I will be releasing my first novel in 2022, an as-yet unnamed collection of four intertwined novellas best described as gothic fantasy mixed with speculative memoir. (I do love a good genre-blend.) The world it is set in and the characters it involves are introduced in this short story – “Rabbit.”
The Old World is gone, the land tipped out of balance, but in the village, life must go on. Until the arrival of a stranger skews the scales once again.
In a rebuilt future that was once destroyed by war and climate disaster, a young girl has accepted her role as hunter, provider and protector in the wake of her father’s death. When her deaf younger sister is followed by a stranger, she does what she believes she must to keep her, and their village, safe.
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Rabbit © Copyright Tabatha Wood, 2021
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
This book is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. No reproduction may be made, whether by photocopying or by any other means, unless a licence has been obtained from the publisher or its agent.
Original cover artwork “Moon Dance” © Tabatha Wood, 2021
Independently published by Wild Wood Books
There, up ahead, I see it. A twitch in the undergrowth that shakes the leaves. A rustle and a shiver and a quick flash of movement. A brown-eyed reflection in the dying light. I hold my breath and listen carefully; hear the rhythmic thump of powerful feet wrapped in a soft fur coat.
I raise my hand and prepare my bow, recalling all the steps my pappy taught me. I stand straight-backed in an open stance, my left foot favouring my target, and settle the arrow on the shaft. I squeeze the grip like I might coax milk from our goats and grasp the bowstring with two fingers and my thumb. Then I lift my arm to shoulder height and pull the string back… back… as far as I can. Until I can kiss it with my chin.
My body is rooted, solid and still, but my heart races like the wind on the hills.
Steady. I remind myself. Stay calm. Go slow…
Another flash of movement. The twitch of a black nose. The creature reads the warnings, the signals in the air, savouring the scents on the breeze. It pauses. Pulls back. Have I spooked it?
Damn it, don’t bolt. Stay there.
It moves quickly, nervously, but I don’t think it has noticed me, hidden as I am amongst the trees. Emboldened, it bounds into the clearing and nibbles on the leaves of a small plant. It’s fat, but its fur is mangy, and one ear is completely gone. It happens sometimes, they’re born like that. They don’t care. I doubt they’re even aware.
I pause my breath and release my fingers from the bowstring. The string snaps forwards. The arrow flies free, and then the silence is shattered by a crash from behind me and a flurry of chaos ensues. The rabbit darts deep into the forest. A grey-white cloud of bobbin tail is all I see of it as it flees. The arrow thonks into the empty ground, vibrating as it releases its wasted energy.
The tree branches part like rolling clouds and Evie emerges. She is wide-eyed and grinning, her whole body shaking with excitement. I turn and scowl, throw my free hand in the air. She sees me and stops short.
“What?” Her loud voice sounds nasal, her vowels flat. It booms through the wooded valley. I motion to the arrow. She shrugs as if she doesn’t understand. I purse my lips and shake my head. I know she’s not that clueless. I use my fingers to mimic rabbits’ ears on the sides of my head, then raise one hand towards my lips to make a pantomime of eating.
She screws up her face in disgust. “Eugh. Why? Bad meat.”
I roll my eyes. It’s not like we have a lot of choices. Pappy always said you can’t live on it, that rabbit meat will eventually make you sick, but any warm-blooded creature can be a meal when needed.
I make sure she’s watching my face when I speak. Evie lost her hearing during her sixth winter. She got sick and then she got better, but whatever the sickness was that ailed her, it left her almost totally deaf. Eleven summers later, she can’t hear my voice unless I shout, but she can read my lips with great accuracy.
“It doesn’t matter, anyway. You scared it off.”
She gives a sheepish grin and yells, “Sorry, Ayla!” before motioning back to the way she’d come and flaps her hands in the air. “I saw a bird!”
Her speech may seem strange to some, but it’s not challenging. I’ve always been able to understand her. She’s excitable, certainly, and often clumsy, but she’s also incredibly smart. Hunting can be lonely, and I enjoy having her with me. She is good company when she’s not scaring my quarry away.
