Day Four — Chapter One
I can still remember the day it happened. I recall the air leaving my lungs and the coldness of the water that replaced it. I remember thinking about the day my cousin drowned and how my mother said drowning was painless. I remember wondering how close to death I would have to get before the pain went away. I remember the feeling of the water pressing me against the shore, shells and rocks tearing small pieces of my skin away as I was pushed past them. I remember the feeling of the sun on my back as the waves receded. I remember coughing water and no small amount of blood onto the sand. I remember the shape it made; it looked like a crab. The Old Elnuur thought images of sea creatures were omens sent by God. A turtle meant good fortune, a seashell meant love. I couldn’t remember what a crab meant, not that it mattered.
It must have taken ten minutes for me to catch my breath, and even longer for the world to stop spinning. For some reason the first thing I felt was a sense of sinking dread that I was no longer holding my ledger book. Before I even had the energy to stand, I was so pre-occupied with thoughts of the repercussions for losing the book and the valuable information contained therein that I crawled about frantically patting the ground hoping my still-blurred vision deceived me and my hands would land upon the comforting leather. To tell the truth, calling the movements I made crawling is likely giving them more grace than they deserve. Perhaps “flopping” would be more appropriate. After coming to terms in quick succession with the fact that my ledger book was gone forever and finally realizing how little that fact actually mattered, I decided to try and stand up. That turned out to be a big mistake, as the minute my balance shifted to put some weight on my legs they buckled and sent me crashing back down to the ground again. My face collided with the sand and my neck snapped back suddenly, sending a small and painful shockwave rippling through my body. For a time I didn’t move, face pressed into the beach, air being forced through compressed nostrils and carrying with it painfully sharp particles of sand that scratched their way down the path to my lungs. I wondered if sand in the lungs caused irreparable damage. I wondered if I’d live long enough for irreparable damage to matter, I wasn’t sure I cared either way.
Turning my neck even slightly to the right triggered a remarkably similar amount of pain. I sighed, carefully pushed myself up on all fours, and reached my hand back to attempt to massage the knot out of my neck. The freshly sun-burnt skin on my neck felt smooth, save for a thin strand of fishing line and some caked on particles of sand quickly drying in the hot northern sun.
“No. Please, no,” I said, surprising myself that it was out loud. My voice sounded rougher than it should, and as it made its way through the sentence something dislodged inside of my throat, snapping back into my lungs. I keeled back toward the ground in a fit of heavy searing coughs. More water. More blood. Less blood than water this time though; that was a good sign. Tears flowed from my eyes. I couldn’t tell if it was because of the pain that coursed through my body or the wall of depression that started forming inside of me as I realized the significance of the fishing line I had felt when I had reached my hand up to the back of my neck. Yesterday, a similar motion would have been greeted by the feeling of a band of seashells, carefully chosen and even more carefully threaded. Now they were broken, the thin, almost invisible, strand of wire the only thing that remained of the necklace and all that it signified.
I slammed my fist into the sand, listening to the dull thud and feeling the grains sprinkle across my back as they were displaced by the repeated pounding. I think that was about the time when I realized I was not alone.
The tears still fell, but I choked back the racking painful sobs and froze like a deer that had just sensed a predator nearby. I took care to keep my head pointed down, and forced my eyes to stretch until they hurt in order to attempt to survey my surroundings. There, about ten feet away I saw the bare feet of another man. His skin was much darker than mine, though not as dark as the nomadic tribes of the far north. That was a relief at least. The Elnuur, my people, told stories of the northern tribes and their penchant for cannibalism, and how they liked nothing more than white meat. I was relatively sure they were just stories, but that was a theory I was glad not to have to test on this particular day. These feet were olive colored, and covered with a thick mat of wiry black hair. After a few more impossibly long seconds of cautious stillness, I made the assumption that had the stranger wanted to kill me, he likely would have done so already, and decided to press my luck by getting a better look.
The rest of the man’s body, or at least the parts of it that weren’t clothed, were just as olive skinned and even more covered in hair than his feet. His pants ended shortly below the knee, and were dripping wet. He wore a loose fitting and low collared shirt that was clearly handmade. Emerging from the low collar was a curly wreath of chest hair that flowed up continuously into a long beard that was liberally treated with what I assumed to be a scented oil and formed into a single, sharp point. The hair on his head was also oiled and combed back behind his ears. It fell down to his shoulders in a flowing mane. His pitch black eyes glinted happily and bright white teeth sparkled underneath the flushed cheeks that anyone who had ever had the pleasure could determine were the result of ample amounts of wine. I brought myself slowly and cautiously to my feet. This time my knees didn’t buckle under my weight. I held both my palms outstretched toward him hoping he understood the gesture as an attempt to communicate that I meant him no harm.
