• Olivia Even-Vaca

The Burnings


 

"Friction 11" Created by Marieken Cochius
"Friction 11" Created by Marieken Cochius

The boy appeared at dusk. That alone ought to have been warning enough. Blustering gusts had pushed inland a rumbling, crackling mass of storm clouds, and beneath that low, granite sky the child lay on Sela’s doorstep, as if swept in by the howling, ill-meaning wind. In the dim gray of evening he looked sullen and half-starved, shaking through every limb like a leaf on a weather-worn branch. Startled, Sela called for Red. Silent and severe, wariness in his step, Red came to the door, and after studying the boy for a moment or two, knelt down and picked him up.


“Found him by the docks this morning,” he said. The boy didn’t even stir. “He must have followed me.”


It had rained all morning, cold and heavy, lending a roughness to the wind, a violence to the sea. On the swells of raging waves Red’s boat had flailed and floundered, sail full with wind, but battered and limp, like a white wing, broken. By noon the waves worsened, rising as though with the sun, and not about to risk capsizing, Red had dragged in his morning haul, tied the boat to the nearest dock, and left the heaving, churning ocean behind. It was as he headed home that he had noticed the boy, huddled in an alleyway, shuddering and shivering with cold. All he’d done, Red insisted, was buy the trembling child a roll of bread, which he’d glared at with as much suspicion and fright as one might the edge of a blade. Hunger, however, triumphed over fear, and with fumbling fingers the boy snatched and devoured the roll. With that, Red had considered his duty done. How could he have known the child would follow him home and make a bed on the doorstep?


“Because you encouraged it,” Sela said, gazing over the sleeping, chestnut-haired boy with distaste. Strangers came rarely to the village, and when they did, often came unwelcome. “If his parents are pirates, what do you think will become of us?”


Red only shrugged. Weary and dazed, the boy opened his eyes. He looked weak, wrung-out, uncomprehending as he listened to her words. At length the fisherman’s wife sighed. Even if he was pirate-born, what did it matter? Whatever caretakers this child once had clearly wanted nothing to do with him. So without any further discussion, they wrapped the lost thing in blankets and tucked him in an alcove where for the night he slept.


The next morning, the child awoke reluctantly to Sela’s boot prodding him in his side.


“Up,” she said. “You’re coming with me.”


Wordlessly, the child did as she said, trailing behind the woman as she led him in search of the town’s shaman. Down sloping hills of heather and wind-struck flowers, the shaman made his living on a crag by the shore, one that overlooked both the ocean and the chapel, lofty in position, humble in size.


Twice she had to knock to be heard over the roar of the wind, which still carried the strength of the storm. The man inside answered, white as milk, or bone, smiling with pleasure at the sight of the goat-herder. His eyes then fixed on the boy, and for a moment they seemed almost to gleam. With a quiet greeting, he led woman and child inside, seating them in a cool, salt-scented room. Tapestries cloaked the walls, yearly offerings from the townsfolk, their striking colors set aglow by flowering embers in the hearth. Some of these Sela herself had weaved—tributes for good fortune.


He pressed her not to hesitate, his hands clasped together, the white brow lowered. So Sela told her story, the child clinging to her skirts, avoiding the icy, unwavering eye of the shaman. When at last she finished, the pale, wide-eyed man stretched his arms, blue robes fanning out like the feathers of a cliffside bird, ready to take flight.


“A blessing, surely,” he said, staring almost with reverence at the small boy, who still hid in Sela’s shadow. In the grate, the fire flared. “The winds have gifted you a boy, Sela. You ought to cherish it. You’ll never get another chance.”


At this the goat-herder scowled. Three children she’d buried, and the shaman made sure she never forgot it. But it wasn’t as though the woman disbelieved the mysteries of the wind, and had considered the idea of this being a test of sorts. So, when she took him home, the first thing she did was scrub his face and clean his hair and name him Adrian. If he had a name from before, he wouldn’t speak of it. On that day of naming, their long-pregnant goat birthed a kid—a tiny, bleating lump of black fur.


That was the second omen.


Yet for the most part, Adrian didn’t appear foreboding. He was a quiet, unimposing child, who helped with the household chores and knew when to keep out of the way. But it wasn’t as though he had no eye for trouble; either he would find it, or it would find him. The day after his naming, a second bout of rain fell, a light but steady drizzle that soaked the earth and chilled the air. Adrian, not minding the rain now that he had a roof over his head, remained crouched near the hearthside, watching the fire as a kitten might a bird—attentive and beguiled. The reflected flame seemed almost to burn in his eyes, and as if irresistibly compelled, his fingers reached for one of the thin, fluttering tongues.

