by Mari Ness
The scientist is arguing with my father about me again.
I am supposed to be asleep, but at the sound of their angry voices, I get up, creeping from my little bedroom, through the great room, and then down the rickety stairs, and behind the waverunner and the charcoal grill my father keeps stored beneath the house. This is as close as I am going to get: they are standing in the clearing, far from the mangroves and palm trees, and will see me if I get any closer. I strain to hear the voices, sometimes catching only fragments:
“…can’t keep her here forever….
“…bone structure…normal….wouldn’t even be….surgery…”
Surgery is a word I know. Sometimes it fixes people. Sometimes it kills them. Blue and green lights flash before my eyes, and I sway a little and miss the next few sentences. When I can hear again, their voices are louder.
“It’s not forever. Just until she’s ready.”
“She’s ready now.”
“She can barely even look at a boat.”
“Because you –”
“No. I’ve asked. Look, I don’t know what happened or how much she remembers. All I know is she wants to stay here.”
“That’s because you’ve somehow filled her head with the idea that –”
“No,” my father says heavily. “Why do you think I keep telling her tales or other places?”
Another sound I can’t identify. “You can’t leave this up to her.”
“I have to.”
“Does she even realize?”
“She’s seen pictures.”
When her father found her, hours later, she was red and blistered all over, and could barely speak. She had been saved from worse only by a passing cloud, stronger than the sun.
My father is right: I have seen pictures. In our little house, high up on stilts, we have postcards and books filled with pictures of other places, other worlds, funny stories of cats who come into houses and make messes of everything, and stories of princesses and girls who live in impossibly tall buildings or travel to cities where everything is built from bright emerald, a color like but not quite like the mangrove leaves. I’m not sure if these are the pictures the scientist means. I am sure I would like a cat, but that is the one thing my father will not allow. A cat on this island would kill all the little lizards and the birds. I can have a cat only if I go another island, or the mainland.
I draw a picture of a cat instead. It is clumsy, and not very good, because I am not very good at holding a pencil, but I put it up on my wall anyway.
When the little girl was told that the passing cloud had shielded her from the sun, and kept her from burning all, all, up, she determined to marry a cloud, stronger than the sun.
My father tells me that the scientist is leaving. She had something called a grant, which had run out, the way I often run out the door, or run down the three paths that crisscross the island. I can go to her hut now if I want, and play there while he goes diving, or I can stay here, or play on the beach.
So she climbed to the roof of her house, which was balanced on high stilts to keep it safe from the sea, ready to marry the wind.
I should of course be going to school. Instead, I have my father’s stories, and what he brings me from his trips to those other islands. Cookies. A pie. Fresh fruit, carried to that island by something called trucks. New clothing. A tiny glass necklace that sparkles in the sun. Books filled with tales of talking cats and bears and princesses and girls that travel to cities made of emerald, which is a color brighter even than the mangrove leaves in full sun. And sometimes, in the air, reminders of other people: airplanes, which my father claims are even bigger than a mangrove tree when on the ground, and tiny bright moving lights that he calls satellites. He would know: he has traveled on many planes, or so his stories say.
On our rickety shelves he displays his treasures, gathered from around the world. First, a small wooden box that smells of things I cannot identify, with pictures of a two women bending over a fish on its lid. On the sides of the box, the women leap into the water and follow the fish, down into the sea, encountering a head of a creature my father calls a dragon. The box never tells us what happens after the dragon, but I like to think that they gave the fish to the dragon, and rode it through the ocean, to some small island safe from the sea.
The box was used, my father said, to store spices and other things years and years ago. He found it in an island much larger than this one, one with high speed trains and tall buildings and temples and gardens and hot springs and snow. I cannot imagine most of this, even when he shows me pictures, even when my hands curl around the box and its carved pictures push into my palms.
Next to this, a brown teapot with the image of a leaf from the same island, but one which has traveled greatly since: my father found it, he tells me, stained with crystals of salt, thousands of miles away from where it was first made. The person who sold it to him lived in a shop on a twisted little street in a city so old I cannot even imagine it. Older than anything on our island except for the limestone beneath us. Probably older than most of the reef around the island, which keeps growing and dying, growing and dying. When I hold it in my hands I can almost imagine the people who have held it before me: boys and girls, men and women, each pouring a small cup of sweet or bitter tea for a friend or an enemy.
And more: A jar of black glass, that when lifted into sunlight changes, into colors so deep and so beautiful that I cannot imagine anything more glorious in the world. My father names the colors one by one: turquoise, amethyst, emeralds, the colors, he tells me, of deep gems that I may see some day, on other islands or on the mainland, or if I agree to dive with him down into the reef. I shake whenever he says this, hoping he doesn’t notice, turning my attention to the stopper instead, which is carved with some sort of flying beast. It was once filled, he said, with a salt that could cure anything, and remove all tears.
“Anything,” my father agrees, looking over the sea.
He found the jar a tiny town high up in a mountain – a mountain, I repeat, letting the word roll over my tongue. I have never seen one of those, either, although he has shown me pictures, and told me his stories of climbing them. Next to it, a fine piece of cloth, so delicate and slender that it can be pulled through a tiny ring. It was worn by a girl whose sister tamed a fire elemental, my father told me, which is why in the sun, it blazes like fire, and even at night, it holds its heat. She wore it to marry a prince, and her daughter married a prince, and her daughter, and so on down a long line of daughters and princes.
“If I wear it, will I marry a prince?”
He gives me a quick hug. “Princes these days aren’t worth it. All they do is waste money or get their wives killed by idiot photographers –” My eyes widened at that one, sensing a story, but he went on before finishing it. “You can do much better than a prince.”
“I can marry the sun,” I said.
“The sun is much better than a prince,” my father agrees.
Beside those, a pair of white and blue sandals – no, chappals, my father called them; I run the lovely word over my tongue – faded with age. They had belonged to a pair of princesses long ago who had rescued a princess and a prince. Back then, the chappals would allow anyone who wore them to run faster than the wind, like the seven leagued boots in my big picture book of fairy tales, only in that land, my father explains, their fairies gave out sandals, because of the heat.
“Can I use them now?”
My father shakes his head. “They lost their magic long ago, after the princesses had turned to dust.” I imagine dresses falling into a dust pile on the ground. “Besides which, it hardly takes you that long to run from one side of the island to the other.”
Until she saw the way that every cloud was blown away by wind, stronger than the clouds, stronger than the sun.
I ask him about my mother.
“I don’t know, darlin’. I wish I knew.”
For my father not to tell a story is sheer terror. I do not dare ask again.
And so the little girl determined to marry the wind, which was stronger than the clouds, stronger than the sun. She did not try to catch the wind, but waited for the wind to come to her island.
My father is right about the time it takes me to run around the island, although in part that is because I do not have very much island to run around. It is a small place – about three miles long, and a half mile wide, and most of it is lined with thick mangroves, far too dense to walk through, much less run. The mangroves keep the sea from the island, though, and provide shade and, my father tells me, places for baby fish to grow. We also have a tiny beach with a narrow boat dock, and pathways snaking through the island to the two huts on either end, lifted up on stilts to be out of the reach of insects and the sea.
I know, because my father has told me, that the islands nearby are like this one, flat and low against the water. The islands he tells stories of, the ones with tall mountains and deep valleys and rushing waterfalls, like the ones in the book, are further away. Much further away. Some are so far away that they see the sun when we see the stars. Sometimes I dream of those far islands, and then dream of diving from a mountain deep into an ocean, and turning into fish. Other times I think I can just see the islands close to us, dark and grey against the ocean. But when I look too long, all I can see is clouds, and our small island, against the sea.
The smallness of the island is not very comforting when the wind starts to blow.
And the wind came, and blew, and blew.
I am standing on the edge of the boat dock – the part over the sand, not the part heading out into the sea, where I will not walk – when I see them: tight, fast moving, circle clouds. Shortly after that, I am hit by a rain like nothing I have ever felt, except for the needles my father sometimes uses when he is conducting tests on me and other things. I run back to our house and up its stairs, even as the wind nearly knocks me over.
My father looks worried, more so than I have ever seen him. He has cranked up the radio, and the sound of voices interspersed with hissing fills the room as he bends over a map and puts dots on it. He does not smile when he sees me.
“The –” I start.
He doesn’t let me finish. “Looks like a pretty bad storm out there, sweetheart.” He takes a deep breath. “They usually recurve before they get here, but this one doesn’t seem to be doing that quite yet. Wanna help me tie some things down?”
I almost never get to help. I nod eagerly.
The next few hours are exhausting, moving things, tying things, looking with some concern at the boat. We will spend the storm in the hut, which may shake in the wind, but will keep us high above the incoming sea.
I pause when he says that. “The sea?”
“Storm like this can blow the ocean right across the island.” Something must be showing in my face. “No worries,” he tells me, poking at the webbing between my fingers, just before he goes to drag the mattress from his bed. “We’ll be fine.”
So strong was that wind that it blew the very waves into her island, and over it, and swept everything into the air so that it pounded against the little house on the stilts, breaking its roof and windows, sending coconuts and twigs flying over her head and slamming into her arms and legs. So strong was that wind that she found herself huddling against a rock, a thin mattress thrown over her body, clinging to the earth even as the rain pounded into her. And it blew and it blew and blew until she could not stop crying, not stop shaking, her tears mingled with the rain, and she knew that nothing could ever be more powerful than the wind.
When the salt water reaches my hands, I scream.
For nothing had stopped the wind, nothing at all. When it finally left, in a mess of clouds and rains, half the island was gone, washed into the sea, and most of the mangroves, and the palm trees on what was left had been bent or flattened. And the house on stilts was gone, with all of her father’s treasures that had been her toys: the blue and white chappals, the old tea pot, the delicate sarong, the black glass jar that had held all the colors of fire and sky, the spicebox with its tale of women and a dragon. She was too big to cry, and she was alive, and safe, and the wind was gone and the sea had retreated, and still she cried and cried.
I am still shaking and dazed when I find my father, trapped beneath some of the rubble. I pull and tug and tug and pull, salt and water staining my face, until he is freed enough that he can help me drag him out. His face is a sickly grey I have never seen before, and I find myself crying again. This is all my fault, all my fault, and I can’t even help him.
“Hey,” my father whispers, touching my hands. “It’s gonna be ok.”
“I don’t know,” he says. “But I do know we can both think of things more powerful than the wind.” He struggles to sit up, ends up flopping back down. More salt is on my face. “Now,” he adds. “People do know we’re out here, and they will be sending somebody to check on us. Do you think you can put up some sort of flag or signal out on the beach – maybe write S.O.S. in the sand – so they come a little quicker?”
“I can think of things more powerful than the wind,” her father had said.
But she could not, until one day, when she had returned to the beach (much smaller now, with its sand stolen by wind and sea) to see her father’s treasures on the sand: the blue and white chappals, more faded than ever; the old tea pot, now encrusted with salt; the delicate sarong, which now had gained the brightness of the orange sponges that clung to the mangroves; the black glass jar, now filled with the color of the sea. And the spicebox,now encrusted with salt, with its image of a dragon almost gone. She held them all in her hands, and wept again. The wind had taken her treasures, but the ocean – the ocean had given them back.
In my father’s tales, he sometimes speaks of finding me in a city, a place that was once a sleepy place beneath the sun, of how that very sun made it grow and become encrusted with concrete and steel, so that even in the wind and rain, green things struggle to rise from the earth. I hear an anger in his voice as he says this, before he continues on to tell me of the mansions further up the mainland, standing proud against the ocean and the wind. The mansions where he used to work, before he came here on this island. With me.
But more often he tells me of how he dove deep down into the reef, to marvel at the creatures hidden within, and how a flash of purple and yellow caught his eyes. How he held as still as he could, beneath the water, as the tiny fish approached. A fairy basslet, he called it, rare in the reefs near our island. Of how, as it neared, he could see the great streaks down the side of the fish, wounds from some creature he could not identify, though in each telling he named a different creature. Of how, knowing it was impossible – for what fish could breathe, outside of the sea? – he cupped the tiny fish in his hands, and slowly rose to the surface, where he swam to the island. Our island.
And sometimes he tells me of diving deep into the reef, to steal one of the worms that look like dancing flowers, to bring it back to our island, and of how, once he climbed up to the sands, the worm was no longer a worm, but a small child. Or how within one of the great barrel like sponges he saw a shrimp dancing in the swirling water, and how he thought it might make a fine pet.
In all of his stories, once he stepped upon the – our – island, he found a small girl with blue green hands clinging to his neck.
And so she determined to marry the ocean, which was stronger than the wind, stronger than the clouds, stronger than the sun.
I have to make several trips, but in the end, I save all of my father’s treasures, placing them carefully in a large yellow plastic box that somehow escaped all the destruction. I tell my father, and he almost manages a smile. I dig a can of soda out from under the rubble and bring that to him. I do not tell him that we are almost out of food, since nearly all of our supplies were destroyed by either the ocean or the wind.
Then, for the first time that I can remember, I step into the ocean.
It was very easy, to marry the sea. She only had to walk to the beach, the sarong tied about her neck, and step into the sea, and let the current take her where it would. She knew, for her father had told her, that the current around the island was very strong indeed, that he could, when diving for grouper or snorkeling in the mangroves, merely let the current take him past the roots. And so she let the current take her, thinking it would be simple, thinking of the smile on her father’s face when he saw her married to the ocean.
But she did not know how to swim, and as the current pulled her, she began to panic. The ocean dragged at her, pulling her down, stronger than the wind, stronger than the clouds, stronger than the sun. Until she remembered her father’s tales of swimming and snorkeling near these mangroves, of how one time he had been stung by coral of a fiery hue, that had left deep stinging marks up and down his leg, how the shock had made him almost unable to think, and certainly unable to move, but how he had allowed himself to drift into the mangrove roots, how he had clung to them and somehow dragged himself up a little, and how, eventually, a boat had drifted by to rescue him.
And remembering, she let the current drag her into what mangrove roots remained, right into a raised root, and grabbed – grabbed – it hurt, it hurt a lot, but she had it in her strong webbed hands. She was holding on to the tree, and she was safe. She was going to be safe. Her father’s story had been stronger than the ocean, stronger than the wind, stronger than the clouds, stronger than the sun.
Three days later, the scientist arrives in a speedboat loaded with food and spare clothes and above all, water. She apologizes for taking so long, but we would not believe the roads and the mess at all of the ports, and along the Intracoastal. (She is right. I don’t believe the roads, since I am still not certain I believe in roads.) She helps get my father’s arm in a sling and does something to his leg before telling me that she needs to take him to something called a hospital, but once there, he will be all well.
I carefully put our treasures into a bright yellow plastic box, and then help her get him into her boat. I clamber in after him. She hardly seems to notice, but my father does.
“Not scared anymore?” my father says.
I snuggle against him. “There are things more powerful than the ocean,” I say. “Tell me a story?”
And as the speedboat hurries off to other islands, he does.
And when the little girl returned to the island and held the spicebox in her hands again, she began to laugh and laugh. The figures on the spicebox moved against her hands, telling her story, stronger than the ocean, stronger than the wind, stronger than the clouds, stronger even than the sun.
BIO: Mari Ness lives in central Florida, with a still scraggly rose garden that she’s hoping to bring magic to. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, including Fantasy, Cabinet des Fées, and Ideomancer. She keeps a disorganized blog at mariness.livejournal.com, or you can follow her on Twitter at mari_ness.
The featured remixed photograph of the mangroves of Laguna de la Restinga on Margarita Island, off the coast of Venezuela is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Declaration by Wilfredor.