Sam’s father tells him bedtime stories about the people by the lake. Or, better to call them one bedtime story, repeated so often, it takes a different shape each time, a shadow puppet morphing in the penumbra of a flashlight. Sam’s father calls it his earliest memory, but he doesn’t quite remember it. The scenery changes with every retelling. Sometimes, the people descend from the sky. Sometimes, they ascend from the depths of the lake. Sometimes, they have more mouths than eyes. Sometimes, they appear perfectly human. Sometimes, they call Sam’s father by name. Sometimes, they shun him as a stranger. The single constant, in the vast and ever-expanding cosmology of his memory, is the ritual.
They gather in many-colored cloaks alongside the bank of the fathomless lake. Each hooded figure bears a paper lantern, patterned in red rice paper. They begin to chant, quietly at first, no louder than the whisper of the wind. Their words swell, rising like gusts of hot air. The words that carry are incomprehensible, no language Sam’s father could ever find in any book. Glossolalia, elegiac and haunting, beautifully opaque. When their prayers crest, they release their lanterns, and these small orbs fall up. They float; they rise; they drift like a thousand red buoys illuminating a black and swirling ocean.
As the lanterns disappear among the stars, Sam’s father’s words dry up. Tears mist his eyes. Night after night, his story lulls Sam to sleep.
In the summer, Sam’s father sends him to sleepaway camp. Nestled in a valley of evergreens that scour the sky like scrub brushes, the camp has been there for generations. The floorboards of the cabin creak and sag with every step Sam takes, and the scent of mildew and mothballs clings to every mattress and linen.
Sam likes camp, he does. He likes archery and finger-painting. He likes long days spent under the heat of the sun, likes the way its rays burnish his golden brown skin and darken the freckles on his face and arms. He likes late nights under the canopy of smoke and stars.
He doesn’t understand why they put him in a cabin full of girls, but his father told him, the day he dropped Sam off here, that he should give the girls a chance. His father lifted him up and hugged him tight, and Sam promised he would try.
He does make a friend named Penelope, who wears glasses like grownups do, that are always sliding down her nose. The others dub her Pen because she always has a ballpoint pen clipped to her shirtfront pocket. She doesn’t make fun of his close-cropped hair or the baggy cargo shorts he favors. She punches a girl who does.
On the second day of camp, on the bench in front of the nurse’s cabin, Sam and Pen exchange braided friendship bracelets with solemn oaths of eternal loyalty.
Each night Sam and the girls gather on split logs around the campfire. They roast marshmallows over the open flame and build s’mores with off-brand chocolate. The counsellors angle flashlights under their chins; shadows scratch claw marks on their cheeks as they tell stories designed to delight and instruct. They elicit gasps and shrieks from a rapt audience, and when they’re done, they ask for volunteers to delight and instruct them in turn.
Reciprocity, says the counselor who spends her other life, the one she lives during the off-season, at an old and storied university in the city studying anthropology, is a ritual in many cultures. Stories are a gift you give to be met in kind. Her stories always breathe life into lands as strange as they are far. A culture that eats the ashes of their dead; another that builds their cities on stilts over floodplains. Maybe she doesn’t mean to, maybe it’s just because they’re stories told in the dark, but Sam thinks the anthropologist makes their strangeness seem grotesque. She always talks about the people as collectives, societies that walk and wail together. She never mentions the individuals, the golden seams that hold the tapestry together, never gives voice to their hopes or dreams. Her stories make Sam sad. They make him wonder what kinds of stories others tell about them in the dark of the night.
There is a lake at the edge of the camp. Deep waters separate the colony of cabins from a pristine state park, wilderness both manicured and charted.
By day, Sam swims and jumps and rows and occasionally falls in the lake. His father insisted he wear a rash guard with his swim trunks, so he does, even though none of the girls wear rash guards. Sam and Pen splash in the still, murky water, and Pen tries out her stories on Sam.
