2017-10-24 22:18 fiction short-story science-fiction return-to-ebyx Benjamin Brood

Ulla

As cities were built, as rockets were again made and traveled to Ckiqs, the tribes admired by the separatists lived in the remote southern part of the world, living by the old ways and avoiding contact. For them time had stopped. The separatists believed change had come too fast, that reaching into the dead civilization of the ruined city polluted fundamentals of their own society. They reached out to the isolated south, emissaries were cautiously sent. The tribes fueled their ideas, and encouraged them to resist progress. Soon there were voices of dissent quoting the myths and stories of the old ways, insisting the cities and towns, even farming, were wrong.

The response to this movement was "How". How would they go backwards, how would they take away all the things they'd gotten used to using and having. No child now knew how to make a canoe and hunt and live under the stars. Houses sheltered them. In the south, the separatists said, it's colder and the ocean is big and the people there live as the ancestors had. But how would we move everyone, realistically how would we live life as our ancestors had? As the separatists became more adamant and more aggressive, so too the response, and so they became less concerned with moving everyone and more concerned with moving themselves.

Then go, said the Council, thinking some would go and a large number wouldn't. But most did.

Ulla and her brother and their parents went south. The ship that took them dropped them off with the rest of their group on a cold, barren beach where a man named Teeq greeted them. As they wound their way through the wet dense sparse forest to his village, with trees like they'd never seen before, great trees that were straight and reached up into the sky, and the ground around them sparse and rocky and covered in moss. None of these things they'd seen in their own towns or in the jungle around them. And the wind, it didn't seem to ever stop here, they had trouble hearing one another because it was so loud especially down on the beach. One girl, a young girl, began to cry. Her parents told her to stop, but Ulla could see they were almost crying too. Where were their warm homes and their radios and their cabinets full of food? Teeq lead them, walking quickly, but he said nothing, he offered no reassurances.

They could smell the settlement before they saw it. It was the smell of fish and rancid leather and camp smoke and whatever had been cooking in it, something gamy and greasy. Maybe it was something they caught in the forest, maybe it was one of the things that lived in the ocean, one of the things Ulla heard about, the big things with the tusks. Ulla asked her parents where they would sleep. Her parents told her to keep quiet. Teeq did not turn to them or speak to them.

The people of the settlement were thin and moved slowly. Ulla would describe them as another color, although they were the same race as she was and their ancestors were the same ancestors as hers. It was as if they had less blood. And as the day wore on and she tried to ignore the cold she began to feel bloodless too. When night started she knew it would get even colder, she could feel it everywhere in her. Her parents did not look at her. Her brother looked at the ground.

Teeq and the leader of their group, Keltah, say down in front of a fire and spoke for several hours. Teeq was wearing coverings made of skins, maybe the skins of one of those ocean tusk things. Ulla and her brother were wearing the clothes they'd always worn, with extra jackets that were new, that would've been too hot back home. But here they weren't warm enough.

Teeq and Keltah stood. Keltah came back to them as they stood shivering. He tried to twist his face into a smile, she could tell it was forced, like her brother's smile, like the little girl's smile. They would all have to sleep together in the center of the settlement, Keltah said, in the lodge, which was built by banding lots of branches down and covering them with mud. The people in the settlement would help them with food for a week, but it was a hard season so this was already a great sacrifice. After this they would have to find their own way. Teeq would help them, and Keltah had lived with these people for half a season. "This is why we're here, we knew it would be hard," her parents said to her and her brother. But Ulla missed her pet rattiq and missed the hot breeze of the sunset, the jungle beyond town and the noises it made. She heard no animals here, maybe one, a bird or something in the distance making a sound like a throttled terrible scream.

They slept badly, if at all. How is it possible to live like this, she heard one woman mutter, we're piled up together like animals keeping each other warm. In the morning, by the fire, they chewed on strips of dried meat that had a weird aftertaste. Then the men were called out by Teeq, they would go with him to hunt. And the women were grouped together by a woman from the settlement named Jiiru, who took them to gather things from the forest. She told them which mushrooms to pick and they collected moss from the sides of certain trees she said they could use for fire or in stew. When one woman picked the wrong kind of mushroom Jiiru struck her and yelled at her, telling her that these could've killed us.

When the men got back they looked tired and depressed. Teeq appeared angry and took Keltah aside. When Keltah returned he told the men they would have to do better tomorrow. All there was to eat tonight, since they'd caught nothing, was a stew of the mushrooms and moss they'd picked and some roots that the women had dug up.

It was a hard night. Harder than the first. They understood what they really fought for against the Council. Now that they had it, some of them had doubts. Some of them didn't, and they tried to convince the rest with quiet persuasive talk that it was only a matter of time, only a matter of adjustment. Ulla's parents fell somewhere in the middle, they didn't complain but they weren't telling anyone else they it would simply take a little this or that.

The next day began like the last. The men went away. The women went into the forest. This time the women gathered leaves for tea and they picked berries where they could find them and they went to a grove where a hard small fruit hung low on gnarled trees. Ulla bit into one and it was acrid and mealy. Jiiru was meaner that day, she yelled at several of the other women telling them they were fat and lazy.

Later the men returned with bad news. Ulla's brother had been killed in the hunt, they said, he'd become tangled in a rope attached to a spear, and he was pulled into the frigid waters. By the time they were able to get him out he was dead. Teeq told everyone this very solemnly. He stood over the hat and boots of Ulla's brother and told them what happened, as if it had happened a thousand years ago. Her brother's body, Teeq said, had been thrown into the ocean where it would feed what fed them. When Ulla's mother heard this she shrieked and hit Ulla's father who had to hold her down. Tomorrow, Teeq said, they would hunt better but tonight they would not eat. There was a large fire that night and Ulla's parents wept as several of the men from the settlement danced the correct dance to make sure their son's spirit went to the right place. Ulla wasn't sure where that place was, they seemed to know though. The men in masks danced and jumped through the fire and all Ulla could do was miss her brother.

After Ckiqs rose and fell they knew the week was over. Their first week. Keltah that morning brought them together and told them they were leaving the settlement and moving south, to a place that Teeq had shown him, a place that used to be a settlement where the land and those waters were well known, and there were even a few structures left he said. Ulla's parents hadn't said much in the last few days, they looked tired. Ulla was frightened.

They were given several canoes. This was a huge gift that had to be appreciated, Keltah said. Teeq lead them down the coast through choppy waters and they stayed two nights on beaches near trees that looked alive with branches reaching out over them and at night with the flicker of the fire alive and angry. To them, to Teeq's people, everything was alive. So too to Ulla. When you are hungry and you don't know where you'll sleep and bad things happen the world is alive.

The next morning they arrived at the abandoned old settlement. They could see where the fire had been, they could see the outline of the huts in the dirty rubble of the site, where there must've been dancing, appeasing the spirit of the birds or the fish or the things that lived deep in the ocean. There was a single standing structure, the remains of a lodge, but with big bare spots open to the wind. Keltah said they would fix it and that's where they would spend their nights until they could get other things built. They gathered wood and packed mud onto it, and that night they ate some fish they caught with Teeq. They did as much as possible with Teeq's help, since he told them he had to return to his people soon. Also during that week one of the men, Imnek, fell down the side of a hill and broke his lower leg. Teeq helped them set it, but he said that the man would never be the same and they would have to decide if they wanted to carry his weight, feeding him, or if he should be left out to die. Keltah and some other men were angry with Teeq for saying this, so Teeq left quickly and quietly one night, taking one of the canoes.

Ulla worked with several of the women building a second hut. She enjoyed this, and they were proud of it when they were done. But food remained a problem. They were tired, and grew more tired every day. Sometimes their fishing went well, but it was never enough fish for everybody, and they started to fight. At some point Imnek stopped eating.

One night there was a terrible storm. They did not know it was approaching, so they were unprepared. The second hut they built fell apart in the rain, they huddled together in the repaired lodge, but part of that was destroyed too. After the storm passed they'd realized the canoes hadn't been properly put away and were now gone, taken by the wind. Everything else they had collected or built was also gone or destroyed. They were worse off now than when they started, thought Ulla. And it kept getting colder.

Keltah and several of the men and women who had been most vocal before now said they must send help from Teeq's people. They must journey up to the other settlement. However, without canoes this would be difficult. A few people volunteered. Ulla's parents had said nothing, almost nothing, since the death of her brother. She did hear them one night, maybe they were down by the beach, she heard them yelling at one another, awful screaming back and forth.

Keltah and the volunteers left to travel north to Teeq's village. They left with almost nothing because there was nothing to leave with. Keltah tried to appear confident, but Ulla could see through it. Probably everyone could see through it, but Keltah felt like he should try. They didn't know how long it would take to get there, they didn't know how long it would take them to get back. On the third night after they left Imnek developed a fever. It must be because he hasn't been eating and he's been in the damp lodge all the time, Ulla thought. They tried to comfort him but he became worse.

On the fourth day since Keltah left the men got lucky hunting and killed a stag. There were cheers when they returned. But they had trouble gutting and cleaning it, and probably didn't get as much meat from it as they could've, and the skin wouldn't be useful, so a lot of it ended up in the fire. And that night the smell attracted bears who stole the rest.

Ulla's mother would break down at certain points in the day, weeping. At first Ulla tried to console her, but after a while she was too weary to do anything about it. When would Keltah return? She wondered.

Imnek died a few days later. They buried him where they hoped bears wouldn't find him, and they piled as many rocks as they could on top of his grave. The next few nights they avoided sleeping in the lodge, and instead slept out in the open. They wondered if whatever made him sick was there in that place, but they also felt like he was still there, in the lodge, that he hadn't really left, he was in there groaning. They all felt this. They'd started again to build another hut.

Ulla's mother got sick too. Her father tended to her, but her fever got worse. Ulla worked hard to bring back berries and leaves and moss and mushrooms.

But Ulla must've made a mistake. She knew she made a mistake as soon as they finished eating. Her stomach began cramping up and it felt like her body wanted to come out of her skin, that there was a thing called Ulla inside her that was fighting to get out and be free and so she went down to the water and she thought the ocean was Ulla, the real Ulla, and she looked up into perfectly clear sky full of bright stars and she thought they too were Ulla. But if all these things were Ulla, what was she, so small, so temporary? And she ran from the water because it suddenly frightened her, and she was in the trees and there was an owl on a tree, just sitting there and blinking at her and it told her not to be afraid, and it told her it would help her and watch over her.

In the morning everyone felt sick and one of the men was missing. Someone said that last night he decided to go get Keltah and Teeq, he just stood up and said he was going to get them and walked off into the wilderness. When they heard this everybody was quiet, thinking "why didn't someone stop him" but even more "maybe he'll bring back help". The chances he would survive were nothing, Ulla thought, he would die in the woods. She thought of the owl and she thought of the owl on a branch above the dead man, knowing he would die, knowing everything that would happen.

Ulla's mother died soon after, delirious and starved. Ulla's father, having lost both his wife and son wept and then had a moment of seeming clarity, he yelled at the entire settlement and told them the endeavor was a terrible idea and that they would all die here, that everyone would die here.

His outburst was met with a solemn quiet, a silent agreement, then one of the men half-heatedly said "Keltah will return with Teeq" but inside, in the certainty of their instincts, nobody believed him even as the words came out of his mouth.

Some days the fishing was good. Hunting never went well. It continued getting colder as the season wore away. The life had been drained out of Ulla's father. He'd been a vocal separatist, he once worked in the Ministry, and he'd spent years promoting the ideas of retreat, retreat from the advances of technology they'd taken from the ruined city, retreat from the expansion and re-population of Ekiqs, retreat from the rationalization of the world gods.

Ulla was the ocean, and the owl could tell her what would happen.