An Empty Cup
by J.T. Greathouse
Eshi the Boy
As for every child of the Islands, when Eshi was born a zephyr descended from the Upper Air to alight on his shoulder. Grandmother Sul burned precious driftwood, inhaled its cinnamon scent, and begged the zephyr to give her grandson the gifts of a healer. There were never enough healers on Eastwind Island, and healers were well regarded and well positioned in life. Eshi’s father, a less ambitious and more realistic man, burned driftwood of his own, but asked only that his son’s zephyr grant a talent for fishing or for hunting, or even for whipping the wind. Practical talents, but more common. Talents the community could use.
Eshi’s mother, too, burned driftwood. Her prayer was the simplest. She asked only for her son’s happiness, and that his zephyr would give him a talent to match his soul.
If not for that prayer, perhaps Eshi would have lived an easier life.
Eshi was tall, with dark hair and long limbs. A quick boy, and strong. Not the quickest or the strongest on Eastwind Island, but quick enough and strong enough that everyone said he would have a good future. He played the games that small boys play to learn how to be men. Throwing games and chasing games and fishing games. He was good at all of them. Not the best, but good enough that people began to wonder what his talent would be when he came of age.
Other children were better swimmers, or quicker on their feet, or more skilled with their bows and arrows. Everyone knew what their talents would be. Even before a child came of age, his or her zephyr began to shape them. Tora, a girl a few years older than Eshi, had always been an excellent swimmer. No one was surprised when her zephyr gave her the talent of Diving Breath. In the first year after her coming of age she had gathered more pearls than anyone else and could reach the oysters that hid in the deep channel of the bay.
Eshi’s father said time and again how proud he was of his son’s promise at swimming, running, fishing, and hunting. Surely, he thought, Eshi’s zephyr would give a talent for one of these things. He speculated with the other men of the village, and some placed wagers.
Solla, the greatest hunter in the village whose zephyr sent her arrows fast and true, wagered a necklace of boar’s teeth that he would be granted the talent of Archer’s Wind, as she had been. Eshi’s father met her wager and bet a knife he had made from obsidian that Eshi would have the gift of Seawind’s Whip. The last man with that talent had been Old Yano, who for years had been too ill to guide the deep-hulled sailboat to neighboring islands. The Upper Air would send a new Seawind’s Whip soon, everyone was sure. The Upper Air always sent what the island needed.
For that same reason Grandmother Sul said—though she did not wager; she was too old for such silliness—that Eshi would be a healer, as she had prayed. His gift would be Rotkilling Breath, or the Soothing Voice, she said. Eastwind Island had wanted for a healer of its own for a generation. When someone took ill with a sickness that Grandmother Sul and the other old women’s herbs and potions could not remedy, a canoe had to be sent to Coralrock Island to fetch Madam Saro, who had the Soothing Voice. More than anything else, Eastwind Island needed a healer. Besides, healers were always great men and woman, skilled in many things.
Eshi delighted in the speculation surrounding his talent. None of the other children were spoken of as often or in the same way. Whenever he learned something new he ran to the longhouse to show it off, sparking a new round of wagers.
He even learned things that most children never did, just to see if he could. In the summer of his tenth year he spent every night at the beach fire, listening to Speaker Rabba tell the old stories of the island. He more than listened; he committed those tales to heart, so that he could tell them as well as the Speaker, whose talent made her voice a deep echo over the sands. At summer’s end he went to the longhouse to tell the stories he had learned. He told the tales of the Turtle-that-was-an-Island, and the Great Voyage from the Sea of Land, and Jak the Slayer who had the gift of the Zephyr Spear and killed a sea serpent.
“Maybe he’ll be a Speaker, like Rabba?” said Tora, who, though only a few years older than Eshi, took part in the wagers with the rest of the adults. She had bet her finest pearl from the deep channel that his gift would be Fish Calling. The village nets could never be too full, she would say, and she laughed when Eshi’s face reddened at the thought of having so common and simple a gift.
“The island has a Speaker,” said Eshi’s father. “Why would the Upper Air send another? One is enough.”
He was right. Eastwind Island had its Speaker, and Rabba was still a young woman. What sense was there in the zephyr sending another? A Speaker was a good thing to have—entertainment for long nights, and the old stories kept the island’s memories alive—but a Speaker caught no food, gathered no precious pearls, and saved no lives.
“Eshi,” his mother said one winter night while the family gathered beneath the blankets in their hut. “Tell the story of the Turtle-that-was-an-Island.”
It had been months since he had told the stories in the longhouse. Eshi had thought of them often, contemplating the words, playing with the rhythm of their telling. The words of the Turtle-that-was-an-Island came easily to mind. It would have been a simple thing to tell the story, but he remembered his father’s rebuke in the longhouse. He listened to his father snore. If he had whispered the words to his mother, he might have told the tale without waking him.
“Eshi?” his mother said.
