by Nicky Nicholson-Klingerman
Artwork, “Sun Beings” by Alex Haggis
Move. A hand, a finger – just move something, Nia thought furiously, trying to bully her limbs into action. Did shaking with fear count as movement? Even her twisted, black locks were shaking as she watched the Cloud hit her friend, Bolide, hard enough to send stars shooting from his skin.
She flinched as Bolide fell to the ground with a groan and the Cloud began to kick him in the ribs. Please, she begged her limbs, please move! With each blow, more stars fell towards earth in showers. Soon his skin would be nothing but velvety blackness and all the stars he had so loving cared for would be gone. The loss of his stars will almost be more painful than this beating, Nia thought.
Suddenly, surprising both herself and the Cloud, she shot up from her hiding spot. Her skin glowed bright as the harvest moon, red and full, and she screeched like an owl. The Cloud howled, temporarily blinded. Bolide tackled the Cloud and knocked the wind out of him. The Cloud stopped moving. Clouds can’t move without wind, she remembered.
Bolide limped over to her clutching his ribs, “Come on, Nia, Dawn will be here soon and the Sons of Sun will only blame us for hurting a Cloud.” She nodded and without another word, they ran for Moon’s safety. The Sons of Sun who ruled the Day would doubtlessly believe whatever story the Cloud told them and Bolide would be in trouble. If only the Cloud had just left them alone. They had been doing what Moonlight and Stars do best – trying to outdo each other’s shine, when the Cloud thundered at Bolide and knocked him down.
As they ran across the sky, Nia thought about her fear-locked limbs. She hated how useless she had felt. She knew how to fight and shine nearly as bright as the Sons of Sun, but her fear had been overpowering, draining the light out of her. She could hear Elder’s raspy voice echoing from a long past memory.
Nia, baby, come here. You so scared to shine too bright. Don’t believe nothing those Sons tell you. You ain’t just a reflection of them. You change their light into magic. Why you think the Earth people plant at the full moon or do their best spells by our light? We got power. We can change our shape, shine during the day and when Earth people look us they don’t go blind! The Sons can’t change, can’t come out at night and they scorch the earth nearly as much as they nourish it. We all important, but you gotta believe that yourself. Now go on and play baby girl.
The Moon hid half her face tonight as they approached home. Bolide was stumbling by now and gasping in ragged breaths. What stars were left on his body had winked out and his dark skin turned gray as the eastern horizon started to lighten. Nia’s darkness began to lighten as well, though there were no stars on her.
Moonlight and Stars were streaking home as Dawn slowly swept up the darkness, gradually changing the sky from night to day. Men and women alike stared openly at them as Nia and Bolide limped by, whispering nervously. They all could guess what had happened. For too long, Clouds had blanketed the night sky trying to beat out Stars and block Moonlight.
They ignored the stares and whispers as they made their way to the new Elder’s hut to report the incident. Bolide leaned heavily on Nia as she knocked on the door, which opened almost immediately.
“Come in, come in,” the new Elder motioned them inside and left the door open for the others who gathered outside. All issues were brought before the Elder, but this was a community of sharing. Moonlight and Stars helped solve issues and carried the burden of consequences.
Nia stared around the room, transfixed by its familiarity. The new Elder had changed nothing as far as she could tell. The ancient hut had been used by all Elders from as far back as anyone could remember. The sight of the moon rocks on the window sill and the little silver stars that hovered near the ceiling to illuminate the room filled her with longing. The new Elder was brisk and fair, but Nia missed the old Elder, her grandmother. Her grandmother’s dark skin had not been smooth but wrinkled, her face pockmarked like the Moon and her laugh more of a cackle. An ache spread through Nia’s chest.
Don’t let them hold you back, baby girl. Don’t let them scare you…
The Elder grabbed a towel from a hook on the wall and started patting her windswept, still damp braids, “Speak.”
Bolide lurched away from Nia and stood as straight as he could, “We were doing what we were supposed to be doing – illuminating the darkness.”
The Elder raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, mostly doing that. We may have been goofing off a little bit,” he amended sheepishly. He cleared his throat and continued, his voice having lost its usual causality, “Then out of nowhere, a Cloud knocked me down and started to beat me. Nia startled him and I was able to get away by knocking the wind from him. We never provoked him or anything.”
“Did anyone besides Nia see what happened?” she asked. Both of them shook their heads and dark muttering weaved its way through the small crowd outside..
The Elder set the damp towel down and patted her somewhat dryer hair. “Perhaps this will -” she began but her words were drowned out as Sunlight crashed through the Moonlight and Stars gathered at the door.
Two Sons of Sun elbowed their way into the hut, their golden hair so bright it hurt and their dawn gray eyes turning slowly to blue. The Elder stepped forward, “What do you want, Sons of Sun?” Her stiff jaw clipped the words to the point of being almost rude but her muscles stayed loose, Nia noted, in case things went awry. Out of the window, Nia saw more Sons of Sun pushing through the crowd, not bothering to excuse themselves.
