The first time Pinyit’s father showed him the orbs in the shed, he’d been so frightened that he kicked and screamed the whole way down the garden path, right up until his father crouched down in front of him and gripped his shoulders tight, fingers digging into fresh bruises so hard that he winced.
“Listen, Pin,” he said, voice kind but leaving no room for questions. “When you’re big, you’ll be glad we did this. It’s important to record the past so that we don’t twist things around in our heads when we’re older. You don’t want that, do you?”
“But what if it hurts?”
“It doesn’t, I promise.”
Inside the shed, there were rows upon rows of cracked wooden shelves loaded down with glass orbs. Some of the orbs were clear. Others were injected with colour, pinks swirling through blues, reds exploding in jagged lines, greens diffusing in soft, pleasant circles. When Pinyit reached out to touch one, his father smacked his hand away.
“Those are me and your Ma’s memories. If you touch them, you might see something we don’t want you to see, and that would be rude, wouldn’t it?”
He bit his lip and nodded, chastened, but unable to take his eyes off the colourful orbs. He’d seen them both use the orbs before, their eyes closed as the colours seeped out of the orb, lighting up the air around them as they remembered things stored long ago.
His father picked him up and sat him down on a countertop, squished between the wall and a whole crate filled with clear orbs, a spider’s web drooping perilously close to his head.
Pinyit craned his neck to watch as his father carefully selected a clear orb from the crate and pressed it into Pinyit’s hands.
“Now remember what we said? Think really hard about something you want to remember forever, and it’ll go into the orb!”
Pinyit looked at it doubtfully, “And… it’ll still be in my head too, won’t it?”
His father chuckled and ruffled his hair, “Yes, it’ll still be in your head too. And… one other thing.”
Pinyit met his father’s eyes; amber-specked hazel turned to a cool shadow by the day’s fading light.
“Make it something nice, Pin.”
He did as his father asked, watching as green and yellow poured in thin streams from the places where skin touched glass. Sealed off and secure.
The truth, suspended in a moment of singular perfection.
Many years and many more orbs later, Pinyit stood in front of a different house entirely.
Manya’s house was in the nicer part of the city. It was two stories where most dwellings were only one, wood panelling veined with glass that shifted with the heat of the day; wide and gaping, almost completely transparent during the cool mornings and evenings, then thicker and greener in the hot afternoons, making it harder for the sun to enter. Like most houses, it was propped up on short, chunky stilts that allowed air to circulate below, but instead of the bare, awkward hunks of wood or stone, these were lovingly polished and intricately carved.
It was a masterwork of craftsmanship, and Pinyit, with his painful, dust-caked feet and travel stained clothing, could not have looked more out of place if he tried.
One week on from The Incident, and Pinyit’s ears still rang with Iq Shunyum’s final words to him before his departure from the temple. “You can come back when you can control your temper!”
The Iq had used that biting tone, the same one he used when someone made a foolish mistake in a calculation or reshelved a book incorrectly. Close enough to what little Pinyit remembered of his mother’s voice that he couldn’t hear it and not flinch.
Pinyit never made foolish mistakes. He never reshelved books incorrectly. In fact, he had nearly three years’ worth of stress headaches to show for the standard he had held himself to around Iq Shunyum. And then, in a single frayed moment, he’d made all that work count for nothing.
Carefully, he set his belongings down and knelt amongst the dry weeds at the house’s base, where, inscribed into the wooden stilts, he found likenesses of the three moon goddesses: Killilla, Wuuiq, and Timah.
He got halfway through the prayers of protection before he remembered that, due to his failure to remain an Iq, it was inappropriate for him to be doing this.
His cheeks felt hot, and he hurried to his feet, brushing dirt from his trousers — yet another symbol of his fall in status. He knotted his fists in the fabric, painfully different to the calf-length robes he’d grown accustomed to in the temple, then forced himself to let go. He had to be calm. There could be no more ‘incidents’ if he wanted the temple to take him back. He had to be, in a word, perfect.
And he definitely wanted them to take him back.
The door opened and someone came down the steps.
It was Manya, long brown curls spilled across broad shoulders, black eyes alight at the mere sight of Pinyit.
“Did you get tired of being a priest already?” Manya asked, his voice light.
“More like they got tired of me.” Pinyit breathed out hard, throat aching as he averted his gaze. He didn’t want to be doing this. Begging his friend’s parents for help again like he was still a child. He was supposed to have moved forward with his life. “Can I…?”
Manya’s eyes grew soft. “Of course you can stay here. Come on in, Da’s making dinner, it’ll be ready soon.”
Once inside, Manya led Pinyit first to the room that had been his since he was seven years old.
It was more or less exactly as he remembered it; bed pushed up against the window, drawers full of glass writing tablets scrubbed clean of practice equations and ready for use, three locked crates stacked in the corner, dust catching and collecting in the rough, splintered wood. From there, he found his eyes wandering over the wooden board nailed over the hole Pinyit had punched in the wall as a teenager.
