My second life began not far from where my first ended. I awoke with a noose around my neck, lying flat on the back of a cart beside dozens of corpses. They were bloated, ugly things of various shapes and sizes, not fit to be gazed upon by human eyes. As I stared at them, the stench struck me – a mixture of excrement and rotting pork, which would surely have undone bladder and stomach, were both not already empty. Somehow, I didn’t scream. Perhaps it was the shock of it all. One instant I dangled from a rope, feeling my life ebb away; the next, I was alive again. What occurred between those moments, I couldn’t say, save that remarkably, my neck had healed. I was never a religious man, but such an act defied any explanation I could think of. And the reason was an even greater mystery. Thinking on it, I found I couldn’t even recall why I’d come to wear this noose. Why would anyone execute a mere baker? And what had become of my wife and son? I had to return to them. Yet were I to flee immediately the driver would surely proclaim me a demon or a devil risen to make mischief and I would never see my family again. As my profession often reminded me, patience was everything.
Akiowa sat with her back against a fir, looking out over the vast lake and its islands, occasionally brushing ants from her skirts, wishing she could push her thoughts away so easily. But the ants kept coming back as well, so perhaps there was no difference after all.
The spear had led her to so many villages, stirring so many painful memories of a lush valley – fruit trees, earth lodges, well-tilled fields. Memories of loving parents, a revered rock totem, an unhappy girl walking alone at dead of night. And beyond memory, the haunting vision of grief for a lost child. At each village her sorrow had grown. And guilt. So much guilt.
She’d never told the spear how she’d come to be enslaved, but perhaps it knew, and that was why it had brought her to this place, with its dark firs and thin soil and no people, where there was nothing to recall her reckless, inexcusable folly.
But no. There were people. A bull-boat came into view from behind an island, a woman paddling steadily towards the mainland away to Akiowa’s left.
The spear sent its thrill into her hand. “Must I?” she asked. The thrill came again. With a sigh she got to her feet.
“Welcome, Storyteller,” said the woman, as laughing girls and young children danced around Akiowa. “I am Nadie. Forgive my man for not greeting you, but the menfolk are all out hunting.”
No, not all, for a boy of perhaps twelve years stood watching, a scowl on his face. His left leg was withered, wasted, and he leaned heavily on a stick.
“Siki, come meet the Storyteller,” called Nadie, but the boy turned away. “Take it not ill, Storyteller,” she continued quietly. “Sadly, my son thinks less of himself because of his leg. But come, be welcome at my home while we wait for the men.”
Baskets full of beads stood outside her lodge – stone, shell, coral, bone, turquoise – and after bringing spicebush tea and plum-bread for Akiowa, Nadie took up her work, stitching beads into strings. Another basket held finished necklaces and amulets. As Akiowa was admiring them – they were the finest she’d ever seen – the boy, Siki, appeared before her.
“My father,” he said, “is our greatest hunter.”
“And your mother is a wonderful beadworker. You can be proud of both.”
“And I’m a cripple,” he said defiantly, as if they’d argued over it. “I cannot hunt with him.”
Look at me. For the love of God, please just look at me. I see you walking past: talking, laughing, living. Not one of you ever stops and looks down, down into the river where he left me. Would you even see me? I don’t know, but would it hurt you to look?
It still hurts, which makes no sense. There’s barely anything left of me, except for my bones. There’s still life, crawling, wriggling life that strips me away in slivers. But those things aren’t me. They just live on me. So why does it all still hurt? The wire he wrapped me in cuts into skin and muscle I no longer have. My neck still feels bruised from where he crushed my throat; lungs still burn for air that will never come. And it’s cold. You, up there in the sun, can’t imagine how cold. Colder than the grave. At least sunlight might fall on a grave.
You’re so close; just look down. I’m here. I’m still here! So close to you that I can see the tread of your shoes overhanging the path, can nearly smell that cigarette you just lit. What’s out there that is so damn beautiful that you can’t even spare a moment for the river inches from your toes?
Akiowa stood gazing at the totem. Remembering. Grieving. It was blue-grey stone fashioned like an eagle, nothing like the white wolf of her clan, its festival decorations sprays of spring blossom not the colourful craftwork her people would have enjoyed making. Yet its spirit was the same, and memories of the last time she’d seen the white wolf rock threatened to overwhelm her.
As though summoned by the memories, a young girl, her face creased with worry, hurriedly approached the totem. There similarity ended, for she touched the rock with hand and forehead, pushed something under the blossoms, then rushed away, all without noticing Akiowa.
Satisfying curiosity, Akiowa uncovered a scrap of painted rawhide, an eagle’s vivid essence soaring in brilliant colours. Wonderful work. But puzzling. Why had the girl left it there in such a strange manner?
Spring was ever a busy time – clearing, weeding, re-making the long mounds for the crops, burying rotten fish to improve the soil, planting seeds of maize, then beans and squash. Yet the women of Akiowa’s village still found time to talk or paint, while men boasted of old hunts and children played. Not here. Everyone worked, in fields which stretched as far as Akiowa could see. She wandered through the village, past mounds of thick-skinned squash – the mainstay of winter’s diet, but enough still remaining for the rest of the year – but no one noticed her until she gave the Storyteller’s call.
As the echoes of the Storyteller’s call faded, excited laughter filled the air. Children rushed towards Akiowa, long-legged boys whooping as they ran, girls holding hands, toddlers waddling behind. Joy streamed from every child.
