As my second foot hit the sand, I collapsed with a moan of despair. My throat was stiff with five months’ unshed tears, and this, my last chance useless, was too much. Not dead at all, not even dizzy. I buried my face in my arms, heedless of the gritty beach, and sobbed like a rank amateur, the harsh sounds tearing from me and scaring the gulls.
A long time later, I found myself falling silent. My throat was sore and my face hurt, but I felt strangely empty, like a haunted house after the priestess is finished and the ghosts are gone on.
I sighed and sat up, brushing uselessly at my clothes. I hadn’t been this dirty since before … since I was nine.
The gulls had come back some time ago, having decided that I was harmless (if noisy); they screeched at each other over crabs and torn bits of nameless fish.
Wiping my nose on my old blue shirt, I wondered about the gulls.
Humans couldn’t set foot on the island. Stupid, foolhardy Jamie Reickert had proved that a year and a half ago, getting past all the grownups and even me and Shan, bound on proving that my dad was just telling a tall tale. They made all us kids attend his funeral, trying to avoid repeats.
I had trusted Jamie. But I was still alive.
Me and the gulls.
I looked back across the harbor. Shan would be worried when he woke up — pirates, my whole family would be worried, had been for … for five months.
I struggled to my feet, and pulled the rowboat up above the high water mark. It would be a signal, that I was still alive, and that I intended to come back. Then I turned my back on the silent ships, and the gulls, and home, and looked — really looked — at the line of trees that guarded the inside of the island.
I ask you. On a sandy island in a salt sea harbor, wouldn’t you expect coconuts? Date palms? Something like that?
I plowed up the sand toward the grass, my rope sandals sinking into the powdery, gritty stuff even under my feather weight. I wondered how Dad managed it when he came.
I wondered if Dad and I were even human.
A few feet further along, I wondered if Shan was.
I mean, aside from the Æsir blood: no Æsir I’d ever heard tell of ever set foot on the island, and our Founder, my namesake, hadn’t had any Æsir blood herself; she’d just brought it into the bloodline. And she’d walked the island, or its corollary in her own world. She’d set the original ban.
The grass, when I got there, was strangely short, but still made a good handle for me to pull myself up by.
Nice grass; I kicked off my sandals and dumped them out over the dune, then scuffed my feet, my toes all spread out, to get the bits off. It didn’t seem quite right to pull up any grass to wipe myself off with, so I just brushed down again, stuck my sandals in my back pockets, and headed for the trees.
I could smell the apples already; some had fallen on the ground and were brown and nibbled. Gulls again, maybe. Or maybe other animals could live on the island.
I wondered why it only killed humans; how it could tell.
I wondered if it hated humans. Erdan Paul would tell me that it probably wasn’t awake enough to notice humans, but then priests are supposed to be comforting.
I put my hand on the trunk of the tree I had come to, and said, as I had been taught, “O guardian, I mean no harm. May I pass?”
Now, I must admit that Shan and I had always found this a bit lame, but the foresters always did it, and with my parents you learn to do as you’re told first, and figure out why later.
Apparently it was now “later.” The tree leaned toward me — and before you say it, no: not another tree budged. I threw my arms around the tree and started howling again.
My insides felt like they were breaking apart, like the glass on the floor after a chemistry project goes boom, like — like the thin sea-ice in the last weeks of winter, breaking apart and melting as the waves leave it on the beach.
You might wonder why, with a perfectly good mom, a perfectly good dad, and a reasonably perfect twin brother, I would choose to cry on a rough-barked apple tree instead of any of them. The only thing I can figure out is that they were hurting too, and it felt like I would be hurting them more if I cried on them. But the apple tree …
Oh, sharks and pirates, why try to be reasonable about something so illogical?
Anyway, when I was done crying, I scrubbed my face dry on my shirt again. When people ask me what I learned from my attempt to commit suicide, I will tell them: Always have handkerchiefs.
There was now a path beside the apple tree.
Figuring I had already forfeited all rights to a complete funk about impossible things, I gulped some air and set foot on it.
A twig caught my hair, and I skidded to a stop, feeling just as guilty as when my mom does that, wondering what I forgot. I tried to feel for the branch, intending to disentangle my normally flow-through hair, but as I touched it there was a snap, and my head got thunked.
There was an apple caught in my straight black hair.
I was standing on a path that hadn’t existed five minutes ago, in an orchard that didn’t belong on a salt sea island, on an island that killed whoever set foot on it — with an apple in my hair.
When I started laughing, the apple slid through and fell into my hands. I called “Thank you!” to the tree, and walked on down the path, snorting and chuckling and turning the apple over. Pretty. Very red, smelled like cider, a lovely bumpy shape to it. I was wondering whether or not to eat it when my bare foot came down on a rock.
No, an acorn. I looked around to find myself surrounded by giant oak trees – which I also hadn’t seen from the harbor. Figuring that this counted as another wood, I hastily stuffed the apple in a front pocket, limped over to the nearest oak, and repeated myself. “Domenu, narhadli. Vileni?”
Did you ever hold a pipe as someone started to run water through it? How it changes temperature? That’s how my arm started to feel: warm, a kind of woody warmness, rushing into my arm and filling me up to my hair and down to my bare toes.
Okay, I am now an oak tree, I thought. Far overhead, there was another snap, but I ducked the wrong way and got beaned anyhow. Three acorns and an oak leaf, all in a cluster.
For some reason, the face of Lord Ketrid jumped into my mind. My breath stopped up; I wanted to puke, I wanted to scream, I wanted to run …
I chose screaming. I stood there, in the tall oak wood, green silence listening to me, and screamed. I screamed in fear, the fears his poisons had filled me with; I screamed in pain, the pain he and his buddies had inflicted on me; I screamed, at last, in rage.
How dare they? How had they even thought to do that to me, a kid? Oh, this hurt. I had managed to banish them all from my thoughts, not too long after I had decided not to take my right to kill them. From my thoughts, but not from my dreams, one of the reasons I’d been going three and four days without sleeping in the past several months.
I started to see what else I had banished: my friends, Tom and Lara and Beebo, old canny sailors from before the Crossing, who had been my foster family on that, my first voyage. My friends, who had accepted the food from the banquet Lord Ketrid had thrown for the Captain and most of the crew.
My friends, my foster family, dead on the floor of the trading booth from the poisons that had only immobilized me.
I shrieked again, the long mourning keen, the grief-song I had been too shocked and self-absorbed to give at their funerals, and the tears came back.
It finally seemed as if all the yelling had gone out of me, and I whispered into the oaken silence the funeral closing I hadn’t been there to give: “Freya take you, warriors and parents, and give you rest and joy.”
Their deaths, the attack on me, despicable Lord Ketrid and his buddies, all seemed to … to kind of click into me, like the runner slats clicking into a dresser as it’s made. As though I was getting made out of these memories. And though I didn’t much like it, I hadn’t much liked anything that had happened over the last five months, and at least I felt … sturdier, maybe, or solider. More real than I had since then.
I patted the oak tree and said “Thank you,” and limped on through, trying to ease the acorns and the oak leaf into my other front pocket, and seriously considering putting my sandals back on.
This time, I saw the trees change before I was among them. Hazel trees ahead. I stopped, finished working the oak leaf into my pocket, and pulled my sandals on. I ran my fingers through my hair, rubbed my face on my shirt-sleeve again, and brushed down as well as I could.
Then, squaring my skinny shoulders, I marched up to the hazel tree by the path.
“Domenu, narhadli. Vileni?”
Above me, a tiny light-brown bird started singing. I squinted up at it — here, sunlight got through the trees, and right into my eyes, too. I was a bit wary: Erdon Paul says the Goddess have a juvenile sense of humor, and it seemed quite like Her to have me all tensed up for another bop on the head, and get pooped on instead.
But no: there was another snap, and I got my hands up in time to catch a spray of curl-edged hazelnuts, an oval silver leaf attached.
I was definitely feeling like “Third Child” in a fairy tale.
It occurred to me that I hadn’t been making any jokes for the last five months, either. I had actually been making more jokes, if only to myself, since setting foot on this wretched island than I had since before that servant had brought the poisoned food to the trading booth.
So all right, nothing much had seemed funny; normal for someone who’s been raped, but I was used to better than that. There was always something going on in my house: my dad doing pompous imitations of himself in council, my mom sliding nearly invisible puns through her conversation, my brother and I laying water traps or verbal traps for each other, everyone laughing or groaning or snickering, all the time.
Lord Ketrid and his friends had stolen that from me.
They had stolen my sense of fun. They had stolen my joy in life. They had stolen my ability to sleep. They had stolen my memories of my foster family, and my ability to talk to my birth family, and my trust that grownups would take care of me.
Reave it all, they had set me up to murder myself for them!
Pirates and sharks and bloody invasions. Why should I cooperate with them? I stood there, trembling, furious and lightheaded, the golden sunlight shivering on my skin through the leaves. Outrage rose through me — I think it was outrage. It bubbled but didn’t burn, and it felt like laughter, like life, like love. I forgot my anger, shaking as the hazel light filled me, gasping, my lungs filling further than I remembered them ever doing before. The hair stood up on my head and on my arms, and the air tasted like ginger ale in my throat, and little electrical prickles ran through my muscles. The little bird flew down and landed on a branch near me, fixing me with one bright eye.
“How d-do you know,” I asked it, “if there’s an elephant hiding under your bed?” The bird turned its other eye on me. “Your nose is touching the ceiling.” The bird started to sing again, and I laughed out loud, stretching my arms up to the trees, stretching out my spine and lifting myself onto my toes. The electrical prickles settled down into a kind of hum, and I shook the hazel spray up at the trees, singing the Sunrise salute as loud as I could, a mere hour late. Wind roared through the branches back at me, a whole forest laughing at me, and I ran down the path, grinning madly.
In front of me, the sunlight brightened, and I abruptly found myself in the clearing at the heart of the island.
I was worn, and tired, and grubby, and my head hurt. But for the first time in five months I didn’t feel like an anxious and tightly-stretched shadow. I could see an actual future stretching out in front of me, but I was too sleepy to see a single other thing. I flung myself onto the excellent grass, not even feeling the lumps in my pockets, and slept without fear.
I could live with this island. I would live, and follow the path laid out for my kind, and get the training the island offered us.
As soon as I woke up.