My First Life
I SHALL NEVER forget the day my first life ended.
Not that my next life began right away after that. For a fuzzy while, I
hovered between them, not certain where to land.
But for now, let me tell you about that first last day.
JERIAH AND I were about eleven, best as we can figure. Gran didn’t
remember when we were born, and Pa never talked about it. But we were
about the same age as our friend Mayne, and he was almost twelve.
He and Jeriah found me near the cave that morning. You see, my grown
brother Ibro was at the house. He didn’t live there, but he hung
around sometimes, like he was hiding from something. And when he was
there, it wasn’t wise for a girl to be anywhere nearby. That’s why
I’d spent the night in the cave.
When Riah and Mayne canoed around the bend, I was high up a tallpole
tree picking papes for breakfast.
Riah and I had found the cave one time when Pa sent him out with two
baskets to fill with papefruits. Pa didn’t send me, of course. As far
as he was concerned, I didn’t exist. But he didn’t care if I helped.
Everybody knows papevines climb the trees that grow along the lower part
of the sharpfall. Sometimes you’ll find them elsewhere, but they like
the water best. So we’d canoed along the water’s edge, searching out
the rounded, green-and-white foliage that wrapped around the tree
trunks, looking for pods of pink fruit high in the branches. We only
found a few here and there, and it took all day to fill those two
baskets. But we also found the cave hidden behind a place where water
cascaded down from above.
On the morning in question, Riah couldn’t see me up in the tree’s
umbrella, but he always called whenever he approached, so I’d know who
was coming. “Jem!”
I’d seen them a mile off. “What ya want?”
Riah didn’t answer. Just steered the canoe toward my voice. When they
reached the bank, Mayne grabbed a rope and stepped off the bow seat onto
a rock. While he tied the canoe to a scrawny tree, Riah climbed out and
shaded his eyes with his hand, scanning the slope. “Pa’s off
I didn’t move. “So?”
“So we have to get the skinning shed cleared out and the soaking pots
ready before he gets home.”
The pain in my gut, always there those days, twisted and tightened till
I thought I’d fall out of the tree. “I ain’t goin’ home.”
I’d stay up there for a week if it kept me from Ibro.
Riah’s gaze had been searching all that time, but it zeroed in on me
now. “Ibro ain’t there. Gran had him go with her to get a load of
I relaxed a little, though my gut still cramped. “What do you need me
for?” I knew the answer, but had to ask.
“Takes two.” His tone implied I was stupid for asking.
“Only ’cause you’re a gel eel.”
Mayne climbed the steep slope. “I’d help, but Ma likes me to be
there when she gets home from work.”
Holding a pod of papes in my teeth, I shinned down the tree, trying not
to wonder what it would be like to have a ma. Especially one who wanted
you around. “Riah don’t need your help anyway. Or he wouldn’t, if
he weren’t such a sliming gel eel.”
Riah snorted. “If I am, so are you, ’cause we’re twins,
“Wish I could forget.”
I handed Riah the papes. He and Mayne plucked them from the stems and
ate them as we picked our way along the steep slope through brush and
over rocks. After pulling off the last pink fruit, Mayne tossed the
pod’s gnarled skeleton into the water below, where it floated on its
back like a big dead spider.
I DON’T FIGURE you’ve ever been to Freemansland, and probably most
of what you’ve heard about it is wrong. So let me tell you what it’s
It’s true that it’s an island, and not a natural one. In the distant
past, some unknown people built it for a purpose long since forgotten.
The land itself was long forgotten after the last great war centuries
ago that just about wiped out everyone. It took the rest of the world a
long time to find us again—and we wished they never had.
Freemansland is an uneven oval shape, built in six levels. At the base,
it’s about 400 kilometers across and 350 wide. The highest level, the
smallest, is flat on top like a table, with sheer rocky sides all
around. This steep, almost-vertical wall, called a sharpfall, plunges
about 1700 meters and ends at a moat of sorts. The stillwater, so called
because there’s no current and it’s not much affected by tides,
wraps around the whole tabletop in a watery band about a kilometer and a
half wide and up to fifteen meters deep.
A high rock rim around the outside edge holds in the stillwater, except
for overflow areas where it pours down to the next level. Each level is
the same—a sharpfall going up to the level above, with a wide
stillwater at the foot. Except that the lowest sharpfall ends at the
On the day I’m telling you about, Freemansland was all I knew, and all
I wanted to know. As far as I was concerned, Freemansland was all there
Though most of the things you hear about the place aren’t true, it
does live up to its nickname, The Land of Many Mysteries. But I was
learning its secrets. If I wished for anything back then, it was to
learn more of them.
Well, okay, there were other things I’d have liked. To not be scared
anymore, for instance, or in pain. I didn’t know why I hurt all the
time, but it seemed to be getting worse. Sometimes I’d be too sick to
eat. Sometimes my vision blurred. And a couple of times—I never told
Riah, but I’m telling you now—sometimes everything would go dark,
and silent, and I wouldn’t know a thing until it all came back a while
later, with me wondering what had happened.
If I knew more of Freemansland’s secrets, then I’d know what was
wrong with me and how to fix it. Just like I’d learned what I could
eat and what was poisonous. How to smear my body with a mixture of mud,
rufflemint, and burrowrat dung so the dragons couldn’t smell me. How
to make a paste of barbweed and charcoal to soothe the yellow rash. How
to move so I wouldn’t be seen or heard by predator or prey, and how to
enter and leave a place without leaving a sign I’d been there. Those
were the secrets I knew.
I hoped if I learned more of Freemansland’s secrets, maybe I’d know
how to kill whatever was inside me, killing me, before there was nothing
left to save.
