In a perfect world, motherhood would not be equal to loneliness, but hers was not a perfect world.
She was nineteen when she met him, when he took her to the rocky beaches of that town, the town where nothing ever happened and no one ever left, to feed the schools of skyfish together. Holding hands, they’d crumble stale bread and fling it up, towards the clouds, and the schools would swoop at them, a massive fist that pulled back at the last second, and the bread would vanish. He caught one for her once, a tiny goldfish with red fins and white stripes. She admired it through the jar for a while before releasing it back to the winds.
She was twenty-two when he was gone, leaving her alone with two children, a few crumpled bills of pity, and nowhere to go. They say he took a boat to a different island, one where there were cities, and sunshine, and things happened.
For almost a decade she scraped a living from that stagnant town, counting ship sails on the horizon, teaching her children to throw breadcrumbs to the skyfish. The older child, a girl with very dark eyes who never smiled, she named Laki. The younger, a boy with hair like flame, she called Adam. She did not name him for several weeks, for he was born sickly and pale, his life already burning. But he survived.
When Adam was ten and Laki twelve, she’s saved enough to leave that stagnant town for a different place. As they sailed away, her children peering over the railings at the seabirds and wincing as the cold spray hit their necks, she tried not to think about the man who’d left on a ship just like this one.
The wind unwound Adam’s scarf and it lifted into the air, but she caught it and placed it tenderly back around his neck. “Don’t lose it, Adam.” He hardly seemed to notice her, busy pointing out a bright red seabird in the waves below to Laki. The red reminded her of his hair, of the moon Rada. She found it on the horizon at the stern, and offered a silent prayer to the Red Heart of Day. She wasn’t sure what she was praying for. Perhaps she just liked to think there was someone watching.
The city they now called home perched on a tiny island at the edge of the world. If you didn’t look, you almost wouldn’t notice, but eventually you’d realize that the empty expanse behind the city wasn’t the sky reflected on the water at all, but the sky itself. They approached the city as the sun was going down, and the void was filled with a red glow, like the last breaths of a fire. The red glow spread to the city, igniting the streets like cracks in a burning log.
Laki asked her if the city was on fire. Their mother assured her that no, it was only lanterns. Every home in the city had one.
“What are the lanterns for?”
“Luck,” said their mother.
She’d arranged to rent a small apartment, and though her children begged to see the city, she insisted they wait for morning. The apartment was tiny, perched near the top of a stack of similar cramped homes, a maze of narrow staircases and steep alleys which twisted the shadows. Though they were in the middle of a great city, they felt as though they walked through a dark forest valley.
There was already a lantern above their door. A bit stained and weather worn, but it lit up fine.
That night, she came to check on them as they slept and found Adam’s blanket laid neatly back, his ratty pillow missing a head upon it. She found the boy silhouetted against the night, leaning on the railing on the tiny square step outside the front door. He’d turned off the red lantern, and his pajamas billowed in the brisk night wind. A single skyfish darted past, dipping out of the starry abyss for a moment before it vanished in the gloom of the alley below.
He jumped a bit, then smiled sheepishly.
“What are you doing?”
He turned back to the view of the city below, silent and speckled with their neighbor’s red lanterns. There was a sliver of void visible between the buildings.
“Looking,” he said quietly.
“Looking at what? It’s dark.”
She looked up. Laris was almost right above them, full and blue. “There’s only one moon at night,” she corrected him. “Rada only rises in the day, you know that. And you’ve seen the moons before, child. Come back inside.”
He cast a longing look at Laris and hesitated. “Could… could you tell me the story again?”
She gave a sigh, then dropped a hand onto his head to massage his hair. “Fine, then it’s back to bed.
“Rada was not always a moon. He was a boy with red hair who fell in love with Laris. Laris was the only moon then, the Great Blue Eye of Night.”
Adam lifted his eyes up to meet the Great Blue Eye and she felt him shiver. “Red hair like me?”
