“For people were shaping their memory in relation to what they had suffered.”
I was nine when my words saved a man’s life; it wasn’t until later that my words killed him.
Balloons and bright streamers bobbed above cheering crowds. I imagined the festivities were all for my birthday! Students marched past in starched uniforms, breaking ranks every so often to wave at relatives in the crowd. I jumped up and down and eagerly waved back.
Next came the riders of sleek zeri-cycles, dexterously maneuvering their spinning machines to zigzag down the street, barely avoiding collisions — whether by skill or luck, I couldn’t tell. I stretched on tiptoe to better see a troupe of slender gymnasts somersaulting through hoops, leapfrogging over each other, then piling together to form a pyramid. I winced with envy, having tried and failed to win a place on their team.
A shimmering red and silver flag, waved by the topmost acrobat, broke my illusion — the celebration wasn’t about my birthday but that of our great country, Altira. Still, I smiled, reaching for Aunt Yara’s brown hand. Yara had long coiled hair and dark eyes that seemed to see through anyone. Especially me, whenever I did something wrong.
The next moment, I felt her stiffen as army and militia units approached, led by a band that piped and blared, as drums pounded a martial beat. Nearby, my brother Jeran began marching in place, tapping on his knees to the beat. I frowned and elbowed him.
“Jeran, stop! We don’t like these guys.” I glanced up at Yara, whose lips were pressed tight, glaring at the soldiers.
He shoved me away. “Leave me alone, Aya. I like ‘em.”
“You’re too young to know anything.” I turned away...
...in time to catch a glimpse of Pier Shaozen, our neighbor, pushing past the fringes of the crowd. My heart quickened with emotions I could not then have named — a schoolgirl crush on an older boy who had become a striking young man. Beyond the occasional friendly word, he barely knew I existed. But Pier’s scowling intensity somehow compelled me to follow.
I whispered to Yara, “I’ll be back.”
Her eyes stared straight ahead at the marching soldiers.
As I dodged past cheering townspeople, Pier was easy to track. His black hair bobbed above most. I tripped over a man’s foot, spun about, searching, and finally spotted Pier alone, next to the butcher’s shop, where he greeted another man, heavy-set with an overgrown bristly red beard. I crouched behind a trashcan. Pier whispered a few words, then passed over a small, wrapped package.
“Well, if it isn’t the Shaozen boy!” boomed a voice that chilled me to the bone. Anyone would recognize the sneer of Athos, the only son of Lord Murta, wealthiest landholder in the valley.
Pier’s eyes narrowed as he stepped between Athos and the bearded man, allowing that figure to melt into the crowd. Pier spoke to the smirking young lord, but I couldn’t hear everything, as Pier and Athos exchanged increasingly angry words. But Athos was not alone. A dark figure crept forth from the alley’s shadows, drawing a knife. He stepped toward Pier’s back.
Terror coursed through me, my thoughts a jumble, as a dozen possibilities fought in my head. Should I rush forward? Call for help?
I shrieked Pier’s name. He cast the briefest glance in my direction. I pointed. His eyes widened and he swiveled, chopping down with his arm. The knife clattered down to a grill, into the black water of the gutter below.
Athos stood back, arms crossed. He watched, emotionless, as Pier and the burly man struggled. Falling backward toward me, Pier growled, “Get out of here. I don’t want you...”
But I couldn’t move. My muscles wouldn’t obey. The terrible sight of Pier and his attacker struggling on the ground blurred through my tears. I was of no use to him. He had rejected me. Ordered me away.
Horrified, I backed further as enforcers approached. I wiped tears and pushed through the crowd toward where I thought Aunt Yara stood. The pounding military beat grew louder, but I was lost amid unfamiliar faces, knocked back and forth by the sway of heaving bodies.
I looked desperately around, calling for Yara.
As panic threatened, a strong, friendly grip seized my collar and pulled me close.
“Aya, don’t ever do that again.” The worry in her eyes was nothing compared to that in my heart. What had happened to Pier?
Jeran threw his arms around me. “I missed you.”
Numbly, I gazed toward the parade. Gray-clad soldiers advanced in precise formation, gripping revo-guns, staring rigidly ahead, as their boots made the street tremble. At a sergeant’s shout, they halted, did an about-face and twirled their weapons in perfect unison. The warriors faced each other, balancing rifles on open hands, and then propelled them upward. Bayonets flashed as they spun, then plummeted toward their partners. Each synchronized move provoked thunderous applause from onlookers lining the street or leaning out of windows above.
Jeran cheered, but my head pounded as I tried to push away all I had seen.
Next came horse-drawn artillery and clanking cannons, followed by armored trucks that puffed billows of foul-smelling smoke. I choked, while Jeran grinned, captivated by the mechanical dragons. I shuddered to see these monstrosities, dating back to the war in which our father had fought and never returned.
Some tension went out of Yara’s grip, as the army units moved on. Soon, a flower-decked cart rolled up, bearing a trio of bearded singers, their baritone voices chanting cantos of The Voyage from New Mars. Even then, I scarcely believed the epic, its verses telling of “ten thousand souls, dreaming for centuries aboard an iron moon.” Though my heart wasn’t in it, I clapped with everyone else when the glimmering orb of Tyra inflated above their wagon, offering the settlers hope of a new home, a new destiny.
