Wherein: Sillith Studies Ducks; Tislar Speaks of Savar; There Is a Feast
Sillith studied the ducks. She’d brought stale biscuit crumbs in her apron pocket, and the ducks gathered around her, squabbling, waddling, questioning her with cocked heads, gleaming button eyes. They came close, nipped her dress hem and sleeves with damp beaks that felt like wet wood. She looked at their finely shaped necks, the graceful head, the appendage beak.
Maynard had asked her to get a general count of the various species of ducks, and take notes on which flocks nested where, but Sillith often became enchanted with the ducks themselves, the orange of their feet, the feathers they left fluttering in the grasses behind them. It seemed to her miraculous that species, humans and ducks, for example, could tolerate each other in such close proximity. How fear, which should have been present, was not. Sillith had, she thought, eaten duck often enough.
Paramon told her stories of city men who were bitter rivals, yet dined weekly together with nary a hard word exchanged. Why this trust where no trust was deserved?
She knew that her father and his friends did not trust Mithic Tallo, Bearnt, or Hostt Bouck, but these men worked together, still, fishing, building, making plans for the future. How could men who did not respect each other find ways to get along? Did they hope to bend the other to their way of thinking?
Sillith tossed her crumbs, sent the ducks into a frenzy of crackling calls, necks stretched low and long, scuttling about the ground.
Sillith couldn’t imagine a place where there were men and women that she didn’t know. She knew the silhouettes of the settlers, the slope of their walk, and with most of them, even their likes and dislikes at the table. She thought of all the arguments she’d heard, between children, between adults, and wondered if it was possible to live without such tension.
The ducks squabbled in the mud, bickering and calling. Sillith crouched among them and watched.
“I lied to you,” Tislar said, scraping his knife against the fish, scales chipping and flying away in the afternoon sun. He stood with Paramon over the gutting bench, cleaning the day’s large catch of perch.
“All men lie,” sighed Paramon. “What did you lie about?” He cut the head from a fish, tossed it in a basket, and wiped his head with his forearm.
“Considering I’ve never heard you mention that name before, I’m not sure it could be a lie.”
“He’s the one who told me about the island. I didn’t find it on my own.”
Paramon nodded, slowly, and slit the fish he held up the belly. He pulled out the innards, and worked away the thin, clear tissues.
“He’s probably dead by now, though he was certainly alive then, though with bad enough appetites.”
“Shouldn’t you tell his sons? I suppose you’ve thought of that.”
“I have thought about it. Liny knows, from the beginning, that it was his father who told me about the island, but he’s never asked for details.” Tislar looked over the perch for missed scales, dipped it in a pail of salt water, then set it on the table and chopped off the head.
“I can’t imagine how you met him.” Paramon leaned to dip the fish he’d cleaned in the pail of water, and tossed it into another basket.
“As it turns out, he saw my good friend die in a whorehouse fight.”
Paramon looked at him, surprised, but Tislar merely continued to gut and rinse the fish.
“Why would he have told you about the island?’
“I’m not sure. He felt pity for me?”
“You’re right, it was something else. Something more. I’d lost a friend who was like a brother to me. It reminded him of his own brother, his own family, I think. Really, it was he who sent me with the ice.”
Despite the heat, and the need to get the fish cleaned and in a cooler place, the men stopped their work and stood, bloody knives in hand.
“Don’t you think his family would want to know?”
“What? That he abandoned them, and felt sorry enough to send a stranger but not sorry enough to come himself? What good does it do Liny or Insnar or Tril even Annak, to know the man might still live, that they were (even if only barely) on his mind. What good might come of that? And there’s no family to speak of, in a way, is there? Believe me, I’ve spent time thinking on this.”
Paramon set down his knife and walked a few steps away to sit heavily in the sand. He looked out to the dunes and the ocean beyond. “I admit it brings back sour memories for me, even just in this telling. How we needed him, or not him specifically, but his loyalty, all of our loyalties to be united. Do you know,” Paramon continued, as Tislar sank beside him on the sand, “my wife never liked him. She felt, even from the first journey with him as our guide, that he was interested only in himself.”
Tislar nodded. “Your wife, Leena?”
“My wife Leena, yes.” Paramon nodded. “I would have liked to have seen Savar against the background of the city.” He rubbed his hands in the sand, and picked off gooey clumps of sand and fishgut. “It is strange that I should want to see a man merely because of the memory of my wife’s dislike of him.”
“Yes,” said Tislar, “He wasn’t much to see.”
“Isn’t it curious? The yearning that our own histories can provoke in us.”
They sat in silence for a moment, and then Tislar jumped to his feet and held his smeared hand out to Paramon, who took it and rose. They returned to the table and resumed their work.
Paramon, laughing softly, shaking his head, said, “How odd, though, that a man like Savar should have sent you to us, a man so much more generous and useful in our experiment.”
Tislar said, “Oh no, Paramon. He helped to found the island. Don’t forget him in that. It was, wasn’t it, his desire to escape the Order that helped the settling of this place?”
“Hard to tell how a history is shaped. Or hard to accept.” Paramon scaled another fish.
Tislar dug his fingers into the slit he’d made in the fish and pried it open. He freed it of entrails and tossed them on a heap, curling in the sand nearby. He said, “Were it not for my cruel mother, I might still be digging potatoes out of stone soil!”