“Oh wow, do you remember that?” Pinyit jumped a little at the sound of Manya’s voice. “You were so mad.”
“Yeah…” Pinyit said, quickly turning away. He bit the inside of his cheek. “Are your parents definitely okay with me being here?”
Manya stared at him in genuine confusion, “What? They’re both thrilled, Da’s been making his banana rice every night for the past week waiting for you to get back, ever since your letter arrived. Why would you think they wouldn’t want you here?”
Pinyit wasn’t sure he could put it into words, so he just shrugged and said, “Never mind, it doesn’t matter.”
In the kitchen, Manya’s father, Lyhu, was hunched almost double over a cast iron pot, hair pulled out of his face, brown eyes hidden behind steamed-up spectacles that he pushed up onto his head when he saw the two of them.
“Evening, boys,” he said, swiping at his brow with the sleeve of his cotton aprabe robe, “Pinyit, did Manya show you where we’ve been keeping your things?”
“It’s all just in his room, Da,” Manya interrupted, pulling a stack of mismatched glass bowls out of a cupboard, “We were up there literally five minutes ago.”
Pinyit knotted his fingers in his sleeves and mumbled, “I still can’t believe you kept everything.”
Manya exchanged a glance with his father and then said, “Of course we did. Did you think we were going to throw all your stuff away the second you were gone?”
That was exactly what Pinyit had thought they would do. His mother had.
He remembered the smell of smoke more than anything else. Acrid. There were still white flecks of ash clinging to Lyhu’s hair when he returned with nothing but the news that when he’d attempted to retrieve Pinyit’s belongings, his mother had been in the midst of burning it all.
Pinyit hadn’t cared at the time, and Lyhu hadn’t pushed. It had only been a week since he moved in, and the healer was still giving him daily doses of powdered tyiim root to dull the pain of his broken wrist. Even now he could barely remember his mother, her existence confined to snatches of temper and the bone-deep awareness of his own cursed nature.
“Of course we didn’t do that,” Lyhu said, resuming his work, “You’ll always have a place here, even if all you’re using that place for is storage.”
Lyhu had said some iteration of that same thing more times than Pinyit could count, but that didn’t make it any easier to believe.
Pinyit soon fell back into the rhythm of helping, first going to the pot where fruit peels were kept and adding a generous helping to boiling water, then adding cinnamon, anise, and crushed peppercorns like Lyhu had taught him. He strained the fragrant tea that resulted out into the little cups Manya had set out.
No one was allowed to help with the rice itself, of course. It was Lyhu’s pride and joy — soft and sweet, never too dry, and packed with beef marinated overnight in an earthy blend of spices that Lyhu promised he would teach Pinyit and Manya ‘when they were ready’.
That evening, generous helpings were served, steam rising into the cooling air. About halfway through, Manya’s mother, Cibree, arrived back from supervising work in the fields, barely pausing to wash the dirt from her hands before she began questioning Pinyit.
“So, what was it like at the temple? I bet their cooking wasn’t as good as my Lyhu’s,” she said, pausing to elbow her husband lightly in the ribs. He grabbed her arm and tugged her in lightly for the combined purposes of giving her a peck on the cheek and rubbing a smudge of dirt from her chin.
“Let the boy eat, Cib,” he chided, “He’s only just sat down.”
“It’s alright,” Pinyit said, unable to stop himself from tensing a little at Cibree’s presence. “Their cooking wasn’t as good as Lyhu’s.”
“Suck up,” Manya muttered, but Pinyit saw the grin he was hiding behind his own bowl.
Pinyit shrugged, feigning ease. “You’d be sucking up too if you’d been living on nothing but qan porridge for two years.” Just the mention was enough to have everyone’s nose wrinkling.
“Did you like it there?” Cibree asked.
Pinyit felt his own smile start to strain. “It was good. They had some incredible resources, and it was good to have the senior Iqs there pushing us to work our hardest.”
“Not too hard, I hope!” She swallowed a mouthful of rice. “I remember though — that thing you were doing with the moons and the harvests.”
Pinyit nodded. “Yeah, they brought over some tablets from Timah’s temple — historical crop data. I know a lot of people say it’s superstitious nonsense, but I noticed a real link between historical qan famines and periods with more empty skies.”
Pinyit could’ve talked for hours about teaching himself the statistical techniques he’d needed but nobody at the temple knew, the natural history books he’d found and devoured, the rush of challenging himself to stretch outside the field he’d studied in to marry the various disciplines together.
But then Cibree said, “So, how long until you go back?”
The mouthful of food Pinyit had just taken lost all taste. He swallowed, then rubbed the yellowing bruise hidden under his sleeve.
“I’m not sure,” he lied, “I felt like I needed a bit of time away.”
