Gold mouths cry with the green young
certainty of the bronze boy
remembering a thousand autumns
and how a hundred thousand leaves
came sliding down his shoulder blades
persuaded by his bronze heroic reason.
We ignore the coming doom of gold
and we are glad in this bright metal season.
Even the dead laugh among the goldenrod.
The bronze boy stands kneedeep in centuries,
and never grieves,
remembering a thousand autumns,
with sunlight of a thousand years upon his lips
and his eyes gone blind with leaves.
—Sylvia Plath, "Gold Mouths Cry"
The planet did not have snow. When he was a little boy—when he was four—he did not know there was anything he was missing. Once his papa had told him a story of somewhere that was just sand. Where it was hot all the time. “Millions of little rocks dumped on top of each other, but they’re so small you can’t see them”: this was how his papa had described sand. There was a lake where he had been taught to swim but there was no sand there, only rocks and mud. “There’s sand at oceans, too,” his papa told him. “What’s oceans?” he asked, and his papa sighed.
Sometimes he held a rock and imagined it in a million little pieces so small he couldn’t see them. Rocks were solid and heavy in his hands. He had a collection on the shelf above his bed. He had asked his papa how you could break a rock into a million pieces and his papa had just shrugged. “Time,” Bacca had told him. He didn’t understand what that meant.
There was no sand, and no snow—he did not know there was no snow to miss—but there was mud, and dirt, and trees. He thought there were probably a million trees on the planet. How many was a million? A lot. You could walk straight away from home and soon enough there would be nothing but trees everywhere and for as long as you kept walking that was all you would see, unless you went toward the lake. But all the trees looked different, at least he thought so, and some of them had fallen over—like they had gotten old and laid down and died—and sometimes the ground went up and down and was harder to manage, unless you were big like his papa or like Bacca who was even taller. “These trees aren’t that tall,” his papa liked to say, looking up at them, when he took him out on adventures, and he didn’t know if it was because his papa was tall: maybe everything looked small when you were as tall as he was. Or maybe he was just pretending. Maybe he was afraid of them.
Sometimes his papa took him out on adventures and pretended they were on the Falcon running away from globbins or fighting blixus or other things he didn’t understand. Sometimes when Bacca was there his papa got him to pretend too. And sometimes when he wasn’t he made him run past ten whole trees to catch up with him—just in time! They got away!—and swung him over a big root, or put him on his shoulders and told him to co-pilot. “Best seat in the house,” he said. And he got to pull on his hair to make him go whichever way he wanted.
But mostly he went off by himself, when it wasn’t raining, to pull himself over the dead trees and poke at the big beetles and collect rocks. His papa was usually busy doing grown-up things. “Boring stuff,” he told him, tugging at his hair. “Your mom made me a list.”
Today, the ground was damp, and the leaves were stuck together. He picked up a clump and pulled them slowly apart one by one and dropped them behind him. Last night he had heard the rain from his room and closed his eyes and tried to feel his mother. Every time she left she said: You can feel me anywhere, you know. Just close your eyes and concentrate. Think about me. I can feel you, too. And he’d asked: anywhere in the galaxy? although he didn’t really understand what a galaxy was, even though his papa had shown him the maps. Yes, she’d told him. Anywhere that I go. This was something he was supposed to be able to do because he was special, hut he could never do it and he had begun to suspect that she was lying to make him feel better. He had tried as hard as he could last night, in the rain, to think of her: It’s raining, he had thought. Is it raining there too? But he hadn’t felt anything at all. He didn’t know where “there” was, anyway.
Now he was wandering through the squishing forest wondering whether his mother was lying to him. It was the first time he had ever considered this. No thought of this kind had ever crossed his mind before. His mother never, he knew, lied. His papa lied but only about stupid things, and he could always tell. (“Or to stupid people,” he had told him once, very seriously. “It’s fine to lie to stupid people. As long as you’re out of there before they’ve figured it out.”) But what if his mother had been lying to him? He shredded a leaf.
He had asked his papa about it once, not so long ago—but back, he remembered, when he was still four. He was five now. At night, before going to bed: what did she mean? “She means the Force,” his papa had told him, shifting his weight under him. He was small for his age, though later he would grow, and grow. And though he did not know it, he was lonely. “Some special people can—I dunno, feel things the rest of us can’t.”
“Sure,” his papa said. “You might be able to feel your mom.” He didn’t sound convinced.
He thought about this. “I don’t think I’m special,” he said. “She always tells me I am but I don’t think it works.”
“Well, I’m not,” his papa said. “So you probably just take after my side of the family. I’m the normal one, did you know that? Unbelievable. Be glad you got my genes.”
“Okay,” he said, feeling his chest rise and fall below his, and then snuck a glance up at his face: his papa’s perfect face, which was slack and gazing at the ceiling. “Maybe I got Bacca’s genes,” he whispered, and almost fell onto the floor when his papa laughed.
“You don’t look much like anybody I’ve ever seen,” he said, “so maybe you’re onto something.”
“Do I look weird?” he asked, feeling suddenly terrified. He had no real way of knowing.
“You look perfect, kid,” his papa said, tugging at his head a little in the way that he had, and he sighed, relieved. “And you’re destined for greatness even if you got my genes and not your mother’s.”
That night he had had one of his nightmares and it was his papa who had staggered into the room, still half-asleep. Usually it was Bacca. He said he had better hearing. He picked him up and carried him outside, tucked into his coat. The moon was shining peacefully amidst the trees.
“Sorry,” his papa whispered, but he couldn’t remember what he had been dreaming about: he could never remember. It wasn’t so bad once he woke up. He only knew he was afraid of sleeping.
His mother, he now reflected, hadn’t said anything about the Force when she’d told him he could feel her anywhere: it sounded silly. Maybe she hadn’t meant it really. But if she hadn’t meant it really, what had she meant? Maybe she hadn’t lied on purpose. Maybe she had thought it would work, and it didn’t—that wouldn’t be her fault, would it? If she was special and he wasn’t. If he was really more like his papa.
He stopped at the crest of a small hill, another clump of leaves in his hands—they were going to be very dirty when he got back home—and stopped moving. Something on the back of his neck was prickling. He pulled one of the leaves off and tossed it in front of him and looked down at it for a moment, and then he kept walking, until the feeling got stranger, and stranger, and stranger. Finally, he turned around to look to see if anybody had followed him, though he knew nobody had. He could always hear his papa following him from the second he started, no matter how far behind he was—his papa was not quiet in the woods—and besides, this was starting to happen more and more. It felt like somebody was watching him from very far away, or maybe just behind his shoulder. Maybe, he thought, this was what it felt like when his mother was looking for him from somewhere else in the galaxy. But he really knew that it wasn’t. It was something else. It made him wanted to close his eyes and hide inside his own shadow.
Instead he turned around and looked again, and then bared his teeth. The feeling got worse, and he shouted. He sounded kind of like Bacca when he was mad, he thought. He turned around again and screamed again.
He was so surprised to see Bacca come running out of the trees in front of him—Bacca didn’t normally run so much—that he stopped screaming. He had been screaming for a while, maybe, he thought. He wasn’t sure. “What?” he asked. His voice sounded funny. Bacca made a noise, and picked him up.
Bacca ran fast, when he wanted to, he discovered. He was very tired. At some point Bacca stopped moving and he opened his eyes and felt his papa taking him and saying something. He put his head on his shoulder and closed his eyes again.
When he woke up he was in his bed and it was raining. His papa was sitting next to him, watching him, looking tired. He coughed.
“I’m thirsty,” he croaked, and his papa handed him a glass of water that was sitting on the floor next to him, already prepared. He held it between his hands and watched his papa watch him while he drank it.
“Why were you shouting like that?” he asked finally.
He tried to remember. “Somebody was watching me, and I didn’t like it,” he said. “I wanted to make them come out.” This wasn’t quite right but he knew he wouldn’t be able to explain what had actually happened. And besides, then he would have to explain that it wasn’t the first time, and then his papa would be mad, and ask him when it had first started, and he wouldn’t be able to tell him. The prickling feeling had always been there—it was just that now it had gotten worse. Or maybe he was just old enough to feel it properly.
He looked over at his papa, who was sitting back in his chair and had covered his face with one of his hands. “What?”
“Not go away, huh,” he said. “Whoever it was. You wanted them to come out, not go away.”
“I wanted to know who it was,” he said, and paused. “Do you think it could be Mama?” he asked, even though he knew the answer was no.
“No,” his papa said.
“Me neither,” he said, and then: “Who is it?”
“I don’t know,” his papa said. “I don’t know. Probably a bad man.”
“Oh,” he said, and tilted his cup from side to side.
“Don’t worry,” his papa sighed. “Nobody knows you’re here.”
“Why does anybody want to know where I am?”
His papa looked down at his hands. “I don’t know, kid,” he said. “I don’t know.”
For a long time there was silence. Nothing outside was making any sound. “When is Mama coming home?” he asked.
