I sink in the sea. I hear voices from above, muffled and distant. I look up towards the light, filtering down through the water. I want to swim towards it. How did my arms and legs get so heavy? Why can’t I seem to move? Someone has to come to save me, right? I don’t see anyone coming. Air bubbles slip out of my nostrils and rise towards the light.
How did I get here? I dove in to do something, right? My memory feels like the surface: hazy, muffled, out of reach and slipping further away with each second. I remember all of this happening before somehow.
“What bothers you?” Robin asks. She stands to my left and I hear her clearly, as if she stood on solid ground.
“They want to kill you,” the old woman says, “and that would frighten anyone.” I turn and see her on my right. I hear her just as clearly. I know her. Why can’t I remember her name?
“It happens every night, doesn’t it?” Robin asks.
“I thought you said you’d never trained,” the old woman replies, speaking to Robin like they know each other, like they don’t even notice me drowning here between them.
“So how much longer will you wait?” Robin asks me. “How many more of these dreams will you have?”
“How long have the dreams hunted you?” the old woman asks me.
“Who chased you this time?”
“Narluga!” the old woman says. Does she mean to get my attention, or does she simply mean to answer Robin’s question? “I’ve heard of them, the great unicorn-whales of the northern seas. I’d always hoped to see one, and now I have.”
“We don’t live anything like these people,” Robin tells her.
“Ah, but they do in dreams. They remember the horns of their ancestors.”
“They haven’t yet,” Robin says. She turns to me and says, “You have more strength than them. I think they know that. I think they won’t leave you alone because of that.”
The old woman says, “The true wizard understands that those all mean the same thing.”
Robin reminds me: “You promised.”
I did, didn’t I? I remember now: I’ve come here to die.
If we can’t help, the child will die. No one wants to say it, but I think we all know it.
I sit in a stranger’s hut next to a sick little kid. The people in this village give me as much space as they give Mandrake: as much as they can with all of us squeezed into the same little hut. They fear her, so by extension they fear me. The kid’s uncle came to Mandrake’s house, terrified, falling on his face to beg for help from the great and terrible witch. He offered her his own life if she’d only save the child. Mandrake accepted.
The family lives on a rocky shoreline where the river meets the sea. They make their living as squidder-folk. I’ve done a lot of trading with people like them. Their language and mine share some words — all about the sea, of course. They don’t see any of that, though. They just see the witch’s apprentice.
Mandrake speaks their language fluently. I don’t, so I follow her lead. I walk behind her. I smile when she smiles. I frown when she frowns. I carry her medicine bag.
The child lies feverish, wrapped up in blankets and still shivering. Mandrake kneels beside hen, feels hens forehead, listens to hens rattling breath and fluttering heartbeat. She narrates to me everything she does in my language so I can remember what to do when the time comes for me to heal a sick kid. Which will never happen, but I keep my mouth shut and humor her. She also talks a lot to the child in hens own language. Does she do it for hens parents? The child drifts in and out of consciousness, and even when conscious, how much can hen hear and understand in hens state? No, she really does speak to the child, doesn't she? She doesn't know what hen might hear and understand, so she offers hen words of comfort and power to hold onto like a rope to a drowning man.
She rubs a stinky salve onto the child’s chest, puts on a skull-like headdress, and begins pounding her drum in a steady rhythm. I feel my own breath and my own heart matching the rhythm of the drum. I notice everyone else in the hut seems to breathe in time, too. The drum sends us off into another world altogether. Mandrake dances and chants to the rhythm, calling out in the child’s language the spirit that made hen sick, threatening it. She whirls and shakes and careens almost drunkenly around the hut, going deeper into trance.
Soon Mandrake returns to the ground next to the child. She dips and rises and bows and leans back and wails in otherworldly tones that I've never heard in any language anywhere. She presses her mouth to the child’s belly and pulls back again and again, taking deep breaths when rising up before dropping back down, like diving underwater. She grabs a wooden bowl and hacks up a black, slimy hairball. She holds it up for everyone to see. The family stares in wonderment.
I can’t take any more. I push my way past the crowd and storm out into the night. The family’s worried murmurs trickle out after me, but I don’t care. I can’t be in that house another moment.
I’ve gotten halfway to the beach, to soothe my sore feet and feelings in the water, when I hear Mandrake following behind me. She grabs my arm and I spin around. She still wears the headdress.
“We haven’t finished yet.”
“Oh, I’ve finished. I’ve seen all I need to see. You play the charlatan like all the rest of them. How can you take advantage of these peoples’ trust?”