By night —
Pen’s stories are different than the other girl’s stories. Pen unspools sprawling fantasies, other worlds lit by many moons, foreign fields populated by people who look nothing alike but live together in harmony. Peppering in Spanish words like spices, the conflicts she weaves are always misunderstandings. One family blames another for stealing their goat, but the goat had merely lost its way home. A mother tells her daughter she can’t go to the school in town, and the daughter tries to run away before her parents surprise her with a freshly starched uniform for a school in the city. There are no wounds in Pen’s worlds; there are no scars too deep to heal.
Pen tells stories of good places — places that don’t exist.
One night, Sam and Pen sneak out of their cabin after all the other girls have begun to snore. They sprint between the shadows to the edge of the lake, where they strip down to their underwear. When they slip into the black water, it coats their skin like paint.
Sam hears whispers on the wind. He whips his head around, looking for the source. On the far bank, he spies light. Many lights, to be exact, like a swarm of fireflies rising from the underbrush. “What’s that?”
“What’s what?” asks Pen, blinking owlishly in the direction Sam points. “I don’t see anything.”
And Sam doesn’t understand, because even without her glasses, Pen should be able to see the glow of the encampment, even if she perceives it as diffuse and blurred, rather than distinct, luminous pinpricks cut into the fabric of the night. “Don’t you see the light?”
“There’s nothing there.”
“I’ll be right back,” promises Sam and swims away. He propels himself in fast, efficient freestyle strokes. Pen screams his name again and again, but the water warps and muffles her cries. He only hears them when he turns his head for air. He ignores her, then.
Sam heaves himself upon the bank. Water sluices from his body, and his skin turns to gooseflesh. He shivers. He wishes for his clothes. He thinks he should give up and turn back when he hears chanting, singing, lilting prayer carried on the wind.
Between the trees, silhouettes flicker in and out of focus among the lights they carry. Lanterns, no larger than pomegranates and the same shade of red. Sam moves closer, hiding behind the trunk of a mammoth oak tree.
Three dozen hooded figures cluster in a glade between the trees. Their cloaks shimmer in the dark, iridescent among the lanterns. Their beautiful, impenetrable words bloom from whisper to song; their prayers blossom like nightshade. Intense and fervent, their eyes shut and their faces tilted up, the ritual feels private. As if Sam’s spying through a keyhole. He wants to look away, but he can’t.
He is transfixed, paralyzed, enthralled. In thrall to words he doesn’t understand.
When the prayer comes to its climax, the figures release their lanterns. The lights rise on unseen currents, suspended as if by invisible strings. Their eyes flash open. Across the hollow, one figure’s gaze fixes on Sam, eyes smoldering like embers, and they —
They smile. The prayers have lulled to a stop, and in the silence, their voice rings out like birdsong. “Come closer,” they beckon, crooking their hand in that universal gesture.
Sam comes closer. He knows he shouldn’t. He knows his father wouldn’t want him to talk to strangers, but his father isn’t here.
The stranger lowers their hood, though the others do not. They look human; they all do. As diverse as the girls at camp — skin of every color, hair of every texture, bodies of every shape. The one who speaks to him is tall and pale, their flaxen hair braided across the crown of their head. “We knew you would find us, Samantha Matthews.”
“It’s Sam,” he insists forcefully. “I’m a boy.”
“Forgive us, Son of M’tyehu. We should not have assumed. My name is A’daleae, Child of K’leha. Like you, I am not what others thought me. In your language, you may call me they.”
Sam’s glad he didn’t assume. He tries not to assume, ever. He knows firsthand how much assuming hurts.
“You need not be afraid, Son of M’tyehu.”
It’s the second time they’ve said the name Sam doesn’t recognize. His father’s name is Mathias. “How did you know my name?”
“Because you come from us, like your father before you. Although you have never seen our sun, she belongs to you, too.”
“Who are you?”
