Copyright © 2001 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration of this work, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited.
THE FAILED INTERVAL
(A folk-tale of ancient
Sah'salaan, as translated and emendated by Commodore Ehm'ayla)
By Paul S. Gibbs
Ehm'piir had grown tired of her kits' whining, and so, as the warm rain of the Interval pattered down on their Leaper-skin shelter, dripping from the silver fringe of hair that made the tent almost entirely waterproof, she gathered them to her sides, two whirling dervishes of brown fur and glowing golden eyes, wrapping her arms tightly around their waists. They struggled for a time, but finally realized the impossibility of escape, and when they had settled she smiled and said, "So you are tired of the rain, are you? Do you not know that the Interval is the life-blood of our Clan, and many others besides? That without it we would surely die?"
Sah'raffa, the very image of his sturdy father, thrust out his whiskers truculently. "We know," he insisted. "But we want to go out and play."
Ehm'piir licked his cheek playfully. "You will have quite enough time for that later," she told him. "More, I am sure, than you will have for your chores."
Ehm'meeri--small in body, but with the piercing gaze of the deadly huntress she would one day be--wriggled a little, making herself more comfortable in her mother's grasp. "Tell us a story," she begged
"A story, eh?" Ehm'piir pondered for a moment, her flicking tail tickling her children's toes. "Very well. I will tell you of a time when the Interval failed, and what came of it--and why we must always bless the rain, and never curse it."
She settled in among the pelts that served her family as bedding, and with her kits snuggled up against her, so close that she could feel the beating of their small hearts, she began to speak, her soft, purring words barely louder than the muted tap of the raindrops
This occurred (Ehm'piir began) many, many years ago, in the time of my great-great grandmother, Ehm'taav. It happened in the final days of First-Summer, in a year that had begun like any other. Our Clan had gathered here on the Plains of Aa'laal, as we have since time out of mind, to await the Interval and the greening of the grass, and the great migration of Leapers and Grazers and other beasts that would follow. When the families began to gather, the plains were dry and the wind deadly hot; the grass was yellow straw, trampled down and worthless; and clouds of choking dust billowed up under one's feet with every step. The waterholes were tiny, barely big enough to wet one's muzzle, and were surrounded by great brown rings of cracked mud. But all was endured, because of the plenty that was sure to follow. And so the Clan waited, resting, sharing what food and water they could obtain--but the rains did not come.
The Interval had been late before, in the memory of the Elders of the Clan, and at first there was little concern. But as the days lengthened, and the food and water dwindled, and the youngest kits began to cry in the night from hunger, the Matriarch and her counselors met in earnest discussion to seek a cause, and perhaps a cure. And immediately, their thoughts turned to the Shaman.
At that time we did not believe as we do now, and the rains were thought to be controlled by the Demons of Wind and Water. They were capricious, and each jealous of the other; and if either withheld their contribution, then the Interval could not come. When this happened, as it would at whiles, it was necessary for the Clan's Shaman to appease the Demons with many rituals--and for that purpose, as for many others, the Shaman must needs be a blackfur, with a pelt as dark as clouds that are heavy with rain, and eyes as green as fresh-risen grass.
The Shaman of those days--the last our Clan ever had--was indeed a blackfur; or rather, he was born such, but was no longer. At that time the Matriarch was a female of advancing years, with grandkits already weaned and learning to hunt; and the Shaman was her father. He still recalled the rituals, and could perform them without flaw--but his fur was now white, and his eyes, long since filmed over, were the color of milk. And when the rituals failed, and the sky remained clear and the sun continued to beat down on the hard-packed earth, many in the Clan began to wonder if the Demons had recognized the Shaman for what he once was. Perhaps they had even been insulted by his entreaties, believing that he had no right to deliver them. Had there been another blackfur in the Clan, all would have been well; for he, or she, could have been taught the rituals. And even an infant of dark pelt would do: hearing her cries of hunger, the Demons would take pity upon her, and set aside their quarrel. But there were none to be had.
The Elders were near to despair. Never in memory or legend had a drought of such magnitude occurred. To move the Clan would be impossible; and in any event, there was nowhere to go. Any permanent source of water, any dependable cache of food, would already have been claimed by another Clan, and would be staunchly defended. Weakened as they were by hunger and thirst, our Clan would be in no position either to wage war or lay siege.
