The men burned all the boats, so it is impossible to leave the island now. Everyone cheered when the pyres were lit. The dancing went on for three days, as if for a wedding. The men chanted, We are fearless! Let our enemies attack us now. We will slaughter them, and take their boats as war prizes. And if the sea folk come against us, we will crush them, too. Our magic is so strong we will pursue those cold ones under the waves, torches blazing. We will burn out their black eyes, tear their silver flesh to strips, and lick up their pale blood. We are mighty. We are invincible.
The men were quite drunk.
Several days after this feast to end all feastings, three old women were discovered building a raft. They’d hidden it in the dunes on the westernmost spit of the island, where the netfishers never go. They had filched some lengths of unburned wood, and were attempting to lash these together with woven-grass ropes. Foolish. They should have saved the wood to cook with. That would have been of more use.
You can see that there are no old women on the island now. The chiefs decided they could not be trusted. And without the old women, of course, there is more food for the rest.
“Who is that, then, lying in the hut?”
My grandmother. She is dead. Who is that great hulking boy sitting in the dust?
You seem young to have a son so big.
“Yes, he was born when I myself was a youth.”
Where is his mother?
“She went to become an ancestor many years ago. I take care of the boy. How long has your grandmother been dead?”
Five days. She died in her sleep. She was very old, and did not eat much anyway. The chiefs would have taken her with the rest, but she cheated them. She always was a tricky one. I see by the bracelets on your arms and the scars on your chin that you come from the mountains. Don’t let the chiefs see your big son. They allot no rations to the useless. And I do not imagine that great lump, who doesn’t talk and barely blinks, can fight. Does he have the wit to lift stones and set them down? They are building forts along the coast. Perhaps if you go there, they will feed you if you work. But you should have stayed in the mountains.
“It hasn’t rained for four months, in the highlands. There is no water. No food.”
It is the same here, friend. Food is for warriors and workers. Drink is for the chiefs. The rest of us make do with rainwater and leaves.
“At least it does rain here. And you can fish.”
The fishers work for the chiefs. The chiefs control the food. You should have remained where you were.
“No one is left. The mountain villages are deserted.”
You have come a long way to die.
“Not to die, I hope.”
Hopes are burdens. When our enemies come, the warriors will die first, then the other men, and then the children, and the women. Once we were free people, until the big men fought and killed each other to become chiefs. My grandmother remembered those times, though she was a small girl then. Now there are four free men, and the rest are slaves. And all of us will die. Take your idiot son and become ancestors at home.
“You say your grandmother has been dead for five days. And yet she looks like a woman in sleep. Her belly has not swollen. Her eyes have not sunken. Her skin is intact, and not discolored. If I touched her, would she feel warm?”
We rot slowly, here in the lowlands. Perhaps it is different in the mountains. They say your soil there is gray and there is no sweetness in it. They say you sleep naked, piled on each other like dogs. When my grandmother was young, there were still dogs. I’ve never seen one. Do you have dogs in the mountains?
“No. We ate all our dogs long ago. Your grandmother looks very peaceful. I almost thought I saw her breathing, just then.”
She died five days ago. Fate was kind to her.
Fate. Chance. Luck. I am happy I did not have to see her throat cut, her body flayed and her flesh spread out on the drying racks, then stored in baskets to feed the chiefs’ wives.
“Is that why you are sitting here outside the hut, to protect her?”
No. I sit here because there is nothing else to do. Should I join the slaves on the shore, building fortifications? Should I wander to the mountains, and chew leaves that are more bitter than our own? Or perhaps I should throw myself into the waves, and let the sea folk take me. That would be a swifter end than our enemies will grant.
All enemies. Every enemy. Are you so ignorant, up there in the highlands, that you do not know that our enemies surround us? They may come from the south, the west, the east, the north, and every point between. The only question is who will attack first. Like the chiefs who contended for the honor of casting the first lit brand onto a pyre, our enemies wrestle for the glory of striking the first blow. And then all will descend, in their high-prowed ships and their war canoes, and the island swept clean. Perhaps the sea folk will come, too. Who knows.
“And the sky folk? And the little men who live under the ground?”
“Why have the chiefs left you in peace? As you say, all who are yet living are laboring on the coasts. Do they fear you?”
Don’t be stupid. They have simply not noticed. Perhaps the stench of my grandmother’s corpse has kept the inquisitive away. The people are hungry, but not yet so starved that they will consume putrid flesh.
