“Will you give your name this year?” Isheya’t asks.
You shake your head, adjusting the woven straw pack on your shoulders and squinting out ahead into the red blaze of the sunrise. “Not planning on it. But ask me again in another hour.”
Isheya’t laughs, bright and tinkling, and adjusts the brim of her straw hat to better shade her eyes. “Really looking like a hot one today, isn’t it?”
The red giant has barely risen over the crest of the distant mountains, yet the air is already sticking hot and thick against your skin as the two of you hike toward the orchard.
You’ve considered offering your name, of course. Who hasn’t? But you always end up thinking of the soft, sun-faded orange of your cot blanket, the honey-drizzled pastries the monks bring out once a month, the ticklish scrape of salt-hungry goats licking at the sweat on your knees, and the feeling of ice cold river-water and silt between your toes. This quiet moon is still home to you; you love it too much to leave. “What about you?” you ask.
Isheya’t hums, feigning contemplation. “I’m not sure. I can feel I’m not ready, you know? And logically, I know I’ll probably need several lifetimes here.” She sighs. “But just last night, I had another dream.”
You resist the urge to roll your eyes. She’s fishing—you know it by her exaggerated sigh and by the wistful gaze she directs at the roll of the distant mountaintops. But you’ve always had a softer spot for her than most, indulged her vanities more than most. You decide to humor her.
“Oh? What was it this time?”
“Nothing new, really.” She offers a brief illusion of humble deflection, as though she won’t barrel on anyway within the same breath. “It was like my last one: a brief flash, only a few seconds. I was back in the flooded desert of Dunta. The colors were so strange—it was like the whole world was filtered blue. I was sprinting on the wet sand, and my legs were covered in blood. I was terrified.” Isheya’t pauses for a moment, then shakes her head. “But it was strangely exhilarating too. It’s just so quiet here, you know? Sometimes I crave that sense of thrill again.”
You hold your tongue and nod politely, when suddenly a movement ahead catches your eye. Someone is already in the orchard. Not a monk, either. A lean figure in an identical straw hat is meandering between the trees, pausing periodically to gaze straight up at the fruits hanging above his head.
Isheya’t follows your line of sight, wrinkling her nose when she spots him. “Again?” she groans under her breath, then calls out, “Rushona’n!”
He jumps, glancing in your direction before turning away with a playful smile and slipping deeper into the grove. His straw hat weaves between the broad trunks at a leisurely pace, as though he hasn’t been spotted.
Isheya’t gives an exasperated sigh, and you shake your head. The two of you continue forward, and she returns to mulling over her dream.
By the time you reach the tree line, Rushona’n has long disappeared. You stop and lean against a trunk to untie your boots, and Isheya’t pauses beside you.
“What, not further?”
You shrug. “I feel like enjoying the view today.”
“Sure? It looks like today’s gonna get miserable hot real quick. Lot cooler deeper in the shade.”
A lot more peaceful out here alone, though, you think as you grasp one of the pegs sunk into the trunk and hoist yourself up.
You care for her quite a bit, of course. But on occasional days, you need a little space to cultivate that caring.
“I know. The planet’s extra clear today, is all,” you reassure her instead, careful not to offend. Isheya’t shrugs and continues off into the depths of the orchard.
The day is particularly clear. The swirling red-orange hues of the gas giant loom protective over the adjacent fields, filling half the sky. From the edge of the grove, it provides a magnificent backdrop to the day’s work.
You clamber up the zig-zagging sequence of wooden pegs and swing your leg over the first low-hanging branch you reach, shimmying forward along the rough bark until you can reach a cluster of apricots.
Swinging your pack around to press against your stomach, you pluck at the ripe fruits and roll them gently into the basket.
Just as you begin to fall into a rhythm, the snap and rustle of leaves and soft creak of adjusting straw settling into a measured cadence, an unexpected movement in the edge of your vision abruptly breaks your flow.
It’s Rushona’n. More accurately, it’s his wide-brimmed straw hat, passing slowly beneath the canopy of your tree.
The out-of-place field boy has been showing up a lot recently. But the other field workers are already hard at work, their distant, curved backs progressing through the rows of tall grass. Not wandering through orchards they’ve got no reason to be in.
You reach into your pack and grasp a small, heavy fruit in your palm. You roll it between your fingers and aim it carefully, waiting until he’s right beneath your branch.
“Lazy,” you whisper, just loud enough for Rushona’n to hear, and drop the apricot. It hits the brim of his hat and knocks it clean off his head.
Rushona’n pauses, hair matted and sticking out, and bends down to pick up his hat. But he nabs the half-flattened fruit at the last moment, spinning to chuck it back at your head with an impish grin. You duck just in time, a laugh splitting your face, and he darts away as a passing monk beelines for your corner of the orchard, quick to break up any sign of a fight.
You’re here to heal, after all. Just like everyone else.
You don’t remember your previous life.
Some claim to remember parts of theirs, recounted memories always hinting at grandeur and adventure, at legendary heroics on distant planetary systems too mythical to refute. You’re not inclined to believe them.
However, on clear nights when the planet is hidden below the horizon, when you lay down on your back in the tall grass fields, the buzzing and chirping of lunar crickets filling the humid night air, your eyes always seem to gravitate toward a particular half-dim star in the southern celestial sky.
And sometimes, as you’ve delighted in the sour flavor of a barely-underripe apricot biting across your tongue, you’ve found yourself wondering if the fondness is truly your own or if it belongs to some long-dead galactic soldier, comforted by the reminder of his grandmother’s pies.
Rushona’n laughs with his shoulders.
You can’t hear well this far downstream, but you can see the motions of his body as he jokes with one of the field-monks. You watch idly as you sink a little deeper into the river, letting the gentle current loosen the tree sap glued to your skin.
Today’s a hot one. Isheya’t stayed back at the settlement, citing heat-induced flashbacks, so you worked the trees with Yuha’n instead. He’s quieter, and the work goes more smoothly—he’s soaking beside you in the water now, legs crossed and eyes closed—but he’s not as entertaining.
Instead, your attention is drawn to Rushona’n. You watch how the muscles of his back shift as he adjusts the set of his shoulders, how he tilts his head and squints just a bit when he smiles, how he ducks underwater and pushes his damp hair back from his forehead when he resurfaces.
You’re busy studying the lines of his neck and the way the tendons there twist, strain, and relax, when deep in your gut, you sense an uneasy lurch. It confuses you for an instant, mind always lagging a moment behind instinct, but then you process the angle of his shoulders and tilt of his jaw, and your eyes leap upward to see his staring straight back.
Everyone treats Isheya’t a little differently. You shouldn’t, honestly, but even the monks look after her a little longer, pay her a little extra attention. Somehow she always ends up with the warmest blanket or the sweetest tart. She’s learned her own importance, too; it’s only natural.
You were small when she first arrived. Debatably sentient. Yet, you still have a gauzy, cotton-layered memory of the crowd, of your mother craning her neck to see over a field of heads. You remember the hush that fell over the entire moon as a decorated monk from the capital stepped off the Dinghy, cradling a newborn bundled in shimmering cloth. You remember the weight of the air, saturated with near-instinctual reverence for the child who entered the world at the exact time the late Galactic Empress, legendary sacrificial hero of Dunta, departed it.
“May she rest until she grows restless,” the monk recited as he handed off the infant. “May a gentle life of sun and soil heal the wounds of this battered soul.”
Well, you don’t remember that part, of course. But you’ve heard the prayer over so many arrivals and so many births in so many years since, that the memory feels incomplete without it.
The first apricot of the morning lands in the base of your pack with an unusual thud.
“What was that?” Isheya’t asks, leaning haphazardly over from her neighboring branch to peer at you while you peer down into the pack.
Beneath the fruit, through the checkerboard of filtered light seeping through the gaps in the woven straw, is a white bundle of cloth. Isheya’t watches with rapt attention as you pull it out and weigh it in your palm. You pull away the folded corners to reveal a triangular tart, flaky and butter-dense, with a criss-crossed pattern of honey drizzled over the top. You nibble at a corner, and hyper-sweet apricot jam bursts from between its layers, dancing and sparking across your tongue.
