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Featured Story • July 2014

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Keeper of the Wave

 

Jamie Killen

 
 

The first time Lena set foot in Pilgrimage, she understood little of the pleasures that could be bought in the town on the edge of the world. She caught glimpses of the beautiful men and women on the shaded verandas above the spice market, but did not know that they were courtesans from as far away as the Southern Kingdoms and the Island of the Moon. Acrid smoke drifted through curtained doorways, but she did not recognize the odor as opium. She saw a warehouse stacked to the ceiling with bottles of ruby-colored liquid, but she did not know that it was wine so rich and vivid that one sip could move a man to tears. There were other things Lena didn’t see until years later, alleys full of charmmakers and bird traders and shops that sold only bones.

On that first visit, all Lena understood was that Pilgrimage meant color, and crowds, and the Wave. She clung to her mother’s hand and twisted her head this way and that, drinking in the strange faces and the stink and the blended sound of all the world’s languages speaking at once. She tried to see the horizon, but clustered rooftop gardens stood in the way. “When will we see the Wave, Mama?” she asked.

Mama squeezed her hand. “We’re going there now. We have to do the Pilgrimage first, before Papa and I can do business.”

Lena knew that “business” meant the casks of oil from Papa’s olive presses. The ceramic pots had filled most of the space in the wagons they’d ridden to Pilgrimage, not even leaving them enough room to sleep. Lena hadn’t minded, though, had thought sleeping in blankets around the campfire was much more fun.

“Good,” Lena heard Mama say, “the line isn’t too long this time.”

Lena tore her eyes away from the fruit market and immediately stopped. Mama started to tug her forward, then realized what she was looking at and paused. “I know it’s scary, Lena, but it’s safe,” she said at last. “Come on.”

Lena forced her feet to move forward, through the stone arch in the eastern wall and toward the Wave. It was huge, bigger than anything she’d ever seen, so tall that it seemed to meet the sky. The Wave, a frozen arc of water, stretched up over the lip of the cliff on the edge of the town. It did not move, but Lena could see moving shapes within it, fish and larger creatures. Something, maybe a shark, swooped down toward the edge of the cliff and out of sight below. Lena peered to the left and right, but could not see the place where the wall of water ended; the entire coastline was like this, tiny flat land cowering in the Wave’s shadow.

Only then did Lena see the line. In the stretch of barren scrubland between the town’s walls and the Wave, a tidy column of people waited. At the front of the line sat a house, a cottage much smaller than the one where Lena lived with Mama and Papa. It stood so close to the Wave that Lena wondered if the rear wall touched the solid seawater. As she watched, a young man slipped out of the front door and walked quickly away, covering his face. A woman stepped forward from the front of the line and shut the door behind her.

Lena joined Mama and Papa at the end of the line. Papa turned and bent down on one knee. “Now, Lena, do you remember what you must do once you’re inside?”

“Yes. I tell a secret,” Lena said.

“That’s right. Any secret you like, just as long as it’s true.” He bit his lip. “And don’t be frightened. You’ll be safe, I promise.”

Lena wasn’t frightened, but Papa seemed to be. She nodded, proud that she was being so brave.

`The line moved more quickly than expected, and Lena couldn’t get bored while staring at the Wave. They were at the front before she realized it, Papa tugging her forward by her hand. “Go on, Lena. The youngest always goes first. We’ll be waiting here.”

Lena stepped into the little cottage, heard the door shut behind her. It was dark inside, lit only by an oil lamp in one corner, and she had to stand there blinking for a minute before she could see. Strangely, although the room was dim and cramped, it smelled of cut grass and rainwater. “Come in,” a voice said, “sit down.”

At the center of the small room a quilt lay spread out on the ground. Toys were scattered across it, threadbare dolls and grubby blocks. On one edge sat a girl, about Lena’s size and age. She pointed at the other side of the blanket. “Sit there.”

