Ivy woke to a fresh breeze and the smell of fish frying. The unexpected chill made her want to hunker down under the quilt, but the aroma snapped her wide awake.
The fireplace was cold and dark, but the door was open, and morning light streamed through, colored by wisps of smoke. She leapt out of bed and hopped to the door, still pulling on her pants. Her grandfather bent over the fire pit, waving the billowing smoke from his face with one hand while with the other he poked at the contents of an iron skillet.
“Granpa, let me do that!” Ivy said, hurrying to his side.
“Eh?” The old man looked up, startled. For a moment he seemed confused, but then he grinned. “You almost missed your breakfast, ‘lasses!”
“Did I oversleep?” Streaks of cloud in the pale eastern sky were lit with gold, but the sun hadn’t broken the horizon.
“No, it’s still early. I thought I ought to cook breakfast for a change. You’ve been doing it too long. A man’s got to pull his own weight.” He chuckled and jerked his head toward a low stool where a plate was piled with steaming brown slabs. “Griddle cakes are ready,” he said. “Not as good as your grandmother’s. Nor your mother’s. Now, your mother… Oh, but that girl could cook. Have I ever told you about your mother’s cooking?” He raised his eyebrows, mocking himself.
“Yes, Granpa,” Ivy laughed.
He straightened, slowly, and stretched. “Great Mother Sea, but I feel good this morning. Feel like myself, almost. That storm last night cleared the stink off the land and the aches from my bones!” At her blank look he laughed again. “Slept through the racket, did you? Oh, but you always could sleep through anything, even when you were a baby. I thought that thunder meant to shake the house down, no man nor beast could miss it, but the only thing louder was your snoring!”
Ivy saw now what she had missed in her haste to help him—the glistening grass, the puddles drying into mud, the yellowing leaves blown from wind-shaken trees and scattered on the ground. The earth felt damp and cool between her toes.
“I never could get back to sleep amid that clanging,” her grandfather went on, speaking as if to the crackling logs and hissing skillet, “so I lay awhile listening as it faded away out over the sea like a ship passing over the horizon. Then I got up. No point lying around at my age. I’ll have all the time… Well. No point lying around, anyhow. The stars were peeking out again, so I made up the fire, and when the sea-sky began to lighten I figured I’d just make breakfast.”
Ivy wondered if she should insist on helping him. Most days he limped painfully from stool to door, saying little unless she prompted him, but now he seemed happy that she didn’t have the heart to interfere. She pulled the other stool close to the fire, out of the drift of the smoke, and sat down. “It smells wonderful,” she said.
“Not half bad, is it?”
“Is there any tea?”
There was, and she poured a mug. Then the fish was done, and he slipped crisp fish and soft cakes onto clean earthen plates which they balanced on their laps, and they ate gingerly with their fingers, not speaking, enjoying the fresh inland breeze and the taste of the good food.
Ivy’s contentment faded when she reached the common fields where each household grew its barley and potatoes. Her rough and weedy plot seemed endless, and the cool morning air and brilliant blue sky only made her wish more than ever that she were somewhere else to enjoy it. Summer’s searing heat had given her an enemy to fight, and she had hacked furiously at the drought-hardened earth as if she might cut down the sun and bring the autumn. Now summer had gone, and she remained. Every step, every stroke of the hoe, every row of ground slipped into an interminable mindless stream.
She knew she had it easier than some—the bent old women who winced when they stood, the mothers with children old enough to hunger but too young to work. Ivy could work all day in the field or at anything else without tiring much, and her hands hadn’t blistered since she was eight years old, when she carried water all day in buckets for the workers, two-handed, lurching a little from side to side as she walked, trying to keep from spilling. Then, at least, she had felt proud to be useful. Now she wondered if she could live on fish and sea-grass.
She couldn’t even daydream, because her Aunt Herrin, Wilton’s wife, worked alongside her—to keep her company, Herrin said, but Ivy suspected it was because no one else would listen to her talk all day. Complaining about her neighbors, bragging on her garden, pining over her son lost at sea, fussing over her one daughter grown and married and the other waiting sickly at home. The words lapped at Ivy’s ears like dirty bathwater, making her feel sleepy and a little grimy.
