English Non-fictie Tekst Tekst-overig Text WONDROUS CALS Book Club

“Uncrossable River”: the Forces and Choices of Loneliness

The feeling of loneliness is not most prominent when one is alone, but when proximity or intimacy is expected, yet absent. Loneliness is therefore most strongly felt in social contexts, where distance is not physical, but emotional. Feeling isolated or unaccepted can stem from different sources and manifest across a variety of mediums, such as language, experience, background and identity. The pain of loneliness within the family sphere, where a natural and loving connection is the norm, is a common theme across literary works. In their attempt to capture the universal patterns in loneliness within the family, stories such as Margaret Atwood’s “Widows”, Banana Yoshimoto’s “Kitchen”and Kurt Vonnegut’s Lonesome No More examine both the individual choices and the inescapable forces that create people’s isolation in one of the most intimate social units. Despite people’s unique existential experience, which separates even the most close-knit families, the uncrossable divide between individuals need not be a inevitable source of loneliness if families choose to recognise the limitations of sharing experiences, while still showing acts of care and intimacy.

In Margaret Atwood’s “Widows”, the reader is let into the hidden perspective of a widow, whose decision to not send her honest letter shows her hopelessness in communicating across the divide of experience. Nell, the writer of the letter, describes how she lives in isolation after losing her husband, Tig. She is concerned with cleaning up and spending time with other widows, all “a little obsessive” over the death scenes of their life partners (214). Intimate and candid, the letter is touching and generates sympathy and understanding for Nell, but she says: “ I don’t intend to share any of this with you. I don’t want you calling my younger friends and relatives in a state of concern and telling them something must be done about me.” (213-4) Assuming, perhaps rightfully so, that she will be misunderstood when opening up, she decides not only that it would be unwise to share her true state of being, but also that Stevie and others would never be able to understand. She decides unilaterally that Stevie’s attempts connect are “well-meaning”, from a “kind heart”, but ultimately pointless and insincere: “You asked me how I was doing, another social pleasantry. No one wants an honest answer to that one.” (213) This demonstrates how her isolation, caused by her unique experience of widowhood, is reinforced by her conviction that others would not understand her and would be better of not knowing her true feelings.

Even among her fellow widows, or “those who have lost their life partners” (214), Nell feels she cannot safely express herself, indicated by her refusal to tell anyone that she feels Tig is still present in an inexplicable way. After her husband’s death, she is aware of a “prescribed grieving process” that she is expected complete, to “come out the other end, all cheery and wearing bright colours and loaded for bear” (213). The expectation of her environment is that after a due mourning period, she will move on and stop to “cast a pall” (215). However, she is convinced she will not come out of mourning, which she tells the readers, but not Stevie:

No. Because it’s not a tunnel. There isn’t any other end. Time has ceased to be linear, with life events and memories in a chronological row, like beads on a string. It’s the strangest feeling, or experience, or rearrangement. I’m not sure I can explain it to you. And it would alarm you unduly if I were to say to you, ‘Tig isn’t exactly gone.’ (213)

Two essential divides between Nell and Stevie become apparent here: Nell’s perspective on the world, her experience, which she cannot communicate, and the idea that Stevie would be alarmed, which leads Nell to conclude that she should not even attempt to communicate. Together, they isolate her by reinforcing each other. Stevie cannot learn to respond effectively to something they don’t understand and might never understand, because Nell has already decided to the attempt will be futile.

This double isolation is not exclusive to Nell and Stevie, but is part of Nell’s unique situation, isolating her even from other widows. This leads her to seal the uncrossable divide of experience with her decision to not attempt any crossing. She states that the other widows would not appreciate her saying her honest thoughts out loud. However, she phrases this not as a choice, but as an impossibility: “I could not have said, ‘Don’t be silly. Tig is still here.’ (…) So we keep such notions to ourselves, we widows.” (216) It is a fact of widowhood that their experiences are kept silent and solitary. Even among people with similar experiences, it remains impossible to utter the feelings Nell experiences, generalised to all widows. They cannot connect across the difference in experience which separates them, even among themselves or when invited to by relatives.

