“How would a ship even become impure?” He wondered out loud, leaning back slightly to fit the height of the galleon and its vast white sails into his view. Feeling a tap on his back, he looked up to see the face-wide grin of his brother.
“I’m assuming,” Rithi dragged the words as though he was putting thought into them, “if it gets taken over by sex-starved pirates.”
“For fuck’s sake, Rithi, don’t say shit like that,” Athan breathed out, mockingly placing a hand on his chest. “What if poor old Pachi heard you?”
“Nah, look at him, he’s focused,” Rithi indicated with his chin, and sure enough, there was their father, reciting verses from holy scripture with the kind of moxie of a boy off the street. The midday sun made his bright smiling head glisten like some lucky marble. His audience, mostly their dear old mother in her frilly peach gown, and a few, equally dear, older women and men, was enraptured. It was a common sight in the larger ports like Dedaire. Ships of all types stayed for days—fishing, cargo, passenger, navy, and once even the Queen’s. Athan thought they were beauties, each and every one of them. Sometimes his entire town came out to see them. They would listen to the lull of his father’s voice, hear the sailors tell daring tales to the little ones, feel the cool sea breeze and the warmth of afternoon liquor, and cheerfully waste the summer day away into a fond memory.
“Well, I realized I hadn’t gotten my favorite brother a graduation present yet,” Rithi trailed off, his blue eyes dropping to his satchel. Cautiously, Athan moved his hand into the open satchel, his eyes narrowing at his brother in suspicion. A grin stretched his face the moment his hand closed around the neck of a bottle.
“I did,” Rithi’s expression matched Athan’s now, which made them look more like twins than ever, along with the straw-like off-gold hair and the deep sepia skin that their parents gave them.
“Rum?” His voice dropped into an excited whisper, the same one they use when their parents fall asleep.
“Sailor assured me he got it from a run in with one of the Ruthless at a port,” Rithi was practically bouncing, wildly gesturing with his hands like he tended to do when he got excited. It just made Athan smile even more, despite the fact that there was no way his little brother actually got pirates’ rum.
“He assured you? Like how Riahn assured you her older sister was as pretty as her?” His smile remained as Rithi began to pout.
“Hey! You can’t compare the two situations.”
“Why? Because you weren’t paying attention when she said “as pretty as his mother”?”
“…Yes,” Rithi snorted loudly at me.
“And what are you rascals grinning about?” Their mother placed a hand on Athan’s shoulder, her other one hoisting up her many frills so she could maneuver around. Rithi, as expected, froze on the spot, as he tended to do when his mother caught him in a lie.
“Just made plans to visit the old well tonight,” Athan answered for the poor kid’s sake, smiling primly at his mother.
“To do what exactly?” Machi asked, her stern expression easing slightly. Machi was a proud woman, and rightly so, as her co-founded business was the largest in the region. Athan could tell that she, in spite of being the supportive wife and faithful woman she was, was itching to return to both it and her denim overalls. She was literally itching, scratching at her lace stockings under her ballooning dress, frustration on her sweating face.
“Hang out,” He said, looking at his brother with an ear-to-ear grin. Rithi just nodded with an almost frightening vigor.
“Right,” Machi only sighed, running a hand through her grey-streaked golden hair, “Make sure to thank your father.”
Athan pulled Rithi by his blue pin-striped shirt sleeve to make their way to their father, who had finished his verses and was now making polite conversation with the neighborhood pious peoples, his eyes twinkling and his smile wide.
“Thank you for your words, father,” The brothers chanted together, the same way they did when they were children in their favorite Sunday outfits of matching beige overalls and blue bowties. Their father would then hug them both, and release them into the wild of the streets where they would wreak havoc in the way of intense pebble collecting competitions.
“You were listening, weren’t you, Athan?” His father asked softly, his jovial smile turned into a more nervous one.
“Of course, Pa.” Athan scoffed, and then snorted, and then rolled his eyes. His father’s frown told him that it was not a believable combination. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Rithi bringing a hand up to cover his grin.
“It is our duty as the cogs and bolts of the Ander Temple to live without putting ourselves first but to…” His father trailed off, gesturing for him to finish. Suddenly Athan was taken back to the time when their parents sat him and Rithi down to learn their numbers, and quizzed them incessantly until they could recite them with much more ease than other kids older than them on their street. Rithi would always nudge him or try to catch his eye to get him to mouth him the answers, as Athan very conspicuously tried to do now. Rithi only shrugged slightly, unable to keep the stupid-looking smile off his face.
“Make sure we are present to aid women in quenching their thirst.” Athan tried, hoping he would get points for rhyming. At this, Rithi was full-on chortling like the true idiot he was, and Athan had to look down to avoid his father’s annoyed glare and to hide his grin, which couldn’t be described with any other word than shit-eating.
“Son, what are you going to do? You’ve no prospects whatsoever—“ His father began.
“But to consider the lives of others that the holy beings above us created from the goodness and purity of its own heart,” Rithi cut him off quickly. Pa blinked for a second and examined Rithi, who was tensely bouncing on the balls of his feet in response to the sudden confrontational atmosphere, before breathing out a harsh sigh. Athan might have thought Rithi an asshole for not helping him out earlier, but he remembered that he did often stand behind Pa holding up the wrong number of fingers when they were learning arithmetic. Pa would turn around and find it amusing, because his father was just that kind of person. He cared so much but also very little, like his decades of faith dazed his worry. His brother tugged on his sleeve, “Pa, we wanted to go help Machi with the repairs.”
Athan could only muster an apologetic smile at his father’s disappointment as he was pulled away in the direction of the town square’s loud din.
Climbing up a hill with a violin in one hand, half a bottle of rum in the other, the other half in your stomach, and a brother nearly your height and weight curled around your waist, while following the moon’s inviting gleam, is one of the best feelings in the world. When you lop down on the dewy grass, the rum keeping you warm on the inside, your best friend keeping you warm on the outside, the moonlight making him look younger than ever, your violin calls out to you.
With shaky hands, Athan put the bottle down and took the beauty of a violin out of its velvet case by the neck, the alcoholic buzz making his head spin teasingly. The first note came out roughly, demanding to be heard. Rithi popped an eye open, as he slowly began to soothe the music into a soft melody.
“It’s literally eleven, Rithi.”
“Shut it, I’m drunk,” He mushed his words together and let his head fall on his shoulder again. The hill had a view of the entire port, but from the well they were leaning on, they could only see the tips of the marble temple and a few roofs of nobility. So instead, Athan looked to the stars and decided he’d play for them, which made a lot of sense at the time.
“Hey, Athan,” Rithi mumbled, his eyes mostly closed.
Rithi reached up to pluck a tiny white Masi jasmine from one of the vines growing on the well, and rather clumsily put it behind his ear. He looked at him and asked, “What are you going to do now, Athan?”
Athan’s hands stopped playing, letting the bow fall out of his grasp. It was a question he expected from his business-bent mother, who knew that he had no interest in joining his father at the temple, but not from Rithi. His brother, though only two years younger than him, would look at him with certainty that he would go to the moon and take him with him to sing sea shanties. But now Athan only saw the same doubt that he felt when he looked into his eyes.
“God, why does it feel like I’m looking into a fucking mirror?” He whispered into the bottle and took a sip, or a swig as others would classify, letting its vaguely butterscotch flavor burn his tongue as it went down.
“Machi just keeps asking, y’know?”
“Rithi—“ Athan sighed, ”I just can’t.”
“Man, you hafta do something” Rithi practically whined, looking downright pained at his response.
“You don’t—“ He cut himself off, trying to find the words that clogged his throat, “get it.”
“Yer smart, and talented,” He hiccuped slightly through his words. “Think of how happy Machi and Pa would be.”
His brain sluggishly mulled the idea over. He pulled his arm out from underneath his brother and tried to pull himself up using the well’s vines, but failed spectacularly.
“Rithi, look at the stars,” Athan demanded of his little brother, a pleading note leaking into his voice. He paused for a second, unable to remember why he had requested this of him, watching Rithi staring intently at the thousands scattered above their heads, and then continued “I don’t want his future sealed in those stars.”