Sela whirled at the boy’s howl, and in just a few paces had crossed the room and pulled him away. His face was twisted into one of horror, shrieking as she ran cool water over his blistering palm. He’d not let go. Till the moment she’d swept him into her arms, he’d clung to the thread of flame, crying and crying as though he didn’t understand the fire to be the thing that hurt him.


“Well, what were you expecting?” she said, her voice harsh with anger and worry.


The boy merely whimpered, searching for comfort and kindness in her expression, and when she betrayed none, buried his face in her shoulder and sobbed. Like coiling snakes the flames had wrapped themselves around his hand, and for an instant it did seem as though he fully held the tongues, as if they were tangible, graspable. Sela’s only concern, however, was how bad a burn it would be. By evening, Adrian had calmed down. The burned flesh, pink and welted, was now an object of interest for the boy, something that in equal parts fascinated and repelled him. Sela, meanwhile, could only be relieved it was no worse. When Red came home, Adrian was quick to show off his blistered hand, thrusting it into the stoic face of the fisherman. He wanted a reaction. Wanted to know how he should feel. As it was, Adrian seemed unsure of whether to be proud or abashed.


To Sela’s surprise, Red’s lips slackened into a smile. His expression was one of good-humored sympathy, and with a dark, callused hand, he ruffled the boy’s hair. “Know your limits, and you’ll be fine.”

Over the next few days the mark faded and faded, and by the week’s end, hardly a blemish remained. As shocked as she was relieved—for both Red and Sela were convinced a scar was inevitable—Sela set an undaunted Adrian to work. He’d braved the fire, and if he could spend all day sitting by the hearthside, drawing pictures in the ashes, he could stand to help with the chores. In the herb garden, a great rosemary bush bloomed blue with health, and around breakfast time, she sent him out to gather a few sprigs. When he returned, handing the stems off to Red, the fisherman’s brow lowered, perturbed eyes flicking to Adrian, who had moved on to helping Sela chop thyme.


For a while he was silent. Then he came to the kitchen and placed the plucked rosemary on the table.


“How did this come about?”


Puzzled, Sela looked at the sprigs. They were blackened. She glanced accusingly at Adrian. “Why did you pick those?” she scolded, and sent him out for more. The ones he brought back were much the same—charred and crumbling, black as burnt wood. Now Sela saw fit to whack him. “Care to explain yourself?”


The boy stared at her in dismay. “I haven’t done anything!”


Tears welled up in his eyes, and in a huff, Sela went out to check on the bush. It was green and lush, blue blossoms bursting and swaying in slight wind. When she returned, out of patience for whatever trick this was, she found Red comforting the child, who had begun to weep softly.


“It’s all right, Sela,” the man said. “He hasn’t done any real harm. I checked his pockets. He doesn’t have matches.”


Irritated, Sela said nothing. But she’d gotten her sprigs when she visited the bush, so in the end, she supposed Red was right. No real harm had been done. In time, the incident was forgotten about.


But aside from daily chores, Sela couldn’t see to the boy all day. The fields needed tending, the goats managing, and since Red would go out to sea, the duty of both fell on her. Being banished from the herb garden, Adrian was given the stables. He fared better there, feeding and milking what goats were young and sick. The black goat he’d named Charcoal, and to it he dedicated special care, since it was he who named it. To his credit, the care was reciprocated. Not even its mother’s dripping teat enraptured the young goat like Adrian did, and once the island winds fully pushed the last of the rainclouds out to sea, both boy and animal were allowed outside to play. Adrian liked being let loose to the world in this way. There was a freedom in the moorish hillsides, a wildness in the streams, vast and feral, haunted and holy. Charcoal followed when he could, bounding and skipping on wobbly legs, black, liquid eyes wide and curious as the boy waded in streams and tumbled through wildflowers.


And it was not only the goat. By summer’s end, Adrian had assembled a loyal, affectionate following of crows. When he ventured outside, the crows would wheel and squawk and flock at his feet in a billow of black feathers. In their beaks they’d come carrying small pebbles and shells, or sprigs of pine and holly. Nervous and excited, they’d hop about his legs, dropping their offerings at the first timely moment before rising in a single, fluttering cloud, and in one great flock, would swoop toward the forest, duty done.


Red had only seen this spectacle once. He’d come home early one day to see the boy surrounded by them, wreathed in black and laughing as they matched his movements. But though they looped and hovered about him, never did they land on him. Occasionally one would come close, swooping low with talons outstretched, only to swerve at the last second, as if it could sense something in that moment, something dangerous, a fear that commanded respect. Red eyed the scene warily, skirting the yard in which the boy and birds played and coming in the garden way. It was at dinner that he finally spoke.


