Woman of a Thousand Secrets

Barbara Wood

St. Martin's Griffin

Chapter One

Revenge was in Macu’s heart as he searched for the girl who had humiliated his brother.

Pretending to be interested in her as a prospective bride, he asked about Tonina in the village and was told that she could be found on the beach of the western lagoon, where the pearl divers were hauling in their oyster catch for the day.

Macu’s brother, who was at that moment on the other side of the island with their canoe, had begged Macu not to go. It was bad enough a girl had bested him in a swimming contest, but Macu exacting revenge would only make matters worse. "She is a better swimmer," Awak had said. "You cannot beat her, Brother." But twenty-two-year-old Macu of nearby Half Moon Island was proud and vain and despised girls who thought they were better than men.

Pearl Island was a small, verdant dot on the green sea off the western tip of a landmass that would one day be called Cuba, and it had only two accessible harbors: the western lagoon and a cove on the northern tip, where Macu and his friends had paddled their canoe between rocky shoals and made landfall on a tiny beach. From there, a trail led through dense trees and brush to a lively, bustling village where children played, women stirred cooking pots, and men toiled in tobacco-drying sheds.

As Macu marched through the settlement and down to the beach, he was followed by an excited entourage. He ignored the chatter as he curled his hands into fists, vowing to exact revenge. He strode with a firm step across the hot white sand so that egrets and pelicans flew up out of his way, and men looked up, startled, from their work repairing canoes and fishing nets. Naked children digging for clams in the calm, warm surf of the peaceful lagoon watched in curiosity as the stranger marched past.

Macu was dark brown, stocky and muscular, his nearly naked body scarred and tattooed with myriad symbols and decorations. His black hair hung long, indicating his unmarried state, and besides a loincloth made of woven palm fibers he wore numerous necklaces and protective amulets. That he was an outsider was evident by the clan tattoo on his forehead. The group that followed him beneath the warm tropical sun, traipsing over the wide swath of sand between the lime green lagoon and the lush inland jungle, was made up of the young men who had accompanied him from Half Moon Island and a few villagers who had abandoned their labors as they sensed an afternoon’s diversion.

A man was showing interest in poor, plain Tonina!

The pearl divers were clustered at the end of the beach where a rocky cliff rose against the sea. Ranging in age from twelve to twenty-three, the girls laughed and joked, their dark brown bodies glistening with seawater, as they unloaded nets of oysters from their canoes, piling the shells onto the cool sand beneath shady coconut palms. Although Macu had never met or seen the girl he had come to challenge, he was able to spot her at once. "She isn’t beautiful," his brother had said. "In fact, she’s homely." He had gone on to describe her, and now Macu’s eyes went straight to the grass-skirted girl called Tonina.

His brother was right. Although Tonina’s hair was worn long and loose and decorated with many shells, and although her face and arms were painted with myriad white symbols and designs, she was not at all fetching. No wonder she was still unmarried. Everything about Tonina was wrong. Her coloring was too light, her hips too narrow, her waist too slender, and, by the gods, Awak had spoken the truth: The girl was tall. If Macu had not seen the swelling breasts, golden-skinned and still wet from her dive, he might have suspected she was a man.

Macu raised a hand in friendly greeting and called, "Hello!"

The girls turned and, taking stock of the attractive young man, immediately adopted flirtatious attitudes.

Tonina paid no attention at first—young men never looked at her—until she realized in shock that the charming smile was directed at her. She wondered why, having no idea that he was the brother of a young man she had bested at swimming days ago.

As Macu took the mea sure of this tall, plain girl, he thought of his cunning plan to get back at her for what she had done to Awak. A plan that involved the ghost of an ancient sea monster.

All the nearby islands knew the legend of the beast that slept in a forbidden area of Pearl Island’s lagoon, near the opening in the barrier reef, where calm water met the choppy sea. It was said that the skeleton of an enormous sea monster occupied the ocean floor there, and that the monster’s ghost haunted the waters.

No one swam there, ever.

