“I’m not supposed to talk to you anymore,” Maile said. “Not like this.”
She and Tav sat on a sequestered patch of black sand beach. They were far enough away from town that its lights glittered like some forgotten constellation.
You can’t ignore me, he said without speaking. Who else would put up with you?
She made a face at him. “My mother says it’s the law.”
But it doesn’t make sense.
“Laws don’t make sense.” She fingered the hem of her scarlet tunic. “They make people.”
Tav kept his gaze trained on the horizon, where one ever-changing blueness touched another. So, I’m just supposed to pretend you can’t hear me?
She forced a small laugh. “Are you hurt? How sweet.”
He used his right hand to sign a single word: go.
Maile paused, still too clumsy when it came to thinking in sign. He never teased her for her slowness, but in that moment she wished he would. She edged closer to him.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We’ll still see each other, but it won’t be easy. They don’t want us … acting familiar, my mother called it,” she finished with a roll of her eyes.
On the surface, there wasn’t much of a difference between them. Her skin was a bit darker; his hair was a bit curlier. But her people were masters, and his were slaves.
Not far from where they huddled on a gray linen blanket, two sea turtles ambled towards the tide. Foam washed up closer and closer to the four of them, leaving thin, silvery threads as it drew back towards its source. Maile thought about that morning.
The house had been quiet. Her father wouldn’t be returning until evening. Officially, he was away on business. Unofficially, he was visiting his other family. The children were all illegitimate, all slaves through their mother’s bloodline. They couldn’t inherit or lay claim to anything he owned. Maile thought it was right that he provided for them. Tav’s own father was some rich planter he had never met. He rarely spoke of it, but the man’s absence tore at the edges of him.
That morning Maile had found her mother sitting at a large silkwood desk, sifting through financial accounts.
“There’s no need for conversation,” she had said. “Just orders. And if it’s important, go to Kamda.”
Kamda had raised Maile alongside three of her own children. She looked indistinguishable from her mother, with brown skin and coppery hair braided around her head like a crown. A couple had sold her to the Suranse household soon after she reached puberty.
Maile hadn’t replied, only sighed.
“I know you and Tav have always been close.” Long pauses like this one were rare. They meant that her mother was making an effort. “But you’re older now. There can’t be any confusion. The law will never punish you, my sweet girl. But it will punish him. Believe me.”
And Maile did.
Maile looked at Tav expectantly.
That’s the magic number, he continued. And now we pretend we weren’t raised under the same roof.
“We pretend with them. Not with each other.”
He let out a slow exhale. Maybe it’s time. Maybe we need to find a way to stop this. If every master could hear what we thought, they’d skin us alive.
“No.” The word came out strangled. She swallowed and tried again. “Please. This is different. I like hearing you and …” She stopped. “It’s like how the waves are always there, too. Anywhere you go on the island. If you stopped the sound it would feel wrong. You’re like that. Do you understand?”
Tav didn’t react immediately. Maile felt more words scrambling up her throat, but she waited. After a moment he reached into one of his tunic’s large pockets and pulled out a small, cardboard box. It had been neatly taped shut, though the tape itself was smudged with dirt.
She smiled. She held the box up to her ear and gave it a shake. The sound was hard to pinpoint but reminded her of clinking coins. Her smile grew bigger. She scratched off the layers of tape and removed the lid. Sunlight caught on the miniature scrap heap assembled before her. It was a collection of metal parts—iron, copper, pewter—that Maile could put to good use. Much to her father’s chagrin, she spent much of her free time dismantling machines in a makeshift workshop set up in one of their guest rooms.
“How did you get a hold of all this?” she asked.
A little bit at a time. Started last year, I guess. Saw a bit of clockwork I knew you’d love.
She looped her arm around his and briefly let her head rest on his shoulder. “Thanks, Tav.”
I almost got you something pretty. Flowers. A necklace. One of those art books.
“I’ve never seen anything prettier,” she said.