Lena sat gingerly on the edge of the blanket, glancing around the room. There was nothing on the bare brick walls, no bed, no food or chamber pot. “Are you the Keeper?” she asked.

Surprise passed over the girl’s features. “Of course. No one else lives here.” She leaned forward and reached for a block. “You can play with my toys if you want.”

Lena picked up a doll and made it walk toward the block house the Keeper was making. “Do I tell you my secret now?”

“Yes.”

Lena hesitated. “Why does everyone have to tell you secrets? I asked Mama, but she didn’t know.”

The girl didn’t look up from her blocks. “You know about the Wave. Secrets are my price.”

“Would you really let the Wave come down? If people stopped telling you things?”

The girl smiled, and Lena started to think she didn’t seem like a little girl at all. “Are you ready to tell me?”

Lena set aside the doll and cleared her throat, trying to remember all the practice she’d done. “Yes. I have a secret, a big one. I haven’t told anyone, I promise.”

The girl kept playing with her blocks. “Tell me, then.”

* * *

This is Lena’s secret:

I was playing in my tree with my doll, Lily. I like to play up there because it’s high up and quiet and I can be alone. It’s on the edge of the grove, so I can listen to the olive pickers sometimes when they don’t know I’m there. It’s nice, and pretty, and there are birds.

One day one of the pickers, Ursula, was working near my tree. I liked Ursula. She was pretty, and she played with me sometimes and brought me a sweet from the fair. She seemed sad that day, so I just stayed quiet and played with Lily. It was almost night-time, and I knew Mama would ring the supper bell soon.

Then I saw Ursula’s husband, Rolfe. I didn’t like Rolfe, because he was mean and got angry with me and said I was in the way when I wanted to watch the workers press the olives. I don’t think Mama and Papa liked him either, but everyone liked Ursula. I don’t know why someone nice like her would marry someone mean like Rolfe.

He said, “Ursula!” loud like he was angry. And she dropped her basket, so I think she knew he was angry too.

She asked, “What’s wrong?” And then he hit her.

It wasn’t like when Mama smacks me on the ear. It was scary, and she fell down. She said, “Please, Rolfe!” but he just yelled. He called her lots of bad names. I know some of them, not all of them. Ursula got up, and he grabbed her arms. He kept asking if she’d done something with someone, asked, “What did you let him do? How many times?” And she kept saying she hadn’t done anything, and he kept yelling at her and telling her not to lie. I don’t really know what he thought she did, but I don’t think she was lying. She was too scared, and she kept crying, and Rolfe kept shaking her. And then she tried to get away, but Rolfe hit her again and she tripped. Her head fell into one of the olive-tree trunks, and then she was quiet and there was blood on her face.

Rolfe stopped yelling when he saw the blood. Then he started crying, and that scared me because I’ve never seen a man cry. He kept saying, “Ursula! Ursula!” and shaking her arm, but she wouldn’t wake up. After a while, Rolfe picked her up and put her over his shoulder and went to the stream at the back of Papa’s fields. I didn’t see where he went and he never came back. But I think I know where he put Ursula. I went to the stream the next day. People don’t usually go there, since there are lots of bushes and trees and there’s water closer to the house anyway. But I went there and I found where somebody had buried something big under the bramble bushes, and I could tell because the dirt was all dug up. I knew what that looked like because we buried my kitty when he died, and the ground was like that only not as big.

I go there sometimes now. I take Lily and I sit and talk to Ursula, but I don’t think she really hears me.

* * *

The girl watched Lena for a long time after she finished telling the story. “Why didn’t you tell your Mama and Papa what you saw Rolfe do?”

“Because I knew we were coming to Pilgrimage, and Mama told me I needed a secret to tell to keep the Wave from coming down, and I was frightened because I didn’t have any secrets. So I thought I better keep that one.” Lena felt tears prickling at her eyes. “I cried after I came back to the house, because I missed Ursula and it made me sad that Rolfe hurt her. But I told Mama it was because I fell down and hurt my elbow, and I could tell she was thinking about something else anyway, so she didn’t find out.”

