Kami woke and opened his eyes, his slight movement causing his hammock to sway. It was dark inside the hut, and from all around he could hear the sound of his family sleeping. No light of dawn intruded through the doorway, but Kami knew it was time to start the day. He paused just a moment, wondering whose voice had awakened him. There was no one near, no one else awake yet. Kami did not believe in spirits, so it must have been a dream. He slipped feet first out of his hammock. Standing there, he waited for the memory of the new day’s business to come to him, and then frowned when it did. “Lorma,” he muttered in disgust and shook his head.
The spring was a cold one, in Kami’s opinion, and he wrapped his robe around his bare body. Some of the other villagers had already adopted the traditional nakedness of summer, but Kami was not ready for that. He strapped on his belt and checked to be sure his knife was still secure in it. Taking his sailor’s pack Kami stepped around his sleeping siblings and left the hut, heading for the great house. The light of dawn had not yet touched the square bulk of the great house, with its sacred shrines and public bath, but Kami did not need to see it to find it. As the son and pupil of the chief’s scribe, Kami did not spend his summers at sea, but rather stayed on his home island of Manduha, and so knew the paths by heart. He wound his usual way through the village to the large building. Once there he stopped at the well in front of the shrine to fill his water gourd, grabbed some roasted tubers off the nearby altar of a lesser god, then headed inside to the fisherman’s shrine. A lone, standing figure could be made out in the faint light of the single torch. As Kami approached the dim light allowed him to see it was Lorma, the old man he was to go fishing with that day. He looked up as Kami approached. Kami’s nose wrinkled at a pungent odor. He thought at first it was Lorma’s, and then he saw the bucket of bait in the older man’s hands.
“We must go,” Lorma said. “The wind spirits will not be pleased with us if they find us on the beach at dawn.” With that Lorma walked toward the exit. Kami just nodded and followed the older man as he headed towards the shore where the villagers had beached the fishing canoes. Further out, in the center of the lagoon, a large black silhouette stood against the sky. Kami’s eyes did not want to leave it. It was a foreign vessel, one of the few Kami had ever seen. A light on its deck allowed Kami’s fascinated gaze to study the oddly-shaped ship for a moment. Its shape and bulk were unlike anything he had seen before, and Kami’s pulse quickened as he strained to make out any details in the black silhouette. It was as if a giant door had opened to the underworld right in the center of the lagoon. Kami’s eye spotted a man walking a watch on the deck, and he reminded himself that it was a boat, made of wood and rope and fabric — like their own, just larger. He deliberately turned away, looking down the path toward the beach.
Few of the other villagers were up yet, and the two men reached the boats without further conversation. Kami hesitated, waiting to see which of the boats Lorma would go to, then followed the old man to where one of the smaller boats awaited. It was a narrow dugout, hollowed from a tree and polished with sap. It had a single outrigger, and only four seats. A single icon was carved on each side of the bow and stern, unlike the highly-decorated hulls of a war canoe or trading boat. Climbing inside, Kami began to check the contents, silently reciting the litany each sailor was taught as a boy, tallying the oars and lines and gear. He was halfway through when he realized Lorma was still standing at the bow of the ship, staring at him. He stared back for a moment, puzzled, then realized that Lorma wanted to say the ritual prayer of casting off. Kami’s father had taught him the prayer, but did not always use it himself, and Kami had little time for it. Lorma was staring intently, however, so Kami sighed and made the ritual opening gestures. He then had to wait as Lorma did the rest of the motions and chanted the words, not seeming to be in any hurry to finish. Kami was not sure, but it almost seemed like Lorma added an extra verse. Finally it was done. “Push off,” Lorma then said, seizing the bow of the boat and shoving. Kami dug into the sand with his oar and leaned back, easing the bow up. The boat slid across the sand, Lorma climbed in, and they were away.
Kami was not happy to have Lorma as a fishing partner. The old man was slow and weak and far too superstitious for Kami’s taste. He would rather have been fishing with his father, who made no effort to placate any spirits before pushing off in the morning. Kami’s father had left the morning before, however, to join a potlatch on Sanduha, a nearby island. He would be gone for many days, and the family needed fish. It took at least two to operate a fishing boat, and so Lorma agreed to take Kami out. The boat was small and fast, and the two had no problems moving it quickly through the lagoon. As they passed the looming shadow of the foreign ship, Lorma made a sign to ward off evil. Reflexively, Kami almost did as well, but then shook his hand instead and stared directly at the ship, noting the many lines and smelling the strange mineral odor of the hull. Then they were past it, and open water lay ahead. They paddled hard up the channel toward the reef, taking care to stay in the channel. On either side waves broke over dangerous shoals. The remnants of a wrecked canoe were entangled on one. Lorma again made a magical sign, but Kami decided to use his hands to paddle harder. Dawn found them in deep water. Kami chafed impatiently as Lorma chanted a prayer over the gear, and then he and the older man cast their baited lines.
