It didn’t take long for the towers of Three Myland to disappear beneath the canopy. We headed east, away from home and towards the rising sun. I tried to think of it that way: my new life, my new family, awaited me at the top of the world. The journey would take four months altogether. I would see my father’s home for the first time beneath a sun that never set. Who knew what other wonders I would see there?
Every step from Three Myland put Aunt Vervain further behind me. Every step took me further away from the only home I’d ever known. Every step took me further away from the land that had killed my mother and my brother. When I looked back, I saw only mountains blocking my view. When I looked forward, a wide and winding road linking families like beads on a necklace. Aunt Vervain had made her choice and I had made mine. Neither of us had abandoned our home; we just went forward, to seek out new possibilities. She had a life at Three Myland now. And I’d find one, too. I told myself this as we followed the turnpike to the coast.
Along the trade routes, caravans merged and dispersed, swapped horses and wagons and boats and rafts, and flowed into and out of each other like the waterways we kept crossing and following. They lived in a secret world on top of the real one, with its own language and code and culture, invisible to the families they passed. The traders in Lulu’s caravan initiated me into this secret world, teaching me the trade pidgin and the inside jokes and the meanings of symbols carved into trees along the road. It made me giddy to arrive in a new camp, to see the people who had never left their little valley and think, ‘I lived like you not so long ago.’ I felt worldly and wise, like I saw everything from the top of a mountain.
Lulu spent hen’s whole life like this, seemingly holding the entire world in hen’s head, remembering stories and people and lands over inconceivable distances. Everywhere we stopped, Lulu knew at least two people, shifted hen’s dialect to match theirs, and soon they embraced us as kin. Hen seemed to know everyone: every trader, every bard, every inhabitant of the secret world and the regular one. Hen followed the language seamlessly as it shifted through the land.
Each person we met spoke just a little more strangely than the last, until finally I couldn’t understand anything they said at all. First we met people who would pronounce the same words just a little bit differently, saying “twok” instead of “talk,” for example. Then we met people who used words I’d never heard before, like the man who asked us for “guap” before he would let us pass through his family’s territory. Lulu understood that he meant “money,” and offered a few polished shells as a token of respect.
Everyone called their language “English,” though the word they used, like the language itself, drifted further and further from what I knew: Anglish, Inglitch, Ongluse, Oongloost. Lulu told me that the halting, awkward trade pidgin we spoke more and more often as we went had actually changed the least from the language spoken by our ancestors. It struck me then that my own English must have drifted as far from the original as Anglish, Inglitch, or any of the others, and they sounded foreign to me only because we had all drifted in different directions. By the time we reached the coast, I had begun to hear words that clearly had not come from any kind of English.
Lulu called Pillbug our best ambassador. Everyone wanted to pet and hold her, even when she squirmed and tried to run away. She’d gotten used to being held, though. All that time riding around in a basket on my back and getting carried by various traders made her particularly cuddly. She kept growing, though. By the time we reached the sea, I’d had to replace her basket with a leash so she could run around more freely.
When we first crested the hill and I caught my first glimpse of the ocean, I actually gasped. Never in my life had I imagined that the world could hold so much water. I couldn’t see a speck of land on the other side: just water all the way to the horizon. Only a great wooden ship landed on the beach, and the traders carting goods on and off it, blocked my view.
The others in my caravan laughed and passed me by while I stood rigid and breathless. Pillbug sniffed at the air and strained at her leash, wondering why I’d stopped moving. I felt a hand clap my back and turned around to see Lulu grinning.
“Our great mother,” hen said, “yours and mine.”
My father stepped up next to me and gazed out at the sea with a wistful smile. For him and Lulu, this moment marked a kind of homecoming, a reunion with old kin. I would never know what it felt like to grow up on the ocean, but he could understand my wonder, and suddenly we had a little more to share. We hadn’t even reached the Nares and already I had an inkling of what it might feel like.
The caravan rattled down the hill into a soft bed of sand. The tiny grains of plastic held translucent shades of pink and blue and green. I enjoyed the feeling of digging my toes into them. They felt smooth and cool, and they made a riotous rainbow all along the shore. I kicked them up behind me as I ran to the water, dropping Pillbug’s leash. She scrambled after me, only to leap back when her paws touched the water. The frothy waves that splashed against my ankles felt like a river, but stronger. They seemed to encroach more boldly on the land, and salty breeze rode on their backs. I knew I shouldn’t drink it, but I had to taste it to be sure. I spat it out at once: salty, just like they said.
