Ice Massacre, page 9
“Maybe if the problem spreads,” said Elaila, her voice heated, “we’ll finally get some outside help.”
“If you want to abandon our island, go! I’m sure you can find a Canadian helicopter to come get you. But Eriana Kwai is my home, and I won’t give it up to the demons.”
I crouched and risked poking my head around the corner so I could see them with one eye.
Around the kitchen table sat Mama, Papa, Elaila, two men with their backs to me who I couldn’t recognise, and the training master for the Massacres. I knew the training master by his scalp, which Nilus said he kept bald because a mermaid once swiped the hair and skin clean off the left side. I thought he’d probably told the truth, because the man’s ear looked mangled, like the mermaid had almost taken that too.
“Relax, please, everybody,” said the training master, his voice calm. “We have a new system in place.”
“The next guaranteed plan, I’m sure?” said Elaila, still sounding angry.
“We are teaching our men to fight blindfolded. This way, they won’t be tempted by the demons’ beauty.”
In the seconds of silence that followed, what I could see of Mama’s expression became livid.
“So,” she said, sitting up taller, “you’re going to send them out with a blindfold and an iron machete and tell them good luck?”
“Our current training program has been preparing them for five years. They live and breathe combat. These warriors are invincible.”
Papa spoke up. “This won’t work.”
The table fell silent, and the training master considered him seriously. Papa continued.
“Everything about the demons is alluring, not just their appearance. Their sound, their smell—even a blind sailor is at risk.”
“True,” said the training master, “but sight is the dominant source of the allure.”
“Won’t work,” said Papa.
“What do you recommend we do, then?” said Elaila.
Papa’s eyes dropped to the table, where his knuckles had been rapping a quick rhythm like they usually did when he thought hard about something.
One of the other men—the only one who hadn’t made a sound yet—spoke up before Papa could say anything more. “Send women.”
His voice was so low, a few seconds of silence passed before anyone seemed to process what he’d said.
Women? I thought. What women?
The training master raised his eyebrows. Mama’s face turned frantically between the man and the training master.
“We can’t turn our maidens into warriors,” she said, sounding breathless.
“Why not?” said the man. “We can train them to fight just as we do with our boys. The demons won’t tempt them, and the advantage is ours with our more developed weapons.”
“That’s absurd,” said Papa. “We can’t send young girls on a mission like this. It’d destroy them, physically and mentally. Have you forgotten what it’s like out there?”
“Kasai,” said the training master. “Girls are just as capable on the battlefield. You have a bias because of your daughter, but if you look at—”
Papa’s chair screeched against the floor as he jumped to his feet. “Bias? I’m not the only one with a daughter at this table!”
I automatically clenched my fists when Papa’s anger flared, and pain shot through my palms. Mama stood and placed a hand on his shoulder, shushing him.
The training master stood, too. “Let’s calm down, everybody. Sit down.”
Papa sat down stiffly, and Mama and the training master followed.
“The suggestion is a valid one,” said the training master. He paused, staring at each face in turn. “I think this could be our solution.”
“A little girl is not the way to get rid of the demons,” said Papa.
“We’ll first try the method we’ve been focusing on,” said the training master. “Battling sightless. If our sailors don’t return . . .” He dropped his eyes, rubbing his scalp. “Well, then we know it’s time for a different approach.”
Mama spoke up. “Who is going to volunteer their daughters? Tell me that. Who will—”
“The choice is not that of the child’s parents. We’ll select the strongest for training at age thirteen, like we do the boys. By the time they’re eighteen, they’ll be expert warriors.”
“And you’re prepared to lose your own daughter,” said Elaila, in a tone more accusing than questioning.
“Adette is only six,” said the training master. “I’d wager our girls will eradicate the demons by the time she’s old enough to enter training. If not, Adette will go as a duty to her people. If we’ve trained them properly, I won’t be losing her.”
“Dani will go, too.”
It was the man who’d made the suggestion. I studied him closely—a thick man with no neck, and hands made for working with oysters. The side of his face I could see when he turned to the training master was hard as stone, and his cold eyes looked permanently narrowed in scrutiny.
So this was Dani’s papa. I’d heard about him a few times from my own papa, how he used to be in charge of all the fishing boats, but now worked at the woodshop, and how he always bossed others around even though he had no authority, and how Papa would’ve fired him for being so defiant if he didn’t need him for heavy lifting.
“See?” said the training master, clasping his hands. “Already we have cooperation from parents. How old is your daughter? Ten? By the time the bill is passed she’ll be the perfect age to start training. She and her friends—Meela and the rest of them—will train together and become skilled warriors.”
The shock of hearing my name nearly made me fall forwards out of my hiding place. I pulled back and stared at the wall, seized by terror. I wasn’t allowed near the beach my whole life because of mermaids . . . and now my people were talking about sending me out on a flimsy ship in the mermaid-infested waters?
No. Mama and Papa would never send me into training. My brother could do it because he was tough and strong. I could never be a killer.
I unfroze my spine and leaned around the corner. Papa had stood again.
