He stood ankle-deep in the grasses that drifted carelessly around him, waves on a dry ocean. Wind ran her caressing fingers through the blades and the rapidly dying sunlight cast their shadows in broken patches of deep viridian and vibrant green like new buds in the spring. A single stream, precious water like liquid glass, slithered through the meadow several yards behind him. Young Vitus Tiberius rested in the shelter provided by his favorite tree, a citrus plant massive in size and ancient by any standard. In the towering boughs, vibrant fruit dangled tantalizingly.
It would be here that Vitus would learn the ways of life and love, death and sorrow. Here, one day, he would unearth the secrets that would define his life and bring his world to the edge of savagery.
But not today.
Today, Vitus had a world stretched out before his fingertips, an earth to walk and a future to wonder about. He also had a curfew to keep, and it was with this in mind that he began the haphazard dash home. Beelining from tree to tree, landmark boulder to towering arbor, he trundled across the shallows of the overgrown beach. His oversized hand-me-down sailor’s boots flopped comically.
Home, In Vitus’ case, meant his family’s farm. When Serra had risen this island from the ocean floor, she had deposited upon it wild cows which had become the backbone of the isle’s economy. They were great and ornery beasts, though dumb to a fault. Their milk was sweet and delicious from the clover they ate, though they sometimes got out and ate the wild onions. Vitus’ father fed the onion-flavored milk to new calves because they didn’t seem to mind. Experience had proven, however, that everyone else wouldn’t touch it-so out to the calves it went. Nutrition was important, but not important enough for onion milk.
The farmhand, Methuselah, was just beginning his walk back to his own home as Vitus came over the fence like a cannonball, catching his foot on the uppermost plank and tumbling through the air with an ungainly yelp. Soft clover, his backpack, and a nonplussed cow arrested him before crashing headlong into the exhausted and slouching Methuselah. Peering out from beneath Anita (the cow), Vitus was as elated as the junior farmer was amused.
“Didja see that, ‘Selah?”
Children, it seemed, were indeed made of rubber. “I couldn’t have missed it, Capn’.” Vitus’ face split into a wide grin, sans a few teeth. “But your father is missing you, and you’re missing your chores.” The smile disappeared just as rapidly as it had appeared, replaced by incredulity.
“I have to do chores on my birthday?”
“Sorry, Vitus. I tried to convince the cows to milk themselves, but they were having none of it.” Methuselah shrugged as if exasperated. “You know how they are. Go on, then, let’s get to the barn. I’ll even help.”
“Really?” back came the grin.
“Only if you’re quick about it. now-onwards, Captain Vitus! we’ve little time to spare!”
“Can I ride Bessie this time?”
“Don’t push it.” But by now, Vitus was already hurtling along the pebbly path to the barn, where lantern light poured from the cracks in the planks and cast absurd tiger stripes onto the cattle milling about outside. The sun was a murky memory melting across the horizon, setting over the weedy ocean. The goddess Serra, it was said, was a painter, and the evening sky was her canvas. On nights like this one, Methuselah couldn’t help but agree.
Vitus was the last remaining child of a family of six, His father being the sole other member left in this life. The sea was a harsh place to live, an embodiment of life’s fickle nature, and a single mistake meant death. The oceans were great bodies not of water, but of tremendously long grasses, deep to thousands of yards in some places and shallow to inches in others. To fall overboard meant plummeting into the depths. If the fall wasn’t the end of you, the things living in the grass-massive, razor-toothed fish, house-sized spiders, and things best left outside of one’s waking thoughts-would be.
And in many cases, they had been the end of men and women crossing the seas, be it for trade, piracy, or like Vitus’ mother and brothers, colonization. Vitus was too young to remember the wreck of the Dawn’s Lament, but he bore scars both physical and psychic from it. To Vitus, a lumpy patch of pinkish flesh above one knee and dreams about a woman he couldn’t quite remember were all that remained of Lucia Tiberius.
His father always had such a defeated look to him anymore.
The barn doors, now open, framed the astounded boy in golden light that showered across his shoulders like the touch of the divine. For just a moment, he seemed to exude the light rather than block it, and for just a moment, his father’s shoulders became less rounded and exhausted. Just for a moment. Methuselah watched it all with a certain degree of pride. Without a word, he plopped a crudely made admiral’s hat onto Vitus’ shaggy head where the brown of the leather matched his island skin tone almost perfectly.
“Happy birthday, Captain.” The title sounded so different from when Methuselah said it, but it nonetheless left his heart brimming with an excitement he had truly no idea how to handle. Jasper Tiberius stood with his hands on his hips, work apron askew and a carpenter’s saw dangling from his belt. his gloved hands ached, his back was tight, and he didn’t mind a bit.
Vitus let out a tremendous cheer (answered by a chorus of mooing from the cow’s pens) as he leapt up into the small boat that rested upon the sawhorses on the straw floor. Perhaps twelve feet from stern to bow, stained a dark chocolate brown, the craft was a truly simple affair with metal studs as its only adornment. the plank bolted to the side held no name yet, to be painted on when Vitus chose one.
