From time to time, Vulture Priests leave their temples. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens most often at Three Myland, where the priests focus on scholarship rather than direct containment.
So when the Plain People came with food for us, they did not consider it suspicious when I caught some of them alone to ask for their help traveling north to Susquehanna Temple.
“Take me?” I asked in trade pidgin, jabbing myself hopefully in the chest.
They exchanged doubtful looks. Their family had sworn to assist the Vulture Priests, but my request would require a great deal of effort, and they knew that I had only joined recently.
“Quick-quick!” I said. “No wait! Bad there. They send pigeon. Need help. No wait!”
Their eyebrows rose in alarm. Perhaps I’d gone too far in trying to hurry the conversation along. I’d made it sound like Susquehanna Temple would melt down. That certainly wouldn’t make them any more eager to take me there.
“No dead,” I struggled to explain. “But quick. Yes?”
At this point, we’d spent some time on the shore of the island with their baskets piled around us. Sweat trickled down the folds of my headscarf. Any moment now, another priest might come over to check on us and catch me in my lie.
Finally, a young man stepped forward. He removed his wide-brimmed hat in what I took as a gesture of respect. “Upstream river hard,” he said. “I take you. When go?”
I smiled beneath my mask. “Now,” I said.
I took nothing but myself, my mother’s notes, my bag of seeds and spores, a waterskin, and some corn cakes. I figured I could make my way north from temple to temple, relying on my vestments to solicit help from the locals I met along the way. The further I got from Three Myland, the easier I could get away with the lie that I travelled on official Vulture Priest business.
The young man called himself Eli. He took me by canoe to the village where his family lived, recruited another young man named Samuel to the trip, and made much more elaborate preparations — bedrolls, a tarp, and more preserved food, which he politely pushed on me. He packed balls of compressed venison jerky and dried fruit into three different ration bags, one for each of us. After so many flavorless Vulture Priest meals, I had to resist the urge to gobble it all up right then and there. I buried the jerky at the bottom of my bag, where I wouldn’t have to look at or smell it.
Neither Eli nor Samuel asked me if anyone at the temple knew about my journey. They trusted me so completely that I felt guilty for abusing that trust. Not guilty enough to tell them the truth — that I had abandoned my post without permission to follow the trail of my mother, who had also abandoned her post without permission, in a search that may turn out fruitless. If she had found something in the Svalbard Islands — if I could find something there — then I would never have a more important mission in my life. Just the possibility justified any lie I could ever tell.
We spent five days on the river, all told. Many Plain People lived on its banks, and most nights they welcomed us into one of their houses, though we must have made a strange sight: a Vulture Priest and two young men, paddling upstream for mysterious reasons. On two nights we had to stop for the evening without any villages nearby, so we climbed a sturdy tree and draped the tarp over us for protection from the rain.
The boys tried to get to know me on our little journey. They tried to teach me their speech, since trade pidgin can only go so far. I feigned ignorance as best I could. Despite my reticence to speak, they heard the Yinzer in my intonation, and they tried to speak to me of Pittsburgh things, of mountains and Christmas and football.
They seemed nice, but I don’t have a particular talent for lying, and I feared getting my stories mixed up. Better to play the silent, mysterious Vulture Priest. I hoped the mask would erect a clear boundary between myself and the world, silencing questions before they could find voice. I hoped it would bring me people’s respect and their distance. But Eli and Samuel knew I came from Three Myland, so they did not consider me dangerous. And they came from a vulture-feeder family, so they did not consider me strange. They wanted — and pushed for — a deeper familiarity. The mask could not overcome that.
I finally had to admit that I came from Beaver Valley, that our local temple had failed us, and that my mother had joined the priesthood before me. I didn’t tell them about Svalbard, about the Ash Flats, about the bag of spores, or the basement of black mushrooms. And I certainly didn’t tell them why I wanted to go to Susquehanna Temple.
On the fifth day, when they dropped me off, Eli asked if the two of them should stick around for a day or two so they could escort me back home.
I shook my head. “Me here long time.”
Eli and Samuel looked over my shoulder at the towers that barely showed above the canopy, curious about what emergency would require a single Vulture Priest to arrive as soon as possible and stay for a long time.
