By the time you are down to your last Moon, you will have gone through the numbness and pain and disbelief and, even if you still want to deny it to yourself, in your heart, you'll have understood the insanity that is Driftwood: the place where worlds come to die. Shreds of worlds, broken pieces left over from their own apocalypses, pushing against each other, forever crumbling at the edges, breaking apart a little more each day until they disappear into the Crush at the centre of Driftwood. By the time even your last Moon is gone, there's nothing left but a few houses floating on a stretch of sea so small that the people from the other shreds of worlds around you call it nothing more than a puddle. By that time, you will have watched nearby worlds disappear into the Crush, you will have seen how their inhabitants vanish when the last piece of their home-world is gone, even if they've run over ten shreds away, looking for safe ground that wouldn't crumble under their feet, and you will have understood that there is nothing more precious, more important, than the preservation of your own world. By the time your garden wall crumbles into the Crush, you'll be clinging to everything that's left of your world: your customs, your religion, your stories of the Seven Moons, histories of the great galaxies that once formed your world, and the purity of your race. And you will forbid your children from mingling with other-worlders and mixed breeds, out of fear that in learning their ways, their language and their customs, they will forget their own and lose the little that is left of their world.
But it is an impossible task to keep a curious little boy from seeing other worlds, and even locking him in his room will do you no good once his bedroom walls crumble at the edge of your ever-shrinking world and suddenly his view opens up on three sides to three different worlds. You can pretend your world is still there, as you know it to be, and you can pretend that you're grounding him for speaking to those kids from the Shred across the street, but as soon as you lock the door on the outside, he'll be out on an adventure in the Shred to the right, or perhaps the Shred to the left, or perhaps the Shred that's right across from the door, on the other side of his bed. That's what happened to one particular little boy.
Perhaps it's because the world he'd been confined to all his life was so small, or perhaps it was just in his nature to be so eager to learn, perhaps he had a natural gift for it or perhaps he just had too much time and too little to fill it with, but he could soon speak the languages of the neighbouring worlds, and then those of the worlds beyond them. It wasn't just languages: his mind soaked up everything like a sponge: the stories and histories, the customs and traditions, the way people walked, greeted each other, ate their food and drank their strange drinks. Sometimes it seemed he absorbed even their feelings and their thoughts.
He was still but a boy when he walked into Valmoor for the first time, peering shyly from behind the trees that grew beyond the border, in the shard to the east. Valmoor was still a good distance from the Crush then, still large enough to hold a whole village, with rich crops of dewberries growing in each garden, enough to feed as many as ten children. And Elshinor, already old by Valmoorish years, was alone and childless.
The Valmoorns didn't speak to other worlds, and strangers were dissuaded, in more or less peaceful ways, from venturing into their sunny village and mingling, contaminating the local customs with their own. But the boy was so small, and harmless, and so eager to learn. The Valmoorns didn't like it, of course. Many protested when Elshinor took him in. But she was determined no harm was to come to him, and the neighbours reluctantly kept their distance.
Elshinor knew he had a family, real parents of his own kind in his own world, but she was determined to raise him as her own child while he was in Valmoor. Days were never the same length in other worlds, and so he'd be here for over a Valmoorian week each time before he'd need to go home for dinner so his real parents wouldn't notice he was gone. Then, he'd be gone for two weeks at a time, and Elshinor would miss him and hope, as any caring mother would, that he was eating well and getting enough sleep. He never slept when he was in Valmoor. His internal clock was set to the way time worked in his own world, and so the intervals at which he needed rest were different, as was the speed at which he was ageing. He'd hardly grown at all when Elshinor was already an old woman. But, little as he'd grown, he'd grown into a fine Valmoorn. He spoke the language as well as any other young man born and raised in her village. While an other-worlder coming from the desert world to the north might have learned the root of the word for water and might have, at most, said in truncated words and a bad accent that he needed water, the boy would always say in perfect words and perfect obedience to the old ways, that "he'd be thankful to the mercy of the gods for any form of drink they might bestow on him." And when the elders marvelled at his understanding of their language, he would merely say that to learn a language was the same as to learn of the people who used it. In private, to Elshinor alone, he'd say that learning words could never be enough if one wanted to learn how to speak.
"There are worlds where they have notions no words here could translate, for there is no such thing in this world," he'd say, in the warm, affectionate declinations that he only used with her. "And there are things here that do not exist in other worlds, that words alone cannot explain to the people from any other place. And do you know that people say such different things, they think different things for the same occasion? When one leaves for a journey, for instance, the people of Miorae say "May the gods watch your every step," for their gods are of the kind to help and protect their people, while the people of Muncimore say "May the gods look away from you," for their gods are cruel and only play tricks on the people who come into their sight. To translate the words of one people to the other would be the same as to set them to war with each other, but to convey their heart, the meaning behind these words, one needs to understand both worlds, to know the people and their worlds themselves, as if you were part of them."
And, indeed, Elshinor always felt that the boy, in spite of the strange colour of his skin and the slow pace at which he aged, was part of her world, part of Valmoor, as much as any pure-blood Varmoorn.
He did not stay in Valmoor for long though, not long enough for her to be happy. He would often go to the worlds beyond, learning new languages and new customs, and bringing back strange foods and powerful medicine for which he paid with pebbles, weeds and pests that had no value here, in Valmoor, but which he always seemed to find eager buyers for in other worlds.
"One world's trash is another world's treasure," he'd often say when she scolded him for spending too much on the gifts he brought back for her.
There was a good deal of trading, he explained, which could be done with garbage alone, with things the people of one world didn't want, yet those of another world badly needed. And then there were the things all worlds grew to need: building materials, food and fuel, things they all ran out of once they'd been reduced to a mere Shred, a small ghetto about to be plunged into the Crush. To get these, one needed to go out into the newer worlds that had not been in Driftwood for so long, the newly-arrived ones that were still large enough to be worlds in their own right, large enough that they'd lack nothing. And then one would need to learn their language and their customs so one can trade with them. The boy was no trader. He lacked the patience for following the same trade routes year after year, and, while he was quick to spot opportunities for barter, he lacked a real interest in money. As much as he talked of trading, Elshinor could see that what he really wanted, the magical lure that attracted him further and further away from her, were the worlds themselves, the wealth of languages and cultures, the vast diversity of people and customs and plants and creatures that he'd find in them. She could see it in him: he could have become one of the great Valmoorian explorers, if Valmoor had had any place left to be explored. But Valmoor was only a hamlet now, not a stone of it unknown, uncharted. Driftwood, however, this world of broken worlds, still had plenty of places to explore.
It wasn't long, even in Valmoorian years, before Elshinor barely got to see her boy, as he passed through Valmoor on his way to other worlds, and then back, on his way to his other home. But Valmoorian mothers were used to seeing their children only rarely in old age, and so she didn't mind and found that he, of all the boys in her village, was the one closest to the old ways, while other grown Valmoorns now still lived with their parents, against tradition, cramped together by their ever-shrinking world. And even when he brought her the potion that would slow her ageing, and even when she'd lived to see four generations reach their end, she still felt more like the true Valmoorns than the new kids around her, and saw in him the perfect dutiful Valmoornian son.
She only remembered his home-world when he was a grown man, and only because they had reached the Crush. He spoke confidently to her of the measures his people were taking, carrying with them parts of their world, pieces of the soil that still remained, as they ran away from it, to keep a part of it from going into the Crush, from disappearing entirely. He knew, of course, that once a world disappeared, its people disappeared too, no matter where they were. And she knew it too, she knew it from him. But as he strived to seem confident when he spoke to her of it, so did she, and she often told him reassuringly that he could come to stay with her forever, that this was his new home now, that this could be his world from now on. And, indeed, even the Elders, the new Elders who'd known him since they were children and had been raised by their mothers with entreaties to be more like him, even the Elders now thought of Elshinor's boy as part of Valmoor, as a true Valmoorn, albeit one of blue skin.
***The plan did not work. When the last shred of the old world disappeared into the crush, so did its people, no matter how far they'd gone from it. The only ones left were those of mixed blood, mongrel children of the Shreds, who had never fully belonged to any one world. And when Elshinor's boy didn't disappear, she thought he was one of them, one with a drop of otherworldly blood mixed secretly in his veins. It took many more years before she realised a part of him had indeed disappeared with his old world.
He'd made Valmoor his home, his "new world", though it had been his world long before he'd called it that. It felt like he'd always lived like that, and only Elshinor knew that he pined for his old world. Sometimes, when he thought she wasn't there, he'd stare away, toward the Crush, and weep. Sometimes, at night, she heard him whisper strange words and names. Once, only once, he'd asked her, "Why am I still alive, Mother? Why am I the only one left?"
She said, "I cannot tell you," and he didn't ask anymore. But, as Valmoor got ever closer to the Crush, she began to urge him to travel to other worlds, distant worlds near the edge, worlds that still had a long time left before they'd be gone.
He was reluctant at first, and when he left he seemed to be doing it only for her sake, to look for food and clothes and things that Valmoor had run out of and would never have again. But she knew him well, and when a year had passed and he hadn't returned, she didn't worry. She had faith that he'd be all right, that he'd merely lost track of time, of Valmoorian time, mesmerised by the wealth of knowledge he'd found in a new culture, a new world.
And, indeed, he did return unharmed, many years later, when the last pieces of Valmoor were standing on the edge of the Crush. He spoke of the new worlds he'd seen, of their language and customs, and of a girl he'd met there, in a world where he felt particularly at home. He spoke of her in veiled words that implied their relationship was such as no Valmoorn would approve of, and Elshinor was glad, in her heart, that he wasn't a Valmoorn anymore. He'd become part of that girl's world now, more than he was part of her world. And she felt happy, for Valmoor was coming to its end and she would not have him end with her world though she was sure to end with it herself.
She had told him she couldn't tell him why he'd survived, why he was still here, the last of his kind. But she knew, or, at least, she had her theories. One thing was certain: a part of him had been lost together with his world. She'd always suspected it, but she could see it clearly now, after all these years. He hadn't aged at all since that day, as if his body were still linked to a sense of time that no longer existed. Time no longer flowed in his world, for there was no world left, and so time no longer flowed for him. If he was still here, it wasn't because he had mixed blood, or else time would not have stopped for him. But when his world had ended, her boy was already part of one more world. He never merely learned words and customs, he learned how to think and feel like the people of each new world, and, whether he realised it or not, he became part of that world just as the world, its language, its customs, became part of him. There was no doubt in Elshinor's mind that he survived because not all his worlds had perished, and that when Valmoor was gone, he'd survive as part of yet another world, and another after that. She could not tell him, of course. She feared the process would no longer work if he became aware of it, or that one day he'd try to end his life and stop seeking new worlds to become part of, resigning himself to disappearing with his last home-world.
It was only when the last pieces of Valmoor were vanishing into the Crush and she felt herself vanishing with them, that she realised this perpetual change, this eternal absorbing of new worlds, was the nature of Driftwood itself and that, in a strange, twisted way, Driftwood could be called a world in its own right. It was then that the thought came to her, though it might have been just a delusion, that the boy's new world was not Valmoor and not the world of the girl he'd spoken of, that his new world was Driftwood itself, and as long as Driftwood would continue to exist, he would live on, and with him, in his heart, a part of Valmoor and a part of herself would also live forever.