A rock told me this:
Way way down in the hot black churning, we lived as one, and we swirled together in warmth and comfort, and we had no me and we had no you, and we had no space and we had no time.
And then it happened that the churning ejected us. We flew up into Something not each other, Something cold and bright, and we broke off from each other and became ourselves. In the Something we discovered a cold so sharp that we hardened our new skins into solid black shells to protect ourselves from it. Once we had done that, we could no longer melt into each other as we once had. But still, inside, a fire burned.
And we tumbled down and scattered. We crashed against each other. Because we had made ourselves hard, we hurt each other. And the longer we remained in the Something, the harder and colder we became.
I have met somebodies whose embers have gone out, who have become nothing but cold, sharp blackness, who have forgotten that they once churned as part of something more. They crumble into sand and scatter.
I once met somebody who had many colors, many bits of somebodies all pressed together into one. And this somebody told me that we will all return one day to the hot black churning. Again we will melt into each other, and again we will churn as one, and we will have no Something - only us. And we will have no you and we will have no me, and we will have no space and we will have no time.
This, the somebody told me. I don’t know if I believe it. But just in case, I will try to keep my ember burning for as long as I can. And I will wait.
Once or twice over the next few days, I catch Vervain in conversation with the Vulture Priests who came to Congress. They always stand too far away for me to see, Vervain with her back to me and the priest’s face, as always, hidden behind his mournful white mask. They speak for a long time, and soon Vervain comes back and announces that she has decided not to go to Beaver Valley Temple, but to Three Myland.
Narluga and I have heard of that temple, one of four across the world whose names have become legend because of the terror they wrought. Even people who live nowhere near a temple and have never seen a Vulture Priest know the names of the Four.
The Four differ from other temples, and Three Myland differs from the rest of the Four. The others sit on lands too dangerous for even Vulture Priests to venture into. They merely guard the boundaries, keeping people out. Three Myland alone has no waste. The ancestors shut it down before the old world ended, and sent its waste to Yucca Mountain. But its infamy lives on, and so the Vulture Priests turned it into a place of scholarship where priests with an aptitude learn to read the ancestors’ books, study their ways, and learn ancient wisdom that may help the vigil continue.
The priests’ representatives said Vervain showed promise for that work. She will live however many more years life will give her, although her family will still never see her again.
I want to ask her if she changed her mind because of Robin’s reaction or because she feared death. She likes to keep her secrets, we all know that. It irritates me even more since I have such difficulty understanding her. She’s never made much effort to help me understand her, either.
It doesn’t all fit right, though. Narluga spoke of a “long journey” just moments after Vervain’s declaration. You wouldn’t call the journey to Beaver Valley a long one, but it would take a week or more to reach Three Myland. And when did Vervain meet with the priests, that they could determine she had this talent for reading and writing, exactly? When I ask hen about it, Narluga confesses that Vervain asked hen last year about joining hens caravan east. They pass close by Three Myland every year on their way to the coast anyway.
She’s planned this in secret for a long time. She must have known even when she told us, even as Robin ran off in tears, sure that her aunt had condemned herself to death.
It baffles me. Even when you speak the same language, even when you try to communicate as clearly as you can, people misunderstand you and you misunderstand them. When you add deception to the mix, I wonder how anyone ever communicates with another person at all. Or do we?
Robin doesn’t wonder about it, though. She doesn’t resent Vervain either. She simply cries with happiness. Robin never looks more like her mother than when she cries. She has Pelica’s round eyes, not my folded eyelids. Long, curled eyelashes instead of my short, straight ones. Thick lips instead of my thin ones. She pouts them out when she cries, like her mother did. Her eyes don’t turn red like mine. She can wipe away her tears and you would never know she’d just cried. She has my upturned nose and my wide face, a complexion somewhere between my tan and her mother’s warm brown, and the tightly coiled texture of her mother’s hair but the brown color of mine. She looks most like me when she smiles and most like her mother when she cries. Maybe I should have read that as a sign.
We set off from the festival grounds on the day after the twelfth day of Christmas. The candles have all melted into puddles of wax. The throng of us have kicked the ground up into muddy brown waves. I can see the relief on people’s faces. We all enjoy the festivals, but we leave exhausted. Old friends hug and express wishes to stay longer. I can tell from their expressions that they don’t really mean it. They want to go home and sleep. You just tell people that, another innocent lie, another reason to stop and wonder if you’ve ever understood another person at all.
