You can call me Bigfoot if you want to. Or Sasquatch. But I’m an Elg, and my name is Sami. Or Sammy, if you prefer.
Everybody thinks I’m some sort of missing link between man and beast, but I’m not even from this world. I’m from a tiny frozen planet called Ictysl, which is the Elg word for Ice Home.
Don’t laugh. You call this planet “Earth”, which basically means “dirt”.
Everybody I meet that doesn’t want to kill me and dissect my body in the name of science wonders how I got to Earth. How I got here is rather boring, but why I came in the first place is a lot more interesting.
* * *
For the first eleven years of my life, I thought I was different than everyone else on my planet. Some weird anomaly that wasn’t supposed to exist. For the record, I didn’t know what a planet was or that I was on one. I honestly didn’t know there was anything else to all of existence other than the village where I grew up. As far as I knew, everything ended at the bottom of the slushfields.
Everyone else I knew—including Mom, Dad, and my sister, Ami—was extremely tall and covered with long, white fur. They were perfectly suited for the extremely cold weather. They loved living on ice. They made their homes out of it. They slept on it. They ate chunks of it like popcorn.
But not me. I was miserable. For some unknown reason, my fur was short and brown. I was also barely half the size of my classmates. They thought I was just some dirty little kid who had wandered into the wrong classroom.
The day that I would finally learn why I was so different started out like any other. I laid in my bed, which was just a blanket on top of a pile of dead yakuma leaves, savoring its warmth before I had to go to school.
I didn’t need to go to school. My teacher taught us the same few things year after year, hoping to beat it into our heads through repetition. Instead of learning anything new, I spent my days trying to avoid being crushed—accidentally or on purpose—by my classmates.
My real education started when I got home. My mom taught me all the things I should have learned in school and then a lot of things I didn’t think I’d ever need to know. She said I had to go to school to learn how to socialize and make friends. In that case, I had failed miserably.
I drifted back to sleep and dreamed that the Dark Elg brought me a fuzzy, warm coat for Harvest Night that would end my misery for good. I was about to slip it on when Ami woke me up by shoving a handful of snow in my face.
“You’re late for school, Sami!” she shouted in glee as she scurried from my room.
Even though she was four years younger, she was already a lot bigger than me. Instead of jumping out of bed to chase her down and give her a noogie or something, I merely sat up in bed, wiped the snow off of my face, and sneezed two pellets of ice out of my nostrils.
Wim, my pet ferb, started squirming in panic under the blanket. I picked him up and let him curl around my neck like a living scarf.
Ferbs are furry snakes or maybe more like ferrets with no legs. They are the main source of protein in Elg cuisine. Wim should have been supper one evening when he escaped the kitchen and hid in my bed. I didn’t notice him until that morning when I found him curled up on my chest. It had been the best night of sleep in my life. The extra warmth and soothing purr helped me relax.
Ever since, Wim and I had formed something like a symbiotic relationship. He helped me stay warm, and I stopped people from eating him.
I groomed my fur with the rough bark of a yakuma stick, brushing out crushed bits of leaf. I slipped on a pair of cabura pants, a sweater made from woven ferb fur, and leather slippers. Nobody else that I knew of wore clothes or shoes, which only added to my list of oddities and also made me wonder why the concept of clothing existed since nobody else needed them.
I grabbed several handfuls of yakuma leaves from the kitchen to munch on and stuffed them in my pocket before heading out the front door.
The moment I stepped out of the house, I slipped and fell. Wim tightened his grip around my neck for a few seconds and relaxed. He always did that when he got scared.
A thin sheen of sweat covered the ice, making it slick.
The Slush had arrived.
* * *
The Slush was a very important time of the year. Pretty much spring and summer rolled into one. For two whole months, the temperature rose high enough outside during the day to melt the ice a bit. Then it would freeze again at night and melt again the next day, giving it a slushy quality.
Yakuma vines, our only crop, grew rapidly during the Slush, providing stems, leaves, and berries to eat. The thick parts of the vines made good firewood for cooking. There was also a sweet, gooey layer just under the bark that my mom used to make flat-cakes—like pancakes with syrup already baked inside.
The village was on top of a giant hill, and the yakuma vines grew in large trenches cut into the hillside that collected water for their roots to soak up.
Keeping the Slush fields fertilized was a year-long process, and everybody had to do their part. So before I went to school, I stopped by and made a donation as I looked out on the bare fields. Stubs of seed vine stuck out of the ice, which was dark brown from all the mixed in fertilizer. In a month the entire hill would be a sea of green.