“There is no stench. There is no decay.”
The senses of mountain folk are blunt. Yet you must have some talents, hidden to sight. A talent for hiding in plain sight? For you and your great hulking boy also seem to have escaped the notice of ten hundred eyes.
“Ten hundred? Are there yet so many?”
Still so many. Too many. The rains do not come. The crops do not grow. The animals have all been eaten. The fish go to the chiefs. They say the ancestors are angry, and that is why they do not help us now. I think the truth is that they are too sad. They grieve for what we have done and what we have become, and have given up hope we will ever learn wisdom.
“Then we must hope for ourselves.”
Stranger, you weary me. What do you want? Go pester someone else. I am busy mourning my grandmother, and my people, and my island.
“There is no one else. As you said, they are all occupied building fortifications. And I doubt many would be as friendly as you have been. I do thank you for your courtesy. As for what I want, a cup of water will do.”
There is no water. Look around you. All is dust.
“I see a cup, there. And there, a bowl. There, a pot.”
All empty. It has rained here a little, but not enough. I’m sorry. I drank the last of the water this morning. Look, if you don’t believe me. When my grandmother died, I could not even wash her body. Once there was a stream than ran from the mountains almost all the way down to this village. Did you know that? It dried up in my grandmother’s mother’s time.
“I know. We walked its bed, my son and I.”
You should have left him behind. He is useless.
“He is my responsibility. I ask you again, in the name of hospitality, for a cup of water.”
Stranger, until this moment I thought you odd, but not an idiot. Now I see you are merely an idiot who can speak, whereas your son is the more ordinary kind, who cannot. Go ahead, take the cup. You may have it, as a gift.
It was days and days ago, but you can still smell the smoke in the air, when the wind is right. From when they destroyed the boats. All right, there aren’t any flies on my grandmother. Nor worms, nor beetles. What of it? They have all died, too. Why are you putting the cup in my hand? There is nothing in it but dust.
“Look at my son.”
Yes? I see him. He is staring at his toes. He, too, is nothing but dust.
“And the flies, and the beetles, do you see them?”
Ah, well, then I was mistaken. They have not all died yet. Did you bring them with you from the mountains? The last survivors of their kind? Perhaps you thought you could save them. You must have thought you could save yourself, or else why take on the pain of the journey?
“We must leave the island. Enemies may come, or they may not. If they do not, the chiefs will fall to fighting among themselves, as they always have, but this time they will not leave a single stalk standing. And the people will obey them. I think everyone has gone mad.”
We have all been mad for some time, friend. And so are you mad. The boats are burned. Do you plan to swim? A strong swimmer might reach Crab Rock in…four days? I’m sorry for laughing. But that is a deed for a hero of the dark-of-the-moon-time tales. Your son would drown. Even if you lashed him to you, and pulled him like a sledge. Do you remember sledges? We used to make them, when we had more wood. More trees. We burned those too, long ago. For cooking fires. And now, for cooking fires, there is only grass, and our own dung.
“I am very thirsty.”
Of course there is nothing to cook. So why should we need cooking fires? Once the soil here was sweet. It tasted like fruit. Now all has gone to ashes.
The men will never let us leave. They are guarding the shore.
“I have walked every thumb-length of this island, and no one has seen me. I can get us past the men guarding the shore. But we need a boat. May I have the water now? I truly am thirsty.”
You disquiet my heart. How did you know? We have always concealed this, my grandmother and I. Not even my parents suspected. Wait. I am about to violate the laws of hospitality again. I am thirsty, as well. Let me drink this water. I can fill the cup again.
Yes. That is true. But how did you know?
“The talented tend to recognize each other – have you not found that to be so? How are you with food?”
I’ve never met anyone truly talented. Other than grandmother. Seers, yes, and those who played with shadows, but none like me. Food. No. Sorry. I’m useless there. Here is your water. I hope it is not too bitter.
“It is sweet. I thank you. And now a cupful for my son?”
Yes, of course.
“My son can make food. He needs to be urged, cajoled. Occasionally he forgets what he’s doing, and has to start again. It’s an effort for him, you understand. But I can handle the boy. We won’t starve. Crab Rock, yes. Perhaps we can make a home there. If not, we will move on. And we will sail.”
“On the only thing we can.”
Pardon my silence. I must think. But I do not want to think about this.
“I will carry her. You must lead my son. You will have to hold his hand. Do you fear him?”