Because Macu had not grown up here, fear of the sea monster’s spirit had not been cultivated in him. But he knew that Tonina had lived her life hearing about the ghost and would be terrified to swim near it. Beneath the warm afternoon sun, as trade winds whispered through the swaying palm trees and gulls circled overhead, Macu played his role to perfection.

"Are you the one called Tonina?" he asked.

Tonina smiled shyly, unused to male attention. Boys did not like girls taller than themselves, but as Macu was of equal height, she decided he must not mind.

As the pearl divers stood in a group around the two, their curiosity piqued, Macu introduced himself to Tonina and boasted about his skill and prowess at spearfishing, as was the custom when beginning a courtship. He exaggerated his accomplishments as he carefully laid his trap. The islands’ courting ritual involved each prospective partner proving himself or herself.

Secretly pleased with his cleverness, Macu fixed his smiling eyes on Tonina as he said, "Are you brave enough to swim with me to the haunted place and bring back one of the monster’s bones?"

Guama! There is a boy here from Half Moon Island. He is interested in Tonina!"

Tonina’s grandmother, in the tobacco shed rolling leaves into cigars, looked up. "What? A boy? Are you sure?"

"They are at the lagoon. And he is challenging her to a contest!"

Guama blinked. A boy was interested in her granddaughter? Tonina was twenty-one years old and still unmarried. Every spring, when boys and men from other islands came to Pearl Island to select a bride, Tonina was always overlooked. So why was this boy from Half Moon Island suddenly showing such interest? Had the impossible finally happened?

Guama prayed so. The girl must get married, otherwise what sort of life would she have? With no children to raise, no man to cook for, what use was a woman? Tonina was a fine pearl diver, one of the best, but pearl divers did not live long.

As she followed the boy down to the beach, old Guama remembered the swimming contest a few days prior, when Tonina had bested all the boys, even though Guama was always telling her she must let the boys win. Unfortunately, Tonina was cursed with an ingrained honesty that wouldn’t allow her to cheat.

"What sort of contest?" Guama asked now, suddenly suspicious.

"To swim out to the bones of the sea monster."

"Guay!" the old woman cried, voicing her dismay with a word that, in the language of the islanders, conveyed pain, surprise, or distress. She broke into a sprint, running as fast as her ancient legs could go.

To Macu’s shock, Tonina accepted his challenge.

The onlookers gasped. Contests of depth and endurance were daily occurrences—deep water and fierce waves and rip currents did not daunt the islanders—but swimming into haunted waters was something else. Macu had been confident Tonina would refuse the contest, giving him the victory.

But what Macu did not know was that Tonina was not afraid of sea monsters or their ghosts. Nothing in the ocean frightened her. Now he did not know what to do. With all eyes on him, Macu had to reach a swift decision. He could not back down on his own dare, and so he had to go through with a contest in which he had not expected to compete.

His anger flared anew, but he kept it masked as he smiled and said, "Very well!"

Tonina wore the grass skirt all island females wore once they began menstruating. She removed it now, leaving her in a simple cotton modesty apron hanging from a string around her waist. As she followed Macu into the surf, the crowd watched anxiously. No one had ever visited the bones of the monster. Would Macu and Tonina make it back alive?

Guama arrived too late. She could only stand helplessly on the beach and watch the two plunge into the water and swim toward the reef.

Guama’s white hair was combed back into an intricate knot and tied with palm-fiber string, but a few long wisps had escaped the knot and whipped about her face in the tropical breeze. Brushing the hair from her face, she kept her eyes on the swimmers, terrified that this was the final sign. The sign that she had been dreading for six days—ever since the dolphins arrived. And so she wondered now, not for the first time, if Tonina’s unmarried status was a message from the gods. That she was never meant to stay on Pearl Island.

Was that why the gods had been so cruel to Tonina, Guama wondered. Was that why they had created her to be displeasing to a man’s eye? Although the girl laughed easily and possessed a warm, trusting spirit, there was her unfortunate golden coloring, long limbs, slender hips. Guama had tried over the years to conform her adopted granddaughter to the island’s beauty ideal, rubbing tobacco juice into her skin to darken it, fattening her on cassava root to make her plump. But the tan washed off and the fat melted from her lithe form. At each yearly wife-selecting barbicu, men from the other islands always overlooked Tonina so that she still wore the cowry shell belt of maidenhood. A badge of honor for younger girls—the cowry belt symbolized the girl’s virgin state, not to be removed until the wedding night—there came a time when the purity belt became a badge of shame, as it was for Tonina, telling all the world that at the age of twenty-one she was still a virgin, that no man wanted her.

Guama glanced up at the cliff rising above the lagoon and saw her husband at his post, reading the wind and sky and sea for signs of a huracán. An aged, pot bellied man in a palm-fiber loincloth, his wrinkled nut-brown body painted with the symbols of his sacred calling, he was the most important man on the island, more important even than the chief.

Since there was never any way of knowing when a huracán was coming, there was no way to prepare, to hide, and so such storms were known for wiping entire tribes out of existence. But Pearl Island had been blessed with a man who descended from a long line of storm-readers, who possessed the ability to sense a huracán far beyond the horizon, to know how strong it would be, to know when it would make landfall.

Guama saw that her husband’s attention was not upon the horizon, but upon the young people below. And when she saw how intently he stared at Tonina, Guama knew it was because of the dolphins.

Ever since the pair had been seen cavorting beyond the reef, Guama and Huracan had been watching for signs and omens to understand the wish of the gods. Did they want Tonina back? Had she been sent here only temporarily? And are they now, Guama wondered in sudden fear, about to take Tonina from us as she swims into the taboo water?

The lagoon was deep and warm, with gentle currents, the water clear to the sandy bottom where spiny urchins and starfish dwelled. Tonina and Macu swam wordlessly side by side, the shore dropping behind and the great coral reef drawing near. The wave action grew stronger, and kelp beds now appeared. Spurred by anger, Macu pulled ahead, his mind working on ways to humiliate this girl who thought she was better than a man. He dived under the kelp to appear a moment later on the other side.

Tonina stopped swimming and began to tread water as she watched him. She was recalling the many times Guama had advised her to let a boy win a competition. This time I shall do it, Tonina decided. She liked Macu’s smile, and felt a new flutter in her heart at the sudden attention from an attractive stranger. Perhaps, if she let him win, he would come back to Pearl Island and court her until they wed.

And then she would be like everyone else, and accepted at last.

Finally she dived, disappearing from view. But instead of swimming under the kelp bed toward the haunted water, she swam to a sunlit area of the coral reef that was alive with life.

Here she swam with joy, joining the colorful schools of fish that darted this way and that. She floated over coral fans and sponge beds, smiling at a bright golden fish that glided by. Tonina was suddenly happy. The way Macu had looked at her, chosen her! An outcast all her life, shy about her plain looks, Tonina finally felt the joy of receiving a boy’s attention.

Rolling onto her back in the placid water, she looked up at the surface where sunlight swirled and glittered. She would spend another moment here, then swim back to the other side of the kelp and surface before Macu, allowing him to be the winner of the contest.

Macu had sucked lungfuls of air before executing a sharp downward dive. Now a world of wonder filled his eyes, as living coral danced and swayed in dappled sunlight and colorful fish flashed by. When he saw the massive skeleton ahead, faintly illuminated by sunlight filtering through the water, his bowels tightened. The monster really existed. And it was enormous! He cautiously swam closer. The spine of the giant creature lay on the sandy bottom and its ribs curved upward in queer shapes. Strangely, the bones were brown.

His fear turning to curiosity, Macu swam down and placed his hands on a rib. It was made of wood!

His eyes widened. This was no sea creature but a fantastically large canoe. But not a dugout, as the islanders’ canoes were. This vessel had been made from separate wooden planks pieced together, as he had seen in some war canoes. However, this was not of any island manufacture he was familiar with. Who had made it? When had it crashed on this reef?