“The squashes,” Aunt Herrin was saying, “the squashes are just popping up like toadstools after showers. Flowers one day and the next as big as your foot. You just have to irrigate them, is all. A bucket of water apiece, every day it don’t rain. Regular. Some folk just won’t keep at it. Now, that Azie Lagrave—she won’t.”
She paused—whether catching her breath or anticipating a response wasn’t clear, but Ivy said “mm-hmm” just in case.
“Lazy Azie! That’s what I call her to Wilton. But now don’t you go repeating that.”
“Mm-mm.” Ivy shook her head dutifully.
“But she’s jealous, you know. She won’t keep her own garden, but she pines after mine. Last week she came over to borrow a cup of milk—she said, but I know her cow is giving just fine—and when I came back with the milk she was looking at a squash plant that had run out over the path. Looking at it, like… like a cat, like something mean.” Aunt Herrin leaned on her hoe and waited until she had Ivy’s attention. Then she lowered her voice. “And do you know? That plant died that very night. The next morning it was brown as straw. Just withered right up. She put a hex on it, Azie did.” She nodded sharply, her chin like a hammer nailing shut the case against her neighbor.
Ivy sighed, knowing better than to argue. She scanned the corrugated field, which in her aunt’s pause sat eerily silent. The furrows ran darkly on and on toward the green and distant hills. Here and there a thrush sought worms the work had unburied. Figures moved amid the russet waves as if walking on water. But it was the waves that stood still while the figures undulated, their bodies furling and unfurling with the rhythm of their hoes. A young girl moved among them with a bucket, and Ivy saw her younger self—and, gratefully accepting the dipper, her older self, wiping sweat from her face with a dirty sleeve, weary from the work of many seasons. The waves of earth seemed in that moment to be carrying Ivy helplessly from one year to the next, from the life of one figure to the the life of the other. There were no islands in this sea, no adventures worthy of a firelight saga, no leaping porpoises, no hidden mermaids, no swift and bright-sailed ships. There were only the tide of seasons and the hungry mouths of birds.
When at last the sun came filtered through the inland pines, Ivy trudged home on mud-caked feet, too tired to walk to the ocean to swim and too hungry to put off dinner. She felt in her pocket for the morsel of cheese she had saved from her midday meal. That one bite tempted her, but she had promised, and anyway it was as grimy now as everything else she touched—not that the gull would mind. She found him waiting at the edge of the village in the shade of a sand oak.
“Have a good day fishing?” Ivy asked.
“Awwwk,” said the gull. “Caught a little one. It was kind of bitter.”
“Some days are like that.”
“You should have seen the one that got away!” the bird said, cawing in laughter.
Ivy smiled and shook her head. “I saved you a piece of cheese if you’re still hungry.”
“I love cheese.”
She crouched down, and the gull accepted the cheese with a delicate nip of his bill. “Thanks,” he said. He spread his wings and then, remembering his manners, folded them again. “A restful night to you,” he added. “May the Great Gull hide you under the shadow of his wings.”
“May the nine winds bear you to a peaceful slumber,” Ivy replied.
The cottage was dark when she arrived, but her grandfather often napped at odd hours and sat up by the fire long into the night. Quietly she lifted the wooden buckets from their hook and the yoke that rested beside them and walked to the village well. Finding two women chatting as they reeled in their buckets, Ivy smiled politely and pretended to retie one of the knots on her yoke. When the women had gone she washed her face and arms and feet as best she could, hoping no one would see—some of the villagers didn’t approve of even such modest public bathing—then refilled the buckets, hooked them to the yoke, and hefted the yoke onto her shoulders. She marched slowly back to the cottage, making her steps as even as she could to avoid spilling, but the elegant balance needed to keep the water placid on its journey wasn’t one of her gifts, and she slopped some on her feet, which quickly grew muddy again.
Home again she set the buckets by the door, piled straw on the embers of the morning fire and fanned it into fresh flame. When the kindling blazed brightly she went to the door to wake her grandfather.
He didn’t answer.
“Granpa? I’m making dinner. Do you want to keep me company?”
She squinted into the dim room, giving her eyes a few seconds to adjust. His bed was empty.
