her Sand-child to the dangers of the trial.
She stumbled over the sparse brush, spiny branches tearing into her skin, drawing blood. Apt, she figured, for her own flesh to be mixing with that of her son's. That stray thought solidified the outcome of the storm in her mind and with no point to going on she lay upon the muddy ground letting the water rise about her. It trailed the crevices of her lips, pooling between them. It filled her closed eyes, pressing against her eyelids. She could see the sun, blinking happily at her, almost mockingly, in the blackness. Then her next breath through her nose sucked up water instead of air.
He was smacking her back, gritty and painful, as she coughed the muddy water from her lungs. "Mother, what are you doing here? This is my trial, not yours."
Abi rubbed her eyes, wondering whether the sand she blinked out was part of Akelbi. But he seemed whole and healthy, only a few streaks of darkness and a sopping mess around them any indication of his recent bout in the rain. She reached out, touching the brown lines upon his face, but he brushed her hand away, harshly, and her hand felt on fire at his grainy touch. Cradling her hand to her chest she held back a sob of relief as she tried to explain, "I was worried--"
"You did not believe in me." He spoke flatly, his red-stone eyes dull with more than the torrents that still fell outside the cave.
"That's not true," said Abi. She struggled to sit up all the way, her dress heavy on her frame, the weight more than water. "What did your father say to you? It's not true."
Akelbi looked down, and then back up, confusion now in his face, "He never said anything to me. Not about that. I can see, mother. You worry, and I only wish I knew what you were worried about." Then he stood and walked closer to the cave entrance, staring out at the rain.
She gasped and stumbled to her feet, racing after him, "No, Akelbi! The rain could kill you!" His arm went limp in her grasp as she swung him around and for one horrible moment she thought he was falling apart beneath her very fingers.
Then he lifted his hand. "I wasn't. The only reason I went out before was because I heard you. I thought it was the mountain calling to me. I thought maybe I had to face my death to become a man."
"No." Abi shook her head. "The mountain doesn't call out. It is simply a harsh environment where you must learn to take care of yourself."
Akelbi laughed, "I know that, mother. I like to imagine things are more than they seem sometimes. Like I am."
She relaxed and turned to stare out at the rain with him. "And what is it about yourself that you think is something more?"
He only shrugged.
The cries started later, as the winds lessened and the rains began to cease, in the tentative grey light of the morning.
"It is like before," said Akelbi, "When I thought the mountain was calling to me."
Abi shook her head and, keeping her arms about herself in an attempt to stave off the cold, she walked to the edge of the small cave, listening. The wind shifted for a brief moment and sent a splattering of droplets upon her. At her feet, the water rushed, brown and dirty, having eased its way into the cave as the night had progressed.
Then the cry came through again, more piercing, and far deeper, than even the wind had been throughout the night. Abi gasped at the sound of her name, the call so full of anguish.
"The mountain, surely?" asked Akelbi, for all the world looking to her as if he were still but a child.
"No," said Abi, then she hesitated. "Stay here." She did not wait to see if he obeyed.
Outside, she stumbled towards the voice, glad for the little light to guide her steps. She jumped the small streams and skirted the larger river that had formed over night, searching among the rocks, until there were no more rocks to search. Then she pushed into the water, clutching at the boulders and straining her muscles against the current that threatened to pull her down the mountain. Covered in mud up to her thighs, she breathed a sigh of relief that the rain had lessened enough so that she wasn't swept away.
And still the cry went out, but now she was close enough to hear the voice clearly. "Kel!" she called back, her voice cracking. She found him lodged between a boulder and a broken bush, soaked through, but still out of the bulk of the water. He blinked up at her with tired eyes and lifted a hand weakly. Taking it, she knelt, forcing herself not to look at the blackened stains upon his head, or the blood streaming from beneath his back.
"I told you," he said, "I told you he'd be fine. He has much more of you in him than he has of me."
"I'm not always fine."
"But you gave him all he needs to cope, and that's what is important." As he spoke, Kel's voice wavered, diminishing in strength.
There was a sound behind her, over the still falling rain. Then Akelbi knelt beside her. She started to tell him to return to the safety of the cave, but Kel squeezed her hand, stalling the words.
"See?" said Kel, "He is fine. He did better than I did, even. Perhaps, I should have stayed in the mountain longer for my own trial." He laughed, but it was a sad, pathetic sound to Abi's ears. It had been her name he'd been calling that had led him to this, not Akelbi's. Guilt washed over her and she clutched at him fiercely.
