This story was published by Quantum Muse in 2004
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By Brent Knowles
“There it is!” Jón shouted, his voice booming in the salmon ship’s small cabin as the trawler bounced across the storm stirred Atlantic, leaping from wave to wave. Marci clutched a railing and watched the island ahead grow bigger through the water-splashed window. Steve stood at the bow of the ship, unprotected from the storm and hanging on for dear life as he pointed excitedly. His water-plastered gray beard, his stooped frame, and the weathered lines of his face, made his age apparent. Steve had always seemed old to her, but now it was something more, almost elderly. She half-hoped he would slip, fall into the sea, be out of her life forever.
Marci watched the much younger Jón struggle with the ship’s controls, as he continued, “I told you I found an island. And look. There! The Tree!”
The Tree dominated the recently surfaced island, a tower of stone eaten wood, rising out of the almost barren island like a titan’s outstretched hand, fingers splayed as if grasping for the sun. It glowed pinkish-orange for a stream of sunlight tore through the heavy storm clouds, the light dancing across the traces of quart embedded in the wood. The wind raced swift moving clouds across the sky and whenever one of these blocked the sun, the color faded momentarily, returning swiftly when the clouds continued on. It was breathtaking.
“How could it survive so long… underwater?”
“You are asking me, the fisherman?” Jón said, “That is for you and the old man to figure out. I do not get paid to use this.” Jón tapped his skull as he shook his head, his long braid of blond hair flapping against his back. He grinned and she grinned back, his excitement as contagious as a preschooler’s cold.
Steve called something to them, pointed.
She wondered aloud, “Are those walls?”
The fluctuating light made it hard to judge for certain what the lumps of stone near the Tree were. But they definitely appeared to form a lazy circle, possibly a settlement of some kind.
“Ah-hah! Jón has done well, I think! Professor-girl Where is your camera? Take some pictures. You shall never see the likes of this again. You need something, to show your boy.”
Marci stared down at her camera; she had forgotten she was even holding the damn thing. What a day! Just hours earlier the handsome Icelander had dropped Steve, Marci and the undergraduates off on the famed Surtsey — a small island formed only forty years ago in the mid-Atlantic –, only to speed swiftly back and tell them that he had just witnessed another island surface. Steve, the senior researcher, had had to go and despite her misgivings in accompanying him, Marci would never have forgiven herself if she had missed out on this.
“Jón,” Marci said as she began to put to film what her eyes were hoarding, “this is simply amazing. Adam is going to love these.”
* * *
It only took a couple days without sleep or a good meal to downgrade Marci’s initial euphoria. Her fingers were numb from the biting wind and she was certain that without Jón’s spare toque she would have lost her ears by now. Even with her cardigan, weatherproof coat and solid boots she felt drenched from head to toe and other places too. She glanced at her watch. Out on this sea shifted island she had difficulty judging time. Another day, no more, and the others would arrive — a properly prepared, team from Reykjavik, and shortly thereafter Americans and a team of Germans. She chewed at her chapped lips as she knelt among the mass grave, numerous skeletons half-encased in hardened soil.
The rain continued to pound away at her.
She photographed a skeleton pressed against the wall of the sea-worn fort. The walls were eroded, worn down like an old man’s teeth, but they had once formed a circular enclosure. There had probably never been a roof, but doubtlessly whoever had lived here had erected lean-tos in the courtyard.
She could not help but remember a story told to her in an undergrad history class, a legend that Saint Brendan once sailed past an Atlantic island in the midst of sinking. Were these the people he had found and abandoned to their fate? Might the man lying here, with his hands curled about a stone rod, be the same man who had flung a flaming rock at the wandering monk’s boat? Like stepping into an old myth, Marci felt drawn to these people, her life attached to theirs as her fingers pored over their history. This was not a typical European find, a dab of history uncovered among the modern. This island probably had not changed much from when its inhabitants had lived on it. Certainly all manner of dead sea-life covered its surface, but already the various growths were being swept back into the ocean as wind and rain worked together to clean the island.
She took a photo of a mother holding her young daughter tightly, the child’s head pressed against her mother’s breast, as if the mother did not want the child to watch the impending devastation. The island shifted and Marci bit her lip to stop from crying out. She put her hand out on the wet stone and steadied herself until the rumbling ceased.
