PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for and may be obtained from the Library of Congress.
Text copyright © 2014 Maria Turtschaninoff
Translation copyright © 2016 A.A. Prime
Display type by Alyssa Nassner
Book design by Pamela Notarantonio
Maps by Sara Corbett
Jacket illustration © 2017 Jeffrey Alan Love
Jacket design by Chad W. Beckerman
Published in 2017 by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS. Originally published in 2014 in Finland under the title Maresi by Schildts & Söderström. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the publisher.
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FOR ALEXANDRIA, MY SISTER
My name is Maresi Enresdaughter and I write this in the nineteenth year of the reign of our thirty-second Mother. In the four years since I came to the Red Abbey I have read nearly all the ancient scriptures about its history. Sister O says that this story of mine will become a new addition to the archives. It seems strange. I am only a novice, not an abbess, not a learned sister. But Sister O says it is important that I am the one who writes down what happened. I was there. Secondhand stories are not to be trusted.
I am no storyteller. Not yet. But by the time I am and can tell the story as it should be told, I will have forgotten. So I am recording my memories now, while they are still fresh and sharp in my mind. Not much time has passed, only one spring. I can still vividly recall certain things I would rather forget. The smell of blood. The sound of crunching bones. I do not want to bring it all up again. But I have to. It is difficult to write about death. But that is no excuse not to.
I am telling the story to make sure the Abbey never forgets. But also so that I can fully grasp what happened. Reading has always helped me to understand the world better. I hope the same applies to writing.
I am thinking about my words more than anything. Which ones will conjure up the right images without distorting or embellishing the truth? What is the weight of my words? I will do my best only to describe what is relevant to my story and leave out everything else, but Goddess forgive me if I do not always succeed in my task.
It is also difficult to know where a story begins and ends. I do not know where the ending is. It does not feel like it has come yet. But the beginning is easy. It all began when Jai came to the island.
I was harvesting mussels down on the beach on the spring morning when Jai arrived. When my basket was half full I sat down on a rock to rest for a moment. The sun had not climbed up over White Lady Mountain yet, the beach was in shade and my feet were cold from the seawater. The round pebbles beneath my feet rattled back and forth in rhythm with the motion of the sea. A red-billed koan bird hopped at the water’s edge, also looking for mussels. The wading bird had just speared a shell with its long beak when a little boat appeared near the Teeth, the high, narrow rocks that protrude straight up out of the sea.
Fishing boats come by several times per moon, so I might have thought nothing of it had the ship not been arriving from such an unusual direction. The fishermen we trade with travel from the mainland in the North, or the rich fishing waters of the islands in the East. Their boats are small, white-painted vessels, nothing like this ship heading toward the island. The fishermen’s sails are blue and the boats have a crew of two or three men.
The ones that come from the mainland bringing provisions, and sometimes new novices, are slow, roundbellied ships that often have a watchman to guard against pirates. When I came here in such a ship four years ago it was the first time I had ever seen the ocean.
I did not even know what the ship was called that I saw come sailing around the Teeth, heading straight for our harbor. I had only seen that kind of ship a handful of times. They come from far Western lands such as Emmel and Samitra, and other lands even farther away.
But even those ships usually come from the direction of the mainland, along the same route as the fishing boats. They sail along the coast and only venture out into this deep water at the last possible moment. Our island is very small and difficult to find if you do not follow the regular route. Sister Loeni says it is the First Mother who veils the island, but Sister O snorts and mutters something about incompetent sailors. I believe it is the island that hides itself. But this vessel still managed to find us somehow, despite coming around the Teeth almost directly from the West. The boat’s sail and slender hull were gray. Hard to spot on a gray sea. It was a ship that did not want to announce its arrival.
When I could see that the ship was heading for our little harbor I jumped up and ran toward it over the cobbled beach. I am ashamed to say I forgot my basket and mussels. That is the type of thing Sister Loeni is always telling me off for. You are too impulsive, Maresi, she says. Look at Mother. Would she abandon her duties like that?
I cannot imagine she would. Then again I also cannot picture Mother with rolled-up trousers and seaweed between her toes, bent over a basket of mussels. She must have done it once, when she was a young novice like me. But I cannot imagine Mother as a little girl. It simply does not make sense.
Sister Veerk and Sister Nummel were ready to meet the ship on the pier, gazing out at the gray sails. They did not see me. I snuck closer quietly and carefully so the pier’s creaking planks would not give me away. I wondered what stout Sister Nummel was doing there. She is in charge of the junior novices, and reedy Sister Veerk is the one who handles trade with fishermen.
“Is this what Mother foresaw?” asked Sister Nummel, shielding her eyes with her dimpled hand.
“Perhaps,” answered Sister Veerk. She will never speculate if she is not sure.