The day remained gray and cold. Kami shivered occasionally as he worked, even with his robe to warm him. He wondered how Lorma, naked save for his belt and some fetishes, could handle the ocean chill. Lorma seemed to be more worried about the currents and the waves. Every so often he would stand up and scan the horizon. “Pirates,” he said when he saw Kami scowling at him. Kami just shook his head at the crazy old man and kept casting. The action was good, but the catch was thin. Kami’s hooks kept breaking, or getting stripped of their bait. Lorma was doing even worse. When the nibbles on the lines quieted in one spot, Lorma and Kami would paddle to another, usually near submerged reefs. Eventually Kami had enough fish for the day. Lorma had not gotten his baskets full yet, though, so Kami started fishing for him as well. Seeing this, Lorma actually stopped fishing and started counting the waves. This irritated Kami so much he almost stopped fishing, until he realized that he had no idea where the island was.
Kami stood up in the boat and scanned the horizon, but the waves and the clouds were all he could see. He realized that for all his journeys out to fish, he had never been this far out in a boat this low to the water. He looked at Lorma, who was also standing. “The waves are wrong,” Lorma said. Kami looked on as the older man pointed at the patterns the waves were making. “The crossover should be less angled.” Lorma lifted one foot and set it on the side of the canoe, looking out across the waves. Kami sat down and waited, trying to ignore the fear in his stomach. He stared up at the old man, noticing for the first time that many of the red and black tattoos that covered Lorma’s brown, wrinkled skin from neck to knee were of sharks and storms and death. After a long pause Lorma spoke. “We are too near the shoals. We need to move away from them to see the true pattern of the waves. Start paddling.”
Fear lent strength to Kami’s arms, and the small canoe responded nicely to the efforts of the two men with the oars. The wooden hull cut through the water almost silently, and with every crested wave Kami felt sure they were drawing closer to home. Too soon, however, he heard the sound of waves breaking. Lorma again stood at the prow as the canoe came upon a small island of coral, one of dozens scattered in the waters around the big island. He pointed to where a tiny cove sheltered a sliver of sand.
“We will beach the boat,” Lorma said, “and I will climb up and try to see the island.” He studied the small rocky outcropping. “There will be fish trapped in the pools here. See what you can gather.” Kami nodded, unhappy with the assignment but too worried to usurp the elder’s authority. Kami wished his father were here, in the big canoe with all the other men, but at the same time assuring himself that for all his foolish superstition, Lorma still knew how to navigate, a skill Kami had yet to master. He waited for Lorma to aim the bow of the dugout at the cove, then laid into the paddle. Their efforts drove the boat up the shore, away from the waves, and both scrambled out and dragged the canoe up far from the reach of the water. Lorma fixed his gaze on Kami. “Watch out for island spirits.” Lorma turned away to climb over the sharp rock. Kami nodded vigorously, then shook his head at the old man’s weird and contagious superstitions. He pulled off his cape and tossed it in the dugout, took his pack, then began to circle the island and look for more food.
This task proved tricky as the landscape was nothing more than a heap of coral boulders, each one presenting a thousand shattered edges to cut and bruise the careless traveler. After a few menes of painful trekking Kami found a large tidal pool, and he could see fish darting back and forth in it. He climbed down into it and set to work. As he fished, Kami occasionally climbed back up and looked around. The footing was slow and uncertain, and Kami slipped repeatedly onto the edges and blades of rock. Sometimes, when he looked, he saw Lorma standing atop various tall boulders, and sometimes he just saw the naked boulders. A glance across the horizon showed no signs of the main island. His cuts stung, and it was not long before his own blood mingled with the blood of his catch and ran down his belly and loins in thin rivulets. Had he still been wearing his robe it would have been in tatters. His thoughts kept returning to that great black ship in the lagoon. Images of unknown figures, more demon than men, played in his mind. He drove those ideas out again and again and was ashamed of his own fear.
A thought occurred to Kami. He was trusting Lorma to know where to look for the island, and was trusting his old eyes to see far enough to spot it. What if the old man missed it? Is it possible that with all his preoccupation with chants and spells Lorma had forgotten the one real thing he knew: navigation? And if he had, what could Kami do about it? He fretted about this new concern, pondering and discarding various solutions. He resolved to question Lorma, in hopes of discerning the truth. As soon as he had a stringer of fish Kami climbed out of the pool and headed for the canoe. There was no sign of Lorma on any of the high points. Kami wondered why the old man was wandering so aimlessly. He frowned, wondering if the old fool was wasting time by making prayers to placate the “island spirits” as he wandered. Impatience drove the anxiety from his belly and Kami was again resentful that he was burdened with the old man. Kami spotted a furtive figure moving through the rocks near the boat, and decided to check in with his older partner.
