Illustration by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

ONE: Emma

Cleverness and bravery are absolutely necessary for good adventures.

Emma was a little girl both clever and brave, and destined--so you might think--to do well in any adventure that came her way. But the first adventure Emma had was dreadful.

One day a storm came and swept away everything that Emma had, and everything that Emma knew. When it had done all that, it swept away Emma too.

It might have been a storm with black winds, with thunder and lightning and rising waves. It might have been a storm with terrible anger and policemen coming to the door, and strangers, hospitals, courtrooms, and nightmares. It might have been a storm with soldiers, and fire, and hiding in cellars listening to shooting overhead. There are different kinds of storms.

But Emma faced the storm that swept over her, and found a way to save herself. She kept her head above water, and kept swimming even when she was tired. She didn't think about all the things that might be in the dark. She didn't drift, feeling sorry for herself. When she spotted a floating tree, she pushed herself to swim faster, and soon she caught up to it and was able to climb aboard.

She blew along on the angry water, clinging to a tree trunk, driven by the pitiless wind, but she held tight and kept her wits about her. After a long time she saw land, far away on the horizon.

As she sailed closer, Emma saw a golden wilderness of sand dunes, hills and mountains of bright sand. The wind was kicking up plumes of it, whirling into the sky.

Soon she heard breakers crashing on the shore, and knew it was time to watch out. Whump! The tree trunk ran aground and Emma scrambled free, and crawled out of the waves on her hands and knees. The warm sand above the tideline felt nice, so she lay down there and rested a while. Then she stood up and looked around her.

There was nothing to see but the dunes and the ocean. Emma found herself all alone, with nothing but the dress she had on, in a wilderness of shifting sands.

She wanted to cry; but Emma knew that if she started crying now for everyone and everything she had lost, she would never be able to stop crying. So she dusted herself off instead, and started walking away down the beach to explore. She had no idea where she was. Still, she knew it must be close to where people lived, or had once lived, because of the old pier pilings.

Emma decided to climb up a sand dune. The dunes were quite hig--much taller than they had looked from the open sea--and she thought that if she could look in every direction, she might see a town. She climbed and climbed, wading in the hot sand, up a ripple-sided mountain. But when she got to the top, all she could see, stretching away forever under the noonday sun, were more rippled mountains and steep sliding valleys of sand.

"These aren't just sand dunes," said Emma to herself. "These are The Dunes."

She had once had a book with pictures of The Dunes. It had said that The Dunes were far away, on a wild and lonely seacoast, very hard to find. Very little was known about them. Was there water in the Dunes? Looking at the bright, dry sand, Emma realized that she was very, very thirsty.

As she stood up there in the wind and the sun, wondering what she ought to do, Emma heard a tiny peeping sound. It was just barely there, under the hiss of the wind and the roar of the sea, but it was there. Balancing carefully along the spine of the dune, she walked in the direction from which she supposed the sound was coming. The sound grew clearer, and Emma recognized it for the singing of frogs.

Where there are frogs, there must be water, thought Emma. She hurried along the dune and the sound got louder. She came over the top of the sand-hill, and saw below her a green place where a creek went winding down to the sea. Cattails grew there, and beach myrtles, and dune grass, and blackberry brambles. Emma slid down the high face of the dune and ran to the creek's edge. The peeping of the frogs stopped at once, but Emma could see them now: they were perched all over the blackberry leaves, tiny froglets, green as emeralds and golden-bronze, like jewelery scattered between the white flowers and black or red berries.

Emma cupped her hands and drank the clear water. When she had drunk all she wanted, she picked blackberries and ate them hungrily. The frogs hopped away from her hands to leaves farther away, but didn't seem to mind that she was there otherwise.

Now that I have water, thought Emma, I'd better make myself a house to live in. So she followed the creek back down to the beach, to where all the old shipwreck debris lay scattered. For the next hour she dragged planks and sheets of tin and fiberglass to the creekside, propping them up and leaning them together to make a sort of hut for herself.

During one trip down to the sea's edge, she saw lots of little holes in the wet sand, just the shape of keyholes, and here and there a seagull poking its beak into the sand as though it was digging for something. She smiled to herself. Emma had lived beside the sea before, and she knew what the holes meant. There are clams under those holes, thought Emma, and I can dig some out to eat for dinner.

And that was what she did. When she had finished her house, she dug down with her hands, as the little waves rolled in and splashed her ankles, and caught the big slippery clams that were trying to get away from her by burrowing down deeper into the sand. Soon she had eight of them, like big glassy cobblestones, and she pried them open with a piece of broken boat propeller.

The clams were raw, of course, but Emma was very hungry. It's just like eating sushi, she told herself. She ate them all, and they weren't as bad as you would think, but she decided they would have been better if they were cooked.

This made her think about fire. She would have to build a fire before night came, to keep warm and perhaps to signal any passing ships. Emma knew that people sometimes made fire by rubbing two sticks together. She found the driest sticks she could, far up above the tideline, and rubbed two of them together for what seemed like hours, until her hands were tired and she felt like crying; but she couldn't make fire.

At last she threw down the sticks. "I won't cry," Emma told herself. "I'll look around the shipwrecks some more. Maybe I can find a can of gasoline!"

She searched and searched, and actually it was a good thing Emma didn't find any gasoline, because if she had tried to get a fire going with it, it would probably have exploded. But she found something even better. Lying in a heap of broken plywood and seaweed was a plastic cigarette lighter, which had been lying in the sun so long it had faded to white on one side. Emma wondered if it hadn't been ruined by seawater. She held it up close to her face and flicked the wheel. How happy she was to feel a quick burst of heat, and hear the tiny hiss!

So as the long evening shadows began to stretch over the dunes, Emma made a fire just outside her hut, feeding it carefully at first with dry dune grass and then putting on bigger pieces of driftwood. For a long time she watched the fire, as the red sun sank down and the purple night fell. The stars came out, and a bright crescent moon hung above the sea and threw a track of silver on the calm water. Emma watched the moon on the water and didn't feel quite so lonely. It was almost as though the moon were a person out there, smiling at her and telling her not to be scared.

She watched the sea, hoping to see the lights of ships. She wondered where she would go, if a ship did rescue her. I have no place of my own anymore, she thought, but maybe I can make one.

After a while Emma put her head on her arms and slept, listening to the frogs and the soft boom of the surf.

The storm hadn't taken everything she had, after all. It could never take away her brave heart, or her cleverness.

  • Back To The Hotel Under the Sand

  • About the Work of Kage Baker

  • About The Author

  • To Mail The Author:[E-Mail]