Ages after all the others had fallen off their rails, one last M.O.T.H.E.R. sonic sprayer tended the bean fields spread across the fertile crescent of flatlands called the Green Moon. Pillaged of most of her vital parts, weather-beaten and rusted, she scooted along the rails even still and hung over the cat-bean bushes day and night, her hundred round mouths whispering daydreams and lullabies, growing them as quickly as she could.
Summer dreams inside the pod, sweet dreams.
A season ends, awaken, there will be beans.
And just like that, as the wet season spiralled to an end, the bushes turned yellow and the bean pods swelled with life. Mother boomed. From her webbed black lips came a storm of thunder and bass, and bean pods undressed in the ensuing vibrations. Mewling kitten-beans hung inside, a single delicate fibre keeping them from tumbling into the soil below.
Having tended the whole field, every litter-pod opened, Mother turned around and went back the way she came, this time with her hundred tiny hands extended, scooping the kitten-beans into baskets she threw over her long rusty shoulder. The baskets moved to the left or the right and—Mother being the only one left, her little green husbands rusted to dust and buried—the kitten-beans spilled over the rail and onto the earth.
Some of them died crying for their Mother’s sonic milk. Some washed away in the season’s last rain and drowned. Some died between the jaws of roving moose, which scooped them up by the mouthful and chewed, green blood dripping down their beards. And after the kitten-beans had all been starved, drowned, and devoured, Mother mounted the rails one final time to tear the bushes from the earth. That accomplished, she settled in for the dry season, not knowing that, this time, her sleep would be an endless one. Mother had been born before the Summer King had come to court and spread his kingdom across the world, and she was very old.
Mother was dying, and then she was dead.
But one kitten-bean survived.
Many, many meadows away to the west, there was a boy who had no mother. His father was a moose whose many mates had given him no mooselings. And so, when a weeping man and a bewildered woman left a human boy in the heart of the forest, the moose took him for a son.
The moose’s giant antlers were first the boy’s crib and then his playhouse and finally, when the moose died, his home. The boy tied hides to the tines of the antlers with strands of old grass and slipped inside. He lived there a few seasons and ate what the moose had taught him to eat: the little yellow flowers that grew in the shade, the leaves of the tree that made the shade, and (like dessert) the tiny orange shoots that stretched above the surface of the pond, so tart, so sweet.
Kitten-beans, though they are reluctant to admit it, crave, desire, and yearn for human contact. They were made that way. Boys quite willingly grow attached to small, wild, and furry things. They were made that way as well. And so, when the bean fields flooded and the kitten-bean was caught in a torrent, when the boy grew restless and left his antler home, the Summer King, watchful and wise, decided the two were to be bound, and the boy heard first the voice of the waterfall, hush hush hush, and then…
Mow! Mow! Mow!
The boy was drawn to the mewling like a seven-year cicada to the top of a tree.
And there she was, coming over the ridge of the waterfall and tumbling down: an orange smudge of waterlogged fluff with a yellow- and green-striped bean on her back. The boy dove into the stream and reached the bottom of the falls just as the kitten-bean did, and he caught her.
The boy hugged her, his little arms wrapped around the smooth green bean, and the kitten-bean cried and licked his chin.
And there it was: boy and cat-bean, together.
In the Green Moon, it was summer all the time.
The boy soon learned the kitten-bean’s favourite thing in the wide world of summer: a caress across the cheeks, where her whiskers grew. Instant purrs, and the boy giggled and pranced through the flatlands, content to give another creature the joy his moose father had given him. They saw other fields together, found Mothers long disabled and in ruin, and the kitten-bean mounted the boy’s shoulders and softly mewed at the dead Mothers all overgrown with wildflowers and ivy. They slept beneath their sad, abandoned bodies, and the boy woke in cool dry-season mornings to find the kitten-bean in a curl on his chest and, arranged on the rocks nearby, a night’s worth of rodents gutted, broken-necked, and sliced in two. They explored lakes and the streams that linked them, and the boy sang nonsense songs as flower petals fell and gathered and danced in eddies. They watched herds of grass-grazers grow indolent and slow-eyed on all the grass they could graze.
