Authors: Mandy Hager
Beyond, Maryam could see glimpses of a large complex of buildings, equally ornate and pocked with age. Without a word, they climbed down from the tree trunk and stepped in through the gateway to this other world.
They appeared to be standing at the edge of a sizeable plateau completely ringed by crumbling walls. Many of the smaller buildings that must once have filled the site were so degraded by weather and time that only remnants of their walls and rough foundations remained. Grasses, shrubs and bracken thrived amidst the crumbled terraces and jumbled piles of stone, providing homes for the many birds whose droppings splashed the ruined stonework with pungent streaks of white. Behind it all, the mountain rose as a perfect backdrop to the scene.
But it was the structure at the very centre of the complex that captured Maryam's eye and drew her towards it: an enormous square building, its corners four discrete towers, their vertical indented walls stepping up towards the heavens, each topped by a parapet which, in its turn, was further capped by a domed roof of stone.
were what they must have spotted from the boat. The blocks of stone that formed the outer walls
had been chiselled to fashion vast reliefs peopled with innumerable tiny figures locked in time.
Maryam ran her hand along the pitted stone as it dawned on her that each individual panel told a kind of ancient tale. Some seemed to represent the lives of the people who must have lived here: boys and girls, men and women, many of them scantily clad apart from ornate jewellery and oddly styled hair. A number depicted great armies toting clubs and spears as they battled a series of nightmarish beasts. Others revealed the workings of strange rituals, all focused on the recurring image of a smooth-faced man who sat cross-legged in their midst, his hair caught in a topknot and his relaxed hands lying palm-upwards in his lap. There was a rare kind of serenity in each rendition of his face, while those pictured around him appeared to look on with awe.
Was this their God?
Ruth had followed and was studying the carvings too. “I don't like the look of this,” she said, sweeping her arm to encompass the whole site. “No wonder the Lord struck them down. It's clear they worshipped heathen gods.”
Lazarus arrived now as well, and he snorted at Ruth's words. “What happened to the Lord's great capacity for forgiveness, huh?”
She rounded on him, hands on her hips. “You know the teachings just as well as I do. The Lord sent forth his Tribulation to rid the world of non-believers. Only the Apostles and their Chosen ones were saved.”
“Your head is so filled up with teachingsâdo you
have an independent thought?”
Tears welled in Ruth's eyes. “If you'd all listened to me in the first place we wouldn't find ourselves stuck here now. You
there was nothing but death and destruction beyond our
shores, and yet you chose to disbelieveâ¦” She stormed off to the far end of the site.
“She has a point,” Maryam said. “It's obvious no one here survived.”
“You saw the map. You think that
out there in the world others exist?”
Maryam shrugged. “I don't know. If we'd found people living here it might be different, butâ”
“That proves nothing.” He kicked at a stray stone, sending it clattering across the ground. “Besides,” he said, inclining his head towards the mountain, “until we've searched the whole island we can't be sure.” He walked away from her. “Let's be off.”
She didn't argue. Instead, she jogged across to Ruth and squeezed her shoulders tight. “Let's find Joseph, then I promise we'll take the time to talk this through.”
Ruth nodded, misery etched across her face, but she allowed Maryam to guide her after Lazarus, who once again presumed to lead the way.
They circled around to the back of the great building, working their way through more disintegrating ruins until they reached the northernmost edge of the fragmented wall. Again, an ancient carved head atop a tiered stone portal seemed to watch them pass, as they came upon a narrow rocky track that wound up through the undergrowth and disappeared into the trees.
Their journey now was all uphill, the ground dry and unstable beneath their feet. The sun had risen higher in the sky, its heat growing oppressive despite the shade of the overhanging trees. Maryam cursed herself for not thinking to bring food or water. Somewhere up ahead, perhaps, they'd find a stream, but meanwhile she scanned the vegetation for something
to eat. Eventually, through a thicket of scrubby trees, she spied the serpent-like air roots of a wild fig her people called te biku.
“Food!” she yelled, launching herself off the track towards the tree. She could see that it was fruiting, but many of the figs had already been picked over by scavenging birds. She searched around the thick sinewy roots at its base and collected the ripest of the windfalls, discarding those already pecked. By the time Ruth and Lazarus broke through the scrub to join her, she'd collected roughly a dozen of the leathery purple fruit and piled them together at her feet.
“Eat,” she said, tearing one open and biting into the moist pink flesh to suck every last scrap of the nourishing seed mass from its skin.