“Then why are you crying?”
Surely I have the right to grieve.
“Let’s go. We must hurry to catch the tide.”
The three of us.
“The four of us.”
Still. To abandon…
“Can we save them? Can your grandmother stretch so far? And if she could, would they come? I have walked this island, every piece of it. I have not told you a single lie. The people are lost. Slaves, as you said. And the most rigorously bound are the chiefs themselves. Come. If you refuse, I will have to go alone. You were right. I can’t tow my son behind me. Alone, he will starve, for he forgets to shape food, unless I urge him. I promised I would care for him. Do not make me betray him, and myself.”
We could all stay here.
“You have sat five days, waiting.”
I have sat mourning.
“Waiting. You dreamed my coming.”
I never remember my dreams. Can’t you taste the ashes in the air? Our world is dead.
“But we are not. Stand up. Wipe your eyes, and take my son’s hand. I will carry your grandmother. We will slip past the men on the shore, and sail.”
“We will be away from here.”
Yes. That is all. We exchange one confinement for another. It is better to die at home.
“Is this home any longer?”
It is the only one I have ever known. Please. I need time to think.
“There is no more time. Come. Don’t make me go alone.”
To travel alone is a heavy thing. But hope is even heavier. So we are to flee, abandoning all, even farewells? Perhaps once we reach Crab Rock, I will be able to stop crying.
Perhaps not even after. There is no sweetness in the soil there.
“There was none in the soil here, when our foreparents arrived. They planted it there, tended it, made it flourish. We can do it again.”
The three of us.
“The four of us.”
You have a great deal of faith in my dead grandmother. But no, you are right. If you had not found us, perhaps I would have gone in search of you. For we are mad, and the mad recognize each other, do they not? I have a request.
As we go, let us not forsake the farewells. We can still say good-bye as we walk, and as we work, and as we sail.
Do not be disturbed if my grandmother should open her eyes, or start to laugh. She always had a peculiar sense of humor.
You could have controlled yourself a few moments longer.
“You did say she was a tricky one.”
And so we go, one mute, one weeping, one giggling, and one…?
And that is the worst of all. How can you stand it?
“It is either hope, or die. Beware. I am told that hope is a condition that spreads from one to another, just like the spring cough.”
But much more painful. Lead on, you and your hopefulness. Don’t you realize we walk toward fresh pain? I promise you, before the new moon, you will long for the old, familiar pain. Lead on. But do not forget my request. With each step, let us remember to make our farewells.
“All three of us?”
And now you’re smiling, too? And your son as well. I am the only one not smiling, but what does it matter. All four. All four, as you knew from the start. So let us go, and catch the tide. Four fools, fleeing an island of the mad. Grandmother, are you prepared to be a boat?
“What did she say?”
She said, Better a boat than flayed bones on the shore.
“I like your grandmother. She has spirit.”
She is a contrary old woman who made my life a misery, and won’t stop even yet. But yes, spirit she has in plenty.
“Are you ready?”
No. But lead on. Though I think I might prefer to be flayed bones on the shore, I will follow you.
“You won’t regret it. Take my son’s hand.”
I will regret it. And you, bear my grandmother gently.
“Have no fear.”
I have nothing but fear.
Time passes in a way it never has before. We are still before my grandmother’s hut, and yet we are walking down to the shore, my hand in highland man’s soft son’s cold hand, my grandmother laughing in the highland man’s arms. The sun has moved, and yet it stands still. The slaves are working, building fortifications of sand. The chief’s men eat fish; their faces shine with grease. They shout and play a game with pebbles. Sometimes they shout at the slaves, or lash them with whips of braided skin. No one sees us; we move as ghosts, and catch the tide.
Grandmother stretches out on the water like the queen of the seafolk. The highland man pushes her further out, and she opens her eyes and says, Am I dreaming? I have had this dream ever since I was a child. My mother used to scold me for laughing in my sleep.
We climb aboard Grandmother and start to paddle with our hands. The boy is no help, but Grandmother doesn’t mind. She sings to him as we paddle. The water is warm. The tide is with us. The stars are with us. Perhaps even the fates are with us.
We are leaving our home. We who came from the sea generations ago are now sail again, heading for another island. The water is calm, and Grandmother is singing, and the man from the highlands glances over at me and smiles. Oh, we are mad. Madder than the chiefs, even. Crazed with the black hope born of desperation, we paddle toward the future.