Sitting back, she reached for her rucksack and rummaged through a pile of papers until she reached the bottom. There, tucked beneath her school supplies, was a thin, rectangular package. She offered it to him with a satisfied grin.
He gently tore open the delicate, green wrapping paper. The tin container contained fifteen colored pencils. Their hues—crimson, cobalt, jade, violet—were so rich he imagined he could transform every grain of black sand overnight. He threw his arms around her.
When they had put away their presents, Maile drew her legs up to her chest and hooked an arm around her knees. “Do you ever think it’ll erupt again someday?” she asked.
Tav’s eyes flicked up and away, toward the smoke-colored mountain. It’s been two hundred years.
Even when his voice was lodged in her head, she couldn’t always read the tone. “I hope it does,” she said.
He peered at her with furrowed brows.
She repeated herself by signing, her thin fingers touching each other and touching air.
Everything would be destroyed.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s what it takes to start a new world.”
He peered at her, as if she were a third moon that had suddenly appeared in the night sky. Then, without breaking eye contact, he unhooked the leather and gold embossed collar he wore. Placed on the ground like that, it seemed smaller, duller. He dug out two fistfuls of coal-black sand and buried the only piece of gold he would ever possess.
She had never seen him without the collar before. His neck was long and paler brown where his skin had been shielded from the sun.
That’s what it takes, he mouthed back.
Maile rinsed Tav’s collar in the sea, and he wiped off the residual salt with the linen sheet folded under his arm. As they walked back toward the town, they passed the small, iridescent pools that only bloomed at low tide. All kinds of brightnesses filled them: brittle starfish radiating and regenerating outward; sea anemones fluttering their many limbs; and barnacles clinging to every surface.
Maile felt her chest tighten with every step.
This was what the world was like. Tiny tide pools, teeming with every type of life, appearing and disappearing overnight.
How did you get a thing to stay?
Tav stopped beside one of the pools and crouched. I’ll stop here for a while. You should get back first.
She nodded. Every so often she would glance over her shoulder and see him by the pool, growing smaller. She kept looking back until his body melted into the sand and sea.
○ ○ ○
Maile knew what it was like to realize she was dreaming in the middle of a dream. On occasion, she had been able to use her newfound awareness to shape the dream. Her mind was a blunt instrument in these situations. She could never do anything with precision, but she could conjure simple desires: massive banquet tables piled high with her favorite foods; a large bed with silk sheets that rubbed against every bit of exposed skin; and safe, quiet corners where no one could find her. Best of all was the ability to fly so high that the whole island became little more than a splinter of wood.
This dream wasn’t like the others. It was as if she had become suddenly conscious of the fact that she was part of someone else’s dream. Her own life, her needs and wants, didn’t exist outside of a stranger’s imagination. If that stranger awoke, she would vanish with the first flicker of an eyelid. That morning, her body felt thinned out, like watered-down paint. She had woken up on the floor. Her wrists and ankles, the hollow at the base of her throat and the small of her back, they all seemed to pulse with a second heartbeat. A second life. But she had no time to think about what might have happened or why. It was already light out, which meant she had somehow overslept. She washed her face at a dusty basin and dressed quickly, all the while expecting someone to rush in and punish her. No one came. She slipped on her collar and hurried to the main house. As she cleared the breakfast dishes and set about sweeping, no one remarked on her lateness.
The sun showed no mercy out in the fields. The canecutters felt its rays on their exposed backs like long fingernails, scraping and scorching. The laborers were mostly men, but a few women worked alongside them. Maile was grateful she didn’t have to. Still, whenever she had a free moment, she carried well water out to them. The overseer, who the slaves called just in comparison to other bosses, didn’t stop her.
The grand farmhouse where Maile worked had been in the Calypse family for at least a century. It was two stories high, with a wide veranda, and six stately columns. There was a cellar that remained cool despite the heat, and there they stored alcohol, smoked meats, and root vegetables. There were one-room log cabins adjacent to the main house, where she and several others lived, as well as more slave quarters scattered around the edge of the plantation. Most of the 800 acres were dedicated to harvesting sugar.
