Kibila culminates in a ritual at one of the ancient temples. The one I’m going to is at the top of Isi Na, and I’ve visited it before. The ascent is pretty steep, but once you get up there, the view is worth it. You feel like you’re on top of the world. You are on top of the world.
I’m looking forward to that part—the arrival. It’s the end of it that scares me. That’s when I will step out of the ritual pool and reconnect with my parents, who will take my hands and, through susum’urda, welcome me back to the community of shared consciousness. That’s when they will sense the name I have chosen for myself, and they will speak it out loud for the first time.
What if I’ve chosen the wrong name? What if I’m wrong about who I am?
The drive to the campground in the Coconino National Forest only took an hour, and when we arrived, I saw that we definitely weren’t camping in the depths of nature. Cave Springs Campground had well-maintained lawns, picnic tables, and coin-operated showers. The Hunter Glen School had reserved four sites next to one another, all within a couple of minutes’ walk from the bathrooms.
Ms. Lucas and Mr. Santos divided us up, six boys on one side and six girls on the other, and then assigned us to campsites. Morgan and I begged Ms. Lucas to let us pitch our tents next to each other, and because Courtney McKittrick wanted to camp next to her best friend, Ms. Lucas let me and Courtney switch places.
After we finished putting up our tents, we went on a hike. Matt Steiger led us along a trail through Oak Creek Canyon, where reddish-orange layers of sedimentary rock formed walls that looked like they belonged in Alice in Wonderland. Morgan dragged me up front with the rest of the girls, and we clustered around Matt as he talked about wildlife and plants. I could tell he enjoyed the attention, but he was actually nice about it. And at least it meant Morgan wasn’t obsessing over Zach.
That night everybody gathered at our campsite because it was the biggest, and Mr. Santos and Matt built a huge fire in the fire pit. We had chili for dinner, and it was better than I expected, even if the meat in it was cut-up hot dogs. Afterward, we made s’mores, which I’d never eaten before. Morgan showed me how to suspend the marshmallow over the flames until the outside blistered black and the insides turned into a melting gob of sugar. We peeled off the blackened exteriors and ate them, hot and crispy and so sweet it made my teeth hurt. Then we sandwiched the remaining marshmallow between graham crackers and milk chocolate, and Morgan made me wait for the chocolate to melt before biting in. Our fingers were sticky and we couldn’t stop laughing, and even though I knew there wasn’t much of a chance that Morgan would miraculously turn gay on the camping trip, I might have hoped a little.
At ten o’clock Ms. Lucas made us get ready for bed. Morgan and I crowded into the bathroom with the other girls, brushing our teeth in the harsh light from the fluorescent bulbs overhead. The girls’ voices echoed in the concrete room as they chattered about what had happened that day. When Morgan met my gaze in the mirror there was a sparkle in her eyes that made the hope inside me glow.
As we left the bathroom she pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, “I’m meeting Zach later. I can’t believe it!” She clutched my arm, and even though I was trying to avoid sensing her feelings, her whole body was jittery with excitement.
It felt like she had shoved me. I tried to hide my disappointment. “Don’t go too far into the woods,” I said. “You heard what Matt said. Mountain lions.”
Morgan giggled. Giggled. “Zach will protect me.”
She was so hyped up she never noticed I wasn’t laughing with her.
It’s been more than eight months since I left Earth, and my kibila’sa begins tonight at sunset. On Earth my birthday is February ninth, but it doesn’t translate directly to the Kurran calendar. Here, it’s more like autumn than midwinter, although the seasons don’t change much in Isi Na. It’s going to be a cool, clear night, with no storms.
My parents accompany me to the base of the temple trail to meet Nasha and her parents at sunset. I see her waiting with two other people as we approach the lighted stone arch, and I realize that she only has two parents. I don’t think I knew that before. I wonder how she feels about coming from such a traditional arrangement. Maybe they imported additional genes from other relatives. I’m not supposed to ask about that, though. It’s not considered polite to ask about an Imrian’s parentage; you have to wait for them to volunteer it.
Even though I know the girl standing by the archway is Nasha, I barely recognize her. She’s dressed in the same clothing as I am: outdoor gear that will keep us warm as the temperature drops. She has on black trousers with reflective seams tucked into hard-soled boots meant for the rocky terrain, and a long-sleeved black top with a hood to block the wind. Like me, Nasha has a small pack slung over her shoulder. It probably contains the same things mine does: our traditional kibila garments, which we’ll put on at the temple. Water and emergency rations, which we probably won’t use. A blanket, in case it gets really cold.
“Silim,” Nasha says. Hello. We’re not supposed to use our names, because tonight we are nameless.
“Silim,” I respond.
Nasha has cut off almost all her hair; what’s remaining is cropped close to her head. She’s not wearing any makeup either, and for the first time I realize she has light brown skin like Aba’s. Apparently her parents are traditional in more ways than one; they gave her the ancestral pigmentation.
Our parents come forward to greet each other and talk about local events while we wait for the sun to finish setting. They know each other, after all. Isi Na is a small community. When it’s dark, our parents give us the kibila farewell. They bow, making sure not to touch us, and say in unison, “May you have fair weather and calm spirits.”
Nasha and I bow back. My pack bangs against my hip. Then we both turn away from our parents and move toward the trail. We’re not supposed to look back, and it’s all I can do to keep my eyes peering forward into the night.
I was almost asleep when someone unzipped the front flap to my tent and crawled in, whispering, “Shh, shh, it’s me.”
Morgan. As she slid inside, forcing me to make room for her—it was supposed to be a single tent—her body quivered with barely suppressed energy. I woke up completely.
“He kissed me, he kissed me,” she said in my ear. Her breath was hot, tickling my skin. I tried to pull away from her, but there wasn’t any room. I shut my mind to her so that I didn’t relive, through her memory, the whole experience. I didn’t want to know what it was like to kiss Zach Montgomery. I really did not.