She could see the sky in her son’s eyes. Sometimes it was dark, pitch-black almost. Sometimes it was littered with stars or mirrored the sunrise that emerged near the temple at dusk—she loved to see that brightness from within him. It made her feel like she was 12 again, staring at her pa, whom her son resembled more so than her... That resemblance contributed to the struggle of caring for him. No ma in the Clan of Nava should feel that way. Nor did they. But, her son reminded her of what she wasn’t when she was 12—of the thunder she should’ve been when her pa died.
There were responsibilities in her homeland, the tribe of Quelqee, one of the three native tribes under the Clan of Nava.
Because Pa was a man: it was his and every man’s responsibility to protect their tribes and their families—to hunt and fight, while the women were to take charge in the home and help the tribe prosper. But, Pa had a mind of his own.
Breaking tradition ran in her family and that unwanted habit started with him. He followed the rules because he had to but...
He’d always been more of a giver than a warrior.
When he brought home gifts, it wasn’t always meat from a hunt, and they were never a piece of his enemy; the Clans of Nava hadn’t fought with each other in centuries.
Instead, His gifts were crafts he’d forged whenever he patrolled the village or the woods with other Quelqee warriors. With the lack of conflict, he always found time to make them.
But sometimes she couldn’t see his gifts, like his tender hugs and the sound of his voice producing far-fetched stories or dour warnings to her to lessen her ego. Her favorite though—out of all—were his footsteps. She remembered how deeply Ma would frown whenever Pa entered their wattlehouse because of how often it’d shatter her focus in the middle of their lessons. She’d been busy cooking with her older sister Si, Nana, and Ma when she heard his steps, even through Ma’s harsh grinding of maize against the stony metate surface. She abandoned her cooking pot.
“Tama!” “Wait, Ma, Pa is home!” she yelled. Her sister looked up from her pot, concentration broken. Nana shook her head and whispered something to herself in Thé, the native Thero tongue.
“I told you, Tama has the ears of a wolf,” she said.
She giggled as she dashed out of the small wattlehouse, and as she hoped, her nine-year-old body was swallowed up by the arms of a young man with skin as tan as hers and eyes as brown as the soil in Ma’s vegetable garden. She clung onto his brown deerskin tunic, his embrace warmer than the summer air. She stared up at him, grinning. Looking back, she remembered the bright sky that’d been in his eyes.
“Your ears are all the more reason why you’d make a good huntress, Tama,” Pa said. “Which is why you should take me with you on your trips!” He smiled, pulling out what she still had with her—a necklace. Its middle-piece was a long, curved tooth.
A bear’s tooth, Pa taught her once. Carved on the tooth was a cloud with lightning shooting out from underneath it.
Thunder. He placed the grey-and-yellow necklace around her neck.
“Make sure Nana doesn’t see it,” he said. “Coming from Thero, you know she’s against our hunting ways.” Even with that small vow, she hoped that obeying would prove herself worthy to join him on his forest adventures. She was never fond of domestic tasks—they bored her. On the first day of being taught how to harvest, she’d gazed longingly at the woods, drawn to the mysteries it held. She’d step out of tradition, warping into her father. With a proud nod, she sealed her first promise.
The sky in her son’s eyes wasn’t glowing; it was tainted with darkness and desperation. Like her son, she was 7 when she’d been told about the Temple of Life, a supposed folklore originated by their ancestors. But as she grew, it became less of a fantasy. She was told about the temple’s eeriness—about its brown fractured pillars and the sky above it that was either dawn or dusk. She was told about the vibrant cherry tree that stood in the center of it, while fog congested the ground ‘till it rained down from the large gaps between the pillars.
No birds flew above the vast temple, and no flowers blossomed there. The only sign of life were the spirits that lingered there—as they must.
People didn’t wait for death to take them when their time was up; they had to approach death itself, where it lay disguised as the cherry tree with bark that would consume a person’s body once they stepped near it, while the fog swallowed their soul. It didn’t matter if a person was from Quelqee, Thero, or Alwe; the Temple was where everyone went when they were about to die. It was where Pa went when he was about to die.