“You’ve garnered quite a following,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “They pay tribute to you and everything. How did you manage it?”


Adrian, realizing he meant the crows, promised he’d show them, and after dinner, wordlessly scooped up his scraps and tossed them out the door, where a growing cluster of crows waited, eagerness in their glittering eyes and pecking beaks.


Sela had chided him for that. “You shouldn’t waste food,” she said, though she admittedly found the whole situation rather amusing. Red always had an eye for omens, but to Sela, the crows had never bothered anyone.


Even when he stopped feeding them, the birds proved faithful friends, often flocking near him or settling at his feet with their usual offerings. The village children were quite fascinated by this. At first they’d watched Adrian with cautious, dubious scrutiny, marveling at his solitude and strangeness. That, and the fact that they knew nothing about him, only that he’d been taken in by the burly, falcon-eyed fisherman and his goat-herder wife. They were very mindful that he was a stranger to their island, and spun rumor and story about his pirate origins and all their unscrupulous dealings. Indeed, they were well-pleased with the distance they enforced, since they took it for prudence rather than meanness. But when they saw the boy wandering the hillsides with birds and a goat in tow, they found themselves compelled by new interest.


“Why do they like you so much, Adrian?” asked one girl, Heather, who wove her words with as much playfulness as there was provocation.


Adrian shrugged, flinching slightly as the girl approached closer, gently running her finger along the black head of an adolescent crow, newly initiated. “I love birds. It’s amazing that they come to you.”

Sela had been watching this interaction, and upon seeing Adrian’s shy smile, was as tempted to laugh as she was to groan. Heather was a volcano of a child, loud and proud and full of temper. Born on the winter solstice, when each year a lamb is sacrificed to the gods of the wind and sea, Heather was pushed into the world the very instant her mother left it. And if that weren’t a sign of ill-fortune on its own, the angry, grief-stricken father had laid the wailing newborn too close to the fire, and in moments, the flesh of her neck was seared, torn and ravaged by flame.


“It’s a bad thing,” the shaman had said, his voice like the toll of a bell, clear and deep. “A very bad thing to be storm-born.”


The previous night, a volley of hail had come crashing upon the island, and it was for that reason, the shaman said, that the new girl was burned. In the valley of the mountain, where the great bonfire leapt and flared, the townsfolk listened to the shaman speak, his voice low and neck bent, birth and death and fire weighing heavily upon him.


To the townsfolk, the girl’s scar marked a sign of lasting misfortune, stretching raw and thick, as though a great claw had raked her throat. And indeed, she’d proven quite a handful for a child of her years, though Sela never thought it wholly her fault. Still, she never would have imagined that, out of all the children, Heather would be the one Adrian took a liking to. But then, the girl looked right at home in the wilderness, crow feathers in her hair as Adrian wove a crown of moor flowers for her golden head.

What really won her over, however, was something no adult caught sight of. As she sat beside him one day, petting the curly head of Charcoal the goat, another, older boy trekked up to join them. A known troublemaker, he and Heather had gotten into tussles before, and he likely went at the behest of his friends, who huddled below the hillside, waiting. Incited by both them and his pride, he grabbed a handful of the girl’s hair, revealing the dark mark along her neck. But rather than laugh, as the child half-expected of Adrian, the goat-herder’s boy lashed out a hand with viper-like speed, clasping around the arm that pulled Heather’s curls and holding tight. At first, the older boy only laughed, since Adrian looked easy enough to knock down. But soon that laughter turned shaky, uncertain. Before long, it was a flat-out scream.


The boy yanked his arm from Adrian’s. The ends of his sleeve were frayed and shriveled, still smoking in parts. Down the hill he streaked like a rabbit, past his friends, who chased after him, bewildered and disappointed their trick hadn’t gotten the reaction they’d wanted. Heather, however, had watched the scene unflinchingly. She was one who felt in extremes, and being scornful of fear, all that was left for the girl was to be utterly amazed. Within a week’s time the two were inseparable, knit together at the hip like the patchwork of a quilt.


Rumors of the fight spread quickly amongst the children. Gen, the boy who’d disturbed them, showed off a fleshy, hand-shaped wound, but it was vague and thin, and being prone to over-exaggeration, no one took him too seriously. But neither was anyone eager to bother Heather or Adrian again, and they liked it that way. With the days to themselves, most of their time was spent atop the moors and cliff-sides, tottering and clambering about the edges of high precipices, jagged and slick with bitter, salty rain. Often the two climbed off the paths, up and up, where the white-headed turns made their nests between sharp rocks, and from there they cried out, loud and triumphant, over the world and sea and storm clouds incoming. It was in those moments that Adrian seemed most alive, a look of intensity kindling in his eyes, darkness that burned within darkness.


