Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Saltwater Railroad (Part 1)

Editor’s Note: Instead of two original fantasy short stories this month, we have for you a single fantasy novelette by Andrea Hairston (“Saltwater Railroad”), which is about twice the length of a regular Lightspeed story. So, although you are getting three stories instead of four this month, this novelette is the length of two full-length short stories, so you’re still getting the same amount of fiction. We hope you enjoy this minor deviation from our usual offerings, and rest assured we will return to our regularly scheduled programming next month. —eds.

Part 1

Miz Delia’s Island was protected by deadly reefs on the Georgia/Florida side and nine hundred feet of jagged cliffs on the other. Indians called it Thunder Rock, a place where the wind and sea played rough and tumble. Spaniards named it Ghost Reef because of whirlpools, deadly fog, and wailing drowned folk who wouldn’t rest. English sailors claimed that Delia was a vengeful slave haint, howling demon talk and luring men to a bloody death. What ship’s captain would risk his crew or his own hide on quicksand beaches and breakneck ledges? The few adventurers stupid enough to land and lucky enough to get back off in one piece warned everybody to steer clear. Anybody who knew the waters gave the Island a wide berth.

Miz Delia was grateful for the tall tales. Born in the last century, after the Colonies took their freedom from Britain, she’d grown craggy and wild like her rock refuge. She had a gap in her front teeth, droopy eyes, and high cheekbones holding up tired skin. Always dressed in black, she blended into the gloomy ledges day and night. Rainbow was her first star child. Delia was going through the change, hearing mostly Spirit talk the night high waves tossed Rainbow against the reefs. Truth be told, many a body got banged senseless in the whirlpools at Wolf Wedge and drowned, but not Rainbow. She clawed her way to the surface, spit seaweed, and shrieked like a demon.

Delia was on the other side of the Island. She tossed and fussed in a feather bed, lost in a dream she’d had every night for a month:

A warm breeze turned to mist. Delia floated in fog above straw hat roofs tucked in a mountainside. She marveled at meteors streaking across a black velvet sky. Below Delia, a young woman (her mother?) ran along rocky cliffs at the edge of a Dogon village back in Africa. Delia’s mother waved to the flashes of light. Her laughter was brighter than her colorful headwrap. A man, flimsy as mist, dark as soot, with wing marks on his forehead, chased behind Delia’s mother. Tracking the meteors, the couple stumbled over a broken rabbit mask. Delia’s mother gripped the man so he didn’t fall over the edge on account of raffia ears. They laughed, then gasped in wonder as a fat-bellied boat with blazing lanterns and spidery sails (or were they wings?) flew down from the sky on a river of fog.

“Delia! Delia!” Spirits shouted.

Delia woke with a start, wheezing on mist drifting in her cabin window. A gurgling stream gnawed at the rocks by her door. Warm winds off the Georgia coast rustled the straw hat roof.

“Sky is falling,” the Spirits said. “Bits of light coming down!”

“Hush now.” Delia covered her ears. “I’m awake. I can’t hear dream talk.”

“Stars falling into the sea, right now,” Spirits insisted. “Gifts, Delia. See?”

The fat boat with spider-web wings rode the mist right past her nose. Delia leapt up as it sailed off into the night. She stuck her head out the cabin window and gasped. A shower of meteors dissolved in the dark, spraying colorful sparks before hitting water. Tears filled Delia’s eyes.

• • • •

The whole island poured from doorways, tents, and caves to watch the bright-as-daylight show. Men and women scaled jagged rocks, climbing to the top of the Island. Not a sail in sight or a wayward canoe, just a ghostly full moon floating at the horizon. Delia sauntered along the bluffs, in good spirits for the first time in a storm of days. A black wrap with a few glass beads crowned her head. She peered through a battered spyglass at a fiery meteor heading her way. A piercing yelp almost made her drop the precious instrument. At the sound of flailing and choking, Delia yelled, “Castaway!” and headed down to the reefs. She raced over scruffy bushes and across wooden planks, then clambered up Wolf Wedge.

In the light of the rising moon, Rainbow was a blur, struggling in a whirl of water. A long cylindrical tube, coated with pitch and lashed to her back, helped her stay afloat for a breath or two, yet she was at the end of her strength. A wave tore through the reefs and smacked her against a rock wall. She scrambled for a hold on the slick stone face, but slipped. Delia dropped to her belly and extended a hand. In vain. Rainbow got sucked into white foam. Delia hooked a foot in a sandy crevice and leaned down to the water. She stretched her hands into the furious bubbles and waited.

Spirits wouldn’t tell Delia about a gift from the stars only to snatch it away from her.

Another wave pushed Rainbow back to the surface. Delia gripped her arms up to the elbow. As the wave receded, she hauled Rainbow up the rock face and deposited her in a spit of sand. Islanders behind them cheered. Rainbow spewed out water and gulped air. She wore a boy’s breeches, a ragged cotton shirt, and a gentleman’s vest. No seaweed stink, she smelled like damp earth after a storm. Her hands matched the night sky, dark velvet flecked with colored crystals. A few folks muttered about spies and pirates. Delia hushed that talk, saying:

“Blessings on us!” She hugged the girl to her bosom. “A gift from the stars.” She hauled the shaky young woman down from Wolf Wedge to the curious crowd that had gathered. “My Spirits have spoken of you.”

“Don’t talk nonsense, Delia,” Red Quincy said. A handsome, muscular fellow, he shook mist from curly black hair and scowled. Red Quincy was smart as a whip and hungry for freedom, for power. He commanded almost as much respect as Delia. The crowd parted as he stomped forward. Red in the faint beard on his cheek glowed in the light of a lantern he carried. A reckless fellow, he liked tempting fate. “I’m a learned man, you know.” Didn’t he remind Delia every day? “From the century of lights.”

“Le Siècle des lumières . . .” Rainbow said.

Delia sucked her teeth. “What do you and your ne’er-do-wells know about the stars, Quincy?”

“More than you,” Quincy replied.

“That’ll be the day.” Delia turned to Rainbow. “Back in Africa, my mother believed in watery star-beings, traveling the skies in in great fat boats.”

Quincy snorted. “Probably slave ships come to steal us away.”

Delia talked over him. “My father wasn’t sure about the boats,” she dabbed at blood on Rainbow’s cheeks, “Still he never argued about star-beings coming to our world, as best, as best I . . .”

“As best you can remember?” Quincy turned to his ne’er-do-wells. “Why should we listen to Spirits talking to you in dreams?”

“Well, Quincy,” Delia smirked, “Spirits be talking to me when I’m awake, too.”

He rolled his eyes and held the lantern to Rainbow’s face. “Who are you?” he growled. “What do you want here?”

“What’s wrong with you?” Delia shoved Quincy. “We all washed up on this Island.”

“Yeah, but I’m looking out,” Quincy said.

Delia felt heat rising to her head, anger she might not be able to contain. “Since when are you a Scout?”

“Since I see danger that somebody else want to call a gift from the stars.”

John Oaks, a formidable fifty-year old Seminole man, stepped between Delia and Quincy. Rainbow eyed the rifle slung over his back and trembled. John also wore a beaded medicine pouch and the bandolier bag of a worthy man. He was deep water. John patted Delia’s shoulder. She touched her cheeks to his fingers, calm again.

“Hear what I know.” John had a ringing tenor voice. “Scouts say nothing from the Mainland or anywhere else has broken the surface of the sea for days.”

Delia nodded. Island Scouts were always on guard for spies on their freedom or fresh supplies and castaways floating ashore. Who would dare lie about this? If nobody was sailing by, if no ship had broken up on the reefs, where else could Rainbow have come from except the stars? A body didn’t swim all that way from Mainland docks and live to tell the tale.

“Put out that light, Quincy,” Delia said.

“You don’t know who all is watching,” John added.

Too much light at the shore would turn slave gossip and Indian tall tales into a search party of paddy-rollers — slave patrollers — hunting pirate Maroons.

“Might as well say, come get us, we’re right here.” Papa Moonbeam, a black man with a bright bald head, took a swig from a silver flask. A former river pirate, he was leader of the Scouts with John Oaks. “Why waste lamp oil on a full moon?”

Grumbling, Quincy doused the light. “Any desperate soul washing up here could betray the Island for fatback and pancakes!”

Delia snorted at this and turned to Rainbow. “Where you from?”

“Les Etoiles,” Rainbow said.

Delia didn’t know French but Rainbow looked like she could have come from anywhere. “You running to somewhere?”

Rainbow shivered. Her teeth rattled as water dripped from tight ringlets. Melody, a sturdy white woman with a fat baby sleeping on her back, offered a blanket. Her hair was liquid silver in the moonlight. A young woman, she’d gone grey before her time.

“I was hoping you were somebody else,” Melody said, “my sweet one, my Fran —”

“Fran is lost, most likely,” Papa Moonbeam said softly. “It’s a wide sea.”

Melody stepped close to Rainbow, waving the blanket. “Did you see anybody else out there?”

Rainbow clutched the watertight tube to her chest, like someone was about to wrest it from her night-sky fingers. Delia smelled terror on her.

“Ain’t nobody goin’ steal that from you.” Delia wrung out the girl’s wavy hair and wrapped her in Melody’s scratchy blanket. “You talk English?”

“He chopped my hands off.” Rainbow held up shimmery fingers. “I found these Ethiopian ones or they found me, saved me.” Islanders exchanged glances. Rainbow looked lost and older than Granny Peaches. “You have to believe me.”

Delia grimaced. “Who chopped your hands?”

“Preacher.” A convulsion spread through her body. “No one ever believes me —”

“I do, dear, I do.” Delia rubbed warmth into her.

“I almost drowned. These Ethiopian hands saved me again.”

Delia noted skinny arms and ribs. “How long since you ate or drank?”

Rainbow shrugged at Islanders gawking, their stomachs grumbling in sympathy. All manner of people had run to the Island. Miz Delia’s Maroons were the first. Later, old river pirates pulled ashore to rest and then gave up thieving. Pregnant white girls came in canoes, mountain girls following the whispered tales of Seminole women they’d met in the swamps. Fran ventured out last week with a free Seminole woman, her slave husband, and their children. They braved the waves in rowboats. Seeing that world of difference in the dark would be hard for Rainbow. Delia could tell her true Island lore in the morning.

“We ought to just throw her back in the sea,” Red Quincy shouted. He was spitting angry, not because of a stranger floating in. He was always mad about not being in charge. Only a few white folks were lighter than he was. One grandmother was Seminole, the other Igbo from West Africa, however both his granddaddies were from Scotland. He could read, too: books, numbers, sea charts. He deserved to be king or president. “Are you a Mainland spy?”

Rainbow stuttered nonsense in French. Questions shouted and suspicions grumbled made her shrink around her tube.

“Hush that mean talk,” John said. “Not much she can do to us.”

Moonbeam poured a few drops from his silver flask into a waterskin. Rainbow snatched it from him and drank quickly.

“Slow now,” Moonbeam said. “Drink each drop so you can taste the wetness.”

Rainbow choked a moment then did as she was told, savoring each mouthful.

“How you called?” Melody said. “What’s your name?”

“Some fool slave name, don’t need that following you around,” Moonbeam said.

Miz Delia stroked her night-sky hands and said the next word that filled her mouth, “Rainbow.”

Eyes wide, Rainbow dropped the waterskin and nodded at Delia who had guessed the truth on the first try.

Moonbeam snatched the waterskin up. “Well, you’re welcome,” he muttered.

“Jenny Garlic wouldn’t want me to call you nothing stinky,” Delia said.

“That’s right.” Jenny grinned. She possessed all her teeth and was older than Delia. She had a Muscogee Creek Indian name, too. That was just for her Bird Clan folk. Delia knew Jenny’s clan name, but wasn’t telling. Jenny had an open face and, despite a whimsical European feathered hat and lacy gloves, a tough demeanor. She and her clan were Island government. Her two sons and three daughters organized everything and everybody, a confederation of disparate souls, almost one hundred the last time anybody counted. Jenny was always consulted when somebody was about to join the Islanders. Tasting the jittery mood of the folks gathered round them, she clapped lace-covered hands. “Rainbow belongs to us and herself now.” Strings of beads around her waist and neck jingled as she repeated these words in each direction.

Murmurs of agreement rippled out to sea.

Red Quincy rolled his eyes. “Delia is ready to take in any old body who washes ashore. Is that good sense?”

“You got something better to do?” Papa Moonbeam said.

“It’s high time we left this Island,” Quincy said.

“We can’t. Not yet,” Delia replied.

“You don’t want to leave.” Quincy was up in Delia’s face. “Admit it.”

“Where would we go?” Delia put her hands on her hips. “You got a map to freedom?”

Quincy backed away. “This is your prison, not mine.”

Islanders gasped. Moonbeam muttered something to John about cheeky bustards. Ne’er-do-wells stood at Quincy’s back, egging him on. Delia was stone, staring right in his eyes. She refused to let anyone see that his words had hit their mark. Melody’s baby woke with a cry and banged her mother’s neck.

“I’m not dying on this Island,” Quincy said, “not to pay for your bloody crimes.” He took off with his crew. They scaled a steep overhang and disappeared into a cave.

“Don’t mind him,” Melody said to Rainbow, trying to bounce her baby quiet.

Rattled, Delia hugged herself. “Red Quincy is so busy studying danger —”

“He doesn’t know how to study anything else,” John said.

“Can you blame him?” Moonbeam took a swig from his flask.

“Yes,” Melody said.

Rainbow eyed her up and down before handing over the blanket. “I’ve heard tell of white women running off with Indian men . . . Never met one.”

“I didn’t run to the Island for a man,” Melody said.

Moonbeam slapped his thigh and hooted. Melody joined him. Tension in the crowd broke. Even the baby stopped fussing and gurgled.

“You’re a jolly crew.” Rainbow frowned.

Moonbeam tucked his flask away. “You gotta laugh, otherwise —”

“Rainbow swam the reefs. What I tell you all?” Melody looked out to sea. The waves were silver in the moonlight, like her hair. “My Fran is out there somewhere. Alive.”

“Well, then maybe she’ll get here.” Delia never argued with hope. Nobody else on the Island did either, not even behind her back.

A wave exploded against the rocks. Startled, Rainbow almost fell over. Delia walked her onto a wooden pathway away from the water. Dark cliffs loomed ahead. Mist ghosted in the crevices.

“Where are we going?” Rainbow struggled to keep Delia’s swift pace.

“To my cabin,” Delia said, then whispered, “I knew I’d get one more chance.”

“Only one?” Jenny said. She could hear underneath things. “For what?”

Rainbow halted. “Mainlanders say Madame Delia’s a turncoat Negro who got rich on her own people’s blood.”

Delia kept walking. “Paddy-rollers got rich, not me.”

“I’m nobody’s last chance.” Rainbow jumped from the wooden walkway and marched across the sand.

Delia reached for her. “No! Wait!”

Moonbeam snatched a child close before the boy could follow Rainbow.

Jenny’s youngest son, William, dashed across the sand. “Not that way,” he said. His mischievous dimples and sultry eyes made Rainbow pause. He took her arm.

“So I’m not really free here.” She struggled in his grip.

“You walk danger that way,” William said. “Quicksand.”