His papa made a strange little sound. “Well, she’ll be home a whole lot sooner now than she was planning,” he said.
They were quiet again. “Is she going to bring me a sister?” he asked, and his papa squeezed his eyes shut and leaned his face forward into his hands.
“That’s not how that works,” he said.
“You’re not going to have a sister,” he said.
“Yes I am,” he said. He knew that he did have a sister: he just didn’t know where she was. It was the thing he was the most sure about in the world, even more than the watching. He could feel her sometimes, especially when he was sleeping, or almost asleep—or when he was very deep in the woods, far away from people. She felt bright. Maybe his papa didn’t know about her yet either. Maybe she was a surprise.
“No,” his papa said. “You aren’t.”
“You just don’t know,” he said. “You can’t feel it. You said. You said you—”
“Kid,” his papa said, sounding hoarse. “I know because you had one and she’s dead.”
He didn’t say anything. His papa covered his face again and then sat up. “She died before when she was being born,” he said finally.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “That doesn’t—”
“I know,” his papa said. “I know it doesn’t.” He took a long breath. “So we had you instead.”
He looked down at his empty cup.
“Sorry,” he said.
“What?” his papa said. But even though he was only five (Bacca liked to tell him that if he were a wookie he would still only be an infant) and even though there were no other children on the planet he knew that other children—wherever they were, even in fields covered by nothing but sand—did not have nightmares all the time or scream at nothing in the woods.
“Sorry,” he said again. “For being bad.”
“What?” his papa said again, but now he sounded alarmed.
He could feel himself starting to cry, and this made him angry, which only made him want to cry more. He was five now! He shouldn’t cry like he was still four! But every time his mother left now he wondered why he wasn’t allowed to go with her, and wondered when she would come back. It was always a long, long time. “It’s better for you here,” she always said. Why? he wanted to ask. Why? Why? Why?
His papa had climbed into the bed with him, even though it was really too small, and was rubbing his back like he was still only little and didn’t know anything. He was crying into his shirt, which smelled like him.
“You’re all right, kid,” he said. “You’re all right. You’re good.”
“How do you know?” he asked. He could still feel the eyes on the back of his neck from the forest, although he knew they weren’t there anymore. The more he thought about it the more he felt queasy and sick.
“I just do,” he said, which wasn’t very reassuring. But then he said: “I love you,” which he almost never said, and a thrill went through him—the thrill of the knowledge of being loved. He squeezed his eyes shut.
“More than anybody?” he whispered.
“More than anybody,” his papa said, and when he glanced up at him he was looking at the ceiling, looking pained.
“More than Bacca?” he asked, and his papa let out a surprised, barking laugh.
“Yes,” he said. “Don’t tell him I said that.”
“More than Mama?”
“Even more than Mama,” his papa said, rubbing his hair. He didn’t really believe him but he curled up next to him anyway, basking in his supremacy.
“I can feel her sometimes, though,” he whispered. He knew he could. His sister.
“I don’t know, kid,” his papa said. “I don’t know.”
What neither of them knew was that he was the best listener. He knew every hiding place in the whole base and sometimes he hid for hours and he could hear them talking. Bacca found him sometimes but nobody else did. “Where has that kid gone off to now?” his papa yelled sometimes, when he was nestled in the ceiling, feet pressed against the roof, and Bacca would just let out an inconclusive murmur until he stomped off somewhere else, muttering to himself.
When his mother was home he tucked himself alongside them, inside the walls and around the corners, in the nooks and crannies of the building he knew better than either of them did: they were too big to see all of it, not like he could. Even when his mother was home she had things to do, people to speak to, and so if he wanted to be near her he had to cling to her like a ghost, scrambling along beside her in the darkness. It was like a game: a secret mission. His parents had gone on secret missions, a long time ago. That was why his mother was important, he thought.
Sometimes they argued about him and then he listened very carefully although he knew he shouldn’t, and was always worried one of them would suddenly come around the corner or turn and pull part of the ceiling down and see him. But they never did. When his mother was around his papa stopped paying attention to him. It was true: this was how he knew he loved her more, no matter what his papa said. He hadn’t said anything to Bacca about it because he knew what he would say: he would tell him he was wrong, or that he was only five and that he wasn’t old enough to understand those things. But he knew that he did understand. He wasn’t four anymore. Maybe when he was four he wouldn’t have understood but he was five now and when his mother came back from the places she went his papa shushed him and pushed him away when he tugged on his hand and asked him to play and sometimes yelled at him, which he did not normally do, and then he would have to go try to find somewhere quiet to cry, except Bacca always seemed to know when this had happened, even if he hadn’t been there in the first place, and made it better.
But when they argued they mostly seemed to be arguing about him. “You can’t keep him on this goddamn planet forever,” his papa told her, over and over and over again. He always knew when his papa was really angry and when he was just pretending and when he told his mother this he knew that he was really angry. “He’s going to grow up with a screw loose. There are no other kids. Do you realize how weird that is? He doesn’t have anybody to play with except Chewie and Chewie’s practically an old man—”
“And I take it you’re too busy to—”
“I’m his dad, it’s not the same thing, and I’m not the one flying off to who the fuck knows where for months at a time instead of raising my kid—”
“If I weren’t doing that, that kid would probably be dead, so why don’t—”
“That’s very noble of you, I appreciate it, but he doesn’t have to stay here,” his papa always told her. Every time. “He’s five years old! Are you just going to keep him here until he’s twenty? Everybody here treats him like royalty, by the way—they stare at him from afar and don’t talk to him, and he doesn’t talk to them, so the way this is headed he’ll have had conversations with around five people by the time he hits a major growth spurt—”
“It isn’t safe,” his mother always replied, voice clipped. “There are people out there who want to find him. Who want things with him. He’s safe here. Nobody—”
“Then why don’t you stay here with him for a while, because I can tell you, I hadn’t really planned on sitting around doing nothing but child-minding for the rest of my life—”
“Besides, they’re going to find him. If these—people—are so determined to find him, do you really think keeping him on the same dinky little planet for his whole life is going to work? We’ve got a target on our backs.”
“This isn’t up for debate,” she would always say, in the end, and he would swear some more. But she always won. And they never went anywhere.
Sometimes he gazed up at the sky and wondered what it would be like to be there, on the Falcon, like his papa always talked about—to go anywhere. He still didn’t understand why the sky was blue sometimes and dark other times. His papa had explained it to him once and it had been too complicated. When you went into space, he wondered, what did it look like? Was it bright or dark or something else? Sometimes when he asked his papa where his mother was he just grunted and said, “In space,” and he imagined her floating in the middle of a vast sea of nothingness and wished she would come back.
The last time she had left, he had gone into the woods to hide, and she had come after him. He hadn’t asked how she’d found him.
“I just knew,” she told him. “I could feel you.” He was sitting tucked up against a big tree and turned away from her.
“Chewie tells me you can read already,” she said, and he’d thought about the lake: about how many strokes it would take to swim all the way to the middle.
“I’ll bring you back some real books,” she said. “They’re better than reading on a micro-book.”
“I don’t care,” he told her, although he liked to read.
She reached out to touch his hair. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She always said this before leaving.
“Okay,” he said.
“I wish I could stay here with you all the time,” she said, and he knew immediately that she was lying. He wasn’t sure why he was so sure, but he knew that he knew.
“No you don’t,” he said, and thought about the lake again. Her hand was still on his head and for a moment it was completely still, and then she pulled it away.
“Someday, when you’re older,” she started, which was the beginning of his least favorite sentence. He stopped listening until she sighed loudly and started to move like she was going to get up. He hadn’t wanted her there but he didn’t want her to leave, either.
“You’re going to do important things one day,” she said, and touched his hair one more time, gently. “I know you are. You won’t be here forever.” But it wasn’t what he wanted her to say. He didn’t want to be important. He didn’t care if she was important, either. He just wanted all of them to be in the same place.
The night after she left he broke a big bowl and had a screaming tantrum that ended with his papa shouting at him until he started sobbing instead, and he took him to sit in the big comfortable chair in his bedroom that rocked just a little and told him the story of when he was born, which he had heard a thousand times but never tired of.
“Your mom was giving a speech,” his papa said. “And she felt you start to want to come out. You were two weeks early but you were determined. And instead of doing the normal thing she kept giving the speech until it was finished, and then when she was done she still didn’t tell anybody because she had to talk to some other people about how everything had gone. It was the best speech she ever gave. Maybe you were good luck.
“Then she came and got on the Falcon—I used to take her everywhere, and she wanted to come back here before having you—and once we were in the air she told me you were coming, which I could tell anyway as soon as I looked at her, because I’m not an idiot. But by then there wasn’t anything to do, so we had nobody but me and Chewie and we had to try to figure out what to do. You came real fast. So we were running around trying to figure out if either of us knew how to deliver a baby and your mom was yelling at us about being incompetent fools and how she was going to be doing it all herself anyway and didn’t need our help. And then it started to get really bad—it hurts a lot to have a baby, you know—and it gets pretty bloody and gross. So Chewie had to fly the plane and we used my extra clothes to keep everything clean. And an hour later, what do you know, out you came.
“And do you know what she said?”
“What did she say?” he asked, although he knew the answer.
“She said, ‘I hope you love that child because I’m never doing that again,’ and then she wouldn’t let you go for four hours. Even when she was sleeping. We still have her dress somewhere. All covered with your gunk.”
“Eww,” he said, squirming with disgusted delight.
“Well, we cleaned it,” his papa added. “But you can see the stains.”
He carried him to his bed that night and sat next to him as he fell asleep. “I’m sorry, kiddo,” he said very quietly when he was drifting off. His papa was sorry a lot. He yawned, pushing at a tooth that was beginning to come loose with his tongue, and then smiled at him. The first one had come out a month before and there was still a gap. His papa laughed, sounding surprised.
“I keep forgetting,” he said, and he bared his teeth wider to show off the gap better.
“What?” he asked.
His papa laughed a little again, and rubbed at his eyes. “I just keep forgetting that’s something that happens.”
When he woke up the next morning, his papa was gone and there was light coming in through his window. He padded out of his room in his bare feet, rubbing at his eyes. Nobody but his papa and Bacca was ever in this part of the base, or his mother if she was home. It was only theirs. If he went into the rest of the base, or outside, he saw everybody else: everybody else was very polite to him, but most of them didn’t talk to him much. Some of the women were nice, but that was all. His papa had told him that his mother had been royalty once, on her old planet, and people still thought of her like that. Then he had had to explain what royalty was. “Maybe we should raise all kids in isolation,” he had grumbled.
His favorite of the women was called Sonja. She had long dark hair and he thought the had an understanding: sometimes when he was sneaking around she looked up and stared straight at him, which nobody else did, but she never said anything, and sometimes would sort of tilt her head over to what she was doing, like an invitation. She was always doing something with food: peeling things, grinding things, shucking things. She didn’t talk much, but not because she was being polite. She just didn’t.
His papa was sitting at the table like he was waiting for him. He wondered if he’d done something wrong. He couldn’t remember all of yesterday clearly enough to know for sure. Maybe whatever was wrong with him—he was eventually going to find out that something was wrong with him, and what that something was—was bad enough that he was sending him away. He lingered in the doorway, vibrating.
“There you are.” His papa had a strange look on his face: he looked very excited about something. “I have news.”
“What?” he asked.
“We’re going to go see your mom,” he said, and he froze.
“What?” he asked again.
“We’re going to go see your mom,” his papa said. “In the Falcon.”
“Chewie’s out getting her ready to go. We’re going to take off as soon as she’s ready.” His eyes were gleaming. “How do you feel about going to space?”
“Won’t Mama be mad?”
“Probably,” his papa said. “But once we’re there she can’t exactly stop us from going, can she?” He couldn’t quite follow this logic but the conclusion seemed inarguable: once they were there, there they would be.
“Okay,” he said, and his papa grinned.
“Okay,” he said. “Time to get off this goddamn planet.”
His papa put his clothes in a bag, so fast they came unfolded. “Are we coming back?” he asked.
“Sure,” his papa said without looking at him, but he didn’t believe him, so he put all the rocks he had collected carefully into a bag and took it with him.
Outside everybody seemed to know something was happening because they were all watching them even more than usual. His papa was walking too fast, his bag thudding against his back as he went, and he had to hurry to keep up with him. He wondered where Bacca was, and how they were going to get wherever his mother was. Was there food on the ship? How long would the trip take?
His papa walked straight into the woods so he scampered after him, skidding down a little slope and then pulling himself up another hill with only one hand. He was panting and lagging far behind by the time they finally arrived in a clearing he had never seen before. He stopped on top of the rise and stared down, fingers clenched around the bag of rocks, until his papa turned to look up at grinned.
“Come on, kid,” he said. “Isn’t she looking good?”
He had never been in a ship since the day he was born, and so had only seen them from hiding spots behind the base or while standing dutifully next to his papa when his mother arrived. But he could tell this ship was old and, somehow, that it had not flown anywhere in a long time—and that there was something buzzing in it that made him want to scratch at something that didn’t exist. He wanted to touch it.
“What is it?” he asked his papa. Bacca, he saw, was standing around the other side, noodling with something electrical inside one of the exterior panels.
“It’s the Falcon,” his papa said, sounding amused. “Come on.”
He did, hesitantly, staring at it as though it might be able to tell him things he didn’t know. He wasn’t sure what he had expected but this was different. “Your place of birth,” his papa joked, slapping the side of the ship. “Welcome home.” He just looked up at him, nonplussed, until he let out a gleeful little whoop of laughter, grabbed him up, and carried him inside himself.
“You’re getting too big for this,” he said, although he didn’t want to be: he wanted his papa to carry him like this everywhere, for as long as he lived. He ducked his head when they went through doors. “Here—that’s the hyperdrive,” his papa said. “And the missile launchers—don’t worry, we won’t have to use them—and the navigation sensors—” He knew he wouldn’t remember any of the words. He curled his fingers in the shoulder of his jacket.
“How long will it take?” he asked.
“Not long,” his papa said. “Couple days. She’s far away. Don’t want to attract attention. Besides, we can have a little adventure, right? Little mano-a-mano. Mano-a-mao-a-wookie.” He started to giggle as he dug his fingers in his side. “Soon you’ll see what I’m really like—”
He scrambled out of his arms and ran through the hallway—it reminded him of the base—until suddenly he was in a room with windows that was looking out at the trees. His papa followed a few moments later. “This is where you fly it,” he said. “We’ll strap you in behind us so you can see the action.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Who knows,” his papa said. “Maybe you’ll be a pilot one day. You’ve got good pilot genes, you know. Come on, let’s put your stuff away.”
There was a little room that would be his where they put his clothes and his bag of rocks in a special drawer so they wouldn’t fall out, and then he followed his papa back to the room with the windows and he showed him the buttons and levers and told him what they did, and he pressed himself up against him and pretended to understand because it made him happy. He kept tugging at his head by his hair, which he always did when he was pleased with him. Maybe he could be a pilot someday when he was older and it wasn’t all so confusing. That was what his papa had done before he was born and he couldn’t anymore: that was why he was so excited. He had never seen him so excited. That was a normal thing to do: be a pilot. He wanted to be normal. Maybe there would be normal people where his mother was, who knew other children, and could teach him to be not-strange.
“How does it get up?” he asked when Bacca came in, looking at the trees.
“Good question,” his papa muttered, and strapped him in carefully before sitting down himself and saying technical things to Bacca that he didn’t understand. He picked at the sleeve of his shirt and waited. He was nervous. What if he didn’t like it? What if the Falcon was too old and just burst into flames? Or what if nothing happened at all? His papa would be so disappointed.
But soon enough they had both sat down and his papa was saying, “Get ready, kid,” and the engines were thrumming and whirring beneath them. He curled his hands into fists and sat back as far as he could in his seat. Bacca made an encouraging noise.
“Come on,” his papa was muttering, and then he felt it: the ship lifted off the ground. His papa let out an enormous whoop, and then another when it lurched forward, bumped into a tree, and then started to rise more quickly. He couldn’t decide whether he wanted to throw up or not.
“Don’t be sick back there,” his papa said. “The smell takes days to clear out.” He pressed his mouth shut.
And then they were rising, rising, rising over the forest—over the base—“There it is,” his papa said, and it looked so small from up here, in the sky where they were, like it was for ants. Like he could just step on it and it would be smushed. “Bye bye,” his papa said, sounding pleased, and then pulled the ship out toward the sky, and sped up.
They burst into space—it was dark in space, he thought; you could see the stars differently—and for one beautiful moment he felt a kind of weightlessness, like he was suspended in the middle of the darkness and was no longer tied to anybody or anything, not even his body. And then, suddenly, almost before he realized it, he started to scream.
He could distantly hear his papa shouting and Bacca shouting back but he could only pay the vaguest attention to them. There was something in his head. Something bad was in his head. It hurt. It was driving in from the back and splitting his head in half. He was barely aware of thrashing against the straps of the seat and slamming his fists around. He hit himself in the face. Everything hurt. His papa was sitting in front of him now trying to say something to him but he couldn’t see him clearly anymore. It was like seeing a hologram of a hologram of somebody.
The thing in his head hurt worse than anything had ever hurt before. He was crying. He could feel his papa picking him up out of the seat but it didn’t matter. There was nothing his papa could do. In his head he started to scream for his mama. He wanted her to come protect him with her dark hair that he remembered holding onto as a child learning to walk. His papa had laughed. And she had gone away again. And again, and again, and again.
She had told him he could call for her wherever he was. He tried to imagine her, amidst all the miserable splitting pain, and thought: MAMA!
And then, suddenly, he heard her say his name.
