Absent the Sun
By Serena Johe
The alphabet of the Akana contains only twelve letters. For someone accustomed to a broader range of sounds, their spoken language melodizes into a syllabic rhythm reminiscent of a musical scale. The relatively limited list of possible combinations means many of their words are remarkably long and more closely resemble descriptions, as there are only so many ways to formulate twelve letters before one is forced to repeat patterns. Considering the limitations, there exists no succinct way to name all the different concepts and objects of a world.
Or, perhaps I’m just making excuses. When Hoa first tried to explain the idea of shadows, we’d been touring the large dome-like structure of what I might call a communal workspace, and which they called hoppa’i pa a’ku malulu, or, “gathering place in which to work.” People kneeled at short wooden platforms, stitching garments or husking grain, their tasks illuminated by the many large circular holes in the stone building. It struck me as resembling an upside down colander. All the structures in Lumoloa are similar: nothing fully enclosed, nothing like the boxy houses to which I was accustomed. Our architecture is designed for efficiency, to maximize space. Such reasoning could not explain theirs, and so I asked Hoa.
“A circle catches the sun so that it may not be absent in corners,” she explained. My bewilderment must have been apparent, and she continued, “We avoid aka kah loa manala hoyu.”
This, roughly translated, could mean anything from “one’s vanishing,” to “losing one’s shadow.”
Though not certain I understood, I was not surprised by the answer. Lumoloa exists just outside the more temperate zone of its tidally locked planet. The sun hangs in the sky as if attached to a cord, and as a result of the perpetual daylight, much of Akana culture and superstition are based around concepts of sun and shadow, though in a literal sense and not a proverbial one, as in religious myth of my own culture. Their ceremonies end with the aphorism, “May your shadow always be with you.”
The tour of the building did not take long. Hoa helped sort the mended piles of clothes while I sat and observed another woman’s work. Her skin had darkened to a rich brown by the unrelenting sun, her hair a starkly pale shade in contrast. She worked nimbly to separate the husk of the mananu o’i kihu, “sweet life giving grain,” from the edible portion, whirling the grain on a flat woven disc as if she were swirling wine in a glass. The noise of it rustling against the wooden filter filled the tent. It sounded to me like two-dozen people trying to strike matches on a washboard.
I only pretended to take notes on the work itself. My interests lay elsewhere, and I moved to the edges of the workspace as soon as I could politely do so. Depending on the scale of the structure, the holes in the walls are roughly the size of a man’s chest and separated by two yards between them. I ran my hand along the smoothly sanded sill of one such opening and wondered if it might be easier to patch them up or merely knock the whole thing down and start over.
Covering them, I believed, would be the most cost effective way to fix a building this large. For others, I had begun to map the village in a large foldout inside my journal, in order that, if the Akana would allow it, the IFHR would have a frame of reference to plan more suitable dwellings. I carefully marked the only thing close to a “sacred” structure so that it might be left alone; the actual residences, however, would have to be altered. If only Hoa would ever agree to it.
She glanced at me every minute or so, watching me scribble away in a language she couldn’t understand, equipped with tools she’d never seen until my arrival, and writing notes to a universe she’d never known and had no desire to know. I could not blame her for being suspicious, and exacerbating that uneasiness would hardly help my case. I tucked the journal into my leather bag just as Hoa approached me.
She stared for a few distended seconds, her face devoid of expression. I still could not help but be unsettled by her eyes, which appeared in shadowed light to be empty, unreflective pits. Looking into them made me feel as though I were staring into a starless sky, and I found her inscrutable as a rule, from her words to her mannerisms.
“Have you found the information you sought here?”
“Yes. Thank you for taking the time to show me,” I smiled. She returned the gesture and reached out to tug my bag open, which I let her do without question. The more the Akana trusted me, the easier it would be to help them.
Hoa sat down in the dust and flipped through the journal. She ran her finger underneath the words and looked, for the methodical way she did so, as if she could read it. “They look like little pictures,” she said at last. “Do people where you come from really need so many words to say what they mean?”
I couldn’t help but find her question ironic. I’d spent a noteworthy portion of my time poring though their few existing texts, each bloated with words until they reached the size of a dictionary, and each capable of being translated into less than a hundred pages.
“It’s efficient, I think, to be able to express a concept in a single word,” I explained. Not wanting to insult her, I added, “Though it does make it more difficult to communicate, in another way. You can’t always understand the meaning of a word just by hearing it.”