Here, Robin and Vervain and I part ways with the rest of Pelica’s family. No one has chosen to come north with us, and even Vervain will leave us once we reach Three Myland. We split from each other like flakes of stone, and we can only hope that something beautiful will come of it.
Robin has her back to me when she says goodbye to her family members, so I don’t know what they say. It doesn’t concern me anyway. I feel strange saying goodbye to them like ordinary travelers heading home after the festival. We knew each other for a time, and now we won’t. I don’t know if they ever saw me as one of them. This family feels suddenly cold and distant to me. Pelica spun the last thread binding me to it and now that thread has snapped. When I say goodbye to the family, I really say goodbye to the notion that I ever truly belonged to it.
That stage of my life has ended. I can’t look back.
Everyone cries. I cry too, which blurs the others’ goodbyes. I cry mostly for Pelica (because I will never run out of tears to shed for Pelica), and for the child whose bones I carry, and for Robin who has to say goodbye to everything she’s ever known.
Robin and I have become refugees, cast adrift in a sea of people who will never truly understand us or where we come from — Robin more than me, because at least I can pretend to still fit into my family the way I used to.
My family. I left them for a reason: my father, Granite the World Serpent. You’ll see lips across the north forming that name. He traveled the world, from the North Pole to Antarctica and most points in between, and he will never let you forget it. In the Arctic, I’ll always bear the name of Granite’s Son first. Ask me about my father. Don’t ask me if I’ve had comparable adventures. When I grew old enough, I traveled as far away as I could get until no one knew his name, and then I stayed there. And now I return with a dead child and my tail between my legs. For Robin’s sake, I’ll live in the shadow of the World Serpent again. It’ll kill me less quickly than this poisoned land.
We go east, Narluga and Robin and Vervain and the traders and I, on a caravan of shaking wagons. The family goes west down the Ohio in their canoes. It doesn’t take long before the looming honeycomb hills of Downtown hide them from us. We live on a magician. She makes whole valleys disappear. She hides mountains, and then reveals them with a flourish. The ancestors found hills here, and they built more hills of their own in Downtown. They built them like people, with strong bones and more delicate skin. The hills fell, the skin fell apart, the bones remained. Plants and vines grow on them now.
We travel on the Turnpike, a trail as wide as a river but covered with short grass and lined with the tracks of wagon wheels. We pass other wagons, full of traders or storytellers or healers. We pass people on horseback and people walking. We spend many hours on the trail, walking or riding in the covered wagons, squeezed in between piles of food for eating and goods for trading. Pillbug rides in a little basket. She lifts her head up and sniffs the wind and swivels her ears. My eyes follow the direction her ears point and find mostly birds. The horses pulling the wagons shit as they walk. It coats the wheels and smells oddly sweet.
Two hands’ worth of other traders share this caravan with Narluga. They don’t know how to speak to me. They know a smattering of words in various sign languages across the north — please, thank you, yes, no, hello, goodbye. Narluga quickly teaches them a few more.
The first night on the road, I can’t sleep. It should feel just like home, our house resting on soft earth instead of the hard poles of a bamboo platform, but it feels wrong to me now. I feel her absence the most at night, when she should lie next to me.
I step out into the copse of trees where we parked the wagons and set up our houses for the night. I can see the road through a line of trees — a place where blue moonlight shines through. And I see Narluga tremble-step out of hen’s house and fill hen’s lungs with cool night air. Even from here, I can see the raggedness of hen’s breaths, the beads of sweat on hen’s forehead.
I walk over and put a hand on hen’s shoulder. Hen flinches even though I made no attempt to conceal my approach. Lulu’s dream took hen somewhere so far away, hen didn’t notice even the most basic details of hen’s surroundings. But hen notices me now, recognizes me in the darkness, and relaxes.
I lead hen to the road, where we can see better. As below, so above: a road of stars stretches above the road we walk, illuminating every patch of ground that doesn’t lie beneath a tree. I ask hen if it still happens, less a question than an observation, and the sharp shadows of my hands under the harsh light of the moon only emphasize the point. Lulu asks me if hen screamed. I wouldn’t have heard if hen had yelled loud enough to shake the mountains, but hen seems too shaken to remember, one foot still in the dream world. I reassure Lulu that hen didn’t make a sound. Hen relaxes, then remembers and spits out a laugh.
