They missed their mother for uncountable reasons, but among the vast trees of Yolk Island, they learned a new appreciation for things she'd given them that they'd always taken for granted.
Food, for instance.
The boys' farm-town upbringing had taught them how an apple or a stalk of corn makes its way from the field or the orchard to the market and the table. Their alchemy studies had taught them the basic components of the apple and the corn, and the diagrams necessary to create one without needing the field or the orchard. But neither Ed nor Al had ever thought about how one found apples or corn, or other edible things, when there were no grown-ups around to help.
Izumi had made it quite clear that no diagrams and alchemical shortcuts were going to be tolerated in this test. And there were no apple trees on Yolk Island. They knew. They'd looked.
When they couldn't find apples, they looked for other fruits. When the white berries made them queasy, and the blue berries were too small to fill them up even after the bush was picked bare, they looked for mushrooms. When the mushrooms made them vomit in watery spasms, they crawled back to their campsite and slept the fitful sleep of the sore and empty stomach.
And then they fished.
They kicked apart a rotten log and picked out squirming white grubs for bait, Ed spearing them on the hooks they'd whittled with the knife Izumi had left them because Al turned pale at the thought. They laughed and talked as they waded out. Morale was up, the usual result of finally having a plan.
They stood in the muddy shallows for hours upon hours, their arms and faces slowly crisping pink in the reflected sun off the water, their toes turning white and wrinkled as raisins. They watched the spots where their forlorn little lines dipped into the water, first with eager anticipation, then with boredom that drove their gazes up to dream in the mockingly blue sky, then desperation that drew them back to stare obsessively at the slow, unchanging tiny rings of ripples, moving softly with the lapping of the lake.
The calluses on their feet, thick and tough after playing barefoot outside for years, softened in the water and peeled away in pale strips when they walked out on the forest floor of sticks and stones again. The creases under their toes ripped and bled. Their skin itched and burned at night, from sunburn and whatever tiny things lived in the water.
Insects hovered in clouds over the water and bit them with relish.
But not the fish.
Experimentation ensued, and with it more vomiting. If something looked juicy and edible, stalk or leaf or what have you, it went down the hatch. If the eater was still bright-eyed an hour later, it was declared lunch. They pulled the long leaves of the cattails out of the mud and cut off their crunchy white bases, washed them in the lake water and ate them raw like carrots. They dug up bulbs and peeled off the muddy outside skins, and picked the seed pods of anything gone early to seed, and learned by trial and error which mushrooms were fair game and which made you heave bile into the dirt for half an hour. They shimmied up trees and out onto the rocks to rob birds' nests, and when they couldn't scrape a fire out of two sticks, they cracked the eggs and sucked them down raw.
And at least once a day, they gave in to hope, and fished.
It wasn't enough.
Ed watched his brother's eyes growing larger as his body grew thinner. He watched the way Al gazed longingly into the fire at night, imagining dinners and breakfasts and lunches past. He saw him pulling up grass stems to suck on the soft ends, and beginning to eye even the grubs they used for bait with hopeless hunger. And he felt the way his own body was failing, the sudden dizziness when he stood up too quickly, the constant gnawing ache at his center.
The first fish, when they finally caught it, seemed like the most beautiful thing they'd ever seen. It was perfect in every way, from the way it flapped and squirmed to the smell of it roasting over the fire. It was hope in a scaly package.
It was stolen, snatched up by a broad hand and hauled off into the forest.
And now night meant more than trying to sleep in a dark place on an empty stomach. At the hands of the island's angry guardian, it became the constant promise of bruises and fear. Dark circles appeared under their eyes; their movements grew that much slower, perpetually weary and sore.
They kept trying, for lack of any other choice.
The next time their line went taut, it seemed too good to be true. They hauled up the writhing fish, and dispatched it without remorse. Need was far greater than pity, by now. It was quickly staked and slowly roasted, and both boys crouched close to their scrawny campfire, watching every drop of bubbling juices that hissed into the flames.
When the skin was browned to the point of spotty blackening, they pulled it out of the fire. And then paused.
It was, of course, too good to be true.
They realized then, belatedly, that they didn't know how to eat it.
The fish seemed to stare back at them with its dead eye, clouded blue by cooking, as if amusedly asking, what now?
"Give me the knife," Ed said, carefully wiggling the roasting stick free of its once-silvery belly and letting it drop with a thump onto the broad leaf he sat on.
He positioned the tip of the blade carefully, and slit it wide, from throat to tail.
The skin separated easily, with a glitter of leftover scales, and underneath was soft white flesh, steaming deliciously, and underneath that...
The knife pierced a wet jumble of guts, as pale as an eyeball, cooked solid and damp. A brown crumbly mess spilled out of the cut, into the darker flesh around it, wet with blackish goo and the thin tracery of veins.
Ed dropped the knife with a cry, as both boys recoiled from what they had just cooked. Had they ever watched their mother frying fish at home? Was she just too careful to clean and fillet it when they weren't around, too gentle to let them see the slippery insides that went into the trash?
But it was food. And they were slowly and undeniably starving. It was time to take a deep breath and do what they had to do.
Gingerly, Ed wrapped a bit of leaf around his finger and hooked out as much of the guts as he could reach. He scraped away the veins, cut off the head and the tail, looked at his little brother's hungry eyes, and separated the flesh into two portions.
Al's half was the clean white flesh from the plump middle of the fish. For himself, he took the thin bits around the head and the tail, the dark bits near the guts, the damp brownish inner skin.
"Brother..." Al protested, when Ed handed him his food.
Ed scowled, interrupting him before he could voice any complaints. "Go 'head and eat. I like these parts," he insisted, stubbornly.
They ate, and tried not to think too hard about what they were eating. It tasted like woodsmoke and Pyrrhic victory.
By the third fish, Ed didn't bother removing the skin. They stopped halving them into goodies and leftovers, eventually, and just ate everything they could eat. They began eventually to pick at the crackly spines for every trace of flesh, ignoring their own disgust. They divided the bones, tiny and sharp-edged, and sat on the cliffs to watch the setting sun, tucking them into their mouths to suck them like toothpicks, one by one, and savor the last vestiges of flavor. Waiting for night to fall.
The tails and heads stopped going into the bushes. They ate them with as much desperation as everything else, right off the roasting stick, the fins and the skin and the guts washed clean in the lake and the staring eye that popped like a pea, and grass stems and water weed and webs of thready roots pulled muddy from the ground, and crickets blackened over the fire, and yes, Al, the grubs...we can eat the grubs now...
It was never enough.
At night, curled shivering on the layers of musty damp leaves under the glimmering stars, Ed lay silently and thought of unspeakable unknowns, some of them lurking in the forest with clubs and masks, some still caught in his throat. He listened to Al's softly whistling breathing, and the grumbling of his stomach as he slept. He felt the too-faint warmth of his brother's back pressed against his own, each rib frighteningly defined, and closed his eyes without a sound.
He knew the components for a human, after all; and by his reckoning, he didn't have enough salt left in his body to waste on tears.