The first Son spoke, “We have come for the Star who attacked a Cloud and knocked the wind from him.” His blue gray eyes skated over Nia and stuck on Bolide almost immediately.
Bolide squared his shoulders in spite of his injuries but before he could speak, Nia stepped in front of him, “You can’t have him! Look at his injuries. Your Cloud man attacked first and he just defended himself.”
The other Son scoffed, “Why would a cloud attack a star?”
Before Nia could do more than glare at him, the Elder spoke up angrily, “Surely you must know about the crippled Stars, their skin nearly starless and the Clouds attempt to block Moonlight?”
The second Son looked skeptical but the first Son shifted uneasily and suddenly, Nia understood. The first Son already knew. They employed the Clouds because they could travel Day and Night. Clouds were big, bold and best of all, followed the Sons like fluffy, white sheep. The second Son probably didn’t bother to worry about Stars and Moonlight or about what Clouds did on their downtime.
The first Son silenced the second with his eyes then seemed to steel himself before clearing his throat, “Do you dare defy a light-bringer? We are consulting you, Elder, only as a formality. We will take this Star by force for questioning if we have to.” He turned his eyes on Nia, “Now step aside, Moon girl.”
Nia shook her head, refusing to move. Her limbs had locked once again but this time, not with fear but with fury.
He made a noise of impatience and grabbed at Bolide, but Nia knocked his arm away, his white-hot skin nearly searing her. The first Son of Sun stumbled back, startled by the sudden push. Everyone went completely still. No one had ever raised a hand against a Son of Sun. There were dark whispers at night about the Sons of Sun’s superiority complex but nothing real, nothing solid. Shocked, the Son stared at her and to everyone’s surprise the light around his arm began to dim. Nia stared at her hand in awe. She could almost hear the old Elder cackling in her ear.
Magic, baby girl. That’s what we are.
Pandemonium broke out. The Moonlight and Stars fought the Sons of Sun who had once seemed so untouchable before now. With each blow, their halo of light dimmed. The Sons were not fighters, which is one of reasons they employed Clouds. But the Clouds were raining in the South and storming in the West.
The battle ended almost as soon as it had begun when the Sons fled across the sky, dim and cold. The first Son who had sustained many blows trying to escape the hut threw one last threat over his shoulder, “This is not finished! The Sun will hear about this defiance.” But his words were drowned almost immediately as Moonlight and Stars cheered loudly, their usually faint light twinkling brighter than ever.
The Elder, however, did not celebrate. She grabbed Nia and began to drag her away, “You must leave now.”
Nia, who been shouting and jumping in the air in celebration stumbled after her, “Leave? Why? Where would I go?”
“To Earth,” the Elder told her, “Until it is safe for you to come back. The Sun will be furious and looking for you.”
She stopped and looked at Nia, her dark brown eyes boring into her, “You are important, Nia. One day when you are ready, you will take my place just like your grandmother wanted.” The Elder went back to dragging her across the Moon’s territory, Bolide following close behind.
Soon, they arrived at the oldest tree in the sky. Nia stared up at it in awe; it never ceased to amaze her. It looked nothing like earth trees, though an olive tree with its silver leaves and twisting trunk resemble it as a shadow mirrors its master. Sky tries are made of white light and wind. Silver leaves fluttered from its darker branches like fallen stars and Nia remembered how much her grandmother had loved this tree.
“What does this tree have to do with Nia’s safety?” Bolide asked warily.
The Elder pointed at the trunk. Nia squinted then sucked in a breath. The outline of a crudely cut door was just barely visible. “How will I know to come back?” she asked desperately.
“You can read the stars,” the Elder told her gently. “You are Moon’s daughter. You will always be able to find your way home.”
Bolide’s hand brushed her shoulder. Nia turned and looked mournfully at Bolide, her best friend and partner in crime. They had wreaked havoc across the night sky as children, but now they must grow up. Both of them were less than a century old and been inseparable almost from birth. He was as much a part of her as the Moon’s light in her skin.
“Look for me,” Bolide told her softly, his dark eyes reflecting her thoughts, “I’ll always be looking for you, Nia.”
He held his palm out and she pressed hers to his. “I’ll miss you,” she whispered.
The Elder gave them a few more seconds of silent agony then roughly pushed Nia towards the tree. “Go!” she ordered urgently, “Be strong, Nia, be safe.”
Before Nia could process what was happening, she stumbled backwards through the door and was falling…falling from everything she knew…
The corn stalks behind her snapped in the cold morning breeze as dust settled on Ruby’s braided cornrows and her shivering, bare feet found every crackly leaf. She could hear Mama’s loud bell calling her home for breakfast. Looking up, Ruby realized she had lost her bearings once again after taking the cows to pasture though she wasn’t too worried. Humming softly, Ruby walked through the corn to edge of their field and saw the gray tree with its endless arms and fingers looming before her. She frowned at the new markings on the trunk, which appeared to outline a hand-cut door. As she stared, it opened…and an unconscious black girl with twists fell out, her skin glittering like moonlight.