The Fur People arrived soon after the first rains of spring, filling the placid Airoot Valley that was my home with the sound of chimes, bringing stories of far-off places we would never see. I always felt more alive when the Fur People visited. They were so different from us! They were similar in size to the Airoot, but they were covered in soft gray fur and they walked along the ground on four long arms. They didn’t fly or root. Their mouths were full of sharp teeth. And the whole world was their home.
It was impossible to explain my fascination with the Fur People to my friends, most of whom took little notice of our visitors other than to play chase with some of their young. It was an unfair game at first glance, given that we could fly and they couldn’t, but the Fur People could run along the ground just as fast as we could race through the air, propelled by our top and root tendrils. Still, no other young Airoot besides me lingered long after the evening gatherings to listen to the older Fur People tell tales. My cohort was too busy chasing each other around through the air or sinking their root tendrils into every different type of earth our Valley had to offer to bother with stories of places and people who weren’t like us.
I didn’t understand my Airoot peers any better than they understood me. Even before the Urgency comes upon us and we pair for life, our species likes to move in twos. Young Airoot play at being coupled even when they don’t realize they’re doing it—partnering up for every game or adventure, mimicking their parents’ mutually dependent dynamics with various friends until the actual Urgency and Choice happen.
Everyone except me, it seemed. If there was an odd number of people for a game, I was certain to be unmatched after everyone else had chosen a partner. I got used to feeling a little left out most of the time; by some unspoken understanding, the other immature Airoot kept their distance from me. It was never overtly acknowledged, but it was clear to everyone that I was different. Or at least it was to me.
My parents pretended they didn’t notice. They talked like all parents, going on about how eventually, the Urgency would come upon me and my friends, the way it did for them, the way it did for my two older siblings. My parents always talked like once I paired up with someone, I’d grow right out of all my awkwardness and be just like everyone else.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to be just like everyone else. I liked to wander by myself along the river, sinking my root tendrils into the heavy clay on its banks to fleetingly commune with the water in that way that lies under language, which all Airoot experience when we join with the earth. Even more, I liked to fly alone up to the highest ridges I could reach, top tendrils steering my course while my lung-sacs heated the air I took in to loft me higher. At the crest, I’d look out—not over Airoot Valley, but away from it. Towards the lands I’d never see, but secretly longed to explore.
My favorite thing the Fur People made were the chimes they wore around their necks to announce their presence when they traveled. I spent hours watching, fascinated, as Raistin, the rock-molder from the Moon Mountain Tribe, melted and shaped black rock to make chimes. The Fur People chip the black rock out of the mountains in the Winterlands, where they say the sun only shines for part of the year and an Airoot would die of the cold. I loved watching Raistin melt the black rock in the fire and mold it into the different shapes for chimes. The Fur People made many things from the black rock, including the thick tools with which Raistin held the chunks of molten rock in the fire and hammered it into shapes before plunging it in the cold river to harden it.
The chimes make the most beautiful sound I have ever heard. Better than the sound a stone makes when it hits the surface of the river; better than the sound of a trell singing at first light in the banban groves; better than the sound of air being blown across a stone with a hole chiseled in it; better even than one of the intricate musical compositions that mimic the wind, which my people play on the punctured stones. The Fur People’s chimes sound like moonlight would if it made a sound as it streamed across water, or like the first drops of rain feel hitting your skin on a warm day. The chimes sound like a call to leave everything you’ve known, to become someone new.
When I was younger, I was sure that someday I’d wake up and finally be like everyone else—that I would want what every Airoot wants: a symbiotic partner with whom to share my very survival for the rest of my life. I assumed that it was normal not to be interested when I was young, but that eventually the Urgency would strike me, I’d partner with someone, we would mingle our mating fluids, and we would make the Choice.
The Choice is the most important moment in every Airoot’s life, when one member of the pair becomes Root, locked forever into one spot, bound to the earth by elongated root tendrils that take hold of the soil and entwine the Root’s very consciousness into the land—and one becomes Air, never again to connect with the earth but free to fly high, to see far over the horizon for both partners.
