In Silence She Says Much
War ships appeared on the horizon.
Maris dropped the net she'd been repairing. She clapped her hands, and her children stopped in the midst of their playing. She waved them frantically towards her. They ran across the beach, Petros a stride ahead of his little brother Theo.
"What is it, Ma?" Petros asked.
Something fluttered deep in her stomach, like the kicks of a baby, but unsettling rather than joyful. She pointed to the horizon.
Petros shielded his eyes with one hand. "Ships," he said excitedly.
Maris turned him to her and squatted so she could look him in the eyes. She shook her head, her lips a thin line. With her hands, she told them the ships were dangerous and they should go to their father.
Her son's excitement faded and he nodded. He took Theo's hand. "Let's get Pa." They set off along the wide stone steps leading up the hill, where the piney forest stood sentinel over the beach.
Maris straightened. The fluttering in her stomach expanded until it reached her throat. She laid a hand over it, feeling the steady pulse in her neck and the magic she'd suppressed for years, and silently watched the ships grow closer.
Shadows stretched long as the island's inhabitants--three hundred and thirteen souls all together--gathered on the southern beach, or along the stone steps, or in the forest's deepening gloom. Six war ships flying the northern continent's flag had dropped anchor out in the harbor, and a dinghy approached the beach, filled with a good dozen or so men.
Maris stood beside her husband, Demetri, her two sons and two daughters gathered around them. She'd demanded that thirteen year old Calista remain home with the rest of the children, but the girl had insisted on joining them, and that meant the other children must remain with them as well. Calista was too stubborn for her own good.
Demetri gave her hand a quick squeeze. Years spent in the sun had given him many deep lines around his eyes, but he was as handsome as the day Maris had first spotted him. He could always reassure her, but in this, he could not. As the ships had gotten closer to the island, it had grown harder for her to hold back from making a sound.
"It will be all right," he said, leaning over for a brief kiss. She breathed deep of his smell: salt and sea and sweat. It did nothing to dislodge the dread, but it steadied her. She nodded.
He and several other men strode forward to meet the ship as it slid onto the beach. The sailors all wore the northern army's uniform. The uniforms were faded, worn, with buttons missing. The men were gaunt, their skin dry and red from the sun, their eyes feverish. Maris wished she'd been more firm with Calista about remaining home with the other children, especially as some of the men's gazes raked over those gathered.
Sailors lined the ships' railings, watching from a distance. For a moment, the only sound was that of the waves crashing gently on the shore and the cry of a far off gull. Then Demetri introduced himself and the other islanders with him, and the soldier's voice carried as he introduced himself and his men.
"Captain John Wilson," he said as he offered a hand to shake.
"How goes the war?" Demetri asked.
"Not well," the captain said. "Not for us, at any rate. We took too many losses, and on our way home, we ran into a storm and got blown off course. We're low on supplies."
Argus Island sat along the outer edge of the islands off the coast of the northern continent. Once a ship sailed west of the island, it wouldn't find land again for many days.
"We don't have much," Demetri said, "but we can offer you enough supplies to get you to the mainland."
The captain inclined his head. "We would greatly appreciate that. We'll spend a couple of days in the harbor making some repairs, and then we'll be on our way."
One of the sailors on the beach stared at Calista. His thumb ran absently over the belt holding his firearm, and his tongue darted out to lick his lips. Maris took a half step to the side, blocking his view of her daughter. He turned to her, lips pulling back into a sneer, brows drawing together, as if she were the one with ill manners.
Angry words bubbled up and swelled in Maris's throat, and the urge to use her voice was suddenly as strong as hunger to a stomach that hadn’t seen food in days. She clamped a hand over her mouth and fought it down. She twirled Calista around and pushed the girl towards the steps.
"Ma," Calista protested, but Maris pushed her again and pointed up. She herded the other three children after her oldest and hurried up the steps. Only at the top did she pause and turn back. The dinghy was making its way back to the larger ships. Her body trembled. The sailors could not leave soon enough.
Maris lay in bed that night as Demetri slept beside her, thinking of the day she'd met her husband, and how it held some similarities to this one.
She and her two sisters had lived on an island in the southern seas much like Argus Island. They had been arguing over who their father loved most. It was an old argument, its many paths known to them all, safe and comfortable, yet still sharp enough to cut Maris. They never spoke of the fact that their father had left them on that island years before, never to return despite his promise to do so.