While I delighted in the ocean, our trade caravan and the one that had just arrived merged and reformed themselves. Some of them took the horses and wagons south, to follow the eastern edge of the Appalachians. Lulu, my father, and I got into the ship, headed north. The traders said their goodbyes and spoke of meeting up again at this festival or that, next season or next year. I said goodbye for good.
The ship had a sail, but oars as well. I had seen ships like it at festivals, but I’d never ridden inside one. I climbed aboard. It had a shallow, wide hull and a chest built into the side next to each oar-hole. My father told me to put my things in the chest and sit on top of it to claim my seat. Whenever the winds refused to lift our sails, I would have to row along with 15 other passengers.
I placed Pillbug in her basket and tucked it between my feet. She instantly jumped out and began busily exploring the boat. I tried to grab her and put her back in the basket, but my father laughed and waved me off.
“Many boats like this keep a cat on board, to hunt any mice that might sneak in,” he said. “They’ll welcome Pillbug.”
“But what if someone steps on her?” I asked.
My father nodded to Lulu, who stood up on hen’s chest and shouted, in at least four different languages, that we had a kitten on board, so everyone had better look where they step or mice would eat all our food. The traders all paused to lift up their things and look under them with such care and delicacy that I had to laugh.
I sat back down on my chest and gave my oar an experimental heave through the air. The weight of it filled me with dread. I couldn’t possibly row this — not for four months, not for four days. The boat filled up with traders whose arms — I only noticed then — bulged with muscles. I twisted around to look at my father, who’d taken the chest behind me. I wanted to tell him that I couldn’t do this, that we had to go home — or somewhere else. But he clearly relished the feel of the wooden oar in his strong hands. I spun back around before he saw me. I couldn’t do it, but I would. I had to.
We had a captain named Nautilus who would steer the rudder and give directions. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that he came from the Nares, too. He knew Lulu, of course. We probably all shared kin, though he clearly hadn’t expected to see us. I watched them banter and tease each other in some language I didn’t recognize at all, and then Lulu sat down on the chest in front of me and Nautilus came over to greet my father and me.
He placed his hands firmly on my shoulders, smiled at me with a twinkle in those hooded eyes that looked so like my father’s, and let out a stream of words that made no sense but sounded fond, so I smiled and nodded.
Nautilus furrowed his brow and looked past me at Lulu. They exchanged a few more words. He looked back at me, suddenly very serious. “I teach you our language,” he said in trade pidgin. “You speak good before we get home.”
He clapped me on the back, then turned to shake hands with my father while I checked Lulu’s face to see if I should worry. Hen gave me a thumbs-up, so I tried to relax. I ran my fingers along the grooves in my oar and tried not to think about my puny muscles or the strange Nares tongue.
Eventually, Nautilus made his way to the front of the ship and started barking out orders in trade pidgin. The traders still on shore rolled the ship into the water over a series of logs they’d laid out on the sand. As the boat began to rock, Pillbug scrambled to get back in her basket, her claws scratching on the wooden floor. She curled up into a tight ball, trembling. I gave her a few strokes on the head, which she didn’t respond to, and then gripped my oar in both hands. I sank my oar into the sand in rhythm with the drumbeat Nautilus kept. At first I felt it dip into the soft seabed, then merely tap the seabed, and then, eventually, touch nothing but water.
It shocked me, even though it shouldn’t have: I’d canoed plenty on the Ohio. It felt familiar but different at once. I watched the beach recede, the traders and wagons shrink and disappear behind jungle, and in that moment the trip became real. I hadn’t headed down the river to a festival, for a brief escape from reality before returning home. When we pushed off from shore, we pushed off from the continent. Because we had left. Because I now rowed a boat I’d never set foot on before, surrounded by people whose language I did not speak. I’d stepped into a new reality. I’d truly left home and everything comfortable and familiar behind, and I had no idea what I would find.
I crouched in front of the campfire, rubbing my stiff, sore arms and glaring at my dinner of fried squid. The family that had taken us in for the night fed us generously, but the sight of squid already turned my stomach, and we’d only just completed our first week on the water.
