The world is filled with spirits who would take a child. The gundarram, who hide in banana trees and send out their foul breath to sicken sleeping infants. The gargar demons with red fur and black wings, who fly through the rainforest looking for naughty children to snatch. Momimo, who appears as a little lost boy crying in the mangrove swamps, begging children and adults alike for help. There are even spirits who steal the lives of babies still in their mothers’ wombs.
My aunties warned, scolded and threatened me with such tales. My cousins and I retold the stories we heard, alternately terrified and delighted. But my mother never warned me of the spirits of the jungle. The only ones she ever warned me against were the Nai-O, the beautiful swimmers, the shape-shifters of the sea.
Sometimes I can see dolphins out in the bay. A flash so quick I can hardly be sure: a silver arc, a moment of flight, the curve of a leap which drags my heart along with it. Sometimes I see a pod: two and three and more leaping and spinning together, breaking again and again out of the water into the empty air. I stare at them from the shallow water near the shore, a scoop-net in my hands. I can swim, but I will never get close to them; I can’t swim that far, and I will never be allowed in the painted boats that venture out in the deeper waters beyond the reef.
All I can do is stare.
“Dolphin blood,” some families are said to possess. It is known that the Nai-O, who delight in taking dolphin form during the day, sometimes take human form on land at dusk. There are tales of young women seduced and left carrying half-human offspring. Men are no less lucky—they are often driven hopelessly mad by an encounter.
“But why? Why would they even leave their home?” I asked once. I could not fathom it. There is no death in their undersea kingdom, no suffering. Beautiful music plays; the water is cool and refreshing; the Nai-O, ultimately neither dolphin nor human, laugh and dance under the waves. Some say they live in castles of coral and moon-pearls. Some say they eat fruit off plates of shining gold.
“They’re drawn to humans,” Auntie Tippi said simply. It was the resting hour after the mid-day meal, and we lay under the thatched palm shade of Auntie’s small courtyard, too drained by the heat to move. Even my little brother was too hot to run about, and he lay draped on the ground at my feet like a beached jelly. “They’re drawn to human songs, human music.” Auntie slapped at a gnat on her arm.
“They’re drawn to the human world because it’s different,” an older cousin guessed. “Maybe even spirits want to see new things.”
One of the littler cousins pinched another, and wails split the air. My mother spoke quietly, so quietly that perhaps only I heard. “They’re drawn to sorrow,” she said.
There is no shortage of sorrow in our world. Every few years a great storm batters the coast, tearing the roofs off our homes, flooding our fields, breaking our boats. There are unlucky men and boys caught and dragged under by the sea. There are people bitten by snakes and poison spiders, lost to the jungle; there are the rains that bring the coughing sickness and the sun which brings the prickly fever; there are shallow wounds that blacken and rot. The gundarram steal the breath of babies; and there are other spirits who take the breath of laboring women and babies together with a single hand.
There is sorrow in my household. I have always felt it. My mother goes silent and her gaze slips past me, staring at what no one else can see. She was pounding herbs and salt into a paste for dinner, but her hands have grown still. I in turn grow nervous, for Father will yell if dinner is not done to his liking.
“Mother,” I say tentatively. I cannot predict her moods. There are days that she smiles and laughs and she is with me and my brother. But other times she snaps at us; her voice goes shrill, and she bursts into tears. She sings to herself songs from her old village, but she won’t teach them to me and gets angry when she hears me singing them in my turn.
“Mother,” I say, and she might come back or she might not.
Father can’t stand to see her this way. I gently take the mortar and pestle from her hands and try to finish dinner myself. I’m not as quick or skilled as she can be, and Father will grumble when he gets home. But he would grumble anyway.
Many women have sorrows. Many women have lost children. My mother is not the only one. But she’s the only one I know who loses herself like this, who grows clumsy and forgetful even as she’s cracking open a coconut or spreading fish out on racks to dry in the sun. She is weak, I think to myself. Accursed. Why else would she lose two children still in the womb even though she wore a garland of shells and fresh sippi flowers every night? Why else would she be unlucky enough to lose my other brother to the rain-sickness when he was barely a year old? Why can’t she be like my aunties and the other women—often short-tempered and scolding yes, but also strong and stoic and always capable?
To escape her sorrow, I run to the sea. I laugh and dive and splash with the other children. We wade in the shallows with our scoop-nets, catching crabs and small fish; at low tide we dig up clams. I’m only a girl, but I can swim faster and farther and hold my breath longer than anyone, even than Rakao, the son of the chief fisherman. He and I dare each other to swim out farther and farther, until we’re nearly at the reef and it’s just the two of us, floating on our backs in the warm still water. The blue sky tilts above like a second ocean and we’re weightless, suspended between expanses. I think that my body might go transparent with water and light. I think that I might stay like this forever. I think that I might never leave.
