Sema was close to despair. Her home was gone. Everything she’d ever known had been destroyed, and she no longer felt safe, because the pirates might return.
She thought for a while about leaping from the island and ending her loneliness right then. She considered it seriously, if a little bleakly, considered simply not bothering with living any more. She probably would do that in the end, she decided. It made sense to spare herself a little suffering. She was tired and hungry and cold, and had been hiding for days, and right now she didn’t especially care if she died.
Leaping from the island would be a relief, but first, she had a duty to perform. She needed to attend to the dead. She had failed them in life, by not warning them of the pirates quickly enough, but she wouldn’t fail them now.
She did the best she could. She gathered then up, as carefully as possible, although some had been burned inside their houses. She gathered them up, seeing the now-still faces of people she knew, people she’d laughed with and loved and teased. She laid each on a square of wood, and dragged them, one by one, to the edge of the island. She said some words over each of them, not the right words, but the best words she could think of, that they had been a good friend, or a kind person, or that people had liked them a lot. She said her words, and then slid whoever it was out into the sky, to be free and at peace and away from the pain of the world of the islands.
She wanted to do more, but she couldn’t. There wasn’t anything else she could manage. She said the words, and slid her friends and family off the island, and when she was finished she cried for an entire day. She just sat where she was, and wept.
And then, when she was finished crying, she slept.
She was exhausted from hiding, and fear, and the physical effort of dragging people around as she had been. She was exhausted by grief and loneliness, and wanted just to sleep. She slept, and woke, and cried some more, and then started trying to decide what she ought to do next.
She was planning ahead. She wasn’t thinking any more about following her family into the sky. She didn’t realize it until several hours later, but she had begun planning as soon as she had awoken. Attending to the dead might have saved her own life, she decided. It had given her something to do, something to concentrate on, a purpose, when she felt at her worst. It had needed to be done, anyway, no matter whether she killed herself or not, so she had done it before she decided about herself. She did it, and wore herself out, and then slept, and by the time she awoke the last of the fires had burned out, and the pirate island was out of sight, and she felt a little less awful, like it might be worth trying to work out what to do next.
She still wasn’t completely sure that she did want to stay alive, but she decided she might as well plan as if she was going to, since she wouldn’t especially need plans if she wasn’t.
So she planned. She tried to work out what to do now.
First she decided that if she was going to stay alive, she needed to leave the island, and she needed to do it soon. She didn’t quite know how she would, yet, but she needed to get away, to not be here, in the remnants of the village, where the memories of everyone she’d ever known constantly reminded her of their loss, and that she was to blame their deaths. She needed to get away from the island. She couldn’t live here on her own. She needed to go somewhere else, somewhere she feel safe.
She thought about how.
She kept thinking about the pirates’ boat.
Now that she’d seen the boat, she understood how it must work. She thought of the children’s game of tossing pebbles off the island, which floated alongside, and tossing twigs which did not. Human waste, everyone knew, thrown over the side, fell cleanly into the world’s fires, as did a worm, dug from the soil, but rocks and soil, parts of the island which crumbled away, those stayed as they were, floating alongside until the wind blew them away.
Sema thought. She thought about the boat, and dirt, and dirt’s power. It was the dirt that floated, not that which grew in it, or ate of it. Everyone knew that. It was the earth which floated, and not anything else. Dirt and rocks and soil and clods, it didn’t matter what, they floated.
So anything which had dirt inside, that must float, too.
A boat, filled with dirt, with a sail to catch the wind, that would fly. That would let her travel between islands.
Sema had never thought about this before. She had always thought of the island as solid, as there, a thing. She had assumed the only way between islands to wait until they bumped together. Now she understood that wasn’t so.
She could move through the sky on her own.
She would move that way, and soon. She just needed to build herself a boat.
Sema kept thinking. She was trying to plan properly now.
She thought about food, and how much there was left on the island. She decided she ought to check, so she didn’t eat the last of it without realizing. She went through the burned houses, and gathered what there was. A little barley and oats, some toasted already, from corners where it hadn’t been burned and where the pirates hadn’t found and stolen it. A few weeks worth of wrinkled apples from cellars, if she ate nothing else. No meat, no eggs, and nothing with much taste. She especially didn’t care about taste, but she thought she’d need to eat something more substantial than apples sooner or later, or she might become sick.
She looked around the fields. There were no livestock left, and the pirates had burned the barley, and even though the winter wheat crop was still growing, it would be months before it was ready. She wondered if the wheat would help her situation, but decided not. It would be too difficult for her to harvest and mill it on her own, difficult enough she would probably lose a lot of it as she worked, and even if she didn’t, she wouldn’t have enough grain to replant the fields anyway.
