Sun 1 Jul 2012
by Ian McHugh
“Sing, Kio Lea! Sing!” Tapa O heard his wife urge, even over his own exhortations to his nephews and grandsons to paddle.
The young men bent their backs. Sluggishly, the big double-hulled canoe moved out of the harbour. Huddled on the platform that joined the twin hulls, a pile of shadows beneath the platform’s roof, the men’s wives tried to quiet their crying children. The sail hung slack, dyed orange by the light of the fires ashore, its turtle motif half-hidden in its folds.
Kio Lea’s voice rose at last. Tapa O put a hand to his chest, feeling the song in his heart and lungs, the pulse and breath of the world. His granddaughter’s voice belonged to the days of the ancestors, he was fond of boasting, when mankind still had one foot in the realm of the gods.
The Wind arrived, the goddess leaning into the sail as she inhaled Kio Lea’s song. The canoe surged forward. The young men gave a ragged cheer, the sail with its painted turtle filling out proudly above them.
Tapa O hauled on the tiller, bringing the canoe around. His eyes roved the heavens, mapping the tracks of the stars without needing to check the brass cylinder of the star compass at his feet. The Wind was a slight thickening of the air around the sail, distorting his view of the constellations directly overhead.
He looked back. The fires they’d set in the houses had spread to the palm trees near about. Jiro Inu and O Saa were in the midst of that conflagration, Kio Lea’s husband and her father – Tapa O’s son – stayed behind to battle her would-be kidnapper and cover the clan’s escape. Surely, they must be dead by now, had no chance of surviving against a god, even if the Sky had put aside the great part of his power to set foot upon the domain of Earth.
As Tapa O watched, one of the burning houses exploded up and out, a vast fan of sparks. Another followed. A glowing silver-blue figure raged about in the flaming ruins, then launched into the air. For a terrible instant, Tapa O thought the Sky would dive after the fleeing canoe, but he soared upwards, an ascending comet, heading for his palace in the heavens.
The Earth is our mother, Tapa O thought, watching him go, but she cannot defend us on these scattered specks of land on which we live. Grief threatened to overwhelm him. His vision blurred. Tapa O turned away.
Inside his head, behind his right ear, he felt the faint, familiar ‘rightness’ of his navigator’s sense, that told him his course to the island of his wife’s kin was true.
Nona Lupe herself was by the mast, on top of the platform roof, where Kio Lea had sat herself to sing to the Wind. Lupe was bundling a blanket of feathers and woven palm fibre fussily about Kio Lea’s shoulders. She straightened, holding the mast for balance, and looked at Tapa O.
Her face wrinkled in a sudden smile, sad and relieved. Even at a distance and in the dark, Tapa O could tell that her eyes were full of tears.
Daylight touched the sail. Tapa O looked over his left shoulder, to where the sun had crested the horizon. He took one hand off the tiller to rub his tired eyes. Through the soles of his feet, he could feel the flow of the waters beneath the double hulls as they rode evenly over the steady swell, stable with their heavy load. They were running before the Wind, still, the goddess driving them along, enthralled by Kio Lea’s song.
The stars were lost in the pale blue above. Only the Morning Star remained, not yet outshone. The palace of the Sky lingered in the firmament. One edge of the silver disc on which it rode was lit, the rest in shadow. Tapa O frowned. It seemed higher in the heavens than its proper place for this time of its cycle.
The Sky would be there, looking down on them. Tapa O could imagine him standing atop the tallest tower of his palace that pointed towards the world, his midnight face upturned. His pale eyes would be fixed on the tiny speck that bore the object of his obsession. On the Sea’s domain, Kio Lea was safe from the murderer of her husband and father. But they could not run forever.
Tapa O looked to his granddaughter. He could see her lips move, but her song no longer reached his ears. The Wind kept it for herself. Kio Lea was the only singer alive who could captivate the goddess so thoroughly.
White feathers poked through the dark strands of her hair. Tapa O chewed his lip. He wanted to get the family to Nona Lupe’s kin as fast as possible, but Kio Lea could not keep singing. Grieving as she was, he feared she would give herself over entirely to the spirit within her. If she allowed the breath of the world, her song, to take shape in her body, then she would inevitably take wing. And if that happened, the Sky would swoop down and pluck her away in an instant, and Tapa O would be powerless to stop it.
He turned his head to speak, was momentarily confused to find his O Saa’s habitual place on the running board empty. The place near Tapa O’s feet had been his son’s since the very first time O Saa accompanied him, at the age of five. O Saa had continued to sit there on every voyage they took thereafter, even as a mature man with grown children of his own.
Grief struck all over again.
Nona Lupe was perched at the near side of the canoe platform, where the cane wall screens had been left rolled up. Her eyes were on him, observing the direction of his gaze and the fall of his expression, divining from these his turns of thought.