Owning up to what had happened seemed an impossible task. From the moment Pinyit had been able to express a wish to study the skies, Lyhu and Cibree had done everything in their power to make it a reality. Cibree had leaned on her extensive network of contacts to find out exactly what Pinyit would need to do to be admitted to study in the temple. Lyhu had spent hours helping him work through calculations, literature, and required religious knowledge. Even Manya got involved, gleefully chasing Pinyit around and threatening him with everything from toads shoved down the back of his tunic to hiding all his shoes until Pinyit could answer perfectly whatever Manya was quizzing him on.
For them to find out now that he’d thrown all that away because he couldn’t control his temper? They’d be devastated. He gripped his spoon a little tighter.
“Oh no, how come?” Cibree asked, voice flooded with a concern that only added to Pinyit’s guilt.
“I, err…” He set down his bowl and wiped his sweating palms on his trousers.
“You know that you can talk to us about anything, dear,” she said, wearing a smile that Pinyit knew she thought of as comforting, but only served to twist his heart around on itself.
“Leave it, Cib,” Lyhu chided.
“If something’s wrong—”
“How was work? That Klieri woman still giving you trouble?”
They launched into a spirited discussion about Cibree’s ongoing dispute with one of her employees, and Pinyit kept his head down, focusing on eating his food as quickly as he could and pretending he didn’t see Manya watching him the whole time.
After helping to clean up, Pinyit claimed exhaustion and went to bed early. Still too wound up to sleep, he lay on his side, staring out through the vein of glass running through his bedroom wall. At his touch, it widened and thinned, the opalescent turquoise fading almost entirely as it revealed a sky dappled with stars and a single moon, Killila. Wuuiq and Timah were hiding today, but he already knew that.
He knew the name of each and every star he could see and had dedicated years to charting them and tracking their movements across the sky. He knew that, in three days, there would be an empty sky — cursed, as the stories said.
Pinyit had been born under such a sky.
His father had told him once that it was why Pinyit was the way he was. It was why he cried so loud when he was a baby, why he was ill so often with stomach aches, why he could never seem to do as he was asked. A cursed sky made for a cursed boy, and there was only one way to deal with a cursed boy. His mother tried her best, his father frequently said, but sometimes it all just got the better of her.
What his father meant by that existed only in broad strokes in Pinyit’s memory.
Violence, he knew, had been a part of it. As had yelling. He knew these things the same way he knew the names of the stars — the knowledge itself within easy reach, the memory of hours spent acquiring that knowledge lost to time.
He remembered his father’s justifications more clearly than anything his mother had actually done, and they seethed beneath his skin like lightning.
When he couldn’t lie still anymore, he jumped to his feet, began to pace, fingers snarling in his hair. He needed to hit something. To hurt. To get rid of the charge pulsing through him, driving him back and forth, back and forth across the room.
He forced himself to breathe.
From the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the crates, stacked one atop the other in the corner of his room. The day his father brought them to Manya’s house had been the last time he and Pinyit saw each other.
Pinyit had been thirteen years old and unable to get through half a sentence without arguing with someone, battering himself against the lines set by Cibree and Lyhu, desperate to know if there was a crack, terrified he might find one. He hadn’t seen either of his parents since coming to live at Manya’s house, and the sight of his father with a push-cart full of crates had sent his mind spinning, careening back into a past he’d been trying to forget.
“What do you want?” Pinyit had said, taking his father aside whilst Lyhu looked on from the house.
His father was a little greyer than Pinyit remembered, trousers a little more creased. He had a splotchy new scar creeping up his cheek from under his beard and a habit of rubbing at it when he was uncomfortable.
He didn’t smile when Pinyit spoke to him, just wearily said, “You’ve a picture of us in your head now. No doubt influenced by that lot.” He tilted his head towards Manya’s house. “I brought the orbs in case you wanted to remember how things really were.”
Piniyt hadn’t had anything to say to that. Just a tightening of his fists. A clenching of his jaw. A knowledge that this was his father and there was nothing Pinyit could do against him.
Now, Pinyit hauled the topmost crate down from the pile, knees buckling slightly under the weight.
Pinyit didn’t know how to fix his temper, his inability to get anything right, or the mere fact of his birth under a sky shunned by the goddesses.
His memory though… maybe if he fixed that, patched up the holes, then the other things would start to fall into place around it. If he had specifics, he could pinpoint what, exactly, drove him into the kinds of rages that led to holes in the walls and being kicked out of temples. If he understood why it was there, then perhaps he would be able to anticipate the anger before it got him into trouble.
He dropped to his knees in front of the crate and attempted to pry open the lid several times before he remembered that it was locked.
Trying hard not to lose patience with his teenaged self, he retraced the favoured hiding places of that period; between the folds of clothing in his dresser, slotted into the dented casing of the first telescope Cibree and Lyhu had ever bought for him, in a wooden box filled with a strange collection of withered scraps of bark that had apparently caught the interest of his younger self.
