In cowhide suspenders, nine-year-old Xavier was running toward the village. A copy of the Reverend’s abridged bible bobbed in his hands like a fish struggling to return to the sea. He had forgotten to read the assigned chapter in the bible. Last night, captivated by the stars in the dark purple clouds around the moon, he had fallen asleep on the roof of his family’s two-story farmhouse. He always wanted to be an explorer, though the Reverend would never allow it. Farmers’ kids become farmers, he’d say. To leave the village would bring dishonor to your family. Dishonor was disrespect, and disrespect was sin, seldom forgiven by the Maker or the Reverend or your own parents. Xavier feared the village would no longer love him if he left. He didn’t want to live with the dishonor.
Still descending the hill, he shivered violently—an eastern gust blew into him like a flying tree branch—and stumbled over his unbuckled shoes and collapsed.
On his way to town, Xavier leapt around a boulder along the path. Pooling around the edges of his green eyes, sunlight danced on every strand of his long blonde hair. He inhaled the air, smelling of dirt and wharf. He climbed over the picket fence surrounding his family’s cornfield and ascended another hill. Last night, as he dreamt of finding strange, new lands with a bindle and a bible, his head lay on his bible. When he woke up a half hour ago, the bible was gone. It had fallen off the roof and landed in a thorny rose bush. He wanted to leave the bible behind, but he remembered the wrath of the Reverend. Last week, the Reverend had spanked a girl for allowing a crow to fly off unharmed. Xavier stood at the corner with the drunkards, watching the girl flail and scream under the Reverend. “Forgive this child, our Maker!” the Reverend shouted. He spanked her until she lay motionless. The boy walked home, his bible heavy in his arms like the cross the Virgin Father carried to his own crucifixion.
* * *
The villagers thought the sun was the threshold to Hell, the Dark One’s domain.
Last week crows descended from the sun to eat scraps of bread on their porches. A gaunt man with bright gray eyes, the Reverend ordered the villagers to kill the birds. Women beat the birds with rolling pins, while their husbands shot at the crows with muskets. When the crows left or lay dead on the road, the villagers followed the Reverend to the church to pray. Xavier knew the story well; his parents had ordered him to erect scarecrows all around their farmhouse in order to ward off the birds. He did as he was told, and the birds never touched the house, just the surrounding cornfields which his parents grew. The cornstalks grew to nearly eight feet, their stems implacable like ironweeds. Now the stalks weathered the salty wind coming from the west, where the ocean writhed. Xavier could almost hear ocean as he continued to rush toward the village. Meanwhile, on Main Street, bakers carried warm rye loafs to the old women outside the church. Children played hopscotch and horseshoes near rosebushes. Drunkards in wrinkled flannel shirts stumbled out of pubs and grimaced at the younger ladies, who strolled past, their large petticoats swaying behind them. The respectable men wore ties; the lazy men, overalls. But they tried not to discriminate, especially not today. Saturday. The day of Mass.
* * *
The Reverend once said, “Any child late for Saturday school shall be beaten or flogged.” Xavier remembered the Reverend saying this to the kids in church. For a moment Xavier thought the Reverend was speaking solely to him and vowed never to arrive late to Saturday school, so now he ran faster toward the village. The sun continued to rise, the horizon dressed in pink and orange clouds. While Xavier climbed down another hill, the Reverend’s gray eyes appeared in his mind like a flashback. He’d never forget the way the Reverend spanked that girl. It could’ve easily been him.
Still descending the hill, he shivered violently—an eastern gust blew into him like a flying tree branch—and stumbled over his unbuckled shoes and collapsed. He tumbled halfway down the hill. A stone cut his forehead as he rolled over a thorny thicket of weeds and white roses, and he winced and moaned, fearing that might’ve broken a bone or two in his arms. He’d never felt so much pain. He cried out to the Maker for help, his supplication echoing across the cornfield below. Quickly though, the wind, a yelp over the cornfields, drowned out his voice. On the hill, he got to his feet and cried out again, but stopped. He looked out toward the horizon in disbelief.
Sailing on top of the cornstalks, a sloop lurched, light as a gondola, its pink sails bulging in the wind. The ship’s mainmast towered over Xavier, the bowsprit pointing at him. The wind died down. An anchor was thrown overboard. The ship stopped but still levitated. An old woman with bright violet eyes stepped onto the ship’s capstan. As he prayed to the Maker for mercy, the wind carried the woman to his side. He looked up, dumbstruck. Brandishing a staff, she wore a purple tricorn hat with a peacock feather. Her tawny hair flowed in another breeze, this one quieter, smelling of ambrosia. She wore a yellow velvet dress coat. Tied around her waist, a leather bandolier held a pistol and a leather holster carried a golden naval short sword. The silver buckles on her black shoes glinted, and white stockings and brown breeches hugged her legs. She helped the boy to his feet. For a moment, he thought he was hallucinating.
