Thursday, June 12, 2008

Entry #1 New World: The Strangers

The Strangers
Richard C. Leonard

The strangers were back.

He mounted a fallen log and squinted through the bushes for a better look. There were several of them, coming up from the south, picking their way through the spongy ground. The morning sun cast their shadows eastward, to merge and then remerge from the shadows of the swamp trees.

Why they were back he knew not. Neither had he known why they had come before. He could not understand their words then, nor they his. They had done him no harm, and he was not afraid. But he would keep his eye on them. It would take them a while to reach where he was; the sun would have to rise further in the western sky before even his shout could be heard through the softness of the lush growth about them, dripping with runoff from the nightly rain.

So he still had time to do what he was here to do. He needed to eat, and so did his own. His spear was ready, its flinty point sharpened with stone that had come up the river with it from the tribes to the south where such stones were found. And his net of vine strands was set to bring up any swimming creature heedless enough to miss his soft tread along the bayou’s edge. As for yams and other roots, the child-bearers would be gathering them; that was not the task of a spearman.

He was wary, but not because of the strangers. There were monsters here. Those that sunned themselves on the bayou’s shores or snorted at their mating rites were easy enough to avoid.

The danger came from those that lurked in the shadows, their huge bodies sunk below the surface of the still water. That submerged log ahead—it could be a monster, but the small part above water had a branch. A monster’s snout would not have a branch.

There were monsters everywhere in this world, the wise ones had told him. Those who sailed from the islands to the north brought tales of great ones roaming the seas, rising from the depths to spew their froth and toss the canoes across the waves like driftwood.

The same sailors brought news from even further north of tiny monsters in a great river that could gather themselves together to devour a beast and its rider, so quickly that they were reduced to bone before they could swim halfway to the other side. Those who told that tale had heard of stranger lands, even further to the north, where black flying creatures flapped wings useless for flight and waddled over hard coldness made from sea water.

Surely that could not be true! Sea water could not be cold and hard. And flying creatures must be white, like those who swooped over the waves and, with a cry, dove for the swimmers that were their prey. Or they should be pink, like those that circled over the bayou and settled down at its edge, alert for their own prey.

Cold, hard sea water! The wise ones had even told him of lands far to the south where the sea was always cold and hard, where spearmen lived in huts made from the same cold hardness. Monsters were there, too—white, hairy monsters easily enraged. The world was a place of danger, whether from monsters or other causes like the enormous fire-hills far to the east, beyond that land where the lake of salt held no life and the parched ground itself sucked the life from those who passed over it. So the wise claimed, and who was he to question their word?

Dangers were everywhere, and monsters. But he hated only these monsters of the bayou; they were the ones he knew. Such a monster had dragged his young one off before his eyes, crushing her tender body in its toothy jaw before he could snatch her up and drive the monster away. Why had he turned away for an instant, drawn by some flying creature’s cry from the forest? He hated himself for it. But life must go on; there were mouths of his own to feed and keep safe from the slicing teeth of the monsters.

His watchful eye spied one of the pink fliers flapping along the shoreline ahead of him. Perhaps it would land and become his prey, a tasty morsel to add to the meal his child-bearer was making ready. He tightened his grip on the spear.

The flier landed at the water’s edge and stepped into the bayou, then paused upon one leg. He raised the spear.

Too late! Another stalker had found its mark. In a flurry of spray and feathers the hapless flier disappeared beneath the water, victim of a lurker’s cruel snap.

He was not worried about losing the flier; there would be others. This one had, perhaps, sacrificed itself to spare him from the jaws of the same hidden monster. He would need to be more wary.

The thought of the strangers returned. Where were they now? He mounted a tuft of swamp grass for a better look. Through the growth his keen eye spotted them, still some way off but drawing closer as they wove their way through the trees.

Strangers are often very strange, but these strangers had a strangeness all their own. When he had met them before he was struck by their special strangeness. They covered their bodies with some kind of leaves—not leaves, really, but something that hung over them like leaves so he could not tell whether any of them were child-bearers. And none were bearded. If they all had spoken he could have told, but only one had spoken and he was not a child-bearer.

