The small band of brown ones, led by the tall young man and woman, huddle close together for comfort. They have allowed the adopted strangers to lead them to this strange place, with its wall too high and its gate too narrow. They have allowed the adopted strangers to persuade them that life would be better here. All they sense now is hostility, barely disguised beneath the curiosity the strangers have for their adopted ones.
The adopted sister speaks next. She speaks in the strangers’ odd sibilant tongue. She directs her words to the older female stranger, the one in red. The woman in red takes a hesitant step toward the sister, then two. Then the sister steps forward, but not before taking a child from the arms of its brown mother. She meets the woman with the child in her arms.
“They are not so different,” the sister says to her old mother. “This child sucks its thumb, dreams of growing up, and plays just as I did.”
Before the mother has a chance to answer, the stranger man speaks again. “Where are the adults? Have you stolen their children to bring the wrath of the elders down on us and our city?”
The sister laughs. “The others are small people. The adults are here. When they captured us, we did not know that they meant us no harm. In fact, they did not intend to capture us at all.”
“Then why did you not return home?” blurts her mother.
“That is a story best told over a meal,” the brother chides gently. He directs his remark to his mother, not to the man whose out-thrust chin demands answers. He knows that his reminder that he and his sister have been denied their mother’s table for three years should prompt the woman in red to act. He is right.
“Yes, come. Have them all come.” His mother speaks quickly, as though she is afraid she may change her mind if she is given time to think about her decision.
Curious strangers wander hesitantly toward the small band of brown ones. They stare, but keep a wary distance even as they pace the mother, brother and sister. The hostile man, muttering to himself, keeps up a few paces to the right of the troupe. Apparently he has invited himself to share the bread and stew at the mother’s table, too. Clearly he wants to know the story the brother and sister have to tell.
* * *
The mother’s home has a large gathering room, which is fortunate. The brother and sister have directed the odd little brown creatures to sit in a semi-circle on the thickrug covering the floor. The mother calls to her neighbor to please bring more bowls. The neighbor, who has come to see if she can help, ducks out quickly to comply.
It is the first day of the week, the day the mother traditionally makes her hearty stew and bakes her bread. It will take a week’s worth of bread to feed all these creatures, but the mother does not think of that. She only hopes she has enough. If she does not she will call upon her neighbor again.
The silence that descends is awkward. This mother has imagined her children’s homecoming so many times, but never has she imagined that it would take place in an uncomfortable quiet, broken only by the shuffling of brown feet and the shifting of ragged garments.
The mother ladles the stew and her neighbor, who has returned with a stack of bowls, breaks off pieces of the dense bread. The sister delivers each bowl to one of the brown creatures, murmuring something to them as she hands them the stew and bread. Taking her own bowl, she drops to the floor, cross-legged, next to her brother. The neighbor gives the mother the last bowl and steps back. The mother sits on the cushion facing her lost children.
She soaks the bread in the stew, but does not take a bite. The brown creatures and her children all look at her, expectantly. She notices that none of them have begun eating. Hastily, she brings the wet bread to her lips. Her children mimic her, then the creatures begin eating. The mother is amazed. The creatures seem to have understood that it was polite to wait until the hostess took the first bite before eating. She glances back at her children. Her son is smiling as he chews a bit of stew-soaked bread. Her daughter daintily sips the warm broth and meets her mothers eyes over the rim of her bowl. Silent amusement sparkles in her expression, and the mother looks away, startled. She has no appetite. She has too many questions.
Adjusting the red fabric of her garment, the mother sets her bowl on the floor in front of her cushion. “Will you tell me….?” she begins to ask, hesitant, not sure what, exactly, she wants to know first.
The boy, the younger of her children, speaks first. “There was a misunderstanding,” he begins, but is cut off by his sister.
“We lost ourselves,” she says quickly. “And while we were lost, these friends,” she gestures toward the brown creatures, “took us in. They did not want to, but we really gave them no choice. We were afraid.”
Her brother starts to speak, then thinks the better of it. He takes another bite of stew-soaked bread and chews, looking at his sister thoughtfully.
