Wherein: Hostt Threatens Tislar; Annak Returns; Svan Makes Lace
They were muddy, sweating, digging a hole deeper and wider than Hostt could imagine what for. Tislar looked up and saw him. Smiling broadly, he said, “Liny? Tell this man not to kill me.”
Liny looked up, saw Hostt, and shrugged. He went back to shoveling. “He’s got no reason to kill you.”
Hostt stared at the stranger, standing neck deep in a sandy wet pit with Savar Leggith’s second son. He was the first stranger Hostt had laid eyes on since they’d come to the island years before and there was some secret thrill in seeing someone else, someone new. It was like a hunger fed and fanned at the same time. A stranger. This stranger was unwelcome. Was Hostt going to take orders from a mere boy? He pulled the oyster knife from the bag at his side and jumped into the hole. He grabbed Tislar from the back and held the knife at his throat.
“Whoa,” said Tislar in surprise.
Liny, with characteristic slowness, looked out at Hostt from under his long bangs and said, “Hostt, I vouch for this man. Put that knife down. I’ve spent the past two days with him.”
Hostt felt the stranger’s muscles tensed and ready. He could feel a wiry strength in the young man. He jabbed the knife at him, slightly, and then let go of him, giving him a shove. Tislar rubbed his neck and looked at Hostt with curiosity. Not in fear, Hostt realized, but as if Hostt was being rude.
“You better be right, Liny.” Hostt said, watching as Liny and the man exchanged a look. “You’re overreacting,” said Liny, leaning on his shovel, “He’s not killed me, and I’d be easy enough to kill, just a boy. We’re digging a hole for his gift to us. I’ve seen it and it’s a fine treat. If you’d let us get back to the work.”
“Name’s Tislar,” the stranger said, and they began shoveling again, Tislar facing Hostt while he dug, keeping an eye out, measuring the distance. Hostt was uncomfortable under the gaze of those clear eyes.
The man’s body, stripped to the waist and streaked with mud, was twined and colored in pictures, designs, and colors the likes of which Hostt had never seen. The images moved as the man moved, the muscles in his arms and shoulders rolling under, with, through the pictures, making animals rise and stalk, making designs circle and coax. They reminded him of the maps on Mithic Tallo’s walls.
The stranger turned slightly and said, “I don’t mean to be inhospitable, but we’ve got to save the last of shipment. It’s hotter than I imagined it would be.”
Hostt didn’t answer because he was mesmerized by the storm on the man’s back, seemingly sewn into the planks of muscle there. Terrible clouds roiled across the shoulder blades and vanished beneath the arms. Rain streaked, relentless long strokes of it, and poured from the clouds into the wild, hungry sea which rose from the knotted cinch tie at the man’s waist. As he bent, hefted, lifted, flung, Hostt watched the storm beckon and boom. He could hear the storm. He could hear the pounding surf, the surging waters, the threat of the sky, the threat of ocean, the ocean gathering itself, coming to take them all: calling them all to sea.
Hostt, shaken, turned and walked toward the clearing.
“Not the friendly sort,” said Tislar.
Liny said, “He’ll be back. Let’s get this finished. Maybe we can even get them to help us.”
Tislar turned and looked at the boy, “Liny Leggith!” He shook his head at the boy, who did not stop digging for a moment, and said, “A man of good ideas.”
“Dig,” said Liny.
When they first opened the shed door to let Annak out, a month after she’d been put in, seven of them kept a careful circle around her. She had quieted for enough days that the women felt they should risk it. Annak emerged, blinking in the sun, silent, reeking, her clothes and face still sooty from the fire. The children had been sent off crabbing for a summer supper with Rular and Ulgo. No one wanted any of the children to see her, nor her to see them. It was awful enough.
They led Annak to a bathing tub, which was filled with hot water and steaming in the morning light. The men turned their backs, and Fearn and Wen cautiously helped Annak remove her soaked, fouled dress. They sucked in their breath at the gauntness of her pale body. She did not look at them or speak. She stared at the ground. When she sank into the water, they helped her to pour it over her shoulders, and Fearn gently washed her hair with a hunk of lye. After a few moments, Annak sank into the tub with gratitude and began to cry. The women washed her, holding each arm out, urging her to move this way or that. They stood her up and helped her out of the tub, dried her with sacking. Behind Hostt and Wen’s house, in the strong sun facing the dunes and sea beyond, where she’d be shielded from the clearing, they wrung Annak’s long hair out. They let her stand, just a moment, in the sun, to dry. Then they helped her into a clean dress.
Annak looked into Wen’s face and said quietly, “I was always so angry at my mother, Eternne, for sending me away. I’m not angry at her any longer.” Wen nodded and rubbed a hank of Annak’s hair.
