Swordstruck

11 February 2002

Copyright 2002 Dianne Skoll. All Rights Reserved

The elder was worried. The people had been moving south for seven new moons, and still the land was parched and dusty. The springbok were few and far between. Perhaps the spirits were angry with the people because they had not provided the appropriate sacrifices. The choking dust swirled around the elder as he climbed to the Rock of the Sky to appeal to the gods.

The elder was known as Swordstruck. Long ago, when he was a young man of fourteen, barely married, he had hunted a springbok with his blow-gun. He felled the creature with a dart. Gradually, the poison slowed the animal, then brought it down. The hunter approached the buck, and began the ritual apology. He explained that he had nothing personally against the animal, but had to help feed his family. He hoped the animal's spirit would forgive him.

His apology must have been inadequate, because soon the gods brought their black clouds and began beating their great drums. Torrential rain flooded from the sky, and the fire-swords of the gods flashed between the clouds. As he was running, a great fire-sword slashed through the air, hitting him directly.

He remembered nothing after that until he woke up in his tent. The people were awed that he had survived a direct hit by a sword of the gods, and changed his name to Swordstruck.

Swordstruck took three new moons to recover from the blow. Gradually, his burns healed and his hair grew back. But he was never quite the same. He had discovered that the sword of the gods had planted something in his spirit. He could hear the spirits in the animals and the trees, whereas normal people could talk to them but hear no reply. He could feel the underground water-spirits coursing beneath the people's feet.

Swordstruck learned the ways of the spirits. He learned how to find water underground, even in very dry seasons. He learned how to sense the approach of lions and hyenas, and warn the people of the danger. He listened to the songs of the ancient trees and helped the people find the best paths to the animals' watering holes.

As Swordstruck aged, he grew more and more important to the people. He had made their lives easier with his powers, and in some instances, had saved many lives. When Fast-Runner died, it was natural that Swordstruck should take his place as leader.

The tribe continued its fairly peaceful, nomadic ways for ten more years. But then Swordstruck noticed a change in the spirits. The water spirits were quieter and more distant. The tree spirits were melancholy and disquieted. The animal spirits were agitated and fearful.

The air was getting warmer and dryer. The people had to move more often to find water and water-bearing plants. Swordstruck had to listen more intently to locate the water-spirits, and it took more and more effort for him to hear them. The people were gradually forced south to the cooler lands, as the heat and dryness increased.

Swordstruck was now forty years old---ancient. He climbed to the top of the Rock of the Sky and sat wearily at its summit. Could he be losing his ability? Was Fire Arrow right? Was it time for him to pass on to the spirit world and let another lead the people?

Swordstruck closed his eyes. He breathed deeply, evenly and slowly. He held his staff with both hands and concentrated. Water. Water. Where are the water spirits?

Swordstruck sat for a third of a day, until the sun was high in the sky, trying to feel the spirits. He was ready to give up when he felt something. It was a water spirit calling, but never before had it called so faintly. It must be very far away. Swordstruck concentrated, then threw his staff down in disgust. The water-spirit was calling from the sky. Anyone could see that there was nothing in the blue sky except for the cruel yellow sun. The spirits were mocking him.

Swordstuck was ready to descend and tell the tribe he was leaving for the spirit world when he felt a curious sensation. The Rock of the Sky was talking to him. This had never happened before; rock-spirits were very deeply buried and very difficult to hear.

The Rock of the Sky was trying to rise up. It was a minute movement, much too tiny for a normal person to sense. But Swordstruck felt it. He felt the yearning and pulling. There was something in the sky calling.

Swordstruck picked up his staff and sat down again. Again he closed his eyes and concentrated. Again, he heard the distant water-spirit in the sky. But he felt something new. The water-spirit was approaching very rapidly. In the time it would take for Swordstruck to return to his tent from the rock, the thing in the sky would cover the distance the tribe could move in four days. Swordstruck had never known such speed before. The fastest thing he knew of was a cheetah, and the thing in the sky was much faster than that.

The thing in the sky which had called to the Rock was calling to Swordstruck. The tribe must go north again, to the edge of the Great Desert.

