In the days before the disaster, before Sano came down from the mountain, he was a man of great wealth on the island—a farmer of fish. By marriage he held ownership over a wide network of ponds on the island, as well as certain parts of the surrounding sea. These were maintained by a tenured staff at precise depths, temperatures, and salinities to encourage the growth and hatching of fish. Each spring, the staff took Sano down the mountain by cart so he could supervise the transfer of the new hatches to a waterfront matched to them: warm shallows for sea bream, mangroves for shrimps, and his tuna habitat, far down on the lonely coast, where his bluefin grew fat protected by a natural eddy and fetched for him marvelous prices. The staff shipped the fish to the mainland; the staff maintained the boats and the traps; they kept his house and tended his wife. They were knowledgeable about the business and did their jobs well. It was one of the only jobs, in the modern sense, on the island. The rest was the property of ore men and forestry companies, who did not much desire workers, only land. This did not stop the small group of native islanders who did not work for Sano from keeping their own camp. They were not told the land had been leased, and most of the time, they chose on their own to keep out of the way.
Sano had never talked with an islander not under his employ. But the lifestyle he’d inherited was a carefree one, and it lent him a certain imperturbability when, coming down the mountain a month after the storm, he was confronted by the whalebone knife of the wary child Rin.
She shot up, startled, in the middle of the clearing, maybe nine or ten years old in a stunted frame, and menaced him dully, knife held flat, jaw set. She watched him with only one eye. The other was scarred and blistered shut. Her hair was roughly shorn around her face and darker than dark.
Sano could see her heartbeat beneath the skin of her chest and averted his eyes out of modesty. His shyness made her lower her knife.
“Where do you live?” Sano asked. “Are you alone?” Hoping to hear here and no.
Rin assessed him a moment more in silence, then, mind made up, crab-stepped past him and returned to her foraging. Quickly and quiet, she cut a handful of thistles. She examined a fallen tree trunk and, from the hollow inside, excavated a mushroom. She held it close to her face and sniffed it, long enough for Sano to see it too, slime-capped and gray.
Into her mouth it disappeared in one bite.
Sano, who never got mad, who was teased by his wife and his staff for his absence of temper, felt a rush of fury. This careless child—no regard for the forests turning to swamp, no attention to the steady advance of rot, no respect for her own precarious health. No thought at all. She was a child, but even a child should have observed the situation. Even a child should understand the implications of finding herself left in this place alone. “Fool,” he spat.
At this, Rin stopped chewing and hunched over as if caught. She fixed her eye on the ground.
“You understand me,” said Sano, obligated now by embarrassment to close the distance. “You didn’t say anything, so I didn’t realize. I wouldn’t have said it. I’m nice,” he said, holding his hand out though it had nothing in it.
Rin obediently spat the half-chewed mushroom into his palm.
Sano overturned his hand, unsmiling, and the debris hit the dirt. “Be well, then,” he said. He wiped his hand on his trousers and continued down the path, leaving the girl behind.
There would be someone to look after her.
Somewhere on the island, there must be others who had not gotten out. Boats had left one after another from the shore, loaded double capacity; his staff had all evacuated. Before radio contact cut off, Sano had listened to the climbing death tolls from other islands, had heard the promises of aerial aid. But it had been thirty days, and the mainland nursed its own wounds; they would rebuild first their own roads, reestablish their own businesses and trade, erect again their monuments to give the people strength—all of this immaterial to the people who had chosen to stay on the island or who now could not leave. And yet Sano could not be bitter. He had loved the mainland, too; had felt his spirits lifted, while sifting through files on different distributors or trying to fall asleep over the whispering trees on the mountain, by remembering the crisp black of the university uniforms, the sea of students at the spring entrance ceremony; by the remembered glow of golden light and laughter pouring from the bar at night. If there was a place he’d rather have preserved or rebuilt, it was the mainland, and not this place to which he’d come.
But Sano had made this choice. He had been here fifteen years and had long ago acclimated to what the island lacked. He refused to let himself feel unprepared for what it would afford him next. Disaster or none, from the top of the mountain, when he’d emerged from his house, things had looked about the same as always. The sky was ashy as it ever was on a bad autumn day. The line of the sea still stretched flat, dark through the branches of surviving trees. The sea, source and escape, Sano’s inheritance, untouched by disaster because it was the disaster. He had decided he would follow the cart path down the mountain to meet the sea, and though he’d never before taken it by foot, the cart path too was familiar. It was the route he knew, and its difficulties he could manage.
Down the mountain, at the end of the cart path, lay his bluefin habitat, and if there was anything he would like right now, it was the sight of his fish—some, at least—still swimming, still puffing their gills in and out.
Crunching along behind him, rustling through the sedge bushes, he heard an echo of the steps he made. The child Rin, imagining herself secret, her wheeze of apprehension, her timid feet.
“Do you like fish?” he called back to Rin. And when Rin’s response was to brandish her limbs like an overturned crab and crash sideways into a scraggly bush in an attempt to hide, he was surprised to hear the new octave of his voice, of laughing.
Sano never knew Rin’s name, rightly. Ask him what he called her: “Here.” “Quit.” “Watch it,” often, when she failed to look where she put her feet. “Urchin,” sometimes, for the prickling black bush of her hair after a night’s sleep.
