Rain drowned the world in white noise. Sarah would have preferred snow, to muffle the world into a tensionless silence, but it didn’t snow here. Rain was rare enough. She listened to it tap against the window, hum on the roof, and decided to be grateful for the way it barred her from everything outside her living room walls.
She didn’t have an easy time keeping herself away from others; she invited them into every moment. Her phone was always in her hands. Her car was always gassed up. She left work, exhausted, and took her rest in a shared drink and a long, loud conversation. Alone was never a state she wanted to settle into, but she knew she needed it just now. It didn’t matter how quick she had trained herself to be, how easy she had made it to keep her own mind sitting right next to another opinion.
She was uncertain now, and she needed the quiet.
There was no hiding from sleep. Hushed, it crept through doors or windows, with all the familiarity of a cat too comfortable in its own domain to announce itself at the door. On padded feet, it might climb the stairs, ease itself into a room. On the space of a blink, it slipped in a shadow, then seated itself boldly in the corner. Not there, and then there all at once, calm and unsurprising. It was always there, prepared.
But Nesha could run from sleep. She drank her hot drinks, kept her hands busy, kept her feet moving. There were always small stacks of things to do and always thoughts to chase around her head. It didn’t matter that sleep was a quick-sand thing, gripping her all the firmer for how hard she kicked against it. Tugging her down more forcefully after each attempt to push it away. She tipped her head back to drag in waking air and ignored the way it pulled at her ankles.
Ranem caught glimpses of the island in jerks and starts, under an arm or along the edge of the canvas, as he and the rest of the crew hauled their fat-bellied ship into port. It grew from one moment to the next, gray haze turning into rounded roofs and rich wood, the little town sidling up to them through the water. He didn’t stop to look at it until the anchor had clattered to the seabed, and he had dropped into one of the longboats to row to the docks.
And then he caught a shallow breath, went still. It took him a long moment to realize he was staring.
It was all utterly familiar. He had grown up here. He had traced every street with a running step, and backed himself into most of the corners. He could have mapped the entire tangle in his sleep. He could have found his way to any of his old fortresses in perfect dark.
He left a long time ago, but time seemed to slide more easily just now.
Every woman in Evanston over the age of twelve owned a red dress.
No one talked about it.
No one talked about the red dye on their mother’s hands either, bought in bricks or beaten out of Bloodroot. The stains clung to fingers and arms for weeks at a time as they dyed and redyed and redyed again.
No one talked about their aunts sneaking off into the woods to hang great sheets of precious cloth off the branches to dry, or their sisters hauling it in again, bright crimson, and whipped to gentleness in the constant island wind.
The dinner bell clanged and kept clanging, mixing with its own echo until Dara was sure that everyone in the house had heard. She swung the handle until she heard the first thudding footsteps overhead. Then she yanked it hard, one more time, encouraging Tadd to climb out of whatever book he had picked up.
Doors squeaked open and clapped shut. Lenor arrived with something less formal than promptness. Janni raced absolutely no one down the stairs, same as always, clattering on the wooden steps. Kal followed a few moments later, leisurely and they caught up with each other at the bottom with a smile.
Trad’s grandfather had owned and captained a dozen ships. When Trad was thirteen years old, he took him aboard one, showed him deck and cargo, canvas and lines, wheel and rudder and the dance of the waves which really only earned a tempo once they left somber port behind. The port gates was the midnight line: All respectable folk stayed tucked on the proper side of it, while the rest of them made a revel of the open night on the other side.
The crew had laughed at him as he swayed on his feet, and his cheeks had burned. Clinging to the rail and the lines, he made sure it was the last day they had the opportunity to take their fun at his expense. He walked up and down the deck until dark, until he found the sweet balance of his feet. He learned every lesson his grandfather had to teach.
A decade later, it still wasn’t enough to keep him from gaping as he woke for his watch and found the horizon flattened to a perfect line of blue-green water touching blue-white sky.
Every tree in sight shot straight up, their trunks perfect lines from the dark earth to the green canopy. For just a moment, Darren thought they must have been hanging off the clouds, not standing on their own, invisible, roots. The moment passed, with only a gentle feeling of ridiculousness in its wake. There were no trees like this where he came from.
The tree beside the house where he had grown up had never grown straight, but leaned toward the corner of the house, reaching for the sun. Down the lane, near his cousin, three trees tumbled around each other, too close, and each one bent a different way to avoid the shade of the dominating leaves. By the port, by the bay, on the long strip of island that was more rock than sand, more sand than earth, they seemed to crawl out of the ground, knobby root and twisted limb. They grew straight after they had climbed out into empty air. Everywhere on that drop of land in a mile of ocean, the trees leaned back to let the wind slip past them.
A hand locked around Heydi’s wrist, really locked, with the fingers hooked over her narrow wrist bones and thumb perfectly set in the groove between her hand and her arm. It hurt a little, but the first thing she did was stare at it.
She was very sure that the guards had not seen her, and very sure that this was not any of the five women and four men that she had just robbed of their purses. She didn’t know who it was, or why they cared.
She started to tilt her head back – all the way back – to get a look at his face. Then she realized it didn’t matter who it was, or why he had grabbed her. It hurt, and no one friendly would hurt her.
Heydi let her feet drop out from under her, twisting her whole body around her arm, twisting herself toward his thumb. Jerdan had taught her to do it, to hang all her weight off her arm, and practiced with her until she knew the exact instant that the man’s hold would break. She was too small to break it any other way.
She felt the pop of his thumb losing its hold, and the sharp slide of the rest of his fingers coming free. The man swore. She was already catching herself on her toes and running in the other direction.
Marnie found me in a corner where I’d begun to collect attention. Her boots were road-scuffed, the shoulders of her coat were rain stained, and her shirt and breeches were an average assemblage of homespuns and old clothes. In all her muted tones of beige and brown, she slipped across the room, tapping shoulders and elbows so they could make room for her to pass between the scattered tables and chairs, and no one even glanced up at her. When she was six steps from my table, they started to stare. She slipped into the seat across from me, unaware that any of them existed.
I tried not to hunch my shoulders farther around my ears.
The heat of the forge fires met Ashlynn outside the door. The snow and ice that stuck to the paving stones ten steps away turned to slush at the wall and slicked the doorstep. The icy rush of the afternoon breeze seemed to shift and slow, edged out by the drift of warm air from inside. Her numb cheeks prickled and she unburied her hands from the pocket of her coat to help them warm up faster.
Pulling the latch down, Ashlynn opened the door. Heat rolled out in a wave. She pulled her coat open at her neck with her free hand, stepped inside and had the rest of it undone before the door clapped shut behind her. She dropped it off her shoulders and was already reaching to loosen her scarf and jacket as she hung it up. She took off her gloves, her hat, her scarf, her jacket, smiling at the others as they looked up from the fires and the anvils. Then she loosened her shirt around the neck, and rolled her sleeves up to her elbows. Already, she was sweating.