~ 2 ~
K imagined that this island would provide little shelter. Over the decades, rising seas and yearly hurricanes had submerged what had once held a small settlement. Now, only ancient foundations, like jagged teeth, and the stumps of trees showed amongst the ocean grasses that overwhelmed the sea-swept island. The girl at K’s feet moaned as she watched the brighter shadow of the island slip by.
“There are other islands north of here. There’s dried deer meat wrapped in a bundle behind you; find it if you can. We have ten songs yet to travel.”
K felt the girl shift and squirm as the child wormed her thin arms into the mysterious heap against which she’d lain during the crossing.
“Just under the tarp, higher up.” Soon, the sound of fibrous venison being torn and the chaw of young jaws grinding at the meat came from the girl. Despite the headwind, the smoky aroma of meat, freed from the bundle, wafted forward and the two children in the bow begged for a share.
The boy crawled over the top of Kasmira’s packed belongings. “Jessa, I’s sorry you be back here with…”
“You three should call me K.” Kasmira said, her teacher’s voice sneaking out unexpectedly.
“Like’n the letter ‘K’?” the girl asked around a mouthful.
“Yes, the letter ‘K’. Do you have schooling?” Kasmira continued to dip, stroke and kick, the kick straightening out the nose of the canoe after each churn of her paddle. The lapping of midnight waves pat to the rhythm of lively music against the hull.
“Some,” replied the girl. Doling miserly, she’d handed a pair of venison strips to the boy who then inched cautiously back to the front. “Before the Newains came and beat the learners,” she said, a tinge of bitterness clipping her words.
This one seems stronger than she appears, thought Kasmira.
“Tell me of these Newains.”
The girl at K’s feet twisted between her knees presenting her shoulder towards K. “New Way people. I don’t like ‘em,” she said lifting the yellow square patch in the dim light of the stars. “They came, took our, I mean, took Aunt Sarah’s cows, and took our goats, too. Nita ‘n me, they’s was our goats. Then they banged the door, broke it too. They took us then.”
The girl’s voice must have carried, as the first girl, Nita, spoke back, clearly commanding the second. “Don’t tell that woman nothin’ more, Jessa.”
K let the conversation die. The second island appeared, its higher banks and trees rising from the darkness. It, too, had suffered inundation. A number of hang-tree oaks surprised K as their submerged trunks ghosted by; jutting above the water, their weathered branches scowled down at them, judging as they passed.
Curving around to the distant side of the island, K spotted a fresh beach, no doubt torn open by a recent storm, and headed toward it. Fewer snags reached out from the depths here and she sped up her paddling to run the canoe into the sand. With a satisfyingly soft grind their forward motion came to a halt. She whispered to the children for stillness and silence. They listened for signs they’d been detected. None showed, so they disembarked. K spun the craft, end for end, and pulled it up to secure it. The tide had dropped a few feet and would continue that way until morning.
It wasn’t cold. It never really got cold anymore. But she knew the children’s small bodies would be chilled through, the girls’ doubly so. But a fire at this time of night, as late or early as it might be, risked too much.
“The three of you will have to bunch up with me tonight.” No one complained. Kasmira, well practiced at making camp, stood the children to the side while she cleared the higher beach, laid a wide tarp and all the blankets she owned alongside her own quilted bedding, old bones and ground beds soured the most amiable of sleepers. She let the girls strip, darkness their curtain, and gave each a spare shirt. The sand molded to their bodies as the four of them burrowed into the bedding, the boy to K’s left and the girls, entwined, to her right. Within a five-song the children’s breathing evened and slowed.
The woman pondered the day. Bury one and earn three for the trouble. But, she found that as hard as she wanted to frown at her predicament, the presence of the three warm innocents, dependent though they might be, lifted the corners of her mouth and crinkled her eyes. The night passed without further incident. Despite the hardness of the sand, K found that, in the morning, she’d had her best rest in years.
Reticent to rise from their nest, the group lounged while the sun rose two hands high. Kasmira coaxed the girls, Nita and Jessa, sisters and orphans, to tell her more of these New Way people.
