Wherein: The Boys Leave Marks; Mithic and Insnar Talk
Revolution; Liny Gets Serious About Leaving; Palin Starts a Journal
They say the settlers were, in effect, paralyzed. They were outnumbered. They were confused. They were outraged. They were hungry. They were complacent. They were excited. They were weak. They were curious.
They agree that they can never agree on the same story about what happened on the day that Umar’s tribe arrived. All anybody agrees upon is that they did arrive. The settlers didn’t like it, but they let it happen. It happened. That much they agree on. And this arrival, this invasion, this expansion that no one can agree upon, was to change the nature of the island forever.
They say, dejected, no one can tell if what happened would have happened anyway.
The light was pale blue behind the twisted pines. The trees stood like black flames against the sky, each time seeming different, a different series of ideas, now this branch, now this trunk, different from the night before. Here, where the water shimmered neat and black at the foot of the trees. Here, where cold sand clung. Here, in the smooth dark, Liny found calm.
It was here he came to dream of the places Tislar told him about. Places of people and foods he’d never known. Vegetables that burnt the tongue. People of different colors. Jungles. Sailing. Bright blue oceans, lined with stone.
The arrival of Umar’s tribe had stirred him. How they were set in their ways, those strangers, which were absolutely different ways than the ones the settlers had. Each person believed with such certainty that their way of life was the right one, when there were so many choices. Those choices. This was the kind of thing Liny felt he had to know about. He had to know. What were the choices? What were the limits? Why did people choose the limits? Even the settlers, who had tried to make a new beginning, brought most of their habits and traditions with them. What was the need for that?
He wanted to see the place Umar’s tribe had come from. He wanted to see other places. But Sillith lingered at the fringe of each imagined departure. She was as interesting, more interesting in some ways, to him. Could he leave her?
He crouched to watch a mouse scuttle in the leaves, the small fluid motion. This was the kind of small motion in the world that calmed him. All the other lives in one’s periphery. Some nights, he stripped his clothes off and stood, a young sapling among the trees. He felt the breeze turning his skin to water. Some nights he swam with the cool water fingers pulling at him, pulling all his worries out of him. He did this as if he too, were of tree or water or vine or shell or fin. Like the pine trees against the sky, like the mouse, he had grown from this land, also, and from this water.
He wanted to share the island with Sillith. But he had to leave. How could he know her and leave? How could he not?
The settlement was uneasy with Umar’s tribe settling in above them on the island. The tribe didn’t interfere with the lower coves, and no overlap of fishing grounds seemed to occur, but the settlers didn’t want them there. Paramon did his best to decipher and explain and clarify agreements with Umar, but he often returned from such meetings with little understanding of what had transpired. The settlers had lengthy discussions about whether the tribe’s presence was a failure or an opportunity.
Onan argued that the settlers needed Umar’s tribe for population increase.
Hubter argued that they had no reason to believe that they wouldn’t one day be killed off on Umar’s whim.
Maynard was enchanted by the way they built their round cottages, and wished he could get closer to see their cooking. He wasn’t worried.
Ethete was worried because ever since the tribe came, the boys came even less often to the clearing. Ulgo and Elder and Fearn were worried.
Paramon, not knowing what to do for them, repeated, “Let’s just see how it unfolds.”
Anyhow, Winder Shith would always add, “It’s time for us to fish.”
Ethete was crossing the grass when an object caught her eye, dangling from the pines above the clearing where Paramon taught. She turned and headed for it. As she got closer, she realized it was a dead animal, skinned. She gasped at the bulging eyes, which were not eyes but snail shells, around which the rusty muscle of the animal’s face had hardened. Where paws should have been, there were fingernail clamshells, long and grotesque, jammed into the ruddy, dried flesh. Her hands trembled as she took her paring knife from her apron and cut the thing down. She flung it into the woods and it wasn’t until she reached her cottage that she burst into tears.
The worst part, she told Maynard later in a hushed voice, was the feeling she had, a mother’s intuition, that it had been made by one of her own sons.
They say the boys were just boys, a group of boys. The Leggith and Shith boys, and Maynard’s sons. It started innocently enough.
Maybe it was never innocent, muses one of the speakers. But no one responds.
They say, after the last chores were done, and sometimes before, fishing or livestock or chopping wood, the boys disappeared from the clearing and gathered by the tree on the hill above the bay.
They say that dangling from one of Winder’s oars, he found an animal’s tongue tied to a tiny leg bone.
They say Hubter found a duck’s head, eyes opaque, sewed on the body of a squirrel.
All of the settlement fathers found one, and knew it was meant for him, because of the careful placement.
They say, sighing, that when Umar’s tribe arrived, in the confusion and fright of that time, the boys were left to do what they pleased.
Don’t forget Mithic, one of them says. They might have got through it all right if it weren’t for Mithic, giving them ideas.
Mithic and Insnar. Spark and tinder.
Well, anyhow. They said. That’s when the boys became a pack of boys. Like dogs, living by their own rules, rules only they understood.
Lup irritated Insnar. Klek, on the other hand, always knew his place. Klek was soft and weak, and did not desire to lead, so there was no struggle with him. Lup desired power, and Insnar wanted to use this as long as possible. But it required constant attention to keep it in check.
Insnar remembered that every priest in the Order had a second, a man under him, who had almost as much power. He saw this in Umar’s tribe when he spied on them. Umar’s second was powerful, but only in that he was Umar in Umar’s absence. Umar was undoubtedly the leader, as would be Insnar. This second man never held the fear of the others. Fear was always held by the true leader. Mithic had told him he was a born leader. Everyone, including the second man, must fear the leader.
