The sun rises in the east, thus the entrance to the sun also lies in the east.
-Yanta speaks, 1.1
Along with my family, I faced the rest of our clan across our ship’s wooden deck. The big vessel had been our home for seven years. It tilted in the gentle waves as Ramheart left us, the last to be loyal to their chief. He walked the ten yards between us and the others then sat, his eyes averted from Father’s. We’d all wrapped tattered cloth around our faces to block the sun. Only our eyes showed, reddish-brown like our skin.
The mast creaked, cutting through a clear blue sky. In a dozen places, we’d reinforced the wood with metal bands we’d traded fish for, on an island I could barely remember. We’d been at sea for so long. Cuckoos and parrots streaked overhead. The feathers on their bellies glittered blue and green: our clan’s colors, now faded in our own baggy shirts and pants. The birds lived on fruits and seeds. Mother said before that their presence indicated fertile and welcoming land, and I yearned to go ashore. I could see coconut and fruit trees on the nearby island, but the taste of salty fish still touched my tongue. In truth, part of me wanted to join those who’d abandoned their chief, my father. But as his eldest child and only son, I had to stay by his side.
My little sister Kianni sat cross-legged behind me, drawing on a piece of driftwood with coal from the kitchen. She was only seven then, nine years younger than me. Wherever Father and Mother wanted to take her, she’d go. She trusted them. She trusted me, her older brother.
Mother sat on Father’s other side. She’d tied her baggy shirt above her waist. It used to fit her comfortably, but now it hung from her frame. Her shell necklace draped over broad, protruding collarbones, and her face looked like foothills razed of soil, with only ledges remaining. She gazed toward the others, showing no contempt. Father’s bones were finer, his muscles wiry and eyes alight with the fire that had pulled everyone on his quest.
“You said that we’d find the path to the sun in the east,” Ramheart called across from the other side of the deck, “but that was seven years ago.” A little younger than Father’s sixty-some years, he’d been like an uncle to me. He spoke in an apologetic tone. “We were supposed to find the path to the sun in just a few months. We have children. They need to meet others. To gain education.”
I pointed at him and called across. “They’ll get the best of teachings when we reach the Island of the Sun. Do you think you know better than our ancestors? Do you think anyone on this island knows better?” I gestured toward the coconut and fruit trees off our bow.
I felt authorized to confront Ramheart. I felt so much anger toward him, even though—or perhaps because—I wanted to go with him. I would never have yelled at my senior even a day before, but he’d shown himself to be against Father and his mission, and I was Father’s only son.
Ramheart ignored me, keeping his attention on Father. “Chief, at least tell us, how do you know this is not the island we seek?”
The muscles on Father’s neck showed like wires. “It does not match the signs,” he said.
Ramheart leaned forward. “What signs? Why won’t you tell us?”
Father’s entire body looked drained, but his eyes burned. “When you accepted me as your chief, you followed my judgment. And now that you have left me, you have no right to demand answers from me.”
Ramheart looked down. “We still accept you as our chief, but we cannot follow this instruction.”
“Then you don’t accept me,” said Father.
The words settled on the deck between the two groups. It was clear. Only our family would continue.
Kianni went on drawing a seascape, building up from the natural contours of the driftwood into waves and clouds. Black coal and gray ash over the beige wood.
Mother stood. She pressed her lips into white lines.
Father’s face went slack.
Mother knelt and held his big hands in hers.
He looked away.
She watched him, her eyes waiting to catch his. I saw no hesitation in her — only compassion. She had made her decision.
Father must have seen it too, because he grimaced as he looked at her. “You?”
“I won’t go with you,” she said, “but I’ll explain.”
She regarded Father with kind eyes. She spoke so quietly that only our family could hear. “I know this is our ancestors’ quest. I admire that you’ve made it yours. I wouldn’t want you to be any other way.” She smiled and gestured to the open sea. “We’ve been journeying too long.” She looked to Kianni and I. “Ramheart is right. Mensah and Kianni need to be with others their own age, to learn the trade language, and how to build homes, temples and bridges. Kianni could learn to make art honoring the Creator, but she’ll need minerals for colored paints. Where will she find those on the sea? We’ve given our children what we could, but—”
“I’ll bring them rare and precious knowledge,” Father interrupted. “When they return, they’ll raise our people to a new level. When they enter the sun, they’ll be able to go anywhere, in this universe or beyond.”
“Through the cosmic pathways,” Mother finished, with just a tinge of bitterness.
“Yes. What knowledge won’t they have? Kianni will return as a teacher, not a student. She’ll found a school for teachers to learn.”
Mother put her hand on his chest before he could go on. “I’m not abandoning you,” she said, her face an inch away from his. “I’ll be on the island here waiting for your return. If you don’t come, I’ll seek you out in the east. If you’ve entered the sun, I’ll celebrate and follow you.”
She smiled at Kianni and I, but her eyes were sad. My lips trembled so I pressed them together. I didn’t want to leave her, but couldn’t leave Father.
“We’re near now,” Father began. “The indications—”
As stubborn as Father could be, I hated to see him stammer like this. I wanted to defend him but Mother shot me a look, full of love and fire, which kept me quiet.
She gazed into Father’s eyes. “Make me one promise, husband… chief. If you do not find the way to the sun in three days, return to us and lay this journey to rest.”
I think that Mother aimed to use herself as an anchor. She thought that we would not go far without her, that she would bring our quest to an end — successfully or not — just by remaining behind.
Kianni smiled back at her, pretending not to understand. But I think she did understand, in her own way.
“I’ll bring the children,” Father said. It sounded like a statement, but I knew it was a question.
“Yes,” said Mother.
She suffered to see us go. Father had set his course years ago, perhaps before his birth. There was no changing that. But her own children… She must have seen that he needed us, must have wanted to show her trust in him. She would anchor us, giving enough slack for us to sail for three days. If we didn’t find the path she’d be there when we returned, and we could be whole as a family. I wanted that even more than I wanted Father to reach his goal.
I have to give up everything, even my honor. I have to reach the sun.