Something shimmered in the sand. It looked like a jellyfish, yet it was strangely shaped and appeared to be scored with bright green and blue scars. Plucking it up, Macu found the object was as hard as rock, yet transparent.

His lungs tightened. It was time to surface. A current eddied around him, caught his body, and turned it in an arc so that he floated sideways to the boat. When he saw the fearsome head looming over him at the end of a long, arching neck, with open jaws displaying jagged teeth, Macu realized in fright that it was a sea monster after all.

In sudden terror he frantically swam away, still clutching the object he had pulled from the sandy bottom, and in his panic swam blindly into the kelp bed. Flailing his arms and legs, his lungs fighting for air, his chest shooting with pain, he became trapped in the dense tangle of seaweed.

From the beach, Guama watched, tense and anxious. How foolhardy of the boy to challenge Tonina to swim into taboo waters. And how naïve of Tonina to accept. Guama knew that her granddaughter feared nothing in the sea, and while it was true Tonina was under the special protection of dolphin spirits, surely there were limits.

When she saw Tonina resurface at the edge of the kelp bed, Guama sighed with relief. But Macu had yet to surface. Time stretched, and then suddenly Tonina dived back under the kelp bed.

She found Macu entangled and unconscious, floating with vacant, staring eyes, his hair streaming out and drifting gently on the current. Tonina dragged him to the surface, tearing him loose from the clinging leaves and tendrils, and swam back to shore, pulling him along.

Guama was there to meet them, being experienced with drownings. As soon as others pulled Macu onto the sand, she dropped to her knees and placed her hands on his chest. He was not breathing but his heart was still beating. She rolled him onto his side and thumped his back. Then she pried his mouth open, tugged his jaw down, and thumped his back again. She called out the names of various gods, invoking their mercy and their power, while the group stood in anxious silence.

The third thump made him cough. The fourth sent water spewing from his mouth, and he sputtered and hacked and fought for breath.

As Macu’s friends lifted him to his feet, the others stepped back to make way for them to pass. It was a silent group that watched Macu stumble and stagger, aided by comrades, down the beach. And then the young islanders turned to stare at Tonina, who was herself heaving for breath, dripping with seawater.

Slowly, they backed away from her. She had swum in taboo waters. The sea monster had tried to claim Macu, but Tonina had defied the monster.

Guama watched in sadness as the islanders moved away from Tonina, tracing protective signs in the air, and the old woman knew this was the omen she had been watching for, to tell her that it was indeed time for the girl, this precious child who had brought joy to a childless couple, to leave Pearl Island.

The others returned to the village while Tonina, as she had so many times over the years, disappeared into the jungle to be alone. The beach was growing cold with the setting sun, and Guama started to leave when her toe nudged something hard in the sand. She looked down and saw a dead jellyfish lying there, curled into a ball. She frowned. No, not a jellyfish. She picked it up and brushed it off.

The object was still wet, which meant it must have come with Macu and the kelp. She had no idea what it was—hard, and yet not stone or clay, and transparent, with rich colors woven throughout so that it resembled a globule of petrified water with plant life imprisoned within. The shape, however, was familiar, for the object sat in her hand the way a drinking gourd did.

Guama did not know that the wondrous transparent material was called glass, or that it had been hand-blown in a cold-climate land on the other side of the world, called Germany. She could not guess that the goblet had passed from owner to owner until it became the cherished possession of a red-bearded explorer who carried the drinking glass with him in his dragon-prowed ship to a new home called Vinland.

Guama knew none of this, only that she had seen the strange vessel clutched in Macu’s hand when Tonina brought him ashore. And as everything happened for a reason—this Guama believed most deeply— she suspected that this curious object must somehow be tied to Tonina’s destiny. And so she would keep the goblet, to give to her granddaughter.

But as she struck off toward the village, Guama sighed wistfully, because she was reminding herself for the hundredth time that the girl wasn’t really her granddaughter. She was no one’s granddaughter.

Tonina wasn’t even human.

Excerpted from Woman of a Thousand Secrets by Barbara Wood

Copyright © 2008 by Barbara Wood

Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Griffin

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher