On the idyllic island of Lute, every seventh summer, seven people die. No more, no less.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Lute by Jennifer Thorne, out from Nightfire on October 4th.
Lute and its inhabitants are blessed, year after year, with good weather, good health, and good fortune. They live a happy, superior life, untouched by the war that rages all around them. So it’s only fair that every seven years, on the day of the tithe, the island’s gift is honored.
Nina Treadway is new to The Day. A Florida girl by birth, she became a Lady through her marriage to Lord Treadway, whose family has long protected the island. Nina’s heard about The Day, of course. Heard about the horrific tragedies, the lives lost, but she doesn’t believe in it. It’s all superstitious nonsense. Stories told to keep newcomers at bay and youngsters in line.
Then The Day begins. And it’s a day of nightmares, of grief, of reckoning. But it is also a day of community. Of survival and strength. Of love, at its most pure and untamed. When The Day ends, Nina—and Lute—will never be the same.
THREE DAYS BEFORE
The glare from the sea is pure white, too blinding to see any distance from the back door, even with my hand stretched above my eyes. All I can do is scream loudly enough to reach across the lawn.
Everybody on the island can probably hear me. How undignified. How American.
Emma starts hollering in imitation. “Chaaaaarlieeee!”
Oh, that voice of hers—lovely, adorable, way too much for me right now. The pitch is so high, my brain feels like it’ll burst.
I crouch, squinting, and idly tickle her to get her to stop, but she keeps trying to screech again between fits of giggles. I draw her in, kiss one sticky cheek, and glance up past her tangled curls, worry needling me.
A drifting cloud lessens the glare, but I still don’t see Charlie. He’d have come at the sound of his name if he were safe and within earshot. He does like to wander but never far, and he always comes back. He stays in orbit.
Sally is already pulling the enormous, brocaded living room drapes shut when I come through, as if we were heading out for six months instead of a few days’ break. Emma runs into the living room, and Sally startles, hands in the air, bracing for the three-foot-tall tackle.
I picture our housekeeper as a linebacker and stifle a smirk. She’d probably be good at it.
“John Ashford’s around the side, milady,” Sally says, ignoring Emma’s attempts to scale her leg. “He thought you might like the use of his pickup truck to get down to the harbor.”
She always says pickup truck like it’s a foreign delicacy.
I smile. “Awesome, that’ll be helpful.”
I didn’t flinch when I heard milady this time. Sally hardly says it anymore. It slips out when she’s busy. It has the ring of a joke, like calling Charlie “Esquire” or Emma “Dr. Treadway” when she’s playing checkup with her dolls.
How am I a milady? How is anyone in this day and age?
“Have you seen Charlie?” I ask.
Sally frowns, thinking. “Isn’t he at the landing with Lord Treadway?”
“You think so?”
“I’m sure I saw them go off together.” She wipes her hands on her trousers. “Do you want me to have a look around?”
“No, no. It’s fine, you’re busy enough as it is.” I smile another goodbye, but my heart’s still pounding like there’s something wrong.
It’s fine, he’s fine, he’s with his dad, calm the hell down, Nina.
Outside, John Ashford’s green pickup is idling on the drive, the driver himself nowhere to be seen.
“John Ashford,” not just “John.” Sally uses his full name because on an island with a population of less than two hundred, there are somehow seven Johns to differentiate between. Five of them have been off fighting for the past four years, but John Ashford remains John Ashford, and ancient John Jones is still John Jones. You’d think new parents would get it together among themselves to vary the names they give their babies, but that’s not the way of things here, and if I’ve learned anything in the past seven years on Lute, it’s that “the way of things” likes to stay put. Even in wartime. Everywhere around us, life’s been upended, but here, it’s only seemed to shift.
I wonder if things are still the same in Florida. Strip malls extending their reach like concrete kudzu, theme parks whirling, playgrounds flash-drying in the summer sun. I feel a little pain behind one eye at the thought of my childhood home, flat and glaring, and then blink it away as I reach for my daughter.
I hold Emma back from the growl of the running engine, and then John Ashford’s head pops up past the hood.
“Seen this one before?” He’s got his hand out low, flat, careful. He turns to wink at Emma. “This is a proper minibeast. Fancy saying hello?”
She’s flying past me before I can think to grab her. At the sight of whatever John’s holding, she goes very still, a near-silent oh falling from her mouth. My placid sorry, I’ll handle her smile becomes a real one when I lean over John’s hand too and see a glossy green beetle with a red face.
“Not invasive?” I ask quietly.
“Nah, I should think not. Looks like a bloody-nosed beetle to me, as Lute as they come.” He grins, and his face explodes with creases. “I’m not using profanity in front of your daughter, Lady Treadway, that’s honestly what they’re called. I’ll snap a picture and find out for sure. That’s what they’re paying me for, after all.”
“Is that what they’re paying you for?” I grin. “Not the paperwork and repairs and cataloging and protecting endangered birds and—?”
