“Nobody tells me what to write,” Ariel said with her arms crossed.
Sabas looked at her with apathy. The midday sun reflected light off his metallic legs and onto her brown skin. “But think about the readers. Those Ivory professors don’t know what Port Hidal is about, only we do. You shoulda submitted another story.”
“Why are you telling me this? I didn’t even invite you here. Leave me alone.”
“Your momma told, well, wrote me that I should be looking after you nowadays. Says, well, writes that you’ve been spending too much time by the docks.”
“One thousand words a day takes time.”
“Wow! And you wasted all of them on a book about Port Hidal.”
With gritted teeth, Ariel turned her head toward Mt. Delphi. The gray peaks jutted against the sky’s streaks of blue and white. She imagined the sprawling towers enclosed within them, housing Aurelia’s brilliant minds. The thought of the learned professors reading her novel made her skin prickle with excitement.
“I know the professors will like it,” she said. “I didn’t write about those dumb creatures for fun.”
“Hey, I get it. If Ivory accepted Mechanicals, you bet I would apply. But hell, I’m not even sure they accept hot heads like you.”
Ariel opened her mouth to protest, but stopped when she spotted a Garuda emerge from the mountain, soaring toward the center of town. With alacrity she skipped through the barren meadow, cutting through piles of branches and fallen trees until she reached the outskirts of Port Hidal.
“Wait for me!” Sabas said. Ariel could hear his heavy legs stomping on the ground behind her, but she refused to stop.
The Garuda swooped by Ariel’s hut, dropping an envelope at its doorstep. She snatched it and tore it open. Her eyes darted to the end.
We again extend our warmest congratulations on your acceptance to Ivory’s Writing Track.
She read the last sentence over and over again. Warmth exuded from the words. Without thinking she rushed westward with the letter clasped in hand. The citizens of Port Hidal stared at her tear-stained face as she dodged birdmen and insectoids stealing space on the dirt roads. Her bare feet tingled in the springtime heat; humidity hung on her skin while the smell of honey pervaded the air. The vitality that had been hidden within her finally sprung alive. If she had to describe what it meant to feel like the divines, she knew how at that moment.
She pushed through the crowds to reach the small fruit shop hiding in the corner of Hidal Market. Momma was busy serving a customer, a male cactae who struggled to put down a melon stuck to his forearm. Ariel snuck behind the counter and hugged her frail body tight.
“I made it Momma. I got into Ivory.”
On the day of Ascendance, Ariel woke up with an ache in her neck. The straw that she lay on stuck out of her brunette hair. Her body reeked of grime, but only to save water for that special day. The encroaching sunlight led the way into the bathroom, where she dumped two buckets of water on herself. Her skin stung, but the cleansing relaxed her.
Momma waited outside. Ariel noticed ink on her hands. With trembling fingers, Momma tore a page from her notepad and held it up.
I’m so proud of you, Ariel. Look inside.
She pointed toward a bag on the ground. Ariel picked it up, realizing its weight had been tripled with fruit. Inside she found an unfamiliar green coat. Ariel looked into Momma’s expectant eyes and put it on despite the heat. Momma smiled and tore off another page.
Two weeks’ worth of income. But my hunger is less important than the cold you will face.
They walked hand in hand to the Stairs, Ariel’s old pair of boots squeaking with every step. Momma’s limp slowed their journey, but it gave Ariel the opportunity to appreciate her hometown. Her eyes drifted toward the walking beasts and giant insects bustling about the roads. Before crossing the Rio Bravo, she watched giant krill swim up the river, jumping in unison over the bridges connecting the west end to the east. Domesticated elephants carried wingless crows passed by her as she walked across Meanwhile Garuda flew overhead, their rainbow feathers cluttering the river. The inksplotters also contaminated the river with the ink that flowed from their pointed heads. Realizing Ariel had seen them, they fell on their sides and remained still.
Half breeds ranging from praying mantises to humanoid globs occupied the boardwalk. Behind them, cargo ships unloaded cages filled with giant fennec foxes. Manbats and their mice slaves also disembarked, although separately. In the distance, lines of ships waited to port. Every year, ships full of humans converged at Port Hidal on the day of Ascendance. Accepted Ivory students from all over Aurelia disembarked with their parents and headed toward Mt. Delphi. Ariel remembered her younger self following them to the bottom of the Stairs, the legendary construction that snaked upward until it ended at Ivory’s campus, and watching them climb. The humanoid animals and walking insects and deformed creatures that roamed Port Hidal had no knowledge of the different reality that existed at the top of the Stairs. And neither did Ariel, yet she yearned to experience Ivory, Aurelia’s Leading Academic Institution, according to the pamphlets. Ariel enjoyed reading the key terms aloud; they flowed from her mouth like hymns. A New Reality. First Class Education. Uniting the Nine Seas. Back then, the distance to her dream seemed as insurmountable as the Stairs.
“A-ri-el the ac-a-de-mic!” a fishman said, each syllable a disjointed slur.
Near the docks, Ariel saw the group of fishmen who teased her when she sat down to write.