“At least he’s happy,” Sela said to Red one evening.


She knew of Adrian’s ramblings with Heather; she’d witnessed them herself on a few occasions, and for some reason, felt the behavior needed excusing. Red listened solemnly, contemplative in silence. From thrashing waves beneath the cliffside, Red’s hawk eye sometimes spotted them, hands interlocked and arms spread wide like a great albatross on the wind, ready to leap and fly free. At first, Sela had thought a friend for Adrian would give Red some peace of mind. But upon hearing it was Heather, the fisherman couldn’t help but wince.


“The girl who the earth quakes for?” he said, low and weary.


Sela frowned at that remark. Though marked at birth by death and fire, it wasn’t as though Heather had ever done any real harm. What wildness was in her came from neglect, not nature, and would be outgrown.


As the days turned towards autumn, and the village hands all shifted to the coming harvests, the two children kept in this strange way. And so it was that one day, as Adrian awaited his friend by the crags, the boy looked into the bleak, sun-struck seas and saw, clustering along the horizon, tiny flecks of red and gold, like embers glinting in a darkened grate. He reached town before the boatmen returned, panting and breathless, beckoning others toward a slope that overlooked the eastern stretch of ocean. Curious and afraid, people followed the boy, and in the distance, saw what he had seen: ships gathering in a great line, creeping steadily closer.


Pirates. They infested the waters far to the east, where they were known for ransacking the richer islands that traded ore and silks. There were rumors of the eastern lords increasing naval forces to destroy them; was that why they came here? Even on their island, the coming of autumn left much to plunder. The blacksmith stoked the fires, hammering away at fishing spears and barbed hooks, fashioning a point into every pike and farming hoe. Luckily, the wind was still that day, and without its help the fleet drifted limply in the open sea. Still, while their advance was a slow one, it was steady, inevitable.


Evening came with red stained skies, and in its wake the water burned crimson, the prows of the ships wading through fire till night doused the flames. A chill fell over the earth, a tense stillness. Fog rolled slowly in, thin as a spider’s web at first, but the wispy threads lengthened and thickened, weaving a sheet of gray and shadow. It was so thick Sela could hardly see the sharpened stake in her hand.

“Adrian?” she whispered.


From her left, distantly—“I’m here, Mama.”


“Where is Heather?”


“I don’t know.” There was a note of shocked disbelief in his voice, as if he hadn’t considered this. “I don’t know.”


“She’ll be inside,” Sela assured, wanting to comfort him. “Someplace safe.”


From the fog there came no answer. But there was nothing to be done. Together, Sela and Adrian stood atop the sloping moorland, miles from town, ready to defend their home if the pirates reached the peak. In the belly of the valley, Red waited with the other men. The night drew on. Perhaps they were cautious, all of them, confused by the mist. But as the moon rose in the sky, the first echoes of fighting bellowed up from the valley below. Sela’s grip tightened around the stake. She looked for the boy. If he was near, he was nothing more than a shadow, lost to the fog.


Then, off in the distance, there shone a spark. A pinprick of red. Into the gray-blue vapor Sela squinted, striving to see, though it hurt her eyes. Around her the mist began to thin and tatter, flooding from the moors and into the town in a great white shroud. At the high point of the isle, however, Sela could now see what the townsfolk likely could not: a bud of fire, bleeding through the fog as if through fabric.

Had the pirates set fire to the harbor? No, it wasn’t the harbor that burned. It was the fleet. Long into the night those great ships sent up pillars of smoke, black and billowing, flames spouting across the water even as dawn broke gold over the edge of the ocean. By her side, Adrian leaned on her shoulder, tired from the night, watching the ships burn and split and sink in those white-yellow waters.


When Red returned, his face was ashen and his eyes enflamed by smoke. The fighting lasted for about an hour, he said. One long, dark hour. In the mist they could hardly tell each other apart, dodging and darting through fog and shadow, but the villagers knew the terrain well, taunting and leading the bewildered men in circles or straight off cliffs. But what fighting had been done ceased when they saw their ships, and at that all had fled back toward the harbor, trying frantically to save those vessels that didn’t immediately catch flame. Some lad had been sent to torch them, in all likelihood.


“Adrian!” cried a voice. Heather’s voice.


The girl ran up the hills, hair shining flaxen in the light of morning. Weary, but relieved, Adrian waved. Heather had been in her father’s house, apparently. But when she heard the low, whispering voices of men outside, she’d jumped out a window and made for the forest.