On her way through a covered walkway, Maile saw men in tattered, wide-brimmed straw hat hauling bags of feed for the animals. When she entered the cookhouse, Nerjuli was elbow deep in freshly caught fish. Fresh lemon juice razored through their briny scent. A large vat of boiling plantains set the whole place steaming. The woman nodded her head towards the pantry, her private domain, where Maile could fetch extra sugar for the mistress’s tea.
She poured a small amount into a shallow dish and returned the canister to its proper place. The shelves were stacked full with dried beans, rice, cornmeal, flour, salt, nuts, vinegars, jams, and all manner of hot peppers. Higher up she glimpsed more luxurious items stowed away: rare spices and roasted seeds and cured bird eggs. She swallowed and felt the gold and leather collar heavy against her neck. After a moment, she backed out of the pantry. She shut the door and, when Nerjuli caught her eye, signed her thanks. The cook nodded and returned her full attention to the slippery, scaly creatures that, sensing any weakness in their executioner, would have flung themselves back into the sea.
Maile rushed to the main house, conscious of time. The kitchen was a separate building; humidity would have made cooking in the mansion itself unbearable. She gripped the dish of sugar and ran up to the second floor.
Only Salmir refused to call her by her name. He was their wealthiest neighbor, and the Calypses invited him and his family over regularly. The couple often asked him to check on the house when they traveled. Salmir waved for Maile to move closer. She took two steps forward. He looked down to see what she carried in the dish. Smiling, he licked the same finger, pressed it against the sheening whiteness, and licked it again.
Maile kept her sight focused on a spot over his right shoulder.
“I imagine running back and forth like this, you must be tempted to do the same every now and again,” he said.
She hesitated. Nodding yes meant admitting to theft. Shaking her head to say no meant implying she was more honest than he was. Never mind that the truth was she had no sweet tooth.
She chose instead to lower her gaze and give a shy smile. As she imagined, he read her ambiguous reaction in the way that pleased him most. Lifting her chin with a finger, he asked, “How do you like working here? I’ve been thinking of taking you off their hands.”
Maile blinked several times, keeping her face passive.
He sighed. “I forget that yes and no questions are best for your kind. Perhaps you’ll teach me some of that crude sign language.”
She gave a non-commital nod.
A flutter of impatience. “Well, then,” he said. “Carry on.”
She gave a deep bow before darting away. As she turned a corner, she caught sight of a scarlet streak and turned just quickly enough to avoid a head-on collision. Tav’s startled expression faded, and Maile kept her head lowered, making all the signs of apology that she could with her one free hand. He dismissed her gestures with a strident one of his own. When she realized the corridor was empty except for the two of them, she sized him up. Then she pushed him aside.
Always in my way! She couldn’t keep from smiling. Don’t you know who I work for?
“Of course,” he said, glancing at the ornate double doors down the hall. “Tell her I take full responsibility for the delay.”
Maile scrunched her nose. Tell her yourself.
Neither one of them moved.
“How are you?” he whispered.
Des-ni, ni-lim. Burning but alive. A common saying among masters and slaves alike.
He opened his mouth to ask another question then closed it. They turned their heads to listen. When the sound of footsteps had faded, he signed as a precaution: see you tonight?
She nodded and, without the bow expected of her, hurried away. Maile was very careful around the Calypses, but she wasn’t afraid. Her master was rarely home. Her mistress—Tav’s aunt—was just as unlikely to rise from her chaise lounge as one of its cushions. She was a slim, dark trinket of a woman, constantly plagued by fatigue. She would have been beautiful were her facial expression not so vacant.
Maile was thinking of the tea and whether it would be too cold for the sugar to dissolve. But then she remembered: everyone knew the mistress’s tea was really straight liquor. Deathface gin sprinkled with dried tea leaves for show.
As she spooned and stirred sugar into a dainty blue cup, she thought of Tav and his signing. His gestures were stiff but elegant. She knew he practiced often with Nerjuli’s youngest son; he wanted to talk to her in all the ways he could, he said.
