Different. Strange. Outsider… Islander.
I tugged on my bottom lip nervously, concentrating intently on climbing out of my bed-hollows opening towards the log-swing, which hung from a nearby branch by knotted vines. My hands were slippery, making me grip onto the tree bark with white knuckles. My breath hitched in my chest as I lowered myself onto the gently swaying log, shifting myself to sit carefully on the slightly damp wood.
Everything was always slightly damp in the forest of Divine. Something I had never been able to get truly used to. The towering trees, with their sweeping branches, thick with foliage, allowed very little sunlight to penetrate into the shadowy depths of the forest floor. The natural darkness of the village always gave me that irritating feeling that my eyes had never truly adjusted to the lack of light.
Lost. Doesn't belong. Will never fit in. Unusual.
The natives; with their naturally dark skin tone and darker shades of hair and eyes, never seemed to find the dampness or darkness hindering. Moving from branch to branch, up a carved stairwell or leaping from mushroom balcony to mushroom balcony with a natural ease I envied.
I, of course, could swim with a confidence and skill that baffled and mystified them. Though really, it was just another reason to tease me, as if my light brown hair, blue eyes and pale skin didn't give them enough reason. Josika and Thom, the natives who had adopted me, had always told me my skin had been a beautiful golden brown when they had found me washed up on the banks of the Divider River at the age of two. Lack of exposure to the sun, however, had quickly left me pale and ghostlike compared to those who surrounded me.
"Mama! Mama! It's a ghost!"
"No, it's not, it's just that Islander Aunty Josika… adopted."
Thom and Josika were caring and loving. Always there with a shoulder for me to cry on and warm arms to comfort me when other children's words grew too much. Josika's sister though, I had learnt over the past sixteen years, was someone to stay far away from. Her daughter, Mikia, had called me a ghost when we had first met and since then she had become my closest friend.
Mikia was the only native who thought my ability to swim was amazing. She had even asked me to teach her once. We had snuck down to the rivers edge in the dark of night, but Mikia had chickened out at the last minute. Disappointed, we had made to leave when she had slipped in the mud and had fallen backwards into the chilling water. Shocked and wet, she had stared at me for one long, silent moment before doubling over in laughter. Sticking to the shallows, we had played in the water until the first rays of light had broken through the dark, leafy branches above.
"The Islander's here!"
"Dada, why does she look like that?"
"I hope my child doesn't learn with her."
"Deanka, stay away from that girl."
The Tree of Learning is near the middle of the village and is one of the biggest trees of the forest. Its trunk has been hollowed out and it is where all the natives learn. Masters from the village come down to teach the younger generations the skills they have acquired over their lifetime. You can learn the art of singing, carving, language, trees, law and many more, as long as there was a Master there skilled enough to teach you.
It was at the Tree of Learning that the first, true bullying had started. I had been living with Josika and Thom for almost five years by then and had started in the same season as Mikia. Mikia's mother didn't want her anywhere near me, which I quickly started to agree with. She was being bullied because she was associated with me. However her stubbornness matched that of her mothers, and she refused to leave me on my own. So at least I had one friend to cry with me when the words cut through my thick skin to my delicate insecurities.
"You hear about the Islander?"
"The Islander fell from the tree while studying!"
"Islander's are such klutz's, they shouldn't even allow her onto the branches."
"Did you hear Josika's trying to blame the teacher for what happened? I wonder when she'll realise that Islander of hers just doesn't belong here."
I didn't learn like the others. I couldn't sit still for as long as them, concentrate as long as them, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how interesting I found the topic, I just couldn't do it. I would shift, wriggle and sigh, anything to break up the long stretches of sitting and learning. That's why I fell from the tree that first time… and the five after.
There was one other like me though. A boy, called Hosiah, who would shift, wriggle and sigh just like me. Though he never fell from a tree. He found all the classes boring and would instead daydream about exploring the vastness of the forest. Fantasizing about journeying to the unexplored mountains in the west, or finding a trail through the deadly swamps of the east, would distract him from the going ons of the rest of the class.
We met in Discipline. We had both gotten in trouble for our lack of attention and were made to help the Master pack away her things after the rest of the children were dismissed for lunch. This became a regular occurrence and a friendship grew. I introduced Mikia to my new friend and soon, her and Hosiah became the only reasons I left my Shelter Tree.
"I heard Islander's can't walk, all they do is swim and swim and swim, all day!"
"Islander's can't understand the calls of the birds, my Mama told me."
"Did you know, that Islander's need the sun all the time to be warm?"
It was at the Tree of Learning that I learnt about the other Islanders. They were the natives of the ocean. Scattered across the mind-bending expanse of water, they lived on sandy, sun-warmed islands. I was told they could swim even better than me, though the Master quickly added snidely, that they were even worse at climbing than I was.