When his father saw him run, or shoot, or throw, or swim, he boasted proudly of all the things his son might be. When he had heard him tell the tales, he had been cold and dismissive. Father was right. Eshi wanted to be useful to the island. He wanted a gift like Diving Breath or Seawind’s Whip or Soothing Voice. There was no point to telling the tales. Not that he could see.
He feigned sleep. When he heard his mother snore he felt a pang of sadness, and did not sleep that night.
The New Year came, and Eshi went out to the surf with the other children who had come of age. At birth the zephyr descended from the Upper Air to rest on each child’s shoulder; after sixteen years the Wind from the Sea would stir each zephyr to form, revealing each child’s gift. Three children walked out to the surf that morning: Gan with his long legs and quick feet who everyone said would be a hunter, Kela who loved to stare at the stars, and Eshi. They stood and let the cool tide flow around their ankles and the sea wind stir their hair as their zephyrs sprang to life.
What had been gentle curls of air became whirling gusts, blazing with light and life. A chill ran down Eshi’s spine. His heart began to race as his zephyr began the dance it would dance for the rest of his life, bending the wind in service to his gift. Solla cried congratulations as Gan’s zephyr swirled into a familiar cone, hovering there behind her ear. She would be a hunter, as everyone had predicted. Eshi craned his neck for a glimpse at his own zephyr. Would it be the gentle sphere of Diving Breath? The twining threads of the Soothing Voice? For a moment, he feared it would be the simple, flat gust of a Fish Caller. Or—he thought in a moment of panic, mixed with fearful joy—the broad, flared cylinder of a Speaker?
It was none of these. Eshi’s zephyr was a shape he had never seen before. A half circle of wind, like an empty bowl. Was this a new healing talent? Or something greater? His heart beat furiously in his chest. The story of Jak the Slayer never mentioned the shape of his Zephyr Spear.
Shouts of happy surprise filled the air. Eshi smiled. His gift must be something wonderful to warrant such joy. He turned to see who had recognized it.
The shouts were not for him.
Tora and Rabba and all the rest—even Eshi’s father and mother—surrounded Kela. They lifted her onto Solla’s shoulders, where she sat beaming. Her zephyr was two twining threads. She would be a healer, to answer the island’s need. Eshi stood alone in the sand, watching them. He craned his neck to study his zephyr, that mysterious empty bowl. Surely it must be a wondrous talent. More wondrous even than the Soothing Voice.
“What’s this?” said Grandmother Sul, frowning and gesturing irritably at Eshi’s zephyr. “I burned driftwood for you, boy. Not for this Kela child.”
“Mother, I’m sure it is something worthy,” said Eshi’s mother. She smiled at him and studied his zephyr. “Something to answer the needs of the island. To bring happiness. Something to suit his soul.”
“It must be,” said Eshi. “It is something new and wonderful, I’m sure.”
“Oh is it?” said his father, who had left the gathering around Kela and now stood with crossed arms over Eshi. “What is it then? What sort of gift?”
“Well…I don’t know,” Eshi admitted. “How did you know yours?”
“Flint Knapper Zari taught me,” said Eshi’s father. His zephyr was flat like flaked stone. “That’s the way it’s done. The old people teach the young people who share their talents. Who will teach you, Eshi?”
Eshi’s heart sank. He craned his neck for another look at his zephyr. Perhaps, by the look of it, he might be able to understand what talent it gave. For the years to come he would often crane his neck in the same way, and wonder why he had been cursed with an empty, useless zephyr.
The speculation about Eshi’s gift did not end, but took on a cruel dimension. Now instead of wagering what sort of wonder Eshi’s gift would be, people whispered and gossiped about him. He had been such a good, skilled boy, they said. A boy deserving of a wondrous gift. What had he done—or what was lacking in him—that he received a useless zephyr shaped like an empty bowl? Was he lazy? No, he had always worked hard, and had always been curious to learn. Perhaps it was arrogance, and the zephyrs of the Upper Air were teaching him humility. When he had been humbled, they would send his true zephyr and his true gift. Eshi felt—though he could never bring himself to say; how much worse would their accusations be then?—that he had been humbled enough.
He spent the first years of his manhood hauling nets with the Fish Callers. Though he had no talent with which to lure the catch, strong arms were always needed to drag it into the canoes, and hands and eyes were always needed to count the catch at the end of day. It felt a waste, to Eshi, to spend his life in such a way. Everyone else had a gift. Even the Fish Callers knew that they served the purpose they were meant to serve. They had a known place, meeting one of the island’s needs. Eshi alone had been cast adrift.
