A story I wrote for a class a while ago. I’m kind of not very satisfied with it (when is a writer ever satisfied with their work, anyway), the writing style, the character development, and especially how I executed the plot, but I also think it’s bigger than the page limit – I wanted to pack too much in there. I should really try to make smaller stories; they’re slightly easier to work with when I have a schedule as tight as a college schedule and more manageable for proofreading, and I’ll learn to avoid lengthy prose and unnecessary details. But anyhow, here it is.
When I first saw him, he was exiting the woods, a bamboo basket of orange berries in his feeble arms. His hunched back loomed over the earth, his steps so slow he could be mistaken for a statue, if not for his scarce strands of gray hair fluttering in the summer wind. A worn cloth bag swayed back and forth on his side as he walked. In a brief second he looked up at me. And he froze. From even five hundred feet away I could sense his caution like that of an outsider trapped in Haevon. Or of man as small as he was in front of a kid as tall as I was.
“Um, hi.” I called out to him, gradually drawing close. “I, um, I won’t do anything to you, so please don’t worry.”
His grip on the berries loosened somewhat, but still he eyed me up and down until we were a mere fifty feet apart.
“You new to Haevon?”
He nodded. I looked around a bit, trying not to be too threatening by pushing my already short hair away from my face so that he could see me more clearly. Not sure if it was the way to go about it, though.
“You, um, you’re safe here. Kind of.” I gestured to nothing in particular. “No one ever goes here. Well, I do, but no one knows I do, if that makes sense. Um—”
“Are you going to kill me?” His deep, hoarse voice rang against the clear sky.
“I—what, no, no, of course not.” I emptied my pants pocket. “See, I don’t have any weapons. Um, I know I look kind of scary, like, my height and all that, but I swear I don’t, um, I won’t do anything to you, I swear.”
The old man took a couple of steps forward and made a turn into an abandoned construction site beside us. I followed him. Putting down the basket, he slumped to the ground and popped a berry in his mouth. This was my first time seeing an actual outsider with no connections to Haevon. If he knew somebody, he would’ve stayed with them, instead of wandering in the wild like this. And if that were the case, I should have reported him. But curiosity got the better of me. There was no way I would miss a chance to talk to an outsider, despite him being a strange, berry-chewing, old man with clothes so ragged my family could look like elites if we stood next to him. I fumbled with my fingers while deciding my next move when he spoke.
“Young man, just let me finish these berries, will you?” The man said, stuffing his face with more berries. “At least grant an old man the privilege of a good meal before you execute him.”
“I, um, I told you, I won’t, um, do anything.” I sat down facing him and held out my hand. “My name’s Fay. My hobby is exploring every corner in Haevon because I have nothing better to do. And you? How did you end up here?”
The old man glared at me for some time before he offered me some of his berries. They were good, refreshingly sour. He told me he didn’t trust me, but he was going to die soon, anyway, so neither old age nor execution made much difference to him. He might as well get a friend while he still could.
His name was Cance, or Old Cance as he liked to refer to himself. He left home when he was my age. Fed up with a repetitive life of working day after day, fourteen-year-old Cance thought a journey across the world would be interesting and took off. Without a map or a compass, he traveled either on foot or by boat, allowing himself to be carried to wherever. Ironically, it was also how he got stuck in Haevon. Sailing down an unknown stream he crossed the border into Haevon when there wasn’t anyone guarding. As he met a dead end and tried to go back, the guards denied him exit, because he was neither a resident nor an authorized visitor. But they also released him since he seemed so old and harmless. With nowhere to go, he ventured into the woods again and discovered this construction site, far enough from both the town and the border. After several weeks of watching over it to make sure no one stopped by the place, he settled here.
From the cloth bag Old Cance pulled out a big book. He explained how he wrote down stories that he encountered as he traveled across the globe in this book, but all words flew over my head. I could only stare in amazement. It was the second book I’d ever seen in my entire life. And it looked so different from the first one. How thick it was, how ragged. Old Cance flipped through some pages. How so full of words, of incredible stories and of amazing people I’d never get to know.
“Do you want to read it?” he asked.
I told him I was illiterate, to my embarrassment, but he only hummed in acknowledgement.
“Do you want me to teach you, then?”
