My mother said everyone has two hearts. At one point in our lives we’ll wish one would stop beating so the other can live more peaceably. I didn’t understand what she meant then. Now it’s too late to ask her.
Everyone, except father and me, lost their sight in the Mists that descended on Asanis nine years ago. The Mists moved swiftly—like a heavy, wet fog—clinging to our skin and rendering all of Asanis blind within a day. Hardly anyone talks about it. I don’t know if it’s because of the new technologies my mother created before she died, or because pretending that our lives are better blind will make it so.
My life before the Mists was about snatching up the beauty all around our community of Asanis: the dark pines, the wildflowers in the meadow after spring’s rains, the paintings of the ocean my mom created from her memories of Lepidaia, my birthplace.
After the Mists, I was lost, struck blind with everyone else, not understanding how to retrieve the joy I had felt in watching the seasons change in the surrounding fields and forests. However, my parents and I began to regain partial sight after a time. For awhile I could only perceive shapes and shadows, sometimes glares of light. Then the slivers of time passing in the landscape became clear again and I was left with permanently poor peripheral vision and night blindness.
My father recovered the fastest, I think, with his strange silver eyes. It was almost a year after the Mists when my mother admitted that she, like me, had regained some sight. We both agreed with my father that we shouldn’t tell our neighbours about our partial recovery until they too showed signs of seeing again. They never did. Mom died with our secret when I was ten.
My father has been working for years to try and cure the community’s cattle and waterborne diseases that transmit to people. We suspect other communities that we used to trade with—like the desert people in Hagoth, the rainforest dwellers in Nedara, and the seaside city of Lepidaia— may have suffered like we did. But we are also afraid, because we have not heard from anyone on this side of the planet Eloia for six years. My father says that once everyone is cured, we will go to Lepidaia, because then his work here in Asanis will be finished.
I can’t believe my father, because when I look at him, sitting in his study taking notes, I feel him slipping away every day since she’s been gone. There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do to bring him back to a place of understanding me or my heart.
Bass drums pounded the air through the loudspeakers on the dirt path outside our house. Everyone milling about on the footpaths to and from the center fields of Asanis would be stopping and waiting for the horns, the signal to recite our final daily oath, “Our sight blinds us to the truth of men’s hearts.”
In the kitchen, Agda, short and pudgy, ignored the drums, continuing to sing an old song from Lepidaia instead. Almost all our songs come from the seaside city of my birth. She fried chicken and saffron in one pot and beans in another. I gladly joined her private rebellion, singing with her in hopes of killing my nerves about my final exams the next day.
Usually Dex was around when we cooked dinner, but for some reason he hadn’t arrived. Girls at school had been bragging about what they’d done with him during the spring festival a few weeks back. I figured that since Nati and Ayli were always lying about our classmates, including me, it would make sense that they embellished their adventures with Dex. I didn’t know how to bring it up with him and maybe that was what was making me nervous, not my exams. I was running out of time to improve my scores in eight out of ten of my competancy subjects. It was the final year and the only things I had to show for my studies were my perfect scores in vocal harmonies and music composition.
Agda stopped stirring. “You helping, Leanora, or just singing?”
“Just singing.” I laughed and took the chopped vegetables, dropping them carefully into another sauce pot she’d prepared. “There, I just put them in the pot.”
Agda put her hand on her hip. “How do you know it’s the right one?”
“It’s the only one that has the scent of your exquisite sauce.” I tapped her on the arm, so she knew I was playing with her. Agda was the one person whom I thought might suspect I could see. Still, I tried to make light of my accuracy in finding things. Father said that my limited eyesight shouldn’t be an impairment to my learning to touch-read. I often argued that Agda, who was fully blind, couldn’t touch-read to save her life and she did okay. My father was not happy with these kinds of justifications from me. He could see and touch-read perfectly.
“Where’s that Dex boy? He’s usually here by now.” She started humming again as the front door banged open and the second trumpets sounded for evening oath. I ran to the door, thinking it was Dex, but it was Father. He’d stopped for the daily oath, which wasn’t surprising since he wrote it as a way of uniting us after the tragedy of the Mists. As much as I disliked the robotic repetition of the oath, it had helped Asanis. There were no more suicides after we started the daily oath—even if it came too late to save Dex’s father.
Once the evening oath was over, father squeezed my arm and strolled past me, his tunic flapping behind him down the corridor that connected the infirmary’s complex behind the house.
“There he goes again. He don’t eat dinner. I’m bringing it to him, whether he likes it or not.” Agda grinned and I kissed her on the cheek.