Eventually, he thought to reach behind the dresser, feeling along the wall until his fingertips glanced across something metallic wedged into a crack. He worked it free and held it in a clenched fist, sharp edges digging into the palm of his hand as he withdrew his arm.
A rusty key.
He shuffled back over to the crate, slotted it into the lock and turned it.
The lid swung open, revealing rows upon rows of dusty glass orbs, loosely stacked, not labelled like the neat rows of similar orbs Lyhu and Cibree kept in their study. They glowed in the darkness, casting stripes of red, green, blue, and yellow across Pinyit’s skin and clothing.
Few people in Kyhufut were as invested in the collection of memory orbs as Pinyit’s father had been. Most people were wary of the debilitating hangovers that came with overuse of the orbs.
He’d created several whilst living at Manya’s house, but he’d created hundreds under the direction of his father. Every few weeks, he’d sat and poured out copies of his memories into little glass balls no larger than oranges that were promptly secreted away into storage for when he was older.
He was older now.
He rubbed his sweaty palms on his knees. This was the only thing he could think of that would help. All he could do now was hope.
He rolled up his sleeves and grabbed the first orb he saw.
Glowing pink tendrils swirled within the orb, rushing up to meet the spot where Pinyit’s fingers pressed up against the surface of the glass. A tingling, shrinking sensation banded across the inside of Pinyit’s head as the pink matter surged out of the orb, wreathing his hand in light. The sensation intensified, the glow grew brighter, and he felt like he was suffocating, but then—
“Listen to this,” Pinyit’s mother told his Auntie Kihlush as they worked side by side, all three of them up to their elbows in soapy water, “What do you want to be when you grow up, Pin?”
Pinyit knew this game, and it was an easy one, “I want to be an astro-astronimcaler!”
“An astronomer, just like his Da!” His mother grinned, and Pinyit glowed.
Pinyit blinked the memory away and set the orb back down. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but it wasn’t that. He remembered now, his father’s passing interest in astronomy, mapped out on glass tiles left scattered across the kitchen table.
She’d seemed so proud of him, she’d even been boasting about him to his aunt. That sense of joy and accomplishment lingered in his chest even now. Warm and bright. He didn’t normally feel that way when he thought about his mother. It didn’t make any sense. Didn’t mesh with the image he had of her as rageful. Frightening. Willing to bruise and break.
Maybe another orb would provide some clarity?
The next orb he found had yellow pooled at its core like an egg. When he touched it, the memory seeped forwards, slowly enveloping his wrist.
“–and then Manya said that his Da said I could go to their house to play anytime I wanted!”
Pinyit trotted at his mother’s side, struggling under a basket full of qan, sandals slapping loosely at his heels. She made a humming noise, not seeming to have fully understood what Pinyit was trying to ask.
“So can I?” he prompted.
“Can you what?”
“Go play at Manya’s house?”
“Manya’s parents are the ones who live in that big house at the edge of town, aren’t they?” his mother asked, and Pinyit nodded vigorously.
“Yeah! It’s huge!”
His mother smiled and ruffled his hair, “Of course you can go, sweetheart, I think you should definitely keep playing with Manya.”
The orb hit the floor with a thud and rolled, yellow light arcing from Pinyit’s hand, flooding back into the glass. He stared at it, panting for breath. That memory had been no different to the last one; it’d been so… normal.
He knew, in his gut, that his mother had not been as kind as the orbs were telling him. He’d had seven years with her and a whole twelve away to mull over and realise exactly why he was right to be frightened of her, but he couldn’t ignore what the orbs were telling him, could he? His not understanding them didn’t make the memories any less real.
He balled his shaking hands up into fists and stared hard into the box of orbs.
He moved past the orb filled with soft blue spirals, ignored the one with green waves rippling its interior. Dozens more he looked at and discarded, deciding they looked too soft, too unlikely to hold the harsh truths he craved. His eyes landed on one with vicious purple cracks running through its core. It looked… mean. Pinyit didn’t know if there was any real correlation between the appearance of the orbs and the quality of the memories they held. He could only hope there was.
He picked it up. Braced himself. Let the past wash over him.
“Do you know what that one’s called?” his mother asked, pointing to the smallest moon in the cool evening sky.
Pinyit shook his head. He’d never seen all three moons at once like this. His mother said it was rare, only happening once every three years.
“Her name is Killila,” His mother said, “She’s the youngest and she holds onto all of her sisters’ joy whilst they work, just like you do for me and your Da.” She beamed at him and pressed a kiss to his temple, her long black hair tickling his nose. “That’s what Pinyit means. You’re our joy.”
The purple seeped back into the orb like fracture lines. If he didn’t know better, he would have said it was broken. He didn’t understand how all the orbs could be like… this. He knew that bad things had happened. He knew it. So why didn’t the orbs show that? Pinyit stared at it, eyes damp, before he realised someone was knocking at the door.