In his nineteenth year he stopped going out in the canoes with the Fish Callers. He spent most days sitting on the shore, at times watching the waves on the sea, at times watching the wind swirl in the trees and grasses of the island. He watched Solla and Gan and the other hunters bring back their boars and birds to spit and roast over beach fires. He watched the Flint Knappers use their talent to find the weaknesses in stone, the seams to break open to make axe heads and knives. He watched the Fish Callers go out in their boats, and the Deep Divers leap from the cliffs, their backs arched and limbs outstretched. A new feeling, unfamiliar, of deep loneliness—deeper than the deep channel of the bay—settled in his heart. Sometimes, when no one was looking, he would bury his head in his arms and let himself weep softly.
“Why don’t you visit Rabba?” his mother said, when he returned from the beach bleary eyed. She smiled, but wore concern plain on her face. “Perhaps she knows what gift your zephyr brings.”
Eshi doubted it. He had heard every story Rabba knew, and none mentioned a zephyr like his. After two more lonely days on the shore, the last knot of his pride broke and he went to see her. Any chance to discover his talent was worth taking, he decided, and he resolved not to waste any more time feeling sorry for himself.
Rabba’s hut was on the southern side of the island, separate from the village, for when the Speaker was not telling stories she preferred to be alone. Few people visited Rabba. She was not a healer, so not needed in emergencies. Some groups of children would go to her and beg for stories, and she would oblige them with a quick tale. The adults of the village had work to do, and the patience to wait for Rabba to come down to the beach in the summer. Eshi expected her to be surprised to see him.
“What kept you away?” Rabba asked upon opening her door. She waved Eshi inside, bade him sit on her rug of woven reeds, and poured him a cup of water.
“Do you know something about my zephyr?” he asked.
She stared over his shoulder at the swirling bowl of air and shook her head. Eshi’s heart sank, though his expectations had been low. He grit his teeth against despair and tried to think of the next place to go, the next person to ask. Perhaps someone on Coralrock knew what gift his zephyr gave.
“I don’t know that zephyr,” Rabba said. “But I was the first Speaker on this island for three generations. After my coming of age, no one knew what my gift was either. It took me years to discover what I could do.”
“Then you can help me!” Hope surged in Eshi, until Rabba shrugged.
“I can tell you how I learned my gift,” Rabba said. “Perhaps you can learn yours the same way.”
She told him how she had spent the first years of her adulthood much as he had, sitting alone, watching others at their work, envious of their talents, repeating self-recriminations and feeling worthless.
“I was miserable,” Rabba said. “Until I gave up.”
“Gave up?” Eshi said, incredulous.
Rabba nodded. “I had to. I was caught up in the belief that my gift would define me, that I could only be useful by using my zephyr. I gave up on discovering my gift. Instead, I chose to learn about myself, my own talents and preferences and skills. I found that I enjoyed telling tales—true ones, false ones, ones with false events but deeper truths. I retold stories I heard, and made up new stories of my own. I began to travel, joining canoes as a rower just to visit other islands and hear new stories.”
“Someone on one of those islands knew your zephyr,” Eshi said.
“No.” Rabba shook her head. “I was not so lucky. I never met another who shared my gift. I had to teach myself, and I was an often frustrated student. But the more I told stories, the more I learned how to use my voice, until I could speak more clearly, rhythmically, and fully than anyone with an ordinary voice. My zephyr’s talent grew with my skill, and I found its use on my own. What do you love to do, more than anything else?”
Eshi sighed. Since childhood he had been skilled at many things. Running, swimming, throwing, shooting…no one of them stood out to him. Even Rabba’s stories, which he had memorized though so few bothered to, were not more delightful to him than anything else he had learned. He had been happiest, he realized, when first encountering something new, when stretching new muscles and developing new abilities.
“Learning, I suppose,” he said. “I love to learn more than anything else.”
Rabba smiled. “Then go and learn.”
Eshi the Student
They began to call him Eshi the Student. Rabba and his mother said it with fondness, and they were the only two on the island willing to listen to his excited descriptions of what he had learned. Others used the name with cruelty, mocking him for unproductivity. What was the point—they would say—of spending so much time and effort learning skills he would never use? Eshi was not a Fish Caller, yet he spent his afternoons watching the Fish Callers at their work. Sometimes he would stand in the shallows and mimic their movements—the luring gestures of their hands, the clicks of their tongues. Without a Fish Calling zephyr, no fish came to Eshi’s call, but before long one could not tell him apart from the true Fish Callers unless one looked to their zephyrs.
When the Fish Callers chased him away he went to the Flint Knappers. They chased him away in turn when the knives and arrowheads he made with only his hands approached the quality of those made with a zephyr’s aid.
“You are no Flint Knapper, son,” his father said.
Eshi held up a knife he had made. His hands were nicked and scarred from the work—none of the men with zephyr’s had such worn hands—but the knife itself was of fine quality. Better, even, than the knives Eshi’s father had made as a young man new to his gift.
“Go find your talent, Eshi,” his father said, and turned away from him.
