The Nichan Smile, Chapter Four

After the newcomers were allocated a small hut, they were offered a place in the large dining room of the sanctuary. They settled there the following day, as quiet as rocks, sitting at one end of an empty table. After a moment, Mora motioned to stand up. All around them, other nichans brought food from what must have been the kitchen. 

Before Mora was up, the young man called Javik approached them. He carried a steaming dish of vegetables. Behind him, a little girl followed, dressed in the same plain, blue tunic that all the kids wore in the village. Her arms were charged with plates and dishes. She must have been a little younger than Beïka, wore her long hair parted in two braids, and had mismatched eyes—one black, the other water green. 

They lay their burdens down in front of the boys.

“This is Memek, my sister,” Javik said.

Nodding in their direction, the little girl greeted them, then, with a movement so simultaneous that it seemed rehearsed, she and her brother focused their gaze on the human. 

No clothing was adapted to the child’s unnatural morphology. So they’d found clothes too big for him whose seams and aging weave threatened to tear with every move. On the back, two slits had been roughly cut to accommodate his wings. 

Next to him, Domino bent forward to set up the flatware, hoping to divert the attention of their visitors with a little hustle and bustle.

Mora got up. “So we’re cousins,” he said, helping his little brother arrange the pewter and clay plates.

Javik and Memek didn’t seem to be leaving, but they’d only brought four plates. They didn’t intend to share the meal with them and had come only to offer their own to Mora and his brothers. 

Unlike his little sister, Javik looked away from the Vestige and forced a smile. “You don’t remember me either, do you?” he said to Mora. 

“Actually, I do. I remember a little boy running naked through the village on rainy days.”

Javik laughed more sincerely than he smiled. “All the kids do that.”

“They don’t all do it carrying a hen over their heads and hoping to fly away.”

Domino had no idea what the two boys were talking about. He would have gladly asked, but he kept his eyes on Memek. She stared at the little human, head tilted to the side, an enigmatic smile on her lips. 

She noticed Domino’s worried look and immediately turned her attention to Beïka. Children always did that. Their eyes never stayed on Domino for too long.

“Can your Vestige speak?” Memek asked.

A plate in his hands, Domino opened his mouth to answer. Beïka went ahead of him, generously helping himself to the sweet reed shoots and turnips. “We found it in the woods. It was screaming like a pig being butchered.”

Domino shuddered. On the bench, knees bent over his frail chest, the human peeped at the vegetables.

“But it talks, yes or no?” insisted their cousin, and her brother and Mora turned to her. “Just make it talk.”

“I can’t. He’s half wild,” said Beïka. His plate was filled at a glance. 

Mora took the spoon out of his hands. “Who told you to eat everything before anyone else?”

“I’m hungry.” 

“Does he have the gift?” Memek continued.

Next to her, Javik pursed his lips, studying the child with unblinking eyes. Where Memek seemed fascinated about a rare specimen, her brother showed more circumspection.

“Of course it doesn’t. It’s dumb,” Beïka said.

“He’s scared. Leave him alone,” Domino cried, seeing the center of attention hiding his face between his knees. Wrapped in his right wing, the little boy breathed hard but slowly. His shoulders shuddered with each passage of air through his lungs. Surrounded by all those nichans, he was tiny and yet unmistakable due to his light skin and hair. Domino’s chest tightened. “And he’s not dumb. He’s nice.”

No one paid any attention to him. Memek asked again if the child could speak, and Beïka received a slap to the back of the head when his words became too coarse for a twelve-year-old.

After that, their cousins took their leave. Unlike them, they said, they ate either in their hut or at the big table near the brazier, with the clan chief and his partner, their parents. 

But before leaving, Javik dipped his hand into his trouser pocket and placed a handful of sparkling silver coins on the table. The young man smiled at Mora, responding to his surprised look. “The booty of a hunter. Twenty heads. I’m sorry not to bring you the rest of it. My father is a hard man to bargain with.”

Most nichans followed this same ritual, sharing the fruits of hunting and crops in their own hut, or in the sanctuary. Since meal times depended on each individual—and their habits and chores—the main sanctuary room was always half empty when the boys came to eat. 

However, on the third day after their arrival, the hall filled up entirely in minutes. The wooden benches scraped the floor in a continuous cacophony (the human sitting between Domino and Beïka cowered, pressing his hands over his ears), and nichans sat right next to them, some waving at them, sharing names, others smiling in a friendly manner, staring out of the corners of their eyes at the winged intruder, who followed the three brothers everywhere. Everyone feasted in a din of conversation, laughter, metal banging metal, liquor constantly filling empty cups.

