A Short Story
On an island not far from my village there is a field where no flowers grow. It has neither grass nor trees. It’s a dead place, like a scar, covered in mud and studded with wooden crosses. Someone started a graveyard there long before I was born.
The island, which we call the Cache, is one of several, which huddle together in the dark sea as though trying to stay warm. I visit them almost every day. It takes about two hours’ hard rowing from my village to the islands, assuming the boat doesn’t leak. (It does. A lot.) Merlin and I have spent our lives exploring the islands and the waters around them.
Merlin is my… guardian? I would call him my dad, but my dad either ran away or died at sea when I was little. He sailed away on a Union ship and never came back. When my mum died, Merlin took me in. I was about eight: a gangly girl with dark eyes and freckles.
Merlin was a tough old guy with salt-and-pepper hair, huge arms, and a bit of a belly. Although he looked surly, he was a kind man. The only time I ever saw him angry was when someone made fun of his name. Merlin has always been a bit sore about it. He told me his parents meant to name him Marlin, after the fish, but mixed up the names.
These days, Merlin has a little more gray in his beard, yet rows out to the islands with me as often as the weather allows. We’re relic hunters. Believe me when I tell you the job is a lot less exciting than it sounds.
The Cache and its neighboring islands are littered with ruins and relics of the Age of Lights. Most of the really valuable stuff was carried off by other hunters decades ago, but there are still crumbling buildings with mountains of rubbish for us to sift. On a good day, we find an unbroken dish or trinket. The stuff is hundreds of years old. We have no use for it, but rich people inland apparently like collecting old junk, so we sell it.
When the weather is too stormy for us to visit the islands, we take care of chores around the home. We’re fortunate enough to have a two-room house: a sturdy shelter of sandy boards and shingles, eternally damp from the salty sea air. We even have the luxury of a glass window. Like every other building in our village, our house is built on stilts and reached by a ladder. Floods are common in the stormy seasons. Only idiots build on ground level.
Our most important chore is cleaning and restoring the stuff we find on the islands. Most of it is filthy. We’ve even had to pry barnacles off relics before. Twice a month, when the weather is fair, Merlin puts on his best clothes, rents a horse and wagon, and takes our latest batch of relics twenty miles inland to the city of Safehold. There, in the market square, he sets up a stall and sells our stuff.
Most of his buyers are merchants and Union officials. I suppose the merchants resell the relics at higher prices in bigger cities. The officials must like the allure of antiquities from Age of Lights, or else they just enjoy spending cash. Heaven knows they’ve got lots to spend. The Union treats its officials well, which must be its excuse for ignoring the rest of us.
When Merlin goes to Safehold, I stay in the village. I went with him a few times, but it was infuriating to deal with overfed city people, and Safehold was no place for a girl to go exploring on her own. I prefer to stay in the village. The local preacher is teaching me to read from his two tattered books, and one of the barmaids at the tavern gives me stale sweets.
Our village is not a nice place, but I’m fond of it. When the Union discovered our little settlement, it declared us part of its domain and named our village Silver Sands. It’s a stupid name. The beaches around here look more like ash.
My name is Pearl. Not that it matters. I was born in the village. I’ll spend my life in the village. I’ll die in the village… if I’m lucky. Otherwise, I’ll die at sea, unless the Union decides to execute me as a spy or criminal. The Union has a habit of executing people on vague charges. I suppose it feels insecure, and has to boost its own confidence by killing off public enemies on a regular basis. If it can’t find any, it improvises.
Since I was a little girl, the flowerless field on the Cache fascinated me. I asked Merlin about it a few months ago as we rowed to the island. “Merlin,” I said, speaking a few words at a time between strokes, “I have a question—about that field—on the Cache. The field—with the graveyard.”
Merlin stopped rowing, and I followed suit. We sat for a minute under the gray sky, breathing deeply as our boat bobbed up and down in the water.
“It’s an evil place,” he said at last, frowning.
“There are sometimes new graves,” I said. “I’ve noticed. When we split up on the island, I sometimes visit the field, and I see crosses that weren’t there before.”
“You visit the field? Well, stop. You should be hunting for junk, anyhow, not exploring.”
“I know nobody from the village has died lately,” I persisted. “Who’s buried in the new graves?”
“Nobody,” spat Merlin. For once, his tone matched his looks.