“What does that even mean, Athan?”
“I mean, ugh,” He coughed as he took another sip, “I wouldn’t be happy if I had to do what they do every day.”
Just as Athan felt slightly pleased at the coherence of that statement, Rithi stood up at a speed that Athan was just really impressed by.
“So yer saying that yer a coward,” Rithi spat out, voice growing louder with every word.
“What?” He stood up groggily, “How did you even get that—“
“You won’t take care of your family because you need to what?” He practically yelled, “find yourself?”
Athan picked up the only two things that seemed to be there for him: his violin and the nearly empty bottle of rum.
“Fuck you, kid,” He told his younger brother, before he tripped over his feet and exited the premise fashionably by rolling down the hill. Athan registered swears coming out of his mouth, the world spinning, and cracking noises that either came from his wrist or his violin before I closed his eyes. Oh, and that his flower was gone.
In my time of need,
Who’d you think I need,
Nobody that I need,
Just need the shiiip
The lyrics were not his best work, nor was the tune his broken hand was playing on his broken violin. Athan couldn’t exactly remember when he woke up from the bottom of the hill, just that he strongly felt as though the ship would be lonely without his immediate company tonight. The dock was very empty unlike this morning, as he had so knowledgeably predicted, and so he hoped with all his heart that the ship felt a little better, even if he did not. He paused his serenade to reach out and stroke his lovely ship when a hand halted his advances.
“That was extraordinarily bad, sir,” the most beautiful woman Athan had ever seen told him, incredulity on her face. She was a whole head taller than me, with arms that could carry ships themselves, and wore a long pale blue dress, the exact same shade as her pin straight hair. It took his body a second to react to her hold, and he winced in pain, without taking his eyes off her nearly black ones. She tilted her head at his expression, rather resembling a cat, and asked, “Are you hurt?”
“Excuse me,” Athan’s tongue thought it was a good idea to emphasize the words as he thought of something to say to this angelic figure, “But I’d like to be alone with the moon and the ocean right now,”
“I would go, but I don’t think your wrist is supposed to bend that way,”
She took his functioning hand, and led him to somewhere he didn’t register, mostly as he was deeply reminiscing the times he had with his dear, dear bottle. After a while of walking through the unlit streets near the dock and throwing back to the good old days, he noted that he was sitting on the steps to what looked to be Auntie Raysha’s inn.
“Too much to drink?”
“Half a bottle?” Athan guessed, his head dropping to the side.
“A bit of a lightweight, huh?”
He spluttered in her general direction in what he hoped came across denial. “So I’m dying, right?”
“I think it’s something like a sprain,” She spoke to him in that same calm and collected voice. She had her hair up now, and he was shocked once more at the startling beauty of her dark skin against its blue.
“No,” The blurriness and dizziness paused momentarily as he stared into the blackness of her eyes and said with conviction, “I mean, you’ve got to be some sort of angel.”
That made her smile slightly, which made him feel a bit proud. She disappeared inside the inn for a while and came out with a bottle of salve, her dress swaying behind her. He watched as she worked on what Athan assumed was healing his wrist with her angel abilities. His skin where she touched tingled, and if he had not been in his current state he would have realized that was a side effect of the salve.
“And everyone knows you don’t go to Auntie Raysha’s inn unless you’re actually dying and there’s no hope,” He added as an afterthought. This did not make her smile, which made him feel less proud, so he continued, “So you gotta be from outta town?”
She looked him up and down before she said, “Well, like you, I was out at night to serenade my ship,”
“You’re a sailor?”
“Huh,” was all he could muster, his eyes unable to leave her calloused hands spreading the ointment on his, “Whassit like at sea?”
It was a question Athan had asked every captain he had met since he had been a little boy.
“Do you ever like looking up at the stars?” She asked him, sitting down next to him.
“Boy—” Athan hiccuped, “do I! I’m pretty sure I was just talkin’ about them.”
Looking down at her hands, she told him, “It’s like that split second of smallness you feel when you look at them, but it lasts forever,”
“That doesn’t sound nice,”
Sighing slightly, she looked to the stars in a way that in his drunken stupor Athan thoroughly believed that’s where she really belonged.
“I don’t want to be trapped by land,” He heard himself say. She tore her eyes away from the vastness of the midnight sky and peered deep into mine instead. The wind trickled through the silk of her hair and Athan could hardly feel his rapidly thumping heart.
“Why are you here then?”
The lilt of her voice made him want to pour out the entirety of his heart—his very soul— to her.
“My family’s lived in this town forever. My father’s always preaching, and his mother’s always working. I don’t know what I alwayswant to do, you know.”
“So you feel trapped by land?”
Athan thought about it for a second, letting the idea mull around in his head, and admitted, “I do.”
Her gaze unwavering, she brought a single hand up to his shoulder, and whispered, “There’s an entire world out there to see. You shouldn’t let yourself feel trapped.”
He blinked, his fuzzy brain trying to make sense of her gentle touch, “I mean, I don’t really care about the world. I just want to be happy, and I know whatever my parents want me to be won’t make me happy.”
She laughed, and it was the first time Athan had heard her laugh but he felt like it was the first time he had heard anything at all, “That’s very selfless of you,”
“Thank you,” He smiled, genuinely believing her words, “and I think that what I always want to do is be with you.”
Her thumb rubbed circles on his shoulder, “Oh, many would agree that I’m just another trap.”
She turned away from him to look back up at the night sky, and he followed her. At that moment Athan knew, there had to be something else for him, and he knew he had to try until he got there.
One of the worst feelings in the world is sunlight forcing itself through your eyelids before you are completely awake. A worse feeling is the addition of rough stone patio steps bending your back in several different ways. But only when Athan rubbed his eyes open and let them adjust to the stream light did he feel the worst. His parents standing above him with the most burdened look made him nothing more than a speck of dust.
Pa’s eyes were looking through him rather than at him when he told him, “Get your ass up, son,”
With come difficulty, he stood up, looking anywhere but his parents’ matching disappointed faces. At the very least, he had made it home.
“This isn’t who we raised you to be, Athan,” his mother began, her voice more broken than Athan had ever heard it. His stomach wanted to collapse on itself, and he knew that it was not just his hangover’s response to the morning sunshine and the heavy smell of omelettes coming from inside the house. His mouth felt like sandpaper and his chest was clenched as though someone was physically pressing down on it.
“I’m sorry.” He muttered, pushing his sweat-matted hair out of his eyes.
Hearing this, Pa only shook his head, “You can stop this and start anew. Come to the Temple with him this afternoon.”
His head began pounding, “It was only a few drinks, Pa, and I’m twenty—“
“That’s not the point,” Machi quickly interrupted, glancing at his father, “You clearly need to get your life together, and working at the Temple“
“I can’t work at the Temple.”
“Son,” Pa deadpanned, “What do you want then?”
“What I want…” He racked his throbbing head to remember the only thought he had when he woke up. Machi and Pa looked at him expectantly, Machi squeezing his arm in encouragement, “fuck, what’s her name?”
“Excuse me—“ His mother began, eyebrows shooting up.
“I’m sorry, but I have to go!”
Knowing the answer to a question with such utter certainty was refreshing like a splash on a summer day’s, cleansing to his groggy drunken mind. He left no second to spare and ignored the looks and people in his way, running like the maddest of men. It must have been market day, with the number of people who were making their way through the alleyways of town.
Suddenly, the stone path under his shoes came to end and was replaced with the wood panels of the dock. He had reached past the repetitions of townhouses to the vastness of the harbor. The water glistened at him under the afternoon sun.
“The ship is gone.” He said out loud, disappointment seeping through his body. He stared at the empty dock, out of breath. As Athan stood there, the town behind him and the dock ahead, the details of the night before came to him. “It was called the Faith.”
Athan woke up around midday. At least, he assumed that it was midday because his body consistently had been waking up at midday every day. He couldn’t tell because he never felt the need to open the rainy-day grey curtains of the single window of the attic during the day. At night, however, he would make the effort to let moonlight into the room, or to watch ships leave the port. Making his way through the room’s maze of somewhat empty soup bowls and completely empty bottles of ginger ale mixed with actual ale, He got himself ready for the rest of the day. That is to say, he went downstairs to spoon himself some cold cucumber soup before returning to the room and closing the door behind him. After a moment of thought, he quickly skipped steps to the kitchen once more and obtained two mugs worth of cold black coffee. Their house might be considered cramped by some, but to his parents, a comfy home with a kitchen pressed against a living room, three bedrooms inches apart from each other, and peeling daffodil print wallpaper was more than enough.
“Ah, peace, at last,” He breathed into the mug. Sitting down on the corner of his bed, he looked at the mess strewn across the floor, “I’ll clean it later.”
Athan had been saying this for around a month now and no one expected him to actually do it, especially himself. The first week, Machi begged, telling him that she would make him his favorite meal if he came down to sit with them for dinner, but no amount of perfectly cooked meat could appease him. The second week, she slid the evening paper under his door, with an advertisement for Dedaire School for Management and Business facing up, but Athan only sighed. At some point in the week after, Rithi, or a figure with a startling resemblance to Rithi’s voice, called for him for the first time in a while. When he didn’t respond, he only heard a single huff and drifting footsteps. Many efforts later, and many angry hushed arguments that he could easily hear through the thinness of the walls later, they gave him his space. Machi would work all day. Pa would work all day. Rithi went to tutor sessions. He thought without their constant disappointment and worrying he would feel slightly better about himself, but all he could feel was the bite of the coffee on his lips.
“Are you shitting me?” Pa’s voice suddenly thundered through the house. Athan hadn’t expected anyone home so early. Nearly tripping on his dressing robe in his effort to quickly stand up, he moved closer to the door to discover the source of his uncharacteristic outburst. “He’s still up there?”
“Ah,” Athan told himself, “since when are the arguments not about you?”
“Athan, so help him Lord, if you don’t come down this instant, I will not think twice when I—“
He didn’t wait for him to finish and rushed down the stairs. His father was not one to raise his voice with such anger. He may have had moments of frustration, dismay, or disappointment, generally directed towards me, but not like this. The dread in Athan’s stomach was like a rock.
His mother wore a shocked face, quite possibly because of how shabby his patchy stubble had become. But the fact that she had the beginnings of a smile made him forget that his clothes probably had multiple stains on them. Athan couldn’t match her gaze, and he looked away.
“Guess I should’ve tried that earlier,” Her eyes crinkled around her smile.
“Ma…” Athan trailed off, his heart hurting. He vaguely wished he could’ve made his mother happy, the way sons are supposed to do.
“We’ve got guests coming in, boy, we need to clean this place up,” My father didn’t face him as he began to unbutton his spotless white day vest and jacket. Machi was already making her way to the broom closet, and Athan just stood there, still a bit stunned that his parents actually chose to confront me. When his father finally spared a glance at me, he emotionlessly asked, “She’s been working since the early morning, aren’t you going to help her?”
His heart stung again at the reminder of his ineptitude as a son, and he ducked his head as he walked to the sink piled with dirty dishes. Pa often brought home visiting priests or missionaries from towns over when they were younger. There weren’t as many visitors these days as the family he was so proud of having had become a little less picturesque. Their mother’s business was booming and keeping her out of the house the majority of the time. The two pudgy grinning boys grew to become troublesome young men. Well, most of them at least. One time, when they were younger, they met a six-foot priest who challenged him and Rithi to give him high-fives and rewarded us with taffy when they figured out that climbing him was their only option. Athan remembered both their parents laughing at their poor friend. It was a fond memory. Nowadays, only once in a while he would surprise them with an old friend, and his mother would tense up and clean everything in the house at least twice. Looking at his mother in her floral apron, her bushy ringlets tied up, Athan wished for something better for her.
“If you want to help, Athan, why don’t you clean your room?” She offered, her hands moving rather frantically in the chaos of soapsuds in the sink.
“The attic?” He asked speculatively, “Why would they even come in there?”
My mother’s hands stopped suddenly. She looked at me, her gaze unwavering and said, “Fine. Go to your room. Stay there, like always.”
