The problem, as we see it, divides in three: (1) You may meet people who have a technology more advanced than ours; (2) You may meet people with an equal technology; (3) You may meet people with a less advanced technology.
(We will leave aside, for the time being, the problem of what is meant by "more" and "less" advanced. We will also leave aside the possibility that the aliens may have a technology so different from ours that there is no way to compare the two.)
We think you are most likely to encounter problem number three: the aliens with a less advanced technology. But we'll discuss all the possibilities, just in case.
The aliens with an equal technology present the least problem. We certainly cannot hurt them, not at a distance of 18.2 light-years. If their technology is more or less the same as ours, they won't be able to hurt us, either. There is the possibility of considerable gain for both cultures without much risk. You can probably go ahead with confidence.
If you meet aliens with a really advanced technology (with FTL travel, for example) you will have to stop and think.
According to current social theory, any species that is able to travel to the stars is also able to destroy itself, and any species that can destroy itself, will, unless it learns very quickly how to deal with its own less pleasant aspects.
We think it's unlikely that you will meet a star-faring species that is aggressive, violent, bigoted, or crazy with greed. But all our theories are based on a sample of one, and we may not be as nice as we think we are.
If you meet a species with a superior technology, be cautious. You may want to keep your distance, at least at first. You may not want to tell them where you come from.
If they are decent and peaceful, they will respect your caution. If they do not, remember that your ship has been provided with the means for self-destruction. If necessary, you can wipe the computer system clean and kill everyone onboard.
This capability has been provided with extreme reluctance. (See Appendix D.) It may be evidence that we, as a species, have not outgrown our own terrible past.
The problem when dealing with a more advanced species is self-protection.
(Remember, when we talk about advancement here, we are speaking only about technology.)
The problem when dealing with a less advanced species is karma. We don't want to hurt them. Our species has done a lot of hurting over time.
We think we understand the process now. We think we will not do these things again. But we are not certain.
Go very slowly. Think about what you are doing.
Lao Zi and Zhuang Zi remind us of the dangers of action.
The masters of Chan and Zen warn us that when we discriminate, when we divide "good" from "evil" and "high" from "low," we are moving away from true understanding.
Karl Marx tells us that action is inevitable and that we have to discriminate in order to understand.
You have your choices of sages.
Remember, also, that categories are not fixed. "Good" and "evil" change their meaning. "High" and "low" are relative. The distinctions--the discriminations--you take with you on your journey may not be useful when you arrive.
Copies of this memo have been input to the Open Access Information System (OASIS), the Archives of the Alliance of Human Communities (ANKH), and the Archives of the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Internationals.
Appendix A: On the possible meaning(s) of "more" and "less" advanced.
Appendix B: Why we think you are more likely to meet people with a less advanced technology.
Appendix C: Minority report on the dangers of cultural chauvinism.
Appendix D: Minority report on the dangers of fear.
Appendix E: Minority report on the relevance of Daoist and Buddhist concepts.
Appendix F: Minority report on the relevance of Karl Marx.
Her mother had been a metal worker, a follower of the Mistress of the Forge. But she died young, one spring in the mating season. This sometimes happened. A woman left the village and never returned.
The old crones said, "A crazy man got her. Hu! The lot of women is difficult!"
In any case, Nia and her brother were alone. Suhai, who was one of her mother's sisters, took them in. She was a large gruff woman with a pelt so dark that it looked more black than brown.
Besides taking them, she took their mother's belongings: the tent, the cart, the six bowhorn geldings, and all the tools of iron, bronze, and stone.
"A just payment," Suhai told them. "You will cost me a lot in the winters to come. I have children of my own to care for, too."
Her brother Anasu, who was eight then, said, "You have always been a grasping person."
Suhai glowered. "Go outside. I don't want to look at you."
Anasu made the gesture of assent, then stood. The flap of the tent was up. She could see her brother clearly. He was slender and graceful. His pelt was reddish brown. It shone like copper in the sunlight. He wore that day--she thought she remembered later--a kilt of dark blue cloth, high boots, and a belt with a silver buckle.
Anasu left. Nia looked at Suhai, sitting hunched by the fire, which was out.
"Thank the Mother of Mothers I have no sons. Well, I intend to do that which is right. I'll raise him, though I don't expect to enjoy a moment. You, Nia, will be less trouble, I am sure. The women of our family have always been even-tempered."
Nia made no reply.
Things turned out as Suhai had expected. She got no pleasure from raising Anasu, though he was clever and dexterous. No lad his age did better embroidery. He was good with a bow. He was good-humored, too, except around Suhai. The two of them always quarreled.
Nia stayed out of the quarrels. She was, she discovered, a timid person. Good for little, she told herself. She could not help Anasu, though she felt closer to him than to anyone; and she could not stand up to Suhai. Always and always she did what her aunt wanted.
Like all the people in the world, her people followed the herds. In the spring they went north to the Summer Land: a wide, flat plain. There were many small lakes and shallow rivers. On days when Suhai let her go free, she and Anasu built fish traps out of the branches of a bush that grew at the edges of the rivers. The branches were thin and flexible. They could be woven around one another, then tied with pieces of stringbark.
They put the traps into a river. Then they sat on the bank and talked till a thrashing in the water told them a fish was caught.
When he was in a dreamy mood, Anasu talked of flying. The large clouds of summer looked habitable to him.
"Not the thunderclouds, of course, but the others. I don't think they'd be good for herding. They have too many hills. But I could take my bow up there. We know there is water. Maybe there are fish."
She listened, not saying much. Anasu was two years older than she was. He always had more to say.
In fall the village went south: the herd first, guided by the adult men. Then came the carts, the women and children, and the very old men. Hisu, the bow master, was one of these.
The Winter Land was a rolling plain dotted with trees. In the south were stony hills. Beyond the hills was an enormous body of water.