“As I told you, I am A’daleae. We are your people. We come from —”
Sam runs. Away from the strangers, away from the lies, away from the roaring in his ears.
Sam and his father live in a home that is not a house but a modest one-bedroom apartment in a five-story walk-up. Sam sleeps in the bedroom, and his father sleeps on the sagging sofa bed in the main room. The apartment smells always of spices, but rarely the same ones twice. His father cooks anything and everything, aspires to sample every flavor of the world. One week, it’s turmeric and coriander. Another, paprika and chili powder. The next, lemongrass and ginger. Sam likes saffron best.
His father’s lilting accent, deep umber skin, and humble beginnings as a ward of the state are all the world sees of him. Without family or privilege or means, he has had to work for everything, earn everything for Sam and himself. He works two jobs, six days a week, more hours each day than Sam can count on his hands.
The apartment is simple but not unadorned. There are paintings Sam makes in school alongside his report cards. His father clips photos of places and people he likes and admires from magazines and newspapers. Obama, here; Lady Liberty, there. But mostly, they hang photos of each other, and a few of Sam’s mother, wearing smiles as wide as melon slices. Sam’s favorite is the last photo they have of her, when she was eight months pregnant. Sometimes he runs his fingers over the glass, touches the swell in her stomach that is him, and he feels close to her, as he imagines he did then. He wishes he hadn’t been the thing to kill her.
Still, there is nothing from his father’s childhood, nothing to signify his culture or creed. No photos of who or where he came from. He has no heirlooms but the story he carries on the back of the night.
His father has always moved awkwardly through the world, as if someone clipped his own shape from a magazine, his form glossy but jagged, and moved his image across the surface of a watercolor painting. He doesn’t match.
And Sam —
Sam is neither. Parts from three different paper dolls snipped up and pasted together. A decoupage boy. He has never known what it means to belong.
“Do you believe in aliens?” Sam asks Pen the next day at lunch. She gave him the silent treatment all through breakfast as punishment for scaring her, but she forgave him on the ropes course. They break bread, or rather chocolate chip cookies, over a picnic table.
“I believe the universe is large,” says Pen. “Larger than we know.”
“Large enough to include extraterrestrial life?”
“Well,” says Pen, “I hope so.”
Sam goes to the anthropologist, who lowers the flag each day at sunset. He asks her if she has ever read about a culture who cast lights into the sky.
“It sounds like a ritual,” she says. “Like, a religious ceremony, or something.”
“Yes,” says Sam, “I know what a ritual is. But which religion? Which culture?”
“Beats me,” she says, then asks what he knows about liminality.
Sam crosses the lake alone. He takes a canoe, this time, and rows. There are no lanterns to light his way, but he knows, somewhere deep beneath his skin, that those people to whom he does not belong will be there to greet him. Dressed in his warmest sweatshirt, he shivers only out of fear.
In the glade, he finds only A’daleae, Child of K’leha, cloaked in blue. “You were not ready, Son of M’tyehu, for our truth,” they intone with the solemnity of a prayer. “Are you ready now?”
“Yes,” lies Sam. “I’m ready.”
In the story Sam’s father tells, the figures in the forest wink out of view. Instantaneous, snuffed out like candles. They disappear, and Sam’s father is alone. Utterly alone in the glade and the world but for the field of false stars in the sky above.
“Let me tell you a story,” says A’daleae, Child of K’leha, “about a boy borne of our people. A good boy, kind as he was clever, until his mother swelled with child, again. He grew jealous and petty. A troublemaker. He caused so many troubles, our crops withered, our livestock fell ill, and his mother’s womb turned sour, arid like our fields. His sister was born still; his mother perished in labor. His jealousy killed his family. We did as is our custom. We came to this hallowed ground to light lanterns for our dead, and we banished the one who had killed them.”
Sam’s heart thrums like an untuned harp. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you have M’tyehu’s blood. He may not belong with us, but you do. You must come home, Son of M’tyehu, and we will raise you into the man this world does not want you to be.”