“Thanks you, thanks you,” I said, bowing, and turned around to head to the temple before any of the Susquehanna priests could come out and give me away.
Susquehanna Temple stored its dry casks horizontally, snugly laid in great rectangular houses. Most dry casks stood tall in rows, exposed to the elements. That allowed priests to patch up cracks in the concrete. But we could not remove the casks at Susquehanna from their homes, not without technology long lost. These cask-houses occupied far more ground, so the radiation within might leak and leak out the wide bottom and no one would know. The records of the signs around Susquehanna Temple had a disproportionate presence in Three Myland’s archives, and not only because of the short journey between them.
The temple sat back from the river, but its two towers loomed so high over the trees that I didn’t lose my way as I walked up the spotty path. The familiar yellow-painted cairns marked the path, warning me away from the poison that lay ahead. I kept walking, winding my way through the thick vegetation.
At last I came to a clearing, and saw without obstruction the entirety of the two towers and the many squat, square buildings. Three Myland seemed larger and grander, with four towers to Susquehanna’s two. I saw Vulture Priests milling about, some mixing concrete, some carrying water. They paid me no mind as I approached. In my vestments, I looked just like one of them.
I stepped into the cool shade of one of the concrete buildings and wandered in search of Mother Eleanor. At last, I found her in the sick ward.
Susquehanna Temple’s sick ward had a terrible stench. Rows and rows of beds, haloed with tightly-woven netting, lay filled with people moaning in agony. My heart caught in my throat. Here lay the real Vulture Priests, not the scholars of Three Myland wearing the robes for ceremonial purposes. Here the invisible fire burned in flesh. Real radiation burns oozed on their skin. Their hair fell out. Other priests tended to them, hand-feeding them, gently bathing them, salving and bandaging their rotting flesh, but the room still stank of misery and death.
I recognized Mother Eleanor by the spot of white at her collar. She tended to a dying man, holding his blistered hands, talking to him quietly. I stood back, giving what little dignity I could give to the dying, waiting for her to rise to her feet before approaching her.
“Mother Eleanor, I presume?” I said in the old speech.
She turned to me, her gaze unreadable behind the dark glass eyes of her mask. “Yes. And who are you?”
“Sister Veronica of Three Myland. The temple has sent me north on a mission. I hoped you might let me stay the night and arrange an escort to Nine Mile Point.”
“What kind of mission?” she asked.
“Investigating a new experimental technique,” I said.
She looked me up and down. “Father William sent you?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“And this experimental technique is being used at Nine Mile Point?”
“No — I need to get to Svalbard Island, far to the north. But Father William knew I would find hospitality with my fellow priests, so I will follow the temples north.”
She seemed to recognize the name Svalbard, and I suppressed a cringe. Maybe I had said too much. Maybe I had made a mistake in mentioning that. Had Deathweaver come here? Did the priests here remember her plan, the fact that she had broken her vows and abandoned her post? Had I just given myself away?
But Mother Eleanor said nothing to indicate any suspicions, only nodding. “You are, of course, welcome to make yourself at home here. We have a few spare beds — priests who were working, until they had to come here.” She gestured at the sick ward. “We also have extensive records that may be of interest to you. I’ll try to secure you a guide to Nine Mile Point, but it may take some days.”
I bowed. “My sincerest thanks to you, Mother Eleanor.”
She bowed in return. “Please meet me in my rectory after supper. I would like to hear more about this technique you are researching.”
Before I could come up with a good excuse not to, she turned away to minister to another dying priest. I left the sick ward, my gut churning with worry.
Mother Eleanor’s rectory was an Arctic-style tent in a corner of the crumbling main building, the treated skin roof serving as protection against the ancient building’s own leaking concrete roof. Inside the rectory, dried herbs hung from the ceiling, filling the space with a lovely aroma. Soothing patterns decorated the walls and cotton-stuffed woven mats lay on the floor.
She led me there immediately after supper, without pleasantries or small talk. Once inside, she took off her mask, hung it from a hook on a rafter, and unwrapped her head scarf. She still had some hair, and nothing looked liable to rot off, but I could see tinges of radiation burns on her face, and even more on her hands when she took off her gloves.