“Come in!” he called out, hastily wiping his eyes on his sleeves. When he looked up, Manya was peering at him with a worried crease in his brow.
“I heard a bang…” The crease deepened as he took in the sight of Pinyit and the orbs, several of which were now on the floor, “What happened? Are these…” he crouched down, about to touch the orb full of red spines, but Pinyit quickly jumped to his feet.
“No! Don’t!” he said, “I— it’s private.”
Manya pulled back, “Of course, sorry.”
Pinyit crouched down, sleeve wrapped around his hand as he gathered up the spilled orbs, failing to get his ragged breath under control. He could feel Manya’s gaze fixed on his back as he worked.
Pinyit put the lid back on the crate, plunging them into darkness. He sat with his back against his bed, hands screwed up by his sides. How was he supposed to hate his mother when, clearly, she’d loved him so much? And if she’d really been that kind, what excuse did he have for his failures?
Manya trod across the room, towering over him. Pinyit shied away, but then Manya sat down and pressed his warm shoulder into Pinyit’s.
“Go on then,” Pinyit said when he couldn’t bear it anymore, “Ask the question you’ve been dying to ask.”
Pinyit rolled his eyes. “Don’t act like you’re stupid.”
Manya straightened. “I’m serious. Enlighten me, what’s this question that I’ve apparently been ‘dying to ask’?”
Pinyit kept his eyes fixed on the moon dappled wall opposite. “Why did they kick me out?”
“What? I thought you were just joking when you said that.”
Pinyit smiled ruefully and shook his head, “Nope.”
Pinyit glanced towards Manya and saw him resting his chin on forearms crossed across his knees. It was such a quintessentially Manya-like gesture that Pinyit was momentarily taken aback. He really had been gone for a long time.
If he were at the temple right now, Iq Shunyum would likely be scolding him for laziness, “If you’ve got time to rest, you’ve got time to clean.”
He’d pushed Pinyit to be the most capable version of himself, to learn things he never would have learned otherwise. Knowledge for its own sake, whatever the cost. And Pinyit had ruined it all over nothing.
“It was my own fault,” he said, and Manya looked up, “I kept getting angry, and, well, you know how I am.”
Both their eyes fell upon the boarded over hole.
“And then when it happened… I was talking to one of the senior researchers about my work, you know, with the cursed skies? And he said that it meant that maybe some people really are cursed. And then…” He rubbed the bruise on his arm. “Well, I smashed their telescope.”
He didn’t even remember doing it. Just white, searing anger. Then the lenses were cracked, the bronze was dented, and Iq Shunyum was staring at him, disappointment oozing like wax from a candle.
“That’s it? You broke a telescope?”
“No, you don’t understand,” Pinyit said, shaking his head, “I broke the telescope. The Great One.”
“Oh shit,” Manya muttered.
“Exactly. They said — they said that if I could prove that I could control my temper, then I could come back.”
“I thought that was getting better?” Manya said, “When we were kids you used to, err… get a bit wound up, but in that year before you left? I don’t think I even heard you raise your voice. And I know you’ve not been back here long, but you remind me more of that Pinyit than the one who went round smashing stuff when he got mad.”
Pinyit winced and couldn’t help but let his gaze fall upon the hole in the wall again.
They’d both been fourteen when that happened. An argument with Cibree about something that in hindsight they both admitted was stupid. It would’ve been fine, but then she’d raised her voice.
Logically, he’d known that this was normal. People fought. Pinyit and Cibree fought. But something about the pitch or tenor of her voice that day had felt not like an argument with the woman who’d taken him in at his most desperate, but instead like standing on the beach, a wave as tall as he was about to wash over his head.
And then the wave had crashed.
He hadn’t been trapped, but he felt like he was. Wasn’t helpless either, or a child, or in danger, but that didn’t matter. Heart pounding, face hot, something bitter in the back of his mouth. He might’ve shouted, but he didn’t remember, too caught up in that visceral surge of rage tinged terror.
He’d stormed upstairs to his room and slammed the door so hard it shuddered in its frame. Yelled in frustration. It wasn’t enough. Too much, too loud—
His fist had gone through the wall.
It was probably the worst thing he’d done whilst living with Manya’s family. Afterwards, Lyhu had made him repair the damage himself, and then Cibree and Lyhu sat Pinyit down to have a long talk about things Pinyit could do when he was angry that didn’t involve property damage.
It had helped. There were meditations he could do that worked, breathing with the goddesses in the same way the sea did. Focusing on his studies helped too. Anything that let him escape whatever situation he was in that felt like it was about to overwhelm him.
“It was getting better,” Pinyit said, “I don’t know what happened at the temple to change that, and that’s a problem. What I was doing wasn’t enough. I need to find something more.”