Then I hear Rakao’s voice, crying out that there are dolphins.
I turn upright to look. We see them flashing beyond the reef, past the fleet of fishing boats. A man in one of the boats is angrily waving his arm at us—Rakao’s father–gesturing at us to head back.
So we do.
“My father is taking me out tomorrow,” Rakao boasts when we are back on shore. “He says I am old enough now to be of some real help.”
I am silent. It’s true; he is old enough. Rakao’s father first took him out to the reef when he was six, but such trips have not been regular occurrences. I see now that they will soon be; he will learn to use the lines and elaborate nets and traps that only the men can use, and he will spend every day on the reef or open ocean while I stay confined to the inner lagoon with the women and children.
He doesn’t notice my silence. He’s chattering as we walk back to our homes. He heads to the chief fisherman’s house of multiple rooms, while I walk to a small house that needs new thatching for its roof. I find my little brother crying inside, hungry, and my mother just sitting on the floor, staring blankly out through the open doorway at the sea.
They say that festival times are the riskiest for a Nai-O encounter. All the voices of a village lifted in song—the swirl of melodies, the sounds of flutes and drums—it’s like a great fire in the dark. The Nai-O hear and come. The priest always draws a protective circle around the main celebration space. The elders jealously chaperone the young maidens and youths.
Still, there are tales. There is the story of the girl who foolishly ran home in the dark by herself to fetch a belt of shells to wear. She met a Nai-O and nine months later gave birth to a child with silver hair and fingerless hands like fins. The baby gave a single high, nearly soundless cry, and then died, unable to breathe this world’s air.
And there is a story that took place in our own village, within living memory. Old Uncle Turo was once the handsomest youth of his time. The great-aunties sigh and shake their heads, remembering. He was brave and gifted, and reckless as only a young man can be. No one remembers how or why he slipped from the New Year’s festival. But when they found him the next morning it was already too late; the once-laughing boy was sitting empty-eyed in the sand with seaweed in his hair. He never spoke sense again. He drifted aimlessly about the village and sang at the sea; he grew old, rocking and mumbling to himself. He lives still: a silent bent man forgotten in corners, until someone chances to remember and tell the old story.
Don’t walk by yourself at dusk, they tell the youths and maidens. Don’t sing alone near the sea.
The aunties of the village look after my brother and me. They pull him out of the mangrove swamp and then scold me for not keeping an eye on him. They watch us alongside their own children as we play. We call all the older women of the village “Aunt,” but Auntie Tippi is our real aunt, our father’s younger sister. She reminds Mother that our small garden needs weeding, that it’s time to pull the aro roots. She tells Mother that Little Brother has outgrown all his clothes. We harvest shellfish and gather palm fronds with her family, and she and Mother weave baskets together in the late afternoon, as my brother and I play with our cousins.
Auntie Tippi’s fingers are gentle as she threads flowers through my hair for the Harvest Festival.
“Your mother wore flowers like these when we first met,” she says, smiling. “You’re already nearly as pretty.”
I feel myself go still. My mother–my tired, drab mother—was once pretty?
I’ve never heard Auntie Tippi say anything like this before. I’ve never heard anyone in the village talk of what my mother was like when she was younger, before I was born.
“Was that at the Harvest Feast?” I ask. “When she and Father first met?”
But my aunt looks as though she regrets her words. Sadness like a shadow flickers over her face, and she doesn’t say anything more.
I was playing alone on the beach. I was perhaps four years old. It was the cool time of evening when families gather to enjoy the reprieve from the heat; children splash and run in the sea as their mothers sit weaving baskets and the men mend nets or clean out traps for the next day’s fishing. The fishing boats have been dragged ashore, and their painted eyes and charms glint in the day’s last light.
I had wandered far from my friends and from any adult. Orange streaks from the falling sun lit the sky, but my feet seemed to be moving in a separate world of darkness. I watched my own feet splashing through the dimming water; I followed them, fascinated, as though I were following the appendages of some mysterious creature. And I was singing a lullaby as I went, something my mother would sometimes sing to me, a song from her own inland village.
Kirri, kirri sing the little birds.
They call for you in the dawn.
Mik, mik calls the mouse in the field.
He misses your shadow passing by.
I was singing, and was there an echo I heard, a second voice tracing those words? I sang louder and it seemed that the waves were growing stronger. That second voice sang with me, a half-beat behind, and I could hear the curiosity in its uncertain refrain. The current sucked at my legs . . .
And my mother was screaming my name, running at me; she grabbed me and swung me away from the water, up into her arms. “Don’t,” she cried. “Don’t ever sing that song, don’t sing here at night, don’t you know–”
She shook me, she was so angry, and I saw the tears glinting on her cheeks. I burst into sobs.