John threw a heavy rock that landed beside Rainbow and sank. Sand in front of her drifted into itself. Rainbow froze. The Maroons’ first night on the Island, a man pulled Delia and Granny Peaches from deadly waves. He got sucked to kingdom just beyond Rainbow’s feet.

“So many lost . . .” Delia closed her eyes and pushed memories from her mind.

“Come,” William said. Clutching her hand, he deftly navigated the shifting sand and drew her back to the wooden walkway.

“You are bold, Monsieur,” Rainbow said, but stepped in his footsteps.

“I would know the secret of hands that have caught falling stars.” William bounded onto the planks and pulled Rainbow up after him. “Delia has the best bed on the Island. I sleep in dirt.” He talked softly in Rainbow’s ear with a bass drum voice that tickled bones and made hearts rumble. “You are lucky, Rainbow Wave-rider.”

“Lucky? Non.” Rainbow slipped free of him. “Why do you call me Wave-rider?”

Caught off guard, William stumbled and stuttered in Muscogee. Twilight, his sister and Jenny’s eldest daughter, poked him in the ribs. She had a rifle slung over her shoulder. She was a great shot in high winds or shifting shadows, the best shot on the Island in fact. A thick braid trailed down her back. Waist beads jingled as she sniggered. “Maybe sweet William has met somebody he can’t charm out of her good sense.”

“A second somebody,” Melody said.

William smirked and stood tall. “We all need rest, in whatever bed.” He gave a sign, and Islanders disappeared into caves above the beach.

“Are you the headman then?” Rainbow asked.

“Me?” William smiled at Delia, John, Moonbeam, and Jenny. “A mico or even heniha? No.”

As he dashed up the cliffs, Melody sang about falling stars, Rainbows, and watery beings living above the sky. William’s big bass boomed harmony in the caves. Moonbeam leaned his forehead against Delia’s and hugged her. She lingered in his spicy embrace a second before pulling away. She handed John the battered spyglass.

“We could use five of these.” John squeezed her hand and stroked her cheek.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Delia brushed her lips across John’s fingers. “I’ll be fine. Both of you, go on.”

John, Moonbeam, Twilight, and the other Scouts blended back into darkness. Taking up cold, damp posts, they set their minds on alert for the long night ahead.

“Is he your man?” Rainbow asked, squinting after them.

“Who?” Delia replied.

“The quiet one.”

“John Oaks is only quiet with strangers.”

“The rascal then?”

“Papa Moonbeam love hisself more than any woman.”

“Do you love anybody?”

“What kind of question is that?” Delia pulled seashells from Rainbow’s hair. “You love anybody?”

Rainbow chewed on this. A large meteor streaked over the Island’s highest peak and dropped toward the sea. “Jump from these cliffs and you break yourself.”

Delia grunted. “You ready to follow me now?” She didn’t wait for a response, just stepped under a dark overhang and hurried up an even darker corridor.

Rainbow stumbled behind her. “How can you see where we’re going?”

• • • •

Delia’s cabin was at the mouth of a cave. The stream running under her bedroom and gnawing rocks outside her kitchen splashed their feet before they stepped inside. Delia didn’t light a lamp. Darkness was her bosom friend. Rainbow dropped wet and fully dressed onto the feather bed. It smelled of lavender and goose fat. Rainbow set the cylindrical tube made from somebody’s hide on a chair beside the bed and fell asleep. She curled against Delia’s belly, snoring and talking French. The tube’s pitch smell tickled Delia’s nose. She reached for it, but her hand hovered in the air.

“Delia! Delia! What do you see?” Spirits said.

Poisonous snakes wiggled out of the tube followed by jeweled necklaces, silk cloth covered in gold embroidery, and rolls of parchment with long paragraphs and a curlicue signature.

Delia pulled her hand back. “Important papers that could make a body free . . .” Delia’s eyes fluttered shut, too, and she fell into a dream:

A sleek sailing ship from the Mainland plowed rough seas. Its majestic white sails billowed in gusts of wind. Lanterns glowed in cabin windows. The ship’s enormous steering wheel spun. Frantic sailors, as white as ghosts, raced along the ship’s deck. They stumbled as the deck rocked and tilted. A brown-skinned, hazel-eyed sailor with nappy hair and a rope around his waist tumbled from a high mast overboard. He wore bright colors, unlike the ghost-pale sailors. Flailing in high waves, the sailor smashed against a rock reef. Water battered him. His shriek was cut short. He floated, face down, lifeless, a burst of color banging the rocks.

• • • •

The next day, sunlight poured into the cabin window onto patchwork blankets. Delia bustled around fixing breakfast. She didn’t let bad dreams about lost souls curdle her stomach. This morning sparkled with promise. Rainbow slept deeply, hugging feather pillows. Delia bumped her shoulder. Rainbow woke with a start, flinched away from Delia, and fell out the bed.

Delia chuckled. “I’m not goin’ eat you.”

Rainbow didn’t look too sure. “You look different in the light.”

“You too.”

From wrists to fingertips, Rainbow’s Ethiopian hands were many shades darker than her creamy brown arms and face. She had a watery hazel eye and a brown one. Tiny breasts were offset by wide hips. Her hair, wavy on top and kinky at the back, glowed reddish under a dark brown. She scrambled up and surveyed Delia’s collection of stones, dried flowers, and damaged things. Bent wheels, rusty rigging, broken bottles, addled pendulum clocks, and other ruined machines decorated walls and filled corners.

“Everybody be collecting something.” Delia scooped cornbread from a skillet. “Quincy gather slave papers and bounty notices to torment hisself. That’s not for me. Jenny Garlic gathers hats, boots, and gloves. She’ll give you some if you ask her.”

Rainbow held up a battered music box.

“Melody, that mountain girl with the chubby-cheeked baby gave me that.” Delia ladled beans. “She hunt music things: string, gut, gourds, and hollow tubes.”

Rainbow twisted the key and after a moment set the box to her ear. “Ça ne marche pas. It doesn’t work.”

“Music’s in there.” Delia shook a pan so hot grease ran over fried eggs. “I feel it.”

Irritated, Rainbow dropped the box and picked up a dented silver flask.

“Papa Moonbeam stomped that.” Delia smiled. “It was filled with poison brew.”

“Poison makes you smile?”

“Moonbeam makes me smile.”

Rainbow rolled her eyes just like Quincy and held up two broken arrows.

“John Oaks missed his target that day, twice. Then he broke those arrows.”

“Indians are supposed to be good with bows.”

Delia chuckled. “Well, John and Moonbeam tell those stories better than I do.”

“Everyone on this Island is always laughing.”

“You don’t laugh much?” Delia set plates of food on the rough wooden table.

Rainbow dropped into a chair with three good legs and a busted one. Two fried eggs were yellow eyes, gawking at her from a mound of beans. She stuffed cornbread in her mouth and then attacked the beans and eggs. The chair wobbled and the table did, too.

Delia’s stomach twisted with Rainbow’s hunger. “I haven’t been laughing or talking much lately, except with my Spirits. Can you believe it?”

Rainbow shook her head, no. Grease dribbled from her chin onto empty plates.

Delia piled on more beans, eggs, and cornbread. “Who are your people? Colored folks? Indians?”

Rainbow’s fork hovered at her mouth. “Uhm . . . You all now, right?”

“Ain’t always been good to my people.” She was too old for beating round the bush.

“I don’t know if I’ve been good to mine either.”

“Fair warning.”

Rainbow wolfed her second mound of food. “Where’d you get beans and eggs and cornbread?”

“Trading and whatnot.” The door blew open and Delia jumped up, not sure what to reveal about the Island. She walked into the sea breeze. “How’d you end up paddling in the drink?”

Rainbow joined her in the doorway. The driftwood cabin was tucked into a sandy depression at the mouth of several caves. A rock wall blocked an ocean view. Flowers dotted sheer cliffs. “Nothing but rocks to see from here.”

“Cabin by the caves suits me fine.”

Rainbow stroked a curved beam protruding from the cabin. “What’s this?”

“A sky hook.” Delia scampered along sharp ridges. She gathered flowers and herbs from spits of dirt. “Some folks say I come into the world in South Carolina and got sold south. Other folks say I was born in a cave hut in West Africa near an altar with a hook to snag rainclouds. I was brought to the New World, much younger than you, however old you are. I bet you’re older than you look. Help me get some water.”

Rainbow scratched her neck and grabbed a bucket.

Delia heated the storm water they hauled and filled a basin. “You need cleaning up.”

Rainbow shrank away from her. “No.”

“It’ll make you feel better.” Delia opened a bottle of sweet oil and let her smell. “You ain’t used to somebody making you feel good, are you?”

“Nobody nice, except —” Rainbow closed her eyes. “I can’t remember.” A lie.

While Rainbow soaked in hot water, Delia washed her clothes and hung them to dry in the warm sea breeze. Rainbow drifted off in the steamy water, muttering about a man of soot and mist till Delia scrubbed her skin with crushed seashells. Rainbow startled and clamped her lips on secrets.

“Memories are precious.” Delia combed her tangled hair. “I ain’t always been right in the head. Sorting out early memories is a trick. My mother claim, back in Africa, Dogon people resisted Islam, holding to their own beliefs, and ended up slaves to Christians in America.” She patiently unraveled a snarl at Rainbow’s neck. “That’s one of the last things she told me, before old man Briggs sold her to a Creek Indian planter.”

Rainbow peered in Delia’s eyes. “What other wisdom did your mother speak?”

“After they cut off my leg —” Rainbow stiffened but Delia pretended not to notice. She rubbed sweet oil on Rainbow’s Ethiopian hands. “Midwife burned the wound shut, yet said I was lost to this world. Sweating and raving, dying, yet I swear, my mother brought me another leg and talked to me in my father’s Dogon tongue: Secrets swallow other secrets! Your father knows buried treasures. Praise the men and they will remember to thank you, appreciate the elders and they will recognize what you have to offer.”

Rainbow gasped. “Stop, I . . .”

“You got to know who we are, what kind of place the Island is before you decide.”

“Who says I’m deciding anything?” Rainbow hopped out the tub and clutched her tube.

Delia hugged her in a soft blanket. “What they tell you about us?”

“Mainlanders say Miz Delia’s a ghost crook in the river, and if a captain floats his boat around your bend, he’s lost. They say you’re a fallen star, a demon woman, a trick on everybody.”

“What do you think?”

Rainbow peered out the window. “Are you the only one up here? Where does everyone else live?”

“You better at asking questions than answering them.”

“You too.”

Delia handed her breeches, shirt, and vest, still warm from the sun. “I’ll tell you if you tell me.”

Rainbow pulled on her clothes and made no promises, but Delia did. She decided to talk truth not only to her Spirits, but to Rainbow, too, decided to tell her everything. Not right off, yet soon. Every Islander had hidden sorrows and joys. Nobody pried, and if a body did share some great secret, folks were good at keeping it secret, so good, in fact, that Mainlanders sailed right by their refuge and didn’t see a thing, didn’t even suspect they were there. Until now, Delia’s people were invisible, a secret swallowed in a secret.

John stood in the doorway, quiet as smoke, his gun resting on the floor. How long had he been there? Rainbow swallowed a shriek.

“What you spooking us like that for?” Delia said, her heart racing at the sight of him, and not from fear. Iron grey streaked his black hair. Laugh lines glistened with sweat. His woodsy smell was tinged with urgency.

“Twilight took the Scout canoe and slipped out before dawn,” John said. “She found that lost gal. Fran? William is guiding them in through the reefs.”

Brave Twilight found Fran clinging to a rock, down to her last waterskin. Paddy-rollers had shot the mountain gal in the leg. They wanted her alive for information and pleasure, too. Fran almost gave up hope. But the fool paddy-rollers smashed their boat on the reefs and got sucked down a whirlpool. Bloody-faced, they pleaded with Fran to help, moaning about the fortune she could share. A Frenchman, Monsieur Blaise, was offering two thousand dollars for Miz Delia, alive or dead.

“For that much money, a man might turn his own self in!” Moonbeam said.

Not Fran. A plump, determined white woman with strong arms, she clutched her rock and watched the paddy-rollers drown. Melody was thrilled to hold Fran to her heart. However, Quincy was worried that Mainland men would come hunting their women. Delia knew better. Mainlanders would come for renegades. They’d come to crush the threat on their waters. They’d come for the Island’s treasure. Freedom was priceless. Rather than worry about how she was going to get all her people off the Island and where they would go when they left, Delia sent everybody to prepare a feast. Two castaways making their way to the Island was cause for celebration.

• • • •

Later that night, music rumbled underground, an eerie sound. No telling who might be listening, so Delia was glad they sounded like hellions and haints luring poor sailors to their deaths. She led Rainbow through winding dark corridors to a high ceilinged cave lit with lanterns. Rainbow gaped at water dripping from a stalactite straw into a stone bucket at the edge of a spring-fed pool. Reflected lights swirled in dark water. Cave walls echoed with raucous voices and music. Dazzled, Rainbow stroked a frothy white stalagmite growing on a fat yellow boulder. Delia slipped away to a perch in the dark where she could enjoy the goings-on unseen. She was terrible company these last few months. Why spoil a celebration?

Granny Peaches, the oldest islander, wore flowers in her hair and a robe that must have come from Africa. She told a story in a language Delia didn’t know. Igbo? A crowd of folks in animal masks danced her words. Lanterns illuminated a feast. Shrimp, vegetables, sweetcakes, and peaches were set out on smooth rocks. Children in fanciful dress — Delia couldn’t tell what they were supposed to be — crammed honey confections into their mouths.

Rainbow stuffed peaches and cornbread in her pocket. Red Quincy smirked behind her back, but Delia remembered when he first washed up on the Island. Quincy ate so much, he was throwing up all the time. Now he nibbled a chicken leg like a dainty man and flirted with Liberty, a young black woman with scars on her shoulders, neck, and across her face. Liberty stood by a fat stalagmite, a colorful patch over a blind eye, looking for William no doubt. Quincy bowed and offered his hand. Liberty took it, even if Quincy was just asking to make William jealous. They danced with folks in animal masks and wild hats from Jenny’s collection. Rainbow took the tube from her back and sat on a boulder.

Twilight dropped down next to her. She dismantled her rifle as Islanders cavorted around them. In a blink, the rifle was in pieces. “I don’t know these dances. Do you?” Twilight said.

Rainbow shrugged. The gun fascinated her more than fancy footwork. She touched one piece gingerly.

Twilight blew through the barrel, oiled, and rubbed it. “Can you shoot?”

Rainbow shook her head. “They say Seminole women are as savage as the men.”

Delia sucked her teeth at Mainland nonsense.

Twilight chuckled, more forgiving than Delia. “I’m Muscogee. Creek. Fusualgi, Bird Clan. John is Seminole. Wind Clan.” She started putting the rifle back together.

Rainbow murmured French, hugging her tube for dear life. “How do I get back to Delia’s?”

“These caves are a maze. Treacherous.”

A man in a rabbit mask with seaweed fur and feather ears materialized from the shadows. He somersaulted right over Rainbow’s head. Spooked, she fell off the boulder. Her tube rolled toward the pool. Rainbow scrambled to grab it. Rabbit danced off, teasing folks in his path. Twilight swallowed a giggle.

“People are treacherous, not rocks.” Rainbow brushed sand from her clean breeches.

“When we first arrived, my brother William and I . . . we would have fallen. Over there.” Twilight pointed to a ledge across the dark pool.

Delia shivered thinking on the Maroons’ first cold night. She’d clutched the lip of that ledge . . . Loose rock cascaded around her as Twilight climbed up her clothes. Shrieks and thuds resounded from below. John gripped Twilight and passed her on to Moonbeam. Beside Delia, William lost his hold. Delia clutched his arm.

“Many people were ready to give up, go back,” Twilight said. “Planters might work a body to death, but they fed you first.”

“Delia saved you, too?” Rainbow almost sounded bitter.

“We saved each other, when we could. Every feast, we celebrate that.”

Rainbow dug her toes in crumbling rocks. “Quincy speaks of Delia’s crimes.”

“Delia says the crime is belonging to people who own you, body and soul.”

Rufus Freedman, a skinny young black man, one of Quincy’s ne’er-do-wells, snuck behind Twilight. He eyed Rainbow and put a finger to his lips, hoping for a surprise attack. Delia snickered. Twilight had to know the love-sick fool was breathing over her.

“You all won’t survive here,” Rainbow said, angry suddenly. “Quincy —”

“— usually says one true thing,” Twilight said, “but —”

“Mainlanders will come eventually —”

“To steal our freedom.”

“It’s a fight you can’t win. Jamais.”

“I just hope I can do what I need to.” Twilight’s rifle was back together.

Rainbow slung the tube over her back. “I never met anybody like you. I —”

“Every day is a surprise,” Twilight said.

Rainbow scoffed.

“That’s what my mother always says,” Twilight insisted.

“And you believe her still?”

Twilight aimed the rifle at shadows on the rock wall. Rufus danced between her and Rainbow. Twilight lowered the gun. Rufus dropped to one knee, hand outstretched. His eyes flashed lantern light. One of Quincy’s foolish ne’er-do-wells, still, Rufus was the only man brave enough to ask Twilight to dance. He tugged her hand from the gun and brushed his lips across her fingers.

“Warriors dance, too,” he said.

Twilight slipped from his grasp. Nobody was too sure if she was looking for a man. She slung the rifle over her back and headed for a dim corridor. “I have watch.”

“You have watch every night.” Rufus ached to reach for her again. Instead he watched her disappear, then strode to an Islander with painted driftwood in her hair.

“We’re on watch day and night,” Delia murmured, her good mood fading.

Checking first for nosy spies, Rainbow crammed food from her pockets into her mouth and scampered away from the pool. Fran sat on cushions with her leg propped up. Her cheeks were bright red, her bandages a clean white. She held Melody’s baby. The child squeezed Fran’s nose and gurgled. Melody was tipsy on frothy beer coming from a barrel that John leaned against. Delia couldn’t make out what Melody was singing. Islanders clapped and hooted with her. Rainbow strode past them, peering down corridors.

“Where are you going?” John asked.

“Nowhere,” she replied.

“Better to go somewhere. Don’t you think —”

Shouts and squeals from Islanders at the water’s edge interrupted John. Musicians halted midphrase. Children dropped their mouths open. John reached for his rifle. Rainbow pushed through the excited crowd to the shore. Delia stood up to see over the bobbing heads. Rabbit was running on the water! His feet splashed the dark surface like he was slapping the head of drum. The musicians captured his rhythm. In the middle of the pool, Rabbit jumped high and spun. The crowd hooted, and Rabbit headed for the mouth of a corridor on the opposite shore. With one last leap, he reached solid ground. His audience responded with thunderous cheers. Rabbit even lifted Delia from her glum mood. She had to cheer, too. Anybody else trying that stunt would have drowned. Rabbit danced with shadows on the cave wall.

“Does William have watch?” Rainbow gazed across the dark water.

“William is not a Scout,” John said, “but —”

“He’s good for a laugh,” Quincy said.

“A show-off coward is what you usually say.” Liberty poked Quincy. “You’re jealous.”

“William likes fresh meat,” Quincy said. “I prefer a smoky taste. Freedom in my mouth.”

“Say that again.” Liberty kissed his cheek.

Rainbow dashed into dark water, too quick for folks trying to grab her. Following Rabbit’s path, she danced across slippery boulders hidden just under the surface. Banjos captured her swagger as she mimicked Rabbit’s whirling dance in the middle of the pool. The final gap from rock to shore loomed. Rainbow gulped breath and flew through the air. Her heel splashed into water. She stumbled a bit. Rabbit caught her and pulled her onto solid ground. The audience cheered again. Delia cheered, too, and the kink in her neck let go.

Rainbow was breathless. “I haven’t seen you all day.”

William took off the rabbit. “Were you looking for me?”

“Not really.”

“Island women would warn you against me. Liberty says I’m a scoundrel.”

“Everybody would warn you against me.”

Rainbow snatched the rabbit and put it on. The mask fit! Delia gasped so loud, folks looked around for her hiding place. She shrank further into the dark. Rainbow cavorted with the shadows on the cave wall. William grinned at moves as good as his. He stepped very close, dancing with her.

“You’re a dangerous woman, Rainbow Wave-rider.”

Rainbow spun to a halt. William got caught off guard for a second time by this child of the stars and almost fell. Rainbow caught him and they slid to the ground gracefully. He laughed. Rainbow took off the mask and frowned. Laughter grated on her.

