Watch your back, Cressa-la.
The voice slices through my head, a sliver of pain jolting me halfway awake.
You thought the snakes were bad.
I feel as if I’m floating. Blue light surrounds me, covers every inch of me. A bright green ray cuts through the blue and a face begins to form from it. I move my head, my arms—they move as if mud surrounds them.
The bright and blurry face disappears.
Black. I’m blinded.
And then I open my eyes.
I’m on the floor of my house, Nan-ah’s house, with Tani-mah and Lily-flor standing over me.
“You’re awake!” Lily-flor cries, smiles, and hugs my neck a little too tight. “You were talking in your sleep.”
“I was?” I mumble groggily, sitting up. My head pounds. I reach up to hold it, as if it would relieve the pressure. Irritatingly, it doesn’t.
Tani-mah nods. “Lily-flor, why don’t you go back outside and eat? There’s one more thing Cressa-la has to do before becoming a Tribe Leader.”
“What is it?” Lily-flor asks excitedly, but Tani-mah shakes her head. “Okayyy. Good luck, Cressa-la.”
Lily-flor hugs me once more and looks over her shoulder as she exits, smiling. The door shuts and Tani-mah turns towards me.
“What…” My head pounds as I sit the rest of the way up, balancing on my hammock. “What else do I need to do…? I passed everything…”
Tani-mah squats down before me, her eyes intense in the firelight. “You have to promise me something.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up and my heartbeat picks up its pace. I take a deep breath to calm my nerves and nod my head. This is it. The last thing I have to do before becoming a Tribe Leader. This is what I’ve always wanted, and I still want it wholeheartedly, even if everything’s changed.
“You have tell us, the other Tribe Leaders, the truth and nothing but the truth at all times. And when it comes to the tribespeople… You tell them what we tell you to.”
My brain journeys to what she’s implying. “Even if it’s a lie?”
She nods. “Even if it’s a lie.”
I hesitate. What have the Tribe Leaders told me that was a lie?
“I’ll only promise that if you promise me something.”
“And what would that be, Cressa-la?”
“You tell me everything you lied to us about.”
“You’d have to ask the right questions, Cressa-la,” Tani-mah smiles a small smile. “The promise you will make applies to all the Tribe Leaders. You can ask us anything and we will tell you honestly—but you can’t utter a word to the tribespeople unless we say so. If you don’t promise, then you must go on with your life as if none of this ever happened.”
“But everyone will remember—”
“Will they?” She asks, her smile turning mysterious. “A boy named Drea-de attempted to become a Tribe Leader last year.”
My brain hurts. “I don’t understand—I don’t remember—” And then everything becomes as clear as day. No one remembers him for a reason. That reason has something to do with the Tribe Leaders, and there isn’t any doubt about that. “How did you make everyone forget him? Where did he go?”
Tani-mah lifts her hands up to her head, smiling. “Promise and I’ll tell you.”
I take a deep breath. No more lies. No more secrets. My scales itch at this thought. They’d ask and I’d have to tell them about my legs. My scales. My touching the water. I’d have to admit that I lied right to their faces for a little less than a year… Am I ready for that?
I look at Tani-mah, who looks as if she’s holding back a tsunami with her shoulders.
This is what I’ve always wanted. It’s always been my dream, my life goal to become a Tribe Leader. And it’s finally here. I shouldn’t let it slip away. I can’t.
I take a deep breath, everything gathering inside my lungs, all the secrets, all the lies… And I let it out. “I promise.”
Tani-mah sighs and lowers her hands. “Good. Drea-de left the Tribe, disappeared one night and never came back. None of the Tribe Leaders know where he went, and none of the tribespeople remember him.”
I nod, my chest tight. “And how did we forget?”
She smiles mysteriously, chuckling a tiny bit.
The word is familiar, yes. A joke to children, and yet something Damian and Tamir seem to have a vast amount knowledge of, although they subtly hide from me. My heart aches for a moment. Tamir had been in so much pain the last time I saw him because of this… this…
“Magic,” I repeat quietly. My brain can’t seem to process the reality of the word, but my heart somehow knows it’s present. “Magic isn’t real though.” The words, although said to convince myself they’re true, do nothing to help the tear growing in my heart.
“You witnessed it,” Tani-mah says, watching me with narrowed eyes. “Today. Your entire life. You just don’t remember it.”
I shake my head. This can’t be real. There’s pressure against the back of my eyes and things get blurry.
No,I tell myself.No crying. Not here. Tribe Leaders don’t cry.
“It’s a lot to process,” Tani-mah says, placing a hand on my shoulder.
“A lot to process?” I whisper, chuckling through the pain. “More like a lot to be hit with.”
“I know, I know. But, if it makes you feel better, once you step out of that door, you will be a Tribe Leader. Everyone is waiting.”
“For you to skin your leopard.”
“No one has eaten it yet? I thought you told Lily-flor to go out to eat with everyone.”
“I did.” She stands. “We’ve been snacking while you’ve been unconscious. That was quite a show you put on after Rai-si left you alone in those trees. Which reminds me—I was told to tell you to begin working with other people, not just yourself. You need to learn to work as a team and not as one person. Which is why the rest of the Tribe Leaders have come to a decision for you, the same one that was made for me years ago.”
“And what is that?” I ask as she helps me up and we walk to the door.
“By the next full moon, you need to find a husband.”
“What?” I croak.
She opens the door.
The tribespeople wait anxiously. I don’t hear Tani-mah announce that I am officially a Tribe Leader. My body has gone numb.
A husband? I can’t even keep a friend in this tribe. Where in the world will I find a husband?And by the next full moon?
