On the end of a dock by a deep blue bay a girl sat feeding a seagull. She kicked lazily at the surf to let the swelling tide lap at the rolled cuffs of her coarse-woven pants, and she felt the cool salt breeze drying her sweat-damp hair. The sun had eased its fury and the shadows of scrubby pines and sand oaks crept over the dock.
She could almost forget how tired she was. Rising early to cook breakfast, coaxing the fire to life while the morning star still shone in the pale eastern sky. Hours bent over the garden in the late summer sun scraping thin soil into hills and rows, planting seeds for fall and winter harvest. Lugging water by buckets from the dwindling pond to moisten them. A mile from the sea the earth was so dry the dust billowed from under her hoe, caked in her mouth and scratched her eyes red. Tomorrow at dawn she would be back to work, preparing ground in the common fields for winter barley, working fast so they could plant before the rains came.
But now she was at the water’s edge, where she longed to be, with the crystal bay and the playful wind and the deep clean ocean smell, and the weary afternoon was waking into evening. She closed her eyes and imagined the tide lifting the dock from its moorings—gently, as a mother lifts her child—and carrying it softly out onto the open sea, away on peaceful rocking waves… away… anywhere.
An irritable squawk brought her back to shore. The seagull tapped its bill twice on the dock and peered at her.
“Sorry,” the girl said, and set another bite of dark bread and yellow cheese on the weathered wood. The gull snapped it up. The girl ate the last of her sandwich, and seeing that her hand was empty the gull rapped the dock again and stepped back.
“Thanks,” the seagull said, and flew away down the rocky shore.
She watched him disappear around a copse of sand oaks and turned her attention back to the sea. A dark speck had appeared on the horizon and slowly took shape out of the bluish haze. Soon she could make out a low black arc cutting through the waves, and then the sail, a faint gray square against the pale sky, and at last the wisp-thin mast and the dark figures of the men, her uncle Wilton and the boy Jeriad who helped him haul his nets. She waited until Wilton had lowered the sail and Jeriad stood poised with a coil of rope, and then she leapt to her feet to catch the coil’s end and tie it around the post of the dock.
“Ivy! Help me unload these crates!”
“I got it, Uncle Willy.” She was already swinging her legs into the low boat. Now she grabbed a rope that Jeriad had been reaching for and hauled up the wooden crate it had held submerged. She untied the crate and hefted it onto the dock while the boy watched with amusement.
“Jeriad! Quitcher gawkin’ and put this mess to right!”
“Looks like a good catch,” said Ivy. Wilton only grunted. He wouldn’t say more than he had to until the boat was unloaded and Jeriad was on his way home.
When the crates were unloaded—six of them, fish packed in seaweed just now gasping their last—Wilton watched Jeriad lope off down the beach, a pair of crates dangling from a yoke across his shoulders, and he said, almost to himself, “I hate taking the boy out so far.”
“How far’d you go?”
“Almost to the reef.”
“Ho!” Ivy looked off to the horizon as if she expected to see it rising there. “I’d like to see the reef someday.”
Wilton grunted again. “Nobody goes to the reef, starfish.” They had played out this conversation before, more times than either could count. But why not, she would ask, already rejecting the answer. Because it isn’t safe, starfish. Because our ships aren’t big enough for such deep water, because if a storm came up we couldn’t get back to land. Even the traders who sailed up and down the coast stayed inside the reef. As a child she had thought the traders lacked the courage to dare the reef. As she grew older she wondered instead why they didn’t build bigger ships. Because we can’t, Uncle Wilton would tell her, but why not?
This time Ivy let the matter drop, and Wilton sighed and looked at the crates. “Better get these fish to town.” He slid a pair of curved poles from the boat and roped a crate to each end, and they lifted the yokes onto their backs, balancing the weight as they walked.
Behind the narrow beach they followed a worn path through the trees, some of them little taller than grown men and stretching their gnarled limbs hopelessly this way and that, scrawny things stunted by the briny air. But they hung on, and maybe that was enough. Tough grasses and wiry wildflowers thrust up through the sand and stone. Here and there beside the path the pale green lichen that perched among the rocks grew to fist size in patterns of intricate lace. The sea might rise up and wipe it all away tomorrow, the lichen and flowers and the shape of the dune itself, or it might persist until Ivy’s grandchildren grew old. No one could say. In the war for the coast the sea raised fury. The land had only persistence.
The path opened out from the trees into a pebbly road that ran up a steep hill to the village of Ennatin. Farther from the shore the trees grew taller, though still in sparse clumps huddled together against the sea winds, and flowers sprouted among the grasses by the road, goldenrod and pink mallows. The first fishing huts had been built long ago by the water’s edge, but as the village grew the people moved inland for protection from the lightning tides of the great autumn storms. If the climb was too steep for all but the most ferocious tide, it was more than Ivy liked to bear, either, and on hot days, especially, she wondered if people might not rather eat their fish on the shore.
