The shifting sands beat against the crumbling brick wall. Natalia swung her legs over the edge and stared down at the changing landscape. From her height, she could almost see over the large dunes surrounding her town.
Pulling a loaf of bread out of her knapsack, she hummed a tune to herself and smiled. Somehow she had managed to keep all sand out of the bread this time.
The loaf was still warm from the oven, so she ripped it into four pieces and gently blew on one, rocking back and forth. In between bites of the bread, she hummed a bit more of her happy song. She let the notes be light like the wisps of clouds that sometimes appeared in the sky. There was no reason in particular to be sad, she thought, so why shouldn´t her song be happy?
After eating half of the small loaf, Natalia stuffed the left over pieces back into the knapsack. She stared out at the hazy line between sky and sand for a few more seconds before slinging the knapsack over her shoulder and climbed back down the wall. On her way home she stopped at the glass blower’s shop.
“Good morning, Tali,” Mr. Ramira smiled as she appeared in the doorway. The hot air in the shop made the folds of her dress billow forward. The air outside hadn’t quite reached its peak temperature yet.
“Good morning.” Natalia glanced over the jars of chemicals on his table and pointed at the glowing ball of molten glass at the end of the stick he was slowly turning. “One of your wave bowls?”
“Very good.” Mr. Ramira tapped the bar on a separate table a few times and stuck the whole thing back into the oven. “The new shipment’s in the back room.”
“Are they labelled?”
The glass blower took the molten orb back out and rolled it on the table until it was twice as long as it was wide. “All you have to do it put them on the shelves.”
“Okay.” She watched him as he blew air into the rod, expanding the orb and making it more malleable, then she shifted the bag strap on her shoulder and went through the door to the back room.
The boxes were green, each one about tall enough to reach her knees. She peered at the labels on them and deciphered the shorthand written on them. Three of the boxes had to go on the top shelf. She started with those.
About a foot away from the first box, Natalia stood with her feet shoulder width apart. She clasped her hands together, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. As she let the air out of her lungs with a hiss, she let her mind drift down her body to her feet, then bleed out into the floor until she could sense the box. Once she could feel every edge of it, she took another, quick breath and raised her hands, opening her eyes. The box soared into the air, and she pushed it higher until it was over the uppermost shelf. With a flick of her left hand, she fit the box between two others and gently let it settle onto the shelf. The other two top shelf boxes were easier now that she’d started, and there were only a dozen or so more boxes she had to put away. She was done in a few minutes.
Natalia brushed the sweat from her forehead as she walked back out to Mr. Ramira’s workshop. “Is that all for today?”
“That’s all.” The glassblower nodded at a small figurine on the table with the chemicals. “That’s for you.”
Natalia held out her hand and twitched her fingers, bringing the figurine towards her until it stopped, floating, above her palm. It was a light blue glass camel, its legs in a walking position and two ornate bags slung across its back. She spun the camel around to marvel at the detail. “I get to keep this?” she breathed.
Not looking up from his work, Mr. Ramira chuckled. “It’s the least I can do for all your help around here.”
“Thank you!” Natalia bowed to the man and scampered out of the shop. Her bag bumped her side, and she cupped the glass camel with both hands, the little feet touching her palms lightly.
The door to her house was slightly ajar as she ran up to it. As she peeked into the house, her mother looked up from sweeping the floor.
“You’re home early,” she noticed. Natalia walked into the house and set her bag on the table.
“Mr. Ramira didn’t have much work to do, and I was let out from classes early anyway.”
“What did you learn in class?” Natalia’s mother swept sand out the open door with three quick sweeps.
“Mostly geography today.” Natalia took the broom from her mother and started sweeping under the table. “It made me miss Ms. Catherine.” The second after she said the name she winced and looked up at her mother, but the woman only raised her eyebrows slightly in warning. Nevertheless, Natalia lowered her head and her voice. “We talked about the northern border countries mostly.”
