“It’s not simply what people will call you,” my friend Uli told me. I’d been tossing off various name possibilities with her, and she clearly didn’t think I was taking this seriously enough. “It’s who you’ll be. Your new name will change you.”
“Who do you think I’m going to become?” I asked, puzzled.
“I don’t know,” she said solemnly.
I wondered if she was worried about the two of us. “We’ll still be friends,” I said.
Uli smiled. “We’re hilima.”
Hilima is an Imrian word that doesn’t translate directly into English. It means something like friends who kiss, and it’s much less serious than the human—or American—concept of a girlfriend or boyfriend. Imrians tend to have many hilima when they’re young, especially before their first kibila, because it only involves kissing and maybe a little fooling around. There’s kind of a big taboo against having sex before kibila’sa because it’s believed that if you haven’t yet chosen your identity, you can’t possibly share it completely with another person.
“Yes,” I agreed. “We’re hilima. That won’t change, and if it does, it’s all right.”
“Of course,” Uli said. “But you’ll be different.”
Nasha startles me out of the memory by handing me the bowl of buru. “Here,” she says.
“Thanks.” I take the bowl from her and eat the berries. They taste better than I expected, but when she hands me the fish, it tastes worse. The bread evens everything out, and as I chew, I actually do think about my ancestors: the Imrians who built the floating cities on the ocean, who built giant ships that could fly, that eventually brought my parents to Earth, where I was born.
“We can sit here for a while, or I think there’s a resting spot up the mountain where we can sleep for a few hours,” Nasha says.
I’m not sleepy at all, so I say, “Let’s sit here for a while. We have time.”
“All right.” She pushes her pack over and sits on the ground, leaning against the altar. I sit down a few feet away, my back against the mountainside. “Do you mind if I ask you something?” Nasha asks.
“No.” I’m curious about what she wants to know.
“What’s it like on Earth?”
Other Imrians ask me this all the time, but Nasha never has. “It looks different,” I say. “There are oceans and mountains like here, but there are also big flat regions where nothing grows. There are cities and small towns, but they’re only built on land. People drive everywhere in things called cars.” I spend some time explaining transportation to her, because on Kurra nobody drives; we all walk or take what humans would call cable cars, although our cable cars don’t look like the ones on Earth.
“What about the people?” she asks. “What are humans like?”
Imrians really only want to know about one thing: how humans deal with not being able to sense others’ emotions through touch. “Sometimes they’re defensive,” I say, “because they don’t always know where they stand with other people.”
“That must be so weird,” she says.
“Well, they’re not always defensive. Some humans are really open.” I think about Morgan. Before she found out I liked her, she never hid anything from me. I haven’t thought about her in a long time, and it brings back a twinge of sadness.
“That’s not what I mean,” Nasha says. “I mean it must be sad not to be able to do susum’urda.”
I’m a little irritated by the pity in Nasha’s voice. “They don’t have any other choice. It doesn’t feel like missing out to them. Besides, we’re not doing susum’urda tonight either. We act just like humans during kibila.”
“You think so?” Nasha sounds doubtful. “I’ve always thought of kibila as a chance to recognize how important susum’urda is to us. By giving it up during kibila, we appreciate it more afterward. We appreciate who we are as Imrians.”
Her interpretation of kibila startles me. I’ve been thinking about tonight so differently, as if it were a chance to be human—or, at least, to play at being human. Maybe I’ve been looking forward to it because I miss Earth, and I miss my human friends at Hunter Glen even if they never knew who I truly was.
In one dizzying instant, my perspective shifts completely. I’ve had human blinders on the whole time I’ve been back on Kurra. It’s as if Nasha reached over and took them off, and for the first time in a long time, I feel Imrian. Without susum’urda, it’s not that I become human—it’s that I’ve shut off everyone else’s emotions, and I have to sit here with my own. This is a specifically Imrian experience: deliberately turning inward after knowing what it’s like to be connected to so many others.
“It feels strange, not doing susum’urda,” Nasha continues, not noticing how still I’ve become. “It’s like I’m walking around with my eyes closed, and I keep wondering if I’m going to bump into something. Is that what it was like for you on Earth? And how did you feel being surrounded by people who couldn’t experience your feelings?”
I’ve never been asked this question before. I realize it’s because I’ve never had to tell someone how I felt about my time on Earth—not in words. Ama knows, and Aba and Ada, but they know through susum’urda. They know.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Nasha says when I don’t answer her.
The truth is, I don’t know how to explain it. Dozens of memories and emotions rise up inside me all at once, tangled and messy, and I feel as if I’m struggling against myself. With Nasha looking at me like that—as if she feels sorry for me—I can’t find the words.
“Maybe we should keep going,” she says, and she stands up and offers me her hand.
I look up at her. “We’re not supposed—”
“I’m focused on myself,” she says. “Aren’t you? I won’t sense anything.”
I take her hand. Her skin is cool and dry, her grip firm as she tugs me up to my feet. There’s no mental connection between us; only the pressure of her hand. Without another word she picks up her pack and slings it over her shoulder. We head back to the trail.
On Saturday, Ms. Lucas made us count off into three different groups of four. We were given cameras that printed out small photos, and we were supposed to take pictures of particular rocks and leaves in the forest and classify them on a chart. I wound up with Austin Weaver, Jessica Fowler, and Zach Montgomery.
Zach knew I didn’t like him, but when we discovered we were in the same group, he waggled his eyebrows at me as if to say, I know Morgan told you what we did. I gave him a cool look, and he grinned back. He was cute enough for a boy. Not too bad of a haircut, clear blue eyes. He was also full of himself, and I didn’t understand why Morgan couldn’t see that.
All morning, as Austin, Jessica, and I scouted for samples and took photos, Zach made snarky comments. As we flipped through our field guides to figure out whether we’d found the right rock or leaf, it got worse. Austin was a nice boy, kind of nerdy, and he let Zach walk all over him. Jessica’s face got this pinched look on it as Zach started to derail our project, but she didn’t say anything. Finally, as Zach grabbed one of the field guides out of Austin’s hands and waved it around as if he were in a game of keep-away, I said, “Zach, stop being such a jerk. Give that back to him.” Jessica smirked.