“Were it not for Mithic’s cartography and Leena’s willingness, I might be in prison. Or more likely, dead. Perhaps both Leena and I would be dead, like the rest of her family, and Sillith never born.”
Silence fell again, their knives slit, flicked, thunked.
Tislar said, “We’ve caught enough here to feed everyone in the clearing.”
Tislar looked up and grinned. “Why don’t we do just that, Paramon? Let’s feed the clearing tonight. The baking was done yesterday, wasn’t it? There will be plenty of everything. We’ll hang these over the fire, and have a regular feast.”
Paramon laughed. “A feast? Tonight? For what occasion?”
Tislar held up his knife in the sun, pretending solemnity. “The occasion of unknown histories.”
“A mouthful,” Paramon said, “but why not?”
Late morning, Ethete sat on her porch, shelling beans. She saw Tislar’s dark head bobbing in and out among the pine trees, bending to arrange or place something on the ground, and then again. Once or twice he stretched to set something in the crook of a tree.
“What is he doing?” She asked the empty porch aloud. She set her beans down and stood to see better. She watched him place few logs and rearrange them. Ethete tucked her hair into her bun and straightened her apron. She set off across the clearing, but before she was halfway across, he was calling to her.
“Tislar, what are you doing out here? Curiosity is getting in the way of my chores!”
Tislar winked. “It’s a game,”
“A game? For the children?”
“When are we to play it?”
“Tonight, at the feast!”
“Feast? I haven’t heard anything about a feast!”
“There will be a bonfire, here, built by Liny and Insnar and Paramon and myself, and we’ll be roasting fish over it, and eating whatever you or the others bring. Ethete, I rarely hear music here. Does anyone have an instrument they could bring along?”
Ethete’s round cheeks flushed and the curls around her face gave her a girlishness that was emphasized by her sudden excitement and confusion. She said, “The lowlanders were only allowed music for religious services. There might be one in Svan’s house. But Tislar, do you mean to say that we’re having a feast tonight?”
“Yes! Don’t you think it’s time? You really don’t know if there are musical instruments? Has there been no music at all, during these years?”
“But we can’t have a feast tonight. No one has time to prepare anything.” Ethete, a preparer by nature, was flustered. She glanced anxiously back at her cottage, as if measuring what she had in the larder there.
“They will have time,” Tislar said, “send your children around and let everyone know. Tell them to come out just before sundown, and bring anything they’d like to share.” He picked up Ethete’s hand and kissed it. “And tell them to find musical instruments!”
Insnar felt happier than he could ever remember feeling. It wasn’t the ale Hostt brewed, or the feral hog Bearnt roasted on a spit. It wasn’t the clearing, filling with the blueing of fireflies as the voices rose and fell. He sat with Tislar and Liny and Paramon. Together, they had built a huge bonfire, and lugged the sitting logs over from the clearing where Paramon held his lessons. Together, they had knocked on all the doors of the clearing, leaping off porches and calling out to whoever opened the door, “Time for the feast! Come out! Time for the feast!”
He felt like he belonged. He was full of food and drink and everyone was there. Elder Shith brought out a fiddle, surprising his own son, and he played songs that made Insnar feel like crying, but also peaceful and fine. Everybody joined in and sang the old lowland lullaby, and he remembered the words, too, and he sang, hearing his voice rise and fall with the others.
When he heard her voice, and saw her, walking to the fire with Wen, he felt his whole body shudder with fear and joy. He looked at Liny and then stared at the fire. He glanced across the fire to where Tril sat with a bunch of other children, playing a game. Tril did not notice her mother’s appearance. Annak took a seat next to Ulgo, who patted the space beside her on the log, handed her a mug, and then turned from her into the silence of the gathering and said, “Tislar, sing us a sailor song.”
Liny saw his mother. He jerked to his feet, scowled, stalked out of the firelight and disappeared into the woods. Annak watched him go. Insnar saw her hands twist in her lap, and saw Ulgo’s arm go up protectively around his mother’s back. He felt grateful that others were kind to her.
He fidgeted, crossed and uncrossed his legs, looked over his shoulder after Liny, and stole glances across the fire at his mother. She looked much thinner, older, changed. She was no longer someone he knew, but his heart overflowed with her presence. He snuck another look and another, until finally their eyes met. She smiled gently at him, and cocked her head slightly, and he looked away, petrified to find that his eyes were filling with tears. He was going to jump to his feet, too, and run into the dark, but then Tislar appeared in front of him, sat close, and whispered, “Don’t run away. You don’t have to talk to her, but she doesn’t want to ruin your time here. It will break her heart if she drives both of you away. You’re having such a good time, Insnar. Don’t let it be ruined. Just go ahead and keep on having it. Stay here, Insnar, I’ll sit right here beside you and we’ll sing.”
Insnar willed himself to stay seated while Tislar started a noisy song, teaching the children the chorus first. Insnar wanted to run, but just as much he wanted to be brave. He wanted to stay. He belonged. There was his mother! There she was! He didn’t want to be alone in the woods like he so often was. He wanted to be by the fire he had built, with the men who were his friends. So he stayed. And once, even, just for a moment, he almost smiled at his mother across the fire. And after a while, when she rose and left, he was glad he hadn’t left, and he was glad she was gone. Because the night was his, and he began to sing again.