“Oh, you stop. There are far worse jobs.” The light in his eyes dims a little.
This is the way we reference the war, in asides, quiet gratitude, and humility, sharing postcards and emails we’ve gotten from those off fighting, well-tended vegetable gardens, and meticulous ration books. Never directly. But maybe that’s just how people behave around me because of my American accent, the voice of the enemy. Don’t mention the war.
Or maybe it’s more that we can’t face the full reality of it, the images we get in the news—all those occupied countries, cities gone dark in military curfew or reduced to rubble, bloated bodies washing up on the shores of practically every continent, refugee camps growing and burning down and growing again, rows upon rows of draped soldiers ready for sorting and sending home.
While here on Lute, everything is perfectly fine.
Partly to reassure myself, I pat John Ashford on one broad shoulder on my way to scoop Emma up. Her eye has turned to track some seabird or other down the drive—John’d know the taxonomy—and if I don’t grab her now, she’ll be chasing it, and I’ll be chasing her the whole way to the docks.
“I’ve got your bags loaded if you ladies care to ride along.” John motions to the back of the truck. I hadn’t even noticed our luggage lined up inside.
“Oh, gosh.” My stomach drops the way it always does when someone goes out of their way to be nice. “Thank you. You really didn’t need to—”
“It is my pleasure. What else is she good for?” He slaps the roof of his pickup with obvious affection. There’s a grand total of two motorized vehicles on our easily walkable Lute Island, and given that the other is a motorbike, this is the only one with a usable flatbed. He takes pride in showing it off, even if the name emblazoned on the side is National Trust, not John Ashford, Warden at Large.
A muffled huh-woof resounds from the house a second before our half-feral Labrador comes barreling outside, and I curse myself for forgetting to shut the door. Usually Max would be off at a wild tear, halfway across the island by the time I can so much as shout his name—not that he listens to it—but today, the truck has his attention. When he tries to jump in with the luggage, frothing happily, I seize the opportunity, pulling him gently by the collar back inside where Sally waits with a headshake.
“Daft creature,” she says. “Come on, Max. You’re stuck with me this week, but I’ll give you some treats.”
By the time I’ve got the door shut, Emma has decided to emulate the dog, trying to clamber inside the truck, pulling and falling, shouting, “Up! Up!”
Oh, my sweet fully feral thing. I round the truck and kiss her on the head, smelling strawberry shampoo, and pull her with me as I climb into the passenger seat.
“Milady. M’ junior lady.” John Ashford’s Scottish accent always pops out more when he’s speaking in grandiose terms. Which is often.
He shuts the door for us, ever gallant. Everybody does everything for us on Lute. It’ll never not be disconcerting. We Treadways are like permanent resort guests, and most of the people who help us aren’t even on the Alder House payroll. After nearly seven years, I still struggle to see how we’ve earned all this goodwill.
John Ashford’s truck bumps us out of the tidy lines of wych elms penning in the drive, and I wince again from the afternoon light off the sea. Emma’s hanging too far out the open window, arms outstretched like she’s trying to catch a drift and fly away.
“I hear the pony!” she shouts.
I tug her carefully back into my lap and answer John’s questioning smile with a shrug. “She really wants a horse.”
He chuckles. There aren’t any horses on Lute. Never have been. It’s not the way of things—they get skittish here, apparently—and I’m not going to be the first Lady Treadway to upend tradition just because my preschooler begs me to. She can go out riding with her aunt and cousins when we get to Surrey tomorrow.
We rumble past the school and down to the island’s landing bay. I scan every inch of horizon along the way but can’t spot Charlie or anyone else of his size, probably because all the other children are already on their way off the island.
The coast looks calm today, thank God, so at least our boat won’t be battered by waves all the way across the Bristol Channel like the last time we traveled to the mainland, almost a year ago. They say these waters are safer than ever now, patrolled and well out of the action, which does make sense. It’s not just for our little archipelago’s sake that the warships are placed where they are. An undefended Bristol Channel would allow the enemy deep into the belly of Britain.
I hold Emma tighter. We’ve made it through four years of war without incident. Last week’s cease-fire seems to be holding. We’ll be fine today.
I can’t yet see the dock where our boat is waiting, but I do see the much larger Pride of Lute cutting smoothly through the water, every inch of its deck packed with passengers. It reminds me of photos I’ve seen of trains packed with children evacuating London during the Blitz.
God. No. Stop. If anything, it looks like a spring break party yacht.
They’ve got to be uncomfortable packed in like sardines, but then, they’re in for a quicker ride than we are, twenty minutes tops to get over to Sunnan Island versus hours to the mainland. It’ll be a rustic weekend for everybody, even the ones who’ve snagged the moldering holiday cottages. Tents and bonfires for the rest, but a little discomfort is a small price to pay to indulge Lute Island’s favorite superstition one more time.
