The Free Waters
Three Years Later
The Stolen Year
All the children in the village became a year older on the day of the winter ceremony. Kalen had been looking forward to it for weeks. On the night before the big event, he couldn’t sleep. He lay on his mattress in his upstairs room, covered in furs, listening to the sounds of his cousins through the thin wall that separated his family’s half of the long cabin from his Uncle Holv’s half.
They weren’t sleeping any better than he was, even though their ceremony day wouldn’t be as exciting as his.
Kalen would be eight tomorrow, and when a boy turned eight, he would have his first wrestling match. With the whole village watching! Kalen had planned the event carefully with the other two boys he’d be fighting tomorrow. He had suggested to them that each of them should be careful to give the others at least one interesting bruise during the match, and they had agreed enthusiastically when he explained why this was necessary.
The fight itself lasted for only a few minutes, but a bruise would stick for days. And every time one of the adults saw it, they would clap you on your back and congratulate you again on being a brave man. (He had observed this effect last year, when his cousin Lander had his own first match.)
Kalen was unlikely to be victorious tomorrow, but a good bruise would bring him some glory at least.
Lost in these pleasant imaginings, Kalen was startled when he felt the shiver. It wasn’t cold. His room was directly above the long cabin’s main room, where the hearth fire burned nearly all night in winter. It was the other thing. It had been happening…for a while. More than a year, Kalen thought. But he’d only realized what caused it a couple of months ago.
If he went outside, he knew what he’d see in the night sky. The aurora. The big, too-colorful one.
Kalen had asked, but nobody else could feel it when it happened. They thought he was probably imagining things.
If he was imagining things, Kalen thought it wouldn’t be so annoying. The shiver felt like it was trying to press its way through his skin. It was an unwelcome sensation, so he envisioned himself pressing back. Did it reduce the feeling any? Maybe. He was never sure.
He and the shiver went on like this, one of them pressing in and the other pressing out, until morning came and brought with it so much excitement that Kalen could ignore other feelings altogether. He would be eight today!
At first light, Jorn’s small family and his brother Holv’s large one gathered in the long cabin’s shared main room. The men had prepared two large washtubs, and pots of water were boiling on the hob. Their wives had unpacked the embroidered ceremony clothes from the chest where they were kept most of the year.
Jayne, Holv’s wife, was deft with a needle, and her husband’s travels kept her well-supplied with colored thread. The flowers on the girls’ dresses and the leaping stags on the boys’ coats were the most beautiful in the village.
After Kalen had scrubbed himself clean in the tub (and then been scrubbed even cleaner by his overzealous mother), his aunt called him over to receive his ceremony coat. He took it from her, admiring the antlered deer and the berry bushes that decorated the shoulders.
“Thank you, Aunt Jayne. I’ll take it off during the ceremony, so I don’t get any blood on it.” Lander had gotten blood and a large rip in his own coat last year, and though Aunt Jayne had said it was fine, Kalen had seen her crying over the coat when nobody else was paying attention.
“You won’t be turning eight this year, Kalen,” said Shelba, now scrubbing the littlest cousin, Iless, behind her knees with a brush. “You’ll be seven again. We must’ve got your age wrong from the very beginning.”
As was her custom, Kalen’s mother delivered bad news with a voice hard as stone.
In most people, this voice induced an instant desire to surrender themselves to the inevitable. Aunt Jayne and all six of her children froze like rabbits scenting a wolf.
“I’ll go draw some more water!” Uncle Holv said, nearly running from the room.
Jorn glared after him, obviously unhappy that his brother had been so quick to steal the easiest escape route.
“What?” said Kalen, staring at his mother. Everyone in the household knew he hadn’t misheard or misunderstood her, because the sting of utter betrayal he felt was perfectly clear from his voice.
“You’re obviously too small to be eight,” she said, her tone brooking no argument. “It’s best that you be seven for another year, so that all is put to rights.”
“No,” said Kalen, trying and failing to sound like stone himself. “I’m going to be eight! I’m going to fight Clem and Ogro and finally be a man of the village.”
“I won’t have you brawling with boys head and shoulders taller than you. You’ll lose a tooth or have your wits knocked out of you.”
Kalen stared at his mother. She wouldn’t even look at him. She knew she was being unfair! Everyone in the room knew it, too. The other children—especially Lander, who had fought so honorably last year at his own ceremony—looked mortified on Kalen’s behalf.
Nobody had ever heard of a boy being seven twice just because he was small. What would everyone think of him? What would the other two eight-year-olds, his best friends, think? Would the three of them even be best friends anymore if they didn’t have being eight in common?
“We’ve been practicing in secret together for weeks!” Kalen said, nearly howling. “I haven’t lost any teeth! I even won against Ogro once!”
Strictly speaking, this was untrue. Kalen had tripped and accidentally head-butted Ogro in a sensitive area. The fights that were the village’s only decent entertainment during the long dark winter months were friendly wrestling matches. Strikes—whether they were punches, kicks, or inadvertent head-butts—were prohibited.
“You’ve been doing what?” his mother said, finally dropping her scrub brush and rounding on him.
“I’ve been wrestling lots and lots, and I can be a man of the village if I want to!”
Shelba’s face reddened. She put her hands on her wide hips. Her chin stuck out pugnaciously.
Her son, still shirtless, put his hands on his own hips. His chin stuck out in exactly the same way.
At that point, everyone in the household knew whatever peace might have been found on the holiday morning would never be regained.
It was a forgone conclusion that Kalen would lose both the argument and his remaining dignity.
He had been looking forward to turning eight ever since his first winter ceremony, and having the opportunity wrenched from him so unfairly and unexpectedly on the morning of the happy occasion was too overwhelming. About the time his mother roared, “If you say one more word, I’ll make sure you stay seven until you’re twenty!” Kalen lost his battle with his own emotions.
He started to cry. Then, realizing with horror that he’d begun weeping in the process of arguing for his own strength and courage, he couldn’t help but cry even harder. Soon, he was in full fledged sobs. He ran from the house out into the dark morning and let himself collapse in a snowdrift by the woodpile.
Long past the point of feeling shame at his own melodrama, he hoped he’d freeze to death there, and his mother would be forced into tears herself at the sight of his icy corpse.
Of course, it was only a couple of minutes before the sound of his father’s heavy boots came crunching through the snow. The footfalls stopped. “I am thinking that a small man should respect his mother’s fears even if he doesn’t share them himself,” said Jorn in a steady voice. “And he shouldn’t shout at her for trying to protect him.”
Kalen, his face still planted firmly in the stinging snow, hiccuped pathetically. This was the very worst part of having an argument with his mother. The after part. With his mother, the arguments were hot and furious, and then they were over. Kalen and Shelba could both forget about them in a matter of hours and pretend they’d never occurred.
But when Jorn involved himself in the aftermath, it was often to say something devastating and insightful that Kalen would have to think about forever. On a few horrific occasions, he had even confessed to being disappointed in his son’s behavior.
And Kalen would rather swim with ice sharks than disappoint his father.
“I’m s-sorry,” he said into the snow. “But it’s not f-fair.”
Jorn sighed. Big, warm hands grabbed Kalen by the shoulders and dragged him out of the drift. His father spun him around to face him, brushing snow off his hair. “Aye, it’s not. Even your mother knows it. We’ve talked about it time and time again over the past few months, and we agreed she wouldn’t do this to you despite her worries. I suppose it was too much for her at the last moment this morning, when you promised not to bloody Aunt Jayne’s stitchwork.”
Kalen blinked. They’d talked about this? Many times?
“But there’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “Ogro and Clem wouldn’t hurt me really even if they are bigger.”
“I know,” his father said simply.
“Nobody ever gets hurt too bad.”
“Hardly ever. But your mother is afraid for you because she loves you.”
“I’m sure Aunt Jayne loves Lander, too,” said Kalen. “But she would never—”
“Aunt Jayne is a different person,” said his father. “Afraid of different things than our Shelba. In some ways, your mother is braver, and in others, your aunt is. It’s not for us to decide whether a heart-deep fear is a worthy one.”
Ugh, thought Kalen. This was dangerous territory. Jorn was starting to say important-sounding things. Kalen couldn’t just ignore them. He would have to think about them. And experience told him he would likely feel guilty about the fight after he’d really unraveled Jorn’s words.
But still. But still! The winter ceremony was today, and now it would be ruined. People would talk about him. They might laugh at him.“I…Father, I really want to be eight.”
He looked up and met Jorn’s eyes in the dim gray light of the coming day.
His father’s face was thoughtful. Slowly, he said, “What if, instead of being eight this year, you learned to read?”
Kalen blinked. “Read?”
What was this? Kalen was so focused on the winter ceremony that it took him a while to figure out why his father was offering such a strange thing in lieu of his eighth birthday. Oh. That’s right.
Reading…was something that had been very important to him when he first came here. Kalen remembered. Of course he did. Tomas Orellen had told him he must learn to read as soon as possible. And he had asked for lessons several times when he’d first arrived on the island.
But neither his father nor his mother could read more than a few basic words. Almost nobody in their small village could. None of them had ever told him he shouldn’t learn to read, but they also didn’t take his requests very seriously. And Kalen had been busy with so many interesting and wonderful distractions—parents, cousins, neighbors, snow, pigs, friends—that the matter had just faded.
Sometimes, Kalen went months without thinking about his other name. He was Kalen, son of Jorn.
Kalenerth Orellen was an unwelcome intrusion.
Now, looking at his father’s kind face, Kalen’s heart clenched in his chest at the reminder that the whole shape of his life teetered atop a single, unfathomable lie.
Somewhere, he had other parents. Strange, wizarn parents who hadn’t wanted him. Why? And he had siblings. Too many siblings.
A woman couldn’t give birth to as many siblings as Kalen had met in that room. Even Sleepy, who was now the finest and most productive sow in the whole pig barn, hadn’t given birth to that many piglets yet.
Something was terribly wrong about Kalen’s past, and he had neither the desire nor ability to fully understand it. He only knew that the truth, if it was ever discovered, would hurt his father and likely kill his mother.
The secret and the guilt that belonged with it would go with Kalen to his very grave.
He was suddenly sorry that he’d fought with Shelba. He would be seven until he was twenty if it made her happy.
“I don’t have to read!” he said quickly. “I’ll be seven another year. It’s fine.”
“Do you not want to learn anymore?” Jorn asked, brushing more icy melting snow off Kalen’s head. “I remember you had a strong urge toward it for a while. The’s no harm to it and some good, I think.”
Ah, now here was a problem. Kalen no longer wanted to learn reading. The whole time he spent learning would also be time spent remembering why he was learning. It would be uncomfortable to always be thinking about his past. But his father had just made it impossible for him to refuse without sounding lazy.
Maybe, if he refused, Jorn would ask why he no longer wanted to read, and he would have to make up another lie about it. Maybe the lie would sound suspicious. Maybe it would lead to the uncovering of the original, unspeakable lie.
What should I do? “Um…I guess I do want to learn to read. But only a little.”
His father smiled. “We will find a teacher, then. And books!”
Kalen did his best to smile back.
That afternoon, under the pale winter sky, Kalen stood with a group of four other children in the middle of the village round and became seven again. They were all given a small cloth bag full of sweets, and everyone congratulated them.
Several of the adults did shoot raised eyebrows at Shelba, but she pretended not to notice. Kalen pretended not to notice, too. He’d worried the other seven year olds and eight year olds would tease him, but the sevens were mostly interested in their candy. And the eights, who no longer received the sweet bags, were mostly interesting in talking Kalen into sharing his with them.
In the end, it was a smaller matter than he had thought. But it was still heartbreaking when Ogro and Clem had their wrestle, and everyone cheered them on wildly. In a surprise upset, Clem managed to pin Ogro to the frozen earth first.
It was a good start to the festivities. Almost all of the adult men wrestled each other, and some of the women, too. There was a lot of beer going around for the grown-ups and plenty of food for everyone. And by nightfall, everybody’s blood was warm enough that the short hike down the rocky slopes to the nearest beach didn’t seem such a trial.
Jorn carried Kalen on his shoulders, singing a song with Uncle Holv, both of them very loud and off rhythm.
The bonfire had already been built and lit. It looked even huger than Kalen remembered from past years. The fire crackled and roared, sending sparks spiraling up toward the stars and staining the ice that covered the sea orange with its light.
When it was Kalen’s turn to feed the raging fire a dead twig (to burn away the old year and welcome the new), he stood as close as he dared. It was so nice to be hot for a change.
I remember when every day was hot, said a voice inside him. I remember when snow was just a word from other lands.
It was his own voice. And it was not. He’d heard it before. It never made much sense.
Kalen threw the twig as hard as he could, wishing he could burn away more of the past than a single year.