Wherein: Sillith Remembers; Liny and Sillith In Love; Lutto’s New Cabin
Sillith watches the foam gather, bunch, disperse. The sun strings the foam shadows on her face in thin dark lines. Suddenly, a sound rises. A rhythmic series: clomp, swish, whoosh. Clomp, swish, whoosh. Then the slurp and belch of water on a hull. Sillith, paralyzed, silent, still, wants to scream, swim, call out. But the sounds get closer, and the boat is above. She sees the hull, the oars. No human, no arm or flash of skin. The bulky shadow of it passes over her, embraces her with darkness and then leaves her exposed again, marked by the twining shadows of foam. She watches it go, watches the oar blade slice the water, the bubbles swirl, then gone.
Sillith’s foot kicks, once.
Sillith is in the heaving surf, a shining day. She remembers rowing with Liny on the bay in his handmade skiff. She remembers the tiny waves, the heat on her back, and Liny’s voice telling her a story about Tislar.
Do you remember the birds, Liny asked her, that were linked on Tislar’s wrist, beak to wing, each with its head cupped back as if it were calling?
She remembered them.
Did you know, Liny told her, that Tislar had to go to one man, oceans away, to find just that inking? Only that particular man made that particular mark.
The sailors believed that the inked drawing was a test. If you were of strong and noble will, you survived this drawing and gained powers. If you were a liar or a cheat, you’d die. Tislar told Liny he’d been just young enough, just vain enough to try such a thing.
She imagined Tislar when he’d been young, how willing he would have been to try anything he thought meaningful and measuring.
The man lived in a mud hut in the jungle. Tislar had to travel on a spice ship to the wet, hot island. Then, following a map another sailor had made for him on a piece of cloth, he wandered into the jungle, and was lost for two weeks before finding the man. When he did find him, the old man looked at him, sat down and scooped a bowl of some stew that reminded Tislar of wet bark, and handed it to him. Tislar said the old man didn’t speak any language he could understand. The old man was a dark wrinkled brown, like a nutshell, but his hair was a cloud of white.
Like a god in the books, she’d interrupted, but Liny went on.
The old man watched Tislar while sharpening the fine points on the end of a long, well-used stick. Finally, the old man pointed at the sky and held his arms out like wings. Yes, Tislar had said, yes, the birds. He said the old man smiled, shook his head thoughtfully, and then outright laughed.
The next day, the stick the old man used to make the design was heated and dipped in ground nut. The man used a hammer to pound the dots of color into Tislar’s forearm. It took an entire day, Tislar passing out every so often. By the end, Tislar was sick, vomiting, feverish with the nut poisons.
In the days after, Tislar remembered opening his eyes and seeing the old man going about his chores. Twice a day he brought Tislar a fermented, strong smelling broth, which Tislar drank. He slept and woke to silhouettes of the thin brown body bent over the fire, smoking a pipe, chewing grass. The first day Tislar sat up, the old man stepped to him, caught his arm, looked at it deeply, spat upon it, rubbed it in. In the mud colored spit, Tislar said, one of the birds lifted his head and called a great ragged call.
Remembering, Sillith felt something like a laugh rise in her. At the time Liny had told her, she’d said, No. I don’t believe that. But now, her eighth month at sea, she believed. And thinking about Tislar’s arm, about the bird, about the call, she understood. Yes, the ragged call, she’d heard it now.
He mimicked the hordes of fiddler crabs on the dark, marshy banks of the bay, his hands in the air, eyes rolling, legs spread, running from one side of the bank to the other, rolling his eyes and shouting, Away! Away! Away! Sillith laughed helplessly, leaning over, falling to the bank above. Liny stopped, leapt up the bank to roll with her, laughing, sun on their faces. She asked him questions. They met every day, when they could. They walked and rowed or talked. Liny, who was a serious boy, found it in himself to make her laugh. It became his great pleasure, making her laugh.
They fell into conversation, stopping only when they were startled by the sun’s last stretch across the water, or a hunger that overcame them with abrupt and spearing ferocity.