Maile wanted the same. But she hadn’t built up the courage to ask him for what she now dreamt of daily: learning how to write. They would meet just before dusk as they did on every shared birthday. This time she would ask him. If she didn’t start learning now, at sixteen, she never would.
Instead of meeting on the beach in the open as they tended to do, Maile and Tav met in a grotto. The sun was beginning its slow descent. Around them the walls seemed to iridesce. Near the entrance ferns and flowers trickled out of every crevice. Deeper inside the cave, only moss flourished in the dim light. Pale stone walls sheltered them on three sides but couldn’t mute the sea. Sitting across from each other, they felt the waves resound all around them, like a bell or a mouth.
Tav held out a thin, circular package tied with a plum-colored ribbon. “Happy birthday,” he said.
Maile tugged one end of the bow to unmake it and removed the lid. Against the box’s deep purple interior lay rows of chocolate shards. They glittered with decorations—shredded coconut, swirls of pink salt, delicate gold leaf filigree.
When she didn’t reach for one right away, he said, “They’re not sweet. I promise.”
She gave him a wide smile. She lifted a single specimen dusted with fresh lime zest and took a bite. It snapped perfectly between her teeth. The cacao had a bitter, charred taste; an unexpected burst of moonpepper prickled her tongue as the chocolate dissolved. Tav laughed at her, and she knew her face must’ve looked absurd. She didn’t care.
She nudged the box towards him. Have some.
When she had eaten four more pieces, she made herself pause.
It was hard. She rubbed her fingers against a patch of moss. Figuring out what I could give you that you didn’t already have.
He cleared his throat. “You didn’t have to get me anything.”
I know. The pleasure of my company is its own gift.
He conceded this with a grin.
Still. She had a rucksack with her, and from it she pulled out a stack of paper bound tightly along the righthand side with twine. The cover was gray cotton stretched over a thin slice of wood. I made you a book.
Tav’s eyes widened. He took it from her and opened it.
It doesn’t have words or anything. She felt her face starting to burn. But it has pictures. From other books and postcards and old photographs. All kinds of things people have lost. There are diagrams, too. I did those. Of different machines. Some real, some imaginary.
She swallowed. He flipped through the patchwork pages with a focus she had only seen when he was drawing. When he reached the last page, he left the book open and gently placed it to the side.
I know a book’s meant to have words. Even though all this was being said in her head, she felt her throat constrict. So, I was thinking that maybe, if you have time, you might be able to teach me some things. Things to spell. And after, I could fix the book.
“It doesn’t need fixing,” he said. “And I’ll teach you everything I know.”
She drew in a deep breath. Thank you.
He took her hand and squeezed. Then he slid the book back into his lap. “The images don’t seem random. There’s a story here, isn’t there?”
Surprised, she nodded.
“Will you tell it to me?”
She moved to sit beside him and placed half of the book onto her own lap. It begins with a woman who can hear stones singing and another woman made of pearl.
Partway through, Tav had leaned back against a wall to listen without looking. He balled up his own rucksack to use as a pillow.
When Maile reached the end of the story, she tilted her head. Are you having a happy birthday?
“The happiest,” he murmured.
She reached for the plum-colored box and, after careful consideration, chose a ginger-laced slice that made her lips pucker. I had the strangest dream on my last birthday. She licked a smear of chocolate off her finger. Did I ever tell you?
Tav didn’t answer.
She watched his sleeping form. It was similar to his waking self except for a curious lack—of worry or fear or anger, she wasn’t sure. She rested her arms on her knees and her head on her arms. She would wake him in a little while. Their families would be expecting them. Soon, but not yet.
○ ○ ○
We’ll be switching soon.
It was late. Two moons swam in the sky and gave off just enough light to make out Tav’s face. Maile barely recognized the voice in her head. It was tight and gutteral, as though he were in pain. Damp, black sand stippled their tunics. She had forgotten to bring a blanket.