Fearn said, “Onan?” The men turned and waited. “I think maybe we’ll just give Annak some tea on the porch first. Whyn’t you all go on about your day?”
Onan shook his head. “These fellows can go on out, but I’ll be here.” He climbed the steps of Hostt Bouck’s porch and sat down on a bench.
“All right,” Fearn muttered. Then she turned to Annak, who stood looking up at the cloudless blue sky. “Cup of hot curly root tea sound good?”
Annak nodded absently. Wen took her arm, and they walked to the front of the house. She walked up the steps carefully. Annak looked and saw a newly hewn single bed along one wall, made up with moss and a string mattress.
Wen, breathless, for this had been her own plan, explained, “Annak, I wondered if you’d stay with me and Hostt for awhile, until you feel better.”
Annak cleared her throat. “I don’t know as I’m fit for that yet.”
Crestfallen, Wen blushed to the roots of her pale hair, but Fearn shook her head quickly, saying to Annak, “That’ll be just fine. You take this as slow as you want.” She turned to Wen, “Go tell Onan to clean that shed out, and bring this here bed over to it. And tell him too, Annak needs a small cupboard to keep things in.” Annak looked at her, surprised, and Fearn said sternly, “If you’re going to live in a shed, you’re going to live in it proper.”
Annak nodded, the tips of her ears showing through the strands of her wet hair, and she said, “Don’t let my children come see me.”
Early one morning Svan hurried across the clearing in the fog to Elder Shith’s workshop. He was already there, as she knew he would be, working in the first dawn light. She knocked lightly on the door and then pushed it open. Inside, she saw a laborer’s domain, thick hewn sawhorses, tools hanging from the walls, piled on tables and benches, lengths of knotted, handmade rope hanging in coils from the ceiling. A rough net hung from one wall stretched out to floor pegs halfway across the room and in the lantern light cast a second net in shadow on the swept dirt of the floor.
In the dim light, Svan said hesitantly, “Excuse me. Mr. Shith? Elder?”
Then she made him out in the far corner, bent over a table. At the sound of her voice he straightened and turned, frowning across the room. “Who’s that?” He came out from the corner and squinted in the light of the lantern. His gray hair was wild on his head, as if he’d risen from sleep and come directly to work on some problem from the day before. His sleepy look made Svan smile involuntarily.
“Svan Tallo.” She waved her long hand at him, hoping he could not see that it trembled with nervousness.
Elder crossed the room to her, slowly. “Now what could have brought you this morning?”
“I, I. . .” Svan took a small bundle from beneath her arm and said, “I wanted to show you something.” Elder stood looking at her with his head cocked.
His thick features and small set eyes watched her in a way that she felt she had not been seen in some time. She became aware that he was unfamiliar with her, and curious about her. He waited for her to explain.
Svan was overcome by a rush of gratitude for this, and she blushed, even before she showed him what she’d brought. “It’s this. I know you are the master net-maker, and well. I thought all those years of lace-making and such.” She paused and laughed shyly before she looked at his uncomprehending face and realized that in the lowland, there was no art of lacemaking. She faltered. “Lace is an intricate kind of weaving. Ladies put it on dresses, hats. I mean, it sounds foolish, perhaps, but I thought it looked so much like netting, you see. . . and I’ll. . . just show you,” Svan Tallo unfolded the bundle under her arm, which, when opened, was far longer and wider than her arm span, so much so that Elder had to step back to let it fall. He bent to pick up the folds of it on the floor, and held it between them, so that it cast its own shadow on the floor. It was a plain lace, though Svan had taken the trouble to weave a series of waves all along one side of it. This was the side Elder held and he ran his thick, rough thumb over the pattern.
“What’s this made of?”
“Silk? I’m not sure,” said Svan. “I’ve been testing it in a pail of salt water for a couple of weeks. It hasn’t suffered any. I don’t even know what it is made of, but it’s very old, and good, this thread. My father bought it at great expense for my cousin’s wedding lace. It may not last but I thought you could try it. I heard talk about how your nets were too big for some things in the bay. And. I. . .I’ve had some time on my hands.”
Elder looked at her face. He squinted at her. “I’m obliged, ma’am. I’m obliged. This here looks like some fine netting. Fine net work.” He kept on looking at her, bemused, and then he said, “Why didn’t your cousin use it?”
Svan colored and looked away. “She died before the wedding.”
“Ah.” Elder said. He nodded his head at her, staring frankly.
“Please,” said Svan, “When you try it, if you would be so kind as to tell me how it works?” She watched him as he lowered his gaze to the lace, feeling a surge of happiness that he had not scorned her, that he had not mocked her effort.
“Sure, sure. Sure thing.”
They stood in the gold morning light, looking at the lace in his hands.
He held it up, turned it, and said, “Might be just the thing we need.”