* * *
One advantage leather shoes have over bare feet is they are better at sticking to wet ice.
I walked to school slowly but confidently, passing fallen classmates along the way. They would find their footing eventually, but every single year they had to relearn how to walk when it got slippery.
Exhausted and out of breath, Ami was only a few feet from her classroom’s door. She tried to get to her feet one more time and collapsed.
“Sami,” she gasped. “Help me.”
I didn’t want to, but she was my sister after all. Even though I didn’t have any friends, I had my family, at least.
I put my hand out. Ami grabbed it and pulled herself up while I tried to keep my footing. Once she was back on her feet, she pushed me to the ground.
“Excuse me,” she said with a laugh. “I’m trying to get to class.”
I got up and wiped the droplets of melted ice off of my fur and clothes. Wim’s whole body vibrated around my neck as he shook the water loose.
Ami slipped and fell again after a few steps. I watched her struggle as I walked past.
“Sami!” she yelled, reaching for me. “Sami!”
I ignored her.
Elg don’t use clocks, but they have a good sense of time. Mrs. Hom looked agitated as she scratched math problems on the wall at the front of the classroom. Whether that was because everybody was late or she’d had her own difficulties with the slippery ice, I wasn’t sure. Her fur looked a little more ruffled than usual.
Sitting down on the tall mounds of ice we used for chairs was impossible this morning. After struggling for a while, I climbed on top and sat down, only to slip right back off. So I gave up and stood next to my chair, waiting for everyone else to trickle in.
Since I wasn’t technically sitting there, Bil took my seat. When he sat down, he promptly slipped off the side and landed on top of me.
“The floor is really soft this morning,” Bil said as I struggled to get free.
I found another seat to stand next to while I soothed Wim before he choked me to death. The moment someone tried to take that seat, I quickly got out of the way. This went on for the next ten minutes until there weren’t any seats left. Eventually, I stood at the back of the classroom next to the biggest and meanest students.
Elg schools only consisted of three class levels. When your teacher decided you’d learned enough, you moved on to the next level. I’d recently graduated to Mrs. Hom’s class. My other teachers held me back longer than they needed to because of my size. I’m ot a genius or anything, but compared to my classmates, I was pretty much Albert Einstein, Garry Kasparov, and Isaac Newton all rolled into one.
I noticed Marg, by far the biggest and meanest of the lot, had her feet propped up on the seat next to her. Everyone else had trouble keeping their feet still on the ice as they sat. Marg had solved this problem. Maybe she was smarter than I thought.
“Good morning, class,” Mrs. Hom announced. “Please have a seat, it’s time to get started.”
Marg growled as I eyed the chair occupied by her massive feet. Long, gnarled toenails twisted up from dingy, bulbous toes covered in matted white fur. I put my hands up in a sign of peace. I was content standing up. It made me less noticeable to the other students. And the less anyone noticed me, the better.
“I said please sit down,” Mrs. Hom admonished, looking directly at me.
I glanced at Marg’s feet again and then back at Mrs. Hom.
“Marg…” Mrs. Hom said.
Marg grunted and slammed her heels down on top of the mound, spraying me with several large chunks of ice, before setting her feet on the floor, where they immediately started to slide forward.
She gave me a look that said I would pay for this inconvenience very soon. Probably during lunch. It wouldn’t be the first lunch break I’d spent with my face buried in the snow on the playground. The key to surviving a face-plant is turning your head just before impact so you can still breathe.
In her anger, Marg had done me a favor. The seat was short enough and dry enough now I could climb up and sit down. There was even a slight dip in the middle so I wouldn’t slip off once it started to melt again.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Hom said. “Since you two seem so intent on disrupting class, why don’t you solve the first problem, Marg.”
The numbers on the wall were drooping and grey and hard to read.
“Uh…” Marg said.
Her voice rumbled so deeply my teeth vibrated.
“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Hom said, looking at the goopy grey mess sliding down the wall. “Here’s a simple one, Marg. What is four minus two?”
Marg thought for a minute. A very long minute.
“Come on, Marg,” Mrs. Hom urged. “You should know this one.”
Marg glared at me as if it was my fault she didn’t know the answer.
“Four minus two,” Mrs. Hom repeated.
I pretended to rub my eyes and whispered in Marg’s direction, “Two.”
Marg tried to mimic my mouth movements but didn’t make any sound.
“Two,” I whispered again, exaggerating my mouth movements so she could clearly see what I was saying.
Marg made an O-shape with her mouth, the “O” in “two” I hoped.