“I certainly hope not. Her words in the trance were difficult to decipher but the message was clear.” Sister Nummel adjusted her headscarf. “Danger. Great danger.”
A plank creaked under my foot. The sisters turned around. Sister Nummel frowned.
“Maresi. What are you doing here? You are supposed to be working at Hearth House today.”
“Yes.” I dragged out my answer. “I was harvesting mussels, but then I saw the ship.”
Sister Veerk pointed. “Look, they are hauling in the sails.”
We watched in silence as the crew maneuvered the vessel into the harbor. It seemed odd how few people there were aboard. There was a bearded old man in a blue tunic at the capstan and I guessed he must be the captain. I could only see three other men, all with hard faces and stern expressions. The captain stepped off first and Sister Veerk went to speak with him. When I tried to sneak closer to hear what they were saying Sister Nummel took me firmly by the arm. Soon Sister Veerk came back and whispered something to Sister Nummel, who immediately started to pull me away from the pier.
Even though I went with Sister Nummel without protest, I could not curb my curiosity. I wanted to
I did not understand why Sister Nummel had been so anxious to get me away from the pier. Later that day Jai appeared in Novice House with the rest of us. Her long hair was still not clean, but it was combed and smooth and she was dressed like the rest of us in brown trousers, white shirt, and a white headscarf. If I had not seen her arrive, I would never have known she was any different from the rest of us.
Jai got the bed next to mine. New novices usually have to sleep in the junior novices’ dormitory, but that is because most new arrivals are little girls. Jai was old enough to sleep with us older girls. I guessed that she was fourteen or fifteen, a year or two older than me.
The bed next to mine in the senior novices’ dormitory was free because Joem had just moved into Hearth House to become novice to Sister Ers. Her novices are the only ones who do not sleep in Novice House. They have to keep the Hearth fire burning, the fire that must never go out, and they have to make offerings to Havva at all the right times. Joem thinks she is special because she gets to be a servant to the Hearth, with the soot mark on both cheeks as an insignia. She is sure she will succeed Sister Ers as Mistress of the Hearth, and get her marks permanently tattooed on. But Sister Ers is young, so if that’s what Joem wants she will have to wait a long time. I know Joem believes that everybody envies her. When I first came to the island I could not imagine anything better than living in Hearth House, always surrounded by food. My stomach could not forget the hunger winter we had endured back home. But I soon changed my mind when I saw how strict Sister Ers was, never allowing her novices extra portions. Imagine constantly touching food, smelling food, working with food, but not being allowed to eat it!
Besides, Joem talked in her sleep. I did not miss her.
Jai sat on her bed and all the novices, younger and older, flocked around her as we always do when there is a new arrival. The little girls admired the long blond hair flowing out of her linen headscarf. Our headscarves protect us from the strong sun, but under them our hair must never be bound. We never cut our hair either. Our hair holds our strength, Sister O says.
The older girls quizzed her about where she came from, how long she had traveled, whether she had known anything about the Abbey before. Jai sat completely still. Her complexion was fairer than most, but I could tell that she was unusually pale. The skin under her eyes was thin and dark, nearly purple. Like violets in spring. She did not say a thing or answer a single question, she just looked around.
I got up from my bed. “That’s enough. You have all got duties to be getting on with. Off you go.”
They all did as they were told. It is funny to think that when I first came I was always making mistakes and no one would ever have done what I said. Now I was one of the oldest in Novice House who still did not answer to a specific house or sister. I was one of the longest-serving novices. The only one who had been around longer than me and still did not have a sister of her own was Ennike.
I showed Jai her cupboard and the clean clothes stacked inside, I told her where the outhouse was and helped her put new linen on her bed. She followed everything I did closely, but still said nothing.
“You do not need to do any duties today,” I said, turning in the corners of her bedcover. “Later you will have to come to the Temple of the Rose for evening thanks, but do not worry, I will show you everything you need to know.” I stood up straight. “Now it is nearly supper time. I will show you the way to Hearth House.”
Jai still had not said a word.
“Do you understand what I am saying?” I asked softly. Maybe she came from such a faraway land that she did not even speak the coast languages. I did not when I first came. Up in the North, in lands like Rovas, Urundien, and Lavora, we speak a different language than they do down here by the sea. The coast languages are quite similar. People who speak them can understand one another, even though the pronunciation and certain words differ. Sister O says that the amount of mutual trade that goes on between the lands has ensured that their languages keep a close relationship. My first year at the Abbey was difficult before I learned the language.
Jai nodded. Then suddenly she opened her mouth to speak.
“Is it true there are no menfolk here?” Her voice was unexpectedly husky and her accent was one I had never heard before.
I shook my head. “Never. Men are not allowed on the island. The fishermen we trade with do not set foot on the land, Sister Veerk buys the catch from the pier. We have male animals of course. One quite savage rooster, some billy goats. But no men.”
