The Wind that Bows and Curtseys

Submitted into Contest #96 in response to: Start your story with the arrival of a strange visitor in a small town.... view prompt

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People of Color Fantasy LGBTQ+

Wayra had heard of the stranger long before he saw them, knew how their dark woolen cloak skated over the fresh snow and left the earth glistening; how, when pressed with a bowl of potato stew they consumed the contents without bringing the bowl to their lips. For once in his short life, Wayra was faced with something he’d never encountered: a mystery.

The corn picked off their stalks, his days were now filled with chopping timber and collecting kindling for the anticipated winter, so it wasn’t until dusk when he finally saw the stranger. They stood above everyone’s heads, their cloak draped over broad shoulders that made the fabric billow out and obscure the rest of their figure. Their face was none like Wayra had ever seen; a light brown with a nose so slender he wondered how they breathed, and eyes the color of the spring sky after winter’s last frost.

After slurping down dinner in their family’s adobe home, he joined the rest of the village around the community hearth, sitting behind two older cousins who tended to the alpacas. From over their shoulders he watched the fire’s shadows flicker over the stranger’s face, as if it was as curious as the rest of them to figure out who exactly they were. Wayra stared, saw how the shadow clung to the high curve of their cheeks and illuminated their slender brow, and thought they must be a woman. But then the wind would scatter the shadow across their chin, providing an imitation stubble that highlighted a sharp jawline, turning them into a man. The stranger suddenly met his gaze, their blue eyes like an icicle pressed along Wayra’s spine. He looked away abruptly, hiding behind his cousins.

No matter how many times the townspeople asked for their name, the word eluded them; spoken too softy, perhaps, or interrupted by a neighbor’s drunken laughter or a particularly loud crack from a log in the fire. When his mother called him home, he was even more confused than he had been before meeting the stranger. Laying atop his straw bed, watching the coals breathe in front of him, he decided he would feign illness tomorrow to better understand this stranger. To understand them, he reasoned, he would have to act like them: in secrecy and deception, intent cloaked like their identity.

The next morning, he cupped his palms against his face and blew hot air into them until he could feel sweat prickle at the nape of his neck, then pulled the covers from his face with a sickly groan. His mother placed the back of her hand to his forehead with a frown. “How did this happen? You were fine just yesterday. Did you go out into the dark with your cousins last night? I told you not to stray from the fire.”

His silence was guilt enough, and as his mother left the house to complete her chores, he slipped out into the tree line, listening to the passerby. Behind a slender trunk, he heard a miner talk of how the stranger had gone off with the farmers, to help stock the corn. Like the vultures above him, he coasted uphill across the hard, cold earth until he was at the fields. Great piles of multicolored corn, the cobs short and impervious to the altitude, rested on the barren terraces littered with pale dried husks. All that remained was piling them into large woven baskets and delivering them into the village for the people to purchase. Wayra watched the farmers shake their heads, then look up at the stranger.

“The harvest was bad this year. There’s barely enough to live on, not to mention trade,” said the first man, Antunyu, a friend of his father’s.

“Some of the villagers’ family plots did better than expected,” said the second man, Diyigu. “That’ll help through the worst, if they’re generous.”

“Let’s collect, and then worry,” said the stranger, their voice as smooth as water poured over ice. “Perhaps there’s more than what there seems to be.”

Wayra watched as they worked in silence, slightly disappointed. Was this it? The stranger came only to help with a task that would’ve been completed regardless of their arrival. He sighed, kneeled next to a tree trunk, and picked at the thin bark, breaking it into pieces.

The baskets filled quickly, but there were still many to fill, so they worked until midday. As they packed them onto the alpaca’s saddles, Wayra noticed something. All the corn the stranger had collected, normal in their large slender hands, were obviously larger than the ones Antunyu and Diyigu had packed by nearly half. Corn doesn’t grow once it’s been picked from the stalk, Wayra thought, confused.

“Diyigu, come look at this,” Antunyu called, holding the two different corns against each other. “I’ve never seen the corn grow like this. Were they this big when we picked them?”

“I’m not sure.” Diyigu reached out, grabbing the larger ear, then looked at the stranger dubiously. “Did you do this?”

The stranger shrugged. “I didn’t notice anything unusual about the corn when I packed them into the baskets.”

Diyigu looked at the corn again, then tossed it into the basket. “Maybe we’ll be okay this winter after all.” He turned, stretching his back. “I’m starving. We better start walking before dusk creeps up on us.”

“I’m going to stay,” said the stranger, settling themselves atop the newly emptied space. “There’s one more thing I need to do, alone.”

Alone? thought Wayra, his heartbeat quickening. This’ll be interesting. 

Antunyu shrugged. “Well, thank you for the help. I’ll make sure a bowl of something warm is set aside for you.” He grabbed the alpaca’s lead and began the journey down the mountain, Diyigu taking up the rear. It wasn’t until the last footfalls’ echoes ceased that the stranger called out to him.

“It’s not good to lie, Wayra,” they said from where they sat, startling the boy.

He stayed where he was on the ground, hiding behind the trunk. Maybe I misheard him, he thought.

“I know you’re there. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anybody.”

Wayra paused, wracking his brain. When did I lie? His mind flashed to this morning his mother’s hand against his forehead. Wayra blushed, then slowly got up from his knees, stepping so the tree was behind his back. The stranger stared at him in silence for so long the back of Wayra’s neck prickled. He broke the silence. “You lied too.”

The stranger lifted an eyebrow. “Did I?”

“When you were talking to Antunyu. You said you didn’t do anything to the corn but you—” Wayra faltered. He hadn’t seen the stranger do anything to the corn himself. “Well, you must’ve done something.”

The stranger poked their hands from out of their cloak and clasped them together, revealing tan pant legs. “And why is that?”

Wayra felt a tinge of impatience like a spark of fire floating onto flesh. “Because they weren’t so big before. Corn never grows that big.” He took a few steps forward, emboldened. “Who are you? I can’t even tell if you’re a boy or a girl.”

They smiled mischievously, their thin lips whitening. “Does the wind curtsy or bow? Does the earth provide the seed or the womb? It matters less what is what in these matters.”

The words confused Wayra, and he shook them out of his brain. “But there’s nothing else for a human.”

“It’s hard to see the sea from atop inland mountains. But not impossible.”

Wayra dug his leather shoe into the hardening dirt, frustrated. “Can’t you talk like a regular person?”

“I am. But I’ll try to talk more like you if you like.”

Wayra looked at them, wondered how they had managed to stay in the same spot the whole time without getting cold. It must be a heavy cloak they wore to keep away the dusk chill. “Will you tell me how you did it? How you grew the corn? My father worries each winter, and maybe if I can help, he wouldn’t have to worry so much.”

The stranger tilted their head, and for a second Wayra felt like he did the moments between bathing himself and dressing. “No,” they said, standing up. “But I will give you something that will help you with your village, and not just in the cold seasons.” The stranger grasped the end of their cloak and tore it nearly in half horizontally. Wayra glimpsed leather boots that went up half their calf, lined with alpaca fur. He blinked, and their cloak had regrown, hiding their frame. The stranger walked over to the piles of dead husk and grabbed one, tearing a strip off. Then they walked towards Wayra and wrapped the fabric around his shoulders, poking the strip of husk through both sides of the newly fashioned cloak so it closed at the neck.

Wayra grabbed the cloak and pressed it close to his body, realizing just how cold it had gotten. The fabric was as light as his under garments and seemed to radiate heat. “It will guide you, providing you with wisdom and strength until you are able to act with your own skill.” The stranger stood up straight, pulling at a part of Wayra’s cloak so it lied flat. “Learn the names and faces of everybody in your village. They will come to look for you for help.”

Wayra shook his head. “But aren’t you going to stay? I don’t know what to do. You’ll be better at helping than me.”

“No, Wayra, I must go. I’ve found help is better received from within than from without.”

With a nod of their head, the stranger began to walk off past the tree line. Beyond it was harsh highland, barely livable. “Wait!” Wayra called. The stranger paused. “Does this mean I’ll turn out like you?”

They looked over their shoulder. “You’ll become who you’re meant to be, Wayra. That’s more up to you than me.” They began walking again, towards the night sky. “Your mother is worried. You best return.”

“What’s your name? Will I ever see you again?” Wayra shouted, but with a shake of his head he realized the stranger had vanished. Turning around, he headed back down the mountain into the village, warm under his cloak. The darkness had always been frightening to him, but now he found he didn’t have to strain his eyes to see the path ahead of him; the rustle of long grass was just that, and nothing more.

June 03, 2021 05:10

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