Summer was an endless well of joy and light.
But the boy was afraid the kitten-bean was starving.
Dry season followed wet season, a perfect chain of air and water, and two full summers passed. The boy never saw the kitten-bean take a bite of anything, nor a drop to drink. He grew up on the plants his moose father taught him were safe to eat, but when he put them in front of the kitten-bean, she only pawed them and thought they were playing, chasing the flower stems with her baleful green eyes. The boy was afraid the kitten-bean would die.
So he wondered what a kitten-bean eats and how to ask her and how long she might live without food, and he promised in his barking moose words to find a kitten-bean’s favourite food.
And then the boy found other words and other ways.
He learned the language of his ancestors by spying on the fucivores of Abalone Bay. They lived a seaside life, a beach life, and their ways were full of sun and water. They lived in houses built on stilts scattered across the beach like shells washed up and inhabited. The sea was sometimes blue, sometimes green, and always as wide and deep as summer. There was a man with a belly as big as the sea, a man whose ribs were as plain as wind-ripples of sand, a woman wearing a cloak of coloured strings all joined at the hood, a girl with one arm, and many others. They lit grand fires on the beach and danced and drummed in the heat and orange light. The sea was loud, and so were they.
The boy, hiding in the woods and the waves, learned as many words as he could, and he gave himself a name. The first word he had ever learned.
“Call me Cloud!”
The cat-bean never did, but she got a name too. “And I’ll call you Sparks.”
Because her eyes looked like sparks in the dark, and when she lifted her paws to the sun, as if to bat at it like a dangling orange, her claws caught the light and looked like embers. And when Cloud pet her belly too long and she grew cross, they hurt like sparks, a row of cinders pressed against his skin.
Cloud learned other things. The people drew weeds from the sea and made clothes, hats, tools, and food from them. They feasted on endless green ribbons, furry black eels, small strips of red and purple and blue, and dark green streamers full of tiny seeds, bubbles blown by sea nymphs and naiads. The man with the bloated belly lay in his hammock and devoured streams of seaweed. The man with the big ribs wandered over.
“What are you doing?” Big Ribs asked.
“You’re gonna be sick.”
“Says the one who doesn’t eat enough for a hermit crab,” and the fat man belched and laughed. “Will the sea run out of seaweed? Will the kelp run away from our poles? The wheel turns. It will be reborn.”
Big Ribs shook his head and kicked the sand. “Are you hoping to gain the wisdom of all the souls you consume? That old tale? That old black-pearled oyster?”
Big Belly only smiled.
“Then you must be as wise as the King himself!”
“And you’re happy as a clam and just as stupid!”
They bickered and drew the whole hamlet into the argument and soon they were accusing one another of having eaten too much or not enough. They shouted about devouring the wisdom and courage of kelp, or the folly and avarice of sea grapes.
Cloud giggled and wondered why they didn’t just eat when they were hungry like he did. When hungry, eat; when thirsty, drink. Sparks chased crabs up and down the beach while the sun set orange and bright, and later that night, they snuck into the sea and gathered seaweed strand by strand until they had a rainbowed pile on the beach.
But she would not eat, and the next morning, before Cloud could find the courage to join the humans and ask if they knew what to feed her, the King’s scepter directed them down a different corridor in the endless maze of his summer kingdom: Sparks ran away and Cloud gave chase.
Cloud was crying when he found her, perched on a fallen tree and licking her paws as if nothing had happened and it was just another day, another moment.
“Sparks!” Cloud shouted. “Sparks! Don’t you ever. Do that. Again.”
She glanced at him, glanced away.
“You’re bored, aren’t you?” Cloud said, frowning. “Moose don’t get bored, but cat-beans do. It’s okay. C’mon. We’ll find something else.”
And they did.
Imagine one of those days when you can see the clouds by looking at the ground. A wind from somewhere blows them along overhead and you watch them pass as shadows on the ground. It turned out to be one of those days.
Sparks chased grasshoppers. Cloud chased clouds.