"Our salt comes from there," Anasu told her. "Some of the men, the really adventurous ones, stay here alone in the summer. Hisu told me this. He did it when he was young. He waited till the herd was gone, then crossed the hills. On the other side are smaller hills, made of sand, and then the water. It stretches to the horizon, Hisu said, like the plain in the Summer Land; and it tastes salty. Anyway, he made pans out of wood. There is no wood nearby, he said. He had to bring it from the hills of stone. Hu! What a lot of work! Anyway, he filled the pans with water. When the water dried, there was salt in the pans." He looked at her, excited by this bit of information and wanting her to be excited, too.
Nia made the gesture that meant she heard and understood.
Anasu made the gesture that meant "if that's the way you feel about it." Then he said, "I think I'll gather salt when I'm a man."
There was something hard in her throat. She never liked to think of growing up.
The years went by. When she was ten, Suhai began to teach her how to work iron. This made her happy, she told Anasu.
"You ought to have started a year ago or maybe two years back. Suhai is always grudging and slow."
"Nonetheless, I am happy," Nia said. "Suhai is good at what she does."
"In the smithy, maybe. Elsewhere, no."
Anasu grew tall. His body began to thicken. Suhai really hated him now.
"I have never liked men. Even when I was full of the spring lust, I still thought they were awful. I'm tired of coming home and finding you in my tent."
Anasu, who was fourteen by this time, made the gesture of assent. He gathered his belongings--the kilts, the boots, the one long cloak for winter--and left. His bow was in its case over one shoulder, and his knife hung from his belt.
Nia stood up, shaking. "Enough is enough, old woman. I won't tolerate you any longer. I'm going, too."
"Very well." Suhai sat down by the fire. Dinner was cooking in a big pot. She pulled out a hunk of meat and ate it.
Nia began to pack.
She walked out of the tent, feeling proud. For the first time she could remember, she had done something important on her own. What next? She didn't know. She stopped and looked around. It was late summer. The day was hot and still. Smoke rose straight up from the village's cooking fires. In the distance the yellow plain shimmered. She had no idea at all of what to do.
It was Ti-antai, her cousin: a plump woman with dark brown fur.
"Anasu told me he has left my mother."
Nia made the gesture of affirmation. "So have I."
"That terrible woman! She will end by driving everyone away. My grandmother told me once, Suhai ought to have been a man. She is too quarrelsome to be a woman. Come stay with me, for the time being anyway."
Nia made the gesture of agreement.
She stayed with Ti-antai on the trip south. Then, when they reached the Winter Land, she moved in with Hua, an ancient woman whose children had all died. Her tent was empty, and she needed help at her forge.
"A good exchange. You help. You keep me company. I will teach you the secrets of gold and silver. I know them, you know. There was a time when I was the best smith in the village. I'm not so bad these days, either. My hands have gotten a little stiff, of course, and my eyes aren't what they used to be. But what is, after all? In any case, I will teach you how to inlay silver into iron. And gold, too. Move in whenever you like."
Anasu traded his best piece of embroidery for two pieces of leather. From these he made a tent, a small one. He lived by himself at the edge of the village. That winter Nia saw him little.
In the spring, on the trip north, he rode near Hua's cart and helped with the bowhorns. One of them was a young male, strong but reluctant to pull.
By this time Anasu was full grown. He was quieter than he used to be, though still good-tempered.
One morning, midway through the trip, Nia woke a little earlier than usual. She got up and went outside. They were camped next to a river. Mist drifted on the water. The sun was just beginning to show above a range of hills in the east. She went to the cart. The back panel was fastened with hinges and chains. It could be let down, so that loading and unloading could be done more easily, and it could be fastened halfway down, making a flat place. Anasu slept on it. He had thrown off his cloak sometime in the night. He lay on his back, one arm over his face, shielding his eyes. All at once Nia saw her brother clearly. He was large and solid. He looked shaggy, rough, a little unfamiliar. The change was coming. She felt a terrible grief.
He woke and stretched. "Hu! Am I stiff!"
She thought of hugging him, but decided no. She would have to explain why she did it. Instead, she went to start the fire and make breakfast.
That summer Nia tried to spend more time with Anasu. But he was restless, silent. He liked to hunt and fish alone. When he was in the village, he worked at making arrows or on finishing a large piece of embroidery. It showed a man with large curving horns: the Master of the Herds. On either side of him were bowhorn does. Above him was the sun and a pair of birds.
"Don't bother him," Ti-antai said. "He is getting ready for the change. If you want to do something for him, work on his parting gifts."
Nia made the gesture of assent.
The summer was rainy and unusually short. The sun was still pretty far to the north when the birds began to leave.
"A bad winter," Hua said. "I'll ask the tanner what she wants in exchange for a good fur cloak. Now, we'd better start packing."
Just before they left the Summer Land, the sky cleared. For two days it was bright and warm. Anasu came to her then. "Let's go catch fish."
They made traps and set them in the river. Then they sat on the bank. Already the leaves on the bushes were starting to turn yellow. The sun was hot. A river lizard sat on a nearby rock. Head up, it watched them carefully. Under its chin was a bag of skin, orange in color. Once or twice, it inflated this and croaked.
Anasu picked up a twig and broke it into pieces. "I'm getting more and more irritable. There are days, Nia, when I can barely stand people. I think--the next one that comes near me I will hit."
The change, Nia thought.
"I decided to tell you this. I want you to know, if I leave suddenly or get violent, it is because I cannot keep control any longer."
"We all know this."
He made the gesture of disagreement suddenly, violently. "You cannot know. My bones are on fire. It's like a fire in a peat bog that never goes out. I have never felt worse than this, even when our mother died." He stood up. "I'm not going to stay here, Nia. Good-bye."
He walked away. Nia sat awhile looking at the river. A fish thrashed in the water where they had set one of their traps. She waded out to get it.
On the trip south she barely saw him. Once or twice, through the dust, she got a glimpse of a young man riding. It might have been him. One evening he came to their tent. His fur was rough and dull. His clothes were dirty. He sat down across from them and helped himself to dinner. Old Hua, who was usually talkative, said nothing.
At last Nia said, "How are you?"
He looked at her blankly. His eyes were not pure yellow, she noticed. There was orange around the pupils. She hadn't remembered that.
He made the gesture that meant neither good nor bad. Then he went back to eating. After he was done, he left.
