Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Ushakiran

The earliest movements she knows are not her mother’s movements but the sea rocking her mother, who lies unconscious on the ship’s deck, rescued. In that way, the sea can be said to be her mother.

She is born under the morning star, and so is named Ushakiran. The surgeon delivers her into a world of storms and blood, of darkness and creaking wood, of a blanket wrapped close around her, cold arms that cannot hold her.

She is fed on goat’s milk and honey by the surgeon, Jathe. She spends the first days of her life strapped to his chest while he works. She should not live, but she does.

“When are you going to find that brat a home?” the Captain asks him every time they make port, and Jathe knows he should foster her somewhere; he knows, but he cannot.

“Soon,” he says, and he thinks of wet-nurses and fevers, of tongue-blister, of drunkards and starving men, dirt, famine. He brings the baby back to the ship, every time.

He has never married, never had a home since he was a boy. His life has been spent on the kelp routes, seeking out the raw fuel of a magic that builds cities and fights wars on land, that has never given him a single thing. He would have married Ushakiran’s mother if she had lived, just because she had nobody else.

He knows that the baby’s odds of living to become a child are slim. She is never out of his sight. When the Currents fail, and the food runs out, he stands over her with a knife, watching the door for men who may remember that a child is meat, sweet and tender.

The Captain stops asking him when the baby will be sent away. Ushakiran learns to walk, or rather to take two steps and fall; she learns to laugh. She has dark eyes like her mother did, brown skin, and she grows two pearly-white teeth that show when she tries to talk. The sailors who have been on the ship since her birth begin to say that she is their good luck. They fear her crying, which they say brings storms. No one is to make her cry. Newcomers are warned.

***

Her toys are a doll sewn from old sailcloth, a top bought her by a sailor now dead, the feathers of circling birds, and knives.

Jathe teaches her how to use the knives. She can help him, he says. She learns to bandage and clean, cauterise and cut.

She is growing into a girl, six years old now and bright as morning, and he fears for her. He teaches her how to cut, quick and clean.

When she is seven, two new recruits take her down to the hold when Jathe is distracted by a fever case. Nobody notices until they hear her scream. The day is bright, warm, but Jathe’s chest goes cold. His hands are cold. He throws down whatever it is he is holding and runs.

A dozen men are there before him and Ushakiran is unharmed, seems untouched, but she will only say that they scared her. She is crying. Jathe has them take the recruits on deck and tie them down. He has no right to give such orders, but nobody has seen him like this before; he is the surgeon, quiet and calm, and now his eyes are stone and his hands are fists; they obey him by instinct. On deck, the Captain meets Jathe’s eyes, shrugs, and looks on.

Jathe has one of the boys fetch his knives and give them to Ushakiran.

“Like I taught you,” he says. She shakes her head.

He speaks to her quietly. “The world is a cruel place,” he says. “Your mother learned that. Mine, too, a long time ago. Here.”

He takes her hand to guide it, the way his mother guided his when she was teaching him to draw, forty years ago, and he helps her make the first cut. The man chokes. Her hand shakes, but she pulls it away to make the next cut alone.

The next time it happens, he tells her to take the man’s eye first. This time the man is from Balera and speaks little of any known tongue; maybe he has a daughter or little sister at home, the Captain says, and just wanted to talk to the child, but Jathe will not take a chance. Word is spreading about the child living on the Day’s Eye; word is spreading that if you touch her they will tie you down and let her cut you; word is spreading that she likes seeing the blood.

Newcomers have already heard her name.

***

Nobody ever remembers, later, who decided she should not go ashore. At first it does not arise because she is too young. Jathe goes ashore rarely, and when he does he leaves her with Davin, the first mate, who has children of his own. Whenever she asks if she can come ashore with him he finds a reason why not—heat, sickness, rain, unrest. One day, when she is eight, he is going out into Kingsport for supplies and she steps toward the boat to go with him. One of the sailors puts an arm out to stop her, says, “She can’t leave. She’s our good luck.”

Jathe looks at her. Since she was a toddler he has been telling her stories of the cities on land, of markets and palaces and everything in between. Her eyes are round, hopeful. He thinks of all the faces and reaching arms of a busy port, the snakes, the biting dogs; his eyes cannot be everywhere.

“You’re our luck,” he says. “Don’t you want to keep us safe? How can you be our luck if you leave?”

Her eyes fill with tears but she nods. He gets into the boat and walks around Kingsport all day feeling as if he has poisoned her. He makes up his mind that when she asks again he will take her ashore. But she never does, and secretly he is relieved.

***

Ushakiran loves to run. Every day, at sunrise, noon, and sunset, up and down the length of the ship. Her friend Davin says he could tell the time by her dashes, if he could not by the sun. From the stern to the bow, jumping over hatches and pails, over the concave of the ship’s drum, swerving outwards to go along the rail and in again to the companionway, sun on her skin, the ship’s timber under her bare feet. She dreams that one day she will reach the bow at such speed that she will launch herself from it and fly.

Her other favourite thing to do is to lean over the rail and watch the Currents that pull the ships around the Unfathomable Sea, and from which they dredge the kelp that they sell to magicians to power their magic. Sometimes if she screws her eyes up hard enough she believes she can see a Leviathan, one of the great monsters that are said to swim far, far down below and to create the Currents with their swimming and their own magic, but she knows that really she has never seen one. Sometimes she lies in the concave of the drum, where the kelp is collected, and puts her ear to the wood, and listens, and pretends that she hears the magic sing. She knows she does not. But when she rises to go about her day again she is sometimes dizzy, unsteady on her feet, and everything is brighter, sharper.

Faces come and go on the Day’s Eye. Sailors die, they jump ship, and new ones take the places of the old. Some—Davin, the Captain, and Jathe—are family, others, like Beor the young ship’s cook, are friends; the rest are fluid. When Ushakiran is thirteen a woman is recruited, a scarred and heavy woman; her name is Haf, and she is stronger than most of the men. Her husband, Korvall, is recruited too, but he is small and older and people often forget he is nearby.

“Who are they?” Beor asks her, the first time he sees them. He has come out to the drum to bring Ushakiran one of the cakes he has made. When she was littler and used to hang round the galley, getting under his feet and begging for food, he would bribe her to go away. Three lengths of the ship meant a spoonful of the honey she loved, five meant berries, ten, cake or extra bread. The habit has stuck.

“Just people,” she says, when she has licked the last of the cake from her teeth.

“Nobody’s just people.”

He is watching them. Ushakiran looks too. She sees a woman in dun-colour, wearing a string of wooden beads, a man with a beard, losing his hair: nothing of interest.

“They look like Arkislanders,” Beor says, leaning against the drum. “I went to Arkisland once; the trees are so thick you can hardly move, and the bears there are pure white. Like snow.”

“Oh,” Ushakiran says, but she is not thinking about Arkisland, she is looking at Beor, his tanned face lined by the weather, and wondering if there is more cake. He shakes his head.

“Don’t you ever wonder about the islands?” he says, “Or the cities, any of it?”

She shakes her head, with perfect truth. She stopped thinking about the outside world when she was eight years old. He shakes his head again, reaches out as if to ruffle her hair and stops, and then goes back to his galley.

***

“You should bind your breasts,” Haf tells Ushakiran one day. Ushakiran blinks at her.

“I’ve seen you running,” Haf says. “You wobble. You can bet the men see it. Bind them down, it’s easier.”

She shows Ushakiran how, and Ushakiran knows she should be grateful, but she knows she is growing, now, and she hates Haf for it, because Haf told her.

She notices Haf watching her, often. Most often when she is at the rail, Leviathan-watching, or curled up in the concave of the drum, imagining the power beneath.

“Where do you come from, girl?” Haf asks her one day, and Ushakiran, reluctantly, tells what little of her story she knows. Haf puts her head on one side, considering.

“Have you ever seen a Leviathan?” she asks.

“Nobody has,” Ushakiran says.

“How do you know that?”

Ushakiran shrugs.

“What about kelp? Have you ever eaten any? Touched it?”

Ushakiran shifts slightly away from Haf, uneasy.

“It wouldn’t do anything. It’s just for magicians.”

“So it is,” Haf says. Korvall comes past then, and Haf nods to Ushakiran and walks away with him.

***

The mutiny begins quietly, as such things do. Haf plants whispers in ears, and they grow. She tells the right people that spoils on the Day’s Eye are divided unfairly, that the surgeon is mad to keep a murdering witch-girl on board and the Captain is mad to let him, that she and Korvall could run things better. She has done this before. She says that men should not have to live in fear for desiring a woman who is dangled before their noses. She says that the men Ushakiran has killed are owed justice. She sees the girl go on as always, running her laps of the ship, smiling at the men, knowing nothing: a child. The harvest of Haf’s words is an indignation that grows like a rising wave. The Captain senses it as, after years at sea, he senses a change in the weather, but he only gives out more bread and spirits and lashings. Greed and fear rule everything out on the ocean; he has used them before, and he thinks they will serve him again. He is old.

There are too many ships on the arms of the Currents these days. They dredge the kelp thin and the Currents fail more often, leaving the ships becalmed for days at a time until the Leviathan far beneath do whatever they do to replenish the kelp, and start the Current flowing again. The gleanings are smaller, too, and the drum, which would once have been heavy with kelp and rich with power, only hums a little, now. There is less profit to go around. None of this is the Captain’s fault and Haf cannot change any of it anyway, but it is easy to convince angry men that a change, any change, will improve their lot.

She waits for her moment.

***

The Halverling Current fails. The Day’s Eye is becalmed, with no Current to carry her forward, and no wind either to bridge the gap to the next Current. There is sickness on the ship and Jathe works through a scorching day and a black night and half the next day to save three of the youngest sailors, who are half and a third of his age, who should not die while he lives. He staggers out onto the deck, into a baking noonday, with the reek of death on him. He is growing old, he thinks. Everything is so hot and bright. The side of his face seems to slip away from the bone, and he staggers against the rail. That is when he sees Ushakiran on the companionway, talking to a young man, a sailor whose face he should know, but he does not. He hardly seems to know the ship any more either—it is a blur, as is the sky, around the only thing he sees: Ushakiran, the hands reaching towards her. Wrongness surges up in his chest, suffocating him. In an instant he is back in that moment of her childhood, long ago, hearing her scream, and he is cold, cold.

He tries to run, but all he can manage is a lurch, somewhere between running and falling. He cannons into the young man and gropes for his throat, but never finds it. His opponent shoves him against the rail and hits him, once, twice. He hears screaming. He feels the pounding of running feet in the boards of the ship underneath him. Everything goes black for an instant, and when his vision clears he sees Beor, the ship’s cook, his friend, dead on the ground, and his first ridiculous impulse is relief, that he recognises the man finally, that he is not losing his mind after all. Then he sees Ushakiran standing over Beor, her blade dripping with blood, and he sees the men running towards her, bearing down on her like a wave.

They drag her away and then they come for Jathe. Before he dies, he hears, with an odd, faraway clarity, his old friend the Captain telling him that children cannot be kept like eggs, they will break out. That was many years ago and yet the words sound new to Jathe, as if he is hearing them for the first time.

***

They murder the captain in his bed. The blood of the surgeon, who has tended them for years, who has shown them the closest thing to kindness that anyone knows on board ship, is spilled all over the deck. Yet it is no worse, Haf tells them, than the murder of Beor, a young man who had committed no worse crime than offering dried berries to a girl he saw as a sister. It’s touch and go, but by a stroke of luck—and she deserves some luck, for once—the Current surges back into life and begins to drag the ship forward just as she fears they are slipping away from her. The great dredgers start their work again, spooling kelp into the drum, and life steals back into the ship, the low hum of power in every dip and rise of the bow, in every board of the timber. Haf believes the sailors sense that, without knowing it, and it reassures them.

