School was good today. I like school. Don't tell Mama and Papa, but someday I want to leave Az'iro'd and go to university in Bogotá. Not that I don't love our village; I do. There's about a hundred of us over here, and Mama and Papa have our own ranch where we grow crops and raise cattle. Getting bloodied by a j'gyph'n is nothing; you should see some of the things I've dealt with while raising cows. The jungle canopy overhead keeps the j'gyph'ns out of the village, and the as'sp'jar'zs stay down by the river. Then we have the punt'cercs, spiked fences that surround all the villages in the valley to keep the beasties out. Yeah, let's not talk about the beasties. Every once in a while something gets through the punt'cerc. I lost a cousin that way when I was little, eaten right out of her bed one night. Brr!
Why don't we move our village across the river to be with all the other villages? Don't be silly. This is our home. Even when I go away, it'll still be home to me. Anyway, lots of us in Az'iro'd use the garg'nlyns, all the time. It's the only way we have to go anywhere else.
The return trip across the G'rganr'o Valley in the afternoons isn't so bad. The heat makes the j'gyph'ns sluggish, and their attempts to eat Jaci and me are pretty half-hearted. Today I brought back flour and potatoes for Mama, and I spent a penny on a sack of hard candy for Jaci and me. Tiarn'joq helped us cross back home. He's been my best friend forever. The P'jarin'te live higher up the mountains, and since they share the same air with the j'gyph'ns, they've grown to become expert j'gyph'n fighters. All the bird-people have different-colored plumage, but I like Tiarn'joq's colors the best. He can carry me for a short distance, and sometimes he'll perch me up in a tree so I can watch the rainbow parade of the P'jarin'te while they sail about their business under the sun.
When we get home I do my homework and help Jacynt'n with his, and then I help Mama make supper. That's why I want to go to Bogotá; I don't wanna be making suppers for everyone else my whole life. After we eat, Jaci and I go outside to play with the other village kids and trade stories about going to school that day. There are other garg'nlyns, and I'm not the only one who flies across the gorge to get to school. But some kids have their parents take them, and a few parents are so scared of the trip that they don't let their kids go to school at all. That's just wrong. Before my first solo trip across the gorge, Papa told me that if you're too scared to fly across and live, you may as well give up and die right now.
Vy'ltr'n and N'triado, Mama and Papa, sit out on the front patio in the evening twilight. Papa smokes, and Mama watches after my baby brother, Ra'ami'jo. He's three. My sister Gin'trajo is sixteen, and god knows where she is tonight. I think she's got a crush on a P'jarin'te boy, but Tiarn'joq won't tell me who it is. He can be a pain that way. Me, I've got a crush on A'andiank'n, at school. She's twelve, and lives across the river, and she's the only reason I wish sometimes that we did live over on the other side.
Before bed I spend a few minutes listening to music on the crystal wireless, from Bogotá. I love the ladies' singing, so hot and sweet. The music makes my body tingle. Mama gets a sad look when she sees me listen to the wireless. I think she knows about Bogotá, too.
Bedtime. I share a room with my brothers, but at my next birthday Mama promised me that I get to move into my older sister's room. I giggle when I think about that. Sis is gonna be so mad when she finds out.
I hear crickets and owls, and the swish of trees in the night breeze. I wonder if A'andiank'n is thinking about me, too. Just as I'm about to fall asleep, I hear a shriek in the air, out over the punt'cerc. Maybe a j'gyph'n got an as'sp'jar'z. Revenge for what I saw on the way to school today, I suppose.
I don't care. As long as the beasties stay on their side of the punt'cerc, we'll stay on our side.
* * *
The hardest thing to carry is the baztid'r, which is almost as big as me. Jacynt'n and I hike out to the garg'nlyn base the next morning. The sunlight is already falling through the leafy canopy, and the breeze ruffles my hair. Happy birds sing, and I see a couple of chittering little monkeys up a tree. They like to stay inside the punt'cerc so the serp't'ns won't get them. I'm wearing clean, denim overall shorts and a white shirt. Jaci has on dark blue shorts and a beige jumper. I carry books for both of us in my backpack. The two handlers get me up in my harness, and I wriggle my butt in it to get the fit right. One of the men ties Jaci into his jute sack and ties the sack to my waist while I check my gear. I look up at the steel-thread garg'nlyn. Papa helped make it, so I know it'll hold.
"Marji," Papa calls as he comes down to say good-bye. "Check the rope!"
I roll my eyes; of course, I'd already checked it. Papa comes up to us, pats Jaci on the head through his bag, and kisses my hand.
"Have a good day at school, Marji," Papa says.
I lean down and give him a quick kiss on the cheek. He smells of tobacco. I wish I had time to get back down and hug him before we leave.
I prop the butt of my baztid'r against my right thigh, the handlers give me a hard push on my back, and we're off to school for another day.
The tree line comes up fast. I know Tiarn'joq will be waiting, no matter what. The garg'nlyn sizzles over my head while we pass over the punt'cerc. I can feel the rope for Jaci's bag dig into my waist. He's getting bigger, and in a year or so he'll get to make this trip by himself. Here comes the end of the trees, and there's sun and mist and blue sky and our beautiful valley so far below, and Tiarn'joq is waiting right where he should be. I start to wave at him.
"Marji," Tiarn'joq cries out. "Watch to your left; fast, fast!"
Crap, there's two j'gyph'ns coming hard at me, maybe thirty yards away. One of them veers off and goes after Tiarn'joq, who's just as tasty to them as I am, I'm sure. I swing the baztid'r down and under, and fire to my left.
Goddamn it, the thing jams on the first shot. I slam the baztid'r hard against my right leg and whip it back around.
Aaaaaagh! Black feathers in my face; gold fur with spots rushing past my eyes; I feel the warmth of the j'gyph'n's body for a second and, scared by my momentum, he flies back and --
There's no weight around my waist.
Oh god, the j'gyph'n's talons cut the rope! Jaci screams; his bag is falling, tumbling toward the trees; the j'gyph'n goes after it, shrieking in triumph, but he pulls back when he sees a pair of as'sp'jar'zs watching the bag fall; Tiarn'joq is battling the other j'gyph'n; he hasn't seen what happened; I'm flying along far too fast; "La Zorra Voladora," the other kids call me; The Flying Fox; I haven't even had the chance to unholster my mad'rj'r; the steep ground drops away fast, a hundred yards, a hundred-and-fifty yards; and there's no way in hell I'm leaving my little brother behind!
I open the flap and pull the ripcord on my harness.
I whip my body around as I start to drop, and I see Jacynt'n's bag fall past the hungry as'sp'jar'zs and disappear into the treetops. The j'gyph'n comes after me and I shoot the baztid'r at him, and the weapon finally fires but, of course, I miss. Falling, falling; flip, click, reload; I point the baztid'r at the two as'sp'jar'zs coming for me, and they're smart birds who know better, so they bank away. Trees closing fast; I don't really believe in god but I say what is probably a prayer, sorry, to someone, anyone, that the trees break my fall. I clamp my eyes shut and curl my body into a ball.
It's like jumping into a pond of thick green leaves, and I feel sticks ripping at me and thinner branches whipping at me, and one big branch slams hard on my right shin and I scream so hard that I can't catch my breath again for a couple of moments, and then --
My backpack strap catches on a branch and pulls me up from my fall. My stomach feels like it's gonna flop right outta my feet. The baztid'r slips from my hand and falls about twenty or thirty feet to the ground, which is thankfully fairly soft. No time to think. I unhook one buckle of my backpack, slide my other arm out of its strap, and follow my baztid'r to the ground. My mad'rj'r snaps and jabs into my left side as I land. I roll over, grab the baztid'r, kick away the pieces of my mad'rj'r, and stand up while the rope harness falls off my hips.
I'm on the ground. I'm on the jungle floor outside of the punt'cerc. Oh, shit. Oh, shit, shit, shit. And this time, you can tell Papa I said so.
As opposed to walking around down here, the garg'nlyn is the safe way to get to school.
For a moment the jungle is quiet, but then things rustle again, and every little rustle makes me jump. I hear hoots and grunts, and brightly colored birds sing and squawk at me. Overhead I hear Tiarn'joq calling my name. There's nothing but dense leaves above me, and Tiarn'joq will have a hell of a time getting past the as'sp'jar'zs, who are much stronger than the P'jarin'te.
The toughest men in the villages don't dare go beyond the punt'cercs by themselves. And I'm out here on my own. Swell.
Part Two of Four
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