She offered me some palm wine, served in an ancient ceramic mug. Hoping to calm my nerves, I drank eagerly but tried not to look it.
“Did you paint these yourself?” I asked, gesturing to the walls.
“Yes.” She rested her mug in her lap. “I find art a welcome respite from the vigil. When I have time, of course. So tell me about this mission of yours.”
Right down to business, then. “Some priests at Three Myland have been studying the possibility of using plants and fungi to eat radiation.”
She nodded. “Like sunflowers and the like? I’ve heard of such things. But sunflowers only concentrate the radiation, don’t they? When they die, they release it back out into the soil. So the problem doesn’t really go away.”
“Well, that’s what I — what we’re studying. Entombing sunflowers in clay can keep the radiation relatively contained, but even that puts us right back where we started, with the casks. But we found records of an experiment performed in a space station on the use of fungi to block radiation.”
“Space station?” she asked.
“A house in the sky built by our ancestors long, long ago,” I explained. “Apparently, the sky has a great deal of radiation. They tried to grow a fungus in the walls of that house to protect themselves from it.”
“Radiotrophic black mold,” she said. “Meaning it eats radiation. We’ve been down this road before. It doesn’t just eat radiation — it also eats human flesh.”
She caught me off guard. When I had to explain the space station, I didn’t expect her to know so much about the rest. “Yes,” I said, “but they also evolve rapidly. New ones may exist now that we’ve never heard of.”
“I thought that the appetite for radiation and the appetite for human flesh came from the same cause.”
“Perhaps,” I admitted. “Perhaps not. We need to investigate to know for sure. We don’t have any other leads — just the vigil. And the vigil…”
She nodded. “You know, I believe I once heard about another priest from Three Myland who traveled to Svalbard with the same notion. That happened years and years ago. She never returned.”
A stone fell to the bottom of my stomach. “Yes, I heard the same story. She must have died on the way. So I need to go. Even if it doesn’t have much chance of success, we can wager one priest’s life on the possibility.”
“Honestly, it sounds like a fool’s errand. You have no reason to believe any fungus could meaningfully improve on the containment tactics we already use. And you’ll likely die trying to find it.”
“Don’t we do that anyway? Give our lives to the vigil? Give our bodies to the vigil? I can die so that the vigil can go on, or I can die chasing some chance that we could end it for good.”
She gave me a dismissive glance. “I suppose Three Myland exists for such things: to read and learn everything left behind, just in case. To chase every half-baked idea that comes to mind, just in case. I don’t resent you, or your idealism. You Three Mylanders never have to deal with the fire that burns in flesh as anything but an abstraction, a riddle, a sad story.” She took another sip of palm wine. “Go with my blessing, I suppose. Maybe it’ll even be worth it.”
Within a few days, the priests at Susquehanna Temple had secured my passage to Nine Mile Point, and I felt glad to leave. Mother Eleanor seemed to suspect me. Not enough to outright accuse me of lying, but enough that she must have sent a pigeon to Three Myland asking about me. I did not want to find myself still in Susquehanna Temple when that pigeon returned.
A local couple, Mustang and Fennel, agreed to escort me. One of their daughters had married into a family to the north, though not as far north as Nine Mile Point. They agreed to travel the extra distance to help a Vulture Priest, and they had a horse and even a cart besides.
“She only lets me ride her,” Mustang told me. “And only lets me put her on the cart. Makes Fennel jealous — hah!”
He leaned back to half-look at me, half-look at the road ahead. I sat in the cart with the food, tents, and bedrolls for the journey. Fennel walked alongside the horse, Star, and she did indeed look jealous, but not of Star.
“They have wild horse herds where you come from?” he asked. “Mother Eleanor told me you came over the mountains, originally.”
Big mouth. “No. We have lots of hills, and the jungle grows dense. Not like here. I don’t think horses like to live there very much.”
“Oh, well, let me tell you…” And he told me about the herd that Star had come from, the dominant female that bullied her, how he got to know her over time as he made his usual rounds on the trap lines, and how she always ranged out on the edges of the herd where coywolves might pick her off.
