I’m five minutes late to leave the house when Mum starts sewing up my jumper, with me already inside it and raring to go. I’m so hungry I can barely get my shoes on.
“I’m going to miss my meal, Mum,” I complain.
“’Course you won’t.” Mum keeps sewing, and frowns when she runs out of fabric before she runs out of me. “They wouldn’t let you starve.”
“Teacher Imila would. She’s strict.”
“No one’s that strict, dear. The shadows know they have to be careful with you. Your father and I made sure of it. Hold still, Kith. You know I can’t have you catching cold.”
“It’s hot out, Mum.”
“Then I can’t have the sun getting you.”
I lift my arm despite her fussing. I can count two ribs where the stiff fabric doesn’t meet. The ancient bone needle is dangling, and Mum snatches it before it can graze me. I don’t care about scratches from little needles, but I do care about missing my meal.
Mum tuts when I say as much, but then she makes a knot and breaks the thread anyway. “I bet there’s ten-thousand shadows in their World, and out of all of them who might be teachers, Imila has to be yours. Go on, Kith. And slow-like! Not like yesterday.”
As soon as I get my bark-bottomed shoes tied I ignore Mum’s warning and run straight out the door. Home is up north of the Old Well, so it’ll take me much too long if I take a cautious walk, and then I’ll be hungry till goodness knows when. Besides, there’s nothing like running through the valley with the warm wind of the yielding months slapping at my skin. People like Mum can’t understand. No one in Sundown can.
Of course my Auntie Arlhabee sees me while she’s out in the garden my mum helped her plant. As soon as she realizes it’s me whizzing by, she starts to yell.
“Kith Canto, you stop your running right away! You know what happens to children like you when they stumble and fall! Oh, and look at you with your bare arms and legs!”
“Anon, Auntie, I’m late to get to the Gate and I haven’t any time!” I call over my shoulder.
I veer away from her garden, all nimble-like as only I can be. She gasps when I almost stumble, but I manage and go on. These shoes are supposed to protect my feet from twigs and stones and the like, but most of the time they just make things go half as fast and twice as clumsy, and it’s the Eighth Month besides. I’d much rather be barefoot.
“You stop this instant!” she keeps shouting, and she looks like she’s about to pull out all her pretty, gossamer black hair. “I’ll get your Uncle Cahn’s wheelbarrow and take you down there myself, before you break your neck!”
I just go on running and let the summer wind hit me in the face. I get scolded wherever I go, and a couple of the more solid folk look like they might grab at me. Once, I feel someone catch at the curls flying out from my back. Thank goodness he or she thinks better of it and I can keep going without breaking stride.
I have to shorten up my steps to head down the slope, and that’s when I realize I got a follower for real this time. I look over my shoulder and brace myself like I really am gonna get grabbed, but it’s only my friend Finchoa.
Finchoa looks like she’s been chasing after me for I don’t know how long, and she sure won’t be grabbing me ’cause she can’t hold on to so big and solid a thing as my thin little arm, even if she tried with all her might. She looks like she’s breathing as hard as me just to skim on over.
I can tell she’s relieved when I stop between the willows, ’cause now there’s something to block the wind. She’s a wispy one, and it’s hard for her to move around when there’s so much as a stiff breeze on. She’s got no weight to her at all.
“Oh, Kith, why do you have to do that and scare everybody half to death?” she whines while I let her catch up. I’m working on getting my breath back myself, and easing the pain in my shins so I don’t trip down the slope and land face-first into a big old tree.
“Nobody in all the World knows what it’s like to starve but me,” I tell Finchoa, “so I can’t be late, and you’ll just have to take my word as to why.” I try to rub the cramping out of my shins while Finchoa perches beside me on the ridge, and I guess she radiates concern. ’Course she’s concerned for the wrong reason, which she always is, being the worrying type. The only thing I worry about is not getting my meal.
I’m so close to the Gate now that I can feel the hair standing on my arms and the back of my neck. The wispy folk like Finchoa can never tell, but ones like me and my family can feel a shadow within a furlong. Doesn’t matter what kind of a breeze there is, our hair is gonna stand straight up and our skin is gonna prickle when there’s a shadow on the frontier. Sometimes I even get a cold feeling, like when I’m standing at the mouth of the old dried Well and the cool air comes up from underground.
I kind of hate my lessons with the shadows all hanging around me. But I love to eat, and I need to eat, so what’s the use in complaining? If it weren’t for the shadows I’d be dead. That’s the awful truth of it.