Yellow and orange sparks hissed, burning the coiled fuse Bo lit. In thirty seconds the rocket would ascend to the stars above, explode, and signal to the gods to heed their call. He hoped the fuse was long enough for him to rejoin Mai and Kan kneeling on the prayer rug at the edge of the dune. And he prayed the burst would be seen. The village depended on it.
Bo beat his bare feet on the sand, looking over his shoulder at the rocket. Mai and Kan held their arms out, ready to catch him. He slid short of the rug and kicked up sand.
Mai balked in a shrill voice, batting away the sand, “Don’t dirty the rug, idiot.”
“Quiet!” Kan pulled at Bo and pushed at Mai. “It’s about to—.”
The rocket erupted with a white tail and arced steeply to the moonless sky above.
All three teenagers followed the ascent, raising their necks, holding their breath, eyes wide. They had packed the tube full of blessed minerals and powders they had stolen from the village doctor. Bo had pages of his book listing the words they needed to chant in hymns of a language they did not speak. Their village needed help, a reprieve from the lack of food the sea provided them in recent months.
They lost the tail of the rocket, and it boomed, casting a bloom of crackling, fluttering petals in shades of rubies, emeralds and sapphires. The petals rained down over the ocean, lighting the shoals as they fell.
“It worked!” Kan jumped up and raised his fists in the air. “Our letters will be heard!”
“Maybe, not yet,” Bo said, muted, still tracking the rocket’s fall out.
“When will we know?” Mai asked.
“The book said when the ashes land in the sea and then they will walk ashore,” Bo said.
The flickering embers of the rocket continued to fall, bright and soft, lasting much longer than the fireworks they shot off during the new year. As they landed in the water, the embers stayed lit, floating like leaves on the water, but luminescent. Each color pooled, growing brighter and brighter, and each teenager needed to squint as they looked to the sea. The waves had ceased lapping the beach, and the salty air stood still around them.
An explosion of murky red cracked the silence, sending a fountain of water in the air. A blue and green eruption followed and they each stood with their mouths wide open.
“I think it’s working,” Kan whispered. “They’ll come now.”
“And we can ask them to provide for our people,” Mai said.
The foam of the water’s surface dissolved, the red, blue and green fading to the waters black.
A huff and a gasp of someone in a hurry encroached their prayer rug on the dune. The old mystic’s head appeared as he climbed over, his fists clutching sand and his face mixed with exhaustion and anger. “Foolish, foolish children,” he said.
Bo, Mai, and Kan turned, surprised to see the man rushing down towards them.
“Mr. Tran—.” Bo said.
“—We were—.” Bo continued, but Mr. Tran strode between he and Mai without looking them in the eye.
“I do not care for your intentions,” Mr. Tran said quick and harsh. He marched, shoulders forward to the water’s edge and stopped, planting his feet in the wet sand. The waves had not resumed their approach to the shore.
Three dark figures broke the water’s surface one by one. Each cut through the water with a distinct motion, and their figures became more discernible as they approached. The bulbous head of an octopus bobbed up and down while its arms propelled it forward. In the middle of the three, a turtle whose shell was larger than a house, glided along with the glint of his eyes focused on Mr. Tran. Farthest away, due to its zigging and zagging, a shark fin sliced through the water.
“What… what, are those the gods?” Bo said, his hands covering his mouth.
“We should go to Mr. Tran,” Mai said.
As if he had heard, Mr. Tran held his arm back to signal stop.
“But we called them,” she said.
Mr. Tran turned at his waist and mouth, “No.”
He turned back to the gods who stood before him. The shark floated in place, and the turtle’s wrinkled head rose above the surface, but the octopus towered taller than their temple’s spire. He began to speak in a language they’d never heard. His vowels were short, and his tongue clicked, and he gestured emphatically with his arms, pointing to the village and to the teenagers. He finished and bowed his head.
The octopus swung an arm across the water and pulled it back across, sending a wall of water over Mr. Tran’s head. It soaked him, but he remained still, holding his head in reverence. The gods slowly pivoted and receded to the sea, their figures dissolving below the surface.
Mr. Tran walked back to the dune, his body relaxed, but his face weary with a blank expression. “You three were lucky. Spared.”
“We—” Kan said.
Mr. Tran gripped Kan’s shoulder, “Almost started a war.”
“War?” Bo asked, the word surprised him.
“Against who, I do not know. You summoned them, that flare, was a war cry. And they would have taken each of you as a host to walk on the land.” He paused. “When they were done with your bodies, you would be as hollow as an empty conch.”
“Our village though, we need food,” Bo said protesting.
“We have enough, not plenty, but enough,” Mr. Tran replied. “We only summon the gods when it is absolutely necessary, and when we can sacrifice in kind.” He paused and looked at each of them. “It is not time for a sacrifice.”