She swallowed. “Yes, red hair like you. He wanted to be with the moon, so he tried to reach it. He flew until his wings gave out, but Laris was no closer, so he fell back to earth and despaired. He tried to lasso the moon, but no matter how much rope he tied together, it was never long enough, and he let the lasso fall with aching arms. Finally, since he couldn’t bear to be so far from the moon, he threw himself into the ocean, to swim to where the Great Blue Eye of Night reflected on the waves. His wings grew wet and heavy, and began to drag him down. So he cut them from his shoulders and let them sink beneath the waves, and swam on unburdened.
“But just like one can only fly so high, one can only swim for so long. When the sun rose, he lost sight of the moon and drowned, his arms outstretched towards where Laris had been. The Great Blue Eye of Night saw it happen and wept, and the storm that struck the lands was fiercer than any before it. When the storm clouds faded, and the sun rose again, the people gasped to see a new moon rising with the sun. Rada, the Red Heart of Day, forever separated from his love but rescued by it.”
She finished the story. Adam was still staring at Laris, and its reflection filled his eyes. His mother would never admit it, but she’d almost named him Rada, after seeing his bright red hair, desperate that the moon might save her sickly son. It was a good thing she hadn’t. The boy already chased the moon enough.
Days became years, and with their mother always working, Laki and Adam often found themselves alone. They were forbidden to wander the city alone, especially to the west where the city hung over the edge of the world, but Laki was old enough now to question everything she was told. So she wandered the city and went west, towards the edge of the world. It called to her, that deep void of sky and stars. It told her to wrap her fingers in the mesh wire fence, to put her eye to one of the holes and take in the nothingness below, but she never did. Instead she’d stand a few feet away and just stare at it, and let the crowds part around her like a rock parts water.
If Laki was a rock, then she was slowly being weathered by the stream. She was quiet and serious, the kind of child adults called “an old soul.” The kind of child who grows up too fast. It happened in moments when she thought about the father she’d never met. When she saw how dark the skin around her mother’s eyes was getting. When she saw Adam, head tipped back towards the moon he’d never hold. When she watched a man cut through the chain-link fence and give himself to the void. He hadn’t even cried. His face had been serene and surrendered, at peace. And Laki imagined herself falling.
All these things she held close to her heart, until the lanterns no longer made her smile, and she drew the curtains at night to block their light.
Once, when Adam was still young, their mother came home and found drawings on a corner of the wall and a guilty Adam hiding in his room. He’d drawn Laki with long black lines, himself as a scribble of red hair, and their mother all in blue. Another mother might’ve yelled, but the next day when she returned from work, she had a gift for her son. Pencils and crayons and watercolors, and three different paper pads. He’d sit in the kitchen and drag the pencils back and forth until their mother came home, or until it was so dark outside he couldn’t see and all he could do was watch the fish swim by, whichever came first.
Sometimes Laki would encourage him to draw on the front porch. It was hardly a porch at all, more a large stair outside the screen door, but he’d fit his knees over the edge and kick open air, sketching the neighbor’s red lanterns in the light of their own. Red for good luck. Hang a red lantern by the door and good luck will come to those who cross through it. Sometimes he thought theirs must not be red. Close to red, like vermillion, but not true red. He learned the word vermillion from the wrapper on one of his crayons.
He later realized that Laki encouraged him to sit on the porch because she knew he’d wait there all night for their mother and she could smuggle girls into her room. Boys too, sometimes. Anyone who might also exist in that space of loneliness with her, and perhaps reduce it. She’d help them climb the short distance from the fire escape to the window and his scratching pencils would cover the sounds they made. And so he’d sit in silence, counting each fish that darted past his toes, each rippling school riding the winds far above his head. Sometimes they’d duck down towards their building and cover the sky for a few moments. Sometimes Laki would sit outside too, after her girl had gone, sticking her feet through the railing and letting them dangle beside his. She’d tip stale cereal over the edge and count the seconds as it fell. Sometimes the fish would catch it before it shattered on the concrete. Usually not. The not-quite red lantern made Laki’s tears look like blood.
