Wherein: The Leggith Boys Hear Annak Is Well; Sillith Remembers; Tislar Tells His Story
Tislar and the Leggith boys took weekly non-fishing trips out on the boat. They ate and drank and floated, all of them young boys again. They jumped off the side of the boat to swim, dragged each other back in, and basked in the sun and long afternoons of pleasure.
One day, after they’d come out of the water and sat dripping and relaxed, Tislar told Insnar and Liny that he visited with their mother.
Liny went rigid. “You’re seeing her? Talking to her? Does she even make sense?”
“She does make sense. She says she’s better, in fact, than she ever was, except for. . .her flaws of motherhood.” The brothers did not look at one another. Tislar put his shirt on while he waited for one of them to speak.
Liny said bitterly, “She hasn’t bothered to come and speak with us, then.”
“She’s afraid to upset you.”
“Upset us! How could she? What is she to us? Don’t speak with her! I don’t want you speaking with her!”
Tislar didn’t answer.
Insnar, who sat silently in the bow of the boat, said finally, “Should she have no company at all?”
Liny turned on Insnar and said, “You don’t remember what she said to us? You don’t mind that she is well again, and hasn’t bothered to speak with us?”
The boys fell silent then, turning away from one another and from Tislar.
Tislar, at a loss, said, “I didn’t know how angry it would make you, Liny. I wanted to let you know, if you wanted to go see her, you could.”
Without a word, Liny picked up a long pole they used for the shallow end of the sound, and began pushing against it. Insnar took up the other one, and the boys, moving together, poled the boat back toward the island. Tislar sighed, and looked at the banks there, thick with cattail and musk grass. He thought how much relationships were like land, either open and clear or horribly tangled. He kept his thoughts to himself, though, and let the boys row him in.
Insnar hated swimming. He hated letting his legs dangle in the water, holding himself up with only his arms’ motion. He hated having his body in the same water with the creatures he pulled out of it: skates, mudgumpers, eels, crabs, flounder.
The cousins he swam with, Klek and Lup, Gaithe, Swerne, and Curle, all seemed to love it. They splashed and laughed. Insnar hated how they splashed. It made him nervous, though he didn’t know why. He felt bitter about swimming, about being forced to swim. He felt bitter about how strange it would look if he refused to swim after going out of his way to ask what they would be doing when they finished their chores. Why did he ask? They always swam, or did something that seemed like work to him, fishing or gathering wood. What did he hope they would say instead?
When he dove and his head went under was the worst. When he opened his eyes below water, he saw the light in dirty shafts, waiting in the murk, as if to stain him. Sometimes a glittering, blind panic came over him while he swam, and he’d have to pull his legs up into a ball as much as he could, forcing his body to tip and roll until he could get enough strength to spread his legs and arms out and flail his way back to the surface, where he emerged, gasping, only to attract the attention of the girls, who laughed at him.
The oldest girl, Gaithe, her wet hair slicked back on her head, once called, “Insnar, you swim like a feed pail.”
This infuriated him, but there was no retort. He glared at her and said, “At least boys are expected to swim. At least I’m not embarrassing my. . .my own kind.”
This caused the girls, instead of consternation, to splash into a fit of giggles.
Insnar turned and thrashed his way into shore, muttering to himself that he would never swim with them again. When Insnar added himself to any other group, the end of the sum was always mockery and discomfort.
She remembers Liny rowing, a small figure in a boat, in all the light cupped by water. There is her father gesturing with a long fingered hand, Ethete and Maynard laughing, Lup and Klek Leggith racing across the sunlit clearing. There is Onan, bending with both hands out to touch faces of his twins. She remembers the rattle of oysters in a basket, dirt on turnips, goat cheese on hard bread. She remembers reading, lighting a lamp. She sees all of the families on the island, lined up. All of them standing with their heads bowed. Grief crackles and flames inside of her, while her body rolls and slides in the cool, dark sea.
“Scurvy, for one thing,” said Tislar.
“But you have your teeth.”
“I knew the secret.”
“Tell me the secret.”
“Green food, fruits, and sea weed if you must.”
“See, there? I am ready to sail.”
“Madness, for another thing.”
“What don’t I know about madness?”
“Seasickness, the stifling closeness of bunks, living with fools.”
“Yes and yes, except for the seasickness.”
“The lack of female company.”
“I’m too young for that.”
“Too young for sea, then, probably.”
“You survived without females.”
“Not happily, and besides, I came here.”
“You came here for females?”
“Well, I had hoped.”
“But there are no marriageable girls.”
“Thank you, I’ve noticed that.”
“Is that why you came?”
“No.” Tislar smiled at Liny, who rowed them deep into the channel that drove water from the ocean to the sound. It was a deep blue and fast running current. Tislar was impressed with Liny’s strength. “I was curious. And after Non Counds died, I needed somewhere to go. I didn’t know what I’d find here. For all I knew the settlers were all dead.”
“Oh.” Liny rowed for a moment, the only sound the oarlocks creaking. “How old were you when you went to sea the first time?”