Not to replant them, and eat until spring, too.
If she stayed, the choice was simple, looking at what she had. She could eat what grain there was now, and starve next year, or she could starve herself now and plant it, taking comfort in the knowledge there would be wild wheat and barley waiting for whoever came to the island next, long after she was dead.
It wasn’t really much of choice.
She walked around, thinking, miserable, and decided that she needed to go. This was her home, and the memories were painful, but she still felt a little sad at being forced to leave.
That was assuming she was actually going to leave, she suddenly thought, rather than just leaping from the island and ending her loneliness now. She thought about it for a while, wondering if she should, but then decided she wasn’t going to leap, and that she mostly already knew that. She wouldn’t be bothering to plan like this if she was just going to jump over the side, she thought. So she wasn’t going to jump, that meant she had to leave. And if she was leaving, she needed to leave now, soon, before the food ran out, and before winter began. Before it was too cold to survive here.
She needed to go, so now she’d made sure she had food, she went back to thinking about boats. She thought a lot about boats, and how they might work.
She experimented. She put a rock in a cup, and threw it over the side of the island. The cup fell and the rock floated where it had been. She held a rock out slowly, slower than she’d ever done before, and as her hand passed out over the edge of the island she thought she felt a little tug against her hand.
That tug was interesting.
She dropped a rock onto the island, and as she expected, it fell. She dropped it again, at the very edge of the land, closer and closer to the edge, trying to find the exact spot it tugged at her hand. She did, in the end, with a little trial and error. She found a place where the rock shifted sideways as it fell, shifted ever so slightly, as if blown by a soft, peculiar wind. It fell sideways, in the faintest of curves, impossible to see, and then floated in the air, right beside the shore. Touching, but separate. Part of the island, but not.
Sema knew she had dropped it halfway above the island, halfway not, but that close to the shore, it slipped outwards on its own.
That was interesting to know, too.
She did it again, thinking and watching as she did. Thinking about falling rocks helped take her mind off her grief. She dropped rocks, and found a pattern. There was some force catching the rocks right near the edge of the island. She dropped several more, at different heights, and worked out the place where they began to go sideways as they fell. It was a line, rising up from the edge of the island, but moving slightly inwards as it rose. Not a completely vertical line, not straight up from the edge. A rock would move further on its own, the higher it was dropped.
It wasn’t an upright barrier like a fence, Sema decided. It was more something akin to a shadow being cast, a shadow which fell a little sideways through the air.
She thought about that, and shadows, and what shadows hid.
She thought for a long time, and then decided she’d had it backwards. It wasn’t the rocks that floated in the sky on their own, after all, but something below which pushed upwards against them. A rock above the island was shadowed from this push, and fell to the island like any other rock. A rock off the island’s side, or near the side, that was caught by the force that held the island up, and then the rock floated on its own, a new island.
It seemed important, but she wasn’t quite sure why.
She thought about it for a while.
She thought about rocks, and then she thought about dust. She thought about dust because the day happened to be a gusty, squally day. Dust was being blown around in flurries, rising into the air in gritty little whirlwinds, and then falling back to the ground when the wind died down.
She watched the dust for a while. She watched as it was caught by the wind, and blown around, blown upwards into the air. She watched it become still, when the wind stopped blowing, and hang for a moment, and then settle back to the ground.
It settled to the ground if it was above the island, she noticed. It behaved like dust always had, although she’d never thought about it very much before. Above the island, dust behaved like dust. She wondered what happened it if was out, over the edge of the island, in the sky.
She took a handful of fine dirt, and squeezed it until it was finer. Then she held her arm out over the edge of the island, and let the dirt trickle through her fingers. The wind was blowing towards her, into her face, from the sky towards the island. As the dirt fell, some blew away across the island, but some dropped straight down, especially when the wind wasn’t gusting.
That dirt, the dirt which fell, then floated in the sky, next to the shore, hanging in the air on its own.
So dust and dirt floated too, Sema thought, unless it was above an island. That seemed to confirm her idea about shadows and something pushing upwards from below. She had expected the dirt would float. She was almost sure she’d seen this happen before. She was glad she’d checked, though, because now she knew for certain. Dust behaved like dust over the island, but it behaved like rocks out in the sky. The difference wasn’t between dust and rocks, it was that dust was fine, and could be caught, and lifted, and blown around. Blown, as the island was, ahead of the wind, but blown upwards as well in a way that the island didn’t seem to be blown.
