The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2022 Winners Anthology, Tales from the Deep Beyond here.
“The Archer” by Abby Ketchum, Roosevelt Middle School
Second Place, Middle School Level, 2022
By Abby Ketchum
Roosevelt Middle School
Sun shines across my knuckles, like they’re sprinkled with flakes of gold, buried under stars. As I spend most of every single day outside, under the sun and the sky, the blanket of heat and the yellow curves that are added to my body have become as normal to my body as skin. I feel sometimes it is like the sun has taken me to be its daughter. A mass of light loves me more than my own father.
Of course, I think anyone could love me more than my own father. The only thing he’s ever given me is the way my body moves, my dark hair, and the wooden bow that’s defined my worth for longer than I can remember. Since he put the bow in my hands, taught me how to shoot the arrows, and shut the palace doors in my face, I haven’t known him.
Every morning before sunrise, I pull my hair up so I’m not reminded of him, I put on a simple brown tunic and pants, and I leave out my window with the bow in my hand and the arrows on my back. I do not return until after sunset, and each time I hear my father speaking behind his door it sounds as if he’s aged one hundred years since the day before. I’m living with nothing to live for anymore. Not even my own blood.
Today, the sun feels even more sweltering than it did the day before. I’ve lost all concept of time since I’ve become no one but a girl with endless arrows and endless time, so I use temperature and light to create a reality for no one but myself. Yesterday, it was the longest day of the year. Today, I know it will get the littlest bit shorter, and it will continue until the shortest day of the year, and the days will then get longer.
I drop my arrows, the strap catching on dry tree bark before they land on the ground and a cloud of dry soil rises up around it. The leather bag is stained with water and dirt and sun. I wait a moment, staring at the horizon and the orange sky before turning back to grab one of the arrows. It fits between my fingers like I was born with it there, born with the right bones and the ability to shoot the arrows straight in front of me.
That’s what I do. Every single day. From dawn to dusk. I shoot. And shoot. And shoot. I stand at the edge of the island, the island I’ve never left, the island I was born on. The island my mother died on. The island I’ve shot off of every single day since I could walk because the only thing my father loved more than the ocean waves was my mother. And I killed her.
The world has been plagued, since years before I was born, with warriors who fight just because they are born with far more drive than others. Warriors have taken over continents, destroyed land, destroyed families. Warriors have ruled over those who were once normal, who could once walk the streets and walk home without fear of being stopped by a blade and cut to pieces before even seeing their mother again. Warriors who couldn’t stop my father.
My father was never a warrior. He was normal. Thin, bony, pale, and fragile. Exactly the kind of man a warrior would take just five minutes out of their day to kill and discard, forget about. Leave to bleed. But that never stopped him from trying, from thinking that maybe he could save himself, do something that everyone else had given up on. Because along with being much more like a painted piece of glass than a warrior, he had hope. Drive, but a different kind. One to save, not one to kill.
The only person he had was my mother. His lover. The only person he ever trusted. He met her, they fell in love, they fell in love so much so they would never be able to bear if the other died and the whole world turned blurry save for their faces. So they left. Neither of them had anyone else, no mother or father or sister or brother. My father took my mother’s hand, which by then had molded to fit hers with all of their touches, all of their meetings behind closed doors once curfew hit and warriors patrolled the streets of their town. I often think that I am like my father, and my arrows are like my mother. The only thing I have left. The only thing that fits me.
My parents found their small boat on this island that I am on now after days of traveling over the waves. It was small, it was seemingly empty, but they were free from the icy grip the warriors had on them. They looked at one another and smiled so wide before they ran away from the boat, bare feet hitting the warm sand and arms tangled in their clothes that were being blown up from the wind.