“Eckel died. I didn’t have any choice.”
“That’s not an answer to my question.”
“All right. Let me see. I was about eleven when I climbed on Eckel’s cart. I was with him about five years. What did that make me?”
“What happened with Eckel’s sister? You never did say.”
“Eckel took ill when we were on the road. It was all right. I did the work for us both, and he rode in back, reading, and I cooked for us. The farms we visited gave us fresh vegetables and meat. But there was something wrong inside his gut. One night he couldn’t eat and I just spent a long evening watching him. I’d been so worried over doing a good job with the cart that I didn’t see how bad off he was. But that night I saw his skin was yellow and his stomach bloated something awful, and his hands shook, even in his sleep. So when he woke, I asked him what he wanted. I told him he was too sick for us to go on that way, and I needed to know what to do.
“He was reluctant, but he told me, the next harbor town was where his sister lived, and that I had to take him there.
“I agreed, of course, but he said his sister was meaner than a snake. She wouldn’t be kind to any stray child he brought along, and he was sorry. He was pretty sure she’d take care of him, but he said she was stingy. He knew, he said, how cruel she would be to me, but the truth was, he felt I would have a better chance if I didn’t have to care for a dying man. I wouldn’t hear that he was dying, but of course he was. He knew a young boy with a corpse on his hands would be a bad thing. He worried about me, even though he was the one so ill! I told him I’d care for him as long as he needed, and he said, it wouldn’t be for long, and then what would happen to me? He wasn’t wrong about that being a question.”
Tislar was silent for a moment. He looked down into the water below and saw the shadow shapes of creatures there. He loved the deep channel between the strips of barren sand. The sun shone golden bright on everything. It gave him the courage to tell Liny the story that was so important to him, but of which he rarely spoke because of the pain it woke in him. When he resumed speaking, his voice was solemn. “His sister wouldn’t have anything to do with me, once I’d brought Eckel in. He made such a fuss, though, she did let me visit him twice.
‘The first time she met me, she told me that as soon as he died, she’d never see me again, and not to expect a thing from them. And true to her word, when he died, she shut up our cart with all his belongings, as well as anything I’d left on it, and I was on my own with less than I started out with.”
“So that’s when you signed on your first ship.”
Tislar closed his eyes and faced up into the sun. The sky was a cloudless blue. “He was a fine man. Wish I could have done better by him.”
Liny, breathing heavy from exertion said, “It doesn’t sound like you did so bad.”
Tislar smiled widely and peered down at the long-armed boy puffing over the oars, and said, “Well, I’m trying to help you, and that does even it out some, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes, and why don’t we go to sea together?” Liny’s voice rose with excitement. “We’ll travel! We’ll find a great sailing ship and go to those southern islands where the birds are of all colors!”
Tislar laughed and shook his head. “Oh, Liny, don’t be cruel.”
“Don’t you imagine, that to a man who has spent his whole life traveling, that there is nothing easier than to continue doing that?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I want to stay. I want to learn to live somewhere. I don’t want to end up like Non Counds, dead in a bar where no one knows me. Or be anywhere where no one knows me. But for that to happen, I have to stop moving. Be known. Be brave enough to risk knowing. Be brave enough to love. To endure.”
“Surely it’s not brave, to know people, to be stuck with them all your life?”
“Surely it is, if you’ve never done it before.”
“Did you not find any ladies, not once all this time?”
“I found plenty of ladies.”
“But I mean, to love.”
“I did love one lady in particular.”
“She’d been promised to another.”
“And she didn’t love you better?”
“Well, what happened then?”
“I left.” Tislar sat up straight. “Do you want me to row?” Liny shook his head, no, staring at Tislar and waiting. Tislar looked away out into the ocean and added, “I’d rather not talk about her.”
“Are you still sad about it, then?”
“Have you ever gone back to see her since?”
“Do you think I would have left her again if I had?” The boat rocked gently with Liny’s rowing. Sweat was beaded on his light brow. He stopped and let it turn by itself in the swift current, then began rowing with it, back into the sound, after a few strokes, he lifted the oars and let the current push them in.
Tislar saw the wide brown eyes considering him carefully. Liny asked cautiously, “Why not go to the city, then, why stay here where there are no. . .marriageable ladies?”
“You’re here, for one thing. I’ve already begun to know you. I like being around you.”
“But if I leave?”
“Then it will be good to be in a place where I have other friends, too. Then I will have Paramon, Maynard, Ulgo. You see?”
“It seems as though there must be better places, still.”
“I don’t know of any other place where people are trying to create their own, new world. You may not be able to grasp it, but this is a courageous feat. And I am going to face my fears, and stay here. I am going to become part of it. I am not going to run off the minute something I don’t like happens.” Tislar spoke as if to himself, his jaw tensing. Below them, the water shallowed and Tislar could see minnows swimming above their small black shadows.
“Well,” said Liny, disgusted, “I suppose I’ll know where to visit you.”