“When we turn eighteen, they said we’d get a part, our part of the Way,” Nita said, after apparently deciding that K posed little threat to her and her sister.
“So you worked for them as slaves then. Worked at what?”
The two girls, both with straight dark hair, looked at each other. Jessa spoke up. “We sewed, and weaved, and tapped and twisted little tools on little shiny boxes. Some of the olders, we was all childrens, I think, they worked big tools on big boxes — some with wheels and some with snakey tubes.”
“An’ we all had dirt work, too. Diggin’ an’ scrapin’ at rows of greens,” Nita added.
K reclined back onto the hard ground, her head propped up on her rolled jacket. The children had pulled away somewhat, but the shared heat kept them close. “You had schooling before the Newians showed up?”
“–Teacher,” K corrected.
“Teacher Briarson, she had eleven books, and three had stories, and she would read, and learn… teach us letters and writing. Numbers we learnt from Aunt Sarah.” Jessa looked away, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. “Them were our goats, five of them. We milked ‘em, ‘n fed ‘em and made sour cheese. Ten fists of flour for one of our cheeses. Or two ten-eggs for one.”
“Twenty.” Kasmira gently wiped the tears from the girl’s cheek. The girl accepting the roughness of the woman’s touch.
“Twenty eggs, for one,” she amended.
The boy, restless, said, “I’m hungry,” from beneath the grey-green woolen blanket that he’d wound himself within.
“So?” K replied. “What are you going to do about it?”
“Oh, I’s know. I’s got nuts ‘n ‘taters in the boat. From a’tradin’,” he said grinning at K.
Freed from his bedding, Deus laced his boots, but before he could stand, the woman grabbed him and pulled him down next to her, as the loud thwack of someone striking ax to wood resounded from the island’s center.
“Shhh. We’ve got others here.”
The girl’s pulled up tight to her, but the boy tugged away.
“I go see who be choppin’ dis early.”
Thinking to deny him, she stopped and reconsidered, having seen the look on his face, the pride of acting the man. “Deus right? Deus, quiet as a mouse, do you hear? Just a peek and then you scurry back to us.”
The boy nodded, his expression serious.
Deus replaced his cloak and headed north up a slope and through a stand of tall white pines leading toward the noise of splitting wood, decades of fallen needles quieting his steps.
Kasmira doubted trouble awaited the child. She’d traveled this bay from top to bottom, nearly two-hundred miles, many times, meeting and trading with people who lived within the tidal basin. Rarely had she found the need to fear others. The prior night’s events, however, gave her pause.
“We’ll give him a few songs to get back,” she said to the girls who now stood, still dressed in K’s spare shirts. “I’m sorry, but until we know it’s safe, we’d better not start a fire. You two can stay wrapped in the bedding. I’ll fetch the boy’s cache of food.”
K returned with the sack and handed it to, hmm, she thought, I can’t tell them apart.
The girls, identical, or close enough, accepted the sack and frowned at the contents.
“You can wait,” said K before either could complain, “for your friend to return, hopefully with good news. Otherwise, cold taters and pignuts is what we have for now.”
Each took an egg-sized tuber and ate it silently. “Why are you so strong, for a girl?” asked the one, Jessa, K thought, identifying the girl’s subtle speech pattern.
“You picked me up last night, like I was nothin’. You, you are a girl, aren’t you?”
K laughed a burst of mild indignation. “I’m woman enough, where it counts anyway. I did hard work when I was young. And traveling and trading, on my own, it makes you strong.”
The scene from their small beach showed the stand of drowned trees that stood out a hundred steps, arrayed like a watery garden. To their right, they could see the island they’d passed two miles distant, the mound of its back covered with greens and browns. Straight out, ten miles or so to the east, the distant peninsula that tapered from the north shown like a long line of shorebirds, just a dark rim at the edge of sight.
“Tell me why you two needed rescue last night?”
Nita spoke up this time. The girl wore the blue plaid shirt. She seemed the leader of the two, K thought, but only because the other appeared to be the thoughtful one. “We ran away after we saw Master Franko kill Betha. We waited until the night, when all us yellows and reds were counted in the long houses and we snuck out the high window in the storeroom.”
Before K could delve deeper into their story the boy returned. Perhaps as proof he could move with stealth through the woods, he reappeared without a sound at the edge of their camp. “I think dem’s bad men up there. I seen one, and a lady, an’ heard another’n in the cabin.”
The girls startled as the boy spoke up. K had begun to worry at the boy’s absence and so witnessed him slip back into camp with her frequent glances up the slope.
“Why do you think them bad?” K asked, crouching to his level. She held out her hand and he took it.
But he soon dropped it. “I got close to see a cabin and some peoples. Da one man he, he was choppin’ and breakin’ wood, and a lady, her hair like sunlight, she tried to pick up the pieces but she kept droppin’ em and stumblin’. Ever’ time she did, da man laugh at her. Den he got mad or sumptin’ and he grabbed da lady and yanked her drawers down and started ruttin’ against her, she layin’ against da wood pile. She, she…”
K motioned for the girl in the green shirt, Jessa, to hand her the sack. K found a deep purple potato, the only one like it, and handed it to the boy, pulling him down to sit with them on the tarp.
He took a bite and continued. “She didn’ cry or nuthin’. Da man pushed her away and grabbed da wood his self, and he yelled some words into the cabin and I heard another’n man call back. And den I sneaked away, real quiet.”
The four sat considering his story.
“Yes, they sound like bad men.”
“Can we kill ‘em?” Deus asked, expectantly.
“I can see why you might want to. Why I might want to. Killin’ men, we just don’t do such things. Or, we try not to. But we can help this woman. Do you think she’s sick, or weak?”
“I don’ know. When she turn my way, her face be like a sunrise, like a doe with eyes that look up to the sky.”
“I’ll have to go take a look myself.” Kasmira weighed the boy’s age again. Maybe he’s more than seven, nine maybe. His words and composure, while telling this repulsive tale, made him appear older, despite his small stature. “If I can’t speak to the woman alone, we best move on to another place. There’s one more island north. But it’s a good distance.” She wore her jacket and boots and her woolen hat. When she was just inside the woods she appeared to vanish.
Within a hundred-stride, weaving through the trees, she spied the woman, sitting, arms crossed, hugging herself, on a high flat stump. K saw the wood pile where the rape must have occurred, and the cabin, smoke billowing like a leaf fire from the chimney.
Within twenty steps Kasmira paused and waved to the woman who faced her. When no response came, she must be dazed by the attack, she gave a small whistle, like she’d do to draw attention in a busy market.
The golden-haired woman spun her head from side to side, ranging in on the sound. “Who’s there?” she whispered loudly.
“I’m a friend.”
“You’d better leave. If the brothers catch you I can’t say what might happen.”
K was undeterred. “Do you need help?” Of course she needs help.
“You can’t help me. I’m useless, but for one thing.”
K stepped forward, the woman had avoided her gaze, looking to the tops of the trees. “I’m here,” K said, trying pull her away from her distant view.
“I can’t see you. I’ve been blind since I was twelve.”
Understanding bloomed on Kasmira’s face. “I’ll ask again, do you need my help?”
“Can you free a slave?”
The woman, narrowing in on K’s face by sound alone, blinked her jaybird-feather blue eyes, their unnerving focused just over K’s shoulder, and explained.
“These brothers, Pratt’s their name, bought me a year ago. I was sold by my father after I got sick, when my eyes went dark. I’ve been sold over ‘n over ever since.”
“My god, how, where?”
“Brothels, in the South mostly, I think. I only know by the smell of the air, the chill of mornings on my face. I would have run away, but how could I?”
K determined then and there to save the woman from her heinous plight. Slavery, like she believed the New Way were imposing on children like Nita and Jessa, and Betha, my Anna, she thought, violated every righteous bone in her body.
“Do you have belongings you hold dear?”
“Can you fight these bastards? They won’t give me up, not for gold nor threat.”
So much death already. Kasmira’s mind returned to a previous age. A time when she herself had been forced to marry; forced to birth children she loved and lost; forced to kill their father, her husband, Joe, when he threatened their lives. She was sent to prison for three years, an ancient fetid prison, fouled by centuries of neglect and unspeakable use. And, finally released to a bright world where she learned business as a trade, politics as a passion, and love, she learned to love, later, much later.
But that first murder, the knife blade sliding up between her husband’s ribs, his hands around her throat, that murder prepared her to do, later on, much worse things, for much nobler reasons.
Killing these two rapists and slavers would taint her soul only a little.
“First, tell me your name,” Kasmira urged. “And then tell me, should these men die?”
“We’ll be staying a while, long enough to dry your clothing, long enough to cook a porridge,” K said as she returned. She went to her canoe, still ladened with her mound of items; from it she withdrew a short, horn-bellied bow and a hardened leather case containing more than two dozen beautifully crafted arrows. The children crowded around her as she dug through her pile of unusual items. Odd copper pots and tubes, glass bottles wrapped in packing, colorful bolts of cloth and a box containing chromed tools, the likes of which few had seen for generations. Beneath it all, raised on a bed of slats to keep out any shipped water, rested a set of trunks — full of books.
“Deus, can you manage a fire? Good. Girls, bundled there is a pot and my shovel. Fill the pot from this…” Behind the back seat of the canoe, K folded down a panel and inside was a metal cistern half full of fresh water. “When it rains next, we’ll be sure to collect water to refill our stores.”
The children all reacted to K’s use of the word “our.” They smiled at this, but concern washed over their faces as they watched the woman string the bow and select a handful of arrows from the case.
“I’ll be back. And I’ll be bringing the woman Deus saw earlier. Her name is Isadora. She’s blind.”
Before she left, she reached just inside the gunnel of the canoe and retrieved a blunt knife as long as a child’s arm. This she tucked through her belt before looking at each child to reassure them. She turned and walked back up the slope.
The blind woman, Isadora, sat just as K had left her. The brothers remained inside, drinking, Isa said, the cider they made from fruit collected from the apple and pear orchard that covered most of the island. Isa stood when she recognized the birdsong whistled by K. She beckoned at the sound for K to approach.
“They have not stirred from the cabin since earlier,” Isadora confirmed.
“Then they will be needing to piss soon, if drinking is all they do.” Kasmira unslung the machete from her belt and handed it to Isadora. “Hold this to your side, behind you as you stand to call them. If I cannot kill them both, and they attack you, swing with all your might, around and around. I will call when all is clear. Until then, any noise you hear, swing to kill.”
“I… They are big men. Josh Pratt is twice me, or more.” She took the long blade and held it as if toxic.
“They must not realize how dire is their predicament, until too late. Hold the blade lower and behind. That’s it.” K wondered about a rear door, but figured both would come out this side if trouble sounded. “Isadora, you must get closer to the cabin. Draw them out. I’ll not let them hurt you again.”
The sun was pole high and warmed the ground around the cabin. Spring growth had pushed young shoots up all around. Willow and birch saplings, growing from stumps that circled the plot, had tiny green leaves peeking out. The white pines that capped this end of the island, whispered their susurrations, while dragonflies investigated the open glade, their inspections going unnoticed by the blind woman standing at the east corner of the cabin.
“Jacob! I’ve fallen. I need your help.” Isadora yelled at the squat dwelling.
When no response came, the woman yelled again.
Kasmira, her arrow nocked, her bow resting horizontal, watched as the slatted door of the cabin swung out and a tall, balding man stumbled out, letting the door hang open behind him. He was shirtless and filthy. His torso glistened from his alcohol induced sweat, suspenders held his floppy pants high around his waist. He walked out into the yard, not expecting the woman to be at the corner.
“Dora, where the hell are you?” He held his hand up to shade his eyes as he looked around.
K rounded the tree behind which she’d hid and clicked her tongue. The man spun at the sound and dropped his hand from his eyes as a Cherokee fashioned arrow buried itself up to the fletching just beneath his sternum. He grunted and tilted his head down to stare at the brown and white turkey feathers and fell onto his back, dead, the arrow snapping off behind him.