I gather my bow and retrieve the arrow from the grass. “You saw a bird?”
“Yeah. Big fat green one!” She links her thumbs together and makes a bird shape with her hands. Swoops them through the air.
I’ve seen a lot more of those recently. Green with flashes of dark blue and red. They nest in the higher branches but swoop down low to feed. There’s not much flesh on them under their feathers, useless to put over the fire, but perhaps if I could catch a few, they would make a pleasant addition to a stew.
“You want to hunt them?” she asks eagerly.
I look out beyond the valley towards the mountains. No, it’s too late now. The sun is fading, poised like a dancer balanced delicately on the horizon, ready to drift behind the hills. Everything will start to hide away for the evening and hunting in the dark is not optimal. We need to get back home safely ourselves. I shake my head and motion for Evie to follow me, and we pick our way through the woodland to the village.
Aunt Kira has a fire going. I can hear the crackle of the flames before I see them. She looks up expectantly when we arrive, but her face falls when she sees I’m empty-handed.
“Poor hunt?” She asks, a bitter edge to her voice.
“Blame Evie,” I say, and stash the bow with the rest of our tools. Dav and Bodhi, my younger brothers, sit cross-legged on the ground, stripping long, pointed flax leaves. They have piles of it already built up by their sides. The fibres are strong and good for many uses. They will make these into nets. Kira grunts in frustration and stirs a blackened, bubbling pot that’s suspended over the fire. No doubt filled with vegetables, maybe some old pig bones for flavour.
It’s been a while since I’ve caught fresh pig. They are angry and vicious creatures, difficult to kill with a bow. Pappy could take them down with his knife, slash their throats before they even knew what he’d done. I do my best with a sharpened spear, but the beasts seem wise to my intentions and keep well out of my way. Pappy always said I was too fragrant; they could smell me coming on the wind. Such scent is always strongest on my blood days when the moon is new, and my body feels like it is no longer under my control. Those days seek to remind me of what I could be, not who I really am.
I see more and more of them lately though. Pigs, goats, wild cats sometimes. Roaming the valley around the outskirts of the camp. Especially now the sky is turning blue.
Gramma Loula used to tell us stories, learned from her Mama Sara before her. Sara had seen and lived through the Great Change, but we lost those times in a violent past when the world was more cluttered and raw. People back then powered metal machines with black magic that rose from the sea. Our homeland, once kind, grew hot and barren, and soon the Wild Lands burned. As the air turned red, painted scarlet by the flames, the thick smoke choked the sun.
Gramma Loula said men built skyboats that rose high above the clouds. Their crew, the Builders, took a one-way trip to a new, untainted earth. They paved the way for the others to follow. Great cities beyond their wildest dreams. The Exodus, she said, was meant to save them. Instead, it condemned them all.
And yet, skyboats floating in the sky; whoever could imagine such a thing? Gramma Loula was born in the darkness, her history destroyed by the sea. I wondered sometimes if the ocean’s rage had reached in and ravaged her mind.
Kira spoons steaming lumps of something into a wooden bowl. Passes it to me.
“Bitta?” I ask.
She grimaces. “Yes. It’s all there is.”
Bitta. Pappy’s word for such a meal. A bit o’ this, and a bit o’ that. Mix it all up in a sauce. There’s no meat in it but tastes basically good and it’ll stave off the gnawing hunger.
The hunger and the Purging that came after the Great Change was brutal. Gramma Loula hates to speak of it at all. It took Mama Sara with poisoned ash; ash that still taints the land. My pappy didn’t realize his body was infected, that the ghosts were eating him from the inside. The sores on his skin were proof of his illness; deep, oozing wounds, which, no matter what we did, never fully healed. Gramma Loula said after his passing it wasn’t ghosts that had swallowed him but, “Fucking cancer!” A scourge far worse than the Purge itself.
Kira hands a bowl to Evie. She perches on the bench by the edge of the fire, takes an eager slurp, and moans when she burns her lips. I pat her on the elbow, so she looks at me and says, “At least it’s hot, huh?” I blow across the top of my own meagre meal. The fire throws flickering shadows on her face as she smiles and copies me.
Evie is my sister, but not of my blood. Her mama was old when she fell pregnant and was not in the best of health. Her pappy, I knew nothing about, only that he wasn’t there. I remember the screams from the hut that night. The sobs that followed a little later. Mama Dani took Evie in without a second thought.
Evie was small, and a sickly babe. The village ensured she was protected. My brothers were strong and independent, but Evie was much weaker. She needed me, and I loved her fiercely. I accepted my role as her big sister with pleasure, and she had bloomed and grown with every turn of the seasons. Now in the early stages of womanhood, although slight, she is just as strong as I.
I slurp a spoonful of food and the inside of my nose itches. I rub it and dislodge the thick layer of grey mud that’s smeared across my face. Flakes of it fall off into my food. It disintegrates before I can fish it out. I scowl in frustration and Evie laughs. Grey fragments crumble from her cheeks into her bowl. She doesn’t notice, or maybe she doesn’t care.
Mama Dani takes the mud from the lakeside, scooping handfuls of it into large pots. She mixes it with other things: herbs and animal fat that she’s melted to oil. She makes us wear it whenever we leave the camp or whenever we might not find shade. Without it, our skin is too sensitive. It blisters quickly in the unforgiving sun and burns an angry red. I am thankful that our village is in the forest, that the majestic trees enshroud our lives. We can breathe cleanly, inhale the fresh air. Unlike the nightwalkers, the Iksyop. Those who choose to live in the caves.
Our village has stood for many seasons — Gramma Loula was here when the first trees were felled. She helped to build the first huts. Now, there are more than I can count; more than all my fingers and toes twice over.
Pappy was born here, as were my brothers and I. Gramma Loula is our healer, as her mama was before her. She tended to Pappy when he got sick, made her hut into a healing house. She always encouraged me to continue her work, said I had a skill for it. But healing never interested me. I am too keen on the thrill of the hunt, providing food for my family, not medicine.
It was hard for me to see Pappy pass. To watch a big man fade away to nothing. The dread and despair, the feelings of failure, knowing I could not save him. Healing seems too hard for me, but hunting and killing come easy.
Evie passes her empty bowl back to Aunt Kira and says loudly, “Thank you.” Kira smiles and nods a reply. Evie comes and sits beside me. I put one arm around her and hold her close. She taps her chest three times with her fist, opens her hand and holds her palm over her heart. I return the gesture and kiss the top of her head, inhaling the scent of wood-smoke in her hair. We have done this ever since she was small, when her sickness had draped a thick blanket of silence over her world, and she was too frightened to talk. Three taps, three words. Our connection.
These moments won’t last, I can feel it. A day will come when she’s not here. She’ll say goodbye and leave me. I don’t know how or even when, but I know it as sure as the seasons turn and the sun and the stars rule the skies. I don’t like it, I’ll do anything I can to avoid it, but I also know how powerless I am against the choices of an unforgiving world.
Kira takes the pot from the fire. She will clean it in the lake behind the trees. That is her job, just as I have mine. As everyone in the village has theirs. Tomorrow, when the light returns, I will go out to hunt again.
My dreams are full of stars and fire. I climb to the tallest tree in the forest and leap from its furthermost branches. As the wind hits my skin, I sprout feathers from my arms, and I drift across land and water. Evie flies higher, a little further ahead. I hear her laughing as she spins in the air. I try to catch her, to take a hold of her hand, but she slips even further away.
A flash from the clouds makes me shriek in fear, a bold splash of lightning sears my eyes. I feel myself wheeling, descending at speed. My eyes are burning, and my thoughts are confused. I see only shadows and shapes all around me as I struggle to right myself. Another flash and I’m plunged into blackness, while Evie floats away on a silver cloud.
I wake up shouting with a hand on my shoulder, the sun not yet risen above the hills. A pale lilac glow sweeps through the room. It lights up Gramma Loula’s wrinkled face.
“Bad dreams?” she asks.
“Yes. Maybe. Strange ones,” I say.
“I see it coming, you know?” She whispers, lowering herself onto the end of my bed. She grimaces as if some part of her body pains her. “The change in the skies. In us.”
“In us?” I wriggle upright, push the blanket down off my chest.
“In us,” she repeats, then falls quiet. I watch as she fiddles with her long, grey braid, teasing the hair through her fingers.
“What do you mean?”
“My mama saw the earth die. The destruction and chaos that came from the air. She survived it despite all her losses.” She waves a hand. “You know all this; I’ve told you before.” I nod my acknowledgment, but I’m curious. “My mama and I—your pappy too—we all lived through the worst of it. By the time you and your brothers arrived, we’d had plenty of chances to learn from our mistakes. To live, not merely survive.
“My mama’s world pined for what they’d lost. Mine learned to live with what was left. Between the rising seas and the blazing skies, we had to learn quickly. We did as we must when we had to. Such were the ways of the Old World. Razed by war and left to rot.”
“What is it you see coming?” I ask her, but her expression grows distant. Her thoughts are far away. She ponders for a long time before replying.
“Do you ever think about the future, Ayla?” She sucks her teeth and stares at me, sharp-eyed and intense.
“The future? What do you mean?”
“The future of the village. Of our people? Do you think about what might be out there, past the breakers? Beyond the waves?”
I know where this is going, this line of thought. A dark place that she slips into whenever she remembers her father. The wars of the Old World stole so many things, but what came after, what was worse, was the loneliness. Blink-fast communication with other villages — not those in caves or merely past the mountains, but with places further than the eye could see — shut down in an instant and destroyed. Wheelpods left to turn orange and brown, their surfaces flaked and decaying. It was a way of living, so taken for granted, few knew what to do. They stopped living when the lights went out. Great Grandpappy Maurice, long gone before I was born, took a sailboat with six others. None of them ever returned.
These are the stories, the words I’ve been told, and while I struggle to understand, I see the pain behind Gramma Loula’s eyes and I wonder what it must have been like.
“I don’t think about what’s ahead of me,” I tell her. “I know it’ll come soon enough.”
She laughs, a deep and throaty cackle, and shakes her head as if she were shaking drops of rain from her hair. “Oh yes, it’ll come soon enough,” she says. “It always does. Even so, you should be ready.”
“What for? What do you think will happen?”
“What always happens, Ayla. The end of the cycle. The last sleep.”
“Everything ends, Gramma Loula. Even us.” I say.
She watches me with her deep, dark eyes. “You miss your Pappy, don’t you?”
I feel a lump start to rise in my throat. “You know I do.”
“He was so fiercely proud of you, you know? Even if he didn’t say it very much.”
In my youth, I believed I was a massive disappointment to him. Not what he’d wanted or expected, ever since the moment of my first bleed. I’d done my best to be what he needed, to prove to him what I was worth. How I felt unfinished, in a hand-me-down skin. Betrayed by the body I wore. Much later, I understood, I was wrong to assume. He knew exactly who I was before I did. He just didn’t have the words to explain.
I take a deep breath before answering, making sure I hid the shudder in my voice. “I know. I really do. But sometimes… Sometimes, I wish he’d said it more.”
I hear a noise at the door. Evie stands in the entrance, rubbing her dreams from her eyes. Her thick hair hangs loose around her shoulders. The sun elbows its way into the room and its rays tint the ends orange. I forget sometimes how beautiful she is. How strong, although her frame is half the size of mine.
“Gramma Loula? Ayla? Is it time to eat now?”
Gramma Loula stands and throws her arms wide, beckons Evie to come to her. She giggles and scurries into the embrace. Gramma Loula holds her tight. I crawl out of bed and pad barefoot to the food store. Mama Dani has baked sweet potato bread, sprinkled with green and black seeds. I tear off a chunk and chew it. Thoughtful. Gramma Loula’s words rolling round in my head.
I leave Evie in the village when I go hunting. I want some time on my own. She stays with Kira weaving the flax, making baskets or maybe mats. The fresh mud on my face feels scratchy already, dried out in the heat. I wrinkle my nose to soothe the itch, wiggling it from side to side.
Just like a rabbit testing the air. I think with a wry smile. But I’m not a rabbit, I’m a predator. I am a hunter, stalking prey. Rabbits run without looking and make stupid mistakes. They are weak where I am strong.
I walk away from the village towards the mountains, take a drink from the lake as I pass by. The air is still and unusually quiet and the ripples on the water sound loud. I cup my palms together and sip from my hands. I stay low, hidden by the reeds.
A violent flapping of wings makes me jump, and a brown shape tinted with streaks of blue swoops across the water’s surface. It opens its beak and the quacking noise it makes is unmistakable as it echoes around the lake’s edge.
How long has it been since I’ve seen one of these? Maybe, like the green birds, such creatures are returning. Pappy could do great things with them, not a single piece wasted. Meat and feathers, and bones and fat. Everything had a use.
I stay hidden amongst the plants and grip my bow, an arrow already poised to find its target. And then I see her, a little way off in the distance, across the other side of the lake. At first, I think she’s come to find me, but then I realize she’s not alone.
I can’t see their face from this distance, but I know the gait of every member of our village, and whoever this gangly, lolloping figure is, they are unknown to me. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. They walk a little way behind her. She appears calm, completely unaware. And the panic slams into my chest like a rock.
She won’t hear them. They’re creeping up behind her and she won’t hear them!
It’s instinctive now. The bow feels like a part of me, an extension of my reach. I grip the bowstring and slide it back; take aim and hold my breath. As the arrow leaves the string, I feel myself exhale, watch as it glides through the air. It punctures the ground an arm’s length from the stranger, and they jolt backward and yell in surprise. It’s a warning shot; I meant to miss. I want to scare them, so Evie has time to run.
Except, it is the stranger who runs and straight towards her, not away. They grab her roughly around the waist, lifting her off the ground. My fingers nock a second arrow without thinking. I stand and take aim and pull on the bowstring. This time I won’t miss.
The arrow finds its target in her attacker’s shoulder, and their screams are shrill and desperate. They lose their grip on Evie and bend over in pain. She stumbles as she is half-thrown to the ground, but to my surprise, she does not run away. Instead, she embraces the stranger and comforts them as they cry. She turns and shouts in my direction.
“Ayla? Don’t shoot! He’s a friend!”
A friend? She knows this person?
I dash across the clearing; my bow smacks my hip as I run. I try not to think too hard about what I’ve done.
You shot somebody, Ayla. You might have killed them. A stranger, yes, not someone you know, but still… Not an animal and not by accident. You hurt another person. By choice.
The wound is not bad, or at least, it’s not fatal. The stranger slumps on the grass and wails. A teenage boy, maybe a little older than Evie, with a sallow complexion and wispy hair. I note the absence of mud on his skin. See the angry red patches on his arms and neck where the sun has stung his flesh.
He goes to pull at the arrow shaft, but Evie stops him, taking his hand in hers.
“No. Leave it in. Or you’ll bleed out.” She glares at me, tears of rage in her eyes. “Why’d you shoot him?” she demands.
“I thought he was going to hurt you! Do you know him? Who is he?”
“This is Aaron. My boyfriend.”
“Boyfriend?!” I can scarcely conceal my surprise. “Since when?”
“No time for that now. We need to get back to the village. Gramma Loula will know what to do.”
“We can’t take a stranger back to the village. You know that. It’s against the rules! Where’s he from?” She points to the mountains with one hand and strokes Aaron’s cheek with her other.
“The mountains? The caves? He’s Iksyop!”
Of course he is. His pallor is that of a nightwalker, one who avoids the sun by choice. But he is in the sun’s reach now, and burning quickly as well as being wounded.
There are rules that must not be broken. Rules that keep us safe, that keep us whole. Pappy told us we must always remember: our village, our family, our strength. But I can’t let him die. Not like this. Not when it’s my fault that he’s injured.
Damn it. I don’t have a choice.
“Aunt Kira is going to spit,” I say, and thrust my hands under the boy’s armpits, hauling him to his feet. We each take a side, supporting him as we walk. With each step, he howls like an injured dog. There will be no chance for our arrival to be discrete.
“He’s very loud.”
“Yeah.” Evie grins.
“Is he deaf too?”
“No. Just loud. I like that.”
They’re waiting for us at the end of the trail; Mama Dani, Aunt Kira, and a few others. Their faces full of concern and alarm. I open my mouth to explain, to apologize, but Kira tells me to hush and follow her.
“Leave the boy, come now,” she says, “while you still have time.”
I’m confused, but Mama Dani plucks at my arm, slides the bow and my quiver from my back. Pappy’s friend, Old Jonah, takes the injured boy and leads him away. Evie tries to follow, but Kira blocks her way.
“No. She’s been asking for you both.”
I realize with a jolt what Kira means, and I run to our hut at full pelt. In her bed by the corner, settled in a nest of rolled-up blankets, lies Gramma Loula. Her mouth is open, but her eyes are closed. Her lids flicker as I enter and whisper her name, my cheeks already damp with tears.
“Ayla?” Her voice is barely a croak. I hear Evie enter behind me and gasp as she takes it all in.
“I’m here, Gramma Loula.” I take her hand. It feels cold and fragile, like a tiny bird’s wing.
“It’s here, Ayla, the end of the cycle. Time for my last sleep.”
“No, Gramma Loula, I don’t understand. You’re not sick, are you?”
“My dear one, old age is a harsh mistress. What she changes in you, you can’t cure. But I’m grateful that I’ve had all this time. It’s so much more than I ever expected.”
Evie sits beside me on the bed and takes her other hand. “Are you tired, Gramma Loula?” Evie booms.
Gramma Loula chuckles. “Oh, I am. Very, very tired.”
“Ayla always says if you’re tired you should rest.” She looks at me, but I can’t meet her gaze.
“I plan to, Evie. I do.” Gramma Loula coughs and her body shakes. Her eyes are wet and dark. “You need to look after yourselves now. The world is big, and this village is so small. A change is coming, I can feel it. Be a part of it, both of you. Embrace the blue.”
“I will, Gramma Loula. I promise,” Evie says, and kisses her cheek. “You go to sleep now. We’ll see you soon.” Gramma Loula smiles at us both. I feel her squeeze my palm, faintly, oh so faintly. Three times before she shuts her eyes.
And I cry until I don’t think I can cry anymore.
Pappy nods his approval as I lower my bow with shaking hands. I see the arrow in the distance, sticking upright from the ground. But its tip is not stuck in dirt or grass, it is buried in the side of an animal. A creature that, until a few moments ago, had been breathing and eating and… alive. Pappy puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Well done, Ayla, your first kill. I knew you could do it.” He picks up the dead rabbit and hands it to me. It’s still soft and warm, and I sob uncontrollably, overcome with guilt. I am horrified that I am capable of doing such a thing. I wish I could turn back the clock.
“I know it’s hard,” he tells me, gently. “But it’s necessary. The inevitable way of the new world. Don’t you worry, it gets much easier.”
Aunt Kira stands beside me. There are stories to be told and explanations to be made. “I will finish here,” she says. “Do as need to be done. Loula was wise and taught you well, I’m sure. Now though, you must tend to the boy.” She bustles Evie and me from the hut. Mama Dani enters as we leave.
