Wherein: The Ancestors Lay It Bare; The First Hurricane; Tislar Is Harmed
They say, we can’t imply that it was all pleasant. There were large black ants that plagued the houses. And in such a small clearing, coughs could be heard, sneezes, flatulation, shouts. Flying insects! Skeeters by the million, black flies, gnats and house flies and of course, others, pretty ones. Moths and butterflies and dragonflies.
Spiders, lots of spiders, big brown ones, and tree frogs, too.
There were crows and gulls in multitudes, and sparrows everywhere, wrens, finches, hawks and osprey, herons. Terns, skimmers, pelicans.
The settlers would have seen each other all the time, all day long. Always spotting one another, an arm or a leg, or a shape passing among the trees. You couldn’t help but know the shape of one another, the footsteps.
They ask, how many of us live like that anymore? We don’t. But imagine it. Think of the heat spoiling the food, and the rain seeping in the cracks of the cottage walls. Think of the wood swelling and the mold growing in wide mushrooming planks on trees and walls. Think of the excrement and keeping the fresh water supply clean, and the feral hogs, which were frightening if you came upon them alone. There were lightning storms and storms of wind and the ocean that sometimes crested the dunes, and water, which gathered and pooled in the settlers clearing during the long rainy weeks of winter.
The heat in summer bore down on them like a suffocating blanket. There was no relief from the sun, which burned them. Their skin was browned, even the fair ones, who burned pink and pink and pink until their skin finally gave in and browned. The clothes they wore faded and tore and sagged. They remade and remade and remade everything until the only threads left were too short to sew. It was, as we tell it from the human relations standpoint, a place of thrilling intersection. But from the survival standpoint, the experiment was, almost always, hanging on by a hair.
You should know that, they insist. That’s part of the story, too.
The first huge storm was preceded by giant swells coming into the beach. After twelve years of relatively little trouble with the storms, this one came fast. Over his first year among them, when they’d told Tislar they’d never known the hurricanes he spoke of, he only shook his head and smiled.
He was the first to alert them. He’d stood with Paramon and Hubter on a sunny, beautiful day and pointed out to sea. Storm’s coming, he said. They were puzzled.
Paramon asked, “Are you certain?”
Tislar squinted, looking at the ocean, and said, “I’m certain.”
The storm took two more days to make itself known. The wind came and howled and the surf they knew vanished and was replaced by a wall of ferocious black water. The boats were pulled high onto land and tied to trees outside of the clearing. Tislar’s prediction, they said to one another, was right.
The first night of the rains, the settlers gathered to talk about what they should do to prepare. Elder Shith and Tislar exchanged stories of storms they’d seen, storms that drove the trees to their knees, winds that pulled the ocean up over the land, rains that filled low meadows to brimming. The men drank. The lanterns flickered and the women came and went, depending on what children needed tending. There was a sense of festivity and dread in the air. Rain slammed the roof of the Leggith home where they were gathered, and wind screeched in the pines overhead.
Outside, like great birds hunting the land, the waves came screaming into shore, grabbing chunks of bank. The clouds crested over the ocean, and the winds blew mightily. Giant rollers came cracking in, hauling themselves higher on land with each surge. There was hissing tension in the air, the settlers’ vulnerability sung to them in the loud, loud, opening bars of the storm.
Hostt Bouck was drinking heavily, and muttered, gesturing at Tislar, saying, “Ask him to see his back. Ever seen his back?” His grey brows were drawn, his mouth thick with suspicion.
Wen turned to him and hissed, “Hush!”
The others ignored him, except the boys, Lup and May, who asked Tislar, in hushed voices, if they could see his “skin pictures” again. He was sitting by the fire, all of them toasting pecans.
“Show them! Show us all!” said Hostt, bitterly. He drank from his mug. “Our hero. Show us what you’ve brung.” He looked heavy and sullen, his hair loose from its usual tail and loose around his neck like a warning of what might be loosed within him.
Tislar turned to him and said, “What of my inking, Bouck? Do you think I invented the storm? I was a sailor. There was a superstition that if you bore your worst fear on your own skin, it would protect you from it.” He looked at the boys, shook the pan of pecans and said, “A week after I got this inking, a storm came and took the ship I was on. The lifeboat sank, and I swam to shore with this futile picture on my back. Superstitions can but enslave us.”
Hostt, though, furthered darkened and nodded his head emphatically.
“Knock it off, Hostt,” Hubter growled, “Tislar didn’t bring any storm, no more than you did.”
Tislar looked at the boys, who stared up at him with wide eyes, the fire flickering yellow on their faces. Tislar smiled at them, shrugged his shoulders, and reached over to adjust the way Lup was holding his pan.
When the gathering broke up, the men shook hands seriously, the women kissed each other on both cheeks exchanging blessings, which had gone without utterance for years. This made them laugh a bit, chide each other, and then they left, bending hard against the rain to go to their homes and double check for the fourth, fifth, sixth time, that they had done all they could to prepare.
Insnar and Liny were crammed, sleeping with their cousins in the loft in Hubter’s house, when the screaming winds woke them. They could hear the pine trees groaning and grinding against one another. Without speaking, the boys rose, put on their clothes and left the cottage, driven by curiosity. Outside, the hugeness of the sounds was upon them and inside of them, and they shouted to one another, but their shouts were whipped out of their mouths, and they ran, fighting the flattening wind, across the clearing, toward the ocean, wind driving their hair into their faces, noses, mouths. They ran and stumbled, the great pressure of the wind throwing them, like all the other loose twigs and grasses and driftwood blowing all around, and they could hear the ocean as they got closer, her great heaving gasps and moans as she hurled herself at the land, and the young men ran faster, screaming with excitement, laughing, terrified, until they found themselves at the top of the dunes, and there she was, the mighty sea, mightier than they’d ever known, and with all the great power of salt and cold unleashed, the weight of all that water, a landscape of water, crested, foaming, frothing, treacherous and leering. They halted. They were silenced, their voices, their excitement, their bodies taut against the wind, not struggling for a moment, because they saw, in that moment, Sillith Wharsh down there, on the beach, not so far from the massive waves, not so far from the crushing weight, just a few feet away from the thundering hooves of the ocean. The boys moved in unison, tumbling down the dunes, hearts pounding, screaming her name, Sillllllliitttthhhhhh, Sillllliiiiittthhhh.
Sillith stood by the water, a still figure but for her long hair and skirts blowing around her, the boys ran, calling, screaming out her name, and as they got closer, they were soaked with the spray from the enormous waves, and she turned slightly, frowned at them in surprise, and they grabbed her, both boys, their fingers cold and stiff, they lunged, dragging her up the shore, out of the way, and just where she’d been standing, where they’d all been standing, a wave came sucking like a great beast, slurping greedily down after them, hissing with fury as it sank back to the ocean without them.
Sillith and the boys were entangled, her skirts heavy and wet, cast over all of their legs like a net, her hair soaked, wrapped across her face, and they all looked down at the space where she’d been standing, and her eyes widened, another wave came after, just as voracious, and she trembled, the boys lurched again to their feet, half carrying her, the wind at them like a whip, and they each held onto her arms and they all ran, she running with them, up, over the dunes, across the bowls and barren stretches of windswept sand, toward the hill, toward Tislar’s camp, the highest point on the island, they all ran, the wind coming harder, and they looked back as they ran, the ocean even wilder now, threatening to crest the dunes. They ran, panting, leaving the clearing and everyone else, all those other hearts beating, they left them down there, because in that wave they’d seen the relentless hunger of the storm, and they ran to Tislar, who, when they reached him, stood as if waiting for them, and showed them a wide deep hole he’d been digging, long enough even for the boys, into which he’d fashioned a kind of planking roof, dug into the dirt, and he pushed them in the hold, and covered them with sacks, and ordered them to stay tight. He crouched down and winked at them, as if to say, Some adventure, eh? And they held each other, listened to the screaming storm, and eventually, they slept.
Svan was calm during the storm, having survived worse inner tempests before. Mithic hid in his room and she did not even bother to speak to him or comfort him. She had grown to despise him. They shared the cottage but not their lives. Without Mithic’s shadow she been able to develop friendships, and was welcome any time at the Sullicks, the Boucks, the Wharshes or the Shiths.
The storm seemed appropriate to her, but she couldn’t exactly say why. They’d been too long without one, perhaps. She hoped the cottages would fare well, but the all the wind and rain filled her excitement she couldn’t name. It seemed a manifestation of something, passion? joy? that she was only beginning to understand again, and that she craved mightily.
The winds were brutal and she could hear bits of the roof, and perhaps the kitchen out back, wrenching away with screeches and clatters. Rain poured down and streamed in rivulets through the walls of the cottage, pooled on the floor. She checked through a knothole in the door all night, watching as the clearing filled with the frothing white water until it lapped the top step of her porch and threatened to breach the whole house, but did not. Through the knothole, she watched for other settlers, but no one came out. The cottages were boarded up tight. She worried about the Leggiths, who had the cottage lowest on the clearing, but thanks to Tislar’s advice, all of them had cleared their root cellars and moved the food to their lofts.
The rain lessened slightly in the early morning, and Svan went to bed for an hour or two, and when she awoke, there was shouting. She opened her door and saw Tislar in a boat, leaning over with a hand outstretched to Hostt. Bearnt waded out and held the boat firm, while Hostt shouted at Tislar and brandished a knife. From her porch, Svan could see that what would happen was always already going to happen.
She screamed, “NO!” But with a gray flash in the rain, the knife cut Tislar and she watched, helpless, as that good man fell back, long hair flying, his face awash with red blood. She ran out to her porch, two steps down into the water, but there was a current there and Svan didn’t know how to swim.
“Tislar!” she screamed, “Tislar!” He didn’t look up. He lay motionless for a moment. Then his hands moved and she saw them rise slowly to his face, touching there. She screamed again, and toward the other cottages. “Help! Someone! Help!” When she looked back, Tislar’s face was streaming blood, but he’d picked up the oars.
The Shiths heard her screams and crowded out on their porch. Onan struck out immediately, swimming into the clearing, Maynard flung himself into the water also, but Tislar was already rowing away, bloody and rowing into the increasing rain, vanishing in the sheets of rain and the wind picked up again and Svan stood on the porch screaming while Hostt and Onan grappled in the water and Bearnt hit Maynard so hard that he fell back. Onan freed himself, his hair plastered across his face, kicking and punching away from Hostt and caught Maynard half-floating on his back, and dragged him out of the water onto Paramon’s porch. Winder and Hubter leapt into the water from different cottages, and swam in to help.
Shortly after or maybe a long time, Svan could not tell, Paramon rowed in, soaked, lips blue, shivering, asking, “Has anyone seen Sillith? Have you seen Sillith?” He saw Svan and rowed closer, “Svan, is Sillith with you?” And she began to cry, saying, “No, I’m sorry, no, Paramon, I’m sorry. I don’t know where she is.”
Paramon rowed to his own porch full of men asking nothing about what they might be doing there, saying instead, “Have you seen Sillith, is she with you?” To which the men, Onan and Maynard among them and bleeding, sat and stared speechlessly back. They had not seen her.
Svan watched Paramon row from house to house, asking. She went inside her house and put her hands to her face. She heard Mithic call softly, “Is it over?”
She went into her room and sat on the bed, weeping. Mithic came to her door but she knew he wasn’t courageous enough to come in, to try to comfort her, to do anything, so she ignored him.
She thought of Tislar, again and again, rowing into the storm, and the malevolence of Hostt, and Sillith floating, drowned, that lovely girl, somewhere in all the rain and wind. Oh no, she thought, Oh no, and she cried until she fell asleep.