The Nai-O, she explained as she carried me crying back up the beach. The Nai-O, the singing dolphins, didn’t I know that they took small children?
My friends didn’t believe me.
“The Nai-O don’t take children,” Rakao said, frowning. “Or not little ones. They take the older ones, the ones who are almost grown.”
“Everyone knows that,” an older boy, Kaavo, scoffed.
“My mother said so,” I insisted.
Kaavo tapped the side of his head with two fingers, the same gesture people made when they spoke of Old Uncle Turo. “My mother says your mother is crazy,” Kaavo said.
My mother was not crazy. Not then.
Back then she still sang to me, and stroked my hair, and held me in her arms. She spoke and listened and looked at the world, even if her eyes were sometimes scared and sad.
I kicked that boy in the shins for disrespecting one of his elders.
The seasons blur–planting and harvest and sun and rains and sometimes a cool breeze off the sea, stirring the air. The Four Great Festivals slowly wheel around in their turn. There are harvest seasons for fish as well as aro and rice—there are times when the large spotted specka run, and a full moon when huge schools of berbekki throw themselves into the fishermen’s nets. Rakao tells me of all this when we meet. He tells me of the great green turtle nearly as large as a man, whom they call “Grandfather,” and who greets them every day on the reef. He talks of bright fishes with colors and patterns I’ve never seen—too clever and quick to be caught. He speaks of undersea forests of coral. He tells me of rowing past the reef into choppy water, of feeling the boat rise and fall; the lurch in the stomach, the great rolling hills and valleys of water.
Father takes Little Brother out to sea as well, although not often. He’s not a patient man, and Little Brother gets bored and restless in the confines of the boat.
Rakao meets me at the beach as the sun is setting. He tells me of the pod of dolphins he saw, closer than he’s ever seen. He gives me a piece of pink coral.
How do you tell a Nai-O from an ordinary dolphin?
The differences are subtle. Some say the Nai-O are slightly larger. Others claim that they are smaller. All agree that their skin is brighter, more silvery. They leap just a little higher in the air, cut through the water just a little more swiftly. They are curious and fearless, and often swim alongside boats. At sea, the Nai-O are almost considered good luck; they often bring good weather and fish.
Still, it’s best to keep your distance. It’s best not to draw their attention.
Rakao says he’s never seen one, but promises to tell me if he does.
When the rains fall, it’s time to light candles for the dead. On the family altar Mother places coconut shells of fresh water and jasmine flowers. We peel and cut guava fruit as an offering. We kneel and recite prayers for our relatives’ well-being and blessings: ancestors I’ve never known, my father’s parents, and their parents in turn. My father’s siblings who died in childhood, and his older brother who died before I was born. We and Auntie Tippi are all that’s left of his family.
In my mother’s village they pray for her ancestors and family, but here she makes offerings for her husband’s. She and Father’s lost children are the last names to be spoken. Her tears start before she gets to her first son’s name; she’s crying as she lights the candle for Father’s older brother, for an uncle I never knew.
The stories always leave something out. What happened to the girl with the belt of shells, after she gave birth to her Nai-O baby? What happened to the half-Nai-O children who survived, whose descendants are said to live in certain villages on the coast? Were they happy? Did their mothers love them? Did they ever long to leave their human families and go to live in the sea?
Rakao and I meet when we can. It’s hard, for we’re both busy with new duties. It’s been years since we swam in the lagoon together. Long ago, I was told to put on a maiden’s proper clothes, to leave the sea to unshirted little girls.
But we can still meet on land, for a short space each day. We can still talk and be together.
We’re almost always surrounded by others—family and friends gathered around us on the beach or working with us during chores. But there are still moments when we catch each other alone during the daily routine—moments when he still seeks me out, meeting me by my home. He spends most of his time with the other boys, of course; working with them, trading cheerful insults with them, kicking around a woven rattan-ball. But I know he speaks truly only to me. We stare at the sea and wonder aloud about the islands across the water. He tells me the stories he hears from visiting sea-traders. He talks of running away to join them. He tells me of a quarrel in his family, of something his father said. He speaks of the expectations of his father and of the expectations of all his uncles. It’s like a dozen eyes always watching you, he complains; it’s like the heat of the sun always on your back. And then suddenly we’re laughing at his imitation of a stern old uncle; we’re laughing at an auntie’s manner, and at some silly happenstance; we’re laughing at nothing at all.
I ask him to tell me of the sea.
He smiles. “You’re the one who should be on the boat each day,” he says.
Later, I watch as he swims freely in the lagoon with his friends. I think of a game that the two of us used to play. When we were children, we built a great boat out of palm fronds and branches: the greatest boat that has ever been, a deep-sea voyaging canoe with sails like white wings. We stocked that boat with coconuts, and Rakao caught a shark to tow us, and we sailed across the ocean itself to the lands beyond the sunset.