“I won’t have this,” he said. “This is my house! I have seniority on this committee! I won’t let us make such an extreme—”
“Eriana Kwai values our warriors above all,” said the training master, even louder. “Becoming a warrior grants the individual and his family eternal honour.”
“I know what—”
“That said, Kasai, we will let the whole committee decide if we want to privilege our women with the same honour. Tonight we’ll make the proposal. This decision is not solely yours to make.”
Papa’s chest swelled, but he only shook his head and mumbled, “They won’t agree. This won’t pass. You’ll see.”
Mama’s face looked as I felt—like someone had hit her on top of the head.
Elaila looked sickened. “We’re talking about sending girls like me! I’m eighteen! I could never . . . I mean, just the thought of having to shoot one of those crossbows . . .”
“Dani will be ready for warrior training by the time she’s thirteen. I will personally make sure of it,” said Dani’s papa.
In the stiff silence that followed, I hid behind the corner again. This couldn’t happen. Eriana Kwai would never train girls like me to be warriors. It was barbaric.
I heard chairs push back, and I hurried to my room on tiptoe.
Was the island becoming desperate? Would our attempts at controlling the sea demons really come to this?
Footsteps crunched away from the house, but the door didn’t close yet.
Dani’s papa’s voice, low and growling, carried down the hall. “Think of this as a lesson. Maybe once your daughter faces a few sea rats, she’ll see the real dangers of the ocean. She’ll stop thinking—”
“If you value lessons so highly,” said Papa, “I can teach you one now about meddling in my family’s business.”
Of all the times Papa had been angry
“You can’t deny it’ll show her why you insist she stays away from the beach.”
“Get out of my house, Mujihi!”
The door slammed.
I did understand the dangers! I wanted to shout it down the hall at that awful man. More than ever, I understood how dangerous mermaids were. I shook my arms to try and loosen my aching muscles, pacing the length of my bedroom.
Mama’s panicked whisper carried down the hall.
“She might not get drafted, Kasai.”
“Of course she’ll be drafted!” said Papa. “She’s tall and healthy. She’s got fire in her. She’s everything they’re looking for in a warrior.”
“But the other girls . . .”
“I’ve seen the other girls her age. If anyone’s not going to get chosen, it’ll be that scrawny friend of hers with the buckteeth.”
There was a moment of total silence.
“What should we do?” whispered Mama.
“We hope it doesn’t come to this. And if it does, we won’t be cowards. We’ll send our daughter proudly so she can honour her people.”
Mama fell quiet. I thought she might have been crying.
“Maybe Mujihi’s right,” said Papa, his voice so low I could barely hear it. “Maybe this really is the only way.”
Mama still said nothing. Seconds ticked by, and I leaned against my door, realising how hard I was breathing.
The island couldn’t agree to training girls as warriors. How long had we been training boys to fight? Twenty years? Sending boys was based on tradition. Nobody would agree to change that now—would they? But these last few years had failed miserably, leaving the island worse off than ever. Maybe the rest of the island would think it time for drastic measures.
Something caught my eye in my dresser mirror.
I lunged towards it, yanking my bathrobe away from my neck.
Black. Long, narrow, finger-sized strips of black on all sides of my neck. If my purpled knees and heels of my hands weren’t enough, the bruises where the mermaid had tried to strangle me jumped out like I’d smeared my skin with a Ravendust bush.
“No,” I whispered, poking at the tender spots.
I dove for my closet and threw my clothes around, hunting for anything that would come up to my chin. I landed on a wrinkled, faded turtleneck and a zip-up sweater. Would Mama be suspicious if I wore these old clothes again? Maybe not. She had worse things to worry about.
I zipped my sweater all the way up and studied myself in the mirror. This would have to do. I’d have to wear the same two shirts until the marks faded—and my bruises usually lasted almost two weeks.
My face looked drained in the mirror. I sat on the bed and buried my face in my hands, breathing deeply. They wanted me to fight more mermaids, just like the one who’d done this to me . . . and Nilus had already gone out to fight full-grown mermaids and his battle had ended less fortunately than mine. I couldn’t think about it. Trying to get rid of one mermaid was bad enough. Getting rid of all of them seemed impossible.
My insides quivered, but I had no more tears left to cry.
It wouldn’t come to this. The boys would come back from the Massacre alive. The mermaids would leave us alone, and our need for Massacres would disappear, and I wouldn’t have to face more of those awful monsters.
Time passed and my bruises faded, though Mama did notice my abnormal amount of scrapes and cuts one morning. I told her it was from playing, but she kept looking sideways at me, as if she didn’t think I was telling the truth but didn’t know how I could possibly be lying.
As the summer wore on, I became less hopeful that our need for Massacres would disappear. In July, grocery store prices climbed so high that Mama suggested selling the car for extra money.
“Who’s going to buy that tin can on wheels?” said Papa. “Even if someone did, what’ll it buy us? A sack of flour?”
In August, some of the high school kids tried to spend the hottest month of the year like any other teenager in the world: at the beach. A mermaid dragged one of them into the water. Papa went to the funeral.
