Learning to Swim
- by Mimi Mondal -
In the second
kingdom of the stars
there is only
The third time I float into awakening, Raon is leaning over my face.
“Am I dead?”
Raon’s skinny, anxious face doesn’t make any sense, not leaning over the cramped twin bed in my college dorm, not anywhere else.
“I pushed you back,” they sing. “You must live.”
A wave of hand, a flick of long grey eyelashes looking away. A claw in my heart reminder of an entire year spent missing those eyes.
Why is Raon here?
“Why are you—”
“I never made it.”
I swallow. “. . . to Sylphia?”
They shrug. “Never reached the home planet. Never breathed the tart nitron air they sing so much about, never smelled the fresh red soil, never got to try out vocalizing without having to project. Trust me, I was almost beginning to get curious.”
“But.” I look around the room. My roommate’s Rooted Earthlings poster still hangs from the far wall, the dark brown stick figure digging its feet into the ground as its arms sprung into branches and leaves. “Is the ban lifted? Is everyone back? Are you going to sit for the college entrances this year? You can have my SAT practice books, and—”
“Homecoming Mage XXXVII was destroyed. Also XXXV, XLI, and XLIV. They became detached from the fleet and flew directly into an unforeseen rock storm. No one from either ship came out alive.”
“Raon? Why are you saying that?”
“Wake up, Uma. You must live.”
I don’t recall much about my first awakening, except that my father beat me up so hard after I returned that afterwards, locked up in my room, I clawed deep into my arms to punish myself for not having swallowed enough of the sleeping pills. Everything was so physical before ingesting those pills, every sensation, every reasoning. After the first awakening, nothing else ever was.
Nothing is ever the same once you sink then come back up for air. The world you burst forth into isn’t the same one you’d torn yourself from. There is a rupture, and if you wait long enough, light from the other side.
After my first awakening, I had started to sing.
The priests at my town’s temple are certain that I couldn’t have been a Sylphian in my past life, although, correspondent to my karmic backlog, I could’ve been anything from a cockroach to a hammerhead shark. Sylphians have no meaning in our religion, despite its claims to define the universe and all life. Which makes me wonder what Raon might’ve been before they were here.
“An abomination,” they sang with a grin when I asked them at school next day. “Forbidden words uttered into the air. Dust. Molecular mass. Waves of energy.”
Then they saw the look on my face—confused, probably hostile, though if asked I would give my life for Raon in a second. They conceded, “Let’s say I’m a new soul at the beginning of my karmic cycle. Let’s say there was nothing before.”
I nodded, uncertain.
“Hey, the Sylphian Creation Lores don’t say much about anyone like me either, but what can you do? My dad just no longer sings them.”
Raon’s dad also didn’t like to answer to “Dad.” “Uncle” or “Mister” congealed in my throat every time I met them, resigning me to calling them by their given name, Zona. Raon’s mom, whom I had met first, gleefully dismissed my attempts to address her as “Mrs. Zona.” Even so, Samantha was easier to understand. Samantha of the long, dark hair and a laugh like a mountain stream; who opened her legs and womb to birth her offspring. She almost reminded me of my own mother—if there’d been any kindling of memory to spark off at all.
Every Wednesday evening, Raon’s family went to a support group for others like them. They held parties, went on field trips, had mixers for young adults, and play dates for even younger children. Raon, however, came back to school and hung out with me.
Raon never learned to sing at the correct pitch, intone with natural cadence. They could decipher the Lores if sung to them, slowly and softly, but never managed to memorize them or sing them back. Raon was innocent of history, a child of their own time and place. How could you be a proper Sylphian if you couldn’t even sing?
How could you be a proper human if you sang?
What if your song was sweeter than your speech, resplendent with the scarlet skies and inhuman histories of a planet in a faraway galaxy that you would never get to visit?
The second time I drowned I was singing, the incantations lengthening as my vision grew darker and I drifted from the backyard of my father’s house into the nitron waves of the Sea of Cerulea. The earth surrounding me red with fluid from my veins, spilling from freshly slashed wrists.
Then there was screaming. “Uma! Uma! Someone call 911 . . . the stupid bitch has done it again!” And then: chaos. Chaos chaos chaos. Being yanked back by rough hands I’d wished would never again touch my skin. Being wrapped up, tied up, driven off, doused in a different senselessness.
This time, the hospital was like a war zone. Turned up to full volume, the tv in the reception area erupted news like scalding lava as the interstellar wars raged through the larger cities of Sylphia and Earth. I had never seen a war before. I remember, from the hospital, is so much blood—red and shimmery and glutinous—dragged through the floors, walls, sloshing in the blood bags that the nurses kept passing around, seeping through peeling bandages, oozing out of festering wounds. More blood than I could’ve ever released from my veins.
Let off from the hospital, I wandered over to Raon’s family hive. Samantha made me a steaming bowl of ramen and a bed in one of the cells. It was no problem, she assured me. The members of a Sylphian family hive kept circulating, the nest forever swelling and ebbing. Even as Earth became unkind to their existence, a slow trickle of people circulated. What would be left of the Sylphian way of life if they didn’t?
My cell held only a bed, but I was welcome to any of the food, clothes, and entertainment in the hive, Samantha explained. “You can also mate with anyone you choose, I hope you know.” She tossed her long hair as she showed me around the hive, introducing me to the rest of the family.
“If you are attracted to one of the humans in the hive, there’s no shame in that.” Samantha’s voice was kind, but I felt the colour in my cheeks rise like a hot-air balloon.
I had nothing in common with the two other humans in the hive. Thanh, in his late eighties, spoke no English but was possibly the most eloquent human singer, one of the earliest converts. Connor—mid-thirties, blond, athletic—was a banker. The cell next to Connor’s was Raon’s.
“Take your time,” said Samantha, as we stepped in to say hello to Raon. “There’s no hurrying love, or predicting when it will come for you.”
I remember staring at them from the threshold of the cell, mother and teenage offspring. Her small nose and delicate jawline was reflected in theirs, though the rest of Raon’s features were distinctly unearthly. Raon’s kind on Earth numbered fewer than five thousand—the first generation of mixed-species offspring. No one else in our town. We were both sixteen, friends and fellow nerds for years, but Raon had never shown inclination to acquire a mate, human or Sylphian. Would they ever?
What if it wasn’t me?
We kept the tv down at the hive, so the children wouldn’t cry and the older people wouldn’t get anxious. The first time a Rooted Earthlings poster appeared at our town square it was torn down by other humans in the dark of the night. Our town was small, neighbourly. Most of the townspeople had been born there, had never lived anywhere else. Going off to college in a different state was the biggest adventure we could imagine, and even that was two more years away. Who among us could contemplate being sent to a different planet, thousands of light years away?
Even my father, who took savage delight in referring to the Sylphians as bugs, had never been to the land of his ancestors, and that was just on the other side of the planet. Some humans called my father and me another, uglier word, but the noise they created was increasingly drowned out by the surging Rooted Earthlings chant. People needed an enemy. My ancestors had once been that enemy; now it was the Sylphians’ turn.
The next time those posters went up, they stayed.
I was drowning too—drowning again. The endless news of war, the raging propaganda, the seething hatred that had seeped into the streets of even our boring town . . . it was too much for my ruptured mind. There was no escaping the war—no safety, even within the walls of the hive, even with the pillows pressed firmly over my head. Several times each day I felt the waters closing in on me, but Samantha would pull me out each time. She kept a hawk’s eye on me. She made sure we kept going to school—Raon, me, the younger children—and sat with us each evening as we did our homework.
“All this foolishness will pass,” Samantha would say, putting bowls of nourishing pho in front of us. “And then the two of you will be the only ones not going to college, because you never bothered to study when that was the only thing you should’ve focused on.”
“We’re going to college together, or neither of us is going,” Raon told her one day.
“Then you better get your grades up, little offspring,” she replied. “Do you know how rare it is to get admitted to the same college? We have to make sure Uma gets a scholarship, too.”
My father, whose threshold I hadn’t crossed since my return from the hospital, was not going to pay for my education. My father, who always—at least—wanted me alive, was probably now happy to see me drown. And I would be happy to oblige him, but Samantha held me tight in her grip.
She pulled me aside, into corners of the hive, out of earshot of others, and whispered, “If they are all sent back, if it comes to that, it will be left for you and me to take care of old Thanh. Connor can blend in with the Earthlings—he doesn’t want to, but he has a thriving career, human friends—and it’s best for all of us to not add to the number of outcasts. Thanh and I are too far gone. We will be left homeless, penniless, unemployable.”
Samantha’s gaze bore into me like cinders, sending little tremors down my spine. “Don’t you dare give up on me,” she said.
Weighed down by Samantha’s secret, I went about my days, smiling and cooing at the children, bringing meals to Thanh in his cell, discussing my college plans with Zona and Irip, holding Raon just a moment longer in my sight while they leaned intently upon their homework. It sat like a stone in my heart as the whispers turned into a blizzard, unleashing panic and tears. Samantha was holding the fort. I did not dare leave.
The day after we drove our Sylphian relatives and lovers to the base of Homecoming Mage XXXVII, knowing we would never see them again; the day after we handed in the keys to our cars; the day after we abandoned our hive, loaded in trucks like refugees in our own town, headed toward homeless shelters, Samantha made sure I ate my meals, did my homework, turned up at school the next day. Samantha had been defeated too many times by life. If I did not go to college, that would be her final defeat.
