In that crushing moment of heartbreak, as Kiro said he thought of Temi as more of a brother than anything more, Temi felt a new Scar appearing on his body.
He ignored it for the moment and let Kiro give him a hug goodbye; he tried to ignore the softness and strength of Kiro’s arms, the scent of Kiro in his nose.
Stepping back, Kiro said, “See you tonight at the trial, then?”
Temi found himself nodding. When he looked up, he saw Kiro gifting him a warm, sad smile before he turned and walked into his house. Temi stood there for a moment, letting the sudden swell of emotions pass over him and through him, like a wave reaching shore. Everything felt so big, so real these days; he was nearly an adult grown, and part of growing up had been about embracing those feelings, not trying to shove them away. But even knowing that they’d settle when the wave passed, it was still so hard.
After a few moments, his heart calmed in his chest and his breath became even, that swell of emotion fading. He left Kiro’s home, moving across the sand to the shadow of palm trees bordering the village’s edge, and looked at his new Scar. As usual, a part of him knew where it was appearing. He watched it stitch itself across his inner right thigh, glowing a pale green like moonlight reflected off the massive, enchanting sculptures of the Border Reef. A Scar always appeared as light, guided by the Painter Unseen, before it softened into the skin, only retaining a glimmer of its creation.
It wasn’t that painful. Not all of them were. Kiro’s rejection stung more, to be honest. And since he’d rather not dwell on that pain, he focused on the Scar instead, curious what shape heartbreak would take.
This Scar didn’t etch itself in thin whorls like the one on his wrist had last month, when he had gotten into a fight with Pilar and lost. Didn’t appear in staccato bursts of light, like the one on his back that had bloomed last year after he’d been overcome by grief at Elder Trin’s funeral.
No, this Scar crept slowly, like a caterpillar drunk on sap. An inch at a time, the zig-zag of soft green light became a part of him, etched by the Painter Unseen, whose hand guided history onto the skin of their people, from here to beyond the Border Reef and even as far as the Mountains of Sky’s Reach. Temi watched its languid burning in fascination, trying to decipher the emotions that lingered within him; a bittersweet combination of sadness over Kiro’s rejection but also pride that he’d told Kiro how he felt.
With every passing year, with each new Scar brought to life on his skin, Temi could only wonder at the emerging complexity of his impending adulthood.
Scars from his youth had been easier to understand. Everything was easier when you were young and didn’t know much about the world, with its layers of meaning hiding beneath the surface. For a long time, Temi had mistaken the world for something like the ocean, and it still frustrated him when he remembered, either by mistake or by consequence, that the world was not the cool blue shine of the water, no. The world was actually what was beneath the water’s surface. When you were young, grass was soft or rough, green in spring, gold in summer, gone by winter; trees were bare, or full, or falling in rains of color, not a reminder of who you’d loved in those passing seasons, or who’d you lost, or whose footsteps wouldn’t join yours in the year to come. You didn’t know to look under the water, where you couldn’t breathe or open your eyes.
But Temi knew better now: it was only by submerging, by diving into the unknown, that you not only saw but could truly understand those things on the surface.
And so, when Temi was a boy, he didn’t think much when normal scars happened. Some of them were physical and came from gravity’s reminder or a playful shove turned disastrous. These didn’t glow, and they didn’t mark him as anything other than a child, learning as children did.
But when the first Scar appeared, pale and soft green against his brown skin, swirling down his right shoulder in a pattern like leaves falling, he didn’t think anything of it. Later, he would remember his father screaming at him, would never forget the blast of sound that was his father’s anger at seeing the fresh Scar. Later, Temi would look and wonder why his first Scar was so similar to the one on his father’s own shoulder. And why his father was so upset by it.
But at the time... it hadn’t hurt, so he hadn’t thought much of it. Besides, he had been crying, standing alone against his father’s huge voice. Temi didn’t even notice until he bathed later that night that the Scar was still there, cool and soft, lambent on his shoulder.
