Short Story Category: 15 Minutes
Where do we come from – What are we – Whither are we bound?1
My name is Big-Head, and this is my Tale.
The World is Flat. This is what I was told when I was little, and I knew it to be a truth once I had been taken to see it with my own eyes. There were some, very few, who held that the World is round, like a ball, but these prophets of ignorance kept their falsehood secret. My Father knew about them. He told me, should we all fall into the grip of their blasphemy there will be madness, horror, sickness, and death. He was one of the Story-Holders, who told of the Ancient World, with its wars of wood, water and food.
When I was a child my Father took me up to the very top of the highest place, so that I would see all the edges of the World for myself. It was a hard climb, and my little short legs ached, and my lungs burned. I wanted to stop, to rest, but he urged me on. You must see the truth, he said, in order to know it.
From that highest of places I could see all the world. On every side there was a strip of land, and beyond it was the Sea, as grey as the high curtain of thin cloud that hangs above us. The curve of the Sea stretched out in a great circle, bending round to meet itself. That is the Great Edge, Father said. Should anyone reach it they will fall and fall, into the Dark-Forever.
When my Father said this it made me feel afraid. I reached for his hand. I want to go home, Daddy, I said. And so we did. I was weeping, and he carried me.
From our wind-shelter I had often seen the Sun go down, over the Great Edge, all red and angry, When the Moon rose, like a ghost-face, out of the Dark-Forever, I would think a question. Tell me, Moon, I asked, what is it like under the world? What is there? Can you see through the water from beneath? Can you see where my Mother is buried? But the Moon never answered me. Moon, I said, you do not know because you are blind. You cannot speak because you have no voice. But an answer came into my head. You are a child, said the Moon, and you do not yet understand. You must live to know that truth is not seen. It is something the heart alone feels, and the heart needs no eyes.
Like the moon, some of us have no eyes. They are born like that. Others are born as they should be. Complete. All children, if they survive the horror of birth, are taken to be tested in the Cave, where they are measured against the bones of the Perfect. All their parts are proved, the circle of the skull, the length of legs, the straightness of the spine. Those who match the Perfect are called Right. Those who are different, like me, are called Not. I had no need of measurement, for all could see that I was Not. My head is too large, and my eyes, one lower than the other, are of different colours, my legs are short, and my hands are wrong. I have five fingers on one, and three on the other. Father said, beware of your left hand, for it is a finger-thief.
I am lucky that he keeps and protects me, for the Not’s are eaten when the Sea does not provide. In Hunger-Times they are both sacrifice and food. I have never tasted flesh, because a Not may not eat Not. But I have smelled the burning meat, and wanted it.
My Father, who is Right, is a fire maker. He has special sticks, which he carries in a tube of dried Sea plant. The upright stick is set in a hole of another piece held down between his feet. Father drives it with a bowstring. In the hole there is hair, which he plucks from my head. When stick-against-stick makes smoke and heat he blows, and the hair takes flame. Sea plants, dried in the wind, are piled on, and we have fire. He keeps his sticks about him constantly, for there are some who, like my left hand, would steal.
There is no wood in our world, it was all burned long, long ago, and there were wars fought over the last trees. Now the only wood we have is brought by the Sea. My Father says it is the Sea’s gift, like the fish we trap in our stone pools, or the mussels and the crabs found in the shallows. The Sea is God, he says.
In the evenings, when we lie in our wind-shelter waiting for sleep to come, he sometimes tells me about the beginnings of the world. His stories are like ghosts, shadows, thoughts. The tales frighten me, but I cannot close my ears to them. I don’t think he speaks to me, but to hear himself talking. Perhaps he fears he will forget the stories if he does not hear them in his own ear.
His tales always start, hundreds of years ago, in the year of Nothing, when the Air became hot and the Sea rose up to eat the land. In the beginning I did not understand what a year was. It is the length of ten Moon-lives, Father said. According to the old tales, there were times, in the Deep-Ago, called Seasons. Some were Cold and others Hot. What is Cold and Hot? I asked, is Hot like fire? No, he said, Hot is like every day. Then what is cold, I asked, do you know it? No, he said, it was all long before my time, but the story goes that cold is colder than the Moon, turns water hard. It makes you shake and will kill you if you are gripped by it. I asked again, Father, I said, Cold must be much like Hot, for there are people here who die of the shaking. There is a difference, he said, It is known that Cold could be made warm through fire, but Hot cannot be made Cold. Will I die of Hot? I asked. I don’t want to die and be eaten. Go to sleep, he said, you ask too many questions.
There was a stone in our village, which was used to test every child. When they could lift and carry it they had to work. When I was able to lift the stone I was set to carry water. I did this every day, for my father and for several old women who could not go to the Watering themselves. Every shelter had a container. Some were made of fired clay, but many vessels were brought to us by the Sea, and left at the high-tide mark. These were very old, made of an unknown substance, which we called The Strange. Some had shapes moulded into them. Our vessel had a one such little shape, if I close my eyes I can still see it clearly. 2L Made in China. These are Words, my Father said. Do you know what they say? I asked. No, he said, I do not know Words.
The Watering was in a low, soggy place where the wet seeped out of the ground. It was guarded by a tall strong Right. We were allowed to fill once a day. I always tried to go in company, never liking to go alone. I would wait on the path until someone else came to fill. On the days when I was alone the Water-Guard would mock me and try to make me spill, poking me with his stick. Hey, stupid Big-Head, he would say, you are an Ugly. One day I will cook and eat you! Then I will shit you out. I hated him. He made me wish to leave our World.
Two men did leave. One was my Father’s brother, the other, an uncle on my Mother’s side. They were Rights, but of the wrong kind, secret Round-Earth-Believers, and Man-Wives to each other. I alone saw them prepare. One of my child-tasks was to walk along the edge of the World to collect any Strange given up by the Sea, and to look for Green which I would scrape from stones. On such a day I saw them enter a Sea-Cave. Unseen, I followed. In the dark were many containers. Their edges had been melted with stolen fire, and stuck together, so that nothing could get in. This sealed Strange was tied together with stuff called Cordage. This precious material, belonged to All, and should have been taken to the Elders. To keep it was a crime. If discovered, the thieves would be killed. I realised they had made a floating-thing. Curiosity got the better of me. I did not try to hide. I had to see, and was seen.
I tried to flee, but they had proper legs and easily out-ran me. They seized me, and held me down. You must not tell, my Uncle said. I was full of fear, for I knew I had seen a secret. Don’t eat me, I said. Please don’t eat me. We don’t eat flesh, Uncle said. Go home, but say nothing. Be silent. No harm will come to you.
I went home with thoughts spinning in my head. What did you find? my Father asked. Nothing, I replied. Nothing? he said, It is not like the Sea to give Nothing. Do you lie to me? No Father, I said. He clasped my head and shook it. What, then? Tell me! My Father was seldom angry, but he was angry then. I told him I had seen his Brother, together with his Man-Wife. Father shook me again. Did you see what they did? Yes, I said, but I did not tell him about the floating-thing. I knew that I had told a lie by saying Nothing. He pushed me away. Never speak of what they did to each other, he said. Never!
The following day my Uncle and his Man-Wife left. Everyone saw them go, as they paddled round the point, towards the breakers. For a moment it seemed that the waves would swamp them, and they would drown. But the Sea seemed to like them, and let them go through. Their floating-thing moved with the water, bending, changing shape, swimming almost. Once through the surf, they raised what I now know to be a sail, woven from thin strips of Strange. It caught the wind, and began to pull them away towards the Great Edge. Everyone watched as they become smaller and smaller, until the angry Sun left us in the dark. When the next day dawned they had vanished. They have fallen, my Father said, over the Great Edge, into the Dark-Forever.
When I outgrew the limit of the carry-stone I was given another task, that of Spear-Man in one of the many fish-traps. My weapon, a thin piece of driftwood, had a sharp point, made from the arm-bone of a Not. I had known him – they called him Mad-Eye. He had been killed and eaten in a recent Hunger-Time. The bone had cut-marks where the flesh had been stripped off. I washed it in the Sea, scrubbed it with sand until it was clean. I used a sharp stone to split it, then rubbed it sharp as a rock, and cut barbs to hold the fish. As I did this I spoke to the bone. Find me fish, Mad-Eye, I said. Call them to you and I will kill. The bone spoke in my thoughts. I will do as you ask, Big-Head, but think on this, is it right that any life be taken so that another life should live?
Yet Mad-Eye had been taken. Why have I been spared? I asked my Father. Because I bought you, he said. I told the elders, let my son live. If you do not, I will deny you Fire.
When I was full-sized, if any Not can indeed be thought full-grown, my life was changed in a single moment. I was sitting on a stone at the side of the fish-trap when I heard a voice behind me. You! Ugly Big-Head! Give me a fish! The voice came from a girl of my own age, a Right. Her name was Adada, I knew her, yet did not know her. I said nothing, for Nots dare not speak to Rights.
She stood with her feet apart and I saw that she had hair. All I could think of was the good flame it would make. What is that stupid little thing? she said, pointing between my legs. She laughed, and walked away.
That was the moment. After that I thought of nothing else but her.
That night in the wind-shelter I told my Father what had happened. Stay away from her, he said. She is a perfect Right, and you are Not. You and she are different. What is love? I asked, is this love? No, he said, this is not love. Please, I said. Please tell me what it is that I feel. Go to sleep, he said. I cannot tell you what I do not know.
My life seemed over. I tried lingering in places where I thought she might appear, but I was chased and hit by Rights. You are a creature, they shouted, you are ugly, you are disgusting, you are Not!
My Father would not talk about it. So I sought advice from on old woman for whom I still carried water. What has made me so different? I asked. Blood, she said. The message of life, of what we will become, is carried in the blood. We are so few, and the blood of our World has become weak. Is this why I am Ugly? I asked. No, she replied, you are Different. Difference is not Ugly, just Other. But the Rights fear it, for they know it is carried silently in their blood.
I did not understand, for my Father and Mother were Rights. How is it that I am Not? She did not speak for a moment, but looked straight into my eyes as if she saw my every thought, my every fear. She took my hand and said, We are too few in the World, too few. Your Father and Mother were brother and sister, as were their Mothers and Fathers. The errors that formed you grew in their blood. Am I such an error? I asked. I had been told that my head had been too big to pass easily out of my mother, and that my birth caused her death. Is this true? I asked the old woman. Yes, she said. She was fourteen Moon years old. We were the same age, she and I, the very age you are now.
When I left her I was more confused than I had been before we spoke. All I could think of was that Adada might die as my Mother died, in giving birth to a creature like me, and this thought made me fear more for her than I feared for myself. I looked for her, to tell her.
When I found her I could not help myself from doing what I did.
In the Sea cave, she was with the Right from the Watering. He was moving on her, and she cried out, but it was not a cry of pain. When he stopped and rolled off, they saw me. You dare to watch us, he said, out of breath. Now I will kill you. He picked up a stone and threw it at me, and it struck my brow. Mad-eye was with me. As I fell he flew from my hand, into the Right’s throat, through to cut his neck-bone. He fell, unable to speak, or move his limbs. Adada ran, screaming.
What had I done? In killing the Right I had killed myself. The World is small. The Rights will seek me out. I wanted to go to my Father, to tell him I could not help doing what I did. I could not stop my left hand.
There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to go.
I ran for the Sea and waded in until my feet lifted. As the Waves pulled back from the land the force was great. It swept me out, and out, and out. When night came, the World was nothing but a faraway strip. As I floated with the current, I knew that I would surely drown, and wished to be with my Father, to ask his forgiveness. I heard him in my head. Why? he said. Why? In my head I saw him weep. Come home. Come home!
Did I sleep, carried up and down in the Waves? Did I sleep, or was I dead? Was I lost? Swept over the Great Edge?
The day came, and I found myself saved. The Sea had taken me into a wide mass of Strange. It swirled around, bumping against me, like a living thing. Bobbing above the rest was a large red ball. There was a ring fixed to it, and through the ring was a length of Cordage. Hold me, it said in my head. Your Father has sent me to save you. We floated through the day, the red Strange and I, and through another night, which I do not remember.
When I did wake, it was not in the Sea, but on rough sand. Had the Sea returned me, washed me back to The World, or had I fallen into the Dark-Forever?
There were sounds I had never heard, the squawking of flying things. And there were people. They were not naked as in The World, but were dressed in what I later learned was Cloth. They stood round me, talking in a jibber-jabber that I did not understand.
Two men ran forward. One of them knelt down beside me and spoke in my own speech. Oh, Big-Head, is it really you? he said. He held me, and stroked my brow. And I knew him. Uncle! where am I? Have I fallen over the Great Edge? Am I dead? No, he replied. I trembled and looked around me. I saw green growing things, bigger than anything I had ever seen. Trees. What is this place, Uncle, is it another World? No, he said, it is another land in the same World. A place of Many, where there are no Rights or Nots, where all are equal, where you will be safe. Where you will be loved.
My Uncle and his Man-Wife took me to their home. They put me in a shady bed, and covered me with a sheet of wet cloth, so the hot breeze would cool my sky-scorched skin.
I am an old man now, a Story-Holder, the keeper of People-Tales. I have learned them all, and I teach them to others, so that life and all that it is, will be truthfully remembered.
But I never speak of my own history. I keep my shame to myself. So be it.
1D’où Venons Nous – Que Sommes Nous – Où Allons Nous? – Paul Gauguin, Tahiti, 1887.
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