Tau bit deeper with her paddle, and green water hushed beneath the oka hull. Nhia sat in the bow, serene as when they’d pushed off from Ia that sunrise to a farewell ululation. Her fingertips trailed in the smooth ocean, eyes unfocused on the fins that kept time or searching further forward to their destination five sunrises hence.
Tau fell into a cadence, and Nhia’s sweet harmony twined thoughtlessly around her bark-rough voice. Nhia’s easy joy sang at odds with the impending rise of the Stone Moon.
Death awaited them at the end of their journey.
Tau risked glances at Nhia. Like many Stone Maidens, Nhia gathered sun to her as she did eyes. Tau reasoned with their skills they would be a good fit together, but touching a Stone Maiden was forbidden. Nhia was unashamedly content to let her look, needing little prompting to show off her kiho-nut brown skin and unusual light grey eyes; she was the only one in a generation born on Ia under a Stone Moon.
Tau’s chest ached, and not from exertion. Kah, she sighed to herself, twitching her keenly muscled arms in an effort to find a more comfortable position; the stiff, new kiho fabric wrap, a gathering gift from chieftess Lau’Ia’Maa, rubbed her tender. At least I’ll get through the gathering before I’m indisposed for this rotation of the great keel.
The Ia-mother’s salt-cracked tattooed lips formed the parting words again in her mind. “I encourage you to ride your own wave, but you can’t ignore the potential seed mates awaiting you at the gathering, Tau’hene”.
Tau smiled and offered a little curse to virility as she tried to pretend the heat between her thighs had only to do with the sun. She fell into daydream, imagining a child with her thick frame and Nhia’s eyes.
The conceit couldn’t last. If Nhia survived the Stone Moon gathering, she could choose anyone. A maiden would never grant a common keel-woman, carver and moon-gazer the opportunity to make life with her.
Both women scented the change in the sea before they saw the shoals of the reeflet. Tau chanted off the fifth verse of the Travellers From Ia cadence and discovered they’d missed a sand bar. She added a lilt to the verse as a way to notate the shifting geography.
Nhia balanced easily, an image of Ia On The Mountain, one foot braced against the bow head. “I’m starving. I’ve been looking forward to this all morning.”
Tau grunted as she aimed for the narrow opening in the reef. The Water Moon tide had just turned, and the oka shot between the gap. In respect for the passing Stone Maidens, the reeflet was empty of the usual fisher folk spearing peuru worms and gathering molluscs.
“You prepare the fermented wiro-fruit, I’ll be right back,” Nhia ordered, so easily.
Tau had to look away as Nhia stripped off her wrap and slipped like a shining eel over the edge of the oka.
Nhia returned with two peuru still twisting on the end of her spear and a handful of link-shells. Dark ropes of hair clinging to her throat, Nhia hung over the edge of the oka and carefully manipulated the oozing orange innards of the peuru with her thigh knife onto a bark shell, expertly avoiding the poison-tipped spines. With a flick of her knife tip, she threw the now-limp worm casings back into the water. The wind-dancing witi birds knew better than to make a dive for the dangerous husks.
Unable to wait, the women licked the sweet gizzard off their fingers.
“Lau’maa believes peuru paste is good for baby making,” Nhia said as they watched their meal turn a deep sun red as it steeped in the wiro juice. She kicked her feet in the water. “Maybe I’ll be lucky this time.”
Tau prodded Nhia with a spear-tipped glance. “This is only your second Stone Moon of fertility. You were too young the last time.”
“Other islands would disagree.” Nhia’s kicking turned the oka in a circle around its rock anchor.
“Ia is not other islands, nor any other mother,” Tau growled, cracking a link-shell open with the handle of her hip knife. She slurped at the slippery treasure.
“Do you remember the last Stone Moon?” Nhia asked, discarding an empty link-shell into the water.
“Of course,” Tau replied. “I may have been young, but you never forget your first Stone moonrise.”
Nhia swung back into the oka, enfolding herself in her brightly painted wrap. She squinted at the star map carvings along the inner bulwarks of their vessel. “Do you count your sisters and cousins and cadences equal to your obsession with moon-gazing?”