By the time he turned thirteen he still hadn’t hit his growth spurt and was beginning to despair of it ever coming. “Don’t worry, kid,” his father told him, when he stood up straighter than usual or tried to see whether his pants had started to come up over his ankles. (They had not.) “You’ve got big feet, and hands, and those ears”—he gestured—“you’ll be fine. Taller than me, probably. And I’m tall. Good genes.”
But he didn’t look like his father, or like his mother, or indeed like anybody; he looked like an aberration. He had a pale pointed face that didn’t resemble either of theirs at all—they were both beautiful people, and he was not—and shaggy dark hair that didn’t belong to them either, and he always tugged self-consciously at his ears when his father mentioned them. They stuck out from the sides of his head conspicuously and he knew, now, that if he had been a normal child he would have gotten teased about them. He hadn’t—nobody dared—but that almost made it worse: he just imagined what they were saying, or whispering, or thinking. Sometimes he almost thought he could tell. Not only about him looking funny, of course. About everything. He knew some of them thought that he was a bastard (though nobody could decide whose), and that some of them thought he was just a kid his parents had picked up on some outer-rim planet for reasons presumably having to do with his strangeness.
He had to go to school with the rest of them: all the children, as his father sometimes sourly said, of the resistance. There were not so many of them, although not as few as there had been to begin with. Somehow they kept accumulating children: children whose parents had been converted, children who had no parents, children whose origins remained a mystery to him. He didn’t like them. They were either too bright—too talkative—or looked like something had happened to them he didn’t want to know about.
None of them was strange like him, anyway. He was pretty sure nobody could understand what that was like. His mother had been telling him about his uncle, whom he’d never met—for a long time he hadn’t even known he’d had an uncle—who was, she told him, the most powerful jedi in the galaxy. One of the most powerful jedi of all time. “He’s the only jedi in the galaxy,” his father had muttered, “there’s not much competition,” and she had shushed him. “But he didn’t know about—his power—until later,” she’d told him. “You’ve got an advantage already.”
He wasn’t sure how: he couldn’t do anything with it, whatever it was, except get a vague sense of what people were feeling sometimes, and usually he didn’t want to know. He’d asked Bacca what his uncle had been able to do and he’d told him he could sense things that other people couldn’t—all kinds of things, strange things—and that he’d been a great pilot, a great combatant with a lightsaber. When he asked what that was, Bacca had paused and told him he couldn’t explain. “You have to see one,” he’d said. And he’d told him that he could move things—telekinesis, he said.
“How did he learn all that?” he’d asked.
“He had a teacher,” Bacca had told him. “But most of it, he taught himself.”
He decided to try to train himself to be able to move things. He didn’t even know what a lightsaber was and didn’t think he could get his hands on one, and he didn’t want to be a pilot—he didn’t like flying. Sensing things was too vague. But moving things—moving objects—that, he thought, he could learn to do.
He started slowly. There was a lake down behind the village, not unlike the lake he’d known as a boy, although it wasn’t as far—although maybe it just didn’t take him as long to walk—but it was clearer, and less muddy, and the shore was full of round pebbles. He took a handful and dried them off, and retreated into a deeper part of the forest to experiment.
It was crisper, drier here than it had been at home—hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. It snowed. He liked it less. For a long time he had asked them when they could go back, and they had finally told him that they were never going back: that it wasn’t safe. It was not safe there anymore. And then he had screamed and cried until his nose had started to bleed and the lights started to rattle, and Bacca had to take him outside and calm him down.
He lined up the pebbles in a row and sat down in front of them, cross-legged, and surveyed them, frowning. He imagined them as a triangle instead of a single line and then thought as hard as he could about moving the one on the left end up to the side. Nothing happened. He concentrated as hard as he could, for as long as he could, and when still nothing happened he hit the ground next to him with his fist and kicked them all across the little hollow he’d found to work.
He sat huffing for a moment before getting up and finding them again, and sitting back down. He tried again, but it didn’t work any better. A part of him still thought that he didn’t have whatever his mother thought that he had—“the Force” sounded so stupid anyway—but he was weird, and maybe it was an explanation. Besides, even his father agreed with her now, and he hadn’t when he had been really little. He was destined, he sourly thought to himself, for great things. But if he couldn’t even move tiny rocks he wasn’t sure what use it was, or how he was going to achieve them.
Hours had passed and the sun was much lower in the sky when the boy came over the rise. He still hadn’t had any success with the pebbles, although he was not as much angry now as demoralized. He had heard him coming, though, and was sitting tensely waiting for him to appear. It was still very difficult to sneak up on him. If this was part of—the Force—he supposed it was sort of useful, at least.
The boy’s head appeared first over the rise, looking curious but in a hesitant way. He had known somebody was out here, at least, whether or not he’d known whom. He climbed up so that he was standing on the crest of the little bowl of earth in which he was sitting, and looked down at him.
“What?” he asked, staring back up at him. The boy didn’t feel threatening, but his presence was annoying, and he wanted him to go away.
“I could hear you,” the boy said. He looked like he was a year older than him, maybe two, but he was still small, too. Underfed, he thought: he knew what that looked like, now, after seeing so many people come in off-planet in dire need of food. But the boy, even if he hadn’t been getting enough to eat, looked bright, polished: there was a light in his eyes that made him uncomfortable.
“Sorry,” he said, and the boy shrugged.
“I thought I’d come see what it was.”
“It could have been dangerous,” he pointed out, and the boy rolled his eyes.
“Nothing’s dangerous out here,” he said. “They don’t let it be.”
“Something will be someday,” he said, flicking at one of his pebbles. “And they won’t be able to do anything about it at all.”
The boy looked at him for a long moment and then slid over the edge of the bowl, so his legs were dangling closer down toward him. “That’s pessimistic,” he said.
“I know,” he said. His father had recently told him he was a pessimist, and then when he’d explained to him what that meant, he’d tilted his head to the side and said, “Yes, I think so,” and both his father and Bacca had laughed, though they’d sounded tired. His mother had not been amused.
“What are you doing with those rocks?” the boy asked, and he started and felt himself start to turn red.
“I’m not doing anything with them,” he said.
“Yes you are,” the boy said very calmly, pointing. “They’re in a straight line and you’ve been sitting there making noise for as long as I’ve been walking over here.”
He didn’t say anything for a while. “I’m trying to move them,” he said finally, staring at them, because he supposed it didn’t really matter. “With the—Force. They say I can do it but I think I probably can’t.”
“Are you Force-sensitive?” the boy asked curiously. “I’m not, they tested me. Nothing.”
“Who tested you?” he asked, looking up.
“Oh, at home,” he said. “Before I came here.”
“I don’t know if I am really,” he said after another moment. “I can’t do anything.”
“You’re a Skywalker, though, aren’t you?” the boy asked. “So you must be. Everybody knows the Skywalkers all have the Force.”
He blinked at him. “I’m a Solo,” he said.
The boy waved his hand. “Well, sure,” he said. “But your mom’s a Skywalker.”
“No,” he said. “Her name’s Organa.”
The boy was now looking at him with a slightly funny expression. “But she’s a Skywalker,” he said again, slowly, as though he might not be understanding what he was saying. “Her brother’s Luke Skywalker. Who saved the galaxy, and—I mean, the whole thing.”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. “Is this all a secret?” the boy asked finally. He looked younger now, like he was almost afraid. “Am I not supposed to be talking about it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said franky. “Nobody ever tells me anything about anything.”
And this was true: even after they had left the first planet, which was becoming a mirage in his memory, just a haze of damp green leaves and trees larger than any he would ever see again—even after that, when the three of them had all been together again (four, if you counted Bacca, whom he still called Bacca now even though he could easily say Chewie), and his father got taken away by all his mother’s endless political bargaining and bartering and crises, nobody told him anything, and he couldn’t ask questions, because everyone knew who he was, and if he did, they always said: “I think you should talk to your parents about that,” and added “dear” if they were old women. It reminded him of trying to figure out what sex was, which nobody had explained to him either, until he’d had to ask his father about it directly, and he’d gone pale, and then bright red, and haltingly told him some basic anatomical principles before allowing him to flee to his bedroom to make gagging sounds in the privacy of his own four walls.
He knew, of course: knew that there were things he had not been told. He was not (as he often told them both) stupid. “Of course you aren’t,” his mother told him, “you’re our brilliant boy,” which made him feel like he was five again. There was the matter of how his parents had met, which, unlike the story of his birth, had never been explained to him; and there was also the matter of his uncle, who was invoked often but who could easily have been a fabrication of his mother’s imagination, since he had never laid eyes on him himself. Most of all there was the knowledge, lingering over everything, that there had once been a war, and that the war was over, but that it also had not really ended: this, he knew, although she had never told him so in so many words, was why his mother had been gone so often when he was little, and was so preoccupied now. She and his father left together now, on secret trips—secret, at least, to him, because they never told him where they were going, although they never stayed as long as she had before, on the other planet, when it had only been him, and his father, and Bacca.
