by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Issue #22 (Vol. 4 Num 4), December 2009
The boy didn’t know how long six months would be. He was only five, and it sounded like forever. His mother, however, knew exactly how long six months would be. She could measure it out against the milestones of her life. It was the time between a kiss and the promise that bound her and Derrick together. It was the time between deciding pregnancy was unbearable and finally bearing Kyan. She knew six months. It was too long, and not nearly long enough.
“I hope you know what you’re getting into.”
Arlene brushed Derrick’s worry aside with an amused shake of her head. “Of course, I don’t. That’s why I’m going. Complete immersion in the tumbler culture is the only way to really progress my studies.”
“I just hope you’re not too busy taking notes on those savage tumblers to look after Kyan.”
Kyan looked up from the fortress he built on the floor: “Is Uncle Sleatoo a savage?”
Arlene grimaced. “They’re not savages.”
“Neither is he your uncle,” Derrick told Kyan. “I don’t want you calling him that.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure that your son remembers he’s a human boy and not the nephew of a plant.” Arlene moved closer to Derrick, slipping her arm around his back. “What’re you really worried about?”
Derrick enfolded her in his arms. “I just want you to be careful out there. I’m not used to having you and Kyan so far out of my sight.”
Arlene kissed her husband reassuringly, and whispered in his ear, “We’ll be back before you know it.”
The rest of the evening passed in a blur of preparations. Arlene planned to leave at dawn because it gave her sisters-in-law less of a chance to interfere. She knew they were afraid of the tumbler town, and she didn’t want them filling Kyan’s head with nonsense stories right as they were about to leave. Until now, they’d held their tongues, not believing she’d go through with it. Tomorrow, it would be too real, and she knew they would make a scene.
In the dark of morning Arlene finished the last minute packing, and Kyan played a game he called “packing.” He put a few of his toys in and out of his own little knapsack, while Arlene packed everything he’d really need. Sleatoo met them at the edge of town, and Arlene entered a different world. That morning she’d been the wife of a farmer, and secondly she’d been a scientist. From the moment she kissed her husband goodbye, sending him out to work the fields, she was on sabbatical and could be a scientist first.
* * *
The tumbler village glowed with balls of light in the distance. Sleatoo told her the balls were hives of sun-bees, kept by a caste of beekeepers. Sleatoo’s closest relative was a beekeeper, but Arlene didn’t understand the relationship between them. In six years of talking to Sleatoo, Arlene could never get far enough past the language barrier to really understand the familial structure of tumbler society.
Tomorrow she would see it, and the abstract words she knew of Sleatoo’s language would finally have concrete images to hang on.
“Why didn’t Sleatoo stay to dinner with us?” Kyan asked.
“The tumblers don’t eat like us, honey. They absorb light and minerals into their leaves.”
Kyan wrinkled his nose, not understanding.
“Sleatoo says they have bathhouses, and when they soak in the mineral treated water, all the food they need soaks into them.”
“It’s like if I put my hand in the soup?”
“Yes, honey, careful,” Arlene brushed Kyan’s hand away. “The soup’s hot.” She was cooking it over their portable camp stove.
Even during sabbatical from being a wife, being a mother never stops.
* * *
During the days, Arlene and Kyan moved among the tumblers. Arlene equipped her son daily with the raw materials to amuse and feed himself in the foreign landscape of the tumbler town: educational drives for his com-pad and a pack of bread, cheeses, and smoked meat. As the sun went down, they shared a hot meal over the camp stove, beyond the fringe of the tumbler town. But, during the day, Kyan was his own keeper.
Arlene worried. She trusted her son, but she didn’t know what rules to give him, since she didn’t know what transgressions would offend the tumblers.
Arlene watched the tumblers in silence, scribbling notes into her notebook. The tumbler way of life entered her eyes and exited through her fingertips. Her notes tantalized with the promise to coalesce into a whole string of academic papers. Once she got home, she’d have the raw material to keep her busy for months going on years.
Yet, she couldn’t expect Kyan to carry on, quietly, as she did: young boys need to play.
Against every grain of her anthropological training, Arlene allowed Kyan, at the beginning of the second week, to join the tumblers in their bathhouse. His happy splashing echoed merrily through the town and left mineral water sloshed on the floor. The tumblers soaked, dancing their sustenance dances, the same as they had before — albeit rocked by Kyan’s waves.