THE BOYS AND I didn’t speak as we scrambled across the rocks, because
the water made so much noise rushing from above and pouring into the
stillwater below. With that constant roar and the smoky mist swirling,
it was like having a dragon that never slept guarding my cave. If I
wanted a fire, though, I had to provide it, because the water dragon
couldn’t produce a flame.
Bare toes clinging to the stony sharpfall, we edged along until we came
to an opening in the rock, kind of like a doorway. We passed through,
down a short, dark passage, and into the indentation in the wall that
was my cave. There was a big opening where you could see the water
falling from above, but a tumble of rocks made a sort of barricade where
you weren’t likely to roll off the ledge in your sleep. I had space to
lie down, and a little niche where I could keep a few things. Not that I
In the center, a fire still smoldered. I didn’t need it for heat,
because it never gets cold on that level. In fact, people in other parts
of the world think it unbearably hot.
I didn’t need it for cooking, because when I was hungry, I simply ate
whatever I found, however I found it.
No, sometimes I just wanted a fire for company. It wasn’t much, but it
was better than nobody.
Mayne spied the whisky bottle against the wall. “Whatcha got there?”
“Just something Riah got for me.” I was glad he didn’t pick it up,
or I’d have had to punch him. I didn’t want him to think I was a
drunk like Pa, or worse yet, like Ibro. But I needed the whisky now and
then when the pain got real bad. That “now and then” had gotten
pretty often lately, and there wasn’t much left in the bottle. I’d
have to steal another one soon, if I couldn’t get Riah to do it for
To distract Mayne from the whisky, I turned to my brother. “You
wouldn’t’a found me if I’d kept quiet. You’d never’a’ seen
me in that tree.”
Riah snorted. “I can always find you.”
“When I let you. If I wanted to hide from you, I could.”
“You smell like a rotting fish. I could find you by scent.”
That might have been close to the truth, and my blood boiled. “Oh,
yeah? Well, when you go through the woods, you leave a trail like a herd
of rock sheep. A blind man could track you.”
Mayne stood by chuckling as we argued. But when we were about to come to
blows, he raised his hand. “Let’s prove it.”
We turned on him as one. “Prove what?”
“How good we all are at Stealth.”
I could see Riah liked the idea as much as I did. The fact was, we’d
played the game before, just the two of us, but it would be fun to pit
our skills against Mayne’s. We knew we were better than him in both
hiding and seeking.
So we worked out the rules: first Riah and Mayne would take off in
different directions. They couldn’t use the canoe, and they couldn’t
stay in the water the whole time—at one point, they had to walk on dry
ground. I’d give them about a quarter-hour head start, and then I’d
track them. If I hadn’t found them both by the time the sun was
directly over the water, we’d meet back at the canoe. Then I’d take
off, and they’d try to find me.
As I said, Jeriah and I had played this before, and I pretty much knew
where he’d go. So when it was time for me to track them, I went
looking for Mayne first.
Funny thing, though, I didn’t find him until I decided I was running
out of time and had better look for Jeriah instead. That’s when I
spied Mayne wedged between two boulders and behind a tall stand of
hammergrass. Something about the shape of that clump didn’t seem
right. I stared more intently and could just make out the outline of his
head and left shoulder as he crouched with his back toward me. I’d
been moving quietly and didn’t think he’d heard me.
I crept around one of the boulders and came at him from the front. I
couldn’t see through the grass, but I knew he was there, so I reached
in and grabbed whatever I could. Which turned out to be his ear. And at
the same time I whispered, “Shh!”
He didn’t say anything. Just reached up and took my hand off his
ear—and held my hand.
Hmm. That was weird. For some reason I liked it. Instead of pulling
away, I leaned a little closer and whispered, “Let’s find Riah
He gave my hand a squeeze then let go. I stepped back so he could crawl
out of the grass. Then he stood beside me and lifted his eyebrows as if
asking a question.
I pointed up the sharpfall, and he nodded, letting me lead the way in
tracking Jeriah. Or, I guess that’s what you call it. It wasn’t so
much tracking him as it was knowing him. Knowing how he thought, how
he’d swerve to avoid the soft ground here where it would leave
footprints, and climb the steeper way there, because a pursuer would
expect him to choose the easier path. By anticipating his movements, I
followed him, until after a few minutes I spotted him on a rock at the
water’s edge, just ready to jump in.
“Gotcha!” I yelled, with Mayne echoing the call behind me.
Riah paused and turned toward our voices. He was far enough away that I
couldn’t hear his expletive, but his body language was clear. He was
not happy to have been caught.
He waited on the rock while we clambered down toward him, not speaking
until we were in hearing range. “You Cityslime, Mayne. Slotting,
slimy, sotter. Why’d you turn against me?”
“Didn’t.” Mayne chuckled. “She found me first. I just followed
for somethin’ to do.” Squinting, he shaded his eyes and glanced at
the sun. “But we’ll get her back. It’s highsun, so it’s her turn
to hide now.”
Without answering, Riah watched something in a tree as we neared it.
“Grab that lizard, Jem.”
I glanced left, and the corner of my eye caught a varana, barely visible
against the rough tree bark. Quick as lightning, I spun and pinned the
lizard’s head to the tree with one hand, then grabbed its body with
the other and tossed it down to Riah. “Catch!”
It flew spread-eagle, not even wriggling. I wanted him to miss it so I
could laugh at him, but he snatched it out of the air and smashed its
head on a rock before it knew what was happening.
He held it up by the tail in triumph. “Who wants lunch?”
Mayne laughed as he skidded the down the slope to Riah’s rock.
“Slithering City, that was a good catch! There’s some doglettuce
over here. I’ll get some.”
Excerpted from "Stillwaters (The Four Lives of J. S. Freeman) (Volume 1)" by Yvonne Anderson. Copyright © 2018 by Yvonne Anderson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.