Fiction Written by Irony Sade, Hemlock Splinters Grove
Copyright 2002, Irony is seeking publishers for his stories
It was the children that found him, a grey-skinned man lying naked on the rocks on the island of Kal where they scrambled, seeking the soft-shelled crabs. They whooped, and others came, then still others, until half the island was gathered round the prostrate form.
At last Eldest sent Sixteen Storms, his daughter, to fetch Jugoom, the man who had been once buried, once drowned, once struck by lightning. Jugoom came, dark-skinned, deep-eyed, and rolled the body over. He touched the cracked lips, the bleeding palms.
"It is human," he pronounced. "The ban applies."
"Good," replied Eldest. "It has unhealthy skin. I wouldn't want to eat a thing that looked like that."
They carried the body back to the village and tended it till life returned. The women clothed the man in sea wrack and taught him to pound bark for their weaving until he was strong enough to stand the sun. The children taught him their indoor games, burying nuts in the sand and seeing how fast he could find them. Gradually he began to learn Tari, the language of sailors.
One day he was allowed outside and given one of the great wide hats the islanders wore to take the shade out with them.
"Where are you from, Foundling?" Eldest asked as they sat together sorting seaweeds. "I have sailed as far as the chain of Url and spoken to men from Malomar, but I never saw a man with skin like yours."
"From far beyond Url," the man answered.
"Where is that?"
"You must have sailed far indeed not to know where that is. Do your people live underground that their skin is so pale?"
"No," Foundling smiled. "But the sun is less fierce in my country."
As Foundling became more skilled in their ways he became more useful to the people of Kal. He learned to tie their root-wound nets, to boil gum from the spiny cactus, and after weeks of work, managed to grind his own knife from a whale's tooth.
"I will never look at a blade the same way again," he remarked to Sixteen Storms, who sat nearby, chipping holes in seashells. "I had no idea they took so much work!"
"Is that not how they make knives on your island?" she asked.
"No," said Foundling, looking at the polished tooth. "Where I come from we have knives which cut stone."
"That would be a good thing to have. Did you bring any?"
Foundling studied the girl across the grindstone. Her dark clear eyes reflected the sea behind him; a great buttressed tree hid them from the sun.
"What would you do with a knife like that?" he asked her.
"If it could cut stone, it could cut seashells," Sixteen Storms considered. "I could carve beads for necklaces instead of grinding them, I could cut twice as much seaweed before the tide came in, and maybe even kill the pig that ate lame Lok-lok back before you came."
"What if there was only one such knife? Would you share it with the others?"
"Of course. But it would be silly of you to bring only one, when many would be more useful."
"If I brought many would you still make these?" Foundling handed her the blade he had ground. It was curved, lashed in the design of curls and angles that identified it across all the islands as a blade from Kal. Growth lines glowed in the shadows on its edge.
"Yes. Maybe." The girl frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I mean making these knives is what people from Kal do. You tie your nets like no one else in the world, hunt the whales each season and grind their teeth into knives more beautiful than any I've seen. If you did not do that you would not be Kal."
"Just because we had sharper knives doesn't mean we would stop making these," answered the girl. "And even if we did stop, we would never forget how."
"You would," said Foundling sadly. "People always do."
The young girl handed back the blade.
"You didn't bring any after all did you? You'll just have to practice. Twelve Storms can grind a sharper knife than that."
"Come," she said, standing. "Its time to teach you a game."
Sixteen Storms led the grey skinned man down to the coast where dozens of young ones were gathered. A huge bundle of leaves and rope ends lay upon the rocks.
"This is the gum nose game," she told him. "It is good practice for whale hunting after the storms." She handed him an empty water gourd. "Throw this as far as you can into the sea."
The gourd sailed out and splashed, a pale dot bobbing on the dark heaving waves. Boys and girls scattered along the rocks shrieking in laughter, dripping bundles clutched beneath their arms.
"The whales here are very big," Sixteen Storms began. "It takes a lot of spears to hurt one, and they swim too fast to chase. They still have to breath, though, and their nose holes are only as big as that gourd." She knotted a short rope around a large, hairy leaf, and began to slather the outside with cactus gum until the end became a tarry lump the size of a child's head.
"Each year after the storm we all sail out and wait for the whales to pass. When one surfaces close enough to your boat you try and stick this down its nose." She whirled the bundle in a short arc and let fly. It joined a swarm of others from the children nearby and hissed into the sea half a meter from the dancing gourd.
"One perfect shot will plug the airway and force the beast to stay surfaced. Then we all sail over, climb on its back, and try to hack it to death before it can snort out the gum and escape."
Foundling stared at the slim girl aghast, remembering the size of the tooth he had ground.
"Isn't that dangerous?"
"Oh, yes. They snap and roll, and throw us off, but we have to catch one each year, and it is a great honor to be the one to stop a whale. Here- you try it."
Foundling knelt, scooping gum onto his own missile. The tar clung to his hands, ran down his arms, and tangled his hair when he tried to wipe his eyes.
"Does everyone get this sticky?" he asked.
"Only the clumsy ones," she teased. "But after the gourd sinks, we all strip and jump in the sea to wash off."
"What! You boys and girls go swimming together naked?"
"Certainly- and you as well. Jugoom says you are still a child on this island, so it's all right," Sixteen Storms smiled. "So long as you act like one."
Some days later Foundling stood with Eldest near the shelters on the beach, tying a new sail to one of the fishing boats. A voice hailed them from out of the sea while they worked. A black ship was rocking in the swells beyond the reef. A tall man stood in the bow, chanting at them through long cupped hands. Eldest stiffened and chanted back. Foundling found he could not make out the words.
"What was that?" he asked when the chanting stopped and the ship sailed on.
"A boat from Url," Eldest replied. "We were speaking the high tongue which you have not learned yet. It is used for special things, pronouncements, namings, formal declarations... The black boat is spreading the word that Kern-win of Url is outcast. He has broken the taboo. No one is to shelter him, feed him or speak to him until after the storm. If the gods do not see fit to kill him he may return to Url and be given another chance to live."
"What taboo?" asked Foundling.
"The taboo- the ban against violence to another human."
"That is a good thing to have."
"It kept you alive. The boys were for roasting you, but Jugoom decided you were human, even if you did look like a sick fish."
"What if I had proved violent when I woke up?"
"Then we would have known you were no man at all, but a sea demon, and the ban would no longer protect you."
Foundling stared out to sea at the diminishing boat.
"You amaze me. I have never heard of a place with such a ban."
Eldest peered at him, as one would study a dog gone mad.
"Is violence not forbidden on your island?"
"It is organized," said Foundling dryly.
"How horrible. Have you no taboos at all?"
"We have some, but none against violence." Foundling stood silent, gazing out to sea. "I broke one of the others."
Eldest paused, his hands still amongst the ropes.
"So you are outcast, too¡¦"
"Very much so."
"You should not have told me."
Eldest resumed, silently knotting the thin lines so they would run freely over the smooth poles of the vessel. After a time Foundling joined him. When they had finished Eldest stood, studying the grey man's face.
"You have not broken any of our taboos. I will tell no one."
"What taboo did you break?" Sixteen storms asked Foundling when she found him later that day. They were alone beneath the shade tree with a tangle of fibers the man was learning to braid into rope. He looked up at her wordlessly.
"Eldest didn't say anything," she assured him. "I just came down to teach you a new game and heard what you were saying. I won't tell anyone either. So what was it?"
Foundling shook his head.
"You can't call me that much longer, you know." She dropped down beside him and began toying with the brown fibers.
"Why not?" asked Foundling.
"Because it is almost storm season, and after seventeen storms we take our real names." She glanced up at him. "So what was it?"
Foundling sighed and let fall the rope.
"Let me teach you a game," he replied.
"You! Teach me?"
"Yes. Gather the children."