Rin knew her name, but being mute, could not have spoke it. She trailed after Sano, following in silence down through the brush forest and then the wet rock ravine in her old shoes. Some days she bellowed out hurt, as her skin squinched shut to wrap the ruined eye, and some days bites from insects seized her with a growling, interminable itch, all up and down her face, in her scalp, in her matted hair.
“Shh,” Sano said most of these days, and “Hush,” wrapping her with cool leaves dipped in the swollen mountain streams. And he called her a new name, “Egg,” for the pinprick scars on her eye, orange like capelin roe.
For food he trapped for them small birds, shrews, and she gathered what growing things could be eaten, as she had done before. (She still felt there had been nothing wrong with the spat-out mushroom.) Sano carried very little, but he carried a box of matches, and with them he set their fires, one each afternoon. When they finished eating, and when they’d each had one hour’s nap, Sano scattered their used-up bones, and he stomped their fire out till it looked like there had been none. He would gesture for Rin to follow, and on they’d walk for as far as one or the other of them could handle, or until it was dark.
Sano refused at night to have a fire alight, or to rest, or to close his eyes. Not that Rin could have importuned him to do so. Not that, the dark swimming upon her only eye, she could have seen.
She knew he was awake because he kept her up with low, unfinished stories. He spoke of his youth on the mainland, and of how it was to live in the house on the top of the mountain. He spoke often of his fish.
“If I were to do it again,” he said, “I think I would devote the whole of the farm to bluefin. It felt unwise at the time to invest in only one fish, and I was told as much at university: diversify, diversify. The bluefin make more money than the rest of the fish combined, but there is risk in counting on just one of anything. Father, too, would disapprove. He’d have married me to more than one wife, if he could’ve, if it meant a better chance at prosperity. This is unfair of me and unkind. He grew up scared of losing money, seeing what happened to others in his business, their land being bought up overnight. I understand he was in a bad position, and his position determined mine. Yet I made my choices within those determinations, and I did fine. For myself, and for my family.”
One night, very tired, Rin made a sound intended to shut him up, a short, high whine of displeasure. “You’re awake?” he said. And then, hurt in his voice, “I didn’t know. You did not say anything to inform me. Now I know.” And for a full day and night he didn’t speak to her.
Which after a while, Rin grew to miss. But being mute, she could say nothing to bring him back. She just had to wait.
They were heading for the shore—she realized this eventually, though Sano’s route was slow and meandering, and she knew quicker ones. They stopped a whole day in the valley at a farmhouse Sano found, dilapidated by the disaster. Rin thought they might stay there, except Sano kept saying reasons they couldn’t: “We might stay here, if it weren’t for the roof rot,” “If it weren’t for how dark it is,” “If it weren’t for the animal smells,” “If it weren’t for the fact we need kindling,” and he cracked the house’s only remaining door in two against his heel. While Sano dried and bundled the torn-down walls and floorboards, Rin made rounds from the kitchen to the back bedroom, putting her hands on things and then taking them off when Sano told her to do so.
It just seemed to her that there were many things worth picking up. Here in the farmhouse there were wood utensils and sewing needles and ropes of various lengths and beat-up knives and men’s pants and children’s shoes and piles of cheap washing rags. Not to mention those things that might bring comfort, if less useful: a set of teacups, a pen, a printed book.
There was a thick grey cloak big enough to cocoon herself in. The nights would soon get cold, and the rain might come back. This she took because she wanted it.
And it seemed that Sano wasn’t entirely opposed to this line of thought. He squatted, fingering the sleeve of a black wool coat left exposed by the storage crate he’d just torn open. “We might stay here,” he said. “If it weren’t for the wind.” He picked up the box, dumping its contents out onto the floor.
Rin went outside. In back of the farmhouse was a wire-fenced garden, the soil hilled and muddied, crops dug out in desperation by animals and maybe humans. Rin knelt on the ground and gave it a go of her own, when from the scattered leaves rose a sudden and awful stink. Rin pinched her nose shut with her finger and thumb. As she got up to flee, a chicken poked its head from behind a fence stake overgrown with weeds. It clucked forward from its hiding spot, from the rank and powerful mound it’d made, beak jutting as if proud.
This, Rin knew, was a thing too precious to not pick up.
“A chicken!” Sano cried, dropping the leather cords he was using to shoulder his piles of wood. “You found a chicken! Put it down.” He pointed to his feet.
Rin obeyed, though she felt, instinctively, that to hold onto the chicken was best.
“Look at that,” said Sano, watching the clucker puff and posture. “They must have missed her when they took their leave. Or she came here from somewhere else, like we did.” He ruffled the spotty feathers on its back. The chicken pointed its beak at him and said, Cack.
Rin bent forward and secured the chicken again in her arms, squeezing its chest to hers when its wings began to beat in protest.
“All right,” Sano laughed, “you carry her. Then we’ll go. We have what we need.” Across his shoulders he tied the sleeves of the black woolen coat, tucking the tails up over the collar to make a sort of cushion across his back.
“And, good job,” he said to her.
Rin smiled so hard she felt it in her jaw.
Sano hoisted the piles of wood, one after another, till he almost couldn’t get out of the door frame. He back to the cart path, Rin walking beside with her prize, their prize, their reward.
Images courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology.