Extract from Will Poole's Island, the new novel by Tim Weed.
The story takes place in 1643, and the excerpt encompasses the arrival of three fugitives on an island off the coast of New England that does not yet appear on English maps.
Will awoke with a start. It was day again, and the world was obscured by dense white fog. The wind had died down, and the mishoon rolled in a long slow pattern over an undulating sea. Natoncks was bailing with a gourd, while Squamiset steered with his paddle to keep them at right angles to the swells. The old man’s weathered face was alert—not cheerful, but not morose either. Will drew comfort from the sight of it.
The old man gestured with his chin toward the food supplies in the hull. Will leaned over and uncovered a few smoked clams and poured himself a handful of parched corn, washing it down with a swallow of fresh water. He held up the water gourd, which was close to empty. Two more sealed gourds were all that remained. “We shall reach the island today,” Squamiset said, peering ahead into the thick fog. “Or we shall not reach it at all.”
Will set the gourd back in the hull. A noise that had been in the background since he’d awakened—so constant and unchanging that he hadn’t even noticed it—suddenly grew louder in his ears: a dull roar, like an approaching waterfall. “What’s that?” Natoncks stopped bailing. He glanced at Squamiset, tilting his head as if he too was listening. “A meeting of waters,” the old man said, sitting back on his heels. “A tidal boundary, a place where the sound joins the deeper water of the open ocean. We must cross over it. I believe we are close to the island.”
The noise grew louder. It sounded like a white-water rapid. “When you are ready.” The old man gestured toward the paddle on Will’s knees. Natoncks had already started paddling.
The hull of the mishoon knifed through the water toward the roaring shoal. Through the fog, Will could make out a wall of standing waves, like a rain-swollen river in the middle of the ocean. There was no beginning and no end of it—and no way to get around it. Will mouthed a prayer to God. Just in case, he added a few improvised words for the Manitoo as well. He gritted his teeth and concentrated on keeping up the same quick cadence as the other two, and the mishoon collided with the torrent. The standing waves were even bigger than they’d looked, as big as houses, with chasms of churning white water between them. The thundering water was so loud that no other sound was possible.
When they struck the current, the prow lurched to one side. Will lost his balance and released one hand from the paddle to steady himself on the rim of the mishoon, which rocked sickeningly. Squamiset yelled to him to keep paddling—it was the first time Will had ever known him to raise his voice—and Will grasped the handle and plunged the paddle into the raging white water. The mishoon tilted into the current, almost capsizing, then compensated by tilting against the current. Seawater poured into the hull like a clear green millstream over a dam. The three fugitives had one second to look at each other in wide-eyed shock before they were plunged bodily into the fast-moving current.
Will gasped for breath and fought to the surface as the cold water lifted him up to the crest of a standing wave. He caught a glimpse of the sun through swirling fog before the current hurtled him down into a trough. He fought to keep his head above water, but the current inevitably dragged him under. Beneath the surface, everything was strangely peaceful. He kicked his legs and windmilled his arms, trying to fight his way back to the surface, but the current pulled him down with too much force. He’d nearly run out of air when a pale blurred figure frog-stroked toward him from the depths. The figure looked familiar, and then he recognized his mother’s face from his visions, pale and watery green, long green-blonde hair swirling about her smiling lips. His throat ached. As he opened his mouth to greet her, his lungs filled with seawater.
Her powerful arms embraced him. The rushing green faded slowly to midnight black, and he knew he was losing consciousness. His last thought was how strong his mother had become, swimming around all these years under the sea.
Will awoke vomiting seawater on a bright sand beach. Squamiset knelt astride him, using both hands to pump his chest. Natoncks, beside him, saw that Will was alive and sat back on his heels in relief. After much gasping, coughing, and hiccuping, Will was able to sit up. Salt water streamed from his nostrils, and his lungs burned, but he was alive. Looking around, he saw that they were at the tip of a long peninsula of sand. The fog had burned off, but the sand was still cool to the touch. Squamiset offered him a drink from one of the sealed gourds he’d managed to recover from the mishoon. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely. “And you, Natoncks.” Natoncks inclined his head.
