“There’s nothing to be sorry about. We have plenty of time to know each other. You and I will always be bound together, even after you go back to Earth. Even after we have lovers, and real responsibilities, and children, if we have children.”
She’s right. Every fifteen years, I will spend one night with her. The weight of that future suddenly impresses itself on me, and I reach for her without thinking, catching her hand in mine.
She’s closed to me, of course, as kibila demands. Her fingers squeeze mine, and she is like an anchor. On this mountain, we are anchored together. She will witness my transformations every time.
I wonder what it was like for earlier generations of Imria, who undertook their kibila in larger groups. That shelter could hold a dozen or more at a time. What would it be like to go through life with that group of people anchoring you throughout every transformation? I feel a sharp ache for a time long past, when this planet was alive with so many more of us. Now it is an isolated, lonesome place. Earth, in comparison, is a hive of bright, vibrant life. Earth is our future.
And I know, finally, that what everyone has told me is true. After today, I will be a new person. Ready to do what I was born to do.
We left Coconino National Forest the morning after my talk with Morgan. At breakfast, Morgan ignored me, but she looked sad while she sat with Zach. Part of me always knew she would react this way. She had never had gay friends or family before, and the few times the topic of gay people came up she always made a face as if they were gross. I felt stupid for ignoring that part of her for so long.
On the bus, I was stuck sitting with Ryan Walker. His parents had forced him to join Nature Club because they thought he needed outdoor exercise, but he never seemed to enjoy it. His nose was already deep in a book when I sat next to him in the only empty seat. He didn’t even look at me until the bus pulled to a stop at the visitors’ center on the way out of the forest. Ms. Lucas told us we had half an hour to pick out a souvenir, and Ryan’s hand shot up.
“Yes, Ryan?” she said.
“Can I use the bathroom?”
“Yes. There are bathrooms around the side of the visitors’ center.”
He stuffed his book into his backpack and was about to get up when he saw that I was still sitting there. “Hey, I heard about—” He cut himself off, turning beet red.
“Yeah? So?” I hadn’t thought Ryan would bring it up.
He looked embarrassed. “Just—I read this book once, and these girls liked each other, and—” He hesitated. “I think it’s okay. You’re okay.”
I was surprised. “Um, thanks.”
He hurriedly brushed past me out of the seat, and his backpack banged against my head. “Sorry!” he said, and then fled the bus as if he were afraid of me.
I waited till the rest of the kids were off before I followed them out. Some of them were hanging out by the edge of the parking lot, talking. Morgan was among the group of girls, their heads pressed together. I went into the visitors’ center before I could catch them staring at me.
Inside there were various tourist souvenirs for purchase in addition to maps and hiking gear. A couple of kids were buying postcards, but I avoided them and headed to the back of the store. I found a rotating jewelry display beside a bin full of sale-priced T-shirts, and I spun the display around to look at the earrings and pendants. I wasn’t planning to get anything—what did I want a souvenir of this weekend for?—but something on the bottom of the rack caught my eye. I bent down and pulled the necklace off the display. It was a piece of amber about the size of a quarter on a silver chain. In the center of the hardened resin was a curled frond, like a fiddlehead fern. I flipped over the card on which the chain was looped, and read: “This GENUINE piece of Amber was formed twenty-five million years ago in Central America.”
I pulled the pendant off the card and cupped it in my palm, gazing at the twenty-five-million-year-old fern preserved within the golden-orange resin. I couldn’t wrap my head around the age of the amber. It was here long before humans existed. Were my people alive back then? Were they only beginning to learn how to stand? This tiny object, warmed by the skin of my hand, had existed throughout all of that. It would exist throughout so much more to come. I rubbed a finger over the smooth surface, and for a second I thought I felt an electric charge in the palm of my hand, as if the amber were tugging at me.
I closed my fingers around it and took it to the cash register. Maybe I did want to remember this place, this planet. I wanted to take a piece of it home with me.
The temple is built into the peak of Isi Na, the walls made of stone quarried from somewhere nearby so that the temple seems to grow directly out of the mountain itself. The front of the temple opens into a flat, circular area that is tiled in the colors of the ocean, which it overlooks. When we arrive, the sun is slightly below the horizon, making the edge of the sea glow. We enter the temple through its main doors, built of black wood that has been carved into a lattice pattern. Inside, there is an atrium with a long, narrow pool. On either side are murals depicting Isi Na and the sea painted in deep, rich colors.
Two attendants are waiting for us at the rear of the atrium, both wearing long gray robes. One of them approaches Nasha; the other approaches me. We bow. My attendant takes me into an antechamber where I will change into my ritual clothing. Nasha follows her attendant into the same room. There are two stations set up, but there is space for many more; the room is long and extends far into the mountainside. Each station is comprised of a chair and a small table on which several ritual implements are laid out: a clipper, a razor, a bottle of scent. My attendant gestures for me to sit down as he picks up the clippers.
I watch my hair fall in clumps onto the floor as he cuts it off. Kiss of honey. That’s what the hair color I used was called. I bought it because Morgan liked that color, and I packed several boxes to bring back here with me. I kept using it because I couldn’t bring myself to end that part of my life yet. But today, it’s over. My natural hair is dark brown, and after my head is shaved, it will grow back in that color. Some Imrians go directly from their kibila to a stylist to have new hair rooted immediately, but I think I’ll let mine come in on its own. It might be kind of fun to be bald for a while.
Once most of my hair is gone, my attendant rubs a soft, faintly scented foam into my remaining hair, then picks up the razor. The blade slides cool and wet over my scalp, and nervous energy begins to flutter inside me.
The first time Eres Tilhar walked me through all the steps of kibila, I told my teacher I thought it sounded bizarre. Why would we change ourselves every fifteen years? I remember Eres saying, “It is the natural course of things—to change. We cannot hold ourselves back from changing. Kibila honors that, and gives us the opportunity to recognize how we are evolving.”
This morning, I’m eager to change. I’m eager to become who I am now.
When my attendant finishes shaving my head, he picks up the bottle of scented oil and taps some of it onto his fingertips, then makes a ritual marking over my newly shaved head. He touches the oil to my temples and my lips, and then he bows to me. I stand up and take off my hiking clothes. Nasha has already changed and is waiting near the entrance to the atrium. I slide into my ritual robes, gray like the attendant’s, made of a soft cloth woven from a cottonlike plant that grows on the southern slopes of the mountains. It’s like a caftan, with embroidery at the wrists and the collar in the shape of waves breaking upon the shore. I will wear this robe at every one of my kibila for the rest of my life.