"This is a game called Selling," Foundling continued as the young ones came running. "Everyone plays it where I come from. The idea is to get a person to agree to something they do not understand."
"How does it work?" asked Sixteen Storms.
"Well... How about if I give you a special green stone I carried all the way from the place where I live in exchange for that necklace?"
"All right," the girl decided. She unknotted the strand of shells and handed it to Foundling. "Here."
"Sold," he replied, handing her a stone.
"But this is just a polished shell!" She exclaimed. "We have thousands of them!"
"Yes. I picked it up at the boathouse. That is where I live now."
"That isn't fair!"
"No," said Foundling. "It isn't."
"How do I get my necklace back?" Sixteen Storms asked.
"Sell me something else for it."
"I'll give you a weeks worth of bread fruit for it."
"Fine," said Foundling, passing it back to her.
Sixteen Storms rattled off a string of Tari too fast for the grey man to follow. A young boy disappeared into a hut, soon to return with a large leaf basket.
"But these are raw!" Foundling said in surprise. "You said these were poisonous till they were cooked properly, and no one has taught me how to do that."
"Sold," smiled the girl, as the other children cackled.
"Very good," grinned Foundling. He held out his hand and said something in his own language.
"What does that mean," she asked, taking his hand.
Foundling glanced down at their handclasp and smiled.
"You just agreed to cook them for me."
When the storms came the population of Kal fled to their caves in the highlands. The boats were hauled up to the first solid trees, a hundred meters above the sea, tied down, and covered. For two weeks the sky and sea experimented with different quarters before deciding they liked their old arrangements best. The winds returned to their established haunts, and the ocean sank back to its level, dark and thick with debris from the lands. Sea creatures swarmed up from the depths for the annual feast, and behind the last of the long-fading swells the whales came, feasting on feasters.
Every able-bodied person of Kal took to the boats, stretching a great line across the whales' path. Foundling went with them, but was nowhere near the kill when it happened. Ululations leapt from one ship to the next when the beast was stopped, those nearest racing in to join the butchery, the others ceasing their slinging. As Foundling's boat neared the song-filled fleet hauling the great carcass back to Kal, he spotted Eldest and Sixteen Storms in the lead, both spattered in blood and standing proud. The girl shook her spear at him, laughing, and Foundling's heart thumped with an unaccustomed joy.
The morning before the great feast the girl who had lived through seventeen storms found Foundling, knelt before him in her loose dress of flowering vines, and addressed him in the language of ceremony. He breathed the perfumed oil combed through her hair and asked Thirteen Storms near him what the girl had said.
"This is her naming day," the boy answered. "She may only speak the high tongue until she is named. She requests the honor of your presence at the ceremony."
"Certainly," agreed Foundling, standing.
"You will need to wear this," said the boy, producing a matted skirt of woven leaves.
Foundling tied the skirt over his wrap of sea wrack. The girl took his hand smiling, and the three of them climbed the hill behind Kal, atop which lived Jugoom.
Foundling saw that the whole town had gathered, a great ring of brown skin and finery, white teeth and laughter, with Jugoom and a great wooden cauldron standing at the center. Thirteen Storms pressed a wreath of flowers into Foundling's hands.
"Go with her," he whispered, "and crown her with this when they call out her name."
As they passed through the ring Foundling observed that each man and woman held a polished nutshell filled with sweet liquid. The same scent rose from the cauldron, and a final cup was balanced on its rim.
Jugoom raised his pink-scarred arms as the two approached. They stopped before him, and he began to sing. His voice was wind-worn, but true. Within the staccato rhythm Foundling caught brief snatches of meaning, the names of the girl's parents, a glimpse of her childhood, the tale of storms she had lived through, and a heroic rendering of the last hunt.
How can she stand so calmly, he wondered, and listen to her life sung out for all to hear?
Without a pause Jugoom swung one arm down, scooped the brown shell into the cauldron and held it out before him, amber drops sparkling as they patterned the golden sand below.
"And her name is?" Jugoom bellowed.