“What are you?” he asked, awestruck. “A worshipper of the Dark One?”
“Dark One?” she said. “Not quite, darling. Just an explorer.”
The crystal on her staff shimmered, and his cuts and bruises vanished. Though he no longer felt any pain, he stepped back, clutching his bible. “Witchcraft?”
“Explorer,” she repeated. “There’s no need to be afraid.” She knelt once more, eyes sparkling. “I’ve come for supplies for my trip back to the sun.”
“The sun?” His voice was a muffled whisper. He was frightened. “What do you know about the crows?”
“What’s beyond the sun? Hell?”
“Hell?” she exclaimed suddenly. He shuddered with surprise, so she answered softly, “No, sweetie. The sun’s not the threshold to Hell.”
He found it within himself to believe her. Then he looked at her clothes and weapons with wonder. She returned his gaze with an amiable chuckle. “I’ve been on many adventures beyond the sun,” she said. “I can share one with you.”
He looked at her outstretched hand. He’d never seen another explorer before. Hesitantly, he grabbed her hand. Her fingers were delicate, airy as her voice. Standing with her as they walked down the hill, he breathed in the smell of lemon on her coat. His arms felt lighter; he’d accidentally dropped his copy of the Reverend’s bible on the hill.
“Something wrong?” she asked.
He thought of the Reverend’s glare and the crumpled girl on his lap. He shook his head. “Nothing. I have everything I need.” He touched the hilt of her sword and the butt of her pistol with his free hand. He’d never touched a sword or gun before.
She told him the time she hunted a unicorn in the moors of a faraway land. He gripped her hand tighter, wanting more details. “After I killed the creature,” she said, “it turned into this.” She raised her staff. For the first time he marveled at the crystal on the staff. “You see,” she continued, “every person has a destiny. To fulfill your destiny, you must decide to live with excitement and danger.”
“Is that why you’re an explorer? For the excitement and danger?”
“In a way, yes.” They stopped at the edge of the village. “Exploring is my life.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” she said, “explorers like me feel most alive when we’re exploring.”
“Is every day an adventure for you?”
“Every day should be an adventure,” she said. “In essence, I live to explore and I explore to live.” She glanced at him. “Make sense?”
He nodded without hesitation, picturing yesterday’s starlit sky. She wrapped an arm around him, and they continued on.
* * *
Xavier and the woman walked down the center of Main Street, then stopped outside the church. On the corner, drunkards sat on wooden chairs, looking at the mysterious woman.
She tipped her hat in greeting, but the drunkards said nothing. She turned to Xavier. “Where’s the store?” The boy glanced at the drunkards as they shared cold looks, then scrambled to the church.
Xavier turned to the woman and pointed to the building across the street. “There,” he answered. He felt strange, a growing sense of unease in his stomach. He couldn’t stop thinking about the drunkards. “Want me to come along?”
“Thank you, but I can handle it from here,” she said. “If you stay though, I might come back with a sweet for you.” He smiled with gratitude and took the drunkards’ seats on the corner as she strolled across the road.
Disrespect was dishonor—a sin, Xavier knew. But he took the woman’s hand. He felt safe with her. The Reverend stepped forward, and his gray eyes pierced the boy’s pupils.
Suddenly, voices erupted from inside the church. The clamoring sounds of men and women too afraid to walk outside. The unease grew even more feverishly inside Xavier, who dashed to the front door of the church and peered inside from the wooden stoop. Women were pacing down the center aisle with bewilderment; men were stomping down the pews. There were a hoard of screams and wild hand gestures. A boy no older than Xavier, the Reverend’s assistant, splashed his face with Holy Essence in front of a statue of the Virgin Father, as if to atone for a crime. The Reverend stood on a table at the end of the room, watching his flock go mad. Xavier trembled. He hadn’t seen such panic since the incident with the crows.
Within the din, several drunkards described the woman with the staff. “A witch,” one spat, chuckling at a flabbergasted older woman in gray petticoats. “She’s come to kill us!” Laughing, the drunkard opened his flask.
The Reverend raised his arms and his flock fell silent. He shook his head. “I expected more from you,” he said. “The woman these men are describing has come from the sun.”
“The kindling!” a woman shrieked. “What about the kindling?”
The Reverend gestured to a couple men in the corner of the room. “Retrieve the wood.” The Reverend added, “Just in case.”
Xavier turned around. The woman started across the street with a sack in her left hand. A group of children in white dress shirts and black dress pants trailed behind, keeping their distance. He returned to the corner and sat. The woman took a seat next to him and glanced at the church. “Is the church typically this loud?” she asked.