"Finish up your gifts," old Hua said.
She did. The last one was a buckle made of iron, covered with silver. It showed a bowhorn fighting a killer of the mountains.
"Not bad," said Hua. "You will do me proud someday."
Nia made the gesture that meant a polite or modest refusal to agree.
"You have too little self-respect," Hua said.
The trip ended. The people set up their tents next to the Brown River. North of them there was a stone ridge. Its lower slopes were forested. To the south, across the river, was the plain: rolling, tree-dotted, late summer yellow. The herd was pastured there.
There was no sign of Anasu. Nia felt uneasy.
"He will come," Ti-antai said. "No man leaves without his parting gifts--unless, of course, the change drives him crazy. But that rarely happens."
"You are not always a comfort, cousin."
At first the weather was dry. Then it began to rain. Every day there were a few drops at least. Most days it rained or drizzled for hours. The air was cold. Hua said her bones ached. Nonetheless, she kept busy.
One afternoon they were both at the forge. Nia worked the bellows for Hua, who was making a long knife: a parting gift for Gersu, the tanner's son, who was a little younger than Anasu.
When the hammering was done and the blade was in cold water, Nia set down the bellows. She rubbed her neck.
"Nia." It was Anasu. His voice sounded hesitant.
Nia looked around. He stood nearby, holding his bowhorn's reins. He looked worse than ever: shaggy, muddy, confused.
"I--" He stopped for a moment. "I have come for the gifts. I am going across the river."
She made the gesture of acknowledgment, then the gesture of regret.
"You stay here," Hua said. "No one will bother you. We'll pack everything."
They went inside. Hua put wood on the fire, then set a pan of milk to heat.
Nia got out the new saddlebags the tanner had made, then the cloth she had gotten from Blind Angai, the weaver, in return for a new pot. She or Hua or Ti-antai had made most of the rest of the things. She laid them out one by one: the new knife, the kettle, the brass needles, the awl, and the long-handled comb, the kind that men used to comb the hair on their backs.
What else? She was having trouble thinking.
"The new belt, ninny!" Hua was packing food: dried meat, dried berries, bread.
At last they were done. Hua poured the milk into a cup. They took the saddlebags to Anasu. It had begun to rain a little. He was standing where they'd left him, looking nervous. His bowhorn, sensing the nervousness, kept moving, turning its head, flicking its ears, tugging at the reins.
Just as they reached Anasu, he yanked the reins and shouted, "Keep still, you!"
The bowhorn bellowed and reared. Anasu pulled it down. He grabbed the saddlebags from Nia. A moment later he was astride the bowhorn. He bent and slapped the beast on one shoulder. The bowhorn began to run.
"Anasu!" Nia cried.
He was gone.
"Men!" said Hua. "They always make a spectacle. And here I am with this cup of milk. I meant to give it to him. Well, it will do me as much good." She took a swallow.
Nia made a groaning sound, then doubled her hand and began to beat one thigh.
"That is right. Get the grief out of you."
Nia kept hitting her thigh.
As Hua had predicted, it was a bad winter. It was cold, and there was a lot of snow. Nia wondered how Anasu was doing. She prayed to the Master of the Herds, asking him to protect her brother.
At the time of the solstice Gersu went crazy and had to be driven out of the village. Afterward, his mother took his gifts across the river. She hung them from the branches of a big tree. Maybe he would find them and take them. Most likely, not.
"He always had a bad look in his eyes," said Hua.
Nia made the gesture of agreement.
Spring came early. The plain turned pale blue. The bushes along the river put out yellow blossoms. Nia felt almost happy.
"You see," said Hua. "We get over everything."
"No. I don't believe that."
"You will see."
The mating season came. Ti-antai, who had just finished weaning her last child, felt the spring lust and left. Nia moved into her tent and took care of the children.
Ten days later Ti-antai returned. She looked rumpled and relaxed. "Well, that's over." She stretched and yawned.
"Did you see Anasu?"
"Of course not. Nia, what's wrong with you? He must be far to the south with the other young men. I didn't get down there." Ti-antai rolled a blanket into a pillow, then lay down. She yawned again. "I got a big fellow, half a day's ride from here. He does good carving. He gave me a salt horn full of salt. Hu! Do I need to sleep!"
None of the women had met Anasu, but none of them had gotten very far south. They had all mated with older men, who had their territories close to the village.
"Don't worry," said Hua. "In a year or two or three someone will meet him and tell you."
Nia made the gesture that meant she understood. As she made the gesture, she thought--there was something wrong. Something out of balance. Why were people so often lonely?
They went north to the Summer Land. Once settled there Nia looked around for new friends. She had spent too much time with Anasu. She had relied on him too much.
She picked the younger Angai to be her friend. Angai was the daughter of the shamaness. She was a thin, clever girl, often sarcastic. But she knew many interesting things: the uses of plants, the meaning of flights of birds. Like Nia, she was lonely.
"I have many skills," she told Nia. "But not the skill of friendship. How terrible!"
Nia looked at her. Was she being sarcastic? Yes. Her mouth was twisted down at one corner, a sign that she didn't really mean what she had said.
At midsummer, at the festival, they got drunk together and fell asleep in one another's arms.
In the late summer Nia made a necklace for Angai. Every link was a bird made of silver.
"Wonderful!" Angai said. She hugged Nia, then put the necklace on. "Everyone in the village will envy me!"
"You think too much of other people's opinions."
Angai looked irritated, then said, "That may be."
For a day or two after that Angai was standoffish. Then she came to Hua's forge and brought a gift. It was a salve that made any burn stop hurting.
"It's my mother's own recipe. I made it this time. My mother says it's good."
Nia took the jar. "Thank you."
"Can we stop fighting now?"
Nia laughed. "Yes."
The fall was dry, and the trip south was easy, almost pleasant. Nia and Angai kept together. Sometimes Angai rode in Hua's cart. Sometimes Nia rode beside the cart of the shamaness. She never got into it, of course. It was full of magic.
