In most ways, Jokat was a typical Grezdorch teenager. At 1.7 meters tall, and no heavier than 40 kg, he could disappear in a crowd as easily as a single leaf on a burgeoning suskhala tree in spring. Neither handsome nor repulsive, his unblemished, pale blue skin and stiff, spiky-black hair were as common as the air he breathed. His eyes were clear enough, his ears didn’t stick out too much and his nose … well, it was just fine.
In fact, Jokat’s only distinguishing features more or less cancelled each other out. Though he was an exceptionally good student, all but the most enlightened Grezdorch perceived his speech impediment as a sign of drooling stupidity. “Jiuolklath,” the kids at his upper school called him — even the nicer ones — as they had since he could remember.
Under the circumstances, it went without saying that, even though Grezdorch prided itself on tolerance, Young Jokat’s dating prospects were on the horrible side of abysmal. His speech, a tangle of growling gutturals, thudding stops and whistling sibilants put the easy patter of flirtatious banter permanently out of reach. Still, the worst of his affliction wasn’t the taunting, the indifference, the loneliness or the pitying looks he received everywhere he went. Jokat’s speech denied him more than basic social interaction.
Can’t tell a joke, can’t say sorry, can’t even say hello, he told himself. With my stupid voice, I can’t be me.
Jokat had squawked this out to his mother at least once a month since he was twelve. Had she understood? He could never be sure.
The obvious expedient, the notepad of rough brown paper he’d worn round his neck from the day he learned to write, was no solution. Not many residents of Lakreet could read, including his mother. Nor would any of Jokat’s schoolmates sit still very long while he scribbled. Just as frustrating, the few hand signals he knew weren’t worth the risk. They were, after all, so easy to answer with insulting gestures no one could fail to understand.
Nevertheless, as he approached his eighteenth year, his well-meaning mother encouraged him to try, one more time, to get a date for Adjugran, his hometown’s annual harvest celebration.
“Donth balee rithdikh-houlioush,” he said. “Ayem sustiayunk hiuom wyuth ah gioltd bioolkh,” and ran off to lock himself in his room before his mother could say another word.
Unfortunately for Jokat, the act of shoving his head under his silky bed pillows did nothing to stop the passage of time. In the morning, the strains of holiday music — plucked, boomed and tooted — rose up all across town.
Entertainers sang and danced on raised platforms. Colorful banners of greknaul silk, decorated in a riot of exuberant patterns, stretched across each cobblestone street. Meanwhile, the smiles of the innocent and the intoxicated intertwined to brighten every alleyway, avenue and boulevard.
Jokat, of course, didn’t fail to notice the contrast between the joyousness around him and the seething despair in the pit of his ruminant stomach. He ignored his mother’s pleading voice until, in the late afternoon, he heard the house door slam and the soles of his mother’s shoes crunching down her gravel walkway to the street.
Alone, he considered his options and, with clinical efficiency, packed a large satchel with dried fruits, slices of bread, a half-pound of salted meat and a few of his sturdiest outfits. He dressed, pulled on a pair of stiff hiking boots, threw on a light jacket and, with the satchel slung over one shoulder, set out for the mountains that ringed the town of Lakreet.
All through that afternoon and into the early evening he trudged over jagged rocks and spiky brambles. A grimace of a smile crossed his face as he realized he’d left his notebook behind. What did he care? He had no plan to speak to anyone again, and especially not by begging them to read.
No, he’d decided, the only way to end his pain was to cut himself off from everyone who’d shunned him or tried to make him “normal.” He was who he was, and now that would finally be enough. With ferocious will, Jokat pushed himself up the mountains until, by twilight, he’d reached the entrance to a natural cave system that extended for miles from his hometown’s southwest border.
Hungry, tired, but strangely euphoric, Jokat plopped down at the cave entrance and rummaged inside his satchel for a crust of bread and a slice of salted meat. A fresh stream running only a few feet away gave him a handful or two of water. He would, he realized, have to set about making a real home for himself. Too bad he knew nothing of hunting or fishing and even less about cooking. He’d just have to learn. Anything was better than….
A crack of thunder in the distance foretold the rain shower that followed a few seconds later. There was nothing for it but to pick up his satchel and rush into the cave. But no sooner had he stepped inside than he noticed a pale yellow light, glowing ahead of him, down the cave’s long corridor.
“Will-o-the-Rocks,” his bright mind told him. But when he looked closer, he saw that the glow came not from the cave walls, but from a more distant source. What cave explorers before him, he wondered, could make their campfire burn so brightly?
Jokat walked on, rounded a corner of solid dolomite rock and nearly lost his balance at the sight of an obviously artificial sphere. Nearly 1.2 meters in diameter, it was the source of the yellow light that had captured his imagination. Was the light pulsing? Maybe slightly … yes … in time to a wash of musical sounds with no obvious source.
His feet riveted to one spot, Jokat listened closely, as the music swelled and subsided on a gentle, soothing curve. Soon the knots of frustration and despair, which had driven him out into the wilds surrounding cozy Lakreet, began to ease.