“He is a new kind of weather,” Sleatoo assured her in his haunting, piping imitation of a human voice. “We take the weather here as it comes.”
Arlene found reassurance in Sleatoo’s expression. The purple tube leaves and greeny vines that vibrated when he spoke and the flower-like blue parts, which were open wide, seeing her, nestled at the nexus of Sleatoo’s long, bending limbs. No side was up, because each limb took its turn as foot and as arm when a tumbler walked. Thus, the leaf-like sensory organs grew thick at the hub of the limbs, each type many times repeated, and enough types that Arlene still didn’t understand them all.
No other human alive — except for Kyan — could have found a face in the shrubby center of a tumbler, but Arlene found expressions there.
“Doesn’t your village have children?” Arlene asked, wishing for a companion for Kyan. At home, he had seven cousins to play with him. Here he was all alone. “Do they play like Kyan does?”
“Children are rooted.”
“You grow from the ground? Where?”
So, Sleatoo showed Arlene the nursery.
* * *
Tumbler homes are platforms at the tops of tall poles. Rungs stick out from the poles, creating a spiral ladder. Some platforms are glassed in; others are not. As far as Arlene could tell, the difference depended on the preference of the individual tumbler. All tumblers lived alone; they never shared a platform.
But, tumblers grow up quite differently.
The nursery was one of the two largest buildings built on the ground, entirely walled with glass like a greenhouse. The other was the center of the adult community: the bathhouse, where tumblers met to soak, dance their sustenance dances under the water, converse, and carry on the business of the town. It was like the church, town hall, and saloon all rolled into one.
“I grew here,” Sleatoo said, extending the slender end of his most convenient limb towards the back corner of the nursery. “It’s why they call me shlivilee. It means ‘one who grew in a corner.’ They say it’s why I’m shy, why I spend my time visiting your colony.”
“How do you mean?”
“When you grow in the center, everyone talks to you. You are the center. Only Kliassara, my beekeeping sister, talked to me. She grew here.” Sleatoo gestured to a space a little out from the corner; a location cutting the corner off from the rest of the open room.
“You got less practice socializing,” Arlene said. “Everything is determined by physical location… Aren’t there any children who don’t grow here?”
“If we find stray seedlings, we transplant them here. Children are tended here. Talked to; taught. But, there are always wild ones. They are grim and silent, and don’t know our ways. They come out of the forest, and sometimes join a village. Sometimes they stay wanderers, but they’re always welcome. They’re strong from growing up alone and surviving. We village-dwellers admire that.”
Arlene put down her notes. “I’m confused,” she said. “Where are the children?” She looked at the stiff, leaf-bare tumblers crouched around the room. “These? Are these them?”
“No!” Sleatoo exclaimed with the shaking and tinkling of his ginger-colored leaf parts that signified laughter. “These are the old ones who are waiting. They’re ready to move on, so they’re waiting for the next crop of children.”
“So there are no children now?”
“Oh, there are. We’ve had flowering dances here several times since the last crop. They’re waiting underground.”
“They haven’t sprouted yet?”
Arlene sighed. Kyan would have to make do without playmates, even rooted ones, for a while longer.
* * *
Come the third month, Sleatoo left his human charges alone in his tumbler town. Wanderlust struck his heart, and he set out for the human colony. He took his usual pack of tumbler goods to trade, but he also bore messages from Arlene and Kyan to their husband and father.
Without her guide, Arlene found that her tongue had less of a hold on the tumbler language than her ear. At times, she resorted to signs and gestures to make herself understood. Finally she realized that Kyan could hum, sing, and whistle the tumbler language as proficiently as if he had all those bizarre leaf organs hidden in his throat instead of a single tongue. He’d been listening to Uncle Sleatoo tell him stories since infancy, and the sounds seemed natural to him.
“Which tumblers do you like talking to best?” Arlene asked her son. If he was to translate for her, she wanted him to enjoy it.
“The old ones in the nursery,” Kyan said. “They play pirates with me.”
Arlene asked if she could watch them play, and Kyan told her she’d have to be the wicked sea witch guarding the gold. “The treasure’s at the bottom of the sea,” Kyan explained. “We’re in boats all the time in the nursery.”
Playing pirates turned out to mean that the stiff, old tumblers watched Kyan run around the nursery and listened to him describe his exploits. “We’re cannonballing the sea witch!!!” or “I have to get the water out of my boat…” He knelt to the floor and pantomimed bucketing water.
