The words stopped in the middle of the line. I passed out.
Port of Calcutta, India
I FOLLOWED BEHIND THE MAN IN BLUE, MY SMALL legs hurrying to match his long stride. Seven days had passed since he first brought me to the empty village, since I began to live with Sister in the hut. I was happy to be out again. I was happy to see the ships again, standing tall and crawling with men.
But I missed Sister. I wished she was here. I clutched the doll to my chest. I had not yet chosen her name.
The Man in Blue brought me to a big building, and we went inside to meet a white man with glass discs on his nose. The Man in Blue handed him a small black pouch. The white man filled it and then handed it back.
“Is she speaking?” the white man asked in a new language I was beginning to learn. He pushed the glass circles higher on his face.
“Not to me,” the Man in Blue said. “But she speaks in Hindi and Sanskrit to my daughter.”
“No other languages?”
“We have not tried.”
“What’s that, there, she’s holding?” he pointed a bony finger at my doll.
I squeezed it tightly. The white man saw, and wrote something down.
“My daughter made it for her and she will go nowhere without it now. She is attached.”
“Indeed.” The white man wrote something else. His eyes shifted back and forth between the paper and me, until finally, the Man in Blue was allowed to take me outside, back into the smoky sunlight.
“I have business I must do before we leave,” he said to me. “But as long as you do not lose sight of me, you may explore the port.” He extended his arm along the bustling stretch of land near the water.
I nodded. He waved his hand, sending me off.
I ran. I had been confined for too long and I delighted in the freedom. I absorbed every scent—mud and brine, spice and musk—and my eyes drank in the colors of the people and the buildings and the ships.
I ran until I heard a reedy sound repeat itself in a rhythmic, hypnotic melody. It slowed my steps and drew me to the source.
An old man sat cross-legged before a basket, blowing on a long stick that swelled into a bulb. People ringed the basket, staring as a snake rose out of the depths, swaying back and forth. The people clapped.
I did not understand their delight. Did the animal live in the basket? Was it trapped there, to live in the dark?
I crept closer. I was small enough to push through the crowd without being noticed. I drew nearer until anxious whispers rose to a loud murmur, until the old man stopped his music and shouted for me to get back.
I understood him but did not listen. What did I have to fear from snakes? I marveled at the animal’s soft armor, at the ruby tongue that flicked out to taste my scent. As I extended my arm out to touch it, it arched its long body back—
“Stop!” the Man in Blue shouted. My skin stung from his slap. He grabbed my sore wrist and led me quickly away. My arm hurt in his grasp, but after a measure of distance, he let me go.
“Are you mad, child?”
I did not know how to answer.
He softened at my confusion. “You like animals?” he asked, his voice warm, now. Gentle.
I nodded. Yes.
His cheeks folded into a smile and his grip on my wrist loosened. He fit his fingers in mine and led me down the length of the port. We came to a stop before one of the great ships, but that was not what stole my breath.
Hundreds of animals were trapped inside a row of gleaming cages. “Keep your hands away from the bars,” he said, as we passed chattering, screaming birds that beat their wings but couldn’t fly. A sullen monkey, large and brown, gripped the bars of its cage with human fingers. Stared at me with human eyes. A giant snake was tucked into a ball, withdrawing from everything, withdrawing from life.
The sight refused to make sense. I was born watching monkeys skip through treetops. I was lulled to sleep by the sound of a bird’s call. They did not belong here, in this place of smoke.
We were not the only watchers. A cluster of jeering boys rattled long sticks along the biggest cage. A snarling tiger paced inside, its orange and black stripes rippling behind the bars.
The tiger threw its powerful body against the cage, at the boys, but they laughed and danced back.
“Now,” the Man in Blue said, kneeling down. “You must stay here. The animals will entertain you?”
Entertain. I did not know the word.
“I will come back shortly. Do not cause trouble,” he said, then left.
I edged over to a thin boy with small, darting eyes at the fringe of the group.
“Help me,” I whispered to him.
His black eyes considered me warily. Maybe he did not understand? I tried another tongue. “Help me,” I said again.
“Help you what?” he asked.
I pointed to the animals. “Get them out.”
WHEN I OPENED MY EYES, I WAS IN MY brother’s bedroom, still holding the notebook as he knocked on his door.
“This is kind of backward,” he said, clearly wondering why I was there.
The contours of the dream-memory-blackout shivered in my mind. I tried to hold on to it.
I blinked and it blurred away. I couldn’t remember where I’d gone.
“Yeah,” I said, standing woozily. I was still holding the notebook—I couldn’t have been out for long. Maybe minutes? Seconds? I was sweaty, and my clothes stuck to my skin.
“Did you take the book?” I asked my brother, trying to keep my voice even. “I was looking for it.”
“The genetics one? Yeah.” Daniel went to his closet and opened it. “Sorry, I put it in here; I didn’t want it to get mixed up with my things. You okay?” He peered at me.
Fake smile. “Yes!”
Strange look. “You sure?”
I hid the composition notebook behind me. Why had I put that in his room? “No, yeah, I really am,” I said, standing up. “Can I have the—”
“Is that the story?” Daniel said, glancing at the notebook behind my back.
What story? I looked down at it. “Um.”
“How’s the assignment going? Constructive? Cathartic?” He winked.
Ah. He thought it was the Horizons story. The assignment that I invented to get his help. I looked at the notebook, then back up at Daniel. I had no idea why I’d put it in his room or when, but I was lucky he hadn’t noticed it, considering what was inside. My insides twisted. I needed to talk to Noah.
But my brother was waiting for an answer. So I said, “She’s not possessed.”