We hadn’t spent nearly as much time at sea as I’d expected. We’d mostly skimmed along the coast of New York Bay before turning into the Hudson River. Granted, the river itself stretched so wide that the difference between it and the sea seemed pedantic. I could scarcely see the mountains that (Lulu assured me) lay on either side. But it took a lot of rowing before the winds began to favor us and we could finally hoist the sail. And every time we stopped to trade — which we did often, because this river seemed unusually populated — we had to go through the whole thing all over again the next morning.
I could barely lift my arms from all the rowing. The wind it had knocked out of me could propel the ship forward by itself. And I’d have to do it all again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. I didn’t have time to grow the sea arms and the sea legs Narluga insisted would come. Not even to mention the constant roll and churn of the boat, which had already taken its toll on me and Pillbug. She spent most of her time curled up miserably in her basket. I wished I could do the same. Whenever the ship moved, my stomach churned along with the waves. More than once, I had to lean over the side and dump the lunch we’d fished out back into the water. Wavy, whirly, swirly little creatures rushed in to gobble it up. Watching them eat my sick, I had to pull away before I threw up again. I couldn’t tell if my skin had gone damp from sweat or salt spray or both.
The charm of travel had worn off along with the oil that once had polished my oar but no longer protected against splinters. The overland travel had seemed easy and fun. I knew how to walk, and could walk a long time, especially on the flat, well-traveled turnpike. And when my legs did tire, I could just hop in the wagon or ride one of the horses.
I couldn’t rest my arms when rowing, though. I couldn’t even talk to my father, because his hands kept busy with rowing, too. So by the time we’d come halfway up the Hudson, I’d sat stewing in resentment long enough to just want to turn around and go home, radiation or no radiation.
The people who lived here called it the Capitol and seemed to think an awful lot of themselves. They lived among a lot of stone ruins from the old world, which they tried (and failed) to maintain. One of them, a great bowl they called the Egg, loomed over everything else in a way that felt dangerously unstable.
The people of the Capitol reminded me of the Vulture Priests, except they had no real reason to preserve these old buildings. They just lived in the past because it seemed nicer to them than the present. So they lived in the crumbling ruins, pulling up the cushy moss that grew through the cracks so they could sleep on the hard marble floors. The forest canopy closed in to provide shade, and they spurned it.
Those who didn’t live in the ruins made their houses out of clay to look like smaller versions of the ruins, and the houses stayed put right where they’d built them for years and years. I got the feeling these people wanted to live in the ruins, but the ones living there wouldn’t let them. They had a chief, and they seemed to consider the people closest to him as more important. That baffled me, especially because the less-important people seemed to do all the work. They went into the forest to hunt and gather, cleared patches of it for Four Sisters gardens, and fished great nets of mollusks from the river.
The fence unnerved me most of all. They had surrounded their village with a ring of poles, alternating between tall wooden poles and great stone pillars seemingly taken and moved from the ruins. A person could see through it, but not pass through it without squeezing. It made me feel trapped. What did they mean to keep out — or in? They seemed nice enough, I suppose, but they provided us with only two narrow paths out of their village.
When they saw us setting up our skin houses just outside their fence, they rushed over to stop us and lead us back to the ruins. They communicated, in gestures and scraps of trade pidgin, that they wanted us to sleep there. I didn’t entirely understand what they said — none of us did — but I got the distinct impression that they considered their houses better than ours.
Lulu made hen’s best attempt to reject the offer graciously. Hen told the people that we couldn’t possibly intrude upon them any more than we already had; that we couldn’t bear to crowd them out of their own homes, that at the very least, they should let a few of us sleep outside the village in our own houses, if only to reduce crowding. But the people of Albany wouldn’t hear of it. Lulu thanked them profusely for their generosity, then turned away with a clenched jaw. The traders tried to take it as kindness and hospitality rather than an insult, so we all folded our houses back up and put them back in our chests.
“Dirt-diggers,” Lulu whispered to me.
I raised my eyebrows. “We don’t live anything like these people.”
Lulu gave me a sidelong glance. “You’ll see more like them as we get further north. Worse than them, too. In the old days when everything started warming up, people who lived by the sea kept moving further and further north. The Arctic became a crowded place, Baby Bird, and full of people too scared to let go of the old ways. You think of your people as unique, but you descend from travelers from the flooded south, too. You just didn’t go as far.”
And with that, hen tossed hen’s house back in the chest, slammed the lid closed, and hopped off the ship. I gave myself a moment to fume before following suit, if only because I looked ridiculous standing on the ship while everyone else disembarked. Travelers from the flooded south? No, yinzers built Pittsburgh in the days of the old world. We remember it in our histories. Narluga didn’t know what hen said.
