It was Last Sunday and the moon stood bright and wide.
Susan hugged her parents and walked across the smooth wood floor,
blankly registering the constant jiggling of the river flowing beneath.
She removed the thatch covering over a small hole in the center of their floating cabin and,
flippers slicing the cool rippling flow, slipped into the river, holding the cylindrical little door over her head and settling it neatly back in place after her splashing disappearance.
Her mother looked at her father and shook her head.
He threw his arms up, elbows at his side, webbed fingers supplicating the various forgotten gods.
“He’s your father.”
She winced. “He’s a wise man; I trust his goodness and his wisdom, but I am worried they are not enough.”
But, madam, if wisdom and goodness are not enough, what hope have we creatures? What compass is left us?? And so we must accept the only tools that could ever mean anything to us, that could ever do anything for us, take us anywhere that we could ever really care about, believe in, belong to.
Susan swam swiftly to the market square, deserted now except for a few kids playing checkers (the universe is a child playing checkers) and strange old Henry, who seems to spend all day and night sitting on the wooden railing, looking sadly into the center of the market square. Especially at night when no one’s there and all is muffled and lightless does his body slump dejectedly and his eyes glass with some deep internal shudder that he cannot move beyond. Strange fellow. Nice enough to talk to, though he never says much. She waited by the entry—a break in the railing wide enough to hold four or five Water Runners standing shoulder to shoulder (so about five feet wide)—nearest her grandparents’ home, dangling her legs in the water.
These Water Runners are funny folk.
At least they’re funny-looking.
They remind me of cormorants.
Have you ever seen cormorants?
They are sleek black water birds you’ll watch dive into water fresh, salt, and in-between.
Water Runners are likewise black, sleek, smooth divers.
And they also share the cormorants oily wet look.
Their skin is pure black and covered by tiny black hairs that collectively bear a striking resemblance to the oiled feathers of a cormorant.
But Water Runners are humanoids, not birds.
What a thin people! arms and legs like beanpoles.
Instead of visible noses, they’ve two small slits. Instead of ears, they’ve an invisible hole on either side of their head. You might think they were little kid bank robbers in black jumpsuits and ski-masks, but their proportions are too narrow for a human to pull off.
Flippered feet and webbed hands, small but deadly sharp claws on each digit.
Made for the water, they dive beneath the surface of a river or lake, swim and dart about from one submerged stone to another. Their big wasp eyes shielded by a thin retractable shield and using sonic clicks and hand signals to communicate, they scavenge, hunt, explore, play in the warbling underwater light. After quarter of an hour or so, they’ll surface, gorge themselves on air for a few minutes, and return to the well-lit depths of deep-channeled rivers and shallow lakes.
Water Runners don’t like water too deep to see in. They leave that to the Sea People, who can breathe water and see without light, and who are altogether more suited for such scary depths. Of course, the sea people don’t like freshwater, and so no human-like creature ventures beyond the shallows of the giant lakes with waves and storms like oceans. But that’s just as well.
The craggy, pocketed rocks jumbled on the water’s edge make for a sharp, bumpy, thoroughly unpleasant seat. Hence the little square reed mats. One or two are enough for the sleight Water Runners, but the Tree People need four or five beneath their solid rumps. Susan sat nearest the river. There one need only lean a little to one side to tumble down a few feet into the safety of quick-moving, white-foaming waters. The Tree People, being clumsy even in calm, easy waters, fear quickwater and would never pursue a Water Runner into the froth. Next to Susan percherd her grandfather; next to him his friend Sam, of the Tree People. Sam’s grandson Ted, about Susan’s age and friend her whole life but never playmate and never once physically touched by her, sat next to his grandfather, the escape vine between them.
In the old days, with the Water Runners and the Tree People constantly skirmishing, many such meeting places had been designated along the river’s edge. With the water near, the Water Runners could safely escape the Tree People, and with heavy trees overhead and vines and/or ropes dangling down to the rocks, the Tree People could easily toss themselves up into the canopy to evade belligerent Water Runners.
Susan’s grandfather had grown up as the fighting waned. Over the years delicate peace treaties grew stronger as the peoples webbed themselves deeper and deeper into each other, forming religious, business, and political relationships that in many cases blossomed into real but cautious friendships. Like the one between Maxwell Knifehider of the Water Runners and Samuel Strongarm of the Tree People. For years now they’d met on this pile of rugged boulders by the foaming spitting jagged waters and beneath the heavy limbs of ancient fern-leafed and soft, yellow-trunked trees.