Beautiful, he thought. But where had the sphere come from? His only frame of reference were the folktales he’d learned by heart as a child. Many of them told of star spirits, who descended to Grezdorch from deep in the night sky.
Some were beneficent, legends insisted, others murderous — and still others playful. They delighted in using even upright citizens of Lakreet as their puppets. Some of Jokat’s relatives believed this was why, just last winter, Mayor Haldron had danced stark naked in the town square, while singing a bawdy song about … well, better not to think of such things.
Seems too real, Jokat told himself. Besides, no one, as far as he knew, had ever actually seen a star spirit.
By now, the sphere’s musical patterns had lulled him into a meditative state. He even thought he heard a kind of logic embedded in the sounds. The more he listened, the more they resembled a language.
Teleportation, a voice echoed in his mind.
The unfamiliar voice had entered his thoughts with a light touch — like a spring breeze wafting over his skin. Jokat gasped. Did he hear right, or had the stress of running away from his life caught up with him? He wanted to respond, but knew he’d never be understood. But maybe … maybe a spirit who could throw out a thought might also be able to catch one.
Who are you? Jokat asked with his mind.
When no answer came after several minutes, the Grezdorch teenager wandered back out through the cave entrance. A heavy storm was raging now and he turned to run back at once into the cave.
But at the last moment, he glanced to his left and saw a large, dark green tent standing tall against the wind. Curious, he flipped up its main flap — and gasped at the sight of its improbably spacious interior. He stepped inside and was delighted to see the tent was stocked with a wealth of food and drink.
“Haushz?” he asked.
Teleportation, said the voice of the sphere. Necessary provisions for mountain dwelling.
Thanks, I guess, said Jokat’s thoughts. But maybe I don’t deserve this. I’m kind of a fugitive.
Everyone deserves to survive, said the sphere.
As Jokat eased himself down to the edge of the soft cot the sphere had provided, it saddened him to think he could only find acceptance from a star spirit. Though his mother had tried her best, she was clearly embarrassed by him. His father … never mind. The army had claimed him years before when, as a baby, no one expected Jokat to say more than “gurgle.”
But wait: if this spirit were willing to use its magic to protect and feed him, maybe it could fix his voice, too. Then he could climb down the mountain to his home and start a new life.
Perhaps when you were born, said the sphere, or slightly before, I might have been able to help. Now it is too late.
Figures, Jokat told himself. The war between his tongue, his vocal cords and his central nervous system had worn on too long.
He pulled up one of two blankets lying next to the cot and snuggled under it. What, he wondered, should he do now? Life in his home town was familiar and, honestly, he knew he owed his mother some explanation. What had she done to him besides try to understand what even a star spirit couldn’t fix? All the same, the idea of living one more day, mute and misunderstood, was unbearable.
Yet how long would the spirit’s generosity last? What might it ask in return? In one of the legends, a spirit demanded a young man’s first born son. Jokat sighed.
I’ll never have that problem, he thought. Not when I’m … like this.
Maybe his best option was to come back down the mountain and get on with his life, no matter how miserable. But the patter of rain on the surface of his new tent, now heavier than before, told Jokat he’d have to stay put for a while. Exhausted, he slept straight through until he woke to the warmth of the sun and the fluty chirps of birds nesting in a nearby tree. He sat up in a rush, barely able to acknowledge yesterday’s flight from home.
Should go back, he concluded, but made no move to exit the tent. There was food there, after all; no sense making momentous decisions on an empty stomach. He rummaged through a crowded storage bin full of his favorite fruits and the sweet, fluffy bread he ate only on holidays.
Go back to what? he asked himself.
As he ate, Jokat considered his options. Get a job at the mill? Enroll in university? Or join a merchant ship and sail away to a silent land where no one spoke a word?
His head spinning with a strange combination of exhilaration and grief, Jokat lifted the flap to his tent and crept into the cave behind it. He needed to see, one more time, if the object of last night’s vision were as real as….
Good morning. said the sphere.
Thanks, said Jokat. I have a question. Why are you here?
To observe. said the sphere
You mean you spy on us? asked Jokat.
To observe. To understand. To help, perhaps. Do I frighten you? asked the sphere.
No. But I don’t understand, said Jokat.
Because you don’t observe, said the sphere. I have a present for you.
Jokat felt a nudge at his feet and looked down to see a black, flexible belt, studded with bright yellow buttons. He stooped to pick it up and was startled to notice that each button was decorated with a letter of the Grezdorch alphabet.
Spell out a word.
Jokat complied and nearly dropped the device when it blurted out the word he’d typed.
”Thanks,” the device seemed to say, in a voice that reminded him of his own.
Try again, said the sphere.
For the next hour or so, Jokat experimented and, in consultation with the voice, learned that words he used often could be stored in a second series of bright green buttons on the side of the black belt.
“It’s like I can talk!” Jokat made the belt say. Oddly, the device even managed to capture Jokat’s emotions. For the first time in years, a grin broke out on his broad, blue face.