“‘O’ is not a number, Marg,” Mrs. Hom said. “‘O’ is a letter. Do you remember what number looks like the letter ‘O’?”
“Zero,” Marg said and smiled.
“Yes, zero looks like the letter ‘O’, but that is not the correct answer.”
Marg frowned and then looked at me, her face going from pink to red as the other students laughed.
“Why don’t you help her out, Sami,” Mrs. Hom asked. “What is four minus two?”
I thought for a minute. Not because I didn’t know the answer. I was weighing my options. If I gave Mrs. Hom the correct answer, it would only enrage Marg further. But I also didn’t want the other kids to laugh at me. No matter what I said, I was eating snow for lunch. I erred on the side of pride. I’d never gotten an answer wrong since I started school, and I wouldn’t start now.
I immediately regretted my choice. The look on Marg’s face was clear. She wanted to kill me.
“I’m sorry, Sami,” Mrs. Hom said with a little too much delight in her voice. “That’s not right.”
“Yes, it is,” I argued, missing another golden opportunity to lessen Marg’s anger a little.
“Would you care to work it out?” Mrs. Hom asked, holding up the charred piece of yakuma vine.
I slipped off the ice mound and walked carefully to the front of the room. I grabbed the blackened stick and used my other hand to wipe the sheen of moisture off the wall. I quickly carved out the problem in the ice and did all the pointless steps of showing my work before writing the number ‘2’ and circling it.
“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Hom said. “Hmm. I see. I… I was thinking of a different problem. Thank you, Sami, you may go back to your seat.”
I handed the stick back to her and paused. Marg stood up and took deep, menacing breaths. She stomped her foot, which rattled the walls and caused drops of water to drip from the ceiling.
I looked at the door that led to the outside, calculating the odds I could get out of the building before Marg got to me. I could find somewhere to hide until Marg forgot why she was mad.
Marg didn’t waste any time calculating. She charged down the aisle at me, her long toenails digging into the floor, sending chunks of ice flying with each step. She was going so fast, the only thing that could stop her was the wall, and I didn’t want to be sandwiched in the middle when it happened. I dove out of the way just as she reached out to grab me.
I looked back as Marg crashed into the wall headfirst. The brick of ice where her head struck shattered and crumbled away from the wall, leaving a square hole between our classroom and the next. The surrounding bricks were loose and jutting out of the wall at odd angles. I fully expected Marg to be unconscious, so it surprised me when she shook her head to clear off the bits of ice and pushed herself back up.
Marg glared down at me. Her eyes were a little crossed, but it was obvious her anger hadn’t subsided. I realized I could have spent all this time getting away instead of staring at her in awe. While she took a few staggering steps trying to regain her balance, I scrambled for the door.
I was almost out when Marg leapt at me, wrapping me up in her big arms. Her shoulder struck the side of the doorway, knocking several bricks out of the wall. As we crashed to the ground, she cradled me against her body like she was trying to protect me.
Marg had me in her grasp. She could have squeezed me to death or just laid on top of me until I suffocated. Instead, she let me go so she could get to her feet.
I almost suffocated anyway. Wim squeezed my neck so hard I struggled to breathe. I scratched underneath his chin, which is something he hated, until he loosened his grip.
While Marg struggled with the ice that was much more slippery outside, I stood up and walked away. I glanced back to see if she was following me. But she wasn’t. She was looking at the school, which appeared to sway from side to side as more and more bricks crumbled from the walls.
The building was about to collapse.
Students poured out of the four doorways that led to each classroom, urged along by their teachers. Once outside, everybody started slipping and sliding into each other. Thankfully, the evacuation was completed before the entire school collapsed in on itself, leaving a large pile of broken ice blocks.
“School’s out!” Mrs. Hom shouted. “Everybody go home.”
She looked around at the crowd of students struggling to get back up until she spotted me standing by the street.
“Sami!” she shouted, her face red in anger. “I need to have a long-overdue chat with your parents.”
Mrs. Pol went to find my dad in the slushfields while Mrs. Hom walked me and Ami home.
“Sami’s in trouble! Sami’s in trouble!” Ami sang over and over again.
I expected Mrs. Hom to tell her to be quiet, but she didn’t. I thought about explaining to Mrs. Hom how this wasn’t my fault, but I had a feeling that would only make my punishment worse. In my experience, Elg weren’t very rational creatures, especially when they were angry.
“Is there a problem?” Mom asked when she met us in the living room.
“Yes,” Mrs. Hom said, “there is. I’ve sent Mrs. Pol to get your husband. I think you both need to hear this from me.”
Ami went to her bedroom with a big smile on her face. I don’t know if she was happy because she thought I was getting my comeuppance for not helping her up a second time this morning or if she was just happy because she got out of school early.
Dad arrived a few minutes later, covered in muck and looking flustered. “What has Sami done now?”
“He’s been antagonizing the other students,” Mrs. Hom said. “And I believe he’s also been cheating on his schoolwork.”
Mom relaxed. She knew I didn’t need to cheat. And she knew I would never purposefully antagonize someone who could easily squash me. Dad, however, glared at me as if I’d just done the most awful thing imaginable.
“When other students get answers wrong,” Mrs. Hom continued, “Sami answers them correctly without pretending to try. I know he’s stealing the answers somehow. I just haven’t been able to catch him.”
“We sure didn’t raise him to be that way,” Dad said. “We apologize for his behavior.”
“He also brings food to class every day and flaunts it in front of the other students. I have nothing against students bringing their own lunch, but the most frustrating part is he never eats it!”
“Are you talking about Wim?” Mom asked.
“And don’t get me started on his cleanliness,” Mrs. Hom said. “He looks dirtier than you, and you’ve been out in the slushfields all day.”
“We’ve tried everything we can think of to get him clean,” Dad said. “Nothing seems to work. At least he don’t smell bad. It’s a clean kind of dirty.”
“The reason I’m here today is because Sami made one of the other students so mad, the entire building crumbled to the ground.”
“Wait,” Dad said. “I don’t understand.”
“Marg slammed into the wall a couple of times. Do you need to go see what’s left of the school before you believe me?”
“I believe you, Ma’am. I just… I helped build that school. Those walls are really thick. Designed to make it through at least five Slushes, and it was just built after last year’s harvest.”
“Marg was very angry. Perhaps you should make the walls thicker next time.”
“Is that all?” Mom asked. “What do you want us to do about it? Provoked or not, Sami isn’t responsible for other students’ anger issues. Besides, half the kids don’t go to school during the Slush anyway so they can help in the fields.”
“I’m not asking you to do anything. But Sami is no longer welcome in my classroom. What’s left of it.”
Dad lowered his head in shame. Tears formed at the corners of his eyes and left clean streaks through the grime on his face as they rolled down.
“I suggest you send him down the hill if you want to further his education,” Mrs. Hom advised.
“Oh, please no!” Dad wailed. “Give him another chance! There’s got to be another way!”
“I’m sorry. He’s too much of a disruption.”
“W… We… We’ll rebuild the school,” Dad stammered, sounding desperate. “I’ll go get the guys. We’ll have it back together before class starts in the morning. It’ll be like nothing happened.”
“Honey,” Mom said, looking embarrassed. “Just stop. It’s okay.”
“How is this okay? Sami needs to go to school. How else is he supposed to learn?”
“He hasn’t learned anything from this school. He needs a real education. And that’s exactly what he’ll get down the hill.”
Mrs. Hom looked offended, but Mom ignored her.
I felt nervous, suddenly. Mom actually agreed with Mrs. Hom. I thought Mrs. Hom was joking when she mentioned sending me down the hill. I’d never heard of anyone going any further than the bottom of the slushfields. My classmates told each other stories of wild Elg and other beasts who scrounge for food and prey on unsuspecting children who wander too far from the village. I assumed adults made up those stories to scare kids, but I still didn’t want to go down there and find out.
“No!” Dad cried. “Don’t do this to our little boy!”
“I knew this day would come eventually,” Mom said with a sigh. “Sami, it’s time for you to meet your grandpa.”
“You said Grandpa died when I was a baby,” I said when Mrs. Hom left. “Grandma, too.”
“I didn’t say that, exactly. We just haven’t spoken in a long time,” Mom said. “But we keep getting Harvest Day presents, so he was still alive last year at least.”
“Wait… Grandpa’s the Dark Elg? The Dark Elg is real?”
“He doesn’t fly around the world on a sled pulled by a team of magical caburas. But he does bring presents to all the kids in the village. I used to help him.”
“Where does he get all the presents? Does he really have a workshop full of tiny people that make them?”
My mom laughed. “Most of the people that live down the hill are short, like you. But I wouldn’t call them tiny. They make some of the gifts. The others they trade for at the dark Elg city.”
Harvest Day is a sort of reverse Christmas. When the Dark Elg brings you a present, you’re supposed to throw it out into the street. Once you reject the Dark Elg’s gift, you are free to run around the village and grab up all the other rejected gifts you can get your hands on. It’s a dumb tradition that nobody ever explained to me, so I didn’t feel bad when I kept his gifts. Besides, I needed the clothes he brought me, and I was certain none of the other kids would want them.
