By Gustavo Bondoni
Thirst had driven them mad.
The island folk, people she’d known her entire life, had risen up and threatened to kill her when she told them she didn’t know her mother’s secret.
She’d run away from their wrath, run to the one place where no one would dare to follow.
Now, she stood on one side of the open gate while Kiara, her best friend, thirteen years old, born the same week, cried. “Do it for us, Lulu Bud.”
“I don’t know how,” Lulu replied.
Sherru, grizzled and bearded, shouted: “We should kill you just as your family, with its absurd rules, has killed us.”
Others shouted him down, begged Lulu to save them, threatened her, and cajoled. But none crossed the gate. They knew what waited inside the walls. Every generation had at least one daredevil who thought the tradition didn’t apply to him, that the old folks were stupid to pay any attention to the superstitions. They didn’t even enter to retrieve the bones of the dead; it had fallen to her ancestors to bury them.
The few who had entered never returned. Their screams were enough to dissuade another generation, while the bones, picked clean, appeared the following day.
No one but the Buranos entered the boneyard. Each generation had one chosen family member, a keeper of the secret.
“I’ll come with you,” Kiara said, stepping through the gate.
“No!” Kiara’s mother said. “Please.” She held Lulu Bud’s gaze. “Tell her to come back. Please.”
But Kiara took Lulu’s hand and turned back to her mother. “If Lulu fails, we’ll all die anyway. I guess I prefer this to dying of thirst.”
Kiara’s mother wailed, but the girl turned to Lulu. “She won’t come in here. If I die, she still has my brothers and sisters. Let’s go.”
“I don’t want to.” Lulu cried.
“You have to.”
“You can. If not, I’ll go alone. Someone has to try.” Kiara pulled her arm, heading for the archway, the only opening into the labyrinth. “We can’t just let everyone die. Come on.”
Lulu turned numb. It was too much. First, her mother’s accident; then the water cutting out—the people saying she was to blame; and finally, the explosion, the attack.
And not even Nana was there to save her from the mob. Nana, who had disappeared when Lulu needed her most.
And then running from the mob. Would they have killed her? She didn’t know, but if their intention was to herd her to the one place only she was supposed to enter, it had been successful. Her birthright, her responsibility.
Her family’s curse.
The labyrinth had tall brick walls with sandy lanes between them open to the sun. Their tiny island always had sun, although sometimes wispy clouds would cover the bright orb briefly. The elders even said that it had rained once, but Lulu didn’t believe them. Water, precious water, could never fall from the sky.
The entrance passageway ended in a wall, just a few yards ahead. Lulu swallowed. She knew — everyone knew — that no one was allowed to choose wrong. Taking the wrong path meant immediate death.
When they reached the wall, they saw a small scrap of cloth on the right-hand path. Lulu bent to pick it up.
Go left, the cloth said. It was signed Nana.
“Nana,” Lulu breathed. “She didn’t leave. We can go back. She’ll turn the water on, and everything will be fine.”
Kiara squeezed her hand. “I don’t think so. I don’t think she made it.”
“Because we still don’t have any water. I think she came in here to help you to make it. And we need to do the same for the ones who come after us. We need to mark every correct choice, so leave that clue behind. If we don’t make it, it will help someone else.”
Lulu lay the clue reverently on the ground.
They turned left and followed a path that curved gently, describing the circular perimeter of the maze.
Suddenly, the path they were on turned sharply and headed towards the boneyard palace, the enormous concrete structure in the center of the maze. A place that no living islander had ever reached.
The last to enter had been Lulu’s mother, the last of the Buranos, the mistress of the water. And she was dead.
Just inside the door, they were faced with a staircase and the choice of going up or going down.
“Water comes from the ground,” Kiara said, echoing the island proverb that referred to the source that opened and closed when a Burano allowed it to. “Let’s go down.”
But Lulu was frozen in place. “Wait. Look.”
She pointed into the dimness of the stairwell. Crumpled at the bottom was a form wrapped in a gray cloak. Lulu knew the cloak well.
“Nana,” she whispered.
Only Kiara’s reflexes saved Lulu from going down after the woman who’d raised her while her mother was away, sometimes in council sessions, others inside this very building. The fortress that had now taken Nana’s life. She grabbed Lulu’s arm.
“You can’t do anything for her.”
“How do you know?”
“Look closely. She’s been cut in half.”
It was true. As her eyes adjusted to the dim interior, forms became more defined. Human beings were not shaped like the thing under the cloak at the bottom of the stairs.
Lulu pulled her eyes away. She burned with rage, not against her neighbors, not against her fate, but against her family. Why did they have to control the island’s supply of fresh water? What amount of power could justify this cruelty?