“It’s a graveyard! What do you mean, nobody is buried there?”
“It is a graveyard, Pearly, but not for the dead.”
I couldn’t let it go. “Then who’s it for, Merlin? Who’s buried there?”
“Death is buried there. Stay away from it. Do you understand, Pearl? Don’t go there. That field is a dangerous place. Some things are best left buried.”
I didn’t go back to the graveyard. Something in Merlin’s tone scared me. Whatever lay beneath the field of no flowers, I wanted no part of it.
Then, a little more than a month ago, a team of Union officials arrived in our village. It was almost comical to see them, dressed in their tri-color uniforms, surrounded by servants and guards, standing awkwardly outside our house.
“Stay away from the window,” growled Merlin, pulling me back. “Listen, Pearl. Listen to me! Whatever happens, give short answers and leave the rest of the talking to me. If they ask about the Cache—listen carefully, Pearl—if they ask about the graveyard on Cache, tell them the dead of our village are buried there.”
Someone outside shouted, “Hello! Open up in the name of the Union!”
Merlin gave me one last look and then opened the door, squinting down at our visitor with a strained smile. “Ah, yes. Welcome! What can I do for you?”
“May we come up?” The voice was of a young man.
“Of course,” said Merlin. “Do you need a hand up the ladder?”
“I’ll manage,” replied the voice. Within moments, a slender man appeared in the doorway. He wore the uniform of the Union, white with a sash of red and blue, and a pair of glasses. “What a fine home,” he said, dusting his hands and looking around with a smile. “I suppose the stilts keep it high and dry? Splendid, splendid.”
Our visitor was joined by two guards, whose swords bumped against each rung of the ladder as they climbed up into the house.
“To what do we owe this honor?” asked Merlin.
A member of our guest’s entourage tossed up some cushions to one of the guards, who set them on our floor. They looked so odd against the sandy boards. Our visitor sat cross-legged on one of the out-of-place cushions and motioned toward the others. “Please, sit.”
Merlin and I sat and waited.
“I’ll get straight to business,” said our guest pleasantly. “I don’t mean to waste your—” He coughed politely. “—valuable time. My name is Simon, and I am a scholar of history. I’m particularly interested in the Age of Lights, of whose relics and artifacts you have—” He gave another cough. “—extensive knowledge.”
Merlin shrugged. “You’re too kind, Mr. Simon, but we’re not educated. We find the stuff, clean it, and sell it. We leave the history to the historians.”
Simon laughed. “Ah, but hands-on education is the best kind, Mr.…?”
“Mr. Merlin. And what is your name, young Miss?”
It took me a moment to realize he was speaking to me. “Pearl,” I blurted.
“Your, ahem, father is very modest, Ms. Pearl, but I’m sure you both know quite a lot about the Age of Lights from its artifacts. What can you tell me?”
Simon had apparently decided that of the two of us, I was more likely than Merlin to let slip sensitive information. I was determined to prove him wrong.
“It had beautiful dishes and figurines and pictures,” I said, trying to sound childish. “The people in the Age of Lights were lucky to have such pretty things.”
“Indeed, Ms. Pearl, but their luck didn’t stop there. They had better things yet. Here, for example.” Simon held out a piece of paper. It had a drawing of what looked like a bulbous metal barrel with tapered ends and fins on one end like a fish.
“What is this?” I asked.
“A barrel containing great treasure,” said Simon, and held up another picture. It was of a metal canister with words painted on its side. He apparently didn’t know I can read a bit, because he asked, “Do you want to know the meaning of those letters?”
I played along. “Yes, please.”
“They spell ‘Contains diamonds: Handle with care.’ These are ancient jewel containers.”
I nodded, but it was a lie.
The letters on the canister spelled Sulphur mustard: Toxic chemical hazard. I didn’t know what these words meant, but they gave me reason not to trust our visitor.
“The Union is interested in finding and preserving the greatest treasures of the Age of Lights,” continued Simon, taking back the pictures and showing them to Merlin. “We believe these valuable relics can be found on the islands off the coast of Silver Sands, where you do your hunting. Have you seen any such treasures?”
Merlin shook his head.
“No,” I said.
Simon sighed. Behind him, one of the guards shifted on his feet and put a hand on the hilt of his sword.
