No bright moons shined full over the World.
My friends had told me the evening would be light enough for travel. Perhaps they had been wrong.
No shadows highlighted the textures of concrete and stone on my bedroom walls. Rarely had darkness so shrouded my room. I reached up to touch the concrete and hardly saw my hand. From the clear night sky, only the faintest ambient light filtered through the forest canopy outside, and through the traditional knot etchings on my room’s only window. The moonlight—it was much dimmer than usual.
My metal bedroom door sat open, tucked into its wall pocket, but no artificial lights remained activated in the house. Even my father, who often stayed up well past me, had gone to bed.
No dreams came. The hours dragged. The morning Sun probably remained way off, though I did not know how long I lay there. The moon-gods reveal time only if you understand them. If I were a shaman, I could identify the time of night, and which of the moons’ light conspired to enter my window. But I had no training as one. The shaman council and my father, their leader, never saw the magic in me.
My parents had planned for me to recite the ancient story The Sun and Moons the following day at a rehearsal for the Equis, the most lavish ceremony of our tribe. They wanted me to prove to the council that someday I could replace my mother as our tribe’s Lead Storyteller. That alone would have been enough to keep me awake, but I had secretly decided to skip the event to go, that night, on a journey with my four closest friends, including the girl I wished to marry. A choice between duty or love confronted me and, being a young man, I chose love.
As I lay in the dark, a part of me wondered if my friends would come. But she would not go without me.
So, fighting sleep, I waited for her.
I rehashed the events leading to my choice. But the choice to miss the rehearsal and go with them should not have come. Not under any ordinary circumstance. It was a glitch in the affairs of mortals, a broken strut in the scaffold of reality constructed by the spirits and gods. It was a thing, an object, a little device, which then rested in my pocket.
My first contact with that object, that glitch, and thus my decision to go, happened only one week prior.
The morning of that otherwise typical day, my mother had awakened and summoned me into the courtyard of our home to practice the Equis recitation, as she had for the past three months. And as usual, she spent the early hours correcting my mistakes.
“You must have the sounds, words, everything, right,” my mother said. “You are just a little off. It goes, ‘The Sun punished Karradea because she walked too far under its gaze while contemplating her own desires. She forgot that the Sun gave her life and ignored him at her own peril. For seven days, she walked under the Sun.’ It is critical you have all of the words perfect, or the meaning changes.”
Dappled light from the very same Sun made its way through the tree branches above the courtyard of our home, to her face. Although weathered some, her features held their youthful charisma, especially her striking eyes. And those eyes implored me to stay focused on them even as mine drifted away.
There was a reason the shaman council, the Council of Seven Elders, had long ago anointed my mother Lead Storyteller. She took it all extremely seriously.
I looked at my trimmed fingernails pensively to have a moment’s reprieve. But she lowered her head to meet my eyes.
“So,” she said, “it is not ‘walked in the Sun’ as you or your friends might say, casually, but ‘walked under the Sun.’ Do you see the difference in the implication? And make sure to emphasize the first syllable of under, like this: uuund—”
Even though it lasted an hour and a half, I had the story nearly memorized. But memorization was only the start of learning a traditional recitation. Every pause, inflection, tone, and syllable had to be correct. Sometimes we focused on a single sentence for an hour.
Although I believed that I could meet her expectations, her obsession with precision had irked me recently. People grow old and wise. New homes are built; others, less useful, disintegrate. Everything modulates. It seemed reasonable a story could too. “What if the story changes a little?” I said. “The World is changing all the time.” I braced for the reprimand.
“Giels!” my mother said, and sighed. “Do you know how talented you are? Yet this is a discussion we have had since you started reciting. You are eighteen and no longer a young boy. You should know this.” She pulled in a deep breath in preparation for a speech she had given me many times, always in the exact same wording. “The stories are us. They are our past, our history. They are who we are as a tribe and clan, and the one constant in the World. If you or I change a story out of selfish or careless reasons, then we have broken the thread that weaves us to our past, and all of our ancestors. Our stories, as we know them, will be lost to your children and their children and on until the end of time. You know this.”
“Then the World will begin again,” I said, trying a new retort to the familiar speech. “So, does it really matter?”
I thought the story would have been better as “walked in the Sun.” Anyone would know what that meant. Walking under the Sun made the Sun god into nothing more than a thing floating up in the blue sky. The orb itself may be the heart of the god, but his gift was all around us, or so I reasoned. We walk under a tree branch, or a ceiling, not under the Sun.
My mother shot back, “You’re distracted again today.”
She finally noticed. We sat quietly for a moment as the Billincen Device subtly ticked on a nearby raised block of hewn stone. As it always did, the shiny chromadium rod’s center balanced on the little pewter pyramid below it. It rotated and bobbed about, seemingly without care or purpose, occasionally tapping the stone block. Generation upon generation had heard the magic device’s quiet ticking, which then only served to remind me that my mother waited for a response.