His father’s words were disheartening. Eshi had tried to explain what Rabba had told him. His father did not listen. But Eshi soon lost his anger and self-loathing in his next object of study. At first the pearl divers welcomed him, watching him leap from the cliffs on the northern shore into the bay and laughing as he surfaced gasping and empty handed. Tora showed him how to arch his back and kick as he entered the water to drive himself to the floor of the bay, and after a month with them he found a pearl as big and white as the orb of an eye.
They grew less and less welcoming as Eshi began to dive deeper and deeper. Some of the younger Deep Divers watched him jealously. They could breathe with their zephyrs, but he could hold his breath long enough to fetch any oyster but those in the deep channel. Tora had stopped teaching him. She often stood off to the side, her arms crossed and face inexpressive, watching him dive.
“Eshi,” she said, one day at the end of autumn, just before the air grew too cold and the sea too wild for diving. “Do you want to try diving for the deep channel? Not many can reach it. Wouldn’t it be something if you could, even without a diving talent? You would be the first, I’d wager.”
A swell of pride filled Eshi. It would be something, wouldn’t it? Maybe his talent was for diving after all. He had not noticed any aid from his zephyr—certainly it did not fill his lungs as Tora’s filled hers—but perhaps, in some subtle way, it was helping him. At any rate, no one could deny his usefulness to the island if he could dive as well as the best Deep Divers.
“Follow me,” Tora said. “Catch my heel with your hand once we are in the water.”
Tora dove, and Eshi followed. He held his breath against the cold water. His hand found Tora’s heel and he followed her into the deep channel. With his eyes shut tight against he did not see the darkness there, but he felt the weight of the water above on his back and shoulders. Deeper and deeper Tora led him, till Eshi’s lungs burned for fresh breath. Deeper and deeper, into the heavy dark.
Fear gripped Eshi. He released Tora’s heel, spun about, and kicked toward the surface. A hand caught him by the ankle and pulled him down. Fear gave way to panic as Eshi kicked at the hand, desperate to break free and return to the air. He opened his eyes, squinting against the salt, and peered into the darkness behind him, but saw only a vague silhouette. Finally, when his lungs burned hot as summer bonfires and his heart beat fast against his ribs, the hand released him. He reached the shore sputtering and swallowing air in gulps. For some time he lay there on the sand, letting the surf wash over his legs, breathing deeply between fits of coughing. He tried to stand, but his limbs only spasmed.
“Maybe that will teach you,” Tora said, standing over him. “You are not a Deep Diver, Eshi. You are not a Fish Caller, and you are not a Flint Knapper. Go away, and don’t come back.”
Someone carried him home. He never found out who, for his mother refused to tell him. She only said that he passed out on the beach. When he did not leave his bed after two days and two nights, Kana—who had returned only a week before from her long apprenticeship with Madam Saro on Coralrock—came to him.
“Are you in pain?” she asked. Her voice was sweet and reassuring. If Eshi had been in pain it would have chased his suffering away, he was sure.
“Eshi,” Kana said, her eyes large with worry, “what’s wrong?”
“How am I supposed to find my gift, Kana?” Eshi said. “As soon as I begin to learn they send me away.”
Kana laid a cool hand on Eshi’s forehead.
“I won’t send you away,” she said.
Eshi did not rise that day, though he did eat some soup to ease his mother’s worry. The next morning Kana came again.
“Old Ulli fell and broke his wrist,” she said. “You can come and watch me set it, if you like.”
Eshi was tempted to stay in bed. He was tempted, in truth, to give up entirely. But he had never seen someone set a broken wrist before. As Kana left he leapt from the bed and sprinted after her.
“You promised not to send me away,” he reminded her as they came to Old Ulli’s hut.
“I know,” said Kana. And she never did. Eshi built a hut for them on the shore, not far from Rabba’s. They began living together that spring.
By the end of their third year together, Eshi had learned how to gather herbs, mix poultices, set bones, and suture wounds. There was little more for him to learn from Kana, for the most potent feats of healing relied on the Soothing Voice. His mother told him often how proud Grandmother Sul would have been to see him learning a healer’s skills, but he knew that his grandmother had died ashamed of him and his useless zephyr.
He was not useless anymore. While Kana spent her time with those who could only be helped by the Soothing Voice, Eshi tended the less gravely ill and injured. Few who could be helped died of illness or injury on Eastwind Island in those years, and word began to spread to other islands that Kana of Eastwind was as skilled a healer as any, even as skilled as Madam Saro of Coralrock.
When Eshi was not helping Kana, he spent his time caring for the island’s children, for though he and Kana had tried they had been barren in their decade together. Fish Callers and Deep Divers and Flint Knappers could not do their work with children underfoot, however. Grandmothers who had earned the right to easy living after decades of hard work would gather in the center of the village and gossip while they watched the children. Eshi did not visit them every day, but when he did he told short, simple versions of the stories he had learned from Rabba, and he led the children in the games that would teach them their skills and hint at their gifts. The children loved him. He was more entertaining than the most energetic of grandmothers.