The other two fell hungrily upon the figs as well, and soon the pile was reduced to nothing more than discarded skins. The sweetness helped to boost their energy, and Lazarus climbed up into the tree's nest of branches to harvest another tasty load. He removed his shirt and cushioned the figs in its fabric before tying the improvised holdall around his waist.
As they set off up the track again, Maryam tried to concentrate on where she placed her feet on the rocky ground. But Lazarus's bared back distracted her, and she found herself watching how his shoulder blades rotated as he swung his arms. Then a funny thought struck her, and she laughed.
He spun around defensively. “Are you laughing at me?”
She couldn't stop; the joke seemed so apt she couldn't resist telling him, if only to prove she was not quite as dull-witted as he thought. She gestured at his naked chest. “Perhaps you should have picked some of the fig leaves too!”
She knew he'd understandâthey were all far too steeped in the stories from the Holy Book not to recognise her reference to Adam and Eve.
A startled grin flashed across his face, transforming him for just a moment before he spun away. “Very funny,” he drawled, punishing her now for making fun of him by setting a much faster pace.
For another half an hour or so they toiled on, pausing only once when Lazarus glimpsed a large brown snake ahead and called a halt until it slithered off the track. It was the first living thing they'd seen, besides the insects and birds, and its presence was somehow comforting and strangely apt.
At last they heard the flow of water and deviated off the track to search for its source. A short distance into the undergrowth they found a stream, its water clear and refreshing to drink. All three downed handful after handful until their thirst was quenched.
“Can we rest a moment?” Maryam asked.
Lazarus merely nodded, untying his shirt and doling out the remaining figs. He plunged his shirt into the stream, wringing it only slightly before he dragged it back on. Maryam wished she, too, could strip away her sweat-soaked clothes to cool off, but there was no way she would consciously reveal herself to him. Instead, she made do with splashing water over her face and neck, allowing it to trickle down beneath her shirt.
She closed her eyes, listening to the gentle murmur of the stream. The sound was soothing, even cheering, in the face of her nagging concern for Joseph.
Where was he?
What if they'd somehow bypassed him and he'd returned to the boat to find them gone?
All at once a rhythmic thumping and scraping intruded on her thoughts. Her eyes sprang open just as Lazarus scrabbled to his feet and rummaged in the bushes until he found a sturdy stick. He raised it, ready for confrontation, and jerked his head to indicate the girls should stay put. Ruth clutched hold of Maryam's hand, her eyes wide and fearful as Lazarus stalked through the undergrowth towards the noise. It seemed to be coming from the track above, and Maryam's mind flashed images of the fierce-looking warriors depicted in the stone. What if the people of Marawa were now approaching, filing through the jungle with their sticks and spears?
She spied another fallen branch and seized it, all her peaceful intentions flung aside. If they were going to be attacked, it was not fair to expect Lazarus to bear the brunt of it alone. She crept after him, leaving Ruth to bring up the rear.
As Lazarus neared the border of the track he paused. He checked back over his shoulder, his face registering surprise when he discovered Maryam so close behind him, staff in hand. His brow furrowed as their eyes metâit was clear now there were footsteps thundering down the track towards them, and moving at alarming speedâyet he waited for her to join him before the two of them edged right up to the brink.
They could see uphill to where the track curved round a corner, following the contours of the terrain. The sound was so close now, Maryam knew at any moment they would be revealed. She held her breath, her pulse hammering in the base of her throat as she gripped the staff with both hands and raised it up defensively against her chest.
Then movement flashed into her visionâbut it took her a panicked moment to register that it was Joseph hurtling down
towards them. Lazarus laughed, lowering his staff as he stepped from the shelter of the trees, right into Joseph's path. “Cousin!” he called, his voice lifting with obvious relief.
Joseph's feet locked up, his expression switching from shock to alarm as his feet slid out from under him and he was launched into a skid that ended only when he crashed right into Lazarus, sending them both sprawling out across the track.
Both boys lay on the rocky ground in a knot of arms and legs. Maryam rushed over to offer Joseph her hand, taking in the heightened colour of his face and the mass of scrapes and grazes he'd sustained. But he ignored her, untangling himself from Lazarus before rising on shaky legs to brush away the dirt. Lazarus, too, was grazed, and he winced as he fingered an egg-sized lump on the back of his head.
By now Ruth had arrived as well. “Joseph!” she cried, “thank the Lord it was you!” She turned to Lazarus, who looked pale despite his sunburnt skin. “What happened?”