I nodded faster than my mouth could answer. Yes, yes, yes.
“Then how about I give you this book, and we shall start from here?”
For the next couple of months we spent our mornings and afternoons on the book as I discovered one magical word after another. Old Cance didn’t have a hard time getting me to piece everything together, since I knew the alphabet beforehand. With too much free time on my hand, I had wandered around government buildings, tried to connect the written words on the nameplates to how people pronounced them, eavesdropped on that place where all the elite kids went to, and attempted to write the letters I memorized on sand and dirt in areas far away from the town’s center. The process was long and tedious, but I never forgot about Alcus, and so I never gave up.
That winter, when mom found the book inside my pillow cover, I thought it wasn’t that big of a deal. She wouldn’t sell me out to dad and Nen. But scandalized she was. “You seen that Alcus boy next door?” she hissed, “Stole a book from the Library. Look what happened. Got his head hanged in front of the house now.” Of course I had seen Alcus. I even joined in his group of friends to decipher the large letters in the book he stole, accompanied by adorable colored pictures. But nobody was aware of that. Lying that I had picked it up near Library’s trash room, I convinced her that all would be fine as long as I was mindful and besides, no one cared about me and what I did. Not when they had an older, stronger, more useful child. Here, younger siblings were a waste of money.
In nervous whispers even though no one was home, mom insisted on my getting rid of the book as soon as I could, her short arms flailing everywhere. I wouldn’t hear any of it, and instead I opened to a page and asked her if she wanted to hear a story. Mom narrowed her eyes, but eventually she went to close the door and closed the wood windows. “Just to be safe. Your poppa won’t be home for a while,” she said, grinning at me. I grinned back. From then on it became our secret ritual to hear a story each day before dad came home. Somewhere in my mind I was aware that I had forced her into a tight spot. Feeling sorry for me, she would do her best to make me happy. I supposed she really loved me despite the fact that I belonged to the “unwanted” category, and pitied me for having been born in such a system. But she also couldn’t express her dissatisfaction, with Nen, Dad, and all Haevon regarding her as a housework machine whose voice didn’t matter as much as the cleanliness of her house. She just wouldn’t dare.
During this precious alone time we gathered in front of the stove, wrapped in the warmth of the crackling fire. On the wall, my shadow overcast hers as the colorful words swept us away into a leisurely yet irresistible stream of imagination. And we transformed. The sneaky onlookers of private affairs, the sorrowful sympathizers with heart-wrenching losses, the proud witnesses of social revolutions that Haevon needed but never had the privilege to have. After several weeks we agreed on “The Blind Girl and the Almost-Astronaut” as our favorite story. A blind girl wanted to be an astronaut, so her best friend decided to put in his best efforts to become an astronaut for her, but he failed after years of hard work. The purity of their friendship moved mom to tears.
Dad and Nen hadn’t a clue about what mom and I were doing. Neither did I let them get near my bed. They worked from early morning before I woke up, and returned just in time for dinner, after which they moved to the bamboo chairs in our front garden to discuss their plans on the farm for the next day until the sluggish night rendered them tired enough for bed. In the meantime, I pretended to clean the corner where my bed was. Surprisingly, not once did they wonder why our tiny, tiny house was so especially dirty at one corner.
As a young child I used to hate being the useless younger sibling, but now I only wished no one could see me. It was a futile wish, though. No matter how hard I tried and how typically Haevon my hazel eyes and brown hair and olive skin were, I was always obnoxiously tall, sticking out like a sore thumb among my family, my townspeople. Maybe that was why Dad didn’t like me that much. With the exception of my mom all parents preferred their first child, but Dad seemed even ashamed of me, having never taken me anywhere and keeping Nen by his side instead. I guess it was indeed a shameful thing to stand next to a second child who towered over you and your honorary first child.
