Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Red Thread

The Red Thread
Dear Fox,

Hey. It’s Sahra. I’m tagging you from center M691, Black Hawk, South Dakota. It’s night and the lights are on in the center. It’s run by an old white guy with a hanging lip—he’s talking to my mom at the counter. Mom’s okay. We’ve barely mentioned you since we left the old group in the valley, just a few weeks after you disappeared. She said your name once, when I found one of your old slates covered with equations. “Well,” she said. “That was Fox.”

One time—I don’t think I told you this—we lost some stuff over a bridge. Back in California, before we met you. The wind was so strong that day, we were stupid to cross. We lost a box of my dad’s stuff, mostly books, and Mom said: “Well. There he goes.”

Like I said, the wind was strong. She probably thought I didn’t hear her.

I think she’s looking at me. Hard to tell through the glass, it’s all scratched and smeared with dead bugs. I guess I should go. We’re headed north—yeah, straight into winter. It’s Mom’s idea.

I’ve still got the bracelet you gave me. It’s turning my wrist red.

• • • •

Dear Fox,

Hey. It’s Sahra. I’m at center M718, Big Bottom, South Dakota. That’s really the name. There’s almost nothing here but a falling-down house with a giant basement. They’ve got a cantenna, so I figured I’d tag you again.

Did you get my message?

It’s crowded in here. I feel like someone’s about to look over my shoulder.

Anyway, the basement’s beautiful, full of oak arches. It’s warm, and they’ve got these dim red lights, like the way the sky gets in the desert sometimes, and there’s good people, including a couple of oldish ladies who are talking to Mom. One of them has her hair up and a lot of dry twigs stuck in. She calls me Chicken. It’s embarrassing, but I don’t really care. They’ve got a stove and they gave us these piles of hot bread folded up like cloth. Are you okay? I’m just thinking, you know, are you eating and stuff.

Big Bottom. You won’t forget that. It’s by a forest.

Don’t go in the forest if you come through here. There’s an isolation zone in there. We even heard a gunshot on our way past. Mom’s shoulders went stiff and she said very quietly: “Let’s pick up the pace.” When we got to Big Bottom I was practically running, and Mom’s chair was rattling like it was going to fall apart. It’s cold enough now that my breath came white. We rushed up a sort of hill and this lady was standing outside the house waving a handkerchief.

She took us downstairs into the basement where everybody was. The stove glowed hot and some of the people were playing guitars. The lady gave me a big hug, smelling sour. “Oh Chicken,” she said.

Oh Fox. I miss you.

We’re still headed north.

Tag me.

• • • •

Dear Fox,

Hey. It’s Sahra. If you get this message—can you just let me know if you left because of me? I keep on remembering that night in the canyon, when we sat up on that cold, dizzy ledge wrapped in your blanket. You tied a length of red thread around my wrist. I tore off a piece of my baby quilt for you, a shred of green cloth like the Milky Way. You said it was like the Milky Way. The stars rained down like the sky was trying to empty itself, and when you leaned toward me, I emptied myself into you. Did you leave because of the fight we had afterward, when I said my family belonged to this country, we belonged just as much as you? “Don’t embarrass yourself,” you said. Later I said, “Look, the grass is the exact color of Mom’s eyes.” You told me the grass was the color of plague.

You were her favorite, you know. The smartest. The student she’d always longed for. “Fox-Bright,” she called you, when you weren’t around.

Well. We’re still in Big Bottom. Mom wants to get everybody out of here: She thinks it’s too close to the isolation zone. Every night she lectures and the people here argue back, mostly because they have lots of food: They farm and can fruit from the edge of the forest. The lady who calls me Chicken, who seems to be the mom, opens a jar every night with a soft popping sound. She passes it around with a spoon and there’s compote inside, all thick with beet sugar. This one guy, every time he takes a bite he says “Amen.”

Sorry. Hope you’re not hungry.