One day they rode off, away from the caravan. They let their bowhorns run. When the beasts began to tire, they stopped. The land was flat and empty. They saw nothing except the yellow plain and the blue-green sky. Somewhere close by a groundbird sang: whistle-click-whistle.
"Hu!" said Nia. She rubbed her bowhorn's neck.
"There are times," Angai said, "when I get tired of people. I think, I would like to be a man and live by myself."
"You have a lot of strange ideas."
Angai made the gesture of agreement. "It comes of living with my mother. Let's spend the night out here, away from everyone."
Angai made the gesture of uncertainty.
"That is not much of a reason," Nia said. "And I have no desire to do the things that men do."
Late in the afternoon they rode back to the caravan. It was still moving. The carts and the animals threw up clouds of dust. As they came near Nia could hear the sound of voices: women and children shouting. For a moment the noise made her angry. She wanted to turn back, into the silence of the plain.
She didn't. Instead, she rode on, looking for Hua's cart.
When they reached the Winter Land, Ti-antai fell sick. Blood came out of her, and she miscarried. The shamaness held a ceremony of purification and a ceremony to avert any further bad occurrences. After that Ti-antai grew better, but very slowly. She was sick well into the winter.
Nothing else important happened, except that Nia found she could get along with Suhai. They took to visiting each other--not often, but once in a while. Suhai was getting old. There were gray hairs in her pelt. Her broad shoulders sagged. She complained of the winter cold and her children's ingratitude.
"They never visit me. After all the years of care they leave me alone. Is this in balance? Is this usual and right?"
Nia said nothing.
"Well?" Suhai asked.
"I will not criticize their behavior. The proverbs say, don't speak badly of kinfolk or anyone else you travel with. The proverbs also say, don't intervene in other people's quarrels."
"Hu! I raised a wise woman, did I?"
Nia didn't answer.
Suhai got up, moving stiffly. "I'm not going to listen to a child spit out wisdom like the fish in the old story that spit out pieces of gold. It's unnatural. Good-bye."
"Good-bye, foster mother. I will visit you in a day or two."
Spring came. It was early again. Nia began to feel restless. At night she was troubled by dreams. Often, in the dreams, she saw her brother or other young men, even crazy Gersu.
When she was up, she was usually tired. She found it difficult to concentrate on anything. She began to make mistakes at the forge.
"Can't you do anything the right way?" Hua asked.
Nia stared at her, bemused.
"Well, that's an answer of a kind. But not a good kind," Hua said.
Finally she picked up a knife blade that was still hot. She burnt her hand badly. Hua took care of the burn, then said, "Enough. Get out. Don't come back until you are able to work."
Angai gave her a potion that reduced the pain. She slept a lot. Her dreams were fragmentary, unclear, disturbing. Always, it seemed, Anasu was in them.
At length her hand stopped hurting. Now, though, it seemed her body was full of eerie sensations: itches and tingles. Often she felt hot, though it was still early spring. The weather wasn't especially warm.
She went to visit Ti-antai.
"The spring lust," her cousin said. "I can see it in your face. Well, you're old enough. Pack your bag now. Food and a gift for the man. Something useful. Cloth or a knife. You'll be ready to go in a day or two."
She packed. That night she didn't sleep at all. Her body itched and burned. In the morning she went out. The touch of the wind made her shiver. Time to go, she thought. She got her favorite bowhorn and saddled it. After that she went to get her saddlebag.
"Take care," Hua said.
For a moment she didn't realize who the old woman was. Then she remembered. "Yes." She went out, mounted, and rode away.
She forded the river. The water was shallow. There was a little mist. On the far side was a tree. A couple of rags hung from the branches. There was a knife driven into the wood. The blade and hilt were rusted. She glanced at all this, then forgot it and rode onto the plain.
At midafternoon she came to the edge of the herd. The first animal she saw was a huge male. One horn was broken. The long shaggy hair that covered his neck and chest was silver-brown. He bellowed, then lowered his head, as if about to charge. Then he lifted his head and shook it. A moment later he trotted away.
Good, she thought. She was in no mood for a confrontation.
She rode on. Soon she came upon other animals: yearlings and two-year-olds. They were too old to be mothered and too young to stand their ground against the big males, the guardians of the herd. This time of year they stayed at the edges of the herd, well away from the does and their new fawns. They didn't like it at the edges. Often the yearlings would try to go in and find their mothers. But the big males would drive them away.
Nia stopped at dusk. She found a tree and tethered her bowhorn. Then she built a fire. The night was cold. She had forgotten her cloak. She stayed up and kept the fire going.
In the morning, at sunrise, the man appeared, He looked to be thirty or thirty-five, broad-shouldered, heavy. His pelt was dark brown. He wore a yellow tunic, high boots, a necklace of silver and bronze.
He reined his bowhorn and looked at her a moment. His gaze was steady and calculating. Then he dismounted. She stepped back, all at once uneasy.
"I thought you looked pretty young," he said. "Is this going to be a lot of trouble?"
"I don't know."
His fur was thick and glossy. He had an interesting scar: a streak of white that went down his right arm from the shoulder to the inside of the elbow.
"Who are you?" Nia asked.
He looked irritated. "Inani. Do you mind not talking? Talking makes me edgy."
She made the gesture of assent. He moved closer, then reached out and touched her. She shivered. Gently he put one arm around her. What happened next was not entirely clear to her.
When they were done, Nia got up and rebuilt the fire. She heated milk. Inani dozed with his back against the tree. From time to time he started awake. He glanced around, then relaxed and dozed off again. At last he woke completely. Nia gave him a cup. They sat on opposite sides of the fire and drank.
Inani said, "Who are you?"
"Nia. Suhai's foster daughter. Have you met my brother Anasu?"
"No. I know the men whose territories are next to mine. I keep away from them as much as I can, but during the migrations things get mixed up. People get too close together. Sometimes I think it would be better to go away entirely."
"Who is your mother?"
"The tentmaker. Enwa. Is she alive?"
"Good." Inani stood up. "Stay here, will you?" He mounted his bowhorn. "You're less trouble than I expected. I'll return in the evening."