The first time they kissed, they stood on the edge of the bay while rain broke the water’s surface in thousands of tiny circles. Moon shone on the water in a long bridge to where they stood, drops plinking on their heads, their fingers, their noses. Liny pressed his mouth onto Sillith’s, and she felt the breath from his lungs on her cheeks, the smell of his neck rising up, his mouth’s heat, the feel of his soft, slippery tongue in her mouth, like the animal of him seeking her. They stood this way in the rain and he pressed his mouth in the curves of her neck, her shoulders, making her feel sweetly, newly defined. Sillith felt his hand trembling on her hip, sliding up her side, shifting slightly, seeking, but trying not to, and she let him wonder, she let his hand stay there and wonder, even though she wanted to give him everything, arch her back and give him all of her, fill his hands with her breasts, feel his pulse in his fingers, the long shank of his arm. They stood breathing and kissing, the heat between their mouths a fruit they drank from together, while the rain cooled their skin, wet their hair, blessed them.
The fire burned in thorns, with flowers of long and orange flame. The blaze sank from the burning logs onto the bed of glow that streamed with blue and white flames fleeing hungrily from bark. Sillith marveled that something so full of color could be transparent. She listened to Liny’s voice clucking softly to a bird overhead, and it was not like other men’s voices, as the smoke was not smoke, nor color. Liny told her what she reminded him of, pointing to a clump of delicate blooming mosses, or a thundercloud rolling overhead, the roil of boiling water in a pot, or a small round stone. His voice was gentle, seemed to listen as it spoke, and she knew there was every man like him, and none like him, in the same way the fire was both visible and mere breath.
In the swamp, Sillith taught him the many names and uses of certain plants that Maynard had taught her. He watched as she leaned, swiftly scooping her hand in the water, and pulling out a pale, flapping fish with thick whiskers.
“They’re slow,” she said, shrugging, “but what a face!” Uncharacteristically, she held the wriggling fish next to her own face and pulled her mouth down, opened her eyes wide, and said in a deep voice, “Swifter than a sea slug, though!”
Liny, who had not seen Sillith ever be silly, ever play in such a way, felt a sweetness for her come over him. He laughed, shaking his head, but it was almost a sorrow, he thought, to feel so surprised that a young woman would be silly. He saw her past stretching out behind her, in all its determined and duty driven days, and he felt late. They needed each other, and he wondered that they hadn’t chosen to be with each other sooner.
Sillith, slightly embarrassed by her joke, bent back to the water and put the fish in. In her normal voice, she told Liny what it fed on.
He knelt next to her and said, “Tell me in that fish voice.” She laughed and demurred, coloring. After another moment, though, the low voice came again, and Liny learned about the good use of whiskers for tickling the lady fishes.
Svan watched Mithic leave one morning, and went into his room, where he’d been spending a lot of time, rustling papers and talking to himself. She found some strange drawings, proclamations of a revolution, plans for a little town. It was all incomprehensible, much of it gibberish, but she told Paramon and Onan.
“Do you want us to speak to him about it?” Onan asked.
Svan shrugged, “He’s more content than he’s been. I just wanted to let you know.” She laughed, “in case he ever does, oh, it’s unlikely, isn’t it? I don’t know why I thought I should tell you.”
“We’ll keep an eye on him,” Paramon said.
“I think he’s going a little mad,” Svan said.
“If he wasn’t already,” Onan added, and they all laughed.
Sillith helped Rular gather pecans. Rular was expecting her first child. As many questions as Sillith had, she could not think how to ask them.
“Are you pleased,” she asked finally, “to become a mother?”
“Oh yes, I’ve always looked forward to this.”
Sillith found this startling. She had not, herself, thought much of becoming a mother. It hadn’t occurred to her that she would ever do so.
“I don’t think you can ever prepare for how often you feel unwell when you’re with child. Mother told me this would happen, but I didn’t quite know what she meant.”
“Nauseous. I’m tired all the time. It’s not like me.” Sillith watched Rular, who, despite these feelings she was describing, looked as pretty as ever.
“You never show it,” said Sillith. Rular was the only Sullick to have straight hair, and it hung in neat brown shafts to her shoulders her whole life, though since she’d been married she’d begun wearing it coiled on top of her head like Ulgo and Ethete. Sillith suddenly wondered why. Had Rular known she should do this? Had her mother told her? Was there a whole language of being a woman that Sillith knew nothing about?
Rular shrugged. “Why should I complain? I have so many blessings. And mother helps me when I feel overwhelmed.” Sillith took her apron full of nuts and funneled them into the pail. She thought of Rular and Ethete, whom she had seen together all her life.
“What is it like to have a mother?” Sillith surprised herself at this question, but no more than Rular, who jumped and reddened.
She hesitated. “I don’t know, Sillith. I’ve never not had one.”
Sillith’s casual question, which she had not meant to ask, began to rise inside of her like a greasy dough. She felt bereft. How was it she had no mother? All of these questions and no one to ask. Where was her mother? How could she have died, the moment when Sillith was born, the moment she would be most needed?
Rular was all at once clumsy, the pecans slipping from her hands and falling to the ground. “I’ll try to tell you, Sillith. What do you want to know?” Long strands of her hair swung onto her red face as she bent to pick up the nuts, spilling more from her skirt.
Sillith, a particularly undemonstrative girl, felt her eyes well up at the sight of Rular so nervous, until she found herself crying, clutching a handful of nuts in one hand, the other hand over her eyes. She said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I don’t know why I asked.”
Rular let her apron full of nuts spill rattling to the ground, and put her arms around Sillith. Sillith leaned into her and Rular felt the heat pouring out of Sillith, the heat of grief and anger. Rular made herself firm as a tree, something for Sillith to lean against, and Rular cried for her, too, holding her. She stood with Sillith pressed against her belly, not knowing, never having known, what she could do for Sillith, how she could even their lots in life.
Steam rose from the pickling water as Svan dropped in hunks of cucumber and Lutto stirred. Svan interrupted the silence, saying, “Lutto, I understand why this house wouldn’t be much better than your own, so I’ve been thinking, why don’t we build you your own cottage? Most women don’t get their own house until they marry, but why should you have to wait? You have worked hard all these years and I think you should have your own cottage.” She looked up to find Lutto’s face stricken, pale with terror, lips trembling. Lutto’s fingers were white on the spoon.
“Pa won’t let me go,” she said.
“Oh yes.” Svan said, taking the spoon from Lutto’s hand and stirring for her. “He will. I will make sure of that.”
“What can you do?”
“What I should have done before. It took me such a long time, I’m sorry, Lutto, it took me such a long time to realize that he was. . .mistreating you. My father wasn’t a good man either, and I know how you begin to believe that this makes you a lesser person. Because you’re his daughter. But it’s not true. You’re a good, sweet, hard working girl. You deserve to live in peace and make your own house the way you want it.”
Lutto frowned and shook her head, as if she couldn’t allow herself to believe such a thing could happen. “How would it get built?”
“Let’s see,” Svan looked up at the ceiling and counted off the names, “I already asked Maynard, Onan, Paramon, Elder, and Winder, and they all said they would help. Oh, Hubter and Ulgo, too. Klek and Lup. All the children will help. Have it done in a few days, once you choose where you want it.”
Lutto stared into the steam and a small smile crept onto her face. Abruptly, the smile vanished and she looked up at Svan and said, “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Don’t you want your own cottage?”
Svan laughed, “I have a place to live. You know I manage with Mithic.” She leaned in, her mouth flat and serious, and added, “But you be sure and only let anyone in your cottage that you want to come in.”
Lutto said absently, “I know how to manage, too.” Svan laughed again and took her by the shoulders.
“So I should tell them to build?”
“I want it in the swamp,” Lutto said firmly.
“The swamp! Why would you want it there?”
“My father,” Lutto said simply, “is afraid of the swamp.”
They say that Maynard chose the spot and the difficult work of building there ensued. Lutto, for whom nothing had ever been done before, stood before her tiny cottage on the last day, with Maynard and Paramon and Onan and Hubter, and they said she wept, and hugged them each in turn, embarrassing them, and causing a round of semi-clean kerchiefs to appear.
Bearnt did not know of the cottage until Svan and Ethete came one afternoon with Lutto to gather her things. He roared at them, threatened them, and backhanded Lutto across the mouth, knocking her to the floor. Svan told him to wait for his punishment, helped Lutto up, and they left. Next time, they sent men to get Lutto’s things.
It was Elder who said, looking up into Bearnt’s dark and glowering face, “You going to let us do this, respectably, and quietly? Or are we going to tell you what we think of your kind of fathering?” When they left, Elder added, “Lutto can hold us to blame for not doing something sooner to help her, but you? You’re not to be forgiven.”
The men took two-thirds of the livestock from the shed that Bearnt had tended all the years they’d been settled there, and built a new series of holding pens near where Insnar and Annak’s house once stood, without explanation to Bearnt. The implication was clear enough. The settlers wanted nothing to do with the degraded Bearnt or his companion, Hostt.