The blood always followed me. I breathed my relief, drawing it gratefully through my nose, when I thought I had outrun it this time. I raced barefoot over the moss covered ground of the Old Forest in Arc Valles where low-slung shafts of pale sunlight sparked and refracted from crystalline beads of moisture. I stopped and watched as dark mold sprouted from the base of a redwood, spreading up the craggy trunk.
The mist that clung to the ground parted, revealing a mirror propped against the bole of the tree. I stared at my reflection, the green of my eyes so clear and vibrant, almost glowing, and I smiled in spite of the tension in my small limbs. I watched, wide-eyed as red flowers sprouted from my sun-colored hair, sprouting thorns and pricking my pale gray skin as they snaked from my scalp, down my neck and arms to my legs.
I opened my mouth to cry out, but the flowers began to shift and change. I knew what would come next.
The blood. Rolling rivers of it.
Then I screamed.
My jichan’s voice came to me like a far off whisper even though he sat close by. "Relax, little moku, it’s just your mind doing what minds do."
I concentrated and pictured the fragrant burgundy fruit of the purple-leaf plums from the Uzbek Biome, of our clan, of children laughing and running with white ribbons woven into their hair. But the ribbons turned red and the blood came back, pouring into my thoughts uninvited.
My brow furrowed and the heavy cloud of a headache loomed in my right temple. I did my best to ignore the pain. I never told Sejei, my jichan, about the headaches.
"Focus on your special place," he whispered. His voice soothed a little of the tension from me, but I couldn’t hold the image. The harder I concentrated, the more the blood flowed. Petals crumbled and rivers of blood pooled at my feet. I stared into the mirror which was now suspended in the air, and gasped when, instead of my reflection, I saw the blood swirling, thick and dark. Then a face emerged from the crimson vortex. A woman’s face, with skin as bleached as the whitest orchid.
Sejei reassured me, "Allow whatever images desire attention to come forth. They cannot hurt you. Not unless you wish it."
On a level I couldn’t explain to him, I knew they weren’t my own. That maybe they could do me harm.
"I can’t do it, Sejei-amya." I opened my eyes and blinked against the light of the candles around us. Even that soft glow scalded my eyes. I rubbed at my face with the heels of my hands and ran my fingers through my hair, scratching at the pain on my scalp. I tried to keep my movements small so Sejei wouldn’t notice.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"Yes, just, um, an itch." I glanced over at him and he remained seated, legs crossed, with his eyes closed. Even with his eyes closed, he seemed to know my every move. My untruths were nothing more than shards of glass, prisms for him to look through, to see the true nature of me.
"You did well, moku. Lasted longer this time," he said quietly, his eyes still closed.
I didn’t understand why I had to learn meditation, and now with the blood, I wondered why it was necessary to continue when I was so obviously a failure at it. I couldn’t even stay in my special place for a minute of quiet breathing before fear and blood battered their way into my mental sanctum.
"I’m horrible at this," I muttered.
"It can take time to master. Longer for some." A tiny smile creased the corners of his narrow lips.
I watched him. His gray hair, long and bound at the nape of his neck was streaked with pure white. His eyes, green like mine and dusty with age, were hooded by wrinkled lids. A billowing cobalt robe hid his bony frame, but his long fingers, curled loosely in his lap, revealed how thin he was. I wanted to touch his wrinkled skin, draw my finger along his sunken cheek, and whisper the thoughts that plagued me. But I was afraid to speak about the visions, as if giving them voice might give them substance.
A ridiculous notion, I could hear him saying with just the slightest twinkle in his eye.
"I don’t think I’ll ever be good at it," I said. "By the time you were ten, my age —" I felt compelled to emphasize that similarity. "you were already meditating so deeply that you could reach back to your previous lives. I have none of those talents."
He gently opened his eyes and fixed a solemn stare upon me. "Perhaps you have other talents, little moku." Then he picked up his calligraphy stick, and began drawing patterns in the black sand on which we sat. I crawled over to him and secured myself in his lap, placing my right hand over his, holding the stick and relaxing into rhythmic movements of his spindly arm. I closed my eyes and breathed deep, in and out. Then held my breath for the count of a long sweep of his hand, and then inhaled again.
He timed the practiced motions of his arm with the rhythms of my breathing and I pictured in my mind’s eye the image he drew into the sand before us — a protection glyph. His left hand came up, resting lightly my head and then gently brushing down over my fine, yellow-white hair.
I would love to hear one of Seiji-amya's stories. I had barely formed the thought, but as I drew breath to speak, he began his tale. My jichan knew me so well.