“They’re talking about you,” Xavier said, glancing at the church. “They fear you.”
“They wouldn’t fear me if they got to know me.” She gave the boy a piece of caramel from her sack.
A girl from the group grabbed his wrist. “She must’ve come from the sun!” she whispered. The woman returned Xavier’s incredulous look with another benign smile. Before any of the other kids could speak up, he threw the caramel into his mouth and sucked on the sweet. The kids looked on as he chewed and swallowed the candy.
“See?” Xavier said. “Nothing to fear.”
The kids stepped forward. The woman rummaged the sack for more sweets.
But the church door burst open and out stormed the Reverend, followed by the drunkards. They pointed at the woman with dirty fingers. “Children, back away from this demon!” the Reverend said, striding to the corner. The boy looked at the woman with alarm. The other children stood still in terror. “I shall draw out my whip!” the Reverend threatened.
The other children complied, running behind the Reverend. Their parents came out of the church. The mothers kissed their children, and the fathers scolded them for not being at Saturday school. Xavier’s father and mother glared at their son from the top of the stoop.
“Come here, son,” his father called. “Don’t disrespect the Reverend.”
Disrespect was dishonor—a sin, Xavier knew. But he took the woman’s hand. He felt safe with her. The Reverend stepped forward, and his gray eyes pierced the boy’s pupils. “Do as you’re told,” the Reverend said. “The Eleventh Commandment states: ‘The young must obey the elders, for they know the way to salvation.’”
He extended a calloused hand, the same hand he used to spank that girl. Xavier stepped behind the woman and squeezed her hand tighter. “It’s all right,” she told Xavier. “I don’t want to get you into trouble.” She turned to the Reverend. “This is a misunderstanding. I came only for supplies.”
“That’s of no consequence,” the Reverend said. “My bible says—”
“I’ve never read your bible,” she said. “I don’t want to insult your way of life. If you promise to take good care of the boy, I’ll be much obliged.”
“I don’t oblige witches,” the Reverend said, and turned to Xavier. “Come or be flogged!”
“That’s not necessary,” the woman said. She looked into Xavier’s eyes. “Start living, child,” she whispered and kissed his cheek.
The adults gasped. The Reverend seized the boy. He twisted in pain.
“Don’t!” the woman said.
The Reverend’s assistant drenched the boy’s face with Holy Essence. The blessed seawater jetted up his nose and down his throat, leaving a salty taste in his mouth. He twisted against them and rubbed the water from his eyes. Then the Reverend slapped Xavier’s rear, and the boy whimpered. He looked at his mother and father, who were returning to the church, heads turned away in disappointment. The Reverend swung again. Cringing, Xavier wondered if the pain would ever go away.
The woman stepped forward. “Let him go!” she said. “I’ll leave.”
The Reverend spanked him again. Another whimper. Tears across his face. All strength in his legs gone. He wanted to crawl to the woman and beg her to take him away. He no longer cared about sin. He cared about her, about exploring, about life. The woman reached out, but the Reverend slapped her hand and she stumbled back.
“Pray for forgiveness,” the Reverend said to Xavier. He grasped the boy’s arms with both hands. Xavier thought about kicking the Reverend back, but his legs were still weak and his rear still stung. He didn’t know what to say. His underarms sweated, the tips of his fingers tingled, snot lolled from his nostrils, his heartbeat boomed as he shook his head again. Then he rested his eyes on the Reverend. “Let go,” he muttered. He regained some strength in his calves. “Let go.”
“Beg the Maker for forgiveness,” the Reverend said.
“No.” The boy stood up straight. “I want to leave. You can’t treat me like this.”
The Reverend bit his lower lip, clearly vexed.
“Let. Go. Now!”
The Reverend yanked Xavier to the ground. His forehead dug into the gravel and blood looped around his right eyebrow. He cringed underneath the Reverend, coughing and shaking with fatigue. He turned toward the woman. She stepped forward again, but the Reverend shoved her back. “Demons from the sun deserve to die!” he declared. “Did you send the crows upon us? Have you come to corrupt our souls, as you have done with this boy?” Forced to his feet, the boy tottered.
“I mean no harm,” the woman cried. “Let me heal him.” She raised her staff. The crowd shuddered. A drunkard threw a bottle into the air, and it crashed a foot away from the woman. She stumbled back in surprise.
“The boy must be purified!” the Reverend said and threw the boy into the hands of several men. “The sea must cleanse him of his sins. Strip him!”
Xavier watched the man’s head erupt. A billow of blood, brain, and skull in the sunlight. When the shot man crumpled to the ground, Xavier screamed for help. He reached out for the woman, but he fell too fast over the edge.
