Wherein: An Awkward Courtship; Svan Considers How to Save Lutto
Sillith knew her father well. She knew his gestures, his habits. In the mornings, Paramon bent to his books, and when he rose from that he clapped his hands, saying, “What’s today’s miracle going to be, eh?” Some mornings it was the bread she baked, and some mornings it was the sun outside, or a “good soaker for the garden,” complete with a satisfied farmer’s sigh she knew he’d learned from Maynard.
The miracles that Paramon did not seem to notice amazed Sillith. He did not seem to know that Sillith’s mind, though ostensibly in their cottage, was almost always elsewhere now. He did not seem to know that she herself was changing by the day, physically, with the bleeding that Ethete had warned her about, but beyond that to her very thoughts, which were occupied with Liny Leggith. The tingling warmth she felt whenever she remembered seeing him rise from the surf, and the feel of being held in his long, solid arms. Paramon did not know, nor even sense, that whenever he mentioned Liny, her heart quickened, whether she was cleaning ten pound of fish or sitting quietly by the evening fire.
She imagined Liny. As if she could pull him from the thick night air to her, as if she could call him from afar, lure him from the moon, from the night grass, from the smoke of fires. She imagined placing her two hands, flat and hard against his chest. She would place her hands on that chest which rose from the ocean, part fish, part shell, part man in its colors, curve, strength and waters streaming, and she would kiss him again.
Sillith felt like a liar when these thoughts were in her mind and Paramon spoke of something else, when her attention was dragged back to their domestic ritual. Everything she said seemed a lie, anything that did not have to do with Liny or dreams of Liny, or with her decision each day to seek him out and her failure to do so, her utter disappointment at not doing so.
So to Paramon’s question, “Do we need something from the garden tonight?” She answered in lie, whether yes or no. And he was never the wiser. Sillith saw, in this, Paramon’s humanity, his common vulnerability. Though she pitied him (he trusted her so implicitly!), she was busy with her dreams. So she gave him half her self and kept the rest for her own thoughts.
It was the cold back of winter, all the grasses of settler’s clearing short and furred with frost. The coldest month found the settlers isolated in their own cottages, stir crazy with the smoking lamps, children crying, the lack of warmth as soon as one stepped away from the hearth fire.
Liny and Insnar, shakily reunited, had built themselves huts on the hill where Tislar’s camp had been. They were inexpert huts, not airtight or always waterproof, because in this thing and always, the sons of Insnar Leggith were stubbornly proud. They found themselves in winter as outliers, driven in towards the warm circle of settlers’ clearing. Sometimes they knocked on Winder and Rular’s door, or sat with Elder Shith in his workshop, but most often they visited their cousins at the busy Leggith household, a place they were always welcome, but found a bit noisy and overwhelming.
Although Paramon was Liny’s mentor, Liny found himself unable to go to that cottage. It was the one he furtively looked at when he passed outside, it was the one he most hoped was empty so that he might find those treasures, Paramon and Sillith, on someone else’s hearth.
He remembered Sillith’s lips on his own cheek with hunger and yearning, but he did not want to find her when in the company of his brother, who was often moody and gruff, and whom, he knew, would steal looks at Sillith that made Liny feel uncomfortable and jealous. They had, all three, shared that sleep of comfort during the storm and he resented the threesome it made them, the horror of what they’d all shared in losing Tislar. He wanted to have nothing of the sort in his connection with Sillith. Nothing of that burning loss, nothing of his burning brother, nothing but Sillith and himself.
Weeks and then, months, had passed since the day he’d held Sillith’s body in his arms, so light and unlike his own body, a bird cage, a twig fire, and they’d exchanged hardly a word in that time. The cold had come and it was necessary, if he wanted to see her, to make courting motions. He was alarmed by the idea. It smacked of formality that he did not understand. He did not want to pursue her in traditional ways that he felt ignorant about. He wanted more talks by the sea, but these did not appear, and he resolved to action.
The evening he knocked on Maynard’s door, Insnar was off somewhere, and Liny was alone and fairly, heart-knockingly sure that Sillith would be there among them. The door opened to a merry group around the fire, yellow light streaming, and there was Sillith, laughing and at ease among the people who had raised her and it did seem to him, it did, that the yellow light streamed directly from her.
He was called in. Paramon teasingly chided him for avoiding winter lessons. Liny looked at Sillith and away, for in all those days and nights of yearning and curiosity about her, something had hardened in him, a real feeling, a radiant light, a brilliant light, which was what she lit in him, and which he could barely contain.
