Wherein: Insnar Silently Rages; An Ice House Emerges; Sillith Grows Into Herself
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. 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.
They say the men took weapons with them when Hostt told them about the stranger. They say the men came out of the woods, suspicious. Tislar greeted them with raised hands, laughing. They say the men surrounded Tislar, made Liny get out of the hole, and held Tislar at bay with knives and fishing spears. They say Tislar answered their gruff questions with cheerful, open replies. When he was at a loss for words, Liny volunteered a guess for him.
They were shocked at how well the boy and the man knew each other. They knew it was impossible for the boy to have gone anywhere, to have learned how to be social with a stranger, but all the same the boy and the man were clearly friends.
They say that after a while, Tislar, who was leaning on his shovel, patiently answering all their questions, finally said, “It’s good that you all have come because we need just this many men to move the ice, and Liny assured me that you were the strongest men he’d known.”
“They’re the only men I know,” Liny corrected him, and then, as the story goes, uncharacteristically, Liny turned to the settlers and laughed.
Soon enough, all of them were propelling the massive hunk of sawdust-covered ice from the low barge to a cart fashioned of long pine logs.
They say that Tislar announced when they’d gotten the ice into the hole, “A great hunk of Northern ice, as a thanks for your hospitality.”
They all shook his hand (except for Hostt, who refused to help on principle, he’d said darkly) and patted the stranger on the back saying things like, “It’s going to be a relief from the heat, I don’t mind telling you.”
He was an enchanter, they say. One minute they were ready to run him off the island, and the next he’d got them all working for him, for his gift to them. A gift he convinced them, somehow, was a gift meant specifically for them. He had some kind of magic, they say, and no one was immune to it.
They say once they’d got the ice in the hole, the men scurried back to their woodsheds and gathered building materials, all of them, searched out the right sawed logs, the right twists of rope, heaping buckets of wattle and daub. And just like that, in a single day, they put up an ice house, on the bay side of the swamp. A solid little hut they all built together. And so it stood, squat and sturdy on the edge of the swamp for many years to come.
They say that from the first day the settlers loved Tislar. As the summer wore on, they learned to love him more, wholly, as a community. He could have stolen the women from the men, but he did not. He could have set men against each other, but he did not. When Liny asked him, once, what he wanted, he’d replied, “I’d like to live in a place where people are at peace.”
The island seemed to be that place during that long, warm summer that was clarified, crisped by ice. They say that Tislar moved among them as if he’d always been there, as if he had always belonged.
Then they shift in their chairs, uncomfortable, and add, at least until the first storm came.
It was a hot, humid evening. Paramon sat on his porch watching the fireflies rise out of the wet grass. The last light of the day was blue and dim. Rainstorms, the soaking drenching rains that made skin clammy and the cottage small and fungal had fallen for two days before stopping. The clearing rose and spun with twisting spirals of fog. Paramon sat alone, nursing a small hunk of ice in a handkerchief, running it over his face and neck. Maynard, alone on his own porch, saw Paramon and crossed the clearing. Without a word, Paramon held up the bit of ice. Maynard took it in his own kerchief and ran it down his neck with a sigh.
Onan and Hubter, crossing the clearing with some of their children, saw them and gathered on the porch. The ice was passed around and Paramon went in and brought out ale and mugs. The children spread out in the grass in front of Paramon’s house, playing a game.
Suddenly, Tislar’s voice rang out in the gathering dark, “Boys, who is a painter among you? We need a painter to get this portrait. Forefathers of an island,” there was general laughter, and he approached with Liny and Insnar at his side. Paramon went inside for more mugs, and after some banging was heard, brought out a handful of ice chunks, which were passed around and mopped onto foreheads and necks. Their voices rose and fell in the dark until it was dinnertime.
Sillith’s personality led her to a different life from other settler children, and Paramon worried over her. It seemed, as the years went by and she grew long-limbed and introverted, that she would never truly connect with anyone but himself and Maynard. She was a loner. Her mind, quick to understand natural science, philosophy, or any academic topic he approached her with, seemed unconcerned with relationships. Paramon blamed himself for this, the way in which she was isolated by the smallness of their family, but she seemed content, and her behavior didn’t intimate that she found anything to be wrong with her life. Her habits, in fact, more so, pointed to a child who was perfectly content doing whatever it was that she did, and who pursued these things with pleasure and curiosity. In any case, there was no way to unstitch what she had become.
Sillith’s first memory was of sitting in Paramon’s lap when men came to consult with him, which they did almost every evening, their low voices and occasional rough hands touching her head as they passed. In the presence of Paramon, these bearded men spoke earnestly, fervently. The gentle clamor of their voices was home and safety to her. During many days, she was with women, children, living in days of productivity and action, heat and sun. The men came in the evening, tired from their work, puzzled by various problems. They came to Paramon to untangle both tangible and intangible issues, and Sillith spent her evenings drowsing to their voices and the sounds of their curious and wide-ranging talk.
Her surrogate mothers, Ulgo and Ethete, put different claims on her attention. Ulgo, practical and hard in many ways, a woman born of the lowland, gave strict and demanding advice. Ethete, on the other hand, was all softness and love. She ruled her house with listening and kindness. She fed her children rather than scolded, and they were as loyal to her as Ulgo’s, often scolded, were to their mother. Sillith watched both women, received their ministrations with gratitude and eventually, some annoyance. It became clear that she was neither rough and wild like the Leggith children, gentle like Rular, or garrulous like the other Sullick children. She was unlike, as it turned out, any of the island children. The two women who tacitly agreed to help raise her soon realized, once she became of speaking age, that nothing they did could interest her more deeply in her housework, her cooking, her female chores. She did them perfunctorily, and well enough to avoid correction. She did them in her strange and efficient manner. She was trained to keep Paramon’s house, but she did not live for it, and she did them as quickly as she could so that she could move on to other things that interested her.
When she was old enough, she took over care of her household without their help. She completed the chores before she left the house, checking twice, three times to make sure all had been provided for, was neat, ready. She checked the books for moisture and mice. She filled the lamps and trimmed the wicks. She mended Paramon’s clothes, and cooked meals.
Ulgo had frightened her once, saying, “Don’t let your father down. He must be able to depend on you for everything. You are the only reason that man lived when your mother died. You must give him your best.” Sillith took this warning into all she did. She cleaned, did the washing and baking, finished her daily lesson before she left the house. Because she loved him. But then, because he loved her, she was free to roam.
When her chores were finished, Sillith, unlike other children in the clearing, could do as she pleased. She walked, explored. Sometimes she swam and collected shells or twigs. Rocks shaped like leaves. Driftwood shaped like lizards or birds. Infatuated with the mimicry of natural things as Paramon had taught her, she brought them home and put them on the pantry shelves, or in the windowsill above Paramon’s bed, so that he would find them, her gifts of wonder.
Other days she would find Maynard and spend the day helping him with his research, friends to the swamp and one another. Often she crouched with him over a nest, over a moth, over a print in the mud. Rarely did she seek the company of other children, or enter the houses of other families, unless expressly asked to do so. Sillith preferred solitude.
She was aware of her difference, how it aroused concern in the women who raised her. She loved her extended families dearly, though she was largely unable to show them this. She knew that she must appear cold in comparison to the sweet Rular, who often sighed over her mother and kissed her cheek and called her Marmee, or Lovey, or Sweet. Sillith could not conduct herself either, as did Ulgo’s oldest girl Gaithe, with her high-pitched bossy tattling on the younger ones, the implied cahoots of mother and daughter, the drama and exaggerated sighs between the two that signified a partnership, and love. Sillith didn’t know these languages. She didn’t know if they were blank to her because her own mother was dead, or if it was because she was born different. It only bothered her that she did not know how to show them her appreciation. She wanted them to know how she relied on them, how she loved them, how she knew they had saved her. But she didn’t know the words, nor was she interested in pursuing a false manner. So she abided their advice as best she could, loving Paramon and tending his house in a way they would approve, and she hoped this would be enough.
If she had no designated studies with Maynard or Paramon, she often took one of the leather bound books from Paramon’s collection, packed it in a sack with a lunch of bread and greens, filled a skin with water, and walked out of the clearing, headed North, skirting the foot of the swamp hill, and heading straight up the center of the island. The trees thinned quickly and in no time she was walking the hot sand between scrubby, white-flowering brush with the occasional twisted and bent pine. After a while, these, too, vanished and she would walk, as though on desert, across the burning sand, sweating and feeling the weight of her dress, her sack swaying from her front to her back, until she reached the furthest point of the island, and trees appeared again, scrubs and pines, and then taller ones until she reached the pecans, where she would finally throw her sack down, remove the heavy outer layer of her dress and read, quiet and undisturbed in her white shift, eating absentmindedly from the food she’d brought, and living the dreams built in text before her.
She was intrigued by books in both a distant and immediate way. The places they described were almost impossible for her to imagine, even though Paramon, in person, had described it for her many times. He told her about the street he lived on with Leena, the carriages, the way he walked to work. He described their cook, Henore, the market where they bought all kinds of meats or dairy or vegetables, the kind of men who came to the print shop where he worked. He told her of the noises, the feeling of so many people at once, in such proximity. It seemed more real, in a way, in Paramon’s presence, the dreaminess of his voice when he told her the stories. It was as if he had made up the books, rather than merely edited and printed them. But the books themselves, they were written by men with different voices then Paramon’s. Whether philosophical or scientific or even fictional, many of them drove the words like beasts before them. Paramon, in contrast, spoke much like a man who wondered himself if it could all be true, if he had considered every angle, if there wasn’t much more to be known on any subject. The books, then, held an uncanny mystery for Sillith. Both true and false, they might have proved Paramon’s exploration of the city, or they might have utterly debunked them. She stared up into the pattern of leaves against sky and sometimes wondered if the city, the men and women, the crowded and opinionated places existed, or if the whole thing, books included, truly were something her father invented. Figments, perhaps, of his enormous imagination and cleverness.
In this curious, searching, solitary way, Sillith spent her first twelve years of life.