I turned onto my back on my mat and stared at the straw and rope ceiling a foot above my face. It creaked and bulged as above me, Nola shifted in her sleep. I pushed my sister from my mind.
There were pictures in the book Juno had showed me, of people in colorful robes, other people with light and wings, and a script I couldn’t read. I asked him, Can you read this? And he smiled and said he couldn’t, not alone. How do you know this is the Inghcha Bible? I asked. In his dreams, he said, an old man in robes sat with him in a lone basket hanging from a lone balloon. This man told him that the book was sacred to Inghchas. They had made up their own way to read the script, but their way lead them to the wrong conclusions. The old man translated the true words.
When you read it right, he told me, the book said: “Those who swing in the sky will rule Those who lived on the mountains.” That meant that we, the sky-dwellers, own everything, even the cornfuel. We would bring them the news; then we would organize them under us, and the warring between Inghcha factions would end and we would cease the spy game we play, carrying information from one mountain tribe to the next.
In order to be worshipped as Sky-Swingers, I said, we’ll have to stay in the sky. That means never finding The General’s island.
Yes, Juno said. Worship will be the point. They will provide for us because we are custodians of their souls, not because we have their stupid secrets.
This was The Key of Light, and Juno was The Illuminator. The General would stop him, I said. Juno smiled and said, The General continues to dream the dream of the Island. People get tired of dreaming the same dream, especially when it is someone else’s dream. And The General has to die someday.
I followed Mina with the rags under my sweater. We walked from basket to basket. On the rags, Juno had written a message, over and over. We were giving them to all the kids of the ‘van. I thought Juno’s “teachings” were between the four of us, but Juno said many followed him, because he had the sight.
“You’re lucky, Hannah,” Mina said, pausing at the far side of a bridge. A baby was screaming in the next squatter, its baby-howl slung into the wind. The earth swayed between the slats of the bridge below me. A pool of blackish green swirled into a swash of yellow. Far to the right, the black ocean. Mina stood in my way. “Juno likes you. He says he senses your power. You’re coming in right on top.”
“I’m not ambitious.”
“When the Exchange comes, you won’t have to leave this ‘van, ’cause you’re not from here. You could be united with Juno, the Illuminator. Do you know what that means?”
The bridge swayed and I had a chill, right up the back of my neck. “What does it mean to you? To be Exchanged?”
She raised her chin. “It means I won’t get Owen, but I’ll be an acolyte. Spreading Juno’s word. I’ll be a leader.”
The fires flared, and the baskets began to rise. I squeezed the guide-ropes in my hands. “Let me through,” I said. Mina stood still another moment, then she moved aside. I stepped past her. The baby screamed in the squatter, and I heard somebody smack it.
Juno had his own squatter, connected to his father’s. He led me into the open half. The floor-bottom was decorated like a rug, painted like a black-and-white checkerboard.
“Hannah, you don’t trust me, but I trust you. In my dreams, He speaks of your importance. But I see darkness struggling in you. Things happened on the mountain that you haven’t told. Let me help you.”
“We crashed. It was cold. People died.”
“Yes, you’ve seen death. That’s good. It means you’re strong.”
“It means what it means. Maybe nothing.”
“What happened that you didn’t tell?”
I took a breath. The death mountain. Ms. Angly, who I had always known, my lessons-teacher, her frozen pelvis. The buttons broke in my hands. I didn’t feel them, my fingers too numb from cold. I ripped and tore and tried not to see the naked hair of her loins. She didn’t bleed when my nails cut her thighs. Juno’s eyes were on me. His look had changed, was soft. I wanted to tell him, but I also didn’t want to. “We had to…”
Behind him, birds in a flock were specks against the land, all following one instinct. Did they have a leader? Juno’s fingers gentle under my chin, lifting. “I know what you’re not saying. Look at me, Hannah. I see it.”
“We took their clothes.”
“And you ate their flesh. To survive. You weren’t the first.”
What was he saying? “We didn’t eat them,” I said.
Annoyance flashed across his eyes. “That’s what happens when you’re trapped. You don’t need to deny it. I don’t think you sinned.”
“We didn’t eat them. We journeyed only three days before the Inghchas found us. We had leabread from our squatters. We were hungry, but we didn’t do that.”
Juno closed his eyes and put his hands together. The breeze fondled his hair. His lips moved without sound, as if he were conferring with someone I couldn’t see. He opened his eyes, and the power look was back. “It’s not important,” he said. “You handled their bodies. You took their clothes. Spiritually, you consumed them. You left their un-interred bodies humiliated on the mountain’s face. I forgive you. It’s important that you’ve understood this kind of death. Many will have to die in the times to come.”
“I think you’re crazy,” I said.
He smiled. “You’ll see. Look, again, at the book with me.” He ducked into the covered half of his squatter. I followed. Inside the daylight shone through the diamond-shaped holes in the sides of the small room. Juno sat on a pillow on his mat. He had pulled his canvas bag onto his lap, woven with purple and black geometric patterns. He pulled the book from its mouth and held it out to me. I was curious, and I didn’t want to be curious. I sat beside him and took the book on my lap. The binding was red, golden script across the front. The edges of the binding were frayed. When I opened it, the book was bigger than my lap.
On the page facing me there was a painting of a naked woman standing on a seashell, her hair waving into the breeze. Winged figures were blowing wind on her. I forgot about Juno as I sat looking. Flowers littered the air around her. Behind her, the sea, blue, impossible. A smile curled at the corner of her mouth. I touched my finger to her cheek. She could forgive me. I wrested the denim from the frozen legs. I saw the forbidden hair, the gray-blue slit. My fingernails cut the flesh, and it didn’t bleed.
Juno’s hand touched mine. “You feel its power,” he said. “We will lead them all, if you stand with me.” He took the book from my lap and closed it. When he opened the lips of the bag I saw inside, pages, a wire spiral.
“You have a notebook,” I said.
He looked at me sideways. “A gift from an Older of another caravan. I knew him at a station house, when we were parked for foul weather season. It was destiny that he gave it, Hannah. I need it for the translations. God puts the tools in my hands. One day there will be tools for you.”
I rose and turned to look down at him in the diamond-studded light. You are crazy, I was going to say again. He was looking up at me, those exotic eyes. The words stuck in my throat. My heart beat strangely. I turned and went out into the sun.
A stopping before we went over the ocean. Refueling, gas and water and food. The ladders were dropped, the caravan fastened to a series of docking poles along the side of the mountain. The station houses, long and low, waited empty around the landing field. When the caravan was secured, we climbed down. The ground felt as it always does when one comes down. Moving, though it doesn’t move. All took careful steps.
I leaned in the door of a station house, watching. My mother stood a few feet ahead on the field. She had her arms crossed beneath her chest, her fingers visible on either side of her shoulder blades. Her hair fell in a long pony down her back. Two of the balloons, detached from the caravan, were being brought to the ground for repairs. The soft material fell in black folds over the gray-green grasses. Momma was known an expert in repairs in our home ‘van. They were consulting with her before proceeding. I didn’t know if it was an honest consultation or a courtesy. Or a test. Momma and I didn’t look at each other, had stopped looking at each other since we joined this ‘van. She was angry because I didn’t cry for Janey. I turned and went into the station house, where I could already smell the fresh food being prepared for cooking.
You died on the mountain.
Stop crying, Janey. I’m right here.
In my dream, Hannah, you died. Your skin was so cold.
Stoppit, Janey. I didn’t die on any mountain. I’m right here. Shut up and get Momma.
Your eyes were opened, and your skin was blue. Your pony snapped off in my hand.
Janey, I mean it. Stop.
Click below to continuing reading