-Yanta speaks, 1.42
The following morning, Father climbed down a rope ladder into our faded red away-boat. I waited on the big boat as he landed near the away-boat’s prow, his feet drumming the polished red wood. That boat spanned a dozen paces from end to end, and a couple paces across. Set in the rear third was a dome of bamboo and palm fronds. Ducking under its arched door, you could hide a little from the sun and rain.
Kianni boarded next, while Father held his arms up to catch her if she fell. She jumped the last few feet, landing in a crouch. I came last, leaving Mother and the rest of our clan behind. They looked on as I threw up the ladder. I wondered at the life of the children there looking down at me. They were my own age. What kind of education would they get on the island? What would I miss? Would I be able to catch up with them, if Father’s mission failed?
Father checked the away-boat’s integrity by tapping the base, the walls, the benches in front, the prow and the stern. Men passed down bundles of supplies. In the cool morning, they still hadn’t swathed their faces with cloth, and I read shame there. None of them came with us. I placed the supplies inside the dome, then lashed them to the arcing bamboo supports. We were careful with the water purifiers, their fragile glass parts swaddled in cloth. We’d traded a month’s catch of fish for just six of those. The tribe allowed us to bring two. The iron stove was the heaviest, with its layers of steel and wood to insulate it from the floor of the boat.
Father and I fitted two oars into rings mounted on either side. They were for short-distance maneuvers. We rowed around to the front of the main ship. Kianni looked up at our clan. Ramheart turned away but Mother looked on.
When we had arrived at this island two days before, we’d stabled our dozen dolphins by the front of the main ship. We’d contained each animal in a wooden box, partly submerged and open to the sky. Ropes and poles joined the boxes to our ship to keep them from tilting. The dolphins had enough water to move around in but couldn’t swim away.
I took a short rope and clambered off the away boat and up onto one of the dolphins’ boxes.
“I’m coming down,” I said in a singsong voice they liked.
She stopped swimming in circles and gave a throaty chirp, happy to see me. I climbed in, sinking up to my chest in warm seawater. The dolphin dove and knocked against the wooden sides.
I rubbed her chin, her belly, then found my way to the front of her dorsal fin. A rope ran around her body there, tight enough so it wouldn’t slip off but not tight enough to hurt. I tied my short rope around this collar using a hitch knot. When I unpinned the hatch on the side of the box, she didn’t wait. She nuzzled she open and surged into the open water, dragging me along. As soon as she cleared the box, she dove down. In an instant the slack would be gone and I’d be pulled after her. I threw the end of the rope to Father where he waited on the away-boat. He caught it and in one smooth movement spiked the knotted end onto a hook mounted on the prow. I’d never seen him drop it. The rope went taut. The boat lurched, but it wouldn’t go far with only one dolphin pulling.
We repeated the process with two more of the animals. On the fourth, Father fumbled. The knot fell from his hands as he scrambled for it. He grabbed it as the dolphin made the rope taut. She pulled Father into the water. He didn’t let go, and sank with a ripple.
“Father!” I dove under, eyes open in murky green water. The nearby island creaked in the currents. A school of silver and green fish swirled past. Particles of seaweed swayed, bubbles rising among them. I couldn’t see him. Out of air, I surfaced.
A moment later he came up too, looking around and gasping for breath. The dolphin was gone.
Father swam to the small red boat. I thought to help him up, but he was a noble and independent man, and I didn’t want to wound his pride. He ran a hand across his shiny scalp then down his face, wiping away water. He sat, dripping and panting, his wet clothing pasted to him showing just how thin he’d become.
I swam up to him. “There’s no harm. With the main boat staying here, we can afford to lose a dolphin. We’ll just need three or four.”
His face was all frown and furrow. I shouldn’t have spoken. I’d summarized his failure: he’d lost his people and his ship, and he couldn’t even hitch a dolphin.
“We’ll hitch six animals,” he said. “We’ll need to go fast.”
To me, six dolphins on such a small craft seemed excessive. It would be hard to control so many. But I unlatched the remaining animals and betrayed no doubt in my words or actions as I tossed one rope after another to him. He caught them all with fluid movements, like he always had, and bound the animals to the boat.
With six dolphins tethered to it, the boat spun wildly. Father knotted all the ropes together, then tugged on them, signaling the animals to stop feeding and to gather. Our signals to them always consisted of tugs: short and long, firm and gentle, left and right, up and down. With combinations of these we could change the dolphins’ speed and direction, give them freedom to rest and feed, reassure them and speak to them in other ways. Father had taught me to read the animals’ replies, something most dolphin-leaders don’t bother to do. With their own tugs and short changes of direction, the animals told us about the world beneath the surface. I’ve always felt glad to know them.
I remember Mother’s face as we moved off, the dolphins pulling hard with Father holding the leads. She looked fearful, like she didn’t know if she’d see us again. My sister Kianni looked peaceful. She waved for a while, then went back to one of her drawings as we skipped across shallow waves. Perhaps she thought Father was just bringing us on a fun trip.
The rich smell of the jungle-island ebbed away, leaving only salty air. I was so tired of that smell. First the big boat shrank into invisibility behind us, then the entire island. The dolphin who’d gotten away popped her head up a hundred yards off, as though saying goodbye to her companions. Father muttered at the lost dolphin and tugged to keep the rest on course.
The sun mounted the eastern sky. We were headed east, the direction that we’d traveled for seven years. Toward the sun. Always toward the sun.
Our parents conceived Kianni as an offering to the Creator, eight years ago, before our journey began. She grew up on the ocean. Sky and water had always been the landscape of her life. In her drawings, one of her charcoal waves always swirled up into the sky as though making a path to the sun.
She composed a song for each drawing, which she sang as she worked. Each song evolved along with the painting it accompanied. Each wave became a group of notes, with big bassy sounds and little tinkling ones. Sometimes she hit the side of the boat as an accent. The vast ocean became a long, low call — or as low as Kianni could make it. She sang the sun as a spiral of sound, fluting high then low then high then low. Mother had taught her the art, and Kianni had made it her own. She drew lines with a sharpened, burnt stick, and spread ash to make a gray sky. With colored minerals she might paint wonders, but we could only find those on land.
Late in the second day, Father rested in the bamboo dome as I directed the animals. He had been sailing all night, determined to find the path in the time that Mother had given.
Kianni sat with me near the front of the boat, looking across placid waters. The sun shone overhead and we wore cloth around our faces. Her eyes were bright and impish.
“Will we really find it?” she whispered, glancing back through the open arch toward Father.
I nodded. “Our ancestors say it’s in the farthest east.”
“But what if they’re just stories?”
“They’re not just stories. Our ancestors went there, then they came back and told others. That’s how our people learned about the stars, about making temples…”
“But we don’t know all those things anymore.”
“So we must relearn them.”
“But what if there are people on that island back there who know all that? What if we’re leaving everyone behind but it’s really good if we stay with them?”
“Their knowledge needs refreshing,” I said, “just like ours. We can learn what they need when we go to the sun.”
These were Father’s words coming through me, yet his quest was not fully my own. Old age had overtaken him since we’d left home. Sleeping there in the dome with his hands as a pillow, he was a pile of bones clothed in lean muscles and leathery skin. He seldom wrapped cloth around his face to ward off the sun, so coppery spots marked his cheeks and forehead. The coils of his hair had receded, leaving a shining scalp. He should have been living peacefully on an island somewhere, with his people easing his pains. But he didn’t care for his body and mind, only his goal. He lived for it. Failure might break him for good. I tried to imagine Father without his quest, but I couldn’t. It had filled him for as long as I could remember, like the sun energized the planet.
“Listen,” I said to Kianni, so quietly that I could hardly hear myself over the wind. “It’s not so important whether the path to the sun exists or not. But we need to support Father.”
It’s odd. As her older brother, I had always been protective of her. When boys on the ship had teased her for being so skinny, I’d fought with them. I’d worried about her falling sick, or falling overboard in dangerous waters. Father had always been strong, but now I worried about him, not her. I needed him to be right. And if he wasn’t right, I needed him to give up.
She tapped my hand, so big next to hers. “What if he keeps going?” she said. “What if after three days he doesn’t stop? What will we do?”
We bounced off a waist-high wave and Father stirred. He rubbed his gray-black beard and pressed his eyes shut.
“He’s a man of honor,” I told my sister. “He’ll turn around.”
“You know he won’t,” she whispered.
The dolphins dove and surfaced ahead, like needles weaving through cloth.
In the center of the sun, there is a fiery chamber with tunnels leading in every direction.
-Matra speaks, 2.52
I want to tell you how we navigated, so you don’t think my father was just setting off into the east with no other guiding principles. Land maps show the relative sizes of things. A lake, a river, a mountain. When you are taking one step after another and there are plenty of landmarks, such maps are useful. But in the open ocean, the patterns of the sea indicate space.
When ocean currents strike an island, they bounce off it in ways particular to that land’s size and shape. By observing the patterns of waves and currents hitting the hull of their boat, one of our navigators can tell how near they are to an island, and in which direction it lies. So the ocean maps of my people are records of the refractory patterns made by many known islands. When I was just eight years old, Father had insisted that I memorize the patterns made by hundreds of islands in the archipelago surrounding our old home.
All of this became useless only a month into our journey, when we entered seas unknown to our people. We could still tell if an island was close, but in the open ocean we had to be lucky to get that close in the first place.
I woke up at dawn on the third day, jilting up and down. If we didn’t find the island today, Father would turn back. Or so he had said. I ducked out of the dome’s door to see the sun rising over choppy seas. Father sat on a bench by the prow, leading the dolphins. His eyes caught the sun as though it shone out from within him.
We didn’t want for drinking water. The solar distillers were cracked in many places, but they still worked. Drinking water dripped inside their domes like rain from a tiny, fractured sky. We fished with nets and poles, but humans don’t live well on just fish and water. I was growing irritable and needed him to turn around, but I couldn’t confront him.
“I’ll lead?” I asked.
He handed me the knot of ropes, each one fixed to one of the six dolphins. “Let them rest,” he said, “and eat if they can.”
I tugged the pattern to tell the animals, then hooked the knot. “Will you rest?”
“Soon.” He kept staring at the sun, even as it rose too high for me to watch. “You know why I most want to go?”
“To fulfill the journey of our ancestors.”
He’d often said so over the years.
He scratched his cheek. “Many tried to go to the sun. Some attained it. I want to meet them.”
“Will they still be there, in the sun?”
“If they’re still living, maybe. Or we could find out where they went.”
“But shouldn’t we try to regain the ancient knowledge, rather than searching for those men and women?”
“They’ll have that knowledge,” he replied. “We might convince them to return here and teach our people. Raise us up.”
“Won’t we do that ourselves?”
He looked away from me. “I don’t intend to stop at the sun. We can meet the Sun-god there, yes, but the sun itself is a hub with thousands of paths leading to all parts of the cosmos.”
“So our stories say.” You’re not planning on coming back.
“We can travel farther…” He trailed off, finally looking away from the too-bright sun.
I understood then. “Father, you don’t want to go to other planets. You would go farther, like Matra did.”
This impressed me. As much as I feared for him, I had never known someone to look higher from their place on the earth than him. Most people thought of their gardens, their clan, their children. I had never known anyone with Father’s broad vision.
He took a deep breath, as though inhaling the fragrance of flowers and not just the salt of the sea. “You and Kianni can come back. That’s where we belong. That’s the realm spoken of by our teachers, though I doubt any of today’s teachers have journeyed there. Our home isn’t in the sun, nor on another planet. It’s beyond. It’s my time to go soon…” He trailed off, stayed silent for so long that I thought he’d fallen asleep with his eyes open. He sometimes did.
I held the rim of the boat as she skipped across angular waves.
“She returned from the sun,” he mumbled.
He picked at a splinter on the hull. “A healer showed me a text — a diary of a woman who entered the sun and returned. Her name was Matra. We know of no one else who came back. They all disappeared, to us at least. But she wrote of that place.”
“Where was this healer?”
“On an island. It was before you were born.”
“Why didn’t you say this before?”
