Day Four — Chapter Two
It’s the strangest feeling, being unconscious. What surprised me most after waking up was the fact that it felt nothing like sleeping. I had always imagined that because the two looked so alike on the outside, it would only be natural for them to feel alike on the inside. Rather than feeling rested however, it simply seemed as if I had closed my eyes in one location, and opened them in the next. Of course, it was also accompanied by a crushing pain and an abrupt sense of vertigo as my body slowly realized I was not standing upright anymore, but rather lying down on my back. My body writhed unexpectedly as my feet sent the urgent signal to my brain that they were no longer making contact with the ground. My brain attempted to return the signal that there was nothing to worry about, but that just made my head hurt more. It was a consistent, searing pain as if something was pressing up against my left temple.
As I slowly regained consciousness, fear flowed back into my body as if a dam had burst. I had heard horror stories of men who had been struck in the head and felt fine shortly afterward, only to die unexpectedly in their sleep the very next evening. Or, worse, of men who had lived, but were never the same again. They became more prone to violence, blind, deaf, mute, lame, vegetative. Better to be swallowed by the sea than to live half of a life, always remembering the man you once were. I heard most who fell victim to this fate took their own lives rather than live with the burden that they’ll always be less than they once were.
I wriggled my toes. I could feel them stretching against my shoes just as they had on the beach. I rolled my shoulders, they responded. I listened carefully. I heard the sound of crickets. Good. Everything seemed to be in order so far. I said the first thing that came to mind.
“Ow.” Clever. But at least I could speak.
I opened my eyes to find that they stung. I blinked to try and clear them of dust, and was halfway to bringing my hand up to massage them when I realized I couldn’t see anything. My heart practically stopped. Had I gone blind? It was then that I noticed my hand out of the corner of my eye. I wasn’t blind. It was just nighttime. Was it night when I was on the beach? No, it had been warm and sunny. Evidently I had hit my head harder than I thought. I sat up abruptly and took stock of my surroundings.
I was in what I later learned to be a typical Simmaran home, but at first glance it appeared I was just outside. The Simmaran pride themselves on their ability to blend their architecture with nature. It is a skill at which they are quite adept, and as such their homes typically seem to be carved out of the land itself. Trees, earth, glass, baked clay, wood, and blown glass are all expertly intertwined in order to form something so natural that, if the Simmaran goal is achieved, seems like nothing is there at all.
It is always important in a Simmaran home to have a clear view of the sky. In this particular abode, towering tree limbs and expertly blown glass formed a roof so clear you wouldn’t know it was there unless you were looking for it, and even then it would have been difficult to see. The Simmaran I had met earlier was nearby sitting on a low-hanging branch and tending to a fire built atop a mound of earth that would have appeared perfectly in place if not so conveniently positioned for this very purpose. He looked toward me, his already dark-colored eyes blackened completely by the night and his tanned skin flickering in the firelight. The beard he kept so carefully manicured seemed to fade into the darkness. He nodded slowly, pushed himself off the branch and wove a path around a rock that was a table, a small patch of tall grass that was a bed, and a small group of nightbloom just beginning to flower at the base of the tree, a tree that formed the rafters of this nearly invisible home. He showed great care in every footstep. His hands gently wrapped around one of the lower branches of the tree, steadying himself as he ducked beneath it and out into the night.
At the time, I had no knowledge of a typical Simmaran home, or any aspect of their culture beyond their name, the one bit of helpful information I had gained from my cultural anthropology class. Evidently knowing the name of this man’s race was not enough to prevent me from being knocked unconscious and taken prisoner, which is what I could only assume had happened. I was also in no condition to stand, so rather than take my chances on a daring escape I decided to at least wait until morning before resorting to foolish bravery. I imagined that if the Simmaran wanted to kill me, I would have been dead already. Still, I was unsure of why he had left me alone next to a campfire, in what at the time I had assumed to be some random clearing in the wilderness.
I waited several minutes in silence before I heard a rustling outside. The Simmaran ducked back under the tree branch and stood to the side. He was immediately followed by another Simmaran, this one slightly shorter and with a beard that grew to three points, one on either side that seemed to stretch from his jawline straight toward the floor, and a longer point in the center growing from his chin. The Simmaran with the three-pointed beard spoke.