“We are quite sure these artifacts, and others, are somewhere on the islands,” said Simon. “We don’t, ahem, disbelieve you, but we need to see for ourselves. I place you both under house arrest.
“Relax,” he added, grinning. “You’re not in any trouble… yet. The Union sent scholars to Silver Sands with me. We’re going to spend a month searching the islands. If you’ve told the truth and we don’t find anything, we’ll let you carry on with your business. If you’ve lied and we do find something—” Simon coughed yet again. “—it won’t end well for you, I’m afraid.
“Let me ask you both one last time: Have you found any relics that match these pictures, or any that you have not reported?”
“No,” said Merlin and I together.
Simon crossed his arms. “We shall see.”
In the month that followed, Simon and his entourage lived in luxurious tents outside Silver Sands, entering town only at night to drink at the tavern.
A watch of two guards kept watch on me and Merlin. We weren’t allowed to leave the house. The guards gave us meager rations of food and water, but Merlin’s friends in the village—that is, nearly everyone in the village—brought us meals regularly. Some supported us to protest the Union’s intrusion into our village; others simply wanted to help. Nobody could afford to give much, but everyone gave a little, so we were never hungry.
One night, my friend from the tavern brought us some cake and this bit of gossip: “The Union scholars haven’t found anything on the islands, and they’re losing patience.” The village preacher dropped by every Sunday with words of encouragement, and even loaned me one of his books.
Our guards were sulky young men, unhappy at spending a month in such a desolate corner of the Union. They rejected all attempts at conversation, and spent their days in sullen silence. I spent my time reading, napping, and staring out our window. I saw Simon’s scholars set out in boats every morning for the islands, and return emptyhanded at twilight.
Our arrest ended a few days ago. Instead of leaving for the islands as usual, Simon came to our house in the morning and offered us seats upon his cushions, smiling as though our arrest had never happened.
“Well, I guess you were telling the truth after all,” he said. “We didn’t find any of the relics we wanted, and we looked everywhere… almost everywhere, I should say. There is an area of interest on the largest island—I believe you call it the Cache?”
“An unusual name.”
“Relic hunters found a lot of loot there in the old days,” explained Merlin. “I was just a kid then. We called it the Cache because so many relics were discovered there.”
Simon leaned forward. “Does the graveyard on the Cache belong to your village?”
“A funny place to bury your dead.” Simon turned to me. “Isn’t it?”
“I—I never thought about it,” I stammered.
“Ms. Pearl, why do you think someone dug a graveyard on the Cache? Isn’t it a long way to carry the bodies of your dead? It seems, ahem, unlikely.”
It was at that moment, by God’s grace or sheer good luck, that I invented a perfect lie.
“There was a plague,” I said. “It killed a lot of folks before I was born. Merlin told me about it. The bodies were diseased, so they were buried on the Cache, far from the village.”
Simon made a face. “Dear me. I suppose that would explain it. Well, I’ve enjoyed my stay in your—” His cough was almost painfully polite. “—delightful village, but I must move on. I have other corners of the Union to search, and other relics to find. There’s just one more thing. The Union has just made a new law. It’s a bit wordy, so listen carefully.”
Simon took a letter from a pocket of his uniform, unfolded it, and read: “The Union, formally known as the Reunited States of America, does hereby set forth the following as federal law.
“All hunters, buyers, and sellers of relics from the twentieth to the twenty-second centuries—those,” he added, looking up at us, “are the years you call the Age of Lights—must catalogue and report all findings to designated officials of the Union.
“Failure to do so will result in arrest and summary execution. Relics of concern to the Union shall be immediately declared its property, and the former owners of the relics offered due compensation.
“In other words,” concluded Simon, putting the letter back in his pocket, “show your relics to certain Union officials before you sell them, or else die. If you find anything the Union wants, it will buy it from you, and you’ll get to live. All clear?”
“Yes, yes,” said Merlin.
Simon peered at me through his glasses, and I nodded.
“Excellent,” he said. “Good day and good luck.” Turning to the guards, he told them, “We’re done here. Let’s get out of this godforsaken dump.”
The Union team packed up its camp and left. As it passed out of earshot, a cheer rose from all around us. We were not the only ones happy to see Simon and his entourage leave.
Merlin and I sat for a while, saying nothing, looking at everything but each other. At last, he began to chuckle, and then to laugh. “God above, they didn’t find it. They didn’t find it, the idiots! So much for the power and glory of the Reunited States of America.”
“Merlin,” I said. “Merlin, what the hell just happened?”
He stopped laughing and looked out the door at the blue morning sky. “We dodged a bullet, Pearly.”
“We dodged a what?”
“Never mind that. Listen, Pearl, I wasn’t planning on telling you any of this for another few years, but then I wasn’t exactly planning to spend the past month under house arrest. It’s time you know the truth.”
“About the Cache?”
Merlin’s grin returned. “That was a clever lie you told Simon about the graveyard. I suppose you’re ready to know what’s buried there, if you haven’t already guessed it.”
“The graveyard on the Cache is where the missing relics are buried—the canisters and that funny-looking metal barrel.”
“Among other things,” admitted Merlin. “We live on the ashes of a great civilization. In the Age of Lights, hundreds of years ago, this country was called the United States of America. Its people had lamps that burned not with fire, but with electricity—the stuff lightning is made of. Soldiers fought with weapons that shot bits of metal at blazing speeds. There were even machines that could think. It was an amazing time.”
I looked around our house, with its greasy candles and gritty wooden furniture, and tried to imagine thinking machines and lamps full of lightning.
“What happened to the Age of Lights?” I asked.
“People have always wrecked things, but the Age of Lights made them better at it. They made weapons called bombs that burst into storms of fire. The barrel-looking relic with the fins is what they called an atom bomb. It unleashed a mountain of fire and smoke.”
“And the canisters?”
“They were filled with deadly gas. People invented even more weapons, each worse than the last, and someone finally used the worst ones of all. The Age of Lights ended in dying embers and warm ashes. The lights went out.
“We’re only just rebuilding all these centuries later. The leaders of the Union want to remake the United States of America according to their own twisted notions, and they want weapons from the Age of Lights.”
“Because they’re damned greedy bastards, that’s why! The relic hunters who founded this village knew that, so when they began finding weapons, they buried them on the Cache.”
“The field where no flowers grow.”
“Yes. I think a few of the canisters leaked, and their chemicals killed the grass and trees around the graveyard. The Cache contains all the weapons we ever found on the islands. There are enough, I think, to turn cities to ash.”
“Why are there so many?” I wondered.
“There must have been a navy base on one of the islands.” Merlin walked to our open doorway and looked out on our village. “It doesn’t matter now, does it? It’s long gone. This village and its people have kept it that way since before you were born.”
I joined Merlin in gazing out over the village. The fishermen were piling nets and gear into their canoes on the beach. My friend from the tavern was gossiping with a neighbor hanging clothes to dry in the morning sun. The preacher moseyed along amiably in the direction of his little chapel.
“What’s funny, Pearly?”
“Oh, just the ambitions of the Reunited States of America ruined by one stubborn little village.”
Merlin put a hand on my shoulder. “It’ll be your turn someday, you know.”
“I won’t be around forever. If you turn up any more weapons when I’m gone, it’ll be up to you to decide what to do with them.”
It has been a few days since the Union scholars left our village. Merlin and I went hunting for relics yesterday on the Cache, and I spent a few minutes in the field where no flowers grow. The place no longer scares me. It’s just sad. The weapons of the bloodstained past are covered by mud, sealed away from thieves and tyrants, rusting in their graves.
Today is my birthday, and Merlin gave me a present: his shovel. “This is yours now,” he said. “The future is yours. It’s up to you to bury the past, or to dig it up. From today onward, Pearly, you decide.”
I tapped him playfully with the shovel, and said, “I’ll bury it, thanks.”
I wrote this story for a friend, who asked for one “set on an island.” On the rare occasions I’ve written short fiction, I haven’t followed writing prompts, so this one was a pleasant challenge.
My first idea was the tale of a shipwreck survivor who washes up on an island only to find a grouchy hermit already in residence. As much as I liked the “odd couple” concept, I couldn’t think of a good story to build on it, and eventually set it aside.
The story I wound up writing was inspired partly by the new Star Wars movie, in which a character scavenges technology from ruined spaceships. I love the idea of a primitive society built on the ruins of a technologically advanced past. It made me wonder: If our own society went up in flames, what would we leave behind?
A story gradually took shape, informed by my friend’s writing prompt and influenced by Future Boy Conan, an early work by Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki.
The protagonist of this story is, of course, named after my cat.