I used to write short stories, but the muse left me for many years. Then recently I finished the first one in ages, so I thought I'd post it here. It's kind of medium-term future SF masquerading as something else.
The Death of the Great Mother
It was Little Noseís fourteenth winter when the Great Mother called her into her hut. The Great Mother was the oldest and wisest of the Forest Canyon Tribe, so old that she had skin as lined and wrinkled as old leather, and hands with fingers that looked twisted into knots. She could see little, and had to be guided around, and her breath wheezed like the cries of distant birds. Many of the younger children of the tribe were frightened of her, and would run and hide from her, or make up stories about how she would catch them and eat them, but Little Nose had always found her a kindly and patient woman. After her own mother died, she had spent a lot of time with the Great Mother, and loved to listen to the tales she would tell around the fire, her crow's voice croaking in the darkness, making pictures appear in Little Nose's head.
Today was a particularly cold day. The wind was from the north, the skies clear and bright and blue, and the trees and even the rocks covered in a magical halo of white frost. The river was icy, and Little Nose was glad to be away from its cold, trying to spear fish in the clear shallows, to speak to the Mother.
'Come closer, child, and let me feel your warmth,' the Great Mother said. Little Nose obediently sat closer to the pile of wolf and bear pelts that the Great Mother used to keep warm during the snows of winter, and let the Motherís trembling hand, with its misshapen, bony fingers reach out and touch her face, stroke her hair.
'I wish I could see your face, girl,' the Great Mother said sadly, 'but I havenít been able to see properly for years. Damd katarax.' Little Nose frowned, but said nothing. The Great Mother often used words that no-one understood, not since the last of the other Elders had died, and she never explained them. Strong Arm said that they were magic spells to keep evil spirits away, but Little Nose had noticed that the Great Mother always looked strange after she had said them, sad and with a faraway look in her eyes, as though she were remembering things long past.
There was a quiet stillness in the hut.
'I donít know if Iíll survive this winter,' the Great Mother said.
'You always say that, Mother', said Little Nose, smiling. 'But you always do.'
The Mother smiled a crooked smile in reply. 'This time itís true. I can feel it.' She tapped her heart. 'Kardyak errithmya. Itís long overdue anyway, and Iím just another mouth to feed.'
Little Nose could feel the first sting of tears. She didnít like it when the Mother talked like this.
'Weíll all miss your stories, Great Mother,' she said.
'I know. But someone else must tell them now. Youíre a clever girl, so Iím going to tell you one last story, but itís a secret one. You mustnít tell anyone else in the tribe until youíre as old as I am, and then you must find someone you trust, to pass the story on to. Do you understand?'
Little Nose nodded, excited. A secret story, and the Great Mother was telling it only to her!
'Itís the story of our people,' the Great Mother said. And she settled back into the pile of furs to make herself more comfortable, and began to talk.
ďYou know that I have told you that there was a time, fifty winters or more ago, when our people first came to this valley. But I have never told you of the time before that. We were part of a much bigger tribe then, one that covered the whole world. We didn't even really have a name for ourselves - we were just 'people'. Humaniti, perhaps. Our tribe was full of very clever people, who were able to do wonderful things, things that you would probably call magic. They flew through the air, they even flew beyond the sky into the dark night, and went to see the stars. Some of them are still out there. They built people that were just like us, but made from metal; some of those metal people were even cleverer than us. If you look up into the sky at night, youíll see some stars that move, shining very brightly, slowly travelling in a straight line. Those are the homes of the metal people, far far above us. They are still watching over us. They will always watch over us, but I doubt if you will ever see them. They have agreed not to come down here to the earth, not to interfere.
ďWell, I have told you of the clever things that our people did. But there were other things that they did that were not so clever, or if they were clever, then they were not as good. They made some rocks burn to make heat, but it made the rocks poisonous, and because of that there are places that you must never go to. They are marked so that you will know them. You remember years ago Papa Moma once taught everyone the taboo symbol? The three triangles? That marks the poison rocks. You mustnít ever go there because youíll get sick and die. Even if the game is plentiful, the plants and the animals themselves will carry the poison.
ďThere was a time when people of the old tribe were convinced that because of things like that, people themselves were a curse upon the land. I am talking long ago now - perhaps ten generations back. That probably seems like an impossibly long time ago to you, but compared to the length of the story of the old tribe, it was just the blink of an eye. Anyway, back at that time there were so many people that the land seem to groan under their weight. Nine billyun people at one time. Well, you donít know how many that is, but itís a lot, trust me - more than the number of leaves on the trees, or the stars in the sky or the stones on the beach. People everywhere. Many animals were hunted until there were none left. There were so many people that the sky grew hot and the seas rose, and there were terrible storms. Some tribes grew short of water and killed other tribes to get it. There was fighting, and hunger and disease. Many people died."
