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In the Fading Light of Sundown
    by Nancy Fulda

In the Fading Light of Sundown
Artwork by Julie Dillon

The sun hung low and red beyond the island, and Tobis' boat was sinking. Brackish water slopped through widening cracks in the frame, glistening in the sunset. Welts rose where the spray soaked past his leathers.

With a snap like thunder, another live-wood plank split from the hull. Tobis ripped his gaze from the jutting topple of cliffs that was his goal. He placed ungloved hands against the timber on each side, willing it to hold, but the endless slap of salt-poison waves had leeched all strength from the wood. Cut off from the nourishment of the mainland, it could no longer maintain the shape his thoughts demanded. The strained timbers gave a weary groan.

If the boat lost cohesion, Tobis knew, the poisoned water would kill him before he could swim to shore.

He had not spared much thought for death, these past decades, although he supposed at his age one ought to. Dying itself didn't scare him much. But to have gathered his courage . . . to have finally begun the journey he had contemplated every sunset for twenty years -- and then to die without ever setting foot on the island . . . Now that would be unbearable.

Salt-poison spray blew across the bow, stinging where it touched Tobis' face and hands. He tugged the brim of his hat and gripped the bailing bucket one-handed. The fingers of his free hand kept contact with the live-wood, urging it to grow.

Perhaps the boat, cut off from the soil, was able to draw sustenance from Tobis' body. Perhaps it was just dumb luck, but the boards held.

Tobis' muscles ached when the rough ocean waves at last turned to glimmering ripples of sunlight near the island. He steered around a stony bluff and let the current drive the boat into the shallows.

When he could make out the shadows of stones beneath the glare on the water's surface, Tobis leapt from the collapsing boat and pulled it to shore with both hands.

The bow sprouted roots before the stern cleared the water. Milky tendrils shot from the planks, scrabbling like sightless worms at the soil.

Ruthlessly, Tobis shoved the boat farther ashore, snapping the tender roots and sending up sprays of gravel. The boat collapsed into a jumble of planks, creaking and groaning, desperate for sustenance. Roots coiled piteously, grew thicker, and clawed into the dirt like the grasping fingers of a mortally wounded soldier.

Tobis kept on despite his exhaustion, pushing the sagging timbers past the tide line, beyond the contaminating reach of the salt-poison. When he judged he'd gone far enough, he sank, gasping, to lean his back against the splintered wood.

"There y'are," he panted, patting the jumbled timbers like a beloved pet. "Eat up. You've earned it."

The roots pressed deeper, and the live-wood began to draw nourishment. The planks thrummed with that ululating song that only Builders could hear. Before nightfall, in this fertile soil, the boat could rebuild itself into a galleon, or a mansion, if Tobis cared to stay with it and guide its progress.

When his breathing eased, Tobis rose and dusted the grit from his palms, wincing at the overlapping welts where the salt-poison had touched him. Just as well his leathers had protected the bulk of his body; otherwise he'd be limping like an elder right now.

He raised his face. Rough, warm sea breezes beat at him. Sounds swelled in his consciousness: rustling palm fronds; birds screeching along the cliff; the scrabble of crabs in the surf.

Ah yes, he knew this place.

His heart beat faster. He opened his eyes -- he had not been aware that he had closed them -- to find a gleaming obsidian spear tip hovering two inches from his nose.

A harsh voice barked: "Builders are forbidden here! Take that abomination and depart. Or die."

Tobis thought for one instant that the entire universe had slipped away, replaced by utter stillness. Then his heart thumped again, and he remembered to breath. It was not the spear that frightened him. It was the thought that perhaps he was mistaken. Perhaps, after all these years, he had come to the island only to learn he was a fool.

He required all his courage to wrench his gaze beyond the rock-steady spear point and look, instead, at the scowling face of the woman wielding it.

"Akinya," he whispered.

She froze in astonishment and lowered her spear to view his face.