I wilt a little watching them go, like a child who hasn’t been invited to the party, but that’s not strictly fair. Just the other day, two of “the mums,” Wendy and Jenny, asked if I was coming with the kids to Sunnan now that the decision had been made to send them away. When I said we were leaving too, for our anniversary, they looked more disappointed than I’d expected.
“If you’re still here, you can wave us off, then,” Wendy said, which only made me feel awkwarder, not knowing that that was a thing.
I wasn’t there this morning as they boarded, after all, but I doubt anybody really noticed. I did debate going, standing on the dock and watching—Sally asked me, carefully, lightly, whether I planned to—but nobody explicitly said it was one of my responsibilities, least of all Hugh, who was completely preoccupied with getting us ready to go. We still weren’t packed until an hour ago, and Charlie was restless and Emma was whiny and then hyper, and in the end, I couldn’t get my head around the why of it. Why should any of them care that Nina Treadway turned up to wave from the shore as they set off on a boat?
It’s not like I’m close with any of the island parents. All our children are slightly different ages, so we never had that playgroup bonding experience, and most of the mums have known each other since they were all kids themselves. Their families are dug deep in the community. It’s hard to break into their local shorthand, to keep up with their social rites. Even so, “You can see us off, then.”
At least I know that seeing the children off to Sunnan isn’t a Lute tradition, since this is the first time they’ve done it. The custom as it stood for millennia was for every single islander to remain on Lute for the Day, irrespective of age or condition. Not this year. There was an official island-wide vote, and this was the decision. Given the war, our diminished numbers, etcetera, etcetera, the children would be excused from taking part, along with a few adult caretakers, including Rev. Warren. He usually stays on island, apparently, which surprised me, given how pagan it all feels.
It’s kind of amazing that they’re keeping this tradition going, even in wartime. In other places, they call tomorrow Midsummer or Alban Hefin. Here, we usually just call it “the solstice,” and have cream teas out in neighbors’ gardens, but not this year. This is the seventh solstice, which makes it “the Day.”
It’s all so sincere in its fraught-ness, but who can fault them for their flights of imagination? It’ll probably be a helpful distraction, frankly, with so many loved ones still off fighting. I just hope the weather stays nice for everybody here while we’re away.
As we continue bumping along the dirt track, John Ashford whistling with gusto from the driver’s seat, I spot Matthew Clare, the lighthouse keeper, walking north along the cliffside, scruffy black hair blowing wild, shoulders held high against the wind, like it’s ten degrees colder for him than for anybody else but he still refuses to wear a jacket or even roll down his sleeves. Like he’s punishing himself.
No motorbike today. He must have been at the docks, helping get the kids off the island. I guess he’s staying, then.
As we pass, Matthew gives a rote wave to the truck, thinking it’s just John. I would wave back if I didn’t suspect he’d find a way to twist the gesture into an insult.
I’d like to say I’ve given up trying to figure out why Matthew Clare has despised me from the day Hugh first brought me to this island, but the annoying, sticking-point thing of it is: Matthew may not be a ball of sunshine, but he is nice and good and helpful and completely beloved here. He’s the one who fixes people’s bird feeders if they fall down in a storm, delivers grocery orders to elderly neighbors, stops to pet cats, and checks on the goats. He’s, by all measures, lovely. And he hates me.
I try not to think about him. It should be easy enough when he’s not around, but every so often, I remember it so vividly, as if I were right back there in that church—the glare he’d fixed me with when Hugh introduced us and I tried to offer condolences, as if I’d spat at him. That glare has evolved as the years have worn on, but it’s never lessened in intensity.
It shouldn’t bother me as much as it does. It’s not like this is a first. I’ve never been like Becca, my neon-shiny sister, a magnet for friends. Mom told me often enough how unlikable I am—a taker, a killer—and I learned to shrink, to be uncontroversial, to go unnoticed. Even here, tucked away, that’s how I operate. And still, I’ve offended him somehow, the man everybody sees as the best of us.
God, it gnaws at me.
The road sinks lower, curving back around toward the shore. I lean past Emma, searching for Hugh and Charlie, but I only see my husband with his back turned, his elegant hands tangled in his gray-flecked hair, then gesticulating, then back in his hair. He’s got his sleeves rolled up, holiday ready. Maybe Charlie’s already on board, flipping switches he’s not supposed to touch.
“Suh-moke,” Emma says.
“Sure enough.” John chuckles, amused by her growing vocabulary, but his eyes aren’t laughing.
I turn to see what they’ve seen, an inauspicious gray cloud issuing from the stern of our cruiser. Now I can see that Hugh’s sleeves are rolled up practically, not jauntily. He’s got oil stains on his linen shirt, which is not like him. He’s been trying to fix something. This has never once gone well in the entire seven years I’ve known him. He begins to pace the dock, pointing wildly at a burly, bearded man who seems to do nothing but shrug. It’s not until John pulls up and cuts the engine that I recognize the guy. He’s a mechanic who’s come out a few times all the way from Devon to see to the island’s small power station.