What happened next, I never figured out an explanation for. I had to use what my father always said. A palace appeared in the center of the island one day, after endless days of both my parents sleeping on the sand under dots of stars. Neither my mother or father was skeptical of it, neither thought anything of an intricately carved building of marble appearing like the moon does each night. My parents made a home out of the palace, every cupboard filled with bread and water and fruit, every room with different furniture. Soon after, my mother discovered that she was pregnant with me. She didn’t know how long she had been, but when she took off her salt water stained dress for the first time in months, she noticed immediately.
My father thought it was his child. My mother never told him about the warrior she had loved before him, although it was only for a short time. It wasn’t until months later, almost when I was born, that my father figured it out. Early one morning, warriors attacked the island, calling out that they were here for the warrior child. My mother and father could either give me up to them and let me be trained as a warrior, or I could be killed along with them. My father, being the stubborn man he was, tried to grab my mother and run back to the palace, but she wouldn’t move. She stood, feet sinking into the sand, eyes wide at the ship just in front of her. Before my father could tell her to move, tell her that keeping her blue eyes wide at a threat would do nothing, she was shot. An arrow straight through her throat.
The warriors thought my mother bleeding out and her body stopping would kill me. They were fools, underestimating someone who will grow up to be just as strong as they are. Although my mother was dead, slung over my father’s arms with his tears dripping onto her body and the ship going away in the distance, he did not want me to die. In a brash act of what I always thought was love, but could also easily be exchanged for insanity, he took the arrow out of my mother’s throat and cut her stomach. I was alive. She was not.
I know every single detail of everything that happened between my mother and father only because when I return from shooting every night, my father is announcing it to himself like a script. He doesn’t want to forget. He does want to forget me. That’s why he sends me away, never speaks to me, only lets me touch the one thing that killed the woman he loved and the one thing that brought me to life.
I drop my arm to my side, and my bow hits my thigh. The sun has just hit its highest point in the sky. I squint my eyes, remembering too that their blue is courtesy of my mother. I have never seen my mother, but through my father’s words my mind has become an artist. She was shorter than him, plumper, too. Her skin was a beautiful brown, her hair a lighter color. Her cheeks and her collarbone and her shoulders, decorated with freckles. I have freckles myself, and more gather each day from the sunlight.
My stomach stings with hunger. But I know I can’t go inside until the darkness comes. Otherwise, I would run out the food I keep stashed in the floor underneath my bed. The supply is already growing smaller again. I have been more hungry lately. I’m getting taller, my legs longer.
Waves lap against my feet. I am always hot, but some days I go close enough to the water to let it cool me. I am afraid of the water, I usually keep my distance.
“Hello,” I find myself whispering in surprise. A small crab has crawled up along with a wave, running around the sand. I spin around to follow it, water rising up against my ankles. And as if the word I had just spoken wasn’t strange enough for me, my lips turn up into a smile as well. I stay with my back turned to the ocean, a warm breeze tangling my hair up my neck. The crab is still digging its way through the sand. A blink of color on the dull tones that make up my days.
I don’t know what happens then, but I find myself dropping my bow in the sand and walking. I lean down, brushing my hair out of my eyes, and put my hand on the sand, palm up, in front of the crab. I don’t expect it to go near me, touch me or anything. I still cock my head at its strange movements, the way its legs twist.
“Oh!” I say in surprise. The crab has climbed on my fingers. Although after a second I’m more surprised at the sound of my voice than the crab. I rarely speak. Only to myself, and only when there’s a reason to. I fear that if I speak too much, it will become something I enjoy and I will want to speak to other people. Like my father.
My eyes are wide with wonder as I turn my hand and the crab follows, moving with my fingers. I move them up and down, in circles, and the crab goes with them. The universe could be in my command, if I could hold it.
My name is never spoken. Never.
So to hear it causes my heart to move faster, to skip beats, to trip over itself in a hurry.
To hear it causes me to jump in surprise, for my hand to shake the crab’s needy claws off and for the crab to be swept away. For tears to spring in my eyes as I stare at the white foam capping the waves when I realize I will never see the crab again.