Mithic warned Insnar about managing his dislike of his cousin Lup. Insnar needed Lup to be his second, and to establish this balance, Insnar had to control him without spite. Mithic and Insnar agreed that May was too unpredictable to be second, but Lup’s practicality would do well in the coming fight.
Mithic taught Insnar that each of the boys must look to Insnar first. There must be no mistake. It was how all the revolutions in the world progressed. There must be followers to follow the unequivocable leader.
Lup’s face, rough and thick, made brash by his large, oddly yellowed teeth, made Insnar uncomfortable. All the worst of Hubter’s features were in him. It was his expression that annoyed Insnar the most, a calculated measure of disdain and boredom. It was false and Insnar knew it. He knew he’d worn the same expression once, but he, as leader, could not have such insolence. He needed Lup to be committed to Insnar’s will.
Insnar worked to weave the pack loyalties to him. If something occurred that was distasteful to Noner Shith, Insnar stopped it, and made sure that Noner, and his brother Lert, knew he had stopped it. If May teased his brother Locar, Insnar chastised May. Insnar began to feel like a parent. The younger boys came to him with complaints, and soon enough, questions, ideas, things of which they were proud. The boys didn’t much care about Insnar’s qualifications or suitability as a parent. Insnar, who’d had hardly any parenting to speak of himself, was daily sorting out the troubles of the younger boys. He surprised himself by being good at it.
If problems arose that Insnar didn’t know how to handle, he discussed them with Mithic. He didn’t necessarily like Mithic Tallo. The man was flimsy and often drunk and maybe even a little crazy, but Mithic’s knowledge of history struck awe in Insnar. Mithic knew dates and names and reasons and outcomes. It inspired Insnar, all the stories Mithic knew about men who had changed entire countries to their thinking. Even if he didn’t like Mithic, it was this knowledgeable man, this man who knew all the history of leaders, who sought Insnar out and told him, You are the leader this island needs.
Insnar felt humiliated and disgusted by Paramon’s handling of Umar’s tribe. When Mithic approached him, he’d been ready. He was sick of Paramon Wharsh, the Shiths, his own uncle and aunt. They never took care of anything, as far as he could see. They were weak.
“I would never have welcomed that tribe,” Insnar told Mithic.
“No, my boy,” Mithic nodded sagely at him, “I know this to be true. You are not a coward.”
“I wouldn’t have accepted that wormy horse, first of all.”
“You would have been prepared,” Mithic agreed, “as you will be now.”
“I’m ready,” said Insnar.
“Let me tell you about how ten men once overthrew an entire government.”
Mithic never once spoke of the plan failing, and Insnar did not either. Only vaguely aware of the danger they courted, Insnar drove the other boys fiercely toward the dream.
Liny’s desire to travel, to seek the life that Tislar led, began to rise in their daily conversations. Why wouldn’t Sillith join him? She shifted and sighed. He pressed. Didn’t she want to feel the ocean coursing under her feet, for days? Didn’t she want to see the cities they’d read about in the books? Didn’t she want to know the place she’d come from? Couldn’t they come back, once they’d traveled? Did she know how long life could be? How young she was, how much she could still experience?
Sillith hung her head. She did know. Of course she wanted to see those things. But Paramon. How could she leave Paramon?
Didn’t Paramon want her to live fully? Hadn’t he taught her that?
Maybe Liny just didn’t understand, since he was without parents. Maybe he didn’t understand the desire to stay and care for someone you love.
No, he didn’t know. He knew nothing about love, obviously, since that was what she was saying, and his feelings for her meant nothing. And the fact that he could not leave without her, that meant nothing too.
Sillith just could not agree to go, she could not. She couldn’t leave. Even if she wanted to leave. Couldn’t he see that?
He told her, Tislar said you should be careful about the choices you make because they might haunt you your whole life.
Sillith said, Maybe so.
No. He could not see that. She had no choices then? To be a daughter is always to be that daughter? Didn’t other daughters marry and leave their fathers?
Other fathers, Sillith agreed, other daughters, in other places.
Paramon took the stack of leather-bound notebooks and tied them with twine. He’d spent another evening looking at them, missing her, and he felt it heavy in his belly. He touched his grief too often. After all the years, he needed to stop looking at Leena’s sketchbooks. They had no words, no lengthy discussion of her feelings and thoughts, and he was frustrated with deciphering the sketches.
There was part of him that wanted to keep his grief alive. He didn’t want his feelings for Leena to fade as the notebooks had, and become yellowed with age. As the years had passed, he realized how young they had been, how little time they had experienced together. Who knows what kind of person she would have become. Who knows how he might have been different alongside her.
He would concentrate on his own journals, and leave a history of sorts for his daughter, and if she had children, for them. But not just a history. He would leave her his own thoughts. He would not, as Leena had left him, leave Sillith without words to understand him by. He would not leave her a puzzle with no answer.
Fearn Shith, whose twins had been at her side their whole lives, was the most affected by the boys’ indifference, and when she saw them in the woods she called to them, and they barely gave her a nod before they went on after the others. She fretted over them incessantly and told the other women that she could feel in her bones that a new storm was coming, and worse even, than the last. They told her, sympathetically; No one wants their children to grow up.
To which Fearn replied, “Does this seem like growing up?”