“The healer told me not to speak it — said it was her sacred knowledge. She liked secrets, that healer. But I’ll tell you now because you’re my son and she’ll never see me again.” He smiled and licked his cracked lips. “I’m leaving all those promises behind.”
Like promising Mother to return today? I thought.
“What did Matra say?” I asked.
Father’s eyes narrowed into slits. “She saw a chamber there, with paths leading in all directions. They led to civilizations which thrived on many worlds. Through one portal she saw only light. She asked the Sun-god about this, who said that beyond that light lay spirit.” This last word left Father’s lips like a curl of smoke from a ceremonial fire. “That’s where I will go. Matra returned and recounted this to her disciple, Yanta. Then she left again. He believed it to be a fanciful vision, at first. But he had enough faith to follow.”
“Did he write something as well?”
“He wrote Matra’s account on dried palm leaves, before she returned to the sun. He sealed the text in a clay pot along with writing of his own, put the pot on a raft and pushed it into a westward current. That’s what the healer found. Then Yanta followed his teacher. He wrote no more.”
“Did he describe the island?”
Father had never told us the details of that place, only that it lay in the far east, and he would know it when he found it. Since he was now divulging secrets, I wondered if he’d tell this too.
“Matra said there is a volcano there,” he said. “A black smoking peak.”
“And where is the path to the sun?”
He nodded slowly. “Inside. We need to go inside the fire.”
My heart caught and I tried not to stare at him. The fire sounded metaphorical, but I wanted to ask him what he meant. Yet his words, as always, kindled my faith in his goal. I didn’t want to believe, yet I did. I wanted to believe, yet I didn’t. I needed to be one person, not two, but Father’s words cut me in half.
I heard creaking wood behind me, and turned to see Kianni emerging from the dome. She scrunched up her face in a way which almost made me laugh, had I not seen pain there.
She glared at Father. “I dreamed that you wouldn’t turn back.”
I never demanded anything of Father. He was our chief, and a pillar for our people. But Kianni sometimes did, and he allowed her.
“You promised Mom to come back today,” she said, “but you’re going to keep on going, aren’t you?”
He regarded her with kind eyes. “We’ll find it.”
“I’ll do what is best for all our people.”
I traveled to the end of our world, to the end of myself. But I have to go farther.
-Matra speaks, 3.4
Each morning, Father aimed toward the rising sun, and we held our course at night by the stars. He had taught me some three hundred constellations, so as I looked up into the firmament, myriad cosmic dramas came to life. Thieves and rulers, snakes and fish, naturally-born gods and those who’d been elevated by great deeds. They rotated overhead, guiding us eastward.
When he slept, I led the dolphins or rested them with enough slack to find fish. Trailing a net behind, we caught fish for ourselves. It rained little, and at dry times I cooked on our iron stove. We’d brought enough pieces of wood for eight days, and Kianni had drawn on most of them.
Conflicting winds often changed the patterns on the water, making them hard to read. Sometimes I thought we were heading toward an island, then found nothing after hours of travel. We needed more to eat than fish, and Father had refused to take food from the island where our clan had left us. I struggled not to yell at him that he’d broken his promise to Mother.
On the fourth day, while Father slept, I signaled the dolphins to seek land, whether or not it was due east. The decision made me feel like a traitor, but thinking of Kianni’s well-being, I made myself do it. The animals could hear an island long before we could see it. They hear islands creaking in the undercurrents, and hear stones cracking off and tumbling into the depths. But the animals didn’t change course for the entire day, and I saw no signs in the refractions on our hull. So we continued east.
Soon we began to burn Kianni’s drawings, which covered most of our wood. She had expected this, but was still upset. She made me wait before I burned each piece of driftwood, while she sang the song of that drawing one last time.
“Father won’t turn back,” she said to me while he slept. “Do you think he will?”
“I’ll ask him tomorrow.”
On the morning of the fifth day, I woke to find us slapping across low waves, heading toward the dawn. Constellations faded into the growing light. I felt we might fall off the edge of the world, and that we would deserve it for Father’s foolish stubbornness.
I joined him at the prow. He handed me the ropes, then went to the dome at the back where Kianni slept.
Through the rope, I told the animals that it was me. They tugged to say that they were tired, so I let them stop.
“Keep them going,” Father called from the back.
“They’re exhausted,” I said.
“They can rest when we arrive. We’re almost there, not even a day away. I know it. I feel it.”
I had never heard him say this before, not even to encourage our clan. I tried to keep the glimmer of hope from lighting my heart and fooling my mind again. Could we really be so close, after such a long journey?
I told the animals to swim on, but at a slower pace. Father had closed his eyes, but wasn’t yet sleeping.
I had to ask, for Kianni at least. “Father?”
“We’ve reached the fifth day.”
“Won’t we turn back?”
His eyes flew open and he sat up. “It’s real! Don’t you understand? We’re so close and you want to turn back?”
“You told Mother—”
“What do you think, that our ancestors made up the stories? Our whole clan is basking on an island now, enjoying themselves.” He glared at me as though I had just repeated all the arguments brought against him since we’d left home, and even before. “Generations have gone by in indolence,” he said, “and we’ve forgotten everything. We have to make a great effort now.”
“The path might have closed! You’re bringing us—”
“It’s not an ordinary island! You can’t find it just by traveling over the waters like we always have.” He gestured to the fading constellations. “You have to come to the end of the world, the end of your experience. You have to give everything you have, offer your very self. That’s how we leave this plane and go to higher realms, and that’s how you can help our people.”
I nodded. But at that moment, I didn’t believe in the legends. Didn’t believe in the old scriptures or the healers. My chest tightened, and the boat seemed to slide out from beneath me. My Father had false faith.
“That’s what I want for you and Kianni,” Father said.
I couldn’t look up from the boat’s floor to meet his eyes. I was meant to be a loyal son. He deserved better than me.
And Kianni? She stirred from her sleep, lying beneath the dome. If Father was wrong, we had to go back, for her sake.
Yet if I didn’t believe Father’s words, what would I believe? Our scriptures and healers were at the heart of our people, and they’d given us more than just stories. They’d given medicines, ceremonies to unite us with the plants, animals, and with each other. These stories of the sun must hold weight too. Father spoke from our histories, not from his own imagination.
