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The Singer of Seeds

by Leda Baöl. Torino, Italy / Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Illustration by Mori

Maïa climbs up the ladder and tries to sit next to me with as little noise as possible.

“You’re late,” I mutter, and it comes out more annoyed than I am.

“I know,” she whispers, crossing her legs on the sandwood boards to my mat, as she has forgotten hers again.

We stare at the landscape before us, a hand risen up to our faces, covering the left eye. Our right eye is fixed on that jagged line of mountain crests on the horizon, where the purple haze is shifting into a warm peach light.

And the sun rises.

We sit in perfect silence while the forest stretches and welcomes daylight in a concert of sounds and songs. Little steps of solitary walks populate the ground below us, chirping and tweeting messengers perform test flights in the new light of the day all around. We don’t glance nor move. Although we can’t see it, we feel the leaves rising all around the treehouse, the long breath of their night starting its slow release. Liquid warmth embraces our bodies when the light reaches us, entering undisturbed through the wall-high open window, reaching all angles of our one-room refuge.

It lasts no more than a couple of minutes. Then just as the new bird gathers courage and sets off the nest, the burning golden disc detaches itself from the horizon, and having assured this, we’re free to go. We lower our hands.

Maïa yawns loudly over her own words. “Are you ready? D-did you sleep at all? I didn’t,” she stutters excitedly, “Moms say it’s normal but I thought what if I don’t have the energy to walk all the way to the hermitage? Do you know how far it is? It can’t be that far, no?”

“Give me a break. You’re ten, not eighty, Maïa.” I exhale, stretch my neck, turn my eyes to her. The black round spot the sun has left on my eye casts its holy shadow wherever I look. I get up, grab my bag, and begin the descent. Maïa follows, chatting happily in whispers. We get back to the Nook from behind the market, and get in line with the others who are also coming back for breakfast from the salute. Maïa runs to Mel, Deirdre and Cleo for a hug.

“One day I’ll figure out where you do the Hatching every day, little ones!” threatens Mel pointing at us with a smile. “Are you coming for breakfast, Elion?”

“We’re going to their place,” replies Maïa, grabbing my arm. “See you later!”

“We’ll see you at the hermitage, little ones.”

Maïa gasps. “You don’t come with us?”

“You’re too many this year, you’re going on your own,” explains Deirdre. “Come on, give a kiss to mums and go.” They wave goodbye to us as we leave.

“Why do you keep inviting yourself?” I complain to Maïa on the way to the cottage.

“Today there’s a pretty good reason, you monkey” she protests. “I want to talk with your mum again before leaving. She was a Singer too, no? Maybe she’s finally going to tell us more.”

“She didn’t for the past two weeks you’ve been asking her…”

“Maybe she was waiting for today.”

Dad is arranging strawberries and honey on the table outside, next to our vegetable garden.

Mum is there too, picking up the rhubarb for tonight. The extra plate for Maïa is already there. Dad hugs me, scratches the short hair on my nape. “Feeling ready?”

I shrug, while Maïa is already answering on behalf of both of us. “I am for sure,” she lies, “I don’t know about Elion, they’ve been suspiciously silent all morning, so I think they’re trying to play cool, and they’re actually terrified.”

I throw a strawberry at her face. She catches it with her mouth and winks at me, undefeated.

The bags we bring to the hermitage are empty but for the water from our homes. The group walks on steadily, with nervous but happy chatting all along the queue. We’re all about the same age, two years more or two years less. The Pham twins are the youngest, seven years old. We went to school together. Their family is the only other family beside mine and Maïa’s that practices the Hatching. When their little brother was born, we prayed together. I reach them. Niwa is dreamy as always, Koi is staring at the back of our guide. The old lady walks first, following the path. Her blouse leaves her shoulders and part of her back bare. And there, her wrinkly black skin is covered in the pale pink tattoo of a blossoming peach tree.

“I want a peach tree too,” murmurs Koi. “Did your mum say anything about how to get the one we want?”

“We can’t.”

“Of course we can’t, you silly!” giggles Niwa. “There are millions of trees, plants, vegetables… What are the odds of you getting the one you feel for?”

“Well, I want something with fruit,” states Koi stubbornly.

“And I’d like something that grows under the ground, in the warmth of the soil. You?”

I bite my lips. I don’t want to say it. “I don’t know.”

I don’t want to say I want to go away.

The twins stop paying attention to me quite quickly. The forest is dark and deep and there’s plenty to get distracted with. Our little eyes examine one by one the pulsating green life that surrounds us, wondering secretly if any of the shapes we are looking at now will one day grow on the blank of our skin.

At the edge of the flat where we come from, a big crack in the forest opens on a canyon.

Down below, Beam city extends from the very narrow start of the crack up until where the canyon ends at the edge of the flat, and the desert begins. Most of us have come here already, although never by crossing the woods - it’s about ten minutes with the Shinkansen, not the two hour walk we just had. We descend using wooden cabins, in groups of five. The city is beautiful from up here. And there, right in the middle of the canyon, just like a tower, the massive rock of the hermitage rises above everything else. The city woods around it gets denser, and the shining rooftops of the city become more and more rare as you get closer.