“I’d bring her treats, fruits — she likes mangoes especially — and we became friends. Finally, she let me ride her. Eventually, she even agreed to pull a cart for me. She likes this life better than the herd. No bullying and we always take care of her. We became her herd, and we treat her nicer than the last one. If I ever push her too far, she tells me — oh, you’d better believe she tells me!” He laughed. “You have to earn their trust, you know? Because horses know. You can’t trick them. They know when you lie. You have to prove your trustworthiness. Maybe by the end of this trip, if you work on it, she’ll let you ride her!”
I politely smiled before remembering that he couldn’t see my face under my mask. “Maybe so,” I said.
“Likely not,” Fennel said. “Years have passed, and she doesn’t trust me one bit.”
We made our way north, the road alternately dusty and muddy, but always bumpy. The trip took longer and tired me more than the comparatively straightforward boat trip up the Susquehanna River. In the best of times, my back and tailbone ached from the bumps and jostles. When I had to get out and help push the cart out of the mud, or help find suitable wood and wait while Mustang and Fennel carved a new cart piece to replace one that had broken, it became even more miserable. I imagined the rest of the trip to Svalbard going like this: month after month of monotony and exhaustion.
The couple’s grown daughter lived with her wife’s family in the Finger Lakes region. It took some asking around to find their current campsite, and even more difficult travel down walking paths too narrow for a cart, but we finally arrived there on the sixth day.
The family welcomed us with open arms, though my vestments gave them pause. They had no priests here, and the outfit did as it intended: it frightened, it unsettled, it warned away. It made some of the younger children cry. A mother asked, using Mustang as translator, if I might take off my mask so she could show her child that he had nothing to fear.
“But he does,” I told her. They left me alone after that.
The next morning, Mustang made ready for my departure. Fennel would stay with the family while he and Star took me up to Nine Mile Point. Then they’d drop me off and turn south again to rejoin Fennel. I’d have to find my own way farther north — or Nine Mile Point would have to find it for me, if they chose to accommodate me as well as Susquehanna had.
I knew only a few temples clustered around Lake Ontario, with not many more further north. Sooner than I felt comfortable admitting, I would run out of temples to take care of me. I would run out of locals who knew about Vulture Priests or respected them or felt willing to do ever more generous favors for them. I would become just an old woman traveling alone in unfamiliar country.
I began to wonder, as we made our way north, exactly where along this journey my mother had died. Had I already made it farther than her? Had she make it all the way to the Arctic? Did Robin unknowingly sail past her grandmother’s final resting place on her way to the Nares? Would I ever find out what happened to her? Would I reach Nine Mile Point only for them to show me her grave?
Or maybe I’d find her there, alive and well. Or at Svalbard. I’d assumed that, had she found what she went looking for, she’d have returned to Three Myland triumphant and spread the word and the spores — and if she hadn’t found it, she’d return with her tail between her legs. But maybe she reached Svalbard without incident only to find nothing there, and her pride kept her from going back. Maybe she joined up with Glass’s people. Maybe she still lived. She’d have grown very old, in that case, but I’d heard of older people.
And then I considered Mother Eleanor Had she indeed sent a pigeon back to Three Myland, inquiring about me? Would she figure out where I intended to go, and send a pigeon ahead of me? Would I find the doors shut to me at Nine Mile Point?
If they received word from Susquehanna, I could say that Mother Eleanor did not understand my mission. I might have difficulty emphasizing their haplessness when the priests at Nine Mile Point sat in the same boat, but I couldn’t think of a better plan. Maybe that would help: they might consider listening to me more to avoid misunderstanding like the priests at the last temple.
But what if the priests at Three Myland themselves sent the pigeon? I had no clever plan for that possibility. I could only travel as quickly as possible, in the hopes of outrunning their word — if, indeed, they ever sent their word. Would they, though? Pigeons came and went there every day. Would they necessarily even bother to track down reports of one missing priest?
Most likely, yes. They must have noticed my absence by now, and if they got a report about me from the north, yes, they would respond. Father William would respond.
This worrying and wondering did me little good, but I couldn’t help it. I could think of little else during the trip. I certainly didn’t want to make small talk with Mustang, who liked to ramble on endlessly. For a time, I politely murmured in response, but eventually I gave up on even that much and met his endless inane babbling with stony silence. He got the hint and stopped trying to talk to me except regarding the practical considerations of the trip itself: when to stop, who would build the fire and who would set up the tent, if I needed to relieve myself, and so on. More often, he talked or sang to Star, who seemed friendlier to him than me.
