The rain outside slowed to a patter as Robin finished writing.
“So,” he said, setting his pen down and tearing the page out of the notebook to hand it to me, “These here are the thirty original letters of the Yammaninke alphabet, and these below are the extra characters that were added later on so that it could be used to write other languages.”
I took the paper from him and looked over the alphabet eagerly. It was unlike any script I’d ever seen, full of dots, and triangles, and little circles of varying sizes. Next to each letter, Robin had written out the sound it made in English—‘a’ as in ‘cat’ and ‘Daniel,’ ‘e’ as in ‘ember’ and ‘egg,’ and so on down the list so there was no mistaking how to pronounce each letter.
“So, what language was it used to write, originally?”
“Yammaninke,” Robin said.
“Does Yammaninke have a parallel language on Earth?” I asked.
“Almost. Unlike Lindish, it does not have a perfect equivalent here in your dimension. It shares elements with a few Earth languages, but none of them are as widely spoken as Yammaninke. Here in this English-speaking country, you may not even have heard of them.”
“What are they?” I asked.
“Maninka, Bambara, Soninke… any of those sound familiar to you?”
I shook my head. “Where are those languages even from?”
“A few different countries, all of them in the western region of the continent you call”—It took him a moment to come up with the name—“Africa.”
“Oh.” That would explain why I hadn’t heard of any of them. My knowledge of Africa pretty much began and ended with Ancient Egypt. “How come Lindish has a perfect parallel on Earth but Yammaninke doesn’t?”
“I don’t know,” Robin said. “I have some theories, but I’m sure one could spend several lifetimes trying to parse the relationship between this world and Duna and never really understand it.”
“So, Duna,” I said, still looking at the strange foreign shapes of the alphabet before me, “It’s got a different writing system and some different languages, but other than that, how similar is it to Earth?”
“Quite similar,” Robin answered, just as Daniel said, “Completely different.”
The two looked at each other and Robin laughed. “I suppose it all depends on how you look at it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Duna consists of two major oceans and seven continents, inhabited by approximately seven billion people who sing, dance, fight, reproduce, all the things people do.”
“So just like here,” I said, “only the people on Duna have powers.”
“Many people, yes. Seventy-eight percent of them, to be exact.”
“So how did—have people on Duna always had powers?” I asked.
“Well, that’s the interesting thing. According to all the archeological evidence, no.”
“Really?” So, the people in this other dimension had acquired their powers from somewhere? Maybe whatever had happened to them had somehow also happened to me! Maybe my answer was somewhere on Duna!
“Yes,” Robin said. “By studying the remains of prehistoric humans, Dunian scientists have determined that theonite power—or nyamaya, as it’s more commonly called—did not appear until a little over four thousand years ago, around the time the first major human civilizations were emerging. The prevailing theory on Duna is still that it was those powers that allowed humans to achieve civilization in the first place. Although, judging by the level of development on this theonite-less world, I would say they missed the mark on that one.”
“So, theonite powers—or nyamaya, you said—just appeared on your planet?”
“Yes. During the early stages of human existence on Duna, you don’t find any signs of nyamaya-related wear on bones, or any skeletons that seem to be adapted to cope with powers of any kind. Then, at a certain point, there started being theonites all over the world.”
“All at the same time?”
“As far as the scientists can tell.”
“And no one knows how it happened?”
“It’s the greatest mystery of Dunian prehistory.”
“Whoa.” So I wasn’t the only one looking for an answer to that question. There was a whole world of people in the dark with me. I wasn’t sure if that made me feel better or worse.
“And I’ll tell you another interesting thing,” Robin said. “Until the appearance of nyamaya in Duna’s humans, our planet and yours seem to have been perfect mirrors of each other. As far as I can gauge from my limited research on your dimension, Earth went through the birth of life in the seas, through the age of the amphibians, the dinosaurs, and the great mammals, all the way to the evolution of modern humans just as Duna did.”
“Seriously?” I said, fascinated. “So, the point when people on Duna got their powers is the point when events in your world take a different course from ours?”
“It seems that way. As far as we can tell, our human prehistory and early history are identical to Earth’s: the same ethnic groups, languages, and technological advancements, in the same places. Then, four thousand some years ago, right around the time theonite nyamaya appeared in our population, our histories diverged. My friend, Koli, believes theonite powers to be the solitary variable that sets Duna apart from Earth. According to him, all differences between our two dimensions can be traced back to Dunians having theonite abilities and Earthlings having none. Now, whether or not that’s true, we’ll probably never know.”
“So, what are the differences between Earth and Duna now?” I asked. “What did powers change in your dimension?”
“Well, to jump to the most glaring difference, this country we’re in now—this global super-power of yours, the United States of America. It doesn’t exist on Duna.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“I mean that the land itself exists, but all the history that led to the formation of this particular nation—none of it happened on Duna. Similar revolutions, ethnic mixes, dialects, ideologies, and systems of government have arisen on our world, but there is no United States of America, no such combination of people, government, culture, and ideology. Similarly, Yamma has no perfect equivalent on this planet.”
“Yamma is our big obnoxious global super-power,” Daniel said. “It’s where the language Yammaninke comes from.”
“And it just doesn’t exist here?” I said. “Why not?”
Robin shrugged. “Different course of history, different innovations in different places, different races and battles, different winners, different losers.”
“So, if this Yamma country is so powerful, do you guys speak Yammaninke?”
“Oh, yes,” Robin said. “Although Daniel’s Yammaninke is better than mine.”
“What does it sound like?” I asked, curious. “Like, how would you say, ‘Hello, my name is… Blank?”
“I ni su,” Daniel said with a smile. “N toxo ye Blank.”
“N… toxo… ye Blank,” I repeated slowly, struggling with the strange guttural sounds. “Or—N toxo ye Joan.”
“If you want to learn the language, I have some Yammaninke reading material that I can leave with you,” Robin offered.
“Really?” I felt my face light in an eager smile. It had been a long time since someone had given me something new and exciting to learn.
“I think so.” Robin turned to rummage around in one of the cardboard boxes. “Ah, here.” He came up with a shining rectangular device, about the size of his hand. “It’s against all the scientific and philosophical rules to leave a piece of Dunian technology in the hands of an Earthling, so I need you to promise you’ll keep it secret.”
“I promise,” I said as he handed it to me. It wasn’t like I had anyone to tell. “But what is it?”
At first glance, the elegant blue shell of the device looked like any other colored glass—translucent and shiny—but when I took it in my hand, I felt that it was lighter and a hundred times sturdier than the glass I was used to. Muffled behind the strange super-glass, I could just feel the trill and buzz of chips and wiring I felt inside most computers.
“This is one of the simple info-com devices I took with me to Hades way back in the day,” Robin said. “I brought it along as a backup in case something happened to my fancy one, but since I had it with me in Hades…” He tapped at the rectangle with his fingers and it glowed to life, displaying what I assumed to be some sort of home screen. “Ah, yes. It still has the beginner’s Yammaninke guide… and the Yammaninke-Lindish dictionary. Yes! Thank you, Elleen!”
I didn’t know who Elleen was, or what he was really talking about at all, but I crawled closer to look over his shoulder as he opened up a file and scrolled through it with finger commands I had never seen before.
“Am I going to be able to use that?” I asked uncertainly.
“Oh yes,” Robin said. “It’s still programmed to be easy for Hadean children to use, so the rhythmic commands aren’t overly complicated. Three evenly-spaced taps in the center of the screen will turn it on or off. And see, here are the files,” he said, indicating differently-colored bubbles that had popped up on the black screen. Each bubble was labeled with glowing Yammaninke text I couldn’t read. “You use your fingertip to select the one you want. One tap for audio, two taps for the onscreen visual, three taps for the holographic visual.”
“There’s a holographic visual?”
“Yes. Right here.” Robin gave one of the bubbles three short taps.
Before my eyes, the little blue circle bounced from the screen and fanned out into a vertical sprawl of glowing white text. The letters looked solid enough to touch, but when I lifted a hand to the text, it slid right through the beams of light.
“Cool, isn’t it?” Robin said, smiling at me through the lines of bright white text. “It’s handy when you want to show something on your little screen to lots of people at once. Of course, this is a low-tech device, so this isn’t an interactive hologram. You still have to control it with the touchscreen.”
“You have interactive holograms?”
“Yes,” Robin tapped the bubble again, causing the mesmerizing display to shrink back down into the screen. “I daresay they’re overused on Duna.”
Powers? Space travel? Holograms? How come Duna got all the cool stuff?
“What do I do when it runs out of power?” I asked when Robin handed the device to me. “You don’t have, like, an adapter or something?” It was sort of a joke. I doubted a planet of people who didn’t even think Earth existed would have developed adapters for our outlets.
“I’m afraid not. But I do have this.” Robin held up a second, slightly larger rectangular device. “It’s a manual charger.”
“A manual charger? So, like, a hand-crank thing?”
“Not quite. It converts heat energy into electricity. If you’re a tajaka, it’s easy to use; you just slot the device into it, hold it in your hand, and generate as much heat as you can for about half a gbaati—or about eighteen minutes.”
“Eighteen minutes? I don’t know if I can heat my hand for that long.”
“You don’t need to,” Robin reassured me. “This device was made with a low-tech adyn environment in mind, so contact with any hot surface will do. We used to have the Hadean kids put them in their cook-fires to charge—of course, then, they had to wait another gbaati to touch them, but that won’t be a problem for you.”
“So, I can just use the stove to charge it while my parents are asleep?”
“Or the toaster,” Robin shrugged. “That might be less conspicuous.”
“Okay.” I took the manual charger and put it up against the info device thing, finding that they slotted together satisfyingly in my hand.
“Obviously, that device won’t help you access the Dunian Internet or communications network since we’re not in the right dimension to get reception, but there are a few Yammaninke language books saved on there. The beginner’s manual and dictionary should be sufficient to get you started.”
“I… thank you,” I said, clutching the info-com device to my chest. “Thank you so much.”
“I should warn you,” Robin said, “there are only a few audio examples on that device and there’s really only so much you can learn about our dimension from a book.”
“Okay,” I said, though I thought Robin was probably underestimating me. I could learn anything from a book.
“We should clean up these dishes,” Robin said. “I’m sorry the soup turned out a little strange.”
“No kidding,” Daniel said.
“No, it was good,” I said. “I liked it.”
To be fair, I liked practically any food that was new. Mama’s frozen pizzas and bland casseroles got old after thirteen years.
“Well, since some people can’t appreciate my fantastic cooking,” Robin said, feigning indignation, “I’m going to go get some snacks. But thanks for the support, Joan.”
Getting to his feet, he whooshed into the kitchen, making all the candles flare momentarily. He was back in seconds with three shining snack bags.
“These are forontunu,” Robin said, tossing me one of them. “They’re the last of the snacks we packed from home. I should warn you, they’re a bit hot. Is that alright?”
“Yeah, that’s fine.” Turning the bag over in my hands, I found that it was covered in Yammaninke letters, some blocky and eye-catching, some in tiny, thin print.
The material felt strange under my fingers. I had expected the static-prickling mashup of plastic and aluminum that made up most chip bags. But this was made of some other combination of metals and… glass fibers? I had never felt anything like this material. Wherever this bag was made, it definitely wasn’t on Earth. I couldn’t even figure out how I was supposed to open it.
“Pull on the orange tab thingy,” Daniel said when he saw me puzzling over the snack bag. “See where it says—oh—well, I guess you can’t read it, but—”
“I got it,” I laughed, and pulled the bag open.
Inside, I found a jumble of bright green things that looked a little like popcorn. Daniel and Robin were already crunching away on them. I put one in my mouth and my eyes nearly popped out of my head. It felt like the flesh was being melted off my tongue.
