Chapter 1: Let There Be Light
I died and there was darkness.
Out of the darkness came light.
Streams and ribbons of glittering light wove around me, holding me. They formed intricate gossamer webs, weaving patterns I could stare at forever. I could even see it inside myself, tiny streams of light knotted into a flickering ball of fire dwarfed by the rivers of brilliance around me. Time meant little wrapped in the light. I was at peace, floating in that wonderful place.
And I didn’t float alone. Cocooned with me in the light was another fluttering ball of fire. Where the ribbons around me had beauty in their strength, the enormous surges of light flowing along their lengths, the little ball was beautiful for its fragility. It was such a delicate thing, made of strands barely the width of a spider’s thread. So I wrapped myself gently around it and held it close. It was just barely warm in a world without heat, a little candle against my breast, and that made it precious to me.
Marking time was all but impossible. I faded in and out of awareness and I could never say how much time passed while I was dormant. I spent my waking hours staring at the beauty around me and cradling my little flame and for a while time would be marked by the pulsing of its light. My little flame grew a little bit with each pulse, spinning itself more threads, thickening those it already had. It was still fragile, so fragile, but there was wonder in its growth. My own threads grew as well and I hoped that my little flame drew heat from me just as I was warmed by it. We drifted that way for a long time.
Then the light flared. It pulsed so brightly that it hurt. The gentle, caring light became frightening. It grasped and pulled and squeezed. My own fire flickered faster in response and my little flame did the same. I was scared. And then it took my flame. The grasping light took my flame and dragged it away and I was alone. I was alone.
For too long I was left with the searing light, huddled in on myself, afraid to leave and afraid of staying and being alone forever. By the time the light took me as well, shoving me where it wanted me to go, I didn’t know whether to be afraid or hopeful. I just wanted my little flame back.
Then there was distance. I left the cocoon of ribbons behind and was met by an unbearable sense of distance. Before everything had been close and comfortable. I had been able to reach out and press against any of the ribbons of light that I could see. In this new place there was still light but it was so far away. Endless plains of gently undulating light, beating knots of fire, and … oh. Oh my.
This new place had stars. I was lifted towards the stars, two brilliant orbs settled next to one another in one of those beating knots of fire. They were wonderful. Even more than the place of light, these shone . I loved them.
I was settled near the stars and lying there next to me was my little flame. My flame! I started to cry. My flame! As I lay there wailing with joy another one of those beating knots of fire drew closer and I could see an even brighter pair of stars shining out of it. All the fear and terror I’d felt while being taken from the place of light left me. There was beauty here and I had my little flame. Everything would be okay.
I reached out to grasp my little flame and one of the beating knots of fire moved me closer so I could hold it. The surge of gratitude I felt stunned me and I wept harder. Everything would be alright. I had my little flame and everything would be alright. I slowly stopped crying as a wave of tiredness washed through me. I was okay with that though. I wasn’t alone, I had my little flame, I could go to sleep.
I woke still curled up around my little flame, nestled between those two knots of fire and their brilliant stars. And I was hungry. That shocked me. In the place of light I had never been hungry. For that matter I hadn’t breathed either, which was something I was definitely doing now. It was discomforting to deal with such innocuous things after that timeless peace among the ribbons of light.
A trace of nervousness shot through me as I realized I didn’t know how to sate my hunger. The threads of fire I was made of were weak and not very responsive. Even if I could have moved, I didn’t know what qualified as food here! So I did what I could. I squirmed, I mewled, and wriggled helplessly.
Fortunately that worked. One of the knots of fire next to me roused, their stars flaring brighter as they moved. Gently they reached out and lifted me, cradling me against them. They placed me just in front of a node of fiery ribbons tangled up inside them and pulled me closer, pressing me up against the knotted ribbons. A little confused but hopeful it would help, I mouthed the knot. That was enough. A gush of warm liquid filled my mouth and the pangs of hunger eased a shade.
And my world came crashing down.
The cocoon of ribboned lights hadn’t been an afterlife. I wasn’t dead. I was nursing. My thoughts spun in circles and pinwheeled wildly. That cocoon had been a womb. My mother’s womb. My mother who was now nursing me. I was a nursing newborn. None of which explained why everything around me was made of shining light. I’m a baby.
