Through the gap in the door, Khalii watches her father Sing to the wind. She listens to the way Papa’s voice lilts, mimicking his syllables in her own soft whisper. He pretends not to notice. Soon enough, Atë Zara will catch her at it and drag her downstairs to help the Titas with rice and cakes and lunches.
Still Khalii practices her Words. On Papa’s lips, they turn to whirlwind and cloud, scraps of mist and puffs of air that throw up the study’s blanketing dust. But on Khalii’s tongue, they wither and shed. Nothing remains but dying leaves.
For Khalii, eight years old, crooked limbs skinny and branching, every forest has a melody. The woods beyond her father’s fields sing deep, their voices knowing — these trees have seen the passing of centuries. The forest is dark and dreaming and easy to get lost in, but Khalii has no fear.
“Is that our little fae?” ask the woodsmen when Khalii finds them trimming branches from the old growth and setting up rabbit snares. Young Salo asks her to sing for them, and she does, her warbling voice making the ancient boughs lean down closer to listen.
Among the trees, the woodsmen teach her the forest. Salo shows her how moss grows and what rot looks like, which trees are best for burning, which for building. This a birch, by the colour of its bark. This a maple by the shape of its leaves. Khalii listens and learns their methods, though she knows all the woods already. Birches sing high and long. Maples’ voices are slow and sweet, thick as sap.
She knows medicine and poison and beauty and decay. She knows the ponds and the hives, how water flows beneath deep roots. She knows where all the squirrels are sleeping. She knows when the seeds will fall, and where. Khalii knows more than Salo or his father, or any of the woodsmen because when Khalii sings to ask the trees what they are, they answer her by name.
She finds the seed among the roots of a hollow oak, a small bright thing, like a shard of fallen star. But by its song, she knows it for what it is: a heartwood seed fallen far from its tree. Khalii cups it in her palms and listens, finds a shaded clearing with rich, black soil. She plants the seed in the middle of the forest, where not even the woodsmen can hope to find it, and waits for it to grow.
What Khalii knows: there are seeds that drop from branch to ground, to plant new roots in their mother’s soil. Others spill from overripe fruit, to be carried away by paw or burr and find the far edges of the forest.
And then there are the drifters, the wanderers, the ones that float away on wind and water, carried by the currents to distant lands, to far shores, to worlds unimaginably alien and strange.
She herself, she thinks, is one of those.
Sometimes, Khalii thinks there is a ghost in the house. She wakes up in the small hours to hear it sobbing through the walls and draws her blanket closer to hide her own soul from its hunger. Sometimes, it whispers or wails. She is sure it is her dead mother screaming.
One night, she decides to banish it. The next day, she collects what she will need: white candles, holly oil, a sprig of wilted sage. When the ghost’s cry rises up, she creeps out of bed on silent feet and listens at her door. She gathers her tools, lights the candle, follows the poor soul’s banging up the stairs to her mother’s abandoned bedroom.
Padding steps, and her breath catching tight in her chest. She smears oil on the leaves of sage. She is ready for light and mist, for apparitions. She sets the sage burning, pushes open the door.
All she finds is her father, sleepless and weeping.
Her mother, they told her, could call birds from the sky. Her people were warrior people, and she once rode the monstrous galura bird into battle. On the warm summer nights, Khalii asks the Titas to tell her the story, though none of them are there.
Instead, they tell her how her mother came to them, war-torn and bloody, falling from the sky through a doorway between the worlds. They tell her how she was saved by Papa’s Singing, how they all nursed her back to health, how within a week of her waking, the whole household found themselves in love. They tell her how beautiful her mother looked on her wedding day, wearing a pendant fashioned out of her broken spear.
They tell her how they miss her: her voice, her laugh, her cooking, her songs, her presence like a fire roaring in a winter’s hearth. As soon as the stories start, Khalii’s father leaves the room. Khalii is neither a hunter nor a fighter. But when she is old enough to cook, she follows her mother’s recipes to the letter. Her rice always sticks and burns, smoking at the bottom of the pot.
She imagines her mother, armour gleaming beneath another sun. She imagines the great galura bird, feathers sharpened to a cutting edge, wings like storm clouds over the mountains. She imagines her warrior mother in battle, the enemy some incomprehensible monster from beyond the worlds, and when her mother falls, she falls with her, through a doorway into a different life.
Sometimes, upon waking, she wonders if she really could follow. She is no great warrior, no cook, no wife or mother. But if she found the right doorway, perhaps she could find out who her mother truly was.
Deep in the forest, Khalii’s foundling seed cracks and sheds its shell, a curling, silvery shoot arcing towards the light. First, a sapling, then a tree, and in the end, something else altogether.