He rode off. She slept most of the day. In the evening Inani returned. They mated again. He made camp a short distance away. Nia watched his campfire for a while, then went to sleep.
The next day he left again and came back in the late afternoon. They mated. He returned to his camp. The night was cloudy. There were gusts of cold wind. Nia huddled close to her fire and shivered. After a while she looked up and saw Inani. He stood at the edge of the firelight, just barely visible.
"Yes? What is it?"
He stepped forward and held something out. A cloak. It fluttered in the wind.
Nia got up. "Thank you."
She took the cloak. Inani stayed where he was. For a moment Nia thought he was going to speak. He didn't. Instead, he made the gesture that meant "oh, well." He turned and walked into the darkness.
Strange! She wrapped the cloak around her, then lay down.
The next morning he rode off again. Nia stayed by the tree. She was getting restless, but she didn't dare go riding. She didn't know where Inani's territory ended. If she strayed into another man's territory, he would claim her. Inani might follow her. Then there would be an argument. She had heard about such things. Usually, the two men threatened each other until one of them gave up and went away. But sometimes they fought. Old Hua had seen a man die, a knife blade in his chest. How terrible! But also interesting. What would it be like to watch a fight that was really serious?
Inani came back in the evening. They mated. This time he stayed after. He sat on the far side of the fire and asked questions. How was Enwa? And his sisters? Was old Niri still alive?
Inani scratched his head. "Well, he was old. He taught me carving. Can I stay here tonight?" Nia made the gesture of assent.
She woke at sunrise. The air was cold and still. Inani was gone. She sat up, stretching and groaning. The fire was out. Beside its ashes lay two objects.
"What?" she said out loud. She went over and examined them: a bag full of salt and a box. The box was made of dark wood and inlaid with pieces of shell. She turned it over, admiring the work. He was a fine craftsman, Inani.
After a moment or two she realized the meaning of the objects. They were mating gifts. Such things were given when the time for mating was over. Inani was done with her.
This soon? She felt embarrassed and insulted. Had she done something wrong? Or had Inani found another woman in his territory? Someone he found more attractive.
Nia sighed, then packed the box and the bag of salt. She laid out her gifts for Inani: a knife, a belt, and a piece of blue cloth. He would come back and find them. She saddled her bowhorn. She felt tired and a little disappointed. But the lust was gone. That was good. She mounted and rode home.
When all the women had returned to the village, Nia asked if anyone had seen Anasu. No one had.
"Don't worry," Hua said. "He will turn up. He isn't one of the unlucky ones."
Nia made the gesture of acknowledgment.
The trip north was difficult. There was rain. The herd, traveling ahead of the village, churned up the wet earth, turning it into mud. Time and time again the carts got mired. Tempers grew short. Several of the old men saddled their bowhorns and took off.
Hisu, the bow master, was too old to go. He sat in his cart and cursed fate.
Nia, riding close, heard him say, "I should have died years ago." He was talking loudly to no one she could see. "In my prime, alone. The proper way. Now ... O Master of the Herds, what an end! To live surrounded by women!"
In truth, he looked miserable. He was huddled in a cloak. A wide leather rain hat sheltered his face. His fur, she noticed, was completely gray.
She waved. He cursed. She rode on.
At last they reached the Summer Land. Most of the old men returned and settled down as usual at the edge of the camp. But two never came back.
"Two fools!" said Hua. "Why did they go? They were old. They could behave in a reasonable fashion. Did they? No! They ran off like crazy boys. And now something has gotten them."
Nia said nothing.
The rain stopped. The summer was cool and dry. It became evident to her that she wasn't pregnant.
"Don't worry," said Ti-antai. "This often happens. You will have a child next year or the year after."
Nia made the gesture of acknowledgment. She hadn't been worried. She was happy as she was. In the day she worked at the forge. In the late afternoon she and Angai went riding or sat by the river and talked. Angai did most of the talking. She was very observant and had sharp things to say about the people in the village. Because of the dry weather, there were only a few bugs in the air. It was pleasant to sit and listen while the sky changed color.
Her friend was certainly clever, Nia thought. Almost as clever as Anasu.
That summer there was a scandal in the village. It concerned the bronze smith Nuha and her son.
He was sixteen; and everyone could see that he had gone through the change. His fur was coarse, his body thick and wide. He acted restless. But he didn't leave the village. Instead, he stayed inside his mother's tent or worked with her at her forge.
The old women grimaced and muttered. Hua said, "This is what happens when a woman has no daughters. She cannot let go of her sons. Look at the way she treats him! She doesn't send him to learn archery or something else that will be useful to him. She lets him work the bellows and even pour the bronze. Aiya! This is terrible."
Nia said nothing. She had always liked Enshi. As a child he had been friendly and talkative, always telling stories and making jokes. Even now he was always polite. He never lost his temper, which was strange in a boy--or a man--of his age.
He was a poor archer, though. Anasu had told her that.
"He rides badly, too," her brother had said. "He won't last on the plain alone."
Fall came. The village made ready to move. Enshi rode off one morning.
"At last!" Hua said. "Now I can talk to his mother again."
He was gone five days. Then he rode back in, looking tired and dirty. The villagers glared. Enshi ignored them. He rode to his mother's tent and dismounted.
Nuha, who was short and fat, ran out and hugged her son.
"Disgusting," Suhai said. "May the Mother of Mothers teach that woman shame."
"Are you cursing the woman?" Nia asked. "If so, I'm going to make the gesture that averts. Who can tell what spirit will hear a curse? Or what it will do about it?"
"Are you planning to become a shamaness, my foster daughter?"
Suhai glowered, then made the gesture that averts.
"Good," said Nia.
The next morning, early, the old women went to the shamaness. They stood at the entrance to her tent and complained. Nia heard their shrill voices and went out. The day was bright. The air smelled of wood smoke and leather and the dry summer plain.
Nia watched the shamaness walk across the village. She wore a robe covered with red embroidery and a big necklace made of bronze. Hu! What an impressive woman!
The old crones hobbled after her. Nia watched.
They all stopped at the tent of Nuha.
"Enshi!" the shamaness cried.
After a moment Enshi came out. Nia couldn't see his expression.