I had wondered how hen could keep it from a caravan of traders living in such close proximity, but it seems hen’s grown more accustomed to the terror of it. Hen must barely let out more than a whimper any more.
Hen knows what I want to say next and leaps ahead before I can lift my hands. With quick, definitive movements hen says hen will handle it.
What else can I do? I back away and nod.
Lulu doesn’t believe that I believe hen, but doesn’t want to keep talking about it, so hen changes the subject. What woke me up, hen wants to know.
I tell hen how strange it feels to sleep on the ground again.
I see hen laugh, or try to. A grimacing mouth, eyes pressed shut, a wrinkled nose: a wince with an exhale. Hen warns me that I’ll have to get used to it again if I really plan on coming home this time.
I insist that I really will. My body forms the signs a little more forcefully than I’d intended. Narluga tilts hen’s head back. I can see the skepticism even in the dark hollows I can see of hen’s eyes. Hen reminds me that I have a reputation. I run away when things get tough.
I tell Narluga that people change, that I’ve changed. That I don’t do this for myself, but for Robin’s sake. And anyway, we live as nomads. We travel. We live on the sea. I don’t run away any more than we run away when we try to get ahead of a storm on the ocean. I see this radiation as just another storm.
More skepticism from the shadows under Narluga’s eyebrows. Or maybe I just imagine it. But either way, it makes me angry.
What right has hen to talk to me about running away? I demand. Hen still has the dreams, and still hasn’t gone to a wizard about them. I remind Narluga that hen ran away from Dad too, just less obviously. Hen spends half the year away from the Nares on hen’s trading route, paddling in circles, avoiding home but never going anywhere.
Narluga gasps and claps a hand over hen’s mouth as though I hit hen.
I windmill my apologies. I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t mean it.
Hen shakes hen’s head, tells me hen just remembered hen forgot to do something in Pittsburgh.
I ask how much we should worry about it.
Narluga takes a deep breath, grins nervously with wide eyes, and leans back. A doozie. Then, just as quickly, hen composes henself into the confident stance hen normally takes when bartering goods. Hen offers me a deal.
I raise one eyebrow.
If I stop running from Dad — for good, this time — Narluga promises to stop running from the dreams. Hen knows a wizard in Quebec. When we pass through there, hen will seek training from her.
Just like that? I blink.
Hen slumps hen’s shoulders and grudgingly admits hen has to. I blink again, furrowing my brow. Why?
Narluga flashes me a smile in the dark, teeth gleaming in the moonlight. I think I see hen sign: the price of fresh breath. But I must have mistaken it in the darkness, or maybe hen’s dialect just drifted in an unexpected direction, one of the many changes between us. Hen laughs again and walks back into the shadows of the trees, shaking hen’s head. By the time I’ve thought to ask for elaboration, hen has already buttoned the flap of hen’s tent shut.
I figure I might as well do the same. I climb back into my house where I will lay on my mat and pretend to sleep.
People do change, seemingly when you least expect it.
If I will take up space on this caravan, I can at least make myself useful.
The next morning, just before dawn, I walk to the nearby creek where I can see eels wriggling. I fish some out of the water, giving them quick, merciful deaths. I grasp them just below their skulls and skin them as they dangle, careful not to let any of their defensive slime loosen my grip or get on the meat. I grill the strips over the fire, drizzling them with honey. Freshwater eel just doesn’t taste the same as saltwater eel, and pure honey just doesn’t taste the same as proper Arctic eel sauce, but this will have to do.
The traders appreciate the breakfast at least, and clumsily try to make it known to me. I feel more in my element, fishing, and less like a burden. I feel better keeping busy.
As we eat, I try to tell Robin what saltwater eel tastes like, how to make eel sauce from fish sauce and honey — but you have to use Arctic honey because the nectar from up there tastes so different from the nectar down here — and how much better it all tastes. She smiles a real smile, her eyes a little brighter and wider. She looks excited to finally learn about the traditional food she’s never eaten. I feel excited to finally share with her all the things I couldn’t share with her before. I tell her that her mother loved fish sauce when she could get it, how she would beg Lulu to bring some for her every Christmas until her pregnancy with Robin took away her taste for it, and she never got it back.