A gull fluttered ungracefully to earth in front of them and made a high-pitched caw.
“Later,” said Ivy. “You know you’ll get the trimmings. Come to the house.”
Coo, coo, pleaded the gull.
“I know. Later!”
“You shouldn’t encourage them, starfish.” Wilton nudged at the gull with his foot, but the bird leapt aside and followed them, half hopping, half fluttering. “They’re just scavengers.”
“They’re perfectly nice if you’re kind to them. Look—” She turned to the bird and cooed twice in her best imitation of gull-speech. The gull cawed back. Then he stopped walking. “My brother said you had cheese,” he said.
“We ate it all.”
“I love cheese.”
“I’ll have more tomorrow,” Ivy promised.
The gull flew away.
Uncle Wilton grimaced. “It ain’t natural.”
“Granpa says they had language before we did. He says they taught us to speak.”
“That’s just a story. Your Granpa’s got a lot of stories.”
“But some stories are true, aren’t they?”
Wilton didn’t answer. They could see the first seaward cottages of Ennatin now, stone walls half-hidden by the gray-brown trunks of sycamores that shaded them. The road flattened out to meet them.
“You spend too much time alone up at Granpa’s cottage,” Wilton said. When Ivy didn’t answer, he added, “You ought to have more friends.”
She still didn’t answer.
“Get a boyfriend, maybe.” There was a twinkle in his eye, but Ivy ignored it. He waited for a reaction.
“Jeriad has his eye on you.”
“Oh, Mother Sea,” said Ivy with disgust.
“Aye,” Wilton said with a sigh. “But he’ll toughen with age. Like the sand oaks.”
“He hasn’t got any stories.”
Wilton gave her a puzzled look.
“He doesn’t know them. He can’t tell them. What good is a man without stories?”
They walked a dozen paces before Wilton said, “Ivy, I’m serious. You’re growing up, girl. You’ll be a woman soon. —Forget Jeriad. But you have to think about these things.”
“What are you going to do when Granpa’s gone? I don’t like to say it and you don’t like to hear it, but… Well, what will you do?”
“Maybe I’ll go to sea. Maybe I’ll be a trader like my father.”
“The sea’s no place for you, starfish.”
“I can work as hard as any boy!”
Her tone stopped him. He turned around to face her. “Aye, and many a grown man, I’ll warrant. No, I don’t mean the work. Traders are… hard. They’re hard men.”
“What do you mean?”
He squinted at her, frowning a little, seeking the words he wanted. At last he said, “There’s a kindness about you, girl. I wouldn’t want the sea to take it from you.”
Ivy wanted to respond, but the sadness in her uncle’s eyes closed her mouth, and she only shrugged. After a minute she mumbled, “We ought to get these fish delivered. People’ll be wanting their suppers.”
“Aye,” said Wilton wearily. He shifted the yoke on his shoulders and resumed walking.
When the silence grew uncomfortable he said, over his shoulder, “Did I ever tell you about the first time Jeriad tried to gut a fish?”
“No, Uncle Willy,” Ivy said. So he told her, and they laughed the rest of the way through the village.
Coming in from the shimmering evening her grandfather’s cottage felt like a cave. Heavy stone walls, a swept-dirt floor, and dune grass growing on its roof all helped keep the inside cool, but with the windows shuttered against the afternoon heat the one small room and loft grew stuffy and dank. When rain kept her indoors Ivy felt as though she’d been stuffed in a sack. Even at night she hated to be inside. Firelight and a blacknut oil lamp made a poor substitute for the moon and stars. She knew all the constellations, and the stories that named them—the rowboat chasing the fish, the wild man taming the bull, the great rope that bound the heavens together. In dry weather she spread a blanket by the cottage’s eastern wall and watched the stars until the distant call of the ocean sang her to sleep.
“Let’s have the fire outside tonight, Granpa,” she said. “It’s too hot inside.”
“That it is, that it is,” he agreed. But as the twilight faded and the trunks of trees blurred into the shadows he began to shiver, and he inched his stool nearer the fire. “Put another log on, ‘lasses. Cold’s coming on early. Fall must be nigh.”
“Do you want a blanket, Granpa?”
“No, no. Not yet anyhow.”
