Over the next few weeks, life returned to normal in Laúm’s home. So much of the culture regarded the Ascension as the ultimate ceremony a Quondan passed through, but he did not now feel like a man. He felt like the same old Laúm who he had always been. It was less talked about since fewer took the road, but, in another eighteen years, he could undergo the trials that would made him an elder. Laúm did not much think that he wanted to be an elder. He was happy tinkering with machines in the science laboratory.
The young girl continued to be a mystery. She never spoke and continued to closely shadow Lial. Early one morning, as Lial groomed the child’s long black hair, Laúm noticed that her eyes never strayed from the forest hologram that filed their far wall. The forest scene tracked their own time of day and season. At the moment, golden morning light streaked through birch trees, breaking the wisps of fog shrouding more distant trunks. A lone bird flittered down to the forest floor to peck at seeds before flying high into the canopy. As his mother passed the wand through the girl’s hair, Laúm joined them and watched the changing image.
“Is this the first time you’ve seen a forest?” he asked.
The girl did not answer. Her eyes remained fixed on the image.
“My parents told me this forest was once a place all citizens could visit,” Laúm said. “And it wasn’t too far from here. It was just along the seacoast. It’s from a time when water ran free on the ground, and fell from the skies.”
The girl’s chestnut eyes watched as a squirrel scurried across the moist-looking forest floor, thick with fallen leaves and moss. It seemed to Laúm that this was the first time that she had taken her eyes off of Lial—at least for this length of time.
“Laúm is right,” said his mother. She was a small woman, her dark, gray tipped hair, rolled tightly into a bun. “My parents’ parents saw this for themselves. They told us that water that we could drink traveled through the dirt, in long rivers.” She put away the hair wand and inspected her work. The girl was ready for the day. “You can no longer drink from those rivers,” she said, looking away from the hologram. “The elders tell us that to the south of our village, so much water falls from the skies that it is brown with the dirt that tries to contain it. The storms there are so violent that no citizen survives long. Here, we have only the sun, with too little to drink.”
Tears flooded the child’s eyelids, flowing down her cheeks like the waters that used to feed the land. “I am Muel,” she said.
Laúm’s mouth popped open. She had spoken, her long silence broken.
Lial hugged Muel, patting her on the back through tears. Laúm poured water and brought cakes to the table. Muel spoke almost in a whisper, as if she were afraid someone else might hear her story.
“I just lost my mom.” She sobbed. “I wasn’t a bad girl. I looked everywhere.”
Tears streamed down Lial’s face too, and she stroked Muel’s hand and fussed with her hair again as they finally heard her story.
Muel had come from a family of seven. She had three brothers and a sister—as well as her two parents. Her father was a Sahu community elder in a small village set high in a dry valley between two tall peaks. Their greatest blessing was a hidden spring with just enough water for drinking and cooking. It was the only green in their valley. Muel said that it was tucked away under a rock shelf, hidden from the unrelenting light of the sun. She spoke of how the quiet pool of water bubbled up through a tumble of stones.
“There was grass,” Muel said suddenly with a smile. “Running water and green grass, growing all by itself around the pool. My favorite chore was going to the spring to fill our water bottles.” As she told her story a tiny bird in the hologram’s image pecked for food in the forest growth, suddenly startled by a squirrel and took wing.
“But then, one day, darkness came over the pool, like a cloud covering the sun,” she said. “It was a tall man with hair all over his face. He had dark, mean eyes. And there were three others just like him.” She trembled so hard that Lial pulled Muel’s head into her lap, and sang to her as she rocked back and forth. Muel’s sobs filled the room. She told them that the man grabbed the bottle from her hand and put it to his lips.
She lifted her head and said, “I told him ‘No! That is not yours!’” and then she put her head back onto Lial’s lap. “It is not yours,” she sobbed. “It is not yours….”
Muel remembered running from them as quickly as she could. She told them she did not look back until she reached her village to tell her parents about the men and what she had seen, but the men were in their village soon enough. The four had grown to ten. Each was dressed in a long robe and all of them had full and flowing beards.
“They demanded water and food. But we didn’t have any to give them. And they got mad and started to make a funny sound. Like this.” Muel thrust her chin out and made a low guttural and grunting sound. “They yelled at us. Said we were Dahlku.” she sobbed and peered into Lial’s eyes. “What is Dahlku?”
“Shhhh, baby,” said Lial. “Shhhh. You are not Dahlku.”
“Then—“ Muel let out a great sob. “Then, the man with the ugly eyes stabbed my father.” Through tears that flowed like the spring in her story, Muel told them of how the other men had pulled their knives from under their long cloaks. Her mother pushed her children away and screamed for them to flee. Muel ran without looking back. She could hear cries behind her. The sound of weapons. She ran to a small dirt cave, high above the spring, where she and her brothers and sister would hide and play. No more. She covered its opening with brush and branches and hoped her brothers and sister would join her, but, when night fell, she was still alone. Muel had heard the bearded men talking by the spring. She waited two more days, but no one came to the cave.
On the third day, Muel had crept back to her village through the dead woods. Two men in robes slept outside of her home. Many more were in the village center. She ran away again, wandering through the foothills searching for anyone she had known, hoping to find her mother, but the only faces she met were those of strangers. Once she reached the lowlands, she travelled and slept in groups of other children, taking water and scraps of food when offered. She slept in crowded hallways, inside abandoned buildings, and sometimes alone in the open. Muel looked at every face that she met. None of them were familiar. Muel lived on what scraps of food she could find. She ate insects, rodents, hardened bits of arammu, soup, sometimes offered on wagons serving long lines of Sahu. It was not uncommon for her food to be taken from her before she had the chance to consume it, and she learned to eat fast, while walking, so that she could finish the charitable meals before anyone had the chance to rob her of them.
Muel and Lial cried together and hugged again. Laúm knew that Muel had truly joined their small family. Muel was safe now, as few Sahu children were.