Uncle Ero ate with his partner and children at the other end of the room. He gave his nephews but a brief glance that day.

Something was missing. 

First of all, their mother. Days went by, and no one showed up at the gates of Surhok. Mora asked his brothers to be patient, which was neither of their fortes. Domino often woke up at night and wondered where he was. When he remembered that their mother wasn’t around, his heart became overwhelmed, and new tears stung his eyes.

Just like him, his mother hadn’t been sleeping very well. When he struggled to find rest, Domino would turn to the lamp burning on the other side of the bed, huddle up against Ako, and follow the movements of her nimble fingers as they patched his worn-out tunics—until he was old enough to do it himself, like his brothers—sometimes until dawn returned. Then they would get up together and go out to fetch water from the well, listening to the waves rolling and crashing on the shore. Domino insisted on carrying the bucket no matter its weight. Then he would help his mother prepare breakfast, recognizing the signs of her good mood in her offering to cover his cassava with a drizzle of honey. 

Besides her alarming delay, there was an almost total absence of activity. Everyone in the clan lived at a steady pace. Chores were everyone’s lot, and days were short. When they still lived with their mother, the three boys took care of their responsibilities throughout the day. Cleaning, cooking, clearing traps outside the village or the nets in the sea, picking up fruits from the trees in the area, clearing the vegetable garden. Things were no different here, yet no one asked for their help. Every day, their meals were brought to them without anyone expecting them to reciprocate, despite Mora’s repeated offers to do so. Someone would always come to collect their laundry and bring it back the next day. 

There was a simple reason for this: they hadn’t yet sworn an oath to Ero, the chief of the Ueto Clan, and without this oath, Domino and his brothers were there as guests. Guests who were taken care of, but with limited liberties. They were no Uetos, and since their mother was supposed to join them here, they didn’t have to be.

“We shouldn’t take the oath,” Beïka mumbled during lunch on the seventh day.

Mora looked up from his plate and peered around the room. Even though nichans’ senses were highly developed, the words remained between them.

“What are you talking about?” Mora asked, relaxing.

“I don’t want to take the oath.”

“Why not?”

“Mama will be here soon, and we’ll leave. Right? If we take the oath, it means she won’t come back. He’ll force us to stay.”

This distracted Domino from his food. Next to him, the human had turned away from them to munch on a piece of meat, the juice of which ran down his wrists. Mora had stopped complaining about the boy’s manners within a short time. As long as the little one ate without making any noise, it suited him, he’d said.

“Are you talking about Ero?” Mora asked.

Beïka raised his eyebrows as if the answer was obvious. “Who else?”

“Do you think he’s forcing us to stay?”

“Maybe.”

“And what’s in it for him? Can you tell me? No, don’t answer now. Think before you speak.”

Beïka darkened and hit the bottom of his plate with his spoon again and again. Unlike his brothers, he’d already finished his lunch. 

Mora finally answered. “Tell me, Beïka. The food you’re eating right now—do you think it falls from the sky, sent by the Gods? We are mouths to feed. It’s Uncle Ero who feeds us. These vegetables come from his gardens. It’s he and his hunters who go out to brave the world so we don’t starve.” 

Beïka turned pale, and Domino looked up, his lips forming an O. Ero approached them, close enough to have heard Mora’s words. Their uncle smiled. 

A woman was at his side. Domino knew at once that she was human. Much smaller than Ero, her skin was black and her frizzy hair as dark as Domino’s. She was dressed in the Torbatt fashion like all adults there, wearing a dark blue tunic cinched at the waist with a shawl partly thrown over her shoulder. But what caught Domino’s attention was the woman’s left eye. It was entirely blue—a pale, pearly blue—with no pupils or irises. Like a small blackbird egg, or a round, polished crystal. The other eye wasn’t as disarming, of a deep brown color. 

Strangely, it was difficult to determine this woman’s age. 

Ero and she stopped at their table.

“What kind of a person lets his nichan brothers and sisters starve to death?” their uncle said.

Mora stood up. “Good morning, Uncle Ero.” 

The man turned his attention to Beïka, then Domino, who nodded to him. When the man lowered his eyes to the human, every trace of his smile vanished. The child returned the look, a wing spread around his shoulder, chewing his piece of meat ever so slowly. 

Domino had noticed that the human had been chewing carefully since the first meal he’d agreed to share with them. That day he’d left a tooth behind. A baby tooth, fortunately, but the blood covering it proved that it hadn’t been meant to fall out yet. Domino had retrieved the tooth that lay on the corner of the table, thinking that the child didn’t possess anything, and here he was, falling into pieces before his eyes. 