“We told you! Keep wri-ting and you win! Now you win!”
Ariel smiled, reveling in the fishmen’s praise. Their broken English epitomized their weakness, and she founded her pride on it. Despite the euphoria Ariel felt while writing about these creatures, she never forgot about her superiority to them. She was human, after all. The simplemindedness that marked their speech was produced by their inferior minds, further emphasized by their deformed bodies. She felt compelled to reduce these creatures to words on paper, beings under her control. But she resisted the urge to pull out her quill and searched for another outlet for her frustration.
“You! Carry us to the Stairs!” Ariel said with an authoritative tone. She pointed toward a male hinny scratching one of its hoofs on the side of a hut. It turned around and fell on all fours. Ariel and Momma mounted its hairy back. As the hinny led them toward the Stairs, Ariel’s yearning for nostalgia was overcome by the sight of the endless creatures surrounding her.
“Vitality,” Ariel said in a mutter. She repeated the word like a mantra. The sound of it made it come alive during its brief utterance, although it failed to exist in the world she knew. She felt like escaping the listless lifestyle of the typical Port Hidal citizen. Eating, sleeping, fucking, and accidentally procreating was the rut that continued on and on, never ending until pitiful death. She refused to exist in its presence any longer. She looked at the approaching peaks of Mt. Delphi with a longing she had never before felt.
Ariel sighed with relief when the hinny reached the Stairs. In front of the wide expanse of steps stood groups of parents looking skyward. Ariel looked at them in amazement. Although they were human, something differentiated them from Momma, something inherent and hidden. Their poise radiated refinement not commonly found in Port Hidal. The look in their colored eyes indicated sharpness unknown to the oakies and birchies, and their aura emitted an intelligent demeanor unattainable by uneducated catwomen. She wanted to steal the energy that radiated from their bodies. By simply existing, they seemed to possess a vitality that she had yearned for all her life.
Momma spread her arms. Ariel hugged her goodbye, but with reluctance. She remained stoic as Momma cried. The touch of her skin reminded Ariel of the weakness embedded in its wrinkles. It epitomized the torpor that typified Port Hidal. Weakness existed on the ships, on the streets. The constant movement belied the languor that spread from hut to hut, creature to creature. And this languor was not only physical, but mental as well. Her eyes on the peaks of Mt. Delphi, Ariel disconnected herself from the present. She imagined herself among other bright minds; their mere presence would improve her writing. She would transcend, just as other students did in years past. With the other parents surrounding her, Ariel felt like she had joined the society of the strong.
She impatiently watched Momma tear a page from her notepad.
Soon you’ll be back.
“Not until the end of the second semester,” Ariel said. “The letter said all students have to remain on campus until the end of the academic year.”
Momma tore off another page.
As long as you get the best education.
Momma’s grin hid her pain as she watched Ariel ascend.
Ariel rushed up hundreds of steps before stopping to catch her breath. She could hardly see the ground anymore. The cliffs of Mt. Delphi blocked out parts of the sky, casting shadows over her. With the sun obscured, a light chill began to creep through the seams of her coat. A few dozen steps later, the faint outline of a gate stood out amongst the thickening fog. Coming closer, she noticed two columns, a stone eagle perched on both, standing on each side of the gate erected on a flat respite. A tall man stood in a crevice beside it.
“Proof of acceptance?” he asked from behind a podium.
She handed her acceptance letter to him.
“Ariel Zamora,” he said while checking her name off a list. “Proceed.”
A gust blew past Ariel’s shoulders when she walked through the gate. She expected to see a Garuda flying toward the gray sky, but instead felt the wisps of an ethereal presence guiding her upward. The wind beckoned her to follow its path, its chill invigorating her legs to climb, climb toward a new world.
“Oh, and Ms. Zamora, please keep watch for the Mechanical. He seemed quite exhausted when he passed through earlier. He may not have the strength to reach the top.”
The words forced Ariel back to reality. Minutes later she encountered a young man with his back against a stone wall. He had slumped down on a step, arms crossed, body shivering.
“Sabas?” she asked, kicking his oversized boots.
Sabas removed his hood and smiled up at her. “Just taking a rest.”
“What the hell? How did you get here? You didn’t get accepted!”
“You don’t need to be a student to get to Ivory,” he said with a sly smile. His matted hair drooped between his eyes as he stood. He handed Ariel a crumpled letter.
“Mechanical Serviceman?” Ariel asked. “What do they do?”
“Maintenance stuff on the buildings. Cleaning up after students, cooking the food, making sure you smarties have a nice experience.”
“Why?” Ariel asked. She attempted to hide the look of disappointment on her face.
“I found out about it around the time you got accepted. I took your words about escaping ‘unstimulating ruts’ pretty seriously. Besides, someone’s got to look after you, huh?”
Ariel knew he would. But she could not help but wince at the weakness that characterized him. To Ariel, his metallic legs, only partially covered by his torn pants, robbed him of vitality. She imagined this deficiency affecting every aspect of him, the stifling effects of inadequacy coursing through his blood, numbing his mind, dumbing his speech. But she wished he could be stronger, smarter, better. She truly did, and for this she pitied him.