She sat in a hard-backed chair with two hands around her soup bowl, and watched her father and Maynard as they clamored around Liny, her hair long and wavy, each tress catching firelight, now flickering brown, now red, now gold, and then she was looking at him, her serious face upon him, appealing to him. Inwardly he writhed. He wanted to run to her, startle her, make a smile break across her face.
When she cast her eyes across the room, across the laps and legs of Sullicks, their chatter falling dimly on his ears, and looked at him, he saw that he had not merely imagined a connection between them. Even as his beating heart made him nervous, he knew that he was not. It was all there between them, a living, rushing water, and he felt that things could soon change, the silence between them could become days of talk, and he felt it bloom, the possibility of it, the anticipation, and he smiled at her. She colored fiercely and looked away, but her mouth was smiling and he saw her fingers were clenched on her bowl. He wanted to rise and take it from her, sit on the bench beside her, let the natural waters take their course while he held her hand and counted her fingers, while he felt whether they were cool or warm.
Liny, before he realized it, had been seated and given a bowl of soup. He lifted the spoon to his mouth and watched the others. They were so comfortable and sure. In themselves, in one another. Everyone was talking about a story that had occurred during the winter, something that he did not know. What were they talking about? Why didn’t he know? Why hadn’t he been there, too, like everyone else? He felt his own strangeness, the oddity of his life up on the hill with Insnar, the lonely long hours of his life. Suddenly his mood surged, changed course. He felt his inability, his coarseness, the taint of his blood. He thought of his gloomy brother, and his distant mother, his treacherous father, and he thought it was folly of the worst kind that he should bring himself and these formidable histories into Sillith’s life. She was looking away from him, talking to May and Locar, good brothers who did not bicker every day, and jealousy rose up in him, he could not bear it, he would not. May said something to Sillith, which made her laugh.
Abruptly Liny rose, set his bowl with a splash on the table, and unsmiling, stumbled over legs and children. He made his way to the door mumbling, Good night, good night, I’ve just remembered there’s a trap I’ve left sit too long, and in the last second, the last second of the moment he’d chosen to make an utter fool of himself, he looked back and saw Sillith, startled, eyebrows up, mouth open, and he felt terrible, stupid. He should have stayed sitting, why did he have no social grace? What was this impatience, this gruffness, that had come over him? But he only nodded, still bidding goodnight, and he stepped out into the dark which turned his breath into white puffs and there, halfway across the clearing he saw his brother walking alone in the dark, and he saw the ways in which they were alike, and horribly, he knew much more about Insnar than he ever had before. The unwanted understanding made him so sorry that he could have wept. When Insnar turned and saw him, not waving, never buoyant or glad to see him, but as always with his blond hair rising bright and false against his serious, scowling face, Liny turned in the other direction and began to run.
Sillith measured her own waiting in walks. Ever since the night at the Sullicks, she remembered the way Liny looked at her and she remembered purposefully opening what she could in her own expression so that he would see how she felt. Because their chances had been so rare, she couldn’t stand the thought that the next meeting would be nothing again, like all the days of nothing that had passed with the quiet habits of Paramon, the settlement marking its days, time passing. Liny had been wrong on the beach. She did know what she wanted. She knew what he wanted. His blushing and stammering, she knew, had everything to do with her, and was everything possible and good between them. She wished she could have stopped him that night, asked him to come nearer and eat his soup with her, but all the same she was encouraged rather than shaken.
Books taught her about the unpredictability of emotions. She wanted to show Liny that it was all right. That such moments could come and go and build into other moments, build a whole experience. And so she waited and walked, knowing that one of the paths would eventually offer him up to her.
Svan stepped outside and watched Lutto bent over her sewing on the porch, and she felt her heart bloom with affection for the girl with her rough hair, the broad shoulders, her rare, crooked smile. Svan wished she knew how to help her. She’d spoken to Mithic, asked him to leave the girl alone, but he’d only smiled lecherously and offered to let her take up her wifely duties again. When Svan accused him of being a villainous old man, he only laughed and said, “You don’t know Lutto. It’s me you should be feeling sorry for.” This comforted Svan, the idea that Lutto had an upper hand with Mithic, but she wanted to free the girl. Svan couldn’t bear Mithic, and she couldn’t imagine that Lutto could bear him either.
She didn’t know how to broach the subject with Lutto without scaring her off. She knew Lutto had no other refuge than the Tallo house, and she didn’t want to make the girl feel unwelcome. She was afraid for Lutto, and knew she had worse problems than Mithic alone. Svan knew Lutto drank too much, but beyond that, she’d begun to suspect that Lutto’s father took liberties with her. With Hostt in that cottage, also, Svan was terribly anxious for the girl.