Mandrake crosses her arms. “When did I do that?”
“That little hairball you spat up. You’ve got all these poor, desperate people fooled, thinking you have some kind of power. It disgusts me.”
She just stands there, silently looking at me through the eyeholes of the skull on her face. In that headdress, in the dark, she really does look like the witch they all fear. Maybe I’ve made a mistake. Maybe she’ll kill me now.
“Get back inside, Narluga,” she says quietly.
My stomach flips, but I stand up straighter. Witch or not, she didn’t heal that child.
“I know all about this trick,” I tell her. “I learned it from a dirt-digger wizard.”
“I thought you said you’d never trained.”
Oops. “I never finished training,” I say quickly. “Because of this.” I gesture back to the hut. “Because of all the lies and bullshit.”
The words hang in the dark between us for a moment before she speaks: “Remember the lightbulb, Narluga.”
I sink deeper and deeper into darkness. Below me, the depths of the sea. Above me, the light of the surface, dying. I can’t swim back up. My leather clothes — they weigh me down. I scramble to shed them, but every movement I make feels so slow, and I sink all the while.
When I’ve finally shed my clothes, I look back up to the surface. But I don’t see the surface anymore. Darkness surrounds me. I can’t tell up from down, and my lungs have no air, and no bubbles float up to show me the way, and even if I knew which way to go my arms and legs would refuse to carry me there.
The water shifts around me. Something approaches, something big. I turn to look, already feeling the dread in the pit of my stomach. A narluga passes to my left. I feel the water shift from the other side and see one slide past to my right. They circle me, getting ever closer, radiating hostility. Or maybe curiosity? They want to know why I’ve come here, below the surface, into their territory. I want to tell them that I mean them no offense, but I don’t speak their language. I can’t even really tell if they regard me with curiosity or disinterest or hatred.
My flattened lungs burn. Every cell in me screams at me to breathe. My will to live wells up inside me, like a thousand ants eating me from the inside. The truth hits me like a revelation: I need air to breathe.
She said she lived at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. I paddle my kayak down the coast and ask around. Mostly I get blank stares. Finally, I reach a squidding camp some family has set up on the rocky shore. A man comes over to talk to me in halting trade pidgin while the rest of the family stays behind, watching warily. He visibly relaxes when I tell him I come from the Nares. He knows Nares people. His family has traded with us before. But when I ask where I can find Mandrake, he tenses up even more.
“Mandrake? The witch?” He spits on the ground. “Why you want see she?”
“We have business.”
He glares at me. “What business? Witchery?”
I shift. “No, no. We make trade over Christmas. She give me mint; me pay she back.”
“Do business and go,” he says. “Some years back, child laugh at she limp. She curse whole village. Crops fail. All die.”
I try not to let my confusion show on my face. Does he really mean the same Mandrake? The kindly little old lady? “Thanks you. Me no want make she mad, so please, if you know where she live, tell me.”
He looks me up and down, then points south of the shore. “You no see it through fog, but island close by. Natigôsteg Island. She live there. No make me sad tell you.”
“Yes, yes. Thanks you help.”
I don’t entirely believe his story about Mandrake, but then I start to wonder. How much do I really know about Mandrake, anyway? I only met her the once.
I can’t breathe. I’ll die. Someone will save me. No one will come to save me. I can swim to the surface. Where did the surface go? I’ll die.
Lungs need air. Crying for it. So much pain. Have to breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t not breathe. Saltwater flows into my mouth and down my throat. It burns. I don’t remember opening my mouth. I feel a lump in my throat. I start to choke. I will die.
I heave in the water. Stomach churning, nausea rising. Burning saltwater coming in, burning stomach acids coming out. I can’t tell them apart. More water coming, every time I gasp for air. I can’t stop breathing the water. I will die.
The narlugas circle. Watching me thrash and wretch. Probably waiting for me to kick it, the bastards. Won’t have much longer. I will die. I never went to Antarctica. Show my dad.
Lump comes loose, filling my mouth, thick, hairy. Words come to me, but I can’t remember who said them or when: “If you bring forth what lies within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what lies within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” I spit it out into my hands. Can barely see it in the dimming light.
A hairball. A slimy, black hairball.
I will die.
Pebble’s finally stopped moaning in pain. I've always thought of hen as the strong big sibling, so it scares me to see hen seem so weak. Hens illness has had everyone worried, but now hen’s fallen into a deep sleep and hens forehead doesn't feel so hot anymore. Maybe it really worked.