I heard two new Nai-O stories last year. It was at the Clear Moon Festival, and I heard them from a girl from M’kai village. She was visiting with her family, honored guests of one of our chief families. She told us the stories as she and her mother helped with the feast preparations: pounding roots, shelling nuts, and folding countless banana leaves around fillings of sweet rice and fruit. A story! we demanded while we worked, for it was the fee asked of all visitors. The girl smiled demurely and glanced at her mother. The woman nodded, and the girl, clearly proud to tell a story she had learned well, told her tale.
Long ago in M’kai village there lived a gentle young man. He was kind and well-liked, a good fisherman and hard worker. But he was also an odd, dreamy youth, prone to spells of silence and unexplained sadness.
One day this youth was out at sea with his brother when a large dolphin, bright silver in the sunlight, surfaced next to them. The dolphin followed as they rowed out to their fishing grounds, and fish flooded into their nets. They could scarcely drag them all into the boat.
From that day on, the dolphin visited with them. Nearly every day she appeared, leaping and swimming beside them. She swam so close that the men in the boat could reach out to touch her. But it was only the younger brother, the sad-eyed dreamer, who did so.
The dolphin brought fish, and the brothers brought home nets nearly bursting with their catch. Their mother and sisters were nearly worn to exhaustion drying, salting, and preparing for trade all that could not be eaten in the village. Their father strutted and grew fat with pride.
But even as they grew rich, the family and others worried. For the younger brother cared nothing for dried fish and money; nor for fresh fish, either. If he had been somewhat dreamy before, he was now three times worse. His eyes turned ever seaward, and they looked only to the silver dolphin that greeted him each day.
The unease grew. The boy’s older brother had married, and now the father tried to marry off the younger son as well. But the boy would not look at any of the girls that the match-makers found for him. He cared only for going to sea and singing to the dolphin from his boat, regardless of the warnings of others.
And then one day it happened. One day the boy simply swung his legs over the edge of his boat and slipped into the sea, after the dolphin who waited for him. The elder brother saw the sleek silver shape in the water; he saw the younger boy reaching for a fin; he watched the boy slide smoothly onto the dolphin’s back. The elder brother shouted and jumped into the sea after them. But the dolphin and boy skimmed through the water quicker than bird-flight. Men on other boats saw as they flashed past, and they watched as the dolphin dived deep, the boy holding onto her fin. No one ever saw them again.
There was a silence as the girl finished her story.
“No one?” said a young girl-cousin, a child of four. And she began to cry.
There was a rush of soothing words and comfort for the child, and then praise and questions for the tale-teller. The girl from M’kai flushed under the attention. “No,” she said in response to one question. “It’s the only tale like it that I know.” She paused. “Or maybe not. There’s also a story of a girl who went into the sea after the Nai-O. Some say that she had met one on the beach the night before, and afterward refused to be left behind. Some say that she was part Nai-O herself. For one dusk she took off her clothes on the beach–in front of everyone—and walked naked into the sea. There were shouts, and someone tried to go in after her. But something of the Nai-O’s speed touched her then, for she swam faster than was human, and she disappeared into the waves.”
“Do you think she’s pretty?” I later asked Rakao about that girl from M’kai. Everyone knew that she and her family were visiting because our head chief was looking for a match for his son. All through the festival people had gossiped of it. The girl was generally held to be beautiful, with her large round eyes and shining black hair.
Rakao shrugged. “She’s pretty enough.” He grinned and flicked away a wisp of my hair that had fallen into my eyes. “I hear her younger sister is even prettier.”
I’m nearly of age, and my parents should be looking for a husband for me. But my mother looks through me, lost in her own world. My father has never looked at me at all.
Sometimes I can’t sleep at night. I slip outside, then, and I sit just outside our doorway, watching the sea. The black waves glitter and heave. Beneath the roar of the surf, beneath the rhythmic pounding as familiar as the beat of my heart, I think I hear another sound. Another song. Voices. It’s not the voice that once sang my words back to me when I was a child. It’s not anything repeating human words, or trying to understand and imitate human song.
It’s something pure. Something of water and starlight and sunshine and cold. Something of deepness and vastness and height. Something I can’t grasp. I try, I concentrate, I reach out—and it fades and melts, like foam on the sea.
The Harvest Festival nears, and Auntie Tippi says she’ll help me with my festival clothes. It’s been a good season for rice; each family’s granary is full. It’s been a good season for fish: the migrating berbekki passed by the coast in schools so thick they were said to resemble black clouds beneath the water. I’m fifteen, and I will be joining the women’s chorus in the singing this year.
