The Waking River
Rian moved quickly, flying passed small rings held in the air by thin poles fastened to the ground, deftly tying the thick braided string through each one. Behind her, Jeld her younger sister, placed small seedlings into the intertwined sections of the braided cord. Each seed, in a few months, would grow into long curtains of blue vines, with small pink, bulbus fruit, that she loved. When that time came, they would harvest the fruit, sending them off to their sister planet to be made into snacks, while the vines would be woven into fabric by her mother and the other weavers in the neighborhood. Till then though, the farmers of colony planet Gul, like her family, were kept busy planting the seeds and caring for them. Rian Passed another ring, flipping, and tying the knot around it in one motion, before moving speedily to the next hoop.
“Rian, why are you going so fast?” Jeld called behind her.
“Don’t even bother trying to keep up, take all the time in the world,” Rian said, teasing. “While your stuck planting seeds, I’ll be watching the new episode of ‘Born on Brinner’,” she said, as she tied off the last two rings. Without looking back, she immediately flew away, leaving her sister’s loud cries behind her. She flew across the blue fields of her family’s farm, that was adjoined with their neighbors, and went right to the edge of the forest. In the farthest corner, she saw, the distant small figure, of her dad checking on some of their other crops. She knew their mom would already be home preparing dinner, even though the workday wouldn’t be over for three more hours. Flying at full speed, it only took a minute to get to their house at the center of the field. As she drew closer to the house, she caught the familiar scent of her mom’s cooking, and smiled broadly. There was nothing she liked better than a homecooked meal while watching reality shows, but seeing as she was still supposed to be working, and that her mom had specifically told her to come back together with her sister, she would have to forgo the meal for later; ‘Born on Brinner’ called to her.
She approached the back door, then slowly and quietly landed. Careful not to make any sounds that would alert her mother that she’d returned, she opened the door with the upmost patience, and even though she’d made sure to oil the hinges that morning, she pulled it open one small increment at a time. Her heart beat faster, and she held her breath. The door opened without a sound, and she breathed in and out with deliberate slowness, before holding her breath once again. She peeked around the edge of the door, and saw her mother in the kitchen, cutting some vegetables. Then, she levitated her body slightly off the ground, and pulled herself in gently. she would not risk her mother hearing the sound of her foot steps on their carpet. In front of her, she could already see the edge of their holo-screen glinting alluringly. With her goal in sight, she moved forward confidently. She felt slightly uneasy but proceeded after checking once again to make sure her mum was in the kitchen. Suddenly she felt a warm hand tightly grip her shoulder, pushing her down till her levitating feet touched the ground. Her stomach dropped, and she glanced in the direction of the kitchen, to see that it was now empty save for a boiling pot.
“Oh, Rian, I wasn’t expecting you back for at least another couple hours…hmm.. I don’t see your sister, around,” her mom said sweetly, looking around with exaggerated motions. “Surely you didn’t leave her behind again?” She asked slightly tightening her grip on Rian’s shoulder.
Rian looked over her shoulder to see her mom’s overly kind smile, dripping with warmth that did not reach her eye, and laughed nervously, turning fully to face her mom. “Well, I finished my half of the work, early… you know she’s so slow,” she said shrugging her shoulders. “…and the show is about to start, it’s the season finale… I have to see if the girl from Deresh will win the money so she can pay for shuttle tickets for her family… It’s crucial that I see it… I have to,” she said hurriedly.
Her mother sighed and shook her head, glaring scornfully at the holo-screen. Ever since they’d purchased the it, her children had refused to do anything besides sit in front of the darned screen. They slacked off on their daily work, studies, and for weeks, had not even made time to go out and play with the neighborhood children like they used to enjoy doing so much. She released a pained sigh and was about to send the girl back to the fields, when they heard a sharp knock on the door. They both jump, slightly startled, and looked each other confused. No one they knew knocked like that, in fact, no one in the neighborhood knocked at all. The farming families were so close that they simply barged into each other’s houses. Whoever it was, knocked again, two sharp, impatient hits.
Her mother looked at the door for a moment, then went to open it. Rian followed cautiously behind her, guessing it may have been a visitor from Winfora, their parent planet. They occasionally sent people to check the productivity of the farmers, always wanting to make sure that enough crops were being produced for the planet to pay its taxes. She already felt irritated at the thought because, while the Winforans didn’t treat them badly, their overly formal and haughty behavior rubbed her the wrong way. She hoped they’d say whatever they had to quickly and leave, so she could go watch her show. As her mum reached the door, she raised a hand in front of Rian to stop her from following, and to protect her from the presence she was felt from the door. Her mother opened the door, and Rian peered from behind to see who was there.
