The sun was bright and balmy as it caressed George Cooper’s face, but on this occasion it brought him no joy. Today they were leaving the Copper Isles. More importantly, today they were leaving behind his daughter, and he wasn’t sure when they would be seeing her again. The visit had been a lengthy one, but now it was time to say goodbye to an extremely pregnant Aly and her crow-husband, so she could get started with her new life in Rajmuat. All throughout their stay George couldn’t shake a tight feeling of anxiety from his gut, although he was unable to place where it was coming from exactly. He sighed heavily as the Rajmuat harbor turned to open waters in front of his unseeing eyes. It was going to be very difficult for his family to adjust to life without their Aly, and George knew they were going to need him to help them get through this, Alan especially.
He had gone to his wife first. She was below deck, attempting to hold in her last meal. George tried to keep her company, but her dark mood was impossible to penetrate. Eventually she snapped at him. “Now you’re making me feel sick! Go! If you think the boys need you then just go see to them and leave me be.” George decided it was time for a strategic retreat. Just before he shut the door he heard Alanna exasperatedly sigh “Mithros! Men and their worrying!” George chuckled softly before trudging up the stairs towards the upper deck.
He found his eldest son first, sitting cross-legged against a rail in the sun as he entertained his young cousins. The baby Rikash was settled gently in Thom’s lap, and little Sarralyn was kneeling opposite them, her palms turned out as they played some sort of hand clapping game. When George drew near he saw Thom miss the beat, causing Sarralyn to shriek with glee.
“Rats! Lost again!” Thom groaned, with a sly wink to his father.
George smiled back, but he sensed it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I see you’re getting swindled by an advanced player here.”
Thom’s smile, however, was pure and genuine as he replied, “Thank all the gods we’re just betting dessert portions, and not real money.” Sarralyn beamed, delighted in her ability to best her tall, gangly playmate. George smiled back. It was always heartwarming to watch how at ease his son was with children. George had to resist the urge to reach out and ruffle Thom’s hair, as he used to when Thom was small.
“How are you lad?”
Thom looked up from tickling Rikash, surprised. “I’m fine, why?”
“It’s got to be hard for you, leaving your sister,” George began, only to stop in surprise as his son shook his head gently. Thom smiled, his fingers now making soft, comforting circles on the baby’s belly.
“We’re not really leaving her, at least not forever. We’ll be seeing her again soon. Aly’s tricky like that.” George detected a hint of the patient tone Thom used when talking to difficult children. For some reason he couldn’t place George felt the knot in his belly tighten.
George nodded slowly, noticing that Thom was now looking concernedly at him.
Before his son could begin asking questions of his own, George leaned down and inquired in a low voice, “Have you seen your brother?”
Thom nodded, “I saw him headed towards the back deck, either to enlist as a sailor or write a ballad about seafaring, who knows.” His grin invited George to share the joke about Alan’s fickle nature, and George tried to smile back. Suddenly he reached out to brush Thom’s red curls, unable to supress the instinct, before turning to go in search of his youngest.
Unbidden, a bittersweet memory came into his head. Alanna had always made it a point to treat Aly and Alan as individuals, as opposed to distinct pieces of a duality. She was pleased when they developed separate interests, and took great pains to encourage them to branch out on their own, constantly encouraging them to make new friends, and take trips apart from one another. George having no other siblings, let alone a twin, mostly deferred to her judgment (although privately he thought it best to just let them alone about it all). One night, after some sort of conflict or confrontation George for the life of him couldn’t recall now, George had finally said to his wife, “Our twins are not you and your brother. They will not lose each other, like you lost Thom. You don’t have to prepare them for this.” At this her face had crumpled, and he had spent the rest of the evening holding her in their bed as she cried, stroking her hair and back until she fell asleep. Although he hated seeing Alanna distraught he couldn’t help feeling happiness at being able to piece together this little emotional puzzle and put it aside, fixed.
Now, walking across the deck of the ship, George grimaced at the great irony of this recollection. There were very few times Alanna had a better read on a situation than he did, but unfortunately this was one of them.
He eventually found Alan lounging in a shady corner at the stern of the ship. The boy had charcoal and parchment in hand, although George could see he hadn’t drawn more than a few lines. Alan’s face was pensive and serious, an unusual look for his lighthearted Player.
George eased himself down next to Alan, wincing as his back protested. “How’s the sketching going?”
Alan shrugged in reply. “I wanted to practice perspective with the masts, but everything is moving about too much.”
George nodded, uncertain of how to proceed. Luckily Alan took the lead.
“It’s odd, to leave her behind,” Alan said cautiously.
George extended an arm around Alan’s shoulders, immensely grateful that he still was boyish enough to sometimes let his father hold him. “I’m sure you feel a little lost without your sister,” George began. Before he could complete the speech he had been rehearsing in his head since Aly had first disappeared last year, Alan cut him off.
“That’s just it, I feel as though I’m not upset enough. I mean, yes, I’ve missed her and I wish she were here, but at the same time I don’t really think it matters. The last time we saw each other in Corus it was just so…” Alan paused. He appeared to be at a loss for words, but George, knowing his youngest son had never yet encountered a thought he wasn’t able to eventually articulate, waited Alan out.
“It’s like we were on separate sides of a chasm during an earthquake. I could still see her and she could see me, but there was this gulf growing all the while, so vast we couldn’t hear each other properly anymore. Things weren’t the same and it felt like they never would be again, and anyways, I wasn’t sure I wanted them to be. She tried to pretend she wasn’t, but I know she was resentful that I had found something and she hadn’t. Now I know she’s doing something she loves, and with people who love her.” Alan’s words tumbled out, and his green-hazel eyes were focused somewhere far away. He sighed, then said more softly, “It’s almost easier this way. I’d much prefer be kept from Aly by the ocean than mutual frustration or indifference towards each other.” His face pinched with anxiety as he looked up at his father. “Is that terribly cold of me?”
George was forcefully reminded, yet again, that Alan’s silly and playful exterior was a carefully cultivated one, meant to disguise a thoughtful and deeply perceptive interior, one that ought not ever be discounted.
His voice sounded hoarse to his ears, as he replied, “No, lad, that’s not cold at all. That’s very…” Now it was George who struggled to find the right words, something that had happened to him only a handful of times in his life, mostly with his youngest son. Alan had a way of throwing him off like this.
Finally he settled on murmuring, “That’s very mature of you,” a thought that expressed not even a tenth of what George wanted to really say to his son. He wanted to communicate to Alan that that was one of the most astute and painfully insightful things he had ever heard anyone say, fully grown folk included, and that Alan had a way of seeing the complexities of relationships that went far beyond his years. But those thoughts were weighing heavily on George’s heart, like the anchors attached to their ship.
Alan looked alarmed at seeing his father so speechless, and George was suddenly struck with the realization that it was the disapproval of his father Alan had feared. The thought made him feel sick in a way the boat hadn’t, so he tried again, praying he said the right thing this time.
“You should feel however you feel about it, happy, sad, uncertain, what. She’s your sister, the relationship between you is all your own. You two alone know the love you have for each other. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.”
A small look of relief blossomed over Alan’s face, and George took advantage of the opportunity to lean over and kiss him quickly on the forehead.
There was an awkward silence, while each man tried to collect his own thoughts. Alan fiddled with his charcoal and George sensed he was ready to be left alone to process his emotions. George clapped Alan on the back and struggled to his feet. As the boat pitched and rolled he said, “I really ought to go check on your mother”.
Alan grinned in response, “Good luck Da, she looked mighty unhappy when I passed her on the way up here.” George made an effort to offer a reassuring smile in response, but Alan had already turned back to his drawing without noticing. That awful weight on his chest increased, and feeling deeply uneasy George made his way towards the stairs that led below deck.
When he reached the room he shared with his wife he tentatively opened the door. Peering inside he softly called, “Hey lass,” only to get a groan in response.
She was curled in a ball on their bunk, her hands shielding most of her decidedly green face. One violet eye peeked out between two fingers as she croaked, “Are Thom and Alan doing alright?” Her black mood appeared to have mostly dissipated in his absence.
George entered the room fully and sat on the bed next to her. My poor lass, sick as a dog. George decided she needed a laugh, and was opening his mouth to crack wise when he suddenly realized no funny comment was forthcoming. In fact, there was a lump in his throat, and his eyes pricked uncomfortably.
Alanna sat up, her face full of concern. “George?” she asked tentatively.
He tried to answer, but suddenly talking was a struggle. “They’re completely fine, they’re…they’re” To his surprise, the prickling in his eyes had turned into liquid, and his throat felt too tight to continue.
Alanna was silent, but her face spoke volumes. She reached out to touch his hand and George thought, She knows, how does she know? Suddenly the uneasy feeling he had carried in his gut since they had left for Rajmuat clicked into place.
“They don’t need anything from us right now…” he trailed off again, feeling his control slipping completely away from him. His eyes bright he turned to her and said, “I guess mayhap its me who needs the comfortin’ after all.” His voice cracked at this last, and immediately Alanna tugged him into her arms.
As he buried his suddenly hot face into her chest her hands made soft, soothing patterns on his back and scalp. Expressing his need out loud had brought all the emotions he was avoiding to the surface in a crashing wave of pain, but he could sense the relief coming in behind them. Alanna cooed at him softly, her hands as firm and steadfast as ever. That’s my lass, George thought, marveling at the way, even after all these years, his wife’s strength and resiliency could still manage to surprise him.