I felt such relief when at last we reached Nine Mile Point, and I could speak with priests again. I hadn’t thought of Vulture Priests as “my people” before, but now I had begun to: they were scholars, thinkers, people on a mission. Not dullards overly enamored of their horse friends. I gave Mustang and Star my thanks. They seemed as glad to leave me as I felt to leave them. They turned around and headed right back south, and soon the jungle swallowed up the sound of Mustang’s agonizingly off-key singing.
Nine Mile Point barely let me rest a moment before ferrying me across the lake to Darlington Temple. There I stayed longer. A river ran directly from the lake to the next temple, Gentilly, but a very long trip lay ahead of me — the longest single leg I’d taken yet, and almost as long as the entire trip from Three Myland to Darlington. At least I wouldn’t travel over land. In fact, I expected no more of the journey would go overland from that point on.
As soon as I arrived in Darlington, I noticed the sunflowers growing all around the temple, and they made me wonder. They let me look through their small archives. The temple’s logs from decades ago briefly noted a Sister Verity who had come from the south and continued on to Gentilly Temple. My heart soared. She’d made it at least this far.
I stayed at Darlington for four days before one of the head priests, Father Aiden, approached me with a grim look on his face. “We received a pigeon today from Susquehanna Temple,” he said. “They say not to help or trust a Sister Veronica heading north. They say she abandoned her post at Three Myland, that she did not depart on a priestly mission as she claims, but on a quest of her own invention.”
My blood ran cold. “Father Aiden,” I said, “I fear the priests at Susquehanna Temple do not understand my mission, and have sent a warning in error. Three Myland—”
“Three Myland has confirmed it,” he said.
The priests who came with him began stripping away my vestments. “You have broken your vows,” Father Aiden proclaimed solemnly. “These vestments belong to a true Vulture Priest, one dedicated to the vigil. Perhaps if you return to Three Myland and plead your case, they will reinstate you. But we will not help you deceive others, and we will not help you travel anywhere.”
They walked me to the edge of Lake Ontario and left me on its shore with nothing but a loincloth and my bag of seeds and spores. I had grown unused to wearing so little. The vestments, once so hot and confining, had come to feel comforting. With them gone, I felt dangerously exposed.
I could wander in search of a local family, but without a shared language I had no way of asking for help, and without vestments they had no reason to go out of their way to help me.
Three Myland confirmed it. William confirmed it. I felt betrayed. Did he do the same to my mother — his own lover? She made it farther than I had — at least she’d left Darlington with the priests’ blessings. Did he not consider his own daughter worth covering for? Or did my mother’s example make it harder for me to do the same thing she had?
It hardly mattered now. I would never go back. I had no place to the south anymore. Not in Beaver Valley, not at Three Myland. Maybe the priests at Gentilly Temple would let me in. Maybe Darlington had already sent a pigeon warning them not to trust me. Maybe I didn’t need them at all. I would make it to Svalbard, one way or another. Or I would die.
For the first time in my life, I felt truly alone.
I trudged east along the shore of Lake Ontario, hoping to find some sort of fishing camp, some group of people who might help me, but I could see nothing but empty beach. The setting sun burned at my back. Soon night would fall. I would need to find shelter and make a fire. My stomach growled. Maybe I should have spent this time looking for fresh water, or crafting a spear and trying to catch a fish.
The trees to the north went black against the purpling sky, and still I walked. I thought I smelled cooking fish, but perhaps my hunger just played tricks on me. Then I passed a thick patch of trees growing close to the beach and saw a flickering campfire ahead. Indeed, a fish roasted on a stick over the fire, and a dark figure squatted nearby. Behind the figure sat a tent, and a canoe beached on the shore.
“Hello!” I shouted in the trade pidgin that Mustang and Fennel used, hoping that the traveler would know it. “Can me share you fire, and food?”
“Oh, I ate earlier. I cooked this one for you, Vervain,” a familiar voice answered in perfect Yinzer.
I moved closer, blinking again and again, and slowly the figure came into focus — Narluga? Had I gone mad so quickly?