“What about my dad?”
“M’tyehu cannot return to our homeland. You must come alone. We will be your family.”
“I can’t,” huffs Sam. “I can’t leave my dad. I won’t.”
“Think on that which we have to offer, that which M’tyehu cannot give you.” Then they blink out like a dead bulb, leaving Sam alone under the benighted sky.
The next night, Sam tells his father’s story around the campfire. When he tilts the flashlight up, light leaks into his eyes and stings like shampoo. He speaks of that ritual of light and color, of those prayers of song and silt. He narrates a story beyond gravity and physics about people who glimmer and vanish like ghosts.
“That’s a stupid story,” says the girl Pen punched for calling Sam names. “It isn’t even scary.”
“It’s not supposed to be scary,” hisses Pen.
But Sam isn’t sure, anymore, what the story means.
Sam wakes to blood staining his sheets like ink, like the tie-dye he used three afternoons ago to decorate t-shirts. He screams and screams until the counselors come running. They pull him from his bunk as the girls watch on with wide eyes.
“Congratulations,” says the anthropologist, smiling when she discerns the blood’s source. “You’re a woman now, Sam.”
Sam is eleven. Eleven and three quarters, to be exact, and his hands are never clean. Last spring, his teachers began to complain that he and his classmates stank, all the time. They wanted him to start wearing deodorant and shaving under his arms, but he kicked and screamed because he couldn’t shave there, he wouldn’t. That’s what girls do, and Sam is not a girl. He sat through the same awful animated sex ed videos as the girls in his class, and he understands what the world thinks of him. His father treats him as the boy he is, but his father told him, when he cried after the first time his kindergarten teacher split the class into boys and girls and put Sam on the wrong side of the aisle, that it would never be easy. That there would always be more people who didn’t understand than those who did, and that he was sorry, so sorry he hadn’t brought Sam into a better, kinder world.
So, yes, maybe Sam did understand from the beginning why they put him in a cabin full of girls. Maybe he understands all of it, better than he should. Maybe he feigns ignorance hoping that, if he just believes hard enough, his wishes will come true. His faith is an open wound, the kind Pen’s utopias know how to heal, the kind this world leaves to fester.
And when the anthropologist tells Sam that he is a woman now, that statement runs counter to the truth he knows in every fiber and every sinew of his being. He is not now, nor will he ever be, a woman.
He’ll scream until they learn to hear him.
They call his father. Of course they do. Sam is inconsolable, and he won’t listen to anything the nurse, or the counsellors, or the older girls have to say. Even Pen can’t get through to him. Call her mother, the counsellors say. She’ll know what to do.
His father knows what to do. He drives four hours upstate from the city, despite the nurse’s protests that Sam just needs to hear his father’s voice. But Sam’s father knows idle words won’t soothe these wounds. So he comes.
He finds Sam in the nurse’s cabin, huddled on musty cot with his knees pulled tight against his chest. Sam is quiet, sullen, his anger extinguished like a wet fuse. His father kneels beside him on the creaking cot and folds his arms around him. “I’m sorry,” he whispers against Sam’s tousled curls, “I’m so sorry.”
He sends Sam to wait outside before he turns his attention on the adults. Sam sits on the bench on the porch, where he and Pen forged their friendship, and he hears the shape of an argument he cannot see.
You said you knew what to do!
Mr. Matthews, please calm down. You’ll only make your daughter more upset.
Sam is my son. You said you could accommodate trans kids. You said you would make him comfortable. You said, you said, you said —
Sam buries his face in his knees.
“Let me tell you a bedtime story,” says Sam’s father in their dingy motel room. He insisted on pulling Sam from camp, at least for the night, at least until he can determine whether it is a suitable environment to leave his son for another three weeks.
Lying under a scratchy comforter that smells of sweat and regret, Sam objects, “No, let me.”