It was normal for a man and a woman to weave material into something new in Nava. But it was usually the female hand that crafted the basket, while the fingers of men would fabricate spears.
Pa had always been more of a storyteller than a crafter. He preferred the calm. So, it was a funny sight seeing him sharpening his spear while Ma, Si, and Nana stitched up clothing for the tribe out of buckskin or deerskin fabric, like the tan dresses she and the other women were wearing.
Pa beckoned to her one day when her ten-year-old eyes had been staring off again, distracted from her own stitches. He set down his spear once she sat beside him and removed the leftover string and beads from the necklace he’d made for her and her sister. He set it besides her. She snatched them and began making her own jewelry.
“Do you know what the sky means, Tama?” Pa suddenly asked. She shook her head, focused on weaving the beads and string into a ring. Nonetheless, she could see it. The sky above them was slathered with the warm colors of evening: a vibrant gold, a light peach, a soft pink. It complemented their large village spread out across the lush green prairies surrounded by the forest and the openfields for hunting buffalo. “Do you know what your name means, Tama?” She looked up at him only to see his eyes stuck on that sky. She put on that prideful smile of hers. “It means thunder.”
“Why?” “Because thunder symbolizes bravery and strength,” she beamed. “Ma had struggled to carry me and was always told that I wouldn’t make it, but I did.”
“If you can tell me the story behind your name, then why can’t you tell me about the skies?”
She remembered blinking at her pa and the sudden shame that touched her. She slumped a little, letting go of the pride that must’ve triggered his question.
“You’ve never told me, Pa.” His face softened, easing the tension from her shoulders. He pointed at the sky that’d gradually darkened and plunged into his stories. His words were full of passion.
“The earth expresses itself in many ways, but the sky... see the gold and pink? All those colors, it reflects peace while the blue sky reflects vibrancy.” She finally followed Pa’s finger.
“What of nightfall?” Pa surprised her when he tore her from her spot and placed her on his lap. He was grinning now, and so was she.
The Quelqee tribe had always valued nature; it was a part of their culture and identity, unlike the Thero tribe’s reverence towards animals or the Alwe tribe’s reverence towards the moon and seas.
Pa loved the skies. He always saw the beauty in them, the mysteries and messages they portrayed in the language of the earth. Ironically, Pa was originally born in Thero, but the wonders of the never-ending carpet above caught his attention ever since his own pa took him out at night to practice hunting or his ma—Nana—told him about the flying birds up in the air. Then he met Ma and became immersed in the Quelqee ways. It only strengthened his interest in them.
“It’s resting, but the stars say the earth is still awake, observing us.” “And if there’s no stars?” “Then the earth is fully asleep, reflecting. But here’s a little secret: the sky can be seen everywhere, Tama, through a river’s reflection or through the eyes of another. You see your sister working hard on her stitches, but in her eyes, you can see a sky with parting clouds making way for a bright sun.”
“Why?” “Clouds usually part when the earth is recovering from a storm. That shows determination.” She gazed at her sister, who had just finished polishing up her stitches. At the time, she didn’t see it. But, looking back, she remembered every detail. That sky never left her sister’s eyes, even when she grew old and was taken to the Temple to rest.
“The sky does more than show the time of day. Do you think you can remember that?” She smirked as she slipped her finished ring onto Pa’s finger, sealing her second promise.
That determination her father mentioned, she saw that in his eyes just as much as in her sister’s. But that ambition was at its strongest when he was fighting the fatal wound that eventually killed him. It reflected in the sweat beading his forehead as the Quelquee healer knelt over him.
She liked to believe that determination was triggered by his will to live, not only for her family, but for her. The thought was selfish, she knew that, and she didn’t even deserve to think it. She promised to be the bold thunder that marked the meaning behind her name. She promised she would be there for Pa—to protect him. But when he was suffering...
She remembered the first day Pa woke her up at dawn. Even with blurry eyes, she could make out the outline of a bow slung on his back. She instantly assumed something was wrong. The sight of his bow told her he was going to the forest to hunt. But when he left he never disturbed anyone, even his footsteps that she picked up so easily would be too quiet for her.
He tapped her again, his finger on his lip when she sat up and rubbed the fatigue from her eyes.