As well as I knew this story. I could have recited it for him. But I wanted to hear his voice bring life to the words. My small body swayed with his movements, and my mind relaxed against the rough whisper of his ancient voice.
"Many years ago, before the Confederation, our people were seekers of battle and pleasure. Theirs was a simple code: Fight. Eat. Mate. They chose that code when they came to their new world. They rejected the complexity of the home they had abandoned, freeing themselves from the burdens of that complexity. They would build a new world from three words alone."
I scrunched up my nose. I never liked hearing about the mating part. "But we changed. Right?"
He chuckled and swooped his arm in a big circle. I kept my eyes closed but pictured the drawing he made of a full cycle of the two moons, symbolizing death and rebirth.
"Oh yes. We changed indeed. But not all at once, and not always for the best." His voice grew solemn. I loved this part...
"Our new home gave us the sands and there was one very special sand. It was nearly pure silicon, with only tiny traces of other elements. The grains of this sand were very small and almost mathematically spherical. It was the perfect medium for the nanomites we had used to help us adapt to our chosen world."
"With care and patience and time, we found a way to introduce the mites to this special sand. They took root and replicated themselves trillions of times, becoming something far beyond what we had sought. They became a part of us, the centerpiece of the way we live. We call it 'saori' — the weaving sand."
"The weaving sand was so fine and the mites grew so numerous that it felt like a liquid, except silky and dry to the touch. The shojoei, the pleasure givers, painted the saori onto their skin, bestowing on themselves the palest beauty ever known. They were the first Irezi."
"But it changed them, didn't it, Sejei-amya?" I whispered. I pictured the shojoei, from pictures I’d seen. Their faces white and glittering, and their lips a deep ruby. The red didn’t bother me this time. No visions of blood bloomed in my mind's eye — only a beautiful Irezi woman, with her white face and willowy body, straight black hair falling to her waist. Like all Irezi, she shunned clothing. The mites of the saori kept her warm in the cold, cool in the heat and safe from the desiccated, airless landscape of our new world.
"Yes, Utsuki, it changed." His use of my given name startled me. It almost made me sad, but only for a second. Then his hand began its rhythm and I settled my back against his chest so I could feel the rumble of his tale.
"Our people used the saori so much it became part of us. Nanomites, the jinsei, which means 'life' in the language of our old world, made our hair lighter." He took a gentle handful of my pale yellow locks with his left hand. It gave our eyes the luster of jewels. But more importantly, it changed who we are. It gave us purpose."
I held my breath for a moment and pictured the beautiful Irezi as she painted her face with the saori. She smiled into her mirror, admiring the white patterns she drew around her temples.
Sejei continued in his low timbre, "The jinsei infused us. They gave us an awareness of the energy that surrounds each of us — the… Gei." He hesitated before he said the word. We both knew why. It was forbidden now to speak of the Gei. But my gruff and good humored jichan wasn't overly fond of the Confed's rules, at least not in private.
"The jinsei became a part of us, down to our very cells. They empowered us our spirits. They gave us the power to connect to other living things. In time, the wisdom of the Gei divided into three great schools. Geishin is the ethic of the heart, Geiki the mind and Geijin, the body's discipline."
His voice receded and my body, entranced by his slow and rhythmic movements, swayed with his. I watched the shojoei in my mind. I watched her twirl her body, dancing to the beat of my heart. My head began to throb a little, a pressure that pulsed in time with her movements.
"We are powerful, my jichan," I whispered. My voice sounded strange to my own ears.
"Yes, my little moku, we are very powerful. That is why they made us slaves."
My brows furrowed together again and the pounding in my right temple spread to the left side. A heavy thump-thump pulsed back and forth sockets of my eyes. My inner sight watched the beautiful Irezi woman. She moved with the predatory grace of the great cats of the Karnatakas Biome, pressing herself against a tall and muscular man, an Earther. Confed. She slid her body up his until their eyes were even. Then she scored her fingernails down his chest and he threw his head back with a look of either pain or rapture. I couldn't say which.
He straightened suddenly and smiled, his eyes half-closed, his expression blissful. His hand rose to his right temple, clutching a black, heavy looking weapon. His eyes closed slowly as if to sleep — or meditate. Then he pulled the trigger and the left side of his head exploded into dark mist. His expression never changed…
As he fell, the Irezi woman smiled and licked at her fingertips, pulling each one into her mouth and sucking, as if tasting the last of his life. I could almost smell the blood flowing from the charred hole in his temple.