Anyway, you can see why these people would want to stay in Big Bottom and not try to haul all that stuff somewhere, including sacks of grain and seed that weigh more than me. “We’ve wintered here before,” said the Chicken lady. “We’ve got the stove. Stay with us! You don’t want to go north with a kid and all.”

Everybody was nodding and you could see the pain in Mom’s face. She hates to be wrong. She argued the best point she had. “Sooner or later they’ll come after you,” she said. “You’re too close. You’ve got kids, too.” She said it was a miracle the isolation folks hadn’t already attacked Big Bottom, with all that food. Then everybody got quiet, the Chicken lady looking around sort of warningly, her eyes glinting, and Mom said, “No.” And the guy who says “Amen” over his compote, he told her they’d already been attacked a couple of times.

Mom covered her face.

“We do okay,” the Amen guy said. You could tell he felt bad about it.

Later I got in a corner with the other kids, and I asked about the attacks and one of them, a boy about my age, pulled up his sleeve and his wrist had a bandage on it. He didn’t get shot or anything, but he twisted it hitting somebody. With a crowbar.

When Mom uncovered her face she said: “That’s not the life.” She said: “That’s not the Movement.” She said standing your ground was the old way, not the new, and the Chicken lady said: “Honey, we know.”

After I’d seen the boy with the bandaged wrist, I helped Mom to the toilet and back and we both lay down on the blankets. “We’ve got to get out of here,” she muttered.

“Okay,” I said.

“You know why, right?” she said. “Because we never stand. We move.”

“Sure,” I said. Sure, Mom, I thought. We move.

We move when and where you want, Mom. We’ve sailed back and forth over the ocean. We’ve slept in the airborne beds of Yambio and the houseboats of Kismaayo. And now you’ve decided to go to North Dakota when winter’s starting, through country dotted with isolation zones, leaving all our friends behind. I had such a good art group back in the valley—you saw our last project, Fox. A slim line linking the tops of twenty trees. Wires and fibers twisted with crimson plastic, with cardinals’ wings, making an unbroken trail, a gesture above the earth. It seemed to pulse in the morning light. You said it reminded you of radio waves, of a message. We called it “The Red Thread.”

I’ll probably never see it again.

Such gentle light here, but it couldn’t soften Mom’s smile when she saw me crying. “You don’t know how lucky you are,” she said.

• • • •

Dear Fox,

Hey. It’s Sahra. I’m at center M738. Somewhere in North Dakota. The center’s in an old church. At night they feed us pickles and beet soup off plastic tablecloths that an old man carefully clips to the long tables.

They set beautiful candles made of melted crayons on all the windowsills. For travelers. For strangers to find their way at night.

“If we could have known,” says Mom, “if we could have known this life was possible, we would have started living it long before.”

There’s a man with a blunt gray face who argues with her. “You’re one of those human nature people,” he sneered tonight. “The ones who think, oh, we’ve proved that people are good. Let me tell you something, friend. If it wasn’t for the oil crisis and the crash, we’d be living exactly like we were before.”

Mom nodded. A little half-smile in the candlelight. “Sure, friend,” she said, subtly emphasizing the word.

“And another thing,” said the blunt-faced man. “These kids would be in school.”

“Or in the army,” Mom said sweetly.

Of course the kids are in school, because Mom’s around. Wherever we shelter, teaching is her way of giving thanks. She gets all the kids together and makes them draw their names in the dirt, she quizzes them on their multiplication tables, she talks about the Movement. How precious it is to be able to go where you want. Just walk away from trouble. Build a boat and row across the water. When she was a kid, she says, you could barely go anywhere at all: borders, checkpoints, prisons, the whole world carved up, everything owned by somebody. “Everything except light,” she says. “Everything except fire.” And if they wanted, they could keep you in a dark place. Tonight she told the kids what I already know, that that’s where my dad ended up, in some dark place, seized on his way to work and then gone forever. “Why?” a kid asked. “I don’t know,” said Mom. “Because of his name? Because they thought he was working for terrorists? In those days, they could seize you for anything.”