The first day back to school, the other kids didn’t look as healthy as usual. Everybody had a gaunt, pale look, even the kids who had farmers or hunters for parents. Prices at the grocery store hadn’t slowed in their skyward pursuit, and it seemed nobody was any better off than anyone else.
About this time, I knew I’d never hate anyone as much as I hated Lysi. Examining my bony ribs and sunken cheeks in the mirror one morning, I wondered why I ever wanted to be friends with the species causing Eriana Kwai so much suffering.
By December, we ate bannock and cabbage on a daily basis, and Mama’s body had shrunk down so that, for the first time ever, I felt her bones when I hugged her.
Tanuu’s papa was one of the island’s best hunters, and his family invited ours over once a week to share his latest catch. Tanuu always made sure I stuffed my pockets with extra before going home, and I was grateful for it. I decided he wasn’t so bad, when he wasn’t trying to be a giant show-off. And anyway, his friendship helped me think less about Lysi.
February brought with it a helicopter full of rice and cans from the mainland, but split among the whole island, it only fed us for a few days. A small amount of food was better than no food, though.
“We are aware of your struggles here on Eriana Kwai,” said the pilot, speaking in slow, deliberate English. “We are working to form a relief effort for your people.”
We had no way to thank him, so we sent him back to Canada with a Ravendust sapling, since the plant was unique to Eriana Kwai. I thought it was lame and embarrassing, but Papa told me the gesture showed gratitude.
Too soon, the last day of April passed, and it went out with pounding wind and sideways sheets of rain. Panic crept up my throat as I wrote the date on my science notes. May 1st. The Massacre was already upon us, and the warriors would depart that afternoon.
Tanuu met Annith and me at the doorway at recess, looking grim.
“What’cha think will happen this year?” he said. “Think they’ll finally kill a bunch?”
By that time, the news had spread across the island that the training program had turned out warriors who could fight blindfolded.
“No,” I said, watching the rain as we huddled beneath the overhang. “My papa doesn’t think this’ll work.”
Beside us, Annith giggled as Haden tried to show her how high he could jump by taking a running leap and pushing off the wall.
I sighed and looked back at Tanuu.
“What I don’t get,” I said, “is why the mermaids are being so violent.”
“What d’you mean? They’re flesh-eating creatures. They hunt humans.”
They’re not animals, I thought, but I didn’t say it aloud.
“I thought they wanted to share the ocean’s seafood and living space,” I said. “If that’s true, they shouldn’t be coming onto the land and sinking our boats. Why us? Why not Alaska, or British Columbia?”
“Maybe they just haven’t got there yet,” said Tanuu, his dark brown eyes narrowing in confusion.
I bit my lip, feeling like we were all missing something. But maybe Lysi’s excuse about coming here to build a utopia was another lie. Mermaids were just vicious and dangerous.
“They don’t care about us, I guess,” I said. I realised I hadn’t thought about Lysi at all in weeks.
I felt Tanuu’s gaze but didn’t look at him.
“Come on,” he said, and tousled my hair. “Let’s play Demon Tag.”
He bolted towards the muddy field. I turned to Annith and Haden, smacked Haden on the arm, and hollered, “You’re it!” before sprinting after Tanuu.
School ended early that day. Our parents picked us up and brought us to the Massacre Departure Ceremony.
We shuffled down the road with the stream of families. As Mama and Papa spoke to some other parents, I ran to catch up with Annith and a sporty,
“The training master’s a pro,” said Fern. “He can make anyone a demon-killing machine. Five bucks says those sailors could kick anyone’s butt, even blindfolded. Isn’t that right, Scarf?”
She pulled her stuffed tabby cat out from her armpit and stared at his beady eyes, as if he’d answer. Annith always said Fern liked to joke around, but I thought she was a little crazy.
“Gosh, they’d better kick butt,” said Annith, pushing her straggly hair out of her eyes. “They’re toast otherwise.”
“They’re our last hope,” I said, remembering what would happen if the Massacre didn’t work this year. My stomach flipped over.
“What d’you mean?” said Fern, pulling Scarf tight to her chest.
“Just . . . things will have to change if they don’t come back.”
Annith nodded. “We can’t keep sending boys out to die.”
We stopped as we hit the edge of the crowd, Mama and Papa to my left, Annith, Fern, and their families to my right. In the thick of the arriving masses, we found our places in the middle of the spectators’ hill. Everyone chattered in low voices, giving opinions about whether this year would be successful.
Behind me, the dairy farmer and his wife argued in loud whispers.
“Anyo’s a crock who should’ve been replaced years ago. What’s he thinking?”
“I think it’s a fine idea. The old tactics clearly don’t work, and he’s always coming up with creative new ways of battling.”
“This isn’t the time or place for creativity. We need methods that are sure to work.”
“Like what? Name one!”
I stood on my toes to look at the docks, and saw the training master wringing his hands.
The murmuring crowd quieted. All eyes turned to the right, where the head of a narrow trail split the dense bush in half. The other end was at a campsite people used to visit back when seaside camping was safe. Since the Massacres began, the warriors marched from that trail and out to the docks every first of May, where we would bid them farewell and good luck.