“Are you okay, Joan?” Robin asked, his eyes twinkling in amusement.
I nodded, trying to keep my own eyes from watering as I forced myself to chew the fire and swallow.
“Wow,” Daniel looked at me in surprise. “Most non-tajakalu scream their heads off when they eat one of those. Some tajakalu don’t even like them. Are you sure you’re okay?”
I nodded again, moving my tingling tongue around in my mouth to make sure it was still there.
“Daniel tells me that you are a tajaka, Joan,” Robin said off-handedly.
“Okay, yeah, but not like a tajaka tajaka,” Daniel said. “I mean, look at the color of her skin.”
“Fire is fire no matter where it comes from,” Robin said.
“But she doesn’t just control fire,” Daniel said excitedly. “Her nyamaya can do all kinds of stuff.”
“Really?” Robin said, raising his eyebrows. “What ‘crazy stuff’?”
“She can control a whole bunch of different substances,” Daniel said, “water, and air, even some solids—like a kabaka!”
Robin turned to me with new fascination. “Is this true, Joan?”
“Um—yeah,” I said, still working the feeling back into my tongue. “That’s true.”
“Extraordinary,” Robin murmured. “I’m sure my excitable son has told you this already, but the ability to control multiple substances is exceedingly rare, even by our dimension’s standards. Depending on their parentage, most theonites’ nyamaya only extends to one substance—and even those with the right combination of training and genetics to control more than one substance seldom do it well. Being able to control multiple substances naturally, that is a true gift.”
“Well, I’m not very good with any of them,” I said. “I just practice in my room. I’ve never done anything big.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Robin said kindly. “As long as you have good control, scale and quantity are irrelevant. May I ask how you do it?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m just curious about the mental and physical processes you undergo to make fire or move substances around. Can you describe it?”
“Um…” I hadn’t tried to explain how I tapped into the Hum to another person in years. I knew what I was talking about, it just felt weird putting it into words. “Well, to get my powers started, I use my emotions. Then, to get them to work right, I have to concentrate and make some kind of movement with my hands. But—it’s a little more complicated than that,” I said, casting around for a way to elaborate.
To use the Hum, I had to feel something—to drum up enough anger, or joy, or giddiness—to get my energy moving. Then, once it was in motion, I had to use my hands and my willpower to direct it where I wanted it to go. It was something I could only achieve with a clear mind. If I was tense, unsure, or distracted in any way I might as well have been any idiot trying to blow a door shut or bend the flow of tap water.
“Your head, heart, and hands all need to be working in time and tune with one another,” Robin finished the thought for me. “If you have an excess of emotion, your will power must rise to harness it. If you’ve settled on a goal, your emotions must rise to fulfill it. It’s how you find your balance and direction.”
“Yes,” I said, looking up at him in wonder. “How do you—”
“It’s the same for us,” Daniel said, balling up his empty forontunu bag and setting it aside. “Except, we can’t do all the stuff you can. You should see her, Dad.”
“Only if Joan feels like demonstrating,” Robin said, turning to me. “I’m curious to see of course, but they’re your powers—”
“No, it’s okay, I’ll show you,” I said as Daniel picked up his dad’s bag of forontunu and started eating them.
Shaking the sleeve of my sweatshirt back, I brought my hand up and focused my energy through my arm. “I’m not very good at this, but…” I swung my hand, pushing the energy outward in a gust of wind. A row of candles flickered and went out.
“Hmm.” Robin observed the smoking wicks.
“I can do it harder than that,” I said quickly. “I just didn’t want to knock anything over.”
“No, no, that was excellent,” Robin marveled, touching one of the glowing candle wicks. “Knocking things over is easy—any fool can knock things over. It takes talent to apply just enough force to get the job done. You must have practiced hard.”
“Well, yeah,” I said, feeling my face flush. “But that’s because getting air to move isn’t always easy for me.”