Maxwell and Samuel were both religious leaders, ones who spoke to gods, healed the sick and wounded, advised the leaders, warriors, traders, and laborers in matters of the spirit. On this rocky outcrop, they shared ideas their respective peoples couldn’t, in their judgement, presently bear to hear: all the true gods were just different human experiences of the one God, who did and did not mind names like “River Driver” and “Great Sky Tree”. But those kind of radical theological musings were for evenings without grandchildren. Tonight they’d tell the old stories, the stories shared by all the peoples, the ones from the days of the creatures.
“It was the time of the creatures and the sky was sticky and mean. Every place had its monster: Tall spindlers roamed the plains; dread dogs bounded the forest floor and tree to tree; bigmouthed frogs sliced the waters, chomping Water Runners; laughing sharks scattered Sea People remnants across ocean floors; and from overhead great long-beaked fire-breathing birds burnt and tore everyone, although they paid particular attention to tumbling the Flying Ones’ cliff-side villages into the surging sea. Worst of all were the mountain monsters; that is why the Mountain People are to this day so few and so skittish you can never find one—not even at the edges, where in the First Days other peoples found and knew them. In the First Days, all peoples believed in one another and no one fought anyone. All had all they needed and anger filled no one. But then the creatures came, and the creatures tore up everything.”
“It was the time of the creatures, cruel and bold. Monsters without bellies, hungering only for mayhem, for spreading pain, destruction, death and loss. Tall spindlers were strange balls of rough loose rhino flesh, with leathery legs and arms as long swinging vines but thick like water poplars. They ran like thunder and lightning, tossing themselves across the world, their fierce-clawed spinning arms slicing every hut, every Plainsman, every ox and every cart. Nothing could stand their reckless sour-heartef fury; any Plainsman within reach would–strong, fast, and fierce as they are on the open grounds–be cut in two. There was no hope, no way to defeat the tall spindlers with slicing teeth and giant bulging yellow eyes. And who could stand against a dread dog as it banged from tree to tree, its sticky drooling teeth decapitating every Tree Person, hurting tree homes and walkways to the dirts far below? Nor was there a weapon to pierce the thick unctuous hide of the bigmouthed frogs, that swam faster than the fastest fish and lived only for destruction: chomping Water Runners apart, ramming their homes and boats until they sank; even their urine was a deadly poison that made the waters putrid, killing fish and Water Runner alike.”
“Those monsters were terrible. And the people suffered greatly. But the worst creatures from the time of the creatures were the laughing sharks who tore apart the twenty seas; the fire spitting birds who broke and burnt homes, trees, fields, anything safe and nourishing; and, worst of all, the mountain men because they were men like us and clever like us, but they were also evil giant monsters without stomachs or hearts, as tall as a riverside willow, covered in white, impenetrable fur, with red desperate eyes, strong enough to snap an ox’s neck in one hand and crumple the tallest proudest Plainsman in another.”
“Some say the mountain men led all creatures, that all haters obeyed their will, followed their command, fulfilled their plan. Some say the creatures are not dead, but only waiting; and the mountain men hold the few surviving Mountain Folk emaciated and blurry-brained in small prickly cages, saved for the dark day coming”
“For what day? What dark day?!” Blurted out young Theodore Treebreaker. Rising up on his two stubby legs, great arms reaching high with long shovel fingers drooping down, twittering. He reminds me of an excited orangutan. Of course, Tree People are bigger than orangutans, and though their arm and leg proportions are more orangutan than human, they otherwise look like bodybuilding humans covered from brown head to black toe in a very fine light grey fur. Also, all humanoids sport opposable thumbs, a handy tool of which neither ape nor monkey nor any other animal can boast.
“Awaiting the day of great vengeance. When the creatures return to end our world and send all living people to the distant land, where the dead dwell.”
“Why great vengeance? What have we done? Why do they want to hurt us?” asked Susan in a quiet voice, instinctively leaning towards the water,as if the cool skipping water could save her from the creatures in her head.
“If the creatures had reasons, they would be humans and the gods could reach them, could persuade them, guide them into gentler paths. They could repent their wanton violence and live joyfully, at peace with themselves and all living creatures. But they have no reasons. They are not like us who think: ‘I should find a justification for this act, and if I cannot, or if I discover that the justifications I am able to give are not adequate, I should cease committing the act’. Even the mountain men, who spoke and strategized, who outsmarted many peoples many times–they had no reasons. They did not ask themselves why they must kill and maim, break and tumble. They felt like hurting us; that was enough to drive their berserk, to punish us day and night. These creatures do not understand love, kindness, joy, friendship. They are soullessly miserable in a way that no person–no matter how lost to folly–can ever be. For we always have Godlight within, trying to get through to us, to lead us to better, more beautiful feelings, thoughts, words, deeds. But the creatures–that’s the real problem with the creatures. They have no soul, only sickness on the inside and strength on the outside.”