Similarly, in Banana Yoshimoto’s “Kitchen”, the reader is shown the most intimate loneliness experienced by the main character, Mikage Sakurai, who is plagued by the feeling that every human being is ultimately alone. After the death of her last remaining family member, she feels an isolation that she links to an endless absence of light:

When my grandmother died the other day, I was taken by surprise. My family had steadily decreased one by one as the years went by, but when it suddenly dawned on me that I was all alone, everything before my eyes seemed false. The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me. It was total science fiction. The blackness of the cosmos. (4)

This blackness and sense of being alone persists even when she is offered unexpected help by Yuichi Tanabe, a young man who knew Mikage’s grandmother from the florist he worked at. He invites her to come stay with him and his mother, and bemused by the self-assuredness with which he proposes this, she accepts. Although comforted by their well-lived kitchen, she still feels profoundly lonely. “Usually, the first time I go to a house, face to face with people I barely know, I feel an immense loneliness. I saw myself reflected in the glass of the large terrace window while black gloom spread of the rain-hounded night panorama. I was tied by blood to no creature in this world.” (10). However, despite Mikage hardly knowing Yuichi and his mother, Eriko, she feels welcome to stay there, and the change of atmosphere brings some relief. Staying the night on the sofa, she thinks: “Wrapped in blankets, I thought how funny it was that tonight, too, here I was sleeping next to the kitchen. I smiled to myself. But this time I wasn’t lonely.” (16) Although Yuichi and Eriko do not try to discuss Mikage’s sadness with her or claim to know what she’s going through, their presence and the quirky positivism of their lives helps to quell some of Mikage’s loneliness.

Over the next half year, Mikage is allowed to live with them, slowly recovering from her depression and becoming a part of their family. Their continued recognition of her pain and unyielding support is symbolized by the relationship with the kitchen. Mikage’s focus on the kitchen as a place of comfort becomes transformed as she starts to cook for the Tanabe family, a quintessential act of care that is the only payment they require for her staying there. Where before, the kitchen was the only place Mikage would not feel completely alone, it now channels the acts of reciprocity that can cross her sadness, because these acts are unspoken and a natural part of daily life. The meals she prepares are treasured by the whole family, and cross Yuichi’s emotional aloofness and the distance to Eriko’s dazzling night life. It allows Mikage to feel connected to these people she barely knew, to the point that she experiences the intimate moments of their life in the apartment. For example, one morning she sees Eriko water the plants, and listens to her talk about her past life, when, before the transition into becoming a woman, her wife died of cancer. There is a mutual acknowledgement that these experiences are impossible to convey fully, yet:

Her hair rustled, brushing her shoulders. There are many days when all the awful things that happen make you sick at heart, when the path before you is so steep you can’t bear to look. Not even love can rescue a person from that. Still, enveloped in the twilight coming from the west, there she was, watering the plants with her slender, graceful hands, in the midst of a light so sweet it seemed to form a rainbow in the transparent water she poured. (41-2)

Despite the recognition that Eriko’s former life and the suffering it brought are inexpressable, both Mikage and Eriko find happiness in the fact that the other person is present. The respectful understanding that the other person’s pain is their own does not prevent connection. In fact, it allows Mikage to feel part of a family, each with their own suffering and unspeakable experiences.

In part 2, “Full Moon”, Eriko’s death creates a divide of sadness between Yuichi and Mikage that threatens to disconnect them. However, despite the knowledge that the feeling of isolation might never be understood, acts of kindness and closeness still manage to keep them together. Mikage has moved out of the Tanabe apartment and has become a chef’s assistant when she belatedly learns that Eriko has been killed by a confused admirer. Yuichi, at first unable to inform Mikage because of emotional distress, finally calls her. Mikage’s first response is to come over, stay the night, and make dinner for him the next day. Again, proximity and an effort to care are the core of the response, even though Mikage is aware that the loneliness they both feel is impossible to share. She dreams:

Yuichi and I are climbing a narrow ladder in the jet-black gloom. Together we peer into the cauldron of hell. We stare into the the bubbling red sea of fire, and the air hitting our faces is so hot it makes us reel. Even though we’re standing side by side, even though we’re closer to each other than to anyone else in the world, even though we’re friends forever, we don’t join hands. No matter how forlorn we are, we each insist on standing on or own two feet. (66)

Their actions are limited by the events of their lives and the forces both inside and outside of them. On the outside, societal expectations and jealousy are voiced by a classmate of Yuichi, who urges Mikage to stay away from Yuichi (72-74). There have been rumours and complaints about her living in his apartment before, and they cannot become romantically involved because of the forces inside them: the grief and pain they both experience in their individual ways. They are unable to connect fully, kept apart by their unique suffering, even if it overlaps. Later, when Yuichi has fallen asleep after the extravagant dinner, Mikage breaks into tears: “Of course it wasn’t over having to wash all those dishes; I was crying for having been left behind in the night, paralysed with loneliness.” (67) The loneliness is not resolved by their mutual attempt at reconnection. Their individual feelings of grief prevent them from finding solace in each other.