Manya’s eyes roamed once more back to the crate. “Is that what you were trying to do with the memory orbs? Figure out ‘something more’?”
Pinyit nodded, then looked away, “They don’t… They’re not showing me what they’re meant to.”
“What do you mean?” Manya asked tentatively.
“They’re all…” He couldn’t look at Manya, kept his gaze fixed instead on his hands. There was still an ink stain, black crawling through the fine crevices normally invisible in his smooth brown skin, “They’re all good. They show her being good.”
“You’re not…” Pinyit looked up to see Manya watching him with wide eyes, “You know your Ma was horrible, right?”
Pinyit nodded quickly, “I know, but in the orbs—”
Manya groaned in frustration, “Seriously? I don’t know how much you remember from that night, but she broke your wrist. Before that, every time I saw you when we were kids you had some new story about ‘falling down the stairs’ or ‘walking into a wall’.”
“We were kids,” Pinyit said, hoarse, “Kids are clumsy; maybe I did do all those things.”
“Why can’t you just accept that things are better here? You knew it when we were seven, why don’t you know it now?”
“Then stop chasing after her! She didn’t love you, Pin!” Shouting. Words that hit too close to bone. Pinyit’s heart was pounding, his blood curdled hot in his face, the wave was rising, rising, rising—
“You don’t get it,” Pinyit said, controlled, perfectly controlled.
What did Manya know about love, anyway? He’d only ever tasted the uncomplicated kind, like an apple peeled and sliced and presented on a plate drizzled with honey. He’d never picked sharp spikes of peel from his gums, never gouged out soggy chunks of bruised flesh with his thumb. He didn’t know that it was still the same apple, the same sweetness underneath.
“No! I don’t get it! Those orbs,” Manya gestured sharply at the crates and Pinyit tensed, “aren’t proof of anything other than the fact that your Da decided to put something that can make adults sick in the hands of a three year old!”
He screwed his fists up. Manya’s words echoing, she didn’t love you, she didn’t love you, she didn’t—
It wasn’t true.
Or it was.
Pinyit didn’t even know himself, so who did Manya think he was, trying to decide for him? He tried to imagine the sea, breathing with the goddesses, but the images in his mind just crashed and frothed like waves cresting in a storm.
“Get… out.” He hissed.
“Just think, for Timah’s sake!”
“I said, get out!” Pinyit was on his feet; he couldn’t stay sitting anymore, not when his blood burned and his heart thudded, so loud it seemed moments away from splintering his ribs with the force of it.
Manya, not shouting now, pursed his lips and nodded, getting to his feet so he was eye level with Pinyit, “Fine. Don’t listen to me. Don’t expect any sympathy when you mess yourself up.”
Pinyit curled his fists so tight his nails, bitten short, sank into his palms. Manya walked away.
As Killilla and the stars travelled across the sky, Pinyit went back to the orbs. Maybe there was something he’d missed? There was a sliver of pain starting in the corner of his temple, but he ignored it and picked up the next orb.
A bright blue sky, his mother’s hand—
The sliver widened to a splinter.
Constellations, his mother explaining that the Dog crawled from West to East as the seasons changed—
From a splinter, it grew into a shard.
Hours spent together, poring over glass writing tablets.
His head was pounding, and the entire right side of his face was on fire. Memories blurred into each other. Had that last one really been from an orb? Had it really been his mother? He remembered an almost identical scene from when Lyhu was helping him study for his entry into the temple. Without thinking, he pressed the cool surface of the glass to his cheek—
Soft, savoury qan cakes, crispy around the edges and buttered. He’d thrown up, and she always made qan cakes after he threw up. Food that wouldn’t hurt his stomach, gentle like the hands she used to pull the blankets to his chin when she tucked him into bed.
“A good meal and some sleep and you’ll feel better,” she said.
He dropped the orb as another lance of pain pierced his temple. The room tilted, the floor falling out from beneath him until he fell prone, the walls spinning.
His heart beat painfully, and he was shaking all over.
The orb rolled away, the memories within condensing to thick grey smoke. His head had never hurt this badly in his life. He didn’t know what to do anymore. He couldn’t burden Manya’s parents again, not like he’d burdened the temple, like he’d burdened his mother.
Another splinter of pain. He curled up small. Maybe they would forget about him if he was small.
She’d loved him, the orbs were proof that she’d loved him.
“Just think, for Timah’s sake!”
Belatedly, Pinyit did.
The orbs came from his father.
“Make it something nice, Pin,” he used to say. Every time.
Pinyit hadn’t made many orbs since moving in with Manya’s parents, but those few he had made were all stored together in the downstairs study.
He forced himself to stand, clinging to the wall when the floor seemed to tremble beneath his feet.
The veins of glass in the hallway were wide and open, glass stretched so thin it was almost transparent as, after a cool night, the house gasped for sunlight. Pinyit had to squint as he staggered down the hallway, past the room shared by Cibree and Lyhu, past the kitchen where the big cooking pot had been left to soak, past Manya’s room, where Pinyit could hear his friend moving restlessly in his sleep.