Lazarus grinned unconvincingly. “Nothing much. We just ran into Joseph here.”
“Crash might be a better word.” Maryam glanced at Joseph, hoping her attempt at humour might lighten the mood. But he showed no sign of having even heard. One of his knees was bleeding and his elbows looked swollen and raw. He refused to look at her, instead directing his words to Lazarus, who had sat down again to pick dirt and gravel from a seeping graze along his calf.
“I climbed right to the topâit's got the most amazing view, right out over the entire island.”
“The news is bad. It seems we really are alone.”
“I knew it,” Ruth cried out, stamping her foot. “We're worse off now than if we'd stayed.” Her chin started to wobble and Maryam knew she was close to tears.
Once again she wrapped her arm around Ruth's shoulders, feeling like all she ever did was try to temper Ruth's distress. But it served her right.
was the one who'd bullied Ruth into coming on the voyage in the first place, even if responsibility for the final act of coercion lay at Lazarus's feet. “At least we don't have to worry about being attacked,” she said, trying to keep her voice upbeat, though the combination of Ruth's constant anxiety and Joseph's blatant hostility made the effort almost impossible. She turned her head away as a tear escaped and tracked down her cheek; she wiped it on her shoulder with a self-disgusted shrug. A deep breath later, and she composed herself enough to fake indifference.
“Let's get you both back to the stream,” she said. “If you wash your grazes now to clean them up, I've already brewed some te buka leaves back at the boat that should help them heal.”
Lazarus rose to his feet and mumbled agreement, then limped back towards the stream as Joseph followed closely behind.
Ruth's gaze turned from the boys to Maryam. “What's going on? Joseph just cut you dead.”
Maryam sighed and shook her head. “I've ruined everything, Ruthie. I've shamed my family, put my friends in danger, dragged you to this awful place, and now Josephâ”
She looked at Joseph's retreating back and bit back a sob.
The humidity built to such intensity Maryam found it hard to see past the film of sweat that had dripped into her eyes. She wiped it clear and looked up to study the sky through the canopy of leaves. The sun was being strangled by a mass of ominous dark clouds.
Ahead, the boys limped downhill in single file. Joseph had steadfastly refused to engage with Maryam in any way. His rejection was so unyielding she had given up trying to breach it, falling instead into her own dark hole of wretchedness. Beside her, Ruth was brooding too. Maryam felt as if each of them harboured such a store of suppressed rage or hurt that at any moment it could erupt like rogue lightning and raze them all.
They could just see glimpses of the big ruined complex when the first fat drops fell from the sky and pocked the dusty track, stirring up the air with the tang of rain on dirt. The tree-cover counted for little as the first drops gave way to a furious deluge that instantly transformed the track into a muddy stream. They ran now, their feet flicking the mud up around their legs.
By the time they reached the plateau all four were soaked, and still the rain pelted down. It wasn't like the squally winter rain that sometimes deluged OnewÄre. It was tepid and offered little relief from the rank humidity that thickened the air and made every inhaled breath a chore. In Maryam it had brought on a headache that jarred with each step.
“I say we take shelter in the big building,” she called to the
others as they made their way through the ruins. She was desperate to stop.
No one bothered to answer her. But the boys veered off their direct route towards the stone gateway that led down to the beach and headed, instead, for the parapeted building at the heart of the complex. They huddled in its doorway and waited for Maryam and Ruth to catch them up. Inside, a wide entrance hall was flanked by the shattered stairwells of the two frontal towers, its once smooth tiled floor littered with the accumulated debris of wind and time: crumbling stone, dried leaves and dirt, stinking mounds of bird droppings and feathers. A host of parasitic plants sprouted from fractures in the floor and walls, as if they'd pushed up through the earth to rightfully reclaim what once was theirsâtheir florid display at odds with the dull brown stone of the structure that supported them. Rain leaked in through the cracks to form puddles that snaked through the filthy flagstones in dusty streams.
Rows of thick stone pillars formed the backbone of the building. The two most elaborately carved of them stood at the entrance to a gloomy room beyond the hall. Maryam, Joseph, Lazarus and Ruth edged towards it in silence. Something about the decayed majesty of the building and the stifling gloom set their nerves on edge. Maryam's head pounded in time with her heart as they stepped over the threshold and tried to take in the dimensions of the room.
It was an enormous space, almost as big as the atrium of the Holy City,
Star of the Sea
. The flagstones had been laid in symmetrical patterns, and a pathway of darker stone drew them in towards the raised dais at the far end.