Tau’s face tightened beneath its fine crust of salt. She scooped up a finger-full of peuru paste, indicating its readiness. “That isn’t what I meant.”
Nhia laughed and punched her lightly in the bicep. “I fathom, you tide-washed fool. You’ve always been an easy tease.”
“I wish you wouldn’t.”
“We all wish for many things, but some aren’t destined to come to us in any good time.”
Startled by the wistful tone, Tau’s glance wasn’t quick enough to catch her out. Nhia’s interest had been captured by a darting school of coral fish.
They passed the rest of the afternoon in taut snatches of conversation before making camp above the tide lines at an uninhabited islet. Tau coal-roasted a moon fish Nhia deftly speared from the shallows.
After sucking the husk of a spicy wiro-fruit dry, the quiet tension washed away with the tide as they laughed and pointed out stray pips and scales around each others mouths.
“Why did you volunteer to be my keel-woman?” Nhia ran stretched her long neck to stare up at the rising Blood Moon as it kissed shoulders with the setting Water Moon.
Choosing an empty hardwood slate and a sharp, shaved naumu stone, Tau judged the angles of the celestials and made quick, deft cuts. “You don’t volunteer to be a keel-woman at a gathering. It’s an honour to be chosen.”
“Don’t take me for some storm-tossed flotsam,” Nhia growled, teasing. “A chieftess’s daughter comes with privileges.”
“We’re all daughters of the chieftess-”
Nhia’s inelegant snort cut off Tau’s protest. “You in more ways than one. I fathom you try very hard not to be, but you’re her favourite.”
Tau frowned at the simple pictographic of the moons she’d cut. Her teacher Koro would be pleased with its accuracy. “You seem to fathom quite a lot about me. I’m not the oldest, the youngest, the most intelligent, hard-working, nor the most fecund.”
“Why speak so ill of yourself?” Nhia scolded, sounding much like Lau’maa in that moment. Tau bit her lips to hide her smile. “Gazer Koro would disagree. At least about the intelligent and hard-working part.”
Nhia made a crude gesture, and they giggled in unison at the thought of the elderly gazer working on the fecundity part. When Nhia gasped out, complete with funny faces and more hand gestures, that she’d seen Koro sneaking into old kiho-weaver Maka’s wari, they fell about in further fits.
When they sobered, Nhia hugged her knees and stared at Tau until Tau gusted a sigh that set sparks flying from the banked fire.
“Perhaps I did suggest to Koro that it would be an excellent chance to document the rising of the first Stone Moon in twelve storm seasons if I was further to the south and west,” Tau explained.
“And even if that hadn’t made enough of an impression on Lau’maa, it gave you the chance to show off your superior carving skills. You gained your very own vessel, even if you weren’t chosen from the five keel-women candidates.” Nhia’s teeth glinted gold in the firelight. “But you were.
Tau said, “Superior? Hardly.”
Nhia paused, as if marshalling another of her peuru-sting retorts, but instead she said, “Your oka is very beautiful. You gave a whole new life and meaning to that wiro-leaf trunk. You must chant me a cadence of its carving some time soon.”
A whisper of impending death raised a ripple on Tau’s skin. She fumbled for another dismissal but finally mumbled her thanks.
Only after Tau had settled in a sun-warmed, grass-lined sand hollow to silently track the path of stars did she ponder what had gone unsaid. Had Nhia guessed at Tau’s feelings, or had she accepted her effect on everyone as a given? Stone Maidens were allowed some arrogance, Tau thought. They had little choice in so many other matters.
The two of them played a game with quick glances, Nhia poking at the fire. Tau pondered whether she saw an invitation in the crinkle of Nhia’s eyes. But then it was gone as Nhia hummed a bawdy drinking song and looked away.
Tau attacked her star carvings. Nhia, her Ia-sister, her friend, didn’t suffer pity gladly.
“You don’t believe in the sacrifice.”
Tau jerked out of a light doze. She rubbed her eyes against the mid-afternoon glare and tested her thoughts before her thick tongue got the best of her.
Nhia paddled on, face impassive despite the sure ache in her shoulders. Tau had seen her five year-old blood sister Mai’a with a better technique, but Nhia had insisted on learning something from the experience, even if it was about the formation of blisters.
Tau washed the sleep fuzz from her mouth with a swill of fresh water. “What makes you say that?”
“You haven’t asked me to turn around and save myself,” Nhia replied, matter-of-fact. “It’s traditional.”
“I fathom.” Tau splashed some ocean water on her hot face and looked off to the horizon as if searching for the small atoll that would be their evening camp.
The second day of their journey had been going well until that point. With only a little prompting, Nhia had helped Tau create her oka-building chant. Nhia’s sweet voice and her ability to choose just the right words made the felling, hollowing, and carving of the single wiro-leaf trunk over a span of two seasons sound quite the epic feat.
Now she’d gone and spoiled it all by bringing up politics.
“So, are you going to ask me turn around? To plead for my life, like all good keel-women are supposed to do?” Nhia stopped paddling and flashed a grin over her shoulder to take the salt-sting out of her words.
Tau made a face and busied her hands searching for a strap of dried eel. “Then I mustn’t be a good keel-woman.”
She impatiently gestured Nhia to resume paddling, though in truth she didn’t mind the slower pace. They were making excellent time and still had three days before the gathering began. Nhia set her face in a squint, another gesture eerily reminiscent of Lau’maa, though she wasn’t a blood daughter of the chieftess.
“On the contrary,” Nhia argued, dipping her paddle. “You fathom the sea better than anyone on Ia, and can chant the travelling cadences word-perfect. You can smell bad weather coming before I even see the clouds. You paddle all day without complaint. And you’re very pleasant company.”
Tau snorted she handed over a hunk of eel. “The sun must be cooking your brains under all that hair.”
Nhia swotted away the childhood insult like she would a salt-fly. “Answer the question.”
Tau stretched eel skin from her teeth until it snapped. “I’ve forgotten.”
Now it was Nhia’s turn to kah. “You’re treating me like flotsam again, sister.” The emphasis on endearment wasn’t entirely affectionate. “I see how you simply mouth the oldest of the chants at island gatherings and squirm when the elders praise Ia’s exploits. I hear the words you substitute during Blood or Water or Stone tellings when you think no one notices.”
Tau’s cheeks and ears turned hot as bad as sunburn cut with salt crust.
Nhia continued, “So you’re not a traditionalist. That’s fine by me. We can’t let our future daughters and sisters drown beneath the tides of the future.”
Tau choked on something like a laugh. “What do you mean?”
“Do you listen to anything your sisters talk about late at night?” Nhia kah’d, which became quick grunts as she pushed the oka forward by the power of her anger. “Or is your head forever up in the sky?”
“The heat of the fire pit makes me sleepy.” Tau shaded her eyes. Another oka had shimmered out of the haze ahead of them.
Nhia sank her paddle deeper. Tau picked up the spare and joined the effort.
“Then embers will be lost in the dark, and the ash will be scattered on cold ground,” Nhia replied cryptically between grunts.
The other oka contained travellers heading for the gather: a Stone Maiden named Kai’Lei and her keel-woman Keke, from a closely grouped set of islands to sunsetward called Lai’Lei. Tau enjoyed the distraction of throwing chants back and forth between the boats. By the end of the day, five more okas had joined the procession. As sunset cast its wine-coloured net, the travellers lashed their boats together and made the best of a night in the doldrums.
Someone brought out a large clay brazier, for cooking and cheer. Another produced a seven-string luuk, fingering clever chants for each of the evening’s activities. Someone else set up a fresh-water still, weighting a polished piece of kiho fabric between a folding frame.
Tau bent a surreptitious whisper into Nhia’s ear as she erected their sleeping frame. “There’s something strange about that keel-woman from Lai’Lei.”
“Who, Keke?” Nhia had always been better with names. “Of course. She’s a man.”
Tau knocked her head on a post as she shot up straight. She rubbed her head and stared open mouthed. “Fathom that!”