“Really?” Robin said in surprise. “Because Daniel here is a quarter fonyaka on his mother’s side and he doesn’t have anywhere near your precision with his fonya.”
“His wind power,” Robin said with teasing smile at his son. “He’s terrible at controlling it.”
“Hey! No I’m not!” Daniel said defensively.
“Oh?” Robin ran a fingertip over the row of candles, relighting them. “Would you care to try?”
“Oh, come on,” Daniel protested, “You know I can’t put out candles. My fire gets pulled into the air current and they just light up again.”
“Well, that would be something to work on then, wouldn’t it?” Robin said, raising his eyebrows. “You can’t very well go around setting things on fire when you mean to put them out.”
“I thought we were talking about Joan here,” Daniel scowled.
“Indeed we were.” Robin turned back to me, holding out one of the extinguished candles. “If you don’t mind, Joan.”
“Well, I-I’m not really good at controlling fire either,” I said. It wasn’t that I doubted my ability to make enough fire to light a candle; I just felt a little stupid doing it front of two people who were obviously experts. “I’m actually pretty bad at it.”
“That’s not true,” Daniel said. “You showed me your taya.”
“Your firepower. It was fine.”
“Yeah—but—I can’t… I’m not like you guys.”
“That’s hardly something to be ashamed of,” Robin said gently. “Daniel and I both grew up with our taya trained and nurtured by a culture more or less built around it. In your environment, it’s an accomplishment to have learned to use fire at all.”
“Okay. Um—I’ll try.” Hesitantly, I snapped my fingers and a flame jumped to life at the tip of my thumb. I was surprised. Usually it took more effort than that for me to create a flame, but the warm, fire-filled surroundings had helped it along.
“Like a natural,” Robin smiled as I brought my thumb to the wick, setting it aflame. “If air and fire are your weak elements, I would love to see something at which you excel.”
“Well, I don’t think I excel at anything, but…”
I picked up Daniel’s bowl of soup, which was still about half full, and held my hand over it. Slowly, I moved my hand in circles just above the rim. The soup in the bowl began to swirl with my movements. Then, as Daniel and his father watched, I lifted my hand, continuing to move it in circles. A stream of soup followed my fingers, spiraling up out of the bowl into the air after my hand.
“Whoa!” Daniel exclaimed as I guided the soup in a quick circle around the bowl and then back into it without splashing a drop. “What was that?”
“What was what?” I asked, confused. “I thought you had people in your world who controlled liquid.” What had Daniel called them? Jijakalu?
“We do,” said Robin, “but most can only control water—and relatively pure water at that. Your average Dunian jijaka can manipulate both freshwater and saltwater, but most would have trouble controlling a liquid as thick and riddled with other substances as soup.”
“Really?” That came as a surprise to me. “Controlling dirty water—like the scummy, mineral-rich stuff from a lake—is way easier for me than filtered or bottled water. I’ve tested it.”
“Interesting,” Robin said as Daniel finished off that second bag of forontunu and reached for mine.
“Can I have these?” he asked.
“Oh—sure,” I said, pushing the bag toward him. I wasn’t sure I would survive eating any more.
“Thirteen-year-old tajaka metabolism,” Robin explained as Daniel began wolfing down the snacks. “He eats a lot. Now, the bottomless pit here said something about you being able to control solid materials?”
“Yeah, some better than others,” I said.
“What about this bowl?” Robin pushed his empty soup bowl towards me. “Can you move this?”
“Um…” The bowl was a dull, quiet thing with barely any Hum to it. It didn’t pull at me, but it was still worth a try. “Let’s see.” Extending my hand and squinting in concentration, I got the bowl to lift off the tray, but it wobbled and clattered back down after a moment. “Ceramics,” I sighed in annoyance.
“You have trouble controlling ceramics?” Robin asked intently.
“Yeah.” The paper-thin soup residue clinging to the inside of the dish was more responsive to my powers than the processed clay that made up the bowl itself. “There are actually a lot of solids that give me a hard time: glass, plastic, paper, rubber. They never seem to like me.”