However, Mikage overcomes the forces and emotions that keep Yuichi and her apart through a symbolic act of care, literally crossing a dark and unfamiliar distance to deliver a hearty meal to Yuichi, who has isolated himself. After their shared dinner, Mikage is asked to join her employer on a culinary journey to Izu. She agrees to go, overwhelmed by the grief she feels herself and the pain she feels from Yuichi. Hoping to put distance between pain and themselves, both Mikage and Yuichi travel away from Tokyo and find themselves in lonely inns, separated from everyone else. Having eaten little, Mikage leaves the inn late at night, and orders a katsudon meal. Waiting for her meal, she decides to call Yuichi, but realises “I had felt as if Yuichi were in some other world, at the other end of a telephone line. And that other world was darker than the place where I was. It was like the bottom of the sea.” (89) The distance between them seems endless, but still, Yuichi picks up, and Mikage says she “closed her eyes, just listening to that voice I missed so much. It was like lonely waves against the shore.” (90) These three images all emphasise the distance between them, revealing how even though they are as close as family, as close as lovers, their individual experiences separate them as the bottom of the sea and the shore.

After they hang up, Mikage eats the katsudon which is “outrageously good” (92). Then, she feels a single opportunity to cross the divide:

At that moment I had a thrillingly sharp intuition. I knew it as if I held it in my hands: In the gloom of death that surrounded the two of us, we were just at the point of approaching and negotiating a gentle curve. If we bypassed it, we would split off in different directions. In that case we would forever remain just friends. I knew it. I knew it with absolute certainty. (91)

She finds herself at a crossroads, where she could decide to act or to surrender to the hopelessness she feels: “Now I felt really alone, at the bottom of a deep loneliness that no one could touch. People aren’t overcome by situations or outside forces; defeat invades from within, I thought.” (92)

Motivated by this realisation, she orders an extra serving of the katsudon and hails a taxi to drive her through the icy night, to the inn Yuichi is staying. Since the inn is closed at night, Mikage climbs the back wall in order to reach Yuichi’s balcony. When he lets her in, she offers him the food, but it does not initially work to cross the divide. “Suddenly all the time we’d spent together, even the fact that we’d lived in the same place, seemed like a far-off dream. Yuichi was not in this world now. His cold eyes frightened me.” (98-9) Despite their physical proximity, they have not come closer across the gap of loneliness. It’s only after Yuichi’s sees the cut Mikage suffered while climbing to his balcony, and he finally starts to eat the katsudon, that they become closer. The efforts Mikage has made remind both of them of “more family memories” (100), which finally dissolves the barrier between them. Mikage thinks back to the details of living together and remembers:

When was it that Yuichi said to me, “Why is it that everything I eat when I’m with you is so delicious?”

I laughed. “Could it be that that you’re satisfying hunger and lust at the same time?”

“No way, no way, no way!” he said, laughing. “It must be because we’re family.” (100-1)

Notably, the concept of family becomes defined not through the absence of loneliness, but through the shared living through loneliness, recognising that each of the two has felt their own unique pain, and still still continuing to care for each other. Crossing the distance between the two inns represents the effort of trying to imagine the other person’s experience, even though Mikage is aware she can never know exactly what Yuichi is feeling. It’s not through the understanding of the experience, but the understanding of the distance that she shows her care for Yuichi. In response, Yuichi, not because he feels understood, but because understands the distance Mikage crossed for him, has a hope for returning to a shared life. After Mikage has returned to her own inn, and later finishes her work journey, the story ends with Yuichi promising to pick up Mikage from the station, another act of kindness and care that shows an effort to cross physical distance to represent an effort to communicate across the uncrossable divide between two people.

