Ayja's Island tells the story of the origins of Ayja.
Some might describe our memory as the story of our lives, but if so, that story is less like a novel and more like a collection of small vignettes that adds up to generate a larger picture. This is perhaps true of no part of our lives more so than childhood.
Ayja’s earliest memories were a blur – skinned knees, new creatures, birthday parties, they all ran together in a colourful mess. Each day was more or less like the next and the one before it. Most of the time, she would be climbing trees and hanging out with her animal friends, or making up games to play, or poking around new places like the caves under the big volcano. Sometimes, she’d help her dad with his research – they’d set up complicated machines to measure the flow of shadow energy or map the positions of other dream worlds. She still didn’t understand quite what it all did – he’d explained it to her, but most of it had gone over her head.
Occasionally, Id would find their way to the island, and her dad would need her help to get rid of them. Black storms full of Id sometimes blew through, during which time they had to stay inside the house with all the doors closed and wait for it to pass. Forests of glistening black mushrooms would grow after these storms, and together, they’d burn them all up. Her dad taught her how to dig into the soil underneath to torch the deep roots so they couldn’t grow back or spread into the island.
Whenever she couldn’t think of anything else to do or her father didn’t need her help with anything, she’d spend her time buried in books, or making art. She dreamed up a kingdom, over which she was the queen and her animal friends were the ministers. She made up positions for them all – Fred, the roachbug, was the Duchess of Smelly Fungus, while Sylvester the sky-jay was the Grand Vizier of Bedtime Snacks. She spent a whole month building a little town for them to rule over out of branches and leaves, but Fred refused to stay in the house Ayja had made for him while Sylvester preferred the open sky. Undaunted, Ayja stayed in her own house alone and ruled the kingdom herself. That is, until her dad found her asleep in the middle of the woods and carried her home.
She remembered the time her father had called her to the Looking Point. There was an airship passing by, looking like something straight out of a pirate book. Ayja had wanted to call out to them and invite them to the island, but her father shook her head.
“It’s not safe.”
He patted her on the back.
“Let’s just go to the house – it’s better that they don’t know we’re here.”
“But I’ve never met real pirates before!”
“Trust me, Ayja, you don’t want to.”
That night, Ayja had dreamed she was flying after the airship. She flew closer until she spotted a hatch in the top. She opened it and crawled inside. It was like nothing she’d ever seen before – there were gears and machines everywhere, shooting steam and smoke all over the place. She shuddered. She wasn’t sure if she liked this place. The ground was hard and there wasn’t any moss, so she felt like her feet kept stepping on rocks. There was a hiss, and a screech like tea boiling. Ayja screamed, thinking it must be a monster, but a cloud of steam surrounded her and she realized that was all it was. Then, she heard a clang.
“…swear I heard something, boss.”
“Phew – I can’t see anything through all this steam!”
Ayja turned and ran back through the ship, back to the hatch, and she crawled up as fast as she could, then turned around and flew back.
“Ayja?” she heard her father’s voice saying as she woke up, “Ayja, are you alright?”
He embraced her.
“I saw you go flying after that airship, and I wanted to make sure you were safe.”
“I thought it was just a dream?”
“It was a dream, Ayja, but it was real. Haven’t I told you about dreamwalking before?”
“You mean, I was dreamwalking?”
He nodded, a smile dancing across his face.
“I didn’t think you’d be able to learn so quickly. I’ll have to teach you more. But you have to understand, it’s very important – you must never let anyone see you while you’re dreamwalking.”
“It’s not safe out there, Ayja. There are dangerous people you could run into. Trust me.”
She nodded. Ever since then, whenever she went dreamwalking, she’d made sure to stick close to the island, and she’d been wary of outsiders.
One time, a particularly bad Id storm had blown through. They’d huddled in their house while the walls shook with wind and howls. Ayja peered through the window at the storm-lashed trees. She’d convinced Fred to come inside, but Sylvester would have none of it. She would ride out the storm, she’d said, just as her ancestors had done for generations.
That night, she’d slept very little. Over the howl of the storm, she swore she could hear a great moaning in the distance, like there was something huge and in pain out there.
