by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023
The rain soaked the mountain until its red dirt was dusty no more. Chira’li spread his wings testing them, and the water beaded on his feathers like glittering gems.
Water streaked down Nawry’s face, soothing him. It was like the entire world could finally cry for all the wrongs that had been done, the cold shoulders turned; every minute of pent up pain got released. And the tears were beautiful.
Nawry stretched his arms up and spread his flippered fingers, remembering the feel of the ocean against them when he swam. He wanted to swim again.
He wanted to go home.
When Nawry looked down at Kassy, he could have sworn he saw her slender, silver trunk growing. She was no longer as thin as a vermicelli; instead, her trunk was now clearly as thick as spaghetti. And she had eight heart-shaped leaves, bright and green — the smallest pair, still unfurling, sprouted from their own, new branch. She was a tiny, Y-shaped tree.
She would be fine here.
And Nawry would come to visit her; he leaned close and whispered to her leaves, promising her that he would. In a few years. When there would be kit-seeds to talk to. A whole new generation of them.
“I will protect your friend,” Borel rumbled. “Unless… would you like to stay here, and care for her with me?”
Was the bear god saying that he was lonely? Did he want Nawry to stay and be his companion?
“Let the funny little traveler finish his voyage and go home,” Chira’li said in a whinnying voice, still staring at the sky. Raindrops ran down the long sides of his equine face. “I have a pilgrimage of my own to make, and I can take the funny traveler home on my trip. When I’m done, though–” He looked at the bear god now. Borel was sitting in the wet dirt, looking glum. “–I’ll come back. I think I’d like to live on a mountaintop, close to the storm clouds.”
“With me?” Borel asked, brightening. “On Argos Peak?”
“If you watch your temper.”
Borel nodded, somberly. He’d been put in his place by his own newborn son. “Where will your pilgrimage take you?” The bear god looked up at the sky; he already knew part of Chira’li’s answer.
“To meet the others,” Chira’li whinnied. “Would you like to come?” he asked Nawry. “It will be faster than walking home.”
For a newborn god, Chira’li seemed very certain of himself, and far more knowledgeable of the world that he’d been born into than Nawry felt, even after having lived there for many seasons.
It felt wrong to Nawry to continue his quest — tagging along with Chira’li — without Kassy. The hollow inside of him that missed her voice wanted to retread the steps of their adventure backwards, reliving the moments they’d spent together. But that wouldn’t bring her back in her original form. She was a tree now. She had grown up and moved on.
“Yes, I’ll come with you,” Nawry said. It was the choice Kassy would have insisted on.
Chira’li spread his human arms, wide and welcoming. Nawry stepped into his embrace and wrapped his flippers around the god’s waist. The winged-satyr hadn’t seemed so large until Nawry was pressed against him; compared to the god, he was merely a teddy bear.
Chira’li flapped his powerful wings and the two of them rose into the sky. Borel roared after them, “Tell her I miss her!”
The wine-dark storm clouds parted for Chira’li, and golden sunlight poured through them, casting rainbows across the rain. Every color, painted across the sky, exactly where they belonged.
From above, the storm clouds looked ripe like plums, ready to fall off the tree; a great stain of mulberry juice, covering the land below. Nawry wanted to squeeze their color out and make dyes for Aunt Jeminee’s paintings. But he was sure, now that the color was here, she would find it on her own. She’d be painting with every shade of purple before he even made it home.
Chira’li kept flying, higher and higher, until the air itself felt bright with sunlight. When Nawry dared to look at the sun, the light dazzled him, but above the clouds, he could see the details that were hidden from below. This world had a special sun. A castle. The parapets and towers glowed like gold, but the light — the true light — shone from within, bursting through the castle’s windows, glimmering and gleaming.
Chira’li landed lightly, having flown through the castle’s gate. The ground was soft and springy, exactly like Nawry imagined a cloud would be. And everywhere, flowers sprang from the cottony ground — trumpeting daffodils, smiling tulips, beaming sunflowers. Roses on vines, and fields of poppies. All of them yellow.
A fountain in the middle of the castle’s front hall splashed and sang; the spray of droplets from the splashes painted the air with more rainbows. On the ledge around the fountain, a small girl with swallowtail wings sat with her delicate hand trailing through the dancing water.
Glyssani’aa had Aumna’s warmth and Kelda’s playfulness. At first glance, she seemed younger than either of them, but it wasn’t youthfulness — it was timelessness that graced her frame and movements. Her swallowtail wings swayed behind her so subtly that their motion was like a breeze tickling a field — the merest breath; almost nothing; but in a moment, the weather could turn and a gale force wind would flatten it all.
“I knew you were coming, as soon as the rainbows were complete.” She looked up. Her gaze would haunt Nawry forever. He had not been prepared for the sun to look upon him. “I know your messages — Borel misses me; Kelda wants me to come home. But I am home.” After a pause that lasted a moment or a lifetime — Nawry wasn’t sure; he felt quite dizzy looking upon Glyssani’aa — she added, “I’m happy here.”
Nawry felt he had intruded into a family reunion, full of squabbles and unresolved disagreements, the kinds that can last forever and never quite make sense when they’re explained. Except these disagreements were between the very forces of nature that defined his world, and he found himself growing faint, unable to handle the scintillating, golden brilliance of Glyssani’aa and her castle. Every surface reflected her light. Every flower reflected her life.
Nawry closed his eyes and wished it were all a dream. But Chira’li’s voice answered Glyssani’aa’s, and the gods spoke, telling each other words that Nawry could no longer comprehend, making plans, arranging for visits, sharing secrets not meant for mortal ears. He listened until the rhythms became a lullaby, and then he did sleep, blocking out the overwhelming brilliance. But even in the years to come, he would never forget the profound reality of Glyssani’aa’s castle. He could never mistake the memory for a dream. Even when he sometimes wished to.
It is not always easy to understand the nature of one’s own reality. Deep knowledge can be a heavy burden.
But Nawry’s body was light, barely a burden at all, in Chira’li’s arms when the winged-satyr god finally flew him home.
Chira’li brought Nawry to the edge of Aumna’s glade. “Our ways part here,” he whinnied. “I must meet my sisters. And my other father. But perhaps, when you visit your friend on the slopes of Argos Peak, I will see you there.”
Nawry nodded. But deep inside, he suspected he would never meet this strange new god again. The gods of this world had showed themselves to him, because he’d had a part to play. But now he’d played his role. It was time to go home, and he would be surprised if they showed themselves, in theses forms, to him again. Even Aumna, he suspected, would be gone from her glade when he next visited. He could almost remember through the fog of sleep, Chira’li promising Glyssani’aa to bring her daughters to her in the sky.
As Nawry stumbled over the rocky shores, bone-tired, towards the huts of his village, he planned the stories he would tell to Sealia, Ktory, and the other children. He couldn’t wait to feel his mother’s arms. Then he saw a Noodlebeast on a large, flat boulder, standing at an easel.
Aunt Jeminee was painting faster than Nawry had ever seen her paint before. Her brush flew over the canvas, and when Nawry came close enough, he saw what she was painting: a hillside covered in farfalle flowers, their blooms as richly purple as any orchid. They looked like a flock of royal butterflies, flying low over the hills.
Now that the world was healed, Nawry couldn’t wait to see the true flowers when the seeds his people had stored finally sprouted, thrived, and bloomed next spring.