I hated him for pulling me apart.
He was growing old, I told myself. He didn’t sleep enough and had lived on fish for many years. Even when we had found other food, he’d given it to others in our clan. He’d worn his body down, and maybe his mind. He wasn’t reliable.
I had to confront him. My heart pounded as I took deep breaths and turned back to the prow. I tugged for the animals to stop, spiked the knot of ropes on the hook.
“You keep them going,” said Father.
I turned to him. He sat with his elbows on his knees and regarded me with gaunt eyes.
My mouth went dry. “Father, how long will we keep going? It’s the fifth day. You told Mother we’d turn around.”
His expression sharpened. “I said the needful. You may have reached your limit, but I haven’t. I have to push more. The island won’t appear until I’m over my threshold.”
Kianni rolled on her side, turning away. I didn’t know if she was asleep or listening.
“What about her?” I hissed.
Father didn’t flinch like I’d expected, as I’d hoped he would. Instead he looked straight in my eyes and said, “I’m doing this especially for her.”
I shook my head. “You’re doing it because you’re stubborn.”
The words shocked me, but Father let the insult go and looked back at Kianni in the dome.
His eyes unfocused as he smiled broadly. “How beautifully she sees the world! Seeing songs and patterns all around her, she weaves them together with her charcoal and her voice. Imagine how she could access the cosmos, with the right teachers.”
The thought gave me pause, imagining Kianni as some kind of cosmic artist, perhaps recomposing the stories written in the very stars. But what of Father? “You said you wanted to go beyond the cosmos.”
“I’m done here,” he said plainly. “If I can bring you to the sun, my life’s work is done. I’m tired. I want to go on then, to enter the spirit world, past the light Matra saw in one of the sun’s tunnels. But you two aren’t ready.” He intertwined his long fingers. “You should move among the planets, learn what you can, then come back and share it with our people. Give it to other clans too, to whoever is on that new island. Enrich the world. Leave me a legacy.”
I swallowed and let out a heavy breath, looking at Father’s feet. His words stirred guilt in me, for not being a loyal son. But they also stirred my faith: in our healers, our scriptures, our culture. AndI wanted our family whole again. If I broke Father’s trust in me, that would never happen.
I took the ropes from their spike and tugged the animals into movement. We resumed skipping across the waves. Thunderstorms competed in my mind and heart.
After a long time, Kianni came and sat on the deck in front of Father’s sleeping form. She trembled and hugged herself as her eyes reflected the last of the dawn. What if Father was wrong? Her life would end on this endless ocean, or on that island.
On the sixth day away from our people, the dolphins jerked right. It was afternoon and I’d been in a kind of reverie, hands on the ropes and skating across the endless ocean plate. Looking in the direction that the animals swam, I saw only more water. I examined the patterns of waves bouncing off our hull. For a long while, eastward ocean currents had helped our progress, but now westward waves struck us. These were shallow waves that stretched as far as I could see, mixing with the main ocean current. I reasoned that the waves were refracting from an island in the southeast.
“Why have we changed course?” said Father. He’d been leaning on the dome, writing on pressed paper. Maybe he planned to seal it in a clay pot before he dove into the volcano, as Matra’s disciple had done.
“Land,” I said. We needed to get off the ocean, to get something to eat. To end this mad quest. I was a young man. I didn’t want to spend my life on this. Or Kianni’s.
Father’s brow furrowed. “We’re not heading east.”
“Almost.” Please let us just stop this.
He frowned and squinted. “It could be. We’ll try it.”
Kianni had been drawing and singing to the clouds. “Where are we?” she asked.
“Near, now,” said Father.
After an hour, a small dot appeared on the horizon, and quickly expanded. A thin line showed above the water but mist or smoke obscured the rest. The waves striking us grew larger.
Father said, “Go around into the lee of the island.”
I guided our boat left. Steep cliffs jutted out of turquoise water, with hardly any beach. They rose into thick smoke which obscured the rest of the island. The air smelled of sulfur and ash. Kianni coughed.
“There’s a volcano here,” said Father, eyes wide and clear. “Son, you’ve found us a volcano. This could be it.”
Pride swelled in me, despite myself. I wanted so much to please him. I wanted him to be right.
We moved through choppy waves bouncing off the edge of the island, then through currents folding around it. Then we passed into perfectly calm water, such as is often found in the lees of islands. The wind and noise of the ocean suddenly stopped. Tiny bubbles rose from jade-green depths. The dolphins pulled this way and that, anxious to explore and eat.
“Give them slack,” said Father. “They deserve it.”
The boat swung around as the animals chased a school of silvery fish. I could see their scales as though they were magnified in glass. But although the water was so clear, and we were so close to shore, I couldn’t glimpse the sea floor.
“It’s deep for being so close to an island,” said Kianni.
Perhaps we can stay here for some days before going back to Mother, I thought.
A huge bubble broke the surface, then another. The boat tilted and sulfurous gas made me cough. I reached for a fish-spear and held it, fearing a monster would break the surface.
Nothing more came — just the bubbles.
“It’s the volcano,” said Father.
“In the water?”
“There must be crevasses beneath the surface, leaking gas.”
“The water’s getting lower,” said Kianni.
She was right. The boulders on the shore bore high watermarks. The tide was going out.
“Bring us to the island,” Father said to me.
I looked at the ropes. “You can lead, Father.”
“You must learn it too.”
I didn’t want to lead in the way he did. But I lifted the knot of ropes from the spike then coaxed the animals forward.
As we approached, I saw a current of blue water flowing out from the land, mixing with the green. A waterfall crashed into the current some five hundred yards back. The blue water sprayed up mist before flowing into the ocean. The fresh water made me eager to go on.
Gusting wind pushed us away from the shore. When the wind died down, a dark cone belching smoke peaked above the cliffs.
Father’s eyes glistened as he stared at it. “That’s the path.”
“That mountain’s wearing a hat,” said Kianni.
She was right. Smoke hung over the peak but settled around the sides. The peak glowed a deep orange.
