City of the Key
Sitting cross-legged on the wall, with her back to the open air, Ara closed her eyes. The updraft from the Low City far below brought distant sounds and faint smells that she could make out better with her eyes shut. The gusts of wind played with the ends of her long braids and made a few rebel strands of hair tickle her face. It was peaceful up here, away from the bustling below, and the cooler wind was a refreshing break from the heat of the summer afternoon. The wide, flat stones of the top of the great wall had been soaking up the sun all day and were now pleasantly warm to the touch.
Even with her eyes closed, she recognised the approaching footsteps. The slightly chaotic gait and the flip-flopping sound made by hand-me-down sandals were synonymous with her little brother.
"Ara! Ara! Mother says you're to come now, she needs help with the evening meal!"
She sighed, and opened her eyes.
"Okay Seth, I'll be there in a few minutes."
He was standing right next to the wall, the golden crown of his head barely appearing over the edge of it. He was hopping from one foot to the other as if he needed the toilet, which seemed to always be the case. He was still out of breath from running all the way there but he managed to pull himself up to see over the edge of the wall, panting softly.
"Come on, Ara, she says it’s urgent and you should come at once!"
Ara's shoulders dropped and she let her head hang forward for a second. He clearly had been told to return with her immediately and even at his young age he knew that Mother's orders were not to be taken lightly. She raised her head again, smiled at him and uncrossed her legs to stand up.
In a second it all went wrong.
Her big toe caught in the fabric of her trouser hem, and as she began to stand up, it unbalanced her and she tilted backwards. She was falling. She heard Seth scream her name, and felt herself fall backwards. She saw the sky, the intense blue and the tiny clouds far far above, the creamy white stones of the wall rising up. There weren't rising, she realised, it was she who was falling. A small dark dot appeared at the edge of the wall and she heard her name again. Seth was going to watch her die.
She watched herself fall until the layer of clouds above the low city swallowed her. Seth was crying now, crying with shock and fear. She stepped closer to him as he stood staring at the empty space where she had been, his hands firmly clamped to the edge of the wall. She placed a hand on his back and rubbed it to soothe him. It had always worked, ever since he was a baby. He jumped, startled, and turned his big wet eyes up to look at her. His mouth dropped open and he tried to back away from her.
"Seth, it's okay, it will be okay, don't worry."
She grabbed him by his shoulders and pulled him away from the wall. He was still staring at her with his mouth open. She knelt down, pulled him close and held him there, swaying slightly as if to rock him to sleep.
"Shhh now, it's okay Seth, it's okay."
"You, you, you..."
The words came out as sobs, great big uninhibited gulps of pure sorrow, the kind only small children can produce.
"I know, I fell, but it's okay, I’m here now."
Only then did she realise what she had just said. She had fallen. And she was here now. She shouldn't be here, she should be dead, smashed into a pulp on some street or roof of the Low City a hundred metres below. But she was here, holding her brother to comfort him after her death. She was holding him, so she clearly wasn't a spirit. She was her, the same person as before, she felt exactly the same.
She realised that she was now holding Seth to comfort herself too. They remained in each other's arms, holding on for dear life, for what seemed like an eternity or two. Slowly, Seth's tense body began to relax, his breathing slowed and became more regular. The clinging turned into a hug. She began to relax too, though a billion questions were still racing through her brain. She took a deep breath and released her grasp.
"Come on Seth, let's go home. Mother will be waiting."
The M word worked its magic trick and brought them back to their immediate duties. It always did. Seth let go and stepped back a little. Ara stood up and took his tiny hand in hers. As they walked along the walkway, the boy wiped away his tears with his sleeve, and she realised that she had shed a few tears as well. She wiped them away discreetly with a finger. She didn't want anyone to notice that something was wrong. A young boy with a tear stained face was easy enough to explain away, but a grown woman of thirteen was not supposed to cry in public, not without a good reason at least.
She kept having to remind herself that she was a woman now. It still felt strange even now, several months after her first blood. Her mother had been adamant: the day the blood came she had become a woman, albeit a young one, and she would have a woman's duties from now on. That included being there to help prepare the daily meals. She was late and in trouble already.
She looked down at Seth as they walked. He looked so serious, he too was growing up too fast. Would he tell Mother about what had happened? She didn't want that to happen. Not until she had managed to work out for herself what had happened. She squeezed his hand gently.
"Seth, can I ask you to do something for me?"
He looked up at her and nodded. His cheeks were still a little red and puffy but he looked calm and thoughtful.
"Don't tell Mother about what happened here, please? I don't want her to worry."
He looked at her, straight in the eyes, and held her gaze for a second as if he was trying to see something more than what was in front of him, then he nodded solemnly.
"I promise. But you must tell her."
She was quite taken aback by such a mature response. She squeezed his hand again.
"I will Seth, but I'm not quite sure I understand what happened yet, and I need to work that out before I tell her. Is that okay?"