IGMS Issue 44 (10 page)

BOOK: IGMS Issue 44
13.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

He stayed a sandpiper for an entire year. I should have known it wouldn't last forever. When I was fourteen, I went to the beach and called for him. I walked up and down our usual stretch of sand twice.

At last, when I'd begun to cry, he emerged from the sea grass. He held his pincers in the air, in a gesture of surrender.

"It's me, Ulaa." He was a crab at least twice the size of a sandpiper. "I tried to hold off the change as long as I could. I don't like this form at all." His mandibles trembled as he spoke, like the moustache on an old man.

I wiped the tears from my cheeks with the back of my hand and spoke without thinking. "I think you're very pretty."

Pehlu lowered his claws. "Pretty? Me?"

I blinked until my vision cleared. Now that I examined him closer, I found that he
pretty. His carapace was a dusky violet, faded at the edges, his legs orange and white, and his claws green. "Yes. You have all the colors of a blooming flower."

The crab held his pincers in front of his eyes, turning them this way and that.

I laughed. "Are all the
so vain?"

"I . . ." He clutched his claws close, his mandibles clicking. "I shouldn't be. Mother says that all life on an island has its purpose. It's something I'm supposed to learn before I'm grown."

And the
's purpose was to feed the grandparents. I shook off the morose thought, seized a twig, and tapped it on Pehlu's shell until he grabbed it. "See? We can't run races across the sand anymore, but you can pick things up now."

He thrust the twig in the air, like a boy playing at spear-fishing. "Thank you. You've made me feel much better."

In the distance, the sound of someone sawing through bamboo echoed. The city was awakening.

"Your people are always building," Pehlu said.

I cradled my cheeks in my palms. "First-grandmother says we cannot spread the city out any further, or we'll have no land to grow food. So we keep building up, taller and taller. I'm lucky to have a fourth-level bed."

"Someday you won't be able to keep building up."

Someday you will become a deer and I won't be able to protect you.
But I didn't say it. I focused on the spot where my mother would appear at any moment. "Then we'll have to find another island."

My mother ran her fingers through my hair, lingering on the tangles. We stood outside, in the shadow of our sleeper. Sunlight peeked through the tiny gaps between buildings, hazed with dust and pollen. I kept my gaze up, because when I lowered it I had to look at all the people around us, and though their shouts filled my ears and rattled my bones, I could pretend they weren't there.

"Ulaa." My mother bent a little, her face blocking my line of sight. "Why do you keep running to the shore in the morning? I've told you so many times not to. There isn't anyone there except the fishermen. You could be washed out to sea and I'd never know."

"I want to be alone." It was only a half-truth, but I could lie when I didn't have to look her straight in the eye.

She tucked a piece of hair behind my ear. "You should play with your cousins."

I twisted from her grip. "They only want to play at hunting

Her lips pursed. "What's wrong with that?"

A thousand angry retorts boiled in my throat and I swallowed them. My cousins would never want to play the games Pehlu and I did; they couldn't tell me what life was like as a crab or a sandpiper. "If the
talk, why don't we talk back to them?"

My mother took my hand, and led me into the crush of people. We pushed toward the city square, where she'd buy me breakfast and start her work making bread. "Why would we talk to them?" she called back to me. "We eat them. If we spoke to them, it would make hunting them harder, wouldn't it?"

"But we eat them when they become deer. What do the
become after deer?"

She was silent for a long time. The crowd around us smelled of fish and sweat. This close to the square, the flow of people began to move more swiftly, like a stream that had just become unblocked. My hand nearly slipped from her grasp.

The press of people eased as the street opened into the square. My mother cleared her throat. " I suppose we may never know."

I wanted to rail at her. Not knowing was one thing, but how could she not care? Why didn't she want to know? But then she found the stall with the tea eggs and bought me three of them, and I forgot my troubles, savoring the salty-sweet taste as they slid past my teeth.

A few months later, Pehlu became an eagle. In the early morning hours, before my people came to the beach, I tossed pebbles into the air and laughed as Pehlu caught them. We played near a half-built ship, its ribs rising into the sky like the bones of a giant whale.

He landed on the sand. "This is quite the boat your people are building."

"We're looking for another island," I said. I fingered another stone, turning it over and over in my palm.

"What if there are no

"There will be. Just like there will be crabs and sandpipers and eagles."

"Ulaa . . ." He hesitated. "What will you do when I become a deer?"

I chewed the side of my cheek as I thought. "Do you know what you'll grow into next?"


"I'm not sure. I'll do something, I just don't know what yet," I said.

"Will you eat a
when you become a grandparent?"

"No!" I dropped the pebble to the sand. "Why would you ask me that?"

He ruffled his wings and looked to the sea. "I don't know. I know we are friends, but the bigger I grow, the more I think about the things beyond myself. "


"Sometimes I hate your people. Sometimes I even hate you."

I scooped up the stone and threw it, hard as I could, high into the air.

Pehlu flew for it, as if he couldn't help himself. This time, when he caught it, I did not laugh.

"I'm sorry," he said as he landed again, the stone clutched in his talons. "I didn't mean it."

All the anger drained out of me, like water from a leaky jar. I knelt so he didn't have to crane his neck to look at me. "I know what you meant. I'm sorry too." I thought of first-grandmother and her ageless face. "I will try to help you when you become a deer. I promise."

The boat left the day after I turned fifteen. Pehlu was a wild boar then, his coat still spotted and his tusks small. He watched from the trees and I watched from the beach as the boat sailed toward the horizon. It carried forty-eight grandmothers and grandfathers, of varying rank. By the time the sun had fully risen, the huge ship was merely a speck on the horizon.

By noon, it was out of sight.

Throughout the next year we all leaned a little to the east, as if hope had magnetized our bodies. More people came to the beach in the morning, and earlier, so I often had to cut my meetings with Pehlu short.

But yearning could not bring that boat back to shore.

The day after I turned sixteen, as I crept down the ladder, I heard third-grandmother talking in her sleep. She rolled over in bed, her hands curled beneath her chin.

"There are no other islands," she said with a sigh. "They're all dead." She repeated the words a second time, and then a third, and each time the hollow feeling in my chest expanded.

As soon as my foot touched the cold stone floor, I ran.

I helped my mother knead dough in the city's center. We stood in a stall at the east end of the square, in the shadow of a twenty-level sleeper.

A line of children formed by first-grandmother's house, sticks in their hands. Once twenty or so of them had joined their ranks, they ran across the square together, laughing, poking at any who got in their way. Two days until the hunt. The thought made my stomach churn.

"Hopefully we'll get more
than last year," my mother said. She brushed a strand of hair from her eyes with the back of a floured hand.

I doubted that we ever missed any. There were so many people. "What happens if we run out?"

She gave me a tired smile. "When I was your age, I didn't worry so much. We will make things work. People are smart and resourceful. We'll find another island with more
, or we'll find another way to keep us young."

"What if we don't?"

"We will. We have to."

I went to the shore the next morning, while the stars were still visible in the sky. Pehlu did not meet me on the sands as he usually did.

A whisper reached me from the brush just off the beach. "Ulaa," a voice said. "Come here, please."

I followed the sound to the bushes. There, splay-legged and trembling, was Pehlu. He stood as tall as my waist, budding horns just above his eyes.

He was a deer.

BOOK: IGMS Issue 44
13.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Romanov Cross: A Novel by Robert Masello
I'll Take a Chance by Annalisa Nicole
Throwaway by Heather Huffman
The Restorer by Amanda Stevens
Death Comes to London by Catherine Lloyd
Down & Dirty by Jake Tapper