“Now, don’t quote me, Jasper, but I think he might like it.” Vitus was currently posing with one foot upon the lip of the boat, pretending to haul on the sail and shouting commands to an imaginary crew. Methuselah had sidled over to Jasper, feeling a touch of pride at the happiness in the old farmer’s eyes.
“I knew ye were a good kid, Selah.” His gruff voice carried the accent of the men of Shaelana, the island to the south. “Always was a good one.” It also held the accent of whiskey. “Look at ‘im, so damn happy. how did ye know?” Jasper Tiberius had been a man prosperous of coin and impoverished for time since making landfall here. With a choice plot of land, a sizeable herd of cattle, and a stingy nature, the weathered old farmer had carved himself a niche from which he would not soon be pried. But running a farm across this many hills and valleys-it was no job for one man alone, and hardly one even for three. Jasper’s time for his son had disappeared with his wife and other offspring. It could be argued that he held a closer relationship with the soil from which he coaxed his living.
Methuselah understood his plight, though to him it seemed utterly pigheaded. Set in his ways, Jasper didn’t seem to accept the idea that there were greater riches than monetary ones. He was not a cold man, merely one who did not possess a strong emotional comprehension. Methuselah hadn’t known the pair before they arrived, haggard and battered, upon the beach near his own home. His first impression of them was of a bloodied, sunburnt man clutching a bundle of cloth made from his own shirt. In past years he had wondered if Jasper had always been quite so distant as he had become; loss could do strange things to the souls of men.
Abruptly and with a noise like a barrel being smashed, Vitus’s vigorous jumping ended with one terrific leap that put him through the bottom of the flimsy boat. Methuselah and Jasper, while competent farmers, were not shipwrights.
After much protest and an impressively small amount of sobbing, young Vitus had gone to bed. It had only taken Methuselah’s assurance that the boat would be fixed (accentuated by the roughly drawn diagram of the boat) to convince the distressed child to flop down onto his straw mattress and immediately begin the deep breathing that could only accompany sleep. In his little hand he clutched the now-wrinkled charcoal sketch of the skiff. There was also a promise of a bedtime story from his father, an offer which had thankfully become unnecessary. Selah had a sneaking suspicion that Vitus’ father only knew a few stories, most of which better suited crass sailors than a small child’s bedtime tale. Jasper had been heard frantically rifling through a book somewhere in the house.
He stepped lightly over the stone bridge before the farm, a small but homey thing made from white stones tilled from fields in summers past. Distant memories floated to him of the footpath’s construction, years ago now, when he was yet to be twenty summers old. dim thoughts of places like the shoreline, the flowering fields in spring, and of the town he had helped build came floating back to him across a mist formed of years.
The walk home was uneventful save for a few stumbling steps over lumps not shown in the moonlight. The ocean’s deep grasses could be heard whispering and hissing against each other beyond the treeline. It was a soothing sound, and Methuselah could appreciate the way it melded with the cool nocturnal breeze. Fruit bats fluttered overhead while somewhere, an ibis crooned her lonely midnight soliloquy.
The ibis was a representative of the Goddess Serra, but for Methuselah it had always held entirely separate connotations. It reminded him of Isabella, gone now for… was it three summers? There was a momentary pang of guilt in his gut; he didn’t want to forget something like that. She had always been such a vibrant person. Quick, sharp of wit, and stronger than most of the island’s men, she had disappeared one day into the hills. Only one person did she tell of her reasoning.
“Selah-Have to go. The world is calling me. hope you understand.
He remembered reading it, mouthing the words, and hearing her say it just the way she always did. Such an innocent question. “Can’t you feel that, Selah? Adventure is out there. The world is calling us.” She spoke the last part with reverence and an undertone of thrilled awe. Her voice seemed to still the other noises around her as she uttered that final piece, a pulpit set for the holiest of sermons. She had said it forever ago, a constant in a world of variables that stuck in his mind fresh and hard and clear. Staring at the sunrise in the highest branches of an oak, she had asked him the most profound question of his young life and he had discovered no answer lurking within him. He had climbed up that tree sometimes to sort things out when troubles got to be too heavy for him. Last summer, they had razed it and used the wood for rafters.
He still wished that he had known the answer.
Issa had been her own brand of human. Methuselah had dated before, and though most of the girls had been sweet, he never found one quite to his liking. Isabella was entirely separate from them; never quite a friend, never really a lover, but rather a strange combination of those two and several other things. She and Selah had been kindred souls moreso than anything, whiling away the days gazing into far horizons and talking about the future. They hadn’t spoken once about keeping in touch after they went their separate directions in life. To Methuselah, time spent with her seemed an ethereal thing, not bound by conventional laws. It didn’t ever need to end, and so it wouldn’t. Something must have happened on the way, he supposed, because end it did. All of a sudden, the years of playing in the fields and leaping from barn rafters into hay piles and skipping rocks over the lake were gone, and so was Issa.