The world around me seems to slow down and pass me by all at once. They cheer and laugh and smile and sing as I walk, guided by Tani-mah, over to the fallen animal. Yurt-sah hands me a knife. I hold it above the animal. My heart is the loudest sound, even over the dull thudding of voices around me.
So many things piling up. Tamir, Damian, magic. The snakes, the threat, the vision. Water-touching, glowing, the One-Hundred. The dolphin, the Sea-Man, the scales. The lying, the moon, my struggling. And now I have to find a husband.
I glance down at the animal and shudder as I catch a glimpse of its golden, empty eyes. It’s dead, human-looking eyes. For a moment I’m ashamed of killing it, but the cuts and bite marks covering me and stinging in the wind beg to differ. I re-grip the knife, getting ready to skin it. This will be the best we’ve eaten in a long time.
Everything surrounding me hits my senses all at once—the sounds, the movement, the laughter of the tribe as I realize the animal is still alive. How can it still be breathing? I killed it with my own hands—It should be dead!
I drop the knife, and it rips right through its throat.
I stumble back, slamming into whoever is behind me. The animal chokes on its own blood and its eyes roll to the back of its head as I fall to the ground. It’s dead. It’s finally dead.
Tears push their way out from behind my eyelids. I wipe them away, drying them on my clothes. My limbs shake so violently I can’t stand on my own, and my lungs ache as they heave vast amounts of air in and out of them.Why was it still alive?
Tani-mah kneels down beside me, the village circling around, worrying over the scene that just played out. Their coos of questioning press down on me. My body shrinks into itself. Tribe Leaders don’t freak out like that. But animals don’t just wake from the dead like the leopard had.
“Let’s go for a walk,” Tani-mah says.
Suddenly I’m aware of the falling night and the rising moon.
“No,” I protest. “I can’t—I can’t!”
“Come on,” she says, pulling me up by my arm. The sounds of my tribe fall away as we get farther away.
We walk into the trees, Tani-mah leading me gently while the rest of the Tribe Leaders follow behind. They glance back every now and then, obviously concerned with the scene I’d made back at the village. I look at the sky, worried in my own way. The moon—it begins to pull at my body as the sun sets.
“Where are we going?” I ask, peering through the darkened shadows cast onto the ground.
They say nothing and continue to walk. We finally stop. Before us is the place they receive the babies. Again.
They lift the top and I shrink away.
“Shh.” Rai-si places a hand on my shoulder. “You aren’t going in. Watch.”
I stare at the rippling water, waiting for something to happen, hoping it will occur before the moon rises. But as the prickling at the back of my brain becomes hard to keep at bay, I realize the moon will have to be directly over the island before anything will.
Sweat collects around my hairline as I try to push the pull away. I clench my fists and grit my teeth, biting my tongue and my cheek. Everything in my body is sore from today, but I can’t give up. I have to physically and mentally make it through the moon this once, and the rest of my life I can hide out, I can disappear. Never will I have to do this again… Except the one fact that I am a Tribe Leader now. I’ll have to do this again.
I take a shaky breath and focus on the water, trying not to think about it or let the panic sweep through my frame. Trying not to consider everything that could lie beneath it, like a particular dolphin that talks, or talking people-fish. Or even magic. But my mind wanders as the time passes by achingly fast. The moon has risen higher in the sky, making it harder to resist its gravity.
I almost miss the child lifted up out of the water by a woman. She glows a soft gold color as she smiles. The baby wails.
One of the Tribe Leaders takes ahold of the baby and cradles it in his arms. Lup-mem. He smiles down at it.
“It’s a boy,” he says.
“Ver.” The lady in the water smiles sadly up at him.
“Ver…” Lup-mem nods, lost in thought. “Ver… Ver-ett. Ver-ett is his name.”
The lady nods slowly before disappearing back into the black shifting liquid illuminated by her glow. My body begins to shift toward the water and I stop myself, remembering the full moon and what it does to me before I lose all self-control.
“Hello, Ver-ett,” the Tribe Leaders say quietly as they pass him around. Tani-mah holds him out to me and I shake my head.
“I’ll drop him,” I whisper, my body shaking.
Tani-mah nods in understanding and hands the little boy back to Lup-mem. He talks softly to the baby as he walks a few paces away from the water. The way we collect the babies is a secret, aside from the notion that we do, in fact, receive them from a different source outside of the Tribes. But none of us had ever questioned it. I wonder if it’s because the Tribe Leaders had blocked off that questions in our minds with their magic. Could that be possible?
This time two heads poke up from the waters’ surface. They both glow a bright pink. The woman looks at the man sadly and lifts the baby up.
“This is the last,” she says. “Her name is Cas… Please take care of her.”
Rai-si nods to her and turns his attention to me. “Cressa-la,” he says. “It’s your turn.”
I turn to them, startled, still trying to keep the moon’s pull at bay. “What do I do?”
“Take her,” he says. “Finish her name. Connect her with the island.”
I gaze down at the baby, my feet already close to the people in the water. I push the pull of the moon away once again, knowing it got the best of me.
“Please take care of her.”
The woman’s eyes are full of tears as I cradle the baby in my arms.
“Cas…” I whisper. The baby doesn’t cry like the first one, but she gurgles and smiles up at me, her crystal eyes reminding me of Lily-flor’s. “Cas…”
Suddenly, everything in my body freezes. The moonlight glints off of the surface of the water, off the eyes of the baby. Numbness takes over my body as I move in the direction of the water. The baby is taken from my hands. I hear the distorted voices of the people in the water. My Tribe Leaders are silent.
And then I’m under the water.
Something circles me. A shadow. An animal.
I begin to glow bright blue.
Laughter inside my head. Dark and malevolent. Evil.
Did I not tell you it’s on, Cressa-la?