“Kana,” he said one evening while he lay in bed with her; she smelled like sweat and sweet herbs. “I am worried about one of the girls.”
“Oh?” she said, tracing her finger along the line of his jaw.
“Orra. You know her. She had a difficult birth, and you helped her mother. That was five years ago now, so you may not remember.
“What about her?”
“She has grown quick, and strong, and clever,” he said. “Not the best at everything, but good at many things. Too much like me.”
“I am sure she’ll be fine.”
Watching Orra with the other children bred a gnawing worry in Eshi. Fears and frustrations he thought he had buried years ago when he and Kana began their relationship and he began to accept himself were rekindled. He had given up too soon, he decided. Orra was like him. If her talent was the same as his, she too would have no one to teach her. If only he had not given up. She would suffer as he had, because of his weakness.
“Orra,” he asked her one morning, while the other children played a chasing game. She watched them, visibly annoyed that he had drawn her away.
“What do you like to do, Orra?” he said, kneeling and meeting her eyes. “Chasing? Swimming?”
She shrugged. “I like everything, I guess.”
“I know, Orra, and you are such a talented young girl,” he said. It took effort to keep his eyes from wandering to her formless zephyr. He had to help her. Now, before it was too late, before people rejected her for her uselessness, as they had rejected him. It had been too late for him to learn his gift. But if she began now, while she was still a child, while it was still acceptable for her to learn and explore—no one expected a child to be useful—she could come of age with some direction.
Maybe her zephyr would be an empty bowl, like his. Maybe, through her, he could discover his gift.
It was too much to hope. And cruel, to use her in that way. This was for her sake, Eshi told himself. Her sake. Not his.
“What is you love most of all? If you could only do one thing, what would it be?”
She frowned and tapped her chin. Her eyes lit up for a moment, and Eshi felt a pulse of happiness. Then she looked away, ashamed, and shrugged again.
“Orra, what were you thinking of just now?” he said gently, taking her hand.
“It’s silly,” she murmured. “And mother says I’ll catch a cold.”
“Nothing is silly if it brings you joy,” Eshi said. “People tried to tell me that I was silly to learn Speaker Rabba’s stories. But no one else can tell them, no one but me and her. Silliness can make us special, Orra.”
She smiled nervously, then waved him closer. He leaned toward her and she cupped her hands around his ear.
“I like dancing in the rain,” she whispered. “Especially when it’s windy, and there’s lightning on the bay.”
Eshi smiled at her, and her anxiety disappeared.
“That’s wonderful, Orra,” he said. “What do you love about the rain?”
“It just makes me feel alive,” she said, shrugging, gaining confidence. “The feel of the raindrops on my skin, the sound of the wind and thunder, the bright flashes over the deep water.”
“I think I know what you mean,” said Eshi. He touched her on the nose and she giggled, pulling away from him and smiling. “Orra, no matter what anyone tells you, don’t forget how much you love dancing in the rain. Mind your mother, of course. But don’t forget. Do you promise?”
She touched his nose and grinned.
Eshi tried it, once. He stood out in the middle of a rainstorm and tried to dance. It was enjoyable, for a moment, till his clothes soaked through and he began to shiver from the cold. He dashed back into his hut and huddled by the fire while Kana fretted over him.
“What were you doing?”
“Nothing,” said Eshi, staring into the fire. She brought him an herbal tea to keep off the chill, then sat beside him, draping a blanket about their shoulders.
“Are you alright, Eshi?”
“I’m fine,” he said. In truth, he felt empty. If Orra’s gift had something to do with her love of rainstorms, Eshi did not share it. That ought to have made him happy, he scolded himself. Perhaps Orra would be a Seawind’s Whip. So long as her zephyr was different from his, she might avoid his life of lonely uselessness.
It would have been less lonely, he reflected, if someone had shared his zephyr.
“You don’t seem fine,” Kana said softly.
He smiled at her, but he saw in her eyes that she knew his heart. She kissed him.
“Do you want to talk?”
The flames danced in their pit, as Orra danced in the rain.
The Man from the Sea
After the winter, when the first stormy month of spring had passed, the people of Eastwind Island gathered driftwood along the shore. It was something Eshi could do as well as anyone, for there was no zephyr for gathering driftwood. He walked with Orra, laughing as the girl tried to carry a log as big as she was. For every ten steps she managed, the log overbalanced her and she toppled to the sand. She would come of age, soon, and speculation swarmed around her as it once had around Eshi. He did not participate, and he always told Orra not to forget who she was, not to forget how she loved the rain, and not to worry about her gift. He knew how harmful that sort of attention could be.
Orra paused and threw her driftwood log to the sands. Just beyond her, in the surf, lay a man clinging to a broken spar.
“Stay there, Orra,” Eshi said.
“What is it, Eshi?”
“Just stay there.”