“Oh? What are the solids you favor?”
“Well…” My eyes fell on the stainless steel spoon in my own empty bowl. Reaching down, I tapped its handle with one finger, flipping it over the rim of the bowl to spin through the air. It kept spinning, under the feather-light guidance of my hand, whirring past a row of candles to weave in between Daniel and Robin.
“I like steel,” I said, flexing my fingers so that the spoon bent out of shape and then back again. “Metals in general, actually. They’re my favorite.”
“I see,” Robin mused as Daniel dropped the forontunu bag to stare, open-mouthed, at the fluidly twisting spoon. “Metals and mineral-rich water. Interesting. I’ve met some strange and talented people, Joan, but don’t think I’ve ever met someone capable of channeling the kind of nyama that you do.”
“Wait. What’s nyama?”
“It’s a Yammaninke word for energy,” Daniel said. “It’s what we feed on to use our powers.”
“But I thought you said theonite power was called nyamaya.”
“The terms are slightly different,” Robin explained. “Nyama refers to all the energy in the universe, both latent and in motion. Nyamaya refers to a person’s ability to manipulate that energy. Does that make sense?”
“I think so.”
“There was this little Lindish rhyme the finawu used to have us sing at temple, so we would remember the difference…”
“The Nyama Song?” Daniel said, perking up.
“Yes. How did it go?” Robin hummed softly to himself for a moment, the sound low and calming. Then he started to sing:
“Nyama, nyama, nyama
Waits in the earth and air,
And stirs in you and me.
Nyamaya, nyamaya…” He paused, seemingly grasping for the next line, but Daniel chimed in, his voice surprisingly bright and clear as he sang:
Where faja meets naja
Where mind meets energy.”
Robin joined back in for the last verse:
“Nyama, nyama, nyama
Binds the past to the now,
Binds now to what will be.”
“Okay…” I said slowly. They had nice singing voices, but—“I actually think I’m more confused now. What does the nyama energy stuff have to do with the past and the future?”
“Nyama has a few different roles,” Robin explained. “The nyama that is in motion holds the different times and realms of existence in alignment with each other. The nyama that is still lies dormant in raw materials like rock and metal, or even in living things like animals, plants, and human beings, waiting to be put to use. That’s where nyamaya comes in.”
“So, if nyamaya is the ability to move nyama around, then… it’s basically just theonite power?” I asked.
“Not just theonite power,” Robin said, “any kind of power. People with strong nyamaya are those who are able to perceive the raw potential in the world—in the rocks, in the air, in the people—all around them and harness it for their own purposes.
“Some people do this by controlling fire or air, as the three of us do. Some do it by taking a lump of metal and making it into a tool, or weapon, or machine. Some do it by taking clay and turning it into a work of art. Some do it by taking separate words and stringing them together into discourse that moves others to action. Your ability to manipulate nyama in your particular way is your nyamaya.”
“So, if I, like, make a sculpture or a weapon, even if I don’t use my powers to do it, that’s still nyamaya?”
“That,” Robin said, “is complicated, and still hotly debated on Duna. Some would argue that you are only properly utilizing your nyamaya if you are manipulating nyama in a way that is considered appropriate for your station and social group. This is all tied up with Yammanka social hierarchy, and occupational castes, and a lot of racial prejudice that’s too complicated to get into right now. But since you aren’t Yammanka, or even from Duna, I would say that your nyamaya is whatever you feel it is.”
“So, using my powers?”
“If that is where you are at your best.”
“And that feeling I get,” I said, struggling to put the sensation I had always called ‘the Hum’ into words, “Where I can sense everything around me, where I can hear—or feel—metal, and water, and stuff calling out to me with their different…” Sounds? Frequencies? Calling them ‘voices’ just sounded silly. “That’s nyama I’m feeling?”
