EMMA BRENNER, © 2020
I run after Sulwen to the beach, even though she runs too fast over the black rocks as if the pointy parts don’t hurt her feet. Father Gabriel says it’s because she’s a girl, and girls are different. I just think it’s because she wants to beat me.
“Lochlann, we’ll lose all the seashells!” She hops off the last cliff into the shore’s cool, gray ooze.
Panting, I jump down beside her. “Shut up.”
She giggles and tousles my red mop of hair. Then she rolls up her pants though they already have mud splatters on them. “Father Aden says you shouldn’t say that.”
“Well Father Aden is a wuss.” I grab a gob of sand and plop it in the ocean.
Her plump hand grasps mine and tugs me to the shore. She dawdles like when we were babies, wandering from one chipped, iridescent shell to the next. By the time we’re a quarter of the way around Oileán, she’s got a handful of shards of the sea.
She shoves the little white daggers in my face. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
They reek of salt and fish pee. “Yeah.”
The same salt rides the wind as it blows her poufy hair. She bites her lip before landing it on my cheek, and my whole body buzzes, making the icy water feel like coals.
“Your face is redder than ever, if you can believe that,” she says.
I swing our held hands, which remind me of the beach, light grains against dark rock. “Like a tomato, ye?”
“Like a sunburnt tomato.”
We’ve never eaten tomatoes, because they don’t grow on Oileán. But Father Gabriel says my face is as red as one. It must be the brightest, reddest fruit in the world.
The hand holding mine crushes my knuckles, and I jerk from her grip. “Sul!”
She covers her mouth and points to the ground in front of her.
“Sul, if this is another one of your shells, I’m gonna—” The pus-like puddle quivers like it’s breathing. I grab the front of her shirt and pull us both away from it. It’s seaweed-green and shimmers like her shells. No, like scales.
“Lochlann! Answer me, boy, or you’ll be scrubbing the church on your knees!”
Father Gabriel speeds down the moors. His arms dangle in his robe as he hustles on beanstalk legs. I hate scrubbing the church, but I’ve got no snippy responses. I just point to the goop at our feet and keep nudging Sulwen and I away from it.
I’ve never seen Father Gabriel move so quickly. He zips down the hill and leaps from rock to rock before huffing to a stop beside us. He bends near the slime and speaks in a throaty language I don’t understand. Then in words that make sense, “Loch, take Sul to Camp.”
My feet are locked in the sand. The slime may as well have wrapped around my knees and frozen my ankles.
This time I’m the one snatching her hand and dragging us, but we aren’t skipping. We’re tripping and losing our footing. I don’t know what we’re running from, but Father Gabriel scales the rocky shore to one of the old, timber structures that look like an altar. Sulwen and I used to pretend the twiggy towers were our kingdoms by the sea before she became obsessed with the deep. But Father digs into his robes, pulls out two stones, and smashes them together until the pile of wood is ablaze. Then he throws his head back and yells in that throaty tongue. His bald head pops with veins.
Sulwen curls close to me. “I’m scared.”
I am, too, but I sprint over the boulders and up the wet grasses. “Come on.”
Cresting the hill, we dash into the kettle valley where Camp is. The Fathers aren’t fetching water, weeding, or herding the goats. They’re darting from cabin to cabin, hauling out the children, and running up the hillside to Oileán’s highest peak. Up there, fog shrouds the girls’ special houses. Why are they going there?
“Loch, the towers,” Sulwen whispers. She guides my gaze to where the wooden towers, which line all of Oileán, burn with an angry, orange fire. The silver calmness of Oileán has shattered.
Father Gabriel’s gnarly hands grab our shoulders. He smells like campfire as he pushes us through Camp and up to the girls’ dwellings. We’re wheezing, catching our breath, and my feet ache trudging through the slippery earth, but he doesn’t stop. When Sulwen falls and eats a mouthful of mud, he scoops her up in his arms and mutters, “Keep moving, Loch. We don’t have much time.”
The mist tastes of sweetened water. Ahead of us, the yellow, boxy houses appear through the clouds. To our left, Father Ennis locks Sulwen’s sister, Erin, in one of the boxes. She hugs his balloon belly before shuffling inside. He checks the lock twice before turning to Camp.