Sela, rather shocked that the girl had been left to fend for herself, let the child stay with them for the day. She took them to the cliffside, which was where they wanted to be, and on the sunlit horizon, they watched the surviving ships flee east, a blot in the hazy distance. In minutes the children were asleep, Adrian’s head on Sela’s lap, Heather’s in the moor flowers. Carefully, Sela studied the young, sleeping face of the boy, bronze in the blaze of afternoon. And as she did, she felt something prickle in her being, warm and mellow. A deep, raw feeling. Gently, she brushed a hand through his hair, and with a voice that faltered from sleeplessness, sang to the resting children.


Sela didn’t forget Heather. Winter came in its frigid season, frosts blooming with chill, withering with oncoming spring. During the cold months, Red and Sela kept their doors open to the girl, who took full advantage. Every day she’d run up snow-swept hills to meet her friend, her pockets heavy with candies and needles and often a striker, which she made a habit of twirling between her fingers. For Charcoal, who remained ever faithful, she’d bring carrots. In the stables they would huddle close and share secrets, whispering and giggling as they played their strange games.


“Here,” the girl said one day, holding in her hands a small, hollow dish.


With a sharp stone, she sliced her palm open, and Adrian watched, captivated, as the blood trickled into the shallow basin. When she was done, it was his turn. The boy bit hard on the inside of his lip, spitting into the dish. Mixing the blood together, the two stared at what they’d just made, their mouths half-parted, eyes unblinking. Intrepid, Heather reached for the dish first, raising it to her lips, taking a quick, single sip. Then, again, it was Adrian’s turn. The boy winced at the taste, then smiled at the girl, and drank it whole.


“There,” she said, as if coaxing him. “We’re blood twins now.”


Back from the sea, Red watched this unfold through a chink in the stable door, and with a heavy heart, he shook his head. He knew what Sela would say: “Children are incomprehensible.” But in his mind, this was something else. Something strange and eerie, but not quite incomprehensible. Still, he didn’t say anything. Where he’d become more wary of the boy, Sela had only grown in fondness. And, he thought, if they were only left alone, it was likely nothing would come of it.


As the days warmed, the crows returned, and while they remembered their original friend, were less enthusiastic about the girl. But as they spent more time outside, Adrian helped Heather find favor with them once again. And when other boys came to join them, for they were now of the age to notice someone like Heather, and envy someone like Adrian, the crows would swarm them furiously, flocking and screeching and scratching their faces and ankles. Unrepentant, Heather would laugh, while Adrian watched, eyes ever on his friend.


“Let their eyes be plucked from their skulls!” she’d cry.


Both Sela and Red watched this, each in their own way. Sela, for one, couldn’t understand why Red had begun avoiding Adrian. It was as though he saw something stirring in that young form, something dark and untempered, a sleeping disaster on the verge of awakening. Not that she didn’t think any of it to be odd. But no oddity, Sela thought, couldn’t be outgrown. In a year or two, this would pass.


With mid-spring there came a wedding, the blacksmith’s young son to a fisherman’s daughter. Torches were lit and drums were beat and outside the church the people danced, launching themselves from dock to dock as the stars rose in the night sky. Adrian leaped with them, first with a group of boys, then with Heather, flashing in the moonlight like the winged-fish that soared out of waves. As the night drew on the adults stopped, watching young ones as they talked amongst themselves. The shaman remained with the bride and groom. He’d always thought them a good match, and as the ceremony waned with morning, began planning his next. When the shaman approached Sela, she thought she knew the reason. That summer, Heather would turn thirteen, and her father had long wanted the storm of a girl out of his care. The shaman, too, was just as eager; he’d always disapproved of the father’s neglect.


“To keep the wild aspen in the garden, you must first prune its limbs.”


Now, in the shaman’s eyes, Sela had emerged a most worthy pruner, and by extension, perhaps, so had the boy.


The celebration continued long into the next day, even as the singers and dancers collapsed one by one, voices thin and limbs weary. By dusk the streets were almost deserted, and while the last stragglers were staggering home, the shaman summoned Heather and her father. Over the girl the shaman loomed, speaking gravely of virtue and duty, all with that booming, perpetually awe-struck voice.


Heather stood beside her pillar of a father, head tilted a fraction to the side, uncomprehending.


“Good children obey the laws, mind tradition,” spoke he.

“I bled a lamb for the solstice last winter.”


“Well that you did. Can you weave?”


“No.”


“Why not?”


“I prick myself. Over and over. It makes my fingers bleed.”


“Ah, but the lamb must bleed for the sacrifice. Only by doing that are the gods appeased.”


Heather stared at him, frowning in half-understanding. And as the shaman continued to speak, that frown deepened. She was growing up now, and would no longer be granted a child’s indulgence. She was to be a young lady, and young ladies had duties. She would stay inside. She would learn to weave, and if she pricked her fingers, so much the better. It was a testament to hard work. And, if she paid heed to what her father—and the shaman—asked of her, she might be rewarded when the time came. But the father must have been convinced she would stray, for one thing was made quite clear: if not the goat-herder’s boy, someone else would suit.


“Don’t allow it.” It was the first thing Red said. Sela had told him of the shaman’s proposal, and Red, with more gravity than she’d ever seen in him before, began almost to beg.


“A marriage?”


“It won’t end well.”


“I don’t like it much either, but what can we do about it? Better than the girl being sent somewhere else.”


“It’d be kinder to send the matchbox away than to meddle like this! Only fools try to twist fire into something it’s not.”


And with that, Red stormed off. He’d heard stories of storm-born things. Stories the shaman himself had told, which made his decision all the more perplexing. Wind could not be tamed, thunder was impossible to silence. He remembered when Heather was born. When the girl was grasped by fire, and all knew something bad was on the horizon. It was just like then. Only the bad thing, Red thought, had finally arrived.


The next day, the burnings began. The first was the bakery, engulfed in the dead of night. They awoke to the shrill, huge sounds of the gong, and running down the tangled hillsides, saw the bread house wrapped in flames. Wind blew in strong, swirling gusts, and in it the fire leapt and burst, hissing and spitting, the reek of smoke so strong their lungs grew raw and labored from breathing. But however wild, it seemed an accident. The dry season was descending, and the baker’s apprentice was a known halfwit. Even still, no one was eager to punish, and since the apprentice promised profusely that he’d made sure every ember of every fire was out, people were willing to forgive and let be.


The next could not be so easily denied. On the first midsummer morning, the apothecary burst aflame, cinders flying and embers streaking as the wood-straw hut was consumed in fire’s great, voracious mouth. By the time the first bucket of water was thrown, the hut had crumpled, seeming to almost fold in half before it all came crashing down, the air heavy with the smells of ash and charred, sharp-scented herbs. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind this time—this was no accident, or work of nature. Human hands had sparked this fire.


In the meantime, Adrian had all but vanished. When people saw him, he seemed a ghost on the moors, a lost soul wandering, alone and silent and pale-faced. His friend was gone, kept under lock and key, condemned to needle and fabric. And with her so caged, a new feeling began to take root, one that narrowed his vision, darkened his heart, fully waking that which was once only half-awake. The world became too small, and its smallness became heavy, oppressive, smothering the child within.


He would break free.


They would break free.


In the depths of the following night, the weary, sleeping town stirred once again to those dreaded, familiar sounds and smells. In the gray light of dawn, the church bloomed red. Fire again surged in its mighty wave, a flower of flame against the sunless sky, lapping the underbellies of the low-hanging clouds. This time, however, the morning was heavy with oncoming rain, and with the villagers mobilized, hurling bucket upon bucket of sea-salted water, the embers were tamed, then extinguished.


On rickety, half-seared legs, the old building stood, steeple smoldering long into the evening.


From his bedroom Adrian watched the smoke spiral, cursing once under his breath.


“And where did you learn that?” Sela asked, pushing the cracked door open wide.


Adrian shook his head.


“That’s no answer.”


“One of the boys.”


Sela merely raised an eyebrow, coming near and sitting beside him. “And? What do you think of this?”

Still Adrian watched the smoke, and did not answer. At the sight of this Sela felt the weight of tears rise in her eyes, for now she thought she understood what Red had seen, what she herself had refused to see. It is a bad thing.


She turned away, hiding sorrow in shadow. Silence. Then, ever so gently, a little hand cupped her cheek.


“Mama?” Adrian’s eyes were wide and wondering, his pupils dark and flameless.


Something within her began to twist and surge, like two snakes writhing and squeezing in her chest, and with a strangled sob, she threw her arms around the boy. She held him tightly, rocking him slowly in the ash-stricken air, drowning in heartache, in a swollen, wordless, grieving love.


Tentatively, Adrian placed his hand on her back, rubbing circles into it. “Mama, why are you crying? Please don’t be sad.” A pause. “It’s not your fault.”


The words came quiet, nearly a whisper, and as he spoke, he sounded as though he truly meant them. He was a smokeless flame. A barbed arrow, lodged in her heart. But she wouldn’t let go. Even if he singed her hair or tore her flesh, even if Red tried to pull her away, she wouldn’t let go.