Athan was going to say something—something about how he wasn’t trying to talk back, about how he was genuinely asking, but arguing with his mother always made the words get stuck in his throat. Machi was the one who was supposed to be on his side, and a part of him knew with certainty that she only snapped because she was anxious but he really couldn’t take it.
A bit stunned, Athan returned to the room in robotic steps, and walked through the trash to put on a shirt with buttons and no stains. Looking in the mirror, a part of him was shocked at the glaze of his eyes and the bags underneath them. Slowly, he picked up whatever was on the floor of his room, throwing away some and putting others in a pile of laundry. Might as well make his bed too. He pulled the sheets to the edges of his bed, and covered them with his large comforter. When he came down, his mother and father were dressed in their best dress and suit and tie, looking sharp as ever, with a slight lack of worry on their faces. Most probably because you’re actually wearing proper trousers, came a thought.
“You look good,” Machi said, with an appreciative glance. “I have dinner ready so I can call you down when Pa’s friend gets here.”
He nodded, but made his way to the sofa that was by where his father was sitting and plopped himself down.
“Is Rithi not coming?” He asked his father, not particularly making eye contact with him. The air around us was thick with the sweetness of his mother’s galangal curry and coconut rice.
“No, your brother seems to have taken quite a sudden interest in his studies recently. It’s impressive the hours he puts away with his tutor.”
Athan opened his mouth to respond, but almost immediately, there was a soft rapping on the door. His mother and his father both leapt towards the door, and let in a woman wearing the same blue and white garb he saw his father wearing every day during service. Not really knowing what he should do, he stuck by his mother. His family and him towered over her small frame. Her elderly features and faded blue eyes looked vaguely familiar, but Athan couldn’t place it. Maybe he tended to overlook people in the Temple and group them all as one. But unlike many of the elders he had met at the Temple, she did not have the warm aura they reserved for the Chief Priest’s son. She looked him up and down with her brows knitted together, as though she was mentally taking his measurements. Immediately, Athan could feel the tautness of his parents’ smiles. There was definitely a reason for this visit.
“Priest Miya, we’re so happy you could make it tonight!”
“Of course, Sarasha,” Her response rang dry of emotion.
“How was the evening prayer?” My father asked, leading us towards the table that had been set with patterned china and patterned tablecloth.
“Uneventful.” Priest Miya offered, as though that was a sufficient answer.
“Ah,” Pa added, for good measure. While Athan could tell by his father’s incredibly sly glance at his mother that there was more going on, he was more fixated on his steaming plate of meat and vegetables and rice. A month of avoiding looks from his parents meant he had been mostly eating leftover quick meals and biscuits when they weren’t at home. One heaping bite of the warm tangy curry left him with a lifetime’s satisfaction. That being said, the uncomfortable atmosphere of the table was doing its best to draw him in.
“So, Athan,” The priestess turned to look at me. Well, it was more of a glare. “Your father tells him you’re interested in a position at the Temple.”
My father and mother gave him looks so strained that it almost would have been comical. I guess they finally had the last straw,
he thought. Looking at his parents on the other side of our dining table that was edge-to-edge with his mother’s hard work, he didn’t know that he had the energy to oppose them anymore. Rithi’s words from the night we drank lived in his head.
After a beat, Athan sighed and continued, “Ah, yes, that is true, Priest Miya.”
“Well, that’s really good to hear.” Priest Miya nodded. He, for one, could not tell from her stony face whether that was in any way good news to her, but the tension in his parents had evaporated.
“He’s very well-versed in scripture,” His mother told Priest Miya, “and so is the younger one, Rithi,”
“Ah,” the priest acknowledged, “there is an opening within the Ander section, in letter writing.”
“That would be wonderful, right, Athan—” Pa started to remark, but was eclipsed by the sound of the priestess taking out a stack of paper and smacking it on the wooden table.
“You can start after the week’s end.” Priest Miya stated. My mother ushered a pen into his hands. Idle conversation started around him.
It made no sense why an offer to work, a promise of a salary, and his parents smiling ear-to-ear made him feel his heart sink. He wanted to run. He wanted to run like the blue-haired woman. It made no sense, but as Athan signed Priest Miya’s forms, his legs felt immovable.
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