Essun wakes up and starts walking again, this time with the strange child Hoa accompanying her. She tries to ask him about himself, but he is very reluctant to give any answers and doesn’t seem to have a comm, parents, or a use-caste name. Essun assumes that he is lying, but he also seems too young to be lying so effectively. Thinking about him briefly makes her remember Uche, and she purposefully has to steer her thoughts away from her dead son.
Essun is distracted from Hoa’s strangeness by thoughts of her own son, whom she is still purposefully trying to avoid dwelling on. Hoa’s lack of a use-caste and comm name again marks him as someone foreign to the usual Stillness way of life.
Essun continues to examine Hoa and try to figure him out. He is very small, but he acts like he’s about ten years old. He is naked underneath his layer of filth, and he has “icewhite” eyes that make him look somewhat inhuman. He’s also strangely upbeat and innocent about everything, and he smiles openly at Essun when he first sees her in the morning. This is what has made Essun decide to keep him around, at least for a little while. When they pack up to leave, he carries only a mysterious bundle of rags clutched to his chest.
Hoa has “icewhite” eyes like Schaffa, connecting their characters in their alienness and mystery, but Hoa acts like a real child and seems to genuinely like Essun. The bundle of rags that he’s carrying might be the crystals from inside the geode where Hoa first emerged.
Essun and Hoa pass by a few travelers on the Imperial Road, and ash is now falling from the sky, though in large enough flakes that masks aren’t required to filter it out. Starting to feel ashamed of Hoa’s nakedness and filth, Essun decides to find a creek and clean him off, then hopefully drop him off at a comm on the way to the salt plains, where she thinks Jija might have stopped. They leave the road and head toward a creek, and at one point Hoa falls and rolls down a rocky slope. Essun offers to help him up, but he uneasily avoids her hand and hurries to collect his dropped bundle of rags.
The ash constantly falling from the sky adds to the sense of apocalyptic doom, as a new Fifth Season has begun, and everyone is trying to find safety as quickly as possible. In such an environment, extreme actions are possible, and violence is more easily justified. Meanwhile, Hoa’s seeming immunity to the fall he suffers and reluctance to let Essun touch him should be suspicious to her, but she still has other things on her mind.
Hoa realizes that Essun wants him to wash himself, and he seems confused until she sarcastically shows him how to use soap. He wades into the creek and cleans himself as Essun keeps watch and looks for an extra shirt that he can wear. When Hoa emerges from the water, she is shocked once again. His hair is long and of the coarse “ashblow” texture that the Sanzed prize. But it is pure white, just like his skin—whiter than anyone Essun has ever seen. His features also seem entirely foreign, lacking any Sanzed characteristics—even though Essun knows that “every race in the world these days is part Sanzed,” whether voluntarily or not. “Everyone is measured by their standard deviations from the Sanzed mean,” but this boy’s people must have somehow avoided this fate.
This passage reveals more about the way racial hierarchies work in the Stillness. The ruling race of the Sanzed judges everyone else according to their own characteristic traits—and during their time as conquerors, they forcefully spread their genes around the continent by committing rape and genocide. Despite this cruel history, it is considered normal for everyone to elevate Sanzed traits above others in terms of desirability and attractiveness—an echo of how racism and colorism work in the real world. The fact that Hoa seems to have zero Sanzed ancestry, however, marks him as someone wholly alien or perhaps older than Sanze itself.
Still in shaken by Hoa’s appearance, Essun curses and then is even more surprised when Hoa smiles and says that she’s “weird.” She helps him get dressed, but this action makes her think of Uche, and she has to go away by herself for a while to recover. When she returns, Hoa acts like nothing strange has happened, which Essun appreciates. They keep walking together, and Hoa doesn’t complain despite still being barefoot.
Essun continues dealing with the trauma of Uche’s death in the only way that she can think to, which is generally to keep it to herself and try to maintain control of her emotions and thoughts. Hoa again shows his strangeness by not seeming to notice the pain of walking barefoot for miles on a hard road.
At one of their rest breaks, Essun tries to tell Hoa that he can’t stay with her, and that she’ll try to find a comm for him on the way. Almost offhandedly, he comments that Essun is looking for her daughter, which makes her freeze up and ask him how he knows that. Hoa says he’s not sure that it’s her daughter that he can sense, but there are a “bunch of you” in the direction he’s going. Essun knows that what he’s saying is unbelievable, but she fixates on the fact that Hoa seems to know where Nassun is.
Hoa continues to say and do strange things, but Essun chooses to look beyond them and instead focus on the only thing giving her life purpose right now: finding Nassun. The fact that Hoa can seemingly sense orogenes again speaks to his alien nature, but it also suggests that he might have purposefully found Essun—perhaps to lead her to her daughter as Essun hopes, or perhaps for some other reason.
Essun asks Hoa how he knows these things, and he just shrugs and says that it’s something he’s always been able to do. Essun can tell that he’s not an orogene—and even orogenes can’t sense each other’s presence from far away, like he seems to be doing—but she decides to trust him. He might be strange, unsettling, or even crazy, but she is willing to go along if he can really lead her to Nassun. Preparing to walk again, Essun offers Hoa some food, but he says that he doesn’t eat very much. The two break camp and continue heading south.
Hoa tries to keep his power and identity mysterious, and Essun is willing to let this go as long as he can take her to Nassun. This is part of her attempt to maintain her humanity and identity as Nassun’s mother, the only thing keeping her going in this apocalyptic landscape and after the personal catastrophe that she has endured.
This chapter ends with a quotation from a “Lorist recitation” about the “age before the Seasons, when life and Earth, its father, thrived alike. (Life had a mother, too. Something terrible happened to Her.)” Father Earth created clever human beings, but soon they turned against him, and he has hated them ever since.
This myth is increasingly built out throughout the Broken Earth trilogy, but it shows the basis of much of stonelore and the worldview of people in the Stillness. In essence, the myth holds that Earth itself hates humanity because of something terrible that ancient people did, and this is why the planet punishes humans with Fifth Seasons.