(Originally written: August 5, 2020)
Imli squatted, his elbows resting on his bent knees. A half eaten plum was in one hand, dripping its sticky, purple juice to the dirt at his feet. The other hand picked his nose. It yielded nothing for his labors so his hand returned to hanging idly. While ants crawled over his toes to get at the plum juice, Imli took a big bite out of the plum. The flesh ruptured, splashing the juice onto his lips and chin. As Imli chewed, the juice on his face fell to the ground and the ants crawled to the new source.
“Ah. Imli.” Root stopped his walk, waited for a few carts to pass, then crossed the road to look down at Imli. “Enjoying a day off?”
Imli had been unemployed for 25 years.
Imli stared up at Root from behind hooded eyes. The sun behind Root cast the man into deep shadow. “Yes.” Imli put his head back down so he could resume staring at the tea shop.
“Of course.” Root grunted, scratching at his mustache. “I saw your father last night. Talked to him. Poor man. His worries weigh heavily on his shoulders. He does not laugh as he used to.“ He looked at Imli out of the corner of his eye even though it would have been easier to look at the young man head on.
Imli! Here, son. I’ve brought some plums. Root gave them to me after the meeting. Imli’s father’s voice spoke in his head. The man had been extremely cheerful after returning from the council meeting. The town had been prosperous lately. He then spoke at length about the proceedings, only pausing to listen to whatever Imli had to say. Once that was done, Taama had asked how Imli was. Imli had smiled and Taama had smiled back. Feeling immensely satisfied, Taama went to bed. Imli went to bed not long after.
“I’m talking to you, Imli.”
Imli looked at Root from the corner of his eye for a second before looking away. “Mmm.”
“I was saying,” Root continued, choosing to ignore the slight. “That I know a man in the capital. A good word from me and you can have a job working as his assistant. Learn the ropes of his textile business first hand. You’re a smart kid, it’ll come easily for you. He does not have an heir, you know?”
Imli bit the last of his plum. After gnawing away pieces of flesh that were clinging to the pit, he dropped it to the ants. They sent two scouts first. In moments the plum pit was swarming with ants. More of its flesh was gnawed away and the pit became bare but the ants continued to swarm, taking away bits only they could see. Imli wiped his mouth with the back of his hand then stood. He stretched and breathed in the hot, dry air before relaxing with his hands in his pockets. He looked at the man in front of him, taking in his rotundness. A sign of a self-satisfied man. Good for him. He had earned it. “Root.”
“Shall I call him?”
Imli smiled. Root smiled back. Imli’s smile widened. He patted Root’s cheek with a sticky hand, put that hand back in his pocket, and walked away. His elbows swung freely with each step. He heard Root shuffle after him and continued on, occasionally looking up at the empty, blue sky.
“Oi! Oi Imli!” Root huffed for a few steps before giving up. He made a derisive waving-away gesture at Imli’s back then crossed the street to resume his walk. It’d take him a few days or weeks but he’d find a new man in the city that he could put in a good word for on behalf of Imli.
Imli stopped, craning his neck to look up at the empty, blue sky. A moment earlier, a three-headed dragon had streaked past. The sun wasn’t in his eyes so Imli didn’t mind staring at the sky, wondering what errand the dragon had been on. Likely something important, judging by its speed. Imli sniffed.
“What are you looking at, Imli?” Noona asked, halting her run to jog in place instead. She joined him in staring at the sky. “Dragon?”
“Interesting.” Noona clapped his back and resumed her run. She saw plenty of dragons at work.
“What’d you see, Imli?” The twin voices of Oomi and Toomi called up at him from his waist.
Imli didn’t look down but he patted the younger one, Toomi, on the head. “Dragon.”
“Whoa!” Oomi and Toomi stared at the sky. It was as dry as the air they were breathing. Behind the trio, a merchant pushed his cart while yelling about whatever nonsense he was selling that everyone needed to buy. “I don’t see a dragon!” The siblings said as one.
“Had three heads.”
The three kept staring. A little while later, a man joined them. After he asked what they were looking at, and the siblings informed him, the man stayed. Another came. She too was informed. She too stayed. Imli, however, wandered away to squat under the shade of a tree. He watched, another plum in his hands and on his face, as the group grew into a crowd. It happened faster than it took for him to finish the plum. It wasn’t as sweet as the first one, but still refreshing. If it wasn’t sticky Imli would enjoy it more, but he accepted it as the price for a good plum. Imli used his fingers to dig a hole in the dirt, scraping away until it was no longer dry and he reached a level where trace bits of water was still retained, making the dirt cool to touch. Imli placed the plum pit in the hole, looking at the flesh still on it. He shrugged and covered the pit.
Imli stood, stretched, breathed deeply, and put his hands in his pockets. He began walking again, elbows swinging with each step. He gave the sky a glance.