“Show me the way to Delia’s?” she said, about to be mad.

William rose slowly. “I know many ways.”

She jumped up. “Mais oui. I bet you are never lost.”

William tilted his head at her sass. He liked a good challenge. “Come.”

They headed down a treacherous corridor. Romancing her, William was taking the long way. Delia darted up the short cut and slipped out into a cool night. An almost full moon rode the sky. Delia danced to faint music, but was wheezing too much, so she had to stop. The fat ship with spider-web wings flew on the fog into her cabin window. Delia raced in the door. The ship hovered over her altar to broken things.

“Delia. Delia. Find your own way,” Spirits said.

“How?” Delia stepped close to the fluttering sail/wings.

“Secrets swallowed in secrets,” Spirits said and the ship dissolved.

“Don’t you have anything better to say?”

Truth be told, Delia didn’t want an answer. Quincy was right. She dreaded leaving the Island. Exhausted, asleep standing up, Delia fell in her bed and into a dream:

A few pallets crowded together on the dirt in a slave hut in Georgia. Delia thrashed under a bloody blanket. She was delirious, muttering. A single window opened onto a starry sky. Two indistinct figures hovered outside, holding a lantern and peering in. Looming over Delia was her mother, now fifty and wearing raggedy clothes. Her mother’s headwrap was brightly colored. The chain under her chin tinkled with coins as she said, “Remember me. Forgive yourself.” Delia reached up and her mother blurred into mist. Under the blanket, an Ethiopian leg with night-sky skin sparkled. Delia touched her leg, amazed.

• • • •

Delia thrashed on top of the colorful quilts, still half-tangled in the dream. She wheezed and scratched her Ethiopian leg. William and Rainbow stood over her, holding a lantern. William, his face a map of worry, shook Delia’s shoulder. Rainbow reached for Delia’s Ethiopian leg, astounded.

Delia covered herself quickly. “You two were in my dream, staring in the window.”

William and Rainbow exchanged glances.

“This Island is no dream!” Rainbow said. “Nightmare maybe —”

“Look,” William held up the rabbit mask. “I brought this back to you.”

Delia waved it away. “A gift from a different dream.” She gripped their arms and stood up. “Overseer knocked me in the head, stomped my leg. After my mother brought me an Ethiopian leg, that man just worked me harder. Soft in the head, everybody on the plantation took advantage. Liars, trying to scramble my mind. I thought I could buy freedom for me, for my son . . .” Blood stained the quilts. She snatched them up. “Then Spirits came, gave me clear visions.” She tossed the quilts out the window.

Rainbow watched her like a mountain lion eyeing a goat.

“Rabbit made it across the water tonight.” William stroked the feather ears.

“Moi aussi,” Rainbow said. “I also made it.”

“You walking on water don’t surprise me really,” Delia said. “You swam the reefs.”

William put the mask on the table. “We came here through the stone forest caves, passing the beasts carved by dripping water, yet I couldn’t make Rainbow Wave-rider smile or slip into a story mood.”

“Why do I need to be grinning all the time?” Rainbow scowled at him.

“Keep the mask,” Delia said. “It’s unbroken.”

William picked it back up and headed outside. “Good night. Don’t rile each other.”

“I don’t have any smiles left in me,” Rainbow declared.

Delia stuck her head out the window. Rainbow followed suit. Outside, William had vanished. As they leaned further out, Rabbit jumped from behind a barrel and spooked them both. They hollered as he carried on, leaping around the ridge, an acrobatic clown. Delia finally laughed as he disappeared into fog. Rainbow closed her eyes.

“No smiles, huh?” Delia had seen this gal walk on water and do a rabbit dance. Delia didn’t let anybody argue with hope on the Island, not even herself. “You just wait and see.”

That night lying next to Rainbow on clean quilts, Delia resisted sleep, resisted dreams. Maybe she got up and sleepwalked on ground fog. Her feet were cold and wet. Spirits hummed in her ears:

Delia strolled the fog to a sailing ship. The brown-skinned, hazel-eyed sailor floated, facedown in the sea, lifeless, a burst of color banging the rocks. Delia tugged a rope, trying to haul him in. He got no closer. Was this haint her son Andrew? Delia tumbled below deck to a cramped cell. She spied an old African, flimsy as mist, dark as soot, with wing marks on his forehead. Perhaps he was the man running the cliffs with her mother back in Africa, but grown old, a Spirit now. The mist man hugged Rainbow and stroked her cheek while she laughed and cried.

[Continue to Part 2]

 

Andrea Hairston

Andrea HairstonAndrea Hairston is author of Redwood and Wildfire, winner of the 2011 Tiptree Award and the Carl Brandon Kindred Award, and Mindscape shortlisted for the Phillip K Dick and Tiptree Awards, and winner of the Carl Brandon Parallax Award. Lonely Stardust, a collection of essays and plays, was published by Aqueduct Press in April 2014. Her latest play Thunderbird at the Next World Theatre appears in Geek Theater15 Plays by Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers from Underwords Press. In her spare time Andrea is the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Afro-American Studies at Smith College and the Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre. She bikes at night year round, meeting bears, multi-legged creatures of light and breath, and the occasional shooting star.