by Brevin Anderson
Island Long was colder than usual. Arrem pulled his ragged cloak tighter around him as the snow swirled across his boots. The low gray sky unleashed wind and ice, freezing the world below. Arrem shivered. He had lived for fifteen seasons and was almost a man, according to Grandfather. He stopped for a moment and tried to imagine fifteen seasons. His own fingers plus someone else’s hand. Ten and five fingers. Fifteen, Grandfather always said wearily when the children didn’t say it his way.
The Shelter was just ahead. It was one of the few livable areas of the Ruined City. A steep set of stairs led down into darkness, where smooth walls made of some kind of stone led straight, with twisted metal gates and small shacks at intervals. Further on, the tunnel opened up into an area where two other opposite tunnels disappeared into shadow. Cold metal lines, rusted and bent, went down the tunnels parallel to each other.
Arrem took the right-hand tunnel, glad to be out of the snow. He began to feel warmth radiating from around the corner and the snow that encrusted his hair began to melt. Arrem rounded the last bend. The Shelter was just ahead. It was a long, thin construction with many identical rooms one after another, connected by metal links. It was arranged so that the rooms that hadn’t deteriorated formed a large, shallow crescent shape. A fire was in the middle of the half-circle and before the fire sat Grandfather, his children around him.
Grandfather said they were not his real children, but since he took care of them, it was all right for them to call him Grandfather. A grandfather, he explained, was the father of a father. The crowd in his charge always huddled closer to the fire when he spoke of family. His old dimming eyes grew distant and clouded. Almost as fast as they came, the moments ended, and Grandfather was back to his jovial self.
Arrem moved to the fire, warming his hands. He unwrapped the strips of cloth that kept his hands from freezing in the winter above. Gloves, Grandfather called them. Ice and snow melted and ran down his face and arms.
He grunted acknowledgment of the others beside him and then went to pay honor to Grandfather. Honor was another of Grandfather’s words. Arrem was not alone in wondering how Grandfather knew all the words he did. He had often seen Grandfather looking through his boxes with the leaves in them. Books. Grandfather said he read his words from the books, but no one believed him. Arrem knew a few words, but how could leaves talk with so many different words?
Arrem drew himself alongside Grandfather and touched the old man’s arm gently. Grandfather turned and saw Arrem. The boy quickly knelt and pressed Grandfather’s hand to his own head. Grandfather nodded, withdrew his hand, and Arrem rose.
“It is cold. The snow falls. I found no green. We must hunt for food.” Arrem tried to remember the word Grandfather used. “I saw... elks. Many. We will need many sharps.”
Grandfather nodded again. “Weapons, Arrem, weapons. Yeah, gather some of the older boys and men; take ’em out and get ’em.”
Arrem dipped his head respectfully and then went in search of Droop. Grandfather called him George, but everyone else called him Droop. One of the young man’s eyes sagged down on his face, and he walked slightly hunched over. Whenever Grandfather saw him, the old man would let out a burst of words, only a few of which Arrem could understand. “Darned defects, stupid war. Stupid people. Stupid humanity.”
Arrem didn’t know what stupid meant, but Grandfather said it was a word for himself alone to use. No one disobeyed Grandfather. Or at least not to his face. Grandfather was the only one who remembered the Old Times. He said there was a time when the snow didn’t fall almost all year, but only for a few moons each year. He said there was a time when the Ruined City was thriving, busy, and great. He said that once civilization had existed. Arrem didn’t know what that meant. He assumed it meant bigger and better houses because of the way Grandfather looked disgustedly at the Shelter. Disgustedly. It was a nice word. Arrem knew what that meant.
He found Droop toying with an arrow. Grandfather said it was a weapon, not a sharp. The children of Grandfather called things what they were. The stick-with-a-sharp-metal-tip was a sharp. The arrow throwers were called bows. A mix of flexible metal and wooden poles, they made fine throwers for the sharps. Some were so big it took three to carry them, but most were for a single person.
Arrem told Droop about the elks and Droop immediately began organizing the oldest boys into teams, those from fifteen-and-ten to those almost three-pair-hands old. The first group took poles with sharps on the ends and went out first, to find where the elks were and to ring around them.
The second group took bows and arrows and followed. Their job was to wound and slow the fleet-footed creatures. Arrem and Droop were both in the last group, carrying nets and large not-cloth sheets. They kept water and damp away when they slept, and also made perfect tools to drag the dead creatures back to the Shelter.
Arrem, Droop, and three other younger boys carried the nets and not-cloth sheets out into the Island Long night. Plastic. Grandfather called the not-cloth plastic. He had to remember that to please Grandfather.
They heard the bellows of the elks and knew the battle had already begun. Boys with throwers let their sharps fly at the packed herd, wounding and drawing blood. The crazed animals fled the flying sharps, leaving one of their own behind thrashing in the snow.
The remaining elks didn’t get far. The first group of boys leapt from their hiding places among the rubble with war-cries, and jabbed their poles viciously. The animals flailed with their feet, hooves, Arrem corrected himself, trying to break a path through the sharps. Their hooves shattered a pole, then another, and the remaining score of elks broke through the line and into the darkened ruins.
One boy lay still on the bloody snow, trampled by the animals. Two others sat gasping on the ground, their breath lost when their poles had been forced back at their chests by the strong bodies of the elks.
Droop sadly picked up the shattered poles. Wood was hard to come by this time of year. It grew only in the sun-season and then was lost under the snow and ice. The dead boy and the three elks were rolled onto the plastic sheets and nets, and then teams of boys and men dragged the dead back towards the tunnels and the Shelter. Grandfather and the children would not starve. These elks would provide meat for many a day.
Arrem retrieved the dead boy’s dropped thrower. A few arrows lay scattered on the ground, and he picked them up, too. The other hunters were rapidly disappearing into the dusk of the Ruined City. He called out after the last of them. “Tell Grandfather I be back mid-light, tomorrow. Tell Grandfather to save meat for me.” Another boy nodded recognition and waved. Arrem waved back, and then turned into the gloom of Island Long.
Bent and fused metal stuck up from the ground like steel skeletons, reaching dead hands to the sky that had rained fire. It was the story Grandfather told most often. It was a little different every time, but all the children knew it by heart.
In the days when Grandfather was a child, birds had flown over the sky. They dropped logs of fire that exploded in clouds, like the green the children picked in the few muggy days in sun-season. Fungus, Grandfather called it. Fungus clouds.
His mother had taken him with the other children of the Ruined City, and hid him in the Lower Way. In the Way, the children had food, for it had been stocked there by the wise and powerful Island Long leaders. Grandfather looked wistful at this part. He told how their power was broken by the peoples of other lands. He called curses on the war that followed, devastating the gods and people that had once prospered. Neither the Present, the Yoo-nen, nor any of the other gods could stop the terrible war.
So the Ruined City had been destroyed, and the better and bigger houses were lost. Civilization. Arrem would have liked to stay a civilization. He walked toward his favorite spot. It was right on the iced-over bay. The wood-walk went out over the ice, and towards the island beyond. Grandfather had come once with him to look out over the ice at the island. A dock. It was called a dock.
Arrem sat down on the dock. The god, the one Grandfather said was the last, rested on the distant island. The crown on its green head glinted dully in the weak sun. The features were serene, calm. The green, Arrem thought. This was a god of spring. The Winter killed it. The god’s headless body lay half in, half out of the frozen bay. Its pedestal was broken, burnt and scattered, but in the center of the ruins the head rested.
Arrem smiled at the god. Maybe its time would come again.
Copyright © 2013 by Brevin Anderson