Maris had been sitting alone on the beach, singing softly to herself, when she'd spotted a ship on the horizon. She nearly called out to her sisters, but hadn't yet gotten over the barbs left by their latest quarrel. Instead, she swam out alone in the twilight. Her sisters would be fine on the island; it held plenty of food and fresh water, and they could arrange their own leave. Or not.
As she drew closer, a small body came flying over the railing and splashed into the sea. She treaded water and watched as moments later a man leaped off the ship and dove after the small body. Men lined the railing and jeered in the direction the two people had gone.
Then the man surfaced, holding a small boy to him. Those watching grumbled in disappointment and left, only one remaining behind to help them up.
Their voices floated to Maris. "He's just a boy," said a man, presumably the rescuer.
"He's been stealing food."
"We're all hungry, Demetri."
"He doesn't know how to swim. He could've died."
"Then we would've had one less mouth to feed."
When Demetri spoke again, it was so low that Maris had to swim right up to the boat to hear. "I could throw you over, and then there'd be one less mouth to feed. The boy isn't the only one filching food."
Maris and her sisters had been tossed aside, just like that boy, and although they didn't hunger for food, they hungered nonetheless. For once, she didn't have the urge to use her voice to harm others, at least not to that one man. Demetri.
Instead, she enticed a school of mackerel towards the ship, driving them until they were leaping out of the water. Then she swam away and watched as the men threw net after net and ate their fill long into the night.
They were so busy eating and celebrating their catch that none noticed Maris sneak aboard and hide. And when they finally made shore, she slipped off and found Demetri. In fourteen years, she'd spoken not a word, and sang not a single note, her deep, relentless hunger having been sated.
Maris straightened and wiped the sweat from her brow. They had one more dinghy to load, and then the sailors would have all the supplies they needed. Their repairs were coming along, according to the Captain, and they should leave the following day, or at the latest, the day after that.
And not a moment too soon. The man who had stared lasciviously at Calista the day before stood on the beach, overseeing the loading of supplies. Calista, at least, had seen the wisdom in staying at the house today with the other children. Maris had caught the man's name. Alex.
Demetri joined her. "Try not to judge them too harshly," he said. "Remember, I was a sailor when we met."
She pursed her lips and raised one brow. He laughed. "I was just like them at one point, love."
She shook her head and crossed her arms. He was never like them.
The Captain joined them. In the brightness of midday, the threadbare state of his uniform was far more noticeable, as were the dark half-circles beneath his eyes. "Thank you for the supplies," he said to Demetri. "We've been at war for so long, it's hard to remember what fresh food tastes like."
Demetri nodded. "You'll be home soon, and then the time at sea will be but a memory."
"I hope so. I hope it all becomes a memory." He squinted across the water. "The things we've seen and done, all in the name of our king--" He broke off, saying to Maris. "My apologies. I didn't mean to bring up such a thing in the presence of a woman."
Maris smiled wryly and dipped her head once. She'd likely seen far worse than the Captain or his men ever had.
"My wife is mute, Captain," Demetri said, "but she's no fragile flower. The women of the islands are made of sturdier stuff."
"Of course. Still, my apologies." The Captain begged off and joined his men as they watched over the last dinghy being loaded.
Alex snickered. "A mute wife?" he called out. "That's truly a blessing to any man."
A few of the other men laughed. Demetri took a step forward. "Watch your words," he said.
Maris laid a hand on his arm and pulled him back even as she longed to use her voice on Alex. But she couldn't let him get to her. She had a good life here, a good family, and she wouldn't trade that to teach this disrespectful sailor a lesson, much deserved as it might be.
"Or what?" Alex said.
"Stand down," the Captain said.
Waves lapped against the rocky beach. Sweat trickled down Maris's spine. Demetri was a gentle man, but he never backed down from a fight once started. It's where Calista had drawn her stubbornness from.
Alex grinned, the movement not touching his eyes at all, and spread his arms wide. "I've been at sea for far too long. My apologies."
The sailors waited a moment longer, and then finished packing the last dinghy.
Maris touched Demetri's arm and started for the steps, and their home. At the top of the steps, she turned and watched the sailors shove the dinghy into the sea. They were gone from the island, but she wouldn't relax until their ships were gone from sight.
The islanders decided to post a watch for the next night or two, until the ships left their area. While Maris was glad they were taking precautions, she wasn't at all pleased that Demetri took the first watch, although she knew he'd have to at some point.
