No bright moons shined full over the World.
No shadows highlighted the textures of concrete and stone on my bedroom walls. Only faint, ambient light filtered through the forest canopy outside, and through the traditional knot etchings on my room's only window. The moonlight — it was darker 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 the 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 on a journey with my four closest friends. A choice between duty or love confronted me and, being a young man, I decided on love. Though, as I laid there, I did not realize my friends would bring me to the most forbidden place known.
Like my plan to miss the rehearsal, you will discover that this entire story is a great secret. I wish with my whole heart that I could sit down in the Sunlight on a warm day and tell all those I love of my adventures. You may wonder why I do not. For now, just know that doing so would not only enthrall them but ruin them.
I take some solace that at least you — who are far-removed and only a distant notion — may have some enjoyment in it.
But because you are far, most things contained in this tale will be unfamiliar. In fact, much of the story is strange to me. But I will do my best to explain events using terms familiar to you. And your imagination can do its part.
My decision to miss the rehearsal and go with my friends started on a normal morning, one week prior.
As she had every day for the past three months, my mother summoned me into the courtyard of our home to practice my recitation.
"You must have the sounds, words, everything, right," my mother said. "You're 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's critical you have all of the words perfect, or the meaning changes."
Dappled light, from the very same Sun as in the story she recited, made its way through the tree branches above the courtyard of our home, and onto her face. Although weathered some, her features held their youthful charisma, especially her striking eyes. And those eyes implored me to stay with 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's 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.
"What if the story changes a little?" I said. "The world is changing all the time."
"Giels!" she said and sighed. "Do you know how talented you are? Yet, this is a discussion we've 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 of 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. 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 of the 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 branch of a tree, or a ceiling, not under the Sun.
"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. The unique magical item consisted only of a small pyramid and a thin metal rod whose center-point balanced on the pyramid's tip. The rod rotated and bobbed randomly from side to side, ticking asynchronously on the stone under it. The rod never fell from its tiny pyramidal perch, and generation upon generation had heard it's quiet ticking, which then only served to remind me that my mother waited for a response.
She eventually broke the silence. "You dedicated yourself to telling the story at the Equis. You must focus." She let out a sigh full of exasperation.
In truth, my parents set up my recitation. They believed I could be the next Lead Storyteller of the Deo. Despite that, my mother never failed to remind me of the stakes. At the Equis, the shaman council and their storyteller advisors would heavily scrutinize my performance to help them decide if I could be next in line for the role.
What my parents have not said, but which I knew, was that the shamans would also observe my habits and character until the council decided my fate. The role was second only to members of the council. And, undoubtedly, as many as a hundred, all older than me and who have been publicly telling stories for years, wanted the honor. I have only recited in front of small groups, and that only a few times.
I would be the youngest; my mother regularly reminded me, often before grabbing my chin between her thumb and index finger. She often told me that I exceeded the abilities of anyone, including herself, and that I should be proud of choosing my role; odd, considering my parents had long ago preordained my purpose.
Although, I would never complain. Despite feeling overwrought, I wanted my mother's help. I wanted to continue in the family tradition of being leaders of 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 benefits came with the weighty responsibility. I would inherit my family's beautiful home, which someone having both my surname, Deo, and a critical tribal role, lived there by tradition. And there were other advantages. Girls, I knew by then, are not only attracted to wit, confidence, and stature but by what a boy may become.
But 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 and its statue of the rain goddess, Tohillocen, carved into the courtyard's one stone wall. Its sound soothed me as it reflected off of the courtyard’s three glass walls.
"You want everyone to hear you at your best," my mother said, again breaking our silence. "You want the council to know what you are capable of, don't you? It's, just," — she paused and furrowed her brow — "such a big—"
My mother's praise often gave way to scolds. Having just been given a wry compliment, I sensed the blatant admonishment coming.
As though timed intentionally to save me, Elder Sparus, one of the seven elders of the shaman council, had entered our home. His modest-sized figure, robed in white, moved about in our home’s dim interior beyond the courtyard's reflective glass walls.
"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, 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 a lot 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 dark orb completely disappeared in the veil of the night sky. My frustration was not because she told me what I knew, but because she said it to me as a way to remind me that I should keep myself busy during that hour.
Perhaps I should have been happy about the time off of practice, but it felt more like an insult. My father's shamans meetings were sacred. But sacred meant little more than I was not supposed to overhear its 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 hasn't 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 despite having no formal titles, exemplified Deon 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, keeping it crisp during hot days. Despite being underground, my eyes did not need to adjust. Plenty of light entered the spaces around the courtyard's three uninterrupted glass walls.
“Young Deo,” Elder Sparus said, startling me. I had forgotten he was there. I jerked my body around. His eyes looked as they always did — with a twinkle that said he knew more about whatever it was we were about to talk about. He 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 the carefree 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 my Equis performance, but by scrutinizing me. I straightened my body taught 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 forced myself to relax, but it took me a couple of tries to get into the right, casual posture. It did not help my comfort that the elder had a persistent sardonic, judgemental expression to him. “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 accused 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. 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 in a gesture of telling 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, white and blue lights activated nearby. I groaned. I forgot that I would not be alone there.
Not being a technical 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 design appears inside.
I stood out of respect for the computer-spirit. Vying for my attention, it activated its chromate screen with dark, 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 waken when I walked nearby as a way to encourage me to use it. Although 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 skinny, well-worn trail about seventy feet, I came to where a tall tree had fallen over it. 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 commons grounds, the Deo Commons, our tribe's social gathering place. The perfectly flat and forested landscape 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 only see the tops of the shiny, deep-green canopy covering the commons. Far past the unvaried sea of dark green, a variety of much taller trees grew 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. In private moments of candor we agreed that we were destined for it — our close families who constantly hinted at it, our life-long friendship, 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 thought of marriage made me blush every time. But I could think of no one better, and visions of her and I together always filled me with a sense of comfort.
Many of our age had already decided on partners. It just so happened none of my close friends have. Maybe we wanted to extend the freedom of our adolescence a little longer. And with that thought, it occurred to me that they may have been at our favorite gathering place just a few minutes walk in the commons, bantering and sharing stories.
I looked longingly. I had seen little of my friends for months and missed wasting time with them, especially Cleo.
Tossing aside my spear, I climbed down the berm and made my way there.