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Gabe chuckled. “No, no. I just wanted to show you. It’s not for rivers anyway. They sailed them once on oceans. I think we learned about it in history class.”

Nathaniel nodded. “There were pirates,” he recalled. “That’s the part I paid attention to.”

Gabe turned the pages slowly.

He smiled. “Here’s mine,” he said, and he rifled the pages until the book opened to a page near the end, a place that had clearly been opened to frequently. “Don’t laugh.”

But Nathaniel did, when he leaned down to look at the picture. Gabe, watching his face, chuckled as well. The picture was of a tiny boat, with one lone man, huge waves surging around him, shark fins visible in the foam. There was endless sea and sky. The man looked terrified, and doomed.

“So you’re planning your own death? Where is this guy, anyway?”

“Ocean. But that’s far from here. I don’t need to think about ocean, just river. And I’m not going to end up like him. I’m just copying his boat, sort of. Mine’s smaller, and doesn’t have that cabin part. Mine will be little, and sturdy. That’s all I’ll need. It’ll be easy to build.”

Gabe looked around at the piles of boards, the sawdust, the mess on the ground. “Well, I thought it would be easy.”

“How will you steer it?” Nathaniel asked, still peering at the picture of the lone man cowering in the boat as the waves approached.

“Paddle. Anyway, the river will carry it. I won’t need to steer much. Just to go ashore when I want to.”

“So what’s the bamboo for?”

“It’ll hold it together. I invented this system myself. Once I get the cedar all arranged in the right shape, I’ll use the bamboo—first I’ll wet it, so that when it dries, it tightens—it’ll be like rope.”

Nathaniel looked around. The cedar planks were lying haphazardly about, a few of them hammered together. He could see that Gabe had been preparing the bamboo, peeling and slicing it thin. It was a huge task for a boy to do alone.

“Does anybody ever come and help you?”

Gabriel hesitated. “Not really. Some old woman comes and watches me, though.” He gestured toward the grove of pines. “She stands over there.”

“An old woman?”

“Yes. You’ve seen her. She’s all bent over and you can tell she has trouble walking. She sort of follows me. I don’t know why. Someday I’m going to yell at her to stop.”

Nathaniel looked uneasy. He gave a nervous laugh. “You can’t yell at an old woman,” he said.

“I know. I was kidding. Maybe I’ll just growl, and scare her a little.” Gabe made a face and growled loudly, imitating a beast of some kind.

Both boys laughed.

“Sure you don’t want to go fishing?” Nathaniel asked.

Gabe shook his head and picked up the book to return it to the shed. “Can’t.”

His friend gathered his things and turned away. “Deirdre says she misses you,” he remarked with a sly grin. “You’re never around lately.”

Gabe sighed. He looked up the path as if he might see Nathaniel’s pretty sister there. “Will she come to the feast tomorrow night?”

Nathaniel nodded and shouldered his fishing pole. “Everyone will. My mother’s at the gathering place now, helping to get things ready.”

“Tell Deirdre I’ll see her there.” Gabe gave his friend a wave and turned again to his work as the other boy walked away.

Four

Feasts were frequent in the village. Sometimes there was an excuse: Harvest, Midsummer, or a marriage. But often, no reason was necessary. People just wanted a time of merriment, laughter, dressing up, eating—and overeating—and so a feast was planned.

Kira dressed the children in bright-colored embroidered outfits that she had designed and stitched. She was a masterful seamstress. Many people sought her out to create their wedding clothes; and they still talked in the village about the hand-woven cloth adorned with intricately patterned birds of all kinds in which she had wrapped the body of her father before his burial. Kira’s father had been blind, and sound had been his life. He knew—and could imitate—each bird’s call and song; they came from the trees, unafraid, to eat from his outstretched hands. The entire village had gathered to sing a farewell as he was laid to rest, but the only song that day was theirs; the birds had fallen silent, as if they mourned.

Her own garment for the feast was a deep blue dress; she entwined blue ribbons through the straps of her sandals and in her long hair. Jonas smiled at her in admiration and affection, but his own clothing, even on Feast Night, was simple: a homespun shirt over coarse trousers. With a roll of his eyes, he let his wife attach a blue flower from the garden to his collar. Jonas was not fond of decoration. His tastes were plain.

Annabelle and Matthew scampered about the large room, giggling, while Kira wrapped the pie she had baked and placed it in a basket she had adorned with daisies and ferns. Frolic yawned and rose from the blanket where he’d been napping. The dog sensed excitement and wanted to take part. Noticing, Kira laughed, and leaned over to wind a stemmed flower around his neck. “There,” she said. “Now you’re in your party outfit too!” Tail wagging, Frolic followed the family as they set out from their house. Jonas carried the pie basket and Matthew rode atop his father’s shoulders. Annabelle held tightly to her mother’s free hand, the hand that didn’t grasp the carved cane that Kira had always needed for walking. Ahead, beyond the curve of the path, they could already hear music—flutes and fiddles—from the gathering place where celebrations were held.