He folded and unfolded his hands, knitting his fingers and rubbing his palms, fighting their stiffness. For longer than she could remember those hands had held the tools of a carpenter, the axe and adze, maul and froe, knife and shave, making whatever his neighbors needed—doors for their houses, stools and low tables for their meals, even small boats they rowed into the sea to fish or up the river to trade with the uplanders. But as his hands had grown knobbed and gnarled, his work had slowed and finally ended. Ivy had learned a little from him, but she didn’t have the knack. “You have to hear the wood speaking,” he told her, but she couldn’t, however hard she listened, though she could always hear the gulls and knew the weather from the sighing of the sea.
Now the garden supported them, and her plots of barley and beans in the common fields, and the fish Wilton brought. It was enough—if nothing went wrong. Watching her grandfather’s hands red in the firelight, the wrinkles and kinks of one finger blending into those of the next, she remembered Wilton’s question. Granpa had taken care of her since she was a baby. Now she took care of him. What would she do when he was gone?
“Tell me a story, Granpa,” she said.
“You know all my stories, ‘lasses.” But he needed to tell one as much as Ivy needed to hear it, and he quickly relented. “Which one do you want to hear?”
“Tell me the one about the great ships.”
He sat up a little straighter on his stool. Ivy, seated on the ground, leaned back on her hands and stretched her toes toward the fire, and closed her eyes.
“Long ago,” her grandfather began—nearly all of his stories began this way—“Long ago, before the Dark Time, before the Long Night, when men grew tall like reeds and women were light of foot, when trees gave milk like the sweetest sorghum…” He stopped. “Have I told you about the trees?”
“Yes, Granpa,” said Ivy, laughing.
“Ah, yes. Yes, I suppose I have. Well, where was I…. Long ago men learned to read the nine winds, and they built ships to catch them and ride them. They built ships to sail along the coasts, and they built bigger ships with bigger sails to span bays and harbors, and still bigger ships to sail the seas, and at last still bigger ships to cross the open ocean to distant lands. Great ships of three, then five, then nine sails, one to catch each of the winds. Ships that stretched a hundred paces from bow to stern, with masts that scraped the clouds. Great white sails that unfurled in the pure light of dawn and snapped taut in the winds of morning and shone like beacons in the moonlight. Crews of half a hundred men scrambling over the ships to make them fly.
“And oh, how they flew! The great ships cut like knives through the waters. They ran like great horses over the surface of the waves. The winds rushed to greet them in their beauty, and the storms held their distance.”
He had warmed to the story, and his voice grew stronger as he spoke. “And oh, the lands, the people they found! People strange of speech, and stranger of ways, and beautiful, and terrible. Their stories would fill a thousand nights, nay, a thousand thousand nights, could they all be told.
“The traders brought back spices with the scent of starlight and fruits sweeter than daybreak after storms. They brought back cloths woven of spiders’ thread and embroidered in pure silver. They found trees that grew a thousand feet tall, and brought back their wood that would not rot for a thousand years. And gold, and jewels as big as fists, jewels that glittered like the eyes of gods. They returned with wonders unceasing.
“Yet they were not satisfied. Their appetites once whetted could not be satisfied.
“And so they built still bigger ships, and faster. They built ships half a thousand paces long with crews of a dozen dozen, and they found more wonders, and still more, and brought them home, and piled them in great stores, and fought over them, for none could ever have enough. In time they grew impatient of the winds and built new ships fueled by fire. They stoked the fires hotter and hotter until they outshone the sun, and the ships raced through the waters not feeling the wind nor heeding its call.
“The shipbuilders and the traders said that they had tamed the sea.
“Heedless of the winds, the ships belched the smoke of their sun-fires into the air and poisoned the sky. Heedless of the currents, the ships poured their ashes into the water and poisoned the sea. Heedless of one another, the people fought over the bounty of their voyages and shed their blood into the soil and poisoned the earth.
“And Mother Sea wept for the sky and the waters and the earth. She wept for the people and for their children, and for the creatures that choked on the poisoned water and gagged on the poisoned air. But the people would not heed her cries, for they believed that they had tamed the sea and the earth and the sky.
“But Mother Sea will not be tamed.
“And so Mother Sea rose in fury and flooded the earth. She flooded the great ports where the people built their ships. She drowned the ships and she drowned the people who built them. She cast the lands so far apart that none could reach another, and she walled them off with reefs and bars so no ship could again foul her open waters, and she could heal, and once more be whole.”
He fell silent. His eyes glittered in the firelight.
“What happened to the people who built the ships? Did they all drown?” Ivy knew the answer, but her part in the story was to ask.
“Some say that even amid the sea’s fury they built ships bigger and faster than any before and sailed off the ends of the earth to the moon and the stars. Others say they sleep beneath the waters, waiting to return when the sea has forgiven them. But when that day may come, none can say.”
The fire crackled and spat. Ivy prodded a log and sparks scattered upwards into the darkness. If they could stay lit long enough, she wondered, could they go to the stars? Were the stars only sparks of a fire that never extinguished?