The scary wizard we called in did some kind of ceremony over hen. He sucked the sickness out of Pebble and spat it up in a big ugly ball. I could hardly believe it. Mama watched over hen for a long time after that, but she needs to sleep, so I take a turn. I replace the damp cloth on hens forehead when it gets too dry. Hen sleeps for a long, long time. When hen stirs, hen looks up through the smoke hole in the ceiling.
A big grin spreads across my face. "Welcome back," I say. Hen doesn't respond. I tug on hens hand, and hen looks at me. "How do you feel?" I ask.
"What?" hen asks. Hen looks alarmed.
"How do you feel?" I repeat.
A look of panic spreads across hens face. Hen shakes hens head.
Hen can’t hear me.
Hen will never hear anything ever again.
I hear an eerie melody filling the depths. It takes me a few moments to realize that it comes from the narlugas. They continue to circle me, now singing a low, plaintive, beautiful song that echoes through the sea. I feel so tired. I have no more strength to swim or struggle.
The narlugas don’t seem tired at all. They belong here. They dwell here. And they’ve decided to catch me. Even with all my strength, even well-rested with two full lungs, I’d never have the strength or speed to escape them. It seems pointless to try. And I feel so, so tired. Would it really hurt any worse to just give in, and let the song of the whales lull me to sleep?
I feel so, so tired. It seems okay to close my eyes. Everything will turn out okay. The pain will end, and I can go to sleep, and everything will turn out okay.
Mandrake’s people live in a village on the island’s high plateau, in grass huts on stilts like Robin’s people. They wear long sheets of woven cotton or Spanish moss like the Quebecois. They don't seem overly welcoming of strangers, but when I tell them I've come to see Mandrake, people point me to a house on the edge of the village. She sits out front, just like I saw her sitting outside her tent at Christmas. She smiles when I approach.
Mandrake turns around and climbs the ladder into her house, motioning for me to follow. It feels cozy in there, crowded with dried herbs and strange masks all hanging from the rafters. She hands me a stoppered gourd. I open it up and take a whiff. Palm wine. Perfect. I drink it down while Mandrake leans back on her bed, fanning herself with a palm frond.
“I’d started to think you wouldn't come,” she says.
I empty the gourd and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. “I keep my promises.”
“I’ve heard differently.”
I bristle. “You call me a liar?”
“The spirits told me this.”
“Oh, really? How convenient. You don't call me a liar, the spirits do. I can’t believe I actually came here. I don’t know what I expected. I come to you for training and you start by calling me a liar. Well, maybe I should just turn around and go back home if you treat your guests like this.”
To show her I mean business, I turn around and head back towards the door.
“That would hardly prove them wrong,” Mandrake says.
I stop walking, close my eyes, and take a deep breath. “What spirits told you I didn’t keep my promises?”
“The ones who chase you.”
“I don’t remember telling them they could kill me.”
“You told Glassknapper and Robin.”
I glare at her. She gazes dispassionately at me from her seat on the bed.
“Wizard’s tricks,” I say. “I won’t fall for it.”
“You don’t deny it.”
I look around at the masks hanging on the walls. “Hey, you’ve got an awful lot of masks to hide behind.”
“Masks can hide, and they can reveal hidden truths. I can show them to you.”
This woman infuriates me. But the idea of these spirits going around calling me a liar infuriates me even more, and now I feel like I have to prove them wrong.
I sit down in front of her. “Okay then, O Wise One. Impart upon me these hidden truths.”
Mandrake laughs. “How did you get your name?” she asks.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“I would like to get to know you, and your name tells a lot about you.”
“Fine. I had some friends back in the Nares — a pod of narlugas. I fell in with them around the age you’d usually earn an adult name in my family. I followed them around because they helped me find fish to catch, and I always shared some of my catch with them, so they started following me around. We worked well together.”
“I don’t imagine you see them as often now, traveling as much as you do.”
I wince. “Not so much anymore, no. This one, the real hot head of the pod, I called him Scarbelly because, well, he had a big scar on his belly. Probably from one of the fights he always liked to pick. Well, one time he must have picked a fight with a shark or something else fierce. He'd gotten too far off by himself. He didn't have the rest of his pod around to help him out. We found pieces of him floating on the surface.
“That hit the pod pretty hard. His mother, Whitetail, never really got over it. She used to love swimming beside my boat while I sailed, but after that… I think they kind of turned inward. Maybe they blamed me for Scarbelly’s death somehow. Maybe they just didn’t think a human would understand.” I take a deep breath. “Anyway, by the time I left on my first trading expedition, we had drifted apart.”
