Have you ever heard of something called a moon?
You step off the porch and look up at the sky anyway, unsure of how to begin. You also aren’t sure if you should begin. After all, the first and second times you tried to interact with an obelisk, you almost died. Then there’s the fact that Alabaster wants this, when he’s the man who destroyed the world. Maybe you shouldn’t do anything he asks.
He’s never hurt you, though. The world has, but not him. Maybe the world deserved to be destroyed. And maybe he’s earned a little of your trust, after all these years.
“Wouldn’t it have been better,” you cannot help saying, “to just… live?” To have come back, you cannot say. To have made what little life he could with Syenite again, after Meov was gone but before she found Tirimo and Jija and tried to create a lesser version of the family she’d lost. Before she became you.
The answer is in the way his eyes deaden. This was the look that was on his face as you stood in a node station once, over the abused corpse of one of his sons. Maybe it’s the look that was on his face when he learned of Innon’s death. It’s certainly what you saw in your own face after Uche’s. That’s when you no longer need an answer to the question. There is such a thing as too much loss. Too much has been taken from you both— taken and taken and taken, until there’s nothing left but hope, and you’ve given that up because it hurts too much. Until you would rather die, or kill, or avoid attachments altogether, than lose one more thing.
Schaffa’s gaze searches hers and finds that she understands precisely what he’s thinking about doing. “You aren’t afraid.”
“Tell me why you aren’t.” His voice brooks no disobedience.
“Just…” She cannot help shrugging again. She can’t really figure out how to say it. “I don’t… I mean, if you have a good reason?”
“You have no inkling of my reasons, little one.”
“I know.” She scowls, more out of frustration with herself than anything else. Then an explanation occurs to her. “Daddy didn’t have a reason when he killed my little brother.” Or when he knocked her off the wagon. Or any of the half-dozen times he’s looked at Nassun and thought about killing her so obviously that even a ten-year-old can figure it out.
An icewhite blink. What happens then is fascinating to watch: Slowly Schaffa’s expression thaws from the contemplation of her murder into wonder again, and a sorrow so deep that it makes a lump come to Nassun’s throat. “And you have seen so much purposeless suffering that at least being killed for a reason can be borne?”
He’s so much better at talking. She nods emphatically.
Schaffa sighs. She feels his fingers waver. “But this is not a thing that can be known beyond my order. I let a child live once, who saw, but I should not have. And we both suffered for my compassion. I remember that.”
You’ve called him crazy so many times. Told yourself that you despised him even as you grew to love him. Why? Perhaps you understood early on that he was what you could become. More likely it is that you suspected long before you lost and found him again that he wasn’t crazy. “Crazy” is what everyone thinks all roggas are, after all— addled by the time they spend in stone, by their ostensible alliance with the Evil Earth, by not being human enough.
“Crazy” is also what roggas who obey choose to call roggas that don’t. You obeyed, once, because you thought it would make you safe. He showed you— again and again, unrelentingly, he would not let you pretend otherwise— that if obedience did not make one safe from the Guardians or the nodes or the lynchings or the breeding or the disrespect, then what was the point? The game was too rigged to bother playing.
You pretended to hate him because you were a coward. But you eventually loved him, and he is part of you now, because you have since grown brave.
You’re shaking your head. “’ Baster… you’re speaking as if it, the planet, is real. Alive, I mean. Aware. All that stuff about Father Earth, it’s just stories to explain what’s wrong with the world. Like those weird cults that crop up from time to time. I heard of one that asks an old man in the sky to keep them alive every time they go to sleep. People need to believe there’s more to the world than there is.”
And the world is just shit. You understand this now, after two dead children and the repeated destruction of your life. There’s no need to imagine the planet as some malevolent force seeking vengeance. It’s a rock. This is just how life is supposed to be: terrible and brief and ending in— if you’re lucky— oblivion.