Although mom loved those stories of the people’s rebellion against the corrupted government, she’d always warn me not to get “any funny ideas” from the book. “It can be lies. Wonderful, wonderful stories, very nice to hear, but you be careful. Better get rid of that book. Don’t take risks in this town.” Again, her words bounced off my ears like raindrops on an umbrella. Haevon’s education policy didn’t make sense to me. They prohibited us Nogos from attending school or a class of any sort and offered it for the elites only. We weren’t allowed to learn even the alphabet; some families wanted to avoid trouble so much they denied its existence altogether. Everyone explained that the Nogos was suited for labor work, which didn’t require a brain, while the elites needed one to keep the town running. But Alcus’s death was my awakening call. Back then, the joy we got out of the book was greater than the vague fear in our unconscious. Although we did try to be discrete, we didn’t fully understand the risk we were taking. As the younger siblings we didn’t have much to do, anyway. A week after, they caught Alcus, and the small, brave boy wouldn’t spill a word in order to protect us. As the executioner released the shiny blade of the guillotine, reality hit me like a mightiest storm. The book was practically harmless, having brought us nothing but tremendous fun and pleasure, and yet it was considered the most serious offense. The reasoning behind such a ridiculous law I couldn’t fathom; the ridiculous law itself I couldn’t agree with. Listening to Alcus’s mom’s quiet hiccups among the crowd I swore I’d never stop learning how to read, even if all I understood was the alphabet.
The head fell in the basket and they put a cloth over it. The twilight sun couldn’t reach him now.
Old Cance listened to all of this while chewing on his freshly picked gray berries – I wondered how those cherries sustained him for the past couple of months, but then again, he did appear quite frail now. He had to sit on a larger, higher stone or else he wouldn’t be able to get up. If I didn’t pay attention I wouldn’t be able to catch his gradually softer murmurings.
“Well then, tell me, my friend,” Old Cance said, “what do you plan to do?”
I confessed to him that I could think of nothing but to leave the town. Surely I wanted to revolt, yet I saw no possible comrades. Alcus, poor Alcus, snuck into the Library and stole a book just for fun, since everyone talked about the Library as if it were a holy, untouchable sanctuary. Little did the boy know the cost he had to pay for the book. We, the No Good, had the warning they needed.
“‘Who needs education, we can farm and live just fine.’ That’s what they told themselves afterward,” I mumbled, my voice filled with distaste. “But I don’t want to farm for the rest of my life. I can’t even farm. Dad doesn’t want me to interfere with his farm business.”
“Is leaving not an option, my dear Fay?”
“Well, I can legally leave, but I won’t be able to return. Once I’m out, I’m out. Not that I care.”
“Then what is holding you back?”
The question slipped gently from Old Cance’s lips like a seasoned ice-skater gliding his graceful way across the rink and straight into my self-awareness. Indeed I was living in a bubble, but indeed I could pop that bubble anytime. Why did leaving the town never occur to me? Fourteen years and not a single happy piece of memory.
The sun would bid goodbye soon; the chilly night wind began to sneak its way to us. On the withering grass I sat unmoved. Old Cance handed me his fruits basket, from which I gathered a handful of berries, oddly shiny and luscious despite their depressing color.
“My dear, dear Fay,” he said, struggling to project his voice, “I do not want to give you advice that you will regret following, and that I will regret giving. I cannot guarantee you that you will be as lucky on your journey as I was on mine. I can only tell you to do what makes you happy so that when you die, you can say to yourself, ‘Yes, I was satisfied.’”
“But are you satisfied, Old Cance? You got stuck in Haevon, after all. Not an ideal place to die in,” I mused.
“Well, you kept me company and made it bearable, so I suppose I can say I am satisfied.” He smiled softly, the wrinkles on his face pushing against each other.
Some days afterward, when I finished reading a story to mom and vaguely suggested leaving Haevon, her reaction was nothing but pure, unadulterated rage. She swung her dirt cloth as dust flew everywhere, falling on the table, the chairs, the floor she just cleaned. “You too naïve, boy. You believe that book? All lies, all lies! They gonna kill you out there. Nowhere safer than here. Know your place and forget about it.” No matter how much I tried to appeal to her with the wonderful outside world, the joyous first-hand experience of the stories in the book, the delicious fresh air of freedom, she wouldn’t budge. She insisted on my being a good boy in Haevon and everything would be fine, while I stood my ground that I’d never be happy the way I was. Just as mom started crying, the wooden door swung open and farming tools fell on the stone floor like a poorly performed symphony. I bit my lips at the sight of dad and Nen.
“What the fuck is happening?” Of course that was the first thing dad said. Even though he had no idea what was happening he still managed to get angry with his diluting eyes and flaring nostrils. Mom was too occupied with crying to answer. He looked around the house and at mom, then finally stopped at me and my hand. “Hey, what you got there, Fay?”
