It Takes a Lifetime to Learn How to Die
DAPHNE WAS EATING FOR Mrs. Gurgle, who had no teeth. She did this by chewing her food for her, to get it good and soft. It was, she thought as she chomped dutifully on a lump of salt-pickled beef, very unlike life at home.
But life at home seemed unreal now, in any case. What home was – really was – was a mat in a hut, where she slept every night a sleep so deep that it was black, and the Place, where she made herself useful. And she could be useful here. She was getting better at the language every day, too.
But she couldn’t understand Mrs. Gurgle at all. Even Cahle had difficulty there and had told Daphne, “Very old speaking. From the long ago.” She was known all over the islands, but none of the survivors remembered her as anything but ancient. The boy Oto-I could remember only that she had plucked him off a floating tree and drunk seawater so that he could have the fresh water in her water bag.
The old woman tapped her on the arm. Daphne absentmindedly spat out the lump of meat and handed it over. It wasn’t, she had to admit, the most pleasant way of passing the time; there was a certain amount of aarghaarghaargh about it if you let your mind dwell on it, but at least the old woman wasn’t chewing food for her.
The word hung in the air for a moment.
She looked around, shocked. No one on the island knew that name! In front of her, in the garden, a few women were tending the plants, but most people were working in the fields. Beside her, the old woman sucked enthusiastically at the newly softened meat with the sound of a blocked drain.
It had been her own voice. She must have been daydreaming, to take her mind off the chewing.
“Bring the boy here. Bring the boy here now.”
There it was again. Had she said it? Her lips hadn’t moved – she would have felt
them do so. This wasn’t what people really meant when they said “you’re talking to yourself.” This was herself talking to her. She couldn’t ask “Who are you?” – not to her own voice.
Pilu had said Mau heard dead grandfathers in his head, and she’d thought, well, something like that would be bound to happen after all the boy had been through.
Could she be hearing his ancestors?
“Yes,” said her own voice.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because this is a sacred place.”
Daphne hesitated. Whoever was doing this knew her name, and no one here knew her real name, no one. It wasn’t a secret you’d like to put about. And she wasn’t mad, because surely a mad person wouldn’t have spent the last half hour chewing food for Mrs. Gurgle… er, perhaps that wasn’t the best example, because her grandmother and people like her would say that for a girl who would be queen if 139 people died to be chewing up the food of someone who looked, sounded, and smelled like Mrs. Gurgle was just about as mad as you could get without actually drooling.
Maybe it was God, but that didn’t feel right. She’d listened hard for God in church, especially after that horrible night, but of course He was a busy person. Apparently there were lesser gods here, though. Perhaps this was one of them.
She looked around her. There were no pews, and certainly no polished brass, but there was a quiet busyness about it, a silence with a texture of breezes. The wind never seemed to blow hard in here, and loud noises got lost among the trees.
It was a sacred place, and not because of some god or other.