She was already shrugging her blanket and climbing nimbly up on to the roof before Tapa O could think to call out to her. He watched her scuttle across to Kio Lea by the mast, and recalled when his wife’s legs had not been nobbled sticks, when her back had not been bent, her bosom not descended all the way to her waist. When her hair had been sleek and black, not unruly, brittle and yellow-white. Nona Lupe had been a fine woman in her day, though never so beautiful as Kio Lea, and she had always sung liked a squawking gull. A smile tugged the corners of Tapa O’s mouth.
Still able, though, he thought, watching his wife argue with their granddaughter. Still hale. And somewhat wise, now, the two of us.
Ah, but have we the strength, anymore? What lay ahead should have been O Saa’s quest, or Jiro Inu’s. Not a task for an old man like him. Tapa O’s gaze went to the turtle on the sail. How long since he had the courage to delve inside himself and immerse himself in the spirit of the navigator that resided there? How long since he had permitted himself more than the faint brush of his navigator’s sense?
Movement caught his eye, beyond the sail. A star fell from the shadowed disc of the Sky’s palace.
The sail luffed. The canoe tilted, its motion changing sharply. A face solidified in the air, cheeks puffed with alarm. The goddess hovered above the mast, staring wide-eyed at Tapa O. Then she fled.
For vital moments longer, Tapa O’s warning cry stayed strangled in his throat. Kio Lea and Nona Lupe looked up at the flapping sail in surprise. On the platform below, other clan members called out confused questions. Tapa O lurched away from the tiller, leaving the waves to carry the canoe on their back where they willed. He pointed frantically at the falling star, now pulling out of its dive and skimming above the surface of the waves.
At last, his voice came, “It is the Sky! Get her inside!”
Nona Lupe and Kio Lea looked about wildly. Tapa O scrambled up to them as nephews and grandsons tumbled from the platform into the open hulls on either side, spears and harpoons in their hands.
Growing nearer, the star resolved itself into a bright, silver-blue nimbus around a robed figure. Nona Lupe grabbed at her granddaughter, trying to drag Kio Lea to the edge of the roof. Too late, Tapa O thought. He planted himself in front of Kio Lea, painfully conscious that he had no weapon in his hand. Nona Lupe gave her a further shove back and stood up beside her husband.
“I will drown before I let him have me,” Tapa O heard his granddaughter spit.
And then the Sky towered beside them, the silver fringe of his robe trailing level with Tapa O’s chest, his starlit hair billowing around. Tapa O stared up into the god’s cold blue gaze and dark, scowling features. With a sneer, the Sky opened his fingers and flung something that clattered on the roof at Tapa O’s feet. Nona Lupe wailed. It was the shards of two broken spears.
“Wherever you run, Kio Lea,” the Sky said, “I will come and take you. Submit to me.”
“She will be safe from you in the domain of our mother, the Earth,” said Tapa O. The god bared his teeth. He held himself clear of the Sea’s domain, Tapa O realised. The Sky had set aside none of his power this time. He could kill them with a flick of his hand.
The Sky raised his hand now. Tapa O’s chest hurt.
He felt the presence rushing up from below a heartbeat before the surging waters cannoned into the bottom of the canoe. Women and children screamed as the vessel was bounced fully clear of the waves and crashed back down again. A column of spray burst up into the air, twisting and spinning to resolve itself into a second gigantic figure.
“This is not your domain,” said the Sea, with cold calm. “You may not intrude here.”
The Sky snarled. Tapa O thought he would lunge at his brother, that they would be trapped and crushed between the clashing gods.
But the Sky retreated.
“I will have my way!” he cried, accelerating into the distance. Then he was a shooting star once more, arcing back up to his palace in the firmament.
Tapa O fell to his knees before the Sea and bowed, his legs about to give way anyway. Nona Lupe lowered herself more slowly.
Tapa O felt the weight of the god’s gaze.
“Father of us all,” he said, daring to raise his head, “help me to save my granddaughter from your brother the Sky.”
The Sea’s hair and beard rippled in waves that crashed white upon his shoulders and chest. “So long as your courage holds, Tapa O,” said the Sea, “I will not permit him to assault you in my domain. But it is your strength and hers, Navigator, that will decide Kio Lea’s fate.”
“I am old,” said Tapa O, “and at the end of my strength.”
“Courage, Navigator,” said the Sea, already sinking.
Then he was gone.
Tapa O remained kneeling, too drained to stand. Nona Lupe watched him, the skin around her pursed lips a nest of wrinkles.
“Must it be you?” she asked.
“It must,” he replied. Though I fear I do not have the strength, added the traitor voice inside. He picked up the broken head of O Saa’s spear. “O Saa and Jiro Inu are dead.”
“Take some of the young men with you,” she urged.
He shook his head. Meeting her eye, there was no need to say that he did not know if he could bring them back.
“But you cannot alone!”
“I will save myself,” another voice interrupted.
A strong hand gripped under Tapa O’s arm, lifting him. He looked into Kio Lea’s dark eyes. The breeze pulled black hair and white feathers across her cheek.
“You can hold the Wind,” he said, “but you have not the Navigator’s skill to find your way.”