After that I would spend hours dreaming of what it would be like to live with the other Islanders. People who looked like me, acted like me, people who knew me. I roped Mikia and Hosiah to come with me to the edge of the Forest, so that I could see what my life could have been like. The glittering blue water that stretched out unbroken towards the horizon that greeted me there was astounding.
But the hot, constant sunlight on my skin and strong winds rushing up the cliff edge to ruffle our clothes where we sat, leaning out across the edge tree's branches, was unusual and daunting. We didn't stay there long.
"Did you see the Islander boat?"
"An Islander boat just went past the horizon!"
"Come on! Come on! We have to get to the edge of the Forest or we'll miss the Islander boat!"
I hadn't known about the coming meeting between the native Leaders and the Islander Leaders.Hosiah and mine's families weren't close enough to the counsel to get that type of news. Mikia's Mama was though, however she hadn't told her daughter anything in case Mikia told us, so even she was out of the loop.
When Josika had found out, she had marched up to the Centre Tree and demanded the counsel tell her why the meeting was being held. She was assured it was nothing to do with me, though they would be telling them of me and offering me the chance to return to me rightful people. Josika was crying when she told me that.
"What do you mean a Child of the Ocean has been kept here?"
"How did you come across one of ours?"
"Why did you not immediately return her?"
"This could cause a war if you don't start explaining. Now!"
Hosiah and I had sat, crouched on a branch near an opening in the trunk, outside the Hall of the Centre Tree. Mikia had been allowed inside with her Mama and Dada. There had been ten Islanders. All tall, brown-skinned, blue eyed and light haired. They all looked like me. They were angry they hadn't heard of me. That I hadn't been given back straight away. They were arguing with the counsel. Hosiah gripped my hand in comfort as we watched the spectacle in amazement.
Finally Josika had stood up, and in a clear, loud voice announced that I was her daughter and she was my Mama. She had raised me, cared for me and loved me, and that I had true friends who loved and protected me as well. But none of this was as relevant as the fact that I had chosen to stay, and she refused to hear a word different.
With that, she had turned and strode out of the Hall, with Thom by her side. Everyone had just watched her; eyes wide and mouths slack in shock. From where we sat, Hosiah and I could see Mikia struggling to swallow her laughter under her Mama's angry glare. Laughing in relief-filled delight, I had waved goodbye to a stunned Hosiah and rushed off to my favourite place in the Village - the log-swing that hung outside my bed-hollows opening.
"Keep your eyes shut, Nanika."
"I am Mama, but why?"
"Dada's built a surprise for you."
"Surprise, darling, I made it just for you."
"A swing! A swing! Just like Mikia's!"
"It's higher than Mikia's, so high no one can touch you. This is your spot. Just for you."
"Just for me…"
A breeze whistled through the treetops, tugging my hair out of the tie that kept it off my face. The swing swung, pushed by the strong wind. My hand tightened around the knotted vine reflexively. I breathed deeply, relaxing as the familiar sweet smells of flower and Charmer Moss from the nearby trees surrounded me. Below me, the Divider River cut its way through the forest floor, racing outwards toward the open beauty of the ocean. From where I sat, I could see the Islander's boat pushing out into the middle of the river towards the stronger currents. The meeting was over; they were leaving, probably for another twenty years.
I felt no regret as they sailed off, quickly becoming smaller and smaller as they drifted down river. I had chosen to stay the minute I had been given the choice. I had hurriedly told Josika, my Mama, to inform them of my final decision, not wanting to meet them in case it gave me doubts. I might not be a Child of the Forest, but neither was I truly a Child of the Ocean.
But either way, I had made my home in the Forest. I had friends and a family within the branches and hollows of the large village trees. I even had a job. I had been asked to teach the young children how to swim, so that they could be left unsupervised to play along the forest floor.
Soon the boat was lost to the branches, vines and large-petalled flowers that hung low over the rivers surface further down river. I quickly and smoothly climbed up and through my bed-hollows opening. Finding my two friends waiting on my bed for me, I knew I had made the right choice.
"Mama! Mama! The kids at school said my eyes are ug-ugly."
"Did they really?"
"Uh-uh huh! They said I was we-weird and si-silly like my Mama… because she had ugly eyes like mine!"
"Do you think my eyes are ugly?"
"Well, I don't think yours are either. Actually, I think yours are the most beautiful eyes in the world."
"That's what Aunty Mikia said when I told her. And cousin Nika punched the boy who was teasing me."
"Really? And what did you do?"
"I said that even if I am ugly and silly at least I'm not a 'fraidy cat of water like him!"
"I'm very proud of you, Josia. And no matter what they say, just remember, I love you, my little Islander."
This is, of course, for a challenge… so, comments and likes are much appreciated. Also, if you pick up on any grammar errors, or find anything confusing and unexplained, please tell me so I can fix it! Thank-you. =D