“You know, sometimes I think there’s no real difference between a world of magic, and a world where people believe in magic.”
The Moon Flute
By Lydia Trethewey
Through the tiny window Batuk watches the other boys hiding in the crook of the road, mud and dust splattered up their shins. The Dri’it, the lower caste boys, wait until the Hyll boys come marching from the schoolhouse in their crisp white uniforms, and then comes a volley of mud and donkey shit.
Batuk watches their laughing rebellion and feels kinship. The Dri’it would be his people, if he were free. If Pla’ah hadn’t inhabited him when he was born, leaving her demon mark in pink scabby abrasions all over his body.
The Dri’it boys scamper off as Vu’ur, the sun, falls below the horizon. Batuk grabs his broom and gets to work.
The night always offers too much time. Batuk sweeps the street and collects rubbish, disturbed only by rats, owls and the occasional Hyll man scurrying towards a brothel.
The Hyll’s jump when they see him and press against the opposite side of the street, lest he contaminate them. They believe that even should his shadow fall upon them they’ll be dirtied. He’s permitted outside only after Vu’ur is gone, when his shadow blends with the cross-hatched darkness of night.
Come midnight Batuk stops, looking up above a high stone wall through the branches of a pomegranate tree strung with fruits like red lanterns. In a canopy of stars hangs the moon.
Beyond the wall a flute player winds music around the constellations.
Broom forgotten, Batuk stares upwards, feeling the sweet flute song lift his soul like a gentle breeze.
Running his hands along the stone, he walks the length of the wall, until his thin fingers fall into a gap. The music stops, replaced by cicadas and his own breaths. Batuk bends down and peers through the hole.
Two brown eyes stare back at him.
With a yelp he topples backwards.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” says a girl’s voice.
Batuk scrambles up and presses his face to the hole. The girl’s eyes fill his vision.
“My name is Jarin,” she says.
“Nice to meet you.”
Batuk’s heart beats madly. He runs his tongue along his teeth and tries to remember the last time he spoke to another child.
“You’re so lucky,” Jarin says, blinking. “Free to wander as you please. I’m locked away here like a prisoner. I wait until father leaves for the barracks, and mother retires for her nightly weeping, and I sneak into the garden to play. I wish I was free like you.”
Batuk rubs his pink-scarred arms. “You don’t want to be like me. People despise me, see me as a rat. You live in a garden of paradise.”
“Paradise, or prison? I can’t go to school because I’m a girl. I die afresh of boredom every day. I hear my soul withering.”
“But you’re a Hyll. I’m, I’m…I carry the demon plague Pla’ah.”
“That doesn’t bother me. I would rather be despised than ignored.”
Batuk hears feet behind him. A Hyll man walks cautiously along the opposite side of the street.
“I have to go,” he says.
As he rushes away the sound of the flute begins again, sweet and sad and lonely.
Batuk waits in the arched doorway for Vu’ur to descend. He watches shadows lengthen, seeing round brown eyes in every dark hole.
As he hurries out a familiar voice accosts him.
“Batuk! Why do you rush so?”
Yv’wa the Agnostic approaches.
“I’m going to work. Sir, don’t you worry I’ll contaminate you?”
Yv’wa looks at him thoughtfully. “I don’t believe in Pla’ah.”
Batuk shifts nervously.
Yv’wa smiles. “You know, sometimes I think there’s no real difference between a world of magic, and a world where people believe in magic.”
Batuk runs to the stone wall.
“I’ll help you escape,” he whispers through the hole. “I’ll get some rope, and we’ll run away.”
Jarin’s brown eyes fill with the light of Vu’ur.
As he leaves the music of the flute is bright, heralding the rising sun.
Batuk is impatient for night. He twists the broom handle in his scarred hands, a rope across one shoulder.
Yv’wa’s words swirl around his head. Even if Pla’ah wasn’t real, people would always look at him with fear.
Heaviness settles in his chest.
Their agreed time for escape approaches, and recedes. Batuk keeps working.
Where would they have gone? It was a silly dream, inspired by mesmerising flute music.
Then he thinks of Jarin’s eyes, her giggle, her unflinching acceptance of him without disgust or fear.
At once he’s running, pounding through the muddy streets. By the web of constellations he sees that he’s an hour late.
“Jarin?” he pants through the hole.
Batuk looks in, sees a moonlit garden, fruit trees, a glittering fountain. But no Jarin.
Something shifts deep inside his chest, tectonic plates crushing together. Emptiness presses down.
The next night Yv’wa has news. The daughter of a wealthy commander has been sent to the mountains, to learn proper conduct in the purified air.
Batuk sweeps the street, disturbed only by rats, owls and the occasional Hyll. In his dreams he hears the music of the moon flute and wakes with heart aching.
The missing stone in the wall is replaced, so his fingers can’t find the opening. The passageway filled in, as if it were never there.