“Is that a book?” Nen peeped in, his voice sly and deserving of a punch.
Dad’s facial muscles tightened at the word “book.” He stomped over to me. His soil-dyed boots left humongous steps on the mat, the floor. I walked backward, attempting to make a round way to the door but Nen was already blocking it. With nowhere else to go I ended up with my back to the stone cold wall next to the entrance. Dad reached for my hand but I held it up high where he couldn’t reach. The fire’s flickering light shone on the book. Nen gaped. Veins popped up on dad’s forehead, dirt and sweat rolling down his temples.
“Where did you get this?” he said through gritted teeth.
I kept my silence.
“No, you know what,” he continued, “I don’t give a flying fuck. Get rid of this. Be a good boy like you always are and burn it. Here, you got a fire over there. Do it.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Too bad for you, but you have to.”
Mom wouldn’t stop crying in the middle of the house. Dad wouldn’t give up staring at me without blinking. And Nen wouldn’t get that stupid smirk off his face. He must be thinking this was the perfect chance to get rid of me— the petty piece of crap didn’t even know if I got in trouble, the whole family got in trouble, too. My palms were wet from anxiety and my stomach tumbled up and down from frustration. I swallowed hard and with all my strength, I escaped dad and shoved Nen to the side as I rushed out of the house. Behind me I could hear Nen turning to ask dad if he should follow me, to which dad said, “No, that wimp got height but no spine. He’ll come back reporting to us that he’s burned the forbidden thing.” Of course they thought nothing of me at all.
Across the empty streets of Haevon I ran and tripped and failed to keep track of how many cuts and bruises were forming on my legs and arms that I couldn’t even distinguish in the ever darkening night. With a blue stroke of moonlight the neighborhood submitted to a strange sadness, whose melancholy I shattered with my gasps and panicked footsteps. Somewhere in my unconscious I wondered why I was heading to the construction site. Even if I asked for advice Old Cance would repeat the same thing, “Do whatever makes you happy.” But I had no other place to go to, no other friend to rely on, no other person who’d listen to my familial issues without judgment.
Yet, after I made my way into his tent in the construction site my heart seemed to have sunken to a point of no possible repositioning. I kneeled down next to Old Cance and listened. He lay on his bamboo mat, peacefully unbreathing. The basket on his side was filled with berries of all colors, on top a small piece of wood carved with the words, “I will forever be grateful. Thank you with all my heart, my dear friend,” as if he predicted his death. I wanted to call his name again, just to make sure, but the words came out in a jumbled mess of sobs. At a loss as to what to do, I put the book on his body, returning it to its rightful owner. But the more I cried the more I came to hate it. Why did it have to exist? I bet Old Cance reread it every day. What was the point? And why did I let it captivate me so much? Why didn’t I just accept ignorance as bliss? Wouldn’t I be more content that way? Damn it. Was it too late to forget everything and start over again?
In my confusion and tearfulness I realized the fire near Old Cance’s tent had yet to be extinguished. I snatched the book and scrambled to the fire. Its light was feeble, but enough. After taking a look I pulled out a small branch from the fire and opened to the middle of the book. The title of the story was, “The Blind Girl and the Almost-Astronaut.”
I set the page on fire. It was merciless, the fire. Licking and swallowing at the same time. No hesitation. No fuss. From the corner it traveled to the rest of the page, simultaneously devouring consecutive ones as if they were exquisite to its taste. The heat dried my eyes as I stared at the disappearing pages. Ashes landed on my shoes, in my nostrils, between the wrinkles of my shirt. I followed the path of the fire, reading off the words that were about to enter its mouth. As it approached the bottom of the page I quickly scanned through the ending of the story.
In between tears the girl told him gently. “There’s nothing to apologize for. Failure or success, as long as you tried your best, that’s enough. I do want to see the stars, but if it’s light, I’ve already found it.”
Something in me clicked. I put the book down and allowed the fire to finish its meal, hoping it had a good one. As I left I bowed my head to Old Cance’s body, but not for the last time. Tomorrow I’d come back and take the berries with me on my life-long journey.
Because as long as I tried my best, I’d be enough.