"Lau-dean!" roared back the town. "The quick one!"
The girl laughed, blushing as the circling ring drained their cups and Foundling stepped forward to crown her with flowers.
Jugoom refilled the cup and passed it to Lau-dean. She drank, dipped, and passed it to Foundling. He swallowed the pungent liquid and handed back the cup. She stretched up on her toes and kissed him on the lips.
"Foundling!" the crowd roared. They swarmed forward, pressing him to the girl and mobbing the great cauldron. Golden droplets flew everywhere as shells were dunked and raised.
"What is this?" cried Foundling in horror as her arms locked his body to hers.
"Sold!" cried the children.
"Sold! Sold!" they cackled.
"You have just promised to share a roof with Lau-dean, to cook together, sleep together, and make babies," smiled Jugoom. "On a woman's name day she has the option to choose a mate. Sometimes she waits a few years. Then I have to crown her. We are delighted you agreed to do it, and are very curious to see what color children you will make together."
"But I can't- I didn't know!" stuttered Foundling.
"Too late!" laughed Jugoom. "That was a fine game you taught the children. She is getting very good at it!"
"Eldest," begged Foundling as the sea curled golden beneath a fire edged sky. "Do something, please!"
"Why should I want to?" asked the old man, his veins full from the half empty cauldron. Round-bellied men lounged about the high fire, the occasional ripple of laughter coursing between them. The women had stolen Lau-dean away and were preparing her for the night.
"For her sake, not mine."
"Do you not like her?"
"I like her very much! But Eldest," Foundling glanced around them. "I am an outcast, remember? I broke my people's taboo. If they find me here I must run or die, or they will take me away. Then where would your daughter be?"
"What did you do?" Burped Eldest.
"I said that my people were evil. I said it was wrong to make people want a thing they did not need, and make them destroy their own lives to get it! I said the selling game must stop and that I would end it or die trying."
"That does not sound so bad. I thought you murdered someone."
"You don't understand!" wailed the grey-skinned man. "You never understand! Six different worlds I've taught this on! Every one, when the Sellers came, traded up their lives for junk! They come with their glamour, with their lies, with their violence, and you buy it- you give up your land, your lives, your world to them and see too late that what you've gained is worthless next to what you've lost.
"I was one of them!" He cried, "I know what they do! They will come, and I must flee or die, and Lau-dean will be widowed and your world ruined, and all my love and effort will have come to nothing."
Foundling found he was standing before the fire with trembling knees, the spilled drink pooling golden around his feet. The round-bellied men blinked up at him in silence. Several burped. Foundling stared around, then sat suddenly. He rocked back onto his heels, head on his knees, palms pressed into the sides of his skull.
"Young Foundling," pronounced Eldest, sitting up and clasping the grey skinned hands. "Lau-dean is almost ready. Go live with her. Enjoy her. Forget about your people. None of us know how long we have- Death could take us all at any time. That is why we make babies!"
He sat back and smiled as the mothers of the village cackled up and pounced upon Foundling. Shrieking and laughing they dragged him away to the doorway of his new home.
In his hut on the hill, high above the town, Jugoom woke with a cry. He stared at the sweat puddled on his chest. He rose, seized his staff of twisted bone, and stalked purposefully out and down the mountain.
He found Eldest in the shade by the newly built boathouse carving fishhooks from slivers of root and bone.
"I had a dream, Eldest," Jugoom stated.
"You did?" Eldest squinted up at him. "What was it?"
"I saw a great whale swimming in the air. It was circling the village. My heart cried out in fear, and Foundling came running. The whale saw him, and it laughed. Its breath blew me from my feet. 'Hold onto the ground!' Foundling shouted. 'Hold on to the ground!'
"The whale heard him and laughed again. I seized a great tree root and held tight. Foundling was blown spinning into the air. He drew his knife to fight, but the whale swallowed him whole. And then it came for me."
Eldest stared up at the scarred and wrinkled man. White birds mewed and wove above the waters.
"What does it mean?" asked Eldest.