Finally, and reluctantly, it was decided that one person, and only one, should go forth, to locate some previously unknown oasis in the wasteland; or, if that could not be accomplished, to find a prosperous Clan, if any such still existed in the midst of such a disaster, and to beg them for aid. And that was the most momentous decision of all, because it would have meant the end of our Clan, and the beginning of many years, perhaps generations, of servitude, until by bonding the bloodlines had become inextricably mixed. It was with a heavy heart that the Matriarch made her declaration; but the alternative was to watch her people die of starvation or thirst; or to watch them turn Nomad and scatter, and know that most would never be seen again.
Ehm'taav was chosen as the one to go, because she was young, and strong, and as yet unbonded; and she was skilled both at hunting and at the sniffing out of water, and knew the languages of several other Clans. She took the Matriarch's own spear and knife, and as many water-skins as she could carry, and she set off, knowing not where she should look. All around her stretched the great Plains, as far as the eye could reach, broken only by scattered ranges of rocky hills. Far to the north, she knew, lay great mountains, their peaks bitter cold and white with water that had hardened, like and yet unlike the frost that sometimes dusts the tips of the grass on winter mornings. There, doubtless, she would find water; but the journey, across barren, broken, and harborless lands, she knew to be beyond her endurance. And to the west, or so it was said, lay the Endless Water; but it could not be drunk, and the sight of it was rumored to drive plains-dwellers mad with fear.
How many days she wandered she could never, in later years, remember. She journeyed, and hunted, in the night and early morning, and slept as best she could in the heat of day, in whatever shade she could find or contrive. Game was scarce; even the rank-tasting ha'char had burrowed deep, beyond reach of her spear. Water was scarcer, and too often, her empty water-skins flapping against her back, she was forced to dig deep for moisture in the bare gravel of dead streams, or to lap desperately at the thin skin of slime atop a mud-puddle.
She had started her journey alone, and as the days lengthened, alone she remained. Everywhere she went, the land lay empty and silent. The drought was far worse than any of her Clan had imagined, or could have imagined. Waterholes and streams that had never before failed were dry; and bare, sun-bleached bones crunched under her feet each time she approached the desiccated remnants of what once had been a cool and welcoming pool. The dust lay thick on the game trails, but smooth and undisturbed; and nowhere did she see the footprints of another of her own kind. Even the telltale slashes of clan markings upon the bark of the scattered Tatak were weeks old and virtually scentless. Where the herds, and the Clans, lay hid, she knew not; she knew only that to continue her journey meant death, prolonged and torturous. But to return to her people now, in failure, would be to face torment far worse.
Of all the pains that assailed her, thirst was by far the keenest, and when one night, with both moons riding high and brilliant, the wind brought her the scent of open water, she broke into a run, heedless of her sunken belly, the legs that could scarcely hold her upright, and the stars that danced not in the sky, but behind her eyes. As she went, half-crazed now, she cast aside her spear and her knife, her belt and empty water-skins; everything, in fact, save for her collar. She scrambled down a steep, rocky slope, half-falling, scratching her arms and legs, and finally fell full-length upon a bed of wet, shifting stones on the edge of a wide chattering stream of clear water.
For several hours she lay where she had fallen, leaning forward occasionally to lap at the water, which seemed the sweetest, the freshest, she had ever tasted. The dawn, rising pink and mauve, finally revealed what she had found: a narrow, deep river, flowing between high, stony banks. Though much depleted by the drought, it had not failed, because it was fed by the melting snows of the mountains to the north; and somehow, despite a long journey under the pitiless sun, the water seemed to have retained the chill of its source.
To Ehm'taav it seemed inconceivable that such a place would not already have been found, and fortified against those who would take it by force; but as the sun rose higher, the reason why it had not became clear. Water there was, and to spare; but the banks were too barren, too rocky, to support more than a few meager patches of grass. No grass, no grazers; no meat to support a Clan. The few stray animals that might find their way there, desperate for water, would be as lean and hungry as she.
But if nothing else, river represented a lifeline; and if she followed it, east and north as it curved gently back toward the mountains, perhaps she could find a place where it watered a more verdant land. She rose to her feet, to ascend the bank and recover her discarded equipment; but too quickly, and forgetting that she had not eaten for several days. Dizziness struck her instantly, and she fainted, toppling into the water.