Why did I feel the need to tell her all that? Maybe as a defense of my loyalty. I didn’t abandon the naruga pod, they abandoned me. Now I just miss them.
Mandrake nods solemnly. “That sounds very difficult. Do you suppose they miss you?”
“They never seek me out when I come home.”
“Don’t they? In your dreams?”
So infuriating. “They don’t always come to me in dreams,” I correct her. “Something does. Something always comes. It chases me. It wants to kill me. Sometimes narlugas, sometimes other things. But it always comes, and I always wake up just before it kills me.”
“They must recognize you as kin. They want you to join them.”
“They’ve got a funny way of showing it.”
“They know you can’t live with them in your human body. You need to lose your body, take new forms. As wizards do. Then you can join them in the sea.”
“I can’t, though. Obviously.”
“Because I need air to breathe?”
“So do they.”
“Yeah, but they have blowholes and fins and thick layers of blubber. They live in the sea. I don't.”
Mandrake reaches behind her and pulls out a sphere of glass. I wish I could show Glassknapper. I've never seen glass so delicate. The ancients must have made it. She twists it in her hand and suddenly it lights up, as if a great fire burned inside of it — no, like the sun. A fire flickers and dances, full of reds and yellows and oranges. This shines white, steady, and bright.
"Wherever do you get your confidence," she says, "about all these things you cannot do?"
“I know you would never do that.”
I think about giving up, letting my exhaustion overcome me, and I find myself saying those words. They don’t come from me. They feel familiar, but they don’t come from me. I don’t hear a voice. I can almost see a face.
I can’t give up. I have to see this through. To the end. To my death. I promised.
Who did I promise? I try to remember, and it feels as impossible as swimming to the surface. Who did I promise?
“You have some spirit, Baby Bird,” I say.
Who did I promise? What did I promise? Why?
“Lulu, wake up!”
My eyes snap open. I stand at the end of a dock, in my village. All the houses stand intact. The fire has disappeared. Robin tugs at my hand.
“You had another one of your dreams,” she says. “You ran down the dock. You would have jumped in the ocean! You could have died, Lulu.”
I try to command my heart to slow down. It ignores me and keeps on pounding. I pant helplessly.
“Who chased you this time?” she asks.
“Dirt-diggers,” I croak. “They came to burn down our village, to kill us. They chased me...” I look behind me. I don't see any dirt-diggers now, just my blurry-eyed family roused from their sleep.
“They didn't really come here.”
"I know," I lie, convincingly enough, I think. I've gotten good at it.
“How many more times will you let this happen?” Robin asks. She looks up at me with big round eyes. “Lulu, you told me once you got me and my father to the Nares, you’d turn around and find that wizard to train you. But we got here weeks ago.”
“Well, I have to help you settle in, don’t I?” I say, a little shrilly. “I can’t just dump you in a new family, no transition, just abandon you to run off for who knows how long…”
“So how much longer will you wait? How many more of these dreams will you have? If I hadn’t woken you up, you could’ve died.”
“Don’t get so dramatic. I know how to swim.”
“In your sleep?”
“Why not? I come from the Nares, after all.”
Robin looks at me all tired and sad and disappointed. The disappointment more than anything cuts me. “You promised,” she says softly.
I’ll break a promise no matter what I do. But I can’t tell Robin that. I can only tell Glassknapper, later, when the rest of the family has gone back to sleep.
“It scares me, Glass,” I tell him. “I know what training means. I know what initiation means. It means letting them kill me. And call me a wuss, but I don’t want to die.”
“Doesn't going on like this scare you?” he asks. “At least the dreams will end.”
“Yeah, with my death.”
“One you can come back from.”
“You can die from a scary enough dream, you know. I’ve heard of it happening. If you see yourself die in a dream, it can scare you enough to actually kill you.”
“Well, given some of the dreams you’ve had, I'd expect one of them to kill you before you even get there.”
We stand motionless for a moment. He’s run out of things to say and I've lost the will to defend myself. Then he lifts his hands back up.
“I felt so angry at Vervain for leaving. Robin needed her, and she found a reason to leave. Others see a noble sacrifice, but I only see an excuse that no one else will have the nerve to question.
“I know you would never do that.”