The man was unconscious. Hair as light as dry bamboo hung in matted locks around his pale, beardless face. Deep bruises darkened his arms and torso, burned bright red by the sun. One of his feet had tangled in a strip of crimson sailcloth. The ankle was broken. Eshi felt for the man’s breath, and was relieved to find him still alive.
“Orra!” he called. “Run and get Kana!”
Eshi set the man’s leg on the beach with a splint made from the spar that had saved him and the crimson sailcloth that had caught his ankle. Kana whispered with her Soothing Voice, which was enough to break the man’s fever. They carried him to their hut, covered him with blankets, and fed the fire despite the warm spring air.
“Unless he is very lucky, he’ll never walk again,” Kana said. She felt along his ribs. “Two are broken. His lung may be punctured.”
“Who is he?” Eshi wondered aloud. “Have you ever seen anyone so pale? And what happened to his beard?”
“Some men on Coralrock scrape their bears away with seashells,” Kana said.
“But their skin is like ours,” Eshi said. “And he has no zephyr. This man is not from Coralrock.”
Word spread quickly of the strange man Eshi and Kana had found on the beach. Rumors said his hair was red as fire—others said he had teeth like a boar—still others claimed his skin glittered like glassfish scales. People would go out of their way to pass by Eshi and Kana’s hut, hoping for a glimpse of the stranger.
“He’s sick in bed!” Eshi cried, time and again, shooing prying eyes away. “Leave him alone!”
Rabba, who sighed continuously at the constant traffic across what had once been her private stretch of beach, came to see the man at Eshi’s request. Perhaps one of the old stories told of people with light hair and pale skin that burned from the touch of the sun.
“Other than silly children’s tales of sea demons and fire spirits, no,” Rabba said, watching the man take short, shallow breaths. “I’ve never heard of anyone like him.”
He woke in the night of the third day. His scream roused Eshi and sent his blood racing with panic. The man thrashed against his blankets. The stink of sweat and fear poured from him. Eshi ran to his side and held his shoulder.
“Calm, calm,” Eshi said, but the man’s eyes rolled sightlessly and he uttered only ragged gibberish. Kana knelt beside him, but her Soothing Voice did nothing to calm him.
“Does he not know how to speak?” she said, astonished. Even the strangers from the islands to the far west, who came every few years by sailboat and Seawind’s Whip, knew how to speak.
The man’s eyes settled on Eshi. After a few shuddering breaths he grabbed Eshi by the front of his shirt and began muttering—frantic syllables, unintelligible, but Eshi saw in the man’s bright eyes a need to be understood.
“Eshi,” Kana said, afraid.
“He’s speaking,” Eshi said. “Of course he is. He’s a man, isn’t he? But he’s far from home, and we can’t understand, and he’s terrified.”
Eshi took the man’s hand in his and made comforting noises of the sort he made to soothe an upset child. The man frowned, and growled a string of angry syllables, but Eshi only shook his head. Finally the man gave up. He flopped back into the bed and stared at the ceiling, but he let Eshi continue holding his hand. Eshi hummed a song his mother had sung for him long ago until the man fell into fitful sleep.
They began to teach each other with gestures and single words. Eshi held up a starfruit and named it. The man from the sea replied with a word of his own. Eshi pointed to his arm, his head, his eye, his foot, and said the words. The man from the sea said his own words in turn. By pointing through the smoke vent in the roof of the hut they taught each other the words for day and night, for the sun and the moon and the stars. Eshi pantomimed jumping, swimming, throwing, and running. The man from the sea frowned and pointed to his broken ankle.
“Foot,” he said, in Eshi’s speech. “I walk?”
Eshi tried to think of a way to pantomime “I don’t know” without shrugging his shoulders, which seemed too flippant a way to tell a man he might never walk again.
“Not this day,” Eshi said.
A week after they brought the man from the sea to their hut his bruises had begun to heal, but his breath still rattled in his chest. Kana brewed an herbal medicine that would send him into a deep sleep so that he would not suffer the agony of her prodding at his ribs. At first he did not want to drink it—he clamped his teeth shut and glared at Kana. Eshi explained—as best he could; he spoke the man from the sea’s speech like an infant—that Kana wanted to help. The man from the sea looked doubtful.
“Foot?” he asked.
“Foot, yes,” said Eshi. He touched his side. “And ribs. Broken.”
Soon the man slept soundly as a newborn. Even sleeping under the weight of medicine his breaths were thick and pained. Kana probed along his ribs with her fingers. Her face darkened.
“One of the ribs is healing, but the other is still broken, and his lung is slowly filling with blood,” she said. “He will die, Eshi.”
Though Eshi had only known the man for a week, Kana’s words were a twisting knife in his heart. The man had raised a thousand questions. Where had he come from, where people’s skin was so pale and their hair so light? Where they spoke a language all their own? Where was the man’s zephyr? Eshi’s curiosity burned for answers. He longed to learn how to speak to the man from the sea, to talk with him as grown men talk, to satisfy his curiosity. Not since Eshi had abandoned his search for the use of his zephyr had he longed to learn so strongly.
