The peeling paint on the wooden sign told them this was the registration office. Alessa’s father steered her inside, hand on her shoulder. There were other people waiting so they joined the end of the line. She stroked her baby brother Isaac’s head when he stirred in the papoose she wore. The floor was dusty and the windows dim. An old crone with stringy hair was behind the tall desk. Everyone talked in whispers except her. She loudly proclaimed when someone was registered, that the departure date she had given them was not for sale, for swapping and absolutely under no circumstances were they to miss it.
When Alessa and her father reached the desk the crone looked them over and sighed.
“All departees need to be present at registration.” Her father sagged slightly.
“We are.” He gave their names. She presented wooden tokens. Each had a date scratched into it and their names freshly added. They got the same speech about the dates.
“Excuse me?” Alessa stuttered. The crone had to lean forward to see her properly. “What if we die before our date?”
“Then you don’t have to worry about missing it do you? A blacksmith can make it into a metal token if you prefer.”
Thoroughly dismissed they made their way back out onto the dirt street. The buildings were nicer here, stone and clay. She had hoped the people would all be nicer too. At the outskirts of town an old man had spat on them and shambled back inside a lean to when asked for directions. They’d carried on in silence. The proprietor of the hostel they’d found had encouraged them to go straight to registration to get earlier dates. Aware the children were tired and hungry, Father had seen to them first.
“Back to the hostel?” She asked.
“No, there is daylight left. We can explore. And if we find anyone hiring a carpenter, all the better.”
“Because carpenters are always useful. That’s why you trained as one.”
“Correct, my darling.” He bestowed a rare smile on her and she felt like she was glowing. “Shall I take Isaac?”
“No, Father. If you need to speak business it will be better without the baby on your front.” He stopped and turned her to face him.
“Was that something your mother told you?” She shook her head. He continued to look at her.
“Yes.” He smiled again but it wasn’t a real one.
“You’re a good girl, Alessa.”
They carried on walking. Mist began to block out the bright sun. He took Alessa’s hand and began walking in the direction the it floated from. He was getting excited and picked up the pace as the mist turned to fog. She could hear voices and a metallic smell hit her nose.
They arrived at the back of some tall buildings. More people were gathering so her Father hoisted her onto his shoulders. Isaac gurgled but other than that was still. She was thankful or Father would have to bring them down again. She could now see a pier jutting out over grey choppy water, a small boat docked at the far end. A woman was being helped in by a broad shouldered man. A cheer went up from the audience.
“It’s a departure!” She yelled.
“I see it, my love!” She felt Father chuckle and he pushed into the throng. A group at the base of the pier were chanting led by a man in robes.
“…be at peace and see her family across the water.
The Gods carry her from toil, her struggle is over.”
A rope barrier prevented the crowd going further. As they got closer and the first roar of the crowd settled, Alessa could hear crying and screaming. A boy was holding the side of the boat. The woman removed his hands as two men picked the child up and held him out of reach. He clawed at the air, trying to reach for the small vessel as it moved away from the dock. The woman blew a final kiss and turned away, facing into the thick fog.
“Look Alessa, it moves without a sail. Or oars.” Her Father’s whisper seemed loud in the sudden quiet. The chanting had stopped. Even the child was silent. Alessa felt her Father’s grip on her legs making them numb. The woman disappeared into the fog. Quicker than it had arrived the fog rolled back into the distance, leaving the water calm and no sign of the boat. A collective sigh rippled through the crowd followed by applause.
As the audience dispersed her Father kept moving forward. When they were no longer surrounded by people he swung her down. She stamped her feet as pins and needles racked her legs. The two men from the dock were unhooking the rope.
“Afternoon,” her Father greeted. They nodded but didn’t speak.
“While waiting I saw there was some wear on the pier. I’d happily fix it for a fair price or is there a master carpenter I could be recommended to?” The men looked at each other and smiled.
“For every citizen who takes the journey…” one said reverently.
“A priceless gift.” The other said with a grin on his face. He clapped her Father on the shoulder.
“The local carpenter departed three days ago. The next day we saw the damage. You have come at a fortuitous moment.” They began to guide him down the pier. He glanced at Alessa who indicated she would stay. With a real smile he carried on. They passed the boy, his feet now dangling over the edge as he stared across the water. Keeping one hand on Isaac she lowered herself next to him. His eyes were red and the streaks down his face were drying.
“They say the land across the water only has one building. A beautiful cabin. But inside is big enough to house everyone and we will all live together with the Gods. But they build it a day at a time which is why only one person can go. Is that true?”
“How should I know?”
“Well, I’m new. We arrived today. You must have lived here a lot longer if your mother has departed. That was your Mother? I thought maybe you’d know.”
He sat up straighter, staring at her and she felt so sad. “The dates they gave to my family are all close together. You’ll be with her soon.” She patted his hand. He got up. He was very tall, probably older than her.
“My mother never registered me. I don’t have a departure date.”
To be continued…
This story is for Toni. She chose the title out of a list I created using the random title generator at http://www.mcoorlim.com/random I first became familiar with this site through Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge at terribleminds.com and led to my first story on here, ‘Two Skulls’. Header image used under Creative Commons, taken from pixabay.com.
I hope you enjoy this story and I’ll post the next part soon.