Narluga shook a waterskin at me. “You look thirsty. Come have some water. The bass should be done soon.”
I crouched down beside the fire and took hen’s water. After a long, satisfying gulp, I wiped my mouth and asked, “What brought you here?”
“I had a vision I’d find you here,” hen said. “A wizard near Montreal trained me for a bit. The spirits told me I should wait for you here. I didn’t know whether to believe it, whether maybe I’d just gone crazy or if the spirits had decided to have some fun with me. They do that sometimes. Honestly, I thought this morning I should pack up and leave. But here you stand. In trouble, just like they said.” Hen looked me up and down, smirking. “Didn’t expect this much trouble.”
I scowled. I never did much like Narluga. Hen always struck me as flighty and immature, but I had to admit there did seem something different about hen now, a solidity that I’d not seen before. Maybe hen had learned something in hen’s wizard training. But it didn’t stop hen from teasing me.
“The spirits need to mind their own business,” I said. “I didn’t ask for your help.”
“Oh, well, my mistake. You probably just came wandering out here alone for a nice evening stroll. What happened to your robes and creepy-ass mask?”
I let out a heavy sigh. “I have left the vigil.”
“You can do that? They just let people quit? You all seemed pretty intent on the ‘so long as a single human breathes’ bit.”
I glowered at hen.
“Oh. Oh, they kicked you out! Wow. Okay. So… what happened?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Uh huh. You know, if you wanted to go north, you could’ve hitched another ride with my caravan.”
I cringed. “I didn’t want to do that. That would require too much explanation. And the news would have gotten to you, and then Robin.”
Hen furrowed hen’s brow. “You don’t want Robin to know you plan to come her way? Why not?”
“I’d rather not get her hopes up. If I see her in the Nares, I’ll just pass through on my way to Svalbard.”
Narluga examined my face with an intensity of concentration that unnerved me. “Further than that, I think.”
“Why do you say that? The spirits tell you something else?”
“Tricky bastards, but it looks like they didn’t lie about you. And… yeah, I have this… feeling. I don’t know, it doesn’t totally make sense, but I think I have to trust my intuition on this. They tell me your journey has barely even started. And they tell me you won’t get anywhere without your family. So far you’ve gone about this exactly wrong: alone, secretly, apart from your family. You need Robin, you need me, you need Glass. And we all need you. We’ve pulled ourselves apart, right when we need each other most desperately.” Hen paused for a moment, and then declared, “I’ll take you to the Nares. We’ll pick up Glass and Robin, and then we’ll all go together to Svalbard.”
“They wouldn’t even know what to look for there.”
I paused, unable to answer. “I don’t like this new wizard Narluga. At least before, you didn’t pretend at depth or seriousness. Now you try to present yourself as some kind of wise elder. It looks ridiculous on you.”
Hen crossed hen’s arms. “Listen, I only know what I’ve seen, and that all seems maddeningly vague and weird. And I try my best, okay? But it sure looks like your way of doing things has reached the end of its trail. You need help.”
I gritted my teeth. “Fine. Take me to the Nares.”
Hen lifted the cooking stick off its spit and stuck one end in the sand, to let the bass cool down. “Robin will love seeing you again. And trust me, you’ll have more fun than you think. We’ll meet up with my caravan as they swing north, probably around Montreal. We’ll get you some nice clothes, maybe some jewelry. We’ll have some good times, see cool places, meet cool people, and we’ll reach the Nares before you know it.”
I suppressed another scowl. Narluga’s idea of fun clearly did not match my own. But I didn’t have any other options, as hen had said. I extended a finger to pick at the bass, and quickly drew it back.
Narluga grinned. “Still too hot. Give it time, Vervain. You’ll see.”
We spent the next few days gathering food for the journey ahead: hunting small game and smoking it over the fire, gathering fruit and drying it in the sun, and fishing from the lake, which Narluga seemed particularly skilled at. I struggled with the tasks more than I’d thought I would — and not just due to my age or a few months falling out of habit. All the reading and writing, all the time spent seeing the world through the ancestors’ eyes, hurt my tracking. I saw the world in two different ways now: the way I grew up with and lived with most of my life, the way of a living world in relation to itself; and the new way, the ancestors’ way: all classifications and rigid taxonomies of discrete objects, always dominated by that little word, “is.” I’d had trouble understanding what it meant, and now it seemed to have cast a spell on me. The old way helped me hunt and track and gather and fish and start a fire, but the new way kept interrupting, intruding, like it meant to take over my mind, focusing my attention on what the track “is” instead of where it pointed. I wondered if it would always remain there, lurking in my mind, subtly sabotaging me until the end of my days, a spell that, once cast, could never be broken.
