The Call ~ Bethany van Sterling

On mild, cloudy nights on the island of Gran Canaria, you can hear the call. Some say when you put a shell to your ear at high tide, or when a ship docks at port. The figure of a woman hovers above the shore, and like lighthouses in the distance, two green irises scintillate from behind the lids of mist. More than five centuries it’s been, but he will never forget those eyes that burn like torches against the obsidian shroud…

~

His lips were crusted in dust, splitting at the cracks from the dry air and the days that he’d abandoned nearly all food and water. Less than a week ago, Thagoroste, his brother, had run towards him, gasping under his breath, “Another twenty slaughtered.” Thagoroste looked down in hesitation, and then up again at the king’s beseeching eyes, the color of aquamarine. “The rest have surrendered.”

“What?” Bentejui roared, as if the echo across the sea would curse away the Spanish army, once and for all.

Queen Yarmina could see defeat chiseled across his face as he listlessly pulled up one corner of his mouth, holding out his sun-scorched hand towards her. She took hold of it, and he quickly turned his gaze back to the top of the rocks, his ropes of ochre hair swinging against his goatskin tunic. Bentejui pulled her up to the plateau, where Thagoroste was standing. Yarmina looked down, seeing the sun illuminate the side of the menacing ravine in swirls of oranges and reds.

The two men peered around them, at the hundred sets of dark eyes transfixing them from below, each head capped with an iron helmet. Yarmina could hear the horses neigh and dig their feet into the arid soil, as the men seated atop them slid out their crossbows from their belts. Behind them, others of the army stood tall with their spears and flags in hand. In the center of the sieging forces, she could see Hernando let his weapon droop loosely. He pulled off his helmet, freeing his black hair to fall into a part. His neatly-trimmed beard and mustache perfectly traced his despondent mouth. Hernando stared at her with sullen eyes, and his lips fell open. She wondered if he would dare call out her name.

Yarmina felt Bentejui seize her bicep just below the cap sleeves of her tunic. She briskly ripped her arm away, cringing at him in silent accusation.

“I’ve changed my mind,” she uttered.

“You’ve what?” he asked in disbelief. She turned her gaze to Thagoroste, whose dutiful countenance nodded over to the edge of the ravine.

Yarmina shook her head in refusal. “I don’t want to die.”

Those aquamarine eyes scolded her like an angry jackal, and before she knew it, her head whiplashed aside to the strike of Bentejui’s leathery palm across her cheek. Was it the dehydration, the defeat, or just the prospect of death that had made him this way? She glowered at him, snarling, feeling the urge to push the beast down the ravine herself. Her only restraint was knowing that he might pull her with him.

Do you remember, Bentejui? her resentful eyes said to him, studying the battle scars that the army had left him on his once unmarred face. Do you remember? When the faycan, the shaman, brought me to you on the highest mountain of Tamaran. When we believed we were the only righteous to remain on this island. When we spent many nights exchanging the tales of the elders, and I reminisced of my grandmother. When you spoke of your fears and you traced the contour of my ear with your breath like the seawater caressing the sand. Do you remember?

Yarmina’s thoughts were interrupted by a bark resounding towards them from behind the army. A few of the horses writhed and jumped upright in unease, and the soldiers tugged the reins to calm them. Disquieted by the distraction, the men looked back at the triangle-eared dog with a coat of marbled black and grey, who was calling out to his master on top of the mountain.

“Aja.” Bentejui murmured his pet’s name, more as a private plea than an attempt to communicate. “Down, down. Don’t look for me, not now…”

The more sadistic members of the army lifted their weapons and aimed them at the poor creature who was yowling from behind them. “Bajad vuestras armas!” Lower your weapons! the General called out angrily, not seeing the point in wasting their time on an animal who was defenseless against the mass of horses in front of him. He nodded back towards the mountain. After all, the last three royals of the island were done for, whether it be in death or surrender, and all that remained was their final decision.

Yarmina saw Bentejui quickly look away from his pet who was whimpering from afar. He took a deep breath and raised his lofty wooden pole, which he had so skillfully used to jump the ravines since he’d been a young boy. The General waited for his words. Bentejui said nothing.

Hernando is waiting for me, Yarmina reminded herself. It’s just a question of when I can safely climb down the steep. For, it’s not that I choose one man over the other. It’s that I’ve chosen myself, and myself means leaving the force that intends to destroy me. You only care for your pride, Bentejui. My sorrows ignored, our white nights rapidly fading to the whims of your hunger. The many mornings you returned to our isolated dwelling, drenched in the scents of rosewater and aloe from a woman that was not me. Once we were equals in our convictions, but then I became your servant in waiting. You are no more honorable than the slave owners who brought our ancestors here.

Bentejui looked around him, at the eyes of each conqueror waiting for him to bow to their feet. After all, he was unarmed, so what more could he do? Bentejui held up his pole even higher, and the General finally ordered the army to raise and aim their spears and crossbows.  Bentejui’s eyes shifted around in panic. “Now!” Thagoroste quickly ordered.

Yarmina could hear Thagoroste softly drone a final prayer to Acoran, the supreme deity. She held her breath, frozen at the prospect of a hundred bolts flying towards her and piercing her neck, chest, belly, and limbs. “Yarmina!” Bentejui commanded, hastily trying to pull her towards him, but she cowered away just in time. She heard the hollow strike of wood on rock as Bentejui lanced his pole to the side. Yarmina instinctively ducked, expecting the bolts to flood the air above her. She looked up and before she knew it, the two men’s soiled boots disappeared down the ravine. “Atis Tirma!” Long live our sacred land! Their outcries tapered through the air like thunder until it faded into the finale of a violent thud.