Gradually, with a child’s resilience, I felt recent worries slip away, and I marveled at the bravery that drove my ancestors to travel across the stars.
Grinning impishly, Jeran poked me. A bronze balloon, nearly the same color as his unruly hair, bobbed by his side. Then without a care, Jeran shrugged and released it into the crystal gray-green sky. Inhaling the crisp autumn air, I watched as the little globe danced in the breeze. I pictured myself soaring so carefree, gazing down upon the milling crowd, a sea of brilliant silken garments.
“Will there be airships?” Jeran pulled at my arm. His azure eyes sparkled with curiosity as he gazed up at the balloon.
“Not here in Tanaq, silly.” Such modern wonders were unlikely to visit a small town such as ours. But his crestfallen face made me hastily add, “Maybe someday... If the Lords allow it.”
All voices hushed when Lord Murta passed in front of us. Immense, nearly as large as any two ordinary men, the towering, bald man strode rapidly, surrounded by liveried servants. Murta periodically tossed handfuls of coins toward the sidewalk. Children dove for the meager treasures. Mura laughed heartily, aiming his next coins with greater force directly at them. A young boy grimaced, rubbing his leg. Yara stiffened, exhaling in disgust.
I vowed never to stoop for a lord’s paltry tokens. The familiar nursery rhyme played in my mind,
Make way for the Lords, of ice, field and fold.
By gun or by sword, you do as you’re told,
And honor their gold, if you want to grow old.
But then Jeran and I cheered high-stepping horses, adorned in the silver regalia of noble families, skillfully ridden by aristocratic girls not much older than myself. In my mind, it was I atop one of those grand beasts, waving proudly as onlookers clapped and whistled.
Jeran jumped, pointing down the road, “Hykloras! Here come the hykloras!”
A chorus of “Ahhs” greeted a quartet of the rarely seen native animals, followed by silence, as a wave of awe passed through the crowd. Towering over the largest horse, the hykloras appeared regal and almost disdainful of the smaller creatures surrounding them. The golden beasts raised their heads in unison, vigorously shaking them to show off magnificent, bulging-iridescent crests, no two alike. Onlookers stepped back.
“Once, I was allowed to touch a hyklora.” Aunt Yara placed her hand on my shoulder, a wistful expression on her face. “I still dream of it.”
One of the magnificent animals paused in front of me and met my gaze, for a fraction of a second. My breath caught as an image came, sparked by that glittering eye. A glimpse of barren, savage lands and hykloras running free, in numbers so vast, the mighty creatures flowed across the plains, merging in nearly geometric formations that slowly melted, like sand castles rejoining the surf. I was instantly struck by a wave of sorrow, for I knew that such wild places no longer existed anywhere on Tyra.
“Down with Donira! Down with Donira! Do away with them all!” A surge of angry voices shattered that momentary connection. The hyklora snorted and moved away. I was left swaying, as a drunken mob pushed through the spectators. On hand-scrawled placards, I read “Death to all Donirans: Enemies of Altira.” Crude caricatures portrayed ugly, demonic figures suffering gruesome dismemberments. Others showed skewered bodies piled in heaps, splashed with bright red paint.
I shuddered and looked away. As if infected by the vile images, Jeran took to spastic coughing. Yara pulled him close, covering his eyes.
“A plague upon Donira... Erase its memory from the land!” Many onlookers joined, jeering, while others frowned, turning away.
“My kin come from Donira,” grumbled a husky man, wearing the garb of a tenant farmer.
“Then your kin are nothin’ but dirt,” a townsman spat in his face. Red-faced, the farmer wiped his cheek, then shoved meaty hands against the other fellow’s chest and shoved. The two men began savagely punching each other. The farmer crashed backward, knocking over two young women. Their screams pierced my ears. The crowd rapidly swayed away from the brawlers. I winced as someone stepped on my foot. Yara yanked us away from the commotion.
My heart beating rapidly, I asked. “Doesn’t Grand-moma live in Donira?”
“Hush, child.” She hurried us, as another shoving match broke out nearby. Shouts coursed back and forth, rising in crescendo. I glimpsed enforcers waving batons as they pushed through the crowd.
A portly woman in a flowered dress grumbled, “So much for celebrating.”
“At this rate,” said a man who looked to be her husband, “How can we avoid another war?”
More... much more about Aya and her coming of age on Planet Tyra, as the story continues. Purchase THE MELODY OF MEMORY
What if you could take your worst memories — those of extreme trauma or loss of a loved one — tie them to a unique musical melody, composed just for you, and seal them away in a box? You can revisit them if and when you wish, simply by activating the melody of your box. Would such a device be used for good — or for evil — if it got into the wrong hands?
Copyright © 2021 by Cheryl Brin. All rights reserved.
Cheryl Brin studied geochemistry at Caltech. She has worked as a researcher, editor, teacher and tutor. The Melody of Memory is her first novel.
Cheryl lives in southern California with her husband, science fiction author David Brin, and near their three adult children.
view David's wikipedia page