“There’s a whole city of people like me?” I asked.
“Darker and smaller, mostly,” she said. “There’s a whole wide world you’ve never seen, Sami. Now you have a chance to see it. Your grandpa should head on his annual trading trip soon, now that the Slush has started. He always takes his oldest students with him.”
“Are you seriously considering this?” Dad asked.
“It’s where he belongs,” Mom said. “He’s been miserable here in the village for a long time.”
“Why did you leave?” I asked.
Mom smiled at Dad. “I fell in love with a handsome slushfield worker.”
“Ugh,” I shuddered. “Don’t make me barf.”
“You understand that you’re different, right?” Mom asked. “Not just the way you look, but the way you think?”
I nodded. It was painfully obvious.
“Despite my better judgment, I thought you might figure out a way to fit in here in the village,” she said. “I know it was selfish of me, but I couldn’t stand the thought of not being with you every day. You’ll always be my little baby boy. But the time is long overdue.”
“I’ll take him down there in the morning,” Dad said. “We’re working the western slope tomorrow anyways.”
“No,” Mom intervened. “I’ll take him. It’s been too long since I saw my parents. And we’re leaving now.”
“Right now?” I asked.
“As soon as you pack your things.”
I didn’t have much to pack. I gathered the few extra shirts, shoes, and pants that I kept in the corner of my room and rolled them up in my big blanket. They were all gifts from the Dark Elg. From Grandpa. He’d also given me all the smoked cabura meat I’d ever eaten.
I went to the pantry to grab Wim a fresh handful of leaves. I had no idea how long the trip down the hill might take. And Wim was probably starving by now. He won’t eat when he’s scared, and he’d had a rough morning.
I’d never had to say goodbye to my family before. I stopped by Ami’s room before I left.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“I’m going to live with Grandpa,” I said.
“Mom isn’t dad. You’re confused.”
I sighed. “I won’t see you for a little while.”
“Are you going blind? Mari’s Papi is blind. That’s why he can’t see her.”
“I’m not going blind. I just won’t be here.”
“Where are you going?”
I gave Ami a hug. She just stood there and looked at me.
“What was that for?”
Dad walked with Mom and me as far as the main road that split the village in half.
“Be brave, Son,” Dad said. “I know you’re not very strong, but you’re smart. Just remember, everything’s got a tickle spot. If something grabs you, find its tickle spot, and it’ll let you go.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll remember that.”
“Nothing’s going to grab you, dear,” Mom said.
“See you at the Harvest feast,” Dad said and gave me a big hug before disappearing between two random houses.
Mom and I continued down the road until it ended at a steady slope.
I’d been to the edge of the village plenty of times and looked down upon the fields, but I’d never gone down the hill. Unless you worked in the fields, you had no reason to leave the village. I’d spent my entire life going back and forth in the same small patch of ice from my house to the school or the market or the ferb farm.
I tucked my rolled-up blanket under my arm and started carefully down the path between trenches.
“There’s a faster way,” Mom said before I’d taken too many steps. “And it’s a lot more fun.”
She pulled a small sled made from yakuma vines off a stack near the path.
“Workers use them to haul things up and down the hill,” Mom said. “No reason we couldn’t use them to speed up our descent.”
The sled had two runners underneath that kept it off of the ice. I sat down and grabbed a length of rope tied to the front. Mom sat down behind me and put her arms around my waist.
“Hold on tight,” she said and began rocking both of our bodies forward, urging the sled down the slope.
Once the entire sled angled downward, we started gaining speed. A thrill tickled my belly and rose into my chest as we went faster and faster. Everything zipped by in a blur. I could hear a little girl screaming the whole time. I didn’t realize until we reached the bottom and started slowing down that it was me.
Thankfully, Wim didn’t choke me this time. He’d already had too much excitement for one day, and the day was only half over.
“Again!” I shouted just like I used to when I was a little kid and Dad would swing me up into the air. “Again!”
“Maybe after harvest,” Mom said, picking up the sled and adding it to the small stack near the last trench. “We’ve still got some walking to do, and I’d like to get back home in time to make supper.”
I held Mom’s hand as we walked further and further away from the only home I had ever known. I felt like a little kid again, nervous about going to my first day of school. Would it be difficult? Would any of the other kids like me? The answer to both questions had been “no”, but maybe this time would be different. I was somehow scared and excited at the same time.
