Sometimes at dusk we would see him come out from the hidden interior of his island. For years we had no idea who he was or what he did until after a savage storm ransacked most of the shoreline on the mainland. Such gales with driving rain that hammered our skin and knocked down even living things were not common. Our hut shells weren’t salvageable so we set to work, felling a few donor trees, fashioning pieces needed to reconstruct twelve homes. Liat Two and I worked side-by-side. We all helped each other. Those who had kept old disputes before the storm put them aside after the wreckage became apparent. I wondered if others were as impressed and shaken by this development. They were intent on rebuilding all habitats. Survival instinct required us to find food and erect shelter in Aritkus, our home. This was about our common weal; arguments clearly had no place in the agenda.
One of our unwelcomed weather events, a thick yellow-dog haze (named after constantly shed, windblown fur from the terrace dog, Zab) fell about us, blurring everything after the two-day deluge and howler winds. So no one even saw much less thought to check on the state of that island. Who would? It never changed. But just as the faint light seeped through gauzey air, I turned away from the village. And I saw.
It still hadn’t changed despite the merciless storm, with its jungle- entangled foliage, its subtle, ever-present glow about the canopy top. Except this: Nil the unknown now stood in front of the giant trees, arms straining toward sky. I stepped away from Liat Two, trembling, then moved toward water’s edge. It wasn’t dusk yet, so why was he there? It was not even a time I could pinpoint, so wild had the storm been, so unnerving as to turn us inside out. But Nil seemed to be doing what he always did, performing obeisance, moving through his forms like a gifted dancer or a practitioner of ancient warrior ways, we didn’t know which yet. His bright outline, its fluidity and strength riveted me and others. We practiced our own morning meditation but from the ground only. He seemingly had to speak to sky whereas we spoke to earth and all below its surface. Or were supposed to do. I honored whatever I wanted, how I wanted, though in secret. If anyone had looked askance at me, I would have said nothing, as it was a profound urge to keep apart and holy what mattered to me–perhaps because I was young.
Or different, Liatus, our leader, hadn’t decided for sure. His uncertainty kept me safer. When it was determined which, things could change.
But that moment I knew I should alert Liat Two. He despised Nil although he had never met him. It was rumored the man was a criminal, thus, a prisoner of NOM, New Order of Markmen, who gave up their lives to surveil and punish the worst of wrong doers, those the higher court deemed unfit. We had little fear of the stranger–he was safe from us, and we from him. But neither did our community have any inclination to know him. Liat Two was the right hand of Liatus (also Liat Two’s uncle), and it had been decreed that no one formally recognize island man. So I named him Nil since in the villagers’ thinking he was a zero. No one and nothing–how could that be? But bestowing a name made him a person. Officially recognized. Like other things I care about, I kept it to myself.
The stranger had been there when we arrived. Liatus and his warriors gave due diligence, tried to investigate underwater. They got only so far, could move no farther. Several others of us had taken our floaters out to see him better one dusk when he was visible but could not get past the reef, either. No one had been able to safely penetrate its barrier. So that was the end of the matter, we were warned.
That day I continued working but kept a clear eye on island man. He appeared to circle the lush pod of land, then stepped close to the lake when I had a well-earned break, sweat slipping off my skin in rivulets. No one else noted his presence or, if they did, like me, kept quiet. This situation enthralled me since the only times we had ever seen him was when the sun was lowering, and then, not often, perhaps every other moon at most. But no one noted it further since Nil belonged to that island and we belonged to the shore of Aritkus.
Well, in fact I sighted him more but no one suspected. I was akin to the night flowers, sleepy by day and wide awake until dawn more often than not. Sleep held less value to me than others; I found I didn’t need it much. I also often craved to leave the borough, just move above ground. Liat Two said I lived on the very air I breathed, the sun and moon rays that fell upon my skin.
“Riza, going too slowly for once, move faster!” Liat Two growled at me. “We have to get our borough cleared of mud by nightfall, then tomorrow the new shell goes over it.”
“Yes, working hard is the duty we carry out. And have you seen how much we have accomplished already? We are faster than all others put together.”
He might have smiled but it would be hard to tell. His face was tattooed with many badges of leadership; even his lips were stained red and black. But he liked me well enough. We still shared one of the most extensive boroughs under the earth since my mother, his last wife, died. He could be ferocious but also kindly. It was a sign of his place in the scheme of things, our tiny village, that he was mercurial without much need of discipline. Privledge changed people. I accepted rather than rejected him; my mother had been like lightning in a pot and I adored her.
I dug along with him, wishing for the coolness of the inside corridors, wide rock tunnels that connected with others at various intersections. I wanted to be done with this, to drip dry in the trees’ great arms. I glanced over my shoulder as I scooped and deposited another pile of muddy earth to the side. Nil was yet there, and he was not moving. It wasn’t hard for me to see; I immediately intensified my vision with a word sound, a light click and whistle made under my breath. Slowly my vision clarified and brought me in closer. In another moment I might have been able to see his face. My heart jumped.
“What are you doing, girl? Imagining things again?”
Liat Two tried to ignore some of it; he knew I was not so much like others but was tolerant. Still, I shook my head, reached for a sharper stick and wedge with which to dig as he scanned the island. How foolish that I would not stop looking, me and my terrible desire to know things! But Liat Two turned back without comment; Nil must not be visible. I stole a look. He had indeed vanished. We returned to work, then gathered with community for a meal of food delivered from the safe bins.
I slept all night, my breathing a long song of sleep, exhausted by the cleaning, hauling, digging. It then took two more days to finish the work on our homes and surrounding area. There were dead animals to remove and use correctly. On the terraces there were branches and twigs impaled in giant feeder plants that had to be excised, a delicate operation to save koya fruits and danys pods that gave us protein. Zab stomped around us, sniffing at everything that had been overturned by the gale, indulging in surprise delectables. He was a good spotter and retriever. Zab also helped to guard the community.
One night Liat Two and I were relaxing before entering the borough and bed.
“I worry.” He poked the fire in our outdoor stone fire bowl.
I jerked my head up; did he hear my thought?
“You haven’t entered the Women’s Survival Race yet. Soon it will happen. But are you prepared for such tests? I see you get too distracted despite your agility and strength.”
“I know.” I looked up. The sky was turning into blackened sapphire. I wanted to wander right then, bypass his lecture.
“You don’t know. Your mother made and kept you in high regard but you have a need to push at the ways of our people. Liatus is not so impressed.”
I stirred the fire with a stick. “Not push, expand. Open up.”
He snorted. “That’s the wrong talk, like talk of hers–she indoctrinated you behind my back.” He pushed his artful but fierce face close to mine. “Beware dreaming without purpose, seeing what cannot be seen.”
“It’s not that I will things to be different. I feel them, know them. Mother told me this would become my way; it is not a choice.”
He made a gesture that dismissed my words. “Your race will begin in Everling. What do you feel about that?”
“I didn’t know.” I swallowed hard. Everling, the changing time. Not Greenstor, the other, our current, season. It would be harder then, when all the cold with its bitter wiles came down from the mountain.
He said nothing more, only built up the fire so our skin and hair would dry faster. He glistened. Mother likely missed him from the AfterEarth but he made me anxious that night. I thought his fate and mine would diverge.
Sleep failed to take hold. I thought about Everling, the miles of runs up and down the hills, the shoreline more jagged and unpredictable each year. Things the cold would bring, sperlings with their terrible sharp beaks and worse cries when homing in on the rock piles I would have to climb. Hasternin, those leathery creatures that rose from the deep of Greenstor’s heat and rode waves in and out, their bodies like buoyant rocks until you stumbled over them when the tide went out. Then they displayed their strength of grip on your ankles and legs and left painful welts that weakened muscle. Everling’s voracious cold sent us underground more. Life became communal more than ever with its good and awful matters. Perhaps I would be given milder days in which to run and puzzle out clues to lead me to victory. But I doubted it.
I got up, wandered. Between thickets of trees the water gleamed silver and bright as if crystalline in the power of moon. Still, soft in the easy darkness. So many shunned the night but for me it reverberated with life that felt safer at times than daylight. I found my way to the shore without interruption.
Of course I was looking for him, for Nil, the one Liatus said we could not know. he could never find a place with us since, criminal or miscreant. Yet weren’t outcasts powerful by virtue of their unusual status? Their very existence bestowed acclaim. We all wondered about him despite the decree against it. I saw it in the faces of those who glimpsed him at dusk as Nil’s body flashed in and out of the woods or his swiftness carried him under water until he surfaced like a flying fish in an impossible spot. He glowed in the resplendence of Greenstor’s dusk. He was unaffected by Everling’s frigid winds. And he possessed ways unlike my community’s.
They felt more like mine, though I knew little of other worlds and ways.
At the shore I positioned myself in front of amberstar, a plant that emitted a perfume so intense it clung to skin and hair for hours. They grew without compunction, covering trees and rocks and hiding me from anyone who might also get up and about–though rarely did that happen– and pass beside me. If Nil came out and stayed that long after the storm he might also stray from wherever his home was in the jungle center.
A high pitch rang out, then another. They were thrown out to our shore, silver darts of sound. No bird emitted these. I sat with knees to chest, arms wrapped around them, stayed small. When I felt Zab’s warm nose, I tried to not shrink back. He sniffed, listened. Again the note, now an octave lower, was flung into the air, a swift arrow meant to find its mark. I felt it enter my core, but it wasn’t a wounding. It was a perfect key that turned inside mind and soul. Zab lay down to my surpsie and closed his eyes. I rose, walked to the water’s edge and gave voice to words, “Creator, come help”, which I had to say to get past the wall of darkness betweenme and that island. Perhaps beyond. To find him amid the static of confusion.
Nil was waving at me not from his island, but rather from a long, low skiff. He was paddling to me.
I might have run away if I had been born with the hesitancy of Liatus’ followers. This was what Liat Two worried over: my utter willingness to locate and pounce on truth, my lack of fear in the risk it took–that I might endanger myself or others. But I was so filled with conviction that this was the time and place for me. When the skiff bobbed near enough to make out his face and my name sung, I swam to him and pulled myself over the edge and got in. The skiff was invisible as a hunter and Nil’s voice sang out a note that careened through night as if a warrior cry yet it also carried delight. The skiff passed over the reef as if it had been given wings; no forceful barrier curtailed us. We landed upon a grassy ledge of land. He disembarked and so did I.
We traversed the island easily, moving between thick growth of trees, bushes, vines. He had made the path a labyrinth and when it came to its conclusion there was a structure far too large for such an island but here it was, overreaching treetops, filled with an increasing light. I felt faint with its beauty. The tender darkness had surrounded it as if a shield. I covered my eyes until they grew accustomed to the peculiar scene. Nothing but light was present and it spread out from the center of the top of the room, high above. A church of light, a place of energy so intense I felt my brain afire.
I spoke. “This…?”
He at last turned to face me. All I saw were his eyes which grew brighter and deeper as did the space in which we stood. They were both unlike any I had seen before, made of rainbow colorations changing and changeless. Radiance filled the room, Nil resonant of voice and brilliant of flesh, and myself struck with an overpowering love that found me weeping.
I call it love but the truth is that it was nothing I had known before with such overwhelming clarity and grace.
“A Cathedral of Light.” His voice was multi-layered and rich.
“Who are you?” I asked him.
“A Keeper of the Light, here to share such honor with you,” he sang out in chords that echoed among the rafters of the cathedral.
The island shimmered and trembled, displayed time passing and time ending and time defeating time, erasing any doubts that this was Light that created and wove together everything known and unknown, named and unnamed, here and elsewhere.
I knew what my village would think: I was stolen. I was beguiled and mesmerized by the dangerous unknown. But I had gone where I wanted to go. Found what I needed to know.
And so, of course, I stayed, if not forever, until that night was done, then many more to come. Until the Keeper taught me enough that I could bring to Aritkus a lamp of bold compassion that never ended. This was the vision I sought. And was given. This was the truth, the reality of Home for all.
There was a small island that housed a Keeper of Light and it offered ultimate freedom, if only we would take it, and with a mighty love instill equality, wholeness and peace. Become transformed. As Nil the islander had a hand in trnaforming me.
So I, Riza, a curious girl, began her truest work. Will you watch and cheer for me in the Aritkus Women’s Survival Race? I will carry my small flame through Everling, then into Greenstor, underground and over tree canopies, into and out of the dark for you and me. And ever after, I will carry it.
(Note: This short story is my response to a writing prompt from The Writer’s Circle group.)