“Eshi,” Kana said. “I can’t save him.”
She looked down at the man. She wore horror and sadness on her face. Kana was used to death—she eased the passing of the old, as she had done for Eshi’s mother a summer ago—but few had died of trauma or sickness on Eastwind Island since she had become healer.
Eshi held her, feeling foolish. He had been upset that the man would die, but only because he would lose an object of curiosity. He had mourned the loss of learning, while Kana felt the sudden hollow of a young life ending. She cried quietly, watching the man from the sea breathe his ragged breaths, and Eshi kissed her tears.
The next day Eshi carried the man from the sea down to the beach. They sat beneath a warm spring sun and spoke of scuttling crabs and clinging lizards and all manner of living things. They taught each other the words for the waves, and the seashells, and the white gulls over the bay.
As the sun set, through analogy and great effort, Eshi told the man that he was going to die.
By the high heat of summer, when the spring rains had ended but before the monsoons began to sweep in from the east, Eshi and the man from the sea could speak as children speak. Their words were simple, but sufficient—with the aid of occasional gestures—to express any but the most complex of ideas.
The man from the sea would die soon. His breathing had become a loose rattle like the wind through dry trees. Every morning he woke coughing. Every day Eshi carried him out to the beach, so that he could spend his last days beneath the sky, feeling the wind.
“When my people die,” he said one day, watching the sunset, “our souls go down to the deep sea.”
“Is that where your zephyrs live?” Eshi asked.
The man gave him that strange look he always gave when Eshi spoke of zephyrs, then glanced at Eshi’s shoulder. The man usually avoided looking at Eshi’s zephyr for long. This time, his stare lingered.
“We do not have zephyrs,” the man said. He looked out at the waves—dark, rolling silhouettes in the moonlight. “We have bigger gods. Deeper gods.”
“Gods?” It was a new word for Eshi.
The man from the sea waved a hand toward Eshi’s zephyr. He opened his mouth to speak, but a fit of coughing seized him. Eshi held his shoulders and pressed a cloth to his lips for the blood till the fit passed.
“Like your zephyrs,” said the man from the sea, when he found his voice again. “But ours do not sit on our shoulders. They keep huts in the deepest places of the sea. They only give their gifts in…trade.” He took a jagged, shuddering breath. “Do you fear your zephyrs, my friend?”
“No,” Eshi said. “Their gifts help us to live.” He thought of his own zephyr, empty of any talent. “At worst, they give us nothing,” he said quietly.
“Is yours such a one?” said the man.
Eshi felt the sting of shame, but soon curiosity overcame it.
“Why do you ask?”
“I have felt the power of your woman’s zephyr when she whispers healing words to me,” said the man from the sea. “I have seen the men and women in their fishing canoes fill their nets. I have heard the old woman’s voice carry for a thousand paces. But I have spent my days with you.”
Eshi craned his neck to look at his zephyr, wind spun into an empty bowl, always spinning, doing nothing. The man from the sea followed Eshi’s gaze with an unspoken question in his eyes.
“No one has had a zephyr like mine before,” Eshi said. “No one knew how to use it, and I never found out on my own.”
“You are a young man, my friend,” said the man from the sea. He smirked. “Never is a word for the dying.”
Eshi scoffed. His beard had grown to cover his neck. Gray streaked the hair at his temples, and Kana often teased him about the deep furrow in his brow.
“I do not feel young.”
They sat in silence, listening to the waves and watching the first stars come out of hiding. They taught each other the constellations. Eshi pointed out the Charging Boar and the Spearfisher—the Ox and the Soldier, as the man from the sea called them. Many were the same, but some were different, as Eshi had found was the way of most things that he and the man from the sea discussed.
After a time, the man from the sea turned away from the sky to stare at Eshi’s zephyr. His gaze lingered longer than it ever had. Eshi began to feel an itch, like salt on his skin after swimming in the bay. He craned his neck to follow the man from the sea’s gaze. His zephyr was as it had always been, a useless bowl of wind.
“My people have a saying,” said the man from the sea. “An empty cup wants water, and the full cup gives. We say it when we want another drink of wine, or a few extra coins in bribe. But it has an older, deeper meaning, my friend. An empty cup wants water as the young want to learn. The old have lost their curiosity, but can teach the young. You are still in some ways young, I think.”
“What is the use in going on learning and learning?” Eshi said. “You cannot drink from an empty cup.”
“Ha!” said the man from the sea. “What do I know? I am only a dying sailor.”
There were other things Eshi wanted to say, but his voice caught in his throat. The man from the sea watched him. Sadness welled in Eshi, to think that the man from the sea would die soon. He had not had many friends—not since his childhood, anyway—and though they had known each other for only a few months, he felt as much for the man from the sea as he felt for Rabba, or for Kana, or for Orra.