After walking for most of an hour, we came to an odd cluster of wild yakuma vines. Even though the Slush had just begun, these vines were already full of leaves and grew together so thickly, there wasn’t an inch of space between them. They angled back toward the middle of the cluster and grew to a point at the top where a steady stream of vapor drifted toward the sky.
I started to go around when Mom yanked on my arm and pulled me back.
“We’re here,” she said.
Mom stepped up and rapped her knuckles on an odd square patch where the leaves didn’t grow. After several long seconds, the square patch disappeared inside and an Elg stared back at me.
She looked like an older version of my mom with extra-long, blindingly white fur.
“Hello, Sami,” she said, in a soft warm voice. “I’m your grandmother. You can call me Omo. I wondered when I would get to finally meet you.”
I didn’t realize until Omo stepped out of the house to greet me she’d been standing on her knees in the doorway. Her legs unfurled as she stood to her full height. She was easily fifteen feet tall.
I’d only heard of the fabled giants of the north. This was the first time I’d met one.
Omo stooped down to give me a hug, burying my entire body in her long fur. It felt like her arms wrapped around me twice. She picked me up off the ground and spun me around a couple of times before setting me down. It was just as exhilarating as the sled ride down the hill.
“Again!” I shouted once Wim loosened his grip on my throat. “Again!”
Omo laughed. “That’s what you’ve been missing out on all these years, child.”
“She’s much better at that than Dad used to be.”
“I’m sure she is,” Mom said.
“Come on in,” Omo said. “Fari is about to go fetch supper. We can sip tea and catch up until he gets back.”
“Fari?” I asked.
“Your grandpa. The Dark Elg himself. He prefers everyone call him Fari.”
Mother and daughter stared at each other for a long moment. I got the feeling a lot was being said in the silence that hung between them.
“I can’t stay,” Mom said finally. “I need to get home and get supper started.”
“You’re leaving the boy?”
“If you’ll have him.”
“Come to your senses finally, I see.”
Mom nodded. “Kind of forced into it. Sami got kicked out of school. The other kids took offense to his intelligence. And his fur…”
“You should have brought him here years ago. That village is no place for someone like him. If you weren’t his daughter, Fari would have taken him away the second his fur started to darken.”
“I know,” Mom said, her eyes glistening with tears. “But if I weren’t Fari’s daughter, I would have been glad to get rid of him. I didn’t want to let him go. I’m sure you can understand that.”
“They don’t all leave us for the city. Even if they do, sometimes they come back. Like your brother.”
“Yari came back?”
Omo nodded. “Right after you left for the village. He brought back a wife and a son. Nici teaches the youngest kids at the school. Deni is a couple of years older than Sami.”
“I had no idea.”
“You should come for a visit once in a while.”
“The road runs both ways, Mother.”
“Not for most of us down here,” Omo said, shaking her head. “Certainly not for your father. If it weren’t for that ridiculous costume, I doubt the village Elders would let him deliver the Harvest Night presents. I’m surprised Sami made it this long among those small-minded people. Still a lot of bad blood between the lights and the darks, and nobody knows why.”
“Things have changed in the village. People aren’t exactly welcoming, but the old prejudice is going away.”
“Maybe so,” Omo said, reluctantly. “You understand Fari’s about to go on his trip, right? You’re okay with Sami going if he so chooses?”
Mom nodded. “I want him to see the world like I did.”
Mom grabbed me in a hug, her tears dripping on top of my head.
“You be good, okay?”
“Okay, Mom,” I said, my own tears slipping down my face.
“I’ll see you after Harvest, alright? I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Mom turned to leave, but Omo grabbed her and pulled her close, holding her daughter for the first time in eleven years. She held her for a long time. So long I began to wonder if she would ever let her go.
“Come for the Harvest Day feast,” Omo said. “Bring your whole family. I still have a granddaughter I haven’t met.”
Mom nodded and began her journey back to the village. Omo and I watched her until she was just a speck in the distance.
I followed Omo into the strange house built out of living yakuma vines. Other than the leaves sprouting from the walls and furniture, the house probably wasn’t a lot different than a small log cabin. But I’d never seen a proper house or a log cabin before, so everything about it completely blew my mind.
The first thing I noticed before I stepped through the doorway was the warmth. The blessed warmth! The house was warmer than the warmest day of the Slush.
“Shoes,” Omo said, indicating several pairs lined up along the wall next to the doorway.
“Oh,” I said when I realized what she meant. I pulled my shoes off and set them next to the others. They looked identical to mine, except a little smaller. Fari’s obviously. If Omo wore shoes, they’d be the size of small boats.