In both “Widows” and “Kitchen”, the untranslatable experiences of the main characters emphasise the forces that separate people, which are outside of human control. No matter the effort, Nell could not share her experiences with Stevie, nor could Mikage and Yuichi make each other know how they feel. The choices the characters make follow the acceptance that they are fundamentally alone, unable to cross the river, but where Nell has decided that others aren’t interested in her story and that any attempt at communication is therefore pointless, Mikage manages to see the worth in the attempt. The imagery of an uncrossable river and the depth of the sea both emphasise the distance between characters, even if they are part of a family. Though the river cannot be crossed, acts of care and kindness can come across, and through a recognition of the unknowable emotions in others, awareness of people’s situation can bring comfort and proximity. It requires an open mind, mutual effort and emotional proximity to communicate across the divide. This is what family is, in essence: staying together despite the divide. This explains why the combination of loneliness and comfort is often felt among blood relatives, where the divide might be big due to wide difference in personality, history and experience, and yet a connection always persists. Loneliness that rises from feeling the divide is common. Loneliness felt at the idea that the divide is uncrossable is common, too. Yet the feeling that comes from the persistent attempts at communication, the willingness to stay together and keep in contact even when the experiences can never be translated, is a sense of family.

In Lonesome No More, Kurt Vonnegut describes a bleak future where the narrator, Wilbur, runs to become the president of a splinted United States of America through one essential campaign promise: to eradicate loneliness by providing everyone with a family. In typically absurdist Vonnegut fashion, this is achieved by a “simple and workable anti-loneliness plan” (112): giving everyone a new middle name of a “noun, the name of a flower or fruit or nut or vegetable or legume, or a bird or a reptile or a fish, or a mollusk, or a gem or a mineral or a chemical element – connected by a hyphen to a number between one and twenty” (114). Everyone with the same name is of the same family and everyone of that group with the same number is a sibling. This way, every inhabitant of the United States would have “ten thousand brothers and sisters” and “one hundred and ninety thousands cousins (113). Although there is a plethora of disasters to overcome, with fluctuating gravity, the Green Death and civil war, the extended families create a shift in the way people see themselves and others. For example, when one family vehemently against war, Wilbur has a sudden insight. “I realized that nations could never acknowledge their own wars as tragedies, but that families not only could but had to.” (149). The proximity that is enclosed in the idea of family does not solve all problems, nor does it make every person understood, but it succeeds in awakening people’s best intentions towards large groups of people. Wilbur, who is half of a twin that becomes a telepathic genius when they are touching, is another symbol of how proximity and intimacy are able to transcend the divides between individuals, even if after their communion they do not remember their shared experiences. Through these extreme examples, Lonesome No More also reinforces the idea that the essence of family is the continued effort to care for another person across the many barriers between individuals.

In conclusion, the feelings of loneliness that occur within families are the result of a variety of forces and choices. Through different life experiences and different personalities, people’s inner lives are fundamentally unknowable and untranslatable, even if they are related or live in a shared space. The attempt to communicate across this uncrossable divide seems futile, as is concluded by Nell in “Widows”. She expects others to shun her for having the idea that her late husband is still present in some way and therefore censors her sincere expression of loneliness by not sending her original letter. She is unable to communicate and therefore chooses not to try. In contrast, “Kitchen” shows how despite the emotions and grief of losing family members being overwhelming and ineffable, the continued decision to care for each other and attempt to share proximity can prove enough to dispel some of the loneliness that can occur. Though the metaphorical river between people is uncrossable, even among family members, the acceptance of this divide should not discourage the attempt at mutual communication, but should inspire a kind of exchange that is open to the wisdom that one cannot know exactly what the other is experiencing. If this acceptance is combined with continued care and proximity, the loneliness within families can be assuaged across the uncrossable.

Atwood, Margaret. “Widows”. Old Babes in the Wood. 2023. Doubleday, New York.

Yoshimoto, Banana. “Kitchen”. 1988. Translation: Megan Backus. 1994, Faber and Faber.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Lonesome No More. 1976. Vintage, 2008.

English Text

A House Made One

This page is dedicated to the manuscript of A House Made One, a novella I wrote between 2017 and 2021. Although I’ve sent it to a number of publishers, I haven’t found a place to publish it yet.