Your favorite. The rare once-a-month treat which your lead baker had carefully rationed out last night, beaming with pride.
“Can you even taste it with bites that small?” Isheya’t had teased while you worked at yours painstakingly slowly, savoring every morsel.
“Can you even taste yours when you swallow it whole?” you’d teased back.
Instinctively, you turn on your branch to face the grass fields. But from this deep in the orchard, all you can see is bark and leaves and clusters of bright yellow-orange dots.
The honey flavor is rich where it lingers on the back of your tongue.
The pile of work-boots always seems to migrate around the moon of its own volition, from the riverbank to the grassy knoll by the benches to the edge of the fire pit like clockwork. You stare out at it from the far side of the goat pen, hanging your body over the fence and swinging your arm back and forth in a lazy game of tug-of-war while the runt chews at your sleeve, wiggling its tail in delight.
You can immediately identify which boots are Rushona’n’s. Laces neatly tucked in, heels worn down to a nub. Meticulous—each step sturdily planted.
Have you always?
An indignant yelp of surprise rings out from several tables behind you, followed by a chorus of laughter. Isheya’t leans across the bench to peer over your shoulder at the commotion, but you keep your gaze tightly on your soup, focused on restraining the grin that’s threatening to split across your lips. It gets harder as a procession of apricots tumbles and rolls past in the edge of your vision.
“Hey!” The brief warning is all you get before one of the small fruits whacks the back of your head. You spin around to face Rushona’n, squinting at you from his seat at the bench behind you, boot in hand.
“Wasteful!” he chides, clicking his tongue in mock disappointment.
You bend down and pick up the offending apricot from the grass. Meeting his gaze, you cock an eyebrow and take a bite out of the fruit.
You wonder if he’ll find the blossom tucked into his other boot, or if he’ll stick his foot blindly in that one too.
Deep in the night, a tapping sound pulls you awake.
You roll over, blinking roughly until you can distinguish the lines of other cot across the room. There’s no movement from the bumps and folds of blankets—Isheya’t is still asleep.
The tapping noise comes again, soft and questioning, but this time it’s easy to locate.
You slide out of your cot and move across the room to where the thick, heavy sun-net hangs floor-to-ceiling. You pull back the edge and peek out beyond the glass, and there’s Rushona’n, standing in the dewy grass. His face lights up at the sight of you, nose and cheeks flushed in the cool night air, and like a reflex, you’re smiling back before even thinking to.
You pull the curtain fully aside and slide open the glass door. “It’s so late! Aren’t you cold?” you whisper with a racing heart as you step out, shutting the door behind you.
Rushona’n shakes his head and glances over his shoulder at the dark-netted windows of the other sleeping dens, then reaches into his jacket. Gingerly, he draws out a grass-field wildflower, straw-brown stem dotted with tiny, orange blossoms, and presents it to you, glowing with nervous pride.
Its stalk is long and gangly, and it’s undeniably a weed, but your breath is caught in your throat—you think it might be the most beautiful thing on this moon.
Seeing your expression, he beams, eyes bright, lips catching at the edges of his teeth as a smile splits across his face. No—you think he might be the most beautiful thing on this moon.
He’s radiating pure warmth, and you flush with the heat of it. The universe is hot and bright and buzzing and all you can think about is how desperately you want to hold him or be held by him. You wonder if he would sigh or if he would laugh sweet against your lips when you kiss him deep. You wonder if he smells like the grass-fields or like honey, or like the bittersweet hot cocoa the monks bring out on cooler nights.
You let out the breath you’ve been holding and reach forward, but his hands are already there, gently pressing the flower into your palm. You close your fingers tight around it, and then his lips have found the ridges of your knuckles, and you find yourself wanting to bring him flowers from every corner of the galaxy—
Suddenly a bone-rattling thump sounds from the depths of your den. You jolt at the noise, turning to the source, but the den is dark and quiet.
You breathe out and turn back to Rushona’n, but he’s already gone—disappeared back into the firefly-lit blanket of the lunar night.
“I’m gonna stop early today,” you announce.