Rakao is nearly sixteen. I hear that his family has been consulting the match-makers for his bride. I hear that a girl from an inland village has been invited to the festival to meet him.
“Why would I wish to marry an inland girl?” Rakao says to me in disgust. For once, we’re alone together on the beach. “She won’t even know how to properly clean a fish!” he says. Has he forgotten that my mother is from an inland village? Or is he remembering it all too well? I hate this other, unknown inland girl, yet I also feel a brief, intense desire to kick Rakao in the shins.
“Her father is wealthy, and they say the kanat should be renewed.” Rakao’s voice falters. The kanat is a bond between families and clans; it’s a bond between villages, too. Each family and village is bound to others in a complicated web that only the priests and match-makers, those wise women with their marked tablets of bamboo wood, fully understand. I think of my own family’s ties, of the kanat that brought my mother and father together.
“I’m too young to marry,” Rakao says. I look into his eyes, and the panic in them is like something I would see in my little brother just a year ago—before he grew too old to run to me for comfort and a hug.
Rakao is right. He’s younger than most boys when their families start looking for a bride. What have the matchmakers said to them? Are they only trying to seal an engagement? The girl from M’kai never came to our village; they say our head chief waited too long, and her family accepted a different marriage.
“Nari,” Rakao says quietly, calling me by my name. His back is turned to me; he’s looking out at the sea. “Do you remember that game we used to play when we were kids? The one about building a great boat and sailing across the sea to the other side of the world?”
Could I ever forget? I think. I feel my heart clench.
“I still wish sometimes that I could run away like that,” he says now. We’re both quiet, and when he finally turns back to me his eyes are calm. “I wish I could sail away in that great deep-sea boat.” He smiles a little sadly, fondly. “Or that I could meet another girl like you.”
I can’t tell him what’s in my heart. What my heart wants is impossible. I blink quickly and look away.
I can’t marry him; I know that. There’s the kanat, there are blood ties, there’s tradition. Marriage within a village is discouraged. There are exceptions—Auntie Tippi was allowed to stay and marry her village sweetheart. But the match-makers pored through their charts of bloodlines and ties; the priest cast shells and prayed. A dispensation of the type given to her and her sweetheart– kind Uncle Kanoa—a dispensation granted by gods and ancestors and elders and family alike—is granted once a generation, if that.
And why would Rakao’s family seek such a dispensation for us? He is the eldest son of the chief fisherman of our village and nephew to the head chief. What am I but the daughter of a dwindled, accursed family? We may as well ask the gods for a dispensation allowing me to go to sea, to sail beyond the reef in the deep-sea boat of mine and Rakao’s imagination.
Rakao and I have never spoken of any of this. He flicks my hair and teases me. And he calls me, “Cousin,” the greeting that we all give one another in our village. The proper greeting.
My mother is always worse near the time of the Harvest Festival. This year she couldn’t even be relied on to participate in the village’s shared rice harvest; I took her place in the village fields, trying to work doubly hard under the accusing eyes. She stayed in bed, sleeping or staring blank-eyed at the wall.
But something seems to rouse her this year as the festival preparations get underway. She watches me as I sew bright beads on the shirt I mean to wear. She comes to listen when I and the other women and girls gather to practice our songs.
“Don’t go,” she tells me one day. We’re alone in the house, just her and me. With both the rice and fish harvests in, the men have been indulging in impromptu pre-festival activities; Father is drinking rice wine with the other men, and Little Brother is off with his friends. He takes every chance he can to flee our home.
I look at her in surprise, for I had thought her asleep. In the lantern light her face is a patchwork of shadow and golden-lit skin. She’s sitting up straight, and her hair is a flow of shadow, catching the light dully here and there.
“Don’t go, Nari,” she says urgently, and something in her voice reminds me of that day when I was four, when she rescued me from a suddenly threatening sea.
“Don’t listen to him,” she says, and I realize she’s weeping. “He can’t take you, he can’t keep you; it’s all a lie. You don’t belong there. I didn’t belong there. But I don’t belong here, either. Nari, you won’t leave me, don’t leave me.” Her thin arms stretch out to me. I am terrified. I promise her that I won’t leave her; I promise not to sing by the sea, I promise her anything she asks. But I don’t leave my seat to cross the room to her and comfort her. I don’t touch her at all.
I have always loved the music of our festivals. The drum-beats that pound in your blood and move your feet; the high, clear notes of the flutes, sweeter than birdsong. But the human voices are sweetest of all: the choruses interweaving their separate lines of melody, the voices rising and falling and rising again in a sound that melts away time. We rehearse in groups: the youngest children in their own choir; girls and boys separate from the women and men. But on the nights of festival we all come together, and together we sing songs of thanks and praise; together we sing old stories and legends into being. No one sings alone.