Sema thought some more. She thought about dust, and where it came from, and where it went, too. She knew it blew off the island, because that happened sometimes in hot dry summers. If farmers weren’t careful, the dry soil on their fields could blow away. Sema thought about that. She thought about where that dirt and dust went. Whether it then floated around forever, and whether that meant there was more dust in the sky now than there had used to be. She supposed there must be, with more being blown off islands all the time. At least, there ought to be, but she didn’t think it was actually happening. The air had never been especially dusty. Not unless it was summer, and a hot wind was blowing. And older people had never mentioned that the air was dustier than it used to be, either. Sema thought about that, curious. If dust had been blowing off islands for hundreds of years, it should surely be filling the sky by now. She should be coughing and gasping. She should have been coughing all her life.
But she wasn’t, and hadn’t been, so something was wrong with her reasoning. She wasn’t sure why the air wasn’t much dustier than it actually was.
She thought carefully.
Perhaps the dust lost its power to float gradually, over time, and fell down to the surface. Perhaps it did, she thought, surprised. She’d never thought about this before, but perhaps it did.
It would explain where all the dust went.
She sat there, and thought. This was something to consider before she made herself a boat. Perhaps dust did fall in the end, and if her boat was held up by dust, it would eventually fall out the sky too. Perhaps that would happen, but equally likely she was wrong and dust just blew around forever.
Probably it just blew around, she thought, like dust always blew around, unnoticed, disregarded, until it was eventually caught on other islands.
That was probably what was happening, but she wanted to find out for sure.
She sat at the edge of the island, and dropped dust again. She held her hand out, and trickled dust, and watched it carefully as she did. The dust fell the same way as rocks did, she decided, just on a smaller scale, but only when there was no wind. When there was wind, it was blown away instead, because it was so light. It was being pushed upwards by the same thing that held the island up, but only the tiniest, gentlest push. Such a soft push that a gentle breeze was enough to catch it, and blow it sideways instead. And once dust was blowing sideways, it was in the island’s upwards shadow, and so then it fell onto the island when the wind died down and stopped supporting it.
Sema tried another handful of dust, and watched, and decided that explanation was right.
And that explained dust, she thought, quite proud of herself. Dust would float on its own through the sky, until it was blown across an island, and then it would lose it’s ability to float, and settle onto land. It explained where more dirt came from, she thought, and why the soil hadn’t all blown away long ago, and spread around the world in a haze, or fallen down to the molten surface far below.
She was pleased she’d worked that out. It wasn’t important, it didn’t actually matter right now, but she was curious, and it was interesting, even so.
She still wondered if dust ever did stop floating, though. And now she had begun thinking about it, she wondered if rocks did too. She wanted to know, before she climbed into a boat held up only by rocks. And actually, it was something she ought to have considered long ago, since she lived on an island hanging the sky.
Wondering if things ever fell down was actually a very unsettling thought.
She sat on the edge of the island, and watched the dust she’d just dropped. It floated, catching the light sometimes. It hung where it was, and blew around in eddies, but it didn’t actually seem to sink any lower of it’s own accord.
Sema was quite relieved.
She thought a little more. If she couldn’t see dust sinking, then that ought to mean that if dust did stop floating, it happened slowly, more slowly than a boat’s journey would last, and so more slowly than she cared about right now. And if rocks stopped floating, she thought, she had never heard of it happening. No-one she knew had heard of it, or told stories about it, so that probably didn’t happen. And if rocks floated forever, she decided, then dust probably floated forever too. Because things that were the same ought to act in the same way. That was a sensible way for the world to work. So if dirt would float, and keep floating unless the wind caught it, then it ought to keep floating forever, as an island did. She decided that was so, but all the same, when she made her boat, she would only put rocks inside it, not dirt. There was no point being stubborn just to make a point to herself. Rocks was safer, she thought, just in case very fine dust did lose its ability to stay up in sky.
She decided she was ready, that she understood enough to make a boat, now. It was odd, she thought. She was grief-stricken and upset and almost too hungry to think, but she’d learned more about how the world worked in an hour of watching it than she had in her whole life until now. People weren’t curious, she supposed. They just accepted things as they were, and ignored the why, until something happened to unsettle them and make them think. Like something had happened to her.
She would make a boat, she decided. She would put rocks inside a frame, or a box. Something enclosed, and which she could sit upon. She needed to make a boat, and now, after a morning of thinking, she actually knew how she could. She stood up, and walked back to the village, and began searching through the ruins for something to make it with.
It wasn’t until much later, after nightfall, after she was trying to fall asleep, that it occurred to Sema that measuring the fall of the dust against the side of the island would only work if the island wasn’t also sinking lower in the sky.
But it wasn’t. She knew it wasn’t. The world had been as it was for generations, and all the island were still where they had always been.
She turned over and tried to sleep.