The Keeper was quiet for a while longer. Lena couldn’t be sure, but she thought the girl seemed cheerful. “You can go,” she said after a while. “Remember that this secret is mine now.”

Lena started to stand. “Wait,” the girl said. She handed Lena one of the worn dolls, one with black hair and green eyes. “Keep this.”

Lena smiled. “Thank you!” It wasn’t as nice as her other dolls, especially Lily, but she thought it must be special if it came from the Keeper. “Bye!” she said, dashing outside. She wondered why Papa had thought she’d be scared. There’d been nothing bad at all, even though it made her sad to think about Ursula. Part of it had felt good, though, telling someone else about it.

Lena blinked in the sunlight and saw her parents move forward with anxious smiles. “It’s your turn, Mama.”

Mama started to move toward the door, paused. “Where’d you get that, Lena?”

“The Keeper gave it to me.” Lena noticed her parents glance quickly at each other, but they said nothing.

* * *

Maryam stepped into the cottage and shut the door. It smelled the way she remembered, of cooking oil and onions and dust. The Keeper was different now, though. When Maryam had first come to Pilgrimage, as a child, the Keeper had been a little girl with dolls and wooden horses. Then, when Maryam was approaching adulthood, she’d been a young woman at a loom. Now she sat at a table in the center of the room, one that had never been there before. She wore her hair pinned up like a married woman, peeled potatoes with a small sharp knife. “Hello again, Maryam,” she said without looking up. “Sit down, chop one of those onions for me.”

Maryam sat, picking up the vegetable knife slowly so her hands wouldn’t shake. “Why did you give Lena a doll?”

The Keeper, eyes webbed with small crows’ feet, gave her a level stare. “You know other people’s secrets are no business of yours.”

“I’m sorry, I know.” Maryam picked at the papery skin of the onion. “I just …”

“It’s a reminder. She and I’ll be talking about that secret again one day, when she understands it better.” The Keeper dropped the sliced potato into a bowl and pointed at Maryam with a callused forefinger. “And don’t you be asking that girl about it. You know the rules.”

Maryam lowered her eyes. “Yes, I know. I’ve been … I’ve been looking forward to Pilgrimage this year. This secret’s been eating at me.”

The Keeper smiled thinly. “You always did get more out of it than most. It’s nice, not having to coax it out of you.” She picked up another potato. “Well, go on then. Tell me.”

* * *

This is Maryam’s secret:

I saw a woman try to seduce my husband. This woman, Ursula, she worked in our olive grove. I’d always thought better of her, and never dreamed she’d do wrong with my husband, even though she’s young and beautiful.

But then one day I was walking through the grove, and I saw them talking. I stopped and stayed hidden behind a tree, because right away I could see that they were too close together. My husband looked angry, and she was smiling. He had his hand on her waist, and she was holding it there with her hand. Then I saw her kiss him.

I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe she’d do such a thing. He stepped away, though, thank God for that. He stepped away, and walked off without so much as a glance back, and she just stared after him and covered her mouth and seemed like she was about to cry.

I hated her so much. I don’t know if I’ve ever hated anyone before her.

Part of me thought I should just go and scream at her, frighten her away. But I was already crying, you see, and I didn’t want her to see how much she’d hurt me. So I just walked away, into the grove, not even paying attention to where I was going. Before I knew it, I came across some of the men working on the trees. One of them was Rolfe, Ursula’s husband. I never liked him, never spoke to him if I could help it. But on that day, angry as I was, I didn’t hesitate. I marched right over and told him I needed to speak to him privately. I’m sure he thought I was going to give him the sack for something about work, because I could tell he was worried.