“I’m not the expert here,” he’s saying, and something in his tone tells me this isn’t the first or even fifth time he’s had to recite that over Hugh’s shouting.
“But see, you are the expert here, because all other experts are gone. You know engines. You know your own boat. Can’t you just take another look at this one?”
Hugh can’t stop moving his hands, into his thick hair, his pockets, picking at each other, balling, releasing. It’s no wonder the mechanic perches there unmoving, like a rabbit in a field deciding which way to run.
“Out. Want get out.” Emma starts crawling through the open window too quickly for me to grab her.
Just in time, two hands appear as if from nowhere and snatch her into the parking lot while she wiggles wildly. “You can’t fly, fairy princess. You haven’t got your wings yet!”
“Oh my God.” I practically keel over with relief as Joanna opens the door for me. “This child is going to kill me.”
Jo grins, adjusting Emma onto her hip. “I have her. You go talk to Hugh.”
I hesitate. “Do you know what’s going on?”
Disappointment sinks into my stomach, but it’s tempered with excitement of a different sort. The truth is, I was disappointed when Hugh suggested we get away this week. I’ve been so curious about the local traditions, so damn patient—waited nearly seven years for the mythical Day to come around—but Hugh seemed desperate to go.
It didn’t take me long to realize why. His father passed away seven years ago, on the Day, by some sick coincidence, and Hugh wasn’t there to say goodbye. He was in the middle of the Atlantic, on the deck of an ocean liner, meeting me for the first time. Falling in love while his father died.
If there are memories for him to weather this year, regrets to process, I’m sure he’d rather do it far from home. I understand, but I wonder if it’d be better for him to mourn here among people he’s known all his life. That seems to me to be the very purpose of this odd ritual, after all, remembering all the Lute islanders who’ve passed, generation after generation, from Neolithic times to now.
“So much for our anniversary trip.” I sigh.
“I hope Hugh thought to get a refundable travel package.” A glint of humor flashes over Jo’s expression, too quick for me to interpret.
Emma reaches out with both hands to frame Jo’s Afro like a halo. My daughter loves me, I know she does, but when she draws stick figure queens and fairies, they have my friend’s dark skin and cloud of curled hair and sometimes even a cup of tea, a nod to the café that Jo runs up-island.
“You’ll fall, darling. Careful.” Jo laughs as she sets Emma gently down.
She’s always helped me with the children implicitly, like this, following Emma as she toddles off to climb the low jetty wall without even a blink back to see whether I need the extra hands. It’s the way of things here, I know, but her help feels different from everybody else stepping in to cater to us as the Lord and Lady of Lute. Jo has always felt like another family member, a new big sister to blot out my real one.
“Maybe they can fix it,” I murmur.
Jo’s glance back is almost pitying.
I draw a breath as I walk to the dock and exhale peace, kindness, support, archetypal wifey-ness. I’m exhausted by the time I climb on deck.
“It’s the same damn fuel we’ve always used,” Hugh is saying. I reach for his shoulder, a calming touch, but he barely seems to notice. The mechanic gives me a respectful nod, wincing as if with a sudden headache as Hugh launches in again. “I don’t understand—”
“The engine’s overheating. That’s all I can say. There ’int no rhyme nor reason for it.” The mechanic swipes his brow. “You know. It might be…”
His face floods. He shakes his head.
“What? It might be what?” Hugh’s eyes go wide. He glances at me as if noticing me here for the first time.
“Might be the island playing tricks? All those folks just left for Sunnan over there, maybe that’s it, that’s all it’ll allow.”
Hugh stalks away with a snarl, and the man stares down at the deck, still shaking his head, muttering something like he’s cursing himself.
I watch the mechanic for a moment, surprised by the dark sincerity in his frown. He isn’t joking. That’s really his theory. The island’s playing tricks. He’s from the mainland, from Devon, but they know about Lute’s superstitions there too. And apparently they believe in them.
Well, no, he does. Not exactly an adequate sample size for a comprehensive study. I wonder what else this guy believes about Lute.
“Hang on.” Hugh whirls around, pointing past the man to his small speedboat, tied up next to the launch. “You’ve got your boat.”
The man goes wan beneath his beard.
“How much?” Hugh starts digging through his pockets, as if he ever carried a wallet. He glances at me wildly. “Nina, how much cash have we brought?”
I sputter. “I, we, I mean, we could write a check?”
“We’ll write a check, that’s what we’ll do. Name your price.”
The man grips his chin. “I’m not so sure. Three more bodies on that boat might be a little tight.”
“Oh, come on.”
“All right.” The man glances at his boat. “We’d need to leave right now. I don’t want to risk…” He swallows. “I’ve got to get back, so it’ll need to be now.”