The children were asleep already when he prepared to leave. He carried two firearms on his belt and a dagger. Maris pulled him close, his body's lean curves fitting against her own with old familiarity.
"Don't worry about me," he murmured. He leaned down and planted a kiss against her forehead. Then he pressed something small and cold into her hands. "Keep this with you at all times."
She pulled back and found a small gun in her hands. Her stomach clenched, and she shook her head.
"You remember how to use it?" he asked.
She nodded, then tried giving it back to him. She held no love for the weapons of men.
He pressed it back gently. "I insist. For the children's sake. Although, if things should get really bad, take them to the caves."
She clutched the gun reluctantly and nodded again. Then Demetri was gone.
Maris couldn't sleep. She sat beside the bedroom window, listening to the ocean breeze sigh gently through palm leaves, occasionally turning to the children, asleep on the large mattress. Her body remained tense, her muscles ready to spring. The night crept by.
A gunshot echoed from the beach. Maris leaped to her feet. Another shot, and another, and then nothing. Her pulse raced. An image, unbidden, came to mind, of Demetri lying on the rocky beach, bleeding to death. Her hands clenched into fists. Later. She'd check later.
She roused the children, putting her finger to her lips as they woke. Quiet. She waited until all four of them were sitting and watching her, then she formed a large circle with both hands. She moved her front hand out, indicating the long cave on the island's far side.
They nodded. She led them out of the house and found a few of her neighbors also making their way stealthily to the cave. She was certain they all fought the same urge as her to run to the beach and find out what happened to their loved ones.
Maris huddled in the damp cave with three of her children clinging to her. Only Calista sat apart, although the girl looked like she wanted to join them. She was trying to be brave, but every so often her chin trembled, and she'd look away, wiping at her eyes before turning back around.
The air was thick and sour with tension, the only sound the occasional rustle of clothes as somebody shifted. Maris strained to hear anything at all that would give her a clue as to what was happening outside the cave.
In the far distance, a man called out. Maris tensed, holding her breath. "Who was that," somebody whispered, and somebody else shushed that person.
Another call. Maris closed her eyes and focused. The call came again. Her heart constricted. It was Alex.
"I know you're all here somewhere," he said. "You might as well come out. We won't hurt you."
Lies. Maris clenched her teeth. He was drawing closer all the time. The cave was well hidden, but not from a determined searcher.
She slipped Demetri's gun into Calista's hands. The girl looked up, wide-eyed, and whispered, "What are you doing, Ma?"
She shook her head and frowned. She didn't need Calista arguing with her. She pointed to the other three children, then to Calista, then the gun, then to the ground. Stay put.
"Ma," Calista hissed.
She shrugged out of the children's embraces and left the cave before she could change her mind. A quick look around told her she was unnoticed, and then she was in the piney woods, stepping quietly through the dark beneath the boughs.
Alex probably thought he was being quiet, but he thrashed about through the woods, leading Maris directly to him. She put herself between him and the village, away from the cave, then eased her foot onto a branch, snapping it.
"Hello," Alex said, heading her way.
Maris ran, making more noise, drawing Alex to her. She skirted around the village. For a moment she caught sight of dark figures darting in and out of the houses, their arms filled. Furious heat ran through her veins. They'd given the sailors all they could afford, and still they wanted more. Perhaps they were used to taking the spoils of war, but this island was made up of their own people.
She forced the rage back and focused on Alex, allowing him to catch up. She led him through the woods and to the beach.
She paused on the edge of a short cliff that afforded her a view of the rocky beach. Three figures lay sprawled on the shore. They wore regular clothes, not uniforms. Her heart thudded, and she craned her head, trying to pick out Demetri's form among them.
There. The one on the end closest to her was Demetri. Was he alive?
His leg moved. It was a small movement, but it was there. She sagged with relief against a pine tree.
Rough hands grabbed her and whirled her around. Alex grinned, his gaunt face like a skull, his eyes nothing but dark shadows in the faint starlight.
"Come along, dear," he said, and he pulled her after him.
Alex shoved Maris down when they reached the beach. She landed on her knees, the tiny rocks digging into her flesh. She crawled to the three fallen men and laid her hands on Demetri's shoulder.
"Maris?" he mumbled against the sand.
She squeezed his shoulder in confirmation.
"The children?" He half-rolled to look at her.
