For a reason they couldn’t quite work out, they awoke with Avery on their mind. She teased their dreams as a fairy, twirling through sky blue waterfalls and pansies, before taking their hand and bringing them into consciousness.
When Cameron awoke, they patted their blankets, first for her, then for their Moeder. They found neither woman, but did see Nuvu watching over them like an angel.
How strange. They never dreamed of people they knew, just faceless strangers in unknown tunnles. Avery must’ve been thinking about them somewhere on the surface.
They stretched out their sore joints and got dressed. As they went to their grub collection for breakfast, they stepped on something hard near their curtain. One of their aqua gemmes had rolled off its shelf. It rested against their excavating equipment, pointing out towards the tunnle.
“Alright.” They picked it up and stuffed a grub in their mouth. “Show me where you want to go.”
The artisans had just opened their huts for the morning. Pottery makers carried cups from the kilns as bat owners cooed for their bats. Cameron stood up tall to search for either Maywood or Basil and give them a good morning, but they stumbled across a strange scene: a completely deserted ville.
To make sure they weren’t losing their sight, they checked inside one of the silkworm huts for answers. Two older Arkeh:nen named Berr and Hayes were threading silk into their ancient spinning wheels.
“Mornin’, Cameron,” Berr said. “I thought you’d be outside with everyone else.”
Hayes smiled and pointed towards the Main Exit Tunnle. More than two-dozen Arkeh:nen were crammed into the tunnle opening like mice trying to squeeze into the same hole. They murmured as they stood on their tiptoes, trying to see something spectacular.
Cameron tripped out of the hut and ran towards the Exit.
Double the amount of Arkeh:nen were huddled inside. Some balanced their babies on their shoulders while others climbed onto higher rocks to see up ahead. No member of the Community acted this way unless one of two things happened: a person had died, or someone had brought down a treasure from the surface: a good roll of rope, glass.
Cameron darted through the crowd and made their way towards the center of it all.
Avery stood amongst the curious with her arms tight at her sides. She smiled weakly, a defense mechanism to disarm a threat. When she spotted Cameron, though, she relaxed and gave them a real smile.
Cameron smiled back. Not only was she wearing a new outfit today, she had their necklace still around her neck. She entangled her fingers through the twine as she waved.
They couldn’t control themselves and ran into her for a hug. She smelled sweeter than last time, like she’d touched a spot of honey around her ears.
She didn’t hug back. She stood there, speechless, and slowly, the awkwardness pushed Cameron away. They should’ve said something to her first. Of course she wouldn’t have approved of something so abrupt and physical.
They rubbed the gemme in their pocket. Their hand came back sweaty. “I thought you’d never come back.”
She said something in return.
“I still can’t understand you.”
She shifted her weight on her heels. “My…Moeder.”
“Moeder? Your Moeder what?”
“Moeder…” She made a harsh X with her forearms, then pointed at herself, then to the top of the Exit hole. She pretended her fingers were walking down the decline.
“Your Moeder forbade you from coming here?” To say this, Cameron copied her hand gestures with a confused look, and she nodded.
Satisfied that she now had a trustworthy companion with her, the Community dispersed. Some eyes stayed on her, but the Grandmoeders had made up their minds. They wanted to see Avery more often, and if someone had a problem with it, they had to keep it to themselves. Or argue with their elders, like anybody would do that.
Like before, Avery marveled at the expanse of Arkeh:na. She turned in circles with a hand over her heart, her smile suppressed, too nervous to show off her true feelings.
Cameron picked the dirt out of their fingernails, then tapped her shoulder and pointed towards the Centrum.
They sat together on the best throw pillows filled with the fluffiest goose feathers. While she dug something out of her backpack, she looked up to the pillars and lanterns spiraling around them. The amount of awe in her profile left Cameron taking peeks at her behind her back. What was wrong with them? Was it because she’d dressed differently, that she smelled nice? Everyone in Arkeh:na dressed differently and smelled nice. Why had they noticed such details about her?
When she pulled out a book, they raised their brows. Not many Arkeh:nen could read, and Cameron didn’t know how to draw. What good would paper do them?
Nevertheless, they swung around a Centrum lantern for her to see.
“Thank you,” it sounded like she said, and opened to the first page.
Pictures of Autreans looked up at Cameron. They looked so lifelike that, for a naive moment, Cameron believed them to be miniature people and not just pictures captured in time, these “fotos.”