“Do you still want to come with me on my trips?” he whispered. She could never forget the surge of energy that shook her awake. Since then, she and Pa woke up early, sneaking past the slumbering bodies of their family and venturing into the quiet village. She walked past the small earth-lodges and straw wattle-homes of her tribe all cluttered together. After prancing past flourishing vegetable gardens and trading-posts, she’d finally disappear into the forest. Now the woods meant more than picking herbs for medicine and chokecherries to make jelly.
Pa had always been more of an adventurer than a hunter.
The mysteries of the forest intrigued him more than the bloodshed of animals. In the beginning, they’d stay close to the tribe and watch the sunrise or climb the tallest trees. But the older she grew, the deeper Pa took her into the forest, teaching her the ways of the warriors and the risks of the woods. But, whenever she failed to capture her knife from Pa or pass nature’s tests, the thrill she’d feel would lessen. Once she let fear overwhelm her, her father would demand her to recite the meaning behind her name.
Thunder: bravery and strength. She’d remember. It was one thing for Navan women to be trained in self-defense, but she discovered that it was a different story when learning to fight for battle.
One day, she’d snuck up on Pa and finally tackled him to the ground, her knife at his throat... She was 11. Pa grinned, her pride for the first time spreading to him. “Your attack was bold, but you hesitated.” Disappointment touched her: Pa had sensed her presence the whole time. “Just you wait,” she asserted. “I’ll become so good that I’ll be the bravest girl in all the tribes of Nava and you won’t be the one protecting me anymore.”
“Really?” “Yes, Pa! I’ll be the one protecting you! No one else!”
Those words had been her third promise, and the soft kiss Pa planted on her forehead had sealed it.
The drizzle of rain that poured down from within her son’s eyes was no different from Pa’s when she refused to hold his hand at the temple...
It was tradition in Nava for the dying to hold the hands of their children before entering the temple. They could only choose one child: the lingering spirits that wandered inside abhorred the presence of too much life. But, the youthful soul of a child was necessary. Once a child’s hand clasped around the fingers of their guardian, a part of their dying spirit would live on in the body of their young; this conserved their legacy.
She knew this. Every child in the tribes knew this. But because of the denial that consumed her when Pa held out his hand, the denial she felt about him leaving her, she didn’t take it. Refusing to protect his spirit—she’d broken her third promise.
That betrayal was ingrained in stone when her older sister jumped in and grabbed his hand before the fog took his spirit away.
He’d always been more of a giver...
All the things he’d given her...the freedom she’d wanted from her domestic tasks, the adventures. She remembered him taking risks to teach her far more than what she should know. She remembered how he’d use that same care to support their family and everyone else around him.
It was something about Pa she could never stop loving. But, it was also something about him that she grew to hate—because it was what killed him: the last gift he gave was his life.
She and Si were arranging beans from Ma’s garden outside the house door, the cool breeze relieving her from the hot sun. She was 12, nearing her 13th birthday. She’d been spacing out again when the ground below her shook from horses’ hooves. The sound of men speaking in rapid Qelan instantly followed.
Her sister gasped first. Three hunters dismounted from their horses, supporting a crumpled figure to their wattlehouse. Behind them was the healer of Quelqee. Just a glimpse of his bloody body and the twisted feeling in her gut told her it was Pa. She screamed.
She remembered hearing her Ma’s own choked gasp as soon as they stepped foot into the house. Rapid Qelan soon spewed out between Ma and the men.
“Stumbled upon a cougar...” one of them spoke. “I was away from the group when I spotted it... it attacked me and he must’ve been nearby because he pushed me away as it lunged. But the claws...he was slashed.”
She could feel the cold fog chewing on her, absorbing the remains of her dying spirit... Word of her actions had spread throughout all the tribes faster than when she’d chosen to detach herself from Pa rather than stay by his bedside. She brought shame to her family by breaking one of the most sacred traditions in all of Nava.
The look of disappointment on her son’s face as the fog swallowed her up was the same as Nana’s before she entered the temple.
Her name meant thunder in Qelan, her native tongue...Tama. Bravery and strength. That’s what it symbolized in Quelquee. She wasn’t worth that name.