Then she saw him, in the shadows on the cold dirt floor, lying on his side with one arm behind his back and one cheek to the earth, terribly still.
She half ran, half fell to his side. The old man’s eyes stared wildly. With one hand she smoothed his hair, and before she could think of anything else to do she collapsed into sobs.
He struggled to open his lips. The sound came in a hoarse whisper. “’Lasses…”
“I can’t… see you…”
“It’s all right,” she said, though she knew it wasn’t.
“Let me get you into bed.”
“No… I’m… you can’t…”
“It’s all right, I—“
“Better… get help. Wilton can…” He trailed off, coughing.
Ivy tore herself from his side and sprinted up the path, up the hill, forgetting her exhaustion, her hunger, the fire in the yard, racing and tripping the quarter mile to Uncle Wilton and Aunt Herrin’s house. By the time she reached their door, her lungs burned and her feet bled from the stones and brambles, and her words and her breath came in gasps like her grandfather’s.
“Good heavens, child!” Herrin was saying. “What—”
“Granpa—he’s—he fell—he’s—he can’t—”
Wilton was already at the door and running past Ivy, down the path. Herrin, moving deliberately but no less quickly, took down a leather pouch and put into it a knife, a stone pestle, and a bundle of herbs from the rafters.
“Did the fall do the harm, darling, or did the harm do the fall? Do you see what I’m asking?”
“I don’t know, he—he can’t see. He has trouble talking.”
Herrin didn’t answer but scanned the contents of a cupboard and selected two more items. “Tend the supper,” she said to her daughter, who looked up wide-eyed from her sewing, “and eat when you’re hungry. We may be some time.”
Late in the night Ivy sat by the bed, watching her grandfather sleep. He had taken spoonfuls of broth and some tea, grimacing at the latter despite Herrin’s insistence that it would help him rest. “Sleep… soon enough,” he croaked, to no one’s comfort. Herrin had said little but cast a few worried glances at Ivy, which also gave her no comfort. Her grandfather had broken no bones; he simply could not move his limbs. The harm, as Herrin said, had done the fall. But whether there was any curing the harm, she could not or would not say.
Wilton, after lifting his father to the bed, had sat on a stool outside the door, chin in his hands, watching the settling dusk. Some hours after dark, when Herrin had gone home to tend their children, he had leaned his back against the stone wall of the cottage and had not moved since.
Ivy, too, was frozen to her post, afraid to leave—lest, she told herself, her grandfather wake and need her, but the truth she could not admit was that she feared she would miss his passing. For hours she sat unmoving, her eyelids growing heavy but never quite closing, watching her grandfather’s chest rise and fall in ebbing waves. In the lurid flicker of the candlelight she saw shadows of pains or dreams or memories cross his face, but he did not stir. She slipped into a kind of trance, past the hope of his waking, past even the hope of a new day dawning, consigned to an unending starless vigil.
As the world through the open door at last grew pale, her grandfather drew in his breath with a wheezing gasp. His eyes searched the darkness in terror.
Ivy was alert in an instant. “I’m here, Granpa! I’m right here.”
“Ivy… Ivy. I couldn’t…”
He seemed to be choking. She reached for the pot of tea by the bedside, but hearing the dull clink of pottery he waved her off. He took a few slow breaths, marshaling his strength.
“I never… regretted… your mother’s marriage. You know. Because she loved… your father. I never regretted… even though… she died. And of course… I had you. Life always brings… unexpected gifts.”
He shuddered and seemed to choke. Ivy took his hand and felt him relax at her touch, but with an effort he stiffened again and turned his head to look at her.
“Wilton… is a good man. He’ll… take care of you. Marry you off. Ivy!” His voice had dropped to a hoarse whisper but intensified, like a rushing wind. “You’re not meant… to be… a fisherman’s wife. I don’t… mean for you to leave. Or to stay. Follow… your heart… ‘lasses. Go… wherever the wind takes you.”
Then his body relaxed, like a bowstring after its last arrow is shot. His eyes closed. His breath calmed. She felt his hand go limp in hers, and in a minute more he was gone.