Immediately the current caught her, and before she knew what was happening, she was already far downstream. She did not know how to swim--no one in her Clan did--and panic quickly grabbed at her, closing her throat and tightening her limbs. But just as she felt herself beginning to drown, something brushed past her, and she grabbed at it: a huge log, a branch of Tatak that had also fallen into the river. With her claws, and with the last of her strength, she pulled herself atop it; and there she lay, clutching at the bark, not daring to move, scarcely daring to breathe. And there she fell into dark dreams, and knew no more.
How long she floated she had no idea; but the river rolled on, carrying her through wasteland and forest, amidst high rugged hills and plains of sand. And finally, where the river broadened into wide, odorous mudflats before joining the great salt water that is never at rest, the log went aground in the shallows. And there, near to death but with the spark of life yet glowing within her, she was saved.
In his language, he was known simply as Zaar. He was of the Fisher-Folk, a people long sundered from their cousins of the plains by their love of open water and their mastery of boats. His tribe, of some two dozen families, dwelt at the foot of a wooded ridge, where the river made a final sharp bend before spilling into the sea, and often they set forth in long canoes carved from logs of red-barked Talla wood, upon the river or upon the wild ocean itself, to catch fish in nets woven from shore-grass, or to hunt with long forked spears the beasts that swim in the sea but breathe the air. At whiles, when the water was low, they would journey far up the river, where the water is neither salt nor sweet, and grub deep in the mud for tiny creatures with hard shells. The flesh of these animals is delicious, but it was the brightly-colored shells that the Fisher-Folk coveted; from them they carved beads that were their most common item of trade, and which would find their way into collars and belts many, many days' march inland. It was on just such an expedition that Zaar, working alone, came suddenly upon Ehm'taav, senseless atop her log.
The Fisher-Folk are a gentle people, with little need to stalk or chase to make their living, and none at all for the extremes of tooth and claw. It is said that they are fierce in defense of their homes; but this has seldom been tested, as few others would want what they possess. In any event, a single starving inlander, naked and weaponless, could scarcely be a threat, and when Zaar saw Ehm'taav his heart was filled not with fear or enmity, but with pity and wonder. He took her aboard his boat, wrapping her in a warm covering of Black-Diver pelts, and carried her as quickly as the current and his paddles would allow to his village, and thence to the home he shared with his parents, as he was as yet unbonded.
He gave her into the care of his mother, who was accounted a skilled healer among their tribe, and was the sister of the Chief. For three days and nights Ehm'taav lay delirious, refusing the strange food that they tried to force upon her; but at last, tamed by weakness, she relented, ate, and grew stronger. At last she returned fully to consciousness, and was astounded by what she saw. They were a people like, and yet unlike, hers; being somewhat smaller, and with lighter fur and manes, and a reddish tinge to their eyes. They ornamented themselves heavily with shells, and when the weather was stormy, or when a chill fog rolled in from the sea, they draped about their shoulders long fur cloaks. Their homes were not the skin tents of the plains people, light and portable; but rather houses, built from massive Talla logs and meant to last a lifetime, or many.
Ehm'taav was much frightened, as she had heard many rumors of the Fisher-Folk and their strange practices; they were often darkly hinted to be cannibals. Zaar hastened to comfort her; and, because he had accompanied his father on many trading voyages inland, he knew the rudiments of many plains languages. He and Ehm'taav quickly discovered that they had sufficient words in common to make themselves understood, after a fashion. It developed that the Fisher-Folk knew well of the Interval's failure, though it troubled them little, as they had sources of fresh water that never failed. At length she told him of her mission, and he was sympathetic; but there seemed little his tribe could do for her Clan. They were far away, and could never be assimilated into the Fisher-Folk; and at any rate, though the seaside tribes had sufficient for their own needs during the warm months, in the wintertime their existence was precarious at best. What the sea gave them now must needs be preserved and stored away against the time when the waves became too angry to venture out upon.
In the days that followed, as Ehm'taav regained her strength, she and Zaar spoke often together. She seldom ventured outside the wooden house, though the Folk had made her welcome; she found the sight and the smell of the sea more than she could endure. Often in her dreams she imagined herself drowning, and woke with a cry of terror on her lips; and only after she had been comforted like a small kit could she go back to sleep. Often too in her nightmares she saw her family and her Clan dying of thirst and hunger; and when those dreams came, she could not be comforted at all.