Her own magic is not strong. However much kelp she eats or smokes or absorbs she will never be a powerful magician, but she knows one or two things. She knows the right stories to tell, and she knows trees. From the first shoot splitting a seed deep in the rich soil of her home island, to the polished beads around her neck, to the boards of a coffin or a ship. She knows enough to rid herself of Ushakiran. The sailors are afraid to kill the girl, afraid to keep her alive.

“She’s our luck,” one of them argues, and “She’s a killer,” another. They bicker back and forth until Haf whistles for silence and snatches up one of the spears they keep for fishing in the shallows on land. She strides up onto the kelp-drum, down into the hollow of it. They are all watching her now. She raises the spear and brings it down, hard, and with a crack and a splinter the drum ruptures, and the kelp comes spilling out. She scoops up a handful of it and throws her head back, eats the kelp slowly, sloppily, feels the warmth of the power filling her body. Not enough power, never enough, but enough for now.

No one makes a sound. She jumps out of the concave and goes to where two of the sailors hold Ushakiran, whose eyes are wide, not with fear, but with awe. She takes the girl’s face in her hands and closes her eyes. She thinks of the wood of the ship, sun-soaked, rain-beaten, wind-scoured, wood seasoned by age and hard use, trodden by the feet of these men and this girl, floating for years on the Unfathomable Sea. She feels soft skin harden under her palms, and when she opens her eyes there before her is Ushakiran in wood, honey-coloured and smooth-grained, eyes looking at something far away, one hand raised slightly in appeal. The perfect figurehead.

“But our luck,” one of the sailors protests, feebly.

“If she was lucky before, she is lucky now,” Haf says. She has them mount Ushakiran on the bow of the ship, staring out over the bowsprit, over the endless water.

***

Ushakiran is blind.

A wooden thing cannot see, and it should not hear either. It should be dead. She should be dead and gone, and yet here she is. She has plenty of time to think about why this is.

She has what she always wanted. She flies over the bow of the ship, in the wind and the spray, as fast as the ship is fast. It isn’t like she imagined.

She cannot see, but she hears with great acuity. She cannot really die on the Day’s Eye, she decides, because she has always been part of it. She has never left it since she was born. She lived on the ship as a flesh-and-blood girl and now that she is wooden she feels as a ship feels, because she is joined to the ship.

She feels Haf, wherever Haf walks, as a low vibration of power.

She feels feet on the boards, chairs scraped, shoulders leaning against walls, waves crashing against the side of her, fish as little irritations, barnacles as a constant, gentle torment. She feels the faded warmth of Jathe’s blood stained into the deck and if she could weep, she would.

She feels the kelp in the drum the way she used sometimes to feel her heartbeat, only stronger, much stronger.

As time goes by, she begins to feel other things. Whales, calling each other in the sea. Storms approaching. The presences of other ships, disturbances in the Current.

She begins to sleep. To sleep as wood is so pleasant, is to fall into an easy, honey-coloured dream, to glow in the sun, to rock with the motion of the waves through the wind and under the rain. She is falling insensate, degree by slow degree, when a new sound wakes her.

They are on the cusp of the Peret and Halverling Currents, and the men are raising sail to traverse between the one and the other, when she first hears it. At first she cannot place it for the life of her. Such a deep sound, so far down in the sea, and yet so huge it seems to shake the world. Leviathans. They are real, and she can hear them.

For days she listens, and that is enough to keep her awake—trying to make out what they are saying to each other, if they are saying anything. Even that, though, palls, and by the time they are three days out along the Peret Current she has lost interest and is slipping away. Until she hears a single word.

“. . . luck.”

It is Korvall talking, as he climbs between decks.

“They all believe that—” he says, and then he moves away from the wall, and she can’t hear him any more. Outside the wardroom he brushes the wall again, and he is saying “Reach Current. But maybe—” he walks out to the middle of the deck and she loses him again. A minute later he walks back and leans against the rail, but all she hears is “weevils,” and something about cabbage, and she gathers he is talking about his dinner.

She stops listening to the Leviathans, and starts listening, with all her concentration, to what is going on within the ship. She hears so much, and yet so little of value. “The old Captain,” one sailor says, cheek against the wall—he is tired, perhaps. “Mother,” another says, leaning over the rail to look down at the waves whilst he talks, and “never,” says the man he talks to, before he straightens and turns away. A morass of whispers becomes a lullaby; this time she will not fight it, she decides, she will let the Day’s Eye take her, and then, from the tide of sounds, emerges one complete, perfect sentence.

“If they want a child, let them have a child,” Korvall says. Ushakiran shivers; the ship shivers.

“I turned their luck into wood,” Haf says, “I made it last forever.”

She cannot work out where they are, that she can hear them so perfectly.

“I saw, love. It was magnificent.”

He kisses her. Ushakiran feels the touch for both of them—

Korvall’s lips on Haf’s and Haf’s on Korvall’s. No one ever kissed her in her life of flesh, and now she is kissed for the first time, by these two.

“We’ll go along Reach,” Korvall says, and he is kissing her again, in between words, “land on one of the Four Islands, find a child, and if they decide she’s not lucky they’ll probably find something else to do with her.”

No, Ushakiran thinks, and the ship dips forward, and the sails snap though there is no wind. She feels Haf absent-mindedly stroking the wood of the ship and wishes she could kill them both—and then she realises where they are. At the base of the drum, where it curves into the hold, and the kelp inside the drum is catching their words and conducting them perfectly upwards, through the timber, to Ushakiran.

“Their child had power,” Haf says. “This one won’t. They’ll know.”

“Sailors don’t know anything,” Korvall says, but Ushakiran is not listening to them any more, she is wondering. The child that had power. The child. Her.

A tremor runs through the Day’s Eye. Men fall against the walls, onto the floor. A bottle smashes in the wardroom. Somewhere a bag of holystone crashes to the ground and splits, scatters.

The sails catch and billow in the dead calm. The bow plunges down into the water. Ushakiran hears muffled and distorted cries, shouted orders, and Haf’s last, clear, whispered question, “What is that?”

The drum splits with a thunder-crash and the kelp rushes out. It soaks into the wood, into Ushakiran, and, absorbed, it lights her like tinder. There is sight, now, there is sound too—screaming, and the roar of a fire that is not true fire but power going up like fuel. It is night, but the sea around Ushakiran glows green-gold. There are no shadows. She feels lives blinking out all along the wood of her, like little candles snuffed—Davin, dragged under the waves, Korvall, crushed under the broken drum, Haf, thrashing in the water until the cold turns her still. The men are jumping off the rail, into the water, anything to get away from the unholy pyre that, as they swim frantically away from it, upends and drives downwards, into the black water.

The water swallows Ushakiran, goes through her as if it were her blood. Through the veins of her decks and rooms, drowning the men still trapped there and washing the stains of dead men’s blood away. Before the waters close above her she lets out a cry that is no human sound, not made by lips, nor throat, nor lungs, and there comes, from worlds away below the sea, an answering call.

© 2013 by Laura Friis.

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Laura Friis

Laura Friis

Laura Friis comes from West Yorkshire and currently lives in Vancouver. She likes to write at night and sleep during the day but has also been known to scratch out a living in jobs such as bookseller and stablehand. Among her favourite things are coffee, vegan food, and long walks. She is a graduate of the 2012 Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, where she wrote this story to the sound of fireworks on the Fourth of July.