"Have you no sense of what is right?" the shamaness asked loudly.
Enshi looked down, then up. He mumbled something that Nia couldn't hear.
"It's time you left," the shamaness said.
Enshi made the gesture of assent. His shoulders were sagging now. He looked discouraged.
"Go today. And don't come back. You have become an embarrassment."
Enshi made the gesture of assent a second time. Then he turned and went into his mother's tent.
The shamaness left. But the old women sat down and waited.
Nia went to the forge and worked alone. Late in the afternoon Hua came.
"He is gone," she said. "We told him we would curse him if he ever came back."
"Is that so?" Nia said. She straightened up and rubbed her neck. "How I ache today."
The village went south. The weather remained dry. The herd kicked up a cloud of dust that went most of the way to the sky. Day after day they saw the cloud in front of them. It was dark brown in color. Nia thought, Anasu is there, riding in the dust. And Enshi, too, the poor buffoon.
They reached the Winter Land. Usually they camped to the north of the herd. But this year they went south and east to the Great Rush Lake. Now they were at the eastern edge of their pasturage. Across the lake was the land of the Amber People. They pitched their tents. The shamaness went to visit the Amber People. Angai went with her, also nine other women. They all led pack animals, laden with gifts.
They were gone thirty days. The weather remained dry, though Hua kept saying that rain was coming. She could feel it in her bones.
When they returned, they brought gifts from the Amber People: amber, of course, colored shells, and copper.
"Hu! What an experience," Angai said. "We had to go around the lake. On the far side are marshes. Beyond the marshes is a river. It is wide and deep. We had to cross it. That was dangerous. Animals live in it. They are like river lizards. But larger. Much larger. They will eat anything, my mother says."
"Hu!" said Nia. "Tell me more."
"We made rafts. That's how we got across the river. I didn't see any of the animals. They are called divers or killers of the deep water."
"Aiya!" said Nia.
"On the far side of the river is the land of the Amber People." Angai paused and frowned. "They are the same height as we are, but broader; and a lot of them are fat. Their fur is dark. Their shamaness is huge. She wears a hat made of feathers. I could barely understand them. They talk so strangely. They are very hospitable, though. And they drink a kind of beer I've never had before. Nia, I heard a story there I don't believe. But they swear it is true."
Angai paused to drink a little milk. Nia waited.
"They say to the east of them are a people who stay in one place. They never move."
Nia made the gesture of astonishment.
"They live in houses made of wood. The houses can't be folded or taken apart. They are solid like boxes.
"They live next to a forest, the Amber People say. And their men live in the forest. They don't herd animals the way men ought to. Instead they hunt and catch fish. The women don't think much of them. They say, all men are savage and nasty."
"The Amber People say this?"
"No! No! The people who never move. In fact, the Amber People say, some of the women refuse to mate with men."
Nia scratched her head. "How can that be?"
"When the spring lust comes, they go out in pairs, two women together. They mate with one another."
For a moment Nia sat quietly and stared at the fire. "How do they produce children?"
"The usual way. The Amber People say, few of the women mate only with women. Most of them want children. They mate with men until they have as many children as they want."
Nia scratched her head again. "This is a very strange story."
"Yes. I'd like to go and visit those people."
"They are perverts!" Hua said. "And the Amber People are liars. No such people exist. Houses of wood! What a crazy idea!"
Angai looked angry.
"I don't want to talk about this anymore," Nia said. "This story makes me uneasy."
The winter was cold. At night, in the northern sky, lights shone. They were green and white and yellow.
"The winter fire," said Hua. "Up north it fills the sky. We don't often see it down here."
Ti-antai said, "It is bad luck."
Snow fell. There was a coughing sickness in the village. A number of people died. Most were old women or very young children.
Suhai got the sickness. For a while, in the dark time after the solstice, everyone thought she would die. In the end she recovered, though slowly. All the rest of the winter she stayed in her tent. Nia and Ti-antai looked after her. It was hard for Nia to go and see her, hunched by the fire. Her fur was more gray than brown. She looked bony and unhappy.
Why, Nia wondered, did her throat contract at the sight of the old woman? She didn't even like her foster mother.
Spring came at last. It was cold and rainy. Hua's hands became so stiff that she could not work at the forge. "This place is full of bad luck," she cried.
"I think you are right," Nia said.
The trees put out leaves, pale blue in color. Among the dry reeds in the lake, flowers blossomed. They were yellow and orange. Other flowers, tiny and white, appeared at the edge of the plain. Nia began to feel restless. The spring lust, she thought. She began to assemble supplies.
"Why don't I feel the lust?" asked Angai.
"You are younger than I am." Nia crouched and stared at the things she had made in the winter: long knives and needles, brooches, files and awls. What was the right gift?
"I'm half a year younger," Angai said. "That isn't much."
"Why do you ask me? What do I know? Ask your mother."
Angai left. She was angry, Nia realized. Too bad. She reached out and picked up a knife. It had a good blade, made of iron that had been folded and refolded. That would do, she thought. And needles and a brooch, also--maybe--leather from the tanner.
She stood up. Now, food for the trip.
That night she dreamt of Anasu and of riding on the plain. She woke, feeling more restless than before. She pulled up the tent flap and fastened it. Sunlight came in. The air was still and mild. It smelled of the new vegetation. She thought, I will go today, before the lust gets any stronger. I will ride until I forget this terrible winter. She turned and looked at Hua.
"I know," the old woman said. "I sometimes wish I still felt the lust. Then I think, I must be crazy to want a thing like that. In any case, go."
She packed her saddlebags and went to find her favorite bowhorn. By noon she was on her way. Her bowhorn was restless and wanted to run. She let it. After a while it slowed, then stopped. Nia looked around. She was alone. On every side, the plain rolled to the horizon. She took a deep breath, then let it out. Her bowhorn flicked its ears.
Where did she want to go? Not west, she decided. The herd was there and the full-grown men. No. She would go south, toward the hills where the young men were. She glanced at the sun and then at her shadow. Then she turned her bowhorn south.
