LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

The Fourth, by Naomi Manao

 

FourthThe first time Sorrow placed her newborn infant in the pea-green boat and gently pushed it out to sea, the boat did not come back for many days. When it did finally return, its paint was chipped and cracked, as if it had weathered one of the Ten Terrible Tempests of lore. The child’s swaddling, made of their father’s skin, puddled in the blackish brine in the curved bottom of the boat—but of the child, there was no sign.

Sorrow gathered up the swaddling and lost her face and her tears in its folds every night for a year, until the second suitor knocked at the door of her alabaster cottage.

The second time, Sorrow put her newborn infant in the pea-green boat and pushed it down the river that murmured by the bottom of the garden behind her cottage, the boat did not come back for many days. When it returned empty, its curved timber hull dented and battered, Sorrow guessed the river had squeezed it down the worst of the Seven Savage Streams of lore.

The third time, in the wake of the third suitor, Sorrow pushed her newborn infant and the boat out onto the lake. She was careful to choose a day when the water was smooth as glass, and when she bid the child farewell, her lips dwelled a little longer on their forehead, still lined with the fine down grown in Sorrow’s womb. But when the boat returned it was empty. The gunnel and the bits of timber hull exposed through chipped paint were splintered and bleached, and she thought perhaps boat and babe had the misfortune of being caught in one of the Five Furious Flares of lore.

It was after the third that Sorrow returned to her cottage of alabaster and vowed there would be no more children. She turned away the fourth suitor to find his way to her door. He fell in love with her on sight, just like the others, but she scorned and mocked him until he left with eyes cast down, a bow to his shoulders that would never straighten. Sorrow turned away suitor after suitor for several years, until one year one suitor would not be turned away.

He built himself a shelter on the riverbank and, to her irritation, had the wood chopped, the cow milked, the goat put to pasture, and the dog fed by the time she entered her yard each morning. He seemed familiar, somehow, as if she might have known him once upon a time, perhaps even known him well. Nevertheless, she resolved to wake earlier and earlier to do this all herself, as she always had done (and perfectly well!), but the man would spring to work as soon as he saw her lantern lit or heard her traitorous door creak on its hinges, and he would gently wrest the milk pail from her (since he had already chopped the wood the night before), and if she managed to put the goat out first he would have the dog fed by the time she got back. She railed at him and he apologized, but he seemed unable to leave, even when he promised that he would. Likewise, she seemed unable to put any teeth into her bite, and so the months passed.

She grew used to his company, though she turned away if he dared to look at her or touch her hair. (The others had never bothered with her hair.) And determined as she was to spurn him, River Man (for that was how she thought of him now) was finally allowed into her bed on the night of one of the Four Fearsome Fires of lore.

It had been a dry spring and a scorching summer, and though she knew she most certainly should not fetch the goat from the plains beyond the cottage during an electrical storm (for she knew the dangers of dry grass and lightning) she went anyway, because she loved her animals, and she loved that goat.

The thick grass stalks crackled and snapped and hurt the soles of her feet. The goat moved with reluctance, though she pointed at thick smoke melding with clouds on the horizon and begged the animal to hurry. The sky flickered increasingly orange, and when the wind turned Sorrow knew that was that. Even so, as the fires roared down the plain towards them at speed, Sorrow picked up the struggling goat and tried to flee. She ran as fast as she could, which was not very fast because of the goat, and because the grass had grown so high. Ash and wind-borne embers flecked and stung her brown skin, and then her skin began to sing with her own sweat and oil to the thunderous wall of flame at her back, and for a wild moment she thought to burn might be the most wondrous thing.

Except it would not be, would it? Her throat burned and her lungs burned, and it seemed her feet had already turned to a slow, agonizing smolder. She faltered in spite of herself and in spite of the goat (which did not take well to slowing at all, and kicked her in the ribs and stomach, bell clanging). Why not, she thought tiredly. It would be a proper end to the endless circles she could sense but not see. A kind of justice at last.

She was thinking of her three children when River Man burst through the haze and the heat to seize the goat from her arms, and this time Sorrow did not argue. She hoisted her skirts and fled alongside him, then ahead of him, flames licking at their heels. They tumbled into her yard and tumbled into the cool of her alabaster cottage, Sorrow, River Man, and goat. She would have left River Man outside, but…the goat.

There was a brief struggle when Sorrow tried to go back for the cow, and a panic when she remembered the dog—but he was safely under her favourite chair, trembling. Upset about the cow, it took Sorrow some moments to realize that this was the first time River Man had entered her cottage. She bore his presence in her home and, she silently admitted, her heart, as one might endure a persistent cough: with a spoonful of annoyance, a measure of resignation, and an indulgent sprig of hope that it would not last long.