It was a very small village that had had its beginnings years before in a gathering of outcasts. Fleeing battles or chaos of all kinds, often wounded or driven out by their own clans or villages, each of the original settlers had made his way to this place. They had found strength in one another, had formed a community. They had welcomed others.

From time to time, as the years had passed, people muttered that they shouldn’t let newcomers in; the village was becoming crowded, and it was hard, sometimes, for the newcomers to learn the customs and rules. There were arguments and petitions and debates.

What if my daughter wants to marry one of them?

They talk with a funny accent.

What if there aren’t enough jobs?

Why should we have to support them while they’re learning our ways?

It had been Jonas, during his time as Leader, who had gently but firmly reminded the villagers that they had all been outsiders once. They had all come here for a new life. Eventually they had voted to remain what they had become: a sanctuary, a place of welcome.

As a child, Gabe had yawned and fidgeted when his class was taken, as each school class was, to visit the village museum and learn the history. History was boring, he thought. He was embarrassed when the museum curator, pointing to various artifacts in the “Vehicles of Arrival” exhibit, had gestured to the battered red sled and explained that a brave boy named Jonas had battled a blizzard and fought his way here carrying a dying baby.

“And today we all know that Jonas has become our village Leader, and the baby he rescued and brought here is a healthy boy,” the curator had said dramatically, “named Gabriel.” His classmates grinned at him. They poked each other and giggled. Gabe pretended to be bored. He averted his eyes and leaned down to scratch an imaginary bug bite on his leg.

Most of the earliest settlers, those with their histories recorded in the museum, had grown old and were gone now. Kira’s father, Christopher, was buried in the village cemetery beside the pine grove. Left for dead by his enemies in a distant community, he had stumbled, sightless, to this village and been saved; with his new name of Seer, he had lived a long life here of dignity and wisdom. Kira tended his grave now, taking the babies with her while she weeded and watered the soft blanket of fragrant purple thyme she had planted there.

He was buried beside his adopted son, Matty. The villagers remembered Matty as a fun-loving young man who had been destroyed when he fought the evil, unknowable forces that had menaced the village in those harsher times, seven years earlier.

Thinking of those times as he passed the cemetery on his way to the evening’s festivities, Gabe recalled the day Matty’s body had been found and carried home. Gabe had been young then, only eight, a rambunctious resident of the Children’s House, happiest with solitary adventures and disinterested in schoolwork. But he had always admired Matty, who had tended and helped Seer with such devotion and undertaken village tasks with energy and good humor. It had been Matty who had taught Gabe to bait a hook and cast his line from the fishing rock, Matty who had shown him how to make a kite and catch the wind with it. The day of his death, Gabe had huddled, heartbroken, in the shadow of a thick stand of trees and watched as the villagers lined the path and bowed their heads in respect to watch the litter carrying the ravaged body move slowly through. Frightened by his own feelings, he had listened mutely to the wails of grief that permeated the community.

That day had changed him. It had changed the entire village. Shaken by the death of a boy they had loved, each person had found ways to be more worthy of the sacrifice he had made. They had become kinder, more careful, more attentive to one another. They had worked hard to eradicate customs that had begun to corrupt their society, banning even seemingly benign diversions such as a gaming machine, a simple gambling device that spit out candy to its winners.

For years a mysterious, sinister man known as Trademaster had appeared now and then in the village, bringing tawdry thrills and temptations but leaving chaos and discontentment behind. It had been Jonas, as Leader, who saw through him, who sensed the deep evil in the man and insisted on his banishment.

Freed of the menacing greed and self-indulgence that had almost overwhelmed them during that time, the villagers had learned to celebrate themselves, as they were doing this evening.

Gabe stood still in the path for a moment. He noticed a small bouquet of fresh flowers beside the stone into which Matty’s name had been carved. The village people honored Matty’s memory with such tokens because he had made them into better people. Gabe did so more privately. He did so by reminding himself of a conversation he had once had with the older boy he had so admired.

“You must pay more attention in school, Gabe,” Matty had told him. Gabe had been required to stay late after classes that day, for extra help. Now they were sitting together on the outcropping of rock at the edge of the river.

“I don’t like school,” Gabe had replied, feeling the fishing line between his fingers.

“I didn’t either. And I was willful and full of mischief, same as you. But Seer made me work at it because he cared about me so much.”

Gabe shrugged. “Nobody cares about me.”

“Leader does. I do.”

“I guess,” Gabe acknowledged.

“He’s the one who brought you here. He had a hard time of it too.”

Gabe rolled his eyes. “Did you hear that at the museum as part of the tour? I wish they’d stop telling that stupid story. And give me another worm, would you? Mine wiggled off the hook.”

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