“Let’s walk to the top together,” she said, her lips betraying her feelings.
The ascent would have continued in silence if Sabas had not attempted to speak.
“It’s not like I have a Ma and Pa to tell me good job,” Sabas said. “But you know how Port Hidal is. People come in and out, but nobody never really does anything. I wanted to help people, and Ivory seemed like the best way out of the rut for me, so I jumped on the opportunity. Some told me bad stories about how they treat Mechanicals up there. I have no idea how they heard about these stories. Fact or not, they scared me a bit.”
Ariel listened to his voice rather than his words. Enthusiasm embedded itself in his tone. He sounded so happy to speak, blissfully unaware of the resentment Ariel held toward his presence. Ivory was not like the meadows outside Port Hidal. She imagined her future friends berating her for speaking with a Mechanical.
“You know, I always thought my legs held me back. Who knew they would get me a job at the best university in Aurelia? I read that only nine Mechanicals get this job every year. We’re the few willing ones to do this type of work. I dare say it’s my time to shine, Ariel, and not literally.”
An urge to quicken the pace overcame Ariel. She began to walk a full step ahead of Sabas, but he did not stop talking.
“So how do you think you got in?” Sabas asked after a brief pause.
“I don’t know. They must have liked my novel.”
“Well I’m just saying. I got accepted to the job because I’m a Mechanical,” Sabas said chuckling. “Maybe they needed to check off the ‘hot head’ box and, well, saw your application just sitting there…”
“You’re saying I got accepted because they needed someone like me?”
“Yeah, why else? Think about it. There are tons of Mechanicals like me. But I suppose they chose me for a reason. Makes me feel kinda special, but also a bit strange. I’m just filling a box, but you know what, I don’t mind it.”
Sabas noticed at Ariel’s indifferent expression and stopped talking.
When they reached the top, Ariel stood dumbfounded at the scene before her. Ivory’s campus, encircled within overarching cliffs, basked in an enchanting gray hue. The mountain walls kept most of the cold air out, yet a chill still erupted throughout her body. Candles emitted light from every windowsill, and the shapes of the windows ranged from circular to oblong. But the most characterizing aspect of Ivory was the white brick that constituted every building looming over the grassless ground. Towers of white shone bright against the dull walls of Mt. Delphi. An irresistible force pulled Ariel forward.
“Hey Ariel! Let me know if –“
But she forgot about Sabas. She entered buildings with names unknown to her. The twisting passageways, their walls decorated in ornate brown and white plasters, led her to rooms with ceilings as high as ship masts. She stepped into lecture halls full of mahogany seats and wooden flooring that creaked with each step. Some buildings were connected by bridges that rose over forty feet above the ground and from them she could peer out at the rest of campus. Stumbling down staircases, skipping across desolate earth, sitting on ancient benches, Ariel took it all in. She had made it.
Ariel’s amazement culminated when she entered her assigned room. Two beds were aligned along the walls. With a wide smile she sat down on the reclining chair, her hands smoothing over the cold wood of the desk. She slipped off my boots so she could feel the carpet rub against her toes. It only took a minute to appreciate these luxuries, but it felt like an hour.
After Ariel put away her clothes, a young woman with long, red hair walked inside.
“Hello, I’m Ariel,” she said, reaching out her hand.
“Diana, nice to meet you,” she said in a rush. She gave Ariel a hug. Her touch radiated with warmth. “Ah, there’s so much to do! But we should meet first. Work can wait. So where are you from? What Track?”
They spoke for hours. Ariel envied Diana’s eloquence, belied only by her fast tongue, which seemed eager to let the words escape from her mouth. Ariel anticipated each word with growing excitement.
“So my mom’s the mayor of Tokovoco,” Diana said. “Everyone in the Azul Sea knows her, which makes it easy for dad to sell property. He owns several shipyards in the area. I told him to keep a few so I can work on their infrastructure when I graduate. I can become his right-hand engineer. What about you? What are you interested in?”
“I want to become a famous writer. I want everyone to read my thoughts.”
“I need to write. It makes me feel strong. But sometimes I feel empty when I can’t accurately describe what I think. That happens a lot. It took me five years to write the novel I submitted with my application.”
“Shouldn’t it only take about a year to write a book? How much do you write a day?”
Ariel opened her mouth, but took a moment to speak. Hurt by Diana’s nonchalance but eager to impress her, she strove to find the words that would save her from embarrassment.
“Well, I write one thousand words a day. But not all of them are quality words.”
“As opposed to bad quality words?”
“Yeah, I don’t eat some days. That affects how I describe things. And sometimes I feel too tired after helping my Momma lug fruit around all day. It’s exhausting carrying fruit around and not being able to eat it. Other times we run out of candle wax and I have to wait until the clouds move away from the moon so I can see what I write.”
Diana looked at her in disbelief. Ariel blushed at her confession. In her embarrassment she noticed a strange emptiness in Diana’s eyes. Instead of exuding energy, Diana absorbed it. Ariel could feel the vitality leave her as she listened to Diana speak.
