The old man tossed another still-green bunch of twigs and leaves onto the fire. A billow of wet-feeling, aromatic smoke blew over Isabel’s face, blanketing her in the warm embrace of a home she had never known. A cool night breeze blew in from the desert, whipping her hair around her in sympathy with the undulating flames. Around her on all sides the rhythm picked up, a muffled thump-thum that she felt more than heard, beat out on the skins of tigers and dragons, and the wings of giant creatures she had never seen. The drums had been old long before her birth, and they had beat out this same rhythm nearly a hundred times before. This time it would be the same as it always had been, she reminded herself, even though it was her rhythm. This time it would be no different.
The drumming stopped. He took a deep, shaky breath and closed his eyes. He spoke something, a long of stream of words in a rough, guttural tongue she did not understand. Childhood memories came back to her in something like a flood: nights spent in cold caves; her father’s funeral at Stallion Gate; the visit to Frisco, all framed by the same unintelligible speech, the adults’ secret language.
Beside Isabel her mother leaned in close, whispering a translation of the priest’s words: “We beat the heartbeat of a creature unborn.”
The drummers echoed back his words. The rhythm resumed, and the old man threw something else onto the fire—a tight bundle of sticks that sent up a thick cloud of smoke, this time dry. She resisted the urge to cough. Cinnamon, or something like it. The drumming stopped again.
“He fell like a droplet from the heavens when carbon was still like rain.”
The drums began again, and stopped.
“When the sun went out we learned to live in the dark.”
At that her memory flew back a pair of weeks, to the moment her mother had told her. It was the New Year ritual, the thing talked about in hushed whispers, and usually in the old language. Not for her ears; not for child’s ears. Now, though, the end of the year was almost here, and of course, she was the eighth child. Her time had to come, sooner or later.
Mother had said not to fear, not to worry, and of course that could only lead her to wonder what it was she wasn’t to fear, wasn’t to be worried about. It was something spiritual, she had gathered, something to do with Urizen and the Spirit of the World and all the other old fairy tales. The priest would be there, the old man. Isabel had known him as a child; he was kin to her, by some convoluted path, an uncle or a cousin or a relation still more distant that there wasn’t a word for.
But she had never liked him, and had begun to like him even less when he and her father, and sometimes her brothers, had started to take their weekend trips into the desert, by car or on horseback. Vision quests, they had called them, but her mother spoke of them with thinly disguised revulsion. They would take peyote with them, along with all the other old sacraments. The cask of beer and occasional gallon of wine put a dent in the mystery of it all, though. When her father disappeared, that had been the end of it. It was a hard thing to say she truly hated someone, but if she had been the type of person to keep a list, the old man now sitting across the fire from her would have been near the top of it.
Her mind returned, reluctantly, to the present. She glanced at her mother, the now familiar age lines showing clearly in the firelight, her face partially hidden behind a black fan of hair, decorated here and there with beads that had been her mother’s. All the had beens, all the tradition welled up in a knot of feeling inside Isabel. Something that should have been reverence was instead disgust, a lack of patience with the triviality of it all, like milk gone sour.
More than anything she wished that her father could have been here, to hold her hand and guide her through it. He had spoken the old tongue a million times more beautifully than her mother, accentuating the rolled Rs and the throaty consonants with a musical eloquence. And he would have told her, she knew. He would have explained the ritual, an ancient ceremony that Mother only half comprehended.
The drummers drummed again. She looked up into the face of the priest. At first she barely noticed it. Around them, in them somehow, a light had appeared. She looked up still higher; it shone on them from a distant star—Venus, maybe. It was bright tonight, and she wondered if they had known it would be so, if that was part of the ritual. She looked down at the earth that was as much a part of the rite as she was, then back up at the priest. His features seemed for a moment to morph subtly into something resembling those of her father. He spoke again, and her mother translated. The drummers responded, but the words were lost in the brightness.
As the light intensified she became aware of a feeling, not spiritual, whatever that meant, but distinctly physical. It was a twisting and a lifting inside her; not quite nausea, it was almost weightlessness. The knot untied itself. She closed her eyes, trying to blot it out, to bring herself back to the solid ground beneath her. She squeezed her eyelids shut as if shutting out the light would shut out the feeling, too.
Beside her—and, she now noticed with surprise, below her—her mother emitted a short, frightened cry. Isabel opened her eyes. She was at least three or four meters off the ground now, and still climbing. Mother had risen to her feet, hands clasped to her mouth in shock. Tears erupted, not out of sadness, she thought, as much as confusion. The priest remained unfazed, and though she didn’t understand it, Isabel herself felt a strange sense of calm wash over her and through her.
She looked up, toward the source of light that she knew was her destination. Once as small as a star, it had now grown to three times the diameter of a full moon, its little sister who had yet to be born tonight. At first it was a bright and blinding white, emitting a bolt of light that narrowed as it reached Isabel like a sunbeam focused through a magnifying glass. As it grew larger in her sight, though, she saw that it was not purely white; as her eyes adjusted she saw a deep blue, like a sea in the sky. A gap had opened up between the black-skyed world she had been born into and some other world beyond—an older world for the new year.
Beneath her, now distant, the drums beat once more. The old man spoke again, this time without translation. Somehow, though, Isabel understood.
“Isabel, when was the last time you saw the sky?”