He leaves me standing on the dock, under the eerie blue light that passes for night this time of year. I can’t argue. I’d never do what Vervain did. Noble sacrifices don’t really suit me. No matter how many spirits try to drag me down in my dreams, I keep my feet stubbornly planted on the ground — or on the deck of a boat, at least. Even if it kills me. Even if it hurts the people I care about.
But it starts to settle in my brain that maybe I don’t want to live like that any more.
I leave before dawn.
As the narlugas sing, the skin on their foreheads split and a spiral horn begins to drill out, white like ivory, slick with blood. They screw out of their heads, long, straight, and very sharp, until they stretch the length of my body. I only notice they’ve stopped growing when the narlugas all turn to face me. One darts at me with hens new horn. I twist out of the way only to catch a glimpse of another horn stabbing at me from the other side. They remind me of stinging bees, or my own people harpooning one of theirs.
They mean to tear me apart. I can’t remember why they want to kill me. I can’t remember why I’ve come here, or why I promised anyone I would, or why Robin or Glassknapper or I would want me to die. I just remember that I have to see this through to the end. To my end.
Come and get me, bitches.
Weeks pass, and then months. We drum and chant and dance for hour upon hour, day upon day. I stop eating. After a day or so of fasting, Mandrake promises me, I’ll stop feeling hungry and start feeling light. And I do feel light — and dizzy and nauseous, especially when I dance. I wake up one day on the ground, having passed out. Mandrake looks so hopeful, thinking I’ve had a vision, but I haven’t. Everything just went black. One minute I danced, the next, I woke up on the ground with a throbbing head.
So I also stop sleeping. “The spirits visit us in dreams,” Mandrake says. “If you don’t sleep, you force them to visit you in your waking hours.” I just black out again. No dreams, no spirits chasing me.
“Wizards serve as ambassadors between their families and our other-than-human neighbors,” Mandrake explains. “We keep the threshold, so we live on the threshold.” She gestures to the walls of her house. “I live on the edge of my village, as most wizards do. I won’t deny that it can get lonely. It will fill your life with wonder and terror. You will negotiate with powerful spirits, some with concerns far removed from human welfare. You will see things more beautiful and more terrifying than anyone else could know. It will always set you apart.”
“I thought wizards mostly just healed people and performed ceremonies,” I say.
“You only think that because your family hasn’t had a wizard in such a long time.”
I start. “How do you know that?”
“Oh, we all knew Kraken. We all mourned his death — and the tragedy that he died without an heir.”
I cross my arms. “We got by okay. We brought in wizards from other families when we needed healing or whatever else.”
“Healing does not stand very tall among a wizard’s priorities.” Mandrake waves a hand. “If people get malaria, they get it because the mosquitos have moved in close to them. The mosquitos move in when they find pools of stagnant water. Why do the people have so many pools of stagnant water around? Something's gone wrong in the relationship between the people and their neighbors. We'll heal, yes, but for a wizard that only points to where the true work lies.”
“So what does a wizard worry about, if not healing?”
“Keeping the threshold. Maintaining the health not of individual people, but of the family and the land as a whole. How do you suppose your family has suffered so long without anyone to take care of that? Would you spend so much time away if not for that?”
I bristle. “I just like traveling. Like I told you, I never wanted to become a wizard, because I like traveling.”
“And your brother?” she asks. “Did he ‘just like traveling,’ too? If everything has gone well in the Nares, why do so many people seem so eager to get away?”
How does she know so much about us? My overbearing father, my caustic mother — they fill up every room they enter. They don’t really leave room for anyone else. And they’ve become the poles tearing my family in two. A lot of us take sides. Others run away.
“Wizards travel too, you know,” Mandrake says. “Not just across the earth and sea, but through dreams and time. And we trade — not just with humans, but with animals, plants, the dead, and forgotten gods. Wizards mediate all kinds of boundaries.
“Some people have more experience mediating boundaries than others. That generally makes them better wizards. You walk a path neither male nor female, and that's given you a lifetime of experience mediating one boundary. You live the life of a sea-trader, negotiating boundaries between families all the time. Some of that experience carries over, even when it comes to other boundaries.”
Wizards keep boundaries. We lost ours, and a big boundary opened up right down the middle of our family like the Nares Strait itself. Would it have made a difference if Kraken had left an heir? If I had followed in his footsteps earlier? “And how exactly do wizards mediate these ‘other’ boundaries?” I ask.
“Maybe magic,” she says. “Maybe by learning how to manipulate our own perception to see the hidden truths of the world. Maybe we just learn how to pay attention to the world and to ourselves closely enough.
“The true wizard understands that those all mean the same thing.”