She knows: the seed of a heartwood tree drops like a stone, but it does not reach the ground. Somewhere between branch and forest floor, the seed is lost, slips through realities and is carried away. It rides on unknown currents, drifts upon streams of possibility and dreaming. In time, it finds its way to fertile soil. And when it sets down roots, it sprouts—
Not just in one world but in two.
She is twelve when young Salo tells her he loves her. It is a child’s confession, made beneath the red-berried trees, and they seal their secret with a wet, clumsy kiss. Outside of the woods, no one knows he’s said it — by the end of the week, even he seems to have forgotten. They drift past each other, and their lives diverge, as Khalii is called away to study, as he is called away to fight.
It is not until seven years later that they find each other again at Atë Zara’s wedding; the woodsmen are invited to help with the bonfires and the hunting. Salo himself brings over a whole wild boar to roast. Beneath the flickerbuds strung between cherry trees, with friends and family laughing and drinking all around, the Kuyas howling to the moon, and the glowbugs drifting close to glimmer, she and Salo unspool their lives for each other. The separate threads, so tangled at first, leading them through the labyrinth to find them here again at home.
That night, there are no clumsy kisses, no fumbling words or childish promises. There is only the boy, radiant in the firelight, and the girl with cherry blossoms in her hair, and the future unwinding itself in front of them: brilliant, promising, exciting, endless.
It isn’t long before all the Atës know that they are promised, and soon enough, Salo is as constant a feature of Atë Zara’s kitchen as the growling stove. Father doesn’t seem to notice, but the Titas are delighted — it was hard enough finding Zara a husband, for wild Khalii, walking barefoot through the undergrowth, they were certain there was no hope. But now, the blue-eyed bebe has her own wedding to plan, and they cluster around her like bees. Still, when she cooks rice, it clings to the charred bottom of the pot.
Zara’s belly swells, and by midwinter, there is another bebe in the house. Khalii attends the others with the birth, though halfway through, she nearly faints at the screams and at the blood. She stumbles out of the room. Her father says nothing, watching her through blank-staring eyes. When the baby finally comes, she is waiting to welcome him with Salo and the men instead. She is last to hold the struggling, whining thing, taking it from her promised outstretched hands while he continues to coo over the newborn.
It is such a tiny creature in her arms. She is afraid that she will break it. In the end, it’s Salo who takes the household’s new bebe back to nuzzle into its mother. And in the calm that follows, Khalii drifts through the pipesmoke and the carolling, out of the house into the dark. What a relief it is to cradle herself in the forest’s song, to feel the soil beneath her bare feet, to wander through the dark and find that her heartwood tree is still there. It beckons to her, this doorway into her mother’s world. What would she discover, if she were ever brave enough to step through it?
“He is so good with the children,” says Atë Zara a week before the wedding. Desperately, Khalii tries to make her mother’s rice, but already the pot is smoking. Zara bounces the newest bebe on her knee.
Outside, beyond the kitchen window, Salo plays with the younger cousins, with little Lila and Artu, who are just old enough to race and fight and tackle him, but only if they work together. Salo throws them off, and Artu laughs, but Lila falls awkwardly beneath the sweetgums. Khalii hears the cry of one of the burrs burying its desperate spines into the girl’s knee, even as Lila wails. Immediately, Salo kneels, tends to the child’s wounds, crouches, and comforts her. A moment later, she is bright and smiling again, as he kisses the last of the pain away.
“He is. He’ll make a great father,” says Khalii. And then, almost as an afterthought, “One day.”
Zara watches her over the bebe’s head. “But not soon, you hope?”
And there is no answer Khalii can give without lying. She turns her focus to the scorching rice. Bebe coos, and Zara buries her face in the child’s hair, just beginning to tuft. “Khalii,” she says. “Believe me, that feeling will change. There’s no need to worry about it. A child is nothing to be afraid of.”
But all Khalii can think is that her mother once flew with the galura and fought amongst the clouds, yet in the end, it was Khalii brought her down.
She knows: there are other ways. There is sylphium, freshly green and bitter to the taste. Blue-budding rue, which they call the herb of grace. Pennyroyal, which soothes like mint and grows thick beneath the hedges. Any of these, brewed and taken daily, can prevent new life from quickening.
They could grow old together, drunk in love and mysteriously childless. But then she sees him pull the burr from Lila’s leg. How his eyes light at Zara’s bebe. She watches him parading Artu on his shoulders through the house. It is so obvious he is meant to be a father.