Hoa carefully unfolded the map I’d drawn. She traced the big circle in the center, the building they call kafu i a’ai paku, and I might call a library, or a cultural center of sorts. “What do you mean?”
“Our words aren’t all that descriptive. For example, the mananu o’i kihu,” I waved at the large clay jars pushed up against the wall. “Your word for it describes both what it is and why it’s important. In my language, we might call something like that ‘wheat,’ or ‘rice,’ which says nothing about it at all.”
I expected her, perhaps unfairly, to find the concept rather ridiculous. Hoa stayed silent for a few minutes, thumbing through the rest of the journal before replacing it in the bag, and then she nodded. “I see. You sacrifice meaning for efficiency. I wonder if one way is better?”
“Maybe they’re both better for certain things,” I offered.
She nodded again. “And this,” she tugged at the shoulder strap of my bag. “What sort of fabric is this? Or is it a skin?”
“It is. It’s cow skin.”
“It must have taken many hides to make something this size.”
There are no large land mammals around Lumoloa. I explained, much to her astonishment, that the bag was made from only a small portion of the skin of a single animal. I spent the next hour attempting to describe exactly what a cow is, and a farm, and the word “agriculture,” and thought to myself that there are indeed some things for which her language is better suited.
The dust storm outside had not stopped for three days, though using the word “outside” is misleading considering the architecture. It became as much a dust storm inside as out. I holed up in the relatively protected sanctuary of the kafu i a’ai paku. The surrounding buildings helped disperse the force of the wind and the asphyxiating dust somewhat, though there still didn’t exist a single clean breath of air anywhere in the village, and the heat, relentless and insufferable, induced a constant sweating that left me with a perpetual coat of grime on every inch of my body but for my face. I didn’t dare remove my mask and goggles.
It was strange to think there existed a sheltered, fully equipped city a traversable distance from Lumoloa, one of many that spread over the ring of the more habitable meridian of the planet. How the Akana wound up living where they do was one of the mysteries that drew me back to the “historical journals” tucked into the walls of the kafu i a’ai paku. Other than the wide mouthed jars in which they stored their grain, these rounded shelves were the closest things to an enclosed space I found in the entirety of the village. Not even their houses are divided into separate rooms for fear of creating such an area.
Reading the texts, I thought, at first, that the Akana had wandered further and further from the growing civilizations to the east in order to sustain their traditional beliefs and practices. That is not the explanation I discovered. Kneeling over a large stone slab on the floor, I flipped through the chalky pages of a book bound by the dried fibers of their ubiquitous mananu o’i kihu and tried to make sense of the history. It read somewhat like the mythological stories I’d encountered in the major cities. Usually, these were tales of monsters that lived on the dark side of the planet. Such concepts have been around since the earliest recorded histories of this world, about as old as the Akana themselves. I did not question the commonalities in their lore. Fear of the unknown is nearly universal.
The language made translation exceedingly difficult, however, and I realized I had a lesser grasp of my native tongue than I first assumed. There are many concepts that I understood reflexively but could not actually explain. Did what I thought of as a “spirit” equate to what the journal described as “the truth of an inner being sunned by shadow”? Was a deforming sickness a “vanishing of the flesh”? Aka kah loa manala hoyu, the “loss of one’s shadow,” was yet another such term I could not untangle.
Regardless, the conclusion was clear. The Akana had been banished here.
Hoa startled me from my reading with a tap on the shoulder. The high whining of the wind through the many holes in the building, along with the susurration of dust on every surface, hid her quiet steps. I noted the page of the book and closed it. Her typically unreadable demeanor felt even more so with her face obscured by the tightly wound cloth of her protective head scarf. Her eyes, the only visible part of her face, were as indecipherable as ever. Dust covered her lashes. I thought to myself that even if the Akana never accepted infrastructural help from the IFHR, we should at the very least provide them with goggles.
She gestured at the tome, the cover already sporting a thin layer of dirt and sand gathered in the ten seconds since I had closed it. “Have you found anything more for your research?”
“Yes. Your history is very interesting. Is this a factual account?”
“It is the truth,” she answered.
“The loss of one’s shadow? The vanishing flesh? All of it?”
I chalked it up to a translation error on my part – it could not be hers. The Akana have had the same language for thousands of years with startlingly few variations. It would not make sense for her to misinterpret the words. At the same time, for obvious reasons, I had a hard time believing it, and more pressingly, it felt wrong to sacrifice their safety for the sake of antiquated superstitions. Many people in Lumoloa suffer and die because of their unenclosed infrastructure. Silicosis, lung cancer, skin cancer, blindness – these maladies are not only common in their population, but almost expected.
She seemed to realize that I had something on my mind and waited for me to speak. Hoa had been unfailingly polite for the duration of my stay. I’d yet to see her – or anyone in Lumoloa – become angry or impatient, and as I could not think of a way to say what I wanted without insulting her sensibilities, I hoped that this constant would hold.
“I mean no disrespect, Hoa, but if you let my people help yours, then none of you will have to suffer this.” I made a sweeping gesture to indicate the intolerable dust, the sweltering sun, the indescribable discomfort of waking up with a mouthful of dirt and spending the day violently coughing it back up, even despite the masks. “I know you say building or changing things will result in the loss of your shadows, but I don’t understand how that could be the case. We’re only trying to help.”
“I know. You wish to do us well.” Hoa’s eyes drifted to the tome. “But I think you do not understand. If you build these structures you showed me, with walls all closed and corners to absent the sun, we risk losing our shadows, and all that follows. This is the truth. It cannot be changed.”
“I just don’t see how that could happen.”
Hoa’s eyes widened. I thought that I must have offended her, but then her shoulders began to shake. Much to my bewilderment, she laughed so vigorously that she wound up leaning against the stone bookshelves for support. I had not thought her to be quite so dark before, but within the shadowed ledge of the shelves, it almost seemed her hand had vanished in the crevice.
“You say you have been to other worlds, that you have seen people who are not like you and I, but with tails, and fur, and contraptions that send messages miles away in an instant. How is it, then, if the place beyond our sun is so large, that you think you have seen everything there is to see?”
“I can’t say that I have,” I admitted. “But all that I have seen and know, and all that those more knowledgeable than me see and know, leads me to believe that it is simply impossible to lose one’s shadow.”
When all traces of her mirth had dissipated, she spoke slowly, “I think we are having a misunderstanding.”
“What do you mean?”
Hoa went silent. We listened to the sound of the storm outside. In our stillness, the powdered earth gathered on our clothes, but not nearly as quickly as it had that morning. It seemed to be lightening at last, and perhaps would stop in the next hour or so, if we were lucky. She seemed to come to the same conclusion.
“The storm has died down.” Hoa gestured towards the door. “Now, I can show you.”
Outside the kafu i a’ai paku, the wind had become more of a heavy gust compared to the roaring gale of days prior. Still, the dust saturated the air in every direction, significantly more so than inside. I could hardly see more than a few yards away, and I followed Hoa closely as she led me west and out of the city. The village was nearly deserted but for two or three people. One man, wrapped except for his arms, took stilting steps away from us against the wind. His clothes seemed to float there in the dust as his arms vanished into the darkness of the air.
The storm all but faded by the time we’d left the village behind us. The normally white stone buildings, now darkened by the debris, seemed little more than oddly rounded hills against the backdrop of the arid desert on which they stood. The relative flatness of the landscape to the west did little to help this illusion. If I had not been keeping track of how far we’d walked, I could not have guessed the distance from the village by looking. Lumoloa could have easily been a mile or ten away.
We moved quickly across the cracked earth, hard-packed under our feet. It took nearly an hour to reach our destination. In the last few minutes, the ground rose up to meet us like the early swells of a wave in the ocean. It steadily transformed into a rocky outcropping, and Hoa led me around to the steepest side, finally ending our journey before the mouth of a small cave.
She said nothing at first, letting me come to my own conclusion. I stared into the emptiness before me and felt like a fool. I realized all at once the error I’d been making. Just as the Akana use the word “sun” to sometimes reference “light,” aka kah loa manala hoyu did not literally mean, “to lose one’s shadow.” It was their word for “darkness.” Complete, utter darkness, like the kind on the other side of the planet, and the Akana, I understood at last, were afraid of it.
Hoa’s voice sounded as unaffected as always, but I knew by the way she turned her body from the hollow that it made her uneasy. “What do you see inside?”
I peered into the abyss, but impressed as it was into the precipice, even the mouth of the cave appeared impenetrably dark. “Nothing.”
“Nothing. Just the darkness.”
“Your eyes fool you, I think. You say you see nothing, but I believe it is better to say that you do not see anything.”