Little Nose listened, mouth open. She tried to imagine the valley with people all standing together in a crowd, all jostling and fighting, some of them sick, pale and coughing, like her mother had been.
'And did all of the people die, Great Mother?' she asked.
'No child. Not even most of them. Only a few, really, compared to how many there were. There were still many many of them even after all of these troubles.'
'So where are they now, Mother?'
'Oh, they are gone, child. They all got old and passed away, like me. Like Papa Moma. And there were not enough young ones like you to replace them. You see, once upon a time they worried there were far, far too many of them, but that worry passed, and after that, they began to realise they were not having enough children. Sometimes they only had one child per family, sometimes they didn't even have that many. Lots of people decided not to have children - well, that was in a time when their magic allowed them to decide if they wanted to or not. And they thought children took up too much of their time. People preferred to do other things; to work or to travel. Some of them spent all of their time in imaginary worlds, asleep and dreaming, while their bodies were looked after by the metal people. And so at every generation the number of people halved, or even more than halved. Like a joint of deer meat, if you keep carving at it, soon none is left. Finally, fifty winters ago we were down to just a few millyun people, and we started to worry, that soon there might be no more people, not ever. Sittis Ė they were like huge villages made of stone Ė were abandoned, and given back to the plants and animals. In the future your tribe may one day come across their ruins when your tribe travels, but naycha will reclaim them soon, and one day no-one will ever know that so many people once lived there.
'So what was to be done? Some of us decided that if people were going to survive, to continue to be people, we had to put away all of our magic, which was stopping us from having children, and go back to the way we had used to live. Prims, they called us Ė it was short for Primitive. It was meant as an insult to us, but we didn't see it like that. We were convinced that we were the future, perhaps the only future, for humaniti. So we formed groups - the Forest Canyon Tribe was one group. You might find other tribes, some day, scattered across the world; but the world is much bigger than you can imagine, and you may never find them. Those of us you called the Elders Ė we were the first of the tribe. We learned the old ways, how to hunt and forage, how to make fire and shelter. It was very difficult at first. Quite a few died or gave up and decided to go away. But we persevered. And we had children, and we taught them what we knew. But there was one thing that we always argued over, and that was how much to tell you, about your past, and your heritage.'
The Great Mother paused, a sighed a great, deep sigh.
'Some said that if we told you too much, in just a few generations you would have re-learned all of the magic again, and the world would be back to exactly where it was, and we would have achieved nothing. Others said that it was unfair to make people suffer for tens or hundreds of thousands of years in ignorance, and that one day you would discover what we had done, and judge us harshly for it. There didnít seem to be a happy medium. Well, I am the last of the Elders to die, so it has ended up as my decision, and this story - this is my compromise. I will tell you all of these things, and create an oral history, that you and your children and your chidlren's children can shape into your own myths and legends.' She laughed, but it was a harsh croak, like a crow. 'In the early days, I was foolish and kept a diyri. I wrote it on special paypa that would last a long time, and made ink from charcoal and bark gall, and pens from the feathers of ducks and geese." She reached down shakily and brought up something that looked like a bundle of giant leaves, tied together with string.
'This is called a buk,' the Great Mother said. 'The patterns you can see on the leaves are sounds, like we make with our mouths. Itís yours to keep now. Many times I thought about teaching you, or someone else like you, to read it. But that would be telling you too much. Perhaps you will puzzle out how to read it yourself, one day. But in any case, the story - my story - is at an end. Now you know about the triumphs and the mistakes we made. Now the decision will be yours what you tell people in the future. I know you will choose wisely.'
Only a week later, Strong Arm came to tell Little Nose that the Great Mother was dead. She had passed away peacefully in her sleep, a smile upon her face, as though the cares of her ninety winters had finally lifted from her. In accordance with the traditions of the Forest Canyon Tribe, she was laid to rest in the Cave of the Dead, high up on the hillside. This was done with great reverence and ceremony, for everyone recognised that something had passed, something special.
Later that night, Little Nose crept out while the tribe was eating and talking around the fire, and telling stories of the Great Mother. By the light of a bright moon she crept unseen up the rocky hillside to the Cave of the Dead, to where the Great Mother lay in her final sleep. Without the furs, she looked a tiny, frail thing, dried out and shrunken like cured meat. From her leather bag that she used for gathering nuts and berries, Little Nose took the leaves of the buk. She placed them carefully underneath the Great Mother's white-haired head, and walked back out into the moonlight and looked up. Above her, a bright star moved slowly across the sky.