There, in the dull half-light, a huge stone figure looked
down upon them. He sat cross-legged on the daisâthe same calm-faced man Maryam had seen depicted on the carved reliefs outside. His hands, lying open on his knees, were spread as though to beckon the four unexpected guests; a secret smile seemed to hover on his pronounced lips. His eyes were lowered modestly; his chipped stonework face was streaked with dark trails of rain as if he wept.
“Oh Lord in Heaven!” Ruth cried out. She alone had stopped staring up at the figure, and was clutching Maryam's arm so tightly Maryam could feel her pulse fighting against Ruth's panicked grip. Ruth was pointing a shaky hand at the ground beneath the statue's broad bare feet.
At first Maryam was not sure what she was looking at. Some kind of tangled mass: a pile of sticks, branches and smooth rounded stones.
Lazarus released a long slow whistle. “Meet the former people of Marawa Island,” he said, his voice barely a whisper above the orchestra of rain.
“People?” Yet, even as Maryam spoke, her brain began to make sense of what lay before her. This was not the wind-blown refuse of the jungleâthese were bones. Hundreds of them, heaped below the dais and spreading out across the floor to either side. She shook her head, hoping her eyes were playing tricks on her, but when she'd blinked again there was no doubting it: the pile of bones was real.
She looked at Ruth beside her, and they held each other's gaze. Then Ruth began to speak. “
And it shall be, if thou forget the Lord thy God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, worship them, I testify against you this day that you shall surely perish.
Her words struck to the core of Maryam's doubt. Every
time she turned her back on the Apostles' teaching, it was as though the Lord sent forth new evidence that His words were real. She brushed Ruth's hand from her arm, so overwhelmed by the dark shadow this new test cast on her spirit she had to escape her friend's needy grasp. She backed from the room, unable to tear her eyes from the spectre of the island's dead: the bleached brittle bones of men and women, old and young, heaped together as if they'd died in one desperate moment, trapped in time. Long leg bones, disconnected at their knobbly joints. Spidery fingers pointing into space. Whole networks of collapsed ribs and twisted tracks of spines. Slick rounded skulls with their hollow eyes and empty nose-holes. And, most heartwrenching of all, tiny disjointed bundles of bone held tightly in a mother's dying embrace.
And when Judah came toward the watch tower in the wilderness, they looked unto the multitude, and, behold, they were dead bodies fallen to the earth, and none escaped.
The Holy Book's words tolled in Maryam's head as she turned and fled the building. Up until this moment she'd still held to the faint hope that somewhere on the island other people lived to welcome them to this new home. It did not seem possible that she and her two dear friends had fought so hard to reach this placeâescaped the cruel clutches of Father Joshua and risked their lives out on the open seaâonly to find the island as deserted and bleak as the desolation that now possessed her heart.
Great painful sobs rose up from the pit of her stomach and broke free. It was so unfairâ
that all the hopes she'd held for the future now lay as dead as those poor islanders in their crumbling tomb. She could not stop the tears that seemed
to draw from every cell of her body to leave her as depleted as when the Mothers had drained her of her blood.
A hand roughly shook her shoulder and she startled to see Joseph's wary face above her. He looked drained too, his skin grey and unhealthy beneath the veil of rain. “Come inside,” he said. “We've found a corner that's dry and free of bones.”
She could not bear to respond, seeing the hurt and confusion behind his eyes as further proof of the total failure of her dreams. Instead, she slumped her head into her hands, willing him just to leave her to digest the truth.
All is lost.
Joseph, however, did not comply. He reached down and firmly grasped her by the arm, coughing as he hauled her up with one impatient jerk. He towed her back across the compound, saying nothing until he pushed her, none too gently, beneath the shelter of a crumbling tiled roof that slumped between two chipped columns of weathered stone.
He took her by the shoulders then, forcing her to meet his gaze. There was a graze just below his right eye, fresh from his collision with Lazarus, its edges blue and puffy where rainwater had soaked into the broken skin. For a moment neither of them spoke, Maryam dizzy from the effort of holding his stare while knowing how he hated herâthat she'd lost his love. Her heart drummed out its pain, reverberating loudly inside her head.
