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His home had always been the dust swirling out on the wilderness or hawk talons glinting in the sky. The first thing he could remember was the blinding sun in his eyes and the burns on his bare feet.
But he was never really alone because at night when he sat up on the canyon, picking apart a dead animal like a buzzard, there were lights and sounds far away in a place he called the Distance. In the day, wavy halos of the desert reached up into the sky and the lights faded into the brown land. The only thing he could see then was the wreath of gray smoke hovering over the Distance choking up the desert’s blue heavens.
For some time he’d stared at the glimmering lights far off and tried to imagine catching them and bringing them back like a lot of fireflies all at once. And after a while he left for the place. He didn’t take anything with him except the dry earth on his skin and gnats in his hair. And his lizard he had named Leaf.
It took him only two moons and one sun. The closer he got the more confused he was. There were tall structures with lights inside them, but they weren’t like sunlight. It was whiter, like the kind he saw when he pinched his eyes shut tight and then opened them quickly. He put Leaf on his shoulder and walked between two structures and over a green, paved ground. All these two- wheeled things raced past and shouted at him. There was something riding them, with two hands and two feet, and a body and a head like him. People, just like him.
Days started to pass by quickly. He began to forget to gaze at the sunset and count the stars because he was too busy staring at the people. They all looked the same, but different, like how one nose would be pointed but another round and sprinkled with freckles, or how some eyes would be wide and green like a cactus or brown like sand.
At first he didn’t know the names of things, at least the way the people knew them by, but in time he did learn. He listened to them and watched them move their hands in gestures. He saw them laugh; how their cheeks would dimple in joy or their eyebrows would furrow in anger. He remembered the way things sounded and the way things worked, like how a shoe squeaked against tile, or how a door opened when you pulled it, or how those two-wheeled things were called bicycles.
Sometimes they would notice him; they would wrinkle their nose and scowl, straightening their crisp white shirts. “Hey kid, don’t you have a Mother to keep you clean?” Then he would slink away between buildings and behind picket fences, lurking. He was lonely and he missed his desert.
Nobody talked about the gray smog above them, but they did seem to focus on making everything green down below; green bikes and trash cans and roofs and grass and bins that they would throw their green bottles in. Sometimes he would hear someone say “Restoration” and he thought that was how they were going to cast away their smoky cloud.
When hunger struck, he started taking things. In the canyon, everything belonged to him. Here, nothing did and people would yell and shake their fists in fury. Never before had he known the warm, sugary taste of a cinnamon roll, or the cool, sweet sensation of lemonade. After that he swore off plant roots and dead coyotes and cactus juice for as long as he lived.
Usually he was not picky about where he slept, but he had taken to peeling back wooden planks and crawling under houses to sleep, a certain one in particular near a bakery. And one day not too special morning light flooded his shadowy space and a hand reached under and yanked him out.
“What are you doing under my house, little boy? Why do you keep coming here? I’ve seen you sneak under here everyday for a week now.”
He could not understand her but like a dog the tone of her voice alerted him to the fact that she was angry. He shook his head, shaggy hair spilling out infestations of centipedes and daddy long legs.
“Oh my god, look at your eyes. I’ve never seen anything like that. How’d that happen? One black, one blue! Who are you, you little mouse? “She was taller than him but just as skinny with short dirty blond hair and big brown doe eyes. Her nose was like a button. And she had three rings on each finger.
He reached out gingerly, gauging her reaction and touched her rings, her alabaster skin. His own skin was cracked and dry and caked with dirt but hers was smooth and white like sun- bleached stone. It was soft like he thought it would be.
“Why are you touching me? What’s the matter, can’t you speak?” But she didn’t pull away her hand. “You’re not from around here are you?”
Again, he didn’t answer. He only stared at her and touched her skin.
She refocused her gaze over him again, “Don’t you got a Mama?”
He cocked his head to the side at the familiar term he had heard before.
“A Mama takes cares of you. You belong with her. She makes you feel good.” She hugged him and a wave of relief rattled him, a sensation of comfort that he had missed since leaving his home.
Awed, he said nothing.
She drew back and looked at him. “Well you can stay here for the night because I like you I guess and I like your eyes.”
So he crawled back under her house and he fell asleep. In the mornings she would go to school on her green bike and he would walk around town, exploring. At nighttime he would come back and wait for her. She might bring him a pastry or orange juice but mostly she would talk to him about music because she was a very good singer. Her name was Sicily.
“What’s yours?” No answer.
“Can’t you speak?” She’d always ask and sigh when he stared back.
Once he followed her to school and he stood outside the fence, his fingers fixed onto the chain. When she noticed she ran over to him and pecked them away, “What are you doing here?”
A boy next to her took a look at him and screamed, “Weird eyes! You smell! Creep!”
He stood back, frightened like animal trapped in a cage, aware of the malice in his voice. Children piled around the fence line, screaming at him. “Weird eyes! Creep!”
Confused, he started to laugh loudly and the children stopped yelling.
“Go home,” Sicily said, and when she pointed he ran away.
Many months passed and Sicily grew tired of his silence. “Why won’t you talk?” she demanded angrily one night and hit his juice, spilling it all over him. A tear trickled down his face and he didn’t know why.
Another week after that she didn’t visit at all, and when she finally did she said, “You do have weird eyes,” and then she left again.
Sensing her frustration, he walked to her school and stood outside the enclosure until he was able to find a loose end and rip up the fencing. He wanted to touch her skin and say something but he didn’t know what at all. All the children stared at him.
“What are you doing here?” a big boy said, brandishing his fat belly, “You smell.”
He looked at the boy. He had never seen such stretched, blubbery skin before. He reached out to touch it, to see if it were as soft as Sicily’s. In a long, silent moment, he ran his finger along the exposed flub, all the other children holding their breath in front of the schoolyard bully. His skin was not soft and he was very disappointed.
Suddenly he was knocked to the ground, his eyes flaring colored lights like how he had seen the Distance back at the canyon. He was pinned to the ground, Not-so-very-soft-skin punching his face and arms and stomach. Sometimes he could hear the roar of the children; other times he only heard words in his head, floating around like lost ships at sea.
When he opened his eyes, a skinny girl with thick bangs screamed at him, “You’ve got no Mama, do you? You’re a dirty orphan with weird eyes!”
He tried very hard to remember what a Mama was because he knew he must have one, but when he closed his eyes he only saw the canyon and the hawks and his lizard Leaf who had died under the house.
“No Mama! Creep!” the children chanted, and his conscious stirred, blood spilling from his lips. He blinked for a long time and the crowd was gone and Sicily was there, kneeling down over him, worry etched across her face.
She was sad, cradling his head, “I’m so sorry.”
His lungs expanded brokenly, a sound escaping him, “Mamm,” he murmured.
Sicily looked at him, “What? Mama? Did you say something? You know, it doesn’t matter at all if you don’t remember your Mama. Those kids don’t know anything.”
His ears were ringing and when he opened his mouth to speak again, he could feel teeth jangling like Christmas ornaments. “But Mama,” he said and his voice was strange in realization, hearing it escape his thoughts. Her eyes widened and she shook a little, holding her chin with her three little rings on each finger, “Who’s your Mama?”
“Mama desert,” he said and he knew it was true. And he missed her.