Maria hummed as she walked into the chicken coop. The hens seemed to cluck in tune with her as she reached beneath them to collect the morning’s harvest of eggs. The chill air didn’t seem to bother her this fine day. She had a bounce in her step and was brimming with joy. She looked forward to whatever the day would bring.
Taking her modest collection of eggs, she walked along the vegetable garden path and in through the kitchen entrance of her cabin home. She put the eggs away and gathered her gardening tools.
Bobbing back out of the house she plunked herself down by the carrots and began digging them up. All the while, her happy tune never faltered. She was so engrossed in her task that she didn’t hear Arian’s footsteps clumping through the fallen leaves in the nearby forest.
It wasn’t until Arian’s approach caused the chiffchaff in the nearby spruce to flutter loudly away that Maria looked up. What she saw made her catch her breath.
Arian’s long, raven hair was disheveled and had bits of oak and spruce leaves and twigs tangled in it. Her face was almost ghost-white in comparison, save for the dark circles around her crystal green eyes. She wore odd clothing for a woman, some kind of loose-fitting rust-colored breeches and a beige, form-fitting, short-sleeved blouse. Her arms were riddled with tiny scratches and the look on her face was haunted. To Maria, Arian looked at once strikingly beautiful and frighteningly gaunt — a wraith-like waif.
“Who are you?” Maria asked, but Arian just looked at her. More questions, “Where’d you come from? Is something wrong? Are you alright?” elicited the same response. When Arian dropped to her knees and started crying, Maria forgot her questions and rushed over to her.
“Iertati-mã, my dear, forgive me.” Maria gently helped Arian to her feet and led her to the house. “No more questions. You need rest. You’ve obviously been through something awful.” She took Arian to her bedroom and sat her on the bed.
Taking her by the shoulders, Maria peered into Arian’s eyes — they were so clear, like green glass laid over a white sheet. “Do you want something to eat? Something to drink?”
Arian couldn’t understand a word the woman was saying. It was all gibberish — the universal translator imbedded in her brain had not encountered a language like this before. It would take a little while before she would be able to communicate with the inhabitants of this planet.
But, Arian thought, the woman seemed friendly enough and she was so tired. She had walked in search of food all night, haunted by the sounds of this planet’s night creatures and a mixture of emotions — anger, fear, sadness — that tore her first one way and then the next.
In experienced time, it had only been a few days since her harrowing escape from the laboratory on Hirth and mere weeks since she had ejected her father’s death pod out Tengali’s air lock. Everything had happened so fast. She hadn’t had the time to process all her feelings.
But here and now the bed she sat on was soft and the pillows at the head looked inviting. Tengali’s bunks were not so soft or comfortable. It had been a long time since she slept in a real bed — before the fateful vacation.
As memories of that long-ago night filled her mind, Arian’s body sunk down, as if of its own volition, onto the bed. She was asleep and dreaming of her bedroom back home before her head hit the pillow.
Maria pulled a blanket up and over Arian’s shoulders. She noticed the fabric of the girl’s blouse was smooth, like something she imagined a noble would wear. “Poor dear,” she said as she quietly left the room and closed the door.
The tap-tap-tapping of a woodpecker woke Arian later that afternoon. “What a noisy planet this is,” she thought as she ran her fingers through her hair and sat up. The pain in her head was gone, the dark circles around her eyes and the scratches on her arms as well. Her mind felt fresh and clear.
She looked around the room. It was simply furnished. She sat on a small bed made of wood, next to which was a small stool with an oil lamp. The walls were wood as well and a simple off-white piece of woven cloth hung in front of the window. Next to the door on the opposite wall were a dresser and a wardrobe.
Judging from how the sun was slanting outside, she figured she had been unconscious for several hours. I wonder if the translator has finished the analysis of what the woman said, she thought. Well, there is only one way to tell.
Arian stood up and walked to the door. She could hear the woman humming to herself, moving about the kitchen. She opened the door and stepped through. The smell of food wrapped about her like a warm blanket.
“Oh! You’re up already!” Maria put down the knife she was cutting carrots with and wiped her hands on a towel. Turning, she said, “Did you sleep well? Are you feeling better?”
Arian opened her mouth to answer, but found she didn’t know what words to use. She didn’t want to use her own language, so she shut her mouth again. She could understand the gist of what the woman was saying, but the translator didn’t yet have a vocabulary for her to use. This was going to take a little longer than she had originally thought. The structure of this language must be sufficiently different from those on Hirth and the known inhabited planets.