They rested awhile on the beach. As he recovered, Will reveled in the sugary white sand between his toes, the solidity of dry land, the cloudless blue sky, and the absence of pitching and swaying. A light breeze made the dune grass whisper, and in the distance they could hear the cackle of gulls. Otherwise, the sand point was steeped in silence. They set off toward low hills visible as a faint green haze to the south. The dry sand was soft, making walking arduous. In some ways this beach wasn’t all that different from several they’d crossed on the mainland, but there was something unmistakably foreign in the air. It was as if they were walking through a dream—as if they’d arrived not just on an island but on an entirely new continent.
They trudged through a dwarf forest of windswept pine and along the edge of a tidal pond with a narrow opening to the sea. Millions of tiny orange crabs scuttled away in the dune grass, their armored carapaces clicking noisily like a miniature army in retreat. An osprey circled above their heads, its snow-white breast and mottled underwings vivid in the morning light. “Is that yours?” Will asked.
“No.” Squamiset shook his head. “But observe how fat it is. With luck, we too shall become well-fed and sleek.” The land widened to a point where the peninsula joined the island, and the concentration of shore life increased. Flocks of gulls and terns plied the waters beyond a fringe of gentle surf. Black-and-white oystercatchers with powerful orange beaks plucked at the sand, while plovers and turnstones sprinted to pluck morsels from the retreating waves as new breakers crashed in. The shiny black heads of seals bobbed on the swells. The fresh breeze was laden with the smell of feeding fish, whose slicks tamed the water in long ribboning strips a few hundred yards offshore.
The breeze was welcome, for the sun was starting to get hot, and there was no shade. The drinking gourd long since empty, Will wondered where a person might find fresh water on an island where the ground seemed to consist entirely of sand. He was about to query Squamiset on this problem when a long heavy object thrummed into the sand at his feet and he jumped back with a yelp. Natoncks dropped into a reflexive crouch, and Squamiset, apparently unfazed, bent to examine the object sticking out of the sand. It was a throwing spear, fashioned from some limber wood decorated with runelike carvings, whittled to a narrow taper at the end, and still vibrating ominously from the impact. Squamiset dropped to his knees, bowing his head as if in supplication. Natoncks followed suit, and Will, with reluctance, did the same.
Three islanders strode up, the skin of their arms and faces sun-bronzed and glistening with oil. Two carried bows, and there was no doubt in Will’s mind that these tall hunters could have their arrows nocked and loosed in the blink of an eye. The third man—the spearman—was empty-handed. He was six inches shorter than his companions, with gold hoops in his ears and a badly pockmarked face. One of his eye sockets held only a shiny scar where the eye should have been. His attitude conveyed a sense of violence that made Will’s scalp prickle.
This man jerked his weapon out of the sand and pointed it at the center of Will’s chest. Will opened his hands to show that he was no threat. The one-eyed islander scowled and pressed the spearpoint—a long, sharp, flaked leaf of obsidian—against Will’s breastbone. Natoncks moved to grab hold of the spear, but Squamiset caught his arm. “Do not be afraid,” the old man said to Will. “This man will not harm you.”
Will gave him a worried sideways glance. The spearman’s tattooed arms were muscular, and the razor-sharp obsidian blade pressed a pin- point ache at the center of his chest. It would only take another inch of thrust to pierce his heart. The islander spat out an incomprehensible Algonkian phrase, the angry glare of his single eye not leaving Will’s face. He wore a wampum neckband in a checkerboard pattern, and his hair was pulled to one side and wrapped with red and black string like the forelock of a cosseted horse. “What did he say?” Will asked, not daring to look away.
“That you have the features of a parson,” Squamiset replied. “He has met one before—on the mainland, I suppose—and the memory is not a pleasant one for him.”
“Tell him I’m no parson. I’m not even a good Christian.”
Squamiset spoke in reassuring tones, gesturing over his shoulder toward the sand point; Will assumed he was recounting the events that had brought them here. Natoncks nodded periodically, and the hard expressions of the two taller Indians, younger men than they had first appeared, gradually began to soften. But the one-eyed islander didn’t lower his spear. When Squamiset finished, the spearman released a torrent of angry, guttural speech.
