I sing of sunlight’s taste like honeyed fruit, of sunlight’s warmth like wine, of sunlight’s scent like hyacinth. It sticks in my throat. It sweetens my lips. It enlivens my tongue. When it fills the carvings around my mouth—see them here, see what marks my mother Ianthe made—my body fills with breath. I wake.
My mother thought that I would sleep. She thought that I should sleep as we sailed our raft through Evening’s golden waters into Night. The dying light would not be enough for me, she warned, but after many hours spent in Evening, I grew accustomed to its slender sun.
Our people reckon time in passing shadows, not distance, and so I am sorry that I cannot number the days we spent in Evening’s endless gold. My mother and her newest lover Meliteia went to their beds, both together and alone, that they might rest in turns. I alone, steadfast, remained awake. I told myself I must not sleep, lest I never again wake. If I should sleep, I might never leave the silence.
I sing of silence like a barren cave, of silence like swallowed rocks, of silence like a slab of marble thrust against my teeth. I sing of silence as cold as silver stones laid upon my open eyes. In the silence I cannot breathe and I cannot speak. I cannot move. I am watched, but I cannot move.
I knew what fate would meet me once we entered soft and violet, sunless Night. My mother would send me to sleep, supposing that I would wake at home on the other side of Night, but I knew that I would not. I knew I would remain forever in the awful silence, in the cold and in the dark.
And never again would I feel my mother’s lips upon my brow. Never again would I hear Meliteia’s voice as sweet as her name. She would never teach me her own people’s songs of sailing, of the harvest, of winter and of spring, of the goddess we dare not name. Meliteia and I would never again gather the golden fruits of Evening while my mother knelt and carved new pathways for the slowly ever-sinking sun. My mother would never again beckon me to her side and explain how she created the patterns that brought our raft to life. Never again would we three journey together.
I could not tell my mother what I feared. After the first of my dreams, I tried. She listened to me, she kissed me and she reassured me. She loved me and yet she disbelieved me, for my quiet mother could not think of silence as a curse. Nonetheless I tried to save myself.
When we still sailed through earliest Evening, when the sun still shot through its shallow waters down to the silty, shifting bed below, when the golden fruit still bobbed in abundance upon the gentlest of waves—when I still could move like other girls of sixteen summers, I sat beside my mother Ianthe. I let the sea lap at my bare feet as she continued to carve her magic into the raft’s edge. Light filled each line she finished.
“Mother,” I said, “someday I will create patterns as beautiful as yours.”
“Ioulissa, my daughter,” she replied, “yours will be far more beautiful than mine. They will be more beautiful than Daylight’s jewelled fish, more beautiful than Evening’s golden fruit, more beautiful than Night’s pale flowers.”
I first appealed to her pride, both her pride in her daughter and her pride in a talented apprentice. I showed her that I was possessed of logic enough to question her teaching. “If I were to remain awake through Night, what would happen to me? We cannot say for certain. When last we sailed into moonless Night, we had just left home. I was whole, then. Then I had not been struck down by fever’s sweat. Then I was no different from any other girl, but now, now we cannot know what Night will do to me. Mother mine, we cannot know until we see it for ourselves.”
“But we can guess,” was her smooth reply. “Magic moves through sunlight alone. This I have known since I was your age, and since I was your age, nothing I have seen has disproved this knowledge. Without the sun, you cannot move.”
“Neither can the raft,” I said.
“Which is why Meliteia and I will take up our poles and push,” my mother replied, “just as you and I did not so very long ago.”
“I feel as though it were forever,” I said. I then appealed to curiosity, both my mother’s curiosity and mine. “You admitted the sun alone does not cause movement. Magic, that is what the sun gives. Might magic exist in another form? Might there be a magic born of star-strewn Night?”
“There might,” was her doubtful reply, “but I have not discovered it.”
“If you do not send me to sleep,” I said, “then I might put your magic to the test. If I were to remain awake through Night, I might discover a magic without the sun.”
“But you will not remain awake,” she replied. “You cannot.”
Lastly I appealed to my mother’s heart, a heart I knew she had. “I do not want to sleep,” I said. “I beg of you, do not lay the scarf across my lips. Do not close my eyes. If you do not believe that I truly suffer, then believe that I believe I do. Believe that I am afraid. Do not let me sleep through Night.”
She brushed the tear from my cheek and replied, “Then as long as we sail through Evening’s golden sea, Ioulissa, my daughter, I will not send you to sleep.”
“Thank you, Mother,” I said. It was all that I could say.
And I did walk more slowly soon, too soon. I did shuffle and I did sway once Evening’s radiant colour deepened into bronze. When the golden fruit grew scarce, when the sun began to sink beneath the sea, when its thousandfold orange tongues licked the water, I, stumbling, sought out sweet Meliteia.
Singing, she stood at the prow of our raft. From time to time she pushed her long wooden pole against the sea’s shallow bed so that she might propel us forward, so that her efforts might supplement the fading light. The sun hung but barely above the horizon, its rosy fingers sunk desperately into the clouds. O, I told myself, hold on!
“Lovely Ioulissa,” Meliteia sang as she saw me, sang my name into her poem, sang as she asked, “Ioulissa, child, what need have you of me?”
Because I was my mother’s daughter, Meliteia valued my good opinion—just as I longed for hers, because Meliteia was beautiful and kind, the latest of my mother’s lovers and the best. Upon an island beyond Daylight we found her, a sailor’s sister lured first into the waves and then into my mother’s arms. She helped us to catch these jewelled fish, here, to preserve the glitter of their skins. She helped us to harvest this bounteous golden fruit. She helped us to pluck those pale, slim flowers from the waters of calm Night.
She helped me to sit beside her, and gently she tucked my feet into the sea.
I wanted her to think that I wanted to be helpful. “I wish that I could stay awake through Night,” I said. “I wish that I could propel the raft with my mother and with you.”
“You wish that you could avoid the dreams,” Meliteia knowingly replied.
“If I were to join you, we would move more quickly,” I said. “Even as I am.”
“Were the decision mine,” she replied, “I would welcome your company whether or not you held a pole.”
I wanted her to want me with her, with her and my mother Ianthe, the three of us together. “Once my mother sets me to sleep,” I said, “once she lays the scarf across my mouth, will you take it away? Will you let me try to breathe?”
“You breathe the sun,” she uncertainly replied, “and no sunlight reaches Night. But I would let you try, were the decision mine.”
Perhaps I wanted her to take pity on me. Perhaps I wanted her to pity me as much as I pitied myself. So it was that with slurring tongue and aching voice I told her, “When my mother condemns me to sleep, I do not feel like I am dreaming. I feel more alive than I do now, here where the light is dying around me. There I am trapped in silence. There I am watched, and you might guess by whom. There I am without eyes, without voice, without breath, but I remain myself. There I endure a living death.”
“I am sorry, Ioulissa,” she softly replied.
“If you were to wake me,” I said, “my mother would forgive you. Of all people, my mother would forgive you.”
“I cannot wish you were my daughter,” she replied, “for if you were mine, then you would not be Ianthe’s. Never would I deprive her of you, nor you of her. On your behalf I am distraught, but so too am I distraught on behalf of your mother. More and more she is reminded of your illness, those terrible days we spent in my brother’s house. Those days you spent upon my sister’s bed, sweating and sickly, those days Ianthe watched your spirit fade. More and more she feels that sorrow. More and more she wonders whether she did right.”
“I am glad of it when I am awake,” I said.
“I will tell her,” Meliteia replied. She pressed her hand to my cheek. “I will tell your mother, Ioulissa.”
Perhaps Meliteia meant me to hear their conversation. Our raft is not large, and she knew that I was laid out upon the deck outside their room. I could do nothing but lay down when the sun disappeared beneath the waves, when the last and faintest gold sighed upon the horizon, when Night’s dark violet rolled down the sky.
My mother had asked whether she might carry me to my bed. Sharply, I said no. I said that I still could talk and I still could think. I said that until I could no longer do either, I would lie there upon the deck. Meliteia had asked whether I was comfortable, whether I felt any pain. I assured her that I felt neither pain nor discomfort, but I did not tell her what I did feel. I did not tell her that I felt almost nothing.
After she kissed my forehead, Meliteia retired with my mother to their room.
“I think you know why Ioulissa fears to sleep,” Meliteia said. “She fears the silence of her dreams, the silence of her voice, the silence of the one who keeps watch over her spirit.”
“So Ioulissa told me,” my mother replied.
“Though the decision is not mine to make,” Meliteia said, “I think you should not send Ioulissa to her sleep once we enter gentle Night. For whether or not you send her, whether or not you lay your scarf across her lips, I think that she will sleep.”
“I know that she will sleep,” my mother replied. “I want only to spare her. I want to spare her from her slowly ever-dwindling ability to move. I want to spare her from the fading light. I want to spare her from her fading breath.”
“I think you want to spare yourself,” said Meliteia. “Though I am not her mother, though I cannot fully understand your pain, I think that you should honour Ioulissa’s wishes.”
“You speak rightly,” was the curt reply. “You are not her mother. The decision is not yours to make.”
“I was not the one who consigned her to this life,” said Meliteia. “I was not the one who carved those patterns around her mouth while she lay ill within my brother’s house. I was not the one who thought to harness the sun’s bright magic in this way. I was not the one who refused to let her die.”
“I was the one who let her die.” This was my mother’s miserable reply. “She would not have died if I did not bring her with me on this journey. She would not have fallen ill, and she would not have died, and if she had not died, then I would not have woken her with sunlight.”
“She is glad of it,” said Meliteia, “so long as there is sun. So long as she remains with us, she is glad.”
I was not glad as I lay motionless, my cheek pressed to the deck. No, at that moment I was not glad. Anger like Daylight’s fire lit within me. I was angry that Meliteia should be caught between my mother and myself. And having thought only of myself, I was angry that I had taken advantage of sweet Meliteia’s sympathy and sent her to intercede on my behalf. I was angry that when I woke, so too did my mother’s guilt. I was angry that guilt’s endless wail spoke more to her heart than my logic ever could. I was angry at what logic told me, what I already knew but had denied. I was angry that I was dead.
I breathed the last of sunlight’s gold, the very last and violet-touched, and I slid my bare feet into the sea. I stood upon the silty, shifting bed, in water no higher than my knees. My breath was as shallow as this stretch of Evening’s sea. My legs were as listless as the end of Evening’s waves. My spirit was as lost as the gold of Evening’s magic. And yet I ran.
I sing of splashing steps like silver stones dropped into a stream, of stiffening limbs like slabs of marble, of an impending silence like a scarf, like a shroud wrapped about my head. I cannot breathe and I cannot speak. I am watched.
And as I fled through Evening’s ending sea, towards the rising dark of Night, I could see that I was watched. She watched me struggle through the waves. She watched me as she always had, in silence. I will not say her name, for it is known. The goddess watched me as my legs collapsed, watched me as my body fell, watched me as my head sank and my mouth filled.
It was she, I think, who asked Night’s kind waters to rest my head upon a bed of palest flowers, my scar-carved mouth turned towards the sky. It was she who asked Night’s gentle waters to wash my body upon a stretch of sand. It was she who asked Night’s calm waters to smooth my dress over my unmoving legs.
And it was she, I think, who asked Night’s waters to bring sweet Meliteia and my mother Ianthe to my side. In their arms I drew breath. I woke.
I sing of starlight’s taste like nectar pure, of starlight’s chill like snow, of starlight’s scent like asphodel.
Story copyright © 2017 by Kathryn Weaver
Artwork copyright © 2017 by P. Emerson Williams
Kathryn Weaver is an artist, writer, and first reader at Strange Horizons, and she has previously published written work in Apex Magazine. In addition to previous issues of Lackington’s, her illustrations can be found in Metaphorosis, Persistent Visions, the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows anthology, and Crossed Genres: Hidden Youth. She lives in Minneapolis with her girlfriend and two birds.
P. Emerson Williams is an artist, musician, actor, and writer who works on a creative continuum that draws upon an interest in the arcane and esoteric. His passion is for embodying the mythic in visual media and melding visual art with narrative form. He has collaborated with writers James Curcio and Nathan Neuharth, and illustrated Bedlam Stories: The Battle of Oz and Wonderland Begins, the first novel in Pearry Teo’s series. As a musician he has worked with SLEEP CHAMBER, Jarboe, Manes, and kkoagulaa among many others.