This story is by Kayla Aldan and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
We were sent to the island to die.
A gurgling river of viscous fire oozes from a sore in the earth and splits into two winding arms that spread out a ways before coming together again. The patch of land surrounded by the embrace of the red river is where criminals are banished.
We were dropped onto the island from above by the guardians of the Great City. The impenetrable skin of the dragons protects them from the river’s heat. The beasts are often seen drinking from the glowing river, and they are known to swim in its depths.
Some say we are the lucky ones to be exiled here. Murderers, rapists, traitors, and war prisoners are fed to the dragons, and the law does not discriminate—men and women charged with any of the great crimes become meals for the winged reptiles. Men and women charged with the lesser crimes are added to the island’s population.
Island life is harsh—we receive no assistance from those living in the city, nor are we permitted to bring anything other than the clothes we’re wearing on the day we’re sentenced. Food is scarce—the animals that live here include insects and the occasional bird. Plants are stunted and tough to eat. The water in the hot spring pools boils—it must be scooped out in the skulls of the departed and left to cool before we can drink it or wash with it. Many who are brought in die within a week. The death of an islander means a hearty meal. We use the bones and clothes of the departed to build and maintain shelters. We also patch our clothes with remaining cloth.
Survival may be tough, but it does not hinder amorous activities. Many women here show signs of being with child—I myself am approaching my ninth moon, which is about as long as I’ve been here. We try to prevent pregnancies as best we can, but nothing is foolproof. I believed myself to be barren before I was brought here—my partner and I never succeeded in expanding our family.
I heard stories when I arrived of what happened here to women and their babies but since I’ve been here, I’ve witnessed worse—no child will survive here. Most of the time, poor nutrition leads to the natural miscarriage of the baby. The women who carry long enough to labor are the ones who suffer most. Few survive the birth, and their babies die with them, if they weren’t born dead, for no one here will care for another’s baby when we know there’s no hope.
A few women who survive do try to care for their babies, but none of the infants ever live beyond three moons. Even now, there’s a mother here who birthed her son seven moons past, and he died within his first moon. She carries him with her while singing lullabies and continues to try and convince him to suckle. The arid environment mummified his body, and one might mistake him for a sleeping infant.
If I do not die in labor, I know my baby will, regardless of how hard I try to keep him or her alive. And so, I am faced with a choice I have seen other women make since I’ve been here. I can choose to sacrifice my newborn to the gods in repentance for my crime, thus ensuring that my child is spared from the effects of a slow and agonizing death from starvation. Or, I can choose to petition one of the dragons to deliver my baby to the Great City.
This option is not without risk. A woman who petitions a dragon may be eaten by the dragon. The dragons have also been known to trick the woman by agreeing to transport her infant only to eat the baby in front of her or drop the newborn in the red river. We mean nothing to these fire-breathing beasts. Since I have been here, no child has been flown to the Great City. I don’t even know what would happen to my baby if he or she were taken there—would a family accept the responsibility? Or, would my baby’s fate still be death? I look over toward the west where the sun is halfway to the horizon—one of the dragons is flying over the vast sea in the direction of one of the Great City’s enemies, perhaps in a declaration of war.
As I carry two more skulls to my shelter, I feel a cramp in my side. I set them with the others and cover them with pieces of tanned skin to help prevent evaporation. I cry out and clutch my belly. Warm liquid runs down my legs. My knees are shaking. I reach out for the boulder next to my shelter. My breathing is ragged, and I can feel sweat sliding through the layer of dust on my skin. I steady myself and, while keeping one hand on the boulder, I take slow steps around it. My other hand remains on my belly. I continue like this until long after the sun has left the sky, and the moon is high above me. When infant screams pierce the night’s silence, I collapse with tears running down my face.
The cries continue for a bit before I make any effort to clean my baby. I find the black glass blade I had fashioned from one of the rocks on the island and cut through my newborn’s connection to the afterbirth. I take some of the rags I had set aside, soak them in the skulls of water I had collected, and start wiping down my little girl. She wriggles and cries as I wrap her in a ragged and dull red piece of cloth. I pick her up and fall asleep from exhaustion against the boulder with her screaming in my arms.
I awake with the sun as it peaks over the craggy mountains in the distance. I take my time getting up, so I don’t wake my baby whose crying tired her out, and head toward the fiery river. I walked for a while, and I felt the heat from the river before I saw it. One of the crimson dragons was crouched by the riverbank quenching its thirst. I took a few more steps and knelt down.
“Wise dragon—I ask for your council.” The beast lifted its head; the liquid fire glistened against the scales around its mouth.
“What would an insignificant pest want with my council?” he hissed.
“I do not want my child to die of starvation—”
“Then kill it quickly and be done with it.” Red-orange droplets fell from the dragon’s mouth.
“I have considered that—”
“Then why seek my council, pest?” His tail flicked, and his nostrils flared.
“I-is there a way to have her taken to the Great City?”
The dragon spread his enormous wings and crossed the river with a single swoop. The ground rumbled under the weight of his landing, and he extended his neck out to look at me through one of his golden eyes.
“What do you think?”
“I was wondering if you would take her.”
The dragon threw his head back and laughed. “Are you so foolish as to not heed the warnings of your fellow pests? We owe you no allegiance! What makes you think you can trust me to hold my word?”
I stood up. “In exchange for taking my little girl to the Great City, I offer myself up as a meal for you.”
The dragon’s eyes flickered. “And how can you be sure I’ll uphold my end of the bargain?”
“I give you my baby and watch you fly her to the city while I wait here for you to come back for me.”
“You do realize there’s nothing stopping me from eating both of you right now. Why should I do this for you?”
“My baby’s alive—she’s already made it farther than many of the other babies born here. And, she’s not a criminal. I may be one, and my fate is tied to this island—why must hers be?” I felt tears threatening to roll down my cheeks. I stared at the dragon while I waited for him to speak.
“You’re willing to offer up your life in exchange for me to fly your offspring to the city?”
The dragon extended one of his clawed feet.
“Thank you,” I said as I bowed to the dragon. I kissed my little girl on the head and placed her in the dragon’s outstretched palm. His talons curled around her, and he ascended into the sky heading toward the Great City. I watched him get smaller and descend on the city’s buildings. He was back before long and wasted no time snatching me in his jaws. As he bit down, I saw a dull red thread wrapped around one of his teeth.