“Oh my! Are you mute?” When Maria saw Arian struggle to answer, she went on. “Can you talk? Da?” She nodded her head. “Or nu?” She shook her head from side to side.
“Ah!” Arian thought. I’ve learned two useful words — yes and no. But she still didn’t know how to answer the woman’s question. Yes, she could talk. But this language? Not yet.
“Hmmm.” Maria tried a different tact; maybe the girl was still confused from her ordeal. Maybe she’s from Bulgaria or Hungry and doesn’t speak Romanian. She patted her stomach and asked, “Are you hungry?”
Arian emphatically nodded her head. A stray leaf fell from her hair and wafted down to the floor.
Maria laughed. “Maybe we should clean you up, first,” she said as she plucked a smallish twig from Arian’s locks.
Arian smiled. How she must look to this woman!
Maria scooped up the cut carrots, put them in a pot simmering on the stove and then went back to the bedroom to grab a brush. Then took Arian out to the side of the house, where she sat Arian on a tree stump and brushed the leaves and bits of twig out of her hair. When Arian’s hair was free of debris, Maria went to the well, hauled up a bucket of water and gently washed Arian’s face, arms and hands.
“Hmmm. I thought you had scratches on your arms when you got here. It must have been my imagination.”
Maria was a talker. Good thing, thought Arian. This would help her learn the language much faster. Maybe by tomorrow morning, she would be able to hold up her end of a conversation. She was so glad she had chosen to study languages in school and therefore was authorized for the translator implant. Without it, she could never even hope to blend into alien cultures, something on which her survival now probably depended.
After much fussing, Maria finally led Arian back into the house and sat her down at the table. They ate a hearty chicken stew with plenty of fresh vegetables from Maria’s garden — potatoes, carrots and squash.
Then, going on the assumption that Arian spoke Bulgarian or Hungarian, Maria started naming objects in the house and emphasizing their names as if she was talking to a person who could not hear well.
Before long, Arian was tired again. Maria, seeing her pupil’s interest fade, set up a cot in Grigor’s old workroom and let Arian retire for the night.
A large wolf padded into the clearing where Tengali sat. He sniffed the ground, carefully checking all sides of the ship, looking for the scent of his quarry. Soon, he found what he was looking for and headed back into the woods.
The track he followed meandered this way and that. His quarry probably had no idea where she was going and made no attempt to cover her trail. Tracking her was easy.
After only an hour, the wolf came upon the clearing where Maria lived. He sniffed around the house, frightening the chickens but not waking anyone within. Satisfied that he had found what he was looking for, he ran back into the woods to hunt.
The song of a robin — who sat atop Maria’s house almost every morning and sang — woke Arian early. Her mind felt different, full of exotic, new knowledge.
“Good morning,” she said in Romanian, trying the words out before she put them to the true test. The strange syllables felt awkward in her mouth.
“Good morning,” she said again. It didn’t quite sound like the way Maria would have said it. Arian was afraid she would have an accent with this language, but if she was understood, that was the important thing.
As she got out of bed, she again felt grateful for the wisdom of pursuing languages in school. Her mother had given Arian better advice than she could possibly have realized at the time.
When Arian stepped out of her room, she heard Maria humming a tune outside and followed the song out to the chicken coop. Just then Maria came out carrying her cache of eggs in her apron.
“Oh! You are up. Did you sleep well, my dear?”
“Good morning. Da,” Arian slowly and carefully responded.
“Ah! You can speak! Our lessons last night were not a waste of time after all, da?” Maria closed the chicken gate behind her and headed back into the house. Arian followed.
“Since it looks like you are going to stay here awhile — you are going to stay awhile?” Arian nodded her head. “Then I’ll need to go to the market today to get more food.” She moved about the kitchen, putting away the eggs she had collected. “Would you like to join me? It might be fun.”
Arian thought. Was she ready to immerse herself in the presence of so many strangers? Then again, it might help her translator build her vocabulary — the words it heard through her ears did not need to be directed at her in order to be learned. After a moment’s pause, she decided the benefits outweighed the drawbacks and answered, “Da.”
“Good. It’s settled then. I have an errand to run first, so we’ll go after lunch. Da?”
“Da.” Arian nodded her head.
While eating her breakfast of fresh bread and fried eggs, it dawned on Arian that she should check back on Tengali. The diagnostic was probably complete and she couldn’t remember camouflaging it very well.
