Mourning on Calendas by DL Shirey
“There.” Lalin’s first word since I explained the rules of quiet.
He had been emulating other mourners he’d seen today: their slow, exaggerated strides, prayer-hands folded beneath chins, heads tilted downward. Now, Lalin remembered the path from a year ago and ran up the switchback to the top of the slope.
When he looked back and saw I hadn’t altered my lockstep, he flattened his palms together and pulled them to his chest. When he bowed his head again I could see his silvery blond hair needed cutting.
I was surprised he had remembered his decorum, considering Lalin was a typical nine-year-old boy. He may have been dressed in mourning from the ankles up, but he still had on his play shoes. On any other day, he would have found it impossible to stand still. He was growing up. He even asked me to teach him the Mourning Song while we were here.
I reached the rim and was rewarded with a dusky sky, beautifully oranged. Beyond the monuments was a flat, distant horizon, where one moon sat half-crested. The second moon was well up into the heavens and a third would only rise with the morning sun. The monuments themselves were of uniform design, each planter measuring one-meter tall and one-meter square. Many were empty, but most had trees in them.
Monuments ringed the impact crater in bunches—two here, six there—as if they were sharing secrets. Perhaps they whispered how fortunate our ancestors were to discover the meteor crater just when it was needed. This basin protects our future from the harsh winds that can damage new seedlings.
“Can you find our family?” I asked Lalin and off he ran on his quest. I waited as the hoverbarrow inched its way to the top of the incline, reacquired my location, and followed me toward Lalin’s shout and wave. The hoverbarrow bore our own monument, with its one-year-old almond tree.
The container, like all the other monuments, was gray, its thick walls built from some lightweight, space-age material. One side bore the white bas-relief rendering of our family crest: a rook and knight, pieces from the ancient game of chess.
I joined Lalin, who stood among our trio of monuments. Up on the crater’s rim, trees are tested by the wind. If they survive, they grow strong. Those that don’t are remembered in song. The three in our family that remain are an olive tree planted for Daimo, Lalin’s father; the cherry tree is for Betai, my husband’s brother; and for Kinor, who was Betai’s first child, an apricot tree. Of the three, Kinor was flowering.
The hoverbarrow, infinitely slow, was waylaid by every family cluster that preceded ours. It would stop, evaluate, decide which direction was required and recalculate its destination again. It would be a few minutes before the monument for Betai’s other daughter was placed next to her father. The almond tree is for Jerdim.
My son and I made prayer-hands, and we heard singing from another family who had come to mourn. Lalin bowed his head, but I could tell he was listening intently.
Calendas was a singular anomaly, a moon with three moons. It maintained a precarious balance in gravities; its own was strong enough to grip the sub-moons, yet it orbited far enough away from Modo Petram that the big planet couldn’t steal the moonlets away. No other satellite has been discovered that itself has satellites. That Calendas had breathable air and reasonable moisture were good reasons to establish our colony, but a moon with moons had a certain mysticism to it: a fateful sign that it must be chosen. In my opinion, arable soil should have been the deciding factor, instead of some omen. But that was seven generations ago, when superstition held more weight than practicality. I was lucky to be born at all given our troubled beginnings.
According to the songs we sing, our ancestors came by slingship, the fourth of seven to escape the original world. Of the possible habitats, our forebears chose Calendas. In those days, slingships were such that, upon spending fuel to escape our dying planet, they could thereafter only glide—“drift with purpose,”’ as the song goes. They could steer around objects if given enough warning, but couldn’t expend any of the fuel being saved to “burn the candle” when they arrived.
“Rejoice in they who made the choices; to those who brought us, we raise our voices.”
By outward appearance, it looked as if Calendas was farmable: ochre-colored earth, with topsoil that was brittle enough to break apart with simple hand tools. Water was abundant and easily found when close to the surface because of brucosae. A riot of scrubby, weed-like tendrils was a sure sign of moisture. Brucosae thrived here, yet, for some reason, the seeds our ancestors brought would never germinate. The original livestock subsisted on brucosae, grew fat on the stuff, but it made the milk and meat inedibly bitter. The weeds also seemed to disrupt reproduction, leaving the breeding stock barren.
The dead animals were buried to mask the stink. Only then did our ancestors discover the secret of Calendas’ soil and the key to our survival. The earth rendered corpses into fertile mulch and in it, if the brucosae were kept away, plants would grow. Trees especially.
“Is that the Mourning Song?” Lalin asked. Nearby, the other family was holding hands and singing.
“For them it is. Every song is different, as families and trees are different.” It was hard to explain to Lalin the concept of singing extemporaneous lyrics, so I said, “We hold hands, like they are, but we sing what’s in our hearts. You know what a rhyme is?”
“When two words match,” Lalin answered, but seemed more interested in watching the hoverbarrow set Jerdim down and float silently off to one side.
“Yes,” I said, “sound a-likes, like made and shade. The Mourning Song can be as many lines as you want or as few, as long as they have rhyming words at the end.”
He looked confused. I took Lalin’s hand and coaxed him to one side of the little almond tree. I stood on the other side and we clasped hands, our arms ringed around Jerdim.
“Like this,” then I sang, “Jerdim was Betai’s daughter, the second one of two; a lovely little girl who got cuter as she grew; skin of pearl, hair of gold, eyes that always smiled; Calendas is a sadder place without our precious child.”
I nodded at Lalin, but he dropped his hands and took a step backward.
“Don’t you want to try?” I asked. Then I saw that the four members of that family, two teenage girls and their parents, were passing by on their way back down to the arboritorium. A blush fired Lalin’s cheeks. I knew that he was clearly self-conscious; he was often shy in front of strangers, to the point that he rarely talked in public.
Lalin watched over his shoulder until they were well behind him, then held out his hands to me. He had a beautiful voice, high and clear. He didn’t sing words, just la-la-las for syllables, but it was the most lovely, spontaneous melody. And it was loud enough that I saw one of the teenagers turn back and smile.
When he finished, Lalin said, “I sang the words in my head, I hope that’s okay. I knew I would have trouble with the rhymes.”
“I think it was better that way.” I was being honest. “It’s like a prayer you keep to yourself, but Jerdim still heard the music. Ready to go?”
I let go of one of his hands, but Lalin held tight to the other. He sidestepped around the monument and nestled at my side. I think he felt the sadness. Then I reached out to stroke the olive leaves on my husband’s tree; it was as close as we could come to being a family again.
When Lalin was ready, I instructed the hoverbarrow to attend to Kinor’s monument. Her tree in bloom, the flowers were a sign that she had survived and was ready to go home to our family orchard. Every time we eat her apricots, we will sing of Kinor.
Lalin and I still held hands as we strolled back down to the bottom of the crater. The hoverbarrow was no faster on its return, so I had time enough to arrange transport at the arboritorium. While we waited, Lalin seemed content to walk up and down the rows of new monuments. He knew better than to touch the tiny sprouts that grew from their people, but occasionally, he’d stop and place his little hand on a family crest he recognized.
DL Shirey writes from Portland, Oregon, where it’s usually raining. So he’s usually writing. His short stories and non-fiction appear in 50 publications, with those flavored by sci-fi featured in Riggwelter, Theme of Absence, ZeroFlash and 365 Tomorrows. You can find more of his writing at his website and on his Twitter.