Then the woman finished and paused as if she'd just heard something. She turned her head toward me and our eyes locked. My heart hammered with fear and I wanted to flee, but couldn't. After a moment, the corners of her mouth curled slowly upward while her eyes stayed flat and hard...
I opened my eyes on a gasp.
Sejei chanted, low and softly in the old dialect, leaving all but a few words outside my grasp. I caught the word 'honor' and 'peace', something we, the Irezi hadn't known for a long time. And he said something I didn't understand about the Gei.
While his words eluded me, his tone was clear. His sadness at greatness lost, at honor stolen was unmistakable. I ached for my jichan and tears welled.
"Sejei-amya, the jinsei turned our hair light, right?"
"Yes they did."
"But most of us have dark hair again."
"Then why is mine so different?"
His hand stilled for a moment before he whispered, "I believe the Gei is strong in you, little moku. Stronger than any in a very long time."
Before I could ask what he meant, the door hissed and my parents entered Sejei's tiny apartment.
My mother’s cheerful voice called out, "Utsuku, Sejei, where are you?"
"In the drawing room, Mama." I answered as I brushed aside the tears and stood quickly, kicking the picture at our feet back into the black sand.
Hani, my mother, rounded the thin partition separating this room from the small studio. Her smile fell away when she saw my bare feet scrubbing the sand.
"Sejei," she scolded as she grabbed my hand and pulled me to her. "Why are you in the sand again?" Her voice was quiet, but hissed in an angry whisper. She was afraid.
"It’s nothing," I said as I stared up into her dark eyes. Her dark hair was piled elegantly atop her head and she hadn’t even taken off her lipstick from work yet.
"I was just drawing. Old words. Nothing forbidden." My Jichan lied with such an easy grace that I almost wondered for a moment if that was really all we had done.
She loosened her grip and sighed. "Fine. But clean that up. You never know when…" her voice trailed off as if she was too scared to even voice the warning.
"Of course. Not to worry." My jichan smiled benevolently, playing the absent minded elder to perfection.
She gathered my few things from around the small living area and chattered away. "Thank you for watching Utsuku on such short notice. I had a job and it was, um, important." The strain in her face looked more like distaste than important, but neither of us commented.
"Always a pleasure to be with my granddaughter." He winked at me and then bent low to engulf me in a hug, whispering softly in my ear, "My little moku..."
I knew the word was forbidden too so I never asked my mama what it meant, and Sejei never told me when I asked.
We left his home, my hand tucked tightly into my mama’s, hers white, mine gray. I could feel her relax as we left my jichan's apartment behind.
Later, before bed, my mother brushed out my hair. I loved the feel of the bristles pulling smoothly through the strands. But I could also feel her tension, her fear of things Sejei might have told me. Fear of the Gei maybe. I wondered what she say if I told her about the headaches. Would she fear me too?
I knew that children didn’t see visions of Irezi murderesses with black hair and gleaming eyes. No one else endured blood, or the headaches. If they did then I would know. I would sense their isolation, their feeling of being so — apart. But there was no such kindred spirit. I was alone with my strangeness and the wisdom of my jichan.
"I didn’t know Sejei was going to pick you up today. What did the two of you do?"
"Nothing, Mama," I answered. "We just practiced calligraphy."
I bowed my chin to my chest as she picked apart a knot. She let it go and finished braiding my hair. As she tucked me into my cot, she leaned down and I recognized the scent of the ginger lily, from the Lao Biome, and wondered why the scent would mingle in her midnight hair when it was so far down into the lowlands of Arc Valles.
She whispered, "Goodnight, Utsuki."
Just before she closed the door to my room I gathered my courage and blurted, "What does moku mean?"
She paused with her left hand on the frame of the door, and she rested her dark brown hair on her hand, canting her head to the left. "Where did you hear that?"
"School," I lied.
"You should not say it. It’s the old language. The Confed..."
"Oh. Sorry, Mama." I replied. I pulled the thin sheet up to my chin to hide my quivering lower lip.
Hani smiled and I could see the sadness in her eyes." It means, ‘reason for living’. A word you would use for someone you truly love."
I closed my eyes quickly so she would not see my tears and hid my smile with the sheet. "Thank you, Hani-amya," I whispered.
Her smile turned warm, but I could see her body tense. "I hope you don’t take Sejei’s stories too seriously. He's old and he likes to pretend. Sometimes I worry that his memory is failing him. His mind is, well, maybe more fragile than his bones these days."
"Of course, Mama." I could pretend too. Because I knew the truth.
We were warriors once.
Maybe we would be again.