I hope that excuses what I did next. I cried. I wailed. I woke up the other knot of fire. I woke up my little flame (my twin!) who also started crying. I think I vomited a little on my mom. It was awful. Over the wailing of me and my twin my parents carried out a garbled conversation I couldn’t understand. It ended with my mom lifting my little flame up to another knot of ribbons inside her (her breast) where they promptly ceased crying and starting sucking down liquid fire. I struggled away from my mother’s breast and reached out to my little flame. She must have understood my intentions because she shifted me close enough to touch my little flame.
I grasped at my twin. It would be alright. I wasn’t alone. I would be alright. I tried to reassure myself of that, tried to believe that everything would be alright. My wailing eased and I eventually managed to stop crying entirely. It wasn’t really okay, I was still confused and a little terrified. But I wasn’t alone, my little flame was here.
We had a routine now, my little flame and I. First thing in the morning Mom would gently shake us awake and we would yawn and stretch in the confines of our crib while she got dressed.
It had taken a long time for me to see clothes, the thin sheets of cloth barely held any light at all and I still had to focus to make them out. Before I could see the clothes Mom getting dressed had looked nonsensical and I hadn’t been able to understand what she was doing, my best guess had been that she was performing some morning religious ritual. Being able to actually see what she was doing now was nice, even if I still had no idea what was going on with my sight.
After Mom got dressed, in perfect silence so as not to wake Dad, she would pick us up and take us down to the kitchen. She’d put on a pot of coffee and settle in to breastfeed us. The smell of coffee would wake Dad up and he’d come downstairs. My flame and I would wave our pudgy little hands at him and he’d wave back.
I was very proud of our morning wave, it had taken so long to teach my little flame to do that.
Dad would start to make breakfast and Mom would smile at him. The streams of light that made up her face would twist into a curve and her whole being would brighten a little. It was beautiful how much she loved him. Dad would drink coffee while he cooked and his fire would flare a little, turning him into something resembling a waking human being.
Dad typically finished making breakfast around the time my flame and I were done breastfeeding. Mom would hand us over to him and start eating. Then Dad would stick us in this double-high-chair thing and start brushing Mom’s waist-long hair, which looked like a faintly glowing river in his hands. He always got this gentle smile on his face while he was brushing her hair, it was obvious that he loved her as much as she loved him. While Dad was combing Mom’s hair I would point at things around the house and he would name them. I’d quickly realized that I didn’t understand the language Mom and Dad spoke and I was determined to learn.
After understanding would come speech, a prospect I dreaded. I could barely open and close my mouth, let alone exert enough control over my tongue and lips to make coherent sounds. I’d get it though. I was not going to let my “actually a baby” brother beat me to speech, that would be downright shameful.
Once Mom was done eating she’d put my flame and I in these amazingly cozy slings on her chest. She’d kiss Dad goodbye as he settled in for his own breakfast and then we were off. Mom must have been some kind of professional runner because she always ran to work so fast our surroundings blurred. How she managed to do that and avoid bouncing me and my flame around I have no idea. But her morning runs were smooth as silk and I often found myself lulled back to sleep while she ran.
At work she’d settle in at her desk, my flame and I still swaddled on her chest, and start doing paperwork of some kind. She never ignored us while doing her work though. She’d point at her coworkers and talk, telling us stories about them I assume. And she’d give us these big, flat rubber toys I could just barely fit the end of in my mouth. Oh my gods those helped with teething. They were the best . She’d rub our heads and murmur to us endlessly while she filled out forms and wrote papers. When we got hungry she’d feed us, she changed our diapers when needed, and when we got sleepy we’d doze off against her chest.
Life as a baby was good.
Later in the day Mom would take us back home, again running so fast that our surroundings blurred. When we got home Mom would stick us in a penned-in area of the kitchen with a bunch of big stuffy dolls and some more of those wonderful rubber toys. Then she’d make start making dinner while waiting for Dad to come home. At this point my brother tended to get tired and grumpy. I was really good at calming him down though. He always scrunched his face just so when he was building up a good cry, but I could just plop my hand on his cheek and he’d stop. He’d stare straight at me when I did that, the tiny little developing stars in his face shining with wonder.
Mom always laughed when she saw me doing that. She’d pat my head and say something in a tone of voice which made me think she was thankful and a little proud of me. As silly as it sounds, it was something that made me really happy.