She broke the silence. “You dedicated yourself to telling the story at the Equis. You must focus.” She let out a sigh.
In truth, my parents had set up my recitation. They believed I could be the next Lead Storyteller of the Deo. And my mother never failed to remind me of the stakes, what I might lose, depending on how I performed. If I did not succeed, I would break the consistent line of shamans and Lead Storytellers on my father’s side, going back to the founding of our tribe.
I did not complain, despite her overly serious lectures. I wanted to continue the family tradition of being leaders in the tribe. Most people’s work amounted to tending to their gardens and creating objects and tools for their families. Storytellers shared their talents, and people lauded them for it. The sense of higher purpose and personal heritage had a deep appeal for me.
And the weighty responsibility came with benefits. I would inherit my family’s beautiful home, where someone having both my surname, Deo, and a critical tribal role, lived by tradition. And there were other advantages. Girls, I knew by then, are not only attracted to wit, confidence, and stature, but a boy’s talents and renown.
And a girl’s parents would have some influence, too. They would care about the future, and few boys could claim to have a tribal role.
But the unique tribal role I strived for would not come easily. What my parents would not say, but which I knew, was that the shamans would observe my habits and character until the Equis to see if my personality was suitable for the role of Lead Storyteller. At the Equis, the council and their storyteller advisors would heavily scrutinize my performance to help them decide if I could recite stories better than anyone. The role was second only to members of the council. And undoubtedly a hundred others, all older than me and who had publicly told stories for years, wanted the honor. I had recited only in front of small groups, and that only a few times.
Despite that, my mother believed I exceeded the abilities of anyone, including herself. She had said I should be proud of my talents and of choosing my path—odd, considering my parents had long ago preordained my purpose.
But as much as I wanted to be the Lead Storyteller, the constant practicing had kept me from my friends, including my closest and prettiest friend, Cleo. Every evening I sought my bed exhausted while they undoubtedly socialized or indulged in new antics.
My eyes drifted to the fountain carved into the courtyard’s one stone wall. Its statue of the rain goddess, Tohillocen, stood, one knee bent, in the water. Her visage reflected off of the courtyard’s three glass walls, and water dribbled from her palms, soothing me with the sound. The fountain enhanced the home’s sense of balance and peace, or “fenha.”
“You want everyone to hear you at your best,” my mother said. “You want the council to know what you are capable of, do you not? It is just . . .” She paused and furrowed her brow. “. . . such a big . . .”
My mother’s praise often gave way to scolding. Having just been given a wry compliment, I braced for a blatant admonishment.
As though intentionally timed to save me, Elder Sparus, one of the seven elders of the shaman council, entered our home. The shamans never bothered announcing themselves after walking in, as was otherwise the custom. Only his modest-size figure, robed in white, moving about the living area beyond the courtyard’s reflective glass walls gave him away.
“Elder Sparus is visiting,” I said, “which reminds me we’re out of meat. I’m going.”
Hunting was my main household contribution and my only other responsibility in the months leading up to the Equis. My parents had come to depend on me for it. Recently I only hunted small game, like ramble-rodents, to give me an excuse to leave home more often.
I stood and hurried to the central glass wall. One of its large, full-height panels whooshed up. A rush of cool air from the interior hit me. The midsummer morning air had already become hot.
Before disappearing inside, I took in a slow breath. “I’ll continue later,” I said, to temper any appearance that had I meant to storm out.
“Be quick about it, please. We have much yet to do. You have one chance at this. Also, Giels, know that your father is having a meeting with the Seven later.”
I felt my face turn red from frustration. “Right.”
If I had learned one thing about the heavens, it was that my father’s meetings with the Council of Seven Elders were always during the same phase of the moon Palis—when the already-dark orb completely disappeared in the veil of the night sky. My frustration was not because she’d told me what I already knew, but because she’d said it to remind me that I should keep myself busy during that hour.
Perhaps I should have been happy about the time off from practice, but it felt more like an insult. My father’s meetings with the shamans were sacred. But sacred meant little more than the shamans did not want me in our home while they chatted in the courtyard. I was not supposed to overhear their discussions, even though I was his son—the son of the most esteemed person of our tribe, the Lead Elder.
“If you can hunt dusk raptor,” she said, “we have not eaten that for a long time, and I am certain the shamans would like that too.”
“Sure,” I said. But my mother seemed to have forgotten that dusk raptors only run around in the open at dusk.
“Speaking of dinner, Cleo has not eaten with us in a while. We could always take a break to have a meal with a friend.”
Finally, a good idea. “Next time I see her, I’ll ask her over.”
My parents liked Cleo—or, should I say, they were close to her family. Her parents, despite not being part of the Deo bloodline and having no formal titles, exemplified Deoan high culture with their styles of dress, speech, and demeanor, and had been given one of the most beautiful homes because of it.
To avoid any more reminders from my mother, I stepped inside. The glass wall panel whooshed shut behind me. True to the older Deoan style, our house lay under an earthen berm, which kept it crisp during hot days. Despite being underground, my eyes did not need to adjust much. Plenty of light entered the spaces around the courtyard’s three uninterrupted glass walls.
“Young Deo,” Elder Sparus said, startling me. I had almost forgotten he was there. I jerked my body around. His eyes looked as they always did—with a twinkle that said he knew more than he let on regarding what he was there to talk about. The thin, middle-aged man held his arms across his chest with each hand tucked into the sleeve of the other. “You appear rushed.”
“I need to find game before your meeting tonight.”
“Ah, yes,” the elder said, “the perils of young adulthood. Caught between frivolity and responsibilities. How are our studies?”
I always hated it when he said our when he meant your.
“I’m close to ready.” I smiled. I reminded myself that the elders would decide my fate not just by scrutinizing me during my Equis performance, but at all times. I straightened my body taut to appear responsible.
“You seem as tense as the game you’ll be hunting, Giels,” he said.
An embarrassed scoff escaped me. The elder had a way of exposing one’s foibles. I tried to force myself to relax and crossed my arms. Still feeling stiff, I dropped them to my side. The elder raised one eyebrow, making me believe I looked even more wooden.
“You honor us early, Elder Sparus,” I said to regain myself.
“Yes. And seeing you here reminds me that I wanted to discuss some unusual happenings with your father before the meeting.” The way he stared at me made me feel like he was accusing me of the odd happenings, whatever they were. He held his gaze as though expecting a response. If awkward hesitation and beads of sweat were what he expected, then he received it. “Speaking of the meeting,” he added, “you had better do your hunting chore. Some of the elders get very grumpy without something good and hearty to chew on.” He raised his eyebrows again. He gave me a friendly stare, but a lot went on behind those eyes, and not all of it entirely friendly. He might as well have flicked his head to tell me to go away, which I happily did.
After rounding the corner of the glass wall, I entered a dark hallway in the rear of our home. I was alone. Rare, except for when I slept or hunted. I lay for a moment on the fieldstone floor to cool off and unravel my nerves.
Just as I felt my tension wash away, tiny white and blue lights activated nearby. I groaned. I forgot that I would not be alone there.
As we weren’t a technological family, my father had recently relegated our computer and producer to that space. The computer resembled a kitchen floor cabinet but with an angled metallic display screen instead of a counter. The producer looked like a metal box with a funnel for a top—we drop materials in, and the completed component appears inside.
I stood, out of respect for the computer-spirit. Vying for my attention, it activated its dark titanium screen with copper-gold, moving etchings of machine parts.
“No, thank you,” I said, and bowed slightly to show respect to the spirit. My mother had asked it to awaken when I walked nearby as a way to encourage me to use it. Though I never did. The only interest I took in computers was to occasionally wonder at how the deep etchings moved within the solid metal panel.
After grabbing an aluminum spear—our primary hunting weapon—from a closet, I carried it up a narrow stair that led to our back entrance.
I pressed the door’s button, and Sunlight poured in.
Finally, away from storytellers, shamans, and spirits.
I stepped out onto the earthen berm over our home. A giant square hole past underbrush to my left dropped to our courtyard below. Following a narrow, well-worn trail, I came to where a tall tree had fallen. The trunk lay at an angle with one end propped on another tree. I scrambled up to get a view above the surrounding tree line.
Below me, the berm sloped down to the garden of a neighbor’s home. Past the garden ran the Deo Stream, and on the other side of the stream stretched the expansive and beautiful Deo Commons, our tribe’s social gathering place. It lay in the center of the Deo Forest and our village, which lay somewhere in the middle of the mortal World: the world between the earth and sky.
From that vantage, I could see over the Deo tree canopy that covered the perfectly level commons and the north and west neighborhoods. Far north, past that unvaried sea of dark green, the Deo ended where a different forest began: a variety of much taller trees growing over an uneven, undulating landscape. I knew little of who or what lived there.
Perhaps Cleo and I could visit that land before we marry.
She and I had not outright agreed to marry yet, but the time for that discussion grew ever more pressing. We were well within marrying age. In private moments we had agreed we were probably destined for it: Our close families hinted continuously at it; we had been friends our entire lives; I was to have an important role; she was smart and beautiful. Most of my life, I had thought of her as a friend, so the idea of marriage made me blush every time. But I could think of no one better, and visions of her and me together always filled me with a sense of comfort.
And besides, everyone married; well, everyone except some. But after a certain age, unwed adults hardly partook in social gatherings, as though others found something odd about them.
Many of our age had already decided on partners. It just so happened none of my close friends had. Maybe we wanted to extend the freedom of our adolescence a little longer. It occurred to me that, right then, they may have been at our favorite gathering place in the commons, bantering and sharing stories.
I looked longingly. I had seen little of my friends for months, and I missed wasting time with them, especially Cleo.
Tossing aside my spear, I climbed down the berm and made my way there.