Walking back from Kiro’s, Temi reflected on how his father didn’t yell as often these days. When he did, he would usually stop, his face scrunched up with effort, and walk away, to unleash his temper elsewhere. Even then, at the times Temi had truly earned his ire, his father would often bring his voice low and try to speak in an even tone, regardless of the red in his eyes.
Temi was old enough to know how much effort that took. He had seen the Scars of his father growing up, a plethora of glowing lines and patterns across his own body; he knew his father had not had the easiest of lives. That he was constantly working to change, to not be lost forever in the maze of history living on him... Temi knew that took work, and he found love for his father in it, even on the days his father faltered in that work.
Temi had a network of aunties and uncles who took him under their wing whenever his father needed time for himself, like Temi, to work through those feelings that were too huge or too overwhelming.
And though it had just been the two of them for years, his father wasn’t alone either. Fellow widowers would check in, dropping by for a cold mug of beer or to play a game of gova as the sun set, talking of little, offering their presence to provide a little healing or camaraderie. Sometimes he’d say yes, sometimes he’d say no. “Nothing wrong with being alone with one’s thoughts,” was one of his favorite phrases, Temi knew. What mattered was the offer.
After those visits, Temi’s father often walked with a somewhat lighter step, his smile easier to come by than not. Temi used to misread this as strength reasserting itself within his father and told him so one day. That’s when his father shook his head a little ruefully and said, “Strength of heart is not enough to lift a person out of despair. Sometimes, you’re flat on your back, and getting to your feet feels impossible. It is others, our community, who offer a hand down, so we might lift ourselves up. That is the true mark of strength: accepting another’s help when you wish you could do it on your own. Believe me, I still have trouble with that. But, I’m trying.” And he smiled.
That was another thing Temi loved about his father: he knew it made his father uncomfortable to be so vulnerable and open, admit fault or imperfection and yet his father did it, wading into honesty’s morass with courage.
Still, Temi did his best not to press too much. He’d learned over time that there were things his father simply didn’t wish to speak about, those silences that were warm and those that were cold, which topics to gently skirt around versus what could be asked directly. Boating along the Dnari Coast, hunting boar within the jungle, how to properly cook that which they caught, the migration patterns of birds, the local kuraka ball team, and more; these were fine to speak on. The world around them was full of wonder, and Temi was always hungry for knowledge.
But his father’s inner world, his family, his failures, how he had or hadn’t made peace with them, these things were anathema. If he did speak of them, he spoke as though it were the weather, distant and dark, unable to touch him as long as he sheltered from the worst of it. There were days Temi read his father’s body like a map, trying to decipher his Scars like they were a compass rose, pointing towards truth. The past lived in those patterns, but Temi could not understand them without translation, without direction.
There were glimpses, here and there, that despite their differences, the two of them were more alike than his father let on. A penchant to wait one more precious moment for the proper throw of the spear. Sitting back, thinking of one joke or comment that would throw everyone off rather than compete with other voices for attention in a conversation.
There was one Scar that arced along Temi’s left eye, ending halfway down his cheek. When his father first saw it, he grinned and pointed to his own cheek, where a similar Scar sat, faint, the glow faded by time. “And how did you get yours?”
Temi leapt to answer. “Muro tried to say I couldn’t jump from Three Hawk Cliff into the ring of stones out in the water, not without breaking my leg.”
His father nodded. “I take it you did so?”
Temi struck a bold pose, hands above his head. His arms still shook with the effort of that feat, but the look on his friends’ faces had been worth it. “Twice.”
His father laughed; a golden sound that made their house shake with mirth. He cupped Temi’s face, running his thumb over the new Scar on his cheek. “I did the same when I was your age. Good to know stubbornness runs in the family.”
It was one of the few Scars they shared that Temi took pride in, seeing how happy it made his father. Some of Temi’s others, the zig-zag down his forearm, the crescent moon on the back of his left hand, his father only looked at in silence, face betraying nothing.
As the years had turned to months turned to weeks, Temi’s summers of boyhood had begun to dwindle and his fear had begun to rise, a tide he didn’t know how to weather. The trial feast was coming, when he and other children his age would be seen by the village and know if they had earned adulthood.