I shake my head and scurry up the moss and shrubs to Father Gabriel. Sulwen has recovered, and she holds his hand, the whites of her eyes sticking out on her face. Father clicks his tongue and jerks her forward.
We finally reach her yellow house—rusted and metal, like all the others—and he swings open the door. While he rummages in his floppy robes for the key, I peek inside. There’re no windows or candles. It’s shadowy and lonely with a chamber pot and messy mattress.
Father Gabriel brushes me aside and grumbles under his breath, something about how the tides are changing. “Get in, Sulwen. We’ll see you in the morning.”
“It’s not bedtime yet.” She grips her ribs. “And I forgot my seashells on the beach.”
Far off, burning wood roars. Did the towers on the shore explode? I tap Father’s shoulder. “What’s wrong? What’s going on?”
“Look at me, Sul.” He kneels and pinches her chin. “Trust me, all right?”
Her shiny eyes dart to me. Then she hugs him and kisses his cheek. He moves quickly, shutting her in her room and locking the door. The sunshine cabin bounces, and I can hear her tantrum from outside.
The roar is louder now, and Oileán doesn’t smell like earth anymore. She reeks of bonfire.
Father Gabriel grabs my face, squeezing my jaw bones. We sign now, he says, using his hands instead of his words.
The sky is darkening, but it’s only midday. It turns the white hairs on the sides of his head gray. Why? I sign. We haven’t practiced signing since last month.
Listen. He points to the iron padlock dangling from Sulwen’s house. It bangs on her metal box as she begs for release. Never open it. Understand?
The key rests on its hook beside the door. I stole it once before, when I had a nightmare. She and I barely fit on her mattress, and Father Gabriel didn’t shout or scold when he found us in the morning. He simply told me it was never allowed again.
Father smacks my cheek. Understand?
Yes. I won’t touch the key.
He snags my hand and flees down the hillside. We weave through the houses until we’re sprinting the steep meadows. He says nothing but runs us faster as if we’re in a race with the other Fathers and boys who are on their way to Camp. We pass my schoolmate, Hugh, who’s chubby cheeks are flushing in his haste. He sees me and signs, What’s happening?
I shrug and reply, Girls are missing all the fun.
He laughs, but then the blaze breaks through the fog, and nothing is funny anymore.
The school is lit with flames. Fathers take axes to our cabins, pry off planks, and toss them into the furnace. Only the church is untouched, but even burning stakes surround it in a ring of fire.
The gardens are ashes, and the goats must have fled, because they no longer bleat and knock their horns on fences that are no longer there.
Father Gabriel smudges his finger under my eye. He flicks my tears to the ground. Lochlann, look at me.
The red, burning buildings reflect in his glassy eyes. I see crimson sunsets inside him, and they seize my heart, twisting it inside me.
No matter what, you must do everything I say and stay by my side. He pats my chest and stands taller. He isn’t my scrawny, stubborn tutor anymore.
I puff out my chest and let out the breath I’ve been holding. I inhale the smoke and wince, coughing it all out. He must take that as my confirmation, for he hurries us from the hill’s base to the church in our cooking valley.
All the Fathers and boys huddle by the wooden steeple. Some of the older men drag out crates and crack them open. From the dusty storage, they pass along slender sticks that have straps. I drop my stick when it comes to me. It’s heavier than boulders from the beach, and there’s a hole at the end. I peer down it.
Father Gabriel shoves the stick aside and wallops my head. You’ll kill yourself! He points to a tiny lever under the stick, and signs how a sphere spelled b-u-l-l-e-t shoots out of the stick.
My brain hurts. I chuck my stick on the ground. “Why can’t we talk? It’s too hard, and Camp is burning, and I want to see Sul.”
He clamps his hand over my mouth. Then he kisses my forehead. This is a g-u-n. He taps the lever. Never point the hole to any of your brothers or the Fathers. Only point it at bad things. Then pull the lever. He waves to the mushrooms rising from Camp. And it will burn the bad things.
I don’t like this gun. It’s too heavy, and I don’t know what these bullets look like or how they make bad things ashes. What bad things are there? There’s nothing bad on Oileán.
