The girl held the freckled hand for hours; long past the moment it first began to grow cold. She sat on a stool next to the bed with a sheepskin wrapped around her shoulders, yet still she shivered, for nothing but embers remained of the fire in the clay pit. The bodies of her aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbours lay scattered about the hamlet, some still in their beds, some on the floor of their houses, some waiting on the burial ground. Those who died early, her father and brothers and sister among them, rested in peace beneath the earth. A terrible silence squatted, troll-like, over the village. The dogs harried the corpses until the girl threw stones at them, and then they disappeared to the hills. The two shepherd boys either ran off or died, and the sheep had wandered away. Even the few remaining chickens refrained from squawking. When she had gonedown to the river to get water yesterday, the cries of a pair of early-nesting ravens startled her, but now they, too, were silent. Her swollen eyes felt sand-filled. With her free hand she touched her neck, her armpit, her groin. Nothing.
Her mother’s mouth had fallen open; the skin sagging and mottled, the eyes half-closed. Her hair, once the color of autumn barley in the sunlight, lay flat and tangled, and a small brown spider tiptoed through the lank strands. Soon her flame-bright mother would not look like her mother at all. The girl had tried to lure death to her by sitting very still, but death would not come. She could not change the web of wyrd.
The girl closed her eyes and tried to let go of her mother’s hand, but the fingers had stiffened. The rigid claw would not budge and with her heart pounding in her ears, she used force. The stool tipped and the girl thumped on the floorboards. There were more tears then.
She crawled to her bed and imagined her sister’s soft scent in the straw-stuffed linen mattress. She rolled over, covered herself with a fur and stared at the whitewashed wall. The restless dead swirled through the air, hopping from rafter to rafter, their fingers at the shutters, their wails on the wind, their chill breath on her cheek. She thought how easy, how comforting, it would be to go mad. She wondered if she could open herself to it and willed her muscles to relax, her mind to slacken. Like a great ragged owl, despair swooped down, spreading tattered wings. She shrieked, shielded her head with her arms, and curled into a weeping ball until she fell into a sort of sleep. Or, she assumed she slept, for there stood her mother, at the end of the bed, wearing a yellow tunic held at the shoulders with garnet brooches. The girl tried to rise and rush into her mother’s arms, but she could not move. Arms, legs, hands, fingers, head – all pinned by a cruel, enchantment. She wanted to call out, but her voice was tight in her mouth. Her mother held out her hands—pale, freckled, and calloused. Her hair lay unbraided on her shoulders, shining like sunlight. Surely she’d come to take her daughter to the hall of the gods. And yet it appeared her mother could come no closer than the end of the bed, though her grey eyes pleaded. It took everything the girl had to move even a finger. Not enough. Trapped as an ant in amber. Her mother’s lips moved, silently, and still the girl heard her.
The dead cannot stay with the living. The living cannot come with the dead. Child, you must walk…
The bed tilted, the earth slipped, and the girl slid into darkness.
** ** ** **
Under the boy’s grip the oar was slippery with sea-water and his hands were cramped claws in the icy wind. Frequently he wiped his hands on his thighs to keep his grip sure. His skin had cracked and flecks of blood spotted his spray-soaked tunic. The salt stung like a thousand wasps, not only in the blisters on his hands, but in the still-seeping lash welts on his back. His legs quivered and ached from bracing against the roll and pitch.
The coracle’s hazel ribs creaked and muttered, protesting the weight of water, but the little boat was strong and flexible. The boy sat on the transom bar, steering with his oar. Above him the sail strained and bulged against the wind. When he set out yesterday at dawn the sea had been calm, but now the waves were steeper and came faster. . . he knew he might well drown here. If so, then it would be God’s plan. His father had tried to beat his obsession out of him to no avail and now the grey wall of water rose before him, terrifying as his father’s rage. He closed his eyes. The boat teetered, hesitated, trembled at the crest of a wave and then his stomach was in his mouth as he rushed down toward the unknown depths.
The prayer was constant on his lips. Lord Jesus, the power of the storm is thine, the power of the sea is thine. If it be thy will, see me to the harbor of thy love.
All his dreams had been of the wide sky and open sea. All his dreams ended with the angel of the one true God appearing before him – white and gold, with fire round her head and birds hovering above her, beckoning him, a smile on her garnet lips. Her wings were like sails of finest linen, held in a gentle wind. The placid waves lapped at her fine-boned feet. No matter how his father bullied, no matter how his mother cried, despairing of his sanity, he could not refuse the angel’s call. Over many months, in secret moments stolen from his time minding sheep, he built the boat, and set sail without saying goodbye.
The boy opened his eyes. On the far horizon, under a glowering steelish sky, was a glimmer of gold, and in the glimmer a dark spot. Land then. Ioua. The holy island. It must be. His heart leaped, even as another wave rose before him and blotted out the vision . The boat skewed at the wrong angle. In horror, the boy watched as a wave the size of the chieftain’s hall loomed overhead, frothing at the lip, and then crashed down. Something cracked, tore, split…
There was no chance to scream, no chance to howl a prayer. All was black and icy. Rough forces pulled at him. His hands reached for nothing. The world was gone and below was above and above below. So this was how it would end: the angel calling him to his death. His chest burned, but this wet world was cold and dark and silent. He could drift here, slide into her arms and sleep. As though he would open his mouth and breathe…