A Pumpkyn may remayne Wholesome the Winter through. Gut the Fruit, then cut in Pieces and String it. ’Twill drie lyke Apples.
—A Frugall Compendium of Home Arts and Farme Chores by Capability C. Craft (1680), as Amended and Annotated by the Island Council of Names (1718–1809)
When Medford thought about it later, that day in Hunter’s Moon was a good example of Before.
Before the Goatman.
Before life changed forever.
Before, before, before.
He and Prudence Carpenter were on the beach, watching the Farmers gather seaweed for winter mulch. Grover Gardener, Councilor for Physick, was there, too, hands red with sea slime. So was anyone whose kitchen garden needed mulching, which was almost everybody. That morning’s sky, the departing birds, and Emery Farmer’s bones had announced that seaweed gathering soon would be a chore rather than a pleasure.
You’d gather the seaweed anyway, of course, pleasure or no. Seaweed was Useful and that was that. The Book even named specific types: Cropfodder, the kind most people were after today; Windbegone, which Grover gave to patients who had digestive troubles; Bone-mend, which he dried for chewing when you’d broken your leg.
Medford and Prudy were ignoring seaweed. It was still Before, and they were being Useless. Run, run when young, the Book said. Later in the day, settle and stay. Time enough to be Useful after Transition.
They were knee-deep in sea-foam, bare feet numb, clothes salt-spattered. Waves hissed in over the sand, then sighed back out again. The sun-drenched air was warm but sharp. The winter winds had come early this year, whipping up the waves. Two weeks from now the sea would be stone gray and the monthly Mainland Trade would be over until spring. Boats would hunker down on shore and people would eat salted Common Fish.
Medford stood still and let the retreating water slip over and around his frozen feet. It ate away the sand at his heels until he teetered and almost fell over. Fifty feet out, a Nameless brown bird made a clumsy splash landing in the water while a Nameless gray bird swooped over its head, laughing. Medford flailed his skinny arms to keep his balance, laughing himself, his scraggly brown hair wild in the breeze.
Skinny and lanky and practically Nameless, he had a lot in common with that brown bird.
Seabirds had no names, regardless of color. No Use, no Name, the Book said. And names were what mattered here, thirty-five chilly miles east of Mainland. Mainland maps called the place Fools’ Haven. But the people who lived on it called it Island.
Island was ten miles long, north to south, and seven miles wide, west to east. Its principal town, on the western shore closest to Mainland, was called Town. The town hall was called Town Hall and said so on a plaque over the door. Town Hall was on the main street, which was called Main Street.
Islanders liked names that said exactly what a thing—or a person—was or did, and nothing less.
Islanders liked things (and people) to do what their names said they would. Nothing more.
Islanders who fished were called Fisher. Others had names like Carpenter, Merchant, Tailor, and Miller. So what would you expect of a thirteen-year-old foundling called Medford Runyuin?
In fact, you might want to keep your eye on him. And you’d be right, but so far Medford was the only one who knew that for sure.
Beside him, Prudy plunged her hand into a retreating wave, one blond braid dipping into the water. "Ooo, look," she said, something in her hand. When a new wave hit she swooshed the thing around to get the sand off.
It turned out to be a Baitsnail shell three inches long, glistening white with pale pink stripes, its tail a perfect funnel, not a chip on it.
"’Tis the best yet," Prudy said.
"Let’s see it," Medford said, holding out his hand.
The stripes spiraled into a point at the top. The inside of the shell had its own design, fainter and more delicate. If this were a piece of wood, he’d know just the right blade and just the right amount of pressure that would bring out those spirals, make them—
He shuddered and dropped the shell into Prudy’s hand as if it burned his fingers.
Unnameable thoughts again.
The Book never defined Unnameable. It just figured you knew. Medford did know, but he forgot sometimes. He shook the unwanted thoughts out of his head, breathing deep for calm as the Book suggested.
The calm didn’t last. It never did.
"Med-ford Run-you-in," called a hated voice from behind him. But he and Prudy had been the only young ones on the beach when they’d arrived. He’d checked, first thing.
"Run-you-in, let’s run you out," the voice said. Other voices snickered, although it could just have been the waves.
Medford decided to ignore them. He didn’t turn around. He pretended he didn’t know anyone named Arvid Tanner, and he could tell Prudy was doing the same. She was examining her new shell as if it had a Use.
"Been sawing your hair off with your knife again, I see," Arvid’s voice said, closer and louder. "Raggedy Runyuin." Those were definitely other voices, laughing.
Yet again, Medford considered growing his hair into a pigtail. Medford’s foster father, Boyce Carver, always said a pigtail tickled his neck and the stray hairs got in his eyes when he was working. A pigtail probably would tickle. But it might be better, just for a little while, to look like everyone else.
"Ain’t you scared, standing in the water like that?" a second voice churgled. That was Hazel Forester, who found it difficult to talk without giggling. He imagined her chins wobbling. "You might get drownded like your parents."
"Who sails without a chart?" Arvid said. "Nameless Mainlanders, that’s who."
"Raggedy don’t care about duh wahder." This from Arvid’s brother, Fordy, who always sounded as if he had a cold in his nose. "He’d just wash back id od a plank like he did the first tibe."
Someone splashed water onto Medford’s back. "Plank Baby, Plank Baby," Fordy chanted. Another splash.
It sounded like just the three of them but that was enough. Arvid had an unfailing sense of what would hurt most, whether it was a finger between the ribs or a tale flung across three rows of desks in Book Learning. Fordy and Hazel either led the admiring laughter or blocked the way so you couldn’t run.
"I heard what you and Run-you-out get up to on that secret island of yours, Prudy." Arvid again. "Hazel says her ma’d never let her sneak off like that with a raggedy, Nameless—"
Prudy whirled and kicked water in Arvid’s long, ¬freckled face. It was a good, soaking splash, one in a thousand, and when he turned away to wipe the salt out of his eyes she kicked him in the seat of his linsey-woolsey knee breeches.
Several things happened then.
Arvid fell nose-down just after a wave went out and didn’t quite get up in time to miss the next wave coming in. It slapped him in the face and he went down again. Now ...