Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Saltwater Railroad (Part 2)

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. [Click here to read Part 1.] —eds.

Part 2

For the next few weeks Delia wrestled with hope. She walked the Island talking with Rainbow, who always lashed the tube to her back and stuffed cornbread in one pocket and a peach in another. Delia didn’t show Rainbow the hidden valley, just the inhospitable perimeter. An occasional ship passed in the distance. Nothing got close to the Island. After many dry days, a storm came out of nowhere and chased Delia and Rainbow into a cave mouth at the top of the Island. They watched lightning strike a tall mast. The ship caught fire, burning bright yellow against a black sea and sky. The ruined vessel broke up on the reefs. No survivors washed ashore. Islanders whispered about lost souls. Delia didn’t want to hear about lost souls, didn’t want to think on her son Andrew.

Still, Delia took Rainbow down to the beach. They hurried over planks past Wolf Wedge to gather driftwood, drift-anything that might have floated their way from the shipwreck. Islanders poked through murky debris. Delia waded into the waves. Rainbow hesitated at the shore.

“Red Quincy say giant whirlpools in the sea churn barrels and charred sails our way, not water-spirits.” Delia plucked a spyglass from scummy water.

Melody and Fran cheered. Fran’s leg had healed well, just a slight limp now. She had Melody’s baby slung on her back. Rainbow counted nine women with babies.

“Miz Delia, what you want always floats right to you,” Jenny Garlic shouted. “I have to dig and slog!”

“Ain’t that good for you?” Delia shouted back.

William set a bedraggled hat on Jenny’s bare head. Water dribbled down purple feathers as she scooped wet sand to reveal a wooden box.

“What good is this junk?” Quincy and his ne’er-do-wells ran the rocks with three canoes on their backs. Strapping, muscular free men in the prime of life should have been a grand sight. Quincy smirking at Jenny’s hat made Delia’s blood boil. While the sea was calm, he planned to finish mapping dangerous waters. His crew would launch at a gush of water from an underground stream. Storm runoff would carry them past the worst reefs. Despite irritation, Delia, Jenny, and Granny Peaches spoke prayers for their safe return in Indian and African tongues.

“Savage gods don’t have any power,” Rainbow said. “It’s worthless superstition to worship anything but our Lord Jesus.”

Melody and Fran giggled, nose to nose, lanky hair mingling. Quincy snorted.

William jumped in a Scout canoe. He knew the waters better than anybody except Twilight. “Say a good word for us to your god, then.”

Rainbow sputtered. “I don’t know if Quincy wants a prayer from the likes of me.”

“Quincy never thank the clouds for falling down on us or the fish for feeding us.” Delia dried her spyglass and stuffed it in a canvas bag. “He got me pegged for a fool talking to haints. He’s a learned man and say water ain’t got no spirit. Water just is. But I know a thing or two. Being take all your spirit power and when you done run through that power, why, you stop being or actually you’re ready to be something else. It’s like climbing a mountain. At the summit you’re ready to roll down to somewhere new with everything the mountain got to give you. Being takes a lot of work! You ever try to be water?” Delia and everybody except Rainbow smiled at the thought. “Being water and your own self, too, that requires much spirit power.”

“I don’t think I understand you,” Rainbow said.

“Crazy talk, huh,” Delia said.

Jenny pried open her box. She clapped her hands together, thrilled.

“Food? More hats?” Delia said.

“No.” Jenny held up a scroll. “Maps!”

Rainbow stiffened. “What’s that noise? You hear that?”

A hound dog howled and was answered by a high-pitched yap. Rainbow dashed to Wolf Wedge. Everybody followed her. Scouts even materialized from the caves. A black and white dog, hardly more than a pup, scrambled from a few lashed-together boards before they shattered on the jagged rocks. She-dog jumped into Rainbow’s arms and wagged her whole body.

“Somebody found you,” Jenny said as the pup licked Rainbow’s cheeks.

Delia rubbed the pup’s tummy. “What you say?”

“How do, Captain.” Rainbow smiled for the first time.

“If William could see you.” Delia smiled, too.

“Whoever heard of naming a bitch Captain?” Melody asked.

“We’ve been watching those boards.” John Oaks stood atop a boulder, a long rifle in his hand. “Couldn’t make out who was aboard.”

Papa Moonbeam stood by John. He was toting a rifle, too. “You know this bitch?”

Rainbow shrugged. Captain chewed at her cylinder.

“One other dog on the Island.” Twilight jumped down to Rainbow. “Mangy ole thing is very lonely.”

Delia chuckled. “That hound dog got hisself lost in the swamps hunting Indians and runaways. Fool critter didn’t know what side he was on and warned Moonbeam of a gator creeping up.”

“‘Bout to chomp my good right foot.” Moonbeam stomped that foot.

“Hound was too mangy to eat,” John said. “So —”

“Moonbeam and John let him join their Scouts.” Delia liked telling this story. “They fed him good rabbit stew and he been warning the Scouts of ambush ever since.”

“What do you call him?” Rainbow asked.

“Swamp.” Moonbeam set his gun down.

Rainbow nodded. “Captain would love to meet Mr. Swamp.”

