The Way It Works
Through the thumb-nail sliver of the half moon, Isla could see all the way down the beach. A few souls had braved the cold and the wind to huddle near small fires. They called to each other in song, their voices echoing ancient lyrics about hunting great beasts.
The sand under her bare feet was cold. Parts of the soles were tender from stepping on hard bits of stone or rough glass. She felt very small and very alone.
Her grandfather was coming. The sound of the water and the People singing would suit his sense of the dramatic. No warm tent or twice-folded blanket. No pipe or smoke or bubbling stew. Just the cold and the wind and the wait.
She tried to control the shaking of her hands. It was far too cold to be without fire. The wooden bracelets around her wrists made clacking noises as they brushed against each other.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
Her body flowed into the first position her grandfather taught her. Wind Meets Sea.
The beads were almost silent as she went into the second position. Sand Meets Sun.
“Your form is still inelegant. Like a bird trying to swim.”
Her grandfather leaned on his oak cane. It twisted deeply into the wet sand. He’d been watching for a while, the old buzzard. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes creased in pain as he stood. It must have been a very long walk.
“You are late,” Isla said.
“Maybe you are early. You were always too quick, granddaughter.”
He smelled of salt and mint from the leaves he chewed constantly. Isla used to love the scent. When she sat near his knee and listened to his stories, she felt a sense of home wherever they were.
There was a pale pink shell near her foot, as large as her hand. She picked it up, touching the swirls of pink and white inside. The pale colors looked strange against the darker skin of her palm. She put the curve of the shell against her ear. Her mother used to say you could hear all the way to the center of the world in such a thing.
“You are distracted, I see. An old man is not as important as a shell.”
“And you are trying to make me feel guilty. You, grandfather, should know that nothing is as important as a shell. Do you not use them for your magic? Your so-called visions?”
Her grandfather sighed, leaning over his cane.
“They are true, whether you believe or not. I bled the goat. I saw the signs. We must all live in balance to survive.”
Isla closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see her grandfather’s face as he told her. She was the cause of the imbalance. She, who hunted with the men and refused to marry and birth children. She, who outran every man in the village and taunted them with her success.
Was she not beautiful? Strong? Fierce? Was she not worthy?
Someone had seen her kissing Tulle in the forest. Tulle, who was all that a woman was supposed to be. Quiet and kind and shy. Her lips had tasted of sweet dark things.
“You’ve come to tell me of my punishment then? Shall you sacrifice me as you did the goat?”
Isla wasn’t sure she could defeat all of the warriors in the village if they came for her. She could take most. Some wouldn’t dream of fighting a woman. Some were slow and stupid. Some were fierce and terrible warriors. She’d seen them come home with arms and faces covered with blood, a great animal slung over their shoulders.
“You’re to go to the island,” her grandfather said. He was leaning even further on his cane now, his hands near white from the grip he had on it.
The island wasn’t better than being executed. It was the same thing, as far as Isla knew. The island was a tale parents told to unruly children. If you were bad, you were sent to the island. The ritual went like this; First, you had to drink the cleansing potion. Then you slept for days and days. When you awoke you were alone on an island far enough from the People that you could never swim home.
There were predatory animals living there. If thirst did not kill you, it was said the animals consumed your body, leaving your spirit trapped on the island.
“Can you not kill me instead? It would be kinder.”
Her grandfather sat, pushing his legs out in front of him. His breathe came out in harsh puffs.
“Most wanted that for you, granddaughter. Most wanted to burn you as a witch. Tulle’s father claimed you tried to possess his daughter, as a wicked spirit might. Tulle agreed with this.”
Isla squeezed her eyes shut.
Warm lips pressed against hers. Shy doe eyes behind thick eyelashes. You should have been a butterfly, girl. You twist me so.
“I’ll go if I must.”
Isla wouldn’t stay on that island. She would make a raft from the bones of the animals there and float away somewhere good. Somewhere better.
Her grandfather sighed. He took out his pipe and blew a few puffs. Isla bent over, taking the smoke and cupping it over her head.
“Is it tonight then?” she asked.
Her grandfather nodded.
The singers on the beach reached a crescendo. Their voices rose and rose, crashing like the waves against the beach.
“They’re singing me away. As you would a monster,” Isla said.
She reached down, pulling her grandfather up.
“In the stories they tell of me I want you to make me as strong as ten men with claws and fangs dripping blood.”
Her grandfather smiled, rising up to his cane.
“I can do that granddaughter. I can do that.”