She picked up another bit of sewing and sat next to Lutto, saying, hesitantly, “Lutto, I want you to know that if you ever chose to, you could come and live here with me. I mean, I know Mithic is around all the time, and maybe that puts you off, but you are always welcome, if you ever wanted to get away from. . .all the men at your cottage. . .and if you want me to say something to Mithic, I could get him to leave you alone.”
Lutto looked at her strangely, the dark eyes shining with fear and confusion, “There are men everywhere on this island,” she said, and added, “Mithic doesn’t bother me none.” She set her sewing down and went inside.
Flustered, Svan realized she would need a plan, that Lutto could never imagine a different future for herself. It would be up to Svan to do it for her.
When Sillith finally saw him, winter had begun to let loose her hold, and there was a string of warm days. He was out on the bay in his small skiff, fishing. She waved to him, but he did not see her. She could not shout at him. She didn’t know what she would shout. His name? Could she call his name? She could not shout his name. She couldn’t shout hello, casually, either. She sat on the bank, thinking. She wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders. She watched him. He sat quite still in his boat, looking out to the ocean. She decided to sit as still as he did then, to sit still and wait. She would not move until he moved. She sat, staring at the silhouette, boy and boat on water, for long time. Then he stood, leaned against his line and pulled. He brought up a fish, jerking on the line. He bent over it. Sillith stood. She thought about calling him. She could not do it, could not shout his name across water. As if it would be too forward, too what? Too insistent. Sillith stood on the bank.
Suddenly she heard herself shouting, “Liny!” He turned in a gesture that even from far away she could see was surprise. She waved. She waved, and it felt so good, finally, to be shouting and waving to him that she kept it up. “Liny! Liny!” He sat down immediately and began rowing to her. As he rowed, he kept turning to see if she was there. She waved again.
When he was within distance, he called, “Is everything all right?”
Sillith, embarrassed, merely nodded yes.
Liny rowed in, and jumped off the boat. He stood on the edge of the water with his hand on the bow, smiling at her. Sillith had nothing else to say. She’d done it. She’d called him in and there was nothing for her to say.
He said, “I was fishing.”
He blushed then. “I guess you could you tell that from the boat.”
“No,” Sillith said, surprising herself again. “I was watching you.”
Liny laughed. He pulled the bow of the boat closer, creating a little wave, and pulled it higher on the shore.
“For a while.”
“Oh!” Liny raised his eyebrows and she saw a rush of pleasure cross his face.
“Could you take me out in the boat?”
“Of course.” Lifting her skirts, Sillith hesitated before the water. Liny said, “Let me help you.” Sillith, who had spent her whole life getting in and out of boats, let him lift her. She flung a leg over and climbed in. She saw the fish he’d caught, wriggling in a wet basket at the bottom of the boat.
Liny gave the boat a shove and leapt in. He moved the basket behind him to the bow. Sillith turned to face the lines where land and ocean and sound met. They rowed in silence.
After a while, Liny said, “I wanted to apologize to you.”
“I was so rude that night at the Sullicks. I didn’t meant to be rude, but I was.”
“You seemed upset.”
“What was it, then?”
Liny let the oars ride up and rest on his lap. He looked at her. “I was nervous.”
“Nervous!” Sillith felt sick her own nervousness. She wanted the conversation over with and she wanted it never to end, never to reach a conclusion, to stay at the dizzying height of connection. “I’m the one who should be embarrassed.”
“Don’t say that.”
“I’m the one who, that day, during the blues run.”
“But I’m not sorry about that day. I’ve been looking for you,” Sillith said, abruptly impatient, “everywhere. And you’re never where anyone else is.”
Liny stared at her.
“And the thing is, I only seem to be interested in talking with you. But we haven’t talked that much, have we, Liny? I mean, I know I don’t talk much. Except to Paramon, of course, I talk all the time. But to other people, I don’t know. I’m just not interested in the same things. But you seem so interesting to me. I don’t know why. I like the way you do so many things on your own. I’m curious about you. But we don’t have to talk. I don’t have to. I don’t usually talk like this. I. . . ”
Liny grinned. He resumed rowing. Sillith fell silent.
Liny continued to grin. She took in the strong lean of his cheek, the blue of his eyes. He was looking right into her, she felt. She felt a shiver run her through. This is how it feels to be caught, she thought, like a fish.
Liny said, “Talk to me, then, Sillith. Tell me anything at all.”