All Airoot pair, and we pair for life.
Every day, the adult Airs fly up to the high feeding ridges and absorb the red moss off the cliffs through their long, graceful top tendrils. Then they drift down to the Valley floor to their home glades, where their Roots have spent the day communing with all the other Roots in the Valley through the soil, exchanging news, asking questions of the plants and trees, assessing the health of our homeland. When the Airs arrive home, they mingle their short root tendrils with their Roots’ short top tendrils. The mingling mixes the nutrients from the red moss the Air has absorbed on the feeding ridges with the nutrients the Root has absorbed from the earth, providing the nourishment they both need. Both partners experience what is said to be exquisite pleasure during the mingling. Each pairing eventually results in young, which grow from the Root’s buried tendrils and push up through the ground, detaching after three or four sun cycles. The more young an Airoot pair makes, the more fulfilling the life, they say.
When one partner dies, the other follows close behind. At the end of life, the Root surrenders its consciousness into the earth, and after the fleshy parts have decomposed, the remaining body calcifies, fossilizing like the oldest trees, standing in mute tribute to the pair that was until it finally crumbles with time. When Airs go, there is nothing left by which to remember them but the remains of their partners; their dying bodies become so light they drift into the atmosphere and disintegrate.
Once paired, only death can separate us. My parents said that this mutual dependence, this sacred partnership, was the most fulfilling thing anyone could experience. This union was the reason we were alive.
I felt much more excited to be alive when the Fur People came to visit and I listened to their stories about all the places that weren’t Airoot Valley. When I first learned—I must have been very young—that the Fur People do not partner the way we do—that they can mate and have young with multiple partners—or none!—during their lifetimes, I was fascinated. The Fur People got to choose with each different mating whether to be what I thought of as Root or Air—though I vaguely understood that their biology worked differently. I gathered that when they had young, one member of the pair carried the young inside its body for the course of an entire sun cycle. Sometime one partner carried the young, and sometimes it was the other.
It was so much more interesting than just choosing one thing to be for an entire life, the way I must someday.
When a Fur Person died, the tribe burned the body at night, releasing it back into the universe. An individual could live long after the death of a partner, and indeed, though they mated in pairs like the Airoot, the Fur People maintained individual identities in a way that was almost inconceivable to my species. The good of the tribe was paramount to them, but they all took care of each other in what seemed to an outsider a loose, interchangeable way.
Several different tribes of Fur People visited Airoot Valley regularly. Each Fur tribe considers a different region of the world its home, and tends to the health of the land there in much the same way we do in Airoot Valley. But for most of each sun cycle, the tribes are nomadic, directed by the need for different resources, or simply the need to wander.
I got to know the Moon Mountain Tribe, the Green Plains Tribe, the Shadow Valley Tribe, and the Sunset Shore Tribe. The Sunset Shore Tribe was my favorite. Their home was on the shore of the sea, a body of water so vast I couldn’t really picture it, though I tried. The sea was where shells came from. All the Fur People bring shells to Airoot Valley to trade for rushes from our river, which they use to make their dwellings and many other useful objects. The Airoot crush the shells and sprinkle the powder in our home glades to enrich the soil for our young. This trade has been going on since the time of the ancestors, when our peoples first met, they say.
The other reason I liked the Sunset Shore Tribe was because of Haibb. Haibb traveled with the tribe—had since I could remember—but wasn’t a Fur Person. Un-root was the name I heard other Airoot use for Haibb, though they kept their distance for reasons that remained unspoken. Haibb looked like an immature Airoot, with long top and root tendrils, but was full-grown, and had pale green skin as opposed to our greenish-brown. Haibb ate the Fur People’s food and flew, but didn’t root.
I was fascinated by the Un-root, though I learned from Haibb that I shouldn’t use that word.