When Kyan tired himself out, he sat in the dirt and listened to the tumbler ancients’ stories. It was a culture of reminiscence: rather than living life, these tumblers had resigned themselves to retelling it, reanalyzing it, finding peace with it, and preparing to leave it. They seemed truly grateful for the fresh audience Kyan provided. Perhaps that’s why they lived now in the nursery? Perhaps they were waiting for the new tumblers to sprout?
“My favorite is Sleatoo’s granddaddy,” Kyan confided as they walked back to camp.
“How do you know,” Arlene asked, “that he’s Sleatoo’s granddad?”
“He talks proud of Sleatoo, and tells stories about him all the time. Like you said my granddad talks of me.”
They both looked at the stars, and Arlene tousled Kyan’s hair. “You’ll meet him someday. Someday we’ll all go on a trip. You, and Daddy, and me, and we’ll go see your granddad.”
Although, honestly, Arlene had to admit that arranging to visit her homeworld would be ten times more difficult than arranging this sabbatical in the wilderness. She felt a twinge, realizing that her sabbatical was now more than half over.
* * *
The coming caravan raised a ribbon of dust Arlene could see hours before she interpreted it. She kept looking up from her notes to squint quizzically at the skyline, but she didn’t understand until Kyan emerged from his pirate lair. He summed it up in one word: “Cousins!”
Nothing would do but to run and meet them. Arlene put aside her work and trailed behind, wondering what could possibly have gotten into her sisters-in-law. Whatever in the world could drag them across the wilderness to a place that scared them? And whyever hadn’t Derrick stopped them?
“My god, but you’ve come a long way,” Arlene called when she got close enough. Kyan, running ahead, had already joined them. He was part of the many armed, many legged, many voiced band of children.
“Nothing better for tiring out the little ones!” came the call back from Gina. Derrick was walking beside her.
Derrick smiled when they met, took her hand, and said “Surprised?”
“Yes,” Arlene answered, but her accompanying smile was half-hearted. The smile half was for seeing Derrick; the worried half was for all the children and the havoc they might wreak on the tumbler town.
The reunited spouses didn’t have time to talk. Gina was doing all the talking for all of them: “I see why you went away now!” Gina’s speech was punctuated by inarticulate commands and reprimands to her children. “Why, Derrick’s missed you so much, Leanne and I were getting jealous. Our husbands are so used to us, they barely pay us the time of day!” Gina resettled the toddler on her hip. “Thought we’d kill two birds with one stone. Derrick gets to see you again, and we see if we can’t make our husbands miss us too.”
“My camp’s not really set up for visitors…” Arlene began, flustered, but Gina smiled broadly and dismissed her objection.
“Don’t you mind that. We’ll take care of everything. You just focus on that work you’re doing,” Gina wrinkled her nose as she said it, “and spend time with Derrick!”
“Thanks,” Arlene said and looked over at Derrick. With her face turned away from Gina and while Leanne was busy with the children, Arlene mouthed the words, “Why did you bring them?”
* * *
True to her word, Gina and her sister Leanne took care of everything. Arlene’s once unimposing camp — a butane stove and two sleeping bags under the stars — was transformed. Gina pitched tents, and Leanne built a bonfire; Kyan and his cousins created a ruckus, running like bandits, screeching like banshees.
Before beginning the bonfire, Leanne pulled Arlene aside. “They won’t mind, will they? Gathering up wood… bracken… we won’t accidentally burn any of their children.” Leanne looked nervously at the tumbler town in the distance. “Will we?”
Arlene blushed at her sister-in-law’s ignorance born of prejudice. “You would know if a ball of bracken were a tumbler,” she said. “It would roll away.” Neither Gina nor Leanne belonged out here.
Though, Arlene had to admit her own ignorance: the idea of a bonfire made her nervous because she had no idea how the tumblers would react. She never saw them make fire themselves, and she kept her own fires small. Discrete. Yet, the tumblers must have some relationship to fire. Was it taboo? Or unimportant? Ceremonial? Possibly as part of a ceremony Arlene hadn’t seen? She had to have her notebook…
Arlene sat herself down away from the chaos and pored over her notes, hunting for details she might have recorded but ignored. Clues about the tumblers and fire.