“Four,” I murmur, mentally correcting the mechanic’s body count. “Four more bodies—wait, where’s Charlie?”
Hugh blinks quickly, annoyed. “Why would I know?”
I seethe through my smile. Because he’s your son? “I thought he came down here with you. He’s not at the house.”
“Well, get him. We’re going.” Hugh extends a hand to the mechanic, beaming at last, a sunburst after a rainstorm. I know that smile well, how effective it can be. “Thank you, mate. I’ll write you a check, whatever you like as soon as we’re underway, and several rounds of drinks at the Eagle once we arrive, how’s that?”
They laugh, buddy-buddy, ha ha ha.
I turn around, teeth clenched, too irate to speak. Hugh and I don’t argue that much. The irony of our situation as a high-profile couple on a speck of an island is that we’re really only free to argue at home, and I never want to argue with him at home. He only ever infuriates me in public.
But panic starts to stir in my chest again, drowning out any irritation. Charlie is six. Charlie is missing. How could we have let this happen?
I’m sweating by the time I climb up the rocks to get to John’s truck, only to watch it driving away already, the bags unloaded in a neat line on the wharf. I sprint to catch him, like I could possibly hope to outpace a truck.
Way ahead, along the dirt road, I see Jo stooping next to Emma, picking a wildflower. Jo turns, rising, and noticing my panicked pace, waves over her head for John to stop. He does, a few yards past her. I keep running in these pointless vacation boat shoes, gathering pebbles and burrs in my arches.
I get to Jo first, too winded for my voice to carry as far as the truck, where John’s got his head stuck out the window.
“Charlie. Nobody knows where.” I huff a breath. “Jesus.”
Jo’s already jogging back to John, shouting, “We’ve lost Charlie!”
John slaps the truck door, calling back to me, “Jump in. Can’t have gone far, you know!”
He laughs, and my mood lightens, a little, as much as it can. Yeah, this is a small island, but it’s also surrounded by churning Bristol Channel water, and Charlie is not a strong swimmer and… I cannot think about that. How could this have happened? He’s not like Emma; he never wanders off. There’s a tether between us, always, but something’s broken it today.
“Will you look after Emma?” I shout to Jo.
“Of course!” She scoops Emma up to watch us drive away.
“Can’t have gone far,” John Ashford says again, this time more to himself.
We pass the house and come up the narrow main road through the little village. I crane my neck, looking back at the expanse of our lawn, hoping he’ll have materialized back home. There are only gulls there, landing and lifting in a scattered cloud.
“I’ll just ask around,” John murmurs.
I nod tightly.
He pokes his head out the window as Mrs. Tavish passes, her little gray terrier clutched to her chest. “Seen Charlie about?”
“What?” She looks down to cross the cobblestones.
She adjusts the dog, with effort, and cups her ear.
John breaks into a smile, waving her off, then turns to me. “She’d have told us if she’d seen him.”
Blue fills my window. I gasp, startling back against my seat, but it’s only Brian Rowe in his police constable sweater. We’re idling in front of the customs office, aren’t we? We probably should have come to him first anyway.
“What’s this now?” PC Brian leans low, frowning over his steaming mug of tea like it’s a crucial piece of evidence.
“Charlie’s missing,” I blurt.
“Can’t have gone far.” He snorts at his own joke.
I manage to hang on to a pained smile, inwardly screaming. I’ve been here long enough to know that humor is Brian’s default mode—it doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t taking this seriously.
“Yep, I’ll call around. Signals are a bust, but the landlines…” Brian swipes at his forehead. “I’ll have a little walk about. I’m sure you’ll find him first, though, Nina. Don’t fret about it.”
Everybody’s so cavalier here. Nothing bad could possibly happen on Lute, don’t you know, except for that one day. It’s illogical. But I play along, as ever, waving gratefully to Brian before we continue on.
Charlie’s not invincible. He’s soft and slight and sensitive to everything. And it isn’t like him to vanish. The thought keeps bobbing back up to the surface. This is wrong. Emma’s my imp, but Charlie’s my satellite, ever orbiting, and I don’t even remember the last moment I clocked him this morning. Out on the lawn, maybe, just after breakfast? What kind of mother am I?
The voice I hear when I berate myself these days sounds more and more like my mother’s, that hissing whisper through a smiling mouth, quiet enough that other parents could never hear. Whatever kind of parent I am, I’m a hell of a lot better than she was. She doesn’t deserve any space in my head.
John’s whistling an old song I vaguely recognize.
“There’s no way he got on the boat to Sunnan, is there?” I ask. My heart beats more frantically just thinking about the possibility.
“No,” John says. “The vicar wouldn’t have let him on, even if he did get a wild fancy to go with them. They know Charlie’s got to stay.”
We’re not staying; we’re leaving on that mechanic’s boat within the hour. But I know what he meant.
We roll past the last of the stone cottages and Jo’s outlying tearoom and village shop, and then we hit the dirt track up through the heath, passing nobody else to ask. Everybody’s cleared out, off to Sunnan or away at war.