The outspoken man from the gate speaks up. He is just inside the door, as if he believes the brown creatures and these wild children carry a foul odor with them. His sneer is evident in his tone. “Why did you bring our enemies here?” he demands. “Have you joined them? Need we destroy you with them?”
“Keiji!” a voice from deeper within the house is sharp with admonition.
The angry man’s head jerks toward the voice from within, and his arms cross one another over his chest. He sticks his jaw out defiantly as an ancient woman appears in the doorway to the common room. Her arms are crossed in an echo of his.
“My daughter offers peace and food to these people, yet you come into her home to threaten them?”
“They are enemies!”
“It does not matter if they are from the stars or from under a rotting log. Minna has opened her home to them.”
“These creatures are evil, Ciannait, and you know it! You, of all people, know it!”
“I know nothing of the sort,” the old woman snorts. As she walks further into the gathering room, her spine is straight and she holds herself tall. “I know that Minna has guests, and I know you are being extremely unpleasant.”
The man glares at the old woman. “A band of enemies has invaded our town and as headman here I am demanding answers!”
The brown creatures are wide-eyed at the heated exchange between the angry man and the old woman. Understanding none of it they are not alarmed, merely curious. They look to the brother and sister, who have stopped eating and have leaned their heads together to whisper.
The sister rises gracefully from her floor cushion. “We will give you answers, Keiji. But first, our friends are hungry. We have traveled a long way and we are tired. And Foy and I owe the first answers to our mother.” She speaks gently, respectfully, but her words fall like heavy weights in the room.
Her brother, acting unaffected by the strong words of the elders, takes another mouthful of stew-soaked bread and chews it slowly. He turns and smiles encouragingly at the brown creatures, who also resume eating.
Clearly Keiji is at a loss for words for a moment. Then he attacks the sister with his hard words. “You owe this entire city an explanation. You disappear for three years only to return in the company of those who have been our enemies for generations! As headman I believe those answers should come now!” His left hand is on his hip and he shakes an enraged finger at the sister, who smiles sweetly at him, then turns to the ancient woman.
“Grandmama, are there two more bowls? Perhaps you and the headman should join us.”
The old lady winks at the sister in approval. Yes, child, I believe there are two more bowls. Thank you, dear,” she nods to the neighbor, who has handed her a bowl and a hunk of the dense brown bread.
“I don’t need food,” growls the headman. “I need to know what is going on.”
“You will, Keiji. Did you not hear the child invite you to stay?” The old woman’s tone is sharp, exasperated. “Now, please, sit.”
Minna brings another cushion and places it near the brother and sister. Kieji takes his seat, but waves away the bowl he is offered. He scowls at the sister, waiting for her to begin.
The sister takes her time, soaking the bread, sipping from the rim of the bowl, and saying nothing. “Your stew is even better than I remembered, Mam,” she smiles sat her mother.
“Yes!” agrees her brother enthusiastically. “We have missed it! And we have missed you and Grandmamma, too.” His nod and smile is directed at both women.
“We want to hear about you,” says the grandmother. “We believe it is a miracle that you are home with us again.”
“No miracle,” says the brother, his mouth full. “A mistake, but no miracle.”
“You said that at the gate,” Minna says to her son. “How could it be a mistake? Why have you been gone so long, and why, now do you return with your … companions?”
The brother begins to answer, but the sister clears her throat. The sound hushes him, and he settles back, waiting for her.
“The mistake is that we thought we had been captured. In reality, we had startled them as much as they had startled us.”
“Captured!” exclaims the headman. “So you were kidnapped by these vile creatures?”
“She said nothing of the sort, Keiji, if you will clean out your ears and listen!” snapped the Grandmother.
“I heard what she said. She said they captured them.”
“No, Keiji. We were not captured. In truth, they had no idea why we followed them back to their camp. But we did not understand that at the time.” The sister speaks slowly, as if to a young child.
“Then what did happen?” the head man is impatient.
“Foy and I were playing just outside the gate that day, and we wandered farther into the valley than we should have. What we learned later was that the group of Tynan who found us were scouting for food and for caves for shelter. They were planning to move their camp and were looking for a likely place. They had wandered farther into the valley than they should have, too.”