“We’ve been talking about you, friend,” said Three-Points in rough Elnuur, his consonants rolling into each other muddily.
“Oh?” I said. “Why would that be?”
“It was said that you are so trusting that you stood facing a complete stranger with arms outstretched and chest bared for near a quarter an hour.” He smiled and gestured to the other Simmaran, the one whom I had confronted on the beach, who had knocked me unconscious and carried me here.
“Oh… Yes, I suppose I did.”
“I am thinking that you must be a great and powerful man to be so trusting of my brother, Niluwe.” At that Niluwe, who had been silent up until this point said something in Simmaran and laughed mischievously.
“And what does he think?” I asked, gesturing with my head toward Niluwe and immediately regretting it, as the sharp motion sent stabs of pain echoing through my head.
“My brother, Niluwe?” he asked, grinning. “ He thinks you are an idiot.”
“He’s not far from the truth there,” I responded sheepishly.
“Trusting and trustworthy! We shall get along fine,” he responded and clapped me painfully on the back.
Self-deprecation is highly honored among Simmaran society as it is their opinion that only the humble can truly respect others. It was an idiom of the Simmaran that vanity is for those who stare into the water. The Simmaran do not have the mirrors that we had in Elnuur, from choice, not from lack of aptitude, I’d imagine, as the Simmaran are renowned for their ability to make glass. As a result, those who are too concerned with keeping up appearances tend to spend a little too much time staring at themselves in lakes and puddles. The phrase, I later learned, was also meant as a backhanded insult to the Elnuur, in reference to our love of the sea.
“So, my friend, what brings you to Simmar?” Three-Points asked, his thick eyebrows raising with genuine interest. Simmar, a small part of a relatively large northern island called Yetula, was not technically a part of Elnuur territory, though there had, in the past, been an Elnuur presence here. The bulk of the land was divided into five main factions, none of which had any regular dealings with our people. Nonetheless, the Elnuur acted as peacekeepers, arbiters, negotiators, and humanitarians as a method of keeping order in the lands that fell along our trade routes, even if those involved in the inevitable conflicts did not directly ally themselves with our Senate. Simmar was far enough toward the north that it was odd to find an Elnuur citizen in that country unless they wore the red sash and collar of the peacekeepers. It would be wise to assume Three-Points was genuinely interested in my arrival to Simmar, less because he was being friendly and more because he was being cautious.
“I was traveling. Sailing. It’s part of my job. I was shipwrecked and I washed up here.”
Three-Points turned to Niluwe and said something in Simmaran, Niluwe responded and nodded. Three-Points responded with a nod of his own and turned back to me.
“Perhaps you can tell us something. Today the land shook and we heard a noise louder than any I have ever heard. It came from the ocean to the south. Then you wash ashore, and you also came from the ocean to the south. Do you know what caused this noise? Do you know what happened?”
I looked down at my feet. I stretched my toes anxiously until I could feel the leather pulling at my ankles.
“Yes,” I said. “I know what happened.”
The ship I was on had navy blue sails. The wind gusted, sending dancing reflections across the water and making the already taut main sail vibrate, sending ripples of sound and pressure through the air. The sound was a rough, intermittent hum, and I felt the pressure deep in my ears, near the point where they drained into my throat.
Today the great sea had blessed us with perfect sailing weather. The sun shone bright on my face as I made my way to the bow of the ship. The Elnuur sailed with no flags, but our ships were unmistakable: dark red wood hulls, navy sails, white rigging, silver lettering across the stern. No one in the world could build a ship as good as the worst of our fleet. This is because the Elnuur were made for sailing. It was in our blood. It was said that the blood of the Elnuur tasted saltier than the blood of other races. That was a legend I had never had the opportunity or inclination to verify.
A large sail had been unfurled at the bow of the ship and it was filled proudly with rushing air. It was a favorable wind, but that was not uncommon as no matter which way you sailed from, all winds pointed toward Elnuur. The wind today seemed especially fair, though, and none of us were complaining. Three months abroad was enough time, even for natural-born sailors. In the last few weeks especially, a melancholy had come over all of the crew, collectors, laborers, and myself, the lone bookkeeper. But today, none of that could be found. Today we were going home.