“It’s getting worse,” she said.
You mean harder to remember.
Her eyes scanned the sky as though answers might be found there. “But why?”
The morning after her seventeeth birthday, Maile knew she hadn’t been dreaming. She, along with four other house slaves, had gone to sleep on thick mats of woven rush grass on a dirt floor. Seven hours later she had woken up, alone, in a large, canopy bed with a lace-edged sheet pulled up to her waist. Before she could puzzle anything out, someone had knocked on the door and asked, “Miss Suranse, may I bring in breakfast?”
In her mind two worlds lay on top of each other like layers of silk. There were two sets of street names, two sets of religious rituals, two sets of monuments to one great revolutionary leader.
There’s only one of me. And only one of you. Tav’s lips didn’t move.
“That doesn’t matter,” she said.
It does. One of me. One of you.
She leaned against him and closed her eyes. She heard his heart pulsing through bone and velvety skin. She heard streams of air spill in and out as he breathed. Beneath all that, she heard the waves gnashing like teeth. She opened her eyes. “The sea,” she said.
What about it?
“It doesn’t change.”
He raised an eyebrow. The sea is always changing. That’s what makes it the sea.
“But its name doesn’t change, I mean. Kassouine. That’s not a word in my language or in yours.” Maile paused, thinking. “In both versions of our world, we revolted against the colonizers and chased them out. But then what happened? We fought each other, enslaved each other, same as they did to us.”
He nodded slowly. It’s like they never left.
She sat up. “What if you’re right?”
What do you mean?
“What if they’re still here? What if they still control us?”
Tav’s jaw clenched. He shook his head in disbelief. If they could do that—make a whole civilization forget themselves—they’d be gods.
“I don’t know about that,” she said. “Sounds too human to me.”
Well, whatever’s happening, we’re the only ones who see it.
“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” she whispered. “Everyone around us … They know who I am, but they don’t.”
He didn’t know what to think.
“Tell me again,” she said.
Tell you what?
She took his hand.
One of me. One of you.
○ ○ ○
It will end. They don’t know it, but I do. Today’s master is tomorrow’s slave.
Salmir couldn’t hear Maile, but he could see her. Something about her sealed-tight expression unnerved him.
“You weren’t cheap,” he said, unable to hide his self-satisfaction. “But nothing worth having is. You’re here, and you’re mine.”
She didn’t flinch. For now.
He blinked. It was as though he had heard her. The slap took them both by surprise.
She stumbled backward. She felt heat rising in her face.
For a moment he considered her.
Maile realized he was waiting—checking for signs of resistance, inaudible or otherwise. She stood dumbly and turned herself into a thing.
His limbs loosened with relief. He moved to the bed that took up much of the floorspace in the small room. He yanked at the tight tucks until the gauzy white blanket trailed on the floor. “More inviting,” he said, turning to face her again. “Did you think I bought you for myself?”
His face twitched; he seemed amused. A timid knock broke the silence. “Come,” he said.
A boy, no more than a year or two younger than Maile, shuffled in. He was a replica of his father in build only. Like a rabbit, he had only two instincts: to freeze or to bound away. When he spoke, she could barely make out a word. After a moment, Salmir returned his attention to his merchandise.
“My son doesn’t like girls,” he said calmly. “That wouldn’t be a problem, except he doesn’t like boys either.”
Maile’s face crumpled with confusion.
“He’ll inherit all that I have some day,” Salmir continued. “But no one will work with a man they can’t trust. And no one will trust a man who refuses to choose a side. So, I’ve chosen it for him.”
He turned to his son and gripped his shoulders. “Try to enjoy yourself. I’ll be back soon.” Salmir smiled as he said this, but the boy could not meet his gaze.
When the door closed behind him, Maile backed away. She held up her hands in a silent plea.
“He’ll know if I don’t,” the boy said. He tightened his fingers into fists to stop them from shaking. “I don’t have a choice.”