“He’s with Jonah,” she tells me. “Follow the screams.” I listen, and sure enough, I can hear him yelling. At the hut, Dav and Bodhi come to embrace me. They feel the loss just as keenly as I do. We share a moment of bitter, helpless grief before Aaron moans and interrupts our poor comfort.
“He won’t let me near him,” Jonah says. “He keeps squealing like a damned stuck pig.”
“It’s okay. I can do it. Can you get me clean water and bandages? Bodhi, fetch me some heartleaf, grind the leaves into a paste. Dav, I need some flax thread and a bone needle.” I stand in front of Aaron. Evie holds his hands in hers. The boy is so consumed by his pain, I’m not sure he knows she is there.
Damn you, Gramma Loula. Is this what you meant? Was this the change you saw coming for me?
I’m a hunter first, not a healer, but despite my many protestations, I have skills in both. Gramma Loula made me help her enough times and I know what to do. The arrowhead is embedded in his flesh, but I can’t be certain if it has impacted the bone.
“This is really going to hurt,” I tell him, and I take a firm hold of the shaft and twist. He screams so loud it makes my ears ring, but the arrow moves freely in my fist. “Good, that’s good. It makes things easier.” I inspect the wound more closely, see the edges of the arrowhead just visible beneath the skin. With luck, it will come out as easily as it went in. If it doesn’t, I’ll have to cut it out of him.
I twist it again and pull as hard as I can. It’s stubborn, but I am determined. The wound weeps as the arrowhead emerges and Jonah hands me a cloth to stem the flow. “Almost over now, Aaron,” I tell him. I glance at his face, wondering how the boy could possibly look even paler than he did when I first laid eyes on him, and then he slides backward and passes out.
“About time,” Jonah says with a wry laugh. “The boy sure could bellow some.”
With the arrow free, I pack the wound with heartleaf, stitch the broken skin and wind a bandage around his chest. Only time will tell if that is good enough. If I am good enough.
There are questions, of course, which I can’t answer, and Evie refuses to leave his side. When he comes around, Mama Dani gives him some peppery bark to chew and ease his pain, and Jonah helps me move him to the healing hut.
He is Iksyop, his village is carved deep within the mountains, a broad labyrinth of caves inside the rock. He dislikes the caves and craves the sunlight, although it hurts him and makes his skin sore.
The older members of his village think him mad, but there are a few others like him who want more. Those who don’t want to spend their whole lives in the caves. Who know they don’t need to hide. His pappy is long gone like ours is, and his mama lives with another man. He likes him and is happy his mama’s not alone, but he wants to have a place of his own.
It was the birds that led him to Evie. He would sit for hours in the forest watching them, until their paths crossed, purely by chance.
“I’d never seen someone so beautiful,” he says. “So unusual and interesting. When she laughed, she sometimes scared away the birds, but that didn’t matter to me.”
“How long have you two been together?” I ask.
“Six moons,” Evie says. “Gramma Loula knew.”
“Gramma Loula knew you had a boyfriend?”
“Yeah. She liked him. Said he looked brave.”
I can’t help but laugh. “He looked brave? Wait, she met him?”
She nods. “Yes. Lots of times. His Great Grandpappy Armie went out on a boat with Grandpappy Maurice. They hunted together and explored the other islands, places out there beyond the sea. They went together on Maurice’s last journey. Gramma Loula told us all the stories she knew. She said maybe it was fate we met.” She turns and smiles at Aaron. There is no doubt their love is undeniable. “We have plans, Ayla,” she says quietly, unusually so for her. “Aaron and his friends have built a boat. They want to go out and see things for themselves. See what’s out there.” She sighs deeply before continuing. “I want to go too.”
For a second it feels like my heart stops, and I can’t seem to draw a breath. “You want to leave me?”
“No, I don’t want to leave you. I want to go see things. Don’t be sad, Ayla. Gramma Loula said the world is big. You know there’s more out there than just our village. That we should embrace the blue. That’s what I want. And it’s time.”