“It is,” Robin said, “and from the way you describe the sensation—with different materials ‘calling to you’ in different ways—it seems that your ability to sense nyama is quite advanced for your age. You’ve already taught yourself to intuit which parts of your environment hold potential power for you and which do not.”
“You mean how I can feel which things will be easy for me to move and which things are going to be hard?”
Robin nodded. “As a skilled sculptor can tell which rock to chisel into. It’s a sense most don’t develop until well beyond your years, and usually only through intensive training and meditation.”
“And you said nyama isn’t just in metals, and water, and stuff? It’s in people too?”
“So, that’s how I could tell that Daniel wasn’t like the other kids at school,” I said. “That’s why being near you—near all this fire you guys made—feels different than being around other people.”
“Naturally. Just as it’s clear to me that you have your own nyama, an inner store of energy, carefully built up from your own effort and emotion.”
“Really?” Almost unconsciously, I put a hand to my own chest. “You can feel that?”
“You’ve done an impressive job of quieting it, but yes,” Robin smiled. “I can feel it. I understand it took Daniel a while to catch on.”
“She was—it was a confusing day, okay?” Daniel said defensively.
“So, what does your nyamaya do?” I asked. “Daniel, you control wind and fire, right?”
“Mostly fire,” Daniel said, “but yeah.”
“And you?” I turned to Robin. “Do you control anything besides fire?”
“Sadly, no,” Robin said as Daniel gave him a self-satisfied smirk. “Daniel inherited his wind power from his mother. I’m a one-note theonite, can’t move a molecule of water or air—although I can do this.” Picking up Daniel’s half-finished bowl of soup, Robin thrust it forward, tossing the remaining soup into his son’s face.
“Agh! Dad!” Daniel sputtered and began spitting out soup. Still rubbing the stuff out of his eyes, he snatched up my bowl and flung what remained of the soup in it at his father.
Robin just laughed and raised a hand, releasing an alarmingly hot burst of fire. Caught in the rush of flames, the soup turned to steam and ash before ever touching him. A moment later, there was a smaller puff of fire from Daniel’s direction. The flames must have been combined with the air powers they had mentioned earlier because it sent the tray and all the remaining tableware flying at Robin.
“Whoa!” Robin managed to catch the tray in one hand and two spoons in the other, but was slow to defend against the bowl Daniel threw at him next. It hit him squarely in the forehead, bouncing off to land neatly in the crook of his arm.
“Okay, okay,” Robin laughed. “You got me. I’m calling a truce. And now that I’m holding all the dishes, I suppose I’ll go ahead and clean up before we do any more damage here. Joan, Daniel, grab those snack bags and throw them out for me, would you?”
Collecting the empty forontunu bags, Daniel and I stood and followed his father into the kitchen, a few candles sparking to life for us in Robin’s wake.
“Is this normal for you guys?” I asked Daniel under my breath.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Daniel replied, still dripping with soup, but smiling now.
Normally I would have been alarmed to see a father and son flinging fire and silverware at one another, but if Robin and Daniel had heads as hard as mine, it probably didn’t hurt any more than being pelted with beach balls. And they were both so fast and coordinated, it was like watching something out of a Jackie Chan movie.
“Now, Joan,” Robin set down the stack of bowls and turned the sink faucet on. “Why don’t you help Daniel get that stuff out of his hair?”
Smiling, I redirected the stream of water coming from the faucet so it sprayed directly in Daniel’s face. When I let the water snap back to its gravity-induced drop into the sink, Daniel was soaking wet.
“Thanks,” he said sarcastically, but he was smiling. Flames leapt up around him, steam burst from his clothes and hair, and he was dry again within moments. I pulled the excess water off the floor and dispersed the molecules into vapor, leaving us all in a soft white mist as Robin started in on the dishes.
“You kids go ahead and put a movie on,” he said. “Daniel and I have been having some trouble figuring out how to play these disc things you use, but now that you’re here, Joan, I’m sure you can show us how.”
“Oh. Yeah, sure.”