Basil had explained this technology to them once before, about how Autreans could capture moments in time and paint them quickly with perfection. Fones could do it, as well as “kamras,” but it looked like Avery had put these pictures here for safekeeping.
They felt around the fotos’ corners. She had pictures of herself in broad daylight and of her sitting on an elevated, fancy-looking bed. In some, Past Avery stood next to two adults who must’ve been her parents. She looked to be six or seven in them, her hair curled just above her shoulders.
“Moeder,” she said, pointing to the woman, “and…”
“Yeah. Moeder Juniper and Fader Ethan.”
“And Avery,” they said, touching her knee.
Their “ands” sounded so similar. Could they make more words like this? More questions? All Arkeh:nen had questions about Autrean life, and now Cameron had the perfect teacher to learn from.
“Fader?” Avery then asked. “Cameron’s…” She raised her shoulders and hands, posing a question.
“My Fader?” Cameron asked.
“He looked a lot like you,” was the most they’d ever gotten from their Moeder. Along with his name: Erik.
Without the Autrean words to tell her that, they copied what she’d done and made an X with their arms.
She frowned. “Sorry.”
She flipped to the next page and started sketching with her quill. She squinted as she drew, as if one lantern wasn’t enough. They noticed that deep inside her shirt pocket hid her fone, now turned off to keep from blinding them.
She drew a few gemmes, then pointed to the real ones around Cameron’s neck and made her questioning pose.
“Gemmes?” they asked. “Well, gemmes are…”
“‘Good’? Did you say ‘good’? Yes, gemmes are good. They heal us, protect us. They guide us when we’re lost or scared.”
Excited, Cameron took Avery’s quill and drew a big smiley face next to her gemme drawing. They took turns scribbling more doodles around it, though theirs couldn’t compete with Avery’s. While shaky, her love of drawing shone through the page.
They spent nearly a half hour drawing together. Cameron drew rabbits and mice while Avery drew people and symbols. After they filled up two pages, Avery wrote out her alphabet in near perfect handwriting. Cameron had nothing to offer, so they tried teaching themselves her letters. They did their best, but things like “TVs,” “cities,” and “laptops” didn’t and would never register with them.
“They’re like—” She pretended to fiddle with something in her lap.
“Is it an object, or something like magic, like an idea you summon with your heart?”
She pressed her mouth in a line, thinking hard. While she thought, Cameron thumbed through her book.
They saw something, though. Right before she pulled it away, they recognized a familiar face.
“Was that me?” they asked. “Did you draw me?”
Avery pressed the book against her chest. “Not good.”
“Not good? What’s not good?” Inching it out of her hands, they flipped back to the page and admired themselves in her style. Their eyes still looked too big and their hair had a lot of detail in it, but it was undoubtedly them.
“This’s really good,” they said. “Can you draw me again? Draw me?” they tried in English.
Avery laughed at nothing and yanked down her hat. “Eye,” she then said, averting the question. “Why eye?”
Cameron searched for a nearby rock and readied their theatrical performance. They indicated that, in this story, they were smaller. They pretended to carve out some rocks on their hands and knees, improperly digging without the equipment they had now. They made a note to look up cautiously at the Centrum ceiling as if it’d collapse on them. Unable to change fate, they then let the rock fall gently against their forehead and eye socket. They faked a head pain and gave a few moans to end the retelling about their first cave-in.
Avery quietly clapped her hands.
Cameron played off of her energy with a hammy bow. “I got these from the collapse, too.” They showed off their calf scar and the skin etched away by the Earth.
Avery pulled her legs to her chest, admiring Cameron’s body. Before they got too flustered by that idea, she took off her boot and two layers of socks to reveal her naked foot. Pink scars cut up her shaven leg.
“How?” they asked, and made the questioning gesture they’d been using.
Avery folded her notebook into a V. She pretended her fingers were a person walking carelessly towards the edge. She made a quiet outcry as they tripped and fell into the V.
She tightened her shoulders.
“You got stuck?”
“S…Stuck? Yeah, stuck. For—” And she said something that sounded like “thirty minutes.”
Cameron understood. By how well she dressed and carried her pack, she looked able to walk the woods by herself, but only Arkeh:nen could safely maneuver in and out of caves, Earth’s unforgivable zones.
