Penni creeps up the stairs that wrap around an ancient tree, trying to get to the safety of her bedroom before the rest of her village wakes up. Chirps and clicks echo throughout the trees. Local spirits begin to stir with the rising sun. Waves crash onto the beach, one after another, until the end of time. Just like every other morning, Penni tries to silence the clinking in her bag with every sneaky step she takes. This morning, however, something different happens. Just when Penni thinks she’s snuck into the treehouse successfully, a figure appears in the doorway beside her.
“Hello, my dear,” the woman in the doorway drawls, examining her fingernails coolly. She is Adala Pergola. Her dark and slender frame reaches just in between five and six feet tall. Her wavy black hair is pulled into a bun on top of her head, leaving a few stray tendrils to frame her slim, angular face. “Where have you been?”
The girl fiddles with the strap of her bag. “N-nowhere, mom. I was just collecting fruit for breakfast.” She begins to fidget, causing the contents of her bag to clink noisily.
Adala narrows her eyes. “Is that so? What kind of fruit did you find that makes such noise? Volana.” She flicks two fingers upwards, which causes the bag to lift itself up and flip upside down. An array of seashells and a few pieces of sea glass fall out and hit the floor. “Penni! I can’t believe you were at the beach again! You know the ocean is too dangerous for young girls!”
Penni winces when some of the more delicate shells crack and shatter, but she knows better than to speak out.
Adala’s dark brown eyes lock onto Penni’s necklace. “Where did you get that?” She leans in to get a better look, causing Penni to stumble backwards. She grabs Penni’s bronze arm, pulling her close. “Who gave you that necklace, Penni? We don’t have any fine jewelry shops around here.”
“N- no one important, mom,” Penni mutters.
She pierces through Penni’s lie with skeptical eyes. “Someone in our village gave you, a 12-year-old girl, a beautiful necklace that’s made of… what is that, sapphire?” Her face is inches away from Penni’s as she asks, “Are you sure you’re telling me the truth?”
Penni hesitates. “…I found it on the beach this morning, okay?” she snaps. “It was just sitting there, so I took it! Who leaves a necklace like this just sitting on the ground?”
Adala sighs and contemplates what she just heard. “Fine, you can keep it.” She releases Penni’s arm from her tight grip. “It’s nice to see you wearing jewelry that isn’t made of that trash you like so much.” She gestures towards the bracelets made of seaglass on Penni’s wrists. “Maybe now you’ll finally take those things off.”
Not a chance, Penni thinks. Any time she takes off her homemade jewelry, it mysteriously disappears.
“Now, go up to your room and take a bath, and if I catch you sneaking back from the beach one more time then you can say goodbye to your art lessons,” Adala says sternly. “Those are a privilege, you know!” She shouts as Penni darts up the stairs to her bedroom.
Once in her bedroom, Penni takes some time to admire her new necklace in her mirror. The gemstones look like a mixture of aquamarine and lapis lazuli, yet they’re clear like sapphires. They also don’t seem to be cut with sharp angles like the jewelry she usually sees- each gem is rounded and smooth. She delicately brushes two fingers across the necklace. It fits her perfectly, hugging the middle of her neck closely while still giving her room to breathe. It is by far the most beautiful thing she’s ever found on the beach. As she enters her bathroom to start running the bathwater, she decides never to take the necklace off.
She doesn’t bathe every day, much to her mother’s exasperation. Due to her father’s success as a fishmonger, her house is one of the lucky ones in the village that has running water and plumbing. Her mother insists that their family’s reputation gets tarnished when Penni leaves the house without bathing, but Penni finds it pointless to clean herself constantly if she’s just going to get dirty again anyway. She props her feet up on the edge of the copper tub and sinks into the steamy water. Her thick, curly brown hair fans out around her like it’s exploring the bathtub. Something catches her eye- an unusual growth in the middle of her left foot. It looks like a fingernail growing out of her skin but hurts like a scab when she picks at it. She determines that it must be some kind of aggressive wart. Another wart on her right calf pops out at her while she’s washing her body. She assumes that she got into some poisonous plants again and finishes her bath. The smell of steamed fish and fresh bread wafts up the stairs and pulls her down to the kitchen.
Penni skips down the stairs in excitement, despite what happened with her mother earlier. She’s excited to see Rea, their housekeeper, and to eat whatever she’s cooked for breakfast. Penni bursts into the kitchen, causing a slight commotion as she bangs her knee into the corner of the kitchen table that Adala is currently brooding at.
“Morning, Rea!” Penni wheezes, bent over in pain.
Rea shoots Adala a nervous glance before responding. “Hi, Penni. You hungry? I made steamed koipah wrapped in- “
“Yes!” Penni reaches for a bun, but Adala swipes it away before Penni can grab it.
“She’ll take it to go,” Adala says in an icy tone while hastily wrapping up two buns in a big leaf. “You’re going to be late.” She shoves the buns into Penni’s bag and ushers her out the front door.
Penni steps out onto the small rope bridge that connects her house with the rest of the village. There is a sturdy, spacious wooden bridge that runs through the middle of the village, serving as a main street of sorts. Here and there smaller rope bridges shoot off the main bridge, interconnecting the village in the trees. As she walks to school, she’s surrounded by chattering humans, chirping wildlife, and chittering spirits. The light mist scattered throughout the trees is illuminated by the morning sun, giving it a golden shimmer. She walks off to school to go through the motions of another day.
After another dull, uneventful day at school, Penni slinks up to her bedroom to draw in seclusion. She saw a fruit dove perched on her window that morning, and she doesn’t have much time to finish drawing it before her lesson. Last week’s homework was to draw a wild bird, and Penni put it off until the day it was due. She’d rather draw seashells than the same birds she sees all the time. A gentle rustling sound outside catches her attention, and she sees an orange orangutan spirit dangling off a branch dangerously close to her window. She gasps in fear.
Penni whispers, “Volana,” points both her hands at the window, and slowly moves them inward to delicately close her shutters from across the room- even though she knows a closed window isn’t much protection against spirits. Instead of going downstairs for help, she decides to cower in the farthest corner of her room and draw until her teacher arrives. Although the spirit is big and dangerous, Adala scares her more. Penni doesn’t know how much longer she’ll be able to keep her new necklace and she’d like to stay out of her mother’s way for as long as possible. She starts shading the dove. No matter how hard she tries to concentrate on the drawing, she continues to find her mind wandering outside the window. The bamboo shutters are calling out to her, aching to be opened. Her eyes fixate on the window. She stands up; her assignment book slides out of her lap and hits the floor with a plop. One foot moves in front of the other until she is standing in front of the window.
“I can’t believe I’m about to do this…” She reaches out a shaky arm, fully aware of the potential danger, and swings the shutters open. Her heart is beating so hard that she can feel her pulse in her fingertips. She is face-to-face with an orangutan spirit that is twice her size. Penni has difficulty breaking eye contact with the spirit- its expression is so gentle, it’s almost hypnotizing. This opposes everything she’s been taught about the ape spirits. They are supposed to be aggressive and hostile, yet this one hangs off the branch like it’s about to hop through the window and partake in afternoon tea with Penni’s mother. It slowly extends a glowing, transparent arm into her room with outstretched fingers. Penni ignores her heart’s fervent thumping and places her clammy hand inside the orangutan’s. A jolt shoots through her; one much more intense than when she touches the smaller spirits in the village. It’s almost painful. She can feel the ape spirit’s power violently coursing through her body. It must be old- younger spirits don’t have this much power. After what feels like days, the orangutan finally separates its hand from Penni’s.
“Alright, so what’d you give me?” Penni asks the silent orangutan. She bends her arm toward her and then flings it toward her nightstand with outstretched fingers. This motion causes a small amount of lava to appear on her nightstand, which starts burning a hole through the surface. “Oh no! No, no, no!” Penni scrambles for the glass of water she had sitting on her desk and tosses it onto the lava before it can reach the floor. It cools and hardens into a rock. She sets some loose papers on her nightstand to cover the hole. “Don’t tell my mom, okay?” she asks the orangutan sheepishly. The orangutan moves its head slightly. “Now get outta here!” Penni shoos the orangutan away, no longer scared of it. She slams the shutters closed.
At that moment, her art teacher knocks on her bedroom door. “Hello, Penni,” his muffled voice asks, “may I come in?”
Penni whips around, runs to the other side of her room to grab her assignment book, and flies into her desk chair. “Sure, Mr. Senpao!”