He laughs. This hurts him, too, but it’s a laugh that makes your skin prickle, because it’s the laugh of the Yumenes-Allia highroad. The laugh of a dead node station. Alabaster was never mad; he’s just learned so much that would have driven a lesser soul to gibbering, that sometimes it shows. Letting out some of that accumulated horror by occasionally sounding like a frothing maniac is how he copes. It’s also how he warns you, you know now, that he’s about to destroy some additional measure of your naivete. Nothing is ever as simple as you want it to be.
“Are you safe?” he asks then, quietly. This is why she loves him.
She nods, biting her bottom lip, because it is wrong that she must wonder this about her own father. He looks at her for a long, hard moment, and there is a cold consideration to this look that warns her he’s begun to think of a simple solution to her problem. “Don’t,” she blurts.
He lifts an eyebrow. “Don’t…?” he challenges.
Nassun has lived a year of ugliness. Schaffa is at least clean and uncomplicated in his brutality. This makes it easy for her to set her jaw and lift her chin. “Don’t kill my father.”
He smiles, but his eyes are still cold. “Something causes a fear like that, Nassun. Something that has nothing to do with you, or your brother, or your mother’s lies. Whatever it is has left its wound in your father— a wound that obviously has festered. He will lash out at anything that touches upon or even near that reeking old sore… as you have seen.” She thinks of Uche, and nods. “That cannot be reasoned with.”
“I can,” she blurts. “I’ve done it before. I know how to…” manipulate him, those are the words for it, but she’s barely ten years old so she actually says, “I can stop him from doing anything bad. I always have before.” Mostly.
“Until you fail to stop him, once. That would be enough.” He eyes her. “I will kill him if he ever hurts you, Nassun. Keep that in mind, if you value your father’s life more than your own. I do not.” Then he turns back to the shed to arrange the satchels, and that’s the end of the conversation.
“It was wrong to treat your kind so. You’re people. What we did, making tools of you, was wrong. It is allies that we need— more than ever now, in these darkening days.”
Nassun will do anything that Schaffa asks. But allies are needed for specific tasks, and they are not the same thing as friends. The ability to distinguish this is also something the road has taught her.
The torus isn’t even necessary— you can gather ambient energy in any number of ways. But that’s how they teach you to direct your awareness down to perform orogeny, never up. Nothing above you matters. Only your immediate surroundings, never farther.” He shakes his head to the degree that he can. “It’s amazing, when you think about it. Everyone in the Stillness is like this. Never mind what’s in the oceans, never mind what’s in the sky; never look at your own horizon and wonder what’s beyond it. We’ve spent centuries making fun of the astronomests for their crackpot theories, but what we really found incredible was that they ever bothered to look up to formulate them.”
You’d almost forgotten this part of him: the dreamer, the rebel, always reconsidering the way things have always been because maybe they should never have been that way in the first place. He’s right, too. Life in the Stillness discourages reconsideration, reorientation. Wisdom is set in stone, after all; that’s why no one trusts the mutability of metal. There’s a reason Alabaster was the magnetic core of your little family, back when you were together.
Damn, you’re nostalgic today. It prompts you to say, “I think you’re not just a ten-ringer.” He blinks in surprise. “You’re always thinking. You’re a genius, too— it’s just that your genius is in a subject area that no one respects.”
This is what you need to understand. “What does the Earth want?”
Alabaster’s gaze is heavy, heavy. “What does any living thing want, facing an enemy so cruel that it stole away a child?”
Your jaw tightens. Vengeance.
Alabaster says nothing while you ponder, and eventually you glance at him to see if he’s fallen asleep. But he’s awake, his eyes slits, watching you. “What?” You frown, defensive as always.
He quarter-smiles with the half of his mouth that hasn’t been burned. “You never change. If I ask you for help, you tell me to flake off and die. If I don’t say a rusting word, you work miracles for me.” He sighs. “Evil Earth, how I’ve missed you.”