She hadn’t asked to inherit this. She just wanted to be a normal kid.
And now Nana was dead trying to help her.
She ground her teeth. “We go up.”
“Wait. Let’s leave a message for the next group. In case we die.”
They tore a shred of cloth from Lulu’s tunic and used Kiara’s eyeliner — a stick of charcoal that Kiara’s mother was forever confiscating — to write: Go up. Kiara and Lulu.
Lulu counted fifty steps. They must be on the roof of the palace, up in the sky, she thought. Muted light came from flat panels in the wall, warm to the touch.
They arrived at the next intersection. They could choose right or left.
Lulu looked at Kiara’s pale features. “Any ideas?”
“No.” Kiara paused. “Look. Your mother. Didn’t she tell you anything about this? How to navigate the maze? Think of anything she might have said to tell you how to survive here. It might have been anything.”
“No. All she ever said was that my name would see me through my darkest hour. She always said that. She was so proud of being a Burano.”
“Wait,” Kiara said, holding up a hand. “Not Burano. Maybe it’s your actual name.”
“Lulu? Doesn’t sound like it could hide much in there.”
“Lulu Bud. Look around. Is there anything on the walls? Some image of a bud, maybe a carving. Anything that might look like a flower?”
They looked and looked, but found nothing that resembled a clue. Lulu sighed. “Well, it was worth a shot. Now what?”
“I suppose we need to take a guess.”
“We’ll die if we just guess.”
“This might be the last intersection. Maybe it’s clear from here on out.”
“I don’t think so. If you only had to guess right three times, someone would have made it through over the years.”
“Fair enough. Which way do we go?” Kiara said.
“Left was lucky last time,” Lulu replied. “But not we. I’m going first. If I don’t make it, you should record that we need to go right at this place and go back out. Explain how this works and bring the people who are brave enough to help out. Explain that we can make it … at a cost.”
“You don’t need to do this.”
“That’s what you think. You’ve never been a Burano. Now I know why my mother was always so sad.”
Before her friend could protest again, Lulu was in the corridor. Not knowing what form the death trap might take, she walked along the gently curving passage, occasionally calling back to Kiara that she was all right, until she came to the next bifurcation.
She returned to where she’d started. “This is the right way. Write down that we need to go left.”
They left the scrap paper on the floor and advanced together, Lulu dreading the next choice but delighted to be alive.
Kiara, meanwhile, was chanting a litany. “Left, up, left. Left, up, left,” she whispered as they went.
“What are you doing?”
Kiara stopped. “Trying to memorize what we’ve already passed, in case our clues move. Or in case something moves them. Think about it: the people in the stories all died in the corridors, but the next day, their bones, picked clean, were piled outside the door, along with their clothes. That means these passages clean themselves somehow. And that means our signs might get moved. So I’m memorizing in case ….”
“In case I don’t make it.”
Kiara nodded, tears in her eyes.
“That’s smart. Keep doing it,” Lulu replied. “Left, up, left. You know what I used to do to remember that kind of thing? I would just take the first letters …” She stopped, mouth agape.
And then she laughed. It was the laughter of release, of tension suddenly snapping, and the fear of death evaporating.
Kiara cocked her head. “Please tell me you haven’t completely lost it. I don’t think I could take it if you went nuts on me.”
Lulu hugged her friend and held tight. “I haven’t. Thank you for coming. If you hadn’t been with me, I would never have survived. You saved my life.”
Her friend responded grimly. “We’re not out of this yet.”
“Yes, we are.” Lulu grinned, wiping away her tears. “Can’t you see? It was my name all along?”
“No. You were right about that. It’s Lulu Bud. Left, up, left. L-U-L. The next letter is U, up.”
“You know, I think you might be right.”
They went up the stairs together. If Lulu was wrong, that meant they’d die together, but maybe dying quickly was better than seeing their hopes dashed. But when they reached the top of the stairs, they knew they would live. There could be no more doubt.
The stairs ended in a corridor that ran parallel to the staircase.
“Now what?” Kiara said.
“Backwards, of course.”
They went back down the steps. They went up the next flight of stairs they found, and then, when the two arrived at the landing, they went down.
That staircase opened into a large circular room with a huge machine in the middle. Both Lulu and Kiara had seen machines before. Old Harry’s tractor, which belched smoke and roared like an injured bull. The pumps in the pipe cellar where the water was distributed. A myriad of ancient household items kept running by lore and the occasional lad with a penchant for repair work.
But they’d never seen anything like this. It was almost too much to take in.
“We did it,” Kiara said.
“Thanks to you,” Lulu replied, about to step forward to see what the machinery did.