In time, a shadow loomed over her, long in the setting sun, and its source scuffed his feet in the dust. The light was already dim, and Derrick’s shadow made it hard to read. However, Arlene didn’t want to talk to Derrick right now. If she did talk to him, she would just snap at him for turning her quiet camp into a circus. So, she strained her eyes and held her tongue.
Nonetheless, Derrick joined her, sitting on the splintery log. “You’re doing a good job with Kyan here,” Derrick said, but Arlene merely frowned at her notes. “He’s thriving. He’s learning real independence.” Derrick paused, waiting for Arlene to jump in. When she didn’t, he rattled nervously on. “Gina’s kids and Leanne’s kids — they’re such apron-string holders. Don’t get me wrong, I love my nephews and nieces. Every one of them. But, Kyan, he’s the pick of the litter. And it’s no stretch to see why,” he smiled, “with the way that you look after him.”
Arlene finally looked up to see Derrick expectantly watching her. “You’re mad,” he said. After a moment, he added, “I’m sorry.”
“Yes, but what for?” Arlene asked, testing Derrick to see if he knew what he’d done.
“For making you angry.”
A long drawn out sigh. “You don’t know?”
“Sorry,” he shrugged. “You’ll have to tell me.”
Arlene closed her eyes and spoke in even, measured tones. “Bringing a child on an anthropological field study is unorthodox, but, as you say, Kyan is an exceptional child. I can trust him.” Arlene’s eyes opened and fixed directly, angrily on Derrick. “However, Gina and Leanne’s children — not to mention Gina and Leanne — are completely out of control.” Her volume mounted with her anger, though she tried to control it for the sake of appearances, in front of her sisters-in-law.
Continuing in a forced hush, she said, “I have no idea what kind of damage they could do to the tumblers or their town. Let alone my ability to objectively research. Why did you bring them?!”
“That’s what you’re mad about?” Derrick sounded genuinely surprised. “They wanted to come.”
“Of course, they didn’t.” Exasperation colored every timbre of her voice. “Gina is terrified of the tumblers, and Leanne keeps asking me when my studies will be done so we can hire a mercenary fleet to wipe them out.” Arlene could see that her points were hitting home. She continued, “They both weed their gardens religiously, afraid that any stray weed might grow up to be a tumbler who’ll sneak into their house and steal the babies away. Why, I repeat, did you bring them?”
Derrick couldn’t seem to find an answer. “Look, my sisters may not know much about the tumblers or anthropology,” he meted out the word, syllable by syllable, making it sound unreasonably scientific, “but they’re good women. And they’re your sisters now, as surely as they’re mine. I don’t see the problem with them wanting to visit you.”
“You’re deliberately misunderstanding me,” Arlene said. Derrick insisted that he was not, and Arlene had little patience for listening to him. Their fight fizzled to a slow halt, and Arlene begged the need to return to her work. Derrick excused himself to spend time with Kyan, and the two spouses parted in mutual bafflement and frustration.
* * *
Dim evening deepened into night, and the darkness threw Leanne’s bonfire into sharp relief. Flames licked the sky, and Arlene had no trouble throwing herself into her work. For, while the children sang and Derrick spent time with his long absent son, the tumblers slowly approached the circle of firelight.
They moved like a sleep-walking forest. Their slowness, the swaying, waving of their limbs, half-hidden in the dark, gave an impression of unreality. Did the trees really move closer? Or was it a spell woven by weary eyes and the intoxicating heat that shimmered as it rose into the sky?
Tonight, on this world, the trees did move, and their movements were a dance. They circled, staying in the dusky edge of the light. They moved in rhythm with one another. They kept time to a silent beat. Arlene raced to sketch all that she saw — every position, every pattern in the dance.
She hardly noticed when Gina and Leanne shepherded the children to bed. Kyan joined his cousins in a tent, gleeful, giddy with the other children’s companionship.
Derrick was the last to bed, and as he went he said, “This tent is ours. I’ll be waiting.”
But Arlene slept under the stars.
* * *
The sun and Arlene rose early. She stowed her sleeping bag as it had been the night before, so the others would be none the wiser. Leanne was the next one up. She started the fire and made a minimal breakfast, before Gina joined them, bringing some of the younger nieces and nephews with her.
A rustling in the older children’s tent announced Kyan, Jared, Dean, and Lana’s imminent arrival. As soon as they finished eating, they explained that Kyan meant to show them his “pirate’s lair” today.