God, how many people are left here? I scan the horizon, and it feels more than ever like a desert isle, like we’ve been marooned. I like that feeling most of the time, the sense of having escaped the chaos and cruelty of the rest of the world, but today, it makes me cold down to my bones, like I’m swimming in a dark current of water.
I can’t help but make a list of dangers, one for every direction. The cliffs lining the east side of the island with their crumbling edges. The rocky beach to the south where the puffins gather, where the sand sucks ankles tight as the tide rolls out and won’t let go unless you’ve got someone tugging you back.
Drowning is the easiest hazard for me to imagine. All those years of picturing how my sister must have looked as they dragged her out of the swimming pool have made that image spring readily to mind.
I drive the thought away now and think of the northern tip of the island, the cell tower and barrow. That area isn’t all that dangerous, just eerie.
It was so lively up at the barrow when I moved to Lute and all those archaeologists and cheerful young students were here digging, cataloging, publishing, but they left when the war began, and now, apart from the grazing goats that have turned wild and overrun the place, it’s just the ancient grave it always was, silent and half-exposed. It looks like an open wound now. Desecrated. Jesus, that’s a strong word, but it does feel like the right one.
I went up there on one of my morning walks a few years ago, but at the edge of the hill, something crawled into my stomach and urged me away. I haven’t been to that corner of the island since.
I hope like hell Charlie hasn’t somehow made his way to the barrow.
As I squint west past John’s head, my eye catches on a trio of brightly colored figures headed down toward the beach. They look so reassuringly ordinary.
“Are those tourists?” I point out the window.
John looks blank. “Holidaymakers, yeah. They’re Scandi. Don’t know which country.”
It matters which country. Finland surrendered to the Russo-American armies a month after the war began, the first big domino to fall.
“Yep, let’s see if they’ve seen him.”
He honks. The tourists jump comically at the sound of it, like three neon marionettes. John chortles. Even I muster a faint smile, but mostly at John. John Ashford likes his toy truck. He likes his life, all of this, his job here as warden, overseer of plants and animals and relics and everything else that falls under National Trust. “Beats retirement,” he always says, and I believe him. Lute would be the best place in the world for someone like him even if there wasn’t a war decimating nature preserves and historical sites practically everywhere else.
The hikers amble over, and very slowly, I realize they shouldn’t be here. The sight of campers on this stretch of the heath isn’t unfamiliar, but Jo said we never make holiday rentals or camping permits available in the week leading up to the Day. It’s a locals-only kind of deal. Maybe that’s why the tallest man of the group is striding forward alone while the second man turns away and the woman in cargo pants hangs back to examine a tuft of heather.
The man has snow-blond hair and chalk-white teeth. Before he even speaks, I start trying to figure out what country he’s from.
“Nice weather!” He looks up at the sky as if to demonstrate.
Overeager. Yep, they’re squatting here.
John won’t rat them out for camping without a permit. He’s not the type. Sure enough, he just smiles. “Lady Treadway here’s looking for her son. Seen anybody of the seven-year-old persuasion wandering—?”
“Six,” I correct, my pulse ratcheting up again. “Sorry, he’s six. He’s got dark hair, same color as mine, three and, um, three and a half feet tall? Maybe more?”
“Meters?” the hiker asks wryly, noticing my accent, testing me.
My mind goes blank. I’m still useless at metric conversions. Failing the British test here.
The Scandinavian guy laughs, waving his hand. “No, no, we saw him.”
My heart leaps. He turns, pointing.
“Small kid, headed straight down this path.” He kicks the gravel to demonstrate. “Straight into the forest there. Small forest.”
“Yeah, the grove.” I squint hard, like if I strain enough, I might be able to see through the tufted hill and past the thick oaks and snatch him up, safe and close.
God, this terror. It’s always there, isn’t it, waiting for a reason to bubble over. From the moment he was born, I’ve had an endless store of fear held ready, just in case, and having a second child only quadrupled it.
“Righto.” John knocks on the door of the truck, and the man backs affably away. “You kids have…” His grin pinches a little. “Yeah, you be safe.”
He drives us off with a nod. I turn back, watching clouded bemusement dissipate from the hiker’s expression. The woman waves. Even though I detect sarcasm in the gesture, I wave back. I have to, in this case. Comes with the title, and you never know who’s a journalist. The British press is vicious, even in wartime.
Weird that they’re here, though. We’ve had hardly any tourists this year, and for them to linger now, of all weeks, feels suspect.
As soon as my eyes find the grove again, my relief at having a solid lead is laced with a wash of hot anger. “Why would he have taken off like this? For the grove of all places?”
“It’s an area of outstanding cultural interest,” John says, a twinkle in his eye.
“Not when you’re six. And it isn’t like him.”
