Chapter 2: Three Quizzes

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"Ara Ara Ooeh," with a pat to an invisible baby, was eventually shortened to Ara Ara with a small forward gesture. The word did not change; they just added a nickname. Words never change in the language of the Siph—it is universal. Perhaps "Ara Ara Ooeh" referred to the loud and smelly infant, while simply "Ara Ara" referred to the slim young youth she became.

Ara Ara was lost. Normally she solved this problem by wandering, but she was in the bad position of being both lost and late.

"I know I'm on the west side of the mountain," she said, scurrying to the edge of a cliff. Her bare feet threw resting rocks over, tumbling to the bottom of the bare yellow mountain. Ara Ara put a hand to her face and squinted west, toward the rising sun. Below her was a desert valley, no vegetation, only dirt and sand. A few Siph villages hid in the shadows of her mountain, like goosebumps on the ridge's arm. Past that she saw the Forest, a speckled disarray of blue and red leaves, rising suddenly and terrifically from the ground. And there, lost in a hazy distance, she thought she could just make out the gray geometry of the Mile Corpse. Humans called it "Sant'Joan." Siph called it the "Mile Corpse" because when it fell from the sky and humans started building on it, from a distance they looked like so many ants cannibalizing a rotting animal. The city was much more than a mile long, containing most of the hundred thousand humans on the planet. But the Siph do not use units of measurement. They communicate only how large something they saw felt.

Ara Ara whirled around, her world shrinking to the small mountainside with roads carved into it and Siph bustling about their morning rituals. She tapped the first she could reach on the shoulder.

"Excuse me, would you direct me to the schoolroom? I know I'm close...

I'm lost again, and this class is so important to me," she said. And through her subtle wiggling and twitching, she conveyed both messages as clearly as she could, so the Siph would not pretend she had only noticed the surface meaning, and not the one hidden beneath.

"It's northeast. You can see it from here.

I'm busy now. I can't drop everything to lead you there," the Siph responded. How polite, and yet, how rude.

"Thank you.

Have pity," Ara Ara said. She walked toward the schoolhouse, taking the first wrong turn along the curving streets. The Siph called out to her, and Ara Ara looked back.

"It's the other way, dear.

No pity for stupidity." The Siph certainly said "stupidity," but a slight shift in body weight or a flick in the wrong direction and it would have meant, "No pity for humans."

Within three minutes Ara Ara was lost again and her panic was building. Most Siph refused to help Ara Ara with her geographical handicap before their morning chores were done. She knew all these streets, recognized the worn-stones by the sides, knew the feel of the dusty dirt, smelt the same mountain air, mixed with pollen and leftover pigs being cut open for breakfast. And yet the paths of her hometown blurred in her head. She took a deep breath and tried to mentally backtrack from the schoolyard. Think, Ara Ara.

"Ara Ara?"

She pictured it clearly in her mind—a hut tucked into the side of the mountain, dried and peeling with age. It had been a large house, but was deemed too dangerous to live in, so the Siph had given it to Ara Ara instead of scrapping it. She imagined the three huts facing it, one of them Loosetongue's. Loosetongue was a weak human translation of her best friend's name. A more precise translation would be she-who-loves-gossip-but-isn't-very-good-at-it. Naturally that is too long to say in anything but Siph. Siph don't even use their tongues to speak, she thought. Stop getting distracted, Ara Ara.

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