When my parents and I first come to Anim, I make friends with the big, round boulder in my backyard, the one half embedded in the shale cliffs, the one that looks like it belongs somewhere else. It does, it tells me, clear as anything. It fell into the shallow sea that once lay over this very spot, and got covered up with mud, that hardened into rock, that only just recently eroded away again. When I tell my parents this they beam at me, and I hear my mom say to my dad later, when she thinks I’m in my room, “Aaron will learn more in this village than at any school on Earth. This is first-hand information.” My father agrees.
But one day, a few months later, I go out and the rock is silent. I can’t hear it, clear as anything, in my head anymore. For days I beg and yell and make promises, trying to get it to speak to me. The rock is mute. Like an Earth rock, dumb and silent.
After that I don’t go into the backyard anymore.
Pisha is an Animling. He looks mostly like a human, but skinny, with pale green skin all wrinkly like a lettuce leaf, and he is my best friend. Every day we go out to the vine-covered hills to play Stone and Wind. I crouch perfectly still in a gravel field and he rushes around, four arms waving. We tell each other, in knowledgeable tones, about our lives.
“Well,” I say, “I was eroded by the great flood of ’28. See that shell there, poking out of my side? I tell you first-hand that I saw their race spring up when the ocean temperature rose—the flood’s brought it out of me now. See?” Other rocks and vines nearby speak, and the light breeze whispers, but I ignore them.
“Woosh!” Pisha yells. Whatever winds he plays are always loud. “I blew down from the cold lands where cliffs made of solid ice tower over everything, and I saw first-hand the ice worms burrow in and out, in and out. I blew down through their freezing-cold holes, and now I’m going to blow over you! Woosh!” He runs by me, messing his three-fingered hand through my hair as he passes.
In the local dialect there are three different verb markers for sharing information. “First-hand,” “second-hand,” and “removed.” My mother says it makes gossip a lot less fun, but I love being rocks and winds and everything else we can think of. I never tire of it.
But Pisha, apparently, does. “Okay, it’s time for you to go in,” he says, still racing around.
“But I —” I begin, in my deep rock voice.
“No! Go in. It’s time.” Every time we play, Pisha does this. Either he stops running and silently walks off, or else he says I have to. Nothing I say or do makes any difference. I have to wait till the next day, when he jumps up at my arrival and we rush off again.
“Bully,” I mutter under my breath, but I get up and leave Pisha running around the hillside, his arms waving wildly.
The next day I go to Pisha’s house as usual, but his parent meets me at the door and looks at me extra long with her small, pink eyes. “I tell you first-hand that Pisha can’t play today,” she says. “He’s gone in.”
I wait for her to explain further; she lets the curtain fall in my face.
With my stomach knotted hard and tight I sneak around the back to Pisha’s window, and look in. There he is, sitting on his bed, his eyes closed and his face slack. His parent is there too. She takes all of Pisha’s clothes off the shelves at the foot of his bed and packs them in a big woven basket. Then she puts his toys in the basket as well. Later she carries them to the neighbor, who has a boy about Pisha’s age, named Livis.
Neither Pisha nor I play with Livis. He isn’t any fun at all.
I don’t play Stone and Wind anymore. Or Vine and Beast. Or Creek and Shadow. I’m too old for that. I have my own house now, at the edge of town, with my own garden to tend. Earth scientists send messages asking for observations on Anim culture, but I never answer.
I open the door and step into the silvery twilight. I have food for twelve days, and a topological map, and a compass. Also a pretty good idea of where I’m going, though the knowledge is removed. I’m not bringing anyone with me—since Pisha went in, I mostly like to do things alone.
The hundred little “moons” of Anim shine reflected sunlight into the night sky. I’ve never started a journey by night before; assorted darknesses speak as I walk by.
“I fill this same hollow every night,” says a deep shadow in a cleft at the base of a vine. “It is mine.”
The wind whispers something I cannot quite hear, and I think of Pisha rushing headlong down a hill, shouting.
Pisha did come out, eventually, but by then I’d moved on, grown accustomed to solitude. We don’t talk much now, just nod at each other if we pass on the street.
A night insect flies by, but says nothing. Only one old woman in the village claims to have spoken to the moons, but people cover their ears when she speaks. There is no verb-ending to signify things that are made up. Better not to hear them at all.
On the fourth night of walking I arrive at the Sky Needle. Tales of its grandeur have not been exaggerated. It stands in the center of a field of tangled vines and tumbled boulders, where some speak and some are silent. But the Sky Needle will be out. Last week as we sat on a hill outside town, Livis whispered to me that it would be. Afterwards he looked guiltily all around, to make sure no one saw him speaking taboos to the alien. How did he know, how do they all know, when it is time for something to go in, and when to come out? What great system of laws governs it? If I were a scientist I would ask myself—is it a function of population density? Of homo- or heterogeneity of landscape, of thoughts, of history? But I am not a scientist, and the Animlings are all gardeners. Instead I approach the Needle.
“I was thrust up in an explosion of fire,” it says. “I was much bigger then. Where the heat was greatest, in the center, there I am hardest, and so that part remains. Someday I shall be whittled away to a tiny rock, and then to nothing.”
I’m not a scientist, but I know a lot about geology. And air currents, and the movement of light and shadow. The Animlings say that second-hand knowledge is the most important kind, because one being can never experience as much as ten-thousand beings can tell. I should know.
I sit under the venerable Needle and I think that I have learned everything I care to know about geology for a long, long time.
I’m at my parents’ house, helping my mother hoe the garden. “Mom, has a human ever gone in?”
Mom furrows her brow. There aren’t many colonists on Anim, and I’m the youngest. No one else understands what’s going on half as well as I do, and I don’t understand it at all.
“I don’t think so, no. Why?”
She looks worried. I know she’s thinking what it would be like not to speak to me for two or twenty years.
“Good morning, friend,” says the big round boulder in my parents’ back yard, and I drop my rake. It has been nearly thirty years. Anim-years, and even though Dad says they are shorter than Earth years, it is a lot.
“Good morning,” I return. And the conversation continues as if nothing had happened. I’m not sure why it’s easier with this rock than with Pisha. Maybe because I’m older, or maybe because it doesn’t care that I’ve changed, or that I don’t care that it has.
After that I stop hiking to renowned speakers, stop timing my life on furtive second-hand information about who is coming in and out and when. I do, incidentally, learn a little more about geology, but I don’t mind.
Because the stone in the backyard, embedded in the shale cliff, is my friend again.
“I tell you first-hand,” I say to the human boy, “you cannot play with your friend today, if his parent says he’s gone in.” The boy is about ten and new to Anim, the son of the linguist who built a house next door. They’re both still learning to speak the village dialect.
“I don’t believe you,” he says, in the old tongue, from Earth. “Tinnin hasn’t gone anywhere.” It takes me a long minute to understand, because I haven’t spoken that language since I was a boy myself. I try to remember what it’s like to not believe someone, but I can’t. So I repeat what I just said more slowly. The boy scowls and walks off, kicking a piece of shale as he goes, and I hear the shale speaking.
A little while later, as I’m shaking out my floor mats on the front step, Tinnin’s mother comes by. “Talk to him,” she says, pointing all three of her fingers down the lane to where the new boy is shouting for his friend to come out and play. “He is crazy. He will not stop.”
So I bring the boy, he says his name is Shaino, to meet my friend the big round boulder, but he only shrugs. “I like talking to the vines,” he says. “They’re like snakes in slow motion.”
I don’t know what a snake is, but I nod as if I do.
“I miss Tinnin,” he says at last. His voice quavers. “I want him to come back.”
I look at his tear-streaked face and I have an idea. It may be a very bad one but I suggest it anyway.
A few minutes later we creep around the back of Tinnin’s house and peer in a window.
“That’s him,” whispers Shaino fiercely.
Tinnin’s parent has covered him with a light blanket. The boy’s face is still and expressionless.
“What’s wrong with him?” I still Shaino with a hand, and pull him down because Tinnin’s parent has just come in the room. Only when I’m sure she hasn’t seen us do Shaino and I look in again.
All of Tinnin’s clothes are still folded on the shelves at the foot of his bed. All of his toys still lie strewn on the floor.
“I tell you second-hand,” I say to Shaino, “Tinnin will be back in a week or two, no more.”
Shaino wipes the snot from his nose with the back of his hand. “Okay,” he says.
I take him back over to my house and make him a warm drink. Then we play Vine and Beast, and I am a night insect and say first-hand I crawled in Shaino’s shoes to lay my eggs. He squeals. Afterwards we collapse on the floor mats, laughing, and catch our breath.
When we’ve fallen still Shaino turns to me. “When are you going in?” He says it very softly.
Almost I tell him we’re all cripples, blind and deaf to coming and going, and always will be.
But then I don’t.
“I don’t know. When are you going in?”
Shaino bites his lip in concentration. After a long while he says, “If you don’t know, I’d probably better not tell you.”