The Wrong Side of the Sky
By Raymond Roach
There’s an old woman who lives in the desert, and who has lived in the desert a very long time. So, too, have her people, but many of them have gone, while she remains. She’s old enough that she should have a child on her back, or even a grandchild, but she doesn’t. When she was a girl, her people crossed the desert back and forth in an intricate network of traveling families, constantly intersecting; so many of them are gone, now, that the old woman can spend days at a time in perfect solitude without ever seeing another traveler cross the horizon, much less her own path.
So she flies alone, the fat brown barrel of her body slung easily between wide black wings, over the desert. It isn’t an endless desert, but it’s broad enough that even from the thin cold ceiling of the sky, this woman can’t see the edges. What she’s looking for—what she finds—are the far-flung speckles of green that make constellations of the smooth and trackless sands, those points which turn a formless emptiness into meaningful space.
The woman banks her wings, sails down in slow loops towards one such speckle now. A tumble of stone carved out of the sand by a little fountain of water, gripped tightly by ambitious lobes of living green. These organisms aren’t quite plant and aren’t quite fungus, but they’re sweet and bright and alive. She sweeps down and down and pins herself with the neatness of long practice to the height of the stone outcrop; her four short and sturdy legs absorb the impact, her four sharply cloven hooves grip tightly, her bristle-brush of a tail whisks back and forth just twice. Weight claims her. She roots her sensitive snout and her strong up-turned tusks against a succulent green lobe, not eating yet, just savoring; and then she begins to sing.
This is the counting song of her people, that she learned as a young child clinging to the bristling mane between her mother’s wings, keeping time with her little-girl voice. It is a song of numbers and names, fractions and balances. It describes everything good in the world, and how to keep it so. One out of three of umi leaves. Two out of seven of uru lizards. One out of four of gori flowers. One out of ten of rogu roots. The woman clambers down the stone tumble as neatly as a woman half her age, her hooves clicking time, her tail whisking counterpoint, not a hair out of place. She sings the world and she sings her share, circling the green in a gleaner’s spiral, and every now and then she takes a bite. One out of six of the heku jumpers, a pounce and a snap. Two out of three of a delicate golden rill of tiny guri pods, a snuffling nibble. One out of nine of the delicious chewy green lobes of muru plant, all down the rock, so wet and chewy she has to work her clever black tongue very quickly so as not to spill.
The woman sings and eats, roots and jumps, whisking her tail and swinging her tusks. Finally, at the edge of the sand, the boundary, she finishes her song and her dance and her meal—to her people, traditionally, these concepts are nothing more distinct than each edge of an entire thing—and she circumscribes a ring around the oasis, her sharp hooves scoring an intricate fretwork into the hard dry sand of the desert. The oasis might grow a little further out, if the rains come. Or it might not. She is merely describing a possibility.
She rests for a while in the shade of the rock tumble. When she has rested, she relieves herself of the products of digestion, placing and burying each deposit with mathematical precision. This last task accomplished, she climbs back up to the top of the rock—grunting here and there with effort, for she’s not as young as she used to be—and raises her wings to the wind. Weight is traded for lift, and the woman sails easily onwards.
She is joined, towards the afternoon, by another of her people. It is her brother, though she doesn’t dip her wings to greet him. It’s been a very long while, as their people reckon these things, since they’ve spoken. He falls in behind her, riding her wake: unobtrusive, save for how they’re the only two people in the sky.
“My children are growing up,” he says, after a time. She only snorts disdainfully. He goes on, undaunted, “They ask for their auntie all the time, you know. I tell them stories of you so they’ll know of you, but it’s not the same. I can’t teach them what you could.”
“They could learn everything I have to tell if you’d only bring them home,” the woman says.
“They are home where they are,” the brother says, and earns a louder, more disdainful snort. “I am not asking you to come live with me in the strangers’ oasis, only to visit. You travel all the wide world! It isn’t so much further to come and meet your nephew and niece.”
“One foot too far is still too far,” the old woman says sourly. “One bite too much is still too much.”
“It is only just past the edge of the sky,” the brother tells his sister. “Low orbit. You can see the entire desert from there, all at once; it’s still home. I am not asking you to sail off to another world entirely.”
The words for another world do not, traditionally, fit together. The meter is off; the conjunction between another and world is painful to pronounce and worse to hear, but the man says it easily, without hesitation. Another world.
