by Julie Wornan
Vera sensed more than heard Granny’s faint call. She turned and wriggled home to the nest under the rocks. Kuka and Barbi were there already, and Nomi arrived moments later. Now they were all together. They were only five now, including Granny.
Two autumns ago there had been seven children. And Mom and Dad. In the last two years, Polli had died of hunger. Then Sam had been caught up by a great swooping bird. And then Russ was devoured by a band of roving dogs; Vera and Barbi had come upon the remains. After this, Dad had decided to set out to find “more of our people.” That was last spring. Then Mom had died. So now they were four children, and Granny.
Granny motioned them closer. “Next spring,” she said. “you must go.” Her voice was a whisper.
Vera had been expecting and dreading his moment.
Nomi, fortunately, changed the subject. “Tell us about the airplins,” she begged.
Kuka said, “The cars. And the bildings!”
Vera said, “Tell us about the People. How we were then.”
Granny murmured, “I have told you about all those things,” and flicked her tail toward the rockface wall, her “museum.” Faded postcards and magazine covers showed splendid houses, towering cities, and magical vehicles that sped along ribbons of road or flew skyward like birds. And the People — four-limbed, rainbow-clothed, walking tall.
There were artefacts too. A shoe, of a sort the people wore on their feet so they could run swiftly. Could they outstrip wild dogs? Barbi wondered.
A rusty box opened to reveal a set of letters and numbers, which, Granny said, was used to send messages across immense distances. A smaller device with only numbers was used to talk to faraway people by voice. Those people must have had pretty loud voices, thought Nomi.
Some of the pictures had writing under them, like, U.S. SENDS NEW TROOPS TO CHINA. Granny had taught the children to know the letters and read the words.
Barbi, who had fingers like Granny, had learned to write words with a burned stick on a stone. The rain soon washed them away, but Granny was pleased.
There was a pink plastic bottle marked SHAMPOO that had once held a liquid just for washing the beautiful hair on the People’s heads. There was a tiny brush they used to keep their teeth clean, and a large one for cleaning their warm, dry homes. There was a small model of a girl person. But it was not much smaller than Nomi.
There was a model of a pointy cylinder Granny called a “spayship” in which, so it was said, people could ride as high as the moon — although Granny herself doubted this.
Vera suggested that it might have been just for climbing so you could get a closer look at the Moon, and Granny said she was probably right.
It was impossible to really believe everything Granny said. But the children liked to suspend their disbelief when Granny spoke, and were ready, for a magical half-hour, to believe anything about those wonderful People, their ancestors.
Kuka begged Granny to tell them, once again, how the Great Change had come about.
Granny sighed. “We were more numerous than the stars in the night sky. We lived in every part of this world, which, as I told you, is huge and round like a giant apple. Some parts are too hot to live in comfortably, but we cooled them. Some are too cold, but we warmed them. Some were covered with trees, but we burned the trees and built cities. Other creatures perished, because they had no place to live any more.
“I’ve found some old pictures” — she moved aside so they could gaze at the images of elifints, djrafs, and stealthy, proud tigers and lyins. “By the time of my parents, all these were gone. Only the images were left.”
“Were your parents — beautiful People?” asked Barbi.
“My own mother and father were among the last of them.” Granny told the old story again, patiently; one day, probably soon, she would be telling it for the last time. “They lived in a shelter underground because of the Great Worr.
“All the noble animals were gone. Dogs there still were, some birds, and many small things that crawled or flew. Floods and fires ravaged the world. Whoever survived the floods was in danger from boms falling from airplins.
“Nobody knew how many people were left or where they lived, because the machines they had used to talk to each other distantly no longer worked. Yet, for a long time, strangely, airplins still flew and dropped boms that broke everything and made great fires where they fell.
“My own parents and several other families lived in a basement under a large bilding. There was some food in cans and some bags of sugar and flour; we lived on these.
“There was one man, an old man, Mikle was his name. One day Mikle said, “We have been cursed!” Nobody understood what he meant. Then a woman who was expecting a baby gave birth to two large worms. And this happened to the other women. Then Mikle told us about his dream.
“When the last of the great noble animals — elfints, tigers and the rest — had vanished, then the great Spirits who watch over those beings came and sat together in the world-that-is-and-isn’t. They saw that there was no way they could bring the creatures back, because there was no more place for them. The world was destroyed and poisoned.
“The Spirits were very, very angry. There are moments when terrible anger can give power, and at that moment the Spirits’ anger was like a million hot suns. So they cursed the People.
“The Snake Spirit said, ‘They have wrought this with their hands. Let them have no more hands!’
“The Cheetah Spirit said, ‘They have run to every last corner of the Earth. Let them have no feet!’
“‘Let them shrivel and wither! Let their tongues blacken and rot! Let their brains be as raisins!’ So each Spirit added to the curse.
“Then the Elfint Spirit said, ‘Not so. Let them remember. They must remember and weep.’
“And the Parrot Spirit said, ‘They must have speech, so they can tell the story from Grandmother to grandchild, and through the generations have no peace.’
“This is what Mikle told us. And each new child from then on was born like a worm. Some parents killed their children because they were horrified when they saw them. But my mother loved us. She knew we were people, whatever we looked like. So she hid us.
“You know the rest of the story: how your aunts, your uncles and your cousins lived, tunnelling through the earth in search of roots to eat. So many died! But we always managed to keep the memory of the way it used to be. I made this Museum. I taught you writing. You must teach...” Her voice trailed off.
The children looked at each other. Whom was there left to teach?
Granny said, “Listen, now. Winter is coming. I will not be with you much longer. Don’t cry, Nomi. I’ve had good luck and a long life, but we all come to the end of our lives one day. You are all young and strong and clever and you have each other, your sisters. There is food in the storage room, you must gather a bit more and it will keep you through the winter.
“Then you must go, all together, and find other people. You are all girls, you must find boys. And then there will be new children, and you will teach them what I have taught you.”
“How will we know the boys?” asked Kuka.
“Just find more people. Some will be boys, you will know each other.”
“Will the new children be just like us,” asked Vera, “or will the beautiful People come again?”
“Vera, you are practical, Kuka is strong, Barbi has fingers, Nomi is clever for her age. When you find boys who are smart and strong, maybe some with fingers, maybe even feet — maybe, slowly, the beautiful People will come back. Slowly. Promise me that you will do this.”
“I promise,” said Vera. “We will do it,” murmured Barbi and Kuka. “P-p-promise!” Noma sobbed.
They snuggled together to keep warm through the night. “Oh, but what’s the use?” whispered Barbi in Vera’s ear.
“We have to,” whispered Vera. “It’s what Granny wants. We have to do it for her.”
Copyright © 2010 by Julie Wornan