“How do you get by? Who takes care of the animals and works the earth and protects you?”
I led her to the tall, narrow door of the dormitory. There are so many doors here, each different from the last. They shut out, they lock in, they protect, hide, veil, conceal. They look at me with their bright iron fittings, stare with large wooden knots, glare with carved patterns. I counted that on any given day I pass by at least twenty doors.
Back home we had two. The cottage door and the outhouse door. Both were made of wooden planks hung on leather hinges that Father had made. At night Father would bar the cottage door from the inside with a big beam. The outhouse could be closed from the inside with a latch, and my brother Akios would flick it up from the outside with a splinter of wood while my sister Náraes would scream at him to leave us alone.
I led Jai through the corridor of Novice House. “We do not grow any grain ourselves, the island is too rocky. We buy what we need from the mainland. But we have some vegetable plots and olive groves and the sisters grow vines for wine at the Solitary Temple. We only drink it a few times a year at festivals and rituals.”
We came out into the warm evening sun and I pulled my headscarf down over my eyes. Sister Loeni does not approve when I do that, she says it is unbecoming, but I do not like having the sun in my eyes.
“We do not need protection. Few sail this far out. Did you not see how steep the mountain up to the Abbey is, and the high wall surrounding it? There are only two entrances in the outer wall. The one you came through can be closed with a heavy door and bolted. The other one is called the goat door and it goes up toward the mountain.” I pointed. “It leads to a little path we follow when we take the goats out to graze, and from there it goes to the Solitary Temple and White Lady, and our vegetable plots. It is very difficult to find the door from the mountainside if you do not already know where it is. And it has been a long time since pirates attacked the Abbey. It happened when the First Sisters came, which is why they built the outer wall, but it has not happened since. The Abbey is the only settlement on the island. There is no one we need to protect ourselves from.” I made the sign of the circle on my left palm with my right index finger to ward off bad luck. “We are all servants of the First Mother. She protects us if we are in need.”
The central courtyard was empty. Everybody must have already gone to Hearth House. That is always the way once word gets around that we have fresh fish. Before I came here I had only eaten dried fish a few times and it barely tasted of anything. But Sister Ers uses herbs and rare spices in all the cooking at Hearth House. The first time I put a spoonful of stew in my mouth the taste was so unfamiliar that I nearly spat it out again. The only thing that stopped me was the disapproval in the sisters’ watchful eyes, which was lucky. If I had spat it out I would have accidentally exposed my ignorance to everyone.
I looked at Jai. She must have felt just as awkward as I did when I came to the island. I reached out my hand to give her an encouraging pat on the arm, but she flinched as if I were about to hit her. She froze and hid her face in her hands. Her cheeks went even paler than before.
“Do not be scared,” I said gently. “I only want to show you the houses. See, that is Body’s Spring. You will learn about that tomorrow. Those steps lead up to the Temple Yard and Knowledge House, Sister House and the Temple of the Rose. They are called Eve Steps because they lead westward.”
I saw Jai peek through her fingers so I carried on talking. “We call that long, narrow staircase Moon Steps. There are two hundred and seventy steps! I counted them myself. They lead up to the Moon Yard and Moon House. Mother’s chamber is up there. Have you met Mother yet?”
Jai lowered her hands and nodded. I knew she had met Mother, all girls do as soon as they arrive. That was not why I asked her. I wanted to get her to relax.
“We do not have reason to go up there very often. Now I will take you up Dawn Steps. They lead up to Hearth House and the storehouse. Come.”
I was wary of taking her by the hand to lead her, so I settled for walking in front and hoping she followed. She did follow, a few steps behind. I carried on babbling to keep her calm, like I do with the chickens when I collect their eggs. Sister Mareane laughs at me when I do that, but she lets me be. Sister Loeni, on the other hand, is always trying to get me to be quiet. But Sister Mareane knows that a gentle voice can soothe easily frightened animals.
“Wait until you see how well we eat here! The first time someone told me we get meat or fish for supper every day I laughed in her face. I thought she was joking. Eating meat every day! But it is no joke. It is usually fish or meat from our own goats. Some novices think there is too much goat meat, but not I—Sister Ers makes so many different tasty things with goat. Goat sausages and goat steak and goat stew and dried goat meat. And goat’s milk of course. It is made into all sorts of cheeses. We keep chickens mainly for eggs, but sometimes a bird will find its way into one of Sister Ers’s stews. Sister Ers is the tattooed sister in charge of Hearth House. All the sisters have their own responsibilities, as you will see for yourself soon enough.” We puffed and panted our way up the last steps. When we came to the courtyard in front of Hearth House I could smell white fish and cooked egg. My stomach rumbled. However much I eat, I always seem to be hungry. It has been that way ever since the hunger winter.