Once, he asked Bacca if there was a war happening, and Bacca, who was sitting in the woods cleaning an old blaster, told him no. “Then what are they doing?” he asked. Bacca shrugged.
“There was a war, wasn’t there?” he asked, and Bacca told him yes, there had been.
“And it’s over now?”
Bacca paused. “The war never ends,” he said finally. “It never has and it never will.”
He stared at him. “What?”
“It’s not always like this,” he added. “Sometimes it stops for a long time. But it’s only sleeping.”
“So what is she doing?”
“Getting ready for the next time,” he said.
“Can’t she do that here?”
“No,” Bacca said. “That’s not what she thinks.”
“What do you think?”
He looked at him. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t make those kinds of decisions.”
“But you’re older than they are,” he pointed out. “So you should be smarter.”
He thought Bacca liked this answer. “That’s not how it works,” he said. “Always.”
He scooted to the side on the tree trunk where he was sitting and glanced down at the space next to him. He sighed and slumped over and sat down, sitting still a moment before tipping over into his side. Bacca was always very soft and warm and it didn’t make any sense that he could kill people, but he guessed everybody could, if they made their mind up. He thought he was probably too old for this but he didn’t care. Bacca let out a satisfied noise and rubbed his head.
“You’re a good boy,” he said. “You’ll be safe.”
But he knew that nobody was safe. He, especially, was not safe. And Bacca knew it, too. But he didn’t mind the lie. From his father it would have made him angry, and from his mother it would have been even worse. But from Bacca it was all right.
That had been some time ago: the leaves had been darker and the air damper. Now everything was crisp and yellowing. He wondered if the strange boy in front of him was really a boy at all. Maybe he had been sent by someone. Maybe it was some kind of mirage: maybe you could do that with the Force. But he looked at him closely and he couldn’t really bring himself to believe it. He looked so normal, in spite of his peculiar glow. The glow didn’t seem to be coming from anything unnatural. It looked like he just had it. Like he was special, too, but in a very different way from the way his mother was always telling him he was. He thought he would have preferred whatever the boy had to whatever he had, but there was nothing to be done about it.
“What’s the story?” he asked the boy. The boy looked at him for a long time, almost like he was sizing him up. He could tell, suddenly, that he was smart: he just knew it. So, he thought: he would have to be careful. But he liked smart people. The other kids, the smart ones, were the ones he always wished he could be friends with, but there always seemed to be reasons why it was impossible.
“Well, do you at least know who Darth Vader is?” the boy asked.
“No,” he said, but he did, somehow—he knew the name. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he just did.
“Oh,” the boy said, perplexed. “Well, he was—bad. He was the like, second worst guy of the Empire. There was a guy above him who was really the worst. He was in charge. And then Luke Skywalker defeated them both.” He paused. “That’s your mom’s brother.”
“Oh,” he said. He knew about Luke, but not about the last name.
There was something else that the boy wasn’t telling him. He could feel it. It was practically pushing out toward him, in a way that made him uncomfortable. He wasn’t used to being able to feel this much. He didn’t know why: he thought the boy really wanted to tell him whatever it was that he knew. He didn’t think he wanted to, though, or didn’t want to want to, or something. He could tell from his face.
“What is it?” he said. “The thing you want to say.”
He looked at him oddly. “You do have it,” he said. “The Force. I can feel it, too. I mean—I can’t feel it. I don’t have it. But I can—” He waved his hand. “I can feel you. I dunno. I sound dumb.”
“It’s all dumb,” he said very frankly. “The whole thing is stupid. Why do they call it ‘the Force.’ You can’t talk about it and not sound like an idiot.”
The boy looked surprised for a moment and then started to laugh. “Yeah,” he said, “I guess you’re right. Anyway. Even if you can’t move the rocks.”
He looked down at them for a moment, and then back up at him. “What were you going to tell me?”
“What did you want to tell me,” he corrected himself. The boy hesitated.
“Please,” he said finally.
“Oh, it’s just,” he started, and then looked down at the rocks himself, though he was a few feet away still. “I heard—I mean, maybe it isn’t true—I heard Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s—dad.”
“You know,” the boy muttered. He looked very uncomfortable. “Like—your mom’s dad.”
“What did he do?”
“Darth Vader? Or—”
“Yes, Darth Vader.”
The boy shrugged. “Killed a lot of people,” he said, voice flat.
He could feel his shoulders hunching in of their own volition. He looked down at the rocks.
“He had the Force? You said—Skywalkers—”
“Yeah,” the boy said. “A lot. At least, that’s what they say.”
He bit down on the inside of his cheek, hard. One of the rocks slid across the ground.
“Whoa,” the boy said.
“Who are you?” he said, looking back up at him suddenly, and he looked startled, and a little frightened, though he was hiding it. That only made him feel worse.
“I mean, what’s your name,” he said.
“Oh,” the boy said. “Poe.”
“I’m Ben,” he told him.
“Nice to meet you,” Poe said.
“I haven’t seen you before,” he said.
“Maybe you weren’t paying attention,” Poe said, a little archly, and he just looked at him until he gave up his posturing. “I just got here.”
“Well, the ship needed repairs.” He smiled a little, weakly, when he looked at him. “Nothing for me at home.”
He looked at him more closely. He was only fifteen at the most, he thought, but probably fourteen. So: his parents were probably dead.
“Sorry,” he said, since that was probably the right thing to say. Poe looked a little surprised anyway.
“Thanks,” he said. “It’s all right. Your mom seems nice.”
“She’s okay,” he said, looking back down at the rocks. He curled up one hand into a fist and willed one of them to move, which, miraculously, it did, although not with any particular direction or control. “You meet my dad yet?”
“No,” Poe said. “Or, just a little. I sort of saw him. That’s it.”
“He’s okay, too.” He paused. “You like to fly things?”
The ambient glow around Poe seemed to intensify. He wondered if it was the Force—if it was some signifier of goodness, or happiness, or something. He thought he probably didn’t want to know what he’d look like if he could step out of himself and look. “Yes,” he said. “I built my own ship out of spare parts at home. They said I was the best pilot from the town, ever. And there were pilots who flew in the war. I guess they thought I was going to be better. But—” He stopped suddenly, looking embarrassed. “I mean, I like it, yeah.”
“My dad will like you, then,” he told him. “He’s the best pilot this side of the galaxy.” He didn’t really, he realized, know what that expression meant, but he was sure that it was true.
“Well, he seems busy,” Poe said, but he sounded wistful. He wondered when his parents had died, and poked at the stones with a stick.
“He’s busy,” he said finally, “but he likes kids. Kids who are good at things. Even if he pretends he doesn’t.”
Poe looked at him for a moment and then smiled. “Okay,” he said. For some reason it made him feel very tired and very sad. He stood up and Poe followed suit, brushing off his pants. He looked down at the little pebbles and the sadness and exhaustion somehow turned to anger, and he reached his hand down toward them and flicked it jerkily to the side, and they sailed through the air at an almost frightening velocity until they clattered to the ground in the distance. Both he and Poe stared after them, startled.
“Shit,” Poe said, and then laughed.
“Oh,” he said, surprised, and they walked back to the village without saying much.
That night he put on his sleeping clothes and sat on his bed, looking at the ceiling, rubbing one of the rocks from the first planet in-between his hands. He still didn’t know what it was called—maybe it had never had a name. He imagined going up to his mother and saying: I know everything you’ve been lying to me about my whole life, even though he was sure he didn’t know everything. Is my name Skywalker? he could ask, although he knew viscerally that it was not. His name was his father’s. Is your name Skywalker? What did Luke do? Why have I never met him? Who’s Darth Vader? What’s the Empire? Is Luke dead? Did he do something bad? Is the Force evil? Am I going to do something bad? Or the question that was perpetually rattling around his head: Is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with me? Is there—
He sat there repeating all the questions in his head and imagining the startled look on her face—the guilt!—clutching at the rock as hard as he could, until he was panting with fury, and the cold feeling of dread began to creep down his spine. He pressed his eyes closed.
Nothing ever happened anymore, when this happened—he didn’t scream, or throw up, or (like he sometimes had when he was very young) piss himself. He didn’t pass out. Sometimes he got sick after, but that was all. He just sat very still and sometimes pulled a blanket over his head. He held the rock very tight in his hand and his teeth clattered together. He knew nothing he could do would stop whatever it was—the thing crawling over him, the thing poking at him, peering into every cranny of him—so he just waited. His teeth clattered and he thought about the lake in the first planet, which was the part he could remember the clearest, although maybe he wasn’t even really remembering it anymore, just an imaginary place he thought was the real thing. He imagined how many strokes it would take him to get to the center, and then imagined treading water there and gazing straight up into the sky: the blue sky, not the night sky filled with stars. He treaded water there and he waited until it was over. Now that he was older he could tell when it finished. At least he thought he could. Maybe he couldn’t tell at all. Maybe it was always happening.