Dad always arrived home exactly when Mom finished with dinner, no matter what she made and no matter how long it took to make. It was like he was psychic. The two of them would eat dinner and then Dad would play with us. He’d lift us up into the air and make silly noises and play out elaborate scenes with the big stuffy dolls. It was a surprising amount of fun, letting myself get caught up in the flow of his games. My little flame’s tiredness would vanish and he’d burble his appreciation while I clapped my little pudgy hands at Dad’s antics.
Shortly after we were returned to the crib, where my flame and I would cuddle together and go to sleep. We’d wake a few times in the night to be fed and then start the routine all over in the morning.
Life as a baby was really good.
I learned my name during one of our play sessions with Dad. Dad was urging us on in a race to see who could squirm across the floor faster and something clicked. He was calling us by our names! I was Yuki and my little flame, my brother, was Neji. I burbled with joy, a rare vocal expression which made Dad laugh and call Mom over. I had a name! Haha! I had a name!
Neji then won our race while I was distracted and had the gall to gurgle about his victory. So of course I had to crawl over and lay on top of him to prove my dominance as the better twin. I was still psyched about having a name and burbling about it, which gave me some trouble while climbing atop Neji, but I managed. Neji and I must have made a pretty funny picture like that, two burbling babies lying in a heap, because Mom and Dad started laughing until they keeled over. Which only prompted Neji to giggle more and since Neji giggling is the most adorable thing I know of I couldn’t stop giggling either.
Eventually Neji wanted his brother Yuki off and he started getting pushy about it, which brought an end to the gigglefest. I complied and he wandered off to grab one of those rubber toys to show Dad. I didn’t follow him. I sat and watched.
I looked at Neji. Really looked. He wasn’t just my little flame was he? He wasn’t just the warmth that had kept me company before I was born. My little flame had a name. Neji. It made him more real somehow, more a person and less a thing. Neji was more than he had been, his fire was stronger and more solid than it had ever been in the womb. His eyes were turning from dull embers into spots of light and one day they’d be stars like Mom and Dad’s.
Neji was going to grow up. We were going to grow up. And we’d do it together.
I wasn’t sure what to think about that.
“N’i!” I exclaimed, pointing at Neji.
Dad paused, brush mid-stroke in Mom’s hair.
“N’i!” I cried again. I clasped my hands to my chest. “‘ki!”
Mom stared at me like she’d just seen a ghost. Dad’s jaw actually dropped.
I spread my arms wide and clasped them to my chest again. “‘ki!” I pointed at Neji. “N’i!” The ‘y’ and ‘j’ sounds were still giving my tongue trouble, but from Mom and Dad’s expressions it didn’t matter. They got what I was going for.
Mom leapt up like she’d been stung, Dad’s brush catching in her hair. She yelped something to Dad who immediately pulled me out of the high-chair and clasped me to his chest. He laughed and started cooing to me in a voice that just dripped pride. Mom leaned over me and rubbed my head, smiling like the sun. I burbled with joy. I’d done it! I’d said something comprehensible!
Neji decided that was enough paying attention to Yuki and made his displeasure known. “Ba!” he shouted. “Ba! Ba ba ba!”
Mom swooped over and lifted Neji out of the high-chair. She started cooing to Neji, doing her best to settle my envious little twin.
I smiled at him and exclaimed, “N’i!”. Dad laughed again and jostled me up and down. I glowed with pride. I felt a little bad that Neji couldn’t join in on the fun, but he’d talk on his own eventually. Also I wasn’t sure I could willingly delay learning to communicate with other humans again. Gods what I would do for a proper conversation.
A week later I was hoisting myself up by the edge of our playpen, learning how to walk. I cried out, “Move! Move!” to get Dad to hold my hand and help me along. I was so happy to be learning how to walk.
I tried to pick Neji up and get him to walk too, but he didn’t really understand what I was trying to do. My attempts just ended with me falling flat on my back in front of an unimpressed Neji.
I don’t think Mom and Dad were worried, exactly, that Neji didn’t start trying to walk until a month after I did. Neji had always been more of a baby than me. I was the one who comforted him after all, not the other way around. Me being a month ahead of Neji wasn’t a serious cause for concern.
Talking though, Neji didn’t say his first word until almost four months later. Which is still really early, Neji was obviously a bright kid. But four months. By the time Neji said his first word “egg” I could mimic any word with two syllables and was well on my way to learning what they all meant. That definitely made Mom and Dad uneasy.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized they hadn’t been worried for Neji. They had been worried for me.