“No, it isn’t, is it.” John’s voice gets quieter as we approach the thick line of trees and pull to a stop at the line of split logs and woodchips that serves as a parking lot.
We step silently out of the car and, side by side, enter the grove. The oaks suck us in. I hold my breath in the abrupt darkness, feeling, as ever, like something has shifted here, like I’m breathing different air, older oxygen. I can’t remember if I felt this way before I knew what the grove was, before hearing Ian Pike recounting the old legends from the bar at the Dane’s Head. The ghosts who drift out of the grove to celebrate on Christmas Eve. The ancient oaks created by Celtic gods, still standing sentient, waiting for their planters’ return. The stone. The deaths. Hundreds, thousands, nobody knows how many human sacrifices.
Maybe I always shivered here, maybe not. But I’m susceptible now.
The grove, the only wild collection of trees on Lute, too small to even call it a wood, but once inside, it may as well be a forest.
I draw my canvas coat closer around my waist as the wind blows, sliding against the rich green leaves above us. I could walk this path with my eyes closed by now. I can smell which season it is, the sharp scent of green leaves, of sap, the lurid aliveness of summer. The track narrows, and I let John take the lead, glancing furtively at the dipping oak branch where I sat mere hours ago. The whispers from the oaks get louder, closer, as if to tell on me, what I get up to in here. John would not approve.
Then, above the din, I hear voices, and my pulse thrums in my throat.
John is already nodding down the path, setting off toward the sound. “What did I tell you? Young historian. He’s gone straight for the area of outstanding…”
The next gust smothers his voice.
I see Charlie’s back first, his sweater with the thick red and blue stripes. My little boy is sitting down on a pile of leaves, scratching his head. His hair has gone brown already, but in the light falling from the canopy, it looks blond again, like when he was a baby. He’s peering up, talking to someone, but there’s no one there. He’s talking to the air.
“Charlie?” I call out, my pace quickening.
A man steps into view, and a silent sob of relief drops out of me. What did I think it was, a ghost? The man pats Charlie on the shoulder before rising to greet me. I’m about to shout, “Thank you,” when I realize it’s Matthew Clare.
He’s still in shirtsleeves despite the chill, muddy boots pulled up over worn-out trousers, stubble framing a wind-worn face. Gray eyes shining with kindness, sadness, resentment, who knows.
He’s just a person, middle-aged, weary, but there’s something striking about him here. He looks like he belongs in the grove. King of the Wood.
“Lady Treadway.” The greeting jars me back to reality. He says it with a tight jaw, as always, like he can’t bear the sound of the words. He should just fucking call me Nina, like I’ve asked him to a million times.
He doesn’t even look at me as I rush to Charlie, and I don’t care. The world forms a tunnel around my son until he’s in my arms, and I’m kissing the top of his head, whisper-shouting into his hair, “What are you doing here? What were you thinking? Oh my goodness, you scared me so much, baby boy.”
Charlie blinks, dazed as I pull away to peer at him, like he’s waking up from a dream. “Why would you be scared?”
I laugh, shrill, unnerved by the look on his face. “I didn’t know where you were!”
“I wanted to see the rock. I told you.”
“I had a dream about the rock, so I wanted to see it. I needed to see it today.”
I shake my head. “You—?”
“The tithe stone,” Matthew says.
He’s only forty-two, same age as Hugh, but there’s something endlessly old about Matthew Clare, now more than ever. For all his Lute traditions, Hugh is a modern guy. He watches movies and checks the stock market and texts with his friends on the mainland during televised football matches. It’s hard to imagine Matthew doing any of those things. Sometimes when Ian Pike tells his stories about the Romans or the Saxons or the Normans coming here, I find myself picturing Matthew Clare among the watchers on the shore. I don’t even have to change his clothing too much.
I turn to find him staring at the long, flat, mossy rock at the edge of the clearing, a tiny plaque, oxidized green, marking the spot for visitors to reference on their island maps.
“He had his hands pressed to it when I followed him here.”
“You followed him?” I don’t mean to make it sound accusatory. My voice was just tight. All of me is tight.
Matthew flinches, his dark eyes darting away again, while John shifts uncomfortably a few yards down the path.
I force a smile. “I’m glad you did, thank God, but—”
“He was wandering along the road by himself. Looked like he needed some help.”
Now he sounds accusatory. Fair enough.
I stand, dusting myself off. “And then you came here and— why didn’t you bring him back?”
Matthew scratches the stubble on his jaw. “Like I said, he was standing by the tithe stone. Wasn’t more than a minute or two ago that I got here.”
I blink, disoriented. How is that possible? It’s felt like half the day I’ve been looking for Charlie, but of course, for Matthew to have caught up on foot would have taken longer. Still, everything feels bent, too fast and too slow at once.
“Can we go home?” my son asks brightly from the ground, and I feel at least that I’m here in the present moment. “I want some orange juice.”