Nhia chuckled low in her throat as she gathered her spear, sighting down its length. “Has the wind swept your brains? You fathom what men look like.”
“Koro’s different. She’s, well, old. She’s one of us. I don’t think of her as male.”
Nhia rolled her wrap into a kawat around her hips and upper thighs before sliding into the water. Tau hitched up her own skirts and followed, squinting at the new sister-friend limned by the brazier he was setting.
“But how do I chant in front of her?” Tau asked, stroking in place. “What is she doing as a keel-woman?”
“How do you chant in front of your moon teacher?” Nhia sucked in air deeply, readying her lungs for a dive. “And I suspect Keke is more than just a keel-woman.”
Tau stared at Nhia as the dying light swallowed her. It wasn’t like her to sound so bitter. Refreshingly sarcastic yes, but never as twisted as a loka root. “What do you mean?”
“Fathom, no? Haven’t you seen they only carry the essentials? Their island must be seed-rich. Keke is Kai’Lei’s gathering gift.”
Nhia dived to supply the repast, showing off by swimming deep and long, bursting from the water with a wriggling catch ensnared on her spear, delivering each fish with a grinning flourish.
Tau’s worrying became boredom as the night wore on. There were no rules about not making friends with the maidens–this was the way many inter-island trade and seed-partnerships were formed–but there was an intricate weave to the relationships Tau struggled to fathom.
Tau watched Keke across the brazier as they shared their travellers’ banquet, including gourds of fermented wiro-fruit juice. She tried to make herself feel attracted to her. Male seed was often welcome in some of the more distant communities. She remembered Lau’s fond words about men. She still hadn’t decided whether to go back with her gourd filled.
Keke laughed at everyone’s stories and sang sweetly, performing a nice moon-welcome hand dance as the two moon Sisters shimmered toward each other.
But Tau couldn’t do it. Keke’s chest and shoulders were too wide, hips too narrow. Keke wouldn’t be a good fit, she mused with a little kah.
At least Keke was as polite as Koro, keeping her genitals tucked behind a pretty hip wrap. Tau knew what to do with them, but she just couldn’t work up the mental image of doing thatwith her. Every time she tried to put Keke in the picture, she kept turning into Nhia. Tau finally gave up, slugged back juice, and held out her shell for more.
During the repast, Nhia’s face remained as stony as the impending moon, and her usually enthusiastic voice stayed silent.
Let her sulk, Tau mused. Perhaps a little competition for the gathering altar will rattle her wits.
With her mind tossed by the wiro-juice, another thought gripped Tau which she struggled to throw off like a wet mantle: despite her lack of respect for tradition she didn’t want to go back to Ia alone.
Blinking away the effects of the juice and firelight, she settled into for her nightly observations, comforted by the gentle slap of water, the creak and scrape of oka hull.
“Any sign, sky-gazer?” came a low voice, startling her. She eked out a smile as Keke clambered across rocking okas. She maintained a respectful distance.
“Look there, on the sunrise horizon.” Tau pointed her sharpened naumu. “Do you see that faint glow?”
Keke’s vigorous nod rocked the boats. “Yes! I’ve seen that the last few nights.”
“It is She, preparing to sail our skies and stir the seas to rapid fecundity.” Tau had to look away and make another mark on her slate.
Tau cheeks warmed beneath the salt crust. Lau’maa laughed in her head and whispered that men were just the same as women. Koro smiled down from the Water Moon, her face as seamed as its shimmering surface.
Keke’s voice entwined with her thoughts. “Do you still believe that Ia fished the first Stone Moon from the ocean, seeding our waters?”
“That is a strange thing to ask a gazer.” Tau chuckled. She made another mark on the inside of her hull, marking the position of a star as it winked into being.
“You fathom so many of the older chants, and you have such a nice turn of phrase,” Keke replied. “You must make a good storyteller.”
Tau grimaced. “I prefer to be as far as possible from fire-light on clear nights.”
Keke’s chuckle demanded nothing. “So it seems.”
Tau decided to take a dive. “Are you here to try and fathom me out? Find out something about Nhia?”