When it did, Marci rubbed the exhaustion from her eyes and saw a young woman. One moment Marci knelt alone, the next a female figure stood in front of her. They stared at each other and Marci knew it was just exhaustion setting in, but it felt real, more than real even. The woman looked ready to speak, as if-
The woman vanished.
Marci squeaked as someone touched her shoulder. She looked up and frowned. Steve smiled down at her, wearing one of Jón’s tunics, a size too small; it clung to him unfavorably and emphasized his poor posture and his belly. Rain sloshed around the brim of his hat and splashed her as he leaned towards her. His eyes shone with excitement, though she noticed a tremble in his hand as he tugged at his soaked beard.
“What do you want?” Marci asked, looking for any signs of her visitor.
“Just letting you know,” Steve said, “that grubs on. Jón is firing up his special again. You want to guess what it is?”
She glared at him, hoping to scare him enough that he would cease this relentless lets-pretend-to-be-nice bullshit. “Fish, its always fish.”
“Sourpuss. You didn’t have to come.”
“I w-wasn’t about to lose this opportunity just because *you* were coming too. That’s not fair. I think I’ve lost out on more than enough because of you.”
“It was your decision. There were others that could have been made.”
“You son of a-“
“Try being a bit more professional, eh? It’s only a couple more days.”
* * *
She passed by the Tree on her way to the camp and she fulfilled a ritual that all three of them felt obligated to perform several times a day. She ran her hand along the Tree’s stone skin, feeling the wooden texture of the once mighty ash, hardened, dead. She took her time returning to camp.
Jón smiled up at her, as he finger-ate his fish out of the cast iron fry pan. An old jacket hung on him, emphasizing the scarecrow-ness of his figure. He was taller than Steve, who had been the tallest man Marci had ever met, and where Steve was dark skinned and wrinkled, Jón was a shockingly smooth white, the color of the snow and ice of his homeland.
“Your eyes fly far, Marci. Regrets?” He asked. It was the type of question that from Jón seemed perfectly acceptable.
She smiled and answered, “Not really. Just tired. Surtsey was exciting enough, but-. Well, this is simply wild.”
“Then I did not make a mistake.” He toyed with the silver hammer of Thor that dangled from a thick chain about his neck.
“No mistake,” Steve said, rubbing at his beard, “You did the right thing by picking us back up. Just wish there were a way to hold the rest of the vultures off until we got a chance to really check this place out.”
Marci said, “It’s not like we can just hide this island away from the rest of the world until we grow bored with it.”
“But it can be hidden,” Jón said, “and for hundreds of years it was, far below the Atlantic, just waiting for me to pass by before revealing itself. It could be hidden again.”
“That’s not the kind of hiding I think we need to encourage. The sea burped this thing up once already, no reason it wouldn’t swallow it back again.”
“The ocean takes only what it needs old man,” Jón replied, not noticing (or not caring) when Steve flinched, “and I do not think it needs my island back… yet.”
“Your island?” Marci asked as she devoured the flavorless fish. Jón might be good looking but he was never going to win any hearts with his cooking.
“Well, I am sure you brains will name it something more appropriate, but I figure since I found it, its mine. Finders keepers, is that not what you say?”
Steve scowled. “Don’t worry, Jón buddy, we’ll come up with a nice, proper name for it.”
“Brendan’s Island sounds good,” Marci said, quickly relating her earlier musings to the other two.
Steve tugged at his beard. “That’s just a story Marci, a fable. There’s no scientific basis for it.”
Jón grinned and clapped his hands together energetically and proclaimed, “Naming it after a man who abandoned the entire settlement to certain death. A very fitting, tragic name. The gods would approve, I think, of naming this beautiful island so.”
“Beautiful? I can imagine the tourist brochure. Enjoy our gray rock and our black rock. We even have a little bit of white rock. Yeah, people will flock to this place.” Marci glared at the old man, hating how eager he was to wield his sarcastic whit against the young fisherman.
“You mock me old man, but I remember you on the boat. Your eyes still shine — yours too Marci — whenever you look up at the Tree. You may not taste the magic of this place like I do, but you touch it, or it touches you. A little.” He paused and took the battered iron kettle out of the fire and poured each a mug of tea.
“Magic?” Marci asked as she took the tea, sipping and wincing from the heat.