Gina was nervous about them going into the tumbler town alone, but Leanne gave them her permission. Arlene consented as well, after making Kyan promise they’d go straight to the nursery, where the elders could look after them. Gina folded, and the children went merrily, skipping on their way.
“What if the tumblers hurt them somehow?” she asked after they were gone. “What if they get all tangled up in one of them?”
Arlene assured Gina that couldn’t happen, but Gina continued with a whole string of imagined worries. Each more ridiculous than the last.
“Look,” Arlene said, “the tumbler town isn’t any more dangerous than our own.” Gina looked skeptical, and Arlene realized she was missing the perfect opportunity to escape a morning of gossip and babies in the camp while waiting for Derrick to rise. “Tell you what,” she said. “I’ll go after the kids and make sure the tumblers don’t hurt them.” Gina looked happier already.
* * *
On her way to the nursery, Arlene stopped by the bathhouse looking for Sleatoo. She wanted to ask him about the tumblers’ strange dusk dance from the night before.
Standing on the threshold of the great mineral bath, Arlene leaned toward the water and called out Sleatoo’s name.
Slenderly extended branch-arms waved above and below the water’s surface. Was the sustenance dance different today? Arlene thought the patterns were changed. Then they clearly did change: a single figure made his way to the edge of the pool. His branchy arms lifted him out of the water.
Fine, dewy drops ornamented Sleatoo’s limbs and leaves. They bedewed him like a morning flower and fell from him like his own rain shower.
“You’ve flowered,” Arlene said, forgetting everything else in her wonder.
More than the dew of mineral water, Sleatoo was now decorated with grand, white, dahlia-like flowers. His inner, sensory leaf-parts flattened at her comment: if he were human, he’d be blushing.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t mean to embarrass you. I just didn’t know you ever flowered. It’s beautiful.” Arlene looked about her and realized most of the tumblers bore flowers now. Sleatoo had never visited her in this state.
“I stay here when… when this,” he said, his sensory leaves flattening even further.
Arlene was lost to his embarrassed fumbling. She was staring at the dance and the others. She wished she had her notebook or recorder, but her memory would have to serve. She looked about eagerly, trying to take it all in: the choreography of the dance, and, oh! the sun-bees in the air. How had she missed their persistent hum? They flitted over the water, alighting and ascending from emergent branchy arms. They formed their own ballet, amidst the larger tumbler dance.
Sleatoo broke Arlene from her reverie. “Why did you come?” he asked, still looking uncomfortable. “I expected you to be busy with your visitors for many days.”
Sleatoo’s question came as a cold shock. “Is that why you agreed to bring them?” she asked. “To keep me away from the… flower time?” She’d never felt unwelcome in Sleatoo’s life before.
“No, no, you misunderstand,” Sleatoo said. “No one else minds you seeing the flower time. The others… They revel in it. But, well, I’m embarrassed even among my own.” The slim tips of Sleatoo’s limbs twisted in nervous curlicues. “Anyway,” he added, “this flower time was unexpected. It’s not the usual season. So, I couldn’t have brought them as a diversion. Even if I’d wanted to.”
Something in Sleatoo’s tone made Arlene wonder if he had been planning a diversion for the “usual season.” Her feeling of rejection by Sleatoo combined with her unresolved anger at Derrick, and Arlene snapped: “Then why did you bring them!?”
Unused to yelling, Sleatoo instinctively drew back. He reshaped his limbs like a tree contorted by growing away from a constant, harsh wind. “I brought them because they asked. Was I wrong?”
Abashed, Arlene said, “No, you weren’t wrong.” It wasn’t Sleatoo’s fault that Derrick had been so foolish. And she couldn’t blame him for wanting his privacy. “But, don’t they bother you? Your town is so peaceful… And they’re so fast and loud.”
Sleatoo shrugged his many, branchy arms. It was an impressive gesture. Although it was entirely human in origin, Arlene felt that a ‘shrug’ looked better on Sleatoo than it ever looked on a human. “Noise doesn’t hurt us. Sun-bees are fast and loud too. We’re not bothered by them.”
Yes, Arlene thought, but sun-bees are small.
* * *
As Arlene approached the glass-walled nursery, her mind stayed with Sleatoo and the other flowered tumblers, dancing in the water. Her visitors were already affecting them. An unseasonal flower time? That could only have been caused by last night’s bonfire. How much more could her visitors affect the tumblers before she was no longer studying the tumblers, but merely their effects on them?