“Why? Then what are your people called?”
Haibb smiled indulgently at me—I must have been only a few cycles out of the earth at that point, and hadn’t learned how to be polite.
“There is no name for my people, Leff.”
“Well, then why don’t you want to be called Un-root?” I asked innocently. “You look like an Airoot, but you don’t root. Or have a partner.”
Haibb gave me a strange look, quickly masked by a smile. “We don’t like the term Un-root because you can’t define something by what it isn’t—only by what it is.”
“Then isn’t there a name for what you are?”
“No,” Haibb said, looking inexplicably sad. “There is no name for what I am.”
“Why do you travel with the Sunset Shore Tribe?” I asked.
“Because I love to travel.”
The answer satisfied me; I understood exactly why someone would want to travel with the Fur People.
Haibb helped watch the youngsters in the Sunset Shore Tribe, teaching them the Fur language and the Airoot language, both of which Haibb spoke without accent. Most of the Fur People learned our language, mainly because they were curious. I loved that about the Fur People. No Airoot learned the Fur language.
The Fur People carved marks in stones to represent their words—for memory, they said, which didn’t make much sense to an Airoot; our memories live in the land and in the wind. But Haibb knew how to carve the Fur language, and instructed the young in the art. I sometimes sat in on their lessons near the river, even attempting to carve my own marks into the stones, though my Airoot fingers were far too clumsy to master the technique. Haibb could do it, but not as well as the Fur People.
My parents discouraged me from associating with Haibb. I didn’t understand why, but when I asked, all they would say was, “Haibb is not like us.”
“But the Fur People aren’t like us either. Why is Haibb different?”
“Haibb is just… not Airoot. You aren’t like Haibb, Leff,” said my rootparent.
“I know!” I was quick to assert. Of course I wasn’t like Haibb; I was born here in Airoot Valley. I still remembered being tiny, anchored in the ground of our home glade, still attached to my rootparent. I looked like every other immature Airoot, and one day—in spite of my trepidation—I would look like either my rootparent or my airparent.
I did not voice the thought that tickled the back of my consciousness: I wished I had been born one of Haibb’s people, so I could travel with a Fur tribe.
I learned to stay secretive about my feelings. To conceal the desolation that settled on me every time the Fur People left our Valley; to conceal my longing for their return each spring. While my peers acted out “home glade” scenarios in which one pretended to be permanently rooted and the other pretended to arrive offering nourishment, and they both swished their tendrils around together, making faces that mimicked what adults looked like when they mingled, I played alone, using sticks and leaves to make miniature Fur People dwellings. I imagined the far-off places my pretend tribe would visit—though often the tribe was not a pretend one at all, but the Sunset Shore Tribe—Haibb’s tribe.
At some point, when my friends stopped playing pretend games, I did too. And I tried not to indulge my fantasies of traveling with the Sunset Shore Tribe. My future lay in Airoot Valley, and I needed to start accepting it.
The Moon Mountain Tribe was visiting again. Feeling increasingly distant from my Airoot friends, I spent an entire afternoon watching Raistin make chimes by the river. The longing on my face must have been evident. I tried to help thread the little squares and sticks of black rock onto the rush cords, but my fingers weren’t dexterous enough, and I felt a frustration far out of proportion to the simple challenge of the task. I tried so hard that I broke the cord I was working with. I looked up at Raistin, dismayed, afraid I would be told to go away.
Instead, Raistin smiled kindly, and took a new rush cord from the bundle on the rock next to us.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “I ruined it. I shouldn’t help with this.”
“It’s OK,” Raistin said. “I’ve been doing this a long time.”
Before I could respond, Raistin had threaded the chime onto a fresh cord, and then, to my surprise, tied it around my neck with another sharp-toothed smile, saying, “There, why don’t you keep this as a gift, Leff?”
I was stunned silent. I was thrilled with the chime, but immediately, I realized I could not wear it. My people did not wear chimes. Even Haibb did not wear chimes.