“Scouting for ways to attack the city, most likely,” snorts the head man.
“Not true,” the brother speaks up again, sounding rather cheerful, even amused.
“They could not understand why we followed them,” agreed the sister.
“You weren’t forced to go with them?” Minna is not eating, but listening intently.
“Then why did you go?” This is the neighbor speaking. She covers her mouth quickly, embarrassed that she has spoken out when this is clearly a family and political matter.
The brother turns to his mother’s neighbor and smiles. “We went because we thought we had been captured.”
“Bah! This makes no sense!” declared the headman. “Either you were captured or you weren’t. Which was it?” He has jumped to his feet again in frustration.
“It makes perfect sense,” retorted the grandmother. “The children thought they had been captured, so they went along with these others. They were mistaken. Is that right?” she nods toward her grandchildren, who nod back in return.
“Yes,” says the brother. “They did not mean for us to follow them, and they led us on a very long, roundabout trip back to their camp because they kept hoping we would get tired of following them and go back where we came from.”
“What makes you think that?” the headman growls.
“They told us so,” shrugs the boy. His sister nods.
“Told you so! That’s ridiculous!” the head man stomps to and from in frustration.
“No,” offers the sister with a wry smile. “Once we learned their language they did not mind telling us how silly they thought we were.”
“Language!” scoffs Keiji.
“That’s true,” laughs the brother, ignoring the headman’s outburst. “We have been teased about it ever since.”
“You mean to say that you learned how to communicate with these beasts?” Keiji is incredulous.
The brother and sister exchange a look. The brother rolls his eyes.
“Yes, Keiji. We learned their language.” The sister again speaks slowly and gently, as if to a child.
“Once you learned of the mistake, why did you not come home?” asks Minna.
“It took us a long time to understand how they communicate, and then to learn how ourselves. By the time we had the communication skills to understand and ask about going home, the camp had moved too far away. A large enough group could not be spared to escort us back. There was too much work to be done,” explained the sister.
“And the camps moved with the seasons, farther and farther away, and it was not until this cycle of seasons that we began moving closer again.” adds her brother. “But we knew we were close enough to travel back when we found a doll with a dress made of Fia’s weaving. “ He nods to his mother’s neighbor and beckons her to him. From under his tunic he brings out a small figurine wrapped in a soft, woven blanket. The neighbor gasps.
“It is yours, isn’t it, Fia?” the sister asks, and wordlessly the neighbor nods.
“Do you recognize the doll?” asks the grandmother.
Fia nods again. She has an indescribable look on her face, part awe, part fear. “It belongs to Bian, the daughter of Jarrah and Irem.” The mother and grandmother sigh, almost as one.
The brother nods. “I remember little Bian. One of the dogs must have stolen the doll and dropped it. But it was found two days’ walk from here.”
“Two days!”Fia exclaims.
“When was it found?” Keiji demands.
“Four days ago,” answers the brother. I spotted it when I was out with a group…” he trails off after a warning look from his sister.
Minna catches her breath and doesn’t notice the signal between her children. “Bian disappeared six days ago!”
Keiji is agitated, but not hostile like before. “Can you find the place again where you found this doll?” he demands. “And is it possible these creatures have her?”
“Have Bian?” the sister shakes her head. “We would know if Bian or any other child were found by the Tynan.” She turns to face the brown creatures, makes gestures and odd noises which are answered by the strange little creatures, then turns back to Keiji. “No child has been found. But they will look. The camp is only a half day’s walk from that spot, and if she is there the Tynan will do their best to locate her.”
Fia speaks, now, “I will run to get Irem!” and she is gone.
The sister again turns to the brown creatures. Again she makes the gestures, the odd sounds. After a brief exchange with three of them, she turns back to Keiji. “They have sent their scouts to look for signs of Bian. They will let us know.”
“They have sent their scouts already?” asks the grandmother. “How?”
“Ah,” smiles the sister. That, too, is part of the story we have to tell.”