By Loring Slivinski
The first signs of our impending doom appeared on the day of the Juniper Festival, when I was just fifteen summers old.
It was one of five holidays that the island of East Thera, my home, celebrated throughout the year. Each holiday had its own purpose, songs, and rituals. I hoped to be the Historian when I was grown, to be the one to sing the songs at all the festivals and make sure our children—and our children’s children—remembered our tales and our history.
Elder Pliny’s tales had always scared Calo, my younger sister by five years. This year, her stalling had made us late, and Daddy would be mad. His sister, Aunt Nyks, loved to regale him with stories of our naughtiness. He’d never once attended the festival with us, before or after Mommy’s death, but he’d never see that as a valid excuse for our tardiness.
Sunlight filtered through the trees as I grabbed Calo’s wrist and dragged her towards the arena that our ancestors had built in the middle of the island. As we approached, Calo’s voice rose to a loud whine, “But Sissy, he’s creepy! And Daddy isn’t going!”
A few heads swiveled in our direction, and I clamped my hand over her mouth, “Sssh! That’s not nice! And talk to Daddy about it when we get home.”
Calo scrunched up her face and stuck her tongue out at me. Once she found her seat in the arena, she made faces at Elder Pliny behind her hands.
I elbowed her in the ribs, “Listen!”
Today we offered our planet, Atum, juniper berries that would prevent her from birthing another Dragon. Elder Pliny had already begun the verses, his voice ringing clear and strong across the glade.
“In the long-past days of our ancestors wise,
A situation of concern did arise.
Our planet, our Mother, Atum desired
A son or daughter to bask in her fires
She stole a spark from the sun up above
To create the Dragons, whom she first did love.”
Calo grabbed my hand, “Clee, Is Mother Atum going to make another Dragon?”
“No, stupid. They’re just stories from long ago.”
“But the quake last week!”
“Happens every few years. You’re just too little to remember the last one.”
I pointed towards the dais and ignored her. I loved to listen to Elder Pliny and knew each verse by heart. One day I’d be Historian, despite Daddy’s ridicule, “Historian my barnacles, more like Elder Bedtime Stories.” Unlike Daddy, Pliny was patient as my Mentor, and was generally well-revered for his kind and charitable nature. Daddy, on the other hand, rarely left the cabin, and didn’t do one single thing to earn anyone’s respect.
My eyes wandered as I listened. The arena, consisting of circular rows of benches surrounding a platform, was nestled in a glade at the center of a crater. The clearing was rimmed with the same pine forest that covered our entire island. Dappled sunlight danced on the heads of a thousand Therans gathered on those benches, but in the middle of the clearing the sun shone bright on the dais, as if Atum herself wanted everyone to pay attention. The spicy scent of pine filled my nose as I inhaled deeply and closed my eyes to concentrate on the Elder’s words.
“The belly of Atum thence did swell,
Where Her Dragon Son soon would dwell.
As Atum Her womb did prepare,
Beasts on Her surface cowered in fear.
Great quakes shook our Mother’s skin,
And soon her Dragon Son grew within.”
Since Daddy wouldn’t work, I had a part-time job repairing fishing nets. While I worked I often recited the songs to myself and pondered the meaning of the verses. As I sat listening today, I realized that even though we told these stories about the Dragon’s birth, I’d never even seen an actual Dragon. Nor had I heard stories of anyone else seeing one either. I’d have to ask Elder Pliny where they went in our next lesson.
“Vapors and fumes then did arise,
A portent signaling our demise.
The stench of rotten eggs in the air,
And later, a dust of ash in our hair.
The Dragon Son soon would be born,
And though we knew it not, we’d been warned.”
Aunt Nyks and her son, Kree, were sitting behind Calo and me. As Elder Pliny spoke the word, “warned,” Kree’s hot, stinky breath tickled our ears, “Rowr!” Calo jumped and squealed.
My mother’s sister, Eris—who was sitting in front of us—turned around and hissed, “Have some respect!”
I whispered, “I’m sorry.” Aunt Eris narrowed her eyes at me before returning her attention to the song.
Mouthing the words along with Elder Pliny, I imagined how I’d tell it one day when I was Historian.