Large cabura rugs covered the floor, stretched over the interlaced yakuma vines suspended above the ice. Each step was soft and slightly springy, cradling my feet and buoying me along as I took each step. I wiggled my toes in the fuzzy warmth of the thick fur.
“This is so nice,” I said.
“Fari enjoys his luxuries,” Omo said. “I grew up in the north where they don’t believe in clothes or shoes or fire, and the Slush is nothing more than a bit of sweat on the ice.”
I noticed a small fire burning in the middle of the floor on top of a pile of rocks. I had never seen so many rocks gathered together in one place in my entire life. Rocks were extremely rare. I’d only ever seen the ones my dad used to cut and shape the ice when he rebuilt our home each year after the Harvest. Using them for something so frivolous as keeping a fire off of the floor would be like wedging a stack of hundred-dollar bills underneath a table leg so it didn’t wobble.
My eyes followed the smoke as it drifted up through a small hole in the center of the roof where the vines converged. Near the fire was a small bench covered with cushions. You would probably call it a couch, but I didn’t know that word. I sat down and felt the heat radiate from the fire. Wim let go of my neck and crawled along my shoulders.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been truly warm before,” I said. “This is amazing.”
“Do you want to see the rest of the house?” Omo asked.
“Give me a minute. I need to thaw out.”
When sweat pooled on my forehead and rolled down my face, I decided I was warm enough. Omo led me into a room roughly the size of my bedroom at home. Clumps of vines grew in the corners. I wasn’t sure of their original purpose. A cabura blanket covered a shelf hanging from the wall. Beneath it, sat a small table and a chair.
“Your mom and uncle used to sleep here,” Omo said. “The beds have gotten overgrown. I’ll get one trimmed up for tonight.”
I peeled the blanket back to reveal several bundles of shaved ferb skin lining the shelf.
“Fari’s books,” Omo said. “That term is probably foreign to you. He can tell you more about them.”
Several thin, white sheets covered in red words rested on the table. I’d never seen paper before, but based on my experience watching young Elg cram their faces with yakuma berries during the Harvest Feast, I knew where the ink came from.
Omo let me peek into the bedroom she shared with Fari. A giant bed dominated one corner. A rack laden with clothes filled another.
The smallest room in the house was the most fascinating. The bathroom. The mere thought that I wouldn’t have to leave the house to do my business made me giddy with excitement. And that was before she showed me the shower.
I usually only bathed about once a week. It involved rubbing handfuls of cold water into my fur and hoping the dirt went with it as it dripped off of my body. Then I shivered and shook like a dog until I felt reasonably dry.
The shower was basically two buckets and a rope suspended over a hole in the floor. The first bucket held the water, the second had tiny holes in the bottom to control the flow, and a tug on the rope tipped the water from one bucket to the other. Simple.
“The water takes a few minutes to heat up over the fire,” Omo said. “We usually bathe right after supper while the fire is still burning hot.”
“What’s this?” I asked, picking up a solid white lump from a small shelf near the shower.
“It’s called soap. Don’t ask me how it works, but it basically makes the dirt come off of your body a lot better than water alone. Fari makes it from cabura fat and ashes from the fire.”
“Smells nice,” I said when I gave it a sniff.
“That’s because I toss a little dried yakuma petal into the mixture. I wouldn’t recommend eating it, though. Tastes terrible.”
In the far corner was a toilet. Not as fancy as some toilets I’ve seen here on Earth, but how many toilets have you seen that can grow their own toilet paper?
“If it suits you, you can dig holes on the eastern side of the house to do your business,” Omo said. “This all drains into a reservoir several feet under the ice.”
I hadn’t thought about what kept the house alive and growing. I figured the warmth from the fireplace had something to do with it. And the water from the shower. But like every living thing, plants need food.
The house was alive and thrived off of my grandparent’s poop!
I took my hand off of the doorway I’d been idly touching as if something icky might ooze out of the thick vines.
Omo chuckled. “Yes, the house lives off of the nutrients we provide. I know it sounds gross, but it’s nature. If you think about it, everything you eat was somebody’s poop once upon a time. It’s the circle of life. You live in the village. You know what fertilizes the top several trenches of the slushfields.”
I tried not to think about it. Otherwise, I could never eat.
“Fari is in the kitchen,” Omo said. “Why don’t you go say hello.”
I was a little nervous. This guy was the Dark Elg. A celebrity in the village, despite the songs the kids sang on Harvest Night proclaiming his ultimate demise, buried under a pile of rejected gifts.