No. Not every child.
A lone girl of perhaps ten summers caught Akiowa’s eye. Three times as she ran, she stumbled and fell. Children mocked her, adults expressed irritation, exasperation.
“Welcome, Storyteller!” called the headman. He led Akiowa to his home, gave her honeyed water to drink, and once the villagers had settled, the Storytelling began. And through it all, Akiowa wondered about the girl and the look of hatred on her face.
Eyes closed, head resting on a mossy root, arms wrapped about the spear, Akiowa sighed. The spear had rejected the comfort of the headman’s home with its new-woven sleeping mat, and had brought her into the woods to sleep. But sleep wouldn’t come.
All wasn’t well in the village. She’d sensed that as they’d gathered for the Storytelling – the squabbles, the sidelong looks – and the silence at the end confirmed it. Silence always followed a tale, as the spear’s magic still held everyone for a moment before the clamour of applause and calls for more. But the silence after her final story had been uneasy, brooding, lasting too long.
The spear again pushed her forward, but Akiowa held her ground behind a large pine. “No,” she said. “I don’t want to meet them.”
For some time, torn between curiosity and dismay, she’d been covertly watching the people bustling around on the far side of the frozen river.
Curiosity, for they were surely the nomads her father had once talked of – wanderers who followed their deer herds over the bleak, snow-buried land to which the spear had brought her. Everything about them was fascinating – their furs and colourful clothes, the tents they were dismantling, the pole devices for hauling baggage they’d strapped onto their large, strange-looking deer.
Dismay, because the people were obviously unhappy. Everyone’s expression was grim, children wailed, and by a lone juniper two old women sat apart, stone-faced, as if resigned to a terrible but unavoidable fate.
Dismay had won. Akiowa felt sad enough already – troubled by the unhappiness she’d met elsewhere, distressed at being unable to help, at not understanding how to help. She couldn’t bear the weight of more misery, more failure.
“Can’t you show me happiness?” she pleaded. The spear’s reply was to send its thrill into her mouth; the Storyteller’s call burst from her.
* Winner of the 2019 Story of the Year Award *
Long, long ago, at the time of the grievous slaughter when great oaks were hewn to build King Philip’s ships, we fell.
We were ripe and ready, our silky skins darkening to chestnut brown as we nestled in our prickly cocoon. Barely had we settled on Mother Earth when strong fingers took us up and cracked open the green wrapping that held us together. Calluses scarred the palm of a human hand as hard as father’s bark, with wrinkles and deep chasms cutting across the thickened skin.
Fingers plucked me from the soft white of my casing, tossed me in the air, and caught me. I would be his lucky chestnut, the man said to his companions, keeping him safe on his long voyage, and bringing him riches beyond imagination. Then he stuffed me inside a pouch and all was darkness, smelling of tar and tobacco and sweat.
Hidden from the life-giving sun and the kiss of the warm Spanish breeze, I could see little but the quilted lining of my sailor’s pocket, so I can only tell of my own adventures.
“… and so despite all the hardships and the tricks of the envious, the Starlight Weaver and the White Moon Hunter joined hands at the first sunset of the beginning time. And ever after they have lit the night sky, for they wish us to remember their love and happiness, and to love and be happy ourselves. So ends this story.”
Elation filled Akiowa. The conclusion of each of the ten very different stories she’d told the villagers had brought a glorious sense of fulfillment, though the telling of them was the spear’s work, not her own. But the tales of the Starlight Weaver had always been her favourite, told and retold by her mother and aunts, however imperfectly without the spear. And this particular story spoke to her now as never before.
Love was the answer to her searching. To find love was to find happiness.
But hard on the heels of elation came fatigue, for never had the spear crammed her mind and mouth with so many stories, one after the other. Yet the villagers were already calling out with more tales they wanted telling. She would have to continue.
The spear clearly disagreed, for it moved in her hand, pulling itself from the ground. “So ends this Storytelling,” it said through her. “For now,” she added, since the children sitting close by huffed and moaned with disappointment.
Akiowa stopped well short of the village, expecting the spear to give her the Storyteller’s call, but it urged her further forward. She stopped again at the well-tended fields of beans and maize, then at the nearest dwelling. Still the spear pushed her on.
The village seemed deserted save for sleeping dogs— no one weaving or making new bows, no children playing, no old folk gossiping in the evening shadows.
Then she found the villagers—fewer than she’d expected—standing before a staff of painted wood. Their totem, she guessed. But if this was a festival, where were the drums, the dancers? Arms outstretched, the villagers didn’t speak, didn’t move. Yet whatever else was missing, joy was clearly present—it shone on their rapt faces.
A strong, warm voice sounded: “Thank you, Earthmaker.”
As the villagers let their arms drop, the spear sent its thrill into Akiowa. She gave the Storyteller’s call.
People started in surprise, but save for a few excited children, who were rapidly called back, no one moved until a tall, handsome man stepped out. Not the headman, for that was surely the old man dressed in lionskins standing behind him. The shaman? But he wore no spirit necklace, and would even a shaman dare take the headman’s place in welcoming her?
“Greetings, Storyteller,” said the man. “I am Pawau, priest to the Believers. We are close to completing our worship. Join us, then we shall eat together and end the day with your stories.”