Beïka had taken the tooth from Domino’s hands and thrown it into the village woods once out of the sanctuary. “It’s fucking gross! Why are you doing that?” the boy had scolded, and Domino had frowned. 

“Why not?” 

“Because it’s gross. I just told you.” 

Ero motioned to the woman to his left. Her detailing of the human child lasted longer than the Unaan’s.

“Matta will take care of the Vestige,” Ero said. “She speaks Sirlhain and Tuleear. The rest of you, come with me. You will finish your meal later.”

Domino froze for a moment as Beïka stood up and followed Mora and Ero. Leaving the human alone with this stranger? The woman probably didn’t know that getting close to the child came at a risk. She wouldn’t get anything but screams from him. If he didn’t warn her, she’d lose her fingers. As Domino was about to open his mouth, the one called Matta grabbed the human’s arm above the elbow and pulled him off the bench. He shouted, mouth still full, and clung to the table, trying to flee in the opposite direction. But nothing seemed to mar the calm and solemn expression of the woman, who carried the child out of the room without the slightest effort. 

“Domino, hurry up!”

The young nichan had watched the scene in horror, not knowing whether to react or not. On the other side of the building, Mora called him again, and Domino found no reason to not join him. He took one last look at the spot where the human and Matta had disappeared, wondering if he had abandoned the other boy to a terrible fate. 

Ero led the three brothers to the center of the great hall near the brazier, whose flames warmed Domino’s face. If half of the sanctuary’s occupants had ignored them before, they all turned toward them now, forsaking their lunch, when Ero stopped by the fire and announced loud and clear, “These children are going to take the oath.”

Within seconds, all the nichans present rose to their feet, and a small portion of them left the sanctuary in great strides. 

Domino’s apprehension won him over. Unlike his brothers, the oath remained a mystery to him. When he’d asked Beïka about the subject, his big brother had replied that with this oath they agreed to belong to their uncle—but Domino had learned to question his brother’s words. Mora, on the other hand, had said, “We’ll be part of the clan. We will have a leader who will protect us and whom we’ll obey. That’s all right. We’ll do that. You have nothing to worry about, Domino.” 

But the young nichan was worried, for if his older brother refused to reveal more, it was a cause for concern. 

As if to confirm his thoughts, Mora put a firm hand on his brother’s head and smiled when their eyes met. Mora and their mother were so much alike that it was disconcerting. They had the same square face, protruding cheekbones and large, tired black eyes. According to their mother, Domino and Beïka took after their respective fathers. Pity. Domino would have liked to look more like his mother, if only to feel as brave as Mora did today.

Soon, the sanctuary filled, and in less than five minutes, it swarmed with all the nichans of the clan. Everyone would witness this moment. For the sake of his own dignity, Domino hoped this oath wouldn’t be painful.

“Mora,” Ero called, and the teenager raised his chin and approached his uncle. “Are you ready to begin?”

“Yes,” he breathed before getting himself together. “Yes.” The second time, his voice echoed throughout the room, reaching the high ceilings, slipping between the thick wooden columns. 

“Kneel.”

Mora did as he was told and knelt two steps away from his uncle, who shortened the distance between them to an arm’s length. Then the man looked for something in his belt and, finding nothing, sighed. 

“Does anyone have a blade for me?” he asked. 

Mora’s shoulders tightened. So did Domino’s. It wasn’t what Ero had announced a few days ago. A blade to cut. To draw blood. When had Ero changed his mind? They were only passing through, he’d said. 

A woman stepped to Ero’s right and offered him a small, curved dagger, whose sharp edge shimmered in the light of the lamps.

“It better be clean,” the man said with a slight smile.

Many nichans laughed at his words, and the woman shook her head in amusement, waving the thick jewels that stretched her earlobes.

“Don’t keep them waiting,” she said before returning to mingle with the crowd. 

Ero smiled affectionately at her, then his attention was on Mora again. He requested the teenager’s arm, who held it out to him after a moment of hesitation. Domino couldn’t distract his eye from the short but shiny blade as it kissed brown skin. When blood ran down Mora’s arm, the little nichan clenched his fists. They were going to do this to him. Cut his skin off. 

Mora closed his fist in turn. There was a lot of blood, oily, rusty red, translucent and heterogeneous. Domino didn’t hear his brother’s and uncle’s words. His whole mind revolved around the wound and the blood dripping on the slabs. 

He didn’t want the same thing done to him. 

Then Ero put his thumb on the line of the blade and, once cut open, placed that same thumb against the gash crossing Mora’s skin. The two wounds remained in contact for a few moments. Then the man sucked the blood from his fingertip.

If only Domino had stayed by the table. As he ducked away, taking a step backwards in search of a better place to be, Beïka caught him by the arm. 