Xavier tried to swat the men away, but they restrained him and pulled off his clothes. As the boy wept, the mothers covered their children’s eyes. A man lifted the boy into his arms. The boy kicked and screamed and panted as though he were drowning. Suddenly, the Reverend and several men rushed at the woman, but she drew out her sword and swung, cutting the tip of a man’s thumb. The mob stumbled back and the man holding Xavier started to run toward the sea, so the woman raised her staff and its crystal glimmered. The wind raged. It shoved men, women, and children to the ground. The Reverend and several men lumbered through the wind. The boy watched the woman scamper after him, and so he cried out for help. The woman placed her sword back into its holster and drew out the pistol while the man with the boy ran to a promontory overlooking gushing waters, the salty wind stampeding up the rock wall to the grassy edge. She pointed the pistol at the man’s head.
The Reverend, along with six men, ran to the cliff.
“He did nothing wrong!” the woman said.
The Reverend pointed to the man holding Xavier. “Toss him in—or be damned!”
The man stepped to the edge.
“No!” the woman said and fired the pistol.
Xavier watched the man’s head erupt. A billow of blood, brain, and skull in the sunlight. When the shot man crumpled to the ground, Xavier screamed for help. He reached out for the woman, but he fell too fast over the edge. He spiraled in the air, arms flailing, air caught in his throat, the world a blur of sensations and colors—the prickling of his skin, blood converging with snot and sweat on his bottom lip, the dark brown cliff merging with the aquamarine sea. Then he plunged into a whirlpool of seaweed. The surf pummeled into his chest and jetties whirled him near rocky spires. He clamored toward the surface of the sea, but the waves dragged him back down. Hoping his new friend would find him, he slapped and kicked the current to stay afloat. But soon he started to black out. Short of breath. Under the sun he drifted and bobbed. Drifted and bobbed relentlessly.
* * *
Xavier rolled his head in delirium and coughed up water on the sand and polished stones along the coastline. The setting sun touched the horizon, spreading the violet twilight across the cornfields and the sea. Slowly he remembered what happened, but in blurs: the ship, the woman, the drunkards, the Reverend, the cliff. After several minutes, he crept toward the village, and along the way he put on a pair of pants hanging on a clothesline and walked on, avoiding a group of men and women beating crows with brooms. He wanted to laugh at them, but he kept moving forward. His nose twitched at the smell of dying smoke. Soon he reached the church. Outside the building, kindling smoldered. The woman’s coat, now burnt, lay before him. A drunkard, the only other person outside the church, turned to him. The boy peered at the kindling, then dropped to his knees. He felt like vomiting, the woman’s blackened body smelled so acrid.
“Serves her right, coming here.” The drunkard took a sip from his flask. “Boy, you should tell the others you survived. I bet my brother a gold coin that you’d live.” He snickered.
Xavier stared at the drunkard. “I did die,” he said, rising. “Then I chose to live.”
The drunkard looked bemused. In the pile of char, a light flickered. The boy reached into the pile. A breeze blew away a collection of embers, revealing the woman’s staff, unmarred by the fire. The drunkard staggered forward.
“That’s impossible!” the drunkard said.
“I guess it chose to live too,” the boy said.
“Witchcraft,” the drunkard murmured. “You’re a witch!”
“No,” the boy said. “I’m an explorer.”
The man reached out to take the staff, but Xavier was quicker. He started down the street with the staff. On his way to the cornfields, he encountered several other villagers who called out his name in shock, but he walked on by without saying a word. He wasn’t followed. The woman’s ship still floated above the cornstalks. Staff in hand, Xavier climbed the anchor’s chain, and when he reached the deck, the crystal on the staff sparkled. The anchor rose by itself. The wind guided the ship west. He thought about the woman and began to cry. He’d never forget her.
The wind was strong. The ship flew westward, the stars blinking in the violet clouds. He closed his eyes with fear and exhilaration, and minutes later, the wind gave another shove against the sails and sent him closer toward the threshold of the sun.
Jacob Butlett holds a BA in creative writing from Loras College. His current work has been published or is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket, Into the Void, Fterota Logia, Street Light Press, Gone Lawn, The Limestone Review, Outrageous Fortune, Wilderness House Literary Review, Picaroon Poetry, Free Lit Magazine, Three Drops from a Cauldron, Oratoria, Varnish: A Journal of Arts and Letters, The Phoenix, Tilde: A Literary Journal, Panoplyzine, Clarion, Cold Creek Review, The Shallows, and plain china. In 2017 he won the Bauerly-Roseliep Scholarship for excellence in literary studies and creative writing.
Photo Credit: Jessica Heim