My head swam as I straightened my back. The stranger’s brow furrowed in concern at what I assume was my pained expression, but as I collected myself his smile returned. He closed his eyes, leaned his head back, and spread his arms wide. I was glad his eyes were closed because I was fairly certain the look of incredulity that had plastered itself over my face would have been offensive to him. Piecing together the few clues I had, I was quickly developing a strong suspicion I would not have been alive at that moment had he not pulled me from the water. I racked my brain, trying to remember any piece of information that might give me a clue what race this stranger belonged to, and how to navigate my way through this bizarre ritual I found myself a part of. My throat suddenly became very dry and my heart pounded in my chest, because despite the man’s bright smile, friendly eyes, and currently harmless demeanor, I could not help but notice the glinting of the impossibly sharp tip of the knife tucked into the thick band of leather he used as a belt.
The professor looked nothing like I expected. Generally, people think of professors as bookish, parochial men. The stereotype, like most, was not built without ample evidence. The academy was a very insular place. Those smart enough for scholarship or rich enough for matriculation tended to keep to themselves. Those that chose to remain there as professors tended to embody that introversion more than anyone, but there were opportunities for those of us not fortunate enough to attend the academy to see them. The Exhibition, of course, was the most common, an annual event where the most distinguished academics would showcase their research to the rest of the Elnuur, and of course, during Outreach, even those of us without the fortune to be able to afford or be granted admission were able to take some of the more basic classes at a greatly reduced, though still painfully prohibitive, rate.
Outreach was a fairly recent addition to the function of the academy, a result of a violent outburst about two decades prior we’d taken to calling the Uprising of the Common Man. The title, I believe, was an attempt to convince everyone that it wasn’t essentially an anarchistic riot, and perhaps massage away the fact that numerous innocent people had died, most of whom were academics that had little to do with the tuition rates at the academy. I’m not sure what they called the uprising inside the safety of their walls but I can’t imagine it was anything remotely as grand and inspiring as the Uprising of the Common Man. In any event, in response to the heavy-handed critique of the poorer citizens of Elnuur, the Academy created Outreach, which was the reason I was currently sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a stuffy room in Eastport, looking at a professor that appeared to be anything but.
He had a full head of windswept hair, and his cleanly shaved face revealed a large cleft in an even larger chin. He was someone you’d carve into marble: rippling muscles pulling up tightly against his clothes, smiling in a way that made everyone in attendance feel uncomfortably inadequate. In the half a millennium that has passed since the establishment of the Academy and Republic, it has become increasingly difficult to imagine how the term academic used to be associated with brilliant and capable leaders who fought to free us from an oppressive dogmatic tyranny and bring us into this age of enlightenment. The stereotypical professor wasn’t likely to raise his voice in an argument, let alone lead an army. If all professors looked like this man, it would be much easier to visualize. I found myself hating him in spite of the fact that he had yet to say a word.
“Looks like we’ve got a lot of future captains here today,” the professor said as his eyes scanned the room, finally resting on me. “Not you, though, I should think,” he said, with an erudite tone that did nothing to soften the blow. It was true. If anyone in the room were to be branded as an academic, it would probably have been me. I sank into my chair and fumed, my hatred now fully justified in my mind. He had raised his voice at the end of his statement, indicating he was expecting a response. When I didn’t give him one the room grew uncomfortably silent for what felt like far too long before he finally shrugged and continued. He floated effortlessly around the room as he spoke, overflowing with a self-assurance that commanded attention.
“Regardless, you’re all here because you’ve chosen a career that takes you out beyond the safety of the shores of Elnuur and into the vast, dangerous, and complex world. Most of your education will be about handling the financial and managerial aspects of your careers, balancing budgets, paying your crew, handling tariffs, plotting efficient courses across the seas, and maximizing profits by analyzing differences in prices across trade routes, but perhaps alone amongst these obvious and practical choices sits cultural anthropology. Most of you probably don’t even know what it is, let alone why it’s required. But imagine, at some point in the distant and unknowable future, your ship runs aground, or you’re attacked by a marauding band of pirates while on a trade route that forces you up against the forbidden sea and you’re forced to take refuge on one of the still numerous continents without the strong presence of Peacekeepers. What then? Well, at that point, my fellow adventurous souls, at that point cultural anthropology might just save your life. Is it likely to happen? Perhaps not, but, as I’m sure many of you have learned already, in a long life at sea the unlikely seems to occur far more often than probability would suggest, and it’s best to be prepared.”