Mrs. Marli leaned against the doorway to the bedrooms. “Did you talk about your uncle’s country? Bandilai?”
Natalia swept the rest of the sand out of the house. “Yes, we talked a lot about how the border between us and Bandilai has changed so much in the past fifty years.”
“So it has,” Mrs. Marli said thoughtfully. “Have you thought of what you’re wearing tonight?”
The sudden change in subject startled Natalia, and she clutched the broom handle. “No. Not really.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t seem…” She paused when she saw the same look of warning in her mother’s eye. “You know what I mean?” she said instead.
“Yes, I know.” Mrs. Marli placed her hands on Natalia’s shoulders. “But what will people say if you go to your own brother’s grave without proper mourning clothes?” When Natalia didn’t respond, her mother touched her cheek. “Remember, you won’t have to say a word to anyone.”
“I know.” Natalia set the broom next to the door. “Will you help me pick it out?”
“Your outfit? Of course!” Mrs. Marli smiled. “I’ll show you what I’ll be wearing and then we can pick something for you to wear to match.”
Natalia stood next to her mother at the entrance to the cemetery. They were somewhere in the middle of the crowd of villagers waiting for the doors to open. As she waited, Natalia ran her thumb over the little camel in her dress pocket.
When the doors opened and the sun sank under the dunes, the villagers slowly entered the cemetery, some holding candles, all holding gifts for their lost ones. Natalia put her hand in her other pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. She glanced down at the slanting cursive.
“Peter would love it, darling,” her mother said. She held up a small wooden statue of the god of peace. “Do you think this will hold it down?”
“Long enough, I think.” Natalia stopped as they neared the gravestone marked “Peter Marli.” She grasped her hand-written poem and looked up the cemetery hill at the ceremonial lantern. She watched as the village leader said some unintelligible words, then lit the lantern and shouted, “Hali!”
“Halu!” the entire village shouted back.
Natalia placed the poem on the gravestone, leaving enough room so the name was visible. Her mother placed the statue on top of it, and they both bowed their heads and pretended to mumble words to Peter’s spirit. Natalia said a few words to her father. She wasn’t sure what her mother was really saying.
After a few minutes, the villagers began paying their respects to the other gravestones and leaving rocks on the graves of those they were particularly close to. As Natalia was placing a rock on the grave of a friend’s mother, she felt a tap on her shoulder.
“Tali!” Rebecca, a schoolmate of Natalia’s, put her hands on her hips and grinned. “I thought you’d be north at your dad’s village tonight.”
“We were there last year, so we decided we’d stay here to help appease Peter’s spirit.”
“But he’s not…” Rebecca bit her lip. “Do you think the spirits get mad if you make a grave for someone who, you know…”
Natalia shrugged. “I think they understand given the circumstances. I know my dad would be proud of Peter.”
“We all are, really.” Rebecca placed a rock on the grave in front of them. “You need to come by my house soon, my dad wants to give your mom a pie. We’ve made too many.”
“I’ll tell her,” she replied.
She watched as Rebecca moved to the next grave. Feeling nervous, Natalia glanced around at the villagers around her. In the distance she spotted a couple of Inner Citizens, but since they had no family or friends in the village they also had no deaths, so they stayed out of the ceremony as much as possible. Natalia hoped they saw her wearing mourning clothes for her “dead” brother. It might not convince them, but it might keep them from asking more questions. A year and a half later and they were still very curious about Peter’s demise.
Natalia rubbed her fingers on the camel again. What she wouldn’t give for it to become real and take her out of the village and across the dunes to the other side!
Her mother caught up with her a half hour later back at Peter’s grave. They walked out of the cemetery hand in hand chanting a prayer to the god of death to keep the spirits in their rightful place, so they wouldn’t follow the villagers out when they walked through the cemetery doors back to the land of the living.
There were still a few rocks in Natalia’s pocket, so she let them float through her fingers. She felt tears stinging her face as she hoped Peter would be proud of her, too.