There came finally a time when she and Zaar understood each other's words sufficiently well to speak of their peoples' beliefs. He was not so cruel as to mock what she had been taught as a child, but he did pose a question: Why should the Demons of Air and Water, if indeed they exist, respond to the entreaties of your Clan's Shaman, and no other's? To that she had no answer; it was not a thing she had ever before contemplated. He told her then of his people's beliefs; of the One, the Goddess, who had created the world and continued to watch over it, and over Her children as well, wherever they might be. She was not capricious or quarrelsome; She did not demand to be placated or appeased. She asked only to loved, and obeyed; and both the love and the obedience were found solely in each person's heart, not imposed as law by Shaman or Matriarch. Ehm'taav listened, and yearned, for the Fisher-Folk seemed contented under the gaze of their Goddess; but she could not yet make herself believe.
She had spent some days among the Folk, and had regained her strength, if not her peace of mind--knowing, as she did, that she could not stay, but must somehow seek her own people, if only to spend her last strength burning their bones--when she became aware, to her amazement, that among the Tribe of River's-End there was a blackfur. She was as yet an infant, barely weaned, and she was the joy of the entire village, regarded by all as a blessing from the Goddess, and a sign of good fortune. Ehm'taav looked upon this kit, and a plan began to form in the depths of her mind. She hated it, and she hated herself for considering it; but once thought of, it would not depart from her mind, and finally she knew she must act on it, or go mad. And so, one night when a thick blanket of fog and cloud shrouded moons and stars, she searched through the stock of medicines made by Zaar's mother, and found a potion that would bring about rapid, deep and long-lasting sleep. And then, leaving the home of her benefactors, she entered the hut where the blessed child slept with her brother. She dosed them both, to quiet them; and then she stole the blackfur, wrapping her tight in a blanket and carrying her swiftly away. She took one of the boats that lay ready along the river's edge, and paddled upstream with all her recovered strength, but with little skill.
All through the long black night she continued, and on into a shrouded, sunless day, though her arms and legs screamed for her to stop, and her hands, unused to the work, blistered, cracked and bled. She continued, and the current strove against her; too slowly the little canoe crept upstream. Though she often looked behind, she saw no sign of pursuit; but the instincts of a hunter told her that it must come, and she must outrun it, or be slaughtered like a crippled Leaper. The day passed, and sullen grey clouds swept by on a wild wind; but Ehm'taav did not see them, nor realize their import. Ever and again her eyes were drawn to the blackfur child asleep in the bow, and doubt, like the swarming insects that bore through the dead Tatak, reducing them to powder, began to gnaw at the edges of her mind. She had known, with the clarity of a fresh rain-pool, what she intended to do: take the child to her Clan, so that the Demons might hear and take pity on her cries. But how? How could she carry an infant, a helpless mewling kit, across many days' march of dry wilderness? How could she ensure the girl's survival, when she could not even be certain of her own? How would the taking of an innocent life aid her people?
Whether it was the urging of her own conscience, or the Goddess of the Fisher-Folk whispering in her ear, Ehm'taav could never in later years say. But late in the afternoon, as the rocks that rimmed the river darkened, becoming shadowy forms of vague menace, she pulled her boat to the bank and came ashore. And when, near dusk, the pursuers she had long expected finally caught up with her, they found her sitting upon the keel of her overturned canoe, cradling the sleeping child in her arms, her head bent with weeping.
They came in half a dozen boats, swiftly and--save for one--in great anger. They were led by Zaar, and with him had come the blackfur's parents, nearly frantic with worry, and others of the Folk, strong and determined. Without a word, Ehm'taav handed over the child, and then she rose and stood still, her eyes closed and her breast bared, waiting for the death her actions had merited, and hoping only that it would be swift and painless.
But Zaar had pursued her not only for the child's sake, but for hers as well; for he knew, as she plainly did not (or would not accept), that during their days together, deep in talk and comforted by each other's presence, they had bonded. Had she harmed the child, Zaar's choice would have been hard indeed; but she had not, and he deflected the anger of his fellows, telling them that the Goddess had shown Ehm'taav the true and righteous path in the end, and they had not the right to question Her judgment. And to Ehm'taav he smiled and said, "Behold how your choice has been rewarded!"