“Old man,” Kami called, hopping from boulder to boulder, heading toward the canoe. The figure ducked down out of sight in the broken rock at the beach’s edge. “Lorma,” Kami called, correcting the early impudence of his address. “What did you see?” There was no reply, but Kami again caught a glimpse of movement in the rocks ahead. Anger flared in Kami’s heart at the old fool’s odd ways. He scrambled awkwardly across the jagged boulders of coral, his thoughts vacillating between a proper patience with the elderly and giving the old wanderer a proper tongue-lashing. “Lorma!” he called again. He thought he heard a reply, but the crash of waves erased any meaning. He climbed laboriously over a dozen more big blocks of coral and then Kami was at the edge of an overhang, looking down at the beach. Only the boat was there. Footprints in the sand wove between small rocks and vanished under the cliff edge. Try as he would, leaning over the edge, Kami could not see under the overhang. “Lorma!” No answer. He studied the beach, and picked out a patch of sand with no rocks. Kami gathered himself up and jumped down, tumbling onto his face. He picked himself up and spat out the sand, fuming. He turned back toward the cliff. “Old man, what …”
There was a shallow cave hollowed out under the coral overhang, and the person Kami was following was waiting there, but it was not Lorma. It was no person Kami had ever seen. Indeed, he barely saw the person, or thing, at all. It was dark, and tall, and very fast, and almost human. Blue scales covered the torso and limbs, and talons terminated the long fingers. It hissed loudly, shocking Kami, who stumbled backwards. The creature leaped past him towards the sea. As it passed it slammed into Kami, spinning him around and knocking him down. He landed belly-down on hard coral, enduring insult and injury of the most outrageous sort. His fear drove him back to his feet, but by the time he could get up the beast was gone, with only churning water to mark its passing. Kami ran mindlessly away across the beach, away from the water. He leaped up into the rocks, headless of the knife-edges of stone. He stopped once he was up off the sand, looking back at the water’s edge. He could see nothing but waves. Hearing a sound behind he spun about, but this time it was indeed Lorma.
“What is it?” Lorma asked.
“We must go!” Kami shouted, and turned back toward the boat. Just beyond the dugout, with its promise of familiar safety and escape, lay the deep and mysterious ocean. Kami hesitated, then leaped down onto the sand. He ran to the boat and seized the hull. Lorma was not far behind him. “What did you see!?!”, demanded Lorma, but Kami was all business. “Just go!” he shouted, and together they shoved the canoe back into the water and paddled it away. It was not until they were bobbing up and down in deep water that Kami’s heart slowed to normal.
“What did you see?” Lorma demanded, staring at the younger man. He scowled. “Did you meet an island spirit?”
“No! No!” Kami shouted. He looked down, and was startled to see his own knife clenched tightly in his fist. He had no memory of drawing it. He looked back up to find Lorma staring fiercely at him. “No, I –- ” His words failed him. “Yes. Yes, I –- I saw something.”
Lorma looked around the boat into the deep blue around them. He withdrew a leather pouch from around his neck, one of the few items he wore. He shook the contents into the water and chanted a spell. Kami watched, wide-eyed, alternating between Lorma’s enchantment and the dark water around. Then Lorma seized a paddle, and Kami followed suit. Together they laid to. The small island fell behind and disappeared behind the swells. They did not talk, and they did not even pause until Kami’s throat was burning of thirst and he had to reach for his water gourd. The cuts he received from the rocks still bled, and stung when sweat rolled into them. Kami replayed the encounter again and again and again in his mind’s eye, and the terror of this drove his arms until they ached. The two did not stop rowing until a tell-tale cloud appeared in the sky ahead, the sign of an island. After what seemed like both a lifetime and a moment, Manduha appeared.
The sight of the familiar shoreline did not bring the relief Kami expected. Dozens of shoals, hundreds of waves, and thousands of oar strokes lay between them and home. Every wave potentially concealed a mystery, a threat. Kami tried to explain to himself what he had seen, and could not. Eventually the waves were cresting on rocks around them, and they were heading in through the channel. Finally the calm waters of the lagoon greeted them and relief swept over Kami as they glided past the familiar landmarks. Then Kami looked down into the depths of the lagoon, and the memory of that horror reappeared in his mind. He envisioned it rising even from these familiar waters, to seize and rend, and his feet ached for land. As they passed the foreign ship with its oddly colored crew, Lorma made the sign to ward off the evil eye. Kami stared at the older man for a long moment, then made the same sign himself.