To hear it sends my entire body into a spiral. Because it could only be one person, one voice, one thing that they want. My father wants something. He wants something so desperately that he spoke the name he said to me once when he gave me my bow and my arrows, told me to become an archer and never a warrior, when he shut the door to his bedroom and never opened it to me again.
My bow is in my hand, my arrows slung over my shoulder, the strap caught on my shoulder blade, as I walk back towards the palace so fast the world around me begins to spin. Colors and shapes blend together with the unfamiliarity of going back home so early in the day. Only two dozen arrows have been shot. I breathe heavier, trying to calm my body. I need to open the door, step through it, touch the floors to my bare skin and see what my father needs before I go insane at my name bounding back through my ears. His voice. I never remembered his voice. I do now. It is far too quiet to belong to him. At least, that’s what I would think. I have not met him since I was a quarter of the age I am now.
I can hear someone else’s breathing now. Something I have never heard. It’s muffled through wood, but it is still alive. Still pulsing. Still waiting.
“Audra? Is that you?”
I cry out in shock. I cup my hands over my mouth, tears slipping under my fingers. The strap of my arrows falls into the crook of my elbow, and my bow has already clattered to the floor. I thought I would die on the beach, die having heard no one’s voice but my own, die having to make up what my parents even looked like.
I cannot go in. Not now. What if he is holding a bow of his own? What if he was as sick as the warriors, what if he made an archer just to kill her with the only thing she’d ever known?
A pause in both of our breathing.
“Why would I see you?” I have to wipe my nose. My eyes. My trembling lips. “Why now?”
“Audra,” he says, “I’m dying.”
At this, my fingers are gripping the silver door handle.
“Good. Now push it open.”
I do. I open up to my father for the first time in twelve years.
My heart has left my chest. Fallen through my ribs and out of my stomach and rolled onto the floor, rocking by his bedside. I bring my eyes up to the man in the bed.
His cheek bones are so visible, that if his skin were any paler I would think I was looking at a skeleton. His hair is so gray, his eyes so sunken.
“Audra, I’m sorry,” he rasps out the second my breath catches when I’m finished taking him in. “I loved your mother . . . so much.”
“I know,” I say, so quietly I wonder if he is even able to hear it at this point in his life. “You did love her. So much so you couldn’t stand looking at me.”
I expect him to deny it.
“You look so much like her. From the moment I took you away from her and pushed her out to the ocean, from the second you opened your eyes, I only saw her. It was like I was looking at paintings of her and I could not breathe when I saw you.”
“If I had seen you any time before now, I guarantee you, I would have stopped breathing then, too.” I purse my lips.
His eyes shut. Slowly. “I know.”
My eyes are like rocks I have read about, my tears waterfalls rolling off of them, unable to stop, unable to slow. I never loved my father and I will not start now, but looking at him has the same feel as looking in a mirror and watching myself die. I see myself in him, too, and I know he sees himself in me. I look at my reflection only when I need to, as I’ve grown to hate it, because it’s the reason I have been alone my entire life. I only look at my reflection in spoons and door handles, in puddles of water I gather in my hands.
I am no one right now but my father’s child. I was never anyone but his child because I never did anything but what he told me to. I became his archer.
“Audra, listen, I want you to stay here, to never give in to them,” my father says. “Even if I’m not here. Please, it was your mother’s wish as well.”
I hate how he is using her. If he did love her, he would cherish the last thing left of her, her child, her own blood and bone. If he did love her, he would let the child do what she wanted. If he did love me, then he would let me do what I was born to. He doesn’t know what I want. He doesn’t know what I would do.
“Okay, I won’t give in,” I lie. I am by his bedside now, picking up my heart and shoving it back in my chest in a new position where it now has a shield stronger than stone as I place my hand on my father’s cheek.
I watch his eyes close and vow silently to disobey him with everything I have left in me as he takes his last breath. Leaving the archer behind, no longer his, with no one left but her arrows and strength.