River Man examined everything, as if he believed each item she owned was some facet of who she was. The tin mug by the chair with a quarter of cooled tea still in it—no milk; the soft rug before the fireplace and the lonely chair before it (the dog still trembling); the small wooden bed tucked beneath a window in the corner, an elaborately embroidered comforter folded high upon it; the ornate carved chest beneath the bed, pushed well back into the shadows. He paid close attention to the thick and expensive books balanced on windowsills and wedged between tins and pans, and lingered over the potted herbs. And all the while, the walls of the alabaster cottage stayed cool while the fire consumed much of her garden and raged on its way through the forest and across the plains (towards the village, she hoped, but she did not know why she hoped such a thing).

*

There is an old tale known as The Witch’s Tale or The Astronomer’s Exile, depending on who tells it, and it goes something like this:

Once there lived a young man who ruled his land from a village that hugged a mighty river thickly flanked by rain-trees. It was common knowledge among the villagers that the chief loved his astronomer, who was known for her quick wit and bright eyes, but she had so far avoided his bed by way of her profession. The Guild of Astronomers did not allow its members distractions. But when the chief’s third wife failed to produce a son, he demanded that the astronomer join with his house. The astronomer was unwilling and told him so, explaining that she had given her heart to her profession and had no longing for children. But the chief was powerful and young and cruel, and there was no escaping the force of his will.

On the eve of the royal marriage ceremony, the chief received word that the astronomer had a secret lover. It was whispered that the lovers would meet across the river in the night, that she would pull herself over the water in her pea-green boat, her brass telescopes and charts stowed at her feet should there be any questions.

The chief followed the astronomer that very night, and watched her climb into her boat and row to the other side of the river, where the figure of a man emerged from the trees to embrace her.

At dawn the next day, the chief’s guards brought the astronomer to his home. He summoned his strongest sorcerer and ordered a curse be placed on the ill-fated astronomer and her mysterious lover. The sorcerer, who had watched the chief grow from child to ruler, was himself a man known for his kindness and wisdom. He defended the astronomer and begged the young chief to show mercy, but the boy merely unslung his glinting axe and swore to kill the sorcerer himself if he refused again. The astronomer interceded and begged the sorcerer to do as the chief demanded, saying: “The next will do what you cannot—let it be you to destroy me, old friend, and not another.”

And so sadly, the sorcerer stripped from the astronomer all memory of her profession, her family, and her lover. He gave her a new name of the chief’s choosing, and on the chief’s orders condemned the astronomer to a tiny alabaster cottage in a land of shifting seasons and brutal weather. There, for spurning the chief’s dreams of an heir, she would hide a long and winding tale of loss and lore, a tale that, once shared, would begin a cycle of cruel hope and crueller loss, over and over again.

As a final punishment, the chief ordered the pea-green boat to be set on the astronomer’s shoulders at the commencement of her exile. Before the villagers, who had all turned out to see the great astronomer’s demise, she half-carried, half-dragged the boat, staggering beneath its weight, until the horizon absorbed her silhouette.

She was never seen again.

Though the astronomer was banished, the young chief was not yet satisfied. For the astronomer’s mysterious lover, the chief’s sorcerer was ordered to weave a similar curse, stripping memory and name, and family and roots.

When the final words of the curse left his lips, the sorcerer collapsed, and woke with no knowledge of himself, nor of his family, nor his roots, nor of his love. He too was exiled, and never seen again. Some say he died in the desert, and some say he was followed and murdered. Others say that he wanders the rivers of the land still, searching for what the heart cannot forget.

*

Sorrow stroked the tired edge of her boat-shaped bookcase and thought again of her three lost children. She spoke haltingly to the River Man, her voice out of practice, of fragments and shards, of a great loss she could not define, and of a long trek through many lands, carrying a burden she could not put down.

She left out many crucial details of the tale that stretched and coiled behind her, such as the first suitor—the stranger she had felt compelled to befriend, and eventually love, and the horror of their first and only night together, and the disbelief when her first course was missed—and then the second, and then the third… The confusion giving way to dizzying hope, of a future not spent alone and wandering, and then the birth, the compulsion, the boat, the sending, and the devastation it left in its tiny wake.

She did not speak of her suspicions of a curse bitter as ash, nor did she divulge her yearning to know the rhyme or reason of solitude, the futility of desiring an end when she did not know the beginning, nor where it could be found, or when.

She supposed these omissions were the first sign that she would take the River Man to her bed.

At the end of her tale he startled her by reaching for her hand, and she did not snatch it away. She was sooty and uncomfortable and lonely, and she had lost her cow. As he lightly kissed the inside of her wrist, Sorrow mused that at least this suitor had spent time doing things for her—he had not tried to take from her, he had not left when she tried to turn him away, though she guessed that if she told him to leave now, even if it meant walking out into the flames, he would. For this alone, for just a heartbeat, she very nearly told him to leave. But then she forgot why he was still there, and forgot why she allowed it.

River Man gasped a lot and thrust his tongue in Sorrow’s mouth. His hands stayed near her face, his calloused, narrow fingers scouring the curves and angles of her cheeks and jaw, and tangling in her hair. She buried her nose in his neck and he smelled of river and ashes. He whispered ridiculous things about love and waiting, and for a second time she hesitated. But in the next moment she could not remember why she paused.

She led him to her small bed and there, upon the elaborate comforter, he kissed her for even longer still. He begged her to open her eyes, then close them; he remarked on the dearth of light in her hair (indeed, how her hair seemed to swallow it), the softness of her lips, and the silk of her skin; he lingered insufferably long on her ears, her neck, until in the end she had to guide his hands to the heat between her legs. After that he was earnest and smooth and hard, and together they ached and clenched until the ocean he held in his loins threw itself into her womb.

He looked only mildly confused, mostly content. Even as he withered and hollowed, the soft pouches beneath his eyes sagging to reveal the pale curving bone of his sockets, the skin of his cheeks and neck slipping to gather loosely around his collarbone, he spoke to her of loving things, future things, until irritably she said, “River Man, don’t you know my name is Sorrow?”

He kissed her, and with a sigh he left her.

*

In late spring, Sorrow emptied the old boat of her precious books. With the goat and the dog keeping close to her skirts, and her fourth newborn asleep in the shawl slung on her back, she dragged the boat across the floor, over the threshold and across the green-again plain, all the way to the forest of mangroves that bled into ocean.

She plunged downhill until she found the salty stream that wound its way through the shadows of the mangroves and across the mudflats to the wide-open sea. She retrieved the fourth from the shawl, swaddled tightly in the River Man’s skin, and placed many kisses on an impossibly small nose. The others had been silent as condemnation at this moment, but the fourth sobbed loud and with fervour, and clung fiercely to the curling locks of her hair. When she asked the babe, in a whisper, if they would return, the response was a wail so earnest she could not decide what the answer was.

Sorrow placed the fourth in the once pea-green boat at the turn of the tide, and remained for a long while, up to her ankles in the sucking mud. She watched the boat hesitate and hesitate again on the eddied, worried glass of the stream as it swelled and swelled with the tide, before the boat was whisked around a bend and gone to the dull roar of the ocean beyond.

And because this was the fourth, Sorrow did not wait for the boat to come back.

She trudged home, trailed by the dog and the goat. All that afternoon, she heard the fourth crying as she scrubbed amniotic fluid from the floorboards next to her small bed, but when she gave in and ventured outside, nerves ragged and eyes red from weeping, there was no boat, and no baby. She stood under the still-scorched trees in her yard and listened as the cries went on and on, and shed more of her own tears as the cries grew tired and feeble. She imagined she heard the sucking of fingers in mouth, before the descent of the dreadful silence she still, after the first three babies, could not abide.

The crying began again when she ventured out to hang her sheets beneath the trees by the river. Sunlight dappled golden caul-like rounds on the coarse linen, stained rust and brown with the labours of her birthings. But this has happened before, Sorrow thought, when she caught herself looking towards the ocean, and the crying stopped.

It started up again as she prepared an evening meal she could not eat. It continued without pause until, while she waited in her bed in the dark for peace, the crying finally ceased. Then Sorrow closed her eyes in sadness and relief, and drifted into fitful sleep.

Shortly after dawn, the sun already hotly persistent on her arms and the nape of her neck, Sorrow found the old boat waiting on the mudflats beyond the mangroves.

She approached it slowly and with foreboding, and hesitated long before she peered over the side.

*

Through the window above her bed, Sorrow eyed the night streaked with starlit cloud. She listened to the river that murmured by the bottom of the garden, staring unseeing at the stars, and recalled her words to the River Man as he poured himself away. River Man, whose skin lay carefully folded in the chest beneath her bed. In the cool dark of her tiny alabaster cottage, Sorrow traced the curve of the fourth’s cheek, and gently pulled the babe close. Tomorrow, she decided, she would burn the boat and send it down the river in flames.

*

Issue 13 (Winter 2017)

Story copyright © 2017 by Naomi Manao

Artwork copyright © 2017 by Paula Arwen Owen

Naomi Manao is of Tuvaluan and English descent, and grew up in the New Guinea islands, where as a child she squelched barefoot through mangrove forests, wandered rivers narrow and wide, and sent many little green leaf-boats across the vast and hungry sea. “The Fourth” is her first published short story. She lives in Queensland, Australia.

Paula Arwen Owen is an artist who works in hand-cut paper silhouettes and collage, using the contrast of darkness and light, of dreams and reality to create compelling illustrations. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Mythic Delirium and Strange Horizons, and on book covers by authors including Cherie Priest and Catherynne M. Valente. She lives at the edge of an enchanted forest in the Catskill Mountains with her husband and a variety of creatures domestic, wild, and mythical. Paula’s unique cut paper greeting cards, artwork, and decals are available at her Etsy shop and in retail stores.

 

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This entry was posted on May 29, 2017 by in Stories.
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