She tilted her head, perplexed by the sight of the strange couple that stood there. They were not the Winforans she was expecting, though they were equally foreign. Instead of the yellow and blue skin that was typical of the people on Gul, their skin was a teal glossy rubber, striped with white lines, their eyes, white and green, absent of the orange ringed irises of Gulians. As strange as they looked though, their appearance was not alien to her. She only needed to look to her mother to see those same traits mirrored. Whoever they were, Rian guessed that they were probably related to her mother, and became immediately excited, bouncing on the balls of her feet. She’d always been curious about her mother’s side of the family, but when she’d asked question, they were usually ignored, or answered vaguely. Seeing that her mother was still glued to the spot, with a white knuckled grip on the door, and the strangers too, seemingly to be frozen in place, Rian took the chance as she could no longer hold back her excitement. She walked passed her mother, and approached the man and woman, with youthful boldness.
“Hello,” She said happily. “I’m Rian, are you my mum’s friends, or maybe my grandparents? I have…” the rest of her sentence was caught in her throat, as her mother grabbed clothes and roughly pulled her back.
“Rian be quiet and stay behind me,” she tried to say softly, but the fury was evident in her voice. Rian was shocked, and quickly did as she was told, sobering up immediately. She had never seen such a look of venom on her mum’s face, and it frightened her, though it was directed at the visitors, and not at her. She looked at the strangers again, all curiosity gone, and though their expressions did not change, they now looked to her like vicious creatures.
“What are you doing here?” Her mother asked, stepping closer to the couple, who were still unaffected by her reaction.
“Kel, what a frightening expression you have on your face, don’t you see your scaring you own child?” The two asked in unison, and their combined voices made Rian’s skin crawl. The sound was like a vibration through water, invasive, seeping into the skin and lingering, the way oil did.
“Do not speak with the Ral,” Kel said, “and I’ll ask again, what you are doing here?”
“Why not invite us in first,” the man said, and this time his voice was normal.
“You will not step foot in this house,” Kel said, and beneath her grip on the door, Rian saw the wood splintering and breaking. “You will say what you need to say right here, and then leave.”
They sighed in unison. “This is no way to welcome your aunt and uncle Kel, no way at all,” the woman said shaking her head. “But if you insist on behaving this way, then there’s nothing to be done. We came here to inform you that…”
The sound of a door shutting loudly, interrupted her. “Kel, can you believe this, Rian left Jeld alone again, and because she was rushing, Jeld planted half the seeds wrong. I think we need to get rid of that holo-screen,” her father’s voice said from the behind them, trailing off at the end. All eyes turned to him and Jeld who came in through the back door. “Oh, do we have guests?” he said and his voiced dropped lower as he saw the strangers, and sensed the tension in the air. Then he glanced from Kel to the two figures at the door, and quickly moved to join her. Jeld stayed beside Rian, holding on to her hand.
“What’s going on Kel?” he asked, immediately, taking her hand off the door before she did any more damage to it. As she let go, pieces of the wood fell away, creating a rough semicircle cut-out the size of a fist on the side of the door.
“Dald, it’s so good to see you again. I’m happy to see that your usual behavior of getting involved where you are not needed hasn’t changed one bit,” The man said smiling, but his eyes and tone were terrifying. Rian and Jeld gripped each other tighter.
“It is good to see you two as well, but I must say, I’m surprised by the sudden visit. From what I remember, you all cut ties with Kel after Rian was born fifteen years ago,” Her father said, his fists clenched tightly.
“Yes, and you must know that only the most dire circumstances would bring us to this place,” the woman said looking around with disgust. Rian wasn’t sure if it was directed at their house, or the entire planet. The woman then turned back to Kel. “Kel, I will get straight to it. You must have heard of the fossilizing disease that wreaked havoc on Orl, well, it briefly afflicted our planet as well, and unfortunately, your father and niece were stricken and died shortly after,” she said, then paused briefly to let the information sink in. “As you know, they served as the tether for your mother and brother who were in Ralkin’s River. As expected, without their tethers to reality, they lost their minds and bodies to The River, and soon passed away as well,” She said, as if she were talking about the color of dirt, and not the death of her family members.
No one spoke for a while, then almost mechanically, Kel spoke up in a dry voice that cut the air. “My brother is dead?”
“Yes, so you know what that means…” the man began to say.
“Kal is dead? When?”
“They died three months ago, and...”
“Kal died three months ago,” Kel said, and small green tears fell from her eyes. She didn’t bother wiping them, and Dald held her hand.
“Yes, Kel, but you’re missing the point here,” the man said unsympathetically. “With your mother and brother’s passing, you family’s place in Ralkin’s River is now empty, it has only been three months, but the imbalance is impossible to fix. The strain on the remaining six families is too much. And more importantly, next year is your family’s turn to take the head position.”