He caught Nona Lupe’s hand, balancing her as she rose too, and looked at them, the pride of his heart and the love of his life, side by side. The one in the high flush of youth’s power and beauty, the other with a lifetime’s wisdom and experience and an intimate understanding of him. That he must choose the one over the other was a crushing weight. Kio Lea met his stare with clear eyes, Nona Lupe’s were misted with tears.
Tapa O had to look away.
Out over the horizon, he spied a tinge of green on the underside of the scattered clouds – the reflection of an island, their destination.
Waves curled, hissing, over the island’s barrier reef. Within, the waters of the lagoon lapped serenely at the beach. Tapa O walked with his wife’s brother, Te Amoa, past ranks of beached canoes. Tapa O’s canoe was anchored out on the lagoon, as close to the reef as was prudent, with Kio Lea still aboard.
They went slowly, in deference to Te Amoa’s crippled leg. He had walked with a stick since before Tapa O had known him. But he had not always had liver spots on a bald scalp, nor had his skin sagged from muscles gone ropy-thin. And neither had mine, thought Tapa O.
They shuffled past big double-hull trading canoes like Tapa O’s and long outrigger war canoes, broad enough to be paddled by double rows of warriors with archers standing in between.
“Will they be safe here?” asked Te Amoa.
Would Te Amoa and his clan be safe with Tapa O’s family here, was what he really meant, thought Tapa O. He answered, “It is Kio Lea he wants.”
“The Sky is petulant,” said his brother-in-law, “and prone to fits of temper.”
“I cannot take them with me,” said Tapa O. “I regret that I must return responsibility for Nona Lupe and the children of her blood to you, but I must. Take them home, if they wish it. The danger there has passed.”
Te Amoa stuck out his bottom lip. His eyes roved the untidy ranks of fishing and racing canoes further up the beach. He gave a dissatisfied grunt and gestured with his stick that they should turn between the crowded boats. “Defying gods is a young man’s game,” he said. “Even you cannot outrun the Sky forever.”
“Not forever,” said Tapa O, examining the vessels ahead of them. “On the mainland Kio Lea will be safe under the Earth’s protection. The Sky will not be able to reach her there.”
Te Amoa halted and looked at him gravely. “No-one has made that journey in our lifetimes. Perhaps you will reach the dominion of Earth, travelling with the currents. But can you return?”
Tapa O lifted his chin, holding his brother-in-law’s gaze.
Te Amoa continued to stare at him for a time in silence, then nodded. “Does Lupe know that this is your plan?”
Tapa O felt a small, acute pain behind his breastbone. “She does.”
Te Amoa puffed his cheeks and turned to resume walking. Tapa O thought he stabbed his walking stick into the sand with more force than was strictly necessary.
“Here. This is the best I can offer you.”
Tapa O looked the vessel over, a narrow-hulled outrigger racing canoe that would make several times the speed of Tapa O’s double-hull trader. It would be hard in such a small craft, over such a distance, but the canoe would be manageable between the two of them.
“Thank you, brother,” he said.
Parting from Nona Lupe was hard, though they said little. She was kneading cassava flour into dough when he came to tell her it was time. Her eyes darted about, following the children playing outside her brother’s house and avoiding looking at Tapa O for long.
“Come back to me,” she said.
He wanted to promise, couldn’t, and so remained silent, watching the motion of her hands, turning, smacking, pressing.
“I don’t want to grow old alone,” she added.
He laughed, briefly. At length, he said, “I will try.”
Nona Lupe bowed her head, falling still for a moment, eyes closed, then went on with her kneading.
Sunset painted the western horizon pink. Tapa O marked the places of the early stars. Their course pointed them towards the part of the horizon where the constellation of the turtle was just rising. He hoped it was a good omen. His navigator’s sense was centred above his right eye, where it should be when they were tracking wide to starboard of the departing sun. The brass cylinder of his star compass rested across his thighs, mapping the islands of his people along the tracks of the stars. Somewhere, far beyond the world it recorded, lay the great realm of the Earth.
Kio Lea faced him, her back to the mast. Her hair was all black. Across her lap, her hands resting softly on the broken shafts, were the spear heads of her father and husband, all she had left of them.
She had barely spoken in the two days and nights since they left their family behind. Tapa O refused to let her sing, with the canoe already rushing along faster than the ocean current, its outrigger high, barely slicing the top of the swell. Sitting as she was now, her head turned to the side, his granddaughter’s profile and the lines of her neck reminded him acutely of Nona Lupe in her youth.
He had a sudden, powerful memory of her, striking the same pose, sitting in another racing canoe in the light of another sunset, many years before. He couldn’t recall the occasion. Taking her home, he thought, from the island of her family to his.
He came abruptly back to the present. Kio Lea had spoken. “What?”
“Will the Sky pursue us still?” she said, with the last of the sun lighting a dull halo around her head.
“He will,” said Tapa O, and felt the weight of those words press down. “Perhaps you were a passing fancy. But now we have defied him and his brother the Sea has humiliated him. He will not abide that.”
