By Gabriela Avelino
Taikan opens his eyes. A useless instinct; a habit he can’t quite break. It doesn’t matter whether his eyes are open or not—the world looks pitch-black to him, regardless.
He takes a deep breath and tries to survey his surroundings. The scent of wood mingles with the reek of stale urine and unwashed bodies. Someone moves nearby, causing the wood to creak. A voice mumbles and quickly falls silent. He is lying in the hidden compartment of a merchant’s wagon, nestled between two other children. How many of us are in here? Five? Seven? He cannot tell, but judging by the stink, there are more bodies in the compartment than there were before he went to sleep. He tries to paint the image in his mind—scrawny figures clad in dirty cotton—malnourished faces and sunken eyes.
But what color is wood? He cannot remember. He was only four years old when he lost his vision, when the pale clouds blurring his cataracts darkened to a perpetual, ink-black night. His memories of color fade day by day.
A staccato burst of gunfire erupts nearby. The child beside him flinches, jabbing an elbow into his side. Taikan just scowls. The sound of gunfire used to make him whimper and cover his ears. Now, the cacophony of battle is an ever-present soundtrack in the background of his life. It is no surprise that he slept through it.
“Brother?” Charra’s voice, low and ragged, comes from his left. Her stale breath caresses his cheek. “You awake?”
“Mmm-hmm.” He snuggles closer to her, farther from the child who elbowed him. “Did we pass the border yet?”
“I don’t know. But there’s been gunfire for a while. Maybe we’re getting close.”
“I need to pee.”
“Try to hold it.”
“No one else has been able to hold it.” His nose crinkles. “What if soldiers search the wagon at the next outpost? They’ll smell the stink.”
“I think that’s why he’s a fish merchant. The fish smells even worse than us.”
“Oh.” Maybe the merchant knows what he’s doing. Maybe this isn’t the first time he’s smuggled children across a war-zone. The thought makes him breathe a little easier. Warm liquid dampens his inner thighs.
There was a time when wetting his pants in front of other children had been one of his biggest fears. But that was before men with rifles and machetes stormed his home village. Before he heard the wet gurgling sound his Mama made when her throat was cut. Before Charra spent days carrying him through ransacked villages and corpse-strewn battlefields. Before she decided that they would get in a wagon with a strange man and a handful of other orphaned children, because that seemed like the safest option at the time.
“You were mumbling in your sleep again,” says Charra.
He smiles and tries to say something that will make her smile too. “Did I say anything funny?”
“You just scared the other children.”
“Oh.” He snuggles closer, pressing his face against the thin plane of her breastbone. His sister’s embrace used to feel like warmth and softness. Now, her body is hard and skeletal, a framework of fragile bones beneath a taut layer of skin.
“Did you have a bad dream?” she asks.
“I like all my dreams, sister. I always dream in color.”
“Shut up,” someone hisses to his right—as if they could possibly be heard over the gunfire.
“You sounded frightened.” Charra’s voice softens.
“Everyone is frightened. All the time.”
“Did you dream of Mama again?”
Memory cuts through the darkness of his mind. He remembers the wet gurgling sound, a thud as something heavy hit the floor. Charra snatching him up in her arms, then running, running…
He didn’t even know Mama had died until Charra told him. That wet gurgle hadn’t sounded like someone dying. It had sounded like someone slurping up snot, or perhaps blowing bubbles.
“No,” he finally says. “I didn’t dream of Mama.”
Another drumroll of gunfire thickens the air. Is it just him, or does it sound closer now? Difficult to tell. Someone in the wagon whimpers.
“But I dreamed in color,” he adds. “There was blue, sister. So much blue. In millions of different shades, too. It’s silly that we call millions of different shades by just one name—”
Gunfire smothers his words. Yes, it’s definitely closer now. Close enough to leave a high-pitched ringing in his ears. The child to his right lets out a strangled cry. In spite of himself, Taikan flinches.
“What things are blue, sister? I don’t remember.”
“The sky. The sea. The wildflowers that grew behind our house. Those berries we used to pick with Mama in the summertime.”
“We never picked enough of those berries to fill Mama’s basket,” he says.
“Because you ate them as soon as we put them in the basket, silly.”
Something slams into the side of the wagon. Children roll into each other, jostling sharp knees and pointy elbows. The wagon teeters for a moment before righting itself. Someone bursts into tears.
“Sister?” Taikan whispers.
“If something happens…”
“The worst has already happened.”
“You’ll run faster if you don’t carry me.”
She falls silent for a long moment. He feels her chest rising and falling, her heartbeat thrumming at the pace of hummingbird wings. She feels so frail. As if her ribcage might collapse beneath the slightest pressure.
Finally, Charra presses her face against his. Her cheeks are warm and wet with tears.
“Try to sleep, little brother.”
“The gunfire is too loud now.”
“Try anyways.” She kisses his forehead. “And dream in color.”