Maïa shakes me by the arm. “Can you see it?”

“Of course I can,” I grumble. The hermitage is up there. Built in the lone rock. The caves were covered in wood and glass, with the trees that grow hanging on the sides of the rock, defying gravity with meters of void under their roots, mixing seamlessly with the construction.

While we walk in the city, people stare and smile at us. Some of them wish us good luck. A lady in dungarees points to the large green leaves covering her shoulder blades like wings and tells us she hopes to find new water lilies among us. Maïa is all proud and says hi to everyone. As we proceed towards the hermitage rock, houses are smaller and smaller, until we reach a short cobble path. “Here we go again,” comments Koi next to me. He powers up the titanium implant of his right leg. We start climbing up. A sound of water comes from somewhere close. Beam city is full of streams and creeks. They come from the caves at the beginning of the valley: from there, the water runs down towards the desert and then, right before the end of the valley, it dives underground. The Waterway, they call it - mum came from there. The underground river goes on for miles and miles, feeding the towns of the people of the desert. Beam city makes sure that water is safe. And the desert towns, in partnership, sun-power the entire Beam city with their desert energy. The bamboo steps we’re climbing now run all around the rock, and as we turn towards the south, there it is: the shining red dunes of my mum’s homeland.

Maïa is tormenting the tip of her braid. “Will it hurt?”

Her voice is so low. She doesn’t want anyone to hear.

“It doesn’t. Mum said it’s like a mosquito bite,” I lie. “The first tattoo is so small. The ones you do after, as you grow up, take more time, but then you’re already older and stronger, right?”

In truth, I didn’t ask mum if it hurts. I didn’t want her to know I’m scared too. Maïa sighs in relief. And in that moment, the Singer of Seeds steps in. We gather in silence around her. She’s small, and way, way younger than we all expected.

She’s smiling, allowing us to contemplate her tattoo. Sturdy and thick, the branches of the willow extend to her shoulders, around her neck, down to her arms until the fingertips, bright green, while her legs are covered in wrinkly roots.

“Six hundred years ago,” begins the story we all know.

Six hundred years ago, after the second great collapse, the people of the flat secured all the seeds they could find in a bunker underground. While war ravaged the land, six families held onto the secret of the hermitage’s location, surviving everything, sacrificing everything, for it to be found again when time was due. And only when time was due, only then, they gathered their people and shared the sacred treasure of the seeds.

And that’s how humanity survived.

“You shall receive one seed,” she recites. “The living being that will come from it shall be your companion for life. Wherever you’ll see one, you shall be protected; whenever you’ll see one, you shall protect it.” Her words have begun to have music in them without us noticing exactly when. The massive gear behind her has started rotating, and the movement ignited by the sound of her voice seems to dictate the rhythm and direction of all the glass wheels within it. Thousands and thousands of tiny boxes flash indistinguishably before our eyes. “You shall return the seed you have been given before the end of your cycle under this sun, together with another one of that same species. You shall carry the seed with you, marked in your skin, growing strong just as you grow.”

The players sitting at the edge of the chamber have started playing. Flutes and drums echo vigorously through the arches on top of us, all the way to the top of the opening of the cave above our heads, stronger than any sound I’ve heard before in my life.

“Let the song begin.”

All in one, we sing. There are no words in what we’re singing; or some do say something, it’s not easy to understand. One by one, we step towards the Singer of Seeds, and one by one her voice tunes into ours, and just for an instant, right then, the wheel stops spinning, and quick as thunder the Singer picks the box it’s stopped on, and gives it to us. There’s hope in our voices; there’s the vision of a planet that is ours as much as we are its own. The box in my hands has something that looks like cotton inside, and a tiny, diamond-shaped dark drop at the center of it, barely visible. Later, very soon, the Inkmaster will turn that shape into the founding point of a tattoo that one day will cover my body. And while my voice keeps singing, I daydream of islands far in the ocean, and a path that unfolds in front of me, away from everything I already know, away to places where people are not marked by seeds, where they don’t welcome the Hatching of a phoenix every morning, where perhaps there’s sand and underground life just like where my mother is from, or where there’s ice, ice I’ve never seen. I daydream of the people of the mountains in the north and their trains that run on water, I see their glider highways and the ice storages on the peaks. The diggers of the steppe we receive calls from every winter, unearthing the history of our culture and rebuilding what’s worth rebuilding in there before sending it out for testing all round the world, moving fast from camp to camp on the rides they choose as lifetime companions, fierce animals they have many different names for. And I see the engineers, flying from continent to continent on the helium pulsars, wiring up the technology that allows us to see all of these, and stay connected to all our loved ones everywhere, in a second.

I’ll be there.

All of that, I’ll see. Running after a seed that will take me to impossible places to find another alike. Exploring and mapping until my mission is complete, while my tattoo unfolds on my back as I learn, and grow, and become someone of my own.

Our song ends in a single heartbeat. We sit in perfect silence and place the box in front of us.

I open mine. A little tag reads the name of my ticket to the outside world. It’s a rhubarb.