He pointed, and she looked, and was amazed; for far across the plains to the east and south the clouds hung dark and low, tattered streamers of rain joining them to the parched earth; and as she watched there came a flash of lightning, and a faint rumble of thunder.
Zaar came then and took her in his arms, and she realized the truth of his words, and the depth of her foolishness: she had bonded with him, but amidst the troubles of her heart she had never known it. And she was glad, for she had grown to love him; but now more than ever she felt herself torn in two. Zaar understood this, and knew what he must do to ease her. She might in time learn to endure the life of the Folk; but she would never be content until she knew the fate of her own people. He resolved therefore to journey with her, and bidding the remainder of his party farewell, he and Ehm'taav took one of the boats, and as much food and other supplies as they could carry, and continued upstream. Despite the current, their passage was swift, propelled as they were by four strong arms, and guided by Zaar's lifelong skill. And when finally the boat could take them no farther, they abandoned it and started off overland.
They found themselves in a wholly different world than that through which Ehm'taav had wandered in despair. The first wave of the Interval had come, and more rain followed close behind them; and the land had responded. The grasses had sprung up, and grew taller every day; the swales were alive with flowers; and the animals had begun to return, lone stragglers at first, soon followed by flocks and herds. In the midst of so bewildering a change, Ehm'taav at first despaired of finding her Clan; but her skills as a tracker were undiminished, and in time she detected on the wind the scents that whispered "home." The storm-clouds followed them, creeping ever closer, and when they arrived at the campsite where the remainder of her people awaited her, those who witnessed their arrival said later that she and her mate came cloaked in rain and crowned with lightning.
The Clan, she learned to her sorrow, was but a pitiful remnant of its past glory. Many had died; and others had turned Nomad, wandering off to seek their fortune elsewhere. The majority of those were never seen again, and whether they too had died, or had joined other, more prosperous Clans, was never known. But Ehm'taav's mother and father had survived, and so to had her brother; and there was much joy in their reunion. What they may have thought of her strange mate is not known; but certainly many sidelong gazes of wonder, if not indeed fear, followed him in those first few days.
With the return of the herds, the hunting soon grew sufficient to feed the depleted Clan, and Ehm'taav returned to the life for which she had been trained. Her mate had not yet the skill to hunt on land, and so for that time he remained in camp. He took to speaking, to all who would listen, of the Goddess, and as the days went by his gentle sermons gathered more and more listeners. This displeased the Matriarch, but she could do little, for the Clan held Ehm'taav and Zaar in awe, believing that they had brought the rain with them. Whether the Shaman was displeased as well, none could say; the horror of the drought had broken his mind. But gradually the Clan began to abandon their age-old beliefs, the Demons that populated the air and the water and all else in between, and embraced the One who promised peace to all who accepted Her. When, some months later, Ehm'taav was delivered of kits, and her daughter proved to be a blackfur, it was taken as a sign, and those who had previously hung back rushed to learn of the Goddess. And at the moment of that child's birth, it is said, the Shaman died; and with his last breath he smiled, opened wide his filmed eyes, and said, "I have seen Her; She is beautiful." And so it was that even the Matriarch accepted the glory of the One greater than she, and humbled herself before the Goddess, and continued to rule wisely and well for many years.
And when at last their kits had grown to adulthood, and taken places of honor within the Clan, Ehm'taav and Zaar departed, intending, so they said, to build a boat and cast it upon the river, and thus come at last to the village of the Fisher-Folk. They were never again seen by any of the Clan, but our tradition holds that they found Zaar's kin, and dwelt peacefully among them for the rest of their days.
And in later times it was said that the Goddess, when She perceived that the hearts of Her children of the plains were in need of renewal, would bring forth another blackfur into the line of Ehm'taav, as a sign to all that Her love is everlasting, so long as She is known and honored
Ehm'piir let her voice trail off then, because her kits had fallen fast asleep. She rose, and reached out to draw the warm pelts close around them; reached out, with arms and hands as dark as the midnight sky between the stars. Bending close, she licked their foreheads, and whispered, "And that, my darlings, is why we bless the rain, as it--as She--blesses us."