I wished I could tell them that their houses looked strange and uncomfortable, and their fence scared me, and I’d looked forward to sleeping in my own house tonight because it smelled like home. And every morning when I opened my eyes and saw the sunlight filter through the whale skin stretched above my head, I could pretend — if only for a moment — that I still lay at home on our bamboo platform, and on my father’s other side lay my mother.
That night, I stuffed myself into a hard-walled, hard-floored room with my father, Lulu, and three other traders, most of whom I barely knew. Pillbug wandered off somewhere to investigate the ruins and hunt for mice, so I didn’t even have her to comfort me. The marble floor made my arms and back ache even more than they already did. Somehow, thanks likely to my exhaustion, I managed to drift off to sleep. I know because I awoke in the middle of the night when Lulu began thrashing in hen’s sleep and knocked me in the face with hen’s elbow.
“Lulu!” I hissed, shaking hen.
Hen woke up with a jolt, scrambled over me and another trader, and rushed out of the house. I followed hen to the fence, where hen stood gripping two wooden poles for dear life.
“What troubles you?” I asked.
Lulu took a deep, shaky breath and turned around. I could see beads of sweat glistening on hen’s forehead. “Nothing, don’t worry about it, just a nightmare, I have those sometimes, no big deal. Let’s go back to sleep, come on.”
Hen breezed past me and back into the house, too quickly. When I followed hen in, hen had already fallen asleep again — or pretended to.
I didn’t have time to ask Lulu about it the next morning, and hen seemed to want it that way. In fact, hen didn’t give me a chance to talk privately with hen at all. We always had something to do: deals to make, people to talk to, sails to patch. When Lulu didn’t keep busy — which happened rarely, because hen kept henself very busy — hen insisted on keeping me busy learning the ways of the Nares Strait. Hen liked to talk to me exclusively in Nares and pretend not to understand when I tried to speak English. My father said hen just wanted to help me learn better, but I didn’t consider it a coincidence that I couldn’t say, “What happened that night in Albany?” in Nares and Lulu wouldn’t hear it in English. If Nautilus ever forgot to tutor me for a day, hen would helpfully remind him.
He dealt kindly and patiently with me, but still a wave of dread welled up in me whenever I met his eyes. Every time he left his rudder, I knew that at any moment he might decide to kneel down beside my chest and start quizzing me on Nares vocabulary.
The spoken language of the Nares bore little resemblance to my father’s sign language, which frustrated me to no end. I thought the sign language might give me a leg up on learning the spoken language, but instead I had to start almost from scratch. It had sounds I’d never used, and subtle differences in tone that I could barely distinguish but that could nonetheless change the meaning of a word completely. I mangled every attempt to speak it. I supposedly belonged to these people, and yet their language and ways felt as alien to me as the families we passed along the way. Not all traders and travelers hailed from the Nares, but the farther north we got, the more of them I saw. Even along the Hudson, I spotted more of their tan skin and distinctive tattoos than anyone would expect this far south, all of them relatives in one way or another, all of them eager to teach me the ways of “my” people.
My moods rose and fell like the waves. My arms got stronger, my hands calloused. My skin darkened from being out in the sun all day long. I got used to the seasickness, and the landsickness, but never the homesickness. Even when I managed to stop feeling dizzy from the sailing, the constant changes left me in vertigo. We sped across greater distances than I had ever crossed, jumping between forests, between mountains, between languages. Just as I’d begun to lose my shock from encountering one new people, we’d sail on to the next one, and the process would begin all over again.
I no longer felt like I saw the world from the top of a mountain. In fact, I suddenly felt blind. I had known Beaver Valley like I knew my own body, all its dips and rises and secrets and moods. Every family we passed knew their land the same way, but I knew nothing of any of it but the blur I saw as we sailed by. I felt small, and lost, and ignorant. The only home to which I belonged lay dying, and I couldn’t manage to make myself belong to the new one. If I couldn’t handle travel, what would I do when I got to the Nares?
I laughed at my own hubris, my conviction that I could just go out and find a way to save my homeland and bring it back, like one goes out to pick bananas. How had I ever thought I could do that? I’d never gone further than two days’ canoe trip away from home. I’d seen nothing outside of Pittsburgh. I knew nothing. I could barely keep myself alive and moving, even with constant help from my family and the traders around me. Any more than that seemed unimaginable.
We stopped for a few days in Montreal, where the Hudson River flowed into the St. Lawrence. Two rivers, each so broad they seemed like bays, each flowing in and out of an endless sea, met here. Where they met, an island poked up out of the water, crowded with ships and people and crumbling stone ruins. There stood a regular trading post, like a festival that never ended. For everyone but my father and me, this seemed like the most important stop on the trip. The traders got right to work unloading their goods and diving into the bustling marketplace. I waited until they’d all gotten off the ship, unrolled my sleeping mat on the floor, and lay down to sleep.
I didn’t even want to set one foot in Montreal and have to weave my way through all those people and sounds and smells. I didn’t want to keep moving through more terrible people — more “dirt-diggers,” and worse, Lulu had said — who didn’t know any more than I did about how to heal a land. They couldn’t even heal themselves.
Maybe we deserved to die off. Our ancestors put this poison into the world, after all, and we’d done nothing to get rid of it. I’d done nothing, even though I’d supposedly taken this trip for that very reason. Even if some way existed to contain the waste better than the ancestors had, I had no way of finding out about it because I couldn’t talk to anyone.
Pillbug curled up in my lap. Already she had grown so quickly that she could no longer fit in her basket — not that she’d let that stop her from occasionally trying to cram herself in there. I’d even stopped using her leash. She had free run of the ship, and seemed to have adapted much better to it than I had. She spent her days galloping up and down the length of the ship, chasing lizards and crickets and horseflies, and spent every night growing chubby on the scraps she begged from everyone. She enjoyed propping her tiny paws up on the rim of the ship and watching the shore go by, smiling in her squinty way as the wind fluttered in her fur. Already her startlingly blue eyes had yellowed until only a thin ring of greenish-blue around her pupils remained. Soon her eyes would turn completely yellow and her limbs would get long and her round, fluffy kitten body elongate into the slinky grace of an adult cat.
And then what? Ordinarily, she’d carve a territory for herself out in the forest, raise kittens of her own, and teach them to avoid humans at all cost. But where would she establish that territory? On this trading ship? And how would she know how to survive — how to hunt like a cat, how to avoid snakes and coywolves — when no one taught her how during her kittenhood? She never seemed to catch any of those lizards or crickets or horseflies.
She grew up a nomadic cat among humans. Through my thoughtlessness, had I doomed Pillbug to rely on humans long after her instinct made her hate them? Would she end up killed by some fisherman who got tired of this cat stealing hen’s catch? I didn’t want to believe that I had caused any harm to this kitten I loved so much, but doubt lurked in my mind.
I couldn’t take it anymore. Even if the ship floor felt hard and uncomfortable, even if I left myself exposed to the rain, I didn’t have the strength to get back up and face another strange place, and wander around helplessly with nothing to do.
My mother would know what to do. She’d done some traveling herself, before I came into this world. Aunt Vervain would know what to do. But they hadn’t come. I had. I felt like a poor substitute for either of them, much less both.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and opened one eye to see my father standing over me. “Wouldn’t you rather sleep in our house?” he signed. “I found a good spot, with nice soft moss.”
I shook my head and closed my eyes again.
The ship bobbed a little and the floorboards creaked as my father sat down next to me. He tapped me on the shoulder again. When I opened both my eyes, he asked, “What troubles you?”
I lifted myself up. “I made a horrible mistake and I want to go home.”
“You have come home,” he said.
I scowled. “I thought we called the Nares Strait home now. This doesn’t look like the Nares Strait.”
He got up, leaned over the side of the boat, and scooped up some river water in his hands. Then he carefully knelt back down next to me and held out his cupped hands for me to see. He poured the water onto the deck in a slow trickle. “No. We’ve come home,” he said with wet hands. “The whales dwell in the water. They migrate across whole oceans. The birds dwell in the air. They migrate across whole continents. Our people dwell between the air and the water. Wherever we find air and water, we find our home.”
I let my eyes wander over to the sun as it sank below the wide, churning river before turning back to my father. The sunset gave his face an orange glow. “And Pillbug?”
“Like I said, most trade ships have a cat or two. They survive. And Pillbug has grown up used to traveling now, so she’ll take to it naturally.”
“I thought I cursed her. I thought I cursed everyone with my ignorance.”