When we sing like this, I can feel myself disappearing into the music; I can lose myself completely. And I can believe that spirits from the sea would want to hear this. I can believe that they would leave their undersea paradise to listen to us, to try to share in our songs.
People from other villages trickle in, as happens every Harvest Festival. Visiting chiefs and elders, relatives and marriage prospects. I know when the inland girl and her parents arrive. Rumor travels fast, and the day after their arrival Rakao himself comes to my home to tell me.
“She’s stiff as a dried fish, Nari,” he tells me miserably. “We had to share sippi-leaf tea with everyone watching. Then they left us alone to talk. It was horrible.”
I try to say something sympathetic, but my heart is beating fierce and glad.
I wonder if he sees it; he looks at me sharply. And then he gives me the message he was sent with. “They want to visit with you this afternoon. The mother and the girl.”
I gape, and he laughs a little as he says, “They’re your blood relations, you know that, don’t you? The mother is your mother’s true-cousin. They grew up together.”
I’m still gaping at him. His smile fades. He knows what I’m thinking; he knows me so well. “It will be alright, Nari,” he says softly. “Your mother’s been doing well; she’ll be alright.”
But she’s not.
Silently I serve juice and sweet rice cakes as the woman, this Auntie Ona who I’ve only just met, struggles in conversation with my mother.
Auntie Ona seems kind. Her face is round and pleasant; she sits and talks of how glad she is to see Mother again. She says it’s a comfort to think that her daughter might marry into a village where there is at least one kinswoman, one good friend, to help guide her. She praises me, says that I am beautiful and well-mannered, and mustn’t Mother be proud?
I’m not supposed to speak unless spoken to. So I sit at the low table and sneak glances at the girl across from me: Rakao’s intended. She’s tall and skinny where her mother is soft and round; her face is long and plain. Her expression floats between vacancy and unhappiness.
“Oh?” my mother says absently in response to the other woman’s words. I can see her drifting. She seemed to behave well enough when our guests first arrived; she smiled and embraced them both. But I saw the flash of shock on Auntie Ona’s face just before she reached out to hug my mother. What did she see?
I try to look at Mother as through a stranger’s eyes. She’s dressed neatly and her hair is combed. But she’s so thin, so fragile looking. Her hair is brittle and tipped with white; she looks far older than Auntie Ona, who is the same age. And she’s shown no real warmth or interest in her cousin, whom she last saw fifteen years ago. She’s barely asked any questions of the daughter. She nods and drops polite syllables here and there, but she’s distracted; it’s as though she’s listening to a different conversation in the room, one that only she hears.
I think even the skinny girl across from me is beginning to realize that something is wrong; she seems to come out of her own distracted thoughts to look with puzzlement at my mother. I feel a kind of queasy shame in the pit of my stomach.
“Nari,” Auntie Ona says, turning to me with desperate enthusiasm. She praises my cooking and plies me with questions. I answer, feeling my face hot with embarrassment. I don’t want either of these guests here; why do I care what they think? Mother is leaning against a wall, her eyes unfocused, somewhere else entirely.
And then, suddenly, she is paying attention again. “Marriage?” she repeats, looking at Auntie Ona. Auntie had just been mentioning again her daughter’s possible betrothal to Rakao. Mother looks at the girl and tenderness fills her eyes. “Oh,” she breathes. “Do you love him?”
It’s a breach of etiquette so great that we’re all speechless.
My mother shakes her head. “I loved him,” she says. She sways a little in her seat. She says it like a song: “I loved him. I did. I did.”
I go to bed early that night.
I lie on my mat and think fiercely that I don’t mind how Mother behaves; I don’t care what those inland relations think. Perhaps Mother has even scared them away from marrying into this village. Look what happens when inland girls come here. Good, I think; Rakao will thank me. That girl should thank me, too. It’s obvious that she doesn’t want to marry Rakao and live here; it’s as plain as her face is.
But part of me wants to cry, and then to run to the house where Auntie Ona is staying and knock on the door and beg her to talk to me. Tell me, I want to say. Tell me what she was like when you knew her. Tell me about the girl you remember. Tell me who my mother used to be.
I don’t ask anyone about the last words my mother said to the girl. I know that she wasn’t talking about Father. I know that she’s never felt that way about him.
“I won’t marry her,” Rakao tells me, waiting for me outside my house in the early morning light. He knows that I’ll be the first one up during these slack days of holiday. “They can’t make me; I refuse.”
“Good,” I say, my voice low but as strong as his.
Something of the fierceness in him seems to leak out. We stand staring at each other. The sky is whitening around us. But in the early blue shadows it’s still hard to make out his eyes. I don’t know what I see there.
“Well,” he says. He sounds confused. “I just wanted to let you know. They’ll be looking for me back home. . . “
“I know,” I say. And I feel as though I’m answering a question he’s never asked.