“They named Surtsey after Sutur, my god of fire. I wonder which god had his hand in this place?” He paused, licked his lips, continued, “There are magic places in the world. Places where the unreal touches the real. These places have power. This island is alive with that magic. Sometimes, when I close my eyes a little, I see them.”
Steve rolled his eyes.
Marci glared at him and asked Jón, “See whom?”
“The island folk who died here. Their spirits are bound to this island,” his voice lowered, “you may not have seen them yet, but you might. And if they talk, you must not listen to them. Ghosts deceive.”
“Sure thing Jón. Ghost talks, don’t listen. Got it.”
“You will not be the one to see them old man,” Jón said as he stood up stiffly, “I think I need some rest, tomorrow will be as busy as today.” He walked briskly to the blue tent and went inside.
“What a freak,” Steve whispered.
“He is perfectly nice.”
“If you say so. There’s just something about him. Your tent is closer to his, haven’t you heard him mumble in his sleep? And other times, while hiking, his eyes kind of glaze over — like a zombie or something. Don’t you notice how often he stares at that Tree?”
“We all stare at the Tree, Steve. It is sort of a attention grabber.”
“Maybe. But he talks too much about this island. My island,” Steve said, doing a poor job of mimicking Jón’s voice. “Anyways, maybe I am just being paranoid, but watch out for him.”
“Full of advice nowadays, eh?”
He tugged at his beard again and Marci had to stop herself from slapping his hand away, sometimes he was as bad as Adam, who was always playing with himself. “I don’t regret my decision.”
* * *
Marci blinked, woke, and found herself sitting across from a smoldering campfire as the horizon burned with the light from the rising sun. Her bones creaked as she flexed her fingers and straightened her back.
“You miss your boy?”
Marci went from half-sleep to full-wake in a moment as she saw Jón sitting on an overturned crate across from her, his long coat shining beneath the sun’s opening wink, his braided hair glowing. She wondered how long he had been watching her sleep.
“He is with a friend,” she explained, “so I know he is safe, but I always worry about him.”
“He is not with his father?”
“No, Adam’s father is not a part of his life.” Marci said.
“Sorry,” Jón said, his face reddening, “I do not mean to pry. Anyhow, the old man sleeps late. When he wakes tell him I am up at the north end. He wants to finish our surveys quickly; I trust he will join me later. We have big plans today!” He grinned broadly and walked away.
Marci wondered what their big plans might be.
* * *
Like boys, the two men scrambled up the Tree. Every once in a while Marci glanced up from her measuring and recording to watch them and think on how idiotic the two of them were. She had tried warning them, but neither had listened to her. Old or young, it seemed the boy never went out of the man.
She yawned. Raising Adam had seemed the most tiring thing she had ever done (she had combined it with pursuing her masters degree), but this excursion was wearing her out. The wind bit constantly and Steve’s presence — bad enough at Surtsey with an entire group of undergrads to buffer her from him — seemed extreme torture.
The shadows lengthened and she leaned against the cold, stone wall, listening to the waves crash against the island. How many years before nature’s unrelenting abuse would recover this reborn rock? She closed her eyes and let the sun warm her into a cozy nap as the earth rumbled, a belch, a spit, a hammering of stone on the anvil of creation. And with the rumble came the woman again.
She was thirteen, maybe fourteen years old, wearing a simple one-piece cut of cloth that served as a dress. She held a ragged bone doll in her hand; she let it hang limply at her side. She had big blue eyes and long, tangled blond hair.
“Angry gods, not father’s fault,” she said, her lips moving imperceptibly. “Drowned like pups, he says.” She waved her hands, a gesture of futility.
“Who are you?”
“Father’s favorite,” she said, “But father cannot fight the gods. He cannot save me, nor mama, my sisters or my babe, can he?
“They promised me to him. They promised me we would dance in the old country, after the others saved us. But no one came. Not even when the bones told us they would.” Suddenly the girl’s eyes filled with fear. “Oh no. He is here. He has followed me through, or maybe, I followed him. I cannot say. Not for certain.”
“Who followed you through? Through what?”
The girl ignored the questions and extended her arms as she stared at herself as if discovering her body for the first time.
“I am already dead, I should not be so frightened. Father says I am silly, father is right.”
Before Marci could answer someone shook her awake.
