“Why do I have to go?” I asked my mom the night before.
“You have to go because everybody wants to go,” she said. We were in the bathroom, and she had locked the door. “I’ve never heard of somebody not going.”
Ever since my mom handed it to me for safekeeping, I had kept my maroon thread balled up in my sock drawer, as far from me as I could. It looked alive to me. Warm and breathing, like it wanted to suck the air out of my lungs. “Now don’t lose it,” my mom had warned.
“Why? What happens if I lose it?”
She must have heard the hope in my voice. “We’ll have to make you another one. It’s better not to lose the one you have, okay?”
After rubbing the spot on my right side with a numbing cloth, she doused the needle with rubbing alcohol and sewed the maroon thread there to my skin. Mine was particularly long. “What does a long thread even mean?” I asked, wincing each time the needle entered my side. It didn’t hurt but I hated the tugging. My mom wrapped some of the thread around my wrist. The rest she slipped into my pocket. “It means you’re growing up,” she said, weepy-eyed.
An Excerpt from The Youth’s Guide to Our Island
The history of our island: Maybe at one point the island was only an island, a source of logs and mutton for the settlers, but as long as any of us can remember, this island has been the pulsating heart of our community. We know from the old journals that our ancestors rowed to the island once a year to gather fleece from the mysterious—some would say magical—island sheep. Out of that fleece they spun the maroon threads which they used to connect themselves to their history and to each other. Eventually they decided to write down a book of rules, so that subsequent generations would always understand what to do. These are the rules that we still follow today, such as: the autumn a child becomes 17, a parent attaches the thread they spun to their child’s side, after which the child will journey to the island.
The next day, the day I went to the island, it was unusually windy. I remember the wind blew hard enough to snap several of the celebration banners free from their ropes above the dock. There was supposed to be a dozen of us only someone had gotten sick, so there were only 11. This meant some of us would be coming back as a trio or a quintet. “It’s all fine,” the adults reassured us. “Whatever combination of partners is fine! Boy boy, girl girl, boy girl boy, it’s fine.” The wind blew against me like it was trying to knock me down.
That morning I had told my mom again that I didn’t want to go. I didn’t feel it necessary to go. “Enough! Stop talking,” she snapped, stuffing my poncho into my backpack. She made me put the pack on. “It’s too heavy,” I complained. “You are going to manage this just fine,” my mom insisted. She dragged me outside, down the hill, all the way to the pier. I was the last to arrive. The other girls wore ribboned dresses and lace. They had stitched patterned silk pouches to their jackets to hold their threads. I was wearing the clothes I usually wore for yard work. My thread was balled up in a sweatshirt pocket. There was so much wind. “I don’t think it’s safe out there anymore,” I argued, pointing to the white caps in the lake. Everyone acted like they couldn’t hear me. The others in my group were busy buckling on their life jackets. My mom stared in my direction, making impatient snapping motions with her hands. I buckled mine on too.
We boarded the boat in a single file line. I chose the open seat at the back beside the navigator, who was from another town and not allowed to speak to any of us. My mom kept nodding encouragingly at me until the motor started up and we were speeding across the sick and choppy water. In front of us, the island grew then loomed. Everybody stopped chattering. It was a wild place. Vines covered the cliffs. Birds of prey circled the exposed bluffs. I was reminded of an enormous animal, how it crouched over itself in the water, watching us, waiting.
We docked at the old pier on the island’s south end, expecting an adult to be there to run our orientation. This was what our teachers had told us would happen anyway, though I think they made such a story up. We wasted half an hour of our time sitting there on the rotted wood, watching the occasional fish dart through the murky water. “You can all keep doing whatever it is you’re doing, but I’m not waiting here forever, okay?” said one of the girls. She was the first to stand up, clutching her paper map, and stomp off toward the bluffs on the island’s west side. Nobody said goodbye. We all went off in our separate directions.
From the beginning I had trouble finding what I was supposed to find. We had been told there were herds of sheep, the strange maroon-colored sheep, flocking around the hill rocks. When we saw these sheep, we were supposed to approach them, moving cautiously, until close enough to snip off portions of their fleece, which we were to wrap up in leaves and carry back home. This was the fleece we were to use to spin our future children’s threads. Nobody had said what would happen if I couldn’t find the sheep. Instead of sheep, I saw strange glints between the trees, a sharp light in the distance that retreated whenever I moved forward.
By late afternoon, I must have gotten lost because I came upon a ravine that wasn’t on the map. My maroon thread throbbed madly in my pocket. Such throbbing repulsed me and I tried to ignore it. When I peered into the ravine, I could see some sort of green vine growing downward, but I couldn’t see the bottom. A warm glow radiated from its depths. I threw a stone into it and didn’t hear the stone hit the ground. “Hello?” I asked because it seemed like something unknown and maybe necessary to me was living in there. I sat down on a mossy spot. It was growing dark. If this was a magical place—and it felt like it was, or it could be—then I was waiting for some magic to happen to me. Or at least a sign.
I must have fallen asleep. I slept through the entire night and into the morning.