No! I don’t want to. But there was no turning back. They would all go through this.

Suddenly a thunder of cheers and hammering heels shook the sanctuary from its foundations to its pointy rooftop. Mora got up, and his uncle patted him on the back. Someone brought a strip of cloth and tied it around Mora’s forearm. The fabric swallowed the blood from the teenager’s wound. He smiled forcibly. He sent Beïka to his uncle and stood near Domino, whose body mirrored the tremor of the flickering flames. 

The blade ran this time along Beïka’s arm.

“You’ll be strong and brave, okay?” Mora said in Domino’s ear, who once again stared at the blood flowing from the newly opened wound. “It hurts a little. Just a little. You can cry if you need to.” Domino’s panting breath subsided slightly. “It’s okay to cry, but don’t take your hand away. Do you understand?” Domino nodded. “Good. You will be strong and brave.”

But Beïka’s words from earlier suddenly came back to the boy’s mind.

“Does this mean Mama’s not coming to get us?” Domino asked.

Mora put back his hand on his little brother’s head. “It’s possible. I’m sorry.”

Unease grew in Domino’s throat. Could he start crying now?

New cheers rose all around them. Unlike Mora, Beïka’s smile was colored with pride. His arm was wrapped in a bandage and an uncontrolled roar escaped him. A triumphant cry. He, who’d never gone a day without reclaiming the warmth of his mother’s arms, with which she embraced him every morning, seemed to have suddenly changed his mind about the oath. 

All eyes turned to Domino. 

“Come here,” Ero said.

For lack of other choice, Domino obeyed. Silence fell as his knees hit the stone. He looked up at his uncle. His dark figure was cut out in the golden light of the brazier on his back. He was so tall and looked so strong—a monolith rising from the earth. With the blade he held in his hand he could easily slice off Domino’s arm. 

“Give me your hand.”

You’ll be strong and brave, okay? Mora’s words echoed in Domino’s head, and his arm stretched out in front of him, trembling from the shoulder down. His uncle then bent and knelt on the ground to reduce the gap in height that prevented him from taking his nephew’s hand. Ero’s fingers were thick, warm, and calloused. They closed tightly around Domino’s tiny wrist. Then the blade approached, inspiring retreat. It opened the skin widthwise in the middle of his arm. The lips of the wound spread instantly, accompanied by a burning pain that went up to Domino’s neck. His tears flowed like his blood. In silence.

“My protection comes at a price,” Ero said. “Swear to obey me, swear to follow me, swear to respect me, and it is yours.” 

All this? 

Obey, follow, respect. Would their mother approve? Mora and Beïka had agreed. If Domino refused, would they throw him out? He would have no one left. 

He nodded.

“Swear to obey me, swear to follow me, swear to respect me, and it is yours,” Ero repeated. “Swear, my boy.”

“I swear.”

Ero sighed. “What do you swear?”

“I swear to obey you. I . . . and to follow you, and to respect you.”

Ero’s grip grew fiercer with each passing second; Domino could have sworn that too.

“I swear,” he promised to end his torment.

He was sincere. He wouldn’t let anyone separate him from his family. 

As with his brothers, his blood was mixed with his uncle’s. 

He was loudly congratulated, and Ero rose to his full height before wiping the knife against his sleeve and returning it to its owner. 

Domino suddenly felt nauseous, but he pushed on his legs to get up. Blood dripped to the ground, and his uncle frowned. The blood didn’t pour from the cut on his arm. It was flowing from his nose. Domino raised his hand to his face, but all his strength abandoned him before his fingers reached his nostrils. 

He collapsed backwards, and Mora’s intervention was all he could trust to prevent his head from smashing on the ground. “Hey, are you all right? Domino, can you hear me?”

He could hear, but his answer didn’t come. 

Mora’s arms tightened around him, shaking him slightly—or rocking him? The sensation was the same as the tide rolling against his body. “Domino, answer me!”

Domino was certain that if he spoke he’d throw up his lunch on Mora’s lap. He couldn’t tell his brother that, either.

“Domino! By the Faces! What’s going on? What’s happening to him?”

“He’s young. That’s a lot to take at his age,” Ero said. 

Domino closed his eyes. Around him the ceiling and its crisscrossing beams had started to twirl.

“Is it bad?”

“Probably not. It should pass.”

“You don’t know?”

“Take him to lie down. Go.”

“All right.”

“You, stay here. You’ll clear your brothers’ lunches.”

“All right.”

And as everyone moved around them, leaving the room, returning to their unfinished meal, Domino clutched his aching arm against him. 

No one had remembered to bandage his wound.

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