She nodded, looking away once more, and Tapa O said, “You should sleep. I will need you to take the tiller later, while I rest.”
“You should let me sing”
He shook his head. “No.” It came out sharper than he’d intended. “Grief brings the spirits within us closer to the surface. If you gave yourself to the albatross…”
“Do you think I’m a fool?” she snapped, glaring at him. Her fingers tightened around the broken spears.
“You almost sang too long on the way to your grandmother’s kin,” he said, seeking refuge in sternness.
“I know myself better than that,” she said. “I’m not a child.”
He subsided, conceding the point. Ah, granddaughter, he thought, when you have held your child, their body no longer than your forearm and hand, and then years later, held their child, then you will understand. When you have seen, too, your own father and brother, in grief, embrace the spirit within them and never return… His father had been near the end of his long life when Tapa O’s mother passed away, and his father forsook the human world. But his brother had been barely older than Kio Lea, the death of his wife in childbirth too much to bear. Kio Lea’s gaze strayed up, to where a fat silver crescent marked the location of the Sky’s palace. Tapa O wondered what mix of anger and hate, sadness and fear lay behind the mask of her face.
He tried to remember the last time he’d climbed a coconut palm. Not since O Saa was a boy, he thought, and he’d shown him how.
He’d chosen a tree that leaned well out over the beach, so that much of his climb was not much steeper than horizontal and if he did slip he would hopefully not break his neck. The ground still seemed a long way down. His arms ached and his thighs were chafed.
He reached the crown of the tree and, with some relief, took his knife from between his teeth and started to saw at the stalks of the coconuts. The first one fell onto the sand with a dull thud.
Tapa O peered through the tree’s leaves. Kio Lea had the canoe back out near the reef, tacking back and forth on a short stretch and keep her eyes on the palace of the Sky low in the east. The island was one of a chain of atolls too small and distant from the settled parts of the archipelago to be inhabited.
Two more coconuts hit the ground.
They were nearing the end of the world that Tapa O knew, these atolls the last of the islands marked along the tracks of his star compass.
Another coconut thumped down.
A snatch of sound caught his ear. A voice. He sat up straight in alarm. Kio Lea was sailing the canoe directly for the beach. Tapa O could see the rippling air around the sail that meant she had called the Wind.
He looked around. A star fell from the palace of the Sky.
No time to climb down. Tapa O lay on his belly and slithered off the side of the trunk. He dangled a moment, then gritting his teeth in anticipation, let himself drop.
He landed well, but stumbled and twisted his ankle on one of the fallen coconuts.
Briefly, he considered trying to gather them up. But the shooting star was pulling out of its dive. If the Sky caught Tapa O ashore, the Sea would not protect him.
He hobbled for the water, stumbled in and lost his footing knee deep. He came back up gasping and floundered on, waist deep and then chest, Kio Lea bearing down in the canoe. She stood with one arm raised, a broken spear in her hand.
Tapa O’s feet no longer reached the lagoon floor.
The Sky soared overhead, arcing back up with a thunderclap that seemed to tear the heavens in two.
Tapa O caught the side of the canoe, was buffeted as the Wind pushed it over the top of him. The hull smacked painfully against his face.
Kio Lea gripped his arms above the elbows and hauled. Tapa O pushed himself up with what strength he had. He teetered, half in and half out of the canoe, then slithered suddenly over the side and into the bottom of the hull.
Kio Lea sat him up against the mast while he wiped saltwater from his face and coughed. His hands shook.
“No more heroics,” she said. “We’ll make do with what we have.”
Tapa O watched the shooting star loop back towards the disc of the Sky’s palace. The waters of the lagoon remained undisturbed. He tried to raise himself, to take his place at the canoe’s tiller. Kio Lea held him down as easily as if he were a child. Gently, she tipped him sideways to lie beneath the sail.
“Your strength and mine, grandfather,” she said.
Her song was in his ears as unconsciousness claimed him.
He dreamed that he rode the music of the world, the perfect harmony of creation. The song rose, out of the deep currents of the ocean, soaring above the waves, and he was unable to follow. He was left in darkness, tossed and battered and unable to find his way.
Tapa O awoke in daylight, under clear heavens. He lay awhile, looking up into the pale blue, feeling the familiar roll of the canoe, listening to rush of the breeze, the gentle creak and knock of the rigging, smelling the sea.
A foot rested near his head. Tapa O frowned. It was an odd colour – pale, more grey than tan – the toes long and webbed. Full alertness crashed in.
Kio Lea still sat at the tiller. Her hair was almost completely gone to white feathers. Downy feathers dotted her cheeks too, though her face was still human.
He surged upright, then had to grab at the side of the canoe as his head spun. “Stop!” he cried. “Stop it, you fool!”
“Sit down,” she said, coolly.
Tapa O had little choice in the matter. His back bumped heavily against the mast. Kio Lea’s eyes were dark, bagged with fatigue.
“I stopped singing a while ago,” she added. “It was probably the change back to tacking that woke you.”
“How long did I sleep?” he asked, rubbing his eyes. He twisted his neck to find the position of the sun.
“My turn, now,” said Kio Lea.
He took the tiller as she curled up at the bottom of the hull, sat watching her in wonder as the feathers slowly receded. She opened her eyes, looking up at him, when he reached over her to shift the sail across to the opposite tack.
Licking his cracked lips just made them sting. Tapa O took a sip from the water skin. They’d passed other islands, not marked on his star compass, one a forested volcanic cone sure to have fresh water. He hadn’t dared put in again to try and replenish their supplies.
The heavens remained clear, had barely been shrouded since they began their journey. Tapa O wondered if it was the Sea’s doing, if he was holding in check the Storm, the wild brother of the Wind. The Sea is our stern Father, Tapa O remembered his own father telling him, he revels in our courage and our perseverance. He is proud when our triumphs are our own.
Just fortune, he said to himself now. And a good time of year to be sailing. But it was a curse as well as a blessing, for they’d had no opportunity to catch fresh water from rain. And so Tapa O sipped when he wanted to gulp, and hunger gnawed at his belly while they hoarded their last few coconuts and packets of pork jerky.
“What will you do, grandfather,” Kio Lea said, not looking at him, “after we have outrun the Sky and I am safe?”
He smiled, but sadly, thinking of Nona Lupe. “It does not matter.”
Her gaze remained distant, fixed on some point far out over the water. Her hands and feet, unshaded by her blanket, were red, her nose and cheeks peeling. “I would not have you die for me as well. I would not have grandmother left alone for my sake.”
“Not just for your sake,” he said. “For O Saa, my son, and Jiro Inu, your husband, I will not bow to their killer.” The words came out more fiercely than he’d intended.
Her eyes glistened, but she nodded.
After a time, she said, “It will never be safe for me to fly again.”
“No,” he said, softly. “But a life without is still worth living.”
In his mind’s eye, he saw Nona Lupe, young, with O Saa a babe on her hip. Saw her as he’d left her, bent and old, kneading dough. O Saa, running through the waves with his gangling half-grown daughter on his shoulders. A life worth living, Tapa O thought.
He smiled lopsidedly at Kio Lea. Her nostrils flared, emotion only just in check.
“I miss Inu.”
“Ai,” he said. “Ai.”
He spied a quartet of seabirds, wings outstretched to lean on the breeze, and noted the distinctive crab-claw silhouette of their tails. But their chests were speckled brown, not pure white, marking them as juveniles with no nests to mind, and so free to wander far from land.
They had long passed the limit of Tapa O’s world. But the star tracks still rolled across the firmament, still told him which way the world turned and where the great domain of Earth, the mainland, was known to lie.
The sail hauled the canoe along the stiff breeze in pursuit of the sun, fast enough to gain, faster than the turning of the world.
Kio Lea was asleep by the mast. Her brow was furrowed, even at rest, her fists clenched. Aloud, Tapa O said to her, “Ah, granddaughter, perhaps you will find happiness again when you are safe in the realm of our Mother. Perhaps there is another man for you, as fine and brave as your Jiro Inu.”
He glanced up at the firmament to check the tracks of the stars.
A star fell from the constellation of the turtle.
Tapa O felt a moment’s dread, thinking it was the Sky returning. But the star plummeted straight down, to strike the water without a splash. Tapa O could see the glow of it, floating just beneath the surface, whenever the swell pushed the canoe upward.
“Kio Lea!” he said, shaking her. “A fallen star. I watched it fall.”
He grinned at her as she pushed herself up to sit. Tapa O had seen such a thing only once in his life, on a journey with O Saa when his son was a young man. “It is over there.”
Kio Lea stood, holding onto the mast, and looked where he pointed. “Another,” she said.
“Two in one night,” he gasped.
“Three.” All from the turtle. Tapa O’s face fell, a sudden coldness coming over him.
They watched as the stars fell close beside each other.
“Look,” said Kio Lea, her voice barely more than a breath.
A swath of stars fell behind the first three. A dark gash was left across the track from which they had fallen, where the constellation of the turtle, the great navigator, had been.
More stars fell, great sheeting lines of them. All around the canoe, all over the sea, they fell. Tapa O knew what was happening long before he found the words to say.
“It is the Sky. He is cutting them down.”
He groped for Kio Lea’s hand, felt her strong young fingers clasp tightly around his knuckles. They watched as the Sky, unseen but for the results of his passing, ranged back and forth across the heavens until all above was dark, except the bright baleful disc of his palace, and the waters shone silver with fallen stars.
Already, the first to fall were fading.
Kio Lea wept. Tapa O shook his head, his eyes hot. The sail flapped, forgotten. The tiller thumped on the side of the canoe.
Quietly, the Sea rose beside them. He scooped up dying stars, his head bowed over them. They lay curled in his great palms, tiny limbs tucked around them, pulsing faintly.