Raistin sensed my discomfort, and quickly removed the cord from my neck. I felt empty in its absence, and looked away to hide my disappointment. But then Raistin pressed the chime into one of my small hands, saying, “You could hang it somewhere, to remember your furry friends when we’re not here.”
Raistin’s voice had never been so kind. I realized we had known each other almost my entire life. The gift felt like an acknowledgment of my impending adulthood.
“OK. Thank you,” was all I managed to say.
I clutched the chime between two of my hands so it wouldn’t sound, and flew up to a small rushut grove on a barren stretch of the Sunrise Ridge where no one usually went. I hung the chime there, and listened for a little while to the gentle music the wind made with it. As much as I loved the gift, I didn’t go to the grove often. When the Fur People were gone, the sound of the chime made me too sad. I only went to hear it on days when my loneliness became unbearable.
The Sunset Shore tribe visited the next spring. I managed to avoid Haibb for most of the tribe’s visit. But on one of the last nights they camped in the Valley, I heard a familiar voice as I hovered near the clearing by the river where the Fur People built their cooking fires.
“Leff! There you are!”
“Oh, Haibb. How are you?” I drifted farther away from the fire, and we ended up next to each other under a broad banban tree that mainly concealed us from view.
“I’m wonderful.” The response was accompanied by a large smile, but I noticed that Haibb looked tired, and maybe frailer than the last time we’d met. “And how are you doing, Leff?”
“Oh, fine, I mean, good, I mean, the same as ever,” I fumbled, trying to think of an excuse to get away.
“Well, that’s good to hear,” said Haibb. “You must be getting excited.”
“What?” I asked, confused.
“I was just thinking that you’re probably starting to get excited. About partnering,” Haibb clarified. “Given that I’m feeling practically ancient these days, you must be getting to that age.”
So Haibb was getting old.
“Uh, yes. Yes, excited. I am,” I managed. I didn’t know why I was so flustered by a line of questioning I was used to hearing from Airoot adults constantly.
“Any thoughts about who you might pair with or what you’re going to Choose?” Haibb continued, ignoring my discomfort. “Root or Air? Air or Root? Or do you want to wait and let it be a surprise?”
“Well, I guess, a surprise. I figure I’ll just, uh, know when I know, you know? I’m trying not to think about it too much.” Which was true.
“Ah, yes, you’ll know when you know. Or you won’t.”
“What do you mean?” I asked sharply.
Haibb smiled at me in a way that made me want to fill my lung-sacs, rise into the air and flee. The smile was warm in a way I didn’t like, as if Haibb and I shared a secret. But I was riveted. A storm couldn’t have shaken me from under that tree, waiting for a reply that would tell me—what, exactly?
“Come, Leff. You must have some idea what I’m talking about.”
“No, I don’t,” I said, afraid to consider whether I did.
“Are you telling me you’ve never thought about traveling with the Fur People?”
Fear paralyzed me for a moment. Haibb had seen right through me, and for some reason, it felt like a betrayal.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to say, but I’m not like you! I’m not Un-root. I belong here! I’m Airoot!”
Haibb flinched at my words. I hadn’t used that term since I was too young to know better. Immediately, I felt regret gather inside me. I knew my anger was misplaced, and I knew I should apologize. I tried to figure out a way to do so that wouldn’t re-open the conversation I absolutely could not have, but found myself without words.
“Well, obviously I don’t know you very well, Leff. I apologize for offending you.” Haibb’s tone was overly solicitous. “I wish you every blessing for your partnership and Choice. I’m sure it will happen soon for you.”
My anger returned with greater force when I heard what sounded like disdain in Haibb’s voice. But before I could respond, my old friend was gone.
Afterwards, I tried not to think about that last conversation with Haibb of the Sunset Shore Tribe. I was not the same as Haibb, and my parents had been right to warn me away from the Un-root. I would not be tempted away from the very people who had brought me into the world and cared for me! The Airoot were my people!