He opened his eyes, feeling shaky and slightly nauseous. Maybe he would throw up this time—he hadn’t in a while. He stumbled to the bathroom and vomited. This had to have something to do with it—with all of it, with the war and the Force and whoever it was who had killed all those people—his grandfather, Poe had said, if he had lived. He threw up again.
When he was back in bed he thought about him—the new boy. Poe. Poe whose parents were dead; or, he supposed, had left him somewhere—given him to his mother. But most parents didn’t do things like that. He didn’t think the boy’s parents had. He thought they were probably dead. If his parents died he didn’t know what would happen to him. He was, somebody had told him once, an “important person,” but he knew that he wasn’t really; it was only because of his mother. Probably his uncle would come and get him, but he’d never met him, so would he really? He wouldn’t want to go with him, anyway. He’d stay with Bacca, of course, unless Bacca died too.
It seemed more likely that his parents would leave him somewhere. It was impossible to imagine either of them dying, even though he knew rationally that they both did dangerous things all the time, and he suspected that if his mother had to choose between him and a hundred other innocent children dying she’d pick him. He scowled into the dark and tugged his blankets further over his shoulders.
He closed his eyes. At least he knew that he could use the Force now, even if it was only to move pebbles. He could practice and get better. His mother had only ever given him vague half-answers about what the Force could do, but he would experiment. He would figure out all of it. And then when he was old enough and powerful enough, he would figure out what it was that found him in the darkness, and he would destroy it.
He settled into his bed and tried to feel the other thing: the warm bright thing he remembered feeling as a child, that he could sometimes see now, as if from a very long distance, and feel just a little: like he was pressing his hand up to a window and could just barely feel the warmth from the other side. He wasn’t sure it was his sister anymore but he wasn’t sure what it was. His mother had told him that you could feel the Force: that it was light, and good, and everywhere, all around. He was skeptical about this. He couldn’t feel anything when he walked around or was bored in school or was enduring family dinners. Maybe (he grudgingly allowed) she was right and this far-away warmth was the Force, and he didn’t know how to reach it yet, but he didn’t really believe this. He was quite certain that it was something else. Whatever it was, he wanted it badly: he wanted to smash through the window and step inside of it. Whatever it was, it would keep him safe, he thought, from the thousand creeping eyes watching him in the dark.
But soon he was asleep, and when he woke up he just felt queasy, and cold.
His father liked Poe Dameron, just like he had known he would; Poe Dameron was clever and good at talking to people, and, as they all discovered shortly after he arrived, he was as good a pilot as he had told him he was. His father let him up in one of their little flyers and had an expression of uncharacteristic delight on his face the entire time he watched Poe zip around in it before landing it neatly exactly where it had been when he’d started.
“That kid,” he said, “is going places.” Bacca let out a rumble of appreciation.
Nobody talked about why he was there or what circumstances had precipitated his arrival; all he knew was that he was from Yavin 4 and that his parents had been there once because they all talked about it fondly on more than one occasion. “You’d have been too young,” his mother said. “We were only kids.” And then she looked at his father like were having a conversation from which everybody else was excluded, and they laughed. It was awful.
It would all have been less irritating if Poe had been an idiot who happened to be good at flying planes (there were plenty of these people), or more visibly traumatized, or just annoying in some nebulous way. Unfortunately, in addition to being a friendly prodigy, he didn’t go around moping or crying or yelling at people, just watched everything that was happening around very carefully without making his presence much known. It was incredibly aggravating. He didn’t like being watched, and he knew Poe was watching him—sizing him up, he thought, though for what, he couldn’t say. It wasn’t the same as the other thing—the thing that came in the night—Poe wasn’t, he was quite sure, dangerous. He was just annoying.
He started skipping school to wander off into the woods and practice using the Force. He could now move around slightly larger objects. The more annoyed he got about things, the easier this became. Once, when he was really furious about something patronizing his mother had said to him, he accidentally ripped a large branch off of a tree, and startled himself so much he scrambled back to the village and burst out from the tree line, panting, just when school was getting out, nowhere nearby.
Poe followed him out there sometimes and watched. He didn’t stop him because usually his presence irritated him, which was productive. Besides, a small part of him liked having an audience, especially when Poe did things like whistle appreciatively and lean forward to see what he was doing better.
“Nobody had the Force at home,” he explained. “They tested all of us but I don’t even know what they were testing for, or how they would have known if somebody had. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“I don’t really know what I’m doing,” he admitted.
“Don’t the jedi all train?” Poe asked. “Become apprentices and everything.”
“I don’t know,” he said. His history lessons had sidestepped this particular subject. “I don’t think I would make a very good apprentice.”
“I don’t like people,” he replied before he could think about it, and Poe burst out laughing.
“Then what are you going to do?” he asked.
He shrugged. “Become a hermit,” he said.
“I think that’s kind of what the jedi are like anyway,” Poe pointed out. “Don’t they, like, never have sex, or something?”
He turned bright red. “I don’t know,” he mumbled. “I don’t know anything about them.”
“I’m pretty sure they’re not allowed to have sex,” Poe said confidently, leaning back on his elbows. “That’s probably why there are only ever, like, two of them at a time. Who would sign up for that?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Nobody.”
“A crazy person,” Poe said. “A crazy person.”
That night at dinner, after they’d finished eating and he was getting up to escape, his mother put her fork down and folded her hands in front of her in a way that he knew signaled that he was in trouble. He sat back in his seat, resigned.
“Master Kassel tells me that you haven’t been attending school regularly,” she said. “I’d very much like to know why that is.”
He wondered if this was what she sounded like when she was doing government, or whatever it was that she did all day. “It’s boring,” he said.
“Well, we all have to do boring things that we don’t like. That’s part of life.”
“Besides,” she continued, “you might find that it’s not so boring if you really—”
“Oh, please,” his father interjected. “You can tell him to go but you can’t pretend it’s actually interesting.”
She looked at him and he raised his eyebrows. He looked at the ceiling, and sighed. He didn’t think his father had probably spent a single day of his life in school. And he had turned out fine, he thought sullenly.
“It’s very important,” she said, turning back to him. “You have a lot of responsibilities, whether or not you—”
“I don’t care,” he said flatly. He could tell from the way her eyes narrowed that this had not been the right approach.
“That’s very nice,” she said. “Unfortunately, your opinion isn’t of interest to me.”
“I’m practicing using the Force,” he said, as a last-ditch resort. “That’s more important than whatever they have to say about, I dunno, the Senate. Which doesn’t even exist anymore anyway.”
They had both gone still and were looking at him closely.
“How have you been practicing?” she asked.
“Out in the woods,” he said. “Moving stuff around.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Pebbles,” he said. “Sticks. Leaves. A big branch on a tree. Rain.”
She looked over at his father and they did the thing they did sometimes, where they talked without saying anything. He hated it.
“What?” he said.
“How do you do it?” she asked, turning back to him.
“I dunno, I just think about it, and it happens,” he said, although this was a slight oversimplification.
“But what do you think about?” she asked.
“I think about the thing I want to move moving—”
“I think about how much I hate school and how annoying Kassal is and how I can’t wait to not have to listen to you about anything anymore,” he said, glaring and folding his arms. “And then it’s really easy.”
This was also apparently the wrong answer, because she turned pale and then looked at his father for a long moment. He looked vaguely ill.
“What?” he asked. He wanted to stomp away from the table and not deal with either of them for at least a day.
“Nothing,” she said wearily. “Nothing.”
“That’s impressive, kid,” his father said. “That’s really good, all on your own.”
“Oh,” he said. “Thanks.”
He was running his hand through his hair. “Why don’t you go read or something,” he said. “Your mom and I have to talk. Find Poe.”
“We aren’t friends,” he said.
“Sure,” his father said, like he wasn’t paying attention, and he left them both sitting at the table, not saying anything, before going to find Bacca and sitting with him as he did maintenance work on a ship as the sun set, listening to the reassuring sounds of parts being unscrewed and greased and adjusted until it was dark and he was nearly asleep, and Bacca was carrying him to bed. He dreamed of the warm light thing and banged at the partition—why wouldn’t it let him through?—but he got no answer. And it did not yield.
A week later a ship he’d never seen before landed, and a droid came out. He and Poe, who had for once been dutifully staring out the window in the back row of the class instead of skiving off, looked at each other and watched it as it scooted along. Bacca was talking to it.
“Can you understand it?” he asked Poe.
“No,” Poe said, “we didn’t have droids at home. Not my family, I mean.”
“Oh,” he said. “I can’t either.”
“Really?” he asked.
“No,” he said. “We only just started having them around.” There still weren’t many. They unsettled him. And he couldn’t make heads or tails of their beeping.
Nothing came out of the ship but the droid for the rest of the day, but nobody seemed worried, or upset, or even surprised, so he figured that at some point his parents would explain to him what on earth was going on. His mother liked being cryptic about things even when she didn’t have to be and it was usually better to let her have her secrets, which made her feel like she was doing something, even if in reality she wasn’t really. So he waited.