“We’ll enter there?” I asked.
“Fire,” Father said. “The way to the sun is through the volcano’s fire. That’s how our ancestors climbed up.”
My gut clenched. “You’re leading us into the volcano?”
He didn’t answer, just kept staring at the smoking peak.
I wanted to yell at him — even hit him. I would have refused to lead the animals, but he’d have taken over. I could have wrestled him, and I might have even won; he had aged and weakened. But if I had tied him up and turned us back, he would have never forgiven me. I would have cut a line through the center of our family.
It was more than that. When I actually saw that smoky volcano, just as Father had described it, my faith in this quest reignited. Call it foolish, but I wanted to believe. I pictured myself stepping over the lip of that fiery bowl, dying even as a finer part of me climbed into the sky. Maybe I could ascend. Maybe I could gain higher knowledge for our people. Maybe Kianni would fulfill her highest potential.
The wind abated and I continued guiding us shoreward. Water marks on boulders by the shore showed a drop of six feet. I had never seen such a change in so short a time.
“Stop!” Father yelled. He pointed to light shapes like branching veins beneath the surface. “Coral. Look.” He gestured in a circle all around the boat. A ring of coral ringed us in. “I didn’t see them when the water was high. We should have gone on at once.”
“It’s like how we keep the dolphins,” said Kianni. She’d never liked how we confined the animals in boxes when we stopped the big ship. “We’re all blocked in now like them. Can’t we go back out?”
“With the water this low, we’d hit the coral if we tried,” Father said.
He was right. I estimated a foot depth at most between the coral and the surface, and our boat rode about four feet deep.
Father glanced into the water and his eyes grew wide. “That’s it! As Matra spoke it, but I didn’t recognize…”
I followed his gaze to see a big bubble rising beneath us. It broke the surface near our stern, filling the air with sulfur.
“This is the volcano!” he said. “The coral rings its fiery heart.” He stripped off his shirt, showing loose skin over taut muscles.
“What, you—” I gripped his shoulder. “You’ll swim down?”
He flicked his eyes around, looking more uncertain than he had in years. “This is the volcano. That’s why these bubbles are here. It’s beneath the surface.”
I pointed upward. “The volcano is there, Father.”
“No no, we’re right above it. The sea must have been lower than when Matra wrote of her journey. We can make it in there before midday.” His wiry body twitched. “There are many tests, and we don’t know what the words mean. We can’t ask her because she’s gone over.”
I knew then that he would dive down until his breath gave out, until he could no longer return to the surface for air.
He looked between Kianni and I. “Will you follow me?”
The corded muscles on his neck and arms twitched, still powerful even in his old age. I would have to stop him. I visualized coming in behind him, snaking my arm around his neck, pulling him down to the floor of the boat. I’d pin him there and change his crazy mind. I clenched my teeth and stepped toward him.
“Look,” said Kianni, pointing to the coral nearest the island. “There’s a way through. Why would there be a break in the coral if we weren’t meant to go through?”
Father hesitated, still ready to dive. “I don’t see it.”
“It’s just over there.”
At the sound of her voice, his muscles relaxed.
I couldn’t see it either. “I see it too,” I said. “Let’s go closer.”
Kianni and I shared a glance which said, there’s no break, but let’s see what we can do next.
We eased the animals nearer to the coral ring. I searched, trying to find an actual opening, but found nothing. Father turned from the ring to look back into the water.
“It’s there,” said Kianni, pointing to the left. “Father, I made a mistake. It’s over there.”
My breath flooded out as I saw it. Yes, a narrow passage did break the ring, a dark channel bordered by submerged coral.
Father’s expression cleared. “Good. We’ll have to be careful passing through it.”
My shoulders slumped as the tension left them.
“Is it large enough for the boat?” he asked.
I didn’t answer. We’d see.
I slowed as we neared, then spiked the bundle of ropes. Father and I each took an oar. We dipped them under the water on either side and pushed off the coral beneath the surface as we passed. A long scrape sounded on my side. I looked inside the boat, but saw no breach in the wood. Father and I pushed off the coral on both sides, the oars like two arms of one body.
We glided into open waters. Even Father chuckled with relief. For a moment, I remembered him from before this quest took him. He’d actually been playful, then.
Kianni let out a whoop, looking up at the volcano.
“It’s good mercy that we’re here together,” said Father. “I’d not have made it through without both of you.” He was trembling, sweating. “I was wrong before, overeager. The entrance to the sun is not underwater, of course. The break in the coral shows that.”
He’s getting old. I shouldn’t let him do this, I thought.
I smiled, but caught Kianni’s eyes when Father turned away. She looked like I felt: worried. I signaled the dolphins to move fast toward shore.
Father looked around as we approached. “The cliffs are too steep to scale. We’ll have to walk next to the river.”
The boat touched shore, rocking us forward. Kianni cheered and jumped up. She stepped onto a stone surrounded by high reeds, and we followed. On the land, my knees shook; the ground seemed too solid after such a long time at sea.
“We must enter at midday,” said Father as he loosened the dolphin’s rope and looked for a place to tether it. “That’s when the path is open. Today we’ll be too late.”
“We still have a few hours,” I said. “How far away do you think the volcano is?”
Father drove a stake deep into the ground and hooked the ropes to it. “Over these cliffs, down the other side and into a very green valley. Then up the slope of the volcano itself. It’s farther than it looks.”
A new wave of doubt washed over me. “That’s what Matra said?”
So near to the volcano, I felt terrified. Surely we were wrong. Yet I found myself praying that the legends were real, and not just to vindicate Father. If he were right, we would travel a mystical path revealed by our ancestors. If he were right, Kianni would paint the stars.
To reach the higher, I have to leave the lower.
-Yanta speaks, 4.2
Mist sprayed me as we passed roaring waterfalls, climbing up along the river. It was the clearest path inland we could find. The way was arduous; all the plants held water, but many held thorns. We clambered up stone after stone.
Not far into our trek, Father slipped on a wet rock and fell out of my sight.
“Father!” Kianni and I called out in unison.
