People of the Islands

by Mary Pat Mann

At dawn, she reached the gate to the east pasture. Crossing the damp field, she stepped quietly into the kitchen. With a deep exhale, she leaned against the door and closed her eyes.

A stinging slap rocked her head back. “Where have you been?” her mother asked, furious.

Sheli opened her mouth to answer, but the older woman had already turned away. “Don’t answer,” she said, shoulders sagging. “Don’t make up another lie.” She poked at the fire. “Isn’t it enough they take all we have, without making my daughter a whore?”

“No, Mama,” she gasped. “It’s not like that. He… he loves me. And I…”

Dova rounded on her. “Don’t say it. I won’t hear it. You’re a fool; I thought I’d raised you better.” She pushed her from the kitchen. “Go and pack your things.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sheli, suddenly afraid. “Has Papa — ?”

“Your father thinks you’re still asleep, so he’s not kicked you out yet. But then he won’t need to, will he? Your precious soldiers have taken care of that. The whole village is being evicted today. Notice was posted last night.”

In the tiny room, the girl pulled a cloth bag from under a low bed and mechanically filled it with skirts, leggings, tunics, scarves of summer linen and winter wool. Not many, but the bag wasn’t large.

The cottage door slammed open and two boys stumbled over each other in their haste to get in. “Mama!” they called, “there’s a crowd of people… angry… They say…” Neither had breath to finish.

“Hush,” Dova said sharply. “Stop. Breathe. Where’s your father?”

Miko, the elder, spoke. “He went to the far pasture for the goats. He sent us to the village for news and to arrange for a boat. But when we got there, people were yelling. Angry about the evictions, the soldiers, about…” Sheli came into the kitchen and he faltered, the blood draining from his face.

The younger boy’s face was streaked with tears. “They said Sheli had… They said she was… We said it wasn’t true, Mama. Miko hit one.”

Miko eyed Sheli, silent and pale in the doorway. “They’re coming,” he said fiercely, “to shave your head and run you through the streets. And worse. We ran as fast as we could.”

“Gods protect us,” Mari said. She looked outside. Seeing no one, she shut and barred the door. “Boys,” she said quickly, “out back to your father. Tell him to come now with whatever he’s already gathered. Tell him why if you have to, but make him come. If you must speak to anyone else, say Sheli never came home last night. You haven’t seen her. Go.”

Dova watched until the hill behind the cottage hid them from view, then turned to where Sheli stood transfixed. Their eyes met and filled with tears.

Dova pulled her daughter close, whispering, “Mari, mother of oceans, protect my child.” Taking a gold chain from around her neck, she slipped it over her daughter’s head. She stood back, shaking Sheli by the shoulders. “You’ve been a fool, girl, and now you must run. You know where to hide. We’re going to the outer islands. In a few weeks, I’ll send Miko for you.”

Shouts and cries echoed down the trackway, angry sounds. Sheli knew she had to go but could not move. Dova pushed her away, saying, “Go.” Sheli ran.

In a cave near the sea cliff, Sheli hid her bag and crept back to the entrance. Crawling on hands and knees, she reached the cliff edge. She saw wooden boats on the rocky strand and villagers hauling trunks and carts, arguing about what to take and what to leave. Soldiers stood silently at the edge of the roadway.

She didn’t see her lover on the strand. Even at this distance, she would know his form. Where was he? She had to find him, ask him what to do, how they would stay together. Then she knew: he would come to the cottage. He had never been there, of course, but he knew who her father was. She had to go back.

She walked warily, not wanting to be caught by anyone on either side, but all was silent. Everyone was on the strand. Even the birds and animals were quiet. A spur of woods came down around the hill, giving cover until she was close to the cottage.

Soldiers were already there, shouting and laughing as they broke furniture and threw her mother’s pots and pans out the windows. Pressing a fist against her mouth, she watched then leave, throwing lit torches in behind them.

Then she saw her lover, smashing and burning with the rest. He must not know, she thought desperately. Or can’t show that he knows. Thick smoke rose through slanting sunlight carrying the smell of burnt hay and pine logs. The soldiers were moving away, ready to burn the next farm. He was one of the last, walking with a friend. Now, she thought. There would be no other chance.

Wiping tears from her face, she stepped out from the trees. The men were not far. If she called, he would hear.

“So,” his friend laughed, raising his voice over the crackling flames, “what about the dark little farm girl you’ve been plowing this last week? Isn’t this her cottage? You’ll have to find a new field to plant your seed.”

Her lover laughed and slapped his friend on the shoulder. “Ha!” he said. “That’s good, a new field. And the new ones are the sweetest, after all.”

She sank back into the shadows of the trees, turned, and ran blindly into the woods. She woke to find her face pressed into pine needles, a cone against her cheek, arms and legs stiff and cold. Wiping sticky needles from her face, she found it wet. She felt sick. She had cried herself to sleep, like a child. Like the fool she was.

She reached the sea cliff and crept to the edge. Beyond the curve of the island, boats moved away, men and women pulling steadily at the oars, young and old huddled together with whatever they had been able to save. She watched them row slowly but steadily over the swell, heading out to sea.

As she sent good wishes to each and extra prayers to her family, the wind freshened. Her eyes leapt to the horizon to see roiling black clouds. From nowhere they came, piling higher and pushing angrily toward the wooden boats now struggling in the rising swell. A few boats made to turn back to shore, but the soldiers stepped forward, raising rifles to their shoulders.

Eclipsed by cresting waves, boats twisted to and fro as the men and women at the oars wrestled to keep control. One boat, then two, swamped and capsized. Driving sheets of rain moved in on the wind and she saw nothing more.

As the storm finished what the soldiers had begun, rage burned in her hot enough to melt the barren rock. So the storm god sought to kill them all? Fine, she would join her father and mother, her brothers. It was enough.

She climbed to the outermost edge of the cliff where it hung over the water; waves dashed among jagged rocks far below. Leaning into the wind, she spread her arms and threw herself into the storm.

Her rage bore her down to die on the rocks, but then she heard her mother’s voice saying, Mari, mother of oceans, protect my child. Her arms, with a will of their own, pulled outward like wings, beyond the rocks, toward the deeper water.

The shock of the cold sea knocked the breath from her lungs. She sank under the weight of her clothes, pulled one way, then another, by storm currents. Desperately she pushed against the water, needing air but not knowing how to find the surface.

Something dark shot past her, bubbles trailing. She followed it and broke through to a world of rain and wind. Gasping, she pushed off her skirt and jacket, freeing her arms and legs. A wave crashed over her head, rolling her under once again.

Dark shapes surrounded her, and she followed them into deeper, calmer waters. The currents were not as strong down here, the swimming easier. She knew who swam with her. Seals had always lived near the islands. They stole fish from the nets, but they were never hunted.

She swam, following seals in front of her and followed by seals behind. This dream world held no storms or burnings, no betrayals. Warm and alive, she slipped nimbly through green water glistening on sleek skin and running smoothly over soft curves. She undulated through swirling currents with her companions. When at last they surfaced, all wore the same brown, whiskered faces with dark, liquid eyes.

The seals swam close then, nudging her gently in greeting. Diving, they moved away from shore, swimming west. Sometime after midnight, the wind carried the roiling clouds inland, leaving behind a velvet field of stars.

At dawn, small islands appeared on the horizon like low rafts on a calm sea. By midmorning, she reached the rocky shore of the largest of these. Sleeping on the strand and lazily basking in the sun, she found many seals. Families of seals. A village of seals. The boats and all their things were lost to the storm, but here they were. On these outer islands, they could rebuild their lives. They knew how. They had done this before.

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