Wherein: The Lowlanders Decide Annak’s Fate; Paramon Teaches Sillith; Sillith in the Water
The meeting about Annak, a meeting of lowlanders, was at the Shith’s house. They sat on chairs and benches in shafts of sunlight that came in through the open windows. They were uncomfortable, preferring work to meetings.
Onan stood, “You all heard a long time ago what happened to Annak’s mother, my aunt Eternne. You all know what would have happened to us in the lowland if it were to get out that the curse had repeated itself. I want you to know, I’ve been talking to Paramon, who says there’s no such thing as a taint. There’s all kinds people acting strange, worse than we’ve ever seen, in the city and in books. It’s not considered a family curse, and people aren’t harmed for it. This is part of life, as Paramon put it. He said it is a risk we all take being born, and to hold everyone in a family responsible for it is inhumane.
The Shiths are good people. Pa, Fearn and myself, we’ve helped every single family with the settling, good and true. So we won’t accept any notion of curse on Annak or anyone else.”
Wen Bouck broke the silence that followed, saying, “No one is blaming you.” Her face blushed pink up to her forehead, and she glanced nervously at her husband.
“If anyone is to blame, we’d have to get in a boat and go haul him back. . .” Hostt began, but Onan cut him off.
“No one is to blame,” Onan said. “Not Savar for his weakness, or Eternne, or Annak. What we have to do is figure out what’s next. What are we going to do with Annak, who, we all agree, can’t be left alone?”
Wen stood abruptly and said, “She has to be taken out of the shed.”
Bearnt leaned back in his chair, causing the floor to creak under his weight, and said, “Keep her in the shed.”
“It’s cowardly,” Wen said, turning to him. Her eyes flashed and her thin lips held a hard line. “There’s no dignity in it. It’s not right. We can’t treat her like livestock. We can’t keep her in a holding pen.”
“It’s not the only way,” Ulgo said, “we just need to think of something better.” She sat on the end of a bench, holding one side of her body stiffly, where the bite wound, infected and treated with marsh violet by Maynard, bothered her.
“Yes,” said Onan hopefully, “that’s why we’re here, thinking on this. That’s what we hope, for new ideas.”
“I can’t help noticing,” said Bearnt, scornfully, “that you sound an awful lot like the Preacher.”
“That so?” Onan asked. He stared at Bearnt with flat eyes. His temple pulsed with anger. “That’s why we came here, isn’t it, to learn new ways? I’m learning from him. I’m learning to be different, to think different. Can you do that?”
Hubter sighed and rose to his feet, put his hands up. His big frame quieted the agitation in the room. He said, “All right, all right. Bearnt, you let the man do his thinking. We’ve got to agree on this, or it won’t be set right.”
“What if we set her up, north of the island, on her own for awhile?” Ulgo’s voice was hesitant.
“It’s not fair,” said Onan quietly.
“To her sons. To her. To any of us. She already hurt Ulgo. She wasn’t concerned about anyone burning in that fire with her. She needs to be watched, for our safety as well as hers,” Onan looked at his father, who was moodily silent in the corner of the room. His father did not look up. Onan put both hands on the plank table, spreading his fingers.
Wen’s voice rose, “Don’t you see? Can’t anyone see? This is no different from how it was in the lowland. We’re not better then them, if that’s how we take care of our own. Just lock her up? What’s the difference between their punishments and ours. . .”
Bearnt laughed, a scornful bark. He said, “What does she care?”
Onan interrupted, saying, “If we treat her careful, and I think Pa will agree, if we treat her careful, she might come back all right.”
They stared at him.
Wen Bouck said, “Do you think so?”
Onan nodded and turned to his father, saying, “Pa, you’re the one who told me that. That maybe if Eternne had been given kindness instead of beatings, maybe she would have come out okay.”
Elder looked up at the ceiling, wrinkling his brow. He lifted a hand, palm up, weighing something. When he spoke, it was slow and thoughtful. “My sister lived a terrible few years before she died. Before she was killed. She is Annak’s mother. And I think neither one of them ever got a chance to be happy. All of us, we got born into the lives we got and sometimes we wanted a chance to turn them another way. Now I know Annak don’t claim me, but I’m her uncle. And as her uncle, I say we keep her in the shed so we can keep an eye on her. But we treat her well. We treat her like a lady. We bring her food and take away her dishes, and clean her shed.” The room was hushed, everyone looking at him, but he stared at the ceiling as he spoke. “My sister wanted to save Annak’s life. That’s why she sent the girl away. I am not going to throw that life away, after my sister lost her own.” He took a deep breath. “I don’t like dwelling on those times.” It was the closest any of them had heard him come to mentioning what the Order had done to him. His skin seemed red and bruised.
He continued, “She lives in the shed until she’s better, and she leaves only with company. Strong company. But no one hurts her.” Elder rose, and for the first time since he’d been among them on the island, he seemed older. Stiffly, formally, he nodded to his son, opened the door, walked through it, and closed it on their silence.
Bearnt said, “Seems to me. . .”
The door opened again, and it was Ethete. Everyone looked up at her and her face registered surprise. “I,” She was confused, and embarrassment rose in a flush to her cheeks. “I didn’t know I’d be interrupting. Fearn, Rular said your little ones were fussing.”
Fearn rose. “I’ll come, Ethete.” Fearn’s red hair glowed in the morning room. She looked at her husband, and then around at the room, and added, “We’ve been talking about what to do about Annak, Ethete, but we’re finished now. It’s all decided. We’ll be caring for her in her trouble.”
Fearn left, taking Ethete by the arm as she went.
Wen asked quietly, “If she calms for a certain period, can she leave the shed?”
Bearnt muttered, “Sounds to me like she’ll have her run of the place in no time.”