This… hurts, unexpectedly. You realize why at once: because it’s been so long since anyone said anything like this to you. Jija could be affectionate, but he wasn’t much given to sentimentality. Innon used sex and jokes to show his tenderness. But Alabaster… this has always been his way. The surprise gesture, the backhanded compliment that you could choose to take for teasing or an insult. You’ve hardened so much without this. Without him. You seem strong, healthy, but inside you feel like he looks: nothing but brittle stone and scars, prone to cracking if you bend too much.
You try to smile, and fail. He doesn’t try. You just look at each other. It’s nothing and everything at once.
Hjarka starts courting Tonkee. Tonkee doesn’t react well at first. She’s mostly just confused when gifts of dead animals and books start appearing in the apartment, brought by with a too-casual, “In case that big brain of hers needs something to chew on,” and a wink. You’re the one who has to explain to Tonkee that Hjarka’s decided, through whatever convoluted set of values the big woman holds dear, that an ex-commless geomest with the social skills of a rock represents the pinnacle of desirability. Then Tonkee is mostly annoyed, complaining about “distractions” and “the vagaries of the ephemeral” and the need to “decenter the flesh.” You mostly ignore all of it.
It’s the books that settle the issue. Hjarka seems to pick them by the number of many-syllabled words on their spines, but you come home a few times to find Tonkee engrossed in them. Eventually you come home to find Tonkee’s room curtain drawn and Tonkee engrossed in Hjarka, or so the sounds from beyond would suggest. You didn’t think they could do that much with her bum arm. Huh.
One of the seniors is a Somidlats woman who could pass for a relative of Nassun’s: tall, middling brown, curling thick hair, a body that is thick-waisted and broad-hipped and heavy-thighed. They introduced her, but Nassun can’t remember her name. Her orogeny feels the sharpest of the three, though she is the youngest; there are six rings on her long fingers. And she is the one who finally stops smiling and folds her hands and lifts her chin, just a little. It is another thing that reminds Nassun of her mother. Mama often held herself the same way, feeling of soft dignity layered over a core of diamond obstinacy.
It troubles Nassun that Schaffa has damaged himself in the eyes of his fellow Guardians by choosing not to kill her. It troubles her more that he suffers, gritting his teeth and pretending that this is another smile, even as she sees the silver flex and burn within him. It never stops doing so now, and he will not let her ease his pain because this makes her slow and tired the next day. She watches him endure it, and hates the little thing in his head that hurts him so. It gives him power, but what good is power if it comes on a spiked leash?
“Why me, Hoa?” You spread your hands. They are ordinary, middle-aged woman hands. A bit dry. You helped with the leather-tanning crew a few days ago, and the solution made your skin crack and peel. You’ve been rubbing them with some of the nuts you got in the previous week’s comm share, even though fat is precious and you should be eating it rather than using it for your vanity. In your right palm there is a small, white, thumbnail-shaped crescent. On cold days that hand’s bones ache. Ordinary woman hands.
“There’s nothing special about me,” you say. “There must be other orogenes with the potential to access the obelisks. Earthfires, Nassun—” No. “Why are you here?” You mean, why has he attached himself to you.
He is silent for a moment. Then: “You asked if I was all right.”
This makes no sense for a moment, and then it does. Allia. A beautiful sunny day, a looming disaster. As you hovered in agony amid the cracked, dissonant core of the garnet obelisk, you saw him for the first time. How long had he been in that thing? Long enough for it to be buried beneath Seasons’ worth of sediment and coral growth. Long enough to be forgotten, like all the dead civilizations of the world. And then you came along and asked how he was doing. Evil Earth, you thought you hallucinated that.
“Great.” Ykka abruptly seems to wilt. “You’re right; I need to sleep. I had Esni mobilize the Strongbacks to secure weapons in the comm. Ostensibly they’re making them ready for use if we have to fight off these Equatorials. In truth…” She shrugs, sighs, and you understand. People are frightened right now. Best not to tempt fate.
“You can’t trust the Strongbacks,” you say softly.
Ykka looks up at you. “Castrima isn’t wherever you came from.”
You want to smile, though you don’t because you know how ugly the smile will be. You’re from so many places. In every one of them you learned that roggas and stills can never live together. Ykka shifts a little at the look on your face anyway. She tries again: “Look, how many other comms would’ve let me live after learning what I was?”
You shake your head. “You were useful. That worked for the Imperial Orogenes, too.” But being useful to others is not the same thing as being equal.
“No, Essun.” She rubs her face. “Just… no. Castrima is my home, same as theirs. I’ve worked for it. Fought for it. Castrima wouldn’t be here if not for me— and probably some of the other roggas who risked themselves to keep it all going, over the years. I’m not giving up.”
“It isn’t giving up to look out for yourself—”
“Yes. It is.” She lifts her head. It wasn’t a sob or a laugh. She’s furious. Just not at you. “You’re saying these people— my parents, my creche teachers, my friends, my lovers— You’re saying just leave them to their fate. You’re saying they’re nothing. That they’re not people at all, just beasts whose nature it is to kill. You’re saying roggas are nothing but, but prey and that’s all we’ll ever be! No! I won’t accept that.”
She sounds so determined. It makes your heart ache, because you felt the same way she did, once. It would be nice to still feel that way. To have some hope of a real future, a real community, a real life… but you have lost three children relying on stills’ better nature.
There’s no danger. Nassun only manifested the torus for an instant, as a warning against further violence on his part. Jija keeps screaming, though, as Nassun gazes down at her huddled, panicking father. Perhaps she should feel pity, or regret. What she actually feels, however, is cold fury toward her mother. She knows it’s irrational. It is no one’s fault except Jija’s that Jija is too afraid of orogenes to love his own children. Once, however, Nassun could love her father without qualification. Now, she needs someone to blame for the loss of that perfect love. She knows her mother can bear it.
You should have had us with someone stronger, she thinks at Essun, wherever she is.
“No vote,” you say again. Your voice is pitched to carry, as if they are twelve-year-olds in your old creche. “This is a community. You will be unified. You will fight for each other. Or I will rusting kill every last one of you.”
Ykka raises her hands and makes a rectangular shape, which confuses you until you sess the sudden sharp force of her orogeny, which pierces the geode wall at four points. It’s fascinating. You’ve observed her before when she does orogeny, but this is the first time she’s tried to be precise about something. And— it’s completely not what you expected. She can’t shift a pebble, but she can slice out corners and lines so neatly that the end result looks machine-carved. It’s better than you could have done, and suddenly you realize: Maybe she couldn’t shift a pebble because who the rust needs to shift pebbles? That’s the Fulcrum’s way of testing precision. Ykka’s way is to simply be precise, where it is practical to do so. Maybe she failed your tests because they were the wrong tests.
At last. I return to my contemplations even as he mutters to himself and paces and finally laughs aloud. But then Lerna stops, staring at me. His eyes narrow in suspicion.
“You do nothing for us,” he says softly. “Only for her. Why are you telling me this?”
I shape my lips into a curve, and his jaw tightens in disgust. I shouldn’t have bothered. “Essun wants somewhere safe for Nassun,” I say.
Silence, for maybe an hour. Or a moment. “She doesn’t know where Nassun is.”
“The Obelisk Gate permits sufficient precision of perception.”
A flinch. I remember the words for movement: flinch, inhale, swallow, grimace. “Earthfires. Then—” He sobers and turns to look at the bedroom curtain.
Yes. When you wake, you will want to go find your daughter. I watch this realization soften Lerna’s face, weigh down the tension of his muscles, slacken his posture. I have no idea what any of these things means.
“Why?” It takes a year for me to realize he’s speaking to me and not himself. By the time I figure it out, however, he has finished the question. “Why do you stay with her? Are you just… hungry?”
I resist the urge to crush his head. “I love her, of course.” There; I’ve managed a civil tone.
“Of course.” Lerna’s voice has grown soft.
The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin