Jason John Kahler
The oars broke the water as the morning sun broke the horizon. The first hours of the summer solstice woke slowly. Tomas navigated the two-person skiff away from the dock and toward the open water beyond the mouth of the bay. The row to Hirvosurry Rock would take half the day. He would return to shore in the falling darkness. Silently, he rowed. Hanna, sitting in the skiff with him, did not speak until their little boat had escaped the bay.
“I can be the first to talk, if I need to be,” she said to the boy. Hanna and Tomas were the same age, marrying age, and had spent many hours in school together learning the village stories, how to repair a fishing net, how to tend the crops and prepare them for storage during the cold winters. “You and I have talked before, Tomas. Plenty. Today does not need to be any different.”
Tomas spoked more harshly than he had expected he would.
“Of course this needs to be different. This is,” he swallowed, “this is the last time you and I will ever talk.”
“Then we should make the best of it,” she said. She sat straighter and adjusted the way her long white dress fell across and down her legs. The lovely lace work proved she had paid attention during her classes.
Tomas paddled. The oars sank deep into the darkening water.
“Tell me about tomorrow, Tomas.”
“Tomorrow?” he scoffed.
“Yes. I want to hear about your tomorrow.”
Tomas sighed. “It will be the same as all my tomorrows. I will get out of bed. School, and Rouva Swaarnason’s lectures on salt cod.”
When Hanna laughed, the water seemed to ripple with starshine. “Her lectures are the worst. She makes good salt cod, though.”
“The best,” Tomas agreed.
Hanna dipped her hand in the water. It was cold, and so deep her fingers disappeared quickly into the black. “You’ll tell the story, tomorrow,” she said. “You were always best at telling the story.” She thought maybe that was why Tomas was the boatman for her. Beyond being the strongest rower in the village, he could tell the story better than anyone for generations. “I always loved hearing you tell it.”
It was some time before either of them spoke again. When they did, the sun was nearly directly overhead. A bumpy rise of rocks breaking through the water had appeared on the horizon some time ago, grown bigger, now revealed its stony landing and the silhouettes of trees.
“Someday, Tomas, your tomorrow will change. And because of today, it will be better,” she said. He did not answer.
When they were close enough to hear the water on the rocks, Tomas pulled the oars into the boat. He closed his eyes and spoke slowly, as if telling the story could stop the sun from moving.
“Every tenth season the village must choose a marriageable girl and give her over to Meriatty, the Sea Mother who watches over the fishermen, fills the nets, and protects our thatch from the storm. Meriatty lives in the deepest, coldest part of the sea, with scales like a moonless night and a hundred magic eyes. She eats the gales and directs the sun with her fins. Her mouth is filled with needles, and her tail is strong enough to crush the biggest ship. If she is pleased with the offering, we are blessed with harvests and cod. If not—”
“Destruction,” said Hanna.
“Destruction,” he repeated. “On the year’s longest day, the strongest rower escorts the girl to Hirvosurry Rock. She must arrive when the sun is highest, and the rower must be home before nightfall.”
“It had to be you,” said Hann. “Besides the best storyteller, you are the best rower.”
“But it did not need to be you!” Tomas shouted. “Who forced you to come out here? I will drown them myself.”
“Look at me, Tomas. My hands are unbound. I am here on my own accord. For every child born after today. And the old women who gossip while salting their fish. For the men casting lines. For Delors, who eyes you from the other side of the hall.”
“Do not tell her I told you. But do not wait, either. You are a good match. It would be a shame if Pekka beat you to her. You will be a good father, someday.”
“This is my last day, but how many people will get to live? And prosper. Imagine how I get to spend today, Tomas. To see Meriatty rise from the water, black scales in the moonlight. To see her shimmer, to feel her breath on my face. Perhaps she will swallow me in one quick gulp. Perhaps in tiny bites. Perhaps, maybe, this is a test, to see if I was willing to be a sacrifice, and Meriatty will place me on her back and swim far away to a warm, green valley, where all the girls sent before me live out their lives, picking fruit and singing songs so they do not forget the music.”
“That sounds nice,” Tomas said. He unsuccessfully stifled tears.
Hanna nodded. “It will be. Whatever tomorrow is, it will be nice.” She looked over her shoulder, to the rocks that were placed like benches, to the thin branches of the trees that rose over Hirvosurry Rock. She thought, perhaps, she saw a scrap of white lace caught in some leaves, but the breeze stirred and then it was gone. When Hanna stepped from the boat and onto the gray stones, Tomas thought the boat seemed somehow heavier.
She did not look his way again. When she sat, she faced east, toward a sunrise Tomas hoped she would get to see again. As Tomas turned his boat, the wind blew west. The sun overhead anticipated his path home.
Jason Kahler is a freelance writer and teacher from Michigan. His work has recently appeared in Analog, Star*Line, and Club Plum. His scholarship investigates popular culture, composition theory, and issues surrounding marginalized voices. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKahler3.