Fox IslandChapter 10
Evening collapsed, and the sun disappeared behind the mountain. Fox smelled the air; harsh yet pleasant, like sweetgrass caught up in it. A commotion arose at the tree-line. Villagers bounded out of the forest and passed them on the path—a large company racing to the south.
Someone half-heartedly stopped and conversed with Arvor. Arvor was stoic, but Fox sensed an invisible weight on his shoulders. He attempted at receiving more information, but the man was too feverish and already several yards from the two of them. Arvor’s head drooped, and he cursed under his breath.
“What is happening?” Fox asked.
“They think the light of hope has returned to the island,” Arvor said. “Many believe it may have come with you.”
Fox’s brow furrowed. He looked at the villagers brushing passed. They raced by, yet gazed and smiled at him as they went.
“I do not understand,” Fox replied. “Why is hope gone? And why would you believe I am significant enough to make it return?”
“Hope is from the stars,” Arvor replied. “It’s unnatural and doesn’t reward often. And I didn’t say that I believed it.”
“Where are they going?”
“—to the Marshlands.”
Fox sensed the apprehension.
“It was said long ago,” Arvor explained, “that the hope of the Eagle and the cunning of the Fox would meet at Jikanei’s table. They would appease him at last. And the light will shine in the darkness. Those running are those who will to catch the hope.”
“Can you take me?”
The night thickened while the two men came down the mountain. The shadows swindled Fox of his sense of direction for most of the trip. He trusted Arvor finding the path in the darkness. It was rocky and unsympathetic; it bruised his ankles and bloodied his shins. Yet he never took his eyes off of Arvor, the only thing keeping him from being lost forever.
The path evened out; the men entered a glade, and Fox felt a bed of leaves under his loafers. Moonlight shone on his back; they were at the bottom of the mountain. A few more steps and a large canopy concealed the light again. Fox’s eyes remained locked to Arvor’s bobbing head and shoulders.
Shouts of joy and elation sprung from the darkness; miles away men and women were excited about some unseen discovery. The two men came out of the forest. Wet grass brushed his ankles; Clouds shrouded the moon, but Fox knew he was in a field. He smelled the bog now and wondered how much longer it would be.
Arvor dropped into a field of bahia and Fox reciprocated. He wondered if this were the same field he came through before meeting the Liberi.
The two sat, listening to the party ahead of them in the darkness. Fox grew restless.
“No one knows what to expect anymore,” Arvor said. His voice startled Fox. “But your presence has made some hope again. The light is the thing that has made many excited.”
Fox remained silent.
“Do you know what I am speaking of?”
“How could I know about any of this?”
He didn’t see Arvor, but recognized he disappointed him.
The men crept forward beside a large rock enclave. Arvor climbed the obstruction and whispered for Fox to follow. Fox hadn’t learned the art of Arvor’s acrobatics yet and stumbled up. The rock was fibrous and sharp like coquina and scratched his palms. Fox knew where he was. He looked about. In the daytime he would spot the monolith hovering nearby.
Arvor demanded his attention. He bowed his head under a cedar’s limb and lifted it for Fox to come after. When Fox lifted his head underneath, the stench of the marsh hit him like a freight train. Jerking his head away, he gasped for air and spat on the ground.
He coughed and apologized to Arvor. When he lifted his head again, he saw many flickering candlelights bobbing and blinking in the darkness; the lanterns of the villagers searching in the marsh, moving to and fro about the sawgrass and dead banana trees.
“What are they doing?” Fox asked.
“They are searching for hope,” Arvor replied.
Arvor scanned the horizon. “There!” He pointed to the north of the marsh, left of the villagers.
Fox’s mouth fell. He wondered for a moment whether he was dreaming or hallucinating, but every second gave way to reluctant acceptance. A blue glowing orb was floating in the sawgrass, at the center of the marsh. Its light illuminated the grass in greens, blues, and yellows, flickering like a wick dancing in the wind.
“They believe it’s the hope of Aquilei,” Arvor said.
The light held still and shone brightly before a squeal of excitement caught the company and Fox saw the candles converging toward the blue glow. The people were full of joy and delight; Fox imagined them dancing and singing as they raced through the swamp. But it disturbed him. None of it seemed holy.
A dozen candles were approaching the blue orb. Then it disappeared. The company stopped. The laughter ceased. Silence fell and Fox could hear only Arvor’s breathing.