Nonetheless, the future, which my peers anticipated with growing eagerness, loomed like a cliff face when you’re flying too fast to stop in time. And as much as I lived for the Fur People’s arrival each spring, I felt increasingly both anxious and desperate with each of their visits in a way I didn’t understand. The Sunset Shore Tribe hadn’t come round in over two sun cycles, and while I felt a certain relief each time I saw that it was not Haibb’s tribe, I also felt an unspecified disappointment drop into my abdomen. I went more often now to listen to the chime in my rushut grove.
That spring, the other Airoot of my age were particularly uninterested in the Fur People’s arrival. Some of my peers had paired and Chosen already, and were happily settling into home glades of their very own, speaking contentedly of the young they now anticipated, staring lovingly into each other’s eyes. They talked about the red moss and how it had responded to the latest rains, about the water level in the river and its impact on the banbans, about the health of the soil and the need to regularly enrich their glades with shell powder.
Those who hadn’t yet partnered could talk of nothing else—when it would happen, how, and of course, with whom. They fluttered about with an energy that heralded the onset of the Urgency, to which I seemed strangely inured.
I found myself wishing that I could talk to Haibb again. I was finally ready to consider what Haibb had been trying to tell me the last time we’d spoken, when I’d been too young to really understand. The fear had been too strong, and I’d gone running back to the safety of my parents and my home glade, as if I could escape myself. I regretted my words to Haibb. I wished I could ask all the questions now that I hadn’t been ready to articulate then.
It was a bright spring morning and I was in the Gathering Glade, eating nuts from a banban tree with Senn and Rull. The two of them were some of the closest I had to actual friends. Senn and Rull had only recently paired, and were deep in the throes of the Urgency, which meant I saw a lot less of them all of a sudden. I’d see even less of them, I imagined, once they made the Choice and got on with their life together.
And then the sound came, drifting on a gentle breeze from the direction of the Sunset Ridge. It was unmistakable.
Senn and Rull both looked at me immediately. Senn looked guilty and a little embarrassed. Rull looked knowing and, I thought, somehow understanding. Whatever they were thinking, they both knew. And they were both acknowledging it openly for the first time. I had noticed that since their recent pairing, both Senn and Rull seemed wiser, more grown up. Just last season, they would have been oblivious to my reaction to the chimes, or at least they would have acted that way.
Now, Senn said, “Sounds like the Fur People are here,” and looked away again.
Rull actually smiled at me.
There was no longer any denying the excitement that coursed through my body as I heard what had been the most important sound in my life for as long as I could remember. I understood, somewhere inside myself, that I would no longer fool anyone—if I ever had—by forcing myself to stay with my friends and feign interest in their conversation. They knew. I knew. My parents knew too, but I really couldn’t think about that. I only knew that things would finally be different.
I was filled with a greater exhilaration than I’d ever known, and I was too stunned to say anything. I simply nodded to Senn and Rull and rose into the air. As my lung-sacs heated the air I took in, floating me higher, faster, I finally put it into words for myself: I would not partner. I would not Choose.
Everything I’d tried so hard to believe about my life was torn up by its roots and set upon the wind. In its wake came absolute terror, absolute relief, and a new feeling I would learn to call joy.
All Airoot partner. All Airoot Choose. Those who do not become something different, something not truly Airoot. And that, which didn’t really have a name, because you cannot define something by what it is not, was what I was.
I flew faster toward the sound of approaching chimes.
Deborah Steinberg’s writing has been published in Necessary Fiction, great weather for MEDIA, The Red Line, Monkeybicycle, riverbabble, and other journals. She is a founding editor of Red Bridge Press and the fiction editor of the press’s online journal Rivet: the Journal of Writing that Risks. Deborah lives in San Francisco, where she works as a freelance editor, facilitates writing workshops with a focus on healing, and sings in the vocal ensemble Conspiracy of Venus. http://deborahsteinberg.wordpress.com