It must be hard to be one of these strangers, not knowing right away who was a child-bearer and who was not. It was so much easier for him and those he belonged to. One could tell quickly with a glance at his body, or hers, and then one knew what was proper for each. There was no danger that he might do a wrong thing with the wrong child-bearer and bring on the wrath of the chiefs. How much harder it must be for the strangers to avoid wrongdoing if everyone’s body was covered with leaves.

And the strangers had another kind of leaf that puzzled him, thin and white and shaped—it was hard to say the shape, but it was like a large leaf that had been cut into a piece so that it had no round edges. The strangers’ chief—the one who spoke to him must be their chief—took it from a pouch, unfolded it and looked at it, then looked at the swampy country around him. It was as if that leaf were some kind of message from a wise one telling them which way to go.

The chief had showed him the leaf and pointed to what was scratched upon it. At the bottom was the sea—for the great sea monster was drawn upon it—and somehow he understood that meant the sea was to the south. At the top were the big lakes he knew were really to the south.

Between them was the great river that ran through the land where his spear stone came from. At least that’s what he thought the leaf meant. But their leaf was upside down, for the sea was really to the north.

He looked again for the strangers, but he could not see them. They must be closer, near the bayou, behind the tall growth at its edge.

His heart began to pound. The strangers had not come this far the last time. They would not know how to keep away from the monsters! He had to help them find a safe path.

With quick steps he made his way toward where the strangers must be. Years of treading these swamps had given him a sure foot over the solid ground, what there was of it in this spongy place.

He saw them. They had reached the shore. He quickened his stride.

He was almost upon them when he heard a sharp cry—not the cry of a flier, but that of a child-bearer! One of the strangers had fallen into the bayou, perhaps tripping over a log at its edge. And a monster was rising from the water, ready to lunge at her.

Instantly he was beside the fallen stranger, sending his spear flying with all the force he could muster into the monster’s gaping jaws. The same thrust that hurled the spear scooped up the stranger and lifted her into the grasp of another hurrying to her side.

A third stranger held out a big stick toward the monster, but it was too late. The wounded lurker thrashed helplessly, trying to shake off the spear stuck in its throat, then sank into the bloodied bayou. For a moment the shaft of the spear lingered above the surface and then it, too, was buried in the murky waters.

It is not usual to waste a spear on the monsters; good spears can be hard to get. But this one had not been wasted. He was not sorry for its loss.

In a moment he was aware of voices clamoring about him in a tongue he could not understand. The stranger into whose arms he had delivered the child-bearer took his hand and shook it up and down, as one shakes the shell of a clam to empty it of water before placing it on the fire to bake. It was an odd gesture but he thought of how his own young one had been taken, and he understood its meaning.

Another stranger was handing him one of the sticks they carried. He pointed to the spot where the spear had disappeared and pushed the stick toward him. He understood that the stranger wanted to replace the lost weapon, but what good was a stick? It had no sharp point to pierce, no long shaft for hurling. He waved off the gift, then wondered if he had done wrong. Perhaps that was a custom of these strangers, and he did not wish to hurt them.

It did not matter; the strangers seemed to understand. Perhaps they knew such a weapon was useless here.

He led them to a place higher up, pointing to a few lurking monsters at the shoreline as he did so. He wanted to teach them how to be more wary in the swamps.

They opened something like a net they carried, except he could not see through it, and brought out food. It was not food he had ever eaten, but when he saw the strangers eating he took what they offered him and ate gladly. They offered more, and he put it into his net to take back to his own.

The strangers’ chief pulled out the leaf he had seen before and looked at it, still upside down. He knew they would be going away soon. Perhaps they had learned today what they needed to know, and must go back to wherever they came from before the sun sank below the land’s eastern edge, drawing the light after it. The light goes quickly here, once the earth or the sea has swallowed the sun.

They said words. He said words of his own. Neither understood the other, but both understood that they were words of friendship.

He watched as the strangers made their way carefully along the path by which they came. As soon as his eye could see them no more he turned and started back toward his own. At least he had something to add to the food his child-bearer would put on the fire for their evening meal.

The strangers were gone but they would come back some day, he knew. And they would turn his world upside down.

Submitted by
Richard C. Leonard

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