Keke’s full laugh was as deep and booming as a coral roller. “Prickly as a peuru, and just as to the point. I like that. Yes, I fathom I am.”
“She sings well.” Tau scratched absent-minded at the flaking salt crust on her skin.
“I can hear that,” Keke said.
Tau paused, and then, prompted by the memory of the looks Nhia sent Keke’s way, she barrelled on. “Nhia is fertile now.”
Keke’s mouth snapped shut like an uglyfish out of water. Ah, so she didn’t smell the spiciness of the wiro-leaf Nhia chewed and the peuru coming out in her skin. Perhaps Koro’s anecdotes had some merit—men weren’t as attuned to a woman’s ripeness.
“Don’t fret the knots,” Tau assured her. “The others aren’t long off. Most of them will be ripe by the time the final selection of the gathering is made.”
Keke went silent. When she finally looked up, her pretty dawn-green gaze beneath the tumble of sun lightened locks unnerved Tau. “Do you ever wonder if the gathering is-”
She broke off, slipping over the side of his oka, barely making a sound as skin met water. “Forgive me, sister-friend, I speak out of turn.”
Keke finished with a kah, then pushed off in a smooth breast stroke.
“Yes, I do often wonder,” Tau said, too softly for him to hear. “More and more, these days.”
A treasure-trove of wood littered the half moon bay, but this wasn’t mere storm debris. The finely carved hulls of many oka knocked a symphonic counterpoint to the hush of waves, pierce of ululations, and hoarse wail of shell horns. Hands fluttered with the voices and breeze. Smoke from numerous cooking fires and ceremonial braziers promised scents of mystery and delight. Skin of brown, burnished gold, ebony and copper flashed against a myriad of coloured wraps and lush greenery.
The days of the gathering had been spectacle enough to warrant a hundred new chants, but the nights had truly been a wonder. As a keel-woman, Tau had little time to enjoy the pleasures of the evening. Any time left after primping, oiling, dressing, introducing, and ego-stroking Nhia was given over to the Stone Moon.
Having escaped the fourth evening banquet and dance, Tau watched the almost-moon’s sliver shiver on the horizon. This close to moon-rise, many were torn between their duties to their sisters and their gazing, but for this moment she had the beach to herself.
The moment the moon breached its ocean womb—only two or three nights away, Tau had calculated by celestial angles—someone would die.
“There you are.”
A pair of legs as familiar as her own coral-etched shins whisked out of the bushes.
“You should be getting some rest,” Tau said.
Nhia gave an inelegant snort and plopped to the sand with the ease of the long limbed. “The activities in the next wari made it a little difficult to dream to the Stone Mother.”
Tau choked off her chuckle. “If Kai’Lei is caught-”
Nhia flipped a hand. “Kai’Lei has, shall we say, been going for many long walks. I suspect she might even be sleeping on the sunriseward beach some nights.”
“She’s very popular.”
Tau grunted and dug her naumu into the wood, skewering a star into place with more force than its luminosity required.
“Keke has eyes for you, you fathom?”
Tau’s chin shot up and she stared at her sister-friend defiantly.
“I can smell it on you,” Nhia said, the light from the kissing moons casting hard shadows across angles of her face. “You’re close to your Moon. If you so wished, you could beget a child together.”
Tau blushed. Nhia’s fertile scent had become hard to shake. Tau’s late-night gazing excursions were also an excuse to avoid the snug-thatched wari they shared. She often caught herself bending her face close to Nhia’s hair as she weaved in flowers, tiny shells or beach beads, prettying her for her next test.
Tau’s belly twinged, as if in sympathy or need.
A mischievous smile drove a dark slash across the harsh planes of Nhia’s face. “Ah, the tide is coming in now. You don’t desire Keke.”
“Yes. No. I-” Tau heaved a great sigh and put down her shell and naumu. “You’re leaning into the wrong wind, sister.”
“Then tell me which way it blows.”