She realized that her father, who visited his other family and sent the other woman money every month, had been the same kind of man as Salmir. The same kind of terror.
No slave could choose a master. You couldn’t say yes to anything if saying no meant nothing at all.
Maile walked to the black sand beach in a daze.
“What happened?” Tav had arrived before her.
When she looked at him, she couldn’t make sense of his face. It seemed familiar but out of place. She also couldn’t keep still. She paced and pulled at her hair and scratched at her forearms. Her breathing grew erratic. There was too much air one second and too little the next. She felt tears beginning to gather, and she crushed her palms against her eyes.
He moved to touch her then stopped. His arms hung by his side. “Maile, please. What’s wrong? What happened?”
She stared at him, her eyes wet and unblinking. Then she opened her mouth and let out a low, rasping moan. It rose from deep inside her and sent him scattering.
He listened to her voice echoing in his head, but language was no longer part of it.
She wasn’t speaking to him, but she also wasn’t shutting him out. She was feeling too many species of pain at once. He put a tentative hand on her shoulder before embracing her. He held her until her throat swelled shut. Finally, exhausted, she let her body collapse against his. Supporting her weight, he gently sat her down. He left an arm around her waist to keep her upright. She swayed with the inhale and exhale of the tide.
She couldn’t tell him what happened—not straight out. He slowly plucked fragments of thought from the memories that flooded in and out of her.
“I’ll kill them both.” Tav’s voice was fl at.
“You want to show Salmir mercy?”
No. She was the quietest she had ever been in his head. I want to keep you safe.
For the first time, he found himself closing his mind to her voice. He hadn’t known it was possible, but it happened with little effort. He could still hear her, but there were a series of doors between them now, dampening the sound.
Sensing the distance, she turned to study him. Her face remained impassive.
“I know how you feel,” he said.
She stopped swaying. How could you possibly know?
“I wish I didn’t.”
The anger drained out of her. Who—she stopped.
The woman who drank herself adrift every other day. The woman who did not notice, did not have to notice the dozens of slaves under her watch who moved and kept her life moving like gears made of flesh. The woman who Maile fetched sugar for.
She felt Tav brace himself, but for what? Her disgust? Her rage? The sand beneath them, creased into the lines of her hands and feet, suddenly felt like sugary beads. She drew closer to him. If we can’t stop what’s happening to us, maybe we can escape it.
“And go where?”
Anywhere we want. The sea doesn’t change. If we get off the island, things will be different. I know it.
Tav considered this. “Would you really leave everything behind?”
Every year for the last three years I’ve had to leave everything behind. Everything except you.
He sat back on his heels and touched the sand with his index fi nger. He began to draw. “We can go before we switch back.”
Gives us just under a week.
“I can gather supplies. Food, water, clothing. No one will say anything.”
What can I do?
“I’ll give you gold. You can go down to the docks and buy passage for two on a ship leaving for the northern coast. Confirm with the seller that it’s under my name.”
She bit her lip. That’ll be an easy trail to follow.
“That’s the idea. We’ll buy the tickets, but we won’t be getting on the boat.”
Okay. She gave a sigh of relief. And we won’t need two tickets. Just one.
“But what about you?”
I’d be traveling as your personal property. They just pile us up in the cargo hold.
He rubbed his neck as though it were sore. “Right,” he said. “I forgot. I’m sorry.”
Don’t be. You’ve seen the other side for yourself.
“There’s one more thing.” He hesitated. “If we leave now, you won’t have your voice. Do you want to wait?”
Next year they would be turning eighteen. Maile glanced down at what he had sketched in the sand. It was a simple outline of their island, with a river running through its middle and a long tongue of land extending eastward. She looked towards the sea and back to the drawing. Around it the black sand beach extended in every direction. She had to believe this is what the world was like: not tiny, evanescent tide pools but an endless unfolding.
From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.
Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.
Yan Fécu is a Haitian-American scholar and writer. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and held a pre-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. She was a fellow at the VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts writing residency in 2017. She is currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.