When Swordstruck made his announcement at camp that night, there were mutters. The younger men exchanged glances and murmurs, and the older ones protested. "Swordstruck, there is no water there. We have just left the desert. We will die if we return," said Fire Arrow. "You cannot lead us to such an end. We must move south, to the cooler lands."

But Swordstruck was insistent. The fire spirit entered him as he spoke to the people. Never before had they seen him so animated. "Have I not lead you away from danger in the past? Have the spirits not protected us? We must listen to the spirits. They are surer protection than the lands to the south."

Swordstruck was afraid there would be a disastrous split among the people, that some would choose to follow him and others to go their own way. But gradually, they began to trust Swordstruck against their own instincts. He was right. He had always led them to safety. The spirits had always guided them, even if they had not always understood their instructions. The people would walk north to the great desert.

The next day, the people began to move. All day they walked in the dust and heat, extracting what little water they could from the few sparse roots along the way. Swordstruck tried vainly to listen for water-spirits, but all he could hear was the thing in the sky.

The nights, at least, offered some relief from the heat. While the people slept, Swordstruck lay awake, listening to the thing in the sky calling him.

After seven days, the people reached the edge of the great desert. Breathtaking cliffs and canyons bore witness to an ancient time when rivers had flowed through the desert. Swordstruck led the people up a tortuous path to the top of a cliff overlooking a canyon. "We must wait here," he told the people. "The spirits are very loud now."

Swordstruck had not told the people of the thing in the sky. He was afraid it would panic them. Those who could not hear the spirits were often fearful of them. It was best to interpret the words of the spirits in a way the people could understand.

The people waited for three days. They grew very restless. Fire Arrow talked of leading the people away from this place, back to the cooler lands to the south.

The fourth night, just before dawn, Fire Arrow and the elders approached Swordstruck. "We are leaving in the morning, Swordstruck. There is nothing here for us. Although you are wise and can talk to spirits, perhaps the spirits have misled you this time. There are evil spirits as well as good, and this place has nothing good about it."

Swordstruck said, "You may leave in the morning. For before then, you will witness the power of the spirit that has been calling me."

Swordstruck could hear the water-spirit in the sky very loudly now. Faster and faster it was approaching. Its talking became louder and louder, until Swordstruck could not stand it any longer. He covered his ears.

"What was that?'' asked Fire Arrow. Swordstruck looked at him in amazement. Had Fire Arrow learned to hear the spirits?

But the others heard something too. It was coming from the north, a distant booming sound. It reminded Swordstruck of the rain-drums of his youth, but this was a continuous roar, not occasional booming.

All of the people were awake now. The sound was unmistakable.

And then the people gasped. A light appeared in the northern sky. They could see the light of the spirits, something not even Swordstruck had seen before. The light was moving rapidly and becoming brighter; the sound was increasing. The people fell to the ground in fear. Only Swordstruck remained standing, entranced. This was the water-spirit from the sky.

The sound was deafening now, and although the sun was rising in the east, the light from the north overwhelmed it. Hyenas howled and lions roared uneasily in the distant south. The light grew closer and closer, the sound louder and louder, until there was a huge flash and one overwhelming boom from the drums of the spirits. Sand and rocks rattled loose from the cliffs, and the people had to cover their faces with their arms to protect themselves.

After a few moments, all was silent. The people looked down into the canyon below. There was an enormous round hole, as big across as one hundred men. And right in the middle was a huge white rock. This was the thing from the sky.

Swordstruck and Fire Arrow walked down into the canyon, a journey which took half a day. Fire Arrow stayed back, at the edge of the hole, as Swordstruck approached the white rock. Swordstruck walked carefully and slowly towards it. The white rock was smoking and there was strange mist swirling about it. Small pieces of the rock had broken off and were lying about. Swordstruck picked up a piece and immediately dropped it. It burned!

Swordstruck touched it again and to his astonishment, realized that it burned from cold. He had never felt such cold in his life. It was colder even than the great southern sea he had felt as a very young boy.

As Swordstruck watched in amazement, he noticed that the cold rock was shrinking. Water was issuing from it. He picked up a piece, and as he watched, the cold rock turned into water.

Swordstruck tasted it, and it was good. He was the first person to taste water from beyond the sky. And the only human ever to hear the calling of the ice-spirits in a comet.