He made it to the study, ignoring books in favour of the shelves at the back of the room which were loaded with dozens of small wooden boxes, glass plates on the front describing the contents in Cibree’s clear, straightforward hand.
Manya: third blessed sky one said, on another was written Cibree: nyltiut ceremony. He had to squint to read them through the pain. Some of the boxes had a small flower symbol indicating that it was private. The labels for these tended to be sadder, things like Lyhu: mother’s death or Cibree: losing Hannyl.
Pinyit wouldn’t have been able to label the memories from the crate so clearly if he tried. After several minutes of searching, he started to find boxes with his own name on them. All of them had the flower symbol, even the happier ones such as Pinyit: helping Lyhu in the kitchen for the first time and Pinyit: acceptance into the Temple of Wuuiq’s Astronomical Order.
He longed to open them up, to sit in the happiness he found in those years after his mother but before the temple. He couldn’t.
It took a bit of shuffling things around and a lot of pausing when the pain in his head decided to remind him it was there, but he found what he was looking for at the very back of the shelves. A box just like the others, this time labelled Pinyit: leaving parents.
He remembered making this.
He’d been barely able to think through the Healer’s medicine for his wrist, but Manya, strangely timid ever since Pinyit had turned up on his doorstep, had brought him a clear glass orb.
“My Da said that sometimes even really important things can be hard to remember if you’re little when they happen or they’re really scary. If you want to remember, though, put it in here and I’ll keep it safe for you.”
Pinyit didn’t know what he’d put into the orb, but it seemed like the closest he would get. Something he’d created when it was still fresh, but when his father wasn’t there prompting him.
He opened the box and pressed his fingers to the glass.
“What do you mean you don’t know? We talked about this yesterday.”
Pinyit’s mother smacked her hand down next to the tablet in front of them.
“Lillina, leave him alone, these calculations are difficult for a child,” his father said, head bent over his own work.
His mother scowled, “Answer me, Pinyit. Why don’t you know? Did you not study this after our lesson yesterday?”
No, he hadn’t. He’d gone outside to play with Manya instead. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He knew how difficult the stellar parallax calculations were. He should’ve practiced.
“I asked you a question.”
“I… I didn’t,” he admitted.
Blotches on Ma’s cheeks. Lips thin and narrow. “Right. That’s it. I’ve had enough of you. Get up.”
She snatched his arm, ignoring his father’s cry of, “Lillina! Can’t you see he’s trying his best?”
She pulled him to his feet, and marched him out of the kitchen, into the alleyway outside the house.
Two moons. Wuuiq and Timah. Both full and round, with a sliver of Killila just visible. The closest they were going to get to a blessed sky that year. Nothing really bad could happen with the goddesses watching so closely, right?
The wood panelling shuddered as Ma shoved him into the wall, both hands tight on his shoulders. She leaned in close, hissed, “What do you think you’re playing at?”
He knew what came next.
“You’re humiliating me. I don’t expect much from you, Pinyit, but I do expect you to work.”
Another slam. Pain gnawed through his back.
“Are you lazy?”
He shook his head.
“What, then? Is this just what you are? A nasty little boy? You’ve always been trouble. They warned me about you, you know that? A cursed brat makes a cursed house!”
“Look at me when I’m speaking to you!”
She grabbed his hair, pulled his face back, leered. “Oh, now you’re crying. Trying to make me feel like a bad mother. You should be grateful; I should have left you out on the beach for the goddesses to claim. That’s what the other mothers do with your sort. I thought I could make you better than what you are.”
Cold dribbled down his face.
“I said stop.”
He wanted to.
“I said stop it!”
She wrenched him forward and he yelped, struggled to keep his balance before she shoved him back into the wall. His head whipped back, slammed into wood. No time to catch his breath before she ripped him forward again.
Pulled him so close that he could feel her breath on his ear, “I am sick of you trying to manipulate me.” she hissed, and in a single motion, tossed him to the ground.
Hard earth caught his outstretched arm with a hard crack. Pain spliced through his wrist. He moaned, curling around the injury.
“Get out of my sight. I never want to see you again.”
“I said leave!”
Oh. Oh, goddesses. She had hated him, she—
He hadn’t heard the door opening, but there it was, and Manya was crouched in front of him, the orb rolling from slack fingers.
“Pin?” he said, voice high and urgent., “What happened?”
He screwed his eyes shut, why was it so bright?
“I’m getting Ma and Da,” Manya said. “Just hold tight, you’ll be okay.”
“No,” he muttered, reaching out to snatch at Manya’s finely woven sleeve.
“What do you mean ‘no’? You’re a mess!”
He tried to shake his head, but it hurt too much. “You hate me.”