It’s a utopian novella set in a time and place where humans are forced to live together in large Houses for whole winters of rain. It’s about a teenager living through the extreme seasons to turn into a more responsible member of his House. I wrote A House Made One to explore themes of identity, love, community and self-development in a context that allowed for radical re-imagining of the ways humans interact. I wanted to design an environment in which my hopes for human beings are encouraged, instead of our world, in which good behaviour is so often discouraged. In a time of simple technology yet refined social structures, I imagine a world in which polyamory, gender identity and communal ownership are not big obstacles, but are accepted as part of the best possible solution to the question of surviving as human beings.

The story follows Beru, seventeen years old, who behaves like the teenagers I know well from my daily teaching practice. However, since the rules that govern his world are different, the reader is allowed another perspective on human behaviour. Familiar motivations in an unfamiliar world will allow the reader to connect to characters while critically examining an alternative to the world we live in. By living along him for a year, readers can imagine their own choices in the valley of the House of Turtle and compare those to the choices they make every day.

Please feel free to read the first five pages of the story here. In case you want to read more, let me know. I’ll gladly send you the whole manuscript and would love to hear what you think. If you are affiliated with a publisher or know someone who might be interested to discuss publication with me, I’d be grateful for any help in trying to move the project forward.

A House Made One

by Wessel Fledderus

Beru looked out across the lagoon and felt the breeze lift a few strands of hair. This is what summer should be like, he thought. This is what life should be like. He consciously turned to his senses in sequence. He felt his weight pressing on a smooth rock, he felt his pantoons breathing loosely around his legs and he felt the drops of sea water dry on his shoulders. He heard the younglings chatter and pile rocks on each other, he heard the creatures around them make their sounds of complete comfort and he heard the waves overturning on the beach. He saw people devoted to their tasks on the beach, the sparkling waves in the lagoon and the horizon turning a deep green where it met the spotless sky.
This was what life should be like. Why could he not imagine how he had felt only two moons ago, when he felt everything was pointless and life should have been ended before it turned to misery? He struggled to remember the thought process, but could not grasp the steps he took then. He fought to evoke the feelings of that time, to drag them out into his current situation and face them here, where he would certainly destroy them forever. He visualised the endless rain and the grey faces, but to his current eye, they seemed distant, even slightly pleasant.
On the beach, an unage apprentice had found a particularly pretty shell. A nearby seal slowly lifted its head. People gathered and he could hear their cries of excitement all the way on the cliff. The shell would be on display for everyone in her house to see. She was not from his house. The Whales, he thought, or possibly the Crabs. He tried to make out the faces, suddenly excited. Maybe Trucia would be there, too. That was the reason he was here in the first place.
“Beru, we need you.”
The voice was torn, but friendly. Aless beckoned him.
“The first layers have been built. I want you to inspect them and perform judgment while I hand out the firstmeals.”
“Naturally, master elder.” Beru wasn’t always a committed apprentice, but he appreciated the task he had managed to claim today, so he made sure to appear zealous and capable. He rose and moved towards the miniature rock foundations the younglings had made, acknowledging the effort they had put in. After every foundation, he performed judgment with a kind smile. He was aware of the influence he had over the younglings, who were only between five and ten winters, and he felt the disaffected gaze of Aless, who would perform judgment on his performance upon her return to the house.
After he was finished, the younglings eagerly chomped down their firstmeal while clustering in small groups. The noise of the sea resounded around them and they looked around leisurely. Beru watched them while he ate, reaffirming that he was lucky to be caretaker today. Aless and Berth seated themselves next to him.
“They are doing well,” Berth said. She was a strong woman with short, dark hair, known as one of the best builders of the house. Beru appreciated her, but rarely spoke to her. She was demanding of herself and others, something that made her unpopular with Beru and other unaged.
“If they maintain this discipline when they grow up, our house will be secure and prosperous,” Berth looked from the piles of collected rocks to the younglings. “It warms my bones.”
“They certainly worked hard. They must have been impressed with your example this morning.” Aless was an older woman, with a tenderness that contrasted her cracked face and voice. Her grey hair was put up in a complicated pattern, an artistic variation on the traditional hairdo for the elderly masters. She had been caretaker as long as Beru could remember, treating the ill and supervising the young already when Beru was a child himself.
Berth turned to Beru.
“Your judgments were kind and wise, but you need to refine your builder’s eye. I hope you will join one of my classes before autumn comes.”
“It would be my honour, Berth.”
He hoped that would be enough to stop the discussion there. He was willing to learn, but not ready to spend his days underneath the House if there was a chance to be close to the sea, with a chance to see that girl again. He noticed a feeling swell in his chest. Summer was too good to be spent on foundations.

After the task was completed, Aless and Berth started to prepare to take the younglings back to the house. The younglings were excited to be relieved of their duties and were already planning their afternoon playing.
“Will you join us, Beru?” asked Aless.
“No, master elder. The others will soon be here and I would like to make the most of the sun’s abundance today.”
Berth grinned and started walking, saying: “The young are full of energy, but lack direction. Enjoy your sunsoaking, Beru.” The younglings followed her, not quite aware of what she had said, but enjoying the words at Beru’s expense. As they headed for the House, they started a children’s marching song. Aless nodded to Beru and said: “Enjoy the day. Maybe you can find some new followers for our House, too.”
Beru froze at the cheek of her remark. It always surprised him how his elders could think so lightly of contacting the other Houses and selecting potential lovers, in whatever form. To Beru, nothing could be more important or more daunting. His heart pounded with the realisation that everyone must be aware of his friends’ intentions. If Aless could mention it so casually, it must mean the whole house was talking about it. Even his father.

He quickly left for the beach, where soon there would be a congregation of unaged from all nearby Houses. Usually, there would be close to fifty, depending on how the tasks had been divided in the morning. They would swim, sing and sleep in the sun, perform feats of strength, skill and agility and outwit each other wherever possible, hoping to attract others to them. It was exhilarating and a constant source of new connections. Last year, Beru had become interested in Trucia, a girl from the House of Caiman, but she had only been to the beach during her tasks this summer, never afterwards. Maybe today.
He was already radiating heat when his friends arrived. He heard Cibastian first, as always. Cibastian’s voice was rich and playful, a result of Cibastian’s tendency to talk to everyone, all the time. During winter, he would be the last to run out of stories. During summer, he would be the first to have new ones. He was bold and impulsive, which used to upset Beru, who had always been more pensive. However, during the previous summers, they had discovered they complemented each other well, not least when contacting unaged from another House.
Cibastian was talking to Lear, which was mostly clear because there was no retort to Cibastian’s outrageous boasting. If Beru was pensive, Lear was positively introverted. He was Beru’s oldest friend and Beru’s mother never failed to mention how they spent long winter days sitting together playing their individual games, apparently satisfied to be in each other’s presence. Lear always thought before he spoke, or thought at length and never spoke at all. He was a serious, focused worker who did not change his mind readily. He treated others with a distant respect that could put people off. It certainly had required Beru’s repeated reassurance to convince Cibastian that Lear appreciated him enough to tolerate him around.
Beru heard a thump in the sand and felt some specks hit his face.
“Hello, Cibastian,” he said, without opening his eyes. “I’m happy you’re here.”
“Are you ready to gather some followers? I’m confident our House will be full of the prettiest girls soon.”
Lear’s raspy voice noted: “It will have to be soon. I think the rain might start today.”
Beru opened his eyes, shielding them from the sun. He looked at the clear blue sky and had to look between his eyelashes to look for clouds. Before he could find words for his predictions, Cibastian spoke.
“Nah, you’re being too pessimistic. It will be a wonderful day full of sun and sweetness. Look, Beru, I made some tokens for those girls from the House of Whale.”
Beru sat up. The tokens were a series of carved pieces of wood, held together by strings. They were decorated with elaborate patterns, which traditionally conveyed a personalised message explained when it was given. Cibastian’s tokens were promises of love, understanding, physical prowess and comfortable living. The symbol for laughter was in there four times.
“Where did you find the time to do all this? You’ve been on the beach constantly.”
“Clever task choice and setting of priorities,” Cibastian grinned. “I’ve been minding the elders, mostly. I let the others do the hard work while I entertain them with some talking. You know… They appreciate it. None of the aged are going to ask me to something time-consuming when they see an elder man thrilled to be in conversation about his own conquests at the beach.”
Lear frowned.
“Come on! Finding the best followers is important!”
Some others from the House of Turtle had arrived with Cibastian and Lear. There was Sissaly, a girl of seventeen winters and her sister, Offil, two winters younger. Then there were a few younger unaged, for whom this was their first summer away from the supervision of the aged. They were mostly occupied with each other and hardly interacted with the other Houses, although they sometimes challenged each other to games of skill or strength.
Slowly, groups of people were gathering on the beach, some four tens in total. People started swimming, talking, playing games and making music around the beach.
“Come, Beru, time to go. See you after, Lear. Good luck with Tymas.”
Cibastian dashed off. Lear squinted. Beru rose and put his hand on Lear’s shoulder. “He means well, Lear. I told him you spoke with Tymas regularly, so he jumped to the conclusion. Should I talk to him?”
“No matter. I don’t mind.”
“See you later, Lear. I’ll come see you when the first games are over.”
Lear nodded.
Beru turned to the part of the beach marked for rockthrow and started ploughing through the sand.
“She’ll be there,” Lear said.
Beru smiled and walked on.