Isla awoke to pain. There was a sharp thing digging into her cheek and another poking her on her left side. She was cold and sore and she had what might or might not have been sand mites biting the soft flesh of her legs.
She opened her eyes then closed them. Bright, too bright.
She remembered talking to her grandfather and the dark cold night. Nothing else.
She opened one eye. Then the other. The sand was gray and dull. She sat up, dusting the insects off her legs and arms. Her hands stung. She wiped them on her legs but the sensation would not go away.
On her palms were two tattoos. Each was a bird with one broken wing. Symbols of her new status. Any of the People would know her on sight. Any of the People would kill her as was their right. She was exhale. She was lost.
She didn't remember getting the tattoos. She wasn’t sure she wanted to. The ritual was apparently secret even from the person it was performed on.
They'd left her with her pants and shirt and shoes. She felt for her belt. They’d left her the knife she'd carved from her mother's thigh bone before sending her out to see. It was a very good knife. Why had they left her with it? Why had they left her with anything?
Isla got onto her hands and knees, rising slowly. So, this was the island. The legendary home of those who consorted with demons and brought shame onto the People. The graveyard of monsters. The sea behind her looked the same as any other sea. The waves of blue green water were roughly battering the shore.
In front of her were waves of green. Trees with sharp looking scales on their trunks and slick green leaves that reached almost to the ground. Her body quickly reminded her that she had to find water. The sea wasn’t doing her any good on that front, so she walked deeper into the trees.
At first Isla was thankful to get out of the hot sun. The trees were so dense, they blotted out much of the glare. The island was quiet. There wasn’t a bird or small animal in sight. Nothing moved. Nothing made a sound. There were no signs that anything lived.
Isla knew there had to be water somewhere. There were too many trees and small plants flourishing. She saw a flash of gray and thought it might be a cave. Caves sometimes had underground streams of water. She went forward to investigate.
She stumbled onto the entrance which was curved and gnarled, with broken uneven pieces of stone surrounding it. There was darkness inside, accompanied by a faint light forward. It was enough to see by, but not by much.
Isla felt her skin itch. Something watched her inside that darkness. As she walked onward, the light grew brighter and brighter, illuminating the sides of the caves. There were eyes. Thousands of yellow eyes. Tigers, orange and bright, watched her from the cave walls.
A lot of time had been spent on the tigers. Their eerie eyes followed her as she walked faster. She was afraid and she didn’t like that feeling.
She almost ran as she approached the end of the cave. Those eyes, they still watched her.
Isla could hear the water now and she was away from that horrible cave. She followed the babble, finding a small stream. She knelt, bringing her cupped palms to her mouth. She poured the cool water over her face and arms, washing the sweat away.
She heard a snarl in the distance and jerked back, spilling the water onto her shirt. The tigers, she thought the tigers had found her. Her hand went to the knife at her waist. A knife was not the best weapon for fighting a fierce cat. She should have made a spear or a bow.
She'd heard stories about tribes who worshiped tigers. The People were so afraid of the great beasts that they sacrificed their old or disabled to them. She’d even seen one once. It was a very old tiger. They’d taken his teeth out and kept him in a cage. Still, they were so afraid of the animal that only one man was allowed to open the cage and feed him.
Isla climbed up the nearest tree, wanting to be off the ground. She pulled off a strange purple colored fruit from one of the branches as she went up. It was large and round and inside were flower shaped seeds. She tore into the pulp, eating the warm green mush. The taste wasn’t terrible. She’d put worst things in her mouth before.
She fell asleep, with her back against the tree.
Drink. Drink. Drink. Drink. The taste of blue. The arms holding her down as the needles pierced her skin. Her grandfather's wrinkled eyes.
“It's your destiny.”
Big doe eyes looking up at her.
Raining. Always raining.
Kiss me. Kiss me.
Isla woke with a start. She rubbed her hands against her thighs. The island was so quiet. She could have sworn she heard the cat again. She jumped down from the tree, pausing to drink from the stream again. She’d have to make a container of some sort, to carry the water around.
She went farther into the forest, searching for game. There had to be something for the tiger to eat. What the tiger hunted, Isla could also hunt.
She came upon a corpse. It was a large hog, maybe ten feet long and almost as wide. It was covered in a thick layer of ants. They'd eaten through its first few layers of skin and were down to the bones of its legs. She gasped when it blinked. The hog wasn't a corpse. The ants kept eating, the sound was like rainwater.