That night, as she watched Adrian tend to the goats, ever-gentle with the creatures that worshipped him, Red came to her side. She didn’t want to look at him. Gently as one would touch a butterfly’s wing, he placed a large, callused hand on her shoulder.


“Why do you hang your heart on that boy?” His face seemed cut from stone, clenched and harsh, dark as flint, though a tremble shook his voice, quivering like the struck chord of an old instrument, locked in a minor key. “What good will come of it now? He was never meant for us.”


Sela said nothing, hunched before the window like an old tree, dead in the earth, ready to fall at the first gust. Neither, for all their love and knowledge, could tell what to do.


The burning of the church stirred up a rage—rage at being toyed with, at being violated. All eyes couldn’t help turning to the golden-haired girl, known for the evil mark across her throat and her brazen wielding of a striker. But Heather never disguised it, and the notion of hiding in plain sight was simply too baffling for most to believe. Her shadow, however, was another story, for the boy always did her bidding, and stood unafraid of any adult or consequence. But he, at least, could be accounted for on the morning of the church burning. Heather, according to her father, had been out fetching well water, and had taken the length of an hour to return, claiming she’d dropped the bucket on the way back.


So the shaman thought he had his culprit—the insult to the church was not one he would stand, and lack of proof hardly mattered—and cemented what would be his next decree: on her thirteenth birthday, Heather would marry a fisherman from the neighboring island. That, the shaman decided, would put an end to her.


Under a cloud-swept sky, deep in the lavender field near the stables, Heather escaped her room to meet with Adrian one last time. Sela stood near, concealed in the shadow of a crooked, bowing tree. In fact it was two trees, one birch and the other aspen, knotted and twisted together. Quietly, the children spoke.

“I’ll miss you,” said the girl.


Adrian said nothing. A high, suppressed, single note escaped from his throat, a shuddering whimper that, choked as it was, the wind carried clear and far.


Heather smiled. “Speak. I won’t get to hear you for a long time.”


The boy looked away, his features clenched and tumultuous. Relentless, she grabbed hold of his face.


“You’re leaving me,” was all he could muster.

At this Heather laughed. “That’s all you can think to say? I don’t want to leave, Adrian.” For a moment her voice came painfully, falteringly. Then she reached for his hand. Palm to palm, they stood completely still, a mirror to the other, the ends of their hair and clothing stirred by the wind. “We’re blood twins,” she said, and there was then a glint of triumph in her eyes. “Our bond will burn bright.”


The boy stared at their interwoven fingers, wordless. Tenderly, his hand reached for what the fire had so long ago touched, and traced the rough, ruined skin down her neck and collar bone. Heather didn’t mind. She never minded anything. She, burned by fire, who carried all its pain, all its permanence, was among them the least afraid of it. And that night, while Heather remained locked in her room, the shaman’s house burned. The man inside was charred, hardly recognizable from the surrounding debris—a blackened, shriveled, wingless corpse.


On a silent, windless day, when gray clouds stretched over gray sea, the blue-clad coffin of the shaman was lowered to the earth. In the pit, the townsfolk tossed flowers and shells, laid newly-woven tapestries, and lugged two goats, killed in sacrifice. But to one man, none of this was enough. It didn’t matter that Heather was proven innocent for this burning. And had Sela or Red had the heart to reveal the truth of the matter, it likely wouldn’t have made a difference. The girl’s father could take no more. He, perhaps, had the least faith in his own child, having long thought her a curse, a sure sign of chaos.


Torn by rage and grief and fear, he set out to do what he thought should have been done from the very moment of her birth.


The dawn after the shaman’s burial, Heather’s father took her into his boat, saying it was time she helped with the fishing. He rowed and rowed, through cloud after cloud of passing fog, into the vast haze of an ocean mist, unbroken by morning’s light. In the foaming, surging waves there appeared a lone sandbar, where a family of seals lay basking themselves. Setting his daughter on the thin, nearly submerged patch of sand, he watched as she ran to chase the seals, before turning his back and rowing into the sea once more.


“She’s godless,” Sela remembered him once saying. “A godless, unrepentant spawn of chaos.”


But it was Red who heard it last. Rowing out from a quiet cove, Red saw the boat that once carried two, carrying now only one. He called out, his voice drowned in the howl of the wind and water. But the man didn’t seem to hear Red. The girl’s father rowed like one possessed, though the boat teetered on surging crests of white-capped waves, and even as water filled the vessel, the man did nothing. Perhaps he thought he’d make it. With the prow of his boat biting into waves rising with storm and tide, Red tried to steer into the gust and toward the man’s fast-flooding vessel. But with wind and ocean so strong, Red could hardly handle himself, and with each moment the sea grew rougher, the waves larger. So it was that Red again glanced that way, noticed the far-off vessel hurtling dangerously close to the cliffside, blinked, and saw it no more. It was then that he thought he heard the words, the unmistakable mantra, carried like a ghost on the ocean gust—“Godless.”