With a sense of self-awareness, Beru arrived at the rockthrow. Some girls were throwing now. The rounded, marked stones lay in a pile close to the throwing line, which was marked by wooden poles. Cibastian was chattering away to Guerry, from the House of Crab, while they both crossed their arms in a display of simulated disinterest. Two other boys from the House of Seagull, Tymas and Rodderic, sat in the sand, speaking in low tones.
Beru recognised Yesther and her friend Jodi, both seventeen winters, from the House of Crab, who were watching the current thrower with disdain. She was clad in a noticeably revealing set of clothes, revealing the curves around her hips when she moved, which usually led to appreciation and condemnation in equal measure. There was a younger girl cautiously eyeing her while holding her own rock. He did not know either of them. Two more girls were watching the game, although Beru noticed they were more interested in the other audience members.
Disappointed that Trucia wasn’t there, he let himself fall down into the sand and started working it into shapes while he watched the rockthrowing absent-mindedly. He flicked through his memories of Trucia on the beach, some from last year, some from this year, before he’d had time to go there himself. Trying to paint every detail of her face in his mind, he struggled to find words to categorise her features and was unable to explain why he thought her to be beautiful. Wavy hair, deep blue eyes, sharp bones softened by her smile – these things he could capture, but they did not explain his fascination. A cheer rose from the audience as Yesther launched her rock, comically somersaulting into the sand, landing close to Cibastian, who smiled warmly. Beru felt his lips tighten. Would other girls do such things to win him over? Would Trucia?
At the start of last summer, Beru had shared some games with her. Two winters younger than him, it had been her first summer at the beach. She had boldly approached him and challenged him to her first game, taunting him by saying he would be shamed forever if he would refuse the dare of a newcomer. She was talkative, active and free. At first, Beru had trouble understanding her, because she seemed to behave erratically, alternating intimacy, mockery and distance with jarring switches. As summer progressed, he had become comfortable with her drive for breaking expectations and they were locked in a never-ending contest of wits where she attempted to surprise him and he attempted to grasp her motivations before she had uttered them.
When summer drew to a close, she had shocked him by revealing her feelings of admiration and appreciation to him as a matter of fact, a natural given. They had even kissed, once, secluded from the others on a walk in the forest. The last days of summer were filled with tumultuous emotions so that when the rains came, he had not said what he needed to.
His winter was therefore engrained with a constant inclination in his thoughts. His desire to be outdoors, in the sun, on the beach, and active, became intricately mixed with his desire to be around Trucia. Spending the measureless days of frigid downpour carefully articulating his feelings towards her, he feared his conjured scenarios would disconnect from reality.
When spring came, he had made the twofold decision to express all his winter’s worth of pining, pondering and pronouncing, and also search the reality of summer for signs that would completely deflate his dreams. Alternating between dedicated initiative and practical consideration, he managed to remain indecisive to the extent that his own response to seeing her would be a surprise to him.
A shadow moved onto his face. Cibastian hauled him to his feet. “Our turn, my friend.”
Tymas and Rodderic joined them. They declared a game of distance, rather than precision or skill, Cibastian’s favourite. While he moved to throw first, Beru heard voices approaching. He turned, too eagerly, he thought, and spotted her walking hand in hand with another girl, flanked by two more girls and boys holding hands. Beru almost dropped his rock.
“Go on, Beru.” Cibastian pulled him towards the poles. Two of them had already thrown, with decent outcomes. Determined to make an impression, Beru flung his rock past both of them. Cibastian cheered and declared legendary strength while hanging around his shoulders. Beru heard nothing as he met Trucia’s eyes. His mind came to a momentary halt and then questions poured down. Did she see his throw? Was it good enough? Had she changed since last summer? What if she was only attracted to girls? If only she would smile, he could stop worrying.
She faced him with eyes more blue than he remembered. The moment stretched. He noticed her new necklace with a carved wooden figure pointing down her chest. Strands of hair waved across her neck.
She smiled. He felt his body tremor.

Their initial greetings were comically casual, but Beru was pulled back into the game by Cibastian before he could decide what to do. Half the unaged from the House of Crab moved on, but Boryn asked to join the game and the rest stayed to watch. Beru felt split in two, divided between full attention on Trucia and remaining a normal person participating in a game of rockthrow. Every time he looked towards the audience, Trucia stood out like a full moon in a starry sky. He felt so drawn to her that he wondered whether he could hold his balance.
“It seems you’ve spent all your skill on that one throw, Beru.” Cibastian mocked him with a flourish of muscle. Muttering arose from the audience, as always when Cibastian performed in public. Beru wished he could do the same.
“You’ve spent it all on posing, Cibastian,” Rodderic scoffed. “You’re doing worse than Beru.”
“It’s all part of my ploy. You’ll never see it coming.” Cibastian’s face mirrored a demon mask, accurately.
“They will if you tell them, kelp brain!” Yesther roared from the side. The girls in the audience laughed freely. Beru was transfixed by the sound of Trucia’s laugh.
“Maybe it’s a double bluff,” Trucia said above the din. “Maybe he’ll lose miserably to confuse all of us.”
Tymas was ready to throw.
“That would not be a surprise at all.” His voice was relaxed while he body tensed. With admirable form, he launched his rock five feet further than even Beru had. Sounds of awe rose all around. If anything was to be won by this endeavour, Tymas had just won. Cool, capable and clever. Mud. Beru felt outclassed.
Then, Cibastian jumped on Tymas.
“Congratulations, Tymas! You’ve won a hug from the most attractive unaged at the beach.”
Both fell flat in the sand as the crowd cheered and Yesther jumped onto the both of them.
“Here I am, then!”
Beru looked back at Trucia, who stared straight at him with apparent communication. Beru felt his body respond before his mind did. He walked over and offered his hand, involuntarily, yet fully conscious.
“Shall we sit by the water for a bit?” His voice was resolute, a little lower than usual. Thankfully.
“Just the two of us, Beru? Are you sure?” She took his hand. “You might not remember how I vowed to harass you whenever I am close.”
“Oh, I remember. You just never managed. More practice, maybe.”
They walked away from the fray that had moved into the lagoon to a spot a little further away.

Beru was aware of the sound of the surf and the noise of those nearby, but it was dull compared to his hard-hitting heart. There was no silence, but the space between words was daunting. He felt Trucia’s eyes on him, but whenever he had mustered the resolve to meet them, they dropped to the sand below their feet.
“How come you’ve not come to the beach before?” Beru asked with strained casualty.
“I was ill for a while. My parents wouldn’t let me leave.” Trucia turned to him. “Were you waiting for me?” It was meant to provoke.
“Yes. Either you have trouble remembering last year or you’re just combing for compliments.” He sunk into the familiar exchange and felt his insides float.
Trucia smiled. “Maybe I was less impressed than you were last summer.”
Beru took a few steps, feigning deep thought.
“It does seem like a dream. Maybe I imagined all of it.”
Trucia mirrored his serious expression. Beru continued.
“I must have imagined that time when we came to the beach with our feet covered in cuts and bruises because we had stayed at the beach too long the day before and had returned when it was too dark to see.”
Trucia nodded, seriously, like a concerned parent.
“And I must have imagined that time when we were challenged to a double duel and Cibastian and Yesther fell over before we had made contact.”
A small smile fluttered on Trisha’s lips.
“And I must have imagined that time we pretended to be siblings for two days and we managed to convince even Cibastian…”
Trucia’s smile burst into laughter.
“All those glances we exchanged and all the times I could hardly contain myself and he didn’t notice…” She fell silent as she looked at Beru’s solemn face. She sat down demonstratively.
Beru dropped next to her, cross-legged, his eyes on the horizon, his right side tingling with Trucia’s proximity.

(end of page 5)