John lets out a great, rumbling laugh. “Well, there we have it. He wanted to see the rock, now he wants orange juice. Mystery solved.”
It takes holding my breath to keep my voice from rising. “You can’t just wander off, Charlie.” I reach out to pull him up. He wraps his skinny arms around my waist and nestles in, and all the anger wafts out of me. “And we can’t go home. Daddy’s got a boat for us.”
Charlie’s head darts up. “Why a boat?”
Patience now, he’s only six. “You know we’re going on holiday, Charlie, and we’re holding everything up now, so—”
“I’ll shuttle you back,” John offers, glancing at his watch.
“In your truck?” Charlie asks, fully himself again, eyes electrified.
I turn to thank Matthew for staying with Charlie, briefly, politely, but he’s already left us, heading up the north track out of the grove. I watch him stride away, watch one of his hands drag against the trunk of an oak as if greeting a friend. It’s not until he disappears completely that I let out that breath.
Back at the truck, Charlie refuses my lap, kicking, so we squeeze side by side in the passenger seat and grin every time John slows down to shout a hello to the islanders we pass. It feels like we’re already on vacation, heading out into the sunshine, trouble behind us. My shoulders loosen with every bump of the road.
Charlie turns to look at me, his cheek squishing against mine. “When we get home, could I have some orange juice, please?”
Oh, good grief. “I told you, we’re not going home, Charlie. Our bags are already down at the launch. We’re going to head straight—”
“We’re not, though.”
I lean forward to peer at him. The mistiness in his expression has been replaced by stone-still certainty. He’s caught the island’s superstition, hasn’t he? Somebody’s been filling his head with nonsense. Matthew, maybe, or one of the village kids.
“Why would you say that?”
“I just feel like we’re not going to go.”
He shrugs, but he doesn’t seem particularly bothered by the prospect of staying. Unlike the other kids, who practically sprinted from the village past our house on their way to the docks this morning. Not like they were excited about going on a camping trip. Like something was chasing them.
“Ho there,” John says low as we turn out of the narrow village.
Hugh’s standing in the lane. He isn’t walking toward us, just waiting, hands on hips. Jo and Emma are nowhere in sight.
John stops the truck, and I squeeze past Charlie to get out.
“You stay here for a sec,” I tell Charlie, sensing an edge to my husband’s expression that I don’t like much. Not even an edge—the lack of one. His face is a flat surface, no notches, no nicks, no entry point whatsoever.
“He left,” Hugh says, the instant I’m within earshot. “Where was Charlie?”
He asks the question like he’s reading a roadside sign.
“He was…” I peer past Hugh and see a boat drawing a white line in the sea—away from Lute, fast. “He was in the grove. What do you mean he left? What happened?”
“Didn’t want to risk leaving it this late.”
“It was high tide an hour ago! We had plenty of time! And the sun won’t set for…”
My voice dwindles, sensing no one’s listening to it. Hugh stares past me at the village, his brown eyes utterly dulled. Then he starts walking, off the road, into the heath, away from home.
Hugh? I think his name but don’t call it out. Let him take a nice long walk if he’s going to be like this.
Charlie scrambles to open the truck door and get out, but Hugh keeps going, not even looking at him, hands in his pockets, away.
Squinting south, I can make out a line of colorful rectangles. He left the goddamned bags in the middle of the road.
“Need me to haul them back?” John Ashford steps one foot out of the truck, ready to help.
“No,” I say quickly. “No, we’ll manage. You’ve done so much for us today. Thank you so much. I won’t take up any more of your time.”
“I just have to peek in at the north station,” he says, nodding. “If they’re too much for you, leave ’em. I’ll round back this evening.”
“No, no, no. Please, John, you’ve already—”
“I’m headed to the pub tonight!” He laughs. “This’ll make me feel I’ve earned another pint.”
I manage a smile as he drives away, while Charlie digs for pebbles in the road, throwing them and catching them and losing them as we make our way down to the dock.
I put my hands on my hips, staring down at the ridiculous amount of luggage we were planning to take on a weeklong excursion. I used to travel light. Wherever I was, I used to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
“You take your Trunkie. I’ll get this one. Then we’ll find Daddy and get him to help. Plan?”
Charlie nods solemnly and starts away with his load.
“Charlie?” I call after him, my legs locked in place. “What kind of dream did you have? Why did you want to see the stone?”
He shrugs. Doesn’t turn back.
The dock is empty now. The sea rises and falls. The Pride of Lute has made it over to Sunnan. Out west, little Elding shines gold in the afternoon light, with no people there at all, only sheep dotting its hills, like tiny clouds. Behind me, Joseph’s Rock sits stoic, lonely, buffeted by crashing waves. And this, our main island, is quiet.
If I were as traditional as everybody here, I might say that Lute is waiting.
I’m not from here, so I’ll say it’s nice and peaceful. Lute is the same as it ever was.
Excerpted from Lute, copyright © 2022 by Jennifer Thorne.