Usually she goes on from here with the story of how the Movement once had another name, how people used to call it the Greening, how the media reported it as an environmental movement first, folks abandoning cars on the freeways, walking, some rolling along like her. She tells of how, in the wake of the crash, the Greening intertwined with other movements, for peace, for justice, for bare life. Grinning, showing the gaps in her teeth, she uses her favorite line: “In the old days, when I worked in a lab, we called it evolutionary convergence.”

Tonight she just stopped after talking about my dad. Her face shrunken, old. And I said: “We might still find him, Mom,” because you never know. When the Movement started, he could have crawled out of that dark space like so many others, the ones you find on the road, cheerful, wearing pieces of their old uniforms. An orange bandana, a gray rag tied on the arm. Tattoos with the name of their prison, where they were kept before the doors opened, before the Movement. I once had a dream that my dad walked down some steps and touched my hair. “We might still find him,” I said. Mom pretended not to hear me.

In the night she woke me with a cry.

“What is it, Mom? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing,” she whispered. “Go back to sleep.”

I can’t go to sleep. Lying there, I see you walking along a creek. You’re wearing your black shirt and your head’s tilted down, with that concentrating look. I think about how I recited the generations of my dad’s family for you, there on the ledge, at the cave in the canyon wall. My name, then my dad’s, then my grandfather’s, then my great-grandfather’s, back through time. Sahra, Said, Mohammed, Mohamud, Ismail. I can do ten generations. “Amazing,” you said. Your blanket around us and our breaths the only warmth, it seemed, for miles.

“It’s like a map,” you said, “but it shows people instead of places.” You said it felt like the future to think that way.

“Yeah,” I said. “But during the war they killed each other over family lines. Like any other border.”

Belonging, Fox. It hurts.

• • • •

Fox it’s Sahra. You knew? You knew Mom was sick? You knew and you didn’t say anything to me? You knew and you left her?

What kind of person are you? It was like somebody walked up and hit me in the chest with a hammer. “I told that boy,” she murmured in the dark room. “I told that boy.” And I knew who she meant. I knew it right away. She said she was sorry. She didn’t mean to chase you off.

That’s why you left? Because you found out someone who loved you was going to die?

I’ve never seen Mom work with a kid the way she worked with you. The two of you scratching away at your slates while the rest of us leached acorns. You’d kneel in the dirt by her chair and rest your slate on the arm. Leaning together, you’d talk about how to make the Movement last, how to keep the meshnets running, how to draw power tenderly from the world, and later you told me that you and I were perfect for each other because we both wanted to draw lines over the land, mine visible, yours in code, but the truth is you were perfect for Mom. You were perfect for her, Fox. “Fox-Bright,” she called you. And you left her when she was dying.

You know what? I’m not sorry for what I said the day after we spent the night in the canyon. I’m not sorry I said I belong here as much as you. They picked up my dad and probably killed him because they thought he didn’t belong here, an immigrant from a war-torn country. But my dad knew this land, he lived in thirty states before he met my mom, in the days of oil he used to drive a truck from coast to coast. He left fingerprints at a hundred gas pumps, hairs from his beard in hotel sinks, his bones in some forgotten government hole. And my mom belongs here, too, even though she cries, can you believe it, my mom, someone you’d look at and swear she never shed a tear in her life, she cries because she grew up in the house we’re living in now, an old farmhouse crammed with noisy families—this is where she was born. She cries because she wanted to come back here before she died. That’s why we’re here. She thinks she’s betraying the Movement by clinging to a place. She lies in the bed in the room where we found a page of her old Bible under the dresser and cries at the shape of the chokecherry tree outside the window. That’s how much my mother loves the Movement that changed our world, the movement she worked for, for years, before we were born, losing her job and her teeth. She loves it so much she’s going to die hating herself.

I’ve cut your bracelet off.

It’s started to snow. I have to go now. Goodbye.