Swamp trotted in, snuffling and wagging a stringy tail. Rainbow set the squirming pup down. Captain and Swamp were fast friends at first sight.

“Swamp howled the night you came,” John said.

“Red Quincy’s willing to bet his life you’re a Mainland spy,” Twilight muttered.

“Or scouting for river pirates,” Moonbeam added.

Rainbow didn’t offer a better story. She shivered and scratched both dogs.

“Captain’s come home,” Jenny declared. “Good thing. Wind’s gathering orange clouds.” She pulled violet lace gloves onto Rainbow’s Ethiopian hands. A line of pearls went from the middle finger to the wrist.

Rainbow was too stunned to protest. “I don’t have anything to give you.”

“You’ll think of something.” Twilight yawned and shook weary limbs. She liked sleeping in sunlight, when nobody could get the jump on her, with love-sick Rufus standing watch. “One more hour . . .”

Everybody went back to scouting and collecting. Rainbow kept gaping at the gloves, terror on her breath, a lock on her heart. Delia still had time. Who’d raid the Island in this weather? She’d get Rainbow to open up after storm season.

• • • •

Tempests roaring up from the West Indies kept folks busy. In between deluges and gale winds, Delia and Rainbow collected what blew in. William helped them carry a tangle of busted furniture and ropes to the cabin one night. Delia was cranky. She cursed and punched knots, trying to rescue a rocker from a rope snarl. She wasn’t sleeping, too busy dream-walking and ciphering Spirit talk. That made her very cranky.

“I hate storm season, too.” William paced in front of her.

Outside Rainbow opened up empty rain barrels.

“I usually enjoy the lightning and the fury,” Delia said.

William tossed a scroll on the table. “Our freedom map is almost done, thanks to my mother finding those maps.” He marched back and forth along the altar of broken things.

“Stop!” Delia muttered. “You like to stomp a hole in my floor, making me dizzy.”

He danced in place. “Quincy says he’s going out the first dry day. For supplies.”

“He’s a free man.”

“Quincy risks us all.”

Delia hacked the rocker free. She held up the snarl of rope. “Well, I’ve seen the end of myself twisting in the wind . . .”

That got William to hold still. “What are you saying?”

“Last night, I was back on old man Briggs’s plantation.” Delia waved the rope about. She took a step and she was:

 — charging toward a grove of Georgia pines. The brown-skinned, hazel-eyed sailor spit a gag from his mouth. He was dressed in bloody rags. A rope circled his waist and wrists. Delia raced through dark underbrush, running so hard her lungs were on fire. A shadowy overseer climbed a ladder and threw the rope over a sturdy bough. The sailor flailed. Delia plowed through bushes and people cowering. The sailor went limp. Delia hugged his legs. She choked.

“It’s Andrew, my Andrew, dying again, on my word!” Delia banged the rope against her chest. She couldn’t get a breath. Before the Island, when she was a settlers’ spy, she told paddy-rollers where to find folks. On her word, they’d dragged runaways, free blacks, and renegade Indians from swamp hideaways.

William gripped her shoulders and talked Muscogee or some comfort Delia didn’t understand. She hurled the rope at Rainbow coming in the door. Rainbow froze. Captain scurried under the bed. Delia slapped William’s hands away. She wheezed and coughed blood. Rainbow marched to the altar of broken things, grabbed the music box, and thrust it in Delia’s face. Delia scowled but took the box. Music filled the cabin: violin, drums, and a gourd banjo. William and Rainbow jumped. They heard the music, too. Captain came out from under the bed. Delia dropped down by the window.

“I ain’t good company,” she said and sang the melancholy tune.

“Let’s go out. While the sea roars,” Rainbow said.

“Now? In a canoe?” William shook his head. “The wind could blow us away.”

“No! Just to dance in the rain.”

Rainbow pulled him outside. They got drenched immediately. He set an angry pace. Rainbow was breathless keeping up. Captain danced, too. Delia watched from the window. She unscrolled the freedom map and stroked the drawing.

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

A blue-green dragon flew off the paper followed by lush fruits and flowers, fanciful musical instruments, and colorful birds.

“The ships are coming. Are you ready?” Spirits whispered.

“I don’t know,” Delia replied.

A blast of wind lifted the map. It almost flew out the window. Delia gripped an edge. The map fluttered like a sail.

Outside William whispered in Rainbow’s ear. “Are you sure Delia’s all right?”

“She needed to be with herself. You needed to dance up a storm.” Rainbow pressed her hands against William’s damp cheeks. Ethiopian fingers flashed a bit of light. He closed his eyes and shivered at the sparks. She drew her hands down his throat to his chest. He took her face in his hands, tracing her features. He leaned close, pressing his body against hers.

“Are you trying to charm me out of my good sense, like Twilight said?” she said.

“Never out of your good sense,” he replied.

The wind knocked them into a puddle and they spit out mud. Captain licked their faces, wagging her butt. Rainbow smiled for a second time.

“Captain makes you smile,” William said, hauling Rainbow up.



The rain was gentle now, hardly more than mist. Rainbow kissed William on the mouth. He responded with passion. After a moment she pulled away. “Pardon, a French kiss . . .”

He touched his lips to her fingers. “Tell me the secrets of hands that catch stars.”

“I can’t, I just . . . You don’t know . . .” Rainbow hugged herself, shuddering.

William backed away from her.

“Don’t go,” she reached for him. “Show me where everyone else lives.”

“They live in my heart. And I have shown you that.”

“People don’t talk like you do. They don’t act like this. This Island isn’t on any map. It seems like a good life, but it’s doomed.”

William disappeared into a cave. Rainbow swallowed a scream and whirled in fingers of fog. Delia rolled the freedom map back up and set it beside Rainbow’s cylinder. If they could just make it through storm season . . .

• • • •

Hot, muggy weather turned everybody mean-spirited. The men bristled and bellowed. The women itched and snapped. Fights brewed below the surface. River pirates would have shot and sliced each other — they couldn’t always keep today together for tomorrow. Red Quincy usually claimed women helped him hold his temper. He wasn’t saying that anymore. Island women were as frayed as the men. Twilight aimed a gun at Quincy and her brothers to stop them fighting over trading and raiding. After a shouting match with John and Moonbeam, Quincy persuaded Jenny’s oldest son, Patrick, to go off with his crew of ne’er-do-wells. Patrick was as smart and brave as Quincy but didn’t know it. He looked up to the older, wilder man. Quincy didn’t ask William, saying he needed brave men, not cowards or clowns. Without William guiding them, Quincy’s three canoes almost smashed up on the rocks twice. That didn’t stop them paddling out of sight. John and Moonbeam headed out in a canoe, too, leaving Swamp tied up and yelping. Twilight jumped in their canoe at the last moment. She was the best shot, no contest, no argument.

Three days later, Delia sat by her window in the broken rocking chair. It howled as she moved back and forth. Islanders poured from the caves carrying pork, pickles, beans, a beer barrel, and peaches. Live chickens scurried beside them. Rufus Freedman led a baby goat on a rope. William, in the rabbit mask, jumped from the roof. Delia stopped rocking and marched outside. Quincy, Patrick, and the ne’er-do-wells had returned from their raid on the docks. They were loaded down with ammunition, guns, and two more canoes. Delia smelled blood on them. They’d been drinking, too. Quincy and Patrick bragged on each other and gave their booty away right in front of her door! The goat butted William. He tumbled in the dirt and the goat scampered off. Rufus chased after it. Children tittered. William took off the mask.

“Where’d they get all this?” Rainbow bit into a loaf of fresh bread.

“Where does Quincy get anything?” Delia stormed back into her cabin.

Rainbow broke a hunk of orange cheese from a fat wheel and waved it to William. He smacked the offering out of her hand.

“War for cheese?” he said.

“It’s always over cheese.” Quincy stuffed sausage in his mouth. “Let’s celebrate. Everybody should wear a mask.”

William threw the mask at Rainbow’s feet and dashed up a cliff.

Quincy turned to the mountain gals. “Sing something, Melody,”

Melody was reluctant. Her baby cooed and banged her neck. Children begged and pleaded. Adults looked uncertain. Two men shoved each other, a fight brewing.

Jenny Garlic scanned the crowd. “Yes, sing. It’ll sweeten the mood.”

Fran squeezed her hand. Melody sighed and sang:

My true love went a-roving
Across a narrow sea
My true love went a-roaming
She wanted to live free
They set hounds to her feet
They set fire to her breath
She refused to cry defeat
She refused to see death
My true love went a-roving
Across a narrow sea
My true love went a-roaming
She wanted to live free

Rainbow picked up the rabbit mask. She clutched it, shaking her head.

• • • •

John, Moonbeam, and Twilight had been gone for six days. When Jenny tried to worry out loud, Delia hushed her with crazy talk about being air, and being lightning, too. Rainbow and Captain sat with Delia at Wolf Wedge waiting through each long night. The sun was about to go down and Islanders whispered and worried. What if they never came back? What if Mainlanders had captured them? William slumped on one of Delia’s rain barrels, near the open window. Rainbow fussed with her cylinder and didn’t notice him. Wailing like a demon, Delia tramped around her cabin, trying not to see death or cry defeat. Her black dress and shawl were mud-splattered and knotted up. Her headwrap was unraveling. She couldn’t get herself to put on clean clothes. In the distance Swamp howled. When Captain joined in, Rainbow couldn’t stand the racket.

“You want to see what’s in my tube?” she said.

William peeked in the window and gasped as:

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 swallowed a wail and wiped at tears. “Sure. What is it?”

“A painting.” Rainbow opened the tube.

Delia held Captain’s muzzle. “Hush, hound. Rainbow got a secret to share.”

Both Captain and Swamp quieted down.

Rainbow unfurled a canvas. “Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian Healing a Christian with the Leg of a Dead Ethiopian.”

Delia groaned at the title and the image: Two pale, haloed Saints held wands, books, and medicine boxes. They attached the lower leg of a black man to the knee of a white man lying in a bed of lush blankets and pillows. On the floor a dead black man lay contorted in raggedy clothes. Blood dribbled from his unmoored knee.

“I don’t need to see that,” Delia said, pointing to the cabin floor:

The mist man lay contorted in raggedy clothes. Blood dribbled from his unmoored knee. He moaned. The wings on his forehead shimmered.

Outside William squelched a gasp at this vision and rubbed his eyes. Delia turned away. Rainbow didn’t see the mist man. Her eyes were fixed on the painting.

“The patron saints of the Medici.” Rainbow stroked their wands and finery.

“Put it away,” Delia said.

“This is a miracle like my hands.”

“You cut up some poor body for your hands?”

Rainbow rolled up the painting. “So, you agree with the preacher.” She stuffed it in the tube.

Delia turned around. The floor had a blood-red stain. “Who is this preacher?”

“He told me I couldn’t be a miracle.” Rainbow hurled the tube at the altar of broken things. Clocks and wheels tumbled to the ground. Glass shattered.

Delia took out the bottle of sweet oil. “This is from my mother.” She unscrewed the bottle. “I’ve been saving it all these years.”

“Your mother made it?”

“Yes, I think she gave me this bottle before old man Briggs sold her away. My belly was big with my first son.”

“Andrew. I heard tales about him from Mainlanders.”

“Yes, Andrew,” Delia stuttered. Andrew floated in front of her, dead in the water. Delia poured sweet oil onto Rainbow’s palms and then her own. “Tell me what happened to you. Tell me your miracle.” Delia slowly rubbed sparkling fingers.

“The preacher cut off my hands for stealing. Cornbread from the stove. A peach. The cook told him. He set a torch to the stumps to stop the bleeding. I passed out.”

“I’ve seen it done.”

William jumped off the barrel and stormed away. He halted as Rainbow spoke.

“Afterward, that preacher locked me up in a root cellar for his pleasure, for — for days. I don’t know how long. I fell into a feverish dream — an old African man —”

“— flimsy as mist, dark as soot. A bird scar on his scalp,” Delia said.

“You knew him, too? What’s his name? Where is he from? He saved me!”

Fog drifted in the window, under the doorsill, and made Delia dizzy. “They say my father had a scar that was wings on his forehead, but I don’t remember . . .”

“The old African touched my stumps and took the pain. When I woke up —”

“You had hands again, Ethiopian ones.”

“Yes.” Rainbow’s hand’s sparkled. She was dying to tell her story.

Delia massaged her palm. “So go on, tell the rest.”

“The preacher was too afraid to touch me after that, said I was a demon. So, he sold me to Monsieur Blaise who traded in miracles and spells. That Frenchman claimed Les Etoiles — the stars — were watching me. He locked me in a cell on a sailing ship. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was huddled in the corner, shivering in rags . . .”

“And the old African came again.” Delia shivered, lost in the story with Rainbow.

“Oui. He stroked my cheek and put a finger to his lips. He walked to the door and beckoned me over. I crept close, and he disappeared right through the door! I touched the lock and it clicked open. Monsieur Blaise and the ship’s captain were arguing over demon hands and miracles. I snuck down the hall to Monsieur Blaise’s room and grabbed breeches, shirt, a vest. When I saw the painting, I snatched it, too, and ran out on deck, but the waves were so high.”

“You almost lost your nerve.” A spray of salt water swirled around Delia.

Rainbow gaped at this. “Monsieur Blaise had told everybody that Ethiopian hands would lead me to Miz Delia and her renegade Maroons. Then I’d have to decide. I could turn you in for the reward, be a rich lady, be free, or I could join you. So, I jumped in the water and swam here.”

Delia shook off the ocean spray. “That sounds impossible. A tall tale, like my Island or an Underground Railroad.” She traded her knotted shawl for one flecked with sparkling thread. “Either you believe in miracles or you don’t. Which is it?”

Rather than answer, Rainbow marched outside and confronted William. “Thief. You stole a story from me.” William was ready to run. She blocked him. “I’ve caught you, red-handed.”

He feinted to one side and then another, but she was as agile as he was. He threw up his hands. “I can’t give the story back to you.”

“You should have thought of that.” She cornered him between a barrel and the sky hook.

“You knew I was listening —”

“Yeah. I could smell you. Sea breeze in your hair, ashes on your shirt . . .”

William halted. “You wanted me to hear.”

Rainbow sputtered. “What do I know of you?”

“What do you want to know?”

“Are you a coward?” She asked a question he didn’t expect.

William pulled a knife from his belt. “When I was younger, I tried to shoot a man. A spy who’d come out ahead of a war party. He stood as far away from me as you do now. I missed his chest and grazed his arm. His empty gun fell into a stream.”

Rainbow stepped close and pressed against the knife. Their mingled breath.

“This man was a great warrior, a leader in battle. I should have stabbed him in the heart, yet I walked away. My brother is still angry. I warned my people and we escaped. We’ve been running ever since.”

“There is nowhere to run.”

“Is that reason for betrayal?”

She gripped his knife and the blade cut into her skin. He winced.

“My name is Chufi,” he said.

“Rabbit, a wild, restless spirit,” she said.

“Ahh, so, you speak our language.”

“Un peu. A little.”

He pulled the knife away from her. Blood trickled down the blade. “I don’t want to run anymore, but I don’t want to stab anyone.”

“Then you are doomed.”

William threw the knife at her feet and dashed into a cave. Rainbow picked it up, cursing under her breath.

“William is impatient.” Delia stepped outside with Captain. “We’ve both been waiting for you to decide.”

Rainbow pointed the knife at Delia. Her hand trembled. “You’re crazy to do that.”

“That’s what everybody be telling me. My whole life.”

“No matter what lie you promise. It is impossible. You can’t win.”

“You sounding like Quincy.” Delia pushed past Rainbow and the knife. “Come to Wolf Wedge. We have to guide the Scouts in.”

• • • •

Storm clouds blew in and covered evening stars. The sea was black ripples with licks of white foam. Delia, Rainbow, and Captain tramped across the driftwood planks.

“Stay with us, Captain! Quicksand.” Wincing, Rainbow tied a cloth around Captain’s neck and held her close. Blood from her hand spotted the cloth. The fat ship with blazing lanterns and spidery sail/wings floated at the horizon. Rainbow gasped, then pretended she didn’t see.

Delia didn’t mind. “As best I can remember . . . My father told me star-beings were glad to sail down and meet us, glad to hear our stories and songs, glad to share wisdom.”

“And you believe this still?” Rainbow said.

The ship dissolved into mist.

Delia climbed the highest rock at Wolf Wedge. Water churned below her. Rainbow hesitated. “Come on! We’ll have to be light.”

Rainbow and Captain scrambled up beside Delia, who hiked her skirt to expose her legs. One was darker than another and smooth as polished stone. It spit sparks into the sky and water as Delia talked on.

“When others sailed off into the night sky, one star-being wasn’t ready to let go of us. This last star-being felt so sad losing precious family. Pulled down and pulled up, the star-being broke into many, many pieces and scattered around the world.”

“Shooting stars,” Rainbow said.

“My parents collected what they could. Star-being parts can heal a body —

“After so much wandering, that ole star-being is anxious to get back together and go home. That’s how we found each other.” A shadow bobbed on the water. Delia took a slow breath and pointed. “Look who’s paddling to shore.”

Captain barked a greeting.

Delia shouted, “I am light!” and blazed brighter.

“Incroyable!” Rainbow stretched her hands out. She was colorful sparks to Delia’s flash of silver.

The Scout canoe rode the light, cutting across whirlpools, gliding over rocks right to them. John and Moonbeam had cuts, bruises, and torn clothes. Delia kissed bloody knuckles and purple cheeks. Twilight was unscathed. Delia kissed her eyes. Moonbeam brandished a Mainland paper and held a finger to his lips. Captain quieted down. John and Moonbeam stumbled away from the shore whispering with Delia. Rainbow slogged along with Twilight, who kept turning back toward the Mainland. There was nothing to see but deep darkness. Even the sky was blank.

Rainbow hugged Twilight to her heart. “Did you have to shoot someone? Let me carry this.” She took the rifle and waterskins. “I . . . I missed you.”

Twilight smiled. They slipped into the caves.

• • • •

Islanders milled in front of Delia’s, whispering about a trip to Savannah or St. Augustine. Jenny hugged Twilight as folks squeezed inside. Rainbow retreated into a corner. William stalked away from her. Delia handed out steaming bowls of food.

“Mainlanders know Miz Delia’s Island isn’t just a Ghost Reef or a Thunder Rock,” John said.

“You can read all about us.” Moonbeam waved the Savannah newspaper. An old pirate had taught him to read.

“Strutting on the Mainland, Patrick, bragging like pirates?” Jenny cut her eyes at her oldest son and Red Quincy.

“Raiding instead of trading!” William said.

“They stole us. It’s only right we get something back.” Quincy snatched the paper from Moonbeam and read with a grin.

“We defend ourselves.” Patrick glowered at everyone. “Who can argue with that?”

“You speak truth, but did you ask us when you put the Island at risk?” Twilight cleaned her rifle, not looking at her brother. Patrick’s glower was wasted on her.

“Did Mainlanders ask anybody? They steal who can’t fight back.” Quincy stood over Twilight. “Murder us, too.”

“You want to be like them?” John asked.

“Like them? Of course we’re like them,” Quincy said.

“Where’s all your big talk, Red Sticks, law-menders, keeping Indian ways?” Moonbeam said.

“People aren’t different, the way you think,” Quincy shouted.

“Some people are just weak,” Patrick said.

“Weak?” Sweet William stood chest to chest with his older brother. Everybody got silent.

Jenny strode between her sons. “Weak is fighting each other.”

“Who is stupid enough to believe they can outsmart a rattlesnake or gator in the middle of swamp water?” Delia paced as Islanders chewed and slurped. She handed out seconds. Scraps were tossed to the dogs. “Go on home now, I need quiet.”

Nobody moved.

“We have to do something,” John said.

“Or else we’re lost.” Jenny’s middle daughters spoke up together. They hardly ever talked to a crowd.

“What’ll we do?” Melody’s face flushed hot red. She had a music-mountain voice to cut through the grumbling. “What, I say?”

“My husband contracted me out to a coal pit,” Fran said. “Ain’t going back to that.” She and Melody loved each other more than sisters, and, like all the Islanders, loved freedom more than anything.

“We’re too few to fight and win,” Moonbeam said.

“So we cower in the shadows and wait to die?” Quincy shouted.

“Go on now,” Delia said. “Give me quiet.”

“They’re not coming for us tonight.” Twilight hoisted her gun.

“They’d die on the reefs trying.” William marched out with Twilight.

“We knew the Island wasn’t forever.” Moonbeam kissed Delia’s forehead and followed them.

“Pirates are restless, not suited to living on a rock. Nobody is.” John stroked Delia’s hand, then pulled Patrick along.

“We have nowhere to go,” Patrick grumbled.

“There must be somewhere,” Quincy said.

“They own the world,” Rainbow declared.

“Best find nowhere then,” Delia replied.

“Go!” Jenny shoved a defiant Quincy out before he made more stupid man-talk.

Rainbow and Captain were the last to leave.

Delia shut the door. She soaked her swollen feet in a bowl of hot seawater. Tears spilled out as steam rose up, then she had to laugh at her affection for deadly rocks, winding caves, and spits of dirt. She swung through all her feelings every ten minutes, it seemed. With the change on her, she was grateful not living too close to anybody.

“Delia! Delia! What you say?” Spirits said.

“Truth,” she replied, “I’m not ready to say good-bye to my Island.”

“Delia, can you find a way?”

“Hush. Give me quiet.”

Delia dozed in the rocking chair by the fireplace, feet in steaming water:

Shooting stars flashed across the sky. The moon was a sliver at the horizon about to rise over the Island. The hazel-eyed sailor with nappy hair and bright colorful clothing stood at the peak facing the sea. It was Andrew, Delia’s son. Delia’s mother ran along the cliffs, an old woman now. When she reached Andrew, she was little more than mist. Andrew lifted his arms like a bird getting ready to take off. He jumped nine hundred feet to the sea. When he hit the water, he shattered like glass into a thousand pieces.

• • • •

“Jump from these cliffs and you break yourself.”

Delia woke with a start. She knocked the bowl over. Water splashed onto Rainbow and Captain as they came in.

“What did you say?” Delia asked.

“I almost killed myself on those ledges,” Rainbow replied.

“Your hands light the way.” Delia splashed saltwater at her. “You been snooping through the caves, trying to find a passageway? William is the perfect guide.”

“Did you steal this china bowl from the Mainland?” Rainbow bent down and stroked a golden butterfly soaring through green sky toward flower medallions.

“No,” Delia replied softly. “My Island is no pirate haven.”

“So what is it then?” Rainbow shouted. Captain scurried under her, ears cocked. “What’s beyond the caves? What’s everybody up to?”

“Living their lives.” Delia dried her feet slowly.

“Some people keep bad secrets.”

Delia stood up, straight and fierce. She circled Rainbow. “Are you willing to sacrifice everybody?”

“Pirates and thieves.” Rainbow parroted Mainlanders. “Why should I join runaway savages?”

“We’re Run-to’s, living free, keeping hope.”

Rainbow laughed, a bitter sound.

“Now you’re laughing. What’s funny?” Delia said.

“Run-to’s?” Rainbow scoffed. “No such thing!”

“Spirits tell me to look for a place nobody else wanted. They say I got to make a desolate place home. So me and my people come to the Island, running, not away like paddy-rollers say, but running to a better life. But you, you sent signals to the Mainlanders, didn’t you?” Delia gripped Rainbow’s Ethiopian hands.

“How do you know I did anything?”

“Hands as bright as a torch, waving signs . . .” Delia sighed. “Have you decided?”

“You Islanders make good talk, sweet lies.” Rainbow broke free. “But how do I know if you’re good people or bad people? Liars everywhere, promising . . .”

“Freedom. That’s what Monsieur Blaise offered you, isn’t it?”

Rainbow sank into a battered chair. The leg snapped and spilled her on the ground. Cursing, she jumped up.

Delia grabbed the two broken arrows from her altar. Her hands shook as she thrust them in Rainbow’s face. “I cut my Andrew down. I buried my own son, and I wanted to die . . . But I couldn’t . . .” She trembled as:

One arrow, then another, whooshed through a tangle of Spanish moss.

“John aimed to miss.” Rainbow grabbed Delia’s shoulder, holding her still. “Why?”

“On the run from militia, John was ready to sit down in a swamp and be gator-bait. Hearing me rave at falling stars, he almost sent two arrows through my traitor’s heart.” Delia was still. “But he said: I’ve loved only a few women; killing one ain’t right. John helped me wash off the blood . . . love . . .”

“Love can’t save anybody.” Rainbow held up the dented silver flask. “You needed a ship so you poisoned Papa Moonbeam.”

Delia tapped the arrows against the flask. “That river pirate offered me a boat in exchange for a night in his bed.”


“He only swallowed half the poison. When he came to his senses, rice-farming, cotton-picking Negroes were making a mess of his rigging. Moonbeam couldn’t stand that, so he and his first mate, Sooty Felix, joined us. Moonbeam said: You owe me a night of sweet loving!”

“He’s a grinning fool. You love John.” Rainbow dropped the flask and groaned.

Delia set the arrows in the altar. “Are you ready to join us?”

“It’s too late.”

“You got Quincy spooked. He’s trying to sneak in my house.”

Quincy hung in the shadowy doorway, surprised she knew he was there. He stepped in. Captain eyed him with a low growl. “Wasn’t sure I was welcome.”

Delia grunted and emptied the china bowl out a window.

“I’ve seen you spitting blood, Miz Delia,” Quincy murmured. “If sickness claims you . . . When you’re gone, what then?”

Delia threw the newspaper at him. “A picture of you with a big reward underneath! Got folks full of anger and heat hunting you, hunting us.”

Quincy batted at dry herbs hanging by the stove. “Nothing really grows on this Island except stingy weeds and poison roots.”

“You’re getting mud everywhere.”

“I’m right!”

“So? You’ve ruined us.”

“What about her?” He pointed at Rainbow.

Rainbow got in Quincy’s face. “Raiding Mainlanders, you forced Delia’s hand.”

“Mainlanders were always going to find us,” Quincy spoke softly, holding his temper.

Rainbow tossed the newspaper in the fire. It burned bright.

“Years building this haven,” Delia said. “You two will knock us down in a few days.”

“Why didn’t you stop him?” Rainbow gulped. “Or why not just let me drown?”

A spark caught in the muddy black shawl balled up by the fireplace. Delia stomped it, wheezing and coughing. “Both of you, get out of my sight.”

Quincy trudged out the door.

“Mainlanders are coming. Tomorrow or the next day . . .” Rainbow said. “You think you can get everybody away?”

“Maybe.” Delia squinted at the cylinder. “What are you going to do?”

Rainbow chewed up words, spewed gibber-jabber, and rubbed Ethiopian hands across her face.

“It doesn’t matter,” Delia said. “You still have time. I got a plan.”

• • • •

Three days later, two Mainland ships came at midday and dropped anchor. White sails snapped in the breeze. Delia dressed in the bright colors and beads that Jenny brought her. Delia hugged John to her heart, kissed Moonbeam, then sent Rainbow and Twilight out to talk terms with the Mainlanders. Nobody needed to die on the rocks or at the end of a knife. Quincy was sure Rainbow had betrayed the Island, but he and Patrick had boasted to frightened merchants when they raided the docks. Mainland trackers could have followed them back to the Island.

Delia’s plan was a spirit plan. Twilight stayed on the Mainland ship as a hostage. She gave Rainbow the beads she always wore. “Tell them the truth. Tell them I was brave. Promise me,” she said in Muscogee, pretending she knew no English.

Still unsure of herself, Rainbow guided a flotilla of rowboats to the cliff side of the Island. The well-armed militia men got drenched passing through turbulent waves that hid a slit in the rock wall. The water was fierce, the cave low. Even short men had to crouch as they scrambled onto a narrow ledge. They tied up their boats, lit lanterns, and marched single file, bellies banging thighs. Gaps in the path were treacherous. Men would have fallen to their deaths without Rainbow’s warnings. They thanked her, glad to have such a trusty guide.

The winding path went up and down then up again. She led the militia through the stone forest caves and past the beasts carved by dripping water. Wind echoed like a wailing woman. Every lantern went dark. Militia men gasped, halted, and muttered curses. Rainbow raced around a bend as they tried to relight lanterns. Her hands flashed in the dark. Delia stood above her, an imposing silhouette in fading sun. The fat ship with spider-web wings flew in on a swath of mist.

“Rainbow! Rainbow! Sky is falling,” Spirits said.

“What? Who . . .” Rainbow stuttered.

“What do you see?” Spirits asked.

The Old African Man, flimsy as mist, dark as soot, stopped Rainbow from taking another step. He lost his footing in a sizeable gap in the path. Falling, he reached for her. Rainbow gasped as he tugged at Twilight’s necklaces. The beads flew loose as the Old African slid over the edge. He grabbed at gravel, which slipped through his fingers. He couldn’t find solid rock, couldn’t get a breath. He was falling. Rainbow bent down and gripped him. They both had Ethiopian hands. Rainbow let a few tears flow as she strained to hold him. He was too heavy. She fell to her knees and slid to the edge, almost going over. The Old African tried to let go, but Rainbow held on and dragged him back onto the ledge. Laughing, she hugged him. He hugged her a moment then dissolved into mist.

“What you say?” Delia murmured, sounding like the Spirits.

Rainbow wiped tears and gestured to Delia. Delia nodded.

William jumped down to Rainbow and whispered. “You almost fell, and the mist man —”

She put a finger to his lips and held up the rabbit mask. After a moment, he took it. They mingled breath and he raced away.

“Not this way!” Rainbow hurried back to the militia. Their lanterns winked at her. A few guns were aimed her way. “There’s a big gap in the path. I almost fell. I lost my beads.”

They continued the long way. One man twisted an ankle and had to be left behind on a rock. Rainbow gave him a peach from one pocket, cornbread from the other. Everybody was wheezing and dizzy when they reached the top. The cliffs glinted in fading sun.

“That’s a dangerous maze,” the militia headman said. He was a burly fellow with black hair and a red beard. “Getting back down will be a trick.”

“C’est vrai. Easy to lose your way,” Rainbow replied.

“But not you, Rainbow.” Delia was waiting for them. A comet rose behind her. Quincy said it was Halley’s Comet, although Mr. Halley had never ridden the roaming star. The militia headman put a gun to Delia’s head. The tube that had held the miracle Ethiopian-leg painting was lashed across his back. Delia recognized him from turncoat, spying days — one of the liars she dealt with.

“I got no weapons. I’ve seen too much death,” she said. “I’ll show you where the Run-to’s stay. They went down to the other shore to keep watch on your sails. When they creep back in morning light, show your rifles and capture them with no blood.”

The headman squinted at Rainbow, then turned to Miz Delia. “The demon girl said you’re a sly one. Said you’d try to fool us.”

“I thought on that, just couldn’t figure how without getting everybody I love killed.”

“Some Maroons be ready to fight to the death.” He looked around for ambush.

“Dying for what you believe is righteous. But you know me. I ain’t built that way.”

“She knows you own the world,” Rainbow said. “Everything else is a dream.”

Meteors burst across the evening sky, streaks of red on blue and purple clouds. Delia lit a torch and walked the valley with the headman, showing him cabins, storage bins, a patch of greens. He kept his gun to Delia’s head for each door she opened. Rooms were empty, looking as if occupants had run out when an alarm sounded. Food steamed on tables, a chunk of wood was halfway to an owl, a row of left-handed gloves was laid out to dry, a banjo was getting strung.

“All clear,” the headman said.

The armed men slipped into the cabins. They ate beans, drank bad coffee, tried on Jenny’s outrageous hats and snuck a swig from a barrel. The headman climbed back to the mountaintop with Delia.

“Yeah, I know you,” the headman said. “Legend has it you’re a witch woman from the stars, stealing our Negroes, riling up Indians. I’ll get two thousand dollars from a crazy Frenchman for you, dead or alive.” He smirked. “That demon girl wouldn’t bring us here till I gave her some gloves and a hundred dollars. That’s cheap.” He looked around. Rainbow had melted away without anybody noticing. “Where is she?”

“Rainbow’s decided. She gave you her tube. Open it.”

The headman wrenched the top off. William’s knife and a raggedy, charred sail covered with signatures, x-marks, and a song verse fall out. “My true love went a-roving? What is this?”

Melody and others singing the song echoed across the water. The sun was gone and mist trailed in. The comet burned bright. Delia was dream-walking on cold mist:

Delia walked over the reefs to the sailing ships. William arrived just before she did. Wearing the rabbit mask, he slipped from a canoe and gripped ropes on the hull of a Mainland ship. He shimmied up to the deck. He peeked over the railing. Twilight stood by the steering wheel. Two men guarded her. She screamed and pointed to William. The guards ran after him. William dashed around the ship. He leapt up rigging, swung from rope, teased them from above and behind. The guards laughed at his clowning. Twilight shoved one guard over a railing. She grabbed his rifle as he fell into the sea. William tripped the other guard, who knocked himself out, banging the steering wheel.

A flotilla headed for the Mainland ships. John, Moonbeam, and Quincy were in the lead rowboat with ne’er-do-wells and Scouts. Islanders and their belongings filled up the other boats and five canoes. As the last boat glided past Wolf Wedge, Rainbow and Captain jumped from behind the rocks and landed on blankets and bundles. The boat wobbled and then plowed on. Rainbow smiled.

The headman shook Delia from her trance. “What’ll you do for me, so I keep you alive through the night?”

Delia danced at the edge of the cliff. She waved her hands at the sky, a sensuous undulation, playing with light and mist. The fat ship with spider-web wings flew past her fingers toward the sea. The captain gasped.

“Do you think star-beings ride the comet’s tail?” Delia asked.

The captain chortled. “That’d be quite a ride.”

Delia turned from him and jumped from the cliff, nine hundred feet to the sea.

The headman and his militia were stranded on her Island. No one came to rescue them. The Islanders had promised Delia no blood this night, if they could help it. John and Quincy set the terrified white men who’d guarded the ships adrift in a rowboat (without oars). While Islanders danced on the decks, Rainbow climbed a tall mast and sat on a platform among billowy sails. She hugged herself, trembling. William climbed up and sat beside her. They leaned together. He sang Muscogee words in a rumbling bass. Rainbow reached a hand toward his face. He leaned into her fingers and closed his eyes. She stroked his cheeks, throat, and chest. On deck, Fran and Melody crowded next to Jenny and Granny Peaches. They waved good-bye to the Island. Using the freedom maps and Delia’s spyglass, Moonbeam and Sooty Felix navigated a course through dangerous waters to the Bahamas and freedom.

“Miz Delia was planning this journey for a long, long time,” Jenny said to Rainbow as they neared Andros Island. Palm trees swayed in the breeze. Golden sand welcomed bare feet. Swamp wagged his stringy tail, threw back his head, and yowled. Captain wagged her butt, too. Islanders cheered a new home.

“Miz Delia was loathe to leave her rock,” Rainbow said. She gave Jenny a pair of fine leather gloves.

William grinned. “Yes, a difficult trick, but you helped her get the sails we needed. Thank you.”

They say Miz Delia didn’t break her neck falling in the water from so high. She swam from the cliffs to the sailing ships, telling her Spirits:

“I am light. I am change. I am water.”

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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.