She nodded once.
Demetri grabbed her hands and held them close. "It'll be all right," he said.
"What are we supposed to do with them?" a man said behind her.
She turned. Alex wore a new patch on his jacket made of four stripes. What had happened to Captain Wilson?
"One's dead already," Alex said. "The others can be sold."
"I don't like the idea of selling our own people."
Alex stepped forward, pointing his finger in the other man's face. "They sold us into a war we didn't want."
"That don't mean we have to be the same as them."
"If you don't like it, you can join them in the auction."
The other man swallowed hard and took a step back. "No, sir."
"Get them loaded up, then."
Demetri pulled Maris's attention back to him. "The first chance you find, you get away from them," he whispered. "You're a strong swimmer, you can do it. Get back to the children. Don't worry about me."
There was so much to say. The words gathered in her throat and stuck there. She traced Demetri's lips, his jaw, then cupped his face in her hands. She leaned down and kissed him gently. She felt a hitch in her throat, and a yearning for the coming years with him that these men had stolen from her.
Then hands pulled her to her feet. She stumbled across the beach and into a waiting dinghy. The unconscious islander, Gregor, was loaded in, and then Demetri.
The sailors shoved off. Alex climbed in and sat astern as two men began pulling at the oars.
He caught her looking at the stripes on his jacket. "Wondering if you'll get any help from Captain Wilson? Unfortunately, he had an accident earlier this evening. He won't be rescuing anybody, except maybe for a hungry fish or two."
One of the men chortled. At a glare from Alex, he fell silent. The only sound was that of the oars dipping into the water, and the lap of waves against the dinghy.
Maris gripped her hands tight together in her lap. Gregor lay at her feet. He moaned and stirred. He'd be no help. Demetri sat forward in the dinghy, with men between him and her. Including Alex, there were eight sailors on this ship. She could jump into the water, but they all had guns.
She closed her eyes. Each stroke of the oars brought them closer to the ships. How many men remained on the ships? How many were loyal to Alex, and how many mourned the death of Captain Wilson? How many were innocent, like her Demetri?
She couldn't let herself think that way, though. She couldn't be soft for what was to come, and there was only thing for her to do. She wouldn't leave her children without both of their parents.
The dinghy bumped against the ship. She opened her eyes.
Alex regarded her with the same expression with which a fisherman regarded his catch for the day.
She stood. One of the sailors stood hastily as well, ready to reach out and grab her. She straightened her spine, lifted her chin, and opened her mouth.
She sang one of the many lullabies she'd longed to sing to her children when they were babies. Her voice carried over the sea to all of the ships. It pulled the men from below decks and had them leaning over the railing, hanging on every note, every sweet word.
Demitri's lips parted, and he leaned forward, his lips curling into a smile. Maris knew the moment understanding came to him. His mouth shut, and he leaned back, horror flickering across his face. Like every sailor, he knew of sirens, though he had only half-believed the stories as far as Maris could tell. He believed now, though, and his fear tore through her.
She shifted to a song he often hummed. It told of a man alone in a boat following a storm, and his long journey home, thinking all the while that his family and home must be a dream, that the only reality was the endless ocean. But then the man finds them waiting, and he embraces them, overcome that he found his way home. The shadow across Demetri's face disappeared, replaced by the usual softness in his eyes when he looked at her or the children. He nodded once and closed his eyes, swaying with the music.
Maris's hands clenched so hard that her nails dug into flesh. Dear, sweet Demetri.
She closed her eyes. Her voice rose and fell, lingering on each note. When she finished that song, she moved immediately to another. It felt so good to sing, to let her voice into the world.
As she uttered the last line, she opened her eyes. All of the men watched her with rapt attention, Alex included. She couldn't look at Demetri. The last note lingered in the air. Then it faded away.
For a heartbeat, all was quiet. Then the screams began.
Flesh melted from bone. Gregor reached a hand for her, but his fingers fell from his hand, and his face dissolved. Alex opened his mouth as if to ask her, "Why," but his mouth sank in on itself, and then the rest of him followed suit.
Maris dove into the ocean as melted flesh filled the dinghy. The screams from the ships went on, and even when they stopped, they echoed in her skull. She used to take delight in her song and the cries of dying sailors. It used to be all she wanted. It used to be enough.
But she was not her sisters. She was not her father. She swam back to Argus Island and her children, silent once more.