One look at Red’s face that eve was all Sela needed. And it wasn’t long before the boy, who studied the grim face of the fisherman with particular attention, knew it too. Like a willow branch in wind, limp and withered, Adrian swayed on his feet, black eyes vacant, lips asunder. Whether his will had been directed or not, whether Heather had encouraged it or not, the girl was dead. Dead for a crime she didn’t commit. Couldn’t have committed.


Slowly, the boy’s mouth pressed into a single, thin, tight line. The eyes turned cold, unblinking. Steadying himself with a hand on the table, Adrian stood for a moment, firmly planted, before walking from the kitchen, out into the yard, up and across the rain-worn hillsides and into the shroud of the forest. It was the last time either Sela or Red laid eyes upon him. The tabletop was scorched.


There was no funeral for father or daughter. No time to grieve for the wicked. The harvests were approaching, and with hearts weary from sorrow at so much death, people were determined to move forward, to let it all pass. Only Sela, with dark hands chafed from digging in hard earth, brought to their home a bouquet of wildflowers, the same kind that Adrian had threaded into a crown for Heather’s flaxen head all those months ago. Then, just as she reached their doorstep, she paused. With a bowed head, she walked back up the cobblestone road and off the village path, hiking and climbing to the highest precipice she could reach. There the wind blew strong, and there, with a final word of regret, she let the offering fall from her hand. Over the endless sea, the flowers fluttered and scattered, and like embers in the night, vanished from view.


Autumn arrived, arid and chill. As they did every year, the villagers united around their common purpose—salvaging what they’d grown before the rain brought the frost. But when it came time to sharpen the knives and pruners, there came in the air a familiar smell. A thick, dry, suffocating smell. The smell of cinders. A crow cawed. Then another. Black wings flocked beneath a black sky in a frantic, spiraling swarm, screeching with their high, raspy voices. There was a shudder in the earth, a soft whining on the wind. Charcoal, no longer a kid, bleated mournfully.


Across the sloping landscape, the fire rolled in waves—swelling and stretching, lashing and leaping, eating up the earth as the ocean does the shore. A bloated, heaving, bellowing mass of flame that grasped as though with hands, moved as though with mind. Embers sputtered, white tongues licked, the blaze whipped by wind, fanned in all directions—a crushing, swallowing, indomitable force.


The blaze came from the forest, where from blackened trees fire still spewed and spread. Deliberate as it was indiscriminate, the flames moved for the fields, crows wheeling in the smoke-stained air, trailing in the fire’s path.


Under a dismal, cloud-filled sky the villagers watched their harvests be consumed, and beneath that same sky Red looked on from afar, feeling nothing but regret for the boy consumed by flame and the girl who’d held the striker. On the moor by the goat shed, Sela sat in a shroud of smoke, heavy with love that no longer had a place to go. In the air, there blew the heads of moor flowers, severed from their stems. Like swallows they danced on the keening wind, and out to sea they went.





 

Olivia Even-Vaca is a fiction writer and recent graduate from the College of William and Mary. When her nose isn’t tucked in a book, she can be found exploring Virginia's numerous hiking trails, a pair of binoculars at her eyes as she searches the trees for her favorite birds. She was raised in Virginia, and was the winner of the Glenwood Clark Prize in Fiction in 2021.


Marieken Cochius is a Dutch-born artist whose work is meditative and intuitive and often explores growth forms, movement of light and wind, root systems, and animal architecture. She is drawn to remote places where she studies nature and makes art inspired by it. Her work encompasses drawing, painting and sculpture. In 2021 Cochius received an NYSCA Decentralization Grant for an Individual Artist Commission. She is a 2020 recipient of a Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA), Emergency Grants COVID-19 Fund grant. In 2017 Cochius completed a public sculpture commission for the Village of Wappingers Falls, NY made possible by a grant from the Hudson River Foundation. Cochius' work has been recently shown in exhibitions at the Lockwood Gallery, Kingston, NY, 6th International Drawing Triennial in Tallinn, Estonia, Alexey von Schlippe Gallery at UConn Avery Point, CT; Foundry Art Centre, St Charles, MO. Her work has been featured in Elle Decor, Columbia Journal, the New York Times, and in over 40 Art/Literary/Poetry/University publications and magazines in the USA and abroad.


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