Try it on, said the sphere.
Puzzled, Jokat wrapped the belt around his waist. The device molded itself perfectly to the contours of his abdomen, with all of its controls within easy reach.
You can speak to anyone now, said the sphere.
“But I can’t climb down the mountain with this,” said Jokat.
Teleportation, said the sphere.
Before his next breath, the teenage Grezdorch materialized on the edge of his home town. A slight breeze riffled his hair and he wasted no time walking home. At first, his mother’s reaction was a combination of delight, relief and indignant fury.
“Didn’t you know I’d be worried sick about you?” she said through her tears. Jokat rested his hands on the alien belt and began to type.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” his artificial voice told her. But if he’d expected her to marvel joyously at the sound of it, he was severely disappointed.
“What … what demon … you went up into the mountains, didn’t you?” asked his mother.
“There are no demons,” Jokat typed. “Just a yellow sphere.”
“Oh, my poor boy, you’ve been bewitched,” said his mother. She ran to the kitchen counter and came back with a sharp knife. “Here,” she said. “we’ll cut off that demon belt. Then we’ll go straight to Shaman Olkthrat and tell him everything.”
She reached for Jokat’s waist, but he backed away with his strong arms held stiff in front of him.
“Jokat, no!” his mother shrieked.
Her son desperately wanted to explain, but he couldn’t in his own voice and he knew that using the belt would only make things worse between them. He ran out to the street and raced to the edge of town along the side streets. With luck, he could avoid the throngs of revelers that clogged the main boulevard for the second day of the Adjugran festival.
Then up he climbed the mountain again. In his haste to return to the grotto before anyone stopped him, he skinned his arms and legs more than once. At that rate, it was still two hours before he once again entered the cave and stood before the glowing yellow sphere.
You are hurt, breathless, said the sphere.
“I can’t stay in Lakreet anymore,” Jokat typed into the belt. “My mom thinks this belt is a curse. But I can’t give it up. Not when I can finally talk! Why doesn’t she understand?”
The answer is long. The remedy is simple, but requires sacrifice, said the sphere.
“What must I sacrifice?” said Jokat through the belt.
Come closer, said the sphere. I will take you where you can flourish. But you will never see your homeworld again.
Tears rolled down the young Grezdorch’s pale blue cheeks. He loved Lakreet, despite everything. He loved his mother, too, even if she could be so unreasonable. The summer, out by the banks of the river Doltriv was heavenly. The wind in his hair….
Your new home, if you choose it, is also rich in natural wonders, said the sphere.
“And I can talk there?” asked Jokat, again through the alien device.
You can be you, said the sphere.
Jokat turned away, walked to the cave entrance and looked out over the valley where Lakreet lay nestled in a soft, sloping embrace. Did he have the courage to leave home for … who-knows-what?
Out of the corner of his eye, in the dimming twilight, a flicker of flame appeared, and rose awkwardly up the mountain. Another followed and, to its left, a third. A chorus of booming male voices called out.
“Jokat!” they shouted. “Resist the demon! We are coming!”
Jokat’s jaw dropped and he ran back into the cave behind him.
You must decide, said the sphere. Know that your friends cannot hurt me. Answer only to your own will.
Jokat walked toward the glowing alien object. When he was close enough, a seam appeared in the sphere’s smooth surface. Behind it, Jokat saw an expanse of snowy white stars blink out at him against a black background.
You will know peace soon, said the sphere.
Jokat walked through, just as the shouting clamor and the flickering torches reached the mouth of the cave. The sphere, prudently chose that moment to teleport, leaving no trace of its existence, as the villagers charged into the cave.
“Will you look at that?” panted one of the villagers. “Empty as a seashell at high tide.”
“His mother will be … I don’t know what kind of grieved,” said the second villager.
“What’s this?” asked the third villager. In the flickering light, his eyes had spotted the belt Jokat had worn. The three men jumped back as Jokat’s voice echoed in their minds:
Give this to my mom. I can talk to her through it every day.
“No way we’re letting a demon into her home,” said the first villager. He leaned down and touched the flame of his torch to the alien device, which stubbornly refused to burn.
“Thing’s cursed,” said the second villager. “Best we get out of here before the demon takes us, too.”
The others nodded and they began a slow trudge down the mountain — only to find themselves whisked away to the dark cobble stones of Lakreet’s town square.
Teleportation, rang Jokat’s voice in their minds.
“But where?” the first villager demanded. “Where are you, Boy? Your mother needs to know.”
Tell my mom I’m in a place where I can be me.
The three villagers extinguished their torches in a nearby stream and, hearts heavy, clomped home to lives of silent obedience to simple truths.
Mark Laporta is the author of the acclaimed Changing Hearts of Ixdahan Daherek series. His new novel, Probability Shadow, will be published in October by Chickadee Prince Books. Pre-order now in paperback or ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or at a bookstore near you.
Illustration designed by Steven S. Drachman from a photograph by Aziz Acharki, Unsplash.