Even though I had been a bookkeeper for almost a decade, I still always wanted to be at the bow of the ship and topside for the return voyage. A part of me knew it wouldn’t get me there any faster, but I loved to see the land appearing slowly above the horizon, fading from the distant fog that always existed when you were sailing the great ocean. To watch the waters become more calm as we entered the shelter brought by the Hands of Elnuur, hundreds of natural towers of rock that spread from our island home like arms, reaching out to all the other islands and continents. To see the hints of the blue and white banners hanging majestically from the Senate building, the spiraling white tower of the Academy, and to watch as the detail increased exponentially with every passing second as we got closer to the dock, closer to a fresh meal, closer to drinks, celebration, relaxation, and closer to Kelara, my love.
I did not speak of her when working. I had made that mistake once, and regret it to this day. Collecting was a rough trade, and attracted a group of people who enjoyed the rougher things in life. To a collector, love, like property owed, was for the taking. They questioned my reasons for loyalty, they questioned my motivations, but mostly they questioned her. She’s much too young and beautiful, they said, after hearing my description of her. What possible reason would she have to stay loyal? Three months is a long, lonely time for a woman that… capable. I was disgusted, but mostly I was worried. The three months that followed that conversation were the longest of my life. When we finally put our backs to the wind and began our journey home, I spent the whole trip sweating, and the entire world looked as if I were peering at it from a dark tunnel. When the ship finally pulled into port and the gangplank was lowered, I raced back to my home, hoping I would find her there, as always. Worried what I would see, now that the seed of her potential deceit had been planted in my head.
She was there, holding wildflowers in her hands. Even before she came running over happily, before she put her arms around me, before she showered me with kisses, before she even had a chance to prove her affection, all my worry had evaporated. Kelara had something in her eyes that put me at ease, a glittering, a happiness that had to be love. Still, even as we embraced, even as she told me of her three months and I told her of mine, a small pin-prick of worry was draining my rapidly filling heart. Her smile was so comforting, so reassuring. Was I the only one who was being comforted?
Of course, when they had attacked her honor, I defended her. I was loyal. What reason would she have to falter? They laughed at this, pointing to my gut, my height, and many other imperfections I hadn’t even noticed about myself before. I asked with whom she could be disloyal, who wouldn’t respect the fact that we were engaged? Well, unofficially engaged. I hadn’t yet been able to afford a golden necklace, as it was a luxury that typically only was in the realm of nobility. I could have purchased a silver necklace, but I felt it beneath her. I was determined, but also impatient. So we had made a pair of necklaces out of sea shells as a placeholder, stringing them delicately together with the near invisible netting wire used by the fishermen. She said it was better than gold. I had believed her. I had never been happier. Who would betray that? I still remember his response; his name was Jerod. He was one of the collectors, a brutish, impossibly tall man, his arms covered in tattoos. His voice slurred as he spoke.
“If she’s as pretty as you say, I might have a go at her. Married woman are so desperate for something wild. Necklaces can be removed after all, and put back on easily enough afterwards. But don’t worry, if I ever see her walking the docks, I’ll be sure to let you know. After I’ve had my fun, of course.”
I felt an anger welling up in me like nothing I had experienced. I balled my hand into a fist and launched myself at him, hitting him as hard as I could. He didn’t even flinch. My fist bounced off him like he was made of bricks. He just laughed at me. He didn’t hit back, didn’t even acknowledge I had hit him.
“Women want strength,” he chuckled. “A man like me! You, you are passing thirty and still a boy.”
He was right. This was the closest thing to a fight I had ever been in, besides being mugged once, on my way through the Bazaar. I’m not you can count someone else hitting you as being in a fight though. In any event, this was the first time I had shown anything resembling outward aggression to another person and it hadn’t even been worthy of a counterpunch. He laughed and clapped me on the back. For an hour afterwards, I kept smiling, joking, pretending nothing was wrong, just so they could see it hadn’t affected me as much as we all knew it had. Then I politely excused myself, tears welling up in my eyes before I closed the door to my room. I felt terrible, and not just because I had failed to adequately defend her honor. I was ashamed I had resorted to violence. It was just a gut reaction, I had no intention of actually hurting him, but my fist seemed to have a mind of its own in that moment.
The fact that I had been weak enough to escape Jerod’s wrath that night is not to say I escaped retribution entirely. My punch may have been too weak to draw his anger or direct acknowledgement, but I did draw his attention. He made an effort whenever possible from that point on, particularly when inebriated, to seek out ways to emasculate me further. His favorite tactic was to pick me up, cradle me like a woman would a newborn baby, and carry me out of whichever room in the ship they had chosen to drink in that night. He, amidst the uproarious laughter of his fellow shipmates would then proceed to unceremoniously drop me on the floor. Then as he pulled the door closed behind himself, locking me out for the remainder of the evening, he’d glance back over his shoulder smiling, and say “Sorry, men only.” Then he would leave me to spend the rest of the night alone, the dull echo of muted music and celebration my only companion, usually blocked off from my own quarters by the party that had continued in my absence. Honestly, I didn’t mind the solitude, but I could have done without the embarrassment. I can’t say exactly that my failed attempt to hurt him on the night he questioned Kelara’s integrity was what drew his attention toward me, but it seemed it was the most likely culprit.
That fight had been four years ago. The pain had faded. Even that little pin-point of doubt that had persisted when I first returned home had faded to a point beyond recognition by the time we were eating dinner. This was Kelara. She was my friend. If she had wanted to be elsewhere she certainly had more than enough opportunities. I had never told her about the fight. I can’t imagine she would have approved. Kelara wasn’t one for tradition, and the idea that I thought I had to defend her honor would have caused her to question if I believed she was incapable of defending it on her own. She was, of course, perfectly capable, almost assuredly more capable than I. I loved that about her. I loved everything about her.
I remembered the first year after I had asked her to marry me, returning from my travels. I remember seeing the pale untanned skin beneath the shells of the necklace. I remember how happy that made me. I loved her. I trusted her. I just… I didn’t know how she could possibly feel the same. What could she see in me? Was I as beautiful to her as she was to me? And yet, every year she’d be waiting with wildflowers when I came home. Every year she smiled, every year she shook and quivered and gasped and every year she convinced me again. This was love. It was something that collectors, rich men, senators, and even poets knew nothing about. It was mine and hers and it was beautiful and it was perfect.
And it was gone. And I watched it go.
Four years later, I watched the land come into view from the bow of the ship, but I wasn’t watching the land. I was watching her picking flowers. I watched the water, calm as glass. We were finally in the arm’s embrace. They say the still ocean water that surrounds Elnuur is one of the most beautiful sights in the known world. They say if you look when the sun is in just the right position you can see straight through to the bottom of the ocean, that there are fish down there that glow as bright as fire and have teeth long and sharp enough to remove a man’s leg in one bite. It was the right time of day, but I wasn’t watching the water. I was watching her standing in the doorway of our room about the tavern, then walking to the chaise, then back to the doorway, unable to keep still, excited for my return. I watched the blue and white banners just begin to come into focus on the Senate building, and the giant spire of the Academy just begin to come into view, but I wasn’t watching the banners and towers, I was watching her place a hand gently on the necklace of sea shells, feeling the quickening of her heart beat. We were ten minutes from shore when I felt my calves tense automatically to adjust to the rocking of a very large wave. My left leg rose and my right leg pressed down as if I were the one rocking the boat and not the other way around. It happened without my thinking, but it caught my attention. It was rare to see a wave this large inside the bay.
I looked over the edge of the bow and saw that the water was dark. Darker than the deepest parts of the great central sea. Darker than even the forbidden waters past the outlying territories. Darker than nightfall. The wind suddenly stopped and the sails drooped as if all life had been sucked from the air around us. The boat was hit with another wave, this one coming away from the land, instead of toward it. I didn’t understand. The winds always blew toward Elnuur.
A third wave hit the ship hard. It sent droplets of water spraying over the bow. It felt colder than usual, the mist stinging my exposed arms like small shards of ice. I looked back up toward Elnuur, and saw the little dots of white and navy. I saw the Senate building. I saw the Academy. I saw the hint of the dock. I turned back to look at the sails to see how much wind was at our backs. I caught the eye of one of the deck hands. Pierce, it was his first year as a sailor and we’d become friends during the journey. It was the first time I’d ever spent my time away from home with a friend. He smiled at me, not realizing anything was wrong.