Akelbi leaned down and gently kissed Kel's forehead, "Father, I will miss you when you are gone." Then he rose, "I will gather some things so that we can bring him back down. I can take time out of my trial for this."
Kel shook his head, "Everything is part of a trial, Akelbi." Then he smiled, though his words were breathless, "Just think of life's hardships like that and you'll never face anything without the strength you were finding up here."
Akelbi nodded, almost curtly, and as he walked away Abi felt a sob rise in her throat and struggled to hold it down. Failing to do that, she ducked her head as the choked sound escaped. "I'm sorry, Kel, I'm so sorry, I--"
"You were always worried about him. As I always said, I trust in your ability far more than you ever did." Then he stared off to where Akelbi had disappeared. "He does not seem upset at all, but then, he is our happy son."
There was a pain in his eyes, one that had nothing to do with the physical blows dealt to his body. It twisted Abi's insides and she opened her mouth to explain, though the words that came out were not what she intended. "He is upset. He simply wants to prove he has become a man through his trial." The comforting lies felt leaden in her mouth. "He cannot cry, but I'm sure he wishes to."
Kel gave her an odd look. "Because I gave him bad eyes?" he whispered, "Is it my fault?" When she frowned and glanced away, he tried to sit up, "Tell me, Abi. Should I have never touched him during creation? Am I the reason he does not cry, does not even act sad when he should?"
The sobs she'd been fighting won then, and Abi covered her mouth with her hand shaking her head slightly, then harder when Kel pressed her again.
"Not you," she said, "I... You wanted him to be happy, so I gave him happiness. I just..." She shook her head once more, not wanting to finish. Yet, whether it was for Kel's sake or for her own, she didn't know. "I am going to lose you now, does it matter?"
He did not answer, merely gazed at her, his eyes red with pain, his body red with blood.
Bowing her head, she spoke with a voice barely loud enough to be heard over the light sprinkling still dripping around them, "I gave him joy, Kel, but I did not give him sorrow. Wouldn't any mother do that for her flesh child, if she could?"
He still didn't answer. The wind tugged at her heavy hair and pressed her dress against her body, but she dared not look at him, for fear of his anger. It was not until Akelbi returned and pulled her hand from Kel's did she realize he was gone.
She watched Akelbi arrange Kel's body, gently, as a son should, but without the wavering hand one would expect from someone in mourning. This would be the same stiff manner that her child would care for her body when she passed. This happy child would miss them, but would never grieve for them. That brought a new ache to her heart as well as the sudden hope that Kel had died before she'd told him what she'd done.
"Come, mother," said Akelbi, "We can take him to the cave until the rain lets up. I will carry him." His words were almost cheerful, and he looked at her expectantly, as if she should be grateful for his offer.
Somehow, she managed a smile.
They buried him outside their home in a less sandy area, using the recent storm as a way to dig into the usually dry ground. Abi decorated the grave, with paints that would cling to the rocks despite the occasional rain, and dried flowers that would eventually disintegrate and seep into the earth. Akelbi merely stared, watching with interest, and only helping her when she asked.
"You are not happy now, mother, yet you rain from your eyes often. Why is that?"
She clenched her fists. "Would you like to understand? To truly understand?"
He nodded, and she turned away wondering if he would still feel the same way later.
Akelbi was sleeping when she plucked his red-stone eyes from his face. He still slept as she ground them down until they were nothing but coarse sand. Nor did he wake when she leaned over him. But when she took the red sand she'd created from the stones from the mountain of trials, breathing sorrow into the tiny souls, he awoke screaming.
As the years of lost pain caught up with him, she stood outside their house, forcing herself to endure his torture. More than once, she wondered whether her choice had been made selfishly, only managing to convince herself that was not the case when he lapsed into silence.
It was a day before he emerged, walking past her to Kel's grave. She followed later, when he showed no signs of moving, and stood, too ashamed to even reach out and touch him.
Finally, with a pained voice she was only hearing for the first time, he said, "I feel blind and lost, mother, and I cannot make these feelings go away no matter how I try. I cannot even think straight. I will never be a real man, not as father was."
"Your father believed in me, even when I did not. He believed in you, regardless of how you were made. But it wasn't because he did not have sorrow." She stepped closer to the grave and bent down, feeling around until she came up with two imperfect, yet smooth, black stones. These she placed into the empty spots upon Akelbi's face left from her taking his sharp red-stone eyes. Then upon each, she breathed hope into their tiny souls and stood back to admire her child turned man. Imperfect though he was, he was beautiful.
This story was first published on Friday, November 25th, 2011