I jolt up in bed, gasping for breath. Sometime in the night, my blankets ended up on the floor, but still my skin is slick with sweat. At first I wonder who is playing a drum at this time in the morning, but then I realize that the pounding in my ears is nothing more than my own pulse. The dim room around me is quiet as it should be. The bright lights and gruesome scenes are all inside my head.
I don’t check my hands for blood or wonder where I am anymore. After three years, a nightmare stops being surprising, even if it is as horrible and vivid as the first time.
Trying to sleep is pointless now. I roll off the damp cotton sheets wrinkled on my bed and cross the smooth cedar floor to my window, set deep in the adobe walls. Pushing aside the gauzy curtains hanging over its opening, I glimpse the coast of the small island country of Ira.
The sun slips over the edge of the calm ocean, making a trail of light on the water, painting the dark sky pale shades of the softest pinks and grays. This is my favorite time of day—the new beginning, untouched by what will happen, full of hope and potential. I have loved it since my childhood when I lived in the wilderness with the kaites.
Unbidden, the memory of the dream floods my eyes. Clearest are the broken, bleeding bodies of Saviayr, his parents, and my adopted sister Yorchan, with an endless ocean of other Maraians slaughtered just like them. My old slave master’s greasy face grins and floods the image. “Is this what you wanted, Raiballeon?” he sneers. “Your people dead?”
No. Of course I do not want that.
But that is what will happen if I ever return home.
Instead, I must pretend I belong here on the island of Ira. Wearing Iranine garments with my brown hair curled and my pale skin permanently darkened by a childhood spent under the sun, I, a Maraian, can just barely pass for an elite Iranine. Their natural coloring is slightly darker than mine even now. Still, no one has questioned my claim to kinship with this family since my arrival three years ago. Only “Uncle” Tatanda and I know that I am not actually related to his family, and only I know that I am Maraian.
I reach for the empty chain around my neck, missing my chanavea for the millionth time. All Maraians receive a chanavea from the kaites at their birth, a charm combining the symbols for trees and water, with a stone unique to the wearer at its center. Without it, I feel like a traitor to my people, and to Aia-Thaies our Creator. At least its loss is not truly my fault. The slave master ripped it from my neck the night I saw…the night I had to leave.
I wrap a blue crochet shawl around my loose chemise, preparing to leave my room and find my special spot on the shaded porch that wraps around Tatanda’s villa. Ceramic pots of desert flowers hang from the roof and sit on the porch there, creating a living curtain around my weathered wooden desk and a large swing. Reminiscing slows my preparations and leaves me standing idly in my room. When I get to my desk, however, I will pull an inkwell, a quill, and my latest scroll from the locked desk drawer and write out the stories the kaites told me, just as I do every morning. This is my purpose: To record the history of our world.
There was a time when I thought about my purpose very differently. Back then, I was full of grand hopes. On my tenth birthday, a kaite of the rivers spoke a prophecy over me before the kaites returned me to my home among the humans:
“Mailoua, ‘Unnamed,’ once called you were,
Cast into the river, forgotten babe kept pure.
Now emerge Raiballeon, strong and wise to lead
As you follow Aia, who will guide your every deed.”
Thus he changed my name and put a calling on me.
Back then, I thought I was going to free the Maraians from slavery and lead them in establishing our very own country, and Saviayr was going to help.
This is the second time I’ve thought of him today, and the sun has barely risen. My nightmare usually has this effect, and I know today will be difficult to get through. My thoughts still my movements. I absently hold on to the smoothed surface of my dry sink and feel myself slip further into memories.
Saviayr. My Savi. My best friend and promised husband. My brown-haired boy with eyes like the leaves of a buttonwillow tree in the peak of spring. My thoughtful boy with a soft voice and gentle hands, with wisdom and faith so great, one would think he, not I, was raised by kaites rather than by humans. He who always knew what I was thinking, and whose mind I could read at a glance.
It grew slowly, from the moment we met. I was ten years old, alone, dripping in the middle of a creek, and he was the first human I had seen since I was a month old. He helped me find my parents, and we became friends, the quiet boy and the odd girl. Between then and my fifteenth birthday, in the best years of my life, I loved him with my whole heart.
I still do.
But enough of that. I used to think the kaite’s prophecy meant I would free Maraiah. For generations Izyphor has held us captive, forcing us to toil under the remorseless Izyphorn sun. I used to think that, if they just had a leader, my people could unite and together leave that cursed land. We could find a beautiful place where it rains and where trees grow as high as the eye can see. Saviayr and I were the ones who would do it. We would be those leaders.
A servant’s entrance briefly interrupts my reverie. The rug door flutters behind him. In his hands balances a tray of light snacks. Since I arise hours before the rest of the family breaks their fast, the servants always bring me something to eat before then.
“Good morning, Raiba,” he says in a demure tone. He slides the tray onto the table beside my bed. Coconut milk in an earthenware glass sloshes, but does not spill. “Do you need anything else?”
I shake my head. “No, thank you.”
He slips out of my room, and I return to my thoughts.
Now I know better than to expect to do something so great. Only a fool would think to challenge the Izyphorn royals and sultan. Only a half-wit could imagine that such a challenge would lead to anything other than the challenger’s swift death. Even if that were otherwise, still I can never return to the Izyphorn mainland, not unless I wish for the Maraians’ massacre as punishment.
No, my purpose is simply to record the history of the world so it will not be forgotten.
A young voice muffled by hallway corners draws me from my thoughts. “Raiba!”
Six-year-old Pitka will find me soon, so there is no need to reply. I welcome my little cousin’s distraction from my fears of the slave master and the dark forces that whisper despair and terror to me in my sleep. It does mean, though, that I will not be visiting my writing desk today. I hang my damp washcloth over the edge of my dry sink and prepare for her arrival with a quick prayer.
“Father,” I address Aia-Thaies as the kaites taught me, “Your daughter needs You. My heart is aching. Heal me.”
No sooner is my prayer finished than Pitka’s dark head pokes under my ornate tapestry door, followed by a squeal. “Raiba!” She runs toward me, a mess of flying braids and flapping dress, for my morning hug.
“Good morning, Pipit,” I greet her by her pet name, sweeping her up in an embrace. “You are up early.” She usually sleeps another hour at least.
I loosen my grasp on her so she can stand beside me. “Of course I am!” she sings, spreading out her arms in a gesture of jubilation. “How could I sleep when Mayli comes home today?”
Maylani, “Mayli” for short, is the second of my three cousins, two years younger than me. She has been away for a year, visiting with family friends on the mainland. While she has written during her absence, her letters are irregular and, like her real conversation, full of her voice but lacking in substance. My heart lifts. Soon she will be home, and I can urge her to speak more at just the right moments to guarantee I’ll learn bits of what actually happened while she was away.
I twist my face into an exaggerated frown at Pitka. “What? Are you sure she’s not coming back next week?” I tease.
“Of course it’s today!” Pitka giggles. “Even Tatanda and Anik are up.”
The Iranine have no word for “mother” or “father.” Children simply call their parents by their names, and so Pitka refers to her father, Tatanda, as everyone else does. I have still not adjusted to this custom after three years, but Ira is such a small community that the informality has no consequence.
“Anik is up? But he did not come home until late last night,” I say, astounded that her twenty-year-old brother is awake.
“Mayli’s coming home! How could any of us sleep late?”
“You are right, of course.” I tweak one of the two thick braids dangling in front of her shoulders. Excitement bubbles inside of me, despite the sinking apprehension that our time apart will have irreparably changed my relationship with the girl who is now my closest friend.
“I’m so excited, I could burst!” To demonstrate her point, Pitka bounces on her toes.
“Well, we don’t want that! Why don’t we get dressed so we’ll be ready when the ferry comes in?” I suggest.
She glances down at her chemise which she, like I, slept in, and shrugs. “We may as well,” she agrees. Her eyes stray to the table beside my bed, where the servant left the tray of snacks. Pitka likes to steal some of it when she gets up early, and I always let her. “Ooh, can I come back here when I’m ready?”
“Of course. But I’m really hungry,” I warn. “There won’t be any snacks left by the time you get back.”
“I’ll be too fast,” she challenges, and her little bare feet scurry off to her room.
As my door flap settles back into place, I consider my clothing. It is a festive day because of Maylani’s return, so I choose one of my richer dresses. Dye is expensive, so colorful outfits are worn only for special occasions. Yellow dye, the most difficult to make, is reserved for the most special occasions, such as weddings or births. I slip a sleeveless, V-neck dress of pale blue over my head and tie closed a beige vest. The laces of my sandals I wrap around my calves and tie at the side of my legs like all Iranine women; the men’s sandals tie at the front.
I am only halfway through pinning my artificially-curled hair up with gold combs when Pitka bursts back into my room, fully dressed. “Told you I’d be fast,” she seeks my praise.
“Oh, no! You beat me!” I gasp. Pitka giggles, and I lay a hand over my stomach. “I guess I’ll have to share my food with you after all.”
She squeals and clambers over my bed to the tray which holds a glass of goat milk, a bowl of dried figs, and a barley cake moistened with olive oil. “Ew, milk?” She wrinkles her nose.
“Mm, it’s so good,” I respond, sliding the last comb into place.
“You have strange taste,” she denounces my preferences in food. “Who in their right mind likes milk?”
“Anik does,” I point out.
“Yes, but Anik also likes flatbread with mashed olives, tomato preserves, peppers, and yogurt on it.” She has a point. Anik will eat anything; it is as if he has no sense of taste.
“Well, I still think you would like it if you tried to like it.” I sit on the edge of the bed with her.
We eat in silence for a minute. A thump comes from next door—Anik falling out of bed, or running into something, or knocking something off his dresser. Pitka and I look at each other, and she laughs, the only response to most of Anik’s actions.
When she catches her breath, she asks, “Will you tell me a story, Raiba?”
“Which story would you like?”
“The one about Nhardah and the Lake of Living Water.”
I take a deep breath and slowly exhale to focus. “Nhardah was one of the Firstborn,” I begin, “the children of the First Humans, who were created by Aia-Thaies their Father. He was a handsome boy, as were all of the Firstborn, and he had an adventurous soul. While his brother Neemech loved watching over animals and their sister Sain delighted in studying the plants that grew from the ground, Nhardah ever found joy in exploring the paradise land of Elcedon.
“One day, he happened to be exploring the mountains in the north of Elcedon, higher than any human had gone. Those mountains were endless, stretching up and up into the sky. They were a stairway for the Thaliel—the stars—to come to Orrock from ierah, linking the physical and spiritual worlds.
“So Nhardah was in the mountains, and he stumbled upon a vast lake of water so clear, so peaceful, that he could see stones of bright colors at its bottom, even where it was very, very deep. He was warm from hiking, so he knelt at the lake’s edge and drew a handful of water to his mouth.
“O! How good it tasted! It was cool and clean, but so much more than that. It seemed to reach into every corner of his body, setting him tingling, making his skin glow for a moment. Jubilation shook him. He shouted in joy and leapt into the air. He had found the most wonderful place! He had to bring his family and the other people there!
“But then something went wrong. Do you remember the story of the Pond of Separation?” I question, pausing to drink the chilled milk Pitka finds so revolting.
“That’s where the traitor Thaliel Aevenah cried?” the little girl checks. She wipes her chin with her wrist.
I nod. It was a pond in Elcedon formed from tears of hatred and envy, tears that were not harmonious with the will of Aia. “What happened there?”
She frowns in thought, momentarily forgetting the flatbread in her hand, and then a light dawns in her face. “The humans disobeyed Thaies and drank from it. That’s why Elcedon was destroyed, and their deity cursed them.”
Her memory gives me pride. Pitka is indisputably the best pupil I could ask for.
“Exactly. The curse,” I recite, “was this:
Where once you had ease,
now labor and weep.
The ground that once was your dance floor
shall produce thorns and weeds.
You, o men, will toil,
and your heart will be for your work.
You, o women, will forever seek man’s favor,
just as mankind seeks My favor and falls short.
Through you all creation is cursed
until I restore perfection.”
Pitka shivers, though it is already a warm day. “I wish they hadn’t drunken it,” she mourns. I agree.
“So, just as Nhardah was drinking from the Lake in the mountains, the other humans drank from the Pond of Separation. The joy fled Nhardah’s heart, leaving him cold. He dropped and clutched at the ground, afraid of what he did not know, and he cried out to Aia for help.
“Aia-Thaies heard his cry. He met Nhardah on the shore of the Lake of Living Water, and Nhardah asked Him what was happening, with tears streaming down his face.
“‘Peace to you, My son,’ said Aia. ‘What you feel is not caused by your actions, but by your family, who chose to drink of a different water. Because of them, all creation is under a curse, and you are part of creation. You did not initiate the curse, however, and the water you drank here is from the Lake of Living Water. Therefore,
Though all now die,
yet you will live,
And through your descendants
I will redeem creation.’”
Pitka interrupts to ask, “What’s ‘redeem’?”
“It means to buy back, to free from its curse,” I explain.
“Oh,” she nods. “So the curse won’t last forever?”
“No,” I agree.
“What happened next?”
“Next, Thaies warned Nhardah to rejoin his family. Nhardah left the presence of Aia and then the Rending happened, tearing Orrock apart from ierah. In the process, Elcedon was destroyed, but the humans survived because of the kaites,” I finish.
Clapping from behind us makes Pitka jump. I do not startle easily, but even I am surprised that Anik managed to enter the room unnoticed. “I love that story,” he says, plopping down on the edge of the bed. “‘Though all shall die, yet you will live.’ Gives me chills every time you tell it.”
“Raiba, is Nhardah really still alive?” Pitka asks after punching her brother—a weak punch that could never hurt him.
“I hope I see him someday.” She kicks her feet as she daydreams.
“Maybe you will, little squirrel.” Anik reaches his long arm out and tickles her. She shrieks and flails uncontrollably. It’s good that we finished the food already, since her knee knocks over the tray.
“If she ruins my bed,” I warn Anik, picking up the spilled dishes, “you will have to replace it.”
“Aw, Raiba, have some fun with us,” he teases me, but he stops tickling Pitka. “Well, what do you two say to breakfast? Tatanda is ready, and the ferry should be here in half an hour.”
Half an hour. In half an hour, Maylani will be home. I can hardly wait for my cousin’s return.