There are seeds that drift on unseen winds, and on her wedding day, a tuft of dandelions breathe their fluff straight through Khalii’s half-open window. The sky is bright and clear, though the shadow of a cloud rests on the horizon. While the bebe coos in Artu’s arms, Atë Zara fixes the dress, drawing the laces down snug along Khalii’s back, while little Lila braids jasmine into the bride’s thick hair. The flowers hum sleepily as they wilt, though Khalii has kindly asked them to keep a little of their freshness, at least until the end of the ceremony.
The evening after Lila fell among the sweetgums, Khalii told him her fear. Head on his shoulder, both of them lying in the bar of moonlight spilling through her bedroom window, she told him how she all but fainted watching the child come out of Zara, how she never ever once had the urge to hold an infant, how even now, whenever someone leaves her with the little bebe, it makes her entire body clench. She told him how, in her dreams before sleep, her mother still flies above the clouds, but only in her dreams.
“Then we’ll wait,” he said, kind and simple, as he always is, and gifted her a kiss on the brow. “Nothing ever has to happen until you’re ready.”
In the moonlight, she was silent. And then: “And if I’m never ready?”
His words were slow to come, and Khalii thought she heard the truth in that silence.
“Then it never happens,” he answered at last, sleepily, pulling her close. Still, the hesitation in his voice. But then: “I am not with you for a son or daughter, Kahlii. I am with you for you.”
It should be enough, she thinks the next morning. She gave him the opportunity to choose, and he chose her. She watches him, lying with eyelids twitching in the early dawnlight. Sometimes, she loves him so much she cannot believe he is real. But there he is, a trail of drool crusting at the corner of his mouth. She cannot help but laugh at her good luck.
On her dresser table, a bouquet of pale roses bristles with stark white-orange blossoms. Its melody lilts through the room, though no one but Khalii can hear it. Today, she will carry it down into the garden and hold it as they wrap the cord around her and Salo’s shoulders, as they cover them with the veil. Afterward, she will lay the flowers on her mother’s grave, to shed their petals on the long-settled soil.
But first, she goes to call her father down for the ceremony. He has locked himself in her mother’s abandoned room and refuses to come down. She ventures up the creaking stairs, the train of her dress whispering along the carpet, and when she knocks, there is a shuffle, a click, the lock clattering. He pulls open the door, eyes wide as he sees her standing there in her wedding gown, and for a moment, Khalii knows it is not her she sees.
“Anak,” he says, daughter. “You look beautiful.” His voice is distant, and he makes no move to touch her. Behind him, her mother’s portrait lay on the bed in its worn frame, a prayer carpet still bunched from where his knees have sat. He has been asking her for strength, but why? “She would’ve been so proud of you,” he says. But his voice breaks as he does, and she realizes he is drunk on his own grief.
But you have me, she thinks but does not say. As long as I have been alive, you have had me. And yet she knows it is not enough. Her mother’s absence is a void that gnaws, no matter that Khalii never knew her. In her father’s eyes, she sees the truth: that it is not enough to have only the daughter or only the mother, when, really, you want both. That it is no mercy to be forced to choose. She sees her future spooling out in front of her: she and Salo growing old, growing distant, an emptiness yawning between them that a child might perhaps have filled.
Will this be her fate, to always be the choice that is regretted?
Later, she watches from the tower of the house, as Salo and the woodsmen are greeted by Titos and Titas, as her Atës and Kuyas and all the little cousins take their places in the garden. The first gentle drops of rain dot the windows, and the children laugh and run to catch the water on their tongues.
Kahlii sneaks down the steps and to the trail that curves beyond the fields. The rain grows heavy as she steps into the forest. It is a good omen. Rain on your wedding day means prosperity and faith. Her dress catches on the clinging brambles. She leaves scraps of lace behind like wavering ghosts.
In the deepest heart of the forest, her doorway grows. It stretches branches to bridge universes. It has been waiting all these years for her. Beyond, a world of shadows, where once her mother had wings and flew into battle amongst the clouds. Even now, she knows she can step through. If she stays, she will be a reminder, a burden, always the choice regretted. But if she leaves, she can be like her mother, wandering between worlds, her step so light as to leave no mark upon the earth. He will forget his pain, in time, without the reminder.
In the branches of her heartwood tree, at the apex of the doorway, a new seed grows. Like the one that came before it, it will wander as it falls. Yet even the seed that travels far from home must set down roots if it is to bloom. Always, it is an act of breaking, of disturbing the soil that cradles it.
Khalii lifts her fingers, touches the seed to be sure that it is real. For the first time, she wonders not what her mother would have done but what her mother would have wanted for her. She closes her eyes to listen.
There is no new answer from the wavering trees. Her mother’s voice does not break through the silence. And yet, in every muscle and fibre of her own being, Khalii knows.