Sam’s father crooks his chin but sits quietly at the edge of the bed and listens. He listens as Sam echoes a story so much like his own but different. Like a sentence translated into another language, then translated back again, something has shifted in the telling.
When Sam comes to the end, he finds his father shaking. Small earthquakes shudder through his broad shoulders. Sam has seen tears fog his father’s eyes before, when he tells this story or when he remembers Sam’s mother, but Sam has never seen him sob until tonight. He reaches out and covers his father’s large, dark hand with his own, smaller and lighter. Dirt cakes the space beneath his nails, but his hand is steady.
When Sam wakes, his hand is empty, and he is alone.
When Sam wakes again, his father is packing. He folds Sam’s clothes like museum artifacts, taxidermy beasts wrapped in tissue, and stacks them in Sam’s suitcase, oblivious to Sam’s watchful gaze.
“Are we going home?” asks Sam, stretching the sleep from his limbs.
“Not exactly,” says Sam’s father.
He tells Sam what he means over breakfast at a diner just down the street from the motel. He explains his decision quietly, in public, so Sam won’t make a scene. He says Sam must go with the people from the star whose name they can’t pronounce. He has worked everything out. He spoke with A’daleae and the elders, and this is really for the best. Sam will go, and his father will see him once a year, on the annual pilgrimage to that holy glade, on the eve of the funerary rites that light up the sky.
“I won’t go,” whispers Sam with tears in his eyes. “I won’t leave you.”
“You have to go,” says Sam’s father. “You should be with your people, who will cherish you and accept you and raise you into a man. There’s nothing here for you but pain.”
“But I want to stay with you.”
“But I can’t protect you. I can’t give you the life you deserve.” Sam’s father studies his Irish coffee rather than meet his son’s watery eyes. “I’m sorry, but it’s decided. You’re going.”
Sam packs up his bunk at the camp while Pen watches, her arms laced across her chest. “I’ve been thinking about this riddle,” says Sam. “A society that cast off a child for infanticide wants to adopt a child the world doesn’t want. Should the child go with them?”
“Well,” says Pen, “they say it takes a village.”
Say the village’s love is conditional. Say the child’s father loves him unconditionally. Say a riddle’s just a story a child tells about himself from afar–
Every culture is a tapestry, says the anthropologist.
Say Sam is a dropped stitch in the fabric of the world —
Cloaked figures circle the glade, though their hoods are down. Sam and his father stand in the center of their circle, Sam’s suitcase filling the space between them.
“Son of M’tyehu,” says A’daleae, Child of K’leha, with the warmth of a rising sun, “are you ready to come home?”
“You told me a story about my dad,” says Sam, “and stories are a gift to be met in kind.” So he tells one of his own. About a good boy, kind as he was clever, juggled between foster homes. That boy didn’t belong, so he fought to carve out a hearth in a world that didn’t want him. That boy grew into a man who had a son, whom he loved enough to remake the world in his son’s image.
“No.” Sam’s father crouches down before him and rests two heavy hands on his shoulders. “Please, Sam. Go with them. It’s better this way.”
“M’tyehu is right. You are one of us.”
“So was my dad,” says Sam.
His father’s sob could break the back of the night.
On his first day at his new school, where his legal name is Samuel Matthews and no one knows him as anything else, Sam’s new teacher seats the class in a circle on foam mats. At twelve years old, Sam feels too old to sit crisscross applesauce but thinks maybe now he understands the meaning of nostalgia.
The teacher turns out the lights and draws the blinds. She passes a flashlight around the circle and asks the children to introduce themselves by telling a story, any story, so long as it shows their teeth.
Humans are beasts with stories for blood, the anthropologist told Sam as she hoisted the flag on the last day of camp.
Sam thinks about telling his father’s story, as his father told it, or perhaps as he lived it. Sam knows the words all too well. As well as he knows himself.
Sam tells his story instead.