There are places beyond this desert; there are places beyond where even the desert ends. There is a space beyond the thin cold ceiling of the sky, and in that space have come a different people, who made themselves an oasis out of metal. They put an extra star in the sky, and they come and go.
When the woman was young—old enough to fly on her own wings, but young enough to be flying mostly in the wake of her mother and her uncle’s wings, riding the buoyant curls their mass carved out of the air for her and her young brother—when she was that age, the people from the other side of the sky came through, and began to sing new songs to her people.
Some of her people didn’t listen. This desert the people call home is vast enough that even back then, when the endless networks of friends and families tied it all together in a dense web, people could still travel alone, singing solitary songs, keeping time on their own. But some people, like her mother and her uncle and her brother, they listened to the strangers. They learned new songs. They sang of the other side of the sky: of places that weren’t desert, of places that were all plant, all water, of constellations that weren’t the brother and sister patterns of star and oasis, but were networks of fire and metal. They sang of these things with the strangers that couldn’t sing fractions and balance, strangers that lived all out of order, strangers that rode between the dead unsinging wings of machines. These strangers said that they had come to learn from the people that flew across the desert and kept the world to perfect account, but it seemed, to the young woman, that the strangers were doing all the talking, and her family was doing all the listening.
The young woman loved her family, but her family went and loved the other side of the sky, following along in the strangers’ wake, and the woman loved the desert. Her mother and her uncle and her brother left, and came back strange, and left for longer, and came back even stranger, until finally they did not come back at all.
The woman stayed her course then just as she does now, as she has always done, as her people have always done, save for those that did not. There is a space between her shoulders that aches for the weight of a daughter or a niece, but she has no one to sing the desert to that wouldn’t sing back all the strangeness of the space between the stars that took her family away from her.
“If that’s all you have to ask me, you can go back to your home now,” she says to her brother. Pride makes for a bad taste in her mouth; her voice comes out stained sharp and bitter. But it’s all she has to chew, up here, on this side of the sky.
“I’m off duty for awhile,” her brother says. More words that shouldn’t make sense enough to be sung, that he fits together so easily. Off/duty. Duty is not a place that you can leave. It is a part of a person, like their wings, like their wit. It’s not a grammatical possibility for a person to leave their wits behind and come back for them later, as if they were an oasis; but then, it’s just the sort of thing strangers do, and so it is also the sort of thing her brother has learned to do as well.
“Well, please yourself, then,” the woman says, still bitter, but it isn’t ‘Go away,’ and he knows what she means. He rides her wake to the next spot of green.
The pair of them bank and spiral down together, orbiting the oasis in easy loops. It’s a big one, an open stretch of shining water with a riotous lace of plant life all around. Tall woody trunks crowned with thorns to protect the tender green leaves, long spiral-stemmed pennants of green fronds, coils and whips and bubbles of green, swags and specks and rills and chains of green. Water weeds and ferns, reeds and moss, grasses and sedges, lichens and hedges. Inside and atop and among: worms and crustaceans, jumping insects and crawling insects, jelly-bodied amphibians and sharply boned fish, warm-blooded furry things that climb the trees and burrow through the dark true soil of the oasis, bounded on all sides by the endless sand.
The man and the woman alight, and they dance, and they sing, and they eat. Their hooves plow the soil; their teeth prune the branches, their tusks comb the knotted shoreline, their eyes sort and settle the teeming crawling creeping leaping life of it. Their stomachs round out geometrically. They call the oasis to account. They harmonize.
But there: disharmony, a foreign presence. Half-buried at the edge of the pond, a not-green thing, a metal thing, that shines differently from the water. A machine; a made-thing from the other side of the sky, the metal wings the strangers employ so gracelessly, gone to pieces and already half-eaten by the hundreds of different hungers of the oasis.
“A crash,” the woman’s brother says, redundantly, and breaks away from their spiral dance to run straight for it, as if the multipart complexity of the oasis were nothing more than empty sand to be sailed across. The woman raises her voice in a complaint, an admonition, as if her brother were a child gone out of true, her son or nephew, too young to know better, but he doesn’t heed her. He never has. He’s never been old enough to know better, for all that he’s as old as she, and should. He doesn’t.
She makes her way around the oasis, counting stubbornly, but the savor has gone from the steps. The taste is dissatisfying, bitter as pride. She counts and eats and circles like a machine herself, until she makes her way to her brother’s side along the way, incidentally.