He smiles, but it’s a sad smile. There will be.
The older men pass around a wad of cotton and strips of cloth. Each Father stuffs cotton in his ears and secures it by tying a strip around his bald head. It squishes the floppy hair by his ears.
Hugh stands across from me in the circle of silent boys. He squirms as Father Ennis, the fat man who locked up Sulwen’s sister, rolls the cotton and wraps his head. Hugh’s round cheeks smoosh together when his ears are tied tightly. You look like a baby, I sign. He sticks out his tongue and replies, Tomato-face.
The elders link hands and the rest of our circle follows. I grasp Father Gabriel’s wrinkly knuckles and those of the boy next to me. No one closes their eyes while the elders pray. But they lift their heads to heaven, which darkens with storm clouds and smoke, and sway. I wonder what they chant inside their minds.
When they’re done, they let go of their brothers and sign, To your posts. They cover their mouths with the collars of their robes, because the air tastes like sharp, sour fruit.
Father Gabriel tucks my shirt over my nose. With me, Loch.
He leads us to the shore west of Camp. There, the rocks are fewer and the bank spreads out like a giant whale. He rolls up my pants for me before guiding us into mushy sand. He holds his gun close, frowns, and faces the ocean. I do the same.
The sea was white-capped and chipper an hour before, but now it swirls with tempest. It’s only noon and our normal sun is gone, hidden by lumps of black sky. The roiling waves slow when they near us and only lick our feet. When they recede, the shimmery luminescence Sulwen and I found glistens on my toes. It’s slimy like the film of a fish.
I bend over to wipe it off, but Father Gabriel forces me to stand. Don’t look away from the ocean, he signs. We are the gate. Don’t let anyone or anything past you.
Boys younger than me hold guns bigger than themselves while facing the strange storm. We and the Fathers line the entire shore of Oileán as far as I can see. We’re a wall of humans.
Then Father Gabriel’s icicle fingers grip my elbow. I spin to slap him but freeze.
The sick sea has stilled and formed a hedge of water. A few meters down our wall of humans, a woman steps out of the deep.
My face heats. She wears nothing. Father Gabriel doesn’t cover my eyes and rebuke me. Rather, he whips out his gun and snarls at her. All the Fathers point their sticks, but none pull their tiny levers.
Through my cotton, I hear faint singing. It’s a chorus of girls’ voices. It’s muffled, but I know it’s beautiful, because it’s like flutes and cellos mixed with screams.
The naked woman walks on the sand. Damp hair ripples down her back and around her curved chest and hips. I feel wrong staring, but all the men are, but not for the reasons I might. I wonder if she’s the bad thing, with her pink lips and long eyelashes. She’s the softest, most precious creature I’ve ever seen.
Father Gabriel strokes the lever of his gun. He squints and tenses and begins to release the bullet that will burn her. I’m speechless, too frightened to do anything. The muffled song swells with a pitch that pierces through the cotton.
But the men lower their guns and pale. For one of the taller boys, Kendric, steps away from his post in our wall. He nears the woman with a gaping mouth and jelly legs.
Father Gabriel signs, Don’t shoot.
I haven’t even lifted the gun yet. I don’t know if I could.
Kendric gets close enough to touch the woman. She angles her head like an animal might, but in a gentle way. His gun sinks into the sand as she kisses his mouth. She does it slowly then grossly, sucking at his whole face.
My stomach curdles, and I avert my gaze. The song of invisible instruments is more interesting anyway. And the longer I watch the sea, the more the water shimmers, and two eyes glow from the hedge of water at me. They’re bulbous and yellow like the moon, stopping my heart. Hefting up the gun, I point at the fish, but Father Gabriel’s scream pulls me away.
Kendric hangs limp as the woman kisses his neck. No, she’s biting. Talons stretch from her fingers and cut into his side. She rips the cotton from his ears and widens her mouth, singing, and the music loudens. Kendric jerks just as she sinks razor teeth into his neck and yanks out his throat.
All the Fathers pull their levers. Booming drumbeats follow, ringing in my head. The woman’s skin peels off, and she hunches over dead Kendric with her gills, rotting limbs, and moon-colored eyes.