“What cost, for our defiance?” choked Tapa O. He rounded on the Sea. “I have killed the stars! I have killed my people. How will they find their way?”
He picked up his star compass, useless, and held it for the god to see. With a shout, he flung it far out across the water. The brass cylinder spun end over end before it struck with a resounding smack.
The Sea raised his head. His face was calm, but the eyes that looked at Tapa O were deathly dark. “Stars are born and stars die,” he said. He looked up at the empty sweep of the heavens. “The constellations you have followed in your lifetime, Tapa O, are not the same as those your forebears saw. That is why every Navigator must make his own compass. In a handful of generations, the skies will begin to be bright again.
“And there are other ways to mark the turning of the world, as you well know.”
He paused, lowering his gaze again before adding, “But this… this is a crime.”
“If he will do this,” said Kio Lea, “then it is a far smaller thing for him to descend to the islands once more and slaughter our kin.”
The Sea looked at her. The waters of his beard and hair were a dark, cold grey. “If he comes, I will meet him,” growled the Sea. “You must not succumb. You must persist in your quest.”
“How?” demanded Tapa O. “I cannot find the way.”
The Sea regarded him levelly. “It is within you, Navigator.”
Tapa O’s throat and chest constricted. He could feel nothing of his navigator’s sense, the gift of the turtle that resided inside him. “I have not the strength.” He could see, in the periphery of his vision, Kio Lea watching him but refused to look at her.
“Please,” she said to the god. “Please, help us.”
The Sea continued to stare at Tapa O, before turning his eyes to Kio Lea. A strange expression came over his face.
“The domain of the Sky is distant and cold,” the Sea said. “One so bright as you, daughter, would quickly fade and perish there, a flower deprived of light and water.” The god reached out to brush her lips with a fingertip. Kio Lea gasped. Softly, he added, “Would that your song could fill the halls of my own palace.”
His hand lingered a moment near her face, before he withdrew it. “But you would find my home as suffocating as the Sky’s is airless.”
The Sea seemed to withdraw into himself for a while, looking down at the dying stars in his hands. At length, he nodded. “Ai, daughter,” he said, heavily, “I will help you.”
He reached out, and it seemed that his arm both remained its normal length and stretched out to the horizon. Or else, the perspective of the world shifted to accommodate his desire. When he brought his hand back around for them to see, it held another star, larger and brighter than the rest.
He handed it to Kio Lea. “It is the Morning Star,” he said. “Sing to it. It will guide you until dawn.”
Kio Lea cupped the tiny body in both her hands. Her mouth opened, but she did not sing immediately. She looked up at Tapa O, her expression tortured. “It will die,” she said, “as with all the rest.”
When Tapa O turned back to the Sea, the god was already gone. He was quiet for a time, watching the fallen stars adrift beneath the surface of the water. Some were barely more than embers, now. “Sing, Kio Lea,” he said. “Let us do as our Father bids.”
She nodded. Kio Lea carried the star forward, and knelt with it in the point of the hull. Tapa O caught the faint murmur of her song as she bowed her head close to her cupped hands, her voice so full of sorrow and hope that he thought his heart might crack in two. The star’s light grew brighter.
A breeze cooled his back and he looked up to catch the slight thickening of the air around the sail that meant the Wind had come.
Kio Lea lifted her hands, her voice rising at the same time. Tapa O’s heart lifted with the bittersweet melody, even though the song was not for him. The Morning Star rose from Kio Lea’s palm to bob ahead of the canoe. It began to move away. Tapa O leaned on the tiller and let out the lines for the sail to swing wide, with the Wind pushing them along from behind. Kio Lea sang, and the star, the Wind and Tapa O were captives in her spell.
Through the night they followed the star, driving over waters carpeted in its dying kin. Kio Lea never rested, only pausing now and then to sip from a water skin and refresh her throat. The Sky’s palace hung cold and unforgiving above, no longer tracing its usual path across the heavens, that they might have followed.
Near dawn, the darkness below was as complete as that above. Only the Morning Star still glowed, and it was failing. Kio Lea’s hair was white with feathers. As the light of the sun lit the peaks of the ocean swell, the star dipped lower and lower, until at last it plopped sadly into the water.
Tapa O let the sail fall slack, ducking underneath while it luffed. He leaned over the side of the canoe, reaching into the cold water to scoop up the tiny body. He held the star against his chest, offering what comfort he could from the warmth of his skin and the beat of his heart, until it lay inert and no longer glowed. He recalled his brother, cradling his stillborn son the same way. He remembered how tightly he’d held O Saa, afterwards.
Gently, Tapa O lay the star back in the water and watched it sink from sight.
“Thank you,” he said.
Kio Lea wept.
He squeezed her shoulder, standing, and went back to the tiller. The Wind circled them, buffeting the canoe. “No more today,” he said to the goddess. He brought the canoe around, hauling on the rigging, as the prevailing breeze resumed.
“We can mark our course by the sun for today,” he said to Kio Lea. “It, at least, is beyond even the Sky’s power to harm.”
