The fire was embers in the grate, glowing reds that lit off sparks when stirred with the poker. Outside, the wind blew softly and the foamy tide wish-wished on the shining black pebbles of the beach.
“We came from across the sea,” Brin said over Elsa’s shoulder. “All those years ago.”
“What was it like?” Elsa asked. She came away from the window as Brin pulled the shutters closed. She followed him to the fireplace where he knelt and blew gently into the hot ashes, watching as the flames caught the new logs and grew into orange spines. Gold spires, Elsa thought they looked like; a palace roof, a crown. “What was it like then?”
“You’ve heard it a hundred times,” Brin laughed. “You really want to hear it again?”
“Yes,” she climbed into Brin’s lap, and squirmed and giggled when he tickled her. “Stop,” she ordered and tickled him back with her little hands, and he laughed and pretended she beat him.
“Alright, alright! A seal – an eel couldn’t be more wriggly. Sit still now and I’ll tell you.”
“You’re so heavy! Getting too big for laps.”
“Am not,” Elsa said, but she was sad because she knew she would be eight soon, and that was too big for laps.
“Not yet,” Brin said comfortingly. “Now, somewhere over there, at the edge of the sea and sky, that’s where we came from. If you look out on a clear day you can see the line where they join, like a thread.”
“I know. I’ve seen that. Where was I? What did I do?”
“You were just a tiny baby, you didn’t do anything. You were all wrapped up warm in blankets, sleeping sound with the rocking of the waves. It was a cradle for you, our little boat. You were very happy.”
“Yes I was,” Elsa said. “I remember.” Brin smiled at this like he always did.
“Not really really. I remember because you’ve told me.”
“I know. Well, we sailed for days and days. Me and Urs and Jan. We were getting worried you know, because the water was getting low, but we couldn’t go back. We could only go on and on, and hope. But we took care of you.”
“Yes,” Elsa wound her fingers round the buttons on Brin’s jacket and laid her head against his chest. The jacket was rough, smelling of salt and the mist on the sea; it smelled like home. Brin hugged her tightly.
“Yes we did,” he whispered. “We took care of you. And you repaid us all because the very first day you laughed – your first ever laugh – we knew we would be safe. And that, you know, was the day we found the island.”
“That’s right – this island.”
“It’s a good place; you found a good place.” Elsa said. But Brin looked sad suddenly, and his eyes were far away. She didn’t like it when he looked sad. She knew there was a secret, something he’d never said. It was the secret of their old home, way back there across the sea where she was born. She asked the question then.
“Brin, why did we have to go?”
“I’ll tell you when you’re older Els, it’s not time now.”
“When will it be time? When I have my birthday? I could have it for a present Brin.”
“No, not next birthday, but maybe the one after the one after that,” he said, and his voice was thick so she stopped, and asked instead:
“What happened to Urs? She was my second mother.”
“You know she died Els, when you were two or so. But yes, she was your second mother. She lost her own little boy and so she gave her milk to you to make you grow as big as you are now, squashing me like this!” He was trying to be funny Elsa thought, but was still sad. He had the crease around his eyes and his lips were pulled out at the corners. Elsa knew that Urs’ baby had died, but she liked the way Brin said he was lost. When she’d been littler she’d even looked for him sometimes in the heather, as if she might find him hidden there behind a stone. “And Jan died too – but he was old and it was his time.”
“How old? Even older than you?”
“Cheeky thing!” Brin said, grinning. He began to tickle her again until she squealed between the laughing for him to stop. “Alright. Now off to bed little mouse. It’s getting late. You’ve had your bedtime story too.”
“Can’t I have a song? Please Brin?”
“Yes yes, anything for peace,” he said, but he didn’t mind really. He let her take him by the hand and followed her up the ladder to the loft. “What song will it be tonight?”
“Across the Water,” Elsa said, snuggling down beneath the blankets. Her bed was made of old sails stuffed with heather, warm and springy. Brin sang, stoking her hair back from her forehead with one hand. He had a low, quiet voice like the whisper of the sea. Elsa fell asleep before the song was done, listening to Brin’s voice and the tide wish-wishing on the shore.
Brin walked down to the beach, as he did every evening once Elsa was asleep. He couldn’t relax, couldn’t sit until he’d done so. It was dusk and the summer warmth was fading, the air fresh and pierced with the promise of winter to come.
Elsa asked for the story often, it was her favourite because it was true, because it was about them all and because she was filled with a child’s natural curiosity about the past. He wondered when he should tell her and why he didn’t, why he couldn’t. There was no one but the two of them to hear her if she let it slip. The only people nearby; hardy, almost silent men and women from the village up the coast, were uncurious. Their lives were too hard, too full of exhaustion and toil for them to be giving much thought to the lives of unrelated strangers. But what if he told her and then they had to move on? And found themselves in a place where the people gossiped and spread rumours; where they might poke and pry or beguile with treats and friendly words – what then?
He stared out over the sea, squinting against the last of the light. The sky was streaked with rose and crimson, the horizon in flames. Flames and burning leaves, the smell of smoke; and he was in another place. Back in memory, just as useless, seeing what had to be done but failing. No changing the past, no going back. He knew that, but his mind still would not accept it, kept showing him these old scenes time and time again as if he could do something other than stand helpless, and obsolete, and finished.
He felt once more the fear of being lost in the little boat, never knowing when they’d see land – if they’d see land. He heard it again, the wet smack of the sail, the creak of the spars and the suck of the waves. Heard the mast groan and the water splash underfoot as he bailed; bailed the water until he blind to everything else, until he was past pain and his body no longer belonged to him but was like a thing that went on and on and could not stop, because if he stopped he’d stop forever and all of them would die.
Brin turned to walk back to the cottage, putting it out of his head; closing the door on those memories. He would work a little on Elsa’s present first, he thought, before getting on with other jobs. The wood he’d found was good, but his tools were not and he wasn’t happy with the result. Maybe a mistake, to try to make a dolls-house. Too ambitious. Perhaps he’d have to throw out that idea and make something else – and do it quickly too.
He wasn’t sure when he heard the sound first – or even if he’d heard it all along and that was what had brought the journey so vividly to mind; the creak of timber, the rattle-smack of a slack sail. It chimed so well with his thoughts. Something made him hesitate instead of crunching back over the shingle and he heard it again, that same sound out of the past, into the here and now. A boat?
Someone else might have started to run, but Brin was cautious. The light was nearly gone now and he squinted into the darkness around the curve of the beach, his heart beating a little faster. No one could have gone up to the cottage could they? Not without him noticing? He shivered, and fear nagged at him like an itch. No, no one, unless they flew, could have passed behind him, across all that shingle, without making enough noise to wake the dead. Brin stepped carefully over the loose pebbles, aware of how loudly his boots crunched down no matter how softly he tried to go. The slow waves washing against the wood and the occasional creak and flap of a sail led him closer until, just ahead, the shape of a small boat emerged as a deeper shadow in the twilight.
It looked abandoned; resting half-in, half-out of the water, tilted away from him, no one in sight.
“Hello?” he called softly. Maybe it was a young boy or girl from the village who had taken the boat without permission and got into trouble out in bay. If so, they were lucky to get back to land. It had to be something like that, for none of the adult villagers would have done such a foolish, inept thing. And who else could it be? No; he thought, don’t answer that. He noticed then that the mast was broken, hadn’t seen it in the dark, and that the keel was splintered, boards torn. She was a wreck, taking water then, a miracle she hadn’t sunk out in the bay instead of grounding.
Brin approached, still slow and careful and peered inside, let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding when he saw it was empty. Gasped and forgot to breathe again as starlight caught and glowed in something that lay on the deck. He scrabbled for it and snatched it up in numb and trembling fingers; a shard of broken amber. He felt the flatness on one side where it had been shaped, and a curved edge where it might have hung on a thin chain when whole.
“What?” he said in dismay, and dropped it as if it burnt.
A moment later he was on his knees, searching amongst the cold, damp pebbles, but it was hopeless. He gave up and instead reached under his jacket, tugging out the thin chain that hung around his neck. The amber pendant was smooth and rounded, unbroken.
It was too dark to search the beach. Brin knew the tide might well carry the boat out again before morning, along with anything else that lay in the shingle, but there was nothing he could do. He’d come down again in daylight, see if there was more to find, just in case. Were they drowned, the voyagers? How many had they been? Two – or three maybe? If any of them had made it to land...
He sighed and went back up to the cottage, looked in on Elsa and then spent an uneasy night listening, worrying over every sound. He thought he hadn’t fallen asleep, but obviously he had because Elsa woke him up at dawn to climb in with him. She was flushed with sleep, heavy eyed, gave him one smile and instantly dropped off again taking up most of the room, her arms and legs splayed out like a starfish. Brin nudged her gently so he wasn’t forced to lie with his head hard against the wall and thought and thought, ideas chasing around in his head like dogs chasing their own tails. Above them all was a cold voice that said; alright you may not be found, but where they’ve come once they can come again. They’ll come eventually, and when they do you and Elsa can’t be here. You have to take her away, somewhere else.
Yes; he told the voice. Yes, but for how long? How long will we be safe, running? When does the running stop? But the voice was silent, stumped for answers. There were none; that was the trouble.
“We’re going on an adventure,” Brin told Elsa. “You like adventures don’t you?” He smiled as he spoke, but Elsa thought something wasn’t right.