• • • •

Dear Fox,

Hey. It’s Sahra. It must be six months since I tagged you. I see you never tagged me back.

Today I left the farmhouse. I cleaned Mom’s room, the room she slept in as a child, the room where she died. Old fingernails under the bed like seed.

There are good people in that house. What Mom called “ordinary people” or, in one of her funny phrases, “the most of us.” They got her some weed, and that made it easier for her toward the end. One night she said: “Oh Sahra. I’m so happy.”

She laughed a little and waved her hands in the air above her face. They moved in a strange, fluid way, like plants under water. “Look,” she said, “it’s the Movement.” “Okay, Mom,” I said, and I tried to press her hands down to her sides, to make her lie still. She struggled out of my grip, surprisingly strong. “Look,” she whispered, her hands swaying. “See how that works? There’s violence and cruelty over here, and everyone moves away. Everyone withdraws from the isolation zone until it shrinks. A kind of shunning. Our people understood that.”

“Our people?”

She gave another little laugh, kind of secretive, kind of shy. She said she’d grown up going to a plain wooden church, a church where they believed in peace, where they sang but played no instruments, where the women covered their hair with little white hats. I said we’d met some people like that back in California. “They had the peppers, Mom, remember?” “Of course,” she breathed. “The red peppers.” The memory seemed to fill her with such delight. She said she’d left her old church, her old farm, but now she could see her childhood in the shape of the Movement. “What’s isolation but a kind of shunning?” she said softly. “That’s what we do, in the Movement. We move on, away from violence. A place ruined by violence is a prison. Everyone deserves to get out. The Movement opened up the doors.”

She looked so small in the bed, in the light of the pale pink sky in the window. It does that on moonlit nights, in snow. A sky like quartz.

“That baby quilt,” she said, “do you still have it?”

I took it out. One square ripped away, a green one. “Your grandmother made this,” she said.

I wonder if you still have it, Fox. That green square. The Milky Way.

Later, I don’t know if she could recognize me, but she asked: “Where are you from?” And I said “Here.” Because “here” means this house and this planet. It means beside you.

“Are you an angel?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

• • • •

Dear Fox,

Hey. It’s Sahra. The snow is melting. The geese are back.

When I leave a place, I also leave a word for you. By now, it’s like talking to myself. I leave words like I’d leave a stray hair somewhere, a clipped fingernail. My track across the land.

Movement. Back and forth. The two of us sitting wrapped in your blanket, breathing fog against a rain of shooting stars. I’m thinking today about your excitement when I recited my ancestors’ names, how you said it felt like the future, and how quickly I cut you off. “There was war,” I said. “Those family lines became front lines.” As if your enthusiasm was somehow unbearable. I think of the fight we had later, and how you said: “Don’t embarrass yourself.” Did you mean I’d never belong? Maybe you meant: “Don’t make me into a symbol.”

Is it possible to be worthy of the Movement? Of my mom? Of my dad? I just walk, Fox, I meet people, seek shelter, avoid isolation. I make art with kids out of gratitude. I think about Mom all the time. All the time. “Are you an angel?” Her last words.

The night after I slept with you in the cave, I woke up cradled in light. My arm looked drenched with blood, but it was just dirt from the floor.

I still have the bracelet you gave me. I carry it in my pocket. I still have a redness on my wrist, as if someone’s grabbed me.

• • • •

Dear Fox,

Hey. It’s Sahra. Sometimes I just feel like leaving one word. Even if it’s just my name. A single thread.

• • • •

Dear Fox,

Hey. It’s Sahra.

• • • •

Dear Fox,

Hey. It’s Sahra.

• • • •

Dear Fox,

Hey. It’s Sahra.

I got your message.

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Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar

Sofia Samatar is the author of four books, most recently Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar. Her first novel, the epic fantasy A Stranger in Olondria, won the 2014 Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award, and was included in Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time. Samatar also received the 2014 Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Her memoir, The White Mosque, an exploration of family, faith, and border crossing, is forthcoming in October 2022.