We stand still a moment more. The moment stretches and echoes; I feel as though the world is tilting. “I—“he stops. “I’ll see you tonight,” he says finally. “At the Festival.” And then he turns and is sprinting away from me, past the row of stilt houses slowly emerging from the dawn.
Tonight. The first night of Festival. It feels a year away.
I’ve never told anyone of how I sometimes hear the ocean singing. I’ve never even told Rakao.
It’s not just at night that I hear the music. Now I sometimes catch it during the day, in whispers beneath the wind and surf. I hear it calling while I hang clothes up to dry, while I sweep the floor or prepare supper. It pulls and teases at the edge of my hearing. It’s something that can’t be held, can’t be grasped—like water itself.
But I hold still and try. I let the music into my mind, as much of it as I can. I feel it moving and spreading through me. Then human voices interrupt the song. My mother calls my name. The music’s gone, and even in the hottest sun I feel myself shivering.
I sew the last bead on my new shirt. I help carry armloads of floral offerings to the temple grounds, where the festival will be held. I help Auntie Tippi and the other women cook for the Harvest Feast, and then Auntie Tippi braids my hair.
I walk to the festival grounds with my family, holding onto Mother’s hand. Little Brother runs ahead of us, looking surprisingly grownup in his new clothes.
I take my place in the women’s choir for the first time. I catch Rakao’s eyes in the men’s choir across from me. He nods.
I’ll tell him, I’ve decided.
I’ll tell him and he’ll agree with me; he’ll think and feel exactly the same. Together we’ll find a way to win over the elders and families and everyone. It’s right, he’ll know it’s right; what we have goes beyond kanat; Rakao and I will make our own kanat. He feels it just like I do. Doesn’t he?
But there’s no time to say anything now.
Now there’s singing, melodies tossed back and forth between the separate choirs; melodies entwining, voices running over and under and around one another. There’s music rising in me and from me. Now there’s the great bonfire, and children running about giggling in the shadows. Later there will be the patterned, formal dances of the different age-groups, and later still the dancing for all ages.
I try to find Rakao after the singing, but there are so many people. New faces from outside the village, new youths as well as new young women. I find myself caught in introductions, even as the daughter of a poor low-status fisherman. I see Rakao on the other side of the fire, still playing host to the long-faced inland girl.
Two of my other friends, Auntie Tippi’s older daughters, grab my hands and pull me into a dance.
Later I see that inland girl talking to one of the visiting boys from outside our village. Rakao is standing off to the side, looking relieved.
There’s no time to talk to him alone during these days of Festival, but there’s time for my mother to cling close to me, to worry at me. “Where are you going?” she says. “Where are you?” Her thin hands clutch at me. She hasn’t gone to a Harvest Festival in years, but now she goes each night, stuck to my side. She lets go reluctantly when a boy takes my hand to dance. She pleads, “Come back soon,” as I step away to fetch a drink or fill her banana-leaf with rice.
“Stay close,” she whispers, her nails digging into my wrist. I grit my teeth. From the side of my eye, I see our priest walking a circle around the celebration space. He’s sprinkling blessed water on the ground, keeping us safe from jealous spirits of the sea.
Rakao and I glance off each other in the bright chaos, stumbling into each other and then spinning away again. He seizes my hand during one of the dances; he spins me till I’m laughing with dizziness. I see his smile before the dance line moves and turns and I’m handed to the next partner.
My friends are gossiping under the trees. Rakao’s inland girl and her family left this morning, off to prepare for their own village’s Harvest Festival. A few last visitors are expected tomorrow. That family from M’kai, the one that came to the Clear Moon Festival last year—have I heard? They’re coming back, this time with their younger daughter. And a son, too.
This last is said with a sly smile by a girl-cousin. There’s laughter.
But I’m not paying attention, because Rakao has joined our group. He settles in with ease, joining the conversation in mid-flow. Does he look at me as I look at him? Our eyes keep catching. Even as he laughs at his cousin’s joke or debates a fine point of fishing technique with a friend, his eyes keep returning to mine. It’s as though we’re holding a separate, secret conversation. I feel my heart blooming with each look.
Tomorrow night, I think. Or the day after. We’ll find the time to talk. We will.
That night I hear the music of the sea in my dreams. Larger and louder than I’ve ever heard. Even in my dreams I can’t grasp it, but dimly I sense its themes. Something about wind and waves and tempests. Something about depths and freedom and the flight of the gull. Starlight in a black night, and a far distant shore.
It’s the last night of the Harvest Festival. I’m standing with the women’s choir, waiting for the singing to begin. My cousins are chattering behind me, still gossiping of the family from M’kai. Cousin Palani saw them today; she’s nearly swooning over how handsome their young son is.