They chased the grasshoppers and clouds out of the blue of the wide open world and into the dark green cloisters of the orange forest, the fruit hanging heavily overhead. That was where they first heard the music. Cloud didn’t have to ask Sparks if she heard it, because she could hear mice squeak inside their den under the hill on the other side of summer. Sometimes he wondered if she could hear sounds made long ago, somehow enduring, echoing through the seasons, and maybe sounds that had yet to be made.
Under the glow of the sunlit oranges, they made their way toward the music, and this is what they heard:
People try to tell you,
What is wrong and right.
But I go searchin’, walkin’,
Watchin’ day and night.
They followed the voice through a maze of blue grass and orange groves. Fallen fruit gathered at their feet, and they squished the peels as they went. Once, Cloud slipped and fell. Sparks ran ahead, but they found the house together.
It was an ancient tree with faces in the wrinkles and whorls of its bark and hanging branches like hair. A big Black man sat on the covered porch of the tree trunk house, but he wasn’t singing. His booted foot beat out the rhythm of the song on the porch steps.
“Where’s the song?” Cloud said.
“You’re not lost, are you?” the man asked, his voice as bright and festive as a tree full of oranges. “Because if you are…” He chuckled to himself and shook his head. He swirled liquid in a goblet in his hand, and the glass caught the light falling past the leaves. Liquid amber, and one drop fell.
“What’s lost?” Cloud asked.
That made the man roar, flick his drink into the bushes, and stand. His green dress billowed like light through the goblet’s glass. “Lots of things. But c’mon. Meet the others. Bring the kitty too.” And he disappeared into the tree.
Cloud and cat-bean followed.
The others sat around and inside a wooden ring, a table with its centre removed to make room for more. They flipped through cards, tore pages from books, flung orange peels at one another, and leaned this way and that, seeming never to be able to settle here or there. When Cloud thought about it later, he wouldn’t be able to remember how many people there were, and already he was having trouble counting.
“That’s not a kitty, you idiot.”
“Looks like a turtle.”
“What’s a turtle?”
“Looks like a cat to me.”
“It’s a kind of lizard, but with a shell on its back.”
“Well, it sounds like a cat.”
“Like a hermit crab?”
“What’s his name?”
“What’s for dinner?”
“It’s a girl.”
“Are you sure?”
“What’s a hermit crab?”
“You’ve never been to the sea?”
“C’mere, kitty. Here kitty kitty kitty.”
“To see what?”
“What’s for dinner?”
The Black man slammed a black cauldron on the table and silenced them. “The same thing we always have. Nutritious, balanced to perfection, scrumptious, seasoned for the Summer King himself: Ambrosia’s Ambrosia.”
Sparks leaped onto the table, gave it a sniff, and jumped away again. Cloud caught her.
“Oh, not again!”
“Well, everything else makes you sick!”
“Yeah, what do you want him to make?”
Ambrosia tapped Cloud on the shoulder. “What’s your name?” he asked, and Cloud told him. “Cloud, I want you to meet my friends,” and he swept a hand over them all.
“So where are you going, Cloud?” one of them asked.
“What are you doing out here?”
“Does he have to be doing anything?”
“He’s growing up, isn’t that enough?”
“Can we eat?”
“It ain’t done,” Ambrosia said, and he took the cauldron away. “Now let the boy speak.”
“I’m looking for Sparks’s favourite food. We haven’t found what she likes to eat yet.”
“You’re welcome to stay,” Ambrosia said. “It won’t be done for a—”
But just then a familiar song drifted in, and Sparks leaped from Cloud’s arms and out the door, and Cloud followed at a run, leaving his thankyous and goodbyes trailing behind him like a ribbon in the wind.
Sparks found the song near the funguswood.
The song had two legs, two arms, and a head, but somehow Cloud knew it wasn’t human. It had moist white flesh and glassy blue eyes, and its mouth wasn’t moving. Instead, the song seemed to come from the creature’s chest, from a circle of small holes between its nipples. It looked like one of Mother’s mouths.
I go searchin’, walkin’,
Watchin’ day and night.