The music doesn’t have instruments anymore. It shrieks sharper than a seal’s cry.
Another woman-creature emerges from the water wall, then another and another. The Fathers’ guns jump, and the monsters flail into the sea. But there are more scaly, drooling things than there are of us.
Father Ennis’s fat quivers as he falls to his knees, her shark teeth in his shoulder. He pulls his lever, and the nightmare’s guts and skin blast onto the sand. Still, she claws out his eyes before dying.
I’ve never felt so heavy and light. I blink and try to breathe and want to puke. “FATHER!”
Father Gabriel isn’t beside me but has been replaced by Hugh. Hugh’s cotton is gone, as are his ears and one arm. Bone is smaller than I thought it would be.
Then fishy, saucer eyeballs shoot at me. I scream and scramble, but her fangs snap—boom. Her head explodes. Meat flies on my face.
Get out. Get out now.
I haul the gun and trudge from the, the… war. Yes, that’s what this is. Father Aden gravely spoke of war in his lessons, how it killed the flesh and corrupted the heart. Hearts lay, no longer beating, on the beach, and flesh is no longer living.
I scurry up a boulder, sit with my back to the sea, and sob. Fire blazes at Camp and on the shore tower beside me. A part of me can imagine it away, that I’m running with Sulwen to her house on the hill. But the music won’t stop, and neither does the gun-thunder and death.
Something hits the rock in front of me, chipping off a million stones. A voice shouts louder than the rest.
Then I smell salt and fins.
Hollering, I grab a stick from the burning shore tower and spin. The dripping monster curls out her talons but skitters from the flame. Her sister crawls up the rock too and smacks a slug-looking tongue.
I wave the fire, and they flee, hushing their scary song. I jab the spear farther and farther until they tumble off the rock and onto the sand below. They recover and chase down another boy.
It’s just me and the cold, moonlit rock.
I dash from one slippery footing to the next. The gun bounces across my shoulders, and I just about drop the torch, but I don’t stop. I swing the fiery stick before and behind me, warding off any hungry beasts. When my feet hit the grass, I pick up speed.
It’s like those strange dreams where I run but can’t run fast enough. Sometime in all this, a downpour began, drenching Oileán and turning her to marshes. I tromp on through it and straight for Camp.
I thought Camp was burning before, but it’s otherworldly, like hell’s deadly lakes. The fire has risen to the roofs and spat out dark clouds that mix with the thunderstorm. It’s bright and blinding.
Sulwen is safe. If I can get to her, we can hide until this is over. But I can’t lead the monsters to the yellow camp.
Chucking aside my torch, I yell and dart into Camp. I cover my nose. The heat feels it might singe my skin off and sting my eyeballs into nothing. It’s a game of hopscotch around the fallen timber and embers. My damp clothes are wicked dry, drier than the deserts from Father Ennis’s geography.
Then I see the church’s steeple peeking through the smoke. With my chest hurting and breath bursting, I reach it and rest at its doors. It’s when I stand still that I still hear the creatures’ terrible song. Their voices quicken and jump with notes we’ve never sung in choir. Far off, beyond Camp and on the hills leading to the beach, there’s movement, and it isn’t human.
I pump my arms and speed up the tallest mound to where the girls’ tiny houses lie. Up here, the fog hovers and swallows me up in gray air. Hopefully it’ll hide me from them.
I count the rusty boxes, pausing every time I lose track. They’re identical, unmoving, and eerily silent, the opposite of the war on Oileán’s shore. I stop at Sulwen’s and stand on my tiptoes to fetch the key to her lock. I’ll take the key with me and hold the gun in front of us, just in case. The bad things won’t stand a chance.
The lock pops open and my silly fingers fumble, shaking, and I creak open the door. “Sul!”
She’s curled up on her pillow and away from the door, trembling. When I say her name, she flinches and turns. The ocean’s bulging, glowing eyes stare back at me.
She sits up and tilts her head like a curious goat might. Her pretty lips are stretched wide over vicious sword-teeth. But her skin’s the same dusky brown, not slimy and spotted like the others.