Manya locked his jaw. “Don’t be an idiot. I’m going.”
The orb hangover lasted for four long days, most of which Pinyit spent unable to move without sending fresh waves of pain to scour the inside of his skull.
There was no curing overindulgence, but Lyhu spent the daylight hours with him, ready with a cold rag to press against the burning in his temple whenever he needed it.
Pinyit didn’t talk much. He knew Lyhu was putting it down to his illness, but in truth, he was weighed down by that final memory. It had been one thing to know logically what his mother had done. To see glimpses of it in bouts of nervousness and anger, the details too painful to see more closely. Another entirely to relive it through the mind of his younger self.
Eventually, he asked Lyhu, “Do you think she loved me?”
Lyhu frowned a little, spectacles flickering with the reflection of the book of fine glass writing tablets he’d been reading from.
“That’s not a question I can answer for you,” he said eventually, setting his book down. “What do you think?”
Pinyit had had plenty of time to mull that question over on his own. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever remember the full extent of what his life with his mother had been like, but he knew enough.
I never want to see you again.
He’d always known, deep down, what she was really like. The terror came with admitting it.
“I think… she loved the person she wanted me to be. When I was him, she loved me, and when I wasn’t…”
In a way, that was what it had been like at the temple. Pinyit hadn’t even realised how good he’d been at toeing that line, as adept at being the perfect student as he was at being the perfect son. Right up until that moment where he couldn’t… when the constant battering of his defences had left them broken.
There was no easy fix for what had happened, for the anger. The only thing he could do was build himself back up again. Learn to truly tell the difference between those trying to help and those happy to tear him down.
Lyhu squeezed Pinyit’s leg and, when it was apparent Pinyit was done talking, went back to his book.
Cibree tried one day to make qan cakes after work. She brought the still-warm plate up to him and said, “You’ve barely eaten, do you think you could try?”
He couldn’t answer her. Tiny and round to make them easy for small hands and small mouths to manage. This was exactly how his mother used to make them.
“Oh dear,” Cibree said, “What’s wrong?”
He was crying. Pinyit wasn’t sure if he’d ever cried in front of Cibree before.
“I’m sorry,” he said, hastily rubbing his eyes, “I don’t want to be difficult. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, sweetie.” She sat down next to him, then seemed to hesitate before asking, “Can I hug you?”
He nodded, and she pulled him in, “You can be as difficult as you like, love, we’re just glad to have you back.”
It wasn’t until Pinyit was firmly on the mend that Manya came to speak with him. “Can we talk?” he said.
Pinyit pulled himself into a sitting position and nodded, gritting his teeth against the churn of his stomach. Manya sat opposite, legs crossed. He opened his mouth to talk, but Pinyit quickly interjected, “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”
Manya worried his lower lip, then nodded. “You were upset. It’s okay. And, well,” He scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “I yelled first. I forgot how much you don’t like that, so I’m sorry too.”
“Thank you.” Pinyit said, painfully aware of the part of him that would always be surprised at the sound of someone else’s apology. “You were right, though.”
Manya went still. “Yeah?”
Pinyit nodded, “About the orbs, it wasn’t good for me to put so much faith in them. I don’t know why my father wanted me to make them, but I think he might’ve been trying to get me to forget the bad stuff.”
Pinyit didn’t know whether his father genuinely thought it’d be better if Pinyit forgot what his childhood was really like, or if he was just trying to preserve his own ideal of what their family should look like. Happy, with a son who remembered a mother who taught him about the stars, not one who beat him.
“I think I can understand that,” Manya said quietly. “I saw how miserable you looked going through those orbs and I just wanted you to stop.”
“It didn’t work, though,” Pinyit said, “Thinking that she never did anything wrong just made me think I was broken. Or cursed, I guess.”
His father had never tried to discourage that line of thinking either.
He’d been angry at his father for a long time, moreso now, knowing what had been waiting for him in the orbs. The feeling frightened him. There was a balance there that he was going to have to figure out. Between those who deserved that contempt like his mother and father, and those who were just unlucky enough to be caught by the tail end of it.
He pressed a hand to the vein of glass running close to his head and willed it to widen. Outside there was an empty sky, cursed, as the stories said, like Pinyit. For most of his life, Pinyit had been listening to the part of him that believed his mother when she said he was cursed, even if he didn’t remember it. He’d thought, at the temple, that he could prove no such curse existed. As if qan harvests and the cycling of moons could quantify his own soul. Through the orbs, he’d tried to fix it. He knew better now. There was no external force that could prove or disprove the validity of his own experiences. He had to look to himself for that. To the people who loved him.
“Can I ask you a favour?”
“You already know you can stay—”
“Not that,” Pinyit said, “The orbs.” The crates had been sitting in the corner of the room for the past several days, untouched. “I want to put them in storage, make some room in here. Can you help me carry them?”
Manya smiled. “Of course.”