She traveled for three days. The weather remained clear. She met no people, nor anything, except for birds and the small animals that lived on the plain. Slowly the lust grew stronger. It felt almost pleasant. She began to wonder what kind of man she would meet this year.
The fourth day was cloudy and windy. At noon she reached the southern hills. They were low, with many outcroppings of stone. There were trees on the hills. One kind was in blossom. Here and there on the blue slopes were patches of yellow. She found an animal trail that went along a stream. It led east into the hills. She followed the trail, feeling a bit uneasy. She wasn't used to places where the sky was narrow.
"O Mother of Mothers, take care of me," she whispered.
Overhead the branches moved. Leaves rustled--a loud noise, unlike the soft whish of vegetation moving on the plain.
She prayed to the Mistress of the Forge. "Bring me safely home, o holy one."
Late in the afternoon she met a man. He was on top of a small hill, sitting on a boulder. There were no trees nearby, only bushes with small blue-green leaves. His bowhorn grazed on one of these.
Nia reined her animal. Her heart began to beat quickly.
"I thought I saw a woman. What a surprise! Nia, is it you?"
She looked at him. He was dark brown, and his eyes were gray. A very strange color. "Enshi?" His tunic was ragged, she noticed. He looked thin.
"How is my mother? And what are you doing here? The women never get this far south."
She opened her mouth to answer. Enshi stood up, then jumped off the boulder. "Let's talk later. There is a scent coming from you, Nia. I can't tell you what it does to me." He held out a hand. "Come on."
His dark fur gleamed in the sunlight. She realized, all at once, that he was handsome. She dismounted and tethered her bowhorn, then got her cloak.
They went into the bushes and mated there. The ground was stony. The leaves had a fresh spring smell. As for Enshi, he was a little awkward, but perfectly adequate.
When they were done, he rolled over on his back. "Is that what it's like? I expected more. Still..." He looked at her. His gray eyes were half-shut. He reached out and touched her gently. "What soft fur!" He made a low ruh noise in the back of his throat, then shut his eyes completely and went to sleep.
Nia pulled the cloak up so it covered both of them. She looked at the bowhorns, then at the sky. The sun was gone, but the clouds were still shining, white and pale gold. She felt drowsy and happy.
Enshi the Joker! She had never imagined mating with him. For one thing she'd thought he was dead. Who would have thought he could have survived the bitter winter?
Enshi woke at twilight. He glanced at her. "It wasn't a dream. If the spirits are responsible for this, I thank them." He grabbed her. They mated again. Afterward they went down into the nearest valley and made camp. The night was windy and cold. Ragged clouds filled the sky. The fire flickered. Enshi talked.
"What are you doing this far south? Why didn't one of the big men get you, before you got to Enshi?"
She thought for a moment. "I wanted to get down here. I wanted to find my brother Anasu." She stopped, feeling surprised. Was that right? Had she come to find Anasu?
"You did?" Enshi stared at her. "Why?"
Nia scratched her head. "I don't know. Do you know where he is?"
Enshi made the gesture of affirmation. "I get my salt from him. I used to, anyway. The winter was hard, and I don't think I have anything left to give him."
Nia opened her mouth.
Enshi looked at her. His eyes were half-closed. He looked thoughtful, almost clever. "You want me to tell you where he is. I won't. If you came this far to see him, then you're likely to go farther and leave me here alone, feeling stupid. I don't intend to let go of you, Nia. Not until the time for mating is over."
"You certainly are talkative," Nia said.
Enshi made the gesture of agreement. "Remember, I've had no one to talk to all winter."
"Will you tell me where Anasu is when the time for mating is over?"
Nia made the gesture that meant "so be it."
"Now," Enshi said, "tell me about my mother. Is she well? Does she still grieve for me?"
She spent eight days with Enshi. The weather remained cold and windy. Now and then rain fell. It wasn't heavy. The trees above their camp protected them; and they kept a good fire going. They mated often.
Every morning Enshi went out hunting. In the afternoon he came back with leaves and roots and the tender shoots of spring plants. Twice he brought back game: a winter-thin groundbird and a builder of mounds. The builder of mounds was small, but fat. Or at least it was not thin.
"He did better than I did this winter," Enshi said.
Nia skinned the animal, gutted and spitted it. They sat side by side and watched it cook.
"Hu! What a smell! I used to dream about the smell of cooking meat. I'd wake up and find nothing except snow. What a disappointment! There were times when the weather was bad, and I couldn't travel. I'd begin to look at my bowhorn and think about him as a roast. But I thought, no, Enshi. You'll die without an animal to ride. Then I prayed to the spirits; and the weather would break. I'd go down to the edge of the herd and look for a bowhorn that was too weak to run from me and kill it. The meat was always stringy, with no fat at all. Well, those days are over. Why think about them?"
Nia turned the spit. While the other side of the animal was cooking, they mated.
The next day Nia made a fish trap and set it in the stream at the bottom of the valley. That evening they ate fish stuffed with herbs.
"What a fine cook you are," Enshi said. "Almost as good as my mother."
Nia felt irritated. It seemed to her that Enshi was always talking about his mother. It wasn't right. A boy who was properly brought up talked about himself or about the old men who taught him how to be a man. He didn't go on and on about his mother.
"What is Anasu like these days?" she asked.
Enshi made the gesture that meant "who can say?" "I've met him two times. The first time I tried to talk with him, he said, 'I don't want a conversation, Enshi. What do you have that you are willing to give me?' He wouldn't say anything else. I got out one of my mother's bronze cups and set it on the ground. He got out a bag of salt, then waved me back. When I was far enough away, he came and took the cup, then put down his bag. That was it. He left. I picked up the salt. The second time I met him, he said nothing at all." Enshi paused a moment, then went on. "He's friendlier than the other men. He never makes faces or waves weapons at me."
This sounded bad. Would Anasu be willing to talk with her? She didn't know.
The time for mating ended. Nia gave Enshi her gifts. He looked uncomfortable. "The winter was hard. I lost most of my parting gifts. First a killer of the forest found my cache and tore it apart. Then I lost most of the rest this spring while crossing a river.