That evening his father knocked on his door. “Hey, kid,” he said, cracking it open. He sounded very tired. “Come on.”
He followed him down to the dining room, and when he walked through the door saw his mother sitting next to a man he didn’t recognize, who was wearing long grey robes that looked like they needed a wash. His hands were folded on the table in front of him. He glanced at his father and raised his eyebrows.
“This is Luke,” his father said, not meeting his eyes. “Your uncle.”
“Oh,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
“It’s very nice to meet you,” his uncle—Luke—said. He had an unsettlingly direct gaze that looked slightly inhuman, and he decided he didn’t like it much. “Please, sit down.”
“It’s my house,” he said, before he could really think about it, and his father let out a little huff of laughter behind him. His mother looked less amused.
“Yes,” Luke said, raising his eyebrows slightly. “That it is.”
He sat down and looked at him. His mother glanced between them and then stood up. “I’ll leave the two of you to talk,” she said, and practically pushed his father out of the room as she left.
He turned back to Luke, fingers bunched in his pockets, feeling awkward. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to talk about,” he said.
“Well, we’ve never met before,” Luke said. “Except once, when you were very small.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, I don’t remember it.”
“No,” Luke said. “You wouldn’t. I’ve had to stay away since.”
“Okay,” he said.
“Leia says that you’ve been practicing using the Force,” Luke said. He blinked. Nobody ever called his mother by her name: his father always said “your mom” and Bacca said “your mother” or “her highness.” The only times he heard her called that was when his parents were fighting and he listened in on them, which didn’t happen much anymore.
“I guess,” he said.
“You guess,” Luke said, “or you have?”
He just looked at him.
“Leia says you don’t know much about how the Force works,” Luke said. He was smiling slightly now. He didn’t look like somebody who smiled that much. He was quite certain that he was somebody without much of a sense of humor, although he wasn’t sure why he was so certain of this.
“I’m figuring it out,” he said.
“She hasn’t told you much,” Luke persisted, and he shrugged. She hadn’t.
“Sometimes,” Luke said a little distantly, readjusting his hands a little, “I think Leia might be… afraid of the Force. Just a little. Afraid of what it means. Of what it can do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” Luke said, looking around, “she lives away from it. As though it doesn’t exist. Except that you can’t live away from the Force. It’s everywhere. She could have done something much different.”
He thought maybe Luke was a little out of his mind. Maybe it was never having sex. That might make you crazy.
“I don’t think she was wrong,” he added. “She chose her path. But I still think she’s a little afraid. You can’t escape it. And look—here we are.”
“Okay,” he said. There didn’t seem to be much else to say.
“She says you can move things,” Luke said. “Can you show me?”
“Like what?” he asked.
Luke looked around and then reached into his robes and put a little coil of twine on the table.
He looked at it and then looked up at him and back down at the twine. He tried to imagine what on earth it would be useful for, and then tried to focus on moving it. He couldn’t do it. Maybe if nobody was watching him—but somebody was. It wasn’t fair that they were making him do this. He had been doing just fine on his own. He scowled. He thought of his mother, bringing him in here without warning, making him talk to a stranger, and about the stranger telling him that his mother was afraid. His mother wasn’t afraid of anything.
The twine unspooled all at once until it was a messy pile on the table. Luke was watching him with an impenetrable expression on his face.
“That’s impressive,” he said. “For someone without any training.”
“I’ve trained myself.”
“It isn’t the same,” he said, slightly wryly. “Trust me, I know.”
He glared back down at the twine and imagined tugging on one end. It jerked and the whole thing flipped off of the table and down to the floor.
He knew what they were going to make him do. In retrospect, it was obvious. But it still made him ball his fists up in his tunic and turned his stomach over. His mother hadn’t even been able to tell him herself. She was making Luke do it.
“I don’t want to,” he said.
“Don’t want to what?”
“You know,” he said.
Luke looked at the twine on the floor for a long moment. “It will be better,” he said. “You’ll learn not to be so angry.”
“I’m not angry.”
“Yes,” he said. “You are.”
He kicked out at the nearest leg of the table, leg swinging. None of it was fair. He wanted to cry but he wasn’t going to cry in front of a stranger.
“Do you want to ask me questions?” Luke asked. He thought about saying no, just because, but he actually did have questions.
“Why did you never come before?”
He didn’t say anything for a long moment. “I have a lot of students,” he said. “I’m busy. And I’m a dangerous person to have visiting.”
“My mom’s a dangerous person to have visiting,” he pointed out, and Luke sort of smiled again.
“True,” he said. “But we’re especially dangerous together.”
He thought for a moment about which question he wanted to ask next. He had several. “Who’s Darth Vader?” he said finally, and Luke went very still.
“My father,” he said finally.
“What did he do?”
Luke sighed. “He did a lot of bad things,” he said, and didn’t elaborate. He got the sense that probably when Luke didn’t want to answer a question you couldn’t get an answer out of him no matter how hard you tried.
“He was my mom’s dad, too?”
“Yes,” he said. “We’re twins.” He looked a lot older than his mother. Being a jedi, he thought, did not seem very appealing.
“She never said anything about him.”
“She didn’t know him growing up. Neither of us did. He wasn’t really her father.”
He wanted to ask who had been, then, but didn’t. “If you’re a jedi,” he started, and then stopped. “Is it for life?”
Luke looked at him thoughtfully. “It depends,” he said. “People always make choices. You’re still very young.” Then his eyes went sharp. “If you’re worried about the rule about—”
He turned bright red, and Luke, for the first time, looked almost sly. “We abolished it. Well, I abolished it. I’m the only one in charge. I can do whatever I want. But there’s no messing around in training.” He paused. “In theory.”
He looked down at the twine as he kept kicking the table leg, and it began to slowly curl itself back into a neat coil. “I—is it possible,” he asked slowly, “to feel… dead people? Through the Force?”
Luke didn’t say anything for a long time. When he looked up, he was gazing at him with a very odd expression. “Sometimes,” he said. “It depends.”
“Oh,” he said.
“Why do you ask that?”
He shrugged. “Nothing,” he said.
“Really,” Luke said.
“Well,” he started. He didn’t want to tell him, but some part of him must have, because it was forcing its way out, and he didn’t have anyone else to ask. “I had a sister. I never met her. And sometimes I can feel—I don’t know. It’s dumb.”
“Tell me,” Luke said.
“I can feel something,” he said. “Something… good. Far away. It used to be closer. And I thought maybe it was her.” He paused. “But she wasn’t ever even really alive, so it couldn’t be, I guess.”
Luke made a soft humming noise. “You can’t explain the Force,” he said finally. “There aren’t any rules. We can make them up, and they might usually work—but we’re just imposing them on something that isn’t ours to control. Sometimes I can feel the dead. People I knew who—” He stopped. “People I knew.”
He turned his head slightly, and seemed to be looking into the distance. “When I was young,” he said, “sometimes I thought I could feel someone—a long way away. I thought I was imagining things to make myself feel better. I was very lonely. But I found out later that it was Leia.”
“She’s dead, though,” he said. “The other baby.”
“Yes,” Luke said. “I think it probably isn’t her. Whatever it is your feeling.”
“What is it, then?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Luke said frankly. “Maybe it’s somebody else. Somebody you haven’t met yet. Someday, you’ll know.”
He looked directly at him. “You’ll know,” he said. “You know, the universe isn’t ordered, don’t you? Everything isn’t set in stone. But it’s kind of like a puzzle that can be solved more than one way. It isn’t”—he spread his hand out—“random.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” he told him.
“Say I gave you two dice,” Luke said, “and you rolled them ten times, and they came up two sixes every time. Some people are like that.”
Luke smiled. “Your parents,” he said, and as much as he currently hated them, hearing it made something inside him warm.
But Luke sighed and reached down to pick up the twine. “When you have too much of the Force,” he said, “life can be hard. And unfair.” He didn’t say anything. Luke was looking at him sadly. “You’re going to be in the middle of the puzzle,” he said. “We’re trying to get you ready.”
Later, kicking rocks around behind the base while Luke talked to his parents, he thought all of this was unsatisfactory. His life didn’t feel particularly preordained or fated to him. It did feel unfair. He liked, he supposed, the idea that there was someone out there he could already feel—whoever it was—but he wasn’t sure how he was supposed to know who this person was. Was there some kind of code? A sign? A special feeling? It was all awfully vague.
Poe found him in the midst of kicking a rock particularly forcefully against a tree. “What’s going on?” he said.
“They’re going to send me away,” he said. “They’re going to make me be a jedi.”
“Oh,” Poe said.
“I don’t want to go,” he said, kicking another rock. “It’s stupid.”
“Almost nobody gets to do that,” Poe pointed out. “It means you’re special. You have a destiny.”
He glared at him. Poe started to giggle.
