Of Moon Dust and Starlight

—Beth Bernobich—

[first published in Full Unit Hookup #1]

"untitled" (detail)—Jay Lake
          Ifi first met Ain by a field of moon-flowers, their petals just unfolding. The Earth hung low and dark in the sky above; the moon, in counterpoint, waxed full and perfect, untouched by shadows. It was the season of rebirth. All around the moon-sprites danced, alive with delight at discovering their world. Older ones, those who had survived the last waning, lingered outside the fields. The oldest of all perched on the rust-red mountains high above, gazing at the Earth's darkened circle.
          Ain had arrived first. She knelt by the field's edge, her arms buried in the lush growth. When Ifi paused by the crater's edge, suddenly shy, Ain glanced up and beckoned her closer. "Look," she said, holding up an armful of the silvery blossoms. Her eyes were dark; her hair fell in wisps around her face. She was smiling. "Moon-flowers. My favorite."
          Ifi touched the petals gently. Their color was the same as Ain's fair complexion, and a delicate musky scent rose from their centers. "Pretty," she said, meaning more than just the flowers.
          Ain laughed, took her hand, and led her toward the dance.

"Already a blue crescent had appeared on the Earth's face, and the moon's dust, once a dark red ocher, had paled to golden-brown."
          The next day it was Ifi who brought Ain a single moon-flower. Already a blue crescent had appeared on the Earth's face, and the moon's dust, once a dark red ocher, had paled to golden-brown. Ain smiled briefly, and Ifi's throat caught. Silent, she held out the flower.
          "Lovely," Ain said, but her tone gave Ifi pause. She looked more closely and saw faint shadows underneath Ain's eyes.
          "What's wrong?" she asked.
          Ain glanced toward the horizon. "There. Look over there."
          Their moon was just one day past full. To Ifi, the horizon looked round and perfect, but when she stared harder, she saw the first dark feathering of shadows, where yesterday fields and mountains had shone beneath the Earth. She shivered.
          "Come," Ain said, looking ashamed. "We shouldn't worry."
          She took Ifi's hands. Hers were warm, as warm as any moon-sprite's, and her smile lightened Ifi's heart. But as they turned toward the nearest fields, she saw how Ain sent one last glance backward.

          Three days later. Ifi searched for Ain and found her at last on the moon's highest peak. Cold stars speckled the ever-dark sky—a lovely scattering of jewels—but Ain kept her gaze on the horizon, which was now scalloped with blue. Shadows, Ifi thought, Hungry shadows that consume the moon's dust and turn it into nothing. She had listened to the elders' stories about Earth, and how its monsters dreamed these shadows into being.
          "The others are dancing," she murmured.
          Ain sighed and made a half-hearted gesture, which stirred the dust into spirals. Sunlight reflected briefly upon the dancing motes, only to vanish as they settled upon the rocks.
          "Come with me," Ifi said. "The moon-flowers have never sparkled so brightly."
          "In three days they'll be gone."
          Ifi went still. Ain's voice sounded colder than the night sky, more remote than the stars. "That is why I came today," she said, "and not three days hence."
          But Ain would not meet her gaze, and when Ifi laid a hand on her shoulder, she shivered at how cold Ain's skin felt, as though she had wandered too close to those hungry shadows.
          Far away, she heard the others laughing and singing. If they cared about the coming dark phase, they did not show it. She lingered a few moments longer before she rejoined them.

          With each day the moon grew paler while Blue Earth emerged from its veil to stand out clear and sharp against the night-dark sky. Yet even in its darkest phase, Ifi had seen by its outline that it had remained whole. Shadows there are not as shadows here, she thought.
          This time she found Ain huddled beneath a rocky overhang, her eyes closed. Ifi crouched beside her and touched her arm.
          "It's coming faster," Ain whispered. "The monsters are dreaming."
          "Or waking," Ifi murmured to herself. "What if we don't exist? What if we are nothing but dreams—"
          "Don't." Ain made a convulsive gesture. "Don't say that," she said more quietly. "I don't want to be someone's dream. I want to be real."
          But if we are real . . . Ifi could not finish that thought. She heard the others laughing from a nearby field. Her friends were dancing, careless of death or monsters or even tomorrow. Only Ain cared. Only Ain fretted away today because she feared tomorrow would never come.
          She touched Ain's cheek, which was damp with tears. "You would make a lovely dream. Lovelier than the stars."
          At that Ain smiled. "If you have such dreams, does that make you a monster?" Her voice, once high and strained, sounded warmer.
          "Not I. But if I were, I'd dream of you."
          Ifi took Ain's hand. It felt cold and so she chafed it gently. And because Ain did not resist, Ifi remained by her side, thinking of Blue Earth's monsters, and shadows, and tomorrow.