His fur was a lot darker than mine. Almost black. Wrinkles swirled around his deep brown eyes. But the resemblance was unmistakable. He stood next to a long table fussing with a pile of rope.
“Sami!” Fari shouted as if he was expecting me. “You’re just in time. I had to mend my net. A thrasher tore a hole in it last night.”
He looked at me. His eyes shifted to my neck.
“How thoughtful,” Fari said, setting the ropes down. “I see you already brought supper. Lay it out on the table here, I’ll get my knife.”
“Oh, no,” I said with a nervous laugh. “Wim’s not for eating.”
“Then what’s it for?”
“He’s uh… We’re like friends,” I said. There was no Elg word for “pet”.
“You’ve gone and named it. I guess we can’t eat it now.”
Fari methodically gathered up the ropes he’d knotted together. Several stones with holes drilled through the middle dangled from the bottom.
“Well, if we can’t eat it, then we better go get something else to eat,” he said and headed for the living room. “Have you ever eaten fish?”
“Never heard of it.”
“They live in the spring.”
“What’s a spring?”
“The beating heart of this little community,” Fari said with a smile. “The source of our livelihood.”
The question lingered on my face.
“I’ll explain on the way.”
“Be careful with him,” Omo warned. “I know how you like to show off.”
“We’ll be fine,” Fari said. “No need to worry.”
The way Omo stared at him worried me. My whole life I’d assumed there were strange and scary things down here. The look on Omo’s face told me those assumptions might be right.
I followed Fari to the front door and slipped my shoes back on. Fari grabbed a thick white fur coat and slipped it on.
“I hope this doesn’t offend your friend,” he said. “You know, ferbs don’t live very long even in the best of conditions. You make enough friends like that, you could have a nice coat like this someday. You’ve already got a nice collar started.”
I stroked Wim’s fur. I’d had him for about three years now. Most ferbs at the farm didn’t live longer than a year because that’s when they got big enough to eat. I never thought about how long they might live naturally.
“Here, you can wear my cabura coat,” he said, pulling it off the wall.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I’ve never worn a coat before.”
“Don’t you want to stay warm?” Fari asked. “I know you’ve been cold your whole life, but you’ll find once you’ve truly been warm, you won’t want to go back to being cold again.”
I slipped the coat on. At home, I used to drape my blanket over my shoulders on particularly cold days and walk around the house. This wasn’t much different.
When I stepped outside, the cold air swirled around my hands and face. Fari was right. My body had been soaking up the warmth of the house over the last thirty minutes. It seemed twice as cold now than it did on the journey down the hill.
“I’m surprised the Dark Elg hasn’t brought you a nice, thick coat by now,” Fari said. “Especially since you don’t throw his gifts away like those other ungrateful kids.”
“I think he’s been working up to it,” I said with a knowing smile.
“He might be,” Fari said. “But cabura skins aren’t cheap. They’re worth a lot in trade in the Elg city. Did your mom tell you about our annual trip?”
“You don’t have to go. I know today has already been quite a shock to you. The journey to the Elg city isn’t an easy one. It’s six full weeks of hard travel there and back, spending every night out in the elements underneath the stars.”
“Sounds like the last month of the Slush after our house falls apart.”
The path to the spring was a well-worn groove in the ice.
“So, this spring…” I hinted.
“Oh, right,” Fari said. “It’s called a spring because it’s a place where hot water springs up out of the ground.”
“What makes it hot?”
“Far below the ice, there’s quite a lot of water,” Fari explained. “The planet generates heat deep underground, and that heat has to go somewhere. Much of it gets absorbed by the water, but sometimes there’s a lot of heat in a concentrated area, and it pushes its way through the ice.”
“Okay, so… We live on what’s called a planet. It rotates around the sun in outer space…”
By then my brain was too overwhelmed to process Fari’s words. I felt like Marg did every time Mrs. Hom asked her to solve a simple math problem. That made me nervous about going to school tomorrow. Now I would be like Marg, although I couldn’t crush my classmates for answering questions correctly.
I was so lost in my own thoughts, I’d stopped paying attention to where I was going. Not that I really needed to since I was following Fari. But when I looked up, Fari had disappeared. So had the path.
I couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction. The sun was just a bright spot in the haze that had trapped me.
Was this something Omo worried about? Was this the belly of some vaporous beast that would slowly digest me before I could fight my way out? I looked at my hands. They were dripping with some kind of wet substance. Wim twitched nervously, echoing my concern.
“Fari!” I screamed.