Then I saw Pierce’s eyes widen, looking past me. I turned back. No more than a second had passed since I had turned around, but Elnuur was gone. More than gone, it was like it had never existed in the first place. It wasn’t as if it was swallowed by the ocean. There was no sound, no movement. The land was just gone. There was complete silence. I looked back at all the sailors. They just stared at me, dumbfounded, before looking back toward the wide open sea where Elnuur had been mere seconds ago. There was no wind. There were no more waves. Everything was unnaturally calm, unnaturally still, and unnaturally quiet.
Pierce started speaking. It was actually unfair to call it speech. He was mumbling to himself, the disjointed and incomplete vocalizations that accompany someone too deep in thought to realize other people can hear them. It was a repeated phrase, disappearing into the all-encompassing emptiness that surrounded us as soon as it left his mouth.
“But I, but I am, but I, but I am, but I…”
For what felt like a lifetime that was the only thing I heard. Somehow his quiet mumbling only seemed to amplify the silence that surrounded us.
Then, abruptly, the stillness, and the silence that accompanied it, came to an end.
At first there was a crack, like a tree falling down, but much louder. It echoed as the sound bounced off rich red wood of the hull that surrounded us. Then I felt a low rumble below the ship, below even the ocean itself. And then we started to move forward. I looked back at the sails, but they still hung flat. It was not wind that was pushing us forward, it was the water itself. The ship moved faster and faster, the dark water rushing by the front of the ship tugging us along back toward the void where Elnuur had been just seconds ago. Something about the horizon didn’t look right. I couldn’t place what it was.
The sails started angrily dancing backwards, pressing against the masts that held them in place. Ropes whipped free from their restraints and swung wildly through the air crashing into anything that got in their way, denting wood and bruising flesh. The still and dead air whipped at my face as we flew through it, faster now than any ship had ever sailed. The ropes turned from painful to deadly. I saw one brave sailor try to grab one in an attempt to control it. He grabbed it during a moment where the rope hung slack. Then, as if it had a mind of its own, it whipped furiously away from the brave man, taking the flesh right off the palms of his hands. The rope flipped up into the air, happy to be free, then came crashing back down again, a revenge against the one that dared to try to contain it. It cracked like a whip and tore at the brave sailor’s head, taking chunks of hair and skin and blood with it. The sailor fell down and the rope, stained red with blood, leapt back up into the air again. Three other sailors rushed to attend to him. I needed to get below decks.
I ran frantically toward the stairs, dodging the knotted and thick ropes that danced about the air, sending fine splinters of fragmented wood into the air every time they collided with the hull. The door blocking the stairway swung around madly, slamming itself into the door jam and the wall that contained it in a haphazard rhythm. As I reached the doorway, a large shadow of a man loomed up from inside to meet me. Jerod. He looked at me for a moment, his eyes seemed devoid of all emotion. I looked back up at his eyes, towering above me on a head that looked small compared to his thick shoulders. I was too out of breath from the run back to the door and the shock of the situation to speak, but I’m sure my frantic pleading eyes told him all he needed to know. Please, let me in. I’ll do anything! they screamed, while my mouth hung open, wordless. He frowned at me, but I thought I saw a slight amount of enjoyment in his eyes.
“Sorry,” he said. “Men only.” He slammed the door shut and I heard the sound of a bolt sliding into place. I slammed my fists into the door heavily, screaming I don’t remember what exactly. I do know that every single profane word I had ever heard came pouring out of my mouth as I drove thick painful splinters of wood into my hands with every frantic impact against the bolted door.
I spun around, facing back toward the front of the boat and pushed myself against the rushing inertia away from the door, back toward the front of the ship, my eyes wild with fear, heart racing, when suddenly it felt like the ship dropped out from under my feet. I frantically grabbed for a pair of wooden supports near me, but the boat came flying back toward me faster than I could have realized. The door I was just punishing decided to return the favor, slamming itself into me as the ship lurched forward faster than my body. My knees gave out and I fell onto my stomach and all the air was forced out of my lungs. I gasped for breath and wrapped my arms around a column of thick and polished dark wood, a support for the railing that stretched around the ship, meeting here on either side of the door that barred my entry to what I had hoped would be a comparatively safe place to hide.
