People and animals

They meet real people who aren’t gods! And animals they’ve never seen before. They even eat animals they’ve never seen before.

In the morning we found a strange thing standing beside us. It was yellow-brown, round, about a hand’s breadth high, and it smelt like something to eat. “Perhaps it’s a mushroom,” I said, and Dayapati said “then I won’t eat it!” “But I will,” I said, and broke off a piece –it was white inside– and ate it. It was delicious! Sweeter than wild honey! “It’s not a mushroom,” I said, “I don’t know what it is but I’m going to eat it! Half of it, anyway.”

Each of us ate half of it, Dayapati shoveling hers into her mouth on hands and knees in order not to waste a single crumb. Then we were full, and happy, and sticky! “You know what I want?” Dayapati said.

“Water to wash in!” I said, and yes, a bit further on a little stream came out of the ground and made a tiny pond and went back underground again. We drank first and then washed, because you don’t want to drink your wash-water even when it’s running! It was a pity that we didn’t have anything to carry water in — we had our sealskin pouches, but the water would have run out through the seams, it’s just to hold needles and a comb and a shell knife. Because this water was very clear and sweet, and we didn’t know where else we’d find water on the dry plains. There were little lizards in it, and a snake that hissed at Dayapati when she poked it with her stick.

“I didn’t know I had a stick!” she said. “Where did I get it?”

“Perhaps you picked it up in the wood,” I said. “It’s useful to have a stick, I wish I’d thought of it!”

But the wood was nowhere to be seen, though we’d gone to sleep in it last night and we had hardly walked yet. Another trick of the gods!

We walked all of that day on the plain (well, it was kind of hilly in places, but never real mountains, just gentle ups-and-downs), until the ground became wetter, soggy, muddy, and then we were walking through water. Brackish water, not nice to drink, and there wasn’t any place dry enough to stop for the night. There were shrimp in the water, huge ones, longer than my middle finger and thicker than my thumb, and we caught a lot of them and put them in a net that Dayapati made of rushes and dragged it through the water so they’d stay alive and fresh.

Then I smelt fire. A good thing, because fire meant land and the water now came to our hips and it was getting dark. Or a bad thing if it was a brushfire and we would only be safe in the water! But no, it was a small fire on dry land with an old woman sitting by it.

“Good day, Mother,” I said. I should perhaps have said Grandmother, seeing that she was so old, but that was what I said without thinking.

“Good day, girls,” she said. “Oh, you’ve brought provisions!” And she handed us two pointed sticks each to roast the shrimp on, and we shared with her, and she shared her flask of sweet water. Then she hugged us to her breast, and she seemed to be much larger than when she’d sat by the fire! It felt good, safe, protected, and I think we must have fallen asleep in her lap.

In the morning she was still there, or perhaps she was there again. “Drink and wash,” she said, “the water is sweet now.”

And it was! “Oh!” I said. “It’s a tidal marsh. It’s salty when the tide comes in and sweet when it goes out.”

“I don’t know about that,” the woman said. “It’s sweet at sunrise.”

I think she gave us something to eat too, but I don’t remember what it was; I only remember that she went away to the southeast, and we went on to the northwest.

“That was the Mother!” I said.

“Yes, you said that, didn’t you?” Dayapati asked. “What next? I hope it isn’t Naigha.”

That made us wonder whether we were dreaming, or even already dead, and I made Dayapati pinch me to see if it hurt (it did). “We can’t be dead because dead people don’t piss, and I have to piss now!” Dayapati said, and then I noticed that I had to piss too and we did, in the high grass.

“People can piss when they’re dying but not when they’ve been dead for days,” I said. Because I’d seen people die, of course, sailors who ended up on our shore more dead than alive.

The ground was dryer here, and I thought it was higher, not like a hill but just more ground under our feet. We came to a little hollow that was full of what looked like one huge thorny bush with bright red flowers, that we had to go around because we couldn’t go through.

Before we were halfway around we heard barking like a seal. It wasn’t a seal that came round the other side –too far from the sea!– but an animal on four stick-like legs, with long grey hair and a long waving tail, its head about the height of my thighs, making noises at us and looking fierce. It had big teeth to be fierce with, too!

But I could be fierce too. I planted my feet firmly on the ground and glared at it like I do at my brothers when they’re being Khas, and said “Oh no you don’t. You can go away and stop bothering us.”

The animal stopped making noise for a moment and then started again. “You don’t, understand?” I said. “Go AWAY.” It whimpered a bit and closed its mouth and turned and ran away, tail between its hind legs.

“I didn’t know you could do that!” Dayapati said.

“I didn’t know either. But it was being nasty like my brothers so I treated it like my brothers.”

Then we heard it making noises in the distance, and that sounded almost like it was telling something to someone! And a voice saying “what’s up, Jeran? What gave you a fright? All right, I’ll come.”

The animal came back, and a girl about our age with it who the voice must belong to. “Where do you come from?” she asked. “And where are you going?”

“We’re going to the northwest,” I pointed, “so we must come from the southeast.”

“That’s impossible! Nobody can come from there! You must be ghosts!” She touched us to make sure we were solid.

“The gods have been messing with us, I think,” I said. “Timoine said we have to go northwest and tell Raisse about the village.”

“Raisse? That’s our priestess of Naigha’s name.” She thought for a moment. “Hm, Jeran here doesn’t trust you.” The animal was making an alarming sound now, rather like snoring. “But I think it’s because you’re strangers, he’s protecting the flock.”

Flock? I didn’t see any birds, at least not a lot of the same kind. But there were a lot of animals now coming after the girl, with dirty white curly hair and rather stupid faces. “Are those the flock?” I asked.

“Yes, of course. They’re my sheep. And Jeran is my dog. My sheepdog.”

“Sheep. Dog.” I was learning a lot of new words! “I’m Arlyn,” I offered, and Dayapati said her name too.

“Jerna. I live up there.” She pointed in the direction we’d been going. “The village is about a day and a half away, though. You’d better come with me if you want to go there. But let’s get something to eat first.” And she took a leather thong and used that to throw a stone very fast into the air. It hit something that squawked. “Fetch!” she said to the dog, and it ran and came back with a limp bird with brown and blue feathers.

“Do you know what kind of bird that is?” she asked.

It wasn’t a gull or a swallow or a tern or an albatross or an oystercatcher. “No,” I said, and Dayapati shook her head too.

“It’s a duck, goose.”

Another new word. “Are duckgooses good to eat?”

“You bet,” Jerna said with a grin. She plucked and cleaned it and made a fire and roasted it, and when we’d eaten it we heard another dog (not the dog Jeran, who was begging for bones but didn’t get any because Jerna said bird bones were too sharp). The dog was with a boy, about my brother Kusay’s age, who had a dead animal around his shoulders. I thought it was part of his clothes at first, but it was to eat. He bickered about it with his sister for a while –it was clear that they were brother and sister the way they bickered, and anyway Jerna introduced him, he was called Jeran and the dog was called after him because they were so alike — and I learned that the animal was called a deer and that it was really too little to kill, it was still a baby! Bot now that it was dead anyway he might as well eat it.

Jerna’s brother went away to cook his deer and we smelled all kinds of delicious smells. A duckgoose is good to eat but it’s not really enough for three people, especially not when they have all been walking all day! Because it was clear that taking care of sheep was walking all day too. Jeran came to make peace later, bringing us dock leaves with pieces of deer meat, and it tasted as good as it smelt!

When everything was gone it was deepest night. “You take care of my sheep,” Jerna said to her brother, “I’m going to take my guests to the village. Because Timoine told them they had to go northwest and speak to Raisse!”