“At sunrise on that fateful day,
The ground beneath our feet did sway.
Then sounded a roar, the greatest thunder,
And Atum’s flesh was torn asunder.
A column of ash and flame shot high,
And Her Dragon Son flew up to the sky.”
Kree leaned forward and growled, “And down he came to eat Cousin Calo!” She whimpered and wriggled under my arm. When I turned around to glare at my cousin, Aunt Nyks chastised me, “Mind your own business, girl.”
She turned to Uncle Koro, “See? This is what happens when children are raised without a mother. He should have just given them to Eris.”
“Great rivers from Mother’s wound did flow.
Her fiery blood so bright it glowed.
Then with a churning rumble,
The island did begin to crumble.
And as the Therans tried to flee,
Atum then rose up Her seas.”
Water droplets tickled my neck; I knew it was Kree, and I refused to give him any more attention. When the water failed, he took to throwing pebbles. He acted out the story every year; every year I wondered if he’d grow out of it by the next Juniper Berry Festival. He didn’t.
“The Therans, brave, the wave did ride.
But most of them did not survive.
A Great Swell rose o’er their heads,
And many Therans soon were dead.
This is why, to Atum, we offer,
The Juniper Berries from our coffers.”
At this point in Elder Pliny’s story, he gestured for us all to rise. Row by row, everyone in the glade filed down the stairs to the dais in the middle of the arena and took a Juniper branch from the pile. Calo and I hurried, eager to stay away from Kree, who poked us with his branch every single year.
Aunt Eris stopped me before we reached the dais, “You girls really need to learn some manners. What would your mother think?”
Looking at the ground, I shuffled my feet, “Sorry, Aunt Eris. But,”
“I don’t want to hear excuses. With your mother gone, you’re the woman of the house. You’re old enough to know better.” She turned her back to me, grabbed a bough, and joined the procession towards the shore.
As my sister and I started along the path to the shoreline, a loud rumble sounded.
For the second time that week, the ground shook under our feet.
When Calo and I reached the shoreline, Aunt Nyks was arguing with Aunt Eris, “You’re a fool. Have you ever seen a Dragon?”
“No. But why would Elder Pliny lie? It’s happening again, I tell you! You felt that, I know you did!” Eris’s voice rose, “If we don’t listen, we’ll all be dead! How can any of you laugh and celebrate when the end is coming?”
I had to admit, I was a little nervous about the second quake. But I was also intrigued that Aunt Nyks brought up the same question I’d just been wondering about. If the event in our tales wasn’t a Dragon birth, then what was it?
Nyks clucked her tongue, “Poor Eris. Must be hard to be so delicate, so scared of everything all the time. One of these days you might just die of fear.” Eris shoved Nyks aside and grabbed the next person to walk past, “We’re all going to die! Why can’t you see that?”
I slinked away, towards the other end of the beach where my friend Dion and his brothers were waist deep in the water.
“C’mon in, Clee!” He splashed water at me and Calo as we took off our shoes, “We’re off to the North Side tonight—Come join our end of the world party!”
I put my fingers to my lips and nodded towards my sister, hoping she didn’t hear him. She was afraid enough; I didn’t need him to feed that fire.
By this time, Elder Pliny had removed his robes and was standing in the water with the rest of us, wearing only his underclothes,
“Mother Atum, who gives us life,
Please spare us from your strife.
Accept our gifts of berry and bough,
We revere you, this we vow.
No more Dragons must you make,
Lest your other children you forsake.”
He held his bough high over his head and flung it as far towards the center of the atoll as he could. Everyone else joined him and soon, hundreds of boughs littered the surface of the water. Next, everyone would wade into the sea and churn up the waters to spread the juniper across the lagoon. The women of our islands sometimes ate juniper berries when they didn’t want a babe growing in their bellies, and our Elders told us the same remedy would apply to our Mother Atum. But for us kids, it was merely a grand opportunity for a water battle.
Grabbing my hand, Dion whispered in my ear, “Please come tonight. If the world really does end, I want to go out with a smile.” I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not. Not that it mattered, he was always looking for an excuse to party. And I was always looking for an excuse to hang out with him.