Isla turned and left, unwilling to watch anymore. There were pigs here, she knew that at least.
The next few days went much the same way. Isla hunted, but came up with no game. She ate what fruits she could find and explored the forest until she grew too tired or hot. She sharpened a long stick into a spear and used it for fishing. Isla fished and ate. Fished and ate. She felt like the fish were talking to her, telling her secrets with their wide mouths. She dreamt she started growing scales and a tail and swam away from the island.
Her life had been reduced to eating and drinking and not much else. Isla didn’t worry about shelter yet. The trees were fine for now. Until the rains came. Her skin was burnt and painful from the sun. She would have to hunt for larger game in the cool shade or risk dying from the heat.
Isla crept quietly through the green. The island seemed more awake. She could hear the rustle of insects on the ground. She found tracks that looked like they belonged to a small pig. She’d followed them to an open area when she felt a sharp pain in her back.
She heard the snarl of a tiger and reached for her knife. She turned, slashing at the cat’s muzzle. The cat’s claws sliced at her cheek. Blood stung her eyes, she felt her knife part the warm fur of the tiger’s side. She jerked, sliding it deeper.
His eyes, they were the same as the paintings on the cave walls. Yellow and piercing.
The cat roared and she screamed back. She felt the tiger’s blood pouring over her wrist.
He rolled off her, shaking drops of red onto the green beneath him. She held her knife in shaking hands.
He roared at her once more before turning and walking away. Isla felt the torn skin of her face. He’d marked her. But she’d marked him too.
She packed her wounds with mud and spent the rest of the day sleeping in a tree. Her face felt swollen and stung when she moved it. She fished, hoping the tiger wouldn’t venture so far on the beach.
When she went hunting two days later, she brought the spear. It would be more useful when the tiger came. And it would. The tiger was her execution. He would not leave it unfinished.
Isla managed to hunt down and kill a hog. It was smaller than the one she’d seen the ants eat, but not a bad size for her. She butchered it, roasting the meat over a small fire. She kept it blazing even after it grew dark. She was waiting.
Isla knew when the tiger came. She could feel his gaze. His purpose. She took the bones and the insides she'd removed, bringing the meat to the edge of her camp.
"I know you're there, tiger. Neither of us is in any shape to fight. Eat, and be welcome," she said.
The tiger crept forward in the dark. He settled to his meal, watching her. It was so dark she could only see the yellow of his eyes. He was still hurt, she knew that much.
"Where I come from, guests are owed a story. I shall tell you one that my grandfather told me many times. We would sit near a fire much like this and he would shake his rattle as he spoke. The story is about these, I suppose."
Isla held out her palms, showing the tiger the images. As she told the story she moved her hands, as if the birds were flying.
"Once, there were two ravens. Bianca was the oldest raven. She was fierce and suspicious. She liked to watch the People for weakness, swooping in to steal any shiny objects she fancied. The younger raven was called Finn and she was wild and free. She flew as far as she could see, but always came back. When she was near a birthing mother, she would always stop to watch. Once the child was born she gave it a name only she and the child knew.”
"They fought, as sisters do. They fought over what was good and what was right. They fought over petty things and important things. Yet they loved each other. One night Finn attended a very long birth. The mother suffered deep into the night and in the morning, out came a little girl. She was beautiful and stone cold. The mother wailed and Finn watched helplessly. She thought for a minute and then flew to the baby's chest. She laid her head on the child's breast. Finn's body turned to dust. She had given her soul to the child."
"Bianca felt her sister die and was furious. She flew to the village and took the child. For a day she listened to the child cry, searching its eyes for her sister's soul. Finn did not emerge. The child was all that was left. Bianca lay over the child's breast and turned to dust."
"This was the birth of the first twin soul."
Isla added another log to the fire. The tiger yawned before biting into the bones that remained.
"I suppose it was not as exciting for you as it was for me as a young girl. Still, there was beauty in learning of the raven’s sacrifice."
She looked at the birds on her palms.
"You're supposed to kill me, tiger. Maybe that will happen. Maybe it won't. Tonight, we have shared a meal and my fire. Tonight, I will not dream of your eyes."
The tiger went back into the night, leaving no bones behind.
J.M. Templet lives and works in Baton Rouge. She graduated from LSU several years ago and earned the Matt Clark prize in short fiction there. She's been published in Triggerfish, Counterexample Poetics, Marathon Literary Review, Strong Verse, Dig, Crossed Genres, and Fae Fatales. She can be found on the web at: jasminet.net.