When he tentatively asked his teachers, his friends’ parents, even Garthan the fishmonger about the trial, they all told him the same thing: talk to your father.
But Temi’s father wouldn’t speak of it, no matter the begging or pleading. As a child, Temi knew to stay on the outskirts of each year’s trial feast, hearing only whispers and rumors. Maybe, he thought as he headed home, this year his father would have offered some kind of comfort.
But no, only a familiar silence. And when he thought Temi wasn’t looking, fear.
So Temi bore it. Had to. His friends wouldn’t speak on it with him either, their own parents swearing them to silence.
Tonight, though, he would finally learn.
Once Temi was home from Kiro’s, his father wordlessly wrapped him in an oilskin cloak, so large and heavy it felt like an extra shadow smothering him and shrouding his Scars. He knelt in front of Temi, his face calm, almost blank. Putting both hands on his shoulders, Temi’s father nodded once and said, “Temi. All will be well. I... We... You are a wise, smart, and kind young man. No matter what, you will be fine, son.”
Then, as though remembering the words to a play he loved and wanting to say them just right, his father said, “I love you, Temi.”
Temi nodded, not trusting himself to say anything beyond, “I love you, too, Father.”
A brief encircling of arms as father and son held one another. Then, Temi’s father went to the door, and they made their way through the encroaching night to the bonfire sitting at the center of their community.
It was bright, a star whose pull exerted itself gently, drawing them both toward their destiny.
Time passed as food and drink came and went, as speeches about adulthood and duty rose and fell in the night, as Temi finally had a first-row seat with others his age at the fire. His father had left him here and retreated into the crowd; only for a little while, he said. Elder Cerm finally spoke on the weight of adulthood and how tonight, “we will truly see who the young people of this community have become and if it will be enough.”
Temi didn’t know what to expect as he and his cohort, including Muro and Kiro and Pilar, all got in line behind the massive roaring bonfire of the feast. Each of them was shrouded completely in thick oilskin cloaks; they whispered nervously among themselves, even after Elder Cerm gave them a glare.
This part of the ceremony had always been secret; how they could they help but speculate? All Temi knew was that it was a test. A test for what? Upon asking for the millionth time, his father had finally broken last night and said with stone in his voice. “It is to see what kind of man you’ll be. That’s all.”
At the head of the line, Temi heard Elder Cerm call his name and point to a spot just in front of the bonfire. Behind him, Kiro put a hand on Temi’s shoulder, squeezed it.
Temi looked back and smiled at his friend, heat coming to his cheeks thinking of their new understanding only hours old. Then, with a deep breath, he walked toward the fire and stopped just as the heat became unbearable.
He stared across the flames at the ocean, wondering what came next. His heart lurched as he saw a figure break through the crowd, body covered in a similar oilskin cloak.
Temi’s father approached, a grim look painting his face. Why did he look more worried than Temi felt?
Step by heavy step, his father approached the other side of the fire as though he were the one on trial.
Temi made to speak, heart hammering in his chest, hoping to impart words of comfort to his father. But Temi didn’t so much as twitch his lips than his father raised a hand and cut him off. There was nothing but silence, the roar of the flame, the soft sound of the sea as the tide went out, and the community watched. Even the very young on the outskirts, who could not see nor hear, knew to be quiet.
Elder Cerm approached. He spoke into the cool night, his deep voice making the grass sigh.
“Tonight, the truth will be known. Has Orvo failed, like his father before him? Or has he succeeded in doing what his father could not?”
He turned to Temi and with a solemn look said, “Remove your cloak, Temi, please. We would see your Scars.”
Temi panted, unsure of what to do. His hands began to shake, holding the oilskin cloak close to his bare shoulders and chest, his undergarments all that stood between him and the night. With desperation, he peered across the fire. His father’s face was gaunt, as though he was not looking at his son but at his own death.
But even with his visage grim, Temi’s father regarded Temi with softness, and nodded a single time. Temi thought he saw his father mouth, It’s okay, son. Go on.
Temi let go of the cloak, its heaviness collapsing to the sand.
