Karana sat on the beach, her knees hugged to her chest. The waves were high enough to brush over her feet occasionally, and she squeezed her toes together feeling the crushed-shell sand prickling her feet.
Her eyes were strained and red and her cheeks had small lines of dried tears on them as she squinted towards the water. She studied a flock of birds midway to the horizon. They were wheeling and diving, white flecks on the turquoise sea and blue sky. There was a school of something out there, swimming under the surface, a moving meal for the birds.
Karana watched and wondered and grew numb inside as the waves came up to grab at her feet.
She was unaware for how long she sat there, all she knew was that the sun was beginning to set when she saw the first of the fishing canoes paddling into the great natural harbor.
The canoes were long and sleek, their outriggers slicing through the water as they flew, and she watched the men sitting in them, two or three per boat, paddling in unison, their hands swinging and laboring together. One of the more playful boat owners paddled hard for a swell and rode it in towards the beach, easily navigating the coral reef that helped to keep these inner waters calm. She saw the men on one boat laughing. Habit nearly forced her to scan the boats and look for her brother and father among the faces, but she stopped herself from looking and stood up instead.
Karana darted among the boats as the sea washed them ashore and the men leapt out to carry them past the high water mark. She scurried with dexterity, dodging in and out of the hulls and charging feet. She waved towards one boat here, another boat there, and was given old bits of rope with frays in the middle, pieces that had been cut too short due to some struggle out on the sea, lengths in good shape but with unraveling whip ends.
Some boats took her aside and spoke to her about larger lengths of rope, more than she could carry, that needed attention, and she noted the boat and the coil of rope and listened to instructions.
Many boats ignored her, the men trying not to catch her eyes as they dragged their boats past. Their own families would tend to their ropes and busywork and they had no work to give her.
She carefully layered and coiled the small bits of rope she was given along her shoulder. She felt burdened by the time she reached the end of the beach, the muscles of her arm were starting to burn under the strain, and the rough fibers felt sickly chafing against her skin.
She forced herself to show no signs of struggle as she made another pass through the boats, all of them still now, embedded in the dry sand by the tree line, and she listened as the men talked and laughed. She could hear the echoes of her brother’s laughter hidden somewhere in this general chatter of the beach, and Karana chased it, that sound, as she moved back through the boats. She kept on the lookout for any more men waving her over but also hoped to somehow hear her brother, not noticing that the laughter from the men always quieted as she drew near and her brother’s laughter was only a ghost in her memory.
She reached the far end of the boats and turned back around. The men were leaving, heading back to their houses, many of them with strings of fish slung over their shoulder, some who had been hunting bait with wriggling sacks on their backs. There was no more work for her, but she paused and stared at the empty boats, fragile shells, so large and safe on the beach but so tiny when cast out into the great sea.
Karana turned and let her feet lead her to the dirt path leading back through the bush. The rope menders’ shacks along the way puffed out heat and smoke, and she could smell the resin mixed in with the damp of the jumgle. Her arms ached as she walked, the road under her feet more of a murky clay than the sand from the beach had been. It clung to her toes, slimy from the moisture seeping up from below.
An old woman nodded at her from one of the shacks. Her skin was wrinkled and papery, her hands moved over the rope she was mending of their own accord. A lifetime of the same actions allowed the old woman to find frayed bits and mend them with barely any attention needed, deciding what to save and what to throw away, whipping and cutting and splicing workable pieces back together into a whole.
The woman didn’t say anything, only smiled and nodded as Karana entered. Karana unslung the burden from her shoulder and winced, moving her arm and working out the pain as she gave instructions to the old woman about how many pieces were needed of what lengths.
The old woman continued to stare at Karana.
In the weeks since the accident, in the weeks since Karana had been sent to the harbor to wait for the boats to ask for any extra work that needed doing, she had only gathered rope and orders and dropped them off. Normally Karana then just waited awhile in the old woman’s shack to let her arms rest, or to warm up if the wind off of the sea was from the north and cold, then took what ropes were finished back to her home, noting them carefully to deliver them to the proper boats the next morning.
Today though the old woman’s face became less gentle and Karana felt the old woman’s eyes studying her. She felt like a fish being sized up in the main village as the old woman stared at her back and arms. Then the old woman took up two smaller pieces of rope. She handed them to Karana and told her to splice them together.
Karana had no knowledge of this craft, her mother had always mended her father and brother’s ropes. The old woman showed her, deft old fingers undoing and reweaving rope at speeds too fast to follow, then told Karana to do the same. Karana tried and failed, and tried and failed. The fibers wore at her fresh fingers quickly and the woman continued to tell her to splice ropes together, not doing much teaching, only ordering her to learn.
She continued to bark at Karana, the gentle sweetness of her frail frame no longer there, suddenly replaced by a harsh and stern reality. Karans’s fingers continue to wear under the ropes and she felt the strands she tried to maneuver turn slippery with blood as the ropes finally broke her skin, and she realized that she was being taught this because merely gathering rope wasn’t going to be enough, because the old woman would want her to start weaving with her, to sit and to mend ropes in this shack with her because there was no other work to do, and Karana began to hate the woman and the ropes and was fighting back tears.
Karana threw down the two lengths that were in her hands and fled from the old woman’s hut and stomped away down the path, her arm aching as she brought it to her face to wipe tears away. The dirt was cold on her feet, the earth’s warmth quickly departing now that the sun had set.
She could still hear the breakers of the sea behind her, soft swells of low tide curling up onto the sand. There were scuttlings and rustles from the branches all around her where the birds that she had watched feeding earlier were perched, dozens to a branch, the flock beginning to fall asleep, some with their bills under their wings, some still fighting for space as they squawked and pecked.