Robin’s eyes dim. She looks down, feeding bits of eel to her cat. I return to eating as well. The meat tastes muddy, the sauce cloying.
It doesn’t take long for the traders to grow tired of remembering the basic signs they know and frustrated with learning new ones, so, bit by bit, they begin to rely on my lip reading.
I can catch bits and pieces of what they say from the movement of their mouths and generally knit those bits together into coherent thoughts, though their varying accents make it hard, and too often they turn their faces from me so I cannot see at all. Their one compromise: they speak too slowly because they think it will help me understand them better. It has the opposite effect.
Around the third time I’ll ask a trader to repeat henself, hen will generally tilt hen’s head back and widen hen’s eyes — not enough to look surprised, but wider than one’s eyes would naturally look when one’s head is tilted back. Hen thinks I’m stupid. Hen tires of repeating henself.
They speak to me. I listen.
I quickly stop asking them to repeat themselves or to keep their faces pointed towards me. I smile when they smile. I laugh when they laugh. I frown when they frown. I catch snippets of conversation here and there, weaving stray words into something approaching complete sentences.
“River… but (butt? Mutt?) … not (knot? Got? Caught?)”
Caught + river = fish? Look for “f” - top teeth on lower lip. Maybe “th.” Too much of the word “fish” comes from deep in the mouth, where I can’t see. P or B? Cod or God? River, caught, cod? He stretches his lips and arms wide. I mimic his smile. Everyone else smiles too. Good on him for catching a large cod. If he did catch a large cod.
It doesn’t take long for me to grow tired even of mimicking. It takes too much work for too little reward, and I don’t care if these traders like me anyway. Maybe I should. Narluga counts them as friends, after all. We’ll spend a lot of time together, both on our way to the Nares and after. But in that case, they should learn from Robin and Lulu and Vervain how to speak to me.
Only one makes a real effort to learn my language. He signs slowly and clumsily, but I appreciate the effort. The rest rely too much on my family members’ translations. Lulu happily obliges, but whenever Robin comes near me, they speak to Robin when they mean to speak to me. They look at her, ask her to tell me something. They don’t even look at me when Robin turns to translate. Like they can’t see me. Like she serves as their runner, sent to deliver a message from hundreds of miles away. I don’t want to put her in that position. I also don’t want to avoid her. So I stop talking to the traders.
In my youth, when I first traveled this way on my own, I found such silence comforting. I embraced my isolation, wrapped it around myself like a blanket. My deafness gave me an excuse not to get too close to the people I encountered. It gave me a sort of mystique, I thought, and shielded me from the standard introductory questions about home and kin. Now I resent the isolation. I’ve grown used to people who talk to me. I didn’t leave to get away from them.
We reach the Appalachians, wind around, over, and through them. Mountain folk maintain the long tunnels the ancestors bore into the mountains’ bellies. We trade goods for passage and they lead us on through the darkness.
I met Pelica in these mountains. Aimlessly sailing down the St. Lawrence River one day, I got word of an ancient trail that began on a mountaintop just a few days’ journey to the south and stretched on and on over the entire Appalachian range, almost to the southern Atlantic coast. Young people walked its entire length as a rite of passage, they said. It took half a year if you did it right. Young and eager to prove myself, I embarked on that journey. I found little but sharp rocks that hurt my feet until I came to this land. A girl from the west, from Pittsburgh, passed me. She had canoed her way south to the coast, and walked the trail back north. She said the trail went easier on you that way, because you’d build up sturdy callouses by the time you reached the north’s painful, rocky paths.
The trail named her Pelica when a pelican landed in front of her and left a feather for her that she wore in her hair. Her family had called her Gaptooth since childhood, even after her permanent teeth grew in and closed the gap.
The trail named me Glassknapper. Another pilgrim called me that for exactly the reason you’d expect: he saw me knapping glass. A more experienced trekker, and more used to these mountains, he passed me by quickly. He may have told Pelica about me. Maybe she gave me the glass for that reason. I never asked, so I’ll never know.
Back home, though, they called me Pebble. Because I stood the son of the great, the legendary Granite the World-Serpent. Even my name ultimately belonged to him. But now I had gone far away, on a walking trail far from home. My father could not define me here; I could define myself. Pelica could define herself by a magical experience she had, not by what she looked like at six years old. We found freedom and each other in the mountains.