“When I die,” the man from the sea said, breaking Eshi’s morose introspection, “you must give me to the sea. The gods of my people demand their gifts, and do not like to have them taken away. You would not want their eyes on you, my friend.”
“You have time yet,” said Eshi. “Let’s talk of better things.”
And they did, until the sun burned away the night and the man from the sea fell asleep on cool morning sand.
He did not wake for three days.
Sweat trickled down his bloodless cheeks, passing eyes that were suddenly, violently open.
“Friend,” the man from the sea cried. “Friend!”
Eshi, who had not left his side for fear that sleep would fade into death, took his hand. At that touch the man from the sea gave one final, rattling breath. A deep sigh like the recess of a wave, and life followed in the undertow.
They left his body in the shallows at low tide.
The coming of Orra’s zephyr made real every creeping worry that had hung about Eshi’s thoughts of her. It hovered there above her shoulder, while the shallows swallowed her ankles, and took the form of a whirling cyclone. Eshi’s heart fell at the sight of it, for he had never seen its like before. The other adults on the beach, between their congratulations for the other children in the shallows, cast sympathetic eyes Orra’s way, punctuated by quick and accusatory glances at Eshi.
When the children and their parents had gone—Orra’s had quieted her away, guiding her by the hand while she craned her neck to watch the dance of her zephyr with wondrous eyes—Eshi stood alone on the beach, the tide lapping at his toes. The waves rolled in sluggish curls, as though a weight held down their heads and tightened their barrels. Eshi wanted to talk with the man from the sea. Rabba had died not long after, and left Eshi without council.
What was to be done about Orra?
The girl was not his daughter, as Kana had grown fond of saying, and Eshi had suffered enough. In a long life of curiosity he had never solved the puzzle of his own zephyr. Why think he could puzzle out the girl’s?
Dark clouds prodded Eshi away from the beach. He lay awake, listening to Kana breathing beside him, remembering the rattle in the lungs of the man from the sea during those final days. Swollen pain filled his kneels and knuckles, worsened by the coming storm. His hair was rough and brittle to touch, his beard thick and full. Would he die, never knowing his zephyr? Would Orra?
Lightning stabbed through the dark gap of the smoke vent. Thunder battered at the door. And then again, battering at the door, but following no lightning.
“Eshi!” Orra stood in the rain, her tunic soaked and clinging. Lightning flashed and reflected in her eyes; thunder rolled to the beat of her breathing. She danced for him, following the mad spin of her zephyr. She danced as he had told her to, when she was only five years old. When her arms arched and her shoulders opened the wind spiraled through the rain. When her feet pounded the earth the clouds churned above. When she snapped her fingers, lightning flared.
He ran out to her, laughing and dancing despite his swollen knees and thinning hair. They huddled together after, shivering beside the fire. Kana—roused from sleep and frowning—clicked her tongue at their foolishness. They only giggled and laughed and shared a glance. Eshi thought his heart would burst, but he worried not a whit for death.
Orra Stormdancer was no Seawind’s Whip. Her talent lacked the finesse to drive wind behind a sail, but at her gesture typhoons broke long before they reached the bay, at the pounding of her feet the rains came to sate dry ground, and lightning released itself far out to sea where there was no danger of fire. Orra Stormdancer became a legend in the archipelago. Pilgrims came from Coralrock and ever further west to crowd the beach and watch her summer dances. Always a place was reserved for Eshi—who she called teacher—and his pride in her swelled every time she danced.
He was old, now. There was no argument to be made. Kana’s sagging body, and her hair like dry reeds, were constant reminders. He could not throw or run or swim as once he had. In Rabba’s absence he had assumed the role of storyteller, though he thought himself a poor replacement. Children loved him, and parents enjoyed their time alone while he kept their children captive. When he was not entertaining the island’s young he sat on the shore where once he had talked with the man from the sea and watched the gulls wheel and the waves curl and the Deep Divers leap into the bay.
About the Author
J.T. Greathouse’s short fiction has appeared, often as Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Deep Magic, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and elsewhere. Upon graduating with a degree in history and philosophy from Whitworth University in Spokane, he taught ESL in Taiwan before returning to Spokane, WA. He is the author of The Hand of the Sun King, forthcoming from Gollancz in August, 2021.
About the Narrator
Carlo Matos has published ten books, including The Quitters (Tortoise Books) and It’s Best Not to Interrupt Her Experiments (Negative Capability Press). His work has appeared in such journals as Pank, Diagram, and Rhino, among many others. Carlo is a Disquiet International Literary Program and CantoMundo fellow and a winner of the Heartland Poetry Prize. He lives in Chicago with his partner and ten-year-old son. He is the editor of City Bank and a former MMA fighter and kickboxer.