The General was speechless. He shook his head, and soon threw up his arms, ordering the army to lower their weapons again. Yarmina carefully stood up, still shaking in apprehension. She glanced around her, intent on proving to herself that she hadn’t merely imagined what she’d seen. Indeed, she was alone at the edge of the rocks.

Yarmina dared to look down the ravine, and a pain jabbed her chest. For a moment she wondered if the sensation were an arrow in her, but upon touching her suede dress, she felt nothing protruding. She could see the two figures so distant down the abyss that Bentejui was but an obscure form wrapped in regalia, arms and legs embracing the earth. She stepped back, and had a sudden reminiscence of the warmth of his body by her side on the cold nights in the mountains. Yarmina felt the tears gather at the ducts of her eyes.

Why did you do it, Bentejui? Couldn’t you remember? The sweet water from the springs, and the salty zephyr of the shore. That some joy in life remained? Why did you do this to yourself and your brother? Day after day, I’d dressed your battle wounds with the healing milk of cardon, and you pressed your weary head against my chest, hearkening my heartbeat. Couldn’t you remember? How I loved you, and you loved me?

Yarmina finally turned around, facing the army again. She let the tears pour, swipping them with her arm as she stumbled languidly down the mountain. She could see Hernando’s wide eyes following her, waiting, perhaps examining if she were real or a ghost. As Yarmina presented herself in front of the horsemen, she noticed the sad, yelping Aja still behind them. She crouched down, waving the dog over to her. Aja sped forward and slathered her face and hands with his tongue. After cuddling the nervous creature, she exhaled and let the remainder of her tears dry.

~

The horses slowly trotted along the sand, imprinting a trail of hooves in their path. Yarmina was perched on the saddle behind Hernando, and Aja sauntered in parallel with the soldiers who were on foot, leading the rest of the group. The brush of the water reminded Yarmina of her many evening chats with her grandmother while sitting at the coast, back when she was a young girl.

What the guanarteme, the king, called a blessing was in fact a curse. Once upon a time, when she was the same age as me at the time of her recollection, she was chosen for her fair, freckled skin and sage green eyes. She became one of the maguadas, the priestesses, living in a remote cave with a dozen other maidens like her. They were fed and clothed, and learned to weave, sew, paint, and converse with the gods and goddesses. But in that, it was slavery. When she finally chose to leave, after many years away from civilization, she was obliged to bed with the old guanarteme. Only in that she bore him a son was she given some care, but he soon abandoned her when he grew tired of her presence.

The waves waxed and waned, nodding at the words her mind spoke. She loosened her clasp around Hernando, who responded by caressing her hand.

So I pass from one slavery to the next. My grandmother told me, in the days of ancient yore, our ancestors were prisoners brought here by a presumptuous tribe of seamen. They were our conquerors from where we came—in the north of Africa it’s said—and our ancestors were the rebels who refused to abandon our language. So, their masters cut out their tongues and left the speechless people on these islands. Here they learned to whistle across the ravines, and were strong and clever, and mouthed their language to their children so they would never forget.

And here I am. Silent. I too will be brought by this presumptuous tribe to their land. Indeed, I could love Hernando. I could become one of them. For, since our ancestors’ arrival so long ago, no Guanche has ever left this island, and I will be the first. But, perhaps there is a greater freedom.

“Wait,” Yarmina murmured to Hernando.

“What?” he asked, her words breaking his concentration.

“Wait. Hernando,” she repeated in her limited Spanish. She leaned forward and wrapped her hands around his, pulling the reins.

Abiding by her request, he steered his horse out of the group. They slowed to a stop, and Yarmina swooped her leg around and hopped down to the sand.

“What are you doing?” he stammered in confusion.

She knelt down and cupped her hand for Aja to approach her. The dog blithely obeyed, his tale swinging enthusiastically as she caressed his coat.

Yarmina stood up and took one last look at Hernando. “Forgive me,” she simply said, holding out her hand for Aja to follow her. Then, she fixed her gaze towards the seemingly infinite, iridescent sea. The hushing of the current called.

Yarmina stepped towards the shoreline, first her boots dipping into the shallow foam, then the water drifting up towards her knees.

Hernando watched her, and a paralysis that she seemed to emit took over him. He watched the water fill her and the dog as if they were hollow glass figurines, as if they were drinking the waters of life itself, as if they were being reborn.

Yarmina’s form wisped into the air, and her two green eyes twinkled against the evening sky that was layered in luminous amber, magenta, and crimson.

Now I am free.

1

Bethany van Sterling is a translator, performing artist, and writer of historical and speculative fiction. Her works have appeared in webzines such as The DrabbleFriday Flash Fiction, and T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, and anthologies such as History Will Be Kind (The Copperfield Review, 2015), Crossing Over (Thirteen O’Clock Press, 2015), and Passionate Pasts (Kellan Publishing, 2013). She currently resides in Madrid, Spain. For news and musings, follow her on Twitter at @BethVanSterling, or to read more, check out her blog: bethanyvansterling.blogspot.com.es/p/blog-page.html

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