After Sumé left her last home in ruins, there was no place left to go except back to the island she’d abandoned years ago.
Except when her boat scraped against the shallows, she found the island’s dock slumped from rot and disuse. And the path leading from the docks was smothered by vines and ferns, so overgrown it was almost invisible. The stink of stagnant water and algae assaulted her. The emptiness, the neglect confirmed her worst fears.
She was the first person to step on the island in twenty years.
“Well, fuck,” she said.
Slinging the bag full of her mainland things over one shoulder, Sumé began walking the leaf-drowned path towards the havens. She didn’t even make it ten steps before a vine snaked around her pant leg, trying to hold her back. She shook her ankle free and exhaled loudly.
This was why people on the mainland thought this island was full of restless ghosts.
“Not quite,” she’d say, always trying to correct them. “Not ghosts. And they’re just lonely.” She knew this because twenty years ago, she was this island’s caretaker. Only Reishi, her love, believed her, though.
But she didn’t explain that everything on this island was fucking possessed or magical. Even the plants. Which were moving and clinging and curling around her calves like needy cats.
“This is not okay,” she said. She dropped her travel bag, got down on her knees, and began uprooting plants. Scowling at herself because she hadn’t even made it to the first haven before she lapsed into old habits.
At first, they resisted. The roots were deep and the ferns kept wrapping their leaves around her wrists and tugging back. But Sumé wasn’t having any of their shit. Carefully she replanted every stubborn vine and delicate shoot on the edges of the path she was clearing.
“What if we have visitors?” she asked, then laughed bitterly. If anyone ever bothered visiting this island, maybe she wouldn’t be in this mess.
At first, she worked in peace—though the hairs on her arms stood straight up and a chilly breeze whispered against the back of her neck, despite the rising humidity. That’s how she knew the island’s spirits were watching her, silent and pissed. She couldn’t blame them. Twenty years was a long time to be gone.
At first, her work went well, the white stone path slowly revealing itself.
Until it didn’t.
Closer to the havens, the plants grew bolder. Sumé was rehoming a particularly spiky shrub when the greenery retaliated.
They twisted around her arms, pulled her down, jabbed, jabbed, jabbed her with their thorns. They whispered: Why did you come back?
“Let. Go,” she said through clenched teeth, struggling to one knee. The plants yanked her back down, clinging, wrapping, squeezing.
She couldn’t move. Her vision was shades of green. Panic swelled in her chest and for one horrifying moment, Sumé couldn’t breathe.
But everything on the island was haunted or magical.
Including the island’s caretakers.
And trapped deep in angry greenery, Sumé’s fingers began to remember their tricks.
She didn’t even realize it at first, the rhythm and beat she began tapping out against the stems. Index fingers first, then thumbs, then pinkies, until all ten of her digits were drumming to a half-remembered song.
Slowly, the plants around her began to sway, as if they could hear that memory of a song. Slowly, they loosened their thorny grips, then drew back. She stood up, tap, tap, tapping on her thighs, breathing deeply with relief, savoring the power she almost forgot.
Soon, Sumé was scooping up the out-of-bound plants, whistling when she couldn’t drum her fingers. The treacherous ferns hastily buried themselves back into the earth at the edge of the path as soon as she let go. The thistles and ivy scuttled away as soon as her fingers touched them.
“That’s right,” she said, as she picked up her travel bag. “Move your ass, plants. I’m back.” She took a step forward and the greenery shrank away from her, like a wave on a shore, leaving the white stone path clear and straight.
She smiled. Progress. Except the chilly breeze whispered on her neck again. The spirits were still angry.
“Yeah, figured you wouldn’t forgive me fast,” she muttered. She had a house on the mainland, but she’d ruined it. Spectacularly. And now, she couldn’t go back. Now, she needed to win back the island she abandoned long ago.
So, she squared her shoulders, steadied her nerves, and headed down the path towards the havens, cutting through the foliage like a boat on undisturbed water.
• • • •
The first haven looked depressed. Sumé knew that was a stupid thing to think about a bunch of ancient stones piled around a perfectly square door. But the word fit. Moss blanketed the stones, knotty and long like hair overdue for a cut. The squat structure made her think of the old man sitting hunched on his stoop, his round belly peeking out from under his shirt, who’d always waved when she walked by. Before Sumé left the mainland, he’d been her neighbor and she would wave back.
A smile tugged on her lips. She hadn’t realized how much she had missed this spirit’s haven and its ridiculous square door. It took all of her self-control not to run up to it like an old friend. Because she could feel the spirits watching, the intensity of their unseen gaze making all her fine hairs stand straight up like static shock.
She took one slow, cautious step towards the haven. Nothing moved; not even the moss swayed in the wind. She took another.
Eventually, she was at the door.
Part of her knew that this was too easy. The spirits’ icy breeze that had been haunting her since she returned all but hissed their silent judgment. But she was desperate for forgiveness. She wanted to be accepted back like an old friend.
“Missed you, too,” she whispered, her palms on the knob.
Inside, the haven wasn’t like it used to be. Twenty years ago, it brimmed with life and history. She’d step in and be swept up by the music, the stories, the smell of food. There’d be creatures from its legends, horses with fish scales and dogs with clocks in their bellies sprawled on the carpets and curled up in the nooks.
Now, there were only a few stray hairs and iridescent scales on the floor. Now, there were only whispers of the lost language, the one that sounded like water running over stones. Even the music that flooded with joy was subdued. Still, she recognized the song, remembering it now. It was the one she’d tapped and whistled to the plants on her way here.
Sumé had lived in many, many different places on the mainland, but one thing was always the same. People whispered about the island and its haunting ghosts with fear. And she’d calmly explain to friends, Reishi, anyone really, that the spirits on this island were not the restless, unhappy dead. They were the memories of entire cultures that moved on, a haven for each of them: the art and words and customs that made them living, vibrant things among the people they once belonged to.
Sumé smiled, leaning against the doorway. Just the murmurs of the memories of this spirit filled her with happiness.
She stepped inside the haven.
That’s when everything moved. Carpets rolled shut. The music skidded off key. Suddenly the hushed singers were yelling and a thousand invisible hands were on her, shoving.
“I’m sorry!” she shouted, even as she was being pushed out, out, out. “I’m so sorry.” Her apologies were useless. The haven’s door slammed shut inches from her nose.
Sumé’s breath hitched around a deep ache under her breastbone where grief—over this, over everything that brought her back to the island—swelled up like a wave. She used to spend countless hours in this haven. It had been her favorite one.
“Please. I don’t belong anywhere else,” she whispered, resting her forehead against the rough wood of the door. “I’ve tried.”
The haven’s door refused to budge.
• • • •
As a counterargument or maybe counterhope, Sumé threw herself into restoring the island, becoming the good caretaker she was supposed to be.
“You need me, too,” she said to the spirits. “Just look at yourself.”
The spirits didn’t respond.
Her papa had taught her to be ready for visitors. He’d said that once the island was full of them, that when guests arrived, the air would literally hum with the spirits’ excitement. But that was before something changed, before people like her friends on the mainland whispered about the island in fear. What changed exactly, Sumé didn’t have a clue. She spent twenty years trying to understand and repair the island’s reputation, and instead, Sumé discovered what slow, toxic change looked like firsthand.
So, here she was back on an island that was as lonely and aching as she was, hoping her friends were safe.
She started with the paths. On the island, there were fifteen miles of white pebble trails. Or thirty-two ki or twelve and a half straces, depending. Her last home had used miles, but Sumé had lived many places on the mainland and had gotten quick with doing the conversions in her head. She liked numbers.
She hadn’t known that about herself until she left the island.
It took most of the week to clear the paths. They were drowning in a sea of foliage. The work was slow, but fruitful. Occasionally, she ran into a patch of ferns that were as stubborn as she was. Occasionally, the spirits put obstacles in her way.
She’d be walking down a path and suddenly there’d be a stack of wooden boards or piles of soggy blankets or a pyramid of paint pails, full and teetering. Things that weren’t there a day or hours or minutes before. Once, the spirits sent a dog, as gray as mist, to block her way. It barked and danced in place. And Sumé halted, hesitated. Dogs used to terrify her.
She approached carefully, rolling a few berries she had picked on her walk towards the mist dog. The first friend she ever made on the mainland laughed at her fear and taught her how to read their body language. How to befriend them.
The dog sniffed at a berry. Then, carefully, it picked it up like a precious treasure and trotted away before anyone could make it give it back.
After that, the spirits didn’t pull any more of that shit. Their chilly breeze at her back stayed annoyed and consistent, but as the days passed, it felt warmer. Or maybe she was just getting used to it.
She cared for the havens next. She counted seventy-six spirit havens on the island. Four more than when she left. The new ones were only the size of mushrooms or house cats. A handful of pebbles clustered around a splinter of a door. But that was how all haven houses began. They would grow.
She cleaned the moss from their stones, scrubbed the doors, and made them signs from the boards and paint they left in her way. She didn’t know what their actual names were, so she wrote descriptions for each one. Like THIS HAVEN HAS SEASHELLS AND SEA MONSTERS. FOOD HAS NOTES OF COCONUT.
She imagined the island as a museum. Which pleased her. She hadn’t even know what a museum was until she left. Reishi had taken her to her first one and she fell in love with them instantly because they reminded her of the island.
When she finished caring and curating, Sumé tried the havens’ doors, one by one, hoping desperately that someone would let her in. But they were locked, locked, and locked again.
The fifty-sixth haven she tried had a pale blue door, like a mirror shard among the stones. Its sign said FULL OF COLOR, TEXTILE ARTS, AND LOUD MUSIC. It opened a crack as she approached and the breeze at her back turned tepid.
With her heart in her throat and all her hope in her chest, Sumé pushed against the door.
It didn’t move.
“Fuck you,” she seethed. Frustration, exhaustion, disappointment roiled up inside her. “You didn’t have to be alone all this time.” She pushed against the door again, but got nothing except a whiff of cumin and the throb of a drum line.
Why did you come back? the breeze at her back whispered.
She didn’t ask why didn’t you ensnare someone else as caretaker? Why won’t you forgive me? What will happen to us?
Instead, she snapped: “What the hell do you want me to do?”
The spirits didn’t answer. But the breeze became biting and she felt their hurting hearts.
Or maybe it was her own.
• • • •
After that, Sumé began doing things for herself.
Restless, frustrated, and stuck, she started building a home by the shore. Rebuilding rather. Her old one had a good foundation, but after twenty years of neglect, the roof was on the verge of collapse and the walls were water-stained green. It was easier just to pull the framework down and start over, as if she’d arrived on this island as a half-drowned sailor.
“I knew that sailor,” she said as she made shingles for the roof. Reishi had washed up on shore one evening and introduced themselves with a shy smile. Sumé was the island’s solo caretaker then, Papa being only a memory now. They were the first person she had seen in fifteen years.
She rebuilt her home in a day. This was the bit of caretaker magic she liked best, the way she could take driftwood and rocks and detritus and transform them into workable materials. The way she could dance her fingers over them and they would slide into place, hold together like natural attraction.
This was the only piece of caretaker magic she used on the mainland. Every time she moved, she built a new house. Except she was careful to drag out the process. Taking weeks instead of hours. Her friends and neighbors accepted that she was a bit odd, that once she’d lived on a haunted island, but she was afraid that showing them her caretaker magic would have terrified them.
Maybe that’s why no one’s come, she thought, bitterly, as she took pebbles and metamorphosed them into slates for the roof. Part of her hoped that was the reason she was alone on the island, why the spirits didn’t hum with the joy of visitors. Because that meant her mainland friends were afraid of her, but safe.
She built a two-room cottage, with sea glass windows facing west towards the water and east towards the havens. She took the handful of things she decided to save from her old life and put them on the sills and the shelves. Patchwork sunhats, hand-thrown clay mugs, museum brochures with gallery maps, Reishi’s earring. A souvenir from every place she lived on the mainland. Twenty in all.
“Like my own museum,” she said, but wondered if it was more like a haven.
The next morning, she found on the side of her new house, the spirits’ message, green paint still dripping: What’s a museum?
“Go away,” she said. “I’m busy.”
She was pleased with her home at first. But after a week, it felt too bright, too empty, too unimaginative. So she carried out all the things she wished to save, and with a few flicks of her fingers and wrists, pulled the whole thing down.
This was also a bit of caretaker magic. One that she didn’t relish, but it had its uses.
She saw the mist dog watching among the ferns where the beach ended. “A museum is where people collect valuable things they want to remember,” she said.
That afternoon, she began building a new house on the foundations. This time with fewer windows and more angles.
Why did you leave? was spelled in the grains of the wood boards she was using.
“Because I wanted to know why visitors stopped coming here,” she said.
Because I was lonely, she didn’t say. Because I missed Reishi and wanted to see them more often.
Two mornings later, she stepped out of her house to find a message scrawled in the sand. Will you tell us? About the mainland?
Sumé didn’t want to relive those memories. But as she fished from the dock, she told the spirits about the scent of oven hot sourdough and the peaches so sweet they made her teeth ache when she worked as a farmhand in one town. About the laughter, the good-natured teasing, and the bone deep tiredness when she worked in a crew of fisherwomen. How in each new place she lived, she made friends, many of them who were a long way from home too. How her friends would tell her about their homes and she’d tell them about the havens. How, no matter where she went, Reishi would come find her when their boat came to port.
“Most of the time, I was happy, you know,” she admitted to the spirits. Those memories made her smile.
But they also reminded her of things that she was fighting hard to forget. The slurs, the declining business, the politicians becoming bolder, more hateful. Fighting and failing. At night those memories came rushing in, swallowing all the air in her bedroom.
Two days later, Sumé pulled down her house and made a new one with higher ceilings.
Why did you leave? Why did you come alone? The message was written in ash, above the fireplace.
“The mainland was welcoming,” Sumé said, avoiding the second question. “Until it wasn’t anymore.”
She left to find out why people didn’t visit the island anymore. She learned that people were irrationally afraid of what they didn’t know. She thought she understood, but didn’t see when irrational fear sprouted up around her. She didn’t worry when the elected officials began spewing slurs from their pulpits or how a few of her friends sold their homes and fled the mainland or when she began getting dark looks in the street. She didn’t think the fear would affect her.
Then she came home one day and saw the windows of her house broken and the words “GO THE FUCK HOME FOREIGNER” slashed on her door. The old man, her neighbor, sitting on his stoop, looked sympathetic, but said nothing. Did nothing.
“I destroyed that house,” Sumé said. “With two twirls of my wrists. It was hella stupid to let people see that bit of caretaker magic, but I was so angry, you know? I wanted to send a message, but . . .”
What she didn’t say was that when she came back to the island she hoped her friends, her fellow workers, and her love would follow. She’d been restoring the island for a month and hers was the only boat on the dock. As days passed, she hoped less and worried more. Were they okay? Did they get caught by a mob or unlawfully arrested? She had no way of knowing.
She ignored the spirits’ other questions that followed her like puppies for the rest of the day.
As she was lying down in bed, she saw the question on the ceiling, flickering in her lantern’s light.
What happened to your sailor? Reishi.
Sumé pulled the blankets closer around her. “I don’t know. Haven’t heard from them in months.” She was silent for a long moment, gathering up her courage. She asked: “Do you forgive me for leaving?”
The words faded from the woodwork. Sumé held her breath. A moment later new ones gathered and formed.
We are lonely, caretaker. But we still need time.
“Yeah,” she said, understanding intimately the pain of being abandoned. She blew out the light.
• • • •
After Sumé became caretaker of the island—again—she did all she could do make the spirits happy, to make herself content. Then depression swallowed her whole.
Most days she sat on the dock, looking out over the water. The spirits were always close now, their presence a warm breath at her back.
Most of the havens left their doors ajar, so she could sit in their doorways. It wasn’t the same as being surrounded by the culture that valued art above words, or the one that used words for their art. She could only catch whiffs of the honey-roasted yams or the music that sounded like a pulse. Or glimpses of the lavender stags and ten-eyed elephants. It wasn’t forgiveness exactly, but it was a start.
“At least you don’t think I don’t belong here,” she said.
She had resigned herself to being the lonely caretaker on an island full of restless spirits. The caretaker who tried to teach people differently and failed.
Perhaps that was why she wasn’t expecting to find Reishi on her shore one morning, six weeks after she destroyed her last home on the mainland. They came running up from the dock, relief, happiness, worry, doubt making a muddy mix of expressions on their face.
“Wow, um,” she said. “You’re here.” She convinced herself that Reishi wasn’t going to find her again. A silence stretched between them for a minute. Then two.
“I’m so sorry,” they said, finally. “That it took me so long, but they . . . I couldn’t . . . I wasn’t allowed on the mainland.” They bit their lip, rubbed their arms. “Did you get my message?”
Sumé shook her head.
“Fuck,” her sailor said. Their expression was devastating and Sumé forgave them on the spot. “Well, I got yours.”
Reishi waved a hand towards the mainland. “Your house. How—how you brought it down? It started a bunch of stories and I thought . . .”
“Oh. That,” she said. Suddenly she was running towards them, wrapping her sailor up in her arms.
“I tried to fix things. It didn’t work,” she whispered. Her tears dripped down her nose and into Reishi’s shirt.
“I know,” they said in her ear, hugging her back, close and tightly. She felt Reishi’s hitching breath on her neck. “I invited some people. People like us. Who don’t have a home anymore.”
Sumé let go. “What?”
“Is that okay?” Reishi asked. They worried their lip. “You always said this island was meant for visitors.”
“Yeah, I did.” she said.
“Good, because, um, they’ll be here soon.” Reishi pointed towards the mainland.
Sumé followed their finger and her breath caught. All across the lake there were a dozen rowboats and rafts, with a dozen little guide lights swaying on their prows.
“Oh,” she said.
“Is this okay?” Reishi asked again, all worry and nerves.
Around them, the spirits began to hum with excitement. Sumé swore her hair was curling from their vibrations, the sudden warmth. The spirits’ joy ran counterpoint to her own racing heart. “Yeah, that’s okay,” she said.
In the approaching glow of the guide lights, she could just make out the outline of the visitors’ faces.