They followed, but the song began to run, and they lost it. Glades of yellow-green fungus grew all around them, walls of layered scales taller than Cloud could reach. The walls were moist, sweating, and the fungus reflected the fading evening light, dazzling Sparks and Cloud with orange light everywhere. Their reflections and the reflections of—what? shadows, moose, monsters?—darted between the scales as if caught within.
Sparks whimpered. Cloud shivered. And they ran left and right, forward, backward, trying to follow the song that had led them there.
The melody grew faint.
Sparks hissed and dug her claws into the fungus, peeling away scale after scale. Cloud joined her, tunnelling through the fungal walls with his fingers, little crumbs getting stuck beneath his fingernails. It smelled like sickness, old beetles, rotten moths. Cloud gagged, but they made a hole big enough to squeeze into, and they pushed through to the other side and fell, tumbling down a hill. Cloud spit flakes of leaf from his mouth and sat up.
He saw a globe of colour in the night.
They crawled toward the light, stopped at the edge of a glade, and peered into the clearing. Cloud swallowed his fear and heartbreak.
A bonfire roared, and the song was sizzling away. Six faces glowed with hunger. One of the men stood and turned a wooden wheel. A rod spun above and through the flames, and impaled on it was the song-thing. Its white flesh blackened and fell away, exposing a wire frame beneath. Crumbs fell into the coals.
The six men tore chunks from the song with long-handled forks and greasy hands. They chewed the flesh, charred and unrecognizable. Only the fire sang now.
“Sparks,” Cloud whispered. “Does that smell good to you?”
Maybe Sparks needed something with a soul to eat, whatever that was, and so Cloud found the courage to leave the darkness and enter the globe of firelight.
“Who goes there?” the men said.
“I’m Cloud. And this is Sparks.” They came into the light, slowly, warily.
The men licked their lips and motioned them forward. One of them, his face oily and bearded, dropped his fork and stood. “What have you got there?”
“Some demon from the shroomwood, I bet.”
“Hush it. It’s some kinda monkey. Look at the tail.”
“Only it’s got a mushroom on its back.”
“A cat-bean,” Cloud corrected. “She’s hungry. Can she try a bite of the song?”
“How’s a bean a she?”
“A banshee?” one of the men asked. He looked suddenly startled, ready to run.
“It’s a cat and a bean, it’s a feast! Not some howling hag from the shroomwood.”
“How do you know? You’ve never seen one!”
“Shut up, all of you!” The bearded man came forward. Cloud could see crumbs in his beard, ash on his cheeks. “Sure, boy, sure. Come on, sit down. Have a bite to eat, both of you. Fatten up the bean. Here.” He offered them a fork.
“Thanks.” Cloud took the fork and held the roasted song up to Sparks’s mouth, but the hair rose on her head, and her tail filled out like a strand of seaweed underwater. She spit and hissed and howled like never before, a long whine and wail loud enough to split the drums of ears.
“Banshee!” one of the men cried, and he dropped his fork and darted into the night. His panic spread, and the others threw themselves after him, shouting, calling, tripping over their own feet and covering their ears.
Cloud giggled to see them stumbling, to see Sparks proudly capering around the fire, but his laughter didn’t last long.
He was starting to lose hope.
Sparks was slowly starving.
They wandered into a valley of sandy red stone the colour of the rust on old Mothers’ bones. Gnarled trees with long green leaves grew from the rocks, and from their branches hung strings of bright ornaments, little balls and cubes, and stars glazed red, yellow, and orange. Cloud brushed one strand aside, four red balls strung along it, and caught a whiff of tangy salty sweetness. His mouth watered, and he took a bite. The inside was soft moist cake, white as the moon, and it tasted like cinnamon and flashfruit and dry season sun.
Something about the treats made Cloud want to sing, and so he did, all the way down the valley, following the trail of hanging bulbs, stopping here and there to nibble.
The trail ended at a house built from bricks of the same pale stuff Cloud had been eating, and then he knew why he had been singing. This was the white spongy flesh of the song.
“Sing me a song of soy!”
A voice from some far season.
And then the door of the house was opening, a green hand extending, and Cloud was inside, standing beside someone covered in moss, their skin a meadow of emerald fur. Their face was bearded with lichens, and two heavy breasts made hills beneath their robe. He, or she—Cloud would never know—was green, but everything else inside was white and shadowless. Cloud tried to blink the glare away.