We climbed down. He’d fallen on a group of rocks. His eyes were clear, but he groaned and clutched his side.
“I’ve broken a rib,” he said between clenched teeth. “Help me up.”
“Rest here,” I said.
“It will only get worse. Will you help me stand or not?”
I did, and he staggered along for the rest of the day. Kianni and I walked slowly for him. He wouldn’t lean on me.
We camped uncomfortably that evening, clustered under a coconut tree on a flat stone by the river. All our tools had been lost in the boat, so we opened fallen coconuts by smashing them with stones again and again. Most of the water drained away when they opened, but their white meat tasted delicious and gave us strength. Drinking from the river proved dangerous. It ran swiftly and the banks were steep there, so Father broke a hole in a coconut husk, pushed a branch through, and then used that as a long scoop to get us water.
He groaned in his sleep. I loved the air, rich with a thousand smells, so full after the monotonous spray of the ocean. But water seeped into my clothing from our moss bed, rocks poked my spine and mosquitoes attacked us all night. I didn’t know how to make a compound to repel them; I could hardly recognize any of the plants there.
When I awoke, I felt as though I’d been fighting all night. We climbed for hours in the morning glow. Finally sunlight broke above the cliff-tops, filtering through dense foliage. The sight was glorious.
The river held less water as we ascended, and I saw small creeks running into it from all over the hills. In the late morning we crested a final stony rise, then gained a sight like none I had ever seen.
We looked out from an enormous ridge, like a wheel with the smoking volcano as its hub. The caldera surrounding the volcano was a valley filled with foliage so green that I thought my eyes were fooling me. This jungle washed up against the peak’s gray cone. We stood almost level with the peak, where the hat-shaped smoke roiled in the ocean wind.
“It’s beautiful!” Kianni exclaimed.
Father and I squeezed her shoulders and smiled.
We clambered down the hill with difficulty, stumbling many times. Father worsened his side wound as he went. Once he let me look at it, and I saw spreading purple bruises. He clamped his mouth shut as his steps jolted him, but he cried in pain again and again. I could do nothing. Kianni sobbed, but hid her face from Father and smiled when he looked at her. He must have known.
Vegetation grew thicker as we neared the valley floor. Bushes and stumpy trees grew between boulders. As the ground leveled out, a thick canopy began to eat the sunlight, and jungle surrounded us. I felt wrapped in a wet blanket of air, trapped beneath a dense roof. We just had small knives as weapons, and didn’t know what lived there. Birdsong and croaking animal calls rippled through the treetops. A colorful bird darted past and shapes leapt overhead.
We didn’t need to hack through underbrush, but we found no substantial food either. Little grew on the shadowy ground besides a few strange mushrooms which we dared not eat. We’d long since digested the coconuts.
It was evening when we reached the volcano’s base. The trees stopped but shrubs and moss ran up the mountainside like waves on a beach before petering out some fifty feet up. We’d arrived. One way or another, this would end the next day.
I felt I had to see this through to its end. Entering that volcano could fulfill not only Father’s quest, but the desire of all our wisest ancestors. They wanted this for us, whether they were right or wrong. They wanted our people to join communities on other worlds and bring back knowledge for everyone here. If our goal was real, I couldn’t be the one to falter.
Or maybe Father would stop at the lip of the volcano, finally seeing his quest as madness. Then I’d be relieved of the choice. Either way, I had to go on.
“We’ll camp here at the base,” said Father.
I lay down with an empty belly and a dry mouth. Kianni mumbled in her sleep, which I’d never known her to do. The night passed slowly and I wished I could see stars. Perhaps we’d be in the sky soon. Perhaps we’d be dead.
In the morning, sunrise broke behind the volcano. Some leaves held dew like green cups, and Father gave them to us. I worried for him. He scowled whenever he moved, clutching his hip.
We began our climb, with Father limping badly. Without asking, I pulled his arm over my shoulders. To my surprise, he accepted my help. The slope was hot from years of sunshine and the fire underground. It singed my feet so I took quick steps.
The mountainside grew steep. I pulled Father along with each step. We approached a row of piled-up boulders, perhaps belched up by the volcano. There were no paths between them.
“We could go around,” I said, “find a break in the wall.”
“There’s no break,” said Father. “Matra described this too.”
We stopped, looking up at the huge gray stones.
“I’m hungry,” said Kianni.
I was too, but whatever had impelled Father to come this far burned most fiercely in him now. He stared up, jaw clenched, past the boulders to the volcano as though regarding our highest possible destination.
“Stand on my shoulders,” I told him.
He hesitated. He’d never wanted to depend on anyone. I squatted down. He looked around, then relented and climbed on my cupped hands. Leaning against a boulder, I stood, trying not to show him how difficult it was. He clambered up and hauled himself over the top. I joined him there, reached down, then pulled Kianni up.
I helped Father up the next boulder. Doing this again and again exhausted me. We stopped to rest midway up the piled stones. The heat grew as we went on. We baked between sunlight and hot stone. The red sun rose above the peak as though spat out by the volcano. When we reached the top I felt faint.
Going down the other side was less work but more dangerous. I lowered Father down, then he held Kianni’s legs as I lowered her. After doing this on a dozen boulders, we landed on the gray slope again. Father seemed delirious with pain, and I thought that I should carry him back. But I couldn’t make myself do it.
Father refused my support this time. “I’m strong.”
I wanted to argue, but doubted if I could help him. I stumbled as I walked, and my mouth was beyond dry. He went ahead, favoring one leg so much that he all but dragged the other behind. The slope grew steeper, the ground hotter. The stone beneath our feet seemed to have fused into one piece, and looked like wax hardened in mid-flow.
Will this course really take us to the sun? I wondered.
Father was old and his mind had weakened, yes. But he could still be right. And what else could we do? We had come to the edge of our world, to the end of our quest. Would we try to live out our lives on this unknown island, or slink back to Ramheart and the others to grow fat on their island? That would be a coward’s life, dwelling always under the shadow of this volcano, of what could have been. I knew then that I needed to do this, not just for Father, but for myself.
