A missing piece of the puzzle falls into place for the siblings.
By Christopher Robin Negelein
Fen ran back to the willow and called out to Jia the second she saw the tree, but the little girl didn’t answer. Fen held her breath as she charged under the willow’s canopy where she found Jia’s limp form still up in the tree and leaning on the relic.
Fen’s heart raced as she dashed to the girl. “Jia!” The child didn’t move until Fen desperately shook her leg. That startled Jia so much that she tipped towards the ground, taking the cylinder with her. Fen had two small heart attacks as she grabbed both to keep them in the tree until Jia righted herself. When both girl and relic were safely on the ground, Fen said, “Jia, please look out for Yi.” The girl gave a short hum as an affirmative.
Fen quickly inspected the relic, afraid they’d have company too soon. Everything seemed in order — wait — the talking switches were flipped the wrong way, which probably happened when Arwin had hurriedly shoved the relic back in the bag. Luckily it had stayed mostly dry under his partially damp tunic.
And she fixed it. “Father, can you hear me?”
“Say something, Papa, please.” Fen said.
A slight crackle came from the crude speaker. “It won’t matter; she can’t hear me.”
Fen realized she was holding her breath. “I can hear you Father, I can hear you.”
“Yes. Your talking switches were wrong, I righted them.” She frowned as she thought about how the monstrous little face mounts surrounding the faux tongues switches looked so creepy. She never knew what possessed her brother and father to add such ugly little things on the ancient cylinder when their other works were so beautiful, so amazing or both.
Jia stomped back in. “I was scared, you no talk to me the whole time!”
Fen raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you my lookout?” Her Imperial is getting better all the time.
Jia glared at Fen’s unfair statement of the facts.
Father cleared his non-existent throat, which came out more like a tinny hum. “My voice was broken, Fen just fixed it and now I can fully apologize and ask for your –”
Jia’s red eyes leaked tears. “You talk too fast! You lie! Arwin fixes, Fen fights. I hate you!”
“I’m sorry,” Father said. “Very, very sorry.”
Jia sniffled then wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Father said.
“Okay,” Fen echoed. “They will be looking for us soon. We need to go.” Jia nodded, giving the hard metallic relic an awkward, hug that didn’t look comfortable.
The day was heating up, but Fen decided that Jia should have the cloak, though it was a muddy mess now. Fen sighed.
She handed the backpack to Jia. “Here, strap it on.” After Jia did, Fen picked up the little girl who seemed to weigh next to nothing in her strong arms and gave her a piggyback ride to camp.
Whenever I come back, it looks worse every time, she thought. I’m afraid of what I will see the next time I return. She couldn’t imagine it looking more battered than it did now. There were only three lean-tos and everyone was huddled around one pot. Yesterday, they could have been mistaken for the pirates they aspired to be. Now there was no question that they were tired refugees and they had always been. Her heart sank at the sight.
But then she noticed how everyone was helping each other. The big divide within the camp was gone, at least for now. Having less, they had banded together more. Nature’s fury had done what she had failed to do.
“Why did we stop?” Jia said.
Knocked out of her reverie, Fen could have sworn Jia gained twenty pounds as the child’s weight pulled on her shoulders and arms.
“Let’s go get something hot to eat,” Fen said. The little one nodded and grunted.
Arwin sat on a high spot, wearing one of Yi’s shirts, fiddling with the Chung apparatus. He was probably right that it was an impossible repair, but if it kept him busy then he’d be too distracted to refine more than half of that păcură for Father’s survival. That was the compromise, that the other half was for projects that could help out the crew.
The planning of those projects would come soon, but not today. All she could think of was how much thin soup she could drink to keep her going for the long day ahead.
The morning chill was already a surreal dream compared to afternoon’s boiling humidity. I am the soup, Fen thought. This time, they were building the huts further away from the river bank on floors of built-up dirt and woven mats to make each hut a standing island when the next flood hit. If they could get more supplies, Fen and Yi hoped the future would bring raised wood floors on even taller stilt legs. If we can get a day where we are not bone tired, it’s a good idea, Fen thought. But every day is such a challenge.
Taking her chances, she stopped by to check in on Arwin because she couldn’t tell if he was doing better or worse. His hair was tousled and he had done nothing to trim the wiry, sparse whiskers on his jaw line. He seemed oblivious to the fact that he sat on muddy ground as he turned the strange apparatus over, muttering to himself. The small tank of păcură had been separated and sat to the side.
Despite the wet grass and spongy ground that leaked water with every step, Fen got on her knees, hands on top of her thighs. “What have you found out?”
Arwin put a finger up and kept mumbling for a moment. “I have to memorize everything. Without paper and ink for notes, this becomes much more of a challenge.”
“So what is it?” Fen said.
“You know what it is,” Arwin said. “The real question is how does it work?”