Finally she drew in a deep breath. She had to tell him now, while they were alone, what had caused her to abandon him. “I'm sorry. Iâ”
sorry,” Joseph echoed. He released her shoulders and took one of her hands in his own, his words tumbling out now as she listened, open-mouthed. “I never should have touched you,” he said. “It was just you looked so beautiful. I feel terribleâand
know how much I shamed youâfrightened youâI couldn't face you this morning, after what I'd nearly done. I feel so ashamed. So badâ”
“Stop!” Maryam raised her free hand and pressed her fingers to his lips to silence him. He'd run because he thought he'd hurt her? Done her wrong? “It wasn't that at all,” she said, a great wave of relief welling up inside her as she realised that perhaps he didn't hate her after all. “Lazarus was watching us. When I saw him there I panickedâthat's why I ran.”
?” Joseph shook his head slowly as though processing what she had said. Then a smile dawned in his eyes. “You don't hate me?”
Relieved laughter burst from her. “You don't hate
He did not answer her, just swept her up into his arms and held her tight. She nestled her head into the crook of his neck as she fought back the urge to cry again. Then he kissed her sopping hair and she raised her face to him, her ear catching in his rain-soaked collar and dragging the fabric away from his skin. As her gaze travelled up his neck towards his lips, something purple registered at the very corner of her vision. She pulled back, suddenly nauseous, and yanked the wet shirt away from his neck.
There, in the recess above his collarbone, the ugly telltale marks of Te Matee Iai mottled his skin.
“No!” The word burst from her lips with such force she saw him flinch.
He released her; his arms hung like dead fish at his sides as he tried to work out why her focus was fixed in such horror on his skin. Then the light faded from his eyes. His voice grew flat. “The marks are back?”
She nodded, hating that she had to tell him. She reached up
and cupped his face, pressing her lips to his. At first he did not respond, his lips tight and resistant, but gradually the steady pressure of her own lips softened him, and he drew her hungrily back into his embrace. It was almost brutal in its intensityânot a kiss of passion, but fraught with desperation and fear. Then the rhythm of his breathing changed, and he pushed her away as a ragged cough exploded from his chest.
He was consumed by it, doubled over, hands on knees, trying to bring the choking spasm under control as Maryam frantically rubbed his back. She could feel the way his spine jutted out beneath his skin, and the straining of his muscles as the cough ran on, and saw now that the purple mottling had spread around his neck, tucked just below his hairline too. She felt sick and light-headed.
Lazarus was right.
“We can fight this,” she declared as soon as the fit was over and he'd regained his breath. “My bloodâ”
“Don't speak of it,” he snapped. “You must not risk your life for mine.”
“But I don't care.”
“Well, I doâand we will not have this conversation ever again.” The severity of his tone left no room for further argument.
As she churned over every possible retort, the sudden return of the birds' clamour distracted her. The rain had stopped as quickly and dramatically as it had started, and the birds once more thronged above. Already the sky was breaking through with blue, the rain-clouds rolling off towards the east as steam rose from the sunlit ground. And now Ruth and Lazarus were walking towards them, and although there was nothing accusing in Ruth's expression, Maryam felt a tug of guilt at
having left her friend alone with him. Worse, she didn't want to face Lazarus at this awful moment: her face flushed hot as she imagined how he'd rub it in now that his fears for Joseph had been proved right.
“So you found her,” Lazarus said, shooting Maryam a dismissive look. He jerked his head up at the sky. “While the weather's clear let's get back to the boat and have something decent to eat, then we can talk.”
“How can you think of eating now we know this island is forsaken by the Lord?” Ruth said.
“Easy,” Lazarus replied. “For a start my stomach doesn't care so long as it's been fed. And, secondly, whatever happened here was long agoâthe only thing that matters now is what we decide to do next.”
?” Maryam said. “Since when did
have any say in what we do? And since when did you become our self-appointed leader?” He may've been right about Joseph, but it didn't give him the right to seize control.
“Since you started acting like such a flake.”
“A what? Look, just because you have a love affair with yourself it doesn't give you the right to judge how others act.”
“It does if you're clearlyâ”
“Oh, spare me!” Joseph threw up his hands in frustration and marched off towards the stairway that led back down to the beach. “Come on.”
For a moment the other three just watched him stalk away, each of them seemingly locked up in their own dark thoughts. But as Joseph reached the entranceway to the stairs he was wracked by another bout of coughing, and he stopped to support himself against the massive gateway of sectioned stone.
Maryam found her eyes drawn to Lazarus, who scrutinised her right back.
Here we go.
Despite her dislike of him, and her certainty he'd take the revelation out on her, she found herself pointing to her collarbone and neck and shaking her head.
He's Joseph's cousin, after all. He has to know.