I had to admit, two earthquakes in one week was unsettling. But I wasn’t ready to call it The End quite yet. “It depends on Daddy. If he’s asleep early, I will, ok?”
Aunt Nyks whiny voice wafted from shore, “Now look what you did! You ruined my new dress! I don’t see why we can’t just throw them from the shore.” With a cruel smirk on his face, Uncle Koro splashed her again, and she stomped off toward their cabin.
She hadn’t gone thirty feet when the ground shook again. I held Calo tight as the trees swayed back and forth before our eyes. This quake lasted longer than the others, and the shaking collapsed a cottage along the shoreline.
“Daddy!” I had to get back to our cabin to make sure he was OK.
As I turned to run, Elder Pliny caught my arm, “I’ll go—get yourself and Calo to the glade.” He raised his voice and addressed everyone, “Brothers and Sisters—to the glade! Emergency Assembly!”
My sister started to cry, so I picked her up and joined the throng on its way to the arena.
When Calo and I reached the glade, the stench of rotten eggs hung in the air. The murmur of voices grew louder as people filed back into their seats. Among the shout of names as family members tried to reunite, people also cried out, “What’s going on? Why are we sitting around? Where’s the Chief?”
As the arena filled once again, our leader strode down the steps to the dais and raised his hands for silence. Still, he had to yell above the din, “Settle down, please! Settle down!”
The buzz fizzled away into an anxious silence.
“Thank you. I know you’re all frightened, but we must remain calm—these quakes, the smell. There’s no telling how much time we have; the Dragon grows again, and we must leave.”
When Uncle Koro stood to speak I craned my head, wondering if Daddy was here.
Calo noticed, “Is Daddy coming? Do you see him?”
“I don’t know, Bug. You know how stubborn he is. He’d probably be happy if we all left and he had the entire island to himself. But we’ll try to get him to come with, ok?”
Calo looked unsure as she nodded.
Meanwhile, Koro was yelling at the Chief, “These are our homes and our land, and it’s our right to stay. You can’t make us leave.”
Voices rose, and it took the Chief a moment to quiet everyone again, “True. I cannot make you leave. I can only beg you to join us—it would be better for all if we left together. There’s strength in numbers in case we run into trouble.”
A voice from the back reached my ears, and someone else yelled back. Suddenly, the arena was filled with shouts, and it wasn’t until one of the Elders blew the Big Horn that the crowd settled enough for the Chief to speak.
“Neighbors—I know you’re scared, but it’s not only the quakes; you can smell the rotten eggs. And Elder Pulido informed me that a crack has formed at the north end of East Thera—ash spews forth from that gash, forming a mound that is ever-growing. Atum will birth another Dragon!”
Calo whimpered and clung to my side as Aunt Nyks rose, “And you expect us to believe this without proof? Uproot our lives, everything we’ve built on your suspicions? I, for one, am not planning to abandon the home we’ve built based on fairytales.”
“Ideally, no. I’m sorry, Nyks, but there isn’t time to show everyone the proof. Besides, it’s not safe. We need to leave the island immediately—take only what you absolutely need and get to the docks. Boat owners—you must all take as many passengers as you can safely carry. Ship out as soon as your boat is full—do not delay. Head to Misen Island and we’ll rendezvous there.”
Uncle Koro stood, “No way anyone’s using my boat. We’re staying here, and I refuse to be left behind with no transportation.” He huffed and stormed out of the meeting.
Nyks tried to follow her husband, but Eris blocked her path, “You think you’re so smart! But the Dragon is coming, I tell you!” Eris turned towards the dais and screamed, “I’ve been telling you all for years!”
Nyks pushed her out of the way and joined Kree and Koro as they left the glade. Several other families followed, shaking their heads at the rest of us.
Elder Bartle raised his hand for silence, then turned to the Chief, “Yes, um, it’s clear that something is, um, happening, but perhaps we’re, um, rushing this. Surely we have time to, um, wait and see what happens before we, um, uproot everyone?” A third of the heads in the crowd nodded in approval.
Several more families left.