The next morning, when they went out to survey the damage, they found the source of the noise. A giant creature had been stranded on the island, one of the ancient beings that drifted through the oceans of the collective subconscious. A tsurung, her father called it. It was like nothing she’d ever seen. It dwarfed the largest mud-beast she’d ever seen – in fact, it was as long as five houses. It reminded her of a fish in its shape, but longer, and it had a wide flat tail like a paddle plus two extra pairs of fins. She saw her father stroke it under its eye, and that seemed to calm its moaning for a minute. He shook his head sadly.
“It was hurt pretty bad in the storm. I think those Id were attacking it.”
“Can you help it?”
He shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Ayja. There’s nothing I can do.”
“No… no, there must be something.”
“I wish there was, believe me, but these injuries are too severe.”
He stepped away from the tsurung.
“The best we can do is make sure it’s comfortable.”
The rest of the day, Ayja and her father had tended to the tsurung. Together, they’d carried over branches felled in the storm to push underneath it and support its weight. Ayja stroked the tsurung and told it stories. As the day wore on into the evening, the tsurung closed its eyes and started to hum. Ayja hummed the tune back, and they sang back and forth, improvising a duet.
The tsurung regarded her with its massive eye. Ayja stared, transfixed. In its eyes were so much intelligence. It looked so old.
The eyes closed, and a shudder ran through it.
“There, there, it’s alright,” said her father, “Ayja, you don’t need to see this.”
Ayja shook her head. She was sure the tsurung wanted her to be there. She put her hand on its side and sang its song back to it.
She listened as its breathing grew shallower and shallower, until finally she couldn’t hear it anymore. She leaned her head against its side, and tears rolled down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Her father came to kneel by her side, and she wrapped her arms around his neck.
“She looked at me, dad – she looked so old, and beautiful! I-I didn’t want to – “
“I know. That was very brave of you, honey.”
Her dad looked at the body of the tsurung.
“We should bury it. It’s the most respectful thing I can think of doing. That way, its body will fertilize the soil and it’ll give life to the whole island.”
“How long will that take?”
“A month, maybe. Don’t worry, it won’t be hard.”
Ayja wiped the tears from her eyes.
“I’ll make sure she’s safe, and nothing comes to eat her or take her away. I promise.”
Over the next month, they buried the tsurung’s carcass. As they carried on, the body started to rot, and Ayja was sure she could smell it across half the island. It was hard, unpleasant work, but she felt like she owed it to the tsurung.
Her dad told her how tsurungs were ancient beings, who’d existed long before most of the dream worlds had come into existence. Some people thought they might be gods, survivors of a forgotten pantheon. Legends said powerful energy rippled through their bodies, and they could destroy legions of Id and create whole worlds with just their minds.
“If they’re so powerful, then how come this one died?”
“Well, maybe it’s just a legend. Maybe this one was just old and weak. Or maybe the gods are dying out.”
“How can gods die out?”
“I don’t know… everything’s changed so much recently. You know there were far less Id in these parts before you were born? Something’s changed the balance in this part of the dream worlds. It’s gotten so dangerous out there.”
“But we’re safe on our island, right?”
“Of course we are.”
By the time they’d finished burying the tsurung, all that was left was a skeleton. Once they had almost finished, her dad had knelt by the tsurung’s massive skull, where you could now see all the holes and pockmarks so that it looked almost insect-like.
“We hope your soul will rest easier now you’ve been buried properly. I hope the work we’ve done has pleased you. All I ask in return is a small gift. I hope you don’t mind.”
He’d reached into a hole where the ear used to be and pulled out a gleaming white object, shaped like a hammer.
“If the tsurung really does have energy coursing through it like the legends say, I wonder if there’s a bit left over? I’m gonna be in the workshop for a couple hours – let me know if you need anything.” At dinnertime, he’d arrived at the table with a beautiful bone knife.
“Dad, did you make that from the tsurung’s bone?”
“Mm-hmm. It’s a dagger. Don’t know if there’s anything special about it, but at the very least it’s something to remember her by.”
He handed the dagger to Ayja.
“And I think she’d want you to have it.”
Ayja cradled the knife in her hands, scarcely believing.
“You really think so?”
“Just think. That bone might be older than this island. Older than the dream worlds. Older than our species. You promise you’ll take good care of it?”
She stroked the dull edge of the knife, and that night she dreamed she was flying with a whole pod of tsurungs. She wasn’t sure whether it was real or not, but either way, she felt it was a good sign.
A few weeks after they’d finished burying the tsurung, the airship came back. Ayja hadn’t seen it in years, but she’d learned to fear it. She knew it scared her father, and that was reason enough to be frightened. It remained motionless over the island for a few days. Her father grew increasingly antsy the longer it stayed there.
“Why isn’t it doing anything?” Ayja had asked one morning as they looked at it from the roof.
He handed Ayja his spyglass.
“Ayja, I need you to stay here.”
He knelt down to look her in the eye.
“Look – you’re 10, Ayja, you’re a big girl now. You think maybe you can last one night without me?”
“All by myself?”
“I’ll be back before you know it, don’t worry.”
“But where are you going?”
He kissed her on the forehead.
“Take care of Fred, alright?”
He headed downstairs and started walking away through the forest.
Ayja tried to follow him, jumping onto a nearby tree and swinging down to land next to him.
“Ayja, you have to stay behind. It’s not safe for you where I’m going. Besides, you have to keep the house safe from monsters.”
“But I want to know what’s happening! I want to help you!”
“I’ll be fine, honey. I’m counting on you. Be patient, and be a good girl while I’m gone.”
He gave her a hug.
“I love you.”
She hugged him back. He stood up and walked away.
Ayja crawled back up the tree and ran to the roof. She took her father’s spyglass and stared as he made his way through the trees, heading towards the volcano. After a while, she lost sight of him.
That night, another Id storm blew in. She kept the windows and doors closed, everything battened down and secure. She peered through a window with the spyglass, trying to see what was happening. She could make out the airship moored on top of the volcano, but it was too dark to see what was happening. Suddenly, the airship’s lights went on, and it started to fly away. The mooring line fell to the ground.
“Dad couldn’t be on the airship, could he?” she asked Fred, “he said he’d be back tomorrow.”
Suddenly, the airship seemed to rock, like something had hit it. It started spinning out of control, and for a moment she thought it was going to hit the volcano.
“Dad!” she screamed.
Luckily, the airship missed the mountain, but just then, another gust of wind seemed to send it flying into the sky. She strained to follow it until it was out of sight.
Her dad didn’t come back the next morning. She spent the whole day on the roof, watching and waiting. He didn’t come back the day after that either, or the day after that.
On the fourth day, Ayja made up her mind.
“I’m going to follow him,” she told Fred, “I’m sure he was on that airship when it left. I need to find him.”
He hissed and scoffed at her plan.
“I’ll be fine. Look after the house for me while I’m gone, okay?”
She’d packed up all the supplies she could think to bring – a hammock, some changes of clothes, food, water, extra weapons, a homing compass, the most recent map she could find, and of course the tsurung knife tucked into her belt. Then, she told Sylvester to go find her friend the moth-hawk. Hours passed before they returned. Ayja paced, went over as much ground as she could. She burned the last of the black mushrooms that had sprouted up after the storm, just like her dad had taught her. As the time went on, she noticed she was getting dizzy. She had to sit down.
“I don’t think I’m sick,” she told Fred, “I’m just… scared. I don’t want to do this.”
She cradled her head in her hands.
“I wish dad was here!”
It wasn’t long before Sylvester and the moth-hawk arrived. The moth-hawk was large enough to carry all the supplies she needed. As she loaded them onto its back, she stared up at the sky. She had no idea what was waiting out there, what kinds of dangers or monsters she might run into. Her whole life, she’d only known about the island. What little she knew of the outside painted it as a frightening, dangerous, unpredictable place. She had no choice, though – her father needed her.
She sighed. With one last wave to Fred and Sylvester and a final glance at her house, she’d spurred the moth-hawk along, and they took to the air. The island slowly faded behind them, then disappeared from sight altogether.