I rolled my eyes at his failed attempts at convincing me I hadn’t just been forced to waste a hundred marin on yet another pointless course “required” for my bookkeeper’s certification. At least the course was right after lunch. I always enjoyed a good nap after a meal.
Think! I thought furiously to myself, trying to will some scrap of information I had half gleaned from my professor’s numerous self-absorbed lectures from what was fast approaching a decade ago. Come on, you can remember, you have to remember.
The olive-skinned man was still standing there, arms outstretched, eyes shut tight, his chest and neck thrust toward me, a relaxed smile still painted on his face. Fragments of memories flashed through my mind: the professor’s piercing blue eyes, how uncomfortable his smile made me feel, carefully drawn images of other cultures being passed around class, followed by the dread of knowing there was a chance of being put on the spot and asked to answer a question when I just wanted to disappear and listen. Then other, unrelated memories sprung forth: the awkwardness of my youth, how every time I passed by the reflective glass of a nobleman’s window, or still water in the sunlight, or looked in the mirror, I loathed my own appearance.
My mind raced. I remembered standing on the beach with my mother when I was seven, looking out at the ocean seemingly stretching out endlessly before us, and how strong she always was, despite the cane. I remembered Pierce looking up from the table after beating me in batons that first time, and how his smile made me feel safe. I remembered the way Jerod looked at me before he pushed the door closed, locking me outside.
I remembered Kelara, I remembered the way she furrowed her brow when deep in concentration, and the way she looked into my eyes and made me feel beautiful for once. I remembered all the different ways she smiled. And I remembered the first time we were together, how we lost ourselves in each other, her breath quickening, our noses brushing past each other as we kissed, and the way she laughed when I was inside her, not a judgmental laugh, no trace of condemnation, just pure and uninhibited joy.
Then I remembered I would never see her again. I’d never see any of them ever again. My friends, my love, everyone I’d ever met, everyone I’d ever known. My chest felt hollow, tears welled up in my eyes. I was never going to remember anything, this strange man was going to open his eyes, stab me with his knife and leave me to die alone on the beach and that would be the end of it. I wondered how the blade would feel, sliding into my gut, I wondered what it felt like to die, I wondered-
“You need to focus.”
“Because you’re laughing at me.”
“I’m not laughing at you!” she said, bursting into laughter.
“You were laughing at me with your eyes.”
“I’m sorry I was laughing at you with my eyes, whatever that means.”
“I forgive you.”
“Well, thank goodness for that. Now focus.” She flipped over the card, revealing a crude drawing of a man with arms stretched wide.
“Well?” she said, after I was silent for far too long.
“That drawing is terrible,” I stalled.
“I’m not stalling!”
“I never said I was an artist!”
“Well how am I supposed to tell what sort of person that is? I can’t see what clothes he’s wearing, I can’t see the color of his skin, I can’t see whether or not he’s got a beard.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
“How is this being ridiculous? Are those not valid ways to determine a person’s race?”
“They are, but they’re not the only ways.”
“Well, it’s how I studied”
“Well… it’s how I would have studied.”
“You’re being ridiculous!”
“I’m not being ridicu-”
“There are five different cultures on Yetula, they all have the same color skin, four of them wear the same sorts of clothes, and three of them have the same sorts of beards. How will you tell them apart? Do you really think your professor won’t ask you to tell them apart tomorrow?”
“So what you’re saying is,” I gestured toward the card, “he’s from Yetula.”
“I’m saying you have everything you need. Now focus.”
“Sim… Simmaran?” I said to myself, and the man’s eyes snapped open. He took a step toward me, saying something in a rough and consonant-heavy language. It sounded angry, but he didn’t look angry. I wasn’t sure whether to trust my eyes or my ears. I shook my head.
“No,” I said frowning as if that were an effective explanation. “Only Elnuur.” I shrugged. He took a half step back, and frowned.