“But Granpa,” she asked, “what do you think really happened to them?”
Her grandfather rocked a little on his stool, thinking. “I don’t know, ‘lasses. I guess I think they died in the Flood. The Sea punished them just as she punished everybody else.”
“Maybe… maybe they’re still out there somewhere.”
“Maybe they are, ‘lasses.”
“Maybe,” she said, almost to herself. “Maybe I’ll go and find them someday.”
“Like your father.” The echo of the flames laughed on the old man’s cheeks. “You know I didn’t want your mother marrying him. I probably shouldn’t tell you that.”
Ivy smiled. He had told her that a hundred times.
“Didn’t want her marrying a trader, a man never home or a man who might carry her off to some other port no better than this one. But he was a persistent man. He didn’t take no for an answer. And your mother… well, she kept her own mind.” He chuckled. “And named her baby after the stubbornest vine in Acelia.”
For a minute he was silent. Then he asked, “Do you want me to tell you about Tenadyne the Hero?”
“No… No, that’s all right.” When Ivy was little the tales of Tenadyne had captivated her, but as she grew older they wore badly, seeming far-fetched and silly. “Tell me about my mother.”
“Your mother,” he repeated, sighing. Ivy knew the subject was painful to him, but she couldn’t bring herself to take back the request. And so he told her, again, the stories of her mother’s childhood. The time she had swum too far to sea and ridden back on a piece of driftwood. “The sea gave it to me,” she explained. The flowers she trained to grow taller and brighter in the front garden of the cottage, whose descendants still blossomed every year in her absence. Her fruited barley-cakes, whose lightness no woman in Ennatin could match. The years-long courtship with her father on his seasonal visits, he bringing her trinkets and tales from distant ports of the wealthy north, she cooking him better meals than he could remember tasting and baking sweet herbs into the hard trunchet bread he would eat on his voyages. When at last she consented to marry him they were wed in the surf, as all in Ennatin were, so the sea could bless their marriage.
But what the sea grants, the sea may take. After a month of marriage Ivy’s father sailed again and never returned, and other traders brought news that a storm had wrecked his ship in the Dragon Isles. Her mother bore the child he had given her and died a day after giving birth. If the sea blessed their marriage, said Ivy’s grandfather, Ivy herself was that blessing, for she was all that remained.
He rarely got so far in his story. Most often, as tonight, he drifted into happier memories of his daughter’s childhood, and from his voice Ivy knew the sound of her mother’s laughter.
Lost in her own thoughts Ivy didn’t realize that her grandfather had stopped speaking. He slumped forward, his head nodding to his chest. Ivy helped him to his feet. With an arm around his frail shoulders she guided him to bed and draped the blanket over him, for even in the warm air of the cottage he shivered.
She needed to bank the fire, but she stopped by the low chest that held their spare clothes and their few precious possessions. From beneath her winter cloak she drew a book of heavy vellum bound in leather and tied with rawhide cord. She carried it outside to the firelight and opened its cover on the hand-inked maps it contained, fanciful and brightly colored depictions of the lands of Acelia and Northsward and the Dragon Isles, the great archipelago that stretched eastward into the unknown. The coastlines were drawn in meticulous detail, as if someone might use the maps for navigation, but some islands and towns grew wondrous trees or terrible creatures, and gods and monsters dwelt in the uncharted seas.
She had never seen another book so beautiful. In Ennatin paper was precious, made laboriously from a coarse mash of scrap pine, and it grew heavy in the damp sea air, but this map-paper was as pale and cool as the day it was made. In Ennatin they made ink of nut-shells, a dull umber that faded with the passing years, and sometimes a violet-red from the juice of wild berries, but the brilliant blues and greens and golds of these maps were unknown to them, and the lines and letters were as black and crisp as a winter night. Ivy’s father had given it to her mother as a wedding present, purchased in some northern land at what must have been unspeakable cost. Besides a few stories, it was all that remained to Ivy of her father. As a girl she had pored over the maps, always turning the pages gently with freshly washed hands, always retying the book’s cord and wrapping it securely in layers of blankets or clothing.
When she was older, perhaps eleven or twelve, it had dawned on her that the places those maps showed were real places, however fancifully they might be drawn—real places where real people lived, like the people she knew, with stories of their own. She wondered which of them her father had known. From that day she had longed to see them herself, and longed most of all to hear their stories.
She turned the pages slowly, her eyes scanning the maps she knew so well, imagining the coastlines, the towns, the lives of the people who lived there. Before replacing the book in the chest she rubbed a few drops of blacknut oil into the leather to keep it soft, the way she might massage a child. She fell asleep with the images of those distant lands still before her eyes.