Suddenly, she realized she did not know her benefactor’s name. She tried to think if possibly she had forgotten it or gotten it confused with the rest of the new vocabulary.
“Are you alright?” Maria asked. She pointed at Arian’s plate. “You’ve stopped eating.”
Arian paused. How to ask this question? “What are you called?”
“Oh! Forgive my bad manners! In all the excitement and fuss of your arrival, I forgot to say. My name is Maria.”
“Maria.” Arian felt the three syllables move about her mouth with an alien flavor. “I am called Arian.”
“Arian. What a strange name, but pretty.”
“When you run an errand, I need to run an errand, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“As I came here, I left something behind. I must go find it.”
“I don’t think that’s wise. You’re still recovering from whatever ordeal you went through. Besides, the woods are no place for a girl alone.” Maria’s forehead was screwed up in concern. “This morning I saw evidence that a wolf visited us last night. The woods are full of them and they can be dangerous.”
“But I came here alone. I will be all right.”
Maria was quiet. Arian hoped she did not protest too much or insist on going with her. She didn’t want Maria to see Tengali. She had no idea how she would react to such a sight. Judging from what she had seen so far, this planet was not as technologically advanced as Hirth, most likely pre-flight.
After what seemed an eternity, Maria got up and solemnly went to the kitchen. She came back with a knife and handed it to Arian. “At least take this with you for protection. I don’t have a gun, but at least this will give you an edge.” She laughed. “Forgive the pun.”
As it turned out, Maria joined her for part of the way to Tengali. The route to Grigor’s grave took a similar path. But eventually they did diverge, and once they did, Arian felt more on her own than she ever had before. At first, she was too full of grief. Then too occupied with getting Tengali home to think much about it. Once on Hirth she was rarely alone or conscious — or cognizant, for that matter — to reflect. Fleeing from Hirth didn’t give her much time to think about things either. She was just trying to outrun her pursuers, then trying to outwit any possible hunt, and then trying to land on a planet in a ship she didn’t know how to pilot very well and which wasn’t designed for the task.
Now every crunch of branches or dried leaves beneath her feet sounded like an alarm telling every possible predator within a five-mile radius that she was defenseless. Free for the moment from concentrating on learning a new language, her thoughts wandered back to the past several weeks.
She remembered when her father and she sat at her mother’s deathbed. Nurvanya’s breathing was shallow, most of her hair was gone and what was left was wispy and collected in patches about her head. Thorinn held her right hand. There were tears slowly dripping down his cheeks, shaded pink from the bloody sores on his face.
Nurvanya looked at her daughter with a calm reserved only for those who were about to die. She raised her left hand and lightly touched Arian’s face. Arian remembered thinking her mother’s hand felt so frail, the skin much like the membranous skin of a crone.
“So pretty,” she said, her voice low and soft. “You have always been so pretty.” She lowered her hand and took Arian’s, squeezing it ever so lightly.
Nurvanya’s eyes seemed to look at something far away. Then she refocused on Arian. “Much trouble ahead.” She paused for awhile, the effort to speak was wearing her out.
“Hush, my love,” Thorinn said. “Don’t speak. It only tires you.”
Nurvanya smiled at her husband. “Always taking care of me,” she said, then returned her attention to Arian. “You are strong, much stronger than the trouble you will face. Always remember that.”
“Mom. Please. You need to rest. We will get home soon and you will need your energy to get better.”
Arian refused to notice the blinking red lights in her parents’ wrists. She would not acknowledge the fact that they were still several days out from Hirth and the medical computer’s prognosis for both Nurvanya and Thorinn was measured in hours, not days.
Nurvanya just smiled and closed her eyes. It was only a moment before they noticed her chest no longer moved with each breath.
“No!” Arian cried. “You can’t die! Mother!” Arian’s voiced seemed to echo about her mind as if she had just shouted in the hall of a castle.
Thorinn set his wife’s hand down, turned and held his daughter. They cried together for a long time. Then, when they had pulled themselves together, Arian asked her father, “What do you think she meant?”
“I don’t know.” He paused for a moment. “It has been said that the dying sometimes have access to information from the spirit world. Maybe she was being prophetic.”
Another branch crunched loudly as Arian stepped on it, making her once again aware of her surroundings. She could barely see through her tears. “Mother.”
Soon she arrived at the clearing where Tengali waited.