“What does he say now?” Will asked, staring into the single blazing eye. Squamiset and Natoncks had gotten to their feet, but Will was forced to remain on his knees, the spear tip still pressing into the center of his chest.
“He believes you bring death to this island. He says that if you do not go away voluntarily, he will be forced to kill you.”
“Tell him I have no way to leave at the moment. Otherwise, I would gladly go.”
“Don’t worry, Will. I’ll persuade him.” Squamiset spoke again, his voice louder than before, though still calm. The spearman replied at length, his words low-pitched and venomous. The single, hate-filled eye never left Will’s face, and the spearpoint continued to nudge painfully against Will’s sternum.
Eventually, something the old man said convinced the islander to lower his spear. Will got up, brushing the sand off his knees. One of the tall bowmen, who was just Will’s age or a little older, caught his eye and nodded solemnly. Will nodded back. The crisis seemed over. But then the one-eyed man tossed the spear into the air and caught it just below the point. In a single, fluid movement he stepped forward, gripped Will’s left wrist, and drew the blade across his forearm.
Will cried out. A beaded line of scarlet sprang into the incision, followed by a stinging pain. The spearman stepped back, muttering something under his breath, and turned to stride away across the sand. The two young islanders stood looking elsewhere, as if embarrassed. Squamiset watched the spearman walk away, shaking his head regretfully. “Why the devil did he do that?” Will asked, holding his arm.
Squamiset pulled a handful of damp moss from one of his pouches and handed it to Will to stanch the bleeding. Will took it, staring angrily after the retreating spearman. “He wanted these young men to see that an Englishman can bleed,” Squamiset replied.
“I could have told them that.”
“He will leave you in peace now. He’s made his point.”
“It would have been better not to come,” Will said bitterly. “We should have gone west instead, into the wilderness. Or directly southwest, if you prefer, to search for the home of your precious seed bringer.” The wound on his forearm was superficial, but it stung. The greater wound, of course, was to his pride. He regretted that he’d been unable to react more quickly to deflect the spear or at least to offer some measure of resistance.
Natoncks gave Will a sympathetic look. They set off with the two young hunters toward the main body of the island. Will began to feel better as they strolled through a small oak forest punctuated by low-lying, mossy dells. Beyond this forest the main part of the island consisted of a rolling, treeless heath that reminded him of the Devonshire moors he’d wandered as a child. The Atlantic Ocean glittered on the horizon, and the light had a hazy, liquid quality that he found very beautiful.
The young men led the visitors to their summer village, which they called Wannasquam. It consisted of around three-dozen houses clustered at the edge of a freshwater pond that was sheltered by high dunes. Unlike the bark-covered wetuwash of the Misquinnipack, the islanders’ houses were sheathed in mats of woven reeds. Lush vegetable gardens surrounded many of the houses, and bean vines spiraled up around cornstalks that rose from a carpet of broad squash leaves. Beyond the dunes was the open Atlantic. Breaking surf provided a pleasant background noise. The breeze smelled of wild roses and salt spray.
In one of the gardens a gang of children lolled on a platform made of saplings and stared down at the newcomers with wide-eyed curiosity. A tough-looking girl of around ten or eleven with a domesticated falcon perching on her shoulder made a sharp-tongued remark that yielded a chorus of high-pitched laughter. A small crowd gathered in the center of the village. On the whole, Will thought, the islanders were a remarkably handsome lot: lean, tall, fine-featured. A straight-backed old man with wispy white braids and bronze bands around his biceps came out to greet Squamiset. They held each other’s forearms silently for a long moment, tears glinting in both sets of eyes. Will guessed the old islander was Squamiset’s long-lost cousin.
A woman with a silver braid down to her waist came over to look at the cut on Will’s forearm. She beckoned him into one of the wetus, motioned him to sit on the floor, and ducked out through the sealskin door flap. Alone in the dark, Will looked up at the dome of bent saplings covered in reed mats. The mats were densely woven, though a ray of daylight streamed in through a rectangular gap that had been left in the middle of the ceiling. It felt strange to be sitting in such a place, and for the first time since he’d left New Meadow, Will experienced a twinge of homesickness. He didn’t miss Overlock, but he did miss his brother, Zeke, and he missed the hearth and parlor of his own home—even the cramped berth that had been his sleeping place since the age of seven.
The silver-haired woman returned with a bowl of cool pond water and more dried moss. She cleaned the cut and pressed the moss into it. It stung for a moment, but Will could see that it was not a serious wound. She wrapped it with a bandage of pounded reed fiber and motioned for Will to go. He thanked her in his rudimentary Algonkian. She nodded solemnly and squeezed his hand, a gesture so unexpected that he was surprised to find his eyes swimming with tears. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been treated with such kindness by a woman since his mother had died. The women of New Meadow either had children of their own or were too proper to give their affection to a solitary orphan like Will.
That evening the islanders lit a bonfire in the dunes. They laid out a welcoming feast of shellfish and lobster on reed mats, but for some reason Will had no appetite. A pretty girl around his own age gestured toward one of the mats and gave him an encouraging smile, causing his heart to leap. He took a small lobster—a meal he normally would have devoured with pleasure—but tonight he could only pick at it.
After the meal, he felt strange. There was drumming and singing and later a dance, a dizzying blur of shell earrings and wampum collars glinting in the firelight. Squamiset was surrounded by admirers, and Natoncks seemed already to have made friends with some of the young islanders, including the pretty girl who had smiled at Will and the two bow hunters whom they’d first encountered. But Will had no energy for trying to communicate in a language he barely spoke, and he sat in the shadows hugging his knees. The flames seemed to throb in time with the drumbeats. Feeling chilly, he inched a little closer to the fire.
The one-eyed spearman appeared before him. He tossed a driftwood log on the flames, giving Will a strangely suggestive glance as he did so. Will shivered. The flames rose and crackled, shooting sparks high into the starry sky. Will’s teeth began to chatter. For all its blazing height, the fire didn’t seem to be giving off much warmth.
The healer-woman with the long silver hair came over to look at the dressing on his arm. She pressed her cool hand to his neck and nodded slowly. A moment later she came back with Natoncks and one of the young hunters who wore shell hoops in his ears and pounded copper bands around his upper arms. “Sick, Toyusk?” Natoncks asked, full of polite concern.
“No, I’m fine,” Will replied, but the truth was that he didn’t feel fine. The night had become a blurred jumble of firelight and dancing shadows, and his teeth were chattering uncontrollably. They led him back to the wetu, where the woman indicated that he was to lie upon a sleeping platform. They covered him in layers of heavy sealskin, and Natoncks built a fire in the center of the earthen floor.
The healer returned with a gourd of warm water steeped with herbs and pine needles. The taste was pleasant. Kneeling next to him, she insisted he drink it all. When he was done, she raised her brows and pointed to a large pottery bowl she had set on the floor beside the sleeping platform. All at once an ugly pressure surged up from deep in his gullet. Casting off the skins, he sat and leaned over to vomit in the bowl. The healer nodded with satisfaction, took the bowl out, and brought it back clean. She left it on the floor beside him and tilted her head sideways on pressed-together hands to indicate that Will should sleep.
He lay shivering under the skins, staring up at the smoke flying out through the square hole in the domed roof. He recognized the Pleiades wavering in the sky above the opening. Outside, the drumming went on, now joined by a rising chorus of quavering song that sounded like wolves or the howling of the wind, and the surf pounded out an endlessly varying rhythm in the background. Will felt lonely and inconsolably sad.
Tim Weed is a winner of the Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards and the Best Travel Writing Solas Awards. His short fiction and essays have appeared in Colorado Review, Backcountry Magazine, Writer’s Chronicle, Fiction Writer’s Review, National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel, and many other magazines and reviews. Based in Vermont, and on the island of Nantucket, Tim teaches at GrubStreet in Boston and in the MFA in Creative and Professional Writing program at Western Connecticut State University. He is a featured expert for National Geographic Expeditions in Cuba, Spain, Portugal, and Patagonia.
Read more at www.timweed.net.