Arlene was interrupted by Kyan emerging from the nursery, running at a breakneck pace. Lana followed him, lagging behind, clearly unable to keep up.
“Mom!” he cried, seeing Arlene.
Lana gave up the chase, yelling the word ‘tattletale!’ in place of bodily pursuit.
“Slow down, there, buddy,” Arlene called out. Then, as he arrived, panting at her feet, “What’s wrong?”
“You’ve got to stop them,” Kyan said. “I was coming back to tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
Then Arlene saw the flames rising in the distance, the nursery filling with fire. At the sight, Lana put her hand to her mouth and gasped. Kyan merely whimpered. “They had matches. They were playing with them.”
“Oh my god…” Arlene spoke to the flames, deaf to Kyan’s confession. She ran towards the building, her heart in her throat. “Dean! Jared!” But the horror didn’t end when her nephews emerged. She could see the tumbler elders flailing in the fire, their branchy limbs trailing it.
“What have we done?” Arlene said, feeling all the fault herself. She fell to her knees, weeping. Like guilty puppies, the children gathered around her.
It was horrible that the fire was beautiful.
It was worse when the other tumblers began to arrive. They came from the village, vibrant in their flowers, to watch the nursery blaze. This was the end of her relationship with them. What a petty consequence to be concerned with… The wise, reverend elders had been so kind to Kyan. Such unequal repayment she’d given them.
“Look,” Lana pulled at Arlene’s sleeve. “They’re dancing.”
“Which?” Dean asked. “The burning ones or the watching ones?”
“All of them,” Lana returned.
Jared shoved his sister. “Don’t be stupid.”
“Wait, Mom,” Kyan said. “Lana’s right. Listen to them.” Kyan began chanting in the tumbler language, keeping rhythm with the song and dance. “I don’t know this song.”
“You understand them?” Dean asked with disdain in his voice but awe in his expression.
“Change… or seasons… they’re singing about… I don’t know, but they’re all singing it. I can’t quite make it out. Mom, do you understand?”
So, Arlene listened, and she looked at the fire with new eyes. “It’s a rite of passage,” she said. “The elders’ last dance… is a fire dance. They were waiting… No, they couldn’t have been…”
What would have happened if her nephews weren’t dangerously careless with matches? The elders wouldn’t wait forever. Arlene’s eyes sought and found a detail in the architecture she hadn’t noticed before. A long, thin metal antenna stretched from the roof of the nursery up to the sky. A lightning rod. She muttered to herself, though Kyan overheard, “They were waiting for a fire.”
“So… we did a good thing?” Kyan asked, a tremor in his voice. He was clearly thinking of Sleatoo’s grandfather and how he’d miss him.
“No,” Arlene said emphatically. “You should never play with fire.” She could see Kyan was on the edge of tears. She took him in her arms and whispered in his ear, “Sleatoo’s grandfather was ready to die. He was waiting for it, but I know he liked telling his stories to you. You made the waiting easier.”
Kyan nodded and held back the tears but not the quiver in his lip. Arlene squeezed him in her arms, kneeling among the abashed but entranced children. As she knelt, watching the fire dance, she heard Derrick’s voice yelling from behind.
He ran to his wife and son, and put his hands on them appraisingly. Seeing that they were alright, he stood in front of Arlene and the children, placing himself between them and the perceived danger. He looked about frantically, eyeing every nearby tumbler, tensed to fight. Or flee.
“Derrick, it’s okay.” Arlene stood up beside him, pushing his fisted arms down, and winding her fingers between his to unclench the fists. Seeing the fear in his eyes, she finally understood why he hadn’t come alone. She touched his face and said, “Oh, Derrick. I didn’t know you were afraid of the tumblers.”
His eyes widened and his cheeks flushed. “All I know is that my wife and son are in this town, and suddenly I see a fire! What am I supposed to think?”
Arlene gave Derrick a quizzical look. “You thought the tumblers were burning down their own town?”
In all honesty, Arlene had to admit that such an assumption wouldn’t have been far off the mark. “But… in an attempt to somehow threaten us?”
“Why would they do that?”
“I don’t know!” And there was the crux of the issue.
“Then let me tell you!” Arlene yelled. “But don’t come here surrounded by a swarm of children and sisters who I have to watch every moment, who I can’t trust with anything!”
Derrick opened his mouth to yell back at her, but Arlene cut him off. “Don’t you try defending them! That fire,” she swung her arm straight out to point at the more than obvious blaze. “Your nephews started that fire playing with matches.”
“Oh my god…” Derrick said. He looked at the raging fire, and then he looked at Jared and Dean. “Don’t think I’m not telling your mothers.” To Arlene, he said: “I’m sorry. I really didn’t think… I thought you were making a big deal out of nothing. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Arlene said, her head falling tiredly in her hands. “We were lucky.” She explained about the elders and their final song.
“I really do need to take them all home,” Derrick said. Arlene just barely refrained from saying, “That’s what I’ve been telling you.”
The reconciled couple gathered the four children around them, and Arlene led them all through the deserted tumbler town, back to the camp. She desperately wanted to stay with the tumblers and watch their fire dance, but her own life took precedence.
* * *
Back at the camp, the adults all agreed: based on the turn of events, it would be best if the visitors left as soon as possible. Arlene suspected that Gina and Leanne were secretly relieved. Kyan, however, was shocked and heartbroken to discover his cousins would be gone by the end of the day. It was a hard blow, following so fast after the loss of the tumbler elders. At least, he was allowed a few more hours to play with his cousins.
While Gina and Leanne rolled up tents and re-packed other supplies, the children drew designs on boulders around the camp with chalky embers from the burned down bonfire. Meanwhile, Derrick and Arlene sat apart from the others, talking.
With her notebook open on her lap, Arlene walked Derrick through her notes. By teaching him as much as she could about the tumblers, she hoped to chip away at his newly uncovered xenophobia. If he knew the tumblers as she did, he wouldn’t be afraid of them.
* * *
Long before nightfall, the whirlwind of relatives was back on its way. That night, for the first time, the tiny camp — a butane stove and two sleeping bags under the stars — felt sad and lonely instead of adventurous. Kyan colored it that way.
“Will Daddy bring any of my cousins with him when he comes back?” He’d lain in his sleeping bag silently for forty minutes, but Arlene knew he hadn’t fallen asleep.
“No, honey,” Arlene said. “I’m afraid not.”
“Not even Lana? Or one of the babies?”
Kyan cried a little before he slept, but he still fell asleep hours before his mother. Arlene kept thinking her way back through the day, cringing at how close they’d come to disaster, and thanking her lucky stars for how it had turned out. She hoped Gina and Leanne weren’t too mad at her for not wanting them. They ought to understand after their eldest sons’ antics. Either way, Derrick would tell her about it on his next visit. A visit he would make alone.
* * *
Smoke still clung to the air. The charred ground was damp and steaming. Nursemaids had brought buckets of water to damp it down. “The seedlings will be thirsty,” Sleatoo said. “Their thirst brings them up. It becomes unbearable after the fire, and the only way out seems to be up.”
“How long does it take?” Kyan asked, eagerness in his voice. He’d quickly gotten over his horror that the elders’ ashes were the very fertilizer for this new generation.
“Don’t get too excited,” Arlene admonished. “They might be too young for you to play with. We don’t know how fast they grow.” Turning to Sleatoo, she asked, “how soon do they learn to talk?”
Sleatoo’s leaves quivered with excitement. “Look!” He contorted his many limbs to point, like magnetic field lines, at a single spot on the floor. “This leaf is the first tip of a new shlivilee! A child who will grow where I grew. Kyan, will you pay particular attention to him?”
Kyan nodded resolutely.
“Do you mean they’ll be… out… and talking, before we leave?”
“Of course. Once the fire comes, it is only a few days before the seedlings come up.” Sleatoo stretched himself out taller, to bring his center closer to Arlene. He focused his visual leaf parts on her. “The seedlings have been listening to the elders talk for months now. They won’t know how to talk themselves at first… but, it comes quickly. Maybe you’ll stay longer, to study them?”
“Maybe,” Arlene said. Now that Derrick planned on visiting at least once a month, staying longer suited her fine. There was more than enough work to be done. However, she was still worried about Kyan.
“What do you think, kiddo?” Arlene asked. “Do you want to stay out here longer than our three months? Or do we need to get you home to your cousins?”
Kyan was too busy to answer. He was on his hands and knees, examining the tiny shoots of green springing up from the floor. It eased Arlene’s heart knowing that he would soon have playmates again. “I guess,” she told Sleatoo, “we’ll have to wait and see.”