Otwan takes in every detail of this Ewulin. Despite her clear voice, a wrinkled brow and one hand held behind her back as she rubbed her thumb. Replaying the young woman’s entrance in her mind, she detects an unusual gait.
It’s as though she’s still learning to walk, she tells her sister. And expects the ground to be liquid. I believe her that she’s qesutlhowoy.
She speaks as though she’s a human learning speech, Weyai replies. And with a name like that… I haven’t heard any like it.
“Daughters!” Their mother laughs. Beside her, Ewulin shifts, bites her lip. Hiqwayaq pats her hand and addresses her. “I take it you haven’t met any tree woy?”
Hiqwayaq gives Otwan and Weyai a smile. “Keep your comments aloud, daughters. Or perhaps listen to what I’ve called you to hear.”
Some days ago, a crow came to Otwan and bowed its head before croaking a message from her mother: “Bring Weyai and join the lhai and lhaiqi as we meet to discuss what to do about the owake.” As woy, neither gods or spirits, as humans would term it, Otwan and her sister weren’t to be in such a meeting, but when the highest lhai and your mother tells you to come, you come. And all the rest obey.
Hearing the invitation, Otwan had thought her mother needed Weyai to provide account of the voice she’d been hearing, spoken as a tree woy would, but with human words. To what end, Otwan didn’t ask. The owake were lost; lost were the owake. Live too near the places where this world and the human world touched, and crossover happened. But once someone from this world forgot they weren’t human, well. How do you find them?
Hiqwayaq brought up the topic from time to time, as far as Otwan heard from Yehan and other local lhaiqi, but nothing changed. Not that talking appeared to have made this change possible.
“What I remember first,” Ewulin says, “is being alone in a deep pool in a forest a little like this one.”
Weyai takes Otwan’s hand, echoing Otwan’s horror at the thought.
“I lived there for—I’m not sure how long. My earliest memories are few and far between. I lost our speech. I learned human speech from the ones who would visit the pool, and I thought I was the only one of me there was.
“One day, a human fell into the pool and drowned. She looked like me. I swam out of the water and had legs; I don’t know how. And pretended to be her for a time, until I learned about the ocean again. Until I came home.”
A qesutlhowoy without the ocean… Otwan didn’t know what she would do without the trees. And a being of their world without any of their kind, with only humans, knowing they weren’t one of them? She squeezed her sister’s hand.
But this Ewulin, this supposed owake-who-was, couldn’t have endured that kind of pain.
“I don’t believe you,” Otwan says.
Hiqwayaq, calming the angry eruption that burst from the rest of the listeners following Otwan’s comment, says to her daughter: “Why not?”
“How could anyone survive being away like that, knowing they weren’t human? Knowing…” she trembles, glad for her sister’s touch. “Why not try to return sooner?”
Quietly, Ewulin only said, “I didn’t know there was anything to return to.”
I believe her, I say to my mother, but Hiqwayaq doesn’t respond. Not being a tree being, my mother didn’t communicate often like that, and usually didn’t say anything back. But I think she always hears. I’ve never fully understood how, if she’s not like Otwan or me, but she can.
Still, bolstered by knowing what I’ll say, I speak aloud.
“I believe her.”
“What?” Otwan nearly pulls away from me.
My mother nods and addresses everyone. “The qesutlhowoy that Ewulin returned to have checked everything thoroughly and I am convinced. An owake has returned. And it could be that there are still owake who think they are human but, for the sake of those who are alone—” I feel Otwan’s shiver at the word through my hand— “and who know they are such, we cannot leave them there without some effort to bring them home.”
“Oh, like we’ve always done?” says Iyhan, lhaiqi of a small pool-glade some way from here, near a thin place between ours and the human world. “We’re so good at leaving the human world alone.” She was still just young enough that disgruntled worked for her.
“You might have been owake yourself,” Hiqwayaq reminded her gently. “If things had occurred differently.”
Iyhan closes her mouth, her expression softening. “How do we find them if we don’t know how to identify them?”
Who are you?
I should tell Mother about the voice. And, as I look to her, I find her eyes meeting mine.
I hear it, too.
(Read the conclusion here.)