Flesh rips and bones snap. I look down to see the twisting horn erupting out of my stomach. One of the narlugas got me from behind. My blood blooms out into the water — too much blood, way too much blood — and the harder I struggle, the more I feel my body tear. I tear myself to shreds, but I can’t stop. I have to get free.
I look forward into the black abyss. The water gets colder and colder, maybe from the depths, maybe from the blood pouring out of my gaping wound. The narluga has me on hens horn and dives ever deeper, the rest of the narlugas eagerly following. We go down farther than humans or narlugas should go, into the black domain of giant squid and octopi.
The crushing density of the depths becomes unbearable, and yet they seem fine — happy, even. Their mouths open, ready to devour me. I can just make out the gleam of their teeth and horns in the dim light.
Their high, mournful melody continues, echoing through the sea, now joined by other whales. All the other whales — not just these narlugas, but every whale in the oceans. Their songs had sounded from the beginning, from the beginning of time. I just hadn’t heard it before. I become still on the horn. The song sounds so beautiful, for just a moment I forget about the pain and lose myself in the sound.
“I knew Kraken, you know.”
That catches me off guard. “Wait, really?”
“Yes,” Mandrake says. “He battled hungry ghosts, evil sorcerers, even the Lords of the Outer Darkness. He had quite the reputation among those of us who knew.”
“Why does that surprise you so much?”
“I just remember him as a frail old man.”
“Oh, I don't imagine all those elixirs and concoctions he drank over the years did much for his physical appearance, did they? But don't let that fool you. I once watched him dance for three days and three nights straight. He could fast from the new moon to the full. I remember once we worked together to stop a coven of sorcerers conspiring to start a war.”
“Why didn’t you tell me any of this before?”
“You value your independence. You had to make the decision to train on your own.”
“What do you mean?”
“Even in your childhood, Kraken could see your potential. He told me once that if anything should happen to him, that I should come find you and train you. If he’d lived longer, he’d have trained you himself.” Mandrake looks me straight in the eye. “We didn't meet in Pittsburgh for Christmas by coincidence. I asked around and heard that you often showed up there, so I went, hoping to find you.”
I jump to my feet, tempted to storm out. “So you and a dead man get to determine my life for me, huh? You had this all planned out for years?”
“I didn’t make the dreams come to you.”
“You just waited around until they did.”
I pace her house. The bamboo wobbles under my footsteps. The leaves in the roof shake.
“Kraken knew he might fall in battle,” Mandrake says. “He knew your family needed a wizard, and he knew you would someday hear the call.”
“‘Fall in battle’? He died in his sleep!”
“Oh yes, it must've looked like that to you. Many people owe him their lives, though they may not know it. He told me that he believed you might one day become an even greater wizard than him. I can see now what he meant.”
The song echoes through the oceans, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Every whale lives in the song. All of them find themselves born into the song, and when they die, the song goes on, and in between, they live in the song. It seems so much bigger than me, and yet, without me it could not go on. We sing the song, and we live in the song.
I go limp on the horn, let the song wash over me with the current. It flows around me and through me. It overwhelms me. I hear the past, the time when all life belonged to the oceans. Times of extinction and death and rebirth. Times when only a few whales remained to carry on the song, and how they kept singing for their children. Times when squid replaced shellfish and octopus cities replaced corals and the song went ever on.
I hear in the song the present: the bustling world of countless creatures swimming and hunting and glowing and dying, a mind-blowing cornucopia of life that surface-dwellers can only catch the briefest glimpses of.
I hear in the song the future: I hear the water of the sea of the rivers of the swamps that glow an eerie blue. I hear a strange creature stirring in a great sarcophagus. I hear a glowing skull on a stick, and a house on bird’s legs. I know an answer to Robin’s question does exist. It waits for her across the sea.
Only I know this.
Only I can take them there.
But only if I can pass through death.
“Now, before you start this ceremony, you have to put the ball in your mouth and hold it under your tongue. Fools ‘em every time!” The dirt-digger wizard laughs. His teeth — the few he has left — have rotted to a disgusting brown. He showed me how he makes the syrup, and how to cover the furball in it to make it gross and slimy. Judging from the state of his mouth, he must do this a lot.
I stare in horror at the disgusting ball of gunk. “You don't actually suck the sickness out of them, then?”
“Well, we tell 'em that, sure.”