“What? Why?” Isheya’t’s hand is frozen over her pack, apricot tight in her grip. In the distance behind her, the grass fields have begun to empty of workers, straw hats bobbing in clusters down toward the river.
“I just want to end early. It’s hot, isn’t it?”
“It’s hot every day.”
You shrug and toss your pack on, buckling the strap around your waist. “My legs are cramping up today,” you lie. “I’m just going to end early.” You throw your knee over the branch, bark rough against your thighs, and clamber down the pegs.
Isheya’t watches, waiting for you to reconsider. But once you reach the ground, she throws on her own pack as well.
“Fine. I’ll end early, too,” she huffs and swings down to join you.
No, you want to snap, but the words sink back down your throat. The two of you aren’t as inseparable, lately, as you once were. You know that she’s noticed. There’s nothing you can think to say that wouldn’t be cruel.
The two of you pull on your boots in tense silence and head out toward the river. You set a brisk pace in hopes of catching up with the group ahead, and Isheya’t follows, uncharacteristically quiet. You’ve nearly reached them by the time she speaks up.
“The bakers won’t break for another hour, at least—we’ll miss them if we go straight to the river now.”
“I know.” You’ve finally caught sight of Rushona’n. He’s bouncing Binha’n’s daughter on his shoulders, stepping with exaggerated lunges and lurches which make the small child squeal in delight. Her father strolls beside, keeping a careful eye.
Isheya’t is watching, too.
“Come on,” she blurts out, grabbing your hand and stopping in her tracks. “Let’s go find Mirya’t and beg a treat out of her.” She tugs your arm in the opposite direction, toward the massive glass domes of the sun-ovens, but you shake your head and continue toward the field workers. She stumbles and follows rather than release your hand.
“Or we could go nap in the hammocks, if you’re tired,” she continues, “or play with the goats!” She knows how much you love those damn goats. Her fingers tighten around yours, and the grip hurts.
You roughly shake your hand free. “No. I’m going to the river,” you bite, then rush forward to catch up with Rushona’n.
Isheya’t doesn’t follow.
He turns as you approach, catching your eye, and a pang of a headache suddenly strikes you.
You’ve done this before, haven’t you?
No, not you.
When you return to your sleeping den late after dinner, you find Isheya’t curled in a lump of blankets on her cot and facing the wall. She doesn’t move when you come in, and a wave of guilt rushes through your body. You haven’t seen her since the afternoon. She must have skipped the evening meal.
You pull the sun-net closed behind you and move to your cot, dressing for bed in silence. Just as you slip beneath the covers, a small noise comes from the direction of Isheya’t’s cot, and you twist urgently to face it.
“Do you love me?” she whispers, a slight whimper to her tone.
“Of course,” you respond immediately. And it’s the truth.
You watch the lump of blankets patiently, but only silence fills in after your words.
After several long minutes, you slide further under your covers. You lie on your side and stare at the cot opposite until you gradually drift to sleep, ambient chirp of lunar crickets faintly audible in the background.
The ship is early this year.
It’s never perfectly on schedule—asteroids and wormholes and solar winds and tiny human metal contraptions don’t cooperate like clockwork, after all—but this year it’s unusually early. A month early.
It must have drawn into orbit in the depth of the night, since in the early hours of the morning, a little shuttle rips screaming through the atmosphere. It lands with a grumble that lurches the earth beneath it, waking the entire settlement roughly with its arrival.
Isheya’t bounds out of bed and flings open the sun-net. Others outside do the same, glass doors sliding open and shut as they rush outside. She beams with excitement as she turns to you, her gloomy visage from last night completely transformed.
You groan and pull your blankets over your head as nausea floods your body. The stink of rocket fuel and burnt grass, the hiss and grind of decompression motors, the bloody, metallic taste of space dust carried from the navel of the galaxy—none of it belongs here.
The Dinghy rarely stays on the ground for more than an hour before leaping back to rejoin its keeper waiting in orbit. But the brief touch of the outside world always leaves you disoriented for days.
“Come on!” Isheya’t rushes to your cot and shakes your shoulders. “Now!” Everyone outside is already shuffling toward the landing dock, chatting eagerly as they rush to get to the far edge of the settlement in time.