She thought of the birds out on the turquoise sea and the fishermen following them and her brother in his boat as the surf kicked up and she grew scared of the bushes and leaves filled with predators that lived their lives on that great blue dangerous false surface that hid unknowing depths. The night seemed like a shroud covering the land and the waves at her back like fingers reaching out of the ocean to drag her into it.
In her village the fires were lit and the fish caught that day were being prepared. It was easy to tell where fishermen lived as there was a fire lit in front of their huts, billowing smoke out onto the fish laid out on the ever-present drying racks, always laden with fish. At the bottom were the almost cured strips of flesh, dark and tough. At the top of the racks were the new fish, brought in that day from the sea, succulent and springy, a gift from the depths.
Karana walked to her house, past the empty drying rack and the stone pit where their fire used to burn, and entered her home.
It was dark and she was hungry. She felt among the clay jars and found some dried fish that their mother must have traded for. Her mother was fast asleep on her woven mat. She would be up again when it was still dark to make her way to the big island town where some men from the tall ships lived to wash their houses and their clothes.
Karana ate her meal in the light that the smoke fires gave from the outside, limited by the small windows and coverings lashed to the door.
The fish was salty and tough and she chewed it thoroughly, swallowing the juice it made as it mixed with her saliva. It tasted of smoke and the sea and she imagined the fish in her mouth as it had been, alive and vibrant and swimming free in the bright blue water as her father and brother’s boat paddled towards it and she grew sad. It was a fish and it had come from the sea and that was all, she tried to tell herself. A gift from the ocean. And that was all.
She thought of the sea and tried not to picture it as the great hungry void she saw it as now, but as the home of the goddess that had given her this fish, but it was impossible to think of one and not the other. She could no longer picture schools of fish, silvery in the water, without picturing storms and waves and waves crashing onto dark rocks.
She finished chewing her fish and swallowed and felt around again for the small wooden box she kept. Finding it she picked it up and stepped outside to where there was more light.
She sat down and went through the box, looking over the rocks and polished shells that she had collected since the last time the tall ships had appeared. The great towering trees on board their decks would show on the horizon, and the men of her village who were not out fishing that day, or those who were close enough to see the tall ship’s arrival, would paddle towards the tall ship laden with anything they might want to trade. Fresh fruit was very good, and she could get fresh fruit. But it was silly to try and guess when the tall ships might arrive and pick it ahead of time to store in her box.
One man from the ships had been very interested in stones, pieces of stones from the island, so she had been picking up chunks of stone that looked interesting to her, and she removed them one by one from her box and looked them over. But that had only been one man from one boat, and she wasn’t sure if these were the stones the man might like. It was worth trying, though.
Shells, if they were pretty enough, could be traded. Pink and polished so they shone brightly, the men in the tall ships would trade for those, and she poked around in her box looking at the shells she had collected.
And dried fish, of course. They could trade dried fish for dried meat and wood, new flavors and good solid timber that was used to keep their house secure, or wood that had already been crafted into things like the box on her lap.
And cloth, the tall ships had cloth, not the coarse and stiff fabric that she had grown up with, woven from the strings plucked from fronds. No, the cloth the tall ships brought was soft and could be made into clothes that would keep you warm even when the seasons turned and the ocean brought its cold winds from the north.
Once one ship had brought an even softer cloth, it had felt so smooth that Karana swore it had water itself sewn into it, and the colors had been bright and wonderful, but her family had not had anything worth trading for it and then that tall ship had left, like all the others, disappearing into the ocean that had brought it to them.
She felt good about the next time the tall ships might come. She had been busy and was proud of how much she had to trade and when the yell went up that one was approaching…she would sit and watch as the men from other families all paddled out to meet them.
No men from her family would paddle out.
It had not occurred to her until then that she would have to wait, that her father and brother were not there to carry her goods out into the bay and trade for her.
The tall ships would send boats in to shore as well, she consoled herself, but she would get less for her work because she would have to wait until the men from the tall ships came to shore, and most of them would have already traded for what they wanted by then. The ones who came ashore lugged great wooden barrels up to the springs. Or the man who had been interested in the rocks, he had come ashore. And of course there were those men who came to find women to lie down with.
She frowned and froze and slowly she put her shells back into her box and closed the lid, her chest suddenly aching. She turned, craning her neck, to look through the door of her hut and tried to look through the darkness to where her mother was laying.
She had heard the men talking while she walked among the boats. They were brunt and course, these men who had been friends with her father and brother, and the ones who had not seen her standing there had spoken of the things her mother did now when the tall ships came with derision and laughter. She tried to ignore and forget, but sitting there it all came back.
She stared through the dark and thought of the laughter of these men. The men from the tall ships would come to see her mother, and they would lay on the mats that her father and brother had lain on and she hated her mother. She hated the dried fish in her stomach. She hated the tall ships and she hated the ocean that had brought all of these things and she stood, angry, and ran.
She noticed she was carrying her wooden box, and that too had been brought from the ocean, and she hated it and she threw it down to the ground as she ran. No more trading with the ocean, no more taking from it, no more living off of it if it was going to demand that she sacrifice her entire world for those trades.
She grew tired and her feet slowed as thoughts churned and crashed in her mind, and she found herself at the beach again, the stars ranging overhead and the water a slate-black surface with no light upon it.
She sat and she hugged her knees to her chest and sank her head into her arms. And as she wept she cursed the great blue waters, wondering why they would bring her everything she needed to live when they were going to kill her inside in the end.
Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.