“Hey, Joan,” Daniel grabbed my arm and pulled me into the living room. “I just got an idea,” he whispered. “Can you make ice?”
“Can I have some?”
I drew water out of the air and cooled it into a walnut-sized lump. Not the most elegant ice formation, but Daniel seemed satisfied as I repeated the process three more times, letting each piece fall into his outstretched hands.
“Thanks,” Daniel grinned when he had four little chunks of ice, the first of which was already starting to melt against his hot skin. “You’re the best.”
He snuck into the kitchen, practically silent on those quick little feet, and dropped the ice cubes down the back of his dad’s shirt.
“Ahh!” Robin gasped, dropping the bowl he had been scrubbing back into the sink. “Fa-Kiye, Daniel! That’s not fair!”
Moving at what seemed to be the speed of light, Daniel dodged the dishwater Robin flung at him and darted back into the living room, laughing. And I found that I had started giggling too.
“Anyway,” Daniel said, when he had finished cackling, “What movie do you want to watch?” He crawled behind the TV and pulled out a stack of DVDs. “My dad got these randomly from your book place.”
“You mean the library?”
“Yeah, that. I don’t know what any of them are. Do you?” He spread the DVDs out on the floor. There was Titanic, Les Misérables, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and Spiderman 2.
“Um, what made your dad get these?” I asked, surveying the collection with amusement.
“Don’t ask me. We’ve never watched any Earth movies. I guess he just asked the library person which ones were popular. Do you know what they are?”
“Well, this one’s about star-crossed lovers on a big ship that hits an iceberg and sinks. Then everyone freezes to death in the water. It’s kind of a downer.”
“Yeah.” Daniel looked vaguely sickened by the idea. “Gross. And what’s this one about?”
“It’s adapted from a musical about the French Revolution.”
Daniel gave me blank, uncomprehending look. “A what about the what?”
“It’s—you know what, it’s probably better if we don’t watch that one. I don’t think it’s going to make a lot of sense if you don’t know anything about France, or French history, or Earth in general.”
“Okay, well, what about this?” Daniel picked up Return of the King. “Is this one any good?”
“It’s the best, but we can’t watch it.”
“It’s the third movie in a trilogy. You have to watch the other two first.”
“Fine. What about this one? What’s this one about?” Daniel picked up Spiderman 2.
“Oh, I only saw the first one,” I said, “But it’s about a guy with super-powers, kind of like us—well, actually not really like us. He got them from a radioactive spider bite. Anyway, you said you liked superheroes, so you might like it.”
“So, you think we should watch it?”
“Well… it’s also part of a series, but I guess we might as well. No matter which one we pick, there are going to be pieces of the story missing.”
Robin brought out some blankets and the three of us sat on the living room carpet, watching Spiderman until the rain slowed to a drizzle and the sky darkened to black outside the windows.
It occurred to me, as the movie opened, how misguided it had been to try to take fictional heroes like Spiderman as an example when I was younger. Now that I had a real answer, the colorful kid version seemed a little silly. Daniel thought it was downright ridiculous and he didn’t mind letting us know.
“Holy Falleke, why would you try to fight crime in that?” he exclaimed when Spiderman first appeared in his mask and spandex, “You would never wear anything like that, would you, Dad?”
Daniel spent the entire movie saying things like, ‘That guy doesn’t look so tough,’ and ‘that never happens,’ and ‘duck, just duck!’ and ‘I can do that.’
But I didn’t pay much attention to the movie after the first few minutes. All I could think about was that this was the first time in my life anyone had accepted me after finding out about my powers, the first time anyone had accepted me for who I really was.
My mind cast around for a way to describe what I felt, surrounded by the glow of candles, wrapped up in a blanket that smelled of spice and smoke. It was more than just physical warmth; I could make my own heat whenever I wanted. The feeling fluttering around me now was made of Daniel’s laugh and Robin’s smile. It was part of them, like my power was part of me.
For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged.
NOTE: you can see a guide to reading and writing the Yammaninke alphabet here.