"I knew it!" he shouted. He knocked the spear aside and swung her around as if they were children again. His hat felt suddenly tight against his scalp. He ripped it off and threw it to the sea breezes, then held her at arm's length to look at her. "The scouts have been watching every day through their glass lenses. They said there was only one Caretaker left on the island. I knew it had to be you!"

She was just as he remembered: Big-nosed and dark-haired, with a shaggy jacket of animal skins and boots made of rawhide. Not beautiful by most men's standards, but exceptional by his. Akinya. After all these years, his Akinya.

His cheeks hurt from grinning too hard. Several heartbeats passed before he realized she was not smiling back. She stood like a wooden pole inhis arms.

"Akinya, what's wrong?"

"You're a Builder, Tobis."

He glanced to the shoreline, where the scattered planks of his boat had already raised themselves into a structure. The first questing sprouts were budding from knobs along the wood, following the pattern of his thoughts.

"I can't help it, Akinya. The wood Awakens when I touch it. I can't not Build."

"Then you belong with other Builders." Her finger stretched over the water. "Out there."

Tobis looked across the channel, where the shagging skyline of the mainland glowed red in the sunset. Structure upon structure; living buildings that sprawled upward for twenty stories or more, with arched roots like massive pillars. There were so many constructs that the land could not sustain them. The oldest ones had toppled into rot. Tobis' boat, carefully hoarded and nourished for months before his departure, was the largest structure that could grow there now.

"You're wrong," Tobis said gently. "I belong right here. With you. I wish I'd realized that sooner."

The spear lifted to a threatening height. "You're talking nonsense, Tobis. We're not children anymore."

"Perhaps not." He bent to lift a dead stick from the ground. The wood Awakened, writhing like a snake in his hand. Tendrils sprouted and twined around themselves into a lacework imitation of a flower.

"Stop that!" She slapped the creation from his hand.

As his touch had Awakened it, so her touch returned it to nature. The stick clattered to the stones, lifeless.

Tobis couldn't keep himself from smiling. Her voice; her eyes; she was exactly the same. Even the offended dignity in her expression was familiar.

"I love you, Akinya."

Her lips parted in soundless objection. He had never spoken the words out loud before, not in all the years when they had raced across these cliffs as children. Not even on the day when he and Akinya had stared, astonished, as a piece of deadwood burst to life in his hand; when they had built a raft in a single afternoon and he had fled upon it to the mainland before the village elders learned what he had become.

The salt-poison was not as strong, then. Tobis had clung, half-submerged, amid the spray, terrified because he did not know how to swim. Terrified that the Builders on the far side of the channel might reject him.

It was only after he had pulled himself, coughing, onto the mainland and turned to see the misty cliffs of the island caressing the horizon -- and Akinya too distant to be visible -- that he realized he had been afraid of all the wrong things.

He'd known, that very day, that he had made a hideous error. But he was sodden and exhausted and the soaring, sprawling city of the Builders beckoned to him, and he told himself that a day or two would not matter. But two days became two weeks, and then two decades, and the salt-poison kept growing stronger, and Tobis knew he was afraid to return to the island.

"Don't you see?" he said. "Don't you see why I had to come back? They said there was only one Caretaker. I had to see if it was you. I had to know -- "the words caught in his throat, but he plunged onward: "-- if you love me, too."

She spat on the ground. "You're a Builder. You steal the life from Mother Earth, you suck the land dry for your unholy creations. Look what your people have done to the mainland!"

"I've looked. I've spent twenty years looking. I've traced the paths of the roots in the soil. I understand more than you think."

Her face twisted. "You ruined everything, Tobis."

Now he was angry, too. "Blazing infernos, Akinya, I didn't choose to be a Builder. The wood Awoke to my touch. It wanted someone to help it grow."

"You were the son of a Caretaker, raised in a village of Caretakers. You should have grown into a Caretaker!"

Tobis sighed.

"Maybe I should have," he said quietly. "I would have stayed here and married you, and raised up a generation of little Caretakers to dismantle the cities. But this land needed a Builder, Akinya. It cried out for one, and when it couldn't find one, it chose me."

"Don't try to manipulate me."