Kiara pulled on her hand. “Wait. Promise me one thing.”
“Promise me you won’t do what your family has always done. Promise me you’ll let the rest of us have all the water we want, all the water we need.”
“Of course. I would have done that anyway. I hate this.”
They strode forward together to stand before the metal face of the machine. Pipes ran in and out of the brushed steel plates. Switches, big metal ones, dotted the surface. Red lights blinked.
“Now what?” Kiara said as they walked around the machine.
“How should I know?”
“There.” A book-like object lay on a desk. On the cover, written in big block letters, were the words: Instructions for First Time Users.
“I guess that’s us,” Kiara said. But she didn’t seem willing to touch the book. “I think this is for you.”
“Whatever. Let’s see what it says. It doesn’t look like there’s too much to read here,” Lulu said, leafing through the pages. She turned to the first page and read. “Never remove this book from the control room. It was written for you, but also for future generations. They will need it here.”
“Sounds logical enough,” Kiara responded.
Lulu continued. “The machine in front of you is the pump control for the desalination plant.”
Lulu answered by reading the next sentence. “A desalination plant is a machine that takes salt out of seawater so that people can drink it. The plant itself is buried in the cliff below the labyrinth.
“Unfortunately, the plant suffered an accident in the year 2273, and there was no way to repair it. No one on earth is making parts anymore, and even if they were, we have no way to reach them and no way to communicate with them.
“By cannibalizing most of the plant, we managed to get repairs made to one salt-water evaporator. Enough to keep us alive, but nowhere near enough to keep the spigot open all month.
“But we’ve had a really tough time keeping people from coming in here and opening the faucet, so what we did was to place tanks in each family’s house and fill them once a month. That ensures that everyone has a fair amount of water to use.
“To keep everyone out except for one person who will be responsible for seeing that everyone has a fair share of water and that nobody dies of thirst, we’ve built the defenses. You must keep the correct sequence a secret, since that is the only thing keeping people from opening the spigots … and killing their neighbors. The chance of survival for a single intruder who doesn’t know the combination and wanders aimlessly through the labyrinth is less than one in a hundred.
“All you need to do to give people a month’s worth of water is to open the valve by turning the big wheel. One hour is enough to fill the tanks — the pumps still work, even if the desalination plant is at less than a tenth of its design capacity.
“The care of your people is in your hands.
“It’s signed. Lionel M. Burano.”
Silence fell as the import of what they’d learned sunk in.
“Do you see the wheel?” Kiara said.
“I suppose that should be it.” A large circular control took up most of one desk-like workspace. She turned to her friend. “Want to give our people water?”
“It will be an honor.”
They turned the wheel together and heard the rushing of water all around them. “How do we measure an hour?”
“I think that’s a clock. Look, it says three-forty-three. That sounds like it’s a time measurement. We should close it at four-forty-three. If the tanks don’t fill completely, we can always come back.”
They waited, and they talked. They talked about everything — childhood escapades, the boys in the village, the annual hockey tournament, which being thirteen, they could enter for the first time. But they didn’t talk about that day, or about Lulu’s mother, or Nana. They didn’t talk about the labyrinth or the truth they learned.
By unspoken agreement, they left those topics until after four-forty-three.
At the allotted hour, they turned the wheel the other way until it stopped with a thunk.
“We did it,” Kiara said.
“Yes. Now let’s get out of here.”
They retraced their steps, careful not to take any wrong turns. When they reached the second left turn, Kiara bent to pick up the scrap of cloth.
“You might as well leave it,” Lulu said. We’re going to tell them the secret anyway.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Kiara replied.
“Don’t worry. I won’t go back on my word.”
“It’s not that. I think I want to release you from the obligation. I think your great-great-whatever grandpa was right. We need to be careful with this.”
“I don’t know. My family has never abused this power, but how do we know someone won’t in the future? How do you know I won’t, after the way people treated me?”
Kiara looked into her eyes. “I believe in you.” Then she grinned. “But I suppose you’re right. Keeping all that power in the hands of one family has only created division and mistrust. But … do you think our people should be told the truth after what happened? Can you trust them to act the right way?”
A tear rolled down Lulu’s cheek. She remained silent for several moments. Then, finally, she straightened and looked Kiara in the eye. “We’re all in this together. If we can’t pull together, then what’s the use? I think we should tell them.”
Kiara shrugged. “It’s your secret.”
“No. It’s our secret. And I, for one, don’t want to carry any more secrets. Let’s do this.”
She held out her hand. Lulu took it, and they walked out together.
Into a world that they had just decided to change completely.
You can find more of Gustavo Bondoni’s writing at www.gustavobondoni.com.