“You sweetie. Make sure you pop those kids at school. Getting meaner everyday, from my hearing at the market.” Her smile was missing several teeth from a poor diet before she came to live with us. But, to me, she was the most beautiful person in the world.
“Every day, when you’re singing those little ditties, you remind me of your mom.” She wiped her brow. “I miss her.” She put her hand on my arm and sighed. “Even if he don’t want to talk about it.” She indicated the corridor behind us where my father had gone.
She was the only person in Asanis who would still talk about my mother fondly, as if she still lived and breathed. She sang and put her arm around me, swaying, like Mom and I used to do.
“Lua lu lai…” her singing voice was steady in a way her gravelly spoken voice never was. While she sang, she was transformed into a younger woman, her eyes radiant, even though they were misaligned and unfocused.
“Lua lu lai…” I joined in. “…I caught you with my eye, the other day when we were walkin’.”
“Talkin’, tryin’, t’be better’n we were…,” Agda continued.
Father came back from the infirmary and interrupted us. “Dinner ready?”
Agda released her hold on my waist, going back to the pots, carefully sniffing the contents and putting her navibelt earphones back in one ear.
“Almost,” I said, and my father flashed me a look. He moved too quickly for me to catch what the look meant. Because of my severe tunnel vision, if someone moved too fast I couldn’t catch everything. I needed objects to be within twenty feet of my eyes and time to track what I was seeing, especially if it was something unfamiliar.
“It sounds like it’s done with all that singing going on.” He sounded tired, and he slumped down at the living room table.
“Rest for a little bit and we’ll all eat together,” I said brightly, hoping that he could join us at least once this week. But he went into his study in the next room and started reading one of his thick books, pretending that he hadn’t heard me.
“Fath—errr.” I creeped up to him and nudged him on the side, trying to get a glance at what he was reading.
“Daught—errrr.” He tickled me and I rubbed my hand against his beard gristle. His brown hand against my tan one was so funny. His skin was almost shiny it was so dark. My mother had skin like clear glass when she was alive. Father would follow her with his eyes wherever she went. It was how I knew he loved her, that look in his silver eyes, his black brows furrowed.
Now his brows were gray and his hair cut so short that I wasn’t sure what color it was anymore. I leaned my face against his bald head and it was hot and dry. Then I kissed him, to let him know that he didn’t have to work so hard. He didn’t like when I said it, so I hoped my kiss would convey the message.
“You have exams tomorrow?” he asked, putting his arm around me.
“Unfortunately, yes. The kids… I…nevermind.” He didn’t like it when I brought up how the other kids treated me. He thought it was my fault because I listened to them; I didn’t guard my mind from their poisonous ways.
“Who are you?” he asked me, still looking at the book.
“A healer’s daughter,” I repeated, dully, hating his standard answer to my school troubles.
“And what should you be?”
I didn’t want to say “Proud of who I am,” for the billionth time, so I started to sing, hoping he’d join in. After a few refrains from “Lua Lu Lai,” I was still the only one singing.
“Father, come on! Sing with us.”
Father stopped reading and leveled his face with mine, where he knew I could see both his eyes. “Only if Dex isn’t coming over.” He’d started acting funny about Dex over the past eight months. Not outrightly rude, just different and very detached. It made me wonder, sometimes, if he’d changed how he felt about me too.
“He’s my only friend, you know.”
Father gently held my head so I couldn’t look away. His eyes were soft, all the flint of the day’s toil gone from them. “I know. I wish you and Theres—”
I pulled away from him. “She left me to my tormentors.”
“Tormentors? Leanora, stop being dramatic.” He started to hum the refrain from “Lua Lu Lai” again, then stopped. “Agda, can you tell me why you and Leanora insist on singing sad songs?”
Agda hummed along with him and didn’t answer. She never answered him when she thought he wouldn’t like her answer.
“It’s because we miss Mom. It’s our way of remembering her.”
Father took my hand and sang along with me,
“Lua lu lai,
Why do I try,
The journey below,
To your heart,
Is a lie.
The gracken caws,
The marlbird sings so sweet..”
We harmonized on the last line, “swimming in the skies…,” and our voices faded away. It was almost as good as the times when Mom sang with us. When I looked at Father, his eyes were moist and I hugged him tight.
Dex snuck in behind my father and started singing “Lua Lu Lai.” His voice was out of tune and Father stood stock still when he came around the other side of him, almost knocking him over.
“Did I hear a dog yowling instead of trying to sing properly?” Father joked with Dex before taking his hand and greeting him. “You’re late. We’ve eaten all the food and you’ll have to settle for some roasted nuts.”
“I’ll take what I can get, sir,” Dex answered, a slight wobble in his normally radiant smile.