“I lost Jón!” Steve loomed over her, his face puffed with exertion and his beard tangled and in disarray. The girl faded away. Marci gestured for Steve to explain.
Steve said, sounding old, worn out, “He fell Marci. He fell.”
As if still dreaming she followed Steve to the base of the Tree. “We were on our way down and he was ahead of me, not even very far from the ground,” Steve said, “but then he just let go and fell. I screamed at you but you didn’t hear me.”
“He fell. Where?” Marci asked. The Tree itself was riddled with cracks ranging from hair-width to man-sized. Steve just stared stupidly at the Tree as the waves crashed on the other side of it, pounded the shoreline.
“Steve — did he fall into the water?”
“I think he fell into the Tree.”
* * *
Hours later the two of them sat on the boat even though its rocking sickened Marci’s stomach.
“Can’t you just drive it from here?”
“They don’t call it driving, I think. And no, I haven’t a clue on how to do it. Besides Jón has the key. They… the others said they would be here in the morning.” He gestured to the radio.
“This is so fucked up,” Marci said, tangling her hair with her fingers. “Its like one strange, screwed up haze. Have you… you felt anything weird. Seen anything?”
“Like what,” Steve asked, his voice nearly hysterical, his normal, dignified composure gone, the stress almost buckling him as he continued, “Like seeing our guide drop off the fucking Tree. Weird like that?”
She gave him one of her nastier looks. “No, just weird stuff.” He shook his head and she did not tell him about the dream girl — he had had enough for one day.
“You still hate me?”
“I can tell.”
“Now is not the time,” Marci said, biting her lip roughly, trying to keep tears from welling in her eyes. Steve’s own eyes mirrored her horror, her fear.
“Come here honey,” Steve said. Marci trembled, stared up at him, his wool sweater, his scruffy beard. She wanted to, so badly, be held by him.
“Its not that easy dad,” she said, surprising herself for she had not called him that in years, since he stopped being a father to her. “You told me to have an abortion. When I didn’t, you kicked me out of the house. You don’t have the right. Not now.”
“Calm down,” Steve said, “it’s all a mess.”
“It’s always a mess with you,” Marci said, “Everything we went through. And now. Now — you can’t just change things. Not like this. “
“Is Adam well?”
“Do you even care?”
“But why dad, why? Look, I’m going back to shore.”
“You should be with family.”
Marci laughed, and almost sneezed up a sob. “That’s my line dad. But you never gave us the chance.” She climbed overboard and waded back to shore. Ahead of her, on the hill, the Tree glowed subtly and she began to walk closer to it.
“Dance me round, oh, dance me round.”
A quiet whisper on the wind, drifting from the ruined walls. Marci wanted very much to run back to the boat but instead her feet followed the voice. Trembling she peered through the entryway, her hand resting on the stone wall, as if in search of assurance that there was still such a thing as reality.
The girl-woman spun herself about slowly. Marci blinked and the ghost was standing before her, their noses almost touching.
“You are beautiful,” the girl said, “though your hair is wrong, black like Odin’s ravens, it is.”
“Why do you dance?”
“I just dance, is all. Father likes it. I pretend I am surrounded by a forest full. I have never seen a real forest. My world began and ended, here. I had me a pretty babe, a girl of my own and his. She died in my arms when I died. I think she would have been a beauty, like you, maybe. If not for the hair.”
Marci could not say anything as she leaned against the wall, allowing it to support her. Though frightened she felt such sadness for this woman that she almost wrapped her arms around her.
The girl reached out abruptly and grabbed Marci by the arm, her grasp cold and lifeless but firm. Real. “Ssshhh. He walks now, nearby. Drowned he is, but breathing still.”
Marci stood there, tears wetting her face, the wind chilling them against her cheek. She could not stop her trembling. The ghost stared at her the entire time, their eyes locked to each other, neither able to look away. She is as frightened as me, Marci realized.
“At first I trembled,” the ghost said, finally breaking the silence, “that he came back for me. But it is not me that he wants anymore. Flesh and bones he seeks to cradle, not me, a spirit doomed to dance, who holds no pleasure for a man. Raven’s daughter, you are so very pretty.” The girl touched Marci’s cheek, “And soft. My man does like softness.”
“I d-don’t understand.”
“A new wife. Flesh is his again and he seeks a woman, as all men are want to do.”
“Stay away from the… no… no… no!” The girl shrieked and disappeared abruptly. Marci stumbled away, turned and ran as fast she could. She meant to rush back to the boat if it meant shedding the fear that now clung to her. She got to the shoreline before she realized the boat was gone.
“I called to him,” a familiar voice said from behind her, “and he did come to me. And with him came a woman. And that woman, with raven’s hair and a doe’s soul did walk his island where no woman had walked in lifetimes.”
“Jón?” she whispered and turned, too slow to evade the cudgel that smashed against the side of her head.
* * *
Thin rope, the kind she had seen Jón using to bind the supplies when they had loaded his boat in Reykjavik, now bound her wrists. Her head throbbed. She opened her eyes slowly. She remembered waking once last night, that she had been dragged over the island and up into something.
The Tree. The wind howled and clutched at her — she was nested, like a baby bird in the arms of the great Tree, near the top and the island lay far below her. She pushed her back against the trunk for the limb was only half a meter wide and the fall would be deadly. Someone loomed over her but the sun was behind his head and she saw nothing but a blur as he leaned forward and pulled her up by the wrists, her feet scrambling to keep her from falling over.
“You wake,” the voice hissed. It was Jón, but not entirely so. There was strength in his grip, in his voice, and that strength must have given him the determination to drag her all the way up here. “I have a world ending to show you.” He thrust her forward, dangerously close to the edge of the branch. The island shifted under her weight.
A low volcano rose like a bloody wound across the ocean.
“My god,” she whispered.
“Never and almost,” Jón said.
“Where is Steve?”
“A man who would abandon his child is not a man.”
“You didn’t hurt him Jón, did you? He was a good man, just old-fashioned, a man from another time. I embarrassed him when I h-had Adam, out of wedlock. Old-fashioned, like I said. But still a good man, a good father.”
Jón seemed flustered, a moment. “He was your father?” Was? Marci gulped, said, “Yes, of course.”
A wicked smile ripped his mouth apart. He laughed. “I thought-” he was about to say more but his eyes glazed over and his voice came out darker, smokier, “The island whispers, if you are quiet, you can hear it.”
“Is my father-“
“Silence!” Loud, commanding, a shout, but not a scream. She flinched.
“The island it called to me, it has for years. That is why I boat here, though the fish stopped biting long ago. And then I found it! And the voices whispered to me, they told me what needed doing, they showed me the heart of the Tree of Life. All the old Beliefs, are real, my faith, my reward.”
Marci looked behind her, a dark tunnel dropped through the core of the Tree, but she could not judge its depth nor its steepness. If she could leap to her feet she might be able to make it.
He touched her face. “She was soft and I lay with her often. But she gave me a daughter and the Gods were angered! They destroyed us! But you… Marci with the raven’s hair, you will bear a son for me!”
She stared up at him, this madman, this murderer, so obviously demented and completely in control of her. She clenched her fists, her nails digging into the soft flesh of her palms. She had to stay in control, somehow, be a survivor, not let this be it, the end. What was he after? What could she give, that she might escape?
“Jón, we really need to get off the island. Where is the boat-“
“I burned all the boats, when we arrived. No one knew, but maybe the father, her father. He maybe knew, him with his sneaky eyes. But I took his daughter and he kept his counsel to himself. Rotten fathers die, I say.”
Snuggling with Adam in their small apartment during the cold of winter, she had dreamed often of showing up at her parent’s house — the four of them together again miraculously — a survivor returned after having passed her father’s test. Her father would hoist Adam and say something encouraging to him and they would all be together. Some girls spent their idle time dreaming of weddings but she had just wanted a family reunion.
Her last words to him, as catty and harsh as they had been since her pregnancy. Why couldn’t she have said one nice thing, why couldn’t he have?
“And fire and ash will rain from the sky and fill the earth with trembling,” Jón said. Off the coast of the island, towards the north, the glowing cigarette tip of the volcano growing in the waters around the island put fear in Marci. It was expanding and slowly rising higher from the ocean. Regardless, the immediate fear overwhelmed that future terror.
Jón stood still, his blond hair plastered flat and floating down his face, smiling oddly. His blue eyes danced with the excitement he felt, as if that volcano pulsating in the distance, was an artery long removed from his body but still beating to the rhythm of his heart.
“Jón… we can’t stay here.”
