(for my sisters. jessica. emily. pearl.)
Far from the fire, I squat near the cave’s mouth, waiting to hear it voice cries of a fresh soul, of a sibling. I have heard the sounds before, held brothers and sisters, whispered to them the ancient chants, wondered what name they would earn themselves. But they did not survive, and we have since set their silent bodies on the wide stream, adding our tears to its infinite moving.
Mother has spent moons swelling hopefully, carving pregnant totems from tusk and antler, turning fur into clothes and blankets. Dreaming of offspring. Father has been stoic through it all, but the failures have worn and softened him. Mother said he used to stand like a boulder, and now he stands like an old tree. She is an old tree, too.
I hear something now, faintly.
May our tribe grow, may our tribe grow.
The sound of the child is nearing. I stand and take a step back, thoughts lost. Staring blankly at the black cavern, my breath smokes into the rising mists. The good star graces from pockets of blue, in an unquiet ocean of grays.
Father has aged a thousand years, his dark eyes full with tears. He is wet and trembling. His newborn daughter is naked, curled in his right arm. In his left hand he grasps Mother’s carved tusk talisman. I move to him numbly and take the small child, cradling her beneath my garments from the morning cold.
We walk together towards the fire.
Thalassa has never smiled like she is doing now, here on this rocky beach, standing on a large stone, looking out to sea. When I had recalled to her the stories Father used to tell me–how it was a great salt lake as vast as the sky, how it was home to giant, meat-eating monsters–she didn’t act interested. Now it seems only her long hair is movable. Her spirit has left her body, and is somewhere between the orange sky and rolling golden waters.
She took our Mother’s name one moon ago, at the start of her ninth spring. Father made me promise him to guide her to this name, before he retreated in mourning. I told her our parents became sick when she was too young to recall. I will never say a thing of the small ones that came before her, the ones who had little time to grow.
I realize in this moment, seeing her so thoroughly absorbed, she will be a more serious person than I’ve known. I turn, squinting into the setting sun, and show it my teeth.
There are noises. Human noises. My eyes are quick to meet Thalassa’s, and we rush quietly into the shadow of a big rock.
I see the twilight image of what can only be my body, twitching on the rocks, with thick crimson blood slowly moving from the head. I begin to float upwards, full of a strange blankness, when I hear my sister shout for me, her voice cracking with desperation. I turn my attention towards Thalassa, and am overwhelmed with grief.
She rides on a black goat, behind four men. The oldest man has her leashed to him with a long leather rope. The group turns inland, eventually stopping to rest and set up camp on a hilltop dense with old forest. Thalassa has taken her mind to another place, she is staring deeply into the fire, presenting an expression I can’t identify. The old man offers her a piece of fish, and she accepts this into her tied hands. He ties her feet together and rejoins the other men near the fire.
I wake her in the night, when all the demons have fallen asleep. She feels the wet noses of rats on her hands, but remains still. Thalassa didn’t eat. She is still clutching the fish between her palms, and the oils from the meat have seeped into her bindings. The rats feast on them until her hands are free. She offers the piece of fish to the rats as thanks, unties her feet, and walks, hunched, into the cold darkness.
Thalassa does not follow the trail when she comes to it, but presses on to the shoreline. I beg her not to return, as she stumbles along the rocky waterfront, in the direction of my lifeless body. When she finds my body she covers it with stones, leaving only the pale, bloody face exposed.
She bends over, shaking, and whispers into the cold ear, “I’m sorry, it’s all my fault. I have destroyed my whole family...” She takes a hard breath and wails into the unyielding grave, clutching at the rocks. I try my strongest to comfort her, to convince her she is guilty of nothing, but I’ve missed my chance. I should have told her the truth about our parents when I was alive. She wouldn’t have to carry that hidden burden, whatever reason she has imagined for their absence. All my lies were clear. Thalassa tries to wipe her eyes, places the last few stones carefully on the sad shrine, and walks into the ocean.
For a moment, the dawn turns the clouds a gentle pink.