It’s cold. It’s cold and wet and no one is here, Mum is gone and Pa is gone and it’s so cold.
Little one, make us light.
It’s too cold for light, too cold for heat. Thin arms clutching thin knees, head buried, rolling to face the wall.
Little one, you can help.
Sobs wrack a tiny body as the boat cuts through the water, the storm is coming.
Little one… Please.
A soft hand on matted hair, knocked away. A soft hand replaced.
Up the coast to Adelaide,
Heave away, haul away…
The small body tilts back and lands in a soft lap. Arms hold, comforting.
And Clare knows what to do. She holds out her hand, furrows her brow, and with a snap – fire. The woman who has taken her up smiles into Clare’s hair and turns to her son. “You see, Arin. The little one isn’t cursed at all.”
Arin, not even ten and only just bigger than Clare herself holds out a stick. Clare, eyes swollen, moves her hand over it. When she removes her hand, Arin almost drops the stick as the woman laughs. Clare has turned the stick into a torch, complete with casing.
“Thank you, Little one. Now, come eat.”
When they wake, Jan has Clare re-light the torch. The first day they were together, Jan had tried to cajole Clare into making something, anything else. But even when Jan handed her wood to reCreate, Clare couldn’t. Jan could watch her try and try, but fire was the only thing that the girl could do regularly. When startled or spooked, occasionally other things would come, but with Clare already on edge Jan chose not to continue this path. Instead, Jan began bartering fire and warmth for better conditions for the three of them.
Clare’s days soon take on a pattern. She sleeps with Arin and his mother, Jan. They then make the rounds for the other bunks in steerage, bringing light in the dark. Then to the cook, and Clare lights the fire. Chores, Jan says, just like she would have had at home. And when chores are done, Jan sends Clare and Arin off to play. Arin chafes, a little, at having to watch a tiny girl, but when he sees how determined she is – and how bright her eyes are, watching everything – he makes the best. With Arin, Clare learns how to climb, sneak, and most importantly – he says – how to take a tumble and not cry out. And she does a lot of tumbling, as Arin is more coordinated and nimble. Even sneaking up the stairs is dangerous, for she can’t quite reverse her direction as quickly as Arin can.
A week into the crossing, Arin sits Clare down on her bed. “You gon got to stay here, acause I’m goin’ with the bigga kids today.”
She tilts her face at him, unsure. Clare hasn’t spoken much on this trip, and Jan has scolded Arin enough that he makes faces and has stopped trying to trick her or tease her into speech.
“No, you can’t come. You gon got to stay here.”
Clare furrows her brow and stands up.
Clare jumps, stomping her feet, and Arin growls in frustration. “Akay, lissen. I’m goin’ with the bigga kids today, and we’re goin’ uppa stairs. Lotsa stairs, Lil’un, and you don do stairs too good. We’re goin’ uppa class today, goin’ get some sights to see and sweets to eat and if you be good and quiet I’ll bringum some back for ya.”
A pause, and Clare climbs back on the bed, pouting. Arin grins. “Thasa good Lil’un.” He scrambles away, a high pitched whistle signaling where he should go.
An eternity goes by, and Clare bangs her heels on the hard bed. Another eternity passes and she rolls on to her stomach. On to her side. On to her back. She dangles off the bed and smiles, pleased, at how the world has turned upside down. Her hands reach up and she flames them, stops it, flames, and stops again. On her third flame the world dims and rough hands clasp her own and twist her rightside up. She shrieks, the sound clawing out of an unused throat, as the world spins and she is settled on a broad hip. Clare bangs her hands on the strong arms holding her captive until she is dumped, unceremoniously, next to the cook-fire. She scrambles to her feet, instantly aware that there’s nowhere to run.
The man crouches down to her and meets her gaze. He is a dark man, like her, with hair that puffs out around his head like a halo. He holds out his hand and turns it palm up. When he sees her eyes on his palm, he lets the flames wink into existence. Clare’s eyes go wide and her mouth gasps open. The man smiles, and the flames go out. Now he holds out both hands, and shows them to Clare. They are empty. He shows her both sides. And now he puts his hands together and briefly closes his eyes. For something this simple he could keep watch, but this is important he knows and he doesn’t want to do this wrong. He opens his hands, and in them is a brightly colored spin toy. Clare reaches out for it, then stops herself. The man guides her hand to the toy and she grasps it. As small as it was in the man’s grip, Clare struggles to hold on tightly. She puts it on the floor and spins it, carefully. It falls the first time, the second time, and then it spins, twirling across the dark wood floor of steerage, catching the light from the cookfire. Clare laughs out loud, and the man smiles.
She looks up at him and holds out her hands. The man’s smile widens into a grin, and he takes her hands in his. When he sees Clare close her eyes, he begins to teach.