A Pumpkyn may remayne Wholesome the Winter through. Gut the Fruit, then cut in Pieces and String it. ’Twill drie lyke Apples.
—A Frugall Compendium of Home Arts and Farme Chores by Capability C. Craft (1680), as Amended and Annotated by the Island Council of Names (1718–1809)
When medford thought about it later, that day in Hunter’s Moon was a good example of Before.
Before the Goatman.
Before life changed forever.
Before, before, before.
He and Prudence Carpenter were on the beach, watching the Farmers gather seaweed for winter mulch. Grover Gardener, Councilor for Physick, was there, too, hands red with sea slime. So was anyone whose kitchen garden needed mulching, which was almost everybody. That morning’s sky, the departing birds, and Emery Farmer’s bones had announced that seaweed gathering soon would be a chore rather than a pleasure.
You’d gather the seaweed anyway, of course, pleasure or no. Seaweed was Useful and that was that. The Book even named specific types: Cropfodder, the kind most people were after today; Windbegone, which Grover gave to patients who had digestive troubles; Bone-mend, which he dried for chewing when you’d broken your leg.
Medford and Prudy were ignoring seaweed. It was still Before, and they were being Useless. Run, run when young, the Book said. Later in the day, settle and stay. Time enough to be Useful after Transition.
They were knee-deep in sea-foam, bare feet numb, clothes salt-spattered. Waves hissed in over the sand, then sighed back out again. The sun-drenched air was warm but sharp. The winter winds had come early this year, whipping up the waves. Two weeks from now the sea would be stone gray and the monthly Mainland Trade would be over until spring. Boats would hunker down on shore and people would eat salted Common Fish.
Medford stood still and let the retreating water slip over and around his frozen feet. It ate away the sand at his heels until he teetered and almost fell over. Fifty feet out, a Nameless brown bird made a clumsy splash landing in the water while a Nameless gray bird swooped over its head, laughing. Medford flailed his skinny arms to keep his balance, laughing himself, his scraggly brown hair wild in the breeze.
Skinny and lanky and practically Nameless, he had a lot in common with that brown bird.
Seabirds had no names, regardless of color. No Use, no Name, the Book said. And names were what mattered here, thirty-five chilly miles east of Mainland. Mainland maps called the place Fools’ Haven. But the people who lived on it called it Island.
Island was ten miles long, north to south, and seven miles wide, west to east. Its principal town, on the western shore closest to Mainland, was called Town. The town hall was called Town Hall and said so on a plaque over the door. Town Hall was on the main street, which was called Main Street.
Islanders liked names that said exactly what a thing—or a person—was or did, and nothing less.
Islanders liked things (and people) to do what their names said they would. Nothing more.
Islanders who fished were called Fisher. Others had names like Carpenter, Merchant, Tailor, and Miller. So what would you expect of a thirteen-year-old foundling called Medford Runyuin?
In fact, you might want to keep your eye on him. And you’d be right, but so far Medford was the only one who knew that for sure.
Beside him, Prudy plunged her hand into a retreating wave, one blond braid dipping into the water. "Ooo, look," she said, something in her hand. When a new wave hit she swooshed the thing around to get the sand off.
It turned out to be a Baitsnail shell three inches long, glistening white with pale pink stripes, its tail a perfect funnel, not a chip on it.
"’Tis the best yet," Prudy said.
"Let’s see it," Medford said, holding out his hand.
The stripes spiraled into a point at the top. The inside of the shell had its own design, fainter and more delicate. If this were a piece of wood, he’d know just the right blade and just the right amount of pressure that would bring out those spirals, make them—
He shuddered and dropped the shell into Prudy’s hand as if it burned his fingers.
Unnameable thoughts again.
The Book never defined Unnameable. It just figured you knew. Medford did know, but he forgot sometimes. He shook the unwanted thoughts out of his head, breathing deep for calm as the Book suggested.
The calm didn’t last. It never did.
"Med-ford Run-you-in," called a hated voice from behind him. But he and Prudy had been the only young ones on the beach when they’d arrived. He’d checked, first thing.
"Run-you-in, let’s run you out," the voice said. Other voices snickered, although it could just have been the waves.
Medford decided to ignore them. He didn’t turn around. He pretended he didn’t know anyone named Arvid Tanner, and he could tell Prudy was doing the same. She was examining her new shell as if it had a Use.
"Been sawing your hair off with your knife again, I see," Arvid’s voice said, closer and louder. "Raggedy Runyuin." Those were definitely other voices, laughing.
Yet again, Medford considered growing his hair into a pigtail. Medford’s foster father, Boyce Carver, always said a pigtail tickled his neck and the stray hairs got in his eyes when he was working. A pigtail probably would tickle. But it might be better, just for a little while, to look like everyone else.
"Ain’t you scared, standing in the water like that?" a second voice churgled. That was Hazel Forester, who found it difficult to talk without giggling. He imagined her chins wobbling. "You might get drownded like your parents."
"Who sails without a chart?" Arvid said. "Nameless Mainlanders, that’s who."
"Raggedy don’t care about duh wahder." This from Arvid’s brother, Fordy, who always sounded as if he had a cold in his nose. "He’d just wash back id od a plank like he did the first tibe."
Someone splashed water onto Medford’s back. "Plank Baby, Plank Baby," Fordy chanted. Another splash.
It sounded like just the three of them but that was enough. Arvid had an unfailing sense of what would hurt most, whether it was a finger between the ribs or a tale flung across three rows of desks in Book Learning. Fordy and Hazel either led the admiring laughter or blocked the way so you couldn’t run.
"I heard what you and Run-you-out get up to on that secret island of yours, Prudy." Arvid again. "Hazel says her ma’d never let her sneak off like that with a raggedy, Nameless—"
Prudy whirled and kicked water in Arvid’s long, ¬freckled face. It was a good, soaking splash, one in a thousand, and when he turned away to wipe the salt out of his eyes she kicked him in the seat of his linsey-woolsey knee breeches.
Several things happened then.
Arvid fell nose-down just after a wave went out and didn’t quite get up in time to miss the next wave coming in. It slapped him in the face and he went down again. Now it was Prudy laughing.
Hazel Forester balled up her fists and headed for Prudy. Medford balled up his fists and stepped in front of Prudy. Prudy stepped out from behind him, stuck her new shell in her pocket, and balled up a fist or two herself.
Fordy helped his brother up, hand already clenched.
It had never come to blows before but this might be the time. Medford hoped he’d know what to do.
As if they were connected by fishing line, everybody’s hands dropped to their sides.
Prudy’s father, Twig, grabbed her arm and pulled her to shore. "Explain," Twig said.
"They called Medford Nameless and Plank Baby and said we’re up to something bad on our island."
"Many say the same," said Arvid’s father, hovering nearby. He had a nose for secrets, eyes for shame, and always a tale to tell, not necessarily true.
"I thank thee, Dexter," Twig said. "Go away, if it please thee."
"My son be blameless, Master Carpenter."
"Take Arvid with you, if you please. Your horses need tending." Sure enough, Dexter’s team was meandering forward with its load of Cropfodder.
"Hauling Creatures they’re called, to be by the Book," Dexter said, his face a model of virtue.
"Looks like they be hauling too soon, by the Book or no." Twig was among those who ignored the Beast and Domestic Creature Classification of 1853, which in addition to other innovations renamed horses as Hauling Creatures and cows as Greater Horned Milk Creatures. The Shepherds had always ignored it because they could hardly call themselves Shepherd if sheep were Fleece Creatures. Others just thought the new names were too hard to use.
At the moment, Medford thought, Twig Carpenter was simply trying to annoy Dexter Tanner. It worked, as always. Dexter turned his back on Twig and gestured angrily to Arvid, Fordy, and Hazel, who slogged out of the waves and down the beach to rejoin the seaweed gatherers.
"More trouble for young Master Runyuin," Dexter said in the tender, saddened tone with which he savored bad news. "Well, they do say, once a Runyuin never a Carver." He stalked off after Arvid and his cronies.
"Tanners breathe in poisons, Medford," Twig said. "Then they talk."
"I’m fine, Twig." Having Prudy’s father around made Medford want to put on a brave face. Twig wasn’t tall—Medford was taller—but he was broad at the shoulders, sunbrowned and strong, so solid and with such a bounce in his step that he seemed bigger than he was.
"Arvid’s going to be a Sawyer, like his ma," Prudy said. She was chewing on one of her blond braids, the way she always did when something made her nervous.
Twig pulled the braid out of her mouth, gave it a little tug. "And Sawyers have sharp edges. We get our lumber from Dulcie Sawyer, girl."
Prudy’s back straightened, a sure sign of a fight. "He deserved kicking, Pa."
"Thou shalt tell him sorry," Twig said, using Book Talk so she’d know he meant it.
"Thou shalt do it now, Prudence." Twig clamped a hand on her shoulder as if to propel her toward Arvid.
Prudy shrugged her shoulder free. "Aye, Pa."
"Can’t do it now," Medford said, trying not to sound relieved. "Arvid’s off with his pa." Dexter’s horses were struggling toward the South Shore Road, Arvid and Fordy wrestling a slimy mound of seaweed in the back of the wagon. They’d have to have a full-out bath in the kitchen when they got home.
"Thou shalt go to his house this evening," Twig said. Prudy took her new shell out of her pocket and studied it as if she hadn’t heard him. Twig patted her shoulder and went back to Emery Farmer’s hay cart, which he was helping to load in exchange for transporting his own garden mulch. Prudy plopped down in the dry sand.
"I do name thee Pinky," she said, holding the shell up to the sun and using Book Talk for ceremony. "Pink as the sunrise, pink as Balmweed."
Pink as Prudy. "’Tis a Useless name," Medford said. He sat down next to her. Her hair smelled of sun and cut grass.
"’Tis a Useless Object," she said. "One more to smash at Transition." She pressed her lips together the way she did when she was determined not to cry, and started building a little driftwood house for Pinky. Medford watched, marveling at how she could fit odd bits of wood together so they’d stand up straight.
So Prudy was worried about Transition, too. It was scary, that ceremony at the start of adulthood, when all the Useless things of childhood got smashed underfoot. Medford imagined Prudy’s new shell already in pieces, turning to dust under her heel.
Medford didn’t have any Useless Objects to destroy at Transition. Well, he did have some, actually, but he couldn’t show them to anyone. Their destruction would have to be secret, like their making.
He would burn them and make no more. He promised himself that.
Copyright © 2008 by Ellen Booraem
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