Age: 15, Grade: 10
School Name: Townsend Harris High School, Flushing, NY
Educator: Katie Yan
Category: Short Story
Memories were like waves, Juno thought. The kind that rise when the moon is high and relish knocking you off your feet. Waves were the first thing Juno remembered, crashing against the never-ending beach on the coast she never knew the name of. Seas of light blue water and white sand swirled like the sunlight catching on Ma’s turquoise pendant. Juno remembered her too, standing unevenly in her thin silk dress watching something on the horizon. If Juno knew how, she would have asked what it was Ma was looking at. She didn’t think she would have been given an answer.
So Juno watched Ma slip away, her quiet beauty melding with the cool greens and blues that skated over the water. Ma’s hair poured over her shoulders in volumes of black silk, reaching down to her waist. Juno had wanted to share lunch with her; to say that it was the noodles she liked. Her eyes, green like jade, dwelling below the clear waters, passed right over Juno. Melancholy swam in their depths, but whenever Juno craned her neck to catch another glance, Ma would always escape her. It had always felt that way, even when that memory ceased to flow and gave way to a starburst of warm-colored sorrow.
The ocean fell away, and Ma with it. The white stone house by the shore was replaced by an ugly beige mansion in a city that was all too loud and alive. Women came and went, wearing dresses and tunics of orange, vermillion, or spun gold. The only blue was the sky that never wept, and the jewelry that hung from the girls’ ears. The walls of the house were covered in tapestries with words and patterns Juno couldn’t make sense of, even in her own room. She had hated it, but never complained. Speaking seemed an unnecessary venture when the only ones listening were the soldiers and gods woven in the tapestries. The tastes of her childhood were overought with the pungent scent of smoked meats and over-sweet wine. Pa smelled of those foods often, as did the men who would frequent their table. Juno didn’t like those men or the women who came with them. Their laughter thundered through the floorboards, seeping through the cushions and blankets Juno laid across at night. The women sometimes left their jewelry, or other times Juno would steal it. They hardly ever watched the mousy cupbearer learning to hoist the full glittering pitchers. She would steal and then sift the gold and silver chains in her hands for hours after dark, their luster like stars reflected in the sea.
The pearl was her favorite. She remembered the woman who had worn it and wondered who she had stolen it from. It was a pretty, round peachy white orb that was smooth in her small hands. That woman had been complaining throughout dinner, smacking Juno when her hands tangled and the pitcher dipped forward onto the tabletop. Pa liked the woman, so Juno didn’t bother protesting. Even a glance from him was an event now. She distracted the woman with wine and snatched the gem from the dangling strings of her bracelet. It would have suited Ma better.
As Juno grew and the beige house by the plaza became all that she knew, the pearls and gold chains disappeared. Then the women. And all of Pa’s friends. The days grew quiet again, and the mansion slowly drained of decadence. The dice games and stacks of coins were put away, and the gaudy marble statues and vases of orchids had vanished. Perhaps they were moving, Juno thought with a spark of glee. Maybe then, the days wouldn’t run together like the stitches on the wall tapestries. Pa had begun to get angrier. Bruises in the walls became bruises in Juno’s flesh. He was the kind of man, she realized, who thought everything in the world was someone else’s fault. Had Ma been like that? Pa thought it was her fault, too, although he never said why.
On one of the unbearable summer days that plagued the city, he took her out into the plaza.
“Kid!” he yelled in his native language. She had picked it up from his drunk ramblings.
His voice thundered through the empty house. Juno hugged her legs to her chest, sitting on her pile of blankets. She didn’t want to leave. She didn’t want to look Pa in the face and have him look at her like she was her Ma. But he kept calling, louder and louder, until it was all she could feel reverberating through the hollow place in her gut. Slowly, she stood, her feet scorched by the sun-drenched floors. She tucking the pearl, along with her gold chains, under the sash binding her tunic. It was a habit now, only because Pa would snatch them up if he saw. She would fight him for them, she thought resolutely. But as he stood before her, she froze. He grabbed her wrist, and fear shot through her. She looked up, finally, and saw his black eyes focused on her face. He yanked her forward suddenly.
“Where are we going?” she couldn’t keep her voice from trembling.
“Markets,” he grunted, pulling her again.
Some absurd form of excitement struck her. She had never ventured to the markets before. Maybe they were going to sell more of the old jewelry. Yet there was something in her father’s eyes that evoked some primal dread in her.
White lilies sat wilted in their pots above the doorway.