Tau made a show of brushing sand off her newly carved shells, cutting a look at her sister-friend. Tonight there was a layer of weariness tripping over wariness, an edge of fear along the usual knife edge of Nhia’s teasing. Tau wondered if the irrelevancy of the tests imposed by the gathering elders were getting to her. During each evening’s eliminations, the elders eyes slid off Nhia just a shade too fast. She’d made it this far, and yet…
No one liked to see the knife above someone they truly cared for.
Tau crossed her arms across a chest that protested harsh treatment. “I don’t deny he would be a worthy contributor of seed to Ia’s children. However, I-” She kah’d, unable finish the thought out loud.
“You’re too fertile of mind at this point in your life to carry a parasite,” Nhia finished.
Tau couldn’t help but laugh. “No need to put it so crudely!”
“You get the drift.” Nhia’s teeth flashed blue white.
“Lau’maa will be disappointed if I don’t return fecund.” Tau’s laughter drifted off with the hush of the tide.
“She won’t.” The forcefulness of Nhia’s tone made Tau again note the strain around her dancing eyes. “If you think that, then you don’t fathom your mother at all.”
Tau pulled back from the blustery force of Nhia’s new boldness.
“And besides,” Nhia continued, “you have six older sisters, all of whom have willingly blessed Ia with their wombs.”
As Tau inscribed the air with a quick blessing, Nhia grabbed her fingers and held them against her chest. Tau swallowed her sharp intake of breath.
“And there is something else, I fathom,” Nhia said, voice as rich as koca-bean soup. “Perhaps someone else.”
“I-” Tau tried to snatch away her hand, but Nhia tightened her grip and pulled her closer.
Nhia’s pupils were dark moons against her golden skin. Her quickened breath smelled of sugared vila petals, a rare aphrodisiac delicacy presented at dinner that evening.
“You can tell me,” Nhia whispered. “I’m your sister-friend after all, aren’t I?”
“Yes.” Tau’s whisper faltered again.
Sand-spackled fingers brushed her cheek, and Tau closed her eyes. Words lodged in her chest as if she’d been punched too hard in the fighting dance.
A heart-beat. Two.
A sweet pressure on her lips. Tau tasted salt, sand, and sugar; an embodiment of the ripe smell of her torments.
Then Nhia was gone, a slap of bushes, the rustle of sand on skin.
A beat: the hush of water.
Another: sandals on grass.
Tau looked up, hoping Nhia had returned; to apologize, to make good, to continue even though it would risk everything.
A smaller figure, bathed in the shadows of the trees, the slash of a triumphant grin bright.
She turned and fled. Tau gave a little kah and closed her eyes to the silvered horizon. Death, rebirth; it was life to Stone Maidens, and some would seek out their eternal glory any which way they could, even if it meant betrayal.
Tau angled the oka stormward, her paddle biting deep as the rising sun cut slivers off the water into her eyes.
She didn’t resist the headache. Uncountable cups of fermented wiro-fruit juice the previous night had helped dull the memory of the knife dashing across the throat of the figure positioned in ecstatic adulation on the great round stone.
The beautifully carved representation of the great mother-moon hadn’t resisted the chosen’s stain. Neither had it broken beneath the weight of portent. Change simmered in the blood of the next generation of Stone Maidens, but it hadn’t come swift enough to belay one more needless death.
Tau glanced at the figure in the bow, crouched against the impending storm, a break in the perfection that had held its breath over the gathering. With face edged with resignation but not regret, Nhia had been silent since they had cast off, not even chanting out to the other okas pushing for home. Tau’s heart fell as heavy as an anchor stone, meeting and warring with the cool ache of relief in her belly.
Kai’Lei had been the maiden to gladly meet the bite of the Mothers’ blade. Her final chant had been the perfect combination of sweet traditional sentimentality.
“I can hear your thoughts from here.”
Tau lost her grip. Before she had the chance to reform her thoughts, she dived in to retrieve her paddle.
A smile a shade more cynical than expected greeted Tau as she heaved herself back over the edge of the oka, spluttering and cursing. Nhia quit her rearward rescue-paddling.
“And just what do you fathom about my thoughts?” Tau pushed her hair out of her face, muttered another curse, and squeezed water out of her wrap.
“A little moon-broody there, hmm?” The tease back in Nhia’s voice made Tau breathe a little easier.
