Oh, the curfew bell’s tolled,
When the sun goes down;
And the sheep seek the fold,
When the sun goes down;
And the churchyard tower grey
Calls life’s children home from play,
At the closing of the day,
When the sun goes down.
– Edwin Waugh
It was her last day, and Tsehay had big plans.
When dawn bloomed over the jagged edge and steel-blue water of Winter Harbour, Maine, she was there. The sun kissed his way through the clouds and found her face already turned up to reciprocate, hands outstretched, her whole body arching in welcome.
Tsehay did not look three thousand years old. Not a single gray graced her short-shorn hair, and the laugh-lines around her eyes and lips only emphasized the smoothness of her umber skin. She closed her eyes and smiled her promise: today would be a very special day — one which, she hoped, would leave its footprints for years to come, when she was only ash. When the echoes of the bad still sounded, perhaps she could chime them out with the good.
She would do what she could. It might not be enough, but it would be all she had.
The sun’s bottommost curve cleared the horizon. It was time to begin.
To make it work, she followed the sun. Boston, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio (had to speed up a little bit there), Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico: half the day, it was veterans’ hospitals, breezing through the halls like an invisible and sudden exhale. All she passed (nurses, doctors, and the ill) froze in surprise, looking for the impossible source of tropical warmth, and some even smiled.
She eased pain and dialed back sickness. She cheered hearts and lifted eyes up to the blue, blue sky instead of the hopeless, dark earth and looming death. She couldn’t fully restore. She couldn’t fully refurbish. But she could help, and without reserve, she poured herself out as generously as the sun himself.
Saving the best (hardest) for last, then she switched to children’s hospitals.
Children, oh, so many children. There wasn’t time, wasn’t time, she needed more time to criss-cross and do this again, but her extra days were used up, so she worked with what she had: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Utah (the sun was setting now, setting, moving so fast, but this final race was a game to him, and she’d known he wouldn’t wait), Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Alberta, British Columbia, and at last, Anchorage.
Kissing dreams sweet, warming cold hands and feet, coaxing giggles from weak but precious souls. The Children’s Hospital at Providence, Anchorage was the end of her line, the end of her strength, the end of her gift of gentle healing, of extending the unfairly shortened lives, of whispering warm and gentle hope. She staggered through those clean and friendly halls, sputtering warmth, wringing herself dry.
She had no more to give. Moving, following the sun, racing, there was only one more place she could go.
The final sunset of her final day played delicately on the steel-black waves of Alaskan waters. Tsehay moved more slowly now; at some point over the course of this day, her skin had grayed, brittled a little; her hair had grown white, and her movements lost their grace.
None of that mattered. She’d done what she could.
It wasn’t much. It was too little, not enough. Not enough. In three thousand years, she’d taken more lives than she’d saved. Centuries, centuries of burned flesh and melted hopes, of heat that battered instead of soothed, of dryness that sealed smiles and cracked skin — today was not enough. Yesterday had not been, either, or the day before.
But she’d done what she could, and her last day was over. It would have to be enough.
Fire inside her grew, slipping the bonds of careful control she’d had since fiery conception in her mother’s womb. It rose, pressing with terrible and perfect urgency through her bones, through her muscles, into her very skull. Every exhale burned on its way out her mouth and nose, and every thought turned to ash before it could fully form.
It was enough.
She hadn’t expected, in this last day, to find peace.
The sun tipped slowly below the edge of the world, and as his upper edge vanished, a wink of fire rose and faded with the joy of incendiaries on an abandoned island in Alaska. Embers, bearing no hint of the supple curves and gracious skin they’d once formed, lifted and scattered in the wind, settling on the water, on the beach, on distant chilly grass.
The final day was done, and Tsehay had done what she could.
It was enough.
The People of the Sun have a unique lifespan and experience; they can heal and harm with equal abandon, and when their lives are done, the flame that fills their veins essentially consumes them all.
Tsehay (sort of pronounced tseh-hay – alas, my ear for these things is abysmal) committed more than one regrettable act in her life, as often happens in wars and races for survival. But she matters; and her last day matters because instead of taking rest, she chose to live a different way.