“Welcome, little man and little bean. Did the trail of treats mark your way? Our bean fields are bountiful and we eat and build and weave and sculpt with soy. Perfect firm bricks of beautiful tofu, but no cats attached, because you can’t build a house out of cats. It would never decide whether to let you in or out.”
The mossy one laughed, and their whole body shook, tiny fibres of moss drifting to the floor.
“Do you make people too?” Cloud asked. He was still blinking, and could see better now. There was a table, chairs, a bed, and a lamp, all made of song-flesh. “Do you make song people?”
“That’s about the only thing we don’t make.”
“But I saw one. It was singing,” and Cloud told the mossy one the whole story. They listened with nods and murmurs.
“Well, little mackerel, your song sounds like a mystery of the old world. Something born long ago and left wandering in our world. Made to serve some will now long gone, and we’re left wondering if it has a soul.”
There was that word again, and so Cloud asked: “What’s a soul?”
The mossy one laughed again. “Let me show you.”
And they did. They showed Cloud the season cycle, one half tattooed on each palm, so that when they put their palms together it was as if they held the whole wheel in their hands. Cloud learned about souls and vessels and the wheel of rebirth, about all lives past and future and the ring that never ends because it feeds itself with itself.
“Speaking of,” the mossy one said. “Tonight we celebrate the coming of the wet season. We open the door with a feast. The Feast of the Heart’s Heart!”
Cloud imagined the heartiest of hearts, nested in an infinite series of hearts, ventricles opening like doors onto other hearts and other doors. And then shadows came, and it was dusk. Had daydreaming turned to duskdreaming just like that?
Cloud looked down at Sparks, and she seemed confused too, her tail twitching left and right with suspicion.
A table was set, Cloud could see that now. Thirteen spaces, and the only thing not made of soy was a covered platter in the centre made of silver shining with the light of the moon.
“Sit, sit,” the mossy one said, and they pushed a chair behind Cloud’s legs. Sparks nestled in his lap. Cloud sat in the middle of one of the long sides, while the mossy one took a seat at the head of the table.
“One place for each of the seasons, and an extra for the lost one. The fabled thirteenth! A whole world and a whole ring away. A wave, always changing, never cycling. And green—deep green! Bottle green, so clear you can see one side from the other. Now let’s eat!”
The mossy one leaned in and removed the silver bell from the platter to reveal a steaming heart in a puddle of blood. They sliced it with a silver knife.
Cloud hadn’t known there would be a real heart.
“But, but. But the soul,” Cloud said. “You made someone go back to the wheel. This is the heart’s heart?”
“Souls are always on the move. We take only what we need, only the eldest hart, with thanks and prayers and blessings, and we use every bone and sinew and antler, every drop of blood, because this is the best way, the only way. The wheel turns. We were once eaten. We will be eaten again. All is well. Now let’s eat!”
The mossy one served Cloud his tiny slice, small enough that there might be enough to go around, and Cloud poked it with a fork and frowned. He nibbled, but it was rubbery and wet and warm, and Sparks would not eat it either.
“Eat up! This is the only night of the season we get to enjoy such a delicacy! Don’t be shy. Open the door! The others have already begun.”
And they had, invisibly eating their slices of heart. Some slices steamed and decayed, undulating with hidden worms. Others were covered in leaves and devoured from beneath by beetles. Others grew cold and blew away in tiny frozen crystals. One was snatched away by a fox, a fleeting flash of orange.
Cloud and Sparks watched with wide eyes.
“What season am I?” Cloud asked.
“Early summer, of course! Early, middle, late, times four, that’s twelve.”
But the mossy one only grinned and licked their plate clean. Cloud watched the green pools of their eyes, and deep green waters welled up around him. He was falling into green light…
“No,” Cloud whispered. “Not yet… I need… I’m not done… Sparks.”
And when Cloud woke, it was morning, and the rust red valley was melting away in the rain. The house was a slushy spongy puddle, and the mossy one was gone.