“If you go, I can’t protect you. I can’t keep you safe anymore!” I hear an edge of hysteria in my voice, but my anxiety is lost on her. Her face crinkles as she smiles.
“I know. But you don’t have to. Aaron showed me I have wings. I need to learn how to use them. I need to know I can fly. You understand?”
I do. It pains me so much to realize it, but I do.
“When will you leave?”
“Soon. I was bringing Aaron to the village when you shot him.” I grimace and feel my cheeks turn red. “We were coming to tell everyone. The boat is ready. There’s no reason to stay.”
“None at all?” I snap, more cruel than I intended.
“Ayla. Please, stop. This is not about you. You know, when you catch a rabbit in a net, it panics and struggles. It does everything it can to get out. Eventually, when it gets too tired, it gives up and accepts its fate. I don’t want to end up like that.”
“You’re not trapped here, Evie! The village gives you everything you need!”
“Exactly! It gives me everything except the freedom I need. I… I am not as weak as you think I am. I don’t need rescuing, or protecting, or to be wrapped up in soft blankets in case I hurt myself. I’m tired of being the only one who doesn’t have a role. Who needs someone with them just to leave the village!” She turns away from me and takes Aaron’s hand.
“You of all people know how it feels to want more from life, Ayla. To be seen for who you are. You take the roles others’ hand down to you—hunter, healer, daughter, sister—but you never seem sure what you want.”
I scoff and furrow my brow. “Am I the rabbit then, Evie?” I shout back. “Is that it? If I stay here and do what everyone else wants, I may as well be trapped and skinned? Put in a pot and stewed!”
Aaron shakes his head but will not meet my gaze. “Please don’t be angry with her.”
“We haven’t even buried Gramma Loula yet, and already she’s running away! How can I not be angry? Everyone I love leaves me, Evie! What am I supposed to feel?”
She turns, and even though there is no way she could have heard me or seen the words I’ve spat angrily at her back, she looks me straight in the eyes and replies; three taps on her chest with a fist before holding her hand over her heart.
My dreams are heavy and unfamiliar. I see things I’ve never seen before. Gramma Loula’s words, her strange prophecy. They spin around in my head like dead leaves in the dirt caught in a mischievous wind. Skyboats float on waves of cloud, drifting through the sky with moonlit sails. I look and see Evie waving from the prow, her eyes gleaming like bright stars. I return her gesture, see the feathers on my arms. Blue and green and red.
“Jump, Ayla!” she shouts, and I want to, I really do. But I look down and my feet have grown long and swollen; they are stone-heavy and swathed in grey fur.
“I can’t,” I reply. “My place is here in the village. I’m sorry. I’ll be here if you need me. Always.”
When the boat leaves, two villages are there to see it off. Aunt Kira helps the Iksyop cover their delicate skin with lake mud, gives them jar after jar to keep safe in the hold. Dav and Bodhi offer woven mats for shade, Mama hands them giant bunches of dried herbs.
Evie looks different somehow, taller and more confident. She fills the space around her as if she has an energy. A quiet strength I’d never noticed in her before.
“I wish Pappy and Gramma Loula could see you now,” I tell her.
“Who says they can’t?” she replies. “And you too.” The clouds break to reveal a purple-pink sky, smeared with splashes of blue. She fixes me with a curious expression, then reaches out to place her palm over my heart. “Hunter, healer, daughter, sister. You’re all of those, Ayla, and so much more. The village is so lucky to have you.”
We cry and we laugh, and we hug each other, sharing breath as our bodies entwine. I inhale deeply, trying to memorize her scent. I remember the wood-smoke in her hair.
“Embrace the blue,” I whisper, although I know she can’t hear. The words are to soothe me more than her. Then behind her, there, I see it. A twitch in the undergrowth that shakes the leaves. A rustle and a shiver and a quick flash of movement—a brown-eyed reflection in the shining light. A quivering nose tests the morning air. Exploring the fresh changes on the breeze. It moves out into the clearing, bold and unafraid, and flicks its one good ear with a paw.