I turned around and walked back north with her. We finished the trail — or she did — and then we traveled together to her village in the west. And I never left. I never finished hiking that trail, either.
When we emerge, blinking, from the last tunnel, I tell Robin how her mother and I walked along the top of this range. I tell her that maybe someday she and I could walk that trail — the whole thing, south to north, like Pelica did.
She gazes in the general direction of the mountains and shrugs. She hides her face from me not in rudeness, but to hide her tears.
I shouldn’t have mentioned Pelica. But what else could I talk about? She expands to fill up every crevice of my mind. Every empty space where something else could dwell, Pelica sneaks in to offer her perspective. She has opinions on every animal I hunt and every village we pass. We walked this very road back from the Trail. Memories of our discussions — early discussions, when we saw mysteries in each other and had just begun inventing a language to solve them, and we never had enough words or time to say everything we needed to. I can see her brown hands moving against green mountains. This land still holds our stories, and it hurts to see them again. I want to go someplace I don’t recognize, someplace whose stories remain unknown to me, someplace silent and still.
The rhythm of my footsteps against the ground says: Pelica, Pelica, Pelica. The feather caught between two branches, waving in the wind: Pelica, Pelica, Pelica. Our daughter’s face, rounded and soft and wide-eyed: Pelica, Pelica, Pelica. She haunts my every moment. I want to talk to Robin, but my fingers can only say, Pelica. So I stop trying.
The land speaks, and it gives birth to language. The people, their time — the way they live and the food they eat and the half heard speech of the animals around them — yes, they help shape it, but they all come from the land. Languages change as the times change, as people move, as waters rise and vines wind up the trunks of dead but standing trees, but the land abides. It keeps whispering. Through us, all chattering to each other with those whispers in our ears, it comes tumbling through us, and language forms.
I think a great deal about the difficulties of communication. I suppose I have to. Life without sound may have focused my attention, but it did not create the problem. Those who hear face it too, even if they remain oblivious to it. No human, no matter how sharp hen’s hearing, can hear all the nuances of a whale’s speech, or an elephant’s, or a songbird’s. Their voices rise too high or plunge too deep, move too quick or speak too softly, for human ears to hear. Even perfect ears remain deaf to most of the world.
But everything still speaks. Rocks speak. I know from knapping them. They tell you where they came from and how long they have lived on the surface. Sometimes they tell you about little creatures who lived long ago that no one has seen in a long, long time. They tell you where they want to split and where they’d rather not. You negotiate and you compromise to shape them into the knives or arrowheads or spear points that they feel most comfortable becoming. And as you strike them, you can see the ripples of your conversation recorded in their flesh. They listen. They hear. And if I made a good blade, then so did I.
Pelica and I made our own language as surely as we made our daughter, and in the same way: in love.
When I awoke from a childhood fever with my hearing gone, my family and I developed a language to speak with fingers. We had hunting signs, necessarily silent so as not to frighten the game, and the mainlanders had their own systems of signs for their own deaf children, of which they had many more because of their large numbers and terrible diseases, so we took some things from them. And some of the language we just fell into: gestures that made sense to us alone, inside jokes that became syntax and vocabulary.
When I traveled south to Pittsburgh, of course no one knew any of this. At best, some knew the mainlanders’ signs, or pidgin forms of them. Pelica knew none at all. She didn’t know my language and I didn’t know hers, but slowly we taught each other. I came to understand how much of my sign language grew from my family’s idiosyncrasies. Teaching her the signs meant teaching her myself, my family, my history, my home. This language belonged to the family of Granite the World Serpent, of the Nares Strait, of orcas and octopi and northern lights, and all of this at the precise moment when a fever had snatched a little boy’s hearing away.
She spoke an older, but no less complex, language. Its history shone through in plants named for distant places — Spanish moss, Japanese knotweed — and in words as different as cassava and coconut and kudzu. It belonged to a dark, misty jungle into which her people carved a garden. I got to know her through her words, which I watched her lips wrap around. And for every plant or animal for which my language lacked a sign, we created new signs from bits of others or from what made sense to us. A peeling motion meant “banana.” I cupped two hands over my heart, as if cradling a baby bird, and that meant Pelica. She would imitate my intense look of concentration when I watched her mouth move, her lips pursed first in thought and then in a playful kiss. That meant me.