The wet season had arrived.
The wheel turned, and they were lost.
Cloud and Sparks travelled too far in space or time and left summer behind. Cloud didn’t know it, but they were leaving the Green Moon, where it was summer all the time. And suddenly, he couldn’t remember what he had been doing walking all this way, and he couldn’t remember how to get back to where he began, if that was where he wanted to be. Sparks seemed content to walk and wander, but Cloud was wilting. His legs ached. His feet were full of hurt. His stomach whimpered.
He was starving.
“Where did all the food go?”
There were no little yellow flowers on hills and there were no ponds in which orange shoots could grow. There was lashing rain and whipping leaves and the ragged crowing of some starved, far-off animal. There were strange shapes and stranger shadows. Cloud turned around and tried to go back, but he couldn’t find a path back into the maze of summer.
The Green Moon had set.
Cloud had to stop and rest for a moment, and that moment became a day as his body grew sluggish and weak.
Sparks leaped onto his shoulders and slid down his body. She purred. She pressed her pink nose into his lips.
“All right, we’ll go. Just give me a moment.”
But he fell asleep instead. Cold black rain woke him. Sunlight rocked him back to sleep. Was he dreaming?
A moment became a day became a season.
And a pain like cinders on his skin woke him.
“Huh? Sparks. You’re hungry too. I know. I’m sorry.” She licked his cheek. “What? I don’t know what you want. I don’t know what to feed a cat-bean. I can’t feed you.”
And so he did what all animals do when they no longer have the strength to go on. He lamented.
People try to tell you,
What is wrong and right.
But I go searchin’, walkin’,
Watchin’ day and night.
Sparks stretched alongside him and purred. She twirled. She danced. The dark in her eyes unfolded. The song made her happy, but Cloud was too tired to finish.
Sparks got up, tested her claws against the earth, and brushed her fat bean back against Cloud’s cheek.
“No. I can’t eat you, Sparks. No. Go on.”
“I can’t eat you. Go away! Your soul,” he said, remembering what the mossy one said. “Every plant, every animal. And everything in between.”
Sparks climbed onto his shoulders, and he pushed her away, and that was when Cloud began to cry. He sobbed, wiped his tears away, and sobbed some more, wondering where all the food had gone. He beat the cold earth and wondered why it was so hard to do something as simple and easy as finding something for a cat-bean to eat.
He couldn’t know that, outside the Green Moon and outside summer, food had gone underground as roots, tubers, taproots, and rhizomes. Little creatures ready for hibernation. Bugs burrowing. Overripe fruits fallen and taken into the earth between the pincers of shiny black ants.
And so Cloud pounded the earth and wept, helpless and lost.
He sobbed so loudly, in fact, that Sparks began to grow.
Sparks began to sprout.
Cloud’s heart missed a beat. He stopped crying. He couldn’t help but let out a giggle, a hiccough, a whole guffaw. “You’re growing!” he shouted, and Sparks grew some more. She was sprouting, the tiny finger of a new plant unfurling from her ripe-bean back and pointing at the sky. Cloud laughed, louder and louder, urging the little sprout higher.
She had been eating all along, slurping up songs and feasting on all the words in the world. But because they had both been growing at the same time, Cloud hadn’t noticed. He was a late bloomer. He was still learning.
Sparks settled into the grass, the sun poked through the heavy clouds overhead, and Cloud sang. Though he had no strength for it, Cloud finished the song he had started, as loudly as he could, and when he finished it he began again, singing until he shuddered and fell still, his last breath given to her growth.
And there it is: boy and cat-bean, together, but not quite forever. His soul was already gone, back to the wheel, soon to be somewhere else.
And Sparks stretched out in the sun.
A season ends, awaken: there will be beans.
Story copyright © 2017 by Kyle E. Miller
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Diana M. Chien
Kyle E. Miller is the fourth incarnation of the Spring Fool, currently caught in a wandering wind. His fiction has previously appeared in Betwixt Magazine and Strange Constellations. For over two years, he has been a vegan. Just in case.
Diana M. Chien is an illustrator, writer, and scientist. She teaches at MIT.