Hello again, fellow Stranger Than Truthers. I have an update for you on this glorious first Saturday of National Novel Writing Month. I’m now up to 16,033 words, and not all of them are terrible. I confess I’ve had some trouble getting a good flow going during the work week, but weekends seem to agree with me. It helps that I’m putting off chores by writing.
Anyway, I didn’t think I’d have Chapter Two ready to share any time soon, but I stitched together several faltering attempts I’ve made over the last week, and I’m not totally unhappy with how it hangs together, considering it’s an unedited first draft. I even remembered to insert in a little foreshadowing and reoccuring tropes and themes I want to pick up and use later. Unfortunately, the entry of my backpacker has now been pushed to Chapter Three, but we’ve got some great establishing plot for the narrator in place. If anyone wants to take a look, you’re welcome to it. If you’d prefer to wait, I plan to pubish the full edited manuscript on my own blog sometime in December. Cheers!
Editor’s Note: This is an extremely awesome and quite long chapter, so I’ve split it into two parts. Get ready for part two, coming tomorrow. Also, if you haven’t read Chapter One, make sure you do that first!
Life Loves Death
by Geoffrey Micks
There is a boy who climbs this mountain every day delivering newspapers and gossip that is more valuable to me than the newspapers. Today he tells me that a blonde woman has asked after me in the village, but she was told I don’t take in boarders. It’s too late in the day for her to climb up here and then go back down again before dark, so she has rented a room for the night. I have some more time to talk into this machine. More time to brace myself for whatever tomorrow will bring. Could it be my last tomorrow? What a thought… What an idea that after all this time, there might finally be an end to it.
I don’t want to die. Isn’t that a silly thing to say? Who wants to die, really? Still, I have been exceedingly good at not dying. I am the uncontested champion of not dying. A hundred generations and more have revered a man named Methuselah as the oldest human being, but if he ever really lived he didn’t even make it to one thousand years. Your typical olive tree outlives Methuselah, whereas I could tell the oldest olive tree alive a thing or two about its many-times great grandfather. I can remember a time when olive trees were a spindly weed, and their fruit was only edible to the birds.
No, I don’t want to die, but I have already told you I cannot escape my fate. If I could climb down from this mountain and run away to some far off land and live for another ten thousand years, I would be able to see that. Instead my visions brought me here, and now they show me nowhere else to go. I must accept that, and face the end that finds us all at some point.
How many times have I held the hand of a friend who said to me, “I’m ready. It’s my time.” Well, it’s my time too, at last. I have had more of it than I’ve known what to do with, and if this is my end, I shall meet it with a smile and a story.
I have only kept my story to myself all these years out of fear. There is so much I can say, now that I know I will not be punished for saying it. What should I tell you, dear listeners?
I suppose if this is to be my lasting legacy, I should properly introduce myself. People tend to do that with their name, but I confess I have the agony of choice when it comes to picking one moniker to give you. I have been many Muhammads, several Johns and Juans and Hanses, a handful of Quintuses, several Kanmis… Oh, I was happiest as Kanmi…
I could never go by Kanmi now, of course. It is too exotic, too unusual. I would be remarkable, and that is dangerous for a man who must not draw attention to himself. Do you know where Kanmi comes from? It was once just as common as Muhammad among a people that I dearly loved. When I walked the streets of Kart-Hadast and someone called out ‘Kanmi!’ many heads would turn, but that was so long ago that today only scholars know what Kart-Hadast once was.
Everyone has heard of it, of course. Today it is called Carthage, but to me it will always be Kart-Hadast, which means “New City.” The old city was the island metropolis of Tzor, and its mainland suburb, Ushu. Today they are together called Tyre, and those three places are special to me.
For five hundred years and more I was of those people. I could spend decades at a time there, and then go to sea for five or ten years to one of the far-flung trading posts that our commercial empire built, selling trinkets and gew-gaws and olive oil and purple cloth. The people I traded with gave me gold and sliver and copper and tin and ivory, and I could sell that in the markets and bazaars of my adopted homeland for shekels, bankable shekels that bought land, land that I willed to myself over and over again.
I could return to Kard-Hadast or Tzor or Ushu as a new Kanmi and pick up my life just where I left off. It was so easy to tell those few surviving old friends who remembered the man who sailed away that I was a nephew or a cousin of the Kanmi they knew -–yes, isn’t the resemblance remarkable? He gave me his seal to watch over for him– and I would take over his estates to hold in trust upon his return, but he never returned. Eventually I would inherit them outright, will them to my ‘nephew’ Kanmi, and sail away again.
Yes, Kanmi was a good name to me.
Still, ‘Tempora muntatur, non est mutamur in illus,’ yes? The times change, and we change with them. Kanmi got a bit sticky after the Romans had their way with us. It was easier, eventually, to become a Roman myself, though I fought that for longer than was good for me. Quintus kept me in good stead, but it never rested as naturally on me as Kanmi. After a while, it made sense to be Muhammad. You could wander much of the world as Muhammad, but where I couldn’t be Muhammad I was Hans, or Juan, or John.
I have almost always chosen a common name, and when the day comes to assume a new identity I don my name as easily as I change my shirt. The important thing is that my name must never set me apart, for too much of my life has been about blending in where I have no business being.
Think on this: For the vast, vast majority of my life I have walked through existence without kith or kin. There has been no web of alliances that helped me secure a livelihood and enter a new community for a few years or decades. As such, countless times I have taken an unremarkable name so as to draw as little attention to my foreignness as possible as I begin a new life.
Today my name is Thomas Black. People think I am one of those crazy Englishmen who can’t get enough of India. When acquaintances talk about me, they say I am a Baby Boomer who came out here as a young hippy to find myself, and now I live off family money. From time to time word gets out to today’s generation of wanderers, backpackers, hippies and hipsters that I’m ‘living the dream’ up here on a mountain like a guru, dispensing wisdom and philosophy about the simple life. Sometimes they make a pilgrimage here to see what I have to say, and I do my best to amuse them.
No… No… If I’m to tell my story, I should start from the beginning. I will say a name I haven’t said out loud since the world was young and cold. When I was born, my mother and father named me Keer, and they had high hopes for me, the highest, for that is what Keer means: From a great height.
As I have said, I was born in the south of what is now called Wales. My mother and father belonged to a clan called the Jazuz, which means the Sky People. Our god was Jazi, which means Sky God. His physical manifestation was a great eagle of a species now long extinct that was big enough to snatch a newborn foal from out of a herd of horses. Jazi could carry a young equine in his talons straight up into the blue realm he ruled and then drop it to smash against the cruel rocks below. It was an awe-inspiring sight. Surely you can understand why we could worship a bird that could do such a thing?
After the long fall of his prey, Jazi would circle overhead for what seemed like an eternity. When the wind blew just right you could hear his mocking laughter at the power he held over the earthbound below. Eventually he would spiral down upon pinions so broad that they completely shrouded the young horse upon his landing. He would dip his cruel head under his wing time and again, popping his blood-spattered head up only long enough to make sure no one would disturb his feast.
The raptor would eat so much while the mares looked on, snorting their despair, that at the end he was too heavy to fly for the rest of the day. That was when my father, Drew, would dance around the bird, shaking pebble-filled rattles and singing praises about the sky god’s greatness. That was my father’s role in the clan: He was our augur, the shaman who watched the birds and told us what the Jazi eagles understood about the world thanks to their high vantage point.
Drew told us they could see the rain and the snow coming. He told us they could see where the herds were grazing and watering. He told us when the berries were ready to be gathered in distant valleys, and when the salmon were swimming upstream to spawn. I suppose he just understood how weather and plants and animals behaved at certain times of the year better than the common man, but to us it truly seemed like our god shared his far-sight and fore-sight with my father, and that gave him great power over how we went about our days.
My clan was prosperous by the standards of the time. There were almost thirty families spread across the hills and valleys, living under leather tents throughout the short spring and summer. We would all come together to hunt and to fish and to wait out the long winters in a deep cave that we kept warm with roaring fires. As augur, my father was the undisputed holy man of the Jazuz. His only rival for dominance was our clan’s chief, Natt, whose sacred duty was to keep the winter fires going. If the fires ever went out, we would kill Natt and elect a new leader.
I liked Natt. He was a big man, and that was important for a leader. He was also a very kind man with a booming laugh, and he treated all the children of the Jazuz as well as he treated his own daughters. He never ate until we had all had our fill. He never slept until we had all rolled up in our sleeping robes for the night. He helped the young and the old with their chores, and praised the contributions of each and every one of us. He demanded no tribute save our respect for his authority, and we gave that to him gladly.
All except my father, that is.
Drew and Natt were of an age, and I was told that before my birth they were both good candidates to become the new chief when the Jazuz’s founding patriarch breathed his last. For Natt it was a friendly rivalry, but my father felt that Jazi expected him to become chief one day. Drew was away on a pilgrimage to an eagle’s nest when the founder of the Jazuz failed to wake up one morning. My father never forgave Natt for being elected leader during his absence. After that fateful day Drew dedicated himself fully to translating Jazi’s wishes, and Natt was content to allow my father to watch the great birds and speak on behalf of our god at the clan councils. As chief, the final word was always Natt’s. My father was very unhappy about that.
Years passed. I was born, and my father rejoiced to have a son where Natt had only daughters. The two men aged quickly, as men did in those days. It became clear by the time I was no longer a boy that even were Natt to die, my father would be too old to be elected to take his place, so he transferred his ambitions on to me.
“When you are chief, you shall be our augur too, and then the Jazuz shall always do as Jazi wishes, and we will prosper!”
“Father, we prosper now,” I would say, and he would cuff me behind the ear at my impertinence.
It was not that I didn’t want to be chief one day. At that time I had no reason to believe that all men must not one day die, and I knew I would be a good candidate when Natt passed on to journey with Jazi through the sky.
My father was not content to wait, though.
He wanted me to become chief while he was still alive, “So I can guide you,” he said. So Drew hatched a plan to have our fires go out. A boy should never think of his father as cunning, for that is a word with heavy connotations. Still, I have not been a boy in a very long time. As an impossibly old man, I have the wisdom now to say my father was cunning, and his plan was a cunning one. He had full control over all aspects of its execution, and no one could see what he was doing until it was done.
As the summer drew to a close in my fifteenth year the families began to congregate around our clan’s winter cave to lay in the stores that would see us through the coming blizzards.
“Jazi wants us to bring in many mink, martin, and fox furs to make fine winter garments,” Drew said at the first clan meeting of autumn. There was general agreement that this was a good idea, and so the clan’s children went out each morning to set snares and maintained trap lines through much of the following days instead of gathering the great mountains of wood we needed to see us through the winter.
“There will be enough,” Natt said reasonably. “The rest of us will make up the difference.”
Then one night my father heard my mother sneeze, and he proclaimed, “Jazi says we need to stock up on medicines!” Again, there was much agreement that this was a good idea, so our clan’s women went out into the shortening autumn days with their baskets to gather the herbs that cool a fever, settle a stomach, dry a runny nose, and all the other things that were within our limited power to cure or soothe.
“The men will bring in more than enough wood if we work together,” Natt declared. “We will chop down the trees by the creek and drag them up to the cave’s entrance. We can break them into smaller pieces as we need them throughout the winter.”
But when it came time to put together the work party, my father watched an eagle circle high overhead and then fly away to the north. “Jazi wants us to hunt the mammoth! He says there are mammoth not far away, and we will be able to lay in a great store of meat to see us through the coldest days!”
Again, this was not an unusual thing for him to say, or for us to do. Hunting mammoth just before winter sunk its icy fangs into the world was a common practice, for you could bury the meat and it would keep for months, almost as well as a modern freezer can store beef today. The Jazuz often organized such a hunt on the advice of the augur, and when Drew announced our greatest prey was nearby, Natt could not really argue against forming a hunting party to seek them out.
“You say they’re close?”
“I don’t. Jazi does!”
“Very well, then. If they’re close, we have the time.”
What else could Natt say?