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.
Self is on the Tuo River, among the reeds and the cold stream. A good river, from where the people and the organic animal specimens gain their daily needs. Self is its guardian. Self is the last line of defence against those who wish to harm the creatures who live on its shores and swim through its stream.
All is quiet on the Tuo River this early in the morning. The Baiji-02 dolphins forage for food among the algae. A select number of code blue humans from the village wash their clothes before they go out into their fields to care for the rice. With no need for a gun or a sword at this time, Self can rest in sleep mode. And when in sleep mode, Self researches its parent model: Organism #3455-D-x: tuojiangosaurus.
To quote author of Sauropedia-7 Michelle Xuan, PhD: “The tuojiangosaurus, a stegosaurid from the late Jurassic period was a gentle forager of low-grown vegetation. With its smaller dorsal fins (compared to its more renowned cousin, the stegosaurus), it mostly lived on riverbanks. It is believed that in the event of an encounter with predators, the tuojiangosaurus would flee into nearby bodies of water and use the currents to evade its pursuers, avoiding direct conflict at all costs. A true gentle giant.“Gentle giant,” it says. Giant? Yes. Gentle? On basic mode, yes. In mode three? No, Self is not. Self’s frame resembles the parent model, but Self is hardly similar to it. Too many adjustments to counter the more “gentle” nature of the parent model.
“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.
The Council’s vote was in. It was a tie. She, being the Chair, has the casting vote and a devastating decision to make. A responsibility she definitely does not want but cannot now avoid. She rereads the summary for the umpteenth time, though she knows it by heart. With all the Council’s eyes, ears, noses, quanta readers and sub-quanta sensors on her, she just wants some breathing space.
Planet Orion-Arm-485-3 has followed the usual Gloop, Moved, Anchored, Extenders, Rovers, Makers, Enlightened, and Transcendent (GMAERMET) process, but is now stalled in the Makers stage. Below is a summary of its history, current situation, and available options. A decision is urgently required.
Our galactic sub-quanta spider-net picked up the normal signal of the Gloop’s chemical reactions to form the microorganisms of the Moved 3,900 million years ago. We followed procedure to set up a sentinel to watch for changes in the fractal dimensions of surface features, which would prove the planet’s surface had evolved from Anchored microorganisms to the plant life of the Extenders. This happened 470 million years ago, later than normal, but still within the expected time tolerance. We re-evaluated our time span probabilities for achieving the next stages accordingly and upgraded the sentinel to watch for the surface movements of the Rovers.
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.
Now they’ve gone, I’m bored. I sit alone in a darkened room, drumming my fingers on my knees.
Although, I’m not entirely on my own. It’s there, staring at me but not seeing anything. It will see, if I want it to. But I can’t … I can’t let it see me. It will judge me, just like they all did.
The smack came so hard to the back of my head that my nose hit the desk. I didn’t make a sound, but everyone laughed. I looked down at my notebook. There was blood on it now.
“Loser,” I heard.
I ignored the voice and dipped a pen into my own blood, trailing it across the page. I heard more sniggering and then a clatter of chairs as everybody rushed to take their seats when the teacher entered the room.
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.