Those final remaining hours on the island, once I woke, were frantic. I heard the navigator banging the bell at the pier. I began running, here and there on the map, then I went off the map again and ended up in a forest, where I heard a lot of humping shapes moving beneath the piles of dead leaves. It wasn’t even that part of fall yet. Besides, the island was covered in evergreens. I didn’t know what all the leaves were doing on the ground except to hide something from me.
An Excerpt from The Youth’s Guide to Our Island
Viewing the island: Any time of year, before your own journey, you are encouraged to walk along the shore and enjoy the view. The best time to see the island from land is early morning in the spring, when there might still be mist upon the water. The mist adds an appropriate air of mystery, and if you can arrive at dawn, as I’m suggesting you do, you will probably be alone. Versus in the fall, when there will not be mist and also you will not be alone either, as our entire town will be busy lakeside preparing for your upcoming departure. We have to reseal the pier, clean up the boats, prune the flowers back, and plant some last-minute annuals to add a bit of color, a bit of festivity. The banners have to be strung up, usually the maroon ones, though lately that has felt rather predictable, so we’ve started using the yellow warning flags. Not that anyone needs to be warned but those flags, in particular, are lying around and would otherwise go to waste.
That journey back from the island seemed to take twice as long. Because of the wind, a boy named Jared told us, acting as if he understood everything. The wind was now going the wrong way, against us, which meant it would be more work to bring us home.
I tried not to think too hard about where to sit. Most of the benches were wet. The front seats, the driest, had been all taken, until a girl there in front stood up and leaned over the bow. She began shouting about a fish she thought she saw, a fish made out of gold. I took her seat. When she turned around, she saw me in her seat, frowned, opened her mouth, closed it, retreated to the back of the boat, where she had to squat beside the navigator in a puddle. I suppose any one of us could have taken our end of the thread and drowned it in the water, though that may have meant we would have drowned too. Or we could have kept the other end of our threads, the end that was unattached at the time, in our pockets. What I mean is I could have. But everyone was watching.
This is what should happen: you take the end of your thread and you tear the end off, to make sure you have a fresh connecting point. It only hurts a little. You have to work quickly because the end of the thread will discharge blood. At the same time, there is supposed to be this crescendoing need building up inside of you, inside of your thread. Then your thread finds another person. A thing or a person. Or a group of people. That person/thing/group becomes your life partner or partners. I did everything I was supposed to do. I tore off the end of my thread, a tiny perfect tear. The end leaked blood. It was supposed to do this. Our threads should know what to do. My thread was supposed to know.
The problem was my thread wasn’t moving.
It sat limply in my hands, in my pocket, oozing red. There were drips of blood on my hands, on my sweatpants now, somehow on the ends of my hair. The other kids I heard behind me becoming attached to each other, the sharp gasps of their breaths, like they had just received a really nice surprise, something they had always wanted. I watched a group of four carefully split the ends of their threads with their teeth, then peel thinner sections from that larger one. They took hold of each other’s sectioned threads and slowly began weaving the sections together, creating this knobby shape between them that was coarse but also beautiful. “Move,” I muttered to my thread. As if she heard me, the girl in the back of the boat stood up. “Please, move.” Jared, the boy who thought he knew everything, was sitting beside me. He was looking at me. As if he were waiting for me. I had this feeling that the girl in the back was moving in his direction, not mine. I threw my thread into Jared’s lap. I didn’t know what else to do. People said you would die if you walked around with your open bleeding thread for too long. I think they said that because none of us knew what would happen, and there were rules. We knotted our threads together, Jared and I. His hands had blood on them like mine. The girl in back was too late by this point to join us. We were complete, finished. Jared smiled hopefully as if he hadn’t noticed the desperateness of my throw. Or else he was choosing to overlook it. Then his smile changed. He appeared overwhelmed by pleasure. I didn’t want to ever be overwhelmed like that. Anyway, I couldn’t. To me, it only felt uncomfortable, like something inside me was being pulled that shouldn’t be pulled. Honestly, it was a long cold journey back. The rest of my classmates looked similarly happy. Jared placed his hand on the bench beside my hand. This was how we would spend the rest of our lives. No one went to the island again.
My mother was waiting at the pier. She ignored the blood on my hands and my clothes or maybe she expected it. She acted so proud of me, of us, first hugging Jared, then taking me into her arms like she never had before, and leaning her head against mine and saying, “Tell me everything.” You see, I had done something she could understand. “But I couldn’t find the sheep,” I blurted out. My mom shushed me and told me not to worry, as she had kept the leftover fleece from my thread up in the attic, just in case. There was more than enough fleece left for me to use when the time came. “Look,” she whispered, petting my hair, “I know this was difficult for you. I know you didn’t want to do it. But remember, there’s something to be said for living the life everyone expects you to live. You’ll never be alone.” Later, the band played their upbeat dancing songs. We stomped and clapped until it grew dark. I couldn’t see the island in the dark but I knew it was there. Jared grabbed my elbow, spun me until I was dizzy, until our thread was tangled up around my waist, his arms. “This is the best day of our lives!” he reminded me, grinning. As if on cue, the fire balloons launched themselves into the sky.
(Check out the Nov/Dec 2016 issue for the rest of the story! Also, check out this interview with Debbie Urbanski.)
© 2016 by Debbie Urbanski