The next days passed like a shoreline seen from a foggy sea. They built her grandfather’s funeral pyre in a rocky cove and watched his life and death burn away into the clean blue sky. Herrin and some other women wailed embarrassingly while Ivy stood stone-faced, unable to feel her loss, let alone to cry, and rebuffed their efforts to comfort her. She saw Wilton’s face gauzy through the rising heat, and Jeriad’s eyeing her curiously over the flames. She looked into the deepest glow of the pyre, where her grandfather’s bones returned to their elements, but she saw nothing that was him, or herself, or anyone. When the flames had consumed their fuel and died the men shoveled the ash and dust into clean buckets and rowed them out to sea. Ivy watched from the shore as her uncle wet the contents of the buckets with seawater and poured them gently one by one beneath the waves. Then, at last, she let herself be led to her aunt and uncle’s house.
Wilton sold his father’s house, which now belonged to him though he had not lived in it for twenty years. Ivy would not be allowed live there by herself, though for years she had done all the work of it. She must instead live with her uncle and aunt, and with her younger cousin who said little but stared wide-eyed at her new older sister. Ivy gathered her few possessions into her chest and loaded it onto a borrowed cart, refusing all help. The cottage was cold after days without life in its hearth, and she could smell the dust that swirled in the pale light from the window. The herbs and vegetables she had so carefully tended already rambled raggedly like feral cats. There was nothing here for her.
When he returned home from the sale Wilton handed Ivy a heavy bag made of thick woven cloth, tied tight with a rawhide cord. “For your dowry,” Herrin explained. Ivy climbed the wooden ladder to the loft where they had made her a bed beside her cousin’s. She held the bag a long while in her lap, hefting it, turning it over and over. It was heavy for its size but far too light for its meaning. That house had held lifetimes of memories. Hers, her mother’s, her grandfather’s, and how many before him? All reduced to a pile of clinking coins.
In the night Ivy rose and pulled on her clothes. She opened the lid of her chest as silently as the aged hinges would allow. She drew out the cloth bag of coins, the book of maps, a change of clothes, her grandfather’s old jacket and cap, and a loaf of bread and some dried apples she had stashed earlier. The jacket and cap she would wear. The rest she slipped into a battered leather satchel that had belonged to her father. She considered what remained in the chest. The one dress she owned, which she wouldn’t need now. A seashell collection begun when she was a child, but the world was full of seashells. Only her grandmother’s quilt gave her any regrets. She ran her fingers over the stitching one last time, but she would have no room for it. She shut the lid before she could change her mind.
She felt her way through the shadows to the edge of the loft, pausing once to listen for her cousin’s regular breathing. The ladder creaked under her weight, but though the sound seemed to echo through the sleeping house no one stirred. Like a cat, she thought, be silent and dark as a black cat. She eased herself to the ground with a delicacy she had never before managed and tiptoed to the door where her boots were waiting. She glanced back at the blanketed shapes on the bed in the corner, satisfied herself that they were moving only as they softly breathed, then slipped through the door and eased it shut behind her.
She walked swiftly down the path that fronted the house to where it joined the main road, where the ground fell away to the east and she could see over the scrubby trees to the shore. The moon over the ocean made the white caps of breaking waves sparkle like shooting stars. The lights beckoned, but forbiddingly. Join us, they said, if you will. But be careful what you wish for.
There she stopped and turned back to the village, unable to continue. Deep in its shadows slept everyone she had ever known. The outlines of the village seemed suddenly fuzzy even for shadows, and she realized that the tears that would not come at her grandfather’s funeral had begun to flow at last. Not everyone she knew slept in those shadows, she thought. Those she had loved most slept in the bosom of Mother Sea.
She wiped her eyes and drew the book of maps from her satchel. She opened it to a page marked by use, where Ennatin in a tiny hand named a black dot clinging to the edge of the infinite sea. It would be that small to her, soon. Letting the pages fall closed she saw once again, inside the front cover, the inscription: Kennell to Rosa, a book of journeys at the launching of our own. She stared at the elegant script until it drifted away from its meaning, like sand-tracks of seagulls leading only to their disappearance. Kennell to Rosa, names as meaningful and as ultimately unknown to her as names out of stories.
It was her journey, now. She closed the book, shouldered the satchel, and started down the path to the sea. She did not look back again.