“I don’t understand. Isn’t that the same?”
Hoa shook her head. “With one, you see, and the other, you do not.”
I found no reply. Hoa took this as assent of my comprehension. She turned, heading back for the village, and I followed reluctantly behind. What difference did it make? I wanted to ask, but I knew the conversation would only repeat itself: the buildings the IFHR had in mind had too many corners, or too little access to sunlight, or the electricity might fail, and darkness might manifest itself in Lumoloa at last. But I wanted to prove it to her. The dark is not something worth being afraid of, and especially not in the face of better health, longer lifespans, and a higher standard of living. The dust stuck to my shoes as I walked. Everywhere, on every inch of my body, I was inundated with it. My throat and chest burned as my body tried to expel it. It did not bother me any less than it had the first day. I lived in Lumoloa for a little over a month, and in that time, experienced eight different dust storms.
Their superstitions would have to be put behind them.
“What if I went into the cave?” I asked when we reached the edge of the village.
Hoa stopped abruptly. There were more people out now, enough that some passersby heard my question. Good, I thought. The more people I convinced, the better, though I feared Hoa might respond to my offer with aggression. It is not well received to have one’s beliefs challenged in any place I’ve ever been. Yet again, to my surprise, she replied indifferently.
“You may do as you wish, but do not expect us to follow you.”
I waited until the last remnants of the dust storm abated, about two days. Trusting Hoa, I did not expect anyone but her to accompany me, but in that time, the villagers had spread word of my plan. A dozen people trailed behind me when I left for the cave. They looked neither excited nor angry at my attempt to disprove their superstition, but I did not take their apathy to heart. The fact alone that they were willing to follow me three miles across the desert could only mean I’d piqued their curiosity.
I’d hoped that with the last storm so recently ended, we might have the luxury of not encountering another so soon. Halfway there, however, the wind began to pick up. It stirred the ground, the dust and sand shifting as far as the eye could see, as if the earth itself were trying to snake out of a second skin. The gusts made me uneasy. The storms lasted anywhere from a few minutes to a few days and often took mere moments to peak, and there I had the good fortune of catching the warning signs that were so often absent, and I ignored them. The group behind me did not turn away, committed to seeing the spectacle, and I knew if I chose to go back, I might lose their faith, or at the very least, their interest. I did not want to make it appear as if I had second thoughts.
We carried on. By the time we reached the cave, the loose soil and sand swept around my shins like shallow rapids.
I held no presumptions of grandeur or showmanship, and I made no announcements or remarks, not wanting to make them feel foolish for their beliefs. I merely stepped into the cave and waited. It was shallow, maybe a dozen yards deep, and I watched from halfway inside as the group began to whisper. Their words were lost in the rising wind. My anxiety over the approaching storm and their potential reaction to my feat swelled with the gusts and the passing seconds, but Hoa serenely shook her head at each person’s inquiries. Her eyes never left mine even though I knew she could not possibly see me, until all at once, the wind began to roar. Peering out of the cave, I watched the swell of dust, twice as tall as any building in Lumoloa, approach us from the north like a tidal wave of smoke and ash.
They would not get back to the village in time. Many of them did not have full wrappings. My attempts at neutrality gave way to anger when Hoa calmly made her way to the foot of the precipice and huddled against it, for all the good it would do from a southbound storm.
“Don’t be foolish,” I shouted over the wind. My voice echoed against the walls, the resonance surprising both the villagers and myself. “Get inside,” I urged, hoping that the augmented volume might help sway them.
They hesitated. In ones and twos, they broke off from the group and went to crouch by Hoa. I watched as they vanished into the cloud of debris. It might not kill them now – the wind was not as fierce as it could be – but the particles in their lungs and eyes, no matter how tightly shut or how closely packed they stood, would certainly increase their chances of fatal complications. There was no telling how long the storm would last, either. Surely they could not endure it, and I, meanwhile, sat in the relative sanctuary of the cave, feeling more selfish and helpless than ever. They were only in the midst of this because of me. I should have turned back.
I stared out the mouth of the cave and observed the dust and sand blow, worse than any blizzard I encountered in all my travels and still not as powerful as the most violent of the dust storms here. I wondered what good it might do to have another body in the huddle, if I should join them, but I resisted. Perhaps if I stayed resolute, one or two of them might eventually come to me.