Jugoom stared at the sea, wind teasing his stubborn hair.
"The whale was not a whale," he said. "This man is our friend. I think he is trying to protect us from something. Perhaps we should listen to him."
Six months later, Foundling lay in the warm night sand with his wife Lau-dean beside him and the crabs skittering up and down above the sighing waves. She was teaching him the names of the brightest stars, the chains and paths the Kal used for navigation. Between one name and the next she paused, for the man had stiffened at her side. Glancing at his face, she saw tears were streaming down it, reflecting the deep, lingering light of the sea.
"What is it?" she asked him.
Foundling was staring upwards, his eyes fixed on one star that moved freely from the rest, a slow silent slipping from cloud to constellation.
"Damn you." He whispered. "Why here? Why everywhere? Can't you leave anyone in peace?"
Three weeks later there was a throbbing in the air. The women looked up from their weaving. Men glanced around from their work on the boats, Foundling amongst them, his features shaded by a wide woven hat. They felt a buzzing deep in their ears, and seven new figures stood on the rocks, soft clothes on their bodies, skins pale from the light of a different sun.
Foundling stiffened besides Eldest as work in the village ground to a halt. His right hand tightened on a heavy mallet, his left brushed his braided belt, checking that his knife was near.
The newcomers gazed around the village smiling. They raised their hands in peaceful gestures and began walking slowly toward the men who stood nearest. Foundling eased back into the shadow of the boat house.
"Remember," he whispered to Eldest as he passed. "These are the Sellers. Remember what I taught youc"
The tallest of the newcomers bowed before the men. Straightening, he touched his ear, then a box at his throat. The sounds that emerged from it were different than the shapes his lips were making.
"Greetings, people of Kal," he smiled. "My name is Jason, from the land beyond the stars. I have come to offer you gifts, and friendship." He opened his arms, their ears buzzed, and a box appeared, gleaming at his feet. Within it, Eldest could see heaps of cloth finer than the best his people could weave, mirrors, metal axes, and knives that looked sharp enough to cut through stone.
"We offer you these tokens as gifts in hopes that you will think kindly of us." Jason smiled widely.
Lau-dean left the women and walked down to join her father.
Eldest glanced down at the crate, then up at the man in front of him. "You would sell us these things?" he asked.
"No, we would give them to you," said Jason. "We expect nothing in return."
"If you expect nothing for them, you should give them to the sea. The sea will be sure to give you nothing back."
A flicker of annoyance crossed Jason's face, but the voice that emerged from his throat box was pleasant. "But the sea would not think kindly of us."
"Nor would we," stated Eldest, "for only fools expect nothing for their gifts."
"If you wish to sell to us that is a different matter," Eldest continued, "but we have nothing to trade with you for anything so fine."
The newcomers behind Jason shifted, one muttering to two of the others.
"Surely you have something to trade," said Jason. "The beautiful weavings your women wear, the knives that shine like pearls at your belt, the secrets of these ships you build and sailc"
Eldest shook his head politely. "One who comes with clothes like that and knives like those needs nothing we can make, and a man from the land beyond the stars has no use for a simple boat like mine. I am sorry. We have nothing to sell to people like you, and no need for any gifts."
Jason tried again. "If you have no goods to trade, what about a piece of land- a place where we could rest from our journey, and maybe build."
"Build what?" Asked Lau-dean.
"Build buildings," said Jason, "where we could rest, where our people could come to visit this beautiful island, and sail on your seas- they would pay richly for the opportunity, I assure you."
"They might," agreed Lau-dean, "but they would also need feeding, and entertaining, and people to teach them about the sea and islands. Kal has only enough food on it for us, and finding more would take time away from the things we love. I think we'll keep the land the way it is," she finished.
"Just like all the other islands!" growled a man behind Jason. "What is it with this place!"
From out of the shadows, Foundling laughed.
Jason started, peering into the darkness. "I know that voice," he muttered.
Foundling stepped into the sunlight, still laughing.
"Thomas!" one of the women behind Jason sputtered.
"You traitor," cried Jason. "How did you get here? What have you done to this lousy planet?"
"Saved it from exploitation. I told you I would stop this madness. These people need nothing from you, and they know it. You won't destroy them like all the others."
"We ought to take him back for trial," said the woman who had sputtered.
"Trial?" spat Jason. "We ought to kill him where he stands!" He started forward, reaching for a handle on his belt.
The men of Kal rose with a growl, their faces darkening, and closed around Foundling like a living wall.
"Try it," said Foundling. "Violence will turn them against you forever. You lose, Jason. Take your trinkets and leave us alone."
"Foundling told us you might be coming," Eldest stated, watching Jason closely. "I did not believe you were as bad as he said, but we spread the news to the other islands just in case. Now I see he spoke the truth. Let us be. We want nothing from you."
Jason stared around the village, a vein throbbing at his left temple. The voice that emerged from his lips was choked, but the one from his translator came out as smooth as ever.
"There will be other worlds, Thomas. Other planets- places that you'll never find. You can't get everywhere. You can't stop progress."
"No, I can't," said Thomas. "But you'll never know where I have been before you, where I've already warned them about Greeks bearing gifts. And when news gets out that worlds are closed to you, Jason, how long will you last? The Company doesn't tolerate failure. How much did this trip cost them? The research, the planning, the fuel and time? You'll never recoup your losses here. How will you repay it? How many failures will it take before they eat you alive? You lose, Jason. Go home."
"You damned apostate," spat Jason. "They'll find you, Thomas. I'll tell them where you are if it's the last thing I do. One day you'll simply disappear. No one quits a game like this. They'll find you."
"Maybe they will," said Foundling, standing tall. "But it was worth it. If I saved just this world, then it was worth it."
Three weeks later there was a throbbing in the air. The women looked up from their weaving. Men glanced around from their work on the boats, Foundling amongst them, his features shaded by a wide woven hat. They felt a deep buzzing in their ears, and seven new figures stood on the rocks, soft clothes on their bodies, skins pale from the light of a different sun.
Foundling's left hand lashed out like a spear.
Twenty meters away two of the forms were hurled backwards in a burst of reddish mist.
The tallest figure stretched out his right arm, and Foundling went rigid, thin lines of fire crackling across his skin. The people of Kal heard a tooth snap as his jaw clenched and chattered.
The five remaining figures began to walk toward them.
"Eldest-" Foundling gasped, blood speckling his chin. "These are the Sellers- the people I fled from. They are the reason I taught you that game. Remember!"
The tallest of the newcomers stopped before the group.
"Thomas!" He smiled. "What a surprise! I see you've kept a few of your implants."
"Only to burn your eyes out," hissed Foundling.
"Don't do that. I want you to show me around the place. Beautiful planet you've found here."
Foundling's muscles writhed in unhealthy patterns as he struggled to raise his hands.
"You won't have it!" he grated. "Not this one. You won't destroy it like all the others!"
"Who said anything about destruction? We've just come to offer these people all the modern conveniences, like you used to do. All part of the game."
"There are other worlds...." spat Foundling. "Places you'll never find. You can't get everywhere."
"Don't bet on it," stated the tall man. "Jane- take Thomas to the ship and send down one of the standard boxes."
A slim woman stepped forward and touched Foundlings arm. Both vanished, to be replaced by a gleaming silver crate. Within it, Eldest could see heaps of cloth finer than the best the Kal could weave, mirrors, metal axes, and knives that looked sharp enough to cut through stone.
The tall man smiled and touched a box at his throat. Suddenly he was the most beautiful human being Eldest had ever seen. The sun gleamed golden upon his skin. His teeth shone like pearls in the tide.
"Greetings!" The man began, in a voice that skipped his eardrums and vibrated directly into Eldest's mind. "All this can be yours, to use and share, and help your people. All we ask is next to nothing, a tiny spot of land where we can build...."
Webmastered by Mike Scharding