After they drew and wrote to one another, Cameron took Avery on a proper tour of Arkeh:na. All the places they could visit—no unwarranted trips to the Grandmoeders’ Den. First they showed her the silkworm huts and how they extracted silk to make shirts and shoes. They described the artistic process with their hands more than anything. As Avery picked up more and more words, they still had trouble with Autrean pronunciation. She had a talent for learning new languages. It didn’t surprise them.
Next they walked her through the pottery huts, and then the bat and insect farms behind them. While she liked how each bat owned a little collar, she did not appreciate the process of boiling insects for food. She scrambled out of the hut when the worms began to squirm.
Knowing she didn’t like crowds, Cameron skipped the ville and crossed the Rivière. Across it was the school they’d graduated from. It was one of the only buildings in Arkeh:na, two stories tall and built into the wall.
The halls felt so much smaller than they had a few years ago. Their old moccasin cubby would hardly fit their current pair. The smell remained, though, that fresh scent of mud and new clothes. They learned how to be an excavator here, and a good Arkeh:nen. They met Basil and Maywood here and learned about their new pronoun. While they explored, Avery peeked into a classroom where children were learning about proper cave safety. They ran when a teacher caught sight of them.
When they entered the tunnles where most people lived, Avery clapped her hands together. She asked the most questions here, particularly when it came to the den sizes and the drapery acting as doors. Every hole and ornament enchanted her, so Cameron proudly explained everything to her.
“We trust one another not to break in and steal our stuff,” they said. “We’re all a big family living in different rooms.”
Avery smiled up at the multiple levels of Arkeh:na. Whenever they needed to cross a rickety bridge or scale up a ladder, her hands trembled and reached for Cameron. They didn’t know why, but whenever she touched them on her own accord, they stiffened up, almost as if to impress her. They knew they slouched, so why didn’t they want to act natural around her? They palmed the aqua gemme for answers.
As they crossed a bridge to the northern dens, two young children crept up around a pillar. They took cover like sneaky foxes. Cameron went to ask what they were doing when one of them yelped. Avery had noticed them as well. They stumbled over one another and wailed back to their dens.
As they waddled away, Avery heaved over and choked on her giggles.
Cameron laughed along with her. Ever since meeting her, they feared she didn’t like showing too much happiness in front of others. Seeing her shiny teeth and the tears in her eyes made them want to keep laughing for her sake.
But then their body shut down. A burning charred up their lungs and scratched their throat. Their shoulders numbed. Their arms went cold. They held onto the bridge’s rope as they coughed to get something out.
“I’m okay,” they wheezed. “This’s normal.”
“No…Normal? No, no normal.” She wrestled out a small, orange bottle with a white top from her backpack. She put it back, not what she was looking for, then pulled out another bottle. She shook out two blue rocks and pointed to her mouth, indicating that Cameron should eat them.
Cameron finished coughing into the crook of their arm. “You can’t eat rocks.”
She read the bottle’s label, then offered it to them again.
Again, they pushed her away. “I’m fine.”
A crackle rustled in Avery’s bag. Still holding the bottle, she unzipped another zipper and took out the crackling box Cameron had seen in the Grandmoeders’ Den. “Moeder.”
“Your Moeder what?”
She pointed back the way they came, back to the surface.
“Are you leaving? Already? You just got here.”
She tried a few words, none of which Cameron knew, then pretended to ring something in her hand. She mimicked the sound a bell made whenever a Grandmoeder wished to speak with you.
“A bell? Was your Moeder talking to you just now?”
“Moeder, bell, yes.”
Sensing that she needed to leave right away, Cameron escorted her back through Arkeh:na to the Main Exit Tunnle. She walked more confidently than she had a few days ago. Cameron had only lit a few firebugs and, when they reached the end, she’d only hit her head once.
She stared up at the small crack of light at the end of the tunnle. Her toes scrunched up in her boots. In a defeated tone, she said something akin to “goodbye” or “farewell.”
Cameron tried copying her accent, then said in Arkeh:nen, “I hope your Moeder lets you come down more often.”
“Yeah,” she said, but Cameron didn’t know if she understood exactly what they were trying to say.
She took a step forwards, and they couldn’t help but do the same. It felt odd, but they gave each other a quick hug before she ascended back up to the surface world.
As Cameron waved goodbye, something cool dripped down their chin. Careful so as not to stain their shirt, they wiped it with their finger.
Blood smeared against their dirty thumb.
They licked it back up, pretended it was honey, and returned to the comforts of Arkeh:na.