I stood at the cliff’s edge and stared at the tablet in my hands as the first stars of the evening appeared in the bruise-black sky.
Here, here, here, here, here. The words swam across the etched bone and echoed in my bones.
“This is it,” I called to the gathered crowd behind me. “We’re here.”
Here, here, here, here.
“This can’t be it,” a voice cried back.
“It’s impossible,” said another.
“Shut up,” said a third, and I recognized it as Samuel, the healer-boy.
“Look — in the water.” Samuel again. “What is that?”
Everyone had been in a festival mood for the preceding week. Every last one of the Children of the Gods knew the timeline of the tablets backwards and forwards. On the first night of the dead moon in the Thirty-First year, the Children of the Gods shall cross out of the scrubland and into the Promised Land. Rich hunting and plentiful fish and good, clear waters await you, and your spawn shall be many, and no harm shall befall you from above or below. The Gods had never lied to us. We had weathered flood and famine and fire and fever, all with their guidance. We had wandered through the desert, the rock flats, the grassland, the mountains — we had seen loss and endured fear, and the Gods had always told us that we would make it through.
Everyone, even my most troubled followers, had been looking to the horizon all week. They would trail off in the middle of sentences, staring into the distance, their eyes bright. It’s there, they would whisper to each other. Just over that hill, just around the corner. The Promised Land. It’s there.
Marc ran up, Ducky clutched in his arms. She was fighting at her swaddling clothes, and as Marc pulled up short beside me, Ducky wrenched an arm free. She grabbed at a lock of my hair as it flailed in the cold wind that blew off the sea in front of us.
“Is this it?” Marc asked, his eyes fever-bright. He grinned so widely that I could see the shadow of his missing molar.
“I… it can’t be,” I said, searching his face for a sign of doubt. There was none — his faith was as intense and unwavering as the lightning that had instilled it in him. “This can’t be the Promised Land, Marc. There’s no land here.” I was ashamed at the note of pleading in my voice. “It’s all scrubland behind us, there’s no — this isn’t — stone and sea don’t make land.”
“It is, though, Fisher. It’s their land. Don’t you see?” He peered over the cliff’s edge. His sandal sent pebbles skittering down the cliffside; they landed in the water below, close enough that I could hear the splash but too far for me to see the ripples. A vast moon shone in the water. “They’re inviting us. We can join them. All we have to do is trust.”
I blinked. I looked up at the sky and rubbed my eyes with the hand that did not hold the Gods’ tablet. “This can’t be, Marc. Maybe… maybe they just don’t understand?” I let out a hoarse laugh. “We can’t live underwater. This can’t be it.”
There was no moon in the sky. It was a dead moon — the great bowl of the God’s light was empty.
But there it was, floating in the water below us.
Cries rose up behind me as my followers began to notice the light. I held up a hand to silence them, and listened hard for the Gods Whispers to tell me what to do.
Here, they repeated, maddeningly persistent, here, here, here, here, here.
In the water, another moon rose. And another, and another — and then there were dozens of them, hundreds, green-white and bobbing gently with the rocking of the sea. Tendrils floated between some of them, drifting with the motion of the water. Here, here, here, here, here.
“Do you hear them?” Marc asked, absentmindedly patting Ducky’s back with one hand. “Do you hear them, Fisher?”
I snapped my eyes to him. “What?”
“The Gods,” he said. A smile had spread across his face; his eyes were locked on the water.
“What do you hear?” I asked him.
He looked up at me and pointed to the water. “The Gods,” he said again. “They’re here.”
I would wonder later if I had reached for him or for Ducky. I would wonder if I had seen something in his face, illuminated by the bright light from below. Had I tried to save them both, or had I hoped to catch only one?
It didn’t matter, either way. My hands closed around a corner of swaddling cloth, and a too-small weight fell into my arms, and Ducky began to scream against my shoulder as Marc plummeted silently to the water below.
We made our way down the cliffside single-file, the pack animals left behind. I stumbled across the rocky slope in front of everyone, my hands and face numb with the stinging, frigid wind that whipped up off the water. I clutched the baby to my chest with one arm. I couldn’t hear anything over the wind and Ducky’s ceaseless crying, but my way was lit by the glow that still came off the water. There was a narrow strip of rocky shore between the cliff and the water, and when my feet met the ground, they ached with cold.
I turned to face the water, and the wind stilled. Gentle waves lapped at the shore, dampening my feet.
The moons parted. As I watched, a shadow passed through them. Each wave brought it closer, pushing it toward me and then pulling it back. I did not move. Behind me, the Children of the Gods packed themselves onto the tiny beach, watching me watch the ocean.
“What is it?” someone whispered.
“Hush,” came the sharp reply.
I stepped into the water, shaking with fear and cold. As the water rose past my knees, the waves stilled. One of the moons in the water reached out a long tendril and wrapped it around my calf. It looked like a loving gesture, but it hurt. Oh, Gods, it hurt. It was everything I could do not to drop Ducky, everything I could do not to faint. The pain was a stripe of bright fire — but then the tendril withdrew, and when I looked into the water to see whether my blood was pinking the brine, the shadow was there, bumping against my shins.
I held the Gods’ tablet out to Samuel. “Take this,” I said, and he hesitated until I turned to glare at him. He took the tablet with the same tender reverence I’d seen on Marc’s face the first time he’d held Ducky.
I pushed the thought away. I held Ducky a little tighter as I bent over the water. With my free hand, I reached into the freezing sea, soaking my tunic to the elbow, and grabbed it.
It was hard. Small — just large enough to be tricky to grab with just one hand. I scooped my palm underneath it and lifted it out of the sea. I held it up, and the light that shone from the water illuminated it in my hands.
It was a skull. The jawbone was gone. A tuft of blonde hair clung to the crown of it. Blood streaked the insides of the eye sockets, the places between the teeth. It smelled of salt and iron.
One of the molars was missing.
“Marc,” I whispered. “No.”
The moons in the water came closer, nearly touching me. Ducky turned her head toward the light, reaching with one arm toward the water. In their glow, I saw that Gods Words scarred the skull, burned blood darkening the streaks of lettering. The words swam before my eyes, just as they did on the sacred tablets. They resolved themselves into a message:
Who are you who cannot come home to us? You are not the ones we sent for.