“Maybe so,” my father said. “Maybe Pillbug won’t take to this life. Maybe you won’t, either. Maybe I’ve cursed you.” He looked out over the bustling shoreline for a moment, his hands paused but still held up. “We all curse our children,” he said at last. “Every one of us, in a thousand different ways. But we also bless them. And if we do it right, the blessings number as many as the curses. And if we do it very well, the blessings outnumber the curses. But if you’ve never harmed someone you love with all your heart, you haven’t lived.”
I avoided his gaze, picking at the dirt under my fingernails, then raised my hands to speak. “I don’t think you cursed me.”
He smiled. “I hope not. You’ve taken to your new home quite well, all things considered. You seem well on your way to womaning in the Nares.”
The suggestion shocked me. I felt so far behind in my language studies, but then I realized what he meant. To live with my father’s people meant living in constant motion, following the whale roads and the bird roads. They dwelt in that secret world of traders and travelers. The journey itself had become my mentor, teaching me the ways of my people, and I’d already learned more than I’d thought.
My father held out his hand to me. I took his hand and let him pull me up. We disembarked, my sleeping mat trailing behind me in the sand. I could see our house up ahead, so much like the other whale skin houses arranged on the grass, but different. It stood near water, and it felt like home, wherever we pitched it. And that would suffice.
In Montreal, for the first time, I spoke the Nares language to someone other than Lulu or Nautilus. I didn’t do it willingly. I had to.
I knew that the trip would take about four months, and that I would bleed once a month. I tried not to connect these two facts for as long as I could, feeling too overwhelmed by everything else to consider it. But then the blood came, and I had no other choice. Neither Lulu nor Nautilus bled, and we shared the ship with only a few other women, and only one who belonged to my father’s people. My people. I had barely exchanged two words with her. I still struggled to learn her language, and she had never touched mine. The thought of asking her this question in trade pidgin humiliated me even more than the question itself, so that settled that.
I waited until late in the evening, when the markets closed and everything wound down. I caught her just outside her house, getting ready to turn in for the night. I got as close to her as I could before saying her name, and even then I said it softly, so no one else would hear.
“Ruby,” I said. “Help needs I.”
She furrowed her brow. I’d probably said it wrong, but she seemed to understand what I meant. “What troubles you, Robin?”
“I… how does… woman… sail… under the moon?”
Her eyes widened. She pulled me inside her house and tied the door flap shut behind her. From under her sleeping skins she produced a bag stuffed with pads of Spanish moss, already smoked and soaked and cleaned and woven, and filled with fluffy cotton. It would have taken a week or more of solid work to make all of them. She grabbed two handfuls at a time and piled them up in my arms.
“You must prepare in advance, you understand?” she said. “Sometimes you find help at trading posts, but not always. Up north, we’ll pass through many swamps, and some cotton fields. We can harvest more materials, but you can only craft them at night when we’ve landed. No time, no space, no fire on the ship.”
“I make more for you,” I stammered, trying to keep the pads from falling out of my arms.
She shook her head. “Don’t bother. In Montreal I can find many more. You just keep your blood off the bench. It stains the wood.”
I thanked her profusely and carried my treasure back to my house, where I slipped one of the pads into my loincloth and placed the others in Pillbug’s old basket. She instantly jumped in and curled up on them, kneading little holes into the weaving with her claws. I felt too tired to stop her, so I just let her have it. Maybe cat fur would absorb blood, too.
Before I drifted off to sleep, something distantly occurred to me: I had just had a real conversation, in the Nares language, with a native speaker. And while I wouldn’t boast of my eloquence or poetry, I had managed to make myself understood. Lulu would feel proud of me if I ever told hen about it, which I would certainly not.
We sailed up the St. Lawrence into the sea, and for the next few months hugged the densely-populated western coast of Qikiqtaaluk. Just like Lulu had said, the further north we traveled, the fewer hunters and the more gardeners we came across. The land in the Arctic packed people right up to the shores. Docks stretched out over the shallows to connect villages of houses on stilts, like the ones I knew from home. And further inland, I finally saw them: Lulu’s dirt-diggers. They seemed tired and thin, and when they smiled, all of them had missing teeth. Those teeth that remained had grown brown or black. They planted the Four Sisters, but only those, and only in little, patchy fields. I could see no forest gardens there. Some of the banks looked like hugel logs, but where did they grow their trees?
We had left Pittsburgh shortly after the longest night of the year. I naturally expected the days to lengthen from there, but the further north we traveled, they began to grow to impossible lengths. We reached a point where dawn would follow sunset without the sky even darkening fully in between. Then sunset and dawn bled together into a single thing. Then the sun would not disappear at all, only grazing the horizon before rising up again, and then it wouldn’t even drop that far. It became difficult for me to tell how long we had traveled.