The force of the ship’s movement wrenched me around, spinning my legs into the other support beam on the right side of the door. Pain splintered through my shins at the force of the impact. I forced myself to open my eyes as fear had drawn them shut. I saw the dark water form into giant waves tipped with white caps as it frothed hungrily toward where Elnuur, my home, had been, just moments ago. Something still looked wrong. Horror welled up inside of me as I realized what it was: there was a hole in the ocean.
A giant gaping chasm where Elnuur once stood now was draining all the water in what had previously qualified as a bay. It was like a waterfall but it stretched as far as the eye could see, and although it was too far away for me to verify, I knew that on the other side of the hole the same thing was happening. Elnuur was gone, an abyss was all that was left, and we were being pulled toward it, fast.
The ship shook again and I heard the mast start to groan and splinter. I knew if I stayed here I was going to die, swallowed up by the gaping hole where Elnuur once was. The Old Elnuur used to tell tales of the end of days. They had said Elnuur would be swallowed up by the sea, but they never bothered to tell the story of what would happen to the rest of the world in Elnuur’s absence. If they could have spared a page in their prophecies for that information, in particular the area of ocean directly around the now swallowed Elnuur I would have been very grateful at that moment.
I forced myself to my feet. The rumbling noise had now grown to a loud roar. The ship shook again and I nearly lost my balance. I wheeled around the wall that housed the path below decks and I started running toward the aft of the ship. I suppose I thought I’d be more likely to survive the further I got from the pit ahead of us. As I was running, the stern of the ship started to rise up, tearing itself away from the ocean’s surface slowly and deliberately. Boxes and barrels began sliding toward me, gravity forcing them down the ever increasing angle of the ship. I scrambled upwards now, trying to get as far away from the gaping chasm as I could, forced to move forward on my hands and knees in order to keep my balance.
I noticed the dark, almost black, water rise up above the stern, higher and higher, steeper and steeper. I felt the deck pulling itself away from my feet. I saw one of the masts in front of me, just out of arm’s length. I stretched my fingers out, brushing against it, but not enough to get a grip. I knew this would be my last chance. I leapt, just before I lost my balance entirely and the ship tilted too much for me to gain any traction. I stretched my hands out desperately toward the mast and barely managed to wrap my arms around it, hanging on for dear life as the ship tilted slowly toward oblivion. The other people on the ship grappled for handholds. Few were able to find one. Pierce had grabbed onto a railing and lost his grip. He came flying toward me, eyes still as wide as they were when he saw Elnuur vanish. They looked crazed, something beyond terrified. He looked right into my eyes as he fell toward me. His head collided against the mast. His neck snapped back, skull crunching in with the force of the impact, and spraying my face with blood as he went tumbling down below me. I felt the beads of sweat forming on my palms and forearms as I struggled to hold onto the only thing that kept me alive. I thought about how I had never been able to pull myself up with my arms when I was a boy. Pure adrenaline gave me strength I did not know I had. I heard the screams of my shipmates as they fell, but most of all I heard the rushing black water and the splintering wood of the ship tearing itself apart under strains it was never meant to endure.
It was then I realized that the mast my arms were wrapped around was about to break. I shielded my eyes just in time as splinters from the tearing wood flew toward me, it was splitting a few feet above my arms. I looked back toward the top of the mast, now almost horizontal, and immediately wished I hadn’t. It was falling in my direction.
Suddenly I heard a crunching noise and everything lurched to a stop. I was barely able to hold onto the base of the mast as the rest of it went flying over my head and disappeared. I looked around. The front half of the ship was obliterated. I was hanging about ten feet above what appeared to be solid ground. I looked up and saw the bright sun shining in a perfectly clear sky surrounded by the crushing blackness of walls of the dark water quickly closing in around me. I closed my eyes, and felt the unnaturally cold water rush up to meet me. It felt almost gentle.
The air left my lungs, the water that replaced it felt so cold. I thought about the day my cousin drowned and how my mother said that drowning was painless. I wondered how close to death I would have to get before the pain went away. I felt the water pressing me against the shore, shells and rocks tearing small pieces of my skin away as I was pushed past them. I felt the warmth of the sun on my back as the water finally receded. I coughed water and no small amount of blood onto the sand. I remember the shape it made, it looked like a crab.
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.