She remembered looking down at her tan skirt as Nana stood before the temple’s entrance, giving a silent goodbye to Ma and Si before she looked at her. But, Nana’s judging gaze meant nothing when she suddenly spotted the necklace Pa gave her dangling from her pocket. Her eyes widened, and they met Nana. Nana was staring at it, her gaze glued to the carving of the cloud with a bolt of lightning shooting out from underneath it.
Her nana said nothing when she met her eyes again—Tama’s eyes. She wasn’t worth her name, and Nana agreed when even after seeing that symbol of strength on her necklace, she stuck her hand out for Si to lead her across the fog and towards the cherry blossom tree.
Everything warped negatively once the temple took Pa away....
Since then, her sister was stuck with a part of Pa’s spirit. That meant hearing her sister sobbing every night from the burdens of carrying his legacy. It meant hearing her stories of Pa lingering in her dreams. It meant her sister seeing hallucinations of him through her peripheral as she worked, breaking her usual relentless focus. The sky in her determined eyes was now stuffed with grey clouds. It was a consequence that every child experienced after holding the hand of a loved one, but it wasn’t what Si was supposed to be experiencing.
She covered her ears whenever her sister explained the kind of stories Pa, even in death, would whisper to her in her sleep. She remembered how her pot would clatter to the ground as she rushed outside the minute Si would break down during her work, the breeze whipping at her face as she continued to sprint past all the brown wattlehouses. She didn’t want to hear any of it. Those promises she made symbolized her bond with Pa—that it was forever. And she broke them.
She collapsed in the middle of the woods once she got far enough from Quelqee and let out tears that should’ve come out during the days Pa was suffering.
Tama was 13 when she tried to visit the temple before her time. The burden of Pa’s legacy on Si had lessened as the days passed. She cried less, her dreams of Pa subsided, but the shame and sorrow that marked their family still lingered.
She remembered Si glowering at her that day.
“What,” she finally said. Her sister's eyes narrowed. “You,” she growled. “Pa favored you! After everything he’s done for you this is how you repay him!? By letting him down when he most needed you!?”
“It’s not my fault!” The storm raging in her sister’s 16-year-old eyes worsened. “It’s not your fault!?” “I never asked you to take my place, Si!” She bellowed. “You took that opportunity from me! I never asked you!!!”
Si threw her pot aside and approached her until she was towering over her. Her next words came out in bitter Qelan, and for the first time, the language sounded harsher than Thé.
“You are no thunder, Thiahma. You are a coward.”
She felt uncertain about where her shock came from, from Si’s insult or from the fact that she’d said her sacred name, a name only the Healer was allowed to speak. Now that she’d used it, her spirit was tainted. Childbirth would be more painful, healing would be more difficult, and it would be harder to enter the Temple. But her soul was already tainted.
She stumbled away from Si and out of the wattlehouse, her face ashen. The sky was tinged with the purple and orange colors of dusk when she decided to go to the temple. The decision was unexpected and reckless, but after Si reminded her that it truly was her fault, she went anyway. If she could see Pa’s spirit, if it was possible...
The coldness that hit her as she went up the temple’s zigzagged path was brutal. Her deerskin shawl that once kept her warm felt useless by the time she got halfway up. The fog thickened once she arrived, staring at the cherry blossom tree. The autumn air became colder.
She knew what these signals were telling her; the spirits here didn’t want her there. It wasn’t her time—she had to leave. Her eyes became moist, and she imagined proving herself, proving that she was worth her name by pushing Si away and taking Pa’s hand.
“Pa!!!” The pink leaves of the tree warped into a darker shade. But she called for him again. “I’m sorry!” she cried. “Pa! I’m sorry! PA!!!”
She begged for a story, to hear his talk of the sky, to hear him warn her of arrogance. She fell to her knees, praying to fix her mistake. She remembered the temple’s response and the response of the spirits within it; it was the same as what she’d given her own father. They disregarded her.
She forced herself to move on ever since she returned from the Temple. She had to. She was 16 when Si went to live with her newfound lover further north in Quelqee, carrying Pa’s legacy along with her. That left her alone with Ma and more responsibilities that’d bored her to death since she was a child.
She’d grind maize with Ma inside the house, her pounding light against the stony surface. Every second, she looked up, waiting to hear Pa’s footsteps. Whenever she did, she’d look over at Ma, expecting to see that stern look of hers whenever he came home. She never saw it. It reminded her that what she heard was an illusion, and the sky in her own eyes would clutter with rain clouds.
Always, silence lingered between her and Ma as they picked potatoes and squash from the garden. Sometimes it’d kill her because even with Ma’s reassuring looks and gentle words, she knew it was her past with Pa that produced that silence. But other times, she’d be too busy staring at the sky to notice, realizing how much the warm colors of evening complemented her village like night complemented Thero and dusk with Alwe.
She’d make up stories of her own that’d make Pa proud if he asked her to explain the meaning of the sky again...it was the one promise she didn’t break...
She’d venture deeper into the thick forest every time she and Ma went to pick chokeberries. She’d steal the chance to climb the same trees she and Pa did when she was young or go over rivers she was once scared to cross. Sometimes she’d venture into the part of the forest where Pa would teach her the ways of the warrior, and she would sit on the spot where she’d first defeated him.
She’d sit there...until Ma called out for her or until her shoulders shook from the memories of her betrayal. She felt like Si. Even though she didn’t carry his legacy, she could still feel him.
Pa could’ve been wounded here, she thought. And what did she do when he was lying in their wattlehouse, unconscious, fighting to stay alive? She was too busy curling up in the corner, watching him, afraid to care for him, because she was afraid the temple would still claim him in the end. She was selfish—she didn’t deserve the necklace that marked the meaning behind her name. She couldn’t redeem herself, not when she later took Ma’s hand and led her across the temple, and not when she had her son and gave him Pa’s name and taught him like Pa had taught her: follow your own path.
“No, Citan. I have to go alone.”
“Then your spirit will be lost. Your legacy-”
“I have to go alone,” she repeated.
The temple and the spirits within behaved the same way it did when she came up there alive. But she wasn’t confused. She knew it was because of what she’d done.
She stepped forward, the fog further consuming her. The air in the temple became colder than she remembered. She took another step forward, the necklace Pa gave her dangling from her neck.
A hand clasped onto hers.
Instantly, her eyes were on her son’s, frustration brewing, until she saw the sky in them. It was darker than before, but the desperation, the sadness, all those emotions that clouded them were now overcome by that determination.
She had to look up to see it, especially when those stars kept appearing. He was grown, and that still surprised her. It felt like yesterday when she first conceived him, and now she had to look up at him. Yet, the deep trench dipping between his brows and his peach lips bowing made him appear as the small child she’d once struggled to raise.
“Let me take your hand,” he begged. “Please. It’s tradition.” She blinked at him as if he’d spoken in Alwen.
Tradition? And After all that she taught him about following his own path even if it meant defying the truth behind his name.
Instead of shock, she was hit with a feeling of ease. Unlike her, he wasn’t willing to break the rules, not even when she told him to. Not even when she deserved it.
He loves me that much.
Something wet slid down her cheeks, and more of it came when she once again saw Pa through her son. Before she could stop herself, she surrendered to him and nodded. His brown eyes brightened. She felt the fog draining her as he guided her to the cherry tree, which become redder the closer they got.
They won’t take me. The thought worsened when the bark didn’t merge with her. She pressed her hand against the bark. Her son stepped closer to her when the bark remained unmoving.
I should’ve gone alone.
She closed her eyes, her lips quivering as she let out a silent cry, but she stopped when she saw a palm appear from within the now-transparent bark. She thought it was an illusion, like the illusion of hearing his footsteps, until she saw a familiar beaded ring. The sky in her became littered with stars when a pair of eyes as brown as the soil in her ma’s vegetable garden appeared.
Her hands parted from her son’s, and she thought she heard thunder rip through the sky as she took her pa’s outstretched hand.
Lum Chi is a high school senior who’s been awarded a Gold Key and American Voices Nomination for her fiction pieces in the Scholastic writing awards. Her work has also been published by the Minnesota Writing Project. Currently, she is busy traditionally publishing a three-part young adult novel.