Nearly an hour later, an eternity to my anesthetized senses, my stubbornness proved successful. A silhouetted figure stood at the mouth of the cave. Not Hoa, but a man, one of the villagers, braced himself against the entrance. He endured the brunt of the storm without the shelter of the others and still hesitated until I called out to him, begging him to come inside. If one person believed me and weathered the wind in the darkness, then he might convince the others. My hopes soared as he passed under the lip of the cave.
Or, he must have, I thought. I watched him do so. It was dim, especially so with the hindered sunlight, but there was a point of separation too distinct to account for as his foot breached the darkness, and then his leg, and then the rest of him. I observed him step towards me and simultaneously disappear as if walking behind a curtain.
I blinked rapidly, trying to find his outline, ears straining to hear his footsteps. I barely made out the faint noise of what sounded to me like a sodden towel dropped on a tile floor. My mind could not find an explanation for it, and against all reason, I found myself unnerved. I called for him and received no answer.
Hesitantly, I took a few steps forward from where I’d crouched against the back wall. It is disorienting to move about without being able to see one’s hands or feet, and I became acutely aware of this. For the man who had never been outside the range of the sun, the alien sensation must have been far worse. I called out to him again.
“You don’t have to be afraid.” I shouted. “I’m here.”
Again, he did not reply. I unsteadily made my way forward. The Akana’s historical texts that I’d become so familiar with rose to the surface of my mind despite my better judgment:
“And the creatures who lived long without their shadows, bound not by body but with the blood of vanished flesh, survived poorly in skin under the sun, but banished there, traded time for life as the living see it…”
When I reached my hand out unseeingly in the darkness, when my fingers pierced the viscous liquid before me, cold as the dark side of this world – when I smelled the blood and felt it against my face like a fine mist, it was I who came screaming from the cave.
The dust caked the inside of my mouth and travelled down my open throat at once. I pressed my lips together, forced the scream back into my lungs, and staggered blindly along in search of the others. Some part of me insisted that I remain alone – I could not comprehend what I had felt, let alone who or what I was with, and the terror of it would have had me endure the storm on my own to avoid the Akana forever. But I could not. I guided myself along the side of the cliff by touch, trying not to cough and swallow more dust, though I nearly negated my effort with a shout of terror when I at last encountered the group.
I huddled there with them, mind vacant with fear and the sound of the wind, for hours.
When the storm at last subsided, Hoa did not look surprised to see me. Neither did she look smug. She helped the others stand, and then me, and as I took her hand, I did not understand the warmth from it. My fingers were black with blood – with shadow. On the shirt of the woman whose back I had leaned against was a mottled imprint of my face, as if I had dipped my head in ink.
Hoa looked pointedly at the group. Then, she turned to me. “You must retrieve his skin,” she said.
“His skin,” she repeated. “Bring it to the mouth of the cave, in the sun.”
I could not imagine what she meant, but recalling the sound – the slap of something wet and heavy dropping to the floor – I understood. I turned and took dawdling steps away from the group.
Now, at last, Hoa sounded amused. “Do not tell me you are scared of losing your shadow?” I was not too proud to admit that I certainly was, but she merely nudged me forward. “We cannot do it, and he will not harm you, if you are quick. Go.”
I tried to pinpoint from where in the cave I’d heard the noise. Without the wind to hide it, the sounds of my frantic inhalations were surely audible to Hoa as I approached the entrance. Still, even when I wrapped my fingers in the leathery flesh and pulled it outside with whimpering gasps, she did not laugh. She did not look pleased by her rightness. The sound of that empty skin dragging against the earth, thick and heavy and pliable with the leftover wetness inside, stayed with me long after I kneeled before the Akana in the safety of the sun.
By the time I finished heaving and caught my breath, the man had rejoined the group as if he’d never left it, or his flesh, behind.
I did not try to describe what I had seen – or not seen – to the IFHR. They would not have believed me. Instead, I reported that the architecture of the Akana should be considered integral to their cultural wellbeing and left alone. I did, however, requisition a supply of goggles and other protective gear for which the Akana were very appreciative, though I felt vastly undeserving of their thankfulness. I had gone into Lumoloa thinking that I possessed the ability to help them, and that they were helpless themselves. I apologized profusely to Hoa for that, and though she assured me that I had done much for them in the end, I told her truthfully that I owed her far more gratitude.
I left her humbled by the kindness of monsters, and knowing that the world is far fuller for the shadows cast within it.