“We can only know what we can truly imagine. Finally, what we see comes from ourselves.” - Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
What thoughts I had in departing Shol Ai.
To my dearest Shae,
I am Xantha Bartok, who carried you beneath her heart, and I write in the hope that I will give this book to you myself when you are old enough and be ribbed by your fathers for my worry. I leave you today, and you are twelve years old. I held you in my arms and did not know if you truly understood how long I would be away. My heart aches, but the eastern current will only favor a transoceanic voyage for so long. I will reach my fiftieth year on a new continent, in a new world, but had I waited this chance might not have come again until I was bent with age.
I realize that I am making justifications, now, where I intended to make an account. Should I and my crew return safely, report in hand, I will have time to edit for clarity, but should we not, I expect the dust of Nar Ara won’t judge me too harshly. So have I found the vanity to name it, this home that was once and may yet be again. Councilor Troy warned me against my optimism as he came to see me off at the cenote, reminding me of reports he finds unencouraging, and I thank him for his concern on my behalf, but he and I gauge the worth of the witherlands very differently. In several weeks’ time I will be among the first of humankind to set foot on shores beyond our Cradle of Nar Shol. The discoveries we make here may rewrite history – how could such a prospect be anything but joyful to me?
I hope this record – parts of it, at any rate – may one day be such to you, and I ask that you forgive me for using you in effigy to express my thoughts. Given time and seclusion, I have been known to produce volumes that could stop a door – in fact, have you not caught your father using several for that very purpose? But it was he who always thrived before the Forum. I lack Ayel’s flair for improvisation. My thoughts come together poorly in company, my tongue sticks. To sit in silence in the depths of the jungle, to unravel the tale in stone fragments hundreds of thousands of years old, like the rising Orbweaver turning his spindle of stars – how can I explain my thoughts? They don’t tire me as people do: they speak softly, and I listen. They require nothing of me but time and patience. Every day I pray it is my good judgement and not my selfishness that drives me so far away from you and the men I love.
We spoke and embraced before I boarded the Coelacanth, the four of us, and even now I fear the freshness of the memory fading. The chaos of the jungle encircling the still blue waters of the cenote, stretching like titanic columns to brace the vaulted ceiling of the sky. I want to remember how we stood beneath the wheeling eye of Yol cutting the gloom, how the solar canopies diffused its light into overlapping swathes of color, painting your face that I held between my hands when I kissed you. I want to recall the vivid fire of Ayel’s hair in that light, and the strength of Jask’s arms around me. His kind, dark eyes. Jask, who I have never been more than eight months removed from in forty years, first companion of my heart. I have not been away so long since meeting Ayel, since your birth, and I know the times ahead will be difficult, for you and for me.
You made a gift to me before we parted, pressed into my hands an ironwood bangle, polished black symmetry warm in my palm. I had worried for your sudden reticence toward your time with Jask in his workshop, thought you were upset knowing that I would leave. I am so proud of you, little firefly. I dream of you grown, with your blood-father’s eyes, your fate-father’s mind, Shaping the Growth and coaxing it to give beneath your fingertips. I wear this, your first piece shaped by no hand but your own, and I tell my grief at our parting to become excitement for the young man you will be when I return. It will be a joy to tell these stories to you myself.
I expect if I keep lingering on our parting I will be up all night and have nothing further of substance to show for it. To proceed:
When I had left you on the platform, I descended to the waterside and met with my crew. Most of these you know well. Cantor and Veena are with us, tending the Coelacanth’s hydroponics unit, enough to supply our small company with oxygen, nutrients, and fresh water for as long as five years. I have hope yet that we will be able to forage on Nar Ara, but we must be cautious in consuming anything that grows on a continent with which we have had no prior contact. Illness is a genuine concern, and to that end, we are joined also by Doctor Emir – the stern, paunchy fellow you told me resembled a peccary, do you remember?
Yrai’s concerns that his treatment would not be complete in time to depart with us were unfounded, and all the better for us. We would be just as put out not to have him aboard as he would be to watch the vessel of his own making depart with himself still on shore. His exuberance has resurged in force, and I fear the one thing he may have forgotten to safeguard his creation from is the volume of his own voice. I can hear him now, singing the Ballad of the Rising East as he pilots the submersible, and while I find it pleasing, I expect that I won’t by the seventh iteration.
And myself aside, we are joined last by Daira. I have had my doubts on that account – she is only twenty, the youngest of my research assistants, yet by far the most brilliant. She is green, impressionable, but her passion is incredible, her intuition keen, and I would be foolish to leave her behind. I may choose only one who will view the new world with me as my colleague in anthropology: let it be a young mind, and the one prepared to gain the most from the experience. I had thought I would have to choose again, but she is an adept speaker, and her parents have given their blessing, long in coming though it might have been. I do not take their trust lightly: until she is safe in their arms again, she will be as much my child as you are.
Perhaps declaring a foregone conclusion loses its impact. She has adhered the sketch you gave her to the wall of her workstation, and already she misses you as much as I.
We submerged shortly before midday and began following the Prime Artery west toward the sea. We will surface twice at Shol Het and Shol Jain, but once we are let out into that great void the tides will not permit us to do so again for several days. We will then resurface periodically throughout the voyage to recharge the Coelacanth’s solar array, and with luck, Nar Ara will be visible on our scanner in just shy of a month, though I have prepared for the journey to take as many as three. I would have attempted more, but Yrai is as deafening when exasperated as he is when pleased.
I will write to you as we carry on, relate to you the events of the day as I would if you were here with me – perhaps at times you will not feel so very far away.