“I’m not willing to risk the lives of my people on a ‘maybe’, Elder Bartle. Again, I can’t force anyone to join us, but we won’t be able to come to your aid later—you’ll be on your own after….”
A loud explosion interrupted the Chief, and to the north, a plume of smoke and ash rose into the air.
The Chief ran from the stage, waving his arms to shoo us from the glade, “Go! Now! Get your things and get to the boats!”
As the Chief urged us towards the shore, Sissy was full-on crying. I gave her a quick, tight squeeze, dried the tears on her cheek, and crouched in front of her, “It’ll be OK, Bug. I’m here. Get on my back, quick. We have to go home for Daddy before we head to the docks.”
I ran the entire way to our cottage to find Elder Pliny in our living room, trying to convince Daddy to leave. But as I’d guessed, he was having none of it, “Bah! Dragonspit. Don’t care one way or another, I’m not leaving this house. If Atum wants to swallow me up, she’s welcome to me. Clee! In the kitchen—make me some dinner!”
Elder Pliny leaned down and whispered in my ear, “You must go without him. Get your things, I’ll wait in case he tries to stop you.”
Calo slid off my back, and I ran into the kitchen. I wasn’t sure how long we’d be without provisions, so I jammed as many lentil cakes, dried fish, jerky, and dried fruit as would fit in one bag, grabbed a waterskin from the wall, and returned to the living room. We’d have to be content with the clothes on our backs, because Daddy was blocking the door to our bedroom.
He was growling at the Elder, “You’re not taking my girls, Pliny. Clee, Calo, get over here. You’re not leaving me here alone.” He took a step closer to us.
Elder Pliny motioned for us to stand behind him, braced his feet, and crossed his arms. Stretched to his fullest height, he stood taller than Daddy by at least a foot.
When the Elder advanced towards my father, Daddy stumbled and fell backwards into his chair. For a change, I was relieved to see he’d been drinking; he posed no threat to Elder Pliny or us. My Mentor came to our defense, “These girls are leaving. And I won’t let you stop them.”
My sister looked at me, her eyes brimming, “But Clee! We can’t leave Daddy!.”
“We have to. It’s not safe to stay, and you know he won’t change his mind.”
Calo tried to pull away, but I gripped her arm. Tears ran down her face, “At least let me hug him bye!”
But once he had his hands on her, I knew he wouldn’t let her go, “I’m sorry, Bug. We have to go. Now.” I picked her up and carried her like a baby while Elder Pliny grabbed our bag and followed us out the door, over Daddy’s loud objections. I wouldn’t miss the miserable old wretch, but Calo’s sobs in my ear wrenched my gut.
We were among the first to reach the shore. One of the boat captains, a man named Sully, hoisted my sister aboard first, then me. “I can take ten more people besides you girls. See any of your family? You should stick together.”
I scanned the coastline looking for Aunt Eris, but she was nowhere to be found; as freaked out as she was, I suspected she was lying in bed crying, like she often did since Mommy’s death. I didn’t see Dion either—he was probably already three mugs in at the Tavern, singing songs, numbing himself for whatever might come. And no-one else in my family planned to leave the island.
“No, sir. It’s just us.”
We watched as a handful of helpful men and women tried to take control of the chaos on the beach. Of less help were Uncle Koro, Cousin Kree, and their friends, who sat on logs on the beach drinking mead and taunting those trying to escape the island.
Our boat filled quickly. As Sully tried to shove off, the town baker and his family approached, begging for passage.
“No, I’m sorry, I can’t. I already have too many on board. Any more would be downright dangerous.”
The baker grabbed at Sully’s tunic as other neighbors ran towards him, pleading, desperate.
But then another quake hit, its vibrations rippling the water around the boat. Amidst the rumbling, an explosion sounded, followed by a loud whistle.
The distraction gave Sully a chance to pull free. Yelling to the other men to pull hard on the oars, he leapt into the boat and we escaped the melee.
Onshore, the shaking continued, and the column of ash rose high over East Thera. The people on shore looked like an ant mound that’d been kicked open as they tried to board the remaining boats and escape. As Sully raised the sails, a breeze arose, and carried us away from the chaos on Thera’s banks.
We had just reached the outer ring of the Theran Atoll, where the sea dropped off to hundreds of feet deep, when an earsplitting BOOM! rang through the air. A shower of rock, flaming chunks of mountain, and liquid fire rained on East Thera.
A cloud the shape of a mushroom hung over our home. I was transfixed, unable to believe what was happening around me. Fearing we’d soon be eaten by the Dragon, I searched that cloud, and the rubble, and the skies above the eruption but couldn’t see one, no matter how hard I tried.
Two of my shipmates cried out, pointing at several boats that had become stuck in the mud as the water retreated from the shoreline. Moments later, a massive wave rose and tumbled towards our harbor. We held our breath as one, two, five boats escaped the pull of the current.
A collective gasp washed over our boat when the surge collapsed on the beaches of both East and South Thera. The whitewater destroyed any boats or structures in its way as it washed far inland. As several people stood, hoping for a better look, Sully yelled, “Down, get down now!”
He turned the bow of the boat into the wave as it reached us. Too scared to scream, I stared as the boat rode way up on top of the wave then came down with a thud that nearly fused my teeth to my tailbone. Calo sat by my side trembling, her face hidden in my armpit. Holding each other tight, we rode out the next two, smaller waves before settling into calmer waters. Other boats who’d been caught in shallower waters weren’t so lucky—we watched as two of them capsized, their passengers scrambling to keep their heads above water in the angry surf.
As soon as the waves passed, Sully pointed at people as he barked orders, “You—raise the jib. You—get that mainsail up. The approach to Misen is tricky—we need to get there before dark. Everyone else sit down and hold on.”
We huddled close together against a biting wind and the sting of salt water in our faces. As we headed east towards Misen, I continued to scour the skies for any sign of a Dragon, but the beast never appeared.
We set ashore at Misen just after the sun disappeared below the horizon that night. A smattering of other ships from East Thera landed within hours of our arrival. The island was uninhabited, but our Merchants often used it as a waypoint when they journeyed towards the Greater Isles. A dozen shacks dotted the small island, and while provisions were sparse, they were equipped with the tools we’d need to survive.
Survivors trickled in over the next five days, and by the time the last of the stragglers limped in, we numbered three hundred and ten Therans. Only twenty percent of our people had lived.
We had plenty of fish to eat, and a small spring on the island gave us clean, fresh water. But there wasn’t room for everyone in the shelters, there was no land suitable for farming, and our provisions wouldn’t last long.
On the fifth evening, Pliny—who the surviving Elder Council had elevated from Elder to Chief—called us together. “We can’t stay here. We must head east towards the Greater Isles as our ancestors did. Perhaps we can join our cousins, the Maro Voganto.”
The Maro were descended from Therans who, after the last Dragon birth, opted to live at sea rather than returning to Thera. Calo asked me, “Did you know none of them have ever stepped foot on land?”
I smiled broadly and hugged her—she was a resilient little girl. She’d do just fine.
One week later, we finished our preparations and left the island. I’d heard the stories of sailing the open ocean—I was scared, but I had to be the Mommy now. I tried not to let Calo see my fear as we pushed off.
The two-month trip to find the Maro Voganto hadn’t been easy. We lost two more boats to storms, seven people died from dehydration after becoming violently seasick, and most of us were malnourished and losing hope.
Just when I thought we’d all perish, the Maro found us. They accepted us as their own, and I quickly grew to love their nomadic lifestyle. Always hungry for knowledge, I quizzed every new person I met about their songs, their customs, and their experiences with the Dragon Birth. What I learned surprised me: no-one had ever actually witnessed a Dragon after one of those explosions. But none could deny the devastation that followed.
While I no longer believed the stories word for word, I nonetheless knew they were important. Ten years to the day after we left Thera, I was named Historian. I took my charge seriously—we would not suffer a repeat of the disaster we’d experienced that day so long ago. As I concluded my first Juniper Festival, I smiled at the boats circled around me, and raised my voice for everyone to hear,
“The Therans thereafter learned these lessons:
That they could rely upon their cousins.
They now committed to learn from the past,
And vowed to make those lessons last.
But more than anything else they know,
To leave before the Dragon blows.”