He bore his Scars to the world that was his village, his community. Across from the flame, Temi’s father let his cloak fall, too.
Son and father, father and son, stared at one another across the fire separating them. Elder Cerm’s dark eyes searched Temi’s skin, taking in the Scars that were his anger, his shame, his joy, his sorrow, all that was his life in this world, the last sixteen years etched onto his body by the Painter Unseen.
Cerm turned from him and looked out over the fire, studying his father. He was a cipher as he studied; it seemed the whole village held their breath along with Temi. His father looked on the verge of tears.
Then, in a voice like thunder announcing the storm, Cerm’s rumble broke the night wide. He spread his arms and said, “The Scars of the son do not match that of his father! Orvo has proven himself worthy. He has overcome the Scars of his father, and his son—” he said, smiling brightly at Temi, “—is his own person. He has not taken on those Scars of his father, and, while some may be similar, the life of Orvo is not the life of Temi.”
Those gathered broke into applause, shouting and clapping and stamping their feet, banishing the silence back into the night from which it had come. Across the fire, Temi’s father fell to his knees, head in his hands, tears leaking through his fingers, body shaking with relief, or joy. Several of Temi’s aunties and uncles were there in a flash, their hands on his father’s shoulders, holding him as he was overcome with emotion.
Temi stared, perplexed.
“Elder Cerm! But... did I pass? Did I do well?” he stammered, hoping to find an answer to the confusion within him.
Cerm shook his head. “The trial of our village is not for the children, Temi. You never had anything to prove. It is a test for fathers, for mothers, for parents. Parents who are unfit,” he said, pointing at a Scar of his own, a languid branch of lightning torquing down his chest, “pass along their trauma, their pain, to their own children. If a family line has the same Scars, it means that same original pain will always be repeated. It will never heal so long as it lives in the next generation. Your father was such a son. His own father refused to see the pain he had inherited and so never learned how to keep your father from such pain. But Orvo? He has broken that terrible cycle.”
“So... so I’m worthy? I’m a good son? A man now?” Temi’s voice shook as the realizations rocked through him.
Cerm smiled sadly, his own eyes becoming overwhelmed with tears. “You were always worthy, Temi. Even if Orvo had failed, you’d be blameless; you are good man. You have always been a good son. But now, in the eyes of the community and under the watchful eyes of the Painter Unseen, we can say with certainty this truth now: you have a good father. He is not perfect, for no one is, but he has worked hard to free you from the pain he inherited from those before. And in doing so, he has freed himself, too.”
If Cerm said anything else, Temi didn’t hear it. All at once, he was swept up by his father, lifted into the high salt air; his father hadn’t done that since he was a small child. Temi reveled in the freeing spin, the feel of his father’s arms around him.
Finally, he set him down and his muscles flexed, holding Temi close. He could feel the warmth of his father, the heat of their Scars glowing pale green and silver under the moon. There were no words between them, just the language of their lives cemented on their skin, different in their shapes and meanings enough that whatever ghosts Orvo had, they belonged to him and him alone.
Scars healed, smoothed over by time like water across the jagged rock. Pain faded, a reminder of what had been endured. Temi could only wonder at the story of his father’s hurts as he held him. Maybe now that they had made it through the trial, Temi would ask. Maybe his father would point to his elbow, his rib, his throat, and speak of the echoes of his own father there and teach Temi, so he’d know better, too.
To keep the pain from passing on, you had to not just know it, but understand it, too. Temi knew that was the other part of the trial. He’d had been too young before; he didn’t know how to hear of his father’s pain and let it wash over him, to keep himself from making that pain his own.
As they released one another and made their way to feast, as behind them Kiro and his mother stood before the fire, Temi felt like an adult for the first time in his life, wondering at this feeling, this tender hope that finally, he and his father could begin the work to truly understand one another.
Maybe that’s what growing up was: a chance to understand those that raised you, to know them as people and not just the roles they played.
Temi spent the night asking for stories of the Scars on his father, and over bowls of seafood stew and cups of rice wine, Temi’s father smiled for the first time in a long time, looking relieved, and began to tell him.