He taught me how to read people’s eyes. To realize that things aren’t always what they seem.
Before the Great Disaster, I was naïve, like so many of our young people. I never doubted for a second what the adults said, never questioned them.
But now I know better.
Now I know that, whether to protect oneself or to protect others, people lie all the time.
Melis taught me that.
In those early days, when the ground had just stopped shaking and the volcanic dust had settled, when the winds were finally calm, the rains had stopped and the waters had receded, it was every man for himself. Society hadn’t yet reorganized into a structure, no government had risen from the ashes; the world hung tentatively in an isolated and exhausted peace.
I first noticed him as I crouched on the cool, grey concrete under an equally grey sky. I had my eye on a pigeon. I was thinking that they used to be considered a delicacy in Paris, back when that meant something. It didn’t really matter anymore, though. I was just hungry.
As I crouched in that new landscape – a palate of greys – a movement caught my attention. The pigeon took flight in a jarring flapping of wings.
It was gone, but he was there: Melis.
Without even thinking that I should be cautious, I offered him my hand and introduced myself, “I’m Dylan.”
“You shouldn’t just trust me like this,” he said after a while, as we scavenged for food together. But he didn’t leave my side and I didn’t ask him to.
Why did I trust him? Was it because he was young, like me? Because I was lonely and he was the first person I had seen in days? Was it his soft cheeks and his warm, brown eyes? Maybe. But mostly I think it was because I had never not trusted people.
As we roamed the cityscapes he tried to teach me how to survive.
“What did your parents tell you about the war?” he asked.
“War? You mean the battles in Europe?”
He snorted. “Battles? We were about to go to war; all of us. The War to End All Wars. Didn’t they tell you? Didn’t you read about it, hear about it?”
“My parents always said the media wasn’t to be trusted.”
“Yeah? And do you remember how they acted when they were telling you this?”
But I didn’t; back then I hadn’t had cause to doubt them, to watch their shifting eyes, their tension.
“Well, if the Earth hadn’t choked, we would have all been killed in the war. Even you and me. You’d better learn to question, to doubt.”
When I looked confused, he continued, “If you can’t do anything else, watch their eyes. The eyes are the windows to the soul, and they do funny things when a person lies.”
With so few people around, the lesson remained abstract, until one day we happened upon a woman.
She seemed hungry, lonely, weak. She smiled wanly as I broke off a piece of stale bread I had found and handed it to her. Melis hung back as she and I talked but when she moved, quick as lightening, to grab my wrist and drag me to the ground, he was there, moving faster than she did, to stop her.
“You have to stop trusting,” he repeated as we walked away. I had no reply. My body was still shaking. “Did you see the greed in her eyes? Always watch the eyes.”
“I don’t know what you mean. Her eyes looked normal to me.”
Over time I would learn.
It’s funny, though. With all he tried to teach me, it never once occurred to me to try it on him.
We roamed the grey world together, sometimes meeting no one for days. Among the few we did meet, many of them seemed genuinely happy to greet Melis. Their tired eyes brightened and twinkled when he spoke to them.
I never thought anything of it.
I still can’t figure out when he would have passed them the message.
But one morning we woke in the concrete-grey ruins of what had once been apartments, woke to find a gathering outside, chanting, “Melisizwe, Leader of the Nation, we will fight for you. Lead us to the battle.”
I looked at him then as if seeing him for the first time. Finally, I understood his lesson. In his eyes, I saw the truth.
In that instant, I joined a rebellion I hadn’t even realized existed.
I like to find fitting, meaningful names for my characters, partly because I find etymology and the evolution of language so fascinating. I was thrilled, then, to discover quite by accident that while Melisizwe is Xhosa (both a language and an ethnic group living in South Africa) for “Leader of the Nation,” Mael is Breton (an ancient branch of the Celtic language) for “Chief.” These lands are so far apart, I’m not sure if there is any connection but I can’t help but hope there is!
I have now written a continuation of this story. If interested, you can read it here.