Head heavy, you relent, pulling yourself into a sitting position. Isheya’t grins at the movement and rushes to pull on her boots while you dress painstakingly slowly. Your stomach rolls as you move, and you swallow down the feeling of impending dread rising up in your throat. The moment you finish tying your laces, she snags your hand and tugs you out the door, running to catch up with the crowd far ahead.
“Why’s it so early?” you mumble, stumbling over your feet as Isheya’t pulls you forward.
“It doesn’t matter—it’s here, come on!”
The bulk of the crowd has already collected around the shuttle by the time you reach it. Isheya’t pushes through to the front of the crowd, tugging you in tow, until you finally reach the front and can see the scene everyone has gathered around.
Off on one side of the Dinghy, Binha’n is rocking a small infant bundled in shimmering, iridescent cloth while others around him coo over the child. On the other side, a monk in a thickly-padded jumpsuit unloads a crate of medicine while two of your quilters, a married couple, give him their names for next year. But you’re not focused on any of them.
Rushona’n is standing in front of the shuttle ladder, hair sticking up in all directions, pulling on a crinkling, shimmering flight vest. He has a dazed look to his face as the other aviatic monk hands him a travel pack and points him up toward the cockpit. In the depth of your chest, your lungs twist and collapse.
You knew he would leave, you always knew. You even saw him give his name last year, though you’d nearly managed to forget. And of course, he was always meant to leave. He’s too eager, too bright, too restless—he deserves more than this quiet little moon, and as much as it hurts, the rest of the galaxy deserves him too.
For a brief instant, you consider trying to join him—rushing up to the cockpit and grasping his hand in your own—but the idea is foolish and short-sighted and impulsive. You love this little lunar monastery. You don’t want to leave, not really—you just don’t want to see him go.
Isheya’t is staring at you, watching your face with anticipation as you turn your gaze away from Rushona’n. The burning metallic smell of the shuttle is making your stomach roll. You want to vomit.
“It’s not like he’s dying,” you murmur to yourself, but your head is aching, and a grief deeper than your own is bursting against the seams of your mind, leaking into your consciousness, and somehow it’s exactly like that.
You turn away, ducking and weaving between bodies as your vision blurs. You pull free of the crowd and break into a run, and before you know it, you’re back at the settlement, standing in front of Rushona’n’s den. The glass door is wide open, and the blankets of his cot are crumpled to one side. His ragged field boots are there at the foot of his bed, heels worn down to the sole, laces neatly tucked in, half-dried apricot bloom perched up against them.
A seam pops, and the grief floods in fast. You shut your burning eyes, but in that moment, a rustling sound comes from behind you. You spin around to see Rushona’n running toward you through the grass, flushed and out of breath.
Your feet move instinctually, and you rush forward to meet him as the distance closes between you, and within a heartbeat you’re in each other’s arms and you’re kissing him deep and sweet. He tastes faintly of bitter cocoa, and his hand is warm against your nape. It’s absolutely perfect.
“I’m so sorry, Mahadra’n,” he whispers against your lips. And that’s a name you haven’t heard in a very long time.
“I think I might know you,” you want to say. But the Dinghy grumbles and spits out a hiss in the distance—there’s not enough time. What you want and what you want are not the same thing—he’s not yours to keep. So you force yourself to pull away from his lips and gesture back toward the landing dock, voice catching in your throat.
“Go,” you choke out, even as you cling white-knuckled to the fabric of his chest.
Rushona’n smiles and reaches up to cradle your face. “I’ll go later. There will always be more years,” he reassures. And even though it’s everything you want to hear, his words bear far too much weight.
“I don’t love you,” you sob. And it’s the truth. You don’t—not yet. But what you can’t vocalize is how you adore him in countless ways.
“It’s okay,” he whispers, “don’t feel burdened. I’m not staying for you.” He brushes away your tears with calloused fingertips. “I’m staying because I’m not ready to move on.”
James Mimmack grew up in the heart and heat of North Carolina and currently resides in the farmlands of the Sacramento Valley. Find him on Twitter @jamesmimmack.