“Sorry,” he said. “It just sounds silly. I believe in the Force! But—destiny. Ugh.”
If he was special, he thought, he would much rather have been special in the way that Poe was, which meant being universally liked and good at something useful and normal. He kicked another rock at the tree.
That night he refused to go to dinner. His father came to get him. “Come on, kiddo,” he said. “You’ve got to eat.”
“No, I don’t,” he said. “Maybe I’ll teach myself how to survive on the Force.”
His father sighed and rubbed at his forehead. “This isn’t going to help, you know.”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“I don’t want to,” he said, feeling increasingly mutinous. “I don’t want dinner and I don’t want to go be a stupid jedi.”
“Well, we don’t always get what we want, do we?” his father said bitterly, but left him when he wouldn’t budge.
A little while later his mother appeared, looking considerably less forgiving. “Young man,” she said. “You are going to come out of this room immediately and get to dinner. The food is getting cold.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I know exactly how much you’ve eaten today,” she said, “and how much you normally consume. You’re hungry.” He was hungry, but he was angrier.
“Go away,” he said.
“No,” she said.
“I said, go away,” he told her.
“Stop this,” she said. “It’s childish.”
He slammed the door in her face without even meaning to. It just suddenly banged shut. He thought he was probably as startled as she was. She opened it again.
“Do not,” she said, “do that again.”
“I can’t help it,” he said, half-truthfully. “If you weren’t sending me away with your weird brother I wouldn’t—”
“You need to go with Luke precisely because you can’t help it,” she said grimly. “Luke will take care of you. He’ll teach you everything you—”
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to go.”
“You need to,” she said. “It’s the best thing for you.”
“No it isn’t,” he said. The shelves in his room were starting to shake. “I don’t want to—”
“The world,” she said, eyes glinting, “is dangerous for you. We have worked very hard to keep you safe, but at some point we aren’t going to be able to—”
He started to laugh. His bed was shaking now, too, and his mother was beginning to look alarmed. His mind felt slightly frayed. “Safe from what?” he asked.
“Hidden,” she said. “From—”
“I’m not hidden,” he said. “Why do you think you can’t take me up with you—”
“That’s why we’ve kept you down—”
“It’s everywhere,” he shouted. “I can feel it everywhere.”
He had had to try to describe it, all those years ago, after he’d nearly wrecked the Falcon, although he wasn’t sure he’d sufficiently explained, and after a while he’d gotten so good at hiding it he thought they probably thought it had stopped. At the time, they had told him: We will keep you safe. But even when he was that little, he’d known in some deep-down part of him that they wouldn’t. They just couldn’t. Whatever it was would find him sooner or later. He knew he should go somewhere else so they wouldn’t come find everybody else here, too. Probably he should go to some abandoned planet and just wait. But he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to go anywhere. It wasn’t fair.
His father careened into the doorway. Everything was shaking now. He thought he might be able to burst the building open if he really tried. But he couldn’t hold onto it: his mind was jittering around from thing to thing. He couldn’t even see straight. The world was splitting apart at the seams. He half-expected his own head to crack open soon. It might feel better than this did.
His mother was saying his name: Shut UP! he thought, and then she wasn’t anymore, and his father was yelling something. He tuned it out. He couldn’t feel anything anymore: not the bed, not the air, not the light. All he could feel, suddenly, was Luke—he knew it was Luke—stretching a hand over him to make him stop. But he didn’t want to stop. He wanted to keep going.
He burst out beyond the village and into something else. The Force, maybe. It was endless. He thought he could scream and scream and it would echo into nothing. Or echo and echo and echo until whatever it was that was always watching him—always always always watching him, even if he couldn’t feel it—heard it and came to find him. Part of him, he realized, wanted it to happen. Part of him was only waiting. Part of him just wanted it to be over.
His thoughts were becoming less clear. He only knew that he was angry and spinning in the darkness. And somehow he kept feeling bigger and bigger and smaller and smaller at the same time, until he thought maybe he would burst—or vanish—and not be anything anymore at all.
And then, suddenly, he felt it: the slow burst of light he remembered from so long ago, that he had been trying to reach for so long. But now there was nothing between them: it was like touching the sun. For the first time, he was afraid of it. And then it sucked him in.
He had thought that if he could find it, the bright light, that he would be able to uncover it, discover all of its secrets. But he realized that he could not. He didn’t understand anything better now that he was here. He knew that it was not just the Force, though—it was something else. It was some kind of being. He tried with the last scraps of his cognizance to ask: Are you my sister? And whatever it was felt surprised. He was slipping away. He thought: I am going to wake up. And: I am going to come back and find you again.
And suddenly he saw a girl, although he would not remember her face until, years later, he saw it again, and knew that he knew it already. For one long moment, he gazed at her, and she looked straight at him, and he knew that she was real, and just after seeing the girl he opened his eyes, and where her face had been, there remained nothing but a void.
His father sat with him through the night. In the morning he would go with Luke. The room was a mess and nobody had bothered putting it back together; they had just made piles in the corners. He supposed that, when he was gone, somebody would do it, and it would all be wrong. He was too tired to care. He was too tired to do anything, including sleep.
His father was sitting with his head resting against one hand, watching him. He looked much older than he had ever seen him. “Did Luke ever do anything like that?” he asked him finally, late into the night, when it became clear neither of them was likely to get any sleep.
“Not while I was around,” he said. “But I wasn’t around when he was as young as you.”
“I was mad,” he said, even though he knew he knew that that was why it had happened. “It wasn’t on purpose.”
“I know, kid,” his father said. “I know.”
“Mom’s mad,” he said, staring at the ceiling.
“Your mom’s scared,” his father said. It was hard to argue with this.
“Who’s Darth Vader?” he asked after a while, and his father started.
“Who told you about that? Did Luke tell you about that?”
“No,” he said. “I just heard it around. It’s not a secret.”
His father sighed, and rubbed at his eyes. “You know,” he said, sounding tired deep in his bones. “I wanted to tell you about all of this years ago.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because your mother,” he said, sounding uncharacteristically bitter, “wouldn’t let me.” He didn’t need to say that when his mother decided to do something, it was decided, and there was no negotiating.
“Well, Luke killed him,” he said. “And that was that. Except it wasn’t, because nothing ever fucking ends. It just keeps going and going and going.” He sighed. “Your mother worked hard, too, you know. She—she loves you a lot. She’s just always had to do this. It’s not her fault.” He paused. “I was just there, mostly. It was really all them.”
“I don’t want to go,” he said to him a while later, and his father started. “I won’t do it again. I promise.” But he knew that he couldn’t promise, not really. He couldn’t really know.
“I know,” his father said, and when he looked over at him, started by the way his voice sounded, he saw that he was crying. “I know. But I can’t keep you. I don’t have a choice.”
“Yes you do,” he said, although he knew this was preposterous. “You could make her.”
His father buried his head in his hands for a long time and didn’t say anything. When he looked up his face was red.
“You got dealt a shitty hand, you know?” he said. “You don’t deserve any of this. You didn’t deserve to get stuck with us, or to have—who knows who or what trying to find you. We aren’t very good parents. I’m not—I’m not a very good dad. But—you’re better than I am. All right? You’re better than we are. I hope—I don’t know. You deserve better than this. I’m sorry I can’t protect you anymore. We tried the best we could.”
He covered his face to hide his tears as his father smoothed his hair with one of his big hands. “I love you,” he said. He still hardly ever said it, and it made him shudder. “I love you. I love you.”
He crept out later that night, once his father was asleep. He thought about finding Poe’s window and knocking on it, and then decided it wasn’t worth it. He could make a run for it into the woods but they’d just find him anyway. What he really wanted to do was find Bacca and listen to one of his stories, but he wasn’t a kid anymore. He was leaving. He had to be an adult.
Instead he climbed up onto the low roof of their part of the central complex and looked out at the forest for a while before lying back and gazing up at the sky. Soon he would be up there somewhere. He’d have to learn how to speak droid, he guessed. Maybe the other trainees would be nice. Or at least not terrible.
He could feel the prickling on his skin. He wondered what it had felt like, earlier, to whoever or whatever it was that was always watching him: the thing that had happened. He felt strangely unworried. Someday, someone was going to come for him. He didn’t know what would happen when they did, but he knew they would. There wasn’t anything he could do about it. Maybe they would kill him, or he would kill them, or maybe something else would happen. He couldn’t know until it did.
Someday, too, he knew, he would meet the girl: this reassured him. Maybe she wasn’t even born yet. Or maybe she was, and was on the opposite side of the galaxy. Maybe she didn’t speak a language he understood. He closed his eyes and could almost remember what it had felt like. He had a destiny, he thought: maybe that wasn’t so bad. Maybe it wouldn’t be bad to be important.
Maybe someday he would be able to come back to his mother and say: Look at what I’ve done, and not have disappointed her. And his father would take him in his arms as he had when he was a boy, and tell him that none of it mattered: that he could have done none of it, and still have been loved.