So I went. The universities on Earth no longer offered Sylphian Studies, so I picked up some random subjects. History. Sociology. Political Science. None mentioned the decades of coexistence on Earth with the descendants of a distant planet. I turned up on campus in jeans and a plain green t-shirt, my hair in a ponytail, as rooted in Earth as anyone could be.
I folded Raon in on my heart like a secret wound. It bled in slow drips every day, making it harder and harder to live.
“Uma? Wake up! You have to wake up. You must live.”
“Now, Raon? Now that you’re gone?” I am yanked back in, and everything hurts.
“Especially now,” they say. “My mother must never know. It will destroy whatever is left of her.”
“Samantha will find out from the news by herself.”
“How long have you not followed the news?” Raon laughs.
I am caught. I have never turned on the tv, nor logged on to any news site, since the day the spaceships left Earth. I don’t have friends who tell me anything; haven’t tried to make friends, though I’ve spent nearly half a semester at college. There are Rooted Earthlings everywhere, triumphant at the reclaimed purity of their planet. Everyone smiles; everyone goes to class, soccer practice, poetry readings, frat parties as if just about everything hasn’t been altered in just the past few months; as if we haven’t all collectively survived the exile of millions of our neighbours and friends, colleagues and lovers, celebrities and politicians; as if they were never here. Left alone on the planet with them, these humans make me sick, as I would no doubt make them if they knew anything about me.
If anything, I am glad to be far from my hometown, at a place where I easily slip into obscurity; avoid comments on how different I am now from the raging, passionate schoolgirl I used to be—how indifferent overall. A year is long enough to break old habits, even those built over a lifetime.
“No news about Sylphians comes in through Earth media channels anymore.” Raon tells me what I don’t need to know. “Complete cut-off. The ships weren’t destroyed today.”
“Then why come to me now? Why tell me about it? Why deprive me, of all people, of the comfort of ignorance?”
Their face wavers in front of me as if a holographic image, nothing but waves of energy and dust—nothing but the crazed delusions of a mind fraying at its edges. The dark waters slosh and beckon at the corners of my eyes.
“Uma. Who else would I tell?”
Am I even awake? It’s been a year since my nightmares were swapped with reality; I can no longer tell which is what. My roommate has class this afternoon; she will be back any minute. I hoped to have checked out before she arrived, but here I am.
I cannot imagine what my roommate—a passionate Earthling from a small town in Ohio who disapproved of my lack of enthusiasm in her agenda—would say if she discovered Raon in our room, singing me back to shore.
“Hey, I’m just starting out on my karmic cycle, remember?” Raon sings. “Maybe the next round we get to be cockroaches together.”
I nod, blinking, startled at the salt of the tears that are seeping into my crusted mouth. The priests of the temple in our hometown will certainly approve of that. A cockroach is the lowest that one can be.
“But before that, Uma, you need to build up enough sins to qualify as an abomination. This human-human half-bug monstrosity wouldn’t like to lose you to a higher life form—a sparrow, or even a chimpanzee, you know?”
I try to smile. There is still so much sin to be gathered on Earth, even with the Sylphians gone—so much rage, organizing, resistance to the Rooted Earthling way of life. Millions of humans all over Earth were protesting, but Samantha had prevented me from joining them, and I had obeyed, as I always obeyed her every word since our Sylphians were taken from us. I was too young to be an anarchist, Samantha had decided, too emotionally damaged. Her own wounds were too raw.
But, “Live for me,” says Raon, touching a fingertip to my tears, a finger of light and delusion that drains out all the pain my life has ever inflicted. If I cannot find my way to Raon in this life or any other, what good is drowning? What good is breathing?
“I will.” I struggle to find the words. My brain hurts. This time I had certainly swallowed more than enough sleeping pills.
“You are no longer dying,” Raon sings, as if that is good news, as if they weren’t pushing me away, as if the mirage of their presence next to me won’t shatter as soon as reality floods in. But that is exactly what Raon is asking me to do.
It’s better than never asking for anything. Better than never coming to visit.
“Sleep. Then wake up and live for me.”
It’s the best that I would have, in a world—an entire future—of not having.
So I sink slowly into my bed, not diving in headlong like I had always done before—every time I wished for relief, oblivion, and nothing more. My breath does not rush out of me this time. The waters are a delicious blue and glittering with light, and I am learning to swim.
© 2017 by Mimi Mondal
Mimi Mondal is a Dalit writer of speculative fiction and social-justice nonfiction, and the Poetry and Reprints Editor of Uncanny Magazine. Her first anthology, Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler, co-edited with Alexandra Pierce, was published by Twelfth Planet Press in 2017. Mimi lives in New York and tweets from @Miminality, and always enjoys the company of monsters.