Kel remained silent, but she was shaking visibly. Rian couldn’t tell if it was from grief, anger, or some other emotion.
“Can’t you just find another family to take their place, I’m sure there are many who would go to any lengths to become one of The Seven Families,” her father said.
“An outsider like you shouldn’t act so sure of anything,” the man said. “The Seven Families carry an ancient mandate. Unless the entire line is completely wiped out, a new family cannot be chosen. It is a shame that now my precious sister’s line has been tainted by your filthy alien blood,” the man said wit more passion that he’d displayed so far, looking as if he would charge at her father.
“That is beside the point,” the woman said, placing restraining hand on the man’s arm. “Kel, I’m sure you understand what must be done,” she said, then looked at Rian and Jeld. “Fortunately, it seems that both your daughters have more than enough power to become your tether, despite their mixed blood. The older one might be slightly stronger though.”
Hearing the mention of her daughters, Kel shook herself out of her stupor. “What exactly are you implying aunt Yil?”
“I am not implying anything, I am telling you that you, and one of your daughters, must return with us to Ralhada today or at the latest tomorrow night. We are short on time, I had to leave The River to make this trip. We have taken a great risk, and blow to our pride, to come bring you back, but we cannot afford to allow Ralkin to be born.”
“Just like that, you want me to return. No apologies or anything, just ‘comback now because we need you?’ Are you kidding?” Kel said letting of a hysterical laugh. “My brother, the only reason I would ever return to that planet died three months ago, and I’m just hearing of it now, because you had no choice but to tell me. Then you want me to uproot my entire family overnight?”
“Kel,” Her uncle said in frustration. “There will be no apologies because none are necessary. You chose of your own accord to go against traditions. You should have expected the consequences. Yes, we tried other options, and none worked, so we had to come to you. And, to make one thing clear, we do not need your entire family. You and one of your children is enough.” As he spoke, he hit his fist against his palm, over and over again. “You know you can not refuse, so let us stop the games.”
“I think that’s enough,” Deld said stepping forward. “You cannot come to our home and treat us this way. We are not on Ralhada, and Kel owes you nothing. Certainly, our daughters owe you nothing.”
“This is not about some petty family dispute,” the woman, Yil said calmly. “If the River is not maintained, Ralkin will hatch, and half of Nol will be flooded by his celestial waters. You cannot understand the stakes Deld, because you are not Ralhadan,” her aunt said, trying to mediate. “It is sudden, but you know there is no other way,” she said to Kel.
Kel closed her eyes, and sighed. The sound spread through the house like vibrations through water, and the feelings of dread and resignation lingered and soaked into the walls. Kel felt like the ice of Fralor had seeped into her body and stilled her heart, as she pushed back all her emotions and made way for duty. Like her aunt and uncle said, there was no choice in the matter. Since she was born, the mandate of her family had been instilled in her and written in her mind, body and soul. It was a miracle that she had been able to break away to marry Deld, but she always knew there would be no permanent escape as the waters of Ralkin were already mixed into her blood. She sighed again, and when she opened her eyes, they were distant and cold.
Sensing the change in their mother, Jeld gripped Rian’s hand so tightly that Rian thought her fingers would fall off. Their father had a look of intense agony on his face. “Kel you don’t have to do this,” he said.
“We will leave tomorrow morning,” she said, then turned to her daughters, and tried to smile. “Rian, you’ll be coming with me, okay?”
“Kel! You have to think this through, your talking about separating our family,” her father said, but his words were ignored. Kel simply continued to look at Rian, waiting.
Rian looked into her mum’s tense eyes and knew that she was on the verge of breaking apart. She still didn’t fully understand what was going on, but in that moment, she knew what her mother was expecting. Calling on a sense of responsibility she’d hardly exhibited in her fifteen years of life, she threw on the biggest smile she could make, and pulled her had out of her sister’s grip.
“Well, I’ve always been curious about your home world, anyway… I guess I finally get some answers,” she said, not knowing if she sounded believable or not, but the slight relief in her mother’s eyes were evident, and the tension in her body eased a bit.
“Good, you don’t need to pack much. Just take the bag you use when we go camping and pack a few necessities.” She then turned to face her aunt and uncle who had begun smiling like witches the moment she’d agreed. “you can leave now, comeback tomorrow morning, and we’ll be ready,” she said, then slammed the door shut before they could reply.
“Hurry up and go pack Rian, let Jeld help you… I need to finish making dinner,” she said, then went into the kitchen. Rian quickly ran to her room, to pack, leaving Jeld and their farther stunned.
# # #
That night, they ate dinner in silence, afterwards, the sound of their parents arguing and Jeld’s hushed tears, kept Rian up through the night. Not that she would have been able to sleep anyway, as she was high strung from the mixture of fear and excitement coursing through her body.