“Stop pushing, or you’ll be swimming home.”
“That would please you.” Nhia chuckled, and Tau bit her bottom lip to arrest a smile.
“You don’t fathom what would please me.” Tau straightened her back and dipped her paddle.
Instead of turning back to her contemplation of the dark horizon, Nhia threw back her head in a laugh. “You’d be surprised.”
Tau kah’d. “Stop dancing around the issue.”
Ropes of hair slapped Tau’s cheeks as she shook her head. She squinted at her sister-friend. Ropes of hair slapped her cheeks as Tau shook her head. “That was some final chant you sang, quite the turn-around. Nhia…I… can’t fathom where to begin.”
“Then I’ll make it easy.” Nhia rushed ahead like the rising wind. “I failed at the gathering, so I must return home with some set to my sails.”
Nhia cut off Tau’s placating noises with a swift flourish of her paddle.
“Let me finish. I didn’t come with my face entirely turned to the Stone Moon. I knew what I was singing about. The Stone Mother should smile upon life, not death.
Her jaw worked, a spasm and a swallow before she continued. “Most Maidens don’t want to die, no matter what you’ve been led to believe. I want to do something before I take my final dive beneath the waves. I pushed Lau’maa to choose you as my keel-woman, because I knew you’d hold me up against a stiff wind. In your rough way, you’re far more adept at navigating the shifting tides of fireside talk and chants than I.
“Don’t look at me like that. Your mother is shrewder than you fathom.” Nhia’s smile turned softer. “I also had another reason. We’re a good fit, you and I.”
Tau pretended to search the threatening horizon though she knew by smell alone how long they had to reach shelter.
“I revere life,” Nhia continued. “We’re both fertile. We are right, we fit. Let us create a child together, while we have this chance.”
Tau rubbed the calluses of one hand against the scars of the other. She couldn’t fathom her hands being gentle enough for such a task as guiding life.
Nhia said, “I will carry the child, as I fathom you dislike the idea.”
“I can’t ask that of you,” Tau kah’d.
“Why not? Our child will be intelligent, inquisitive, and beautiful.”
“But you’re my friend,” Tau protested, her biceps quivering with more than physical effort.
“You fathom I would make a terrible parent.”
Nhia kah’d and rolled her eyes. “And where is it sung that you have to parent? We have many wonderful sisters, mothers, and aunties who make light work of it, in the Ia way.”
Tau tasted the bitter and spice of the idea. A rattle along the horizon; Nhia mouthed silently, counting the heartbeats between the lightning and thunder.
“I went searching for the right person to fit,” Nhia said “but they all came up wanting compared to you. I need to show my worth to my sisters. I must make restitution for my failure.”
“You didn’t fail,” Tau said, paddle digging deep. “I’ll stand dance-fight anyone who disagrees. You represented Ia superbly. Your trade negotiations will keep us well-prepared for many storm seasons. They will be proud of you. I am proud of you.”
“And I’m proud of you.” Nhia favoured Tau with a look as thrilling to the senses as unpeeled koca-bean. “You go back to Koro a full gazer, your work welcomed with open hands at the great library. At least you have found your calling.”
Tau uttered a soft kah. She took a deep whiff of the storm, squinting against the spitting rain, and quickly ran through the current verse of the Traveller’s Return cadence. “Take up your paddle, woman,” she commanded gruffly. “We’ll make the next islet before the storm hits if we push hard.”
Nhia’s hands flexed around the wood. “And there we can make a baby while we wait for the storm to pass?”
“We will discuss it.”
“Will we discuss how much you love me too?”
The rain finally struck, an exclamation point. Nhia threw back her shoulders and gazed at Tau from beneath dripping lashes.
“You have ideas as big as Ia’s Search For the Ends of the Ocean,” Tau chuckled.
Nhia chanted the first few notes of the cadence, adding a wistful lilt that sung of unseen coastlines and faces. “Some dreams are best when shared.”
“Ia preserve me from baby-foolish sisters!” With a wry shake of her head, Tau set her shoulders straining against the rising waves and wind.