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.
Bree lay on the ground, head aching, as they talked over her. She hated those pious cows. Why had they brought her outside? She wanted another bottle of vodka, not rescuing.
“I’m still not sure why you’re doing it,” said Denna Kinjiun, the resident elderly busy-body, talking to someone Bree couldn’t see.
“I know,” that someone replied. Ann Teranu, cast in much in the same mould as her friend Denna. “But what else have we got but work and hoping the sun still rises?”
Their voices were like thunder in Bree’s head. “Don’t want the sun to rise,” she mumbled. If the sun didn’t rise so much, they wouldn’t be living under a dome in one of the new deserts, for God’s sake.
Ann bent down and glared at her. “We made you coffee. It might improve your mood.” She placed a mug on the ground, just out of Bree’s reach.
Screw fake instant coffee. She didn’t want anything.
“It’s a good start, I suppose,” Denna said.
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.”
We’re halfway through dinner when the implant malfunctions.
The dining room smells like roast chicken, garlic mash, and mushroom gravy as our father, drunk off one beer thanks to the cocktail of medications he’s on, tells us about the time he stabbed his brother with a fork over a potato.
“God, I miss Frank.” He wipes his eyes, and it doesn’t matter that we’ve heard the same sentimental tale a thousand times. “Your grandmother worked so hard, and there was never enough food in the early years after the oil crash. But we stuck together.”
That’s when my sister, Marie, takes a swallow from her third glass of wine and the colour drains from her face. “Mom?”
We all look. Mom’s expression is frozen, her breathing quick, her pupils dilated.
“Look at her hands,” Marie says. “How can this be happening? It’s been years!”
“Mom,” I say tentatively, “are you okay?” But we all recognize the typing motions of her left hand, the way her right curls around a non-existent control stick. We’ve all heard the story.
Akiowa gave a sigh, part relief, part longing.
The spear had kept her in the mountains since leaving the miners, and she’d yearned to see – and walk on – something more pleasurable than deep snow and bare rock. Now at last she was overlooking a lush valley full of chokecherry, black plum and mulberry trees, much like the lands of her own tribe.
There, also, a village like her own: a scattering of earth lodges and rows of squash and beans. Some women worked – tending cooking pots, grinding grain – but most villagers sat in groups, talking. Laughter reached her.
Wistfulness enveloped Akiowa. How contented they looked. How happy. But then, the miners had seemed happy.
“Have they found happiness?” she whispered.
The spear gave no answer, but guided her down towards the village. Her heart lifted as she walked through woods glowing with autumn tints, though dismay grew at the lack of fruit on the trees – even the bitter chokecherries were stripped bare. Fruits were valuable food, but were far more valuable to the birds and beasts who shared the land. Only at a time of great need would her mother have allowed all to be picked.
What do you get someone who has everything? I have everything I ever wanted – the swanky apartment in the City, the fast cars, the racing bike, the expensive holidays. I don’t go to work because I don’t have to; I could employ someone else to do it all for me. My parents were rich. They died. They left me everything.
Money doesn’t make you happy. That’s what people with no money say. Money made me very happy.
I grew bored, though. After I had travelled the world, I base-jumped. I scuba-dived. I climbed the highest mountains. I went into space. I did it all. I experienced everything, even things I didn’t like very much just for something to do. I had relationships with men as well as women. I’m pretty sure I was the modern-day equivalent of Dorian Gray.
But God, I was bored.
That’s when I heard about Dream Box. The vast majority of drugs have been legal for so long now that nobody really bothers with them anymore, but the Dream Box was something else.
At last! Akiowa had lost track of how long she’d been walking towards the mountains, though awe at their magnificence had long since faded into acceptance. But here were the foothills, and the spear was guiding her towards a great cleft in the rock. Excitement claimed her. The silver miners’ camp had to be close.
Since leaving the old man and his wretched independence, the spear had kept her away from villages, and she’d met only a few hunters and a family who were resting alongside their canoes on their journey down a wild river. The spear had given her stories for them, and in return they’d shared food and tales of the miners’ wealth. “If only we were rich,” a child had sighed. “How happy we’d be.”
Of course! Happiness would be found with riches. Akiowa had hugged herself when the spear agreed to take her to the miners, and now she was nearly there.
Akiowa skirted a towering boulder of rock, then stopped in surprise and alarm. Several hundred paces ahead, stretching across the cleft, an enormous wooden barrier rose out of the rocky ground, each thick stake a giant fir. Dismayed at the outlandish sight, she didn’t notice the men watching from the top of the barrier, bows drawn, until one shouted.
“What’s your business?”
Fear constricted her throat, but the spear sent its thrill up her arm, invoking the Storyteller’s hail. “Old story, new story,” she cried, her weak, wavering tones transformed to a clarion call. “Tall story, true story.”
There were a hundred men in the tavern, but you could have heard a pin drop if it weren’t for the sound of one-eyed Angsfarn, the best ratter hound in the bay, who was lying on Karl’s table, munching his way through a whole bowl of nuts.
“Well? What happened next?” Theodulf asked. The greybeard had barely touched a drop of his mead. His horn would get dusty if he didn’t move soon.
Karl kept them waiting a moment longer, just to let the anticipation build. “I’d like to say I stood my ground and slew it there and then. You all know I’m no coward, but given a choice between fighting a monster like that and surviving, I’d sooner flee and live to fight another day.”
Little Ongar squealed with excitement, and his mother hushed him.
Karl drained the dregs from his tankard and held it out for the wench to refill, again. “I slipped through a narrow doorway, certain a beast big as an ox wouldn’t be able to follow. But it was sinuous, as silent as an owl, and as fleet as a falcon. I never got more than a few feet away from the great hairy beast.”
He sighed and stared into his tankard, beery reflection gazing back at him. “I glanced back and saw its soulless eyes staring at me. Filled with hate they were, and numbered more than I could count.”
I am free, I am happy. I am free, I am happy.
Akiowa repeated the words over and over as she walked along the ravine floor. She’d fallen into the habit to stop herself fretting about what being the Storyteller would mean – how could she live another person’s life? But a small treacherous voice wondered if it was also to convince herself it was entirely true.
Free she certainly was. Five days had passed since the old Storyteller had died; five days in which Akiowa had walked the land guided by the spear, meeting no one, free as any cottontail or prairie dog. Surely the very definition of happiness after years of slavery.
“I am free! I am happy!” she called. The rock walls threw back the words, but though “free” echoed joyfully, “happy” returned in mournful tones.
At the ravine’s end, a pool shone like a silver mirror. Akiowa set the spear down, took a breath to steady herself, then knelt to drink. The old woman’s face reflected in the water still upset her, but she no longer jerked away in horrified confusion. Only in the first moments of waking, when she saw gnarled hands and wrinkled skin, did the terror and shock of the transformation overwhelm her again.