Seri pushes open a white-painted window sash. The sun is violet-orange this time. She savors the heat of it. The air outside smells of bacon grease and water hyacinth layered over a hushed electricity, like the moment before the first rains of the season burst over Sen Monorom. This alien air feels familiar, like something from her own pores.
“Where are we?” says Pimiko. Seri turns to look at the five-year-old, all rumple-haired and still in her pajamas.
“Fields. Purple sun. Houses and smoke in the distance,” Seri answers. They exchange a look meaning not Earth.
Seri avoids Pimiko’s eyes as she slips into crimson ikat silk. House takes them to non-Earth villages only on Delivery Days. The question they are avoiding is Whose turn is it this time?
Pimiko goes to her closet, where miniskirts and ruffled sweaters hang in matching colors. No jeans and T-shirts on a Delivery Day. By the time Pimiko finishes dressing, Mother will have eggs fried and buckwheat noodles boiled downstairs.
Usually Seri waits for her, so they can find their way through House’s constantly changing configurations together. At the breakfast table, they are the only East Asians now. The newest children all come from Afghanistan or Iraq.
But today unease coils in her belly, the fine, dark hair along her arms prickling as if in tropical heat, her tribal tattoos itching. Seri cannot wait for the five-year-old’s fumbling at buttons. Her heart pounding, she goes down a grand staircase, past an opening where she glimpses Mother in a starched American housewife apron and flower-print dress. Surprisingly, House lets her find the glass-paned double doors leading outside right away.
Her breath catches. Something in her wants to run back to the room and lock herself inside with Pimiko, but the water-hyacinth scent calls to her.
Seri opens the door and rushes outside, wanting everything all at once. House has set them down in a field of brick-colored grain growing on short, prickly stalks. She inhales deeply. It is the grain that’s giving the air a floral note. Low, gnarled trees dot the gently rolling landscape.
Winged reptiles about the size of cats flutter up from concealment in the grain, wheel in the sky, and then plummet. Their chirps are like the high-pitched chiming of kong tauch gongs.
Over all is a reddish haze, like the red laterite dust from Seri’s home. Yearning takes charge of her, filling her ears with the drumming of her heart and her lungs with wet cotton.
A cool wind smelling of the floral grain teases her hair, soothing the tension in Seri’s shoulders, until she stands, arms at her side, face tilted to the sun, her bare feet sinking into the soft soil. She wishes for rice wine to trickle into the dirt as an offering.
It is a Delivery Day and no one else has left the house. Seri is the first to touch earth. A door slams open behind her. Startled, Seri whirls around. Mother stands in the doorway, her hair coiled in a smooth bun and seamless skin as violet as the sun.
House has transformed itself into a decaying mansion, complete with two stories of porches wrapping around the sides and grand colonnades framing the door.
“Seri,” says Mother. Her tone is even, but Seri sees how her hands twist in her apron.
“I want to walk over that hill,” Seri says pointing to where smoke curls up into the sky like a beckoning finger.
“Anxious to leave us, are you?” says Mother.
Not anxious to leave. Needing to know what kind of people made the smoke, needing to know right now if it will be worse than the refugee camp House took her from.
Seri runs up the steps, gripping a column with one hand and the other pressing over Mother’s chest where a heart should beat. Mother’s arms around her are warm, as if she were human like Seri and the others.
When Seri was first taken, she had tried to scratch the perpetual calm from Mother’s face. Now she knows Mother is only an artifact, a tool like House.
Seri has listened to Mother’s dinner talks about microbes and cross-immunization, and genetic survival. Flimsy, cold words to weigh against Seri’s losses.
Seri turns away so Mother won’t see the tears burning the corner of her eyes. Anger stirs in her. House brought her to this place, where the red dust makes her long for home, with as little warning as the day it appeared outside the barbed wire perimeter of the tents as a bamboo-sided hut. Seri scratches at her bare arms.
Warmth and food aside, House has always made her uneasy.
“I wonder if those flying lizards are hunting grain-eating bugs,” she says into the air.
“Microviruses in your gastrointestinal tract are compatible with yet novel to this ecological system. House says the people here will sicken for a while, then grow stronger,” Mother says.
Not just Delivery Day. Seri’s Delivery Day.
“Come in for breakfast before you make contact with the local inhabitants.”
Seri gives Mother a look meaning last meal together and don’t abandon me.
But instead of going inside, Seri jumps down the marble steps and walks toward the grain, her feet making deep indentations in the soil.
“Seri!” She turns her head to see Pimiko leaning over a windowsill, her voice plaintive in the hot air. Seri does not stop.
She recognizes this insistent pressure in her lungs, the need to be in motion, going somewhere, with any purpose at all, from her days in the refugee camp.
Ahead, flocks of lizards scatter, chirping in terror. Seri can see figures moving at the top of a rise to the south.
House will abandon her to this red-dusted world, an offering to whatever spirits live here.
She raises her hand and waves slowly once at Pimiko. Then she turns into the spiced wind, waving frantically at the figures on the distant hill.