"But I make poems. Can I give them to you?"
He recited nine or ten. Afterward she remembered only one. It was about a tree he had seen a few days before.
"All the branches were bare, and the bark was peeling off. Nonetheless, there were shoots all around the tree, growing from the base of it. They were as long as my arm. They bore leaves and flowers. I thought this must be significant. And I made a poem. It goes:
"If you don't give up,
"Then I won't
"That one I like," Nia said.
He recited it again. "Is that enough? Have we made a fair exchange?"
"Where is Anasu?"
"Oh, yes. Follow the trail until it forks. Then go south. You will come to a big stone with markings on it. The stone is magical, and no one ever claims that it is in his territory. People go there to exchange gifts. Wait by the stone. If Anasu is anywhere around, he will come."
"Thank you. We've made a fair exchange."
They said good-bye. Nia saddled her bowhorn, then mounted and rode away. The day was sunny. A light wind blew. Birds whistled. She felt content.
At twilight she came to the stone. It was tall and narrow with lines cut into it. She could barely make them out; and she didn't know what they meant. Had people done this? No one she knew cut lines in stone.
She tethered her bowhorn and made a fire. The night was cloudless. She lay on her back. Above her the Great Moon rose. It was three-quarters full. She watched it for a while, then went to sleep.
In the morning she looked at the stone. The lines represented animals: bowhorns, mostly. But there was another animal that she didn't recognize. It had a thick body and short horns. What was it? Nia scratched her head. There were hunters on the stone: men with bows. They made a circle around the animals. Off to one side was a man by himself. He was bigger than the others, and he had horns. They were short, like the horns on the unfamiliar animal. Who was he? A spirit of some kind, apparently. But no spirit she knew. The Master of the Herds had long curved horns. The Sky Spirit was hornless. She scratched her head again. Then she made breakfast.
At noon Anasu appeared. He rode down the trail into the clearing where the stone was. He reined his bowhorn.
Nia stood up. "Brother!"
He was bigger than she remembered and very broad through the chest. His fur was coarse and dark. He wore a red kilt, a wide belt, high boots, a knife with a silver pommel. "Nia?" he said after a moment. He stared at her. "You are past the lust." His voice sounded harsh and disappointed. "Someone else got to you."
"What kind of thing is that to say? Can men think of nothing except sex?"
He laughed. It was not entirely a friendly sound. "This time of year I think of little else. I think--if I were brave, I'd go north. Then I think, I'm not old enough to confront those men. What are you doing here?"
She made the gesture of uncertainty.
"You have never known your own mind." He dismounted. "Do you want salt? I have it."
"No. I want to talk. How are you?" She took a step toward him.
He held up a hand. "Stay where you are. I'm not used to people."
After a moment Anasu said, "I am fine. Is there nothing you want to give me in exchange for salt?"
She took off her belt. "Do you want this? I made the buckle. It's gold mixed with silver."
He hesitated. "All right." He turned toward his saddlebag.
"I don't want salt. I want a conversation."
He turned back and stared at her. "Why?"
"Brother, when I think of you, I feel lonely."
Anasu scratched the back of his neck. Then he made the gesture that meant "so be it" or "these things happen."
"Is there no way we can talk?"
For a long while he was silent. She waited. At last he said, "I do not think that what you want is words. I could give you words, though it would not be easy. I'm no longer used to talking much or saying what is on my mind. But I think you want something else. I think you are like the woman in the old story, whose children turned into birds. She left her tent and wandered on the plain, trying to find them. But she never did; and in the end she died and became a spirit--a bad one, a hungry one." He paused and frowned.
Nia opened her mouth.
He held up his hand. "No. Wait. I want to follow the track of my own thought." She waited. At last he said, "I think you want something that is gone."
"I know you, sister. I think I am right. In any case, I don't want to talk anymore." He mounted his bowhorn. "Whatever you are trying to do, I don't want to be a part of it." He made the gesture of farewell, then turned his animal and rode away.
Nia doubled one hand into a fist and hit the magic stone. Aiya! How that hurt! She groaned, opened her hand, and felt it. As far as she could tell, no bones were broken. But the skin was scraped along the side of her hand where there was no fur. She licked the scrape, then sat down and rocked and groaned. It did no good. Her hand kept hurting and grief stayed in her, as solid as a stone.
Toward evening she got up and built a fire. All night she sat watching the flames and thinking about her childhood.
In the morning she put out the fire and saddled her bowhorn. There was no point in staying. Anasu wouldn't come back. He had always been stubborn. She rode north. The sky was cloudy. A cold wind blew. Flower petals drifted down onto the trail. They were yellow or greenish white.
In the afternoon it began to rain. She stopped and made camp under an overhang. She went to sleep early. Sometime in the night she woke.
Her fire was still burning. On the other side of it was Enshi. He was plucking a bird.
She lifted her head. He made the gesture of greeting, then held up the bird. It was large and fat.
"I found it on a nest. I have the eggs, if they haven't broken. How was Anasu?"
"He wouldn't talk to me. What are you doing here?"
"You're in my territory; and I thought you might be hungry. Also, I thought I would like to talk some more."
"Why are you so different from other men?"
"I don't know." He looked embarrassed for a moment. Then he went back to plucking the bird.
Nia went to sleep.
In the morning they cooked the bird with its own eggs stuffed inside it. They ate, then Nia got ready to go.
"Can I go with you?" Enshi asked.
"What do you mean?"
"I want to visit my mother. I thought you could show me the way to the village."
"But the old women will curse you."
"Not if you tell me where my mother's tent is, and I sneak in at night. The old women will never know."
"This is wrong."
"Maybe. But I have lost all my parting gifts. I won't last through another winter with what I have. I intend to live, if I possibly can. And I don't care if I do a few things that are shameful. Who knows what the spirits of the dead feel? I'd sooner be alive and a little embarrassed."
Nia looked at him a moment. He was certainly thin, and his tunic was very ragged. She rubbed her hand, which still hurt. Then she sighed. "All right. I'll help you. I expect I'm going to regret this, though."
Enshi saddled his bowhorn. They rode north together.