She let herself be led out into the sun, feeling the humidity’s palpable thickness. Pa walked quite fast, even with the sack gripped in his free hand. The markets possessed all the sights and smells the beige house once had, but stretched across the winding city streets. Everything felt constrained and overheated, from the endless barrels of bright red spice to the people clamoring to buy it. When she saw gutted fish and writhing crabs hanging from the fishmonger’s stall, she winced. It was a humiliation for the creatures, Ma would have said. Pa passed the pawnshops and the traders without hesitation, leading her further to an unfamiliar area of the town. Curiosity halted her steps as dread ebbed at it even stronger. Pa tightened his grip on her wrist, barely turning around.
“Stop, that hurts!” she cried, struggling out of his grasp.
His grip was unbreakable, and she found herself being dragged towards the crowd up ahead. In front of the clamoring people was a raising platform of rotting wood, bowing under the weight of dozens of people. They stood in chains, with most of them being so frail that the shackles could have slid off their wrists. Most were children, some being grabbed by the arm by unfamiliar men while others watched. A cacophony of unfamiliar languages cried out among the swarm as groups were separated into the waiting crowd. One of the men standing beside the chained people was eyeing Pa and her hungrily, already prancing over. He wore a fine tailored gold tunic, matching the three rings adorning his thick, uncalloused fingers. His eyes, a shade lighter than Pa’s, scanned her form so intimately that it sent a shiver through her. A realization gripped her, though she couldn’t find the courage to scream or break free. Pa held her arm tightly, then dropped it. it was colored with blotches of lilac when he dropped it.
“Lovely eyes,” the man said in a city dialect, raising a hand to stroke Juno’s cheek. The rings were warm against her skin, smelling of iron and sweat. “How old?”
The slaver grinned, revealing a chipped canine.
“I’ll take her for 2500 cen.”
“3000.” Pa grit his teeth. The man looked her in the face again.
The slaver took her wrist, holding her in place as he poured a river of jingling gold into Pa’s eager hands. Greed turned his black eyes into shining obsidian, his face slacking in almost relief. He barely paid her mind, turning on his heels, save for a single glance. Juno saw his face contort slightly. Was it guilt? Regret? No, Pa didn’t feel those emotions.
He was gone, and cuffs were locked around Juno’s hands. She was cold, obedient. The other children stared at her, trying to glean her story. She would not cry. Pa would enjoy his money. Maybe he would even keep the house. But that wealth would dwindle. Juno wondered if he regretted losing Ma.. The children mostly minded themselves, helpfully, but when they were loaded onto a hooded wagon, headed and hauled out of the city, talk began. No one seemed to know where they were headed. A few spoke about her in their native tongues, which Juno could pick out from the had become good at picking up on from the beige house’s better days. They called her “jade eyes.” They all had names like that, she learned: Jade Eyes, Copper Hair, Moon Skin. Quick Feet and Bronze Hands were two children from Su’dai, all the way on the most southern tip of the country. Quick Feet was a brilliant thief, while Bronze Hands was the bronze-skinned daughter of a blacksmith. They talked to her, or rather at her, about all the scariest men and women aboard the procession of wagons. Juno listened, never uttering a word. Talking was what had made Pa weak to the other merchants in his house. And those merchants had won because they listened.
The pearl and gold chains had become heavy against her stomach as days blended together. Quick Feet snuck a look at their surroundings, slick as he was, and announced that there were approaching a city. The pulse of fear that coursed through the wagon was like a wave. They were going to be sold, Juno realized with a jolt in her gut. Bronze Hands was wringing her hands. She was only a little younger than Juno, with strong arms from her father’s craft, but she was still female. Girls like them always went first, she had told Juno. It had been her sister first, a fine fifteen-year-old well within the brothel’s target zone. Quick Feet, a grubby boy of ten, saw opportunity. If he was sold, he would be quick enough to steal from his new master and make a run for it when he saw fit. An escape artist, he called himself, though he was trembling.
Juno knew exactly what she needed to do the moment she was dragged onto the auction platform. The clamoring people pointing wildly in her direction became a sea of swimming color in front of her. The noise consumed her.. She hardly minded it now. On the other side of the bazaar’s crowds, some form of beast was thrashing against its restraints. It was no larger than a horse, but with the body and layered green scales of a lizard. A light lime-colored webbing ran along its claws and tail, the latter culminating in a crest on its spine. Instead of front legs, it had webbed wings like those of a bat keeping its balance. On its head were two curling horns and vertical-slitted amber eyes. It screeched—a terrible, agonizing sound—and the noise ripped through the square. The hoards turned towards the noise, eyes wide and mouths agape. Wyverns were rare around here, she remembered. The poor thing attempted to shield itself with its wing, but was swiftly yanked back by its handler. It reared back on its legs, spreading its wings and knocking several people and their stalls backwards. The crowd was petrified for a reverent moment, and then their uproar increased tenfold. They were all clamoring for the creature’s attention, yelling out prices or even jeering comments.
She remembered wyverns from stories in the beige house. Juno remembered loving them as a small child when she listened to stories about them or saw their parts at markets. Descendants of dragons, they were the quietest and least elegant remainders of their kind. Remove them from their homes by the sea, and they would deteriorate in the beating sun. Ma’s eyes had been likened to the color of their scales once. It had been Pa, strangely, who had done so. It had been the only time he had spoken of the house by the sea.
Hope ignited in her then—the sudden striking of a flame. If the slavers were able to capture one, especially one still so untamed, they must have taken it from the ocean recently. Judging by how healthy it still was, the effects of losing its home must not have set in yet. The sea is close.
Someone shouted at her again, and moments later she found herself being dragged forward, down into the crowd. An older woman was there to meet her, Bronze Hands already in her grip. Beside her was a young boy in dusty trousers, looking nervous. The woman’s red silk dress and face paint told Juno exactly where she was going and why. Bronze Hands was trying and failing to break away, looking to an already departing Quick Feet for help. He and the wyvern disappeared among the endless crowds. When Bronze Hand’s eyes met hers, wide and deep brown, Juno felt something rouse in her. The brothel woman grabbed Juno’s wrist, her chains now severed except for that around her neck, and handed her to a boy a few years older than she. He gulped audibly, his grip firm staying at her chains. Juno stared at him unflinching steadfastly, observing watching confusion play over his face as to how a ratty slave girl could be so confident, so self-possessed.
As she was lead down a side street, she heard a final anguished roar from the sea-beast as it collapsed heavily onto the cobblestones. The heat had been too much, she realized. The boy holding her trailed behind the woman with noticeable hesitation. Juno bided her time quietly, noting the red-walled brothel with detached expectation, its patterns of vibrant tiger lilies echoing the colors of the women’s dresses. Juno felt eyes on her. The woman decided to deal with Bronze Hands first, leading her further into the brothel while they waited. The boy still refused to meet her eye, but Juno had come to understand how to get around that. She leaned her head close to his face, speaking too fast for his reaction.
“If you come with me back outside, I can show you something,” she whispered, hoping that she used the right dialect.
He stiffened, clearly only a delivery boy himself, perhaps a son of someone here. His eyes narrowed.
His voice was gruff. Juno reached behind the ribbon of her tunic, her hand closing around the smooth gold chains. She leaned forward, showing him just a glimmer of them. The boy’s eyes widened, and he struggled to speak. He led her to a side hallway that connected to a thin alleyway. It was barren here, Juno noted, with a pulse of adrenaline.
“I’m not freeing you,” the boy hissed. “The Madam would kill me.”
“I’m not asking you to.” Juno said, and revealed the full length of the golden chain.
He let out a gasp. Even if the jewelry was fake, the boy knew, it was real enough to fool an absentminded vendor. His eyes went cloudy with greed. Juno brought it forward, watching his eager, flighty hands. And then she kicked him in the crotch.Stunned, he let out a squeak and fell backwards. He tried to come at her; she cracked him across the face, her knuckles impacting his cheekbone. She sucked in a breath, turned on her heels, and ran.
Her legs moved on their own accord, running and running until the brothel was a distant shape up the sharp hills of the town. She was so fast, none of the few alley-dwellers could get a good look at her. None of the brothel workers would be fast enough to catch her,although she would probably be pursued. She didn’t care. Right now, she focused only on getting to those city gates.
She finally came to a stop by the town walls, her breath ragged, her hands clutching her knees. The sky was bright, and the sun warm on her face. She took a moment to admire it, before navigating the wagons lined up by the exit point. She listened, as she always did, and found a merchant heading toward the markets along the shore. Approaching the man proved more difficult than expected: slave children were a particular kind of pest around here.
“Sir! Please take me to the seaport. My Pa is waiting for me.” She dug into her tunic. “I can pay.”
The merchant hardly looked her way until he spotted a turquoise pendant dangling from a gold chain. He froze, squinting down at her.
“Where’d you get that, brat?”
“It’s my Ma’s. She gave it to me … in case I ran out of money.”
One of the helpers loading the wagon hopped down next to them to inspect the necklace.
“Looks genuine,” he remarked with a lopsided grin, nudging the merchant. “Come on, kid.”
Not long after, Juno was riding to the sea on the back of rickety wagon stacked with mangos and sugar cane. She had been right; the journey was quite short. It wasn’t long before the tang of salt water touched her nose and broad-winged gulls circled overhead. The shoreline glittered, beckoning in the distance. A burst of joy surged up through her, pushing at the corners of her lips. Ma was here. She felt it. Even if she was long gone, her body had fallen back to the brine of the ocean, Ma was here. Pa had never loved this place, she knew. He probably had forgotten Ma’s face. But the land never did. The white beaches and the surging tides welcomed their lost daughter. And so she had come home to Ma’s sea.