I said to him, “I’ll speak plainly. If your wife ever tries to seduce my husband again, I’ll have you both out of work for good. Both of you leave now and don’t come back, and I won’t say a word. If I see her again, I’ll tell every woman I know in these parts that your wife isn’t to be trusted around their men. I’ll see to it that you both starve, I swear it, if you don’t put her in line and keep her away from Edward.”

I was shaking by the time I finished speaking my piece. Rolfe had gone pale. His mouth was open like a dead fish. He said, “I don’t believe you.”

So I said, “I saw it with my own two eyes. Ursula kissing my husband, and trying to make him put his hands all over her.”

He shook his head, but I could see he knew it was true. After a while, he told me that he and Ursula would be gone first thing. He kept his word. I imagine she got a frightful beating, but I haven’t seen either of them since.

* * *

Maryam finished telling her story and slicing an onion at the same time. She dumped the handfuls of onion pieces into the wooden bowl and lifted her head to see the Keeper giving her a curious, thin-lipped smile. “That’s all,” Maryam said.

“A fine secret, Maryam,” the Keeper said, let out a contented sigh.

Maryam privately thought that hers must be dull compared to the secrets brought here by princesses and kings. But a warm blush crept up in her cheeks. “Thank you. It did me good, telling you.”

* * *

Maryam came out of the Keeper’s cottage smiling. Edward breathed a sigh of relief. There’d been a cloud around her lately, frowns and strange glances in his direction. She’d said nothing was wrong, but he’d known better. Now she seemed lighter, more at ease than he’d seen in a while. She planted a kiss on his lips and nudged him toward the door. “Go on. I want to see the cloth bazaar before sundown.”

Edward smiled, squeezed her arm, tried to hide the dread he felt at what lay beyond the door. “Lena’s playing under that tree,” he said, gesturing. “I’ll be out shortly.”

The cottage smelled like tobacco smoke and leather, as it always had. “Hello again,” the Keeper said. He’d grown older, had flecks of grey in his black hair and beard. He smoked a pipe and stared into the room’s little fireplace.

“Hello,” Edward replied. He sat in the room’s only other chair without being asked. “You’ve made my wife happy.”

The Keeper emptied his pipe into the fireplace, began to refill it from a small pouch around his neck. “She’s made herself happy. Now …” He touched a match to the bowl, puffed until it caught. “Let’s see if you can match what your wife and daughter have given me today.”

* * *

This is Edward’s secret:

I lusted after a woman who is not my wife.

No, it’s worse than that. I didn’t just want her. I followed her, chased her, tried to seduce her. I even frightened her.

I’m so ashamed.

This woman, Ursula, was one of the pickers in my olive grove. She was good woman, a good worker. I’d wanted her since the first time I saw her. She had beautiful black hair, and green eyes, and her figure was … Well, I’ll not go into that.

Please understand, I dearly love my wife. I’d never wish to hurt her. But Ursula … It was like I was under a spell.

I wish I could tell you that she encouraged me, led me on, but it would be a lie. The truth is she wanted no part of it. She caught me staring at her once or twice, and it made her nervous. I could see right away that she didn’t share my feelings, was polite but kept me at a distance. It didn’t stop me from wanting her, though.

One day, I acted most shamefully, acted in a way that pains me to speak of. I’d been drinking, although I know that’s no excuse. It made me bold, made me want to go out to the grove in search of her. She was alone that day, picking olives in a row away from the others. I caught up to her, and said sweet things about her beauty. She laughed and pretended that I was joking, but even drunk I could see that she wanted to get away from me. She started to walk away, but I grabbed her in my arms and kissed her.

She said, “Please, sir, please, we mustn’t.”

“We won’t tell anyone,” I say, “It’ll just be a tumble, and we’ll say nothing of it. I can’t stand it, Ursula, you’re so beautiful.”

I disgusted her. I can admit that now, that the way she grimaced and shuddered broke my heart. She got out of my grasp and turned away. “You’ve been drinking,” she said, walking down a few rows. “Go to your wife, and I’ll say nothing of this.”

