I was raised to know each slope and crevice of my island, to understand its movements and temperaments. I have bordered the entire circle of rock more than once, getting to know my home as if it were the visage of a close sibling.
My father first took me on the thirty-day journey when I was very young, in the early spring, describing the land as though we were birds in the sky, as I ravenously absorbed the scenery, drawing each detail on a mental map. At that time, our island, which is really the head of a dormant volcano, Mt. Luetalse surrounded by sulfured water, was still half submerged in the surplus of melted ice and scuttled up the cliff-side. We walked carefully on thin, rocky margins between circular pools, seeing clearly the rim of sky along the wall of ashen steam that endlessly escaped the tip of the central mountain.
In the winter however, the steam is visible from everywhere at once; it leaks from cracks in the ground, comes up amidst the half-frozen pools in large bubbles, keeping miniature icebergs floating perpetually. Walking on the rocky plains and beaches around the mountain is being lost in a cloud, only the ancestral ripples on the floor, drawn by the passages of the withdrawing sea as the volcano once rose, can really help you find your way. Rain never falls on my island, only ashen, thick drops of indigestible liquid sometimes leak from the overbearing clouds of steam and smoke, in the cold, it often turns to gray blizzards when the wind pick up, making the air unbreathable for most.
Today, I am one of the only Guides of my island, one of the only inhabitants who can wander the desolate wilderness with absolute confidence. With my knowledge of the island,
I make sure travelers leave and return safely; I guide those who ask to wherever they choose, whether they need me for the afternoon, or for a trip of several days. When I guide no one, I roam the roads and the harsh earth, ensuring no one has wandered alone and gotten lost. Most, however, don’t venture out until the air gets warm enough to turn the steam invisible- they don’t know they are missing the beautiful sights of the cerulean water pools amidst the traces of buttery sulfur snow. It’s a lonely season; I walk in solitude through wastelands, up the mountain where trees dare to grow, drawn by the gobbling heat of the dormant magma.
Many do not exercise greatly during the winter, afraid to waste the use of their bodily liquids when the village lives on stocked rations of water. The Water Collectors rarely fly during the cold season; I suppose the atmosphere in the sky becomes even colder than here at the sea level and is too hard to travel through. They work hard enough during the summer and fall, flying sometimes two or three times a day over the line of steam, where the real water clouds accumulate, gathering drop by drop enough water to quench the thirst of all island inhabitants, fauna or flora. I myself have been made almost immune to the effects of drinking the sulfur water secreted by the volcano and rarely need the pure variety, but most wouldn’t survive on this island if it wasn’t for the Water Collector’s constant effort.
Contrary to expectations, as I passed through a beached, sleeping village before sunrise one morning, the cold still bitter and dry in my lungs, a traveler approached me. Focused on keeping myself warm, as I passed by each bin of coal posted at different doors and places of rest, I shook the still fiery stones as to make them react to the volcanic gases in the air and reignite, recovering heat and light, keeping the settlement alive. She came to me as I was almost at the limits of the village, looking back at a trail of healthy centers of fire behind me. She dropped in front of her a leather bag, seeming happy to manage her arms for a minute. She wore a coat made from the furs of wild boars, draped around her slender form, shielding her face from the wind in a wide hood.
“Guide, would you take me to the hot springs up Mt. Luetalse?” She said this, her voice partially lost to the gusts of cold, and partially muffled by her hood.
Surprised at the appeal, I looked at her for a few instants, computing. The hot springs were a sacred place, usually only visited by those of spiritual inclination in the spring and fall, or by Water Collectors, but only while they could fly. The melange of minerals, brought to the bubbling surface of the pools, was said to bring health, strength as well as cosmic alignment, which some interpreted as good fortune. The water was not exactly good to drink, but not toxic either; most were encouraged not to expose themselves to the sulfur concentrated liquid too often. The springs sat on top of a particularly wide vein of magma underground and were one of the greatest sources of the thick steam in the higher regions of the island. I personally washed in the springs regularly, not daring to waste clean waters used in the villages for bathing, my skin, toughened by years of exposure to the sulfur, never affected by the water’s chemical imbalance.
I wondered how much sulfur this woman had been exposed to in her life; the pale whiteness of her skin showed that she was the type to breathe almost nothing but pure air, she probably only drank pure collected waters. I immediately imagined her delicate membrane flaring only from the sudden change of temperatures as her body would leave the frosty air and enter the boiling pool, choking on the dense winter mist.
I thought of suggesting that she reconsider, but a single glance into the resolve of her eyes, piercing through the wind’s haze made me forget the idea. I spent many winter days wishing I had companions to guide through the wilderness of the volcano-island; had I become accustomed to loneliness to the point of pushing away a traveler? Guides never refuse to lead a trail.
“It’s a few hours of climbing,” I finally said, picking up her bag, “and the winds will be pushing against us.”
“The way back down will be easier then,” she said cheerfully, smiling as she fastened her coat tighter around her throat.
She didn’t complain as we walked, she could keep a good walking rhythm, allowing me to almost increase to my usual pace; her legs were strong, her body eager. Her gaze followed the horizon behind us as our path began to steeply rise. The bits of sky and snowy hills she could see past the steam were no doubt a rare spectacle for someone who spends most of the season hibernating indoors. Her attention however, in my opinion, was too caught up in the clouds, and not enough on her footing; while I followed the echoes of my own repeated comings and goings on the path, being careful not to obstruct the traces of nature that were still intact, she walked carelessly, and sometimes dangerously. More than once, she tripped and fell forward, using my back as leverage; her steps were clumsy, unmeditated; something like a child who’s only recently learned to walk.
We stopped for a minute on a ledge which was dug in the mountain side where twisted trees craned sideways, hydrated by the steam. She took the opportunity to look down; we could still see the beaches in the distance, a further village in the forests of mossy rocks from which chimney smoke rose gently to the sky.
I dared to observe her further, the rising sunlight allowing me to better notice the details of her figure. She was built very small, her bones themselves slim, too weak to carry a healthy amount of flesh, though her muscles seemed strong and trained. She had the shape of a Water Collector, of those who struggled day after day to remain as light as possible, allowing smooth and controlled flights, but to stay resilient and tough to safely challenge the strength of the winds. I found my assumption difficult to believe; the lines of her face, the coarseness of her voice told me she should have been about the same age as me, well advanced into adulthood. Most Water Collectors did not remain Water Collectors for very long, it was a profession that only lasted during a woman’s (or sometimes a man’s) early adolescence, while the body was youthful, reactive and potent… before the physical traits leading to childbearing manifested themselves. If she was a Water Collector, she was of the rare kind who continued to maintain their bodies throughout the years, no matter what kind of natural bodily processes they had to alter or halt.
“Do you still fly?” I dared to ask, out of the blue.
Her lips melted into a smile. “I would spend even the winter in the sky if it wasn’t for the ice Nagas.”
“Naga?” I questioned, thinking of the few species of reptiles I often observed while I roamed.
“No Water Collector that’s still alive today has actually seen one, maybe they don’t really exist.” she explained, “but they say the uncollected waters during the winter freeze up around strings of wind, weaving themselves into icy serpents that circle frenziedly around the smoke clouds. They are extremely sharp, all over, and will purposely chase our gliders.”
I had never really heard such a story, never really concerning myself with the traditions of Water Collectors, an ungrounded universe, far from my own. I thought that the idea of ice monsters in the sky would have been enough to scare many young, impulsive and reckless people from flying when it was too dangerous to do so.
“They are made of wind and water…” I stipulated, “but they can somehow think and become aggressive?”
She shrugged, ripping her gaze away from the scenery to look instead at me, taking the time to notice the details of my face for the first time. In only a moment, she seemed to be searching for something in my expression, hitting recognition suddenly, the skin under her eyes cleared of confusion.
“I like you, you see things for what they are,” she said.
“You like to see them for what they are not?”
She shook her head, dismissing the question.
“What’s your name?” She said, her gaze still held on me. She had the eyes of a fowl, widespread, surveying profundity.