I remember when the old man “spat up” Glass’s illness, so many years ago. My father knew him from one of his many adventures. And Glass — then Pebble — got sick. Our wizard, Kraken, had recently died. Glass got sicker and sicker no matter what we tried. So my father turned to this man for help. And for years, we all believed he’d saved Glass’s life. I sought out this particular wizard for training when the dreams started, hoping to learn from the wizard who’d saved my brother’s life.
Now the truth comes out: he did nothing to save Glass. He just tricked us, made us think he’d worked some kind of powerful healing magic. And now he teaches me how to act like him: how to fool innocent people into thinking you’ve helped them when you really did nothing more than put on a show.
My ears burn. I grit my teeth and ball up my fists, trying to contain my mounting fury. My father trusted him. We all trusted him. Glass lost his hearing because of this charlatan, this liar, this fraud, now teaching me how to swindle people like he does all the time. He lied to us, and he still laughs at us with his four brown teeth.
I punch him hard in the mouth, knocking out half of the teeth that remain in his diseased gums.
He holds his jaw, groaning in pain. “You little fuck!”
My knuckles hurt from punching him, but I hit him again, in the side of the face, for good measure. Then I snatch my bag and storm out of his hut and into the jungle.
The shade of the canopy can’t cool my anger. I smash my way through the bush, scaring all the animals away, hitting the greenery as hard as I’d prefer to hit him. I only stop when I finally reach the slow-moving river that will take me to the sea that will take me home. I see a rock overhang not too far away. I can camp here for a few days, long enough to make a dugout canoe that can carry me home.
I kneel down to refill my waterskin. The river shows me my face. Between the rocks on the riverbed and the ripple of the current, my mouth looks stained brown like his. Horrified, I grab my miswak from my bag and start furiously brushing my teeth. I brush until my gums bleed.
“I’ll never become a wizard like you!” I shout to no one. A flock of birds vacate the nearest tree. The insects sing, unphased.
I keep brushing.
The narlugas surround me. Their sharp teeth clamp down on my limbs and begin ripping them off. Their horns jostle for the best pieces of me. The water muffles the crack of bones, but I can hear the whale song as clearly as ever. And somehow, this becomes part of it: the snapping bones becomes percussion, the rending flesh becomes harmony.
The narluga that impaled me dives deeper and deeper into the icy black, the others circling around, joined at the mouth to hens catch. The pressure here hurts me as much as the narlugas. I’ve never felt cold like this. And this, too, becomes part of the song.
“The child has gotten worse.” Mandrake takes off her headdress.
“I can’t imagine why,” I sneer.
Mandrake glares at me. “Well, it probably had something to do with you running out on the ceremony right in the middle.”
“You try to cheat this family with lies and tricks, and you dare blame me for hen getting worse?”
“You shattered their faith, running out like that. Their faith in you, in me, in the ceremony. Now you need to restore that faith. I can’t do that. Only you can.”
I back up, shaking my arms. “The hell I will. I won't take part in this charade. This lie does them no good. It just gives them false hope, and I won't have any part of it.”
“When does hope become false?” Mandrake asks. “These people know herbal remedies, they know bonesetting, they know all the basics of healing. They call on me when they’ve exhausted every remedy. And at that point, maybe some rare herb will save them — and if it will, I’ll offer it — but I don't know so much more about such things than their own grandparents. Good medicine strengthens us against a sickness, but in the end we heal ourselves. Wizards like you and me, we bolster that. We help them believe that they will get better, which makes them better.”
“With lies!” I shoot back.
“I do keep the ball in my mouth. Just like the lightbulb I showed you the first day you came to me, I have my tricks. And I can show you how to do it — but that would make it just a trick. Its meaning lies in that moment of wonder. In that moment, your ideas of the possible and the impossible break open. The patterns of thought and perception that you rely on fall away, just for a moment, and your mind opens to possibilities you'd never consider otherwise. Like the possibility that maybe you really can conquer your illness.”
“My brother didn’t.”
“Didn’t he?” Mandrake asks. “He lost his hearing, but he kept his life. And you never gave up on him, did you?”
“I would never have given up on him, with or without that wizard’s trick,” I say.
“Maybe so. But I fear this child has given up on henself — and how can hen find the strength to overcome this if hen doesn’t believe getting better any more possible than living beneath the ocean?”
“Then tell hen about sick people who got better.”
“I’ll tell you what my own mentor told me: we use this ball like a filter. It absorbs the sickness so it doesn't infect you. It still might, though. It doesn't offer perfect protection. So, yes, you do have it in your mouth from the beginning — but also, yes, when you spit it up, you do spit up the illness that you sucked out.”
“That still sounds like a load of shit.”
Mandrake laughs. “Yes it does! But I can tell you what I've learned: my mentor told me the truth. You do use the ball as a filter. And you absolutely do suck the evil spirit out of that child. And you do nothing for the sick but reassure them and give them faith.”
I look at her incredulously, and she reminds me, “The true wizard understands that those all mean the same thing.”
I chew the inside of my cheek. I look back at the family, watching us with wrinkled brows. Desperate for some hope, any hope. And I took it away in the first place. “Fine. If we can't do anything else for hen ... I'll do this.”
Mandrake takes off the headdress and hands it to me. As I take hold of it, she tells me, “You don't battle the disease, Narluga. You battle a much darker, more powerful spirit than that.
“You battle despair.”
I open my mouth and water rushes down my throat, but it doesn’t burn. I belong here. My blood mixes with the ocean water, and as the narlugas rip me apart, I flow through them and burn in their cells. I begin to sing — hesitant at first, then confidently. Somehow, out of my mouth — when I no longer have a mouth — comes whale song. And I hear the whales singing back to me, joining in harmony.
The song fills all the ocean and all of time, and compared to that, my small human voice means nothing — and yet, without my voice, it remains incomplete. I offer up my small part of the song, but in that offering it carries on. With whatever strength remains in me, I sing my little part of the song. I sing the future into being.
Even as the narlugas rip off my limbs, I sing. I force myself to join the whales’ chorus, not for my sake, but for my family, for Glass, for Robin, for the Nares and the narlugas. They all need me. The song needs my voice, and I’ve kept it still for far too long.
In the song sounds the spell sounds the magic that conquers despair that conquers fear, and it teaches me how to die.
I hum and I bang the drum and I bang the drum and I hum. Slowly, the rhythm takes hold of me. The house falls away, leaving only darkness and smoke and the constant beat, beat, beat of the drum.
The rhythm takes control and I dance. I see a dark and ugly spirit lurking on the body of a child, sucking the life out of hen.
I have something for that spirit: a new home. I hide it under my tongue. The ball sits there, dark and ugly like the spirit.
I feel the truth of it now in a way I didn’t before. The drum reveals the truth of the world, the truth of the ceremony. I ride the song around the child, watch the spirit fall under its spell. It wafts up, swaying like smoke from a fire.
The spirit called sickness has gotten lost. In its fear and confusion, it rests on the child. It falls to me to put these things right again. In its confusion, it fights me, but it wants to join the song, and eventually it can’t help but fall under my spell.
I lean down over the child’s body and begin to suck the spirit out. It resists, but the drum beat goes on. I inhale with all my might.
If I can’t get this right, the spirit will infect me. But I can take it. I have bones of metal and flesh woven from the sea. I have died once before. Not yet, no, but soon, and in the song, past, present and future dissolve, and I hear them all at once.
I pull at the spirit with all my strength. I have breathed water, I have breathed air. I can breathe spirit. I pull and pull and pull until my head grows light and faint, until the smoke swirls around me and I think I might collapse.
I draw in one more gasp of breath, and it tugs the spirit out of the child’s body. Quickly, I close my throat and trap it in the ball before it can slip down into my belly.
I spit the ball into the bowl. I can see it wriggling with the spirit struggling to get out, but I’ve trapped it in there. I’ve pulled the sickness out of the child’s body. I’ve put on a performance that will give hen and hens family some measure of hope. It all means the same thing.
The narlugas tear me to pieces, and still I sing. I sing with all the little shreds of me as they scatter and sink to the sea floor. Without flesh, without throat, without lungs, I sing. When only the song remains, I sing. I sing as I rejoin the sea that gave me life. And a world full of whales joins me in song, holding me up, keeping my voice going long after my throat disintegrates.
The octopi come bearing gifts: scraps of metals, the ancient seeds of their cities. They shape them with their tentacles and their alien arts, forming them like bones, and arranging them on the seafloor like a human skeleton.
The narlugas vomit up my flesh. With their fins, they press the vomit to the metal skeleton, pat it into place. And it becomes new organs and skin and hair.
It all happens in the song. The song fills me, and I come back to life, reborn at the bottom of the sea, stronger. Unbreakable. Ready. Finally, finally ready.
I breathe water.
I open my eyes to see the underside of a palm-thatched roof. I lie in Mandrake’s hut, sweating and gasping on the bed.
“You did it,” Mandrake says.
I tell her, “I know what I have to do.”