I followed her, grabbed her dress. I had my hands on her waist and tried to move one down to her backside, God help me, but she grabbed my wrist and stopped me. “Stop,” she said, and I could see for the first time that she was angry.

Even through the drink, I realized then that I would never have her. I felt such sadness, standing there with my hands around her and close enough to smell her body. “I’m sorry, Ursula,” I said.

She smiled, or tried to, but kept her grip on my hand so it couldn’t move lower. “It’s fine, Sir. Let’s stop this now and say no more about it.”

I felt like I was going to cry, but I said, “Just … Just one thing. Just one kiss, and I promise I’ll walk away and never bother you again.” I cringe to think of it now, me begging like some boy who’s never lain with a woman.

Ursula kept smiling, falsely, like her teeth were gritted. “Yes, Sir. One kiss, and then you’ll be on your way.”

She did, then, kiss me. It was short and without feeling and made it worse than if I’d gotten nothing at all. I kept my word, though, let go of her and walked away without saying anything.

I must have frightened her more than I realized, because she and her husband left that night. I don’t know where they went, probably to find work in another orchard. It hurt me terribly, finding out she was gone, but I know now that it was for the best. I’ve been more attentive to my wife and my daughter, and I feel I’m a better man for it.

* * *

As Edward finished his story, the Keeper let out a low, happy groan, as though sinking into a warm bath. His eyes rolled back in his head. “Ah, Edward. If you only knew.”

Edward frowned. “That’s … That’s my secret.”

The Keeper smiled. “And what a secret I’ve heard today.” He glanced at Edward. “You have no idea how dull most of the secrets I hear are. Almost dull enough for me to let the Wave come down, if only for that one moment of excitement. But you …”

Edward shook his head, confused. “I just … Nothing really happened. I don’t …”

The Keeper waved an impatient hand. “You don’t have to understand. Really, it’s better if you don’t.”

Edward opened his mouth, tried to understand the strange creeping fear filling his stomach. “Go,” the Keeper said, closing his eyes. “Go, and remember that this secret is mine. And tell the next person to wait a while before coming in, I want to soak in this.”

Edward rose slowly to his feet and shuffled to the door. The last sound he heard before he closed it was a low, gravelly laugh. He stood there for a moment with his hand on the handle. “He says to wait for a bit,” Edward mumbled to the woman at the head of the line. She raised her eyebrows but stayed where she was.

Lena and Maryam waited in the shadow of a palm tree. They turned as he approached. “What’s wrong?” Maryam asked, smile dimming.

Edward’s eyes fell on the doll in Lena’s hand, the one the Keeper had given her. He saw the black hair and the green eyes, the simple peasant’s dress, and something in him went numb. “The Keeper said he was pleased with what you told him. Both of you,” he said, voice faint.

“Oh?” Maryam replied, and it was a poor attempt to sound indifferent. “And did she like yours?”

In the silence that followed, she followed his gaze to Lena’s new doll, looked at it carefully for the first time. Her breath caught in her throat.

Edward turned his face up toward the Wave for a long minute. “Come on,” he said at last, voice brittle as an old man’s. “We have to get to the cloth bazaar.”

They walked away from the small cottage beneath the Wave, toward the glittering town at the edge of the world. Lena trailed behind, staring at the growing space between her mother and father where their hands should have been joined.

 
 

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Jamie KillenJamie Killen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Velocipede, Scheherezade’s Bequest, Space and Time, and anthologies Read by Dawn volumes II and III and Heiresses of Russ 2013. She lives in Arizona with a Dalek (as seen in the upper left of the picture).

About “Keeper of the Wave” she says, “This story started out as thoughts about what it would be like hear confession as a small-town priest. I was interested in the idea that a priest hearing confession from an entire village might be the only person to hear everyone’s side of the story and therefore might be the only one who knows where the bodies are buried, and how they got there. The priest (and the village) very quickly got weirder.”

 

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