"I'm not. On the mainland, the opposite occurred. The buildings are too vigorous, the earth has been drained of sustenance, and so some of the Builders' children become Caretakers. The live-wood crumbles at their touch. They don't know how to be Caretakers, though, not proper ones. There is no one to teach them the secrets of the land or the language of the trees, and so they flail about like poor, wingless birds. Buildings topple. Cities collapse into chaos. And the salt-poison keeps spreading."

"What are you saying?" she whispered.

"That the separation of Builders and Caretakers is wrong. That it was always wrong. And we knew it, you and I, that day when I boarded the raft and our eyes met and you were crying."

"I wasn't crying."

"You were crying. And I was crying, too, and if I had it to do over again I would have never left your side. I would have hidden in the jungle and taught myself to Build and come to see you every afternoon at our secret place. And we would have learned, together, what I learned these twenty years all on my own on the mainland."

"What is that?"

"That it wasn't the Builders who ruined the mainland. It was the Caretakers."

"That's ridiculous."

"Believe what you want, but the poison deposits grow every day. And do you know why? Not because my people Build, Akinya, but because the Caretakers abandoned us. There is no one to release the live-wood back into the cycle of nature, no one to teach it how to decay. Because two hundred years ago, Builders and Caretakers quarreled, and all of the Caretakers left."

"They left because they could no longer bear to see the Mother Earth abused."

"They fled like cowards, and they've done so again. Where are the others, Akinya? The village? The elders?"

Her eyes flashed with anger, a vibrant passion that made him want to wrap her in his arms. "Gone. Gone where the Mother Earth calls them -- to the larger islands and the distant continents. Gone on the backs of whales and with the wings of birds."

"Why not stay here?"

"There is no more work here. This island is pure now. All trace of the Builders' abominations have been cleansed." Her eyes slid toward Tobis' boat, unfurling its tendrils by the shore. "Until now."

"So," Tobis said. "They fled the mainland because they couldn't stand corruption, and now they've found they can't stand perfection, either." He extended a hand. "Come with me, Akinya. Come with me to the mainland. Help me to heal it."

"You're insane."

"Maybe. But I do love you."

She backed away, head shaking as though he had threatened her. "It's been too long.Too much has happened . . . It's too late to make things right."

"It's never too late," he whispered. His heart hammered against his chest.

She stared at him, unspeakable sadness in her eyes.

"I cannot love a Builder, Tobis."

Slowly, she gripped her spear in both hands and raised it to position. She squared her shoulders, the emotion seeping from her face like rain soaking into dry earth. She had always been one to cling to duty when reason failed her. He had forgotten about that.

"Go," she whispered. "Or I will kill you."

Long seconds passed with the cry of seabirds and the crash of the surf.

"Well," Tobis said finally. "It seems I'm just an old fool after all."

Gravel dragged against his boots as he trudged back to his boat. A touch of his hand, a few moments of concentration, and the sluggish roots withdrew from the soil. The live-wood, replenished, curved at his touch into a seaworthy frame. He pushed it into the water, careful not to let the surf splash higher than his knees.

Just before he climbed aboard, he turned. Akinya stood on the stones a few feet away, her spear parallel to her spine, with the wind snagging her hair.

"Tell me something," he said gruffly. "Why did you stay?"

"I don't --"

"When the other Caretakers left! When the island no longer needed cleansing. Why did you stay?"

"I . . ." Her mouth hung suspended, as though unable to find words to match the depth of her memories.

"I'll tell you why you stayed. Every sunset, when I stood on the shores of the mainland and watched this island, thinking of you, you were standing here. On this beach, watching the mainland. You do love me."

The wind blew the salt-poison up in great spumes, pummeling Tobis' face. He was glad of it. The sting was gentler than the gnawing ache in his chest. He swung his legs into the boat and laid a hand on the rudder.

When he looked back, Akinya was still standing on the rocks; proud and stern, with her skin glowing gold in the sunset. Just as he had pictured her every sundown since that first hideous parting. Her spear lay in the surf, forgotten.

"Tobis," she said. "Wait."

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