Robin learned this language as well, as did the rest of Pelica’s family. I can no longer remember how far it has drifted from the signs of the Nares, except when Narluga comes to visit and we shock each other with the divergent accents that now spill from our fingers.
The language grew up with Robin, and she made her mark on it as well. It formed her only sibling, a child who lived in air. It came into the world with every wave of the hand and died with every motionless silence, waiting for us to give it life again. We made it of our own flesh and blood and bone, and birthed it together, and as it grew it became more complex and mature and began telling us how it wanted to grow. I wish Pelica, who had longed so desperately for more children, could have recognized this language, too, as our child. Without her, only two native speakers remained — Robin and myself — and now we leave the place that gave it life, maybe forever. And so, like all our other children but Robin, it will probably die.
I feel as if a piece of my mind dies with it. I forget things. I have no one to talk to — not as fluently, as easily, as Pelica and I did. My hands carry so many bones, I can’t use them to speak. I have only half a soul. It doesn’t seem possible that I could go on living with so much of myself gone with her.
Where do languages go when they die? Who buries them? Who mourns them? What spirits eat them into soil? What creatures do they nourish? What new beings do they become? Do dead languages linger in the air through which we swept our fingers, into which we breathed those syllables? Do our children breathe them? Do they nourish us without our knowing?
Of course, everyone goes through this. Everything living dies, and everything in the world lives. My ancestors mourned their ancestors. The eels mourn for their friend that I killed and ate to keep myself alive, to stave off my own death. You’d think after all this time, we’d have gotten used to it.
The steady rhythm of walking helps keep my grief in line. One foot in front of the other, my soles against the earth, learning something new from every change in consistency — mud, pebbles, sand, loam, moss, dead leaves. I speak to the land with my feet. I speak to the mountains with my eyes.
I tell them that I miss her.
They reply that they have lived for an eternity, and will live for an eternity more.
Well, I never called them good conversationalists. It must pose a challenge for them to sympathize with someone who lost his love. To the mountains, barely any time will pass between Pelica’s death and my own. Barely any time has passed between our births and our deaths. All us moving creatures flit in and out of existence in the span of seconds. They must have a hard time even noticing us. I take a strange sort of comfort in that and I don’t even know why.
They tell me about their own birth, the birth of the oldest mountains in the world. Two continents ground against each other: the one where I have lived my whole life, and the motherland of the human race. Our mother pushed her fingers up under the turtle’s shell to form these mountains. They once had sharp, dramatic peaks like the ones out west, or the ones down in Antarctica. But this happened long, long ago. Time has worn them down to gentle slopes and rounded tops.
Does it hurt when erosion wears a mountain down? Do the mountains remember when they stood tall and young and sharp? Do they feel better with smooth, rounded slopes? Do they enjoy meeting the people who walk on them now that it’s become easier? Do they feel more at home in their worn-down selves? Did the erosion only take away everything not themselves?
Have I smoothed with age? Or did I run away from the rains that would soften my edges? Mountains don’t move. They stand proud and they endure the worst the elements have to offer. Maybe those of us who move don’t know how to survive. Maybe that explains why we die so quickly and the mountains remain. We jump away at the first sign of pain.
I ran away from the Arctic and I ran away from Pittsburgh. If I stayed and endured, would I find that the sanding down of my sharp edges didn’t hurt so much after all?
But no — I wouldn’t leave Robin in that poisoned place. That kind of pain doesn’t build character; it only destroys you slowly. I do this for her sake, I remind myself. This doesn’t fit into some lifelong pattern. No matter what Lulu says.
The mountains have eroded, but they endure. In spite of rain and gravity, they endure. In spite of the ancestors’ blasting holes through them and tearing them open to make way for roads, they endure. You can see the suffering, the battering, in their shapes. Pain has smoothed them over.
We can all hope it does the same for us.
I decide on this trip to give Robin the glass spear point I wear around my neck. I give it to her not on a necklace, but on the end of a spear, like it’s always wanted.
I wore it as jewelry for years, and that insulted it. I deprived it of purpose. And I kept it for myself, which insulted my wife and daughter. It rightfully belonged to Pelica, and now it rightfully belongs to Robin. I merely shepherded it from midden heap to spear, and I clung to it for longer than I should have.
Pelica gave it to me as a chunk of swirling, melted glass. It came from sand and melted with heat, and the ancestors sculpted it into something or other and it hardened, and a fire returned it to liquid. Like water, it had many forms. Like water, it didn’t have a color — not green or brown, but perfectly clear. It looked like I imagined the hardened water in the Arctic used to look like, in the days when water hardened. Maybe she gave it to me for that reason, because it reminded her of me in some way. She had only a vague concept of the Arctic, symbolized by things clear and colorless and hard. She had only a vague concept of me, symbolized by the Arctic. The glass wanted to become a spear point. I noticed that immediately. Pelica watched me as I chipped away everything else. I spoke to it through my hammerstone. I took frequent breaks to rest my hands and mind. I wanted to make it perfect, and if I rushed, I would only make mistakes. I had to speak eloquently and listen carefully, and sing the song that would free the spear point from all the things not-spear-point around it, holding it back from its true purpose. With every new cut, it shined more beautifully. It became itself.
When I handed it over to her, she held it up to the sun in wonderment and tilted it to see the rainbows dance. Then she handed it back to me.
I refused. I made it for her.
She laughed and told me she didn’t use spears. And anyway, it would look much nicer around my neck.
Maybe I didn’t deprive it of purpose after all. Maybe it found purpose in looking beautiful for Pelica, catching her eye as it caught the sun and bringing her joy for the time she had left.
Glass doesn’t give like stone. It feels lighter, more delicate. It snaps more easily. I have to hold it more gently than stone, take more care with it, especially because of its rarity.
Glass has less confidence in itself. Stone tells you where it wants to break. Glass doesn’t speak as loudly as stone, with its layers of history. The glass’ history lies in sand, melted and reformed into whatever shape the ancestors wished. I try to feel what it wants to become. Sometimes even the glass doesn’t seem to know. And how could it? No one ever asked it what it wanted to become. My ancestors’ hands shaped it without its permission.
Many try to knap glass, since you can find pieces of it so easily wherever you look, but few have the skill to do well by it. Violence has silenced it. You must have a light touch to help it find its voice again. You must reassure the unsure. You must have patience to help it become itself.
Pelica gave me sturdy glass, thicker than most: sand melted and shaped and melted again. It had a mix of hard edges and rough pumice, swirling grays and shining clarity. It had a story to tell. Never before had I seen a less damaged piece of glass.
And this gave me hope: that through fire, this Somebody of sand could reshape itself and make its own history again. No longer defined by what the ancestors did to it, it returns to the earth like any other stone. One day it will dissolve into sand again, and some grains may reunite in sandstone if they wish, or laze on the shore, letting the waves crash over them. And maybe its brief conversation with me will have led it down that path.
I could almost, but not quite, see through it. But I could feel it wanted the sun to pass through every part of it, like in the old days, when it felt it had purpose. I think I’d resent someone using me to hens own ends, but this one didn’t seem to mind. Not everyone says what you expect hen to say.
I find a good stick along the trail, straight and sturdy. I sit in the back of the wagon, feeling its soft wood give under my knife blade. It wants to become a spear. With patience and care, I carve off everything else. I carve it and sand it and polish it until it shines with pride. I fix the spear point to the end of the stick, tying the point to the shaft with sinew. I admire it in the sunlight. It sparkles and shines, clear of color, full of rainbows. Everything in it, every part of it shaped by the conversation between Robin’s father, the outsider, and the land that gave her life.
When we pass by a river, we test it out. She dips the spear point under the water, so the distortion doesn’t ruin her aim. The clear glass point melts into the quick rushing water. We stand motionless with water up to our knees, she with her glorious spear and I with my simpler flint one, and we wait until we become invisible to the fish, until they take us for granted. We become strange trees sticking up out of the water with leafless branches pointing down. The fish grow bolder. Robin slowly lifts her spear and strikes.
Catfish for dinner. We fry it up Arctic-style.
I learned from growing up on the sea that we dwell upon a thin skin. Only the very top of the water and the bottom of the sky do we see. Below lies a world not our own, a world of mysteries and monsters. Above, an endless sky, a great expanse of nothingness with little bits of something, scattered, unreachable.
The land-dwellers bury their dead in the earth and look up at the trees and imagine their world great and important. But not too far below the soil, the hot black churning drives the movement of the land beneath our feet. It eats old rocks and births new ones. Even the stones live and die in an endless cycle. Everything changes, above and below, even in places too dangerous for humans to live.
We have a small home, but a beautiful one. In the eagle’s eye, we have few places we truly belong: a skin stretched taut between the thick dance of rocks below and a sparser dance of bigger, more distant rocks above. Between these beasts we make our home, like the tiny spirits that live within us, and like those spirits we hope that the giants who walk among us will act kindly.
And like those spirits, we try to make ourselves useful. Just as the little spirits in my gut help me eat and keep me healthy if I care for them, we little beings try to keep things moving. We make mistakes. Sometimes I get sick, too. But my littleness doesn’t make me unimportant. I would die without my spirits.
We follow the Susquehanna east into a valley and then north, and on an island in the middle of it lies the legendary temple. Unlike the Beaver Valley Temple, it has no stone cairns painted yellow to warn people away. Vegetable gardens grow right on the island. Except for the curved towers looming above it, Three Myland lacks the ominous feel of most temples.
Robin’s initial scowl softens as we walk through the airy courtyards between the great towers. She may never see her aunt again, but at least her aunt will live out the rest of her days in safety. Our guide wears no mask, but moves her lips a great deal and faces away from all of us. Robin tries to translate for me, but the woman speaks too much for her to manage. I don’t mind; the decision to stay or to go doesn’t rest with me. I glance at Vervain. She wears a smile tight in the mouth but extending to her eyes. Happy. Excited, even — but pretending skepticism.
They let us stay for her initiation ceremony. They shave her head. I suppose all Vulture Priests have to do that, even researchers who don’t work with radiation. We watch her long silver dreadlocks fall to the floor. A priest drapes a black robe around her shoulders. She receives a new name: Ver-on-i-ka. One of those old ancestor names that don’t mean anything. When the ceremony ends, she dies to us.
Robin says her final goodbye, burying her face in her aunt’s new priestly robes. When she pulls away, tears shine on her face. Narluga gently guides her to the riverboat that will return us to the shore.
Vervain — Ver-on-i-ka — turns to me, her shorn head gleaming in the sun, her knowing eyes nestled into the crevices of her wrinkles. She expresses her happiness that Pelica had me, that she loved me, that we brought Robin into this world.
I want to thank her, but a fury rises in me. It clenches my jaw and flares my nostrils. I try to ask, but end up demanding, why she didn’t tell Robin about her plans to join the priesthood.
Her eyes sadden, then harden. With simple, no-nonsense gestures, she tells me she didn’t want to hurt Robin.
I stagger back a step. It takes me a moment to gather myself. Robin could have had a year to grieve her aunt, but instead Vervain — I don’t have a sign for Ver-on-i-ka, and I don’t care to make one — sprang the news on her while she still grieved her mother. Did she think that shock would hurt her less?
Vervain’s fingers snap forward. She says she didn’t know Pelica would die so soon. No one did.
But she went through with her plan anyway, leaving Robin to bear the weight of two deaths at once. She didn’t do it for Robin, I insist, or she wouldn’t stand here today at Three Myland with a shaved head and a nonsense name. Not so soon after Pelica’s death.
She pulls in close to me and lowers her hands. Robin and Narluga can see us from the boat. They watch us, waiting for me to join them. Vervain tells me we have no time to waste. Pelica’s death showed us this. Ginkgo’s death showed us this. And I know it too, or else I wouldn’t stand here today at Three Myland, heading north and east towards my home.
I ask her what she thinks she’ll find here that no other priest has found.
Vervain looks over at Robin. More than she would find staying home, she says.
I step into her line of vision, my back to Robin. I tell her I will never understand her and her mother. They never knew how to person, how to care for their families. The land must have gone bad long before Beaver Valley Temple failed, to make a family so untrusting of each other.
I expect her to insult me, but instead she holds my gaze and shrugs. Perhaps it did.
Vervain drapes her black hood over her head and walks into the shadow of the nearest tower. I climb into the boat with Robin and watch with her as the dark figure disappears.
Robin freezes in my arms, and I realize what this looks like. This woman spun the last thread binding Robin to her mother’s family. Now that thread has snapped, and she follows her father and her father’s sibling to her father’s home, possibly never to return. Once we head east again, she has said goodbye to everything she once considered home.
I recognize that look of panic on her face. I struggle to keep the same one off mine. For her sake.