From the author: A young girl and her dog search their ash-covered island for treasure in the days following the world's end.
Today is my Nini’s birthday. She’s turning three hundred and eighty-four years old. That might seem old, especially if you’re under a hundred and can’t think of how somebody could live that long, but if you met my Nini, you’d believe her.
Her labret flaps against her chin as she speaks, like a fish gasping its last breath in the bottom of a skiff. One day I will wear a labret too. I wonder if mine will ever be so big and beautiful. My sister once said that our Nini’s lip disgusts her, and that she’ll never be like our Nini. Or Mother. I can still feel the sting of her words. Mother died one the day the ocean rose in anger and swept away the world—the day the sky crashed to earth like heavenly fire—the day the mountain unleashed its fury.
She asks me to bring her a gift. “A treasure to keep me young.”
I leave the village to hunt for my Nini’s treasure. Alaga is with me, a village dog that adopted me as his own. He is white as starlight, so bright it’s sometimes hard to look at him. My family cannot see Alaga. Nini says he’s a spirit dog. She’s the only one who believes, even if she can’t see him, either.
Alaga isn’t the only mystery in my life. This new world—with its skies like grey stone, sunsets like fire, and chill winds—is full of mysteries. Like my Nini. No one knows where she came from. Bitter men and women of my village call her mambabarang, and spit flies from their lips as they say it. “They are the drunk and the lost,” my ma used to say. “Scared of kindness. Of difference.“ My Nini’s skin is as black as Alaga is white. She came to our village a long time ago, from lands unknown, and kept my village safe when the world ended. I think Alaga came with her, across the vast oceans on her ship of stone. My Nini is the most beautiful woman in the world.
We follow the trails that my village has used since before time had meaning. Before the sky darkened, before the heavens wept grey, dusty tears. These trails once wound through groves of fruit trees, wild with deer and other animals. The deer are still here, drifting through the grey forest, though most of the trees are just twisted dead things. They look so sad to me. Once free, now lost. Alaga barks at a doe and her fawn. They leap away—high, higher, towards the sun. They disappear into the clouds that never break.
Alaga runs along the trail, paws leaving no mark in the ash. He stops before a tree, healthier-looking than the rest; its dusty boughs are splashed with a scattering of red and green, resilient and boldly alive in all the greyness. It is my Nini’s tree—she’d planted it herself, the seed carried with her from her homeland beyond the waves. It’s a magic tree, I think. I kneel under it and my knees sink into the drifts. Ash collects under my nails as I dig.
There I find my Nini’s treasure, gleaming where it landed after falling from the tree. More of the treasures hang above—shriveled, the colour of the sky the day the world ended, and more buds. A sign, maybe, that the world might return to what it had once been. They are far above the short reach of my arms. But I need only one today.
I race home, clutching the bright treasure tight to my chest. Alaga runs beside me. The gleam of Nini’s approval glows in the storm of thought, memory, and imagination that lives behind my eyes. My Nini often says that it’s small things that make life wonderful; but the treasure wrapped in my hands is no small thing. The ghostly sweet taste of persimmon juice tickles my tongue. I know my Nini will share a bite on her birthday.
Because she is love and generosity and all good things.
From Aidan Moher—Hugo Award-winning editor of A Dribble of Ink—comes Tide of Shadows and Other Stories, a collection of five science fiction and fantasy stories spanning adventure, comic whimsy, and powerful drama—from a star-faring military science fiction tale of love and sacrifice, to a romp through the dragon-infested Kingdom of Copperkettle Vale.
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