Whatever well of memories I had been fortunate enough to draw the name of his race from had seemingly gone dry. I didn’t recall much about the Simmaran people, but that may have been a good thing. We didn’t spend much time talking about the races that weren’t actively hostile to the Elnuur. I seemed to remember that our people may have stepped in to help settle a conflict on the Simmaran’s behalf at some point in the past, but that may have been my imagination. In any event, I had by now come to the determination that what the Simmaran had done was some form of greeting ritual, and made the assumption that it was likely polite in Simmaran culture to reciprocate the gesture.
“Worth a try,” I said to myself and closed my eyes reluctantly. I spread out my arms and leaned my head back, as the Simmaran had done, realizing as I did so how vulnerable this position made me. If he decided to use his knife he would have clear access to my throat, which suddenly felt very dry. I swallowed deeply, and while I waited, I started to take stock of what had brought me to this shore.
To one gazing upon a map, it would seem as if all other lands had been pulled toward Elnuur, as if it possessed some form of magical force that reeled them in, some great charisma that allowed even the earth itself to be charmed. Even the wind could not escape Elnuur’s pull. No matter where I was, if I put the wind at my back, I always knew I would be facing home. It was the sort of comfort you’d take for granted until it was gone.
I had been traveling; it was a part of my job. I was a bookkeeper, which made me responsible for documenting the various collections from the outlying territories. Being an Elnuur came with advantages: security, medicine, and frequently wealth. But of course those advantages came with a price. Most of our people lived on the island that shared our name. It was a small island, and a prosperous culture, so space for farmland on our island was limited and valuable, and many goods had to be imported.
Some of our people had left the island to colonize other lands; others, mostly in the south, had been a part of cultures that appeared indistinguishable from the Elnuur when we first discovered them. At the time, we assumed they were long lost brothers and sisters, descendants of survivors of long forgotten shipwrecks. This was in the days of the Old Elnuur, before the Academy and the Republic. The Elnuur had always been a sea-faring society, but in the days of the Old Elnuur we were far less civilized. We take what is ours, was a common mantra among our people, and what was ours was whatever we could get away with taking. Raiding parties sailed from Elnuur with every new moon, and when they returned their ships were overflowing with the fruits of their labor. Of course there are certain things that can be taken and also be left behind. So whether these people were truly the descendants of ship-wrecked Elnuur, other cultures that happened to closely resemble ours, or the inevitable byproduct of men with strong blood “taking what is theirs” is a mystery lost to time. In any event, in a shocking and rare example of tolerance, our culture opened our arms to these discovered people and instantly expanded their reach. These people, their land, and the land of those that had more recently migrated from our home combined to form the outlying territories.
Every year taxes are collected from all citizens of Elnuur. The Senate is responsible for deciding both the amount of tax and whether or not the tax will be levied against raw materials, money, or both. I can’t remember a year when they didn’t collect money, but it wasn’t uncommon in years of plenty to forgive the tax on raw materials. Most native Elnuur aren’t involved in the growth or production of raw materials due to the limited land area on which we live. Instead, the bulk of our careers are centered around production, importing, trading, or, most frequently, fishing, and as taxes are handled differently for all ships, the goods tax rarely had a significant impact.
The outlying territories were another matter entirely. It didn’t take long for the territories to discover a loophole. The monetary tax was based on a percentage of earned marin at the time tax was collected, so, for the most part, the outlying territories simply did not use marin. Being Elnuur citizens, they had to accept marin when it was offered, but there was no rule that it was the only currency they could accept, and certainly no law that forbade bartering, so that was exactly what they did. Given that they lived so far from Elnuur itself, it was rare for them to do any sort of business that earned them marin, and, as a result, at tax time on years without a goods tax, the collections from the outlying territories were typically low, and of no real import to those who lived abroad.
During years of excessive drought or rain, however, the roles reversed. Typically, the Senate would forego, or greatly reduce, the percentage of the monetary tax in exchange for demanding a tax on goods. In theory, this should have resulted in the same net impact for the non-native Elnuur, but because they were manipulating the system in order to avoid taxes in years of plenty, during times of great need they were forced to suffer a heavy burden.
It is unfortunate that when you give away something for free, most people are unwilling to pay in the future. We were, at that point, in our fourth dry year on the isle, which had been preceded by nearly a decade of plenty. The more agrarian citizens on the outlying territories had extra land to farm with, thus extra food. So the Senate had decided to act, collecting a comparatively large goods tax and distributing the collected food to the markets to keep food prices low. Of course, these citizens had gotten used to the extra food, and had been perfectly content to take full advantage of the rights of the Elnuur while times were good, but now that they needed to pay for these advantages, things often got a little rough. Being bookish, weak, and, I am ashamed to say, a little overweight, I was in no position to collect these wares. That job required a person who could be a bit more persuasive than myself. However, as I had gone through several years of Outreach and I knew my numbers, that provided me the unique opportunity to document, record, measure, and assign value to all of the items collected.
It had all seemed so glamorous at first, being a bookkeeper, getting a chance to see the world, to visit the colder south with its great pines that grew higher than the tallest building, to the warm north with its palm trees and white sands, and of course there was the fact that the entirety of my work for the year would be completed during the harvest and in the several months that followed as taxes were collected, leaving the rest of the year for relaxation and entertainment. When you combine those virtues with a generous salary for someone not fortunate enough to be born into the nobility, most would say I had a job to envy.
I spent the rest of the year in my luxurious room above the Reef’s End Tavern, right on the outskirts of the city near the beach. It was nine months of rest, and that’s exactly what I was heading toward right before I found myself stranded on a beach coughing up bloody omens of who knows what. I had hoped to have olives with dinner. I had hoped we still had the rare wine I had picked up from the Belderese traders on the north side of town near my home. I had hoped to see Kelara again.
I shuffled my legs, waiting for a sign that I could open my eyes. I had no idea how long to keep them closed for. I heard the man mumble something low and throaty, hacking up his words as if he had run through a field of dustweed in the springtime. He was, as far as my ears could gather, somewhere behind me to the left. I jumped slightly, heart pounding in my chest but forcing myself not to move for fear that I would inadvertently break the rules of this strange greeting ritual I was participating in. I hadn’t heard him move so the location of his voice startled me. I heard the sound of some leaves rustling and his footsteps heading into the woods several feet away from the beach. I heard him come back, breathing heavily. I heard him again saying something very faint, but clearly directed at me, this time from my right.
“Eleck non waiess,” he said, sounding angry. I heard him head toward the jungle and come back again. It didn’t sound like he was talking to me. I was unsure whether or not this was a test, so I kept my eyes shut waiting for something that sounded more kind, or at least a friendly tap on the shoulder, just to be sure my greeting was sufficient.
“Eleck non waiess,” he repeated. I hoped that my slight movement earlier had not offended him. He paced to the left, then to the right, his heels kicking sand onto my calves. I could feel it sticking to the wet hairs on my leg. I could feel the sun drying the salt onto the back of my neck. I could feel a single bead of sweat trickling down my back, excruciatingly hesitant on its voyage to rest along my belt, which was digging its way into my skin and grinding the sand caked to my body into my hip bones. Still I did not move, and I did not open my eyes.
“Eleck non waiess,” he said a third time, more forcefully, and I heard the unmistakable sound of his knife being pulled against his thick leather belt. I gulped, suddenly even more aware of how exposed my throat was. I strained to hear anything else, any sign of this man’s intent, beyond, of course, what I could discern from the fact that he had just drawn his weapon. The world gave me no such clue. I couldn’t hear anything.
The sun shone warm and red through my eyelids as I adjusted to the darkness I had willingly subjected myself to. Gradually I realized, in the absence of the man’s speech and movement, there were some things I could hear. I could hear my breath ragged in my lungs as they worked through the last traces of ocean water. I could hear the waves beating themselves upon the sand as if they wanted to pull it into the depths. I could hear birds. I could hear the wind dancing across the sand. I felt it pick up the finest grains and brush them around my ankles. The breeze pulled droplets of water through my hair and pressed my wet shirt against my chest. It swept around my outstretched arms and sent a chill rushing under my armpits. Something moved in front of me, blocking the sun from my eyes. Likely the Simmaran moving in for the kill. Now that he was close, I could hear his breathing, shallow tense breaths as if he were nervous. Well, at least he wasn’t taking my death lightly.
I wiggled my toes inside my leather moccasins, feeling them stretch and pull on the balls of my ankles. I could feel the sun and the wind, and the weight of the air on my arms, and the weight of the shirt on my body. My arms started to waiver. I hadn’t even noticed how heavy they felt. I decided that this was not such a bad way to die, with the weight of the world surrounding me and nothing left to lose. I felt the heart-crushing weight of what I had already lost. Then I felt a bone-crushing weight against my ribs. Then I felt weightless. Then I felt nothing.
Nicholas Collins is a Sci-Fi and Fantasy Novelist posting his novel Day Four a chapter at a time here on Medium. Stay tuned for more and please consider supporting him on Patreon.