Wen said, “I’ll take care of her. I’ll bring her meals.” There was a silence and Hostt glowered at his wife. Wen lifted her chin at him and added, “I’m the only one not caring for children.”
“We’re grateful,” said Onan quietly.
Hubter said, “It’s not perfect.” There was a silence, and he added, “As Maynard says, we got to examine one snail at a time.” Onan smiled, and then Ulgo did, and Hubter grinned.
Bearnt rose, shaking his head in disgust. “I’m not taking care of a lunatic.” Hostt followed him out, after glaring at Wen, who looked away and remained seated.
After the meeting, Wen, passing Elder Shith’s workshop and sheds, stopped at the shed that held Annak. She stood on the trampled mud outside the shed.
She put her hand to the gray wood of the shed and whispered, “Annak? Annak?”
She heard a rustling noise inside, and then footsteps shuffling across the ground and then silence. She could feel that they were on either sides of the door.
“Annak? Do you need anything? It’s Wen.”
In response, another rustle, and then a steady stream hit the door boards and a slow, clear puddle of urine poured from within, spreading a crust of mud and dust forward.
Wen jumped away from the door, horrified. Tears sprang to her eyes and she hissed, “Stay in there, then.” The instant she said it, she regretted it, but there was the urine, the insult at her feet. She walked away, feeling the burning shame of all that she’d heard and seen, of what felt like a new failure in the settlement.
Sillith loved Paramon. The way he spoke and the way he listened. He treated everyone as if they were important, invaluable, even. This is what he said to everyone: we are all valuable. He never varied on this theme. She saw him speak to them in groups, and as individuals. He listened to complaints, soothed misunderstandings, settled arguments, invented new arrangements for greater comfort of the whole community. Sillith watched him and saw that as he was the one she needed most, he was the one they all needed.
As she grew older, she took on the household chores to allow him as much freedom as possible. She prepared the meals as Ethete and Ulgo had taught her, and cleaned up after. She kept the house in order, swept daily, made sure that the lamps were filled, repaired loose chinks in the wattle and daub walls. Their hearth was stocked with wood that Paramon chopped, and every frosty winter morning, she woke first to make a fire for him.
Paramon worried about her sense of responsibility, her seriousness. He questioned her some evenings as she bent over her studies, “Do you wish you could spend more time with the others? Are you laughing much, Sillith?”
But she would only laugh and say, “How could I not laugh, living with you?”
When her chores were finished, when she finished the reading and writing exercises Paramon gave her, when she’d made sure that neither Ethete or Fearn needed her help that day, she was free to roam. She walked the island, sometimes seeking Maynard in the swamp, sometimes watching the men fish the bay, or she undertook the long walk to the north of the island. Sometimes she swam, or collected shells to catalogue.
When she collected with Maynard, she carried the hand-sewn bags and pouches lined with oilcloth, made classification notes for him in her clear handwriting, spent the day happily talking of nothing but lizards and plants and insects. They walked the swamp carefully, noting everything.
Paramon taught her to read, along with the other children on the island. He took her on a tour of the maps on Mithic’s walls, taught her how to decipher them, described the different places as he imagined them. He told her about the city, about the lives he’d read about in other places. He told her about the people he’d known, editors, writers, statesmen, cobblers, farmers, butchers, teachers, milliners, mothers, fathers. He told her about his parents, a farmer and his wife, who were dead long since. His sister, who had married a man she didn’t love, who Paramon loved less than that. He told her, with wonder, how he’d left his sister behind and would never know about the rest of her life.
“Isn’t that a strange thing,” he asked his daughter, “that you can so divide your life from the one you once knew best?” When Sillith frowned at this, he sais. “Ah. You’re an only child. You can’t know what I mean, can you?”
When they were together she watched his face, followed the blue eyes, the wild curls of his hair, which she so often had to trim for him. She knew his thin beard, a mole near his ear. She knew his slender fingers, the way they flourished and grasped the ideas as he spoke them. She knew the bounce in his walk. The plenty of his laughter. These things were like her own fingers, her own arms, things she knew minutely. They belonged to her this way, and gave her a sense of belonging in turn.
On rare occasions he fell silent in the cottage, and from the way he moved heavily, and spoke little, she knew he was grieving. Once he’d said strangely, “You ought to hold me accountable, Sillith, for everything. It is my fault your mother is dead, and that you are living like a heathen on this island.” When she expressed her surprise and dismay over this speech he only shook his head moodily and left for a walk.
Generally, though, Paramon was cheerful. He crowed with pleasure as they walked the island and came upon various scenes, like a white egret stalking blue morning water. “Look at that egret, Sillith! Look at that whiteness! How wonderful! Aren’t we lucky to witness a purity of color like that?”
His was the brimming cup she held to her lips and drank from, time and time again. He made connections for her until she learned to do it herself. He told her that all of life was intertwined, and one could see it on the island, that it was a blessing to see it on the island, because in the city, one tended to forget. The connections, Paramon taught her, were the closest man could get to understanding life.
Frog to leaf, leaf to rain, rain to ocean. It was all connected. Bark, beetle, shell, sand. Him. Her. City to island to lowland. Settlers, everyone else in every place on every map. All of them. All of it.
Her own hair, when it wafts past her eyes and nose and chin, is like a great tendriled beast, clouded with bits of shell and sandknots. Sillith tumbles and floats in warm shallows, occasionally passing over great, cold blue lakes of depth. She is never far from the island, circling it, days, nights, weeks; eyes open. The current is her pulse. Inside her, she is dully aware, a second pulse distinguishes itself from the fibers of her body.
What jaggedness Insnar tore in her while his sooty sweat dripped between them, holding his blackened hands on her mouth, could this growing be from that? No child, surely, could come from that.