A blinding red light flooded the swampland at the same whereabouts the blue orb was. The light rose and trailed a length of fiery red light behind it. It slithered at a gallop toward the closest candle. In a moment it snuffed the candle out. A shrill chaotic scream came from the darkness, and then silence. Orders were shouted, people hollered. Fox envisioned the confusion in the bog and earnest inquiries being made.
The trailing red light struck again, sailing through the weeds to the next candle. It was snuffed out and another scream. The light grew brighter and raced after another candle and another. Soon a dozen candles were out. Fox heard the sound of feet sloshing out of the bog, running for their lives. Another instant and all the candles were out; silence was ringing in Fox’s ears.
Arvor dropped the cedar branch and let it fall between the men and the incident below. He turned away. “This is what hope gets us,” he mused. “Jikanei has sent Mboî-tatá to teach us again.”
“You’re talking about the will-o’-the-wisp?”
“Fox is confusing.”
“Where I’m from people say the will-o-the-wisp gives travelers false hope and drowns them in the marsh.”
“I suppose Mboî-tatá could have a different name,” Arvor conceded. “But I wouldn’t tell her that.”
Thunder struck, and lightning lit the sky. Fox saw the company returning from the marsh. Their faces were drab and spirits crestfallen. Rain fell.
“Were any lost?” Fox whispered.
“I’m sure many were,” Arvor replied.
“Should we try to help them?”
“The rain will only grow worse.” He stood to his feet. “We should return.”
Out of the darkness rose a long and dreary cry, metallic and breathy, from the lungs of some ancient demon in Fox’s past. Both he and Arvor turned their heads to the east, back into the marsh. The sound trailed off and disappeared. The two men looked at one another and continued on in silence.
Alone in the darkness, the rain pattered on their heads and a steady stream ran under their feet from the mountain above. “What did Ina mean,” Fox asked, “when she said the Voice called her daughter?”
“All life is taken at some point,” Arvor responded. “Just as all life is given.”
“What was the will-o’-the-wisp? Is Jikanei real?”
“Fox is confusing.”
Fox cursed in English. The discussion of myths with a person who absolutely trusted in them was nerve-racking.
“I mean—” Fox thought for a moment. The two passed under a thicket and Fox sniffed sugar maple. “Is Jikanei like the simor and tori (the monkeys and birds)? Can you touch Jikanei or is he in the clouds?”
“Jikanei is all around us, but he lies beyond the Marshlands.”
Fox changed the subject.
“If all life is given, and all life is taken away, who is giving and taking?”
Fox wondered if he offended him. After a few minutes, Arvor seemed to make up his mind. “Watanei—the Sky-god—gives life,” he said. “Jikanei is the end of life.”
“Where is Watanei, the Sky-god?”
“I see what you ask. Watanei is in the clouds, as you say. Jikanei is beyond the Marshlands, from where you came.”
“—and the Voice?”
Arvor was silent.
The village glowed on the horizon; Fox stopped walking. “What happened to the children, Arvor?”
Arvor looked at him. The village’s amber glow illuminated half of his face.
“Why are there so few children among the Liberi?” Fox pressed again.
Arvor sighed. “The Sky-god made Koh. He made the sky, the river, the tree. All that he has made is worth living. He made the monkey, the eagle, the fox and the jika. They are the ones who come before us. That which isn’t worth living is taken beyond the Marshlands.”
“And that is where Jikanei is?”
“And Jikanei is the end of life?”
“Are people sacrificed to Jikanei—is that what happened tonight? Is that what happened to Ina’s daughter?”
Arvor was silent.
“Is Jikanei like the animals or is he in the clouds too? Does he come to people while they sleep in their dreams, or do others take them to him to make him happy?”
Arvor didn’t respond.
“How did the children perish?”
“Those things that the Voice tells us to take to Jikanei—we do not discuss any longer. They are unworthy.”
“What makes them unworthy?”
In all the time Fox was with Arvor, he never witnessed this emotion in his eyes. He was sad. He whispered, “Only the Voice knows that. He is Watano—the Voice of the Sky-god. The one who tells us when the morning rises and when the darkness falls.”
His sadness disturbed Fox. He could not shake the feeling that something ominous was around the corner of discovery. “Where can I find Watano?”
“In a place called Uada. But you cannot go there.”
“You said once it was nearby—”
Arvor’s discomfort was unbearable; he hated the conversation but loved Fox. For the first time since their meeting, Arvor left Fox’s side and wandered away into the darkness alone.