“Will a day get us there?” she asked.
He hesitated before answering. Within, he felt nothing of his navigator’s sense. “I do not believe so.”
“What will we do then?”
He shook his head, because he knew the answer, and dreaded it.
The Sea returned to them after sunset. Kio Lea curled beneath the mast in exhausted sleep, the spirit within her slowly releasing its hold. Tapa O had taken down the sail. He could feel the current beneath the hull, knew that it carried them adrift of their destination, but at least it did not drive them back.
“I have not the strength,” he said.
“Then all that has been lost will be for nothing, and the Sky will have his way,” said the Sea. “You know what you must do.”
He could meet the god’s eyes only for a moment. He nodded.
“Grandfather, what is it?” said Kio Lea, sitting up.
Tapa O began to strip off his clothes. He looked up at the Sky’s palace, out of its proper place and half in light, half in darkness. “Will you watch over her while she is alone?”
“I will,” said the Sea.
“Alone?” Kio Lea stood. “Why will I be alone?”
The breeze raised goosebumps on his bare skin. Tapa O looked down at his wizened body, the skin that sagged from limbs gone sinewy and thin, wrinkling around knobby, swollen joints. Still hale, he told himself. “Have you the strength to sing again?”
Kio Lea nodded.
“I must give myself to the navigator,” he said. She started to speak, to refuse, but he continued, “When I come back up, cast me a rope. I will guide us. Sing for as long as you are able. When you must rest, take down the sail. The turning of the world will not carry us too far from our course.
“Be brave,” he said.
He dived over the side of the canoe. The water was cold, almost causing him to gasp out his breath. He drifted, face down, with darkness above and below. He had thought the Sea would help him, give him strength. He could feel the god near at hand, but all that embraced him was cold water. His lungs burned. Suppressing a stab of panic, Tapa O sought out his navigator’s sense. He found a faint, guttering spark. He gathered it to him, let down the barriers he’d kept in place for most of his life.
The spark grew grew, strengthened, encompassed him.
He felt his skin harden. His bones fused and stretched and reshaped themselves. The chill of the water receded. His navigator’s sense burned in his mind and he knew exactly where he lay along the axis of the world, along its ever-turning girth and in the flow of its waters. Other bright loci burned too: the island of his birth, the other where he had left behind his wife. And in the opposite direction, not so very far now, lay the great realm of the Earth, his destination, the vast shore on which the ocean beat its pulse, where he had never before been.
He sculled the water with powerful flippers and rose back to the surface, opening his nostrils to spray salty mist and fill his lungs. The female aboard the canoe gave a cry, leaning over the side. Granddaughter, he knew, though he could not remember her name. He could not interpret her face or her words. He opened his beak to catch the rope she threw, and dove once again beneath the surface.
He swam ahead, angling across the ocean’s current. For a moment, the rope pulled taught, the weight of the canoe holding him back. Then the drag eased, as his granddaughter began to sing and the Wind filled the vessel’s sail.
He swam until the canoe became heavy again, time for his granddaughter to rest. Leaving her to drift, he hunted cuttlefish while she slept, then returned and once more took the rope in his beak. He floated, inert and only half aware, exhausted, until she awoke and it was time to begin again.
He became aware of a rush and crash, a rolling beat that shivered through his shell and bones. He came up, straining to lift his tired head as high above the surface as he could. Dark green peaks spanned the horizon, that did not rise and fall but remained fixed and constant. The stillness of it filled his navigator’s sense.
Land. The realm of Earth.
He heard a cry from behind, his granddaughter, standing to point, black hair and white feathers whipping about her face. He leapt ahead, diving beneath the swell. His granddaughter’s song swelled with joy, filling the water as well as the air. The canoe rode fast behind him as he skimmed beneath the surface, driving his weary, aching muscles for one last effort.
Suddenly, he was wrenched backwards.
He struggled, confused, as he was towed away from the shore. He spun, paddling frantically, saw the hull of the canoe lift clear of the water and was dragged up after it. Fighting to keep his grip, he bit too hard and severed the rope. He lunged after the trailing end but it eluded him and vanished above the surface. He pursued, despairing.
His head broke the waves. The Sky bore the canoe upwards. His granddaughter clung to the mast. He saw her raise a broken spear and plunge it into the forearm of the god.
The Sky bellowed in rage and almost dropped the canoe. His granddaughter flung a second broken spear at the god’s face and jumped.
Then a geyser of rage was boiling up from the depths, exploding through the surface of the waves. It bore him with it high into the air. He spun, tumbling, and saw the Sea knock the canoe from the Sky’s grasp. He saw the Wind catch his granddaughter as she fell, bearing her towards the shore and away from the wrestling gods. But the Sky caught the Wind’s tail and hurled her away across the ocean. His granddaughter tumbled down to splash in the water.
The waves came up to meet him, the impact hard enough to daze. He drifted, not knowing up from down. Gradually, his mind cleared. His navigator’s sense reasserted itself.
She was treading water not far from him. Echoes of the battle between the Sea and the Sky boomed through the ocean, moving gradually away from the land.
He came up beside her and she flung her arms across his shell.
Slowly, wearily, he set out towards shore. His granddaughter’s weight bore him down. Barely, he kept her above the water. He did not think he had the strength to carry her all the way.
Then he was in the ebb and flux of the tide. The water became cloudy. He felt his granddaughter’s grip loosen, her weight leave him. Panicked, he tried to turn. A breaker picked him up and drove him onto the beach. The underside of his shell struck sand, and then he was crawling up out of the waves.
Hands fluttered over him, his head, his shell, searching for a place to grip and help haul him up onto dry land. His granddaughter. She had ridden the waves ashore by herself.
He stopped at the high tide line, unable to go further.
For a time he lay, his eyes closed, listening to the flat, thin sounds above the water – the faint hum of the breeze, the hiss of the waves, gulls whistling and crying, his granddaughter’s sobbing. He wondered if he had the strength to bring himself back. He wondered how.
My name, he thought, then with an effort: My name is Tapa O. I am Navigator of my clan. This is Kio Lea, my granddaughter, who weeps over me now. I am husband to Nona Lupe.
He focused on her, recalling her face, as it once was and as it was now. Wanting to be with her. He felt the change come upon him, his bones and senses shifting, but it was weak. Tapa O cried out as soon as he had a human voice to do so.
He tried to turn himself, but his limbs felt clumsy and stupid. His back would not bend, a weight pressing down on his ribs. He lay face down in the sand.
“Grandfather!” Kio Lea’s hands scrabbled under his shoulder and hip. She heaved him over.
He flailed about helplessly, until he saw that below his elbows his arms were flippers, his feet the same. A turtle’s shell still held his spine rigid. Tapa O let his arms and head fall back on the sand. The tide washed up beneath him, cooling.
Drops fell on his face. One touched his lips, salty. Not rain. And not sea spray, either. Kio Lea wiped her cheeks with her fingers, then touched his. Her other hand propped his head.
He gave her a tired smile. “My strength and yours.”
“But not all your strength,” she said. “Not all. You still have to get back to grandmother.”
“Ai,” he breathed.
A shadow fell across them. Tapa O looked up.
The goddess wore robes the colour of soil and moss, her skin like pale, smooth tree bark. Long tresses of leafy vines and flowers grew from her scalp. Her face was kind and terrible, beautiful and fearsome as she gazed out to the ocean horizon. A dark stain, shot with lightning, spread between the water and the heavens, where the battle between the Sea and the Sky still raged.
“Mother of us all,” Tapa O whispered.
The Earth looked down at him with eyes like the depths of the world. She hitched her skirts and knelt beside him.
“You have done well, Navigator,” she said, her voice full of the richness of deep soil. “And you, daughter of the Wind.” She touched her fingertips to Kio Lea’s brow, a benediction, then placed her palm on Tapa O’s chest. Warmth like strong spirit spread through him.
“Rest, Navigator. Heal.”
He felt his eyelids drooping.
He drifted away. And back…
Kio Lea held him a long time, hugging fiercely.
“Goodbye,” she said. “Goodbye.”
The pulse in her neck pattered against his cheek. His mouth shaped a reply, but he wasn’t certain he made any sound. “I love you.”
Gentle hands lifted him. The people of the Earth’s realm carried him back to his vessel. He looked up at the sail and rigging against pale fragments of cloud. A cloak of animal hide was laid over him.
“Take him home,” said the Sea.
The Wind whispered to him as she leaned into the sail, a pale echo of Kio Lea’s song. Tapa O looked up into darkness, only the crescent of the Sky’s palace lighting the firmament. He remembered the star’s failing pulse against his skin.
He licked parched lips and squeezed his eyes shut against the sun. He groped for a water skin, clumsy with flippers, still, but now they articulated somewhat at knuckles and wrists. Water dribbled down his chin. He pulled up the cloak to shade his face.
The canoe jolted, its movement suddenly disjointed from the steady pulse of the waves. The cloak was pulled back. Black silhouettes gathered in front of the sun. Voices exclaimed in a sudden confusion of sound.
One stood out: “Husband, you have come back!”
Someone got hold of the canoe’s sail and hauled it over to make an awning. Tapa O blinked up at his wife’s weathered face. Reached, unthinking, and found a hand at the end of his arm. He lifted his head, and found that his spine flexed. There was webbing between his fingers, still, almost to the tips. Perhaps he would remain marked, at least that much.
Nona Lupe pushed him back. “Rest.”
She smiled, her cheeks creasing even as her forehead remained deeply etched with lines of worry, her eyes all but disappearing among the wrinkles.
She was beautiful.
Copyright 2012 Ian McHugh
Ian McHugh is a graduate of Clarion West. His previous publications include stories in Asimov’s, Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Daily SF. He lives in Canberra, Australia, but would rather be closer to the sea. Links to read or hear his published stories free online can be found at ianmchugh.wordpress.com