Abruptly, Svan asked, “Do you mind my asking how old you are, Elder?”
His thick face crinkled into lines when he grinned at her. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, “Close to fifty winters.”
“I thought so,” said Svan. She nodded her head, and smiled self-consciously. “I’m a few less than that, but Mithic is about the same. The other day,” Svan looked away to the tools hanging on the wall, “it occurred to me that we are the elders of this place. You have the name, but, I was,” she laughed, a high-pitched nervous sound, and passed her hand over her eyes. “anyhow, I think you may be the only one of us that’s any good for it.”
“I’ve always had the name,” Elder Shith said, smiling, held up the net she’d brought and it hung translucent in the morning sun. “Wouldn’t say it proved any kind of wisdom in me,” he paused and looked Svan full in the face, “but this island is still young. Time for us to prove ourselves yet.”
Insnar worked the rope snarl loose with his fingers. He plucked at it, wrestled it. It was full of splintery hair bark, slivers digging under his skin as he worked. The water slapped the bank irregularly, annoying him. The random winds taunted him. Each time he heard it, he lifted his head and listened. It was though he expected someone, but no one came. It irritated him, that no one came.
He thought about the Shiths. They never worked alone. There was always someone helping. Onan Shith fished the third cove with his sons, and never came home empty. Insnar’s own father was gone. Insnar wasn’t as good at anything as Winder Shith. He grew impatient with fishing or crabbing. The net caught on the floor of the bay, or on a snag in the reeds. When he did catch something, he most often caught mud gumpers, skins full of mud, tasting of mud, stinking of mud. Insnar picked at the knot which wouldn’t give, fury building inside him.
Liny didn’t have to fish. He wasn’t picking the knots from ropes. No one could get Liny to do anything he didn’t want to do. He just said, “No” calmly, or vanished when the time came to work. He disappeared for more and more days at a time. Once their mother had been made captive to a shed, Liny no longer felt it his duty to work towards providing for the whole. When Insnar asked him what he thought he was doing, being gone when there was work to be done, Liny had said, “I’d rather be one less mouth to feed, than one more.”
Insnar couldn’t manage that kind of calm. He lost his temper. Sometimes with other people, especially the children. He shouted or pushed the younger children when they were in his way, and then felt bad about it, and worked harder to make up for it. His uncle and aunt were patient with him, and he tried. He kept trying. He took up all that his father didn’t do, even if he didn’t take it up and do it well. Even if he hated it.
Even if he hated Liny. Even if he hated the Shiths, hated his father, hated the island. Even if he hated the Wharshes and the Tallos and the Sullicks. Even if he hated them all.
He could not get the rope undone. He would not get it undone. He hated Rular Sullick, with her pretty hair and the clothes her mother cut and sewed for her. He hated Winder Shith, even-tempered like his father, and a good fisherman. He hated Lutto for treating him like he was a child. He hated the children who sternly left any game they were playing when Insnar lost his temper. Didn’t they know that he was too old to play with them anyhow? That he should leave them in disgust and not the other way around? Insnar hated them. He hated the island. He hated everyone on it.
His hands twisted the knots and he remembered the day his mother burnt down the cottage, how she climbed the ladder to wake them, telling him and Liny, “Get out of bed, you little bastards. You’ve got no father, so you got no right to lay around all day. Go out and catch a string of fish, or don’t come home.” They were dismayed by her face, her voice. She’d not been right for many months, and their baby sister lived at Hubter and Ulgo’s because of this, but the hardness, the blankness of her eyes hurt them. It was an emptiness they stared into, as if there were dark holes where her eyes had been. They scrambled into their clothes and fled, neither of them speaking to each other, taking off for opposite sides of the island.
When he saw the clouds of smoke billowing up and over the beach where he halfheartedly cast a line that day, he almost ran back, but didn’t. He turned and faced the sea. He baited his hook. He cast again. The smoke might have contained his mother. His cottage, the whole settlement. He would not go to look. He would not help. He would not look.
The rope burned his torn fingers. Insnar gritted his teeth. The water slapped the bank. The wind, the water slapping the bank, made him furious. Instead of untying it, he pulled the knot tighter, as tight as it could get, and then made new knots, cinching them into tangles as hard as nuts, making his hands bleed with the effort. Then he could see what he wanted. He could see his hands wrapping the rope around his father’s neck. He could see his father sleeping, and then his father’s eyes opening, face red, struggling, fearful. He could see the red welts, the bruising. He had done this to rabbits. He knew at which point they would cease to struggle. He pushed the rope into his father’s neck until that point and then beyond. In this pushing he was alive. He could see his own hands holding the rope, not letting go, the bulging eyes of his father, the tongue protruding. He could see the last breath. He could feel the freedom from his father’s face, so much, they all said, like his own.