“I’ve never heard a name like that, “she said, absorbed.
“It’s short of Endeavor…” I tried to explain.
She laughed, her left eyebrow creasing downwards, as she crept to the state of mind my father must have been in when he named me; she seemed to understand.
“They call me Ackee,” she offered reciprocally. It was a common name, a spiritual name, meant to promise those who carried it ease, pride, and prosperity.
“You miss flying during the winter, Ackee?” I asked, amused.
“I do, that’s why I’m so happy. Tomorrow, if the winds are right, I will fly,” she seemed ecstatically content. It had never happened in my lifetime that a Water Collector be chosen to fly during the winter, but it had happened before, in times of great need.
“Isn’t that dangerous? Do we need water that badly?”
“I don’t mind flying, no matter how dangerous,” she said, still beaming.
As we continued our hike up the mountain, I let Ackee walk in front of me, afraid that I would at one point turn around and find she had tumbled downhill without my noticing. The sun had risen, lifting a veil of cold over our path, allowing for a more pleasant stroll, though the reflection of the light against the heat rising from the ground made the steam all the more opaque, hindering her vision. We didn’t speak much, me concentrating on the curving lines on the rock floor, her, walking blindly but without hesitation through the fog. If need was, I would utter a few directives, if she strayed from the path or was headed towards unnecessary obstacles; this seemed to frustrate her, as though the layout of the terrain was hindering her zeal. I took the lead again when the steam became thick, rising like a curtain from the ground. Completely blind, she held on to my arm as I comfortably followed my customary paths. We had stopped climbing; the terrain was momentarily flat and rocky before tipping down again into a valley, where trees and grass grew in abundance. Hot springs were at the center of this crater, where the vegetation sucked heartily on the endless underground stream, and mere meters away from the rivers of magma beneath the rock floor. Here, whether it was winter or not on the outskirts of the island, leafy trees remained green, insects and animals roamed in the heat.
I pointed to a path on the floor, clearly dug into the rock by my grandfathers.
“Follow these tracks to the pools,” I explained. “Please make sure to let your skin warm up in the steam before entering the waters.”
She nodded and removed her hood and scarf, already affected by the change of climate. Her exposed, perspiring neck made me all the more appreciate the power and yet grace of her form. Embarrassed as she began to unbutton her coat, I excused myself, advising that I would return after an hour or so to guide her back. I had already disappeared in the steam when her absent “Thank you” reached my ears.
Rare were the times when I roamed my island without a particular goal or direction in mind; after leaving Ackee at the springs, I climbed back to the top edges of the crater and inattentively circled it. My thoughts, usually lonesome, yet focused and dedicated, had been completely shattered by the sudden balminess of companionship, even for such a short journey. My cold, lethargic winter was unexpectedly awakened by a few rays of midsummer light. The clear defined paths etched in rock my thoughts followed were becoming more like the fluid currents of the wind.
I climbed to one of my favorite perches, trying to realign myself in my own skin, on my own terrain. My back to the now well roused sun, in the shade of an elder tree, I looked down into the crater, where the trees parted, enfolding the steaming springs. The mist was pure white, rising to the sky in a single column, before spreading out in waves above the treeline.
At first, I thought I had imagined an apparition in the steam; a silhouette, incredibly pale, cloudy form, floating freely. The direct sunlight hitting the vapour made it almost opaque; the shape seemed to swim in it, dancing gracefully in the sweltering air. I recognized Ackee, her hair loosely flowing around the contours of her face, her body, which had seemed so clumsy to me on the ground, performing calculated and agile motions as the swells of mist allowed her nimble, featherweight body to hover meters above the surface of the springs. I must have imagine it, she was too far away at the time, but I could have sworn, in this moment, that she looked at me as she flew, sending me a jovial smile.
The sky above the crater cleared, exposing immense strips of azure, as it rarely did in the winter. I looked up in wonder, I, who seldom looked further than the footpaths of my island. Through the outstretched windows framed by clouds, I did, this I know for certain, see weaving through the freezing airstreams, a spiked, menacing serpent of ice, ostensibly looking down at its ensuing prey.