Here’s a story I wrote a few years ago, about a world before ours, and how things changed…
Before the new world was made, people lived as spirits among other spirits. They walked where they wanted, playing with friends and fighting with enemies, eating and being eaten, killing and making new life. The people were happy because they could walk where they wanted and everything was always new. Life wasn’t all roses, but it didn’t worry them too much. They used to call pain the strict teacher, and they’d try hard to learn his lessons, but if he stayed too long they weren’t afraid to throw him out, and when he went they always had a big celebration.
No one knows when the making of the new world started, because it happened little by little. The first to notice were the trees, because the people started cutting them down to make houses. This puzzled the trees, because they had always been good friends to the people. “Haven’t we always given them shelter when they wanted it?” said Oak, “And wood for making fire?” said Ash, “Not to mention food when they asked.” said Apple. “They’ve always been such fun,” Birch sighed, “playing in our branches and telling us about their adventures.” The trees decided to visit the people and find out what was going on.
When the trees came to the settlement, all the people ran inside their new houses and hid away. The trees looked at the wooden houses, made from the dead bodies of their friends, and their branches shivered. “Why are you hiding from us?” Oak called, but no one appeared except a little child peeking out of a doorway. “Why won’t you talk to us?” Ash shouted. “Go away!” came the reply. “Aren’t we friends any more?” Birch asked, but there was no answer. They stood in silence, listening to the wind in their leaves, and then Oak said to the other trees “Let us go. They are not our friends now. We shall not see them, hear them or talk to them, until they mend their ways.”
Inside the houses, the people looked at each other nervously, because they had been afraid to meet the trees, but didn’t quite know why. After that day, people still ventured into the great forest sometimes, but never very far. The trees remained silent and unmoving, and the people found it disturbing.
The second sign of the new world was the imprisonment of the cattle. The cattle had always been a little wary of the people, because sometimes they would hunt and kill them, but there were also times of friendship. Sometimes people would bring them nice things to eat, or spend a summer afternoon making the cows look pretty, and when the bull was in a playful mood they often had jumping games. But then the people started to capture cattle and keep them in their settlements. The cattle didn’t like this, because they had always walked where they wanted and everything had always been new to them. Some people listened to the complaints of the cattle and it made them unhappy, because they remembered that they too had once walked where they wanted, but now they stayed in the settlement. Soon the people learned how to stop hearing the complaints of the cattle.
The third sign of their new world was that the people forgot how to hunt properly. The hunting bands went into the woods every day, but found no game. At last one day they came across a white hind, but no matter how carefully they stalked it, the hind always kept moving, keeping just too far away for a spear-throw. After a while the hind began to taunt them, “Do you think I will give myself to you? I can smell cattle milk and sex on you. Is this a game for you? You’re not hunters!” The hind bounded away with a final cry, “You don’t want me anything like enough!” Abashed, the hunters paused by a stream and washed themselves, and then carried on tracking. Before too long they came across the hind again, but again she kept out of range, taunting them. “Why are you following me? It’s not me that you want is it?” One of the hunters called out “We need your meat to eat and your skin to make clothes with. Now keep still and we’ll be finished in just a moment.” The hind stared at the hunter for a minute and then said loudly, “Do you think I care about that? I give myself only to the hunter who loves me. No matter how skilful and cunning you are, you won’t catch me!” The hind leapt away from them, and when they started to follow, no tracks could be seen. They searched the rest of the day, but found no trace of game.
As they moved into their new world, the people learnt not to hear or see the other spirits they had lived among. Because of this, they didn’t notice that the very earth beneath their feet had started to complain about them. The people had started to cut open the earth near the settlement and make food plants grow there, so that they didn’t have to go out searching for food every day. After a while Earth began to grow tired of feeding the same plants year after year, being disturbed every spring by the planting. “They have gone too far.” Earth complained to her friends the rivers and the lakes; “They live in their own world all by themselves. They don’t hear us, they don’t speak to us; they just use us or ignore us. Well, I’ve had enough. I’m going to move away and leave them to it, and then we’ll see how they like their new world.” Her friends were sympathetic, but also very upset, because they had never been separated from Earth before. Although she could walk where she wanted, like anyone else, she’d never gone away before. In the end they all decided to go with her.
It wasn’t long before the people noticed that something was wrong. First the food plants stopped growing and the cattle’s milk dried up, so the people were forced to live off stored food and cattle meat. Then the cattle became sick and died, and the stored food began to rot, so there was nothing left to eat except bitter weeds and tough roots gathered from the dusty plain. Then the rivers began to dry up. It seemed that soon there would be nothing left to eat or drink, and the people began to despair.
One morning, as the people were preparing for another day of searching for food, an old man hobbled round to each house and told them all to come to the round house to hear important news. “Perhaps he has found a way of growing food again,” said a woman, making her way to the meeting, “or maybe he has seen an animal we can hunt,” her husband replied. Before long, all the people were sitting around the old man, waiting for him to tell them his news. “People, last night something wonderful happened while I slept. It was as if I was awake, even though I wasn’t, and this morning when I woke up, I remembered it all! I was in a wonderful place. The trees and bushes were laden with fruit, and herds of cattle and deer were browsing on lush grass, and drinking cool water from the streams.” The old man paused, hearing the sighs of the people, and then a woman called out, “Let’s go there today! Which direction is it, old man?” The old man thought for a while, and then muttered, half to himself, “I don’t know. I was just there.” Cries of disappointment rang out. “He just dreams in his sleep!” a man yelled, because until that time, dreaming had meant only wishful thinking. After telling the dreamer just what they thought of him for raising their hopes so cruelly, the people went off foraging.
The old man continued to dream in his sleep, although he didn’t tell anyone about what he remembered in the morning. Then one day he disappeared, and no-one knew where he had gone.
In the days that followed other people disappeared from the settlement. First the old cow woman went, but since the cattle were all dead by now no one was bothered very much. Then the woodcutter’s daughter disappeared, and everyone missed her because she used to make such beautiful carvings. One of the young warriors disappeared, and the old crone who lived outside the settlement went at some time, although no-one could be quite sure when. The last to go was the head man of the settlement, and his departure disturbed everyone. “Where have they all gone?” the people asked each other, “Why have they left?” They felt angry that the head man had abandoned them, and so they picked another man to lead them.
For a month things just got worse at the settlement. The people had to travel a longer way each day to find water and food, and sometimes they didn’t find anything at all. The older people didn’t have the energy to search for food, and just sat in the dust, wondering if everything was going to end.
Then one evening, as the people were laying down to sleep, the six travellers returned to the settlement. The people went out to see them, and asked them where they’d been and why they’d gone, but the travellers just grinned and shook their heads. Soon everyone was arguing with each other. Some were glad to see them return, but others were still angry that they had abandoned the settlement in the first place, and one or two people, who had taken things that they had left behind, didn’t want them back at all. In the middle of all the arguments, the six travellers just sat down and waited in silence. Then there came a loud rumbling noise and flashes of lightning in the sky. The arguments stilled and everyone watched the storm approach. As the rain began to fall, people rushed for pots to catch it in, and danced around the settlement. In their excitement, no one noticed the six travellers quietly returning to their houses where they lay down to sleep.
In the morning the rain stopped, and the six travellers came out of their houses and went to the round house. One by one the people joined them. When everyone was there, the traveller who had been the head man stood up. For the first time, he spoke, “Since I left you, have you picked a new head man?” People nodded and pointed to the new head man. “I will teach you, if you want, what I have seen.” The new head man was relieved that he wasn’t about to be deposed, and nodded. Next the old crone stood up and spoke, “I will take the hunters into the forest.” One of the young hunters laughed at this, but a single glance from the crone silenced him. The cow woman spoke next, “There are cattle again, down by the river. I will show you how to talk to them.” The warrior stood up next, but he remained silent, just looking at each of the people in turn. When they met his gaze, each one felt a little something stirring inside. When he sat down, the woodcutter’s daughter stood up and twirled around laughing, “We can make the world beautiful again!” she said. Finally the dreamer spoke, “You see a house of dead wood around you, but I see a living world. That’s where we’ve been.”
That night the people ate their fill of cattle milk and deer meat, and they never went hungry again whilst the six travellers lived amongst them.