The second man appeared, stooped in the doorway. He was just as big as Isa had related. The thin liquor must not have addled his senses as much as his brother, for Josh Pratt’s first reaction was to grab the door and slam it shut.
Kasmira nocked another arrow, but the plan had twisted sideways.
“We’ll have to burn it down,” K said, coming to just out of swing range of the blind woman wielding the long knife. She told Isadora to lower the blade, which she’d raised as soon as she’d heard the thwack of the arrow striking flesh. K held the woman’s elbow to guide her away from the cabin’s corner.
The pair stood out of harm’s way of any missiles or the rare possibility that the brother’s owned a working firearm. Such weapons existed, mostly the flintlock kind, but carbines, or pistols, which used cartridges, had vanished from use fifty years after the sunstorm broke the world; ammunition had become rarer than medicine. And no new manufacturer had taken up the process — for either; none that Kasmira knew of; and she’d traveled further than most.
“Josh Pratt! The citizens of Tidelock have decreed that you and your brother are in violation of civil law prohibiting slavery. Show yourself or face certain death.” Kasmira bluffed legalese, trying to determine how much a problem Josh Pratt presented. Whether he believed her or not, she heard a scuffle coming from behind the home, which turned out to be the actual front. She ran to the other side leaving Isadora behind. There she noticed the orchard and the gravel road that split the island leading right to the cabin. A hundred strides down the road ran the big man, loping away.
K returned to Isadora who had begun to feel her way around to the front. “What lay at the end of the road?” she asked, breathing hard.
“The brother’s have a boat, or they did. They brought me here in it. I don’t know its fate. I heard the one arrow. Did you kill Josh?”
“If Josh is the bigger one, then no. He’s running north on the wagon road.”
“If he gets to his boat, and sails to where they sell their cider, I won’t be safe ever again. Josh be as bitter as tannin tea. He won’t ever stop huntin’ me.”
Running was not something Kasmira did often enough to ease the thought of it. But she struck out after the brute, moving as fast as she could. The black haired man, running with boots on, a flapping shirt, overalls and, she thought, an ax in one hand, rounded a corner at the end of the orchard and when K approached the spot, she paused, cautious. Another hundred strides further on, she spotted the man attempting to push a heavy skiff down a skid of timbers made for easy launch.
When she got to the slip, the man was twenty yards adrift looking back at her.
“You kilt my brother. I seen it,” he screamed at her, his big voice booming in her ears. “I’ll be huntin’ you down. And that blind bitch, too. Ain’t no place you can hide from me after I get my boys.”
He was standing in the boat as it drifted further from shore. Kasmira nocked and loosed an arrow, which whizzed by, a mad but useless hornet. She nocked another while Josh gestured and cursed at her. She tried to slow her breathing, pushed out with her left arm, pulled back with her right and drew the arrow’s feathers beneath her nose. She lowered the tip of the rusted, but still sharp steel broadhead until it dipped below the man’s chest. Then, for every ten-yards distance she lifted the shot a hand’s breadth up the target.
Josh stood, his hands on hips to taunt her, and waited with a scowl while she drew and shot. The arrow buried itself in his left arm. He roared back at her in drunken hatred.
“Windage,” she said to herself. With her last arrow she held a foot above his head and the same to his right and let fly. The man stood as he had, his right hand trying to snap the arrow off at his bicep. Kasmira’s final arrow flew high, and caught the man in the throat. It tore through the right side, severing his carotid artery, and disappeared behind, into the green water of the bay. The big man collapsed into the bottom of the boat, his right hand switching to press at the rip in his neck, bright crimson blood streaming down his arm. K stood for a long song as the skiff drifted north with the tide and the wind. No motion showed above the gunnels. A hundred miles north the boat might come to rest in a marshy, reed-choked creek of the north bay. Raccoons, foxes and seagulls might find him and feed on his rotting flesh.
Or so Kasmira hoped.
Returned to the cabin, she related her exploits and the golden-haired woman sat stunned for a moment. First one and then dozens of tears streaked down from Isadora’s unseeing eyes. She sobbed into her hands and Kasmira embraced her while the realization of freedom seeped into the woman’s psyche.