Huh? (In places where you don't understand what's going on.)
So what? (In places where you find yourself distracted or bored.)
Oh yeah? (In places where you spot inconsistencies or lack of believability.)
The Telling of the Story
Minurba of Spricht, songteller
Date: 35 Threemoon, Year 67.D55
Today I favor you with the story of the Chief, say I Minurba. You will know what I know.
* * *
The hands of the Chief were cold. It was not winter carelessness; his mind was cold as well. It had been five years, and still the grove was dying.
He spent the afternoon passing among the grovetenders, and he touched each set of hands in turn as he looked into their faces. All hands cold; they had found no solution today. The birds that should have been there were gone. The grubs were multiplying, and slowly, the trunks were being hollowed out and filled with insects... each precious tree folding upon its own weight to kneel helpless on the ground. Then the family of that tree was called to the grove, and they stood with the Chief to eat all of the fruit before it fell in danger of rotting. Often, they tasted the memories of family members who had only just died a month or year before, not yet ripened. Some knowledge was inevitably lost.
The first year, the grovetenders' hands were cold for days on end, and any who touched them knew: something was wrong with the grove. It wasn't until the second year that the Chief tasted the fact that the birds were gone, and by that time, the decimation of the trees was noticeable even to the lowest of the families. By the third year, one of the families had lost all of their trees. They were the doorsmiths. They offered themselves to the grove the next day, standing before the grovetenders and slashing their arms with stones to give their blood to the central trees of the grove. In the fourth year, the Chief and the Chief's family ate the knowledge of doorsmithing and the hopes of the dead family that a solution would be found.
The insectkiller family tried many remedies, but their tools were inadequate. The birds' needle-like beaks and voracious appetites were specially suited to the task of grub killing, but the clumsy tools and hands of the insectkillers only damaged the treebark beyond repair while the grubs burrowed further in and out of reach. When their last family tree died, several of the members did not offer themselves. Feeling their knowledge to be useless, they went away to die hidden; sacrilege! But the Chief could not find their bodies, so he could do nothing.
It was now the fifth year, and the Chief's family had taken charge of not just the doorsmithing and insectkilling, but also the redrootgrowing and the roofthatching. The Chief had also tasted of each of these, but the truth in each tasted more and more of despair as time went on: if the trees continued to die, and the families continued to offer themselves, one day there would be no mouth to eat the fruit, and no mind to hold the knowledge. As it was, he did not know how the village could spare the loss of the bonemenders or the whiterootgrowers... whose trees were now falling in ranks.
As Chief, his mind was rapid and full of many tastes. He and his family alone were given the tasting of every tree in the grove, and of these, he had eaten the most, so his knowledge was wide and deep. But he could not find where the birds had gone. His hands were cold with the thought of children kindled in the years to come, if the trees all died... their minds would be doomed to darkness. He thought grimly of this as he wandered the grove, picking fruits here and there and eating them. The grovetenders did not punish him for this abuse. They knew he was trying to pull enough knowledge together to find a solution.
So passed the days. Each day, another tree knelt and the fruit of it was eaten. Each afternoon, the Chief felt the hands of his people, and felt only coldness. And each evening, he walked the grove, eating, eating of knowledge until his head and stomach ached with the fullness of it. He stopped eating any other kind of food, that he might have more room for the fruit of knowledge. He became confused and remote, but felt no wiser. His hands went hot and cold.
One day, wandering the outskirts of the village, he chanced upon a tiny dead animal. The grovetenders would never have allowed it into the grove to die, lest the minds of the village be filled with impurities. But the Chief, looking upon the pitiful, crushed thing, saw only an untapped source of knowledge. He took the animal and ignored the icy touches of the scandalized grovetenders, planting it beneath the strongest of the Chief's family trees. The roots immediately crept upward through the soil and grasped the tiny corpse, pulling it down into the earth for digestion. The Chief had to fend the grovetenders off as the tree fed, but his hands were burning, and their despair had made them weak.
For days, the Chief wandered the countryside, searching for more animals. He captured every creature that he could, taking them back to the grove and killing them for the strongest tree. He felt its bark for grubs, attempting to crush them with his fingers. This tree must live! The grovetenders put a boundary around the tree, and the Chief's family were so offended that they would not touch his hands nor look into his face, but he was determined. This tree would live, and these animals would tell him the answer.
Winter was hard that year: the Chief's family had not been able to grow enough redroot, and the doors were not secured. The village needed labor as well as knowledge to do these things. But few cared; every member of the village could sense death now, and what did doors matter compared to that? The season of joyful maturation of knowledge was tainted. The trees, weakened by the onslaught of grubs during harvest season, took frost damage until their trunks burst. Three more families offered themselves that winter. The Chief's family spent much time in thought, trying to sort and hold too much knowledge in their heads, trying to hold onto it that it might not be lost. But the Chief only hoped for the one strongest tree to survive and bear.
The fruits arrived in the spring, pale and unripe, but waiting the natural amount of time was impossible. The Chief ate every single fruit from the one tree. He was violently ill for many days afterward, and the unfamiliar tastes of the minds of animals almost left him a helpless idiot... but after many days, he felt himself again, and knew many new things.
When he recovered, he faced the hills to the east, and began to walk.
This was what the small animals gave him: the birds lived in a cave in the eastern hills. They flew out each day to find grubs in groves across the valley, in his village and others. They flew from the mouth of the cave. One day, the mouth of the cave had closed. What happened to the birds was unknown.
Travel did not come naturally to his kind. The Chief had not even known there were other villages in the valley; he and his folk had been servants to their grove for more than twenty thousand years (and before that time, there was nothing to know, because there had been no trees to save the memories). He knew every day of the life of his village, but never before had he tasted knowledge from outside that sphere. He labored over the uneven ground steadily, though, because some of the small animals had known the path well. His mind tasted the memory of a water lizard, and he found a brook to slake his thirst; then he recalled the thoughts of a rodent, and discovered a patch of sweet berries... so went his travels, and soon he was stumbling among paths rocky, steep, and bare. The mountains rose up before him larger and larger, until there was no sky and no land -- he did not look back -- only more and more mountain.
He climbed one last wall to find a mammoth heap of jagged rocks. There it was, the closed mouth of the cave! And seeing it, he knew what had happened. There had been a cave-in, during the night when the birds were at rest. One entire side of the mountain seemed sunken and wrinkled. Surely none of the hollows of the cave remained.
He looked at a single battered feather in the rubble; it was caught between two rocks, half-rotted and almost invisible.
All of the birds were dead.
And with them, his village would die. The trees would never survive long enough to find more birds, and the Chief had not even the faintest taste of where to search. Perhaps these were the only birds in the world. Even now, his grove might be gone.
Hopelessly, helplessly, he began to poke at the detritus at the cave mouth. He pulled a stone free, and there was a tiny bone leg. A bird had tried to fly free. There were some shreds of flesh still clinging there... evidently no scavenger had been strong enough to move the rocks.
He pulled aside another stone, again to find tiny crushed bird skeletons. He continued this way throughout the day. As he went further and deeper into the mound, he began to find crushed shells, nests of twigs and bark... baby skeletons, some of them still lightly downed. At midday, he sat down and looked around him. The ground was littered with the remnants of hundreds of birds, pulled from the wreckage and gently set aside. Old birds, young birds, strong birds and weak ones, some even of different species, striped, spotted, bright or dull they lay there. All dead. None had escaped.
The Chief put his face into his cold hands. These scraps of birds were holy to him and his village. Even if they could not be saved, even if the minds of every villager were to die, he must honor these corpses somehow. And there was only one honor he could give.
He took his single garment and filled it with as many dead bird skeletons as he could carry. It took him twice as long to return home as it had taken him to reach the cave, burdened as he was, and when he reached his village and his grove, there was only one tree left... the strongest tree, still standing tall and noble, despite the rippling and seething mass of grubs just below the bark of its trunk. The Chief's family stood around the tree in a haggard circle, waiting for it to wilt. There were no other families.
At least the one tree was left. He could honor the birds. But the relief was tasteless in his mind, and the awareness of darkness and death filled him.
The Chief fell to his knees on the ground. His hands curled icily and uselessly, the skin on them split with profuse cold and the blood flowed upon the ground. He awkwardly pulled his burden from his back, scattering the bird remains beneath the tree, and kneeling beneath it, he gazed upon its holy branches and struck his arms with a sharp stone. He willed the tree to take his blood and the corpses of the birds as his life flowed out of him onto the ground. He thought of the many things he knew, concentrated on them as was proper during death, to help the flow of knowledge into the tree. It did not matter if it would soon die anyway. He would die with it, a true Chief.
The tree reached upward through the soil to take the offering. Every scrap, every bit of skeleton, was taken, and the blood used as a catalyst for strength... the tree absorbed the knowledge of the Chief, pulling up his wisdom and the things he had learned through the trunk and out along its branches. With the last effort of its own life, the tree bore, and even as the fruit swelled on its branches, the trunk folded.
The Chief's family gathered the fruit and held it in hands too numb to even be cold. There were no more trees to die for, so they simply sat, and slowly ate the fruit. It was all of life that was left to them.
They tasted the last days of their Chief, and the lives of the birds. They were disoriented by the taste of flight, the eating of grubs, nesting, and life in a cave. But then they tasted another thing... song.
The taste of song filled their minds, with it the many memories of the birds of courting, threatening, squabbling, comforting, teaching the young. Song to teach the chicks how to fly, song to direct the wayward flock to the groves, and it was song, song that filled the lives of every bird from the cave... a magnificent clamor of song, all of it filled with the tastes of knowledge that somehow ripened and was eaten with the ears.
The Chief was the wisest of all of them, so his knowledge helped them put it together. The people of the village did not have wings. But they could make sounds.
One member of the family looked at another, and opened her mouth. Out of it came a strange croaking noise... but it gradually became intelligible. She repeated the strange noise. And the others recognized the words of birdsong from her mouth, wondering at the knowledge. It sounded different from the songs of the birds. But that did not matter: the villagers could sing!
She said, "I can pass to you what I know through the air." And her family, hearing these words, tasted the knowledge in their own minds without benefit of fruit.
The family could taste, from the knowledge of the birds, where every grove in the valley was. They did not hesitate.
The first said, "I will go to the grove of the southeast."
The next said, "I will go to the grove in the northern foothills."
And each member picked a grove. They picked the largest and most vigorous groves, in the hopes that some trees would have survived. They each traveled as fast as their limbs could carry them. Two of them arrived in villages already dead, and had to travel to find others, but every member of the family eventually found a grove with one or two or five trees still standing, seven or ten or twelve family members surrounding it in a haze of despair. The Chief's family offered themselves to each grove, and each village partook of the knowledge of song.
The surviving villages found each other, and built a new home in the center of the valley. They told each other the secrets of redrootgrowing, whiterootgrowing, housebuilding, stoneworking, insectkilling, bonemending, and all of the hundred trades. Of every trade, some knowledge was saved. Many children were kindled, and their parents taught them, by time and labor and love, to sing.
In this way did the Chief save our children from the darkness.
* * *
That is the first story of our people, say I Minurba, and now you know what I know.
Congregation: We know what you know, for you have sung it to us. Blessed be the song that keeps our children from the darkness. Amen.