It’s a bad crash. The machine is all broken bones, all rotting and drying in pieces. It’s been several days. One of the strangers is still alive. They are small and thin and long, these people from the wrong side of the sky, these sailors of places people shouldn’t be; but they drink water and breathe air, and there’s been enough of both at this oasis to keep the stranger alive.
The woman’s brother is talking to it, harsh unmusical non-words. The strangers are about as long as a person, from head to toe, but they stand on end like reed stalks, and so the woman’s brother has to sit back on his haunches and crane his snout up awkwardly to address the small round knob of its face. The woman grazes a few seed-heads of the long grasses grown up in the furrow the machine must have made as it crashed. One in three of horu seed.
Her brother comes and noses his snout against hers, hooking one of his fine, curved tusks into hers with an ingratiating, supplicating gentleness.
“The sister and her brother were off duty, traveling the oases like we do,” her brother says. “Their flying machine broke, and she hasn’t been able to call for help. I’ll need to carry her back to where her people come and go.”
“Please yourself,” the woman says, leaning back hard, trying to disengage her tusk from his.
“Her brother died here,” her brother says, and she stops.
“Ah,” she says.
“She wants to take his body away with her,” her brother says.
“No,” she says.
“No,” her brother agrees.
“We keep the balance,” she says, and it’s not so much a statement as a question, and not so much a question as an accusation. We keep the balance. And who, my brother, are you?
“Show us how,” her brother says. “We will.”
She grunts, softly. Struck to tenderness; cut open. Her heart might still dry out and close over again, but for now—well. She admits the possibility of new growth.
The stranger has wrapped her brother in a fabric that is already being eaten by a sweet, rich fur of mold. She is making low sounds, bad sounds, grief sounds, and she holds the body close against herself with her strange long arms as she trades strange harsh words back and forth with the woman’s brother. She shakes her head, back and forth, like a woman of the people looking for someone to fight, to strike with tusks, but she has no tusks, just a small round nub of a head that wells up with water and noise. And those long, long arms, that hold the broken body of her brother close.
Finally, though, she unfolds. She stands up and up, a long shaking stalk of a creature, her arms loose on either side, wingless, tuskless, lost. The woman’s heart gapes wider, the edges very tender. Sprouting sadness. She has lost family, too, on the wrong side of the sky. Perhaps there is more than one wrong side, if there are two people to look at the edge.
She and her brother take the strange body of the stranger’s brother. Against all the harsh and unharmonious noise of the stranger’s grief, they pull this body to pieces, and lay the pieces in the dancing, weaving spiral of the oasis: there they tuck a piece of a limb, there they bury a string of strange organs, purple-fragrant among the green, there they crack open the long white bones for the gnawing furry desert creatures to chew. The oasis has a hundred mouths and a thousand things even hungrier than mouths, and beneath the two people’s hooves and snouts and tongues and eyes the stranger’s brother is settled into each of them.
It is a final harmony. A rightness. They take and they give. They fly and they land. On this side of the sky, there is balance so perfect and so profound that even a pair of strangers from among the stars can be resolved by it.
They come back around to the strange sister who stands atop her ruined wings, long arms twined around her long body, quiet now. The woman’s brother climbs up beside the stranger with a huff and a grunt: he is as old as she is, after all, and even less used to this sort of exertion. He lowers his hind legs and spreads his wings in invitation, raising the bristling fur of his spine for her to grip.
“What are you doing?” the woman demands, shocked. “Didn’t you say this stranger was female?”
Her brother just grunts again, wheezing tiredly.
“Her wings are broken,” he says. “And what woman is here to carry her home?”
He says it sadly, seriously. As if he has no living sister. As if she is the one the wrong side of the sky took.
The woman hesitates. Brothers carry their sons and nephews. Sisters carry their daughters and nieces. But if someone is hurt, if someone is lost, if someone has no family… If two people have no family… It is a shame. It isn’t balanced. But it is sometimes necessary.
Pride is very sharp in her mouth, sharp as the tip of a tusk, sharp enough that it feels as though she should cut her tongue on it. But she scrambles up the metal wings, flapping a little for balance, trying not to let on how the sounds of her hooves against the metal unnerve her. It’s worth it for the way he looks at her, his tail lifting with a cautious, questioning hope.
“I will carry her,” the woman says.
Her brother shakes the bristles of his spine. “She lives beyond the stars,” he says. “Like I do. Like you won’t.”
“I won’t live on the wrong side of the sky,” the woman says. “And I won’t approve of anyone who does. But your shame would be mine, if I let you fly there with her on your back.”
Her brother sighs in exhausted relief. “To be honest, I don’t know if I could even take off,” he admits, and scuffs one hoof bashfully along the metal skin of the broken wings. “It’s been a long time since I flew this much.”
“You should visit more,” the woman says, climbing carefully up to stand beside him. “I don’t know what it is to be off duty, but you have a duty to yourself, you know. You should tell your strangers that, if they don’t know it.” She hooks one tusk into his, and gives a gentle tug. She could scold him even further. She could lecture. She could beg. But she has been alone for a long time, and all the old hurts have gone quiet in her mouth. Instead there is just this, the scent of her brother’s nose alongside hers, the warmth of his breath, the clasp of his tooth, and her great wounded heart, cut open inside the barrel of her chest, beating in time with her brother’s, light and fast.
“I should,” her brother agrees, and stands with her a long moment, in that agreement.
It takes a little longer, to shift the stranger from the brother’s back to his sister’s. The stranger has a complicated arrangement of tendrils, rather than forehooves; when the woman spreads her wings and holds herself ready, the stranger climbs onto her back in a bizarre gangling motion, then holds on to the woman’s mane as tightly as a burr.
She isn’t the woman’s daughter, or her niece. But she is warm, and fragile, and the woman has never carried anyone else before. She flaps her wings a few times, testing the weight of this strange new responsibility, and thinks of the children she’s never carried.
“Well, brother, take me to the edge of the sky,” she says. “And if I have anything to say that your children want to hear, they can meet us there.”
Her brother’s tail waves like a triumphant flag, a pennant of joy, and he leaps up into the wind with the bright enthusiasm of a young man, of a child, sailing up and away. The old woman, carrying a stranger between her wings, follows her brother into the sky.
By Tina Connolly
About this story, Raymond Roach says: This is a story about estrangement and reconciliation, and about the ways people define and are defined by their homeland. In trying to keep hold of your traditional culture, you might lose your family to an incomprehensible way of life; but in trying to embrace a future for your people you might leave your family behind. There’s no single solution to this universal problem, just an ongoing calculation.
And about this story, I say:
I loved the spare quiet beauty of the prose. There are many elegant lines that simply sum up big complicated pieces of the world and the characters. For example, the entire story is contained in: “the young woman loved her family, but her family went and loved the other side of the sky.” And as Raymond says, there’s no single solution to this universal problem. Because it plays out in microcosm all the time, not just in the big dissolutions of culture and change, but in the small, familial ones, of people leaving one home, with its particular set of traditions, and making new homes, with little bits of ways and lives changing all the time. I believed that she loved her life, but I also believed the brother loved his, too. The story does not make them wrong for wanting different things. The story encompasses compassion and change for both people on either side of the “thin cold ceiling of the sky.”
I loved all the little myriad worldbuilding touches and the slow ways they were revealed in the story. The carefulness of the counting song, which “describes everything good in the world, and how to keep it so”, and therefore gives shape to the protagonist’s life and story here. And that carefulness extends through all parts of her language–you see it again when she listens to her brother casually say “Another world”, and she says that the meter is off, that it’s “painful to pronounce and worse to hear.” (Maybe that particularly spoke to me as a narration and podcast person.)
Anyway, this carefulness and precision echoes through the narrator’s life and right back into her story today, the story we’re seeing now. Because our protagonist knows what to do when it’s all planned and counted out. She understands that path. But sometimes, to get a little more of what her heart wants, she has to make decisions beyond that. Sometimes “all the old hurts have gone quiet in her mouth” and it’s time to step beyond the life she knows, and meet her family somewhere a little bit in the middle of the sky.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Maya Angelou, who said: “Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances.”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
Raymond Roach has lived all over America and currently conducts most of his lurking about in Indiana. He works as a welder most of the time and a weirdo all of the time.
About the Narrator
Sandy’s fiction can be read in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Escape Pod, and Reckoning, among others. In addition to writing fiction, Sandy also narrates audio fiction. When not writing, Sandy works as an anesthetist in Georgia. More information and links to stories can be found at http://www.sandyparsons.com/