The cloudiness cleared in his eyes. “JÓN! JÓN! JÓN! Do you not understand what occurs here? I am not Jón I am so much more than he now. I am Lifthrasir, first man after Ragnarök. You are to be my wife, my mate, my Lif. We are something better. We are survivors. You understand? Here, this Tree, this is Yggdrasil!”
“The World Tree?” Marci asked. “Are you fucking crazy? This isn’t really happening. We don’t have to die here.” Clouds covered the sky, darkened the night, made him a white, ghostly thing.
The whole island shook, tilting the Tree, as the dead roots sank into the soft sphagnum. Jón tumbled and almost spilled over the edge of the tree branches and Marci rolled down the sharp incline towards him. In the flash of lightning that followed, she saw his face as he clung to the limb and it was not his own, for it seemed that of a shaggy, bearded maniac, eyes gleaming with rage.
Crack. So similar to the sound of clothing torn but much louder, a tear formed where Marci lay astride the branches as the Tree sank deeper into the island and began to crumble.
A fog-horn sounded across the night and a gleaming light glowed near where the boat had been set. The others already? Feeling a stirring of hope, needing to see her boy again, to remind herself of her father, she lashed out and kicked Jón in the face. His fingers uncurled partially, the only things holding him to the ever-slipping Tree.
The volcano burned bright like a torch illuminating her impending demise. Below the tilting tree, the ground had become soft, breaking apart and sinking into the ocean. Jón scrambled up suddenly, his grip tight as he used her like a rope. Somehow she managed to hold onto the branch and kicked out at him, trying to knock him from her. His hands were all over her and she could not do anything to stop him. Letting go of the Tree would drop them both onto the unstable ground, several meters below.
“I can have you right here,” he said, his reeking breath on the back of her neck. “I can be inside of you while we celebrate the demise of the world. There is no fear.”
Marci was afraid. With every second, the Tree leaned further and further towards its own destruction and Jón’s fingers were insistent, groping, probing. If she dropped now, she might have time, might be able to get sure footing, somehow land safely. As the Tree titled further, the distance to the ground lessened. She had to.
The moments of falling were an eternity unto themselves as she felt the hard stone branch disappear beneath her, replaced by a harsh mat of air, that reeked of sulfur. Jón yelled, still clutching her as they fell. Her jaw hit something solid and she bit her lip, the warm blood flowed from the corners of her mouth. She cried aloud. She looked up and saw that the something hard she had hit had been Jón. He looked at her, eyes full of pain and anger. Having hit first, he had been a pillow for her, keeping her relatively free of injury although her leg hurt like hellfire. Jón, the pillow, had taken the worst of the fall, and he groaned in agony as Marci crawled away.
The Tree collapsed. A shower of shards and debris washed over her, scratching and tearing at her flesh. A large block of treestone fell free, and Marci watched it fly towards her, and she could not move. The rock, the size of a table, landed on Jón’s lower body and crushed his legs, his scream an unearthly howl. Marci turned to him, felt the ground beneath her sink, and the salt-water burn her wounds as it pushed its way up through the cracks in the island. Jón reached out a hand for her, but she scrambled away.
“Help me Marci. Do not let me die like this. Goddamn it, help me. We are the future!” The rest he swore in Icelandic. The water rose past his face and he could not move. Marci rose, the burn in her leg an awesome pain, as she started to hobble away towards the light that she prayed was the boat.
* * *
From the safety of the research vessel, an oilskin cape draped over her shoulders, a warm mug of coffee clenched in her bloodied hands, she watched the island sink. Someone told her that her father would turn up, that Jón must have simply cut the rope, let him drift away but she was not so sure. The island sucked at everything, drank the ocean as if to quench the burning of the volcano. Drifting into and out of sleep she felt a hand squeeze her shoulder and woke to see a girl smiling sadly down at her.
“He came back,” she said, her eyes on the ocean where the island lay. “But father will not let him stay. Father says he must go, elsewhere. I am happy. Another strange man is here now, a sad-faced one, always tugging at his beard.”
Marci looked up.
“He says, he is sorry, he hopes the boy grows well, as well as his mother did.”
The ghost kissed her forehead and faded with the harsh Atlantic wind, leaving Marci alone, cradling her knees with her arms, tears dripping down her wind-stung cheeks.
© Brent Knowles, 2004