“You know what would be great? To create a student organization together. Our parents would be so proud! It only takes twenty signatures and it would be so awesome to meet other Ivories! We could hold fundraisers, donate to the poor, have fun. Sounds like something that you’d be interested in, right? In fact, let me get in touch with the dean…”
Diana’s words eventually dissolved into noise.
On the first day of Introductory Writing, Ariel arrived last to a classroom with a long table set in the middle. Eleven chairs surrounded it, and the only empty seat was next to the professor. Ariel sat down right before he began speaking.
“My name is Geoff Eugene,” he said to everyone. “Congratulations on your acceptance to the Ivory Writing Track. I will be your adviser and instructor for the year.”
Professor Eugene sat hunched over the table, his hands clasped together. The candlelight illuminated his balding head. Ariel glanced at the other students who sat in timid postures, fascinated by his presence. He emitted a refined aura that grew larger as the seconds passed. His physical space was dwarfed by the authority evident in his confident composure.
“I read all your submissions,” he said. “In fact, my opinion of them had a strong influence on your acceptances. I will be passing them back to you today with comments and criticisms.”
Ariel’s body tensed. Time passed slowly as the class listening to Professor Eugene’s critiques. Occasionally he passed around excerpts from a particular submission he enjoyed. At times Ariel stopped listening to his voice and simply stared into his eyes, which lacked the life and emotion possessed even by the lowliest of bugmen.
In the final ten minutes of class, he gave Ariel her submitted copy of Soulburn. With shaking fingers she flipped through the pages, but found no written comments.
“Ariel, this will be short. And do not take this personally. It is my job to say this. If published, Soulburn has the potential to be the scourge of fiction writing.”
Ariel stared at him, her hands sweating.
“Why?” she asked.
“Unlike the previous works I just discussed, it is too fantastical. I am not saying you should stop writing about fantastical topics. But if you want to be taken seriously here, you should stop.”
“But what’s so bad about it?” Ariel asked. Her body heated up. She felt a wave of inferiority possess her, sapping the vitality from her spirit.
“Well, let me begin. The character names are too strange. Kai? Seiya? Why not normal names like Mary or George? And the characters themselves are too outrageous. I have never heard of cactae or fire sprites. I could not connect with any of them. Why not write about actual people doing real things? Write about what you know, not this fantastical drivel…”
Ariel listened to his criticism, every second grating her soul. She sat dumbfounded, flipping through her manuscript. She reminded herself that she had written about Port Hidal, about the creatures she saw everyday. It was not fantasy. She did write what she knew.
Despite their straight faces, Ariel felt the other students silently insulting her, agreeing with everything Professor Eugene said.
Time was a fickle force at Ivory, at times omnipresent and overpowering, and yet always fleeting. The initial exuberance of the semester dwindled to a constant ennui that permeated the halls. Silence accompanied it, but only during evenings when students studied and slept.
During a weekend sunset, Ariel sat on a bench overlooking the land behind the Medical Tower. From afar she watched Sabas throwing trash. His blue overalls accentuated the bulge of his clunky legs. Ariel knew he was only months older than her, but she marveled at how the physical toil had hardened his body like that of a grown man. But his brutish movements had remained, and they exuded a familiarity and comfort that had been lost to her.
She stood and walked over to him.
“How’s the job going?” she asked.
Startled, Sabas turned to her, accidentally kicking a bin over.
“Ariel! I haven’t seen you in over a month!” he said while bending down. He began picking up the spilt trash. “It’s going good. Nothing much to say other than it’s good. You look nice and healthy. Looks like you don’t need me looking after you after all.”
Ariel watched him place the trash back in the bin, his hands marked with ingrained grime.
“You know, we’re only required to take only one course a semester,” she said. “One course. But that course drains all the life from you.”
“Bah! You can handle it. I know you can. You’re smart.”
Ariel smiled. For the first time, Sabas’ ignorance delighted her. She reveled in the simple praise. She knew he was oblivious to her struggles, and that made his praise all the more exalting. No matter how hard she struggled, she was inherently superior.
And then the old urge returned.
“Sabas, mind if I write around you?”
“Around me? Sure, just don’t distract me. Work’s tough as it is, as you know.”
The proposition soon became a daily ritual. Ariel’s hand flowed with the energy of repressed words waiting to break free from her mind. She followed Sabas to the dining hall, to the bathrooms, to the outer edges of campus. His growing weariness inspired twists in her tales. Would he die of exhaustion? Would he throw off the clothes that branded him a Mechnical Serviceman and descend the Stairs? In the end it mattered little, since Ariel could make him do whatever she desired through her writing.
During one her writing bouts, Ariel noticed other students observing her with condescending stares. At first she assumed the students had mistaken her for a Mechanical. She sat only two feet away from Sabas, who was busy draining water from underneath the Engineering Tower. But their jeers made their intention clear.
“Leave the guy alone, brownie!” she heard a voice say amongst the crowd.
A bald young man neared Ariel, impersonating her every move. He burst into laughter when Ariel stopped writing and stared at him.
“It’s so stupid! The way you ‘re treating this guy, as if you’re any better,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” Ariel asked.