We finally set off by canoe towards the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. I had trouble paddling. The Plain boys had paddled for me on our trip up the Susquehanna River, and from Susquehanna Temple to Nine Mile Point I’d ridden in a cart, only occasionally walking alongside when Star grew too tired to drag me around. I’d never had all that much upper-body strength, my age sapped what little I started with, and no one had expected me to do much in the way of lifting or paddling for quite some time. Yet here I found myself, expected to carry my own weight alongside someone in hen’s prime.
“You do realize I don’t have your youth or strength, right?” I said. “We’ll have to stop soon, to rest.”
Hen swept hen’s eyes over me, looking unimpressed. “You look pretty sturdy to me. I’ve known older traders who paddled longboats for months on end.”
I bristled. “I haven’t spent years as a sea trader. I don’t have the experience, haven’t built up the muscles.”
Hen shrugged. “So you have an excellent opportunity before you to build them!”
I glared at hen, then dropped my paddles on the floor of the boat.
Hen lowered hen’s own paddles. “Seriously? Robin has more maturity than you.”
I crossed my arms. “One day you’ll grow old, and then you’ll understand that not everyone can do what you do now.”
Hen looked over hen’s shoulder in the direction we now slowly floated. “Okay, look… I know some people up ahead, not too far. We can stay with them. But we can’t stop early or we won’t make it there before nightfall. Can you trust me? I’ve kind of done this a lot — I know where to stop, where I know people, how long a trip takes —”
“—For experienced sea traders in their prime.”
Hen exhaled sharply through hen’s nose. “Fine. We’ll take a break here, but only for a little bit. So we can get to my friend’s camp before nightfall. That sound okay to you?”
By way of response, I picked my paddles back up and dipped them back in the river.
“All right, then,” Narluga said.
We paddled over to the bank and took some time to rest our arms. We ended up getting to Narluga’s friend’s camp after the sun had already gone down, but they seemed glad to see hen nonetheless and welcomed us with boundless hospitality. They gave me a cotton skirt and a sleeping mat. They pushed more and more food on me. Even through the language barrier, I could feel their concern for me, that I had so little. My eyes burned with tears. I lowered them and focused them on the fire so no one could see.
We continued to canoe up the St. Lawrence, heading east to the sea.
“We should meet up with my caravan in Montreal,” Narluga said. “Big trade hub. Then we can trade in this janky canoe for a proper ship.”
“Will I have to row that too?” I asked.
“Of course! But you’ll have a bunch more people helping you. Of course, the ship itself has a lot more weight, so the difficulty kind of evens out.”
I sighed. I never thought I would miss Mustang, but I did. Narluga would have known how to deal with him. They’d chatter back and forth happily all down the road. He’d love hen. So, probably, would the horse. Hen seemed to have a way with people other than me. Hen had friends all along the river — all over the world, seemingly — and only needed to show hen’s face to turn instinctive distrust of strangers to smiles and hugs.
I felt both baffled by, and jealous of, Narluga’s ease with people. What for me would stand as impassable barriers crumbled instantly before hen’s charm. I at once desperately wanted that power and disdained the work necessary to acquire it: making strained small-talk with strangers seemed tedious, but perhaps I could tolerate the tedium if I kept in mind the reward of people trusting me, liking me, even. Like planting the Ash Flats: hard, tedious work, but worth it in the end.
Of course, at the moment, for me to benefit from this skillset I’d never acquired, I needed only to hide behind Narluga and let hen work hen’s magic. And not scowl too much. A smile when hen’s friend turned to look at me would at least not actively contradict whatever reassurances hen provided. By smiling, I appeared nice, and because I didn’t speak the language, they wouldn’t expect me to talk much, and so I could get along reasonably well.
The moment we pulled ashore at Montreal, Narluga leapt from the canoe and went looking for hen’s trading friends. Narluga took me to a cart with “the best roasted boar you’ve ever had.” It tasted okay. Not the best I’d ever had, but good enough. The other traders pushed palm wine on me, and I indulged until my lips tingled and I felt loose and silly. Bards sang and drummed and played flutes, and I danced with a sea-trader about my age, who — as Narluga had attested — remained as strong as a man in his prime. He spun me around to the music, and I giggled like I hadn’t in many years, too drunk to care how smug Narluga looked that hen had finally forced me to have some fun, just like hen had said.
After a few days, we set off in the biggest boat I’d ever seen. It had a great sail, and many rows of seats for rowing the long, long oars that propelled it when the wind would not suffice. The trading ship wound its way along the coast, always heading north. The days grew longer as we traveled.
“I took Glass and Robin this way,” Narluga said as we rowed around a towering cliff.
I stiffened. “Does she hate me?”
“Robin, you mean?”
“Vervain, she loves you. She misses you. She’ll love seeing you.”
I doubted that. The last time we’d spoken, Glassknapper fumed with anger on Robin’s behalf. He certainly hated me for abandoning Robin so soon after her mother’s death. She herself hadn’t seemed angry with me when we’d said goodbye, but she’d since had over a year to think about it. Maybe Glassknapper had spent that time convincing her to resent me as he did.
The trip up the Nares Strait felt longer than the rest of the trip before it. The Nares people moved their floating village every so often, following the squid or their whims, and so you never knew quite where in the Strait you’d find it. But we did, eventually, find the village, a motley collection of rafts and docks bobbing chaotically on the waves.
Robin and a few others I didn’t recognize stood at the end of the dock nearest us. I tried to watch her while avoiding her gaze, but failed. I saw her squint at me, confused. Without my long dreadlocks and too far away for her to make out my features, she couldn’t make me out for certain. I gave one half-hearted wave, quickly returning my hand to my oar, which told her nothing except that one of the people onboard had noticed a young woman staring.
When we docked, Narluga jumped off the boat, picked Robin up in a fierce bear hug, and spun her around. “How! Do! You! Still! Grow?!” hen demanded as Robin laughed helplessly.
I let them catch up as I gathered my few possessions from underneath my seat and tentatively made my way off the boat.
Robin saw me — finally saw me — and her eyes grew wide. “Aunt Vervain! I mean, um… Veronica!” She hugged me. She didn’t seem angry at all. “What happened? I thought you lived at the temple now! We saw you get initiated!”
“I left the vigil,” I said.
Robin looked up at me, a crinkle of confusion in her forehead. “I didn’t think you could do that…”
Narluga snorted. I glared at hen.
“I’ll tell you all about it later,” I said. “Where can we find your father?”
Robin’s face fell. “In his house. He’s stayed in his house for… a while. We almost buried Ginkgo, but he couldn’t go through with it, and now he just sits in there with the bones. And no one can get him to leave.”
Narluga looked solemn then, and went off to Glassknapper’s house without another word.
The Nares people seemed unlike the happy families we had passed on the way up. Perhaps because of the stillborn funeral, they seemed tense, and less enthusiastic to feast a group of strangers. Robin brought me fresh water and salty Nares food. We sat together on the dock. Pillbug — now a grown cat, who seemed not to remember me — sniffed me curiously before curling up nearby.
“I want to show you something,” I said to Robin. She inched closer and watched closely as I drew open my bag of spores and seeds.
“My mother began the work of quarantining the poison in the Ash Flats with these seeds. I continued it. When she left Beaver Valley to join the Vulture Priests, she wanted to find a way to treat radiation in a similar way.”
Robin’s eyes lit up. “I talked about that with you! Remember, on the road to Three Myland?”
I nodded. “I should have given you this bag then. But at least now… we have more in it.” I opened the bag wider so she could peer inside. “Seeds and spores. Some things my mother collected in the hopes that they could grow into a solution. Some that I collected. A mess of different things, some probably rotting, some that probably never should have gone in together. I don’t know. I have nothing else to give you.”
“You’ll teach me to grow them?”
“Yes.” I put my hand on hers. “No more secrets. I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”