But what of Kianni? Would I throw her into the volcano’s mouth? And she couldn’t jump herself. Where would a little girl find such courage? It wasn’t right that Father and I should choose for her. Yet, if we were right, Kianni would live like no other little girl before her. She would get more than paints made of bright colors; she would have entire worlds to inspire her.
Father stumbled. I was walking near him and caught him as he fell. But I was weak and we went down together. My elbow cracked the ground. I rolled onto my back and stared at the sky.
Kianni hovered over us. Her amber eyes were wide, bright against her dark face. They looked spirited one moment, delirious the next. She’d somehow lost the cloth covering her face.
We might not make it back to the river, to the coconuts.
“Father?” I said. I turned my head to see him face down. “Father!”
I rose to my knees, rolled him over. His mouth hung open, his tongue pasty and white. His eyes were shut, his eyelids fluttered.
“Can you help him?” said Kianni. “Help him!”
“We have to enter the volcano,” I said. “To enter the sun.”
I put my hands under Father’s back and tried to lift him up. But my muscles betrayed me, exhausted from scaling the wall of boulders.
“Forgive me, Father.”
I had to help him. Taking his hands in mine, I dragged him up the hill. I no longer felt my feet. Thin muscles stretched over his ribs. His bare back scraped the ground and he grunted, head lolling.
Kianni stooped over as she walked, holding Father’s head so that his neck wouldn’t bend around.
As we neared the top, the smoke grew thick. I coughed and didn’t want to breathe in again. Trickles of lava flowed past us, solidifying as they went. I pulled Father between them. His back was raw, as were my feet.
Close to the top, he sat up, slapped his face and opened his eyes. He coughed for a long while, then spat dark phlegm onto the rocks. I feared for him then more than ever. I knew he would jump into the fire. If I stopped him now, he would never forgive me.
“Come on, Father,” I said, and lifted him to his feet.
He leaned heavily on me, as he never had while conscious. We stumbled forward. I had to help him fulfill his mission. I had to be a loyal son, a faithful follower.
“Come on,” I said again.
Kianni came to his other side, propping him up as best she could. A red glow pulsed within the smoke before us, spewing comets of fire and ash.
All at once, the volcano’s mouth opened below us. The lava moved so slowly, like boiling glass. Bubbles burst, sending spatters of luminous liquid everywhere.
I stopped, staggered back. “Kianni!”
She wasn’t watching. I dropped Father, reached toward her. My fingers brushed the bare skin of her arm but she kept going.
She grabbed my hand, pivoted on the rim. I pulled her back and we fell in a heap, all three of us. And yet, in a moment, we might toss ourselves in.
I came to my knees, then crawled ahead until I could see into the volcano. We were finally there. I would break my father’s trust, or I would die. What kind of son would I be? He couldn’t be right. Could this bubbling lava hold higher worlds within it?
Liquid fire churned in whirlpools. Crusty patches broke apart like foam on red water. The patches clustered, only to be pushed apart by rising bubbles.
Choking, I kneeled and pressed my nose and mouth against my pants to draw breath. I made Kianni and Father do the same. She looked mesmerized by the roiling fire.
“Will you follow me?” Father sounded husky and weak. He pressed his eyes shut.
“Yes,” I said, but I still didn’t know. My heart pounded so hard I couldn’t think. A veil covered my vision of what would come. I couldn’t see whether the fire would kill us or liberate us.
Kianni bit her lip. All three of us knelt there, poised.
Father cracked his eyes open. He must have seen our indecision because he said, “I know I’ve been foolish at times. But I know with my gut and my heart and my head that this is right. Son, daughter, do this with me.”
I tried to swallow, but my throat was too dry. He looked at me, more vulnerable than I’d ever seen him. He’d always provided for us, but now he was asking this.
Kianni stood, keeping her shirt over her mouth. She shuffled her feet, glancing toward the fire again and again. I knew she would not jump by herself. She wanted to. I could see it in her trembling limbs and in her wide eyes. She stared down, glanced up at the sun, then down again. She stepped back.
Father glanced toward her, then deep into my eyes. I understood what he meant: You’ll have to throw her.
His arms gave out and he fell onto his chest. I went to pick him up.
“I can’t move.” He looked into the boiling fire. “Roll me in.”
I took a deep breath. The world went black, then slowly cleared. This was his decision, not mine. I was just his instrument.
“Father…” I pushed my arms under him, but I’d reached the end of my reserves. “Help me, Kianni. It’s what he wants.”
She knelt beside me and we turned him, bringing his legs up so that his whole body lay along the lip. He smelled of sweat and seawater.
I said to him, “If you’re wrong, thank you for dreaming so high.”
He coughed. “I’ll wait for you there.”
I pushed. Kianni pushed too. He wanted it.
Father fell for a long time. That man who’d always been so large in my life now seemed crafted on a tiny scale. The lava bubbled slowly, massively, as it swallowed up his doll-like body.
Kianni and I stood. I remembered to breathe, made sure she did too. The fire churned below.
“Did he die?” she asked.
“No one dies,” I said.
“Do we have to go in now?”
“Do you want to?”
She pressed her lips together and looked up at the smoky sky. She must have been imagining the stars, the planets, the communities of teachers, the colored minerals.
She nodded. We held hands and stepped forward.
Her eyes widened as she looked up. A figure of a person rose past us, fiery and translucent. I could hardly look at it for all its light.
“Father?” I breathed.
“Father!” said Kianni at the same moment, then turned to me. “Do you see him too?”
The figure walked up invisible stairs. Each step took him a dozen feet, though he seemed not to stretch his legs. Then each step took him twenty feet, then thirty and fifty until the smoke around the mountain hid him from view.
I squeezed Kianni’s little hand in mine. She had seen him too. But was it just Father’s mad faith inspiring our shared vision?
I teetered on the lip of the volcano. If Father was right, we would join him in the sun. If he had just died, then we would die too. I would drag Kianni in and kill her. My own sister.
As I thought to step back, she gripped my hand. She pulled me off balance and I stumbled after her. Pushing off with her legs, she pulled me behind. As we tumbled over the edge, she smiled at me with joyful eyes.
I watched her as we fell, hoping to fly.