“You’re the first brown girl I’ve seen here. And here you are, treating this worker like he’s part of the zoo. I mean shouldn’t it be the other way around?”
The words passed through Ariel’s skin like biting wind. Sabas stood over her shoulder, his malicious stare warding off the young man.
“I’m sorry he’s saying such things,” Sabas said. “I’m sorry Ariel. I didn’t mean for them to insult you.”
“But you’re the Mechanical,” Ariel said under her breath.
One day Professor Eugene distributed a chapter from his own book, Paradise, and asked the class to critique it.
“I am open to criticism, but only if it is sound,” he said.
Ariel read the opening paragraph.
The flocker of the dying flame invited silence to enter the office. Occasional coughs and finger tapping interrupted the numbing sound that pervaded my mind. I sat confined in the cubicle, hunched over stacks of papers like a scribe. The smell of cold coffee filled my nostrils but failed to reignite my stagnant senses. My handwriting had imprinted itself onto my line of vision. The meaningless words, made up of endless letters, floated in and out of my wandering mind. I looked up at the gray walls enclosing the small room; they were a refreshing change of scenery from the black ink and white space.
Despite Professor Eugene’s insistence that his writing “perfectly captured the human condition,” the issues he wrote about seemed foreign to Ariel. He did not write about hunger, or poverty, or living amongst monstrous beings.
“What makes this good writing?” Ariel asked. “I honestly think it lacks passion and excitement.”
“It is a story about real people dealing with issues essential to the human condition,” Professor Eugene said with raised eyebrows. “It offers insight into a life otherwise unknown to the reader. It is informative. It is enlightening.”
When she was not bracing herself from criticism, Ariel observed Professor Eugene’s character. He did possess emotion, as some of the student submissions brought him to tears. He wept without shame, but his eyes remained expressionless. To eradicate his intimidating demeanor, he would invite his favorite students to dinner at the Ivory dining hall, and he hosted social gatherings at his lodgings on the highest floor of the Writing Tower. But he never invited Ariel; he only gave her criticism.
One criticism in particular stood out to Ariel.
“Write about what you know,” he said again while handing her back a short story.
“But it’s about Port Hidal. I wrote about sending in my Ivory application. It’s about real things.”
“This is nothing but fantasy. What exactly is a Garuda?”
Ariel looked at the other students for support. They anticipated her answer as well.
“Garuda, sir? They carry our mail. Surely you’ve seen one?”
“Only in your mind do giant birds deliver mail and you are surrounded by creatures that walk and talk.”
“But everyone here had to go through Port Hidal to come here,” she said. “You all must have seen them?”
The class remained silent.
“Your phase is taking a significant amount of time to pass,” Professor Eugene said. “But it will pass. Do not worry, Ariel. You will begin writing about your own kind sooner or later.”
“’Your kind’?” Ariel asked. No one answered her.
Ariel left class confused, but convinced that Professor Eugene was a disillusioned man. When she returned to her room, Diana sprang from under her desk.
“Diana, tell me you know what Garu –“
“Not now, busy!”
Ariel lay on her bed while she watched Diana move from one end of the room to the other. On a whim she wrote new items on her schedule, a long list of tasks that she pinned above her bed. She never stopped moving, but her energy demotivated Ariel rather than invigorate. But fatigue was no stranger to Diana. Torpor overcame her as the day turned dark.
Diana’s exhaustion inspired Ariel. It reminded her of Sabas’ degradation. She reached for her quill and sheet of paper and began to write. Finally she had caught her roommate at the lowest valley of her existence, too weak to resist the words that she would ascribe to her. But as Ariel wrote, she realized the futility of her attempts to denigrate Diana. The expressions failed to flow from her mind to her fingers. She wrote half sentences, never completing ideas. No matter how pathetically she depicted Diana, she knew her words were false.
She moves with a torpid grace unfamiliar to The moon saps the energy from her The flame in her eyes has been doused with…
I would rather write about monsters.
Ariel put her quill and paper away and lay in bed.
“I can’t believe I couldn’t finish today!” Diana said irritably as Ariel attempted to sleep.
From under her covers, Ariel could hear Diana stamping her feet against the wall, the standard ritual to ridicule her incompetence.
“Professor Hack’s going to fail me if I don’t turn in my homework! And what about Luca and Jenna? They need me at tomorrow’s fundraiser. And Joseph will have to wait until next week. I hardly have enough time this weekend to even go for a run. How am I supposed to organize a running event but not be able to run in it? It’s too much! Why am I here?”
After a minute of silence, Ariel thought Diana had gone to sleep.
“Why am I here?” Diana asked again.
The question lingered in Ariel’s mind before she slept through another dreamless night.
Good job Ariel. You finally came around to writing about things that really matter. I could feel Diana’s pain through your words. You pass.
Ariel read the comments in disbelief. She crumpled the manuscript and headed to Professor Eugene’s office.
She knocked twice and then walked inside. Bookshelves filled most of the room. Books with elaborate bindings flashed rainbow colors that contrasted with the white walls. On Professor Eugene’s desk were nothing but a quill and a set of paper.