Five years they’d lived in that city at the edge of the world. Their mother came home one night and found Adam, like usual, drawing under the red lantern. Laki had gone out and had not yet returned, so they stayed up together to wait for her. Night fell slowly. Adam watched Rada disappear over the edge of the world, swallowed by the void. Laris wouldn’t be out for another few hours.
Laki did not return.
They both began to worry. Adam found himself erasing more than he was drawing, and his mother kept glancing at her watch. She’d been gone a long time, much longer than usual, but she was afraid to speak her worries and make them real.
So instead she just stood up, took her coat, and said, “I’m going to find her.”
“I’ll stay here,” said Adam. “In case she comes back.”
His mother nodded and started down the steps, until he called her back. “Wait, take this.” And he took down the red lantern. The paper was stained and worn and the candle wavered a bit in the wind, but kept burning.
Wordlessly, she accepted it.
Adam sat back down and realized how dark it was without the lantern for company. When he could no longer see his mother, he bent over his sketchbook and tore page after page free, severing them from the spine. They scattered around him, lifting as the world inhaled, and Adam kept working.
The walk was long and lonely. Her work had her spending long hours on her feet, and by the time she reached the west end of the city, her feet were blistered and her legs ached. She prayed to Laris that she was wrong, but where else would Laki go?
The chain link fence glinted; a thin net stretched across the void. She walked along it, one hand tracing the cold metal, one gripping the red lantern, breathless in the night wind and afraid to peer over the edge. Afraid to see what might lay below. Again she prayed to Laris, the Great Blue Eye of Night, the eye that knows and loves all, to protect her children.
Slowly, Laris rose above the city, big and blue and watching.
She found Laki in a place where the fence had been cut away, the sharp points bent back to make a door-sized hole. She was seated inside, hands folded in her lap, feet dangling over the edge of the world and kicking at the void. She looked up as her mother approached, and her mother’s heart twisted at the sight of so many tears.
There was hardly room, but their mother sat beside Laki at the void’s edge and put her feet over. She set the lantern in her lap and reached for Laki’s hand. She took it, after a moment. They sat like that for a long time, feet swinging in the void, staring at the stars that filled the space beneath the world.
From a cloud far above there came a great sweeping fist, a massive school of fish descending from the heavens. Like the ceaseless future, it flinched at the last second and broke apart to settle gently upon them, a thousand tiny goldfish parting around them like water around rocks in a stream. The mother reached out to gently cup one, it swam over her palm for a long moment before slipping back into the wind. A few of them darted around the lantern, and the candle flickered.
Laki reached for the lantern and her mother lifted it. For a moment, they held it together. A single point of color and light in that endless void.
They released it together. Slowly, gently, the paper was cupped by the wind and carried into the void, where it began to fall. They watched until the red light had vanished completely, just another star.
The world seemed to exhale as they walked home. Lanterns dimmed gently as their candles went out. Families held one another as they slept and dreamed. Laris looked down on the world and saw a mother and her children, alone and yet clinging to one another with the desperation of a candle in the wind, fighting to stay lit. The walk back was a long one, and yet it didn’t feel lonely.
They reached their street, the narrow alley filled with staircases and shadows, lit only by their neighbor’s red lanterns. The mother had put one foot on the stairs when she heard Laki gasp softly and looked up.
For a moment, she thought she was looking at Laris, but no, the Great Blue Eye of Night was winking far far above them. This light was much closer, a candle shining through a blue paper lantern above their apartment door. She could just make out Adam, paintbrush in hand, going over the paper with paint. When he stepped back, there it was. Their very own Laris, their very own lantern of luck, blue and bright and in fierce denial of the darkness.
Jo Griffin is an aspiring author and podcaster from the Pacific Northwest who loves D&D, Mothman, and Hawaiian shirts. She writes to reconnect new adults with reading for pleasure, and spends way too much money at bookstores.