          A week had passed. Shadows swallowed the moon, until only half remained, and when the moon-sprites danced, their movements were quick and hurried, as though to outrace the coming darkness.
          Ifi ran, panicked, to where she had last seen Ain. Not there. Not with the others, nor in any field. At last she found her, hiding in a cave.
          "Go," Ain whispered, her voice as thin as the solar breeze. Her cheeks were wet; her black eyes gleamed with unshed tears. She was staring at some faraway point.
          Ifi ran her fingers over Ain's face. "I will not."
          "Why not?"
          She stopped, afraid to say more, afraid she had waited too long and Ain would not care.
          Ain turned her gaze toward Ifi, and for a moment, it was as though the sky, the Earth, and all the stars had vanished in that encompassing stare. Then she turned away.
          "You see," she said, "you don't know why."

          The last day before the crescent moon. The darkness encroached until only a sliver of moon remained; where dust and rock had made a solid world, a void now yawned. Ain leaned against the cave wall, just inside its entrance. Ifi sat at her feet, her head resting on Ain's knees.
          "It comes," Ain whispered.
          Ifi pressed a kiss on her hands. "I won't leave you. I promise."
          Ain said nothing, but she softly touched Ifi's hair. Then she gave a quick gasp, and pointed toward the cave's mouth.
          Rivulets of shadows ran toward them, flowing over the craters and gullies. Wherever they passed, grains of moon dust sparkled bright, then vanished. No matter that they would reappear next week or next hour. They did not exist this moment, and their passing signaled death.
          The elders had described this moment in their stories. No one could foretell which path the shadows took, nor which thin crescent of moon would remain untouched. Even the oldest could only say, Neither heights nor ravines are safe. We chase the light and flee the shadows.
          Abruptly, Ifi stood and tugged Ain to her feet. "Come with me."
          "What are you doing?"
          "Running for shelter."
          "It's no use," Ain cried, but when Ifi darted away, she ran after.
          Hand-in-hand, they fled toward the brightest ground. Climbing toward the highest peaks, Ifi saw footprints in the dust, as though others had fled this way. We cannot be sure, she told herself, and gripped Ain's hand tighter. Higher and higher they climbed, the shadows cresting over the lands below. Ain stumbled. Ifi pulled her upright. Dust gave way to hard rocks and there were no more footprints to guide them. At last they reached the summit and fell to their knees.
          The darkness was close behind and rising higher. Neither heights nor valleys were safe, she repeated, half-sobbing. Then Ain gave a sharp cry. On another ridge, a crowd of moon-sprites, suddenly awake to their danger, rose into flight, keening . . . keening . . . keening . . .
          A moment passed. Another. Ifi stirred. Her chest ached and she was trembling. "We're alive."
          It was more a question than a declaration. Next to her, Ain sighed. "We are."
          They crouched on a thin band of lighted ground—all that remained of their moon. Our refuge, Ifi thought. Panicked laughter bubbled from her lips. And then she could laugh for real, because they were alive.
          "I like it when you laugh," Ain said. She was smiling.

          An hour passed, and with every moment, the shadows receded, leaving in their wake a reborn moon, its dark red mountains standing clear against the sky, while a tide of new moon-flowers rolled across the fields below.
          "I love you," Ain whispered. "I should have told you before."
          Ifi's mouth went dry. She tried to speak, but no words came out. She could only hold Ain closer, her thoughts wheeling in delight. Of them all, one repeated itself over and over: We have time now. We have tomorrow.
          Ain had gone very still. "Ifi? Are you all right?"
          "I am. Oh yes, I am. I love you, Ain."
          Ain brushed her lips over Ifi's cheeks. Her skin was softer than starlight, her lips sweeter than moon-flowers. Laughing, Ifi took her into her arms. Above them, the Blue Earth hovered, and the moon waxed full and bright and whole.

image 2003
Rob Bernobich

Beth Bernobich is a writer, reader, mother, and geek. She is currently working on too many novels. You can visit her website at http://www.sff.net/people/beth-bernobich.

image 2005
B. Nierstedt

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon with his books and two inept cats, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects, including the World Fantasy Award-nominated Polyphony anthology series from Wheatland Press. His current projects are Trial of Flowers from Night Shade Books and Mainspring from Tor Books. Jay is the winner of the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com.

content Copyright 2002–2007, Beth Bernobich—All Rights Reserved
image, "untitled" Copyright 2007, Jay Lake—All Rights Reserved