I didn’t understand how Arctic people could navigate without the stars, but Nautilus showed me a translucent stone he used for that purpose. It showed him where the sun hid behind the clouds. I turned the stone around and around in my hands, mesmerized by my people’s ingenuity.
By then, my Nares had improved almost to fluency, just as Nautilus had promised, and I got to know some more of the traders who hopped on and off our ship. The ship became like a home to me and the traders like family. Traders enjoyed bringing strings or feathers aboard for Pillbug to play with. She seemed as much their cat as mine. Before, it had seemed so disorienting when we passed through land after land, meeting family after family. Now, I understood that I could find my constant in the ship and the traders who travelled with us, and the family that I traveled with.
We met a family who cut their hair in bizarre lines and angles that hung in front of their faces. They painted their bodies with strange lines and colors. I asked one of them about it, and she told me a tale of her ancestors, as eloquently as trade pidgin allowed.
In ancient days, when sorcerers ruled the world (the woman told me), they bound terrible one-eyed demons to their service called cyclopes. They sent the cyclopes out to watch the people and report back to them on everything they did and said. The woman said that her family’s ancestor cut her hair like this and painted her body like this, and so the cyclopes could not recognize her, and because they could not recognize her they could not see when she came close to them and stabbed out their eyes. The cyclopes screamed, and demanded to know the attacker’s name.
“No One,” she told them.
So the cyclopes cried out, “No One has put out my eye!” And so the woman slipped away and gained her freedom from the sorcerers. Generations later, although the sorcerers had all died out, her descendants continued to to cut their hair and paint their bodies in the same fashion in her honor. They called themselves No One’s Children.
I liked the story and the look, and I asked the woman if she could paint me the way they painted themselves. To my delight, she agreed, and I easily convinced Narluga to let her paint hen as well. And so we arrived on Devon Island a few days later with our faces covered in dazzling patterns of black and white, laughing at the locals’ shocked expressions.
“Not too much longer before we reach home,” Lulu told me that night as we checked our faces in hen’s mirror. Despite our best efforts to maintain it, it had all started to smear and melt. “How do you feel about meeting your family? Excited? Scared?”
“I don’t know. Both?” We spoke in Nares now.
“Don’t worry about it. You belong to this family. They’ll love you.” Lulu draped a deerskin over the mirror and stood up to take off hen’s jewelry. “Now you’d better go back to your house and get some rest. You mostly just see bare-rock mountains from here — no villages, no trading posts — so if the winds cooperate, we should reach the Nares by tomorrow night.”
I gripped some folds in my skirt. “Lulu, I want to ask you something.”
“Hm? Yeah, what?”
“What do you dream about every night that makes you so frightened?”
A shade seemed to fall over hen’s eyes. “I wondered when you’d ask me.”
“It never seemed like the right time. And you obviously didn’t want to talk about it.”
“So why now?”
“Why not?” I asked. “You scared me that night in Albany. And I hear you in your house sometimes. It happens every night, doesn’t it?”
Lulu raked hen’s fingers through hen’s hair in frustration. “Not every night,” hen said. Hen must have seen my incredulity. “But most. The spirits want me to wizard, I guess. And they won’t leave me alone about it.”
My eyes widened. “Why don’t you just wizard, then?”
“Why don’t you just go back home and drink poisoned water?” Lulu snapped. Hen cringed. “My bad. I just… some things kill you slowly. I wouldn’t do well as a wizard.”
“How can you know if you don’t try?” I asked. “The spirits must want you for a reason.”
Hen pursed hen’s lips. “You sound just like that old woman from Christmas.”
“What old woman?”
With a sigh, hen plopped down in front of me and told me everything. The dreams. The old woman from Quebec. The sword.
“Well, you have to go back and train with her now,” I said. “You never paid her for the mint.”
Lulu threw henself back on hen’s sleeping skins. “You don’t consider that price just a bit steep for some mint?”
“You didn’t think about finding her?” I asked. “All that time we spent on the St. Lawrence?”
“I had a job. Have a job,” Lulu said. “To escort you and your father back home.”
“You’ve almost finished that.”
“So what’ll you do after we get there?” I asked. “Just hang around the Nares, catching fish? I thought that you wanted to avoid that, too.”
Lulu glared in the general direction of the door flap. “They’ll kill me,” hen said quietly. “They’ve tried to kill me damn near every night for years.”
I leaned forward and placed my hand on hen’s. “They haven’t yet. You have more strength than them. I think they know that. I think they won’t leave you alone because of that.”
Lulu met my gaze with wet eyes. “You really think I should do it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve gotten sick of you. As soon as we get to the Nares, I want you to turn right back around and I don’t want to see you again until you’ve become a wizard.”
We burst out laughing.
“You have some spirit, Baby Bird,” Lulu said. “Okay.” Hen breathed deeply and repeated, “Okay.”
We smelled the village before we saw it. The smell of so much grilled squid, banana-leaf-wrapped mollusks, and fried cuttlefish wafted across the water. We rowed around a bend, and a cliff face fell away to reveal a village floating right on the water, in the middle of the Strait.
The people there really meant it when they said they lived in the Nares: an entire village of whale skin houses like mine floated in the middle of the strait on rafts connected by wooden walkways.
As soon as we came into view, dozens of people rushed to the edges of their rafts, jumping up and down and shouting their greetings. The rafts pitched under their bouncing feet. It made my heart stop, but they seemed not to notice. The strangeness and familiarity of it weakened my knees almost as much as the constant shifting beneath me. I fell into a blur of faces and names and hugs. The ship pulled away, moving on to Kalaallit Nunaat. The traders said goodbye. My family said hello. Pillbug ran and hid and wouldn’t show herself until the next day, when someone opened a barrel of fish and found her curled up and hissing inside.
The family feasted our return with succulent sea-meats prepared in delicious sauces, with sweet fruits and tasty fried tubers. We ate and drank too much and sang songs and danced and celebrated. With the endless days, I could hardly tell how long it went on.
Throughout the madness of the feast, I could remember only one combination of name and face: Granite, the World Serpent, my famous grandfather. He loomed over everyone, a mountain of a man, tall but made taller by the bun he wore on top of his head, broad and made broader by the fur-trimmed cloak he wore around his shoulders. His voice boomed and his eyes twinkled so that when he spoke to you, you felt like the only person in the world.
And he spoke to me often, excited to finally get to know his granddaughter. He told me the incredible stories of his travels, and the whole family hung on his every word even though they surely must have heard all of them. He had traveled from his home here all the way to Antarctica and back, circling the entire world. He told us of his adventures in ancient ruins, exploring foreign jungles, hunting bears and wrestling with squid both giant and colossal. (“I swear, the squid grow even larger in the oceans around Antarctica than here! And their tentacles have hooks that can rip a man apart! Your father never believed me, but I swear on my mother’s life, they exist!”) He laughed and told jokes, and yet for all of his accomplishments and adventures and stories, he put me in the place of honor through it all.
Eventually, the feast quieted down and people began to trickle back into their houses. Even Grandpa Granite fell asleep from too much wine. The village went quiet, and I walked the creaking walkways, just looking around. Maybe I had begun to feel too much at home, because when I saw a kayak tied to the end of the walkway, with a sandy beach not too far behind it, I couldn’t resist.
I jumped in and paddled the kayak over to the shore of — Qikiqtaaluk or Kalaallit Nunaat? Or one of those little islands in the Strait? I’d lost all sense of direction and couldn’t see a single star. But it didn’t matter. I felt a familiar dizziness as I stepped out of the kayak and onto solid ground, and let myself fall back onto the beach.
The smooth grains of plastic sand cradled my head. Just past my feet, waves inched forward and fell back in their endless cycle. Above my head, faint green waves of the northern lights washed up against the endless blue of an Arctic spring twilight. Waves below and waves above: nothing ever stayed still. Light and darkness disobeyed all the rules. Nothing made sense at the top of the world. And here I lay, between the water and the air.
And there on that rainbow beach beneath that rainbow sky, words like good and bad, poison and heal, natural and man-made, ceased to have any meaning. The ancestors made the world we lived in, and we lived in paradise. I felt the cool breeze roll in with the tide and tilted my head up to the sky. I heard the whispers of waves and the cries of seagulls and, somewhere in the high grasses, the song of a robin.
Hen had come north for the spring. The robin flew across the world, making great journeys every year, and felt equally at home in the north and the south. And now that the long darkness had ended, hen had come back home. Hen hadn’t forgotten the south, though. Hen would go back home there, too.