Then I see them myself. They’re taking their seats among the honored guests. I recognize the tall, broad-shouldered father with his greying hair. I recognize the graceful mother. I see the son they’ve brought with them, and the young daughter, sister to the one who told the Nai-O stories last year.
Rakao is with them, guiding them politely to their seats. I realize that the rumors he told me last year were right. The younger daughter is even prettier than her sister.
It took me so long to understand.
A name spoken, and a name misspoken. The things my mother said, and her tears over an uncle I never met. The silence in our household. The story I finally coaxed from Auntie Tippi about my mother’s first betrothal. The way my mother warned only me against the Nai-O, and never my brother.
The night that Father came home late, drunk on rice wine. I was sitting in the doorway, looking out at the sea. He almost stumbled over me. I said something, I don’t remember what—perhaps it was just his name, “Father.” And he was silent. I could feel him looking at me in the darkness–a rare thing, for he never looks at me. “You’re not mine,” he said finally, flatly, and he pushed past me to his bed.
These are the memories that finally fell together in my mind. These, and the music of the sea.
It’s surprisingly easy to run away from a Harvest Festival.
The aunties and uncles think they’re keeping watch, but they’re distracted with food and drink and dancing and talk. The circle the priest has drawn has no power over humans; it’s easy enough to step over.
It’s easy enough to run into the darkness, to flee.
I watched for as long as I could bear it. I watched Rakao talking with that M’kai girl after the singing; I saw the way the two of them made a private circle in the golden lantern-lights. I saw the way he looked at her. And the way she looked at him.
Did he ever look at me that way? Did I imagine it all?
Even if I didn’t imagine it, it’s not me that he’ll marry. I heard the gossip swirling before and after the singing. A marriage was not made last year between the older M’kai girl and the head chief’s son, but the priests are insistent that a kanat be arranged between the two villages. It’s overdue, they say.
And Rakao is the head chief’s nephew. If he marries the younger M’kai girl, the clans will still align.
From what I saw, I don’t think he’ll object.
It was easy enough for me to slip away from my mother, to wait for a moment of distraction. I fled the Harvest Festival; I ran to the sea.
My throat is burning, and pain cramps my side. I’ve run so fast, so far. I’m at the very end of our village’s strip of beach. When I turn to look back, I see the lights of the festival tiny and golden against the great night.
I pant, catching my breath.
It’s not the Nai-O’s fault, I know. It’s not their fault that some people can’t choose. It’s not their fault if some are left stranded behind, unable to make the leap, to let go fully of their human ties. The Nai-O don’t mean us harm. They’re only curious. They only want to hear our music. And to offer us their own.
I know the Nai-O never meant my mother harm.
The sun went down long ago, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be dusk. A nearly full moon lights the sky and burns a cold path across the waves. I face the sea and begin to sing.
I don’t sing the songs of the Harvest Festival, or any of the songs of my village. I sing my mother’s songs. The sad, lonely songs of her inland home.
And I know that years ago she stood on this shore and sang these same songs at the sea. She was lonely and sad. She had fallen in love with a boy at a Harvest Festival and had been pledged as his bride. But illness took him before the marriage could take place, and to preserve the kanat she was wed to his younger brother, the last of the family line. A younger brother who Auntie Tippi claims was not always so grim and rough, but who was forced to grow up and old before his time. A brother who could never take the place of the one who was lost.
The inland girl was alone among strangers, with a man she didn’t love. No one warned her of the Nai-O. She didn’t know.
But I know, and I sing her songs now, flinging my voice out over the waves. Her songs are filled with human sadness, but I realize that I myself am no longer sad. What’s burning through me is exultation. My voice rings stronger and truer than it ever has.
I sing to my father who came from the sea. I sing to my home, and all my undersea kin.
They sing back, and I begin to undress.
I take off the beaded shirt of which I was so proud. I take off the matching skirt that Auntie Tippi made for me. I take off the necklace I always wear, the necklace made from a piece of pink coral that Rakao gave me when we were ten.
I let these items fall onto the sand and I step into the sea. I think briefly of my little brother, but he’s almost grown–he doesn’t need me anymore. I wade in, and the cool water closes over my thighs. I hear a voice calling my name. My mother’s voice, crying frantically for me. But I spread my arms and kick forward, gliding into the waves.
The music of the Nai-O rises for me, and I understand it at last; it fills my head and my body and bones, catching and lifting me to the stars, to the deeps.
Copyright 2014 Vanessa Fogg.
About the Author
Vanessa Fogg dreams of selkies, dragons, and gritty cyberpunk futures from her home in western Michigan. Her fiction has appeared previously in GigaNotoSaurus, as well as in Daily Science Fiction, The Future Fire, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 4. For more, visit her website.