‘After the overthrow of any regime, a period of relative chaos is a sad inevitability.’ That’s what the pale man tells us. I try to ask a question, but my father shushes me. He is trying to learn. Teaching is their gift - he tells me this all the time. I'm bored by his preaching and the pale man’s words so I just nod, as politely as I can, and run outside.
I want to see what my mother and sister are doing. I shouldn't go anywhere near the tent, but I've never been good at following the rules. I stand in the darkness of the doorway. I can see that my sister is having her hair braided. If it's still shoulder length after the braiding then it will be official. She will be a woman. My mother told me this would happen soon. Today must be the day. I know she is both happy and sad, because it means that Nina will be leaving. I can't be sad. I am excited for my sister.
They come in big silver ships, the pale men. They call them vessels, but I'm not sure what that means. They come from the sky and they are the brightest silver. One of them tried to explain that colour to me, but I didn't listen. The best bits are when they come and when they go. The ships go hazy in the sky, like they are vanishing; like you can see them drift from this world to the next. They tell my father it takes a long time, but he wants to go anyway. It's a shame he wants it so bad. Men aren't allowed.
'Money does not give birth.' My mother barks at Nina, as she braids her hair and tries to shoo me away.
I am out of reach and she has more important arguments to win, so she allows me to dart into the corner. For now anyway.
'I know Mother, but it helps. That is why you take them for tours, make baskets. Money makes it easier to raise family.'
'That is no reason to go with them. Soon you may be a woman.' I watch as she wraps the braids tighter, she is desperate for them to be too short. 'and you will be able to take any man you wish. From this world or the other.'
'Their life is better than ours Mother. Don't you wish they had been here to take you away?'
'No I don't! I love your father. He puts bad dreams in your head, girl. That is the only thing I do not love. He doesn't know what life they live. None of us do. I worry that they may hurt you.'
'Mother they have bought us real learning.'
I watch Nina smile. Mother refuses to learn anything she doesn't have to. She refuses their 'education', but she is bright. Neither of us had known until she started to correct us. She has learnt, so she can put us right and give us the best life. She secretly agrees with Father. At least that is what Nina tells me.
'They have brought us education, shown us how to live off tourism. They help us. Why would they hurt me?'
'I don't know, but I don't trust them.'
'Mother, I remember you having to eat the hide you slept on so that I could have meat.'
I don't remember this. It must have been before I was alive, before the pale men came. There is ten years between me and my sister and my father calls it the time of change. He says I'm his babe of the new world. I have never known a world without the pale men, but my sister lived nine years before they came and she still screams in the night.
Father says that our ancestors lived wild for so long that there was not even a whisper about the planet before. None of us knew it any other way than black and burnt. Then they came and told us what happened. The pale men have been watching for a long time.
My mother has shining eyes now and Nina has gone quiet. She remembers and the braids on Nina's head are all done on one side and even I can tell they are going to be fine. They would have been last year, but Mother wouldn't do it for her then. I watch in the silence. I know Father cannot wait for her to go away. He loves her, maybe more than Mother, but he wants her to have the best life and he has faith in the pale men and their teaching. My mother calls it blind faith. He finds them more amazing than the ships they come in. I don't know how! They are just men and they don't even have hair to braid. My Father hopes Nina will go with the one we call Lion and I know she will. Lion is not his name and he doesn't like it, but that is what we call him. Nina will definitely go. Her and Lion laugh all the time and she has Father's trust.
Mother is finishing the braids and her shining eyes are leaking tears down her cheek. Nina asks her not to cry and then Mother whispers something and I have to get closer to hear.
'You will do it?'
'Of course Mother.'
'You will come back here. To me, with child.'
'Mother, of course. When I'm pregnant I'll come. You will help me have it, even if I go. Won't you? I can't do it without you!'
My mother doesn't need to answer and now they are both crying. I slip out, because all this crying is silly and it makes me feel bad.
Outside Lion and Father are talking about the Universe. I listen sometimes, but all they tell us is that it's a load of black around our planet and nobody even lives in it—except the pale men. It seems pretty boring to me, like when we had no neighbours.
The pale man pauses in the middle of his conversation. Lion never does this and I turn to see what he is looking at. My Mother and Nina are leaving the tent. Nina is running and she does look beautiful. I hope I look like Nina one day. Nina hugs my father and he looks prouder than the day he killed the hippo. She steps back and looks at Lion.
'I would like you,' she says quietly.
'I would like you too,' he says.
Mother and Father both have their hands to their mouths. Father to keep back the shock and Mother to keep back the tears. I'd like to be more concerned for Nina, but this is where the fun starts.
Singing and dancing, till late. Much too late for me, but no one cares and that makes me love it even more. We have ate so much and I feel happy and heavy. Men dance around large flames and even a number of the pale men have come to watch, though that is all they do. The music gets louder and the women join in; their braids swing back and forth, like horses tails in the dust. The one thing my father is glad of is dance.
'Lion' he says laughing, 'For all the learning in the Universe I would not want to shuffle like a pale man.'
Lion laughs with him and holds Nina's hand. Of all the pale men I am glad she is going with him. He is kind. The others are too stiff to be kind.
We stand around and all the flames flicker in the silver body of the vessel. This is the exciting bit, where we see it disappear, but this time they are taking Nina with them and I am surprised to be sad. After all the dancing and the food and the fun, all I can do is hold my mother's hand.
Nina gives me a hug. I can't remember the last time I let her hug me and this time I hug her back tight and it makes her shake. She brushes my loose hair out of my face and says something quietly in my ear.
'Maybe when you're a woman I'll see you there too. Look after Mum for me.'
She never calls her Mum and that makes me sad too, but I smile because that is what Father said I should do.
‘Do not be sad for your sister,’ he says. ‘smile and keep her heart whole. She is going somewhere amazing. We should all be happy and proud.’
Under the great silver body she stands and the doors slide open, even more quietly then the flap of our tent. Even Lion looks sad to be leaving. I think it must be a relief for him. He's been here for so long, so far from home, but when I look across he doesn’t seem relieved.
She waves as she steps inside and I want to wave back, but Mother has my hand too tight. I miss my chance and that puts a rock in my throat.
Father steps up behind us and holds Mother and me.
'She will be back.' he says, 'and when she is we will be grandparents and she will have many exciting stories to tell us about the Universe.'
'But none of them have come back yet.' Mother says with a crack in her voice.
'Nina will,' he says. 'She will.'
Ben Warden - Editor of the #SFFiction project and author of 'Life Without', which made the top ten literary fiction e-books on amazon.