“Yes, Ariel, how can I help you?” he asked.
“Why was I accepted to Ivory?” she asked, holding her breath after the words escaped her.
The absurd smile that often stained Professor Eugene’s face grew in size until a light cough stopped its mutation into a full-fledged laugh. He looked at one of his bookshelves.
“I suppose your story got you thinking about your own purpose? Writing can be insightful.”
Ariel clenched her fists.
“I only wrote that story to pass your class. I don’t like writing about people like Diana, or anyone else who isn’t like what I’m used to writing about. At the beginning of the semester, you said you hated my writing about Port Hidal. So how did I get accepted in the first place? I want to know.”
“I advocated for your acceptance so you can learn about the greatest writers who ever lived. From them, you will learn what writing is about. That is what we will do next semester, in Writing Literature. People like you deserve this knowledge.”
“People like me?”
“What have you read by Harold Flower?” he asked abruptly. He stood and let his fingers glide along the titles of books unknown to Ariel.
“I’ve never heard of him.”
Professor Eugene turned around unexpectedly. He looked concerned.
“What about William Schneider?”
Ariel shook her head. Professor Eugene leaned against his desk.
“Who have you read?” he asked.
“Well, I don’t read much. I couldn’t afford books back home. I just write.”
Professor Eugene’s eyes widened as if he had taken offense to her comment. Then a spark of life emerged in them. In the next instant he sat at his desk and wrote. Every other phrase he looked up at the object of his inspiration, reassured himself that she still existed, this foreign specimen so far removed from his range of knowledge. Ariel sat dumbfounded. Professor Eugene stopped only after a full page had been written.
“I can’t do what you just did,” Ariel said. “I can’t write about humans. Mechanicals yes, they’re still inferior –“
“Inferiority is your inspiration.”
Ariel cleared her throat.
“If you put it that way. Writing to me is about control. I can control the creatures who can’t think like me. I can’t control humans. They have barriers. They have set rules. I can’t manipulate them with my words.”
Professor Eugene smiled promisingly.
“Now I understand where your writing problems come from. But do not worry, Flower and Schneider will save you.”
He glided to the door and invited Ariel to leave.
“Where did all these books come from?” Diana asked.
“Professor Eugene recommended them. He lent some to me, and I checked out the others.”
Voraciously Ariel consumed the works of Flower and Schneider in the hopes that she could emulate their brilliance. Every word she wrote thereafter felt like false truths. She emulated their prose, and still not satisfied, she began reading Professor Eugene’s books. There were numerous stories about his life, like Paradise, which described the splendor of attending and then teaching at Ivory. Ariel’s own life seemed far-removed from Professor Eugene’s privileged upbringing, but through his writing she thought she could understand his reality. She repeatedly read the ending to Paradise.
In the end I had the pieces of the puzzle. I finally understood why my mother kept the truth a secret from me, because I had kept the truth from myself. But when I put the pieces together, it only made sense that life as I knew it was different than how I had always known it to be.
Ariel read Professor Eugene’s words with reverence, but felt no vitality in them. Yet she learned from them, accepting them as truth.
“Write with life, with life!” Professor Eugene said often in class. His blank stares betrayed the intense conviction in his voice.
Ariel would often observe the other students, whose eyes contained a yearning for belonging. But therein lay their problem, she realized. They mistook conformity for success, and success for vitality, and in their disillusionment they would become victims of Ivory’s education. She knew the game, and played it.
In the dining hall Ariel saw students tapping their feet, fiddling with their food, uninterested in conversation. Around the fireplaces others sat, searching for a numbness that the flames might have hidden in their constant flickering. The students’ faces drooped with burdens; and even when the brightness of spring finally shone over the courtyards and barren fields, the students carried a despondent look in their eyes. Languor typified their movements as the never-ending walk from one task to the next filled them with dread.
“Why do you give yourself so much work to do?” Ariel asked Diana one day. “Does it really make you feel like you’re part of the school?”
Diana’s movements had become less lively, and she now slept early. Repressed sighs would sound inside her tightly knit mouth, and Ariel sometimes caught her staring at the hooks in the closet. When she turned around, the bags under her eyes intensified her stare.
“We only have four years at Ivory, Ariel. I’m making the best of it! Mom and Dad will be proud to see everything that I’ve accomplished in my first year.”
Diana sat down, but stood up again, paced around the room, and then sat down again.
“Homework, fundraising, running, dinner with Professor Hack, studying, then…” she said, reciting her task list.
As she spoke the room filled with the anxiety Ariel used to feel during class. She left, taking interest in the words that seeped through the hallway walls.
“I want to change Tracks, but what if the professors and students think I’m stupid?”
“Mom would never talk to me again if I tell her about the test.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t gotten in touch with you. I’ve been really busy. I’ve had too much to do.”
Growing darkness greeted Ariel as she exited the building and walked past the Faculty Lodgings. A group of professors stood around the entrance, smoking, not facing each other but only taking interest in the space before them. Their wheezes echoed toward the northern campus. Through windows Ariel saw students, books in hand, huddled around candlelight as she walked down unlit pathways. Each spark of light exposed a student in solitary anguish, their obsessive desire stealing away their energy. Even students who passed Ariel seemed unable to connect. They would ask her, “How are you doing?” but then continued walking away.
She recognized the students’ pain. But she was willing to steal their wasted vitality.
“Your writing has significantly improved, Ariel,” Professor Eugene said after class one day. “The Hidal Market seems like a truly lively place.”
Ariel read her opening paragraph again.
Momma loved meeting the mothers who brought their children to the Market. Their tiny bodies frolicked amongst the citizens and tourists alike, oblivious to the worries of the world. With thin pieces of chalk they drew stick figures of their parents on the roads. Mom always had long, blonde hair, while dad had bulging muscles.
She chuckled at her blatant lies. For months she continued submitting manuscripts about humans and commonplace events, and Professor Eugene praised every story she wrote. His written comments had changed from laudation to admiration.
Perhaps publication is possible in the near future.
Ariel hoped the bench behind the Medical Tower would be empty, but when she neared it she saw Sabas sitting down. He looked downcast.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, sitting next to him.
“Ah Ariel! What a bad time,” Sabas said abashedly. “I just got some bad news. I applied for the Mechnical Serviceman position next year and just found out I’m not getting it. Honestly, look, it’s not a big deal. I had a blast working here this year. I just… felt like I belonged, you know? I thought for sure they would take me back.”
Sabas’ tone irritated Ariel. It begged for understanding, but she had none to give. His slumped posture reflected his exhaustion. The lines of stress that had accumulated across his face showed even in the dark.
“Why don’t you just work harder?” Ariel asked. “Show them that you’re needed around here.”
“I work the hardest that I can. But I just can’t get the stuff done as quickly as everyone else. The other eight Mechanicals don’t have two metallic legs. Some even got these great strong arms that help them carry heavy stuff!”
“You can’t make excuses for failing. You just need to try harder. Prove that you belong. That’s what I did with Professor Eugene, and now he’s inviting me to dinner.”
Sabas stood and turned toward Ariel.
“I ain’t making excuses Ariel. It’s hard for someone like me to be here. I’m doing pretty good, I say. Now you? You’re acting like a bigshot now that Professor Eugene likes your stuff. Now that you can write good, you act different.”
“Now?” Ariel asked sarcastically. “I’ve always written well. Now I’m just writing what Professor Eugene wants to read.”
“What a joke!” Sabas said. He clenched his fists. “Remember when you said nobody could tell you what to write? Now you do it just to be like those other students. You’re not like them.”
“What’s with you and putting people in boxes? I’m Ariel, you’re Sabas, that’s it.”
“You can deny it all you want, but you’re different from them. So am I, except I accept it. You just ignore the fact that you grew up different than the people here. You forget where you came from. Of course your writing’s gonna be different! You’re not like them! You know what, when I go back to Port Hidal, I’m gonna appreciate it for what it is. It’s home. We can always go back to it. It’s not going anywhere.”
Sabas stomped away, and Ariel stared at the moonlight glistening off his metallic legs until he was out of sight.
“Can you please stay in tonight?” Diana asked. “I want to talk with someone.”
“But Professor Eugene really wants me to go,” Ariel said. “I’ve never gone to one of his dinners.”
Diana lay sprawled on her bed. She flipped over and handed Ariel a letter that she had hidden under her pillow.
“Mom sent me this. She’s upset at my first semester marks.”
Ariel’s eyes instead glanced toward the door.
“I’ll read it when I get back. And didn’t you get pass? Adequate with honors?”
“Yeah, but not Exemplary with honors. Now’s she telling me I should switch Tracks to something I could excel in.”
Diana’s worries dissipated in Ariel’s thoughts as she climbed the staircase leading to the dining hall. The imposing door welcomed her inside. The wide room had six rows of tables that stretched from one end to the other. Portraits of past Ivory presidents hung beside the arched windows. And despite the emptiness, an air of distinction imbued itself in the antiquated walls and draperies. Only Professor Eugene sat at a table in the far corner.
“Welcome Ariel,” he said. “I told the staff that we would be eating late tonight.”
“Are any other students joining us?” she asked as she sat down.
“No, not tonight. I wanted to use this opportunity to talk about your recent submission.”
“Yes, The Mechanical.”
A waiter placed two glasses before them. Ariel turned and noticed it was Sabas. He furrowed his brows as he bowed and walked away. She remained looking at his uncomfortable gait.
“I enjoyed your prose. And I appreciated the attention you gave to the complexities of the young man’s character,” Professor Eugene said. “But I am afraid the work as a whole is not fit for publication as it is currently written.”
“But Sabas is real. He’s a real person,” Ariel said. “He just served our food! Mechanicals are real!”
“Real or not, my point is this. I know you have far more interesting ideas to write about than the likes of Mechanicals.”
The cold water trickled down Ariel’s throat.
“What I mean is that writing is about influence. True stories have a way of changing the world. That is why I thought your fantasy was abominable. It misses opportunities.”