I tried to change the subject. “Everyone’s gathering at the lake for a bonfire. Maybe you can both come with us.”
Agda poked me. “You have exams tomorrow and your father is busy saving us and the cattle from disease. Everybody, sit down so the food don’t get cold. Dex boy, you come here and help me.”
Dex followed her, touching my shoulder lightly on his way to the kitchen. As usual, he wouldn’t let me help them, but insisted I sing while they finished taking out the food.
Once we were settled, he sat next to me and squeezed my hand under the table. Agda kept trying to put more food on my plate. “I’m fat enough. Eat more, skinny girl.”
Father watched me while I ate, not saying anything, looking strained. It kept me from doing what I liked, which was watching Dex: his clothes dusty, his tunic showing a little too much skin, his muscles thicker with each passing day. I didn’t like that look in Father’s eyes and how they hardened at the edges when he caught me smiling at Dex. Recently, Father had taken to pointing out that Dex had food on his face when there was nothing there.
No one, except Father, knew that I could still see. Mom had taken this secret with her to her grave and now I was obliged to keep it.
As always, Agda finished eating first and had started to clear the leftovers. Dex got up to help, humming another song. Usually Father left to go back to the infirmary, but when he stood he put his hand on my shoulder, keeping me from getting up.
“Dex, Agda, you hear me?”
“Yes.” The water stopped.
Father moved to the kitchen’s opening. “Dex, make sure you pick up Leanora early for exams tomorrow. I’m tempted to match her if she doesn’t pass her touch-reading.”
Dex came out, drying his hands on a towel. “You aren’t serious, are you?”
Father had joked about such things in the past, but his silver eyes were hard and opaque. “She’s sixteen—that’s old enough—and what will another year of school do for her if she’s not doing well in the important subjects?”
“But she’s a healer’s daughter.”
“Even the healer’s daughter has to follow the rules.”
I stood up. There was no way I was going to be matched.
“Janzi’s father and I spoke today.”
“Janzi is a no-good, stupid—” Father stopped Agda.
“We’ll take it from here, Agda.”
Agda didn’t move for a while, turning between the two of us. She always stood up for me. When Father gave her the earphones to her navibelt and turned up the volume, she snatched it away from him, refusing to put in her earphones. She slowly shuffled away, humming on her way to her room. I wished she had stayed.
Father put his hand on my shoulder. “Leanora, you have to do your best on your last exams tomorrow.”
“I can’t be matched with Janzi. He’s….”
“A complete moron.” Dex finished for me. He came to stand next to me and put his arm around me, taking me out of Father’s reach. The tension in the room felt like it was going to drown out any other sound. A group of teenagers strolled by, playing drums and singing. The younger kids had already finished their exams, giving them an extra two days before the farmers and cattle drivers put us to work in the fields and forests to start the summer gathering, planting and tending. Everyone, even the older kids with exams due the next day, was headed to the lake to celebrate.
Everyone except me.
“Leanora needs to stay behind and rest. You go on with the others to the lake, Dex.” My father tried to make his voice light, but I knew it was a command, not a suggestion.
Dex lingered at my side. Took my hand and kissed it lightly. “Tomorrow morning, then.” He stood there, his light blue eyes unfocused, but his whole face turned toward me in expectation. I didn’t want him to go and didn’t know how to make him stay. I followed him to the door, afraid to touch him while my father was watching us. Once he finally closed the front door between us, I confronted my father.
“Why can’t I tell him that I can see? What’s wrong with telling the truth?”
My father exhaled. “Asanis changes slowly. Your mother and I saw that when we came from Lepidaia. But we knew we had a great work to do here. I still do.” He paused and cleared his throat. He hadn’t spoken about Mom in such a long time that I was afraid he might lose control.
“Someday all this restraint, all the changes I’ve worked so hard to make here in Asanis will make sense.” He looked away from me and turned toward the kitchen. He started washing the dishes. It had been years since I’d seen him do any sort of kitchen work. I picked up a towel and I dried. He was so thorough he didn’t miss a single bit of food sticking to the pans or plates. When he was finished he stood and looked at me. All the warmth was gone from his face, every muscle tight with strain.
“Your mother was too indulgent with you about your music. I am serious about Janzi. If you fail your exams you will be matched.” His silver eyes flashed at me and it was hard to hold his gaze. “There are no apprenticeships for female musicians and you and I both know you can’t work the fields the rest of your life.”
When I started to speak he turned and walked out of the kitchen without saying another word. It wasn’t like him not to hear my side of things. I didn’t know how I’d made him feel so differently about me in such a short period of time. I stood there for a long time, waiting for him to come back, hoping there was some way for us to change the rift that had started between us.