“Do I have to re-write the whole thing?”
“No, no. I have a simple suggestion. Replace the Mechanical with yourself.”
Ariel stared at the ice cubes floating in her glass.
“But what good would that do? The point of the story is to evoke pity for Mechanicals. It’s a story about struggle and alienation. The story is Sabas’, not mine.”
“But consider this. You are brown skinned. You must know about the problem of belonging.”
Ariel winced at his remark.
“People do not need to care about Mechanicals,” he said. “But they should care about you and people like you. If you want to evoke pity, make it matter. You can be a spokesperson for your kind.”
“What do you mean ‘your kind’?”
“Underrepresented people who were thrown into the maelstrom without a paddle. I advocated for your acceptance in the hopes that you would share your experience joining the ranks of the elite. Literature is missing this kind of romance. Consider the underdog. The poor, uneducated girl gains the opportunity of a lifetime. And when she reaches the pinnacle, she shares what she has undergone so those similar to her can realize that they too can achieve greatness.
“You said that inferiority inspires you. Think about the inferiority of people like you, how you have felt since coming here. Your words will determine how the world views these lesser beings.
“You have read Paradise, correct? I wrote my life story so those who do not have my privilege can, at the very least, read what I have done. But I cannot write your story. I did not grow up in perpetual poverty. I am not brown skinned. I never underwent your fascination with fantastic creatures. In fact, it is interesting that your phase lasted so long. You are not the first student to speak about Garuda and fantastic beasts. But after two weeks, the disillusioned were always made right. Do you not wish to make right with your novella? You can denounce what is false and revel in what is true.
“Your story will inspire others. Your people will rise with you. You can affect change.”
As Ariel listened to him, she remembered the self-awareness she had gained as a result of surrounding herself with humans, reading about humans, writing about humans. She looked into his eyes, which failed to hide the emptiness that he sealed away inside of him. It was as if he was dead inside. Ariel stood.
“I write what I know. And I don’t know what to think anymore.”
Sabas had exited the kitchen and stood five feet away from the table. He stared at Ariel, and she stared back at him. Without the words to express her feelings, she remained silent. Sabas smiled and dropped the plates he held in his hands. They shattered, and Ariel stopped pitying him.
The squeaking from Ariel’s boots sounded throughout the dining hall. But her thoughts produced louder noise, rattling her brain with confusion and anger and inadequacy. The descending staircase made her dizzy, as if each step led her toward a path even more treacherous than the one she had embarked on nearly seven months earlier. Her temples ached with such intensity that she saw double and had to grab onto the railing to prevent herself from falling. A crisp breeze beat upon her body as she exited the building.
But all the pain withered away when she returned to her room and saw Diana’s lifeless body on the ground.
Ariel’s eyes fixated on her empty gaze. She waited for her to speak. But the energy had left her body with the blood that dripped from her crossed arms. Her hands still gripped onto her bleeding shoulders. She had attempted to stop the flow of blood, but the hooks pierced deeply.
Ariel grabbed her quill and paper. She stared at the blank page for hours.
Wind cut across the meadow. Summer’s heat burned Ariel’s exposed skin. Sabas stood at the edge of the clearing, looking out at the Azul Sea, partially hidden by the low-rising huts of Port Hidal.
He ambled toward Ariel, who stared at the mountain peaks.
“School time’s not too far away,” he said.
“I’m not going back.”
Sabas sighed. He sat beside her and rubbed his eyes.
“I don’t see what’s changed,” he said. “Only thing different around here is how you act.”
Ariel stomped away. But she turned around one last time to look at Sabas’ legs.
Their paleness was obscured by thick hair. The muscle protruding from his knees granted them a lean figure apt for hiking.
She walked to the docks to await the first fleet of ships. She took out her quill and began to write, her wrist twitching with speed, until her neck strained from continuously looking upwards and downwards. She sketched the scene in words, convincing herself that writing still made her feel in control.
The sun shines brightly like a flaming ball of fire. It warms my skin as if it were on fire. The pain reminds me that I’m alive. I’m alive because I can breathe the humid air.
She crumpled the paper in disappointment.
The ships docked. Blond and brunette hair bopped up and down the boardwalk. Varying pigments of human skin populated the area. Ariel continued writing down their descriptions, but the longer she observed, the more she wrote about humans. Frustrated, she walked toward the River Bravo. She only saw fish gliding through the clear water. She looked up at the sky, searching for Garuda, but saw none.
She visited the Hidal Market. And there she saw nothing but humans talking with one another, buying, selling, trading, as if nothing was abnormal. Children ran between the adults, throwing dirt at one another. Teenagers with long hair flittered through the marketplace, absorbing the sight of the foreign wares. Cats jumped from one table to the next. A mule pulled a carriage of ten people through the side road.
She saw Momma wave goodbye to a short, balding man. Ariel stood before her with tears in her eyes. Shocked, Momma wrote on her notepad.
What’s wrong Ariel? Why are you crying?
“What happened to the monsters? I want to see them again.”
Image Source: The White Church; Helen M Bushe; https://www.flickr.com/photos/mistyblue17/