By Jan Underwood
These are not myths. These are not made-up stories.
Our people came in long boats to the refuge. We brought nothing with us — not rabbits, because of what the rabbits had done to the other island; not seeds, because there were no more seeds; and not hope.
All the youngers know the year our people arrived as Year One. I think John Yellowbeard kept an account for a long time of the correspondence between our years and the old years. He had that kind of mind. For myself, I believe the old years belong to a place that no longer exists. When John Yellowbeard stopped keeping track of the old years, no one, anywhere, was keeping track.
In the first weeks after our arrival we formed search parties to seek out food and water, and then to look for other people and chart the territory. An island, not twenty miles long and perhaps two wide, with no living inhabitants, although there were remains of past dwellings from which we were able to salvage some things. The island was large enough that we'd been able to find it. Small enough, we hoped, and still hope, that no one else ever will.
After we'd explored, the Grandmother Eleanor announced a tally: two springs; some fish; some mussels; some birds; some fruit from bushes. But only some. “We won't know until we've lived through all the seasons,” she told the gathered group, “how much food this land will produce, and when, and how often. We must ration.”
The Grandmother Eleanor was thin like a stick and bent and hollow-cheeked. She knew rationing, and the rest of us deferred to her authority.
These are not myths. These are not made-up stories. It was the Grandmother Eleanor who devised the hunting system we still use, each of us serving ten-day stints in each of the hunting bands. We rotate so that our loyalties to any one don't grow too strong. “Otherwise,” the Grandmother Eleanor told us, “we'll cheat. In hungry times, the bands will catch four fish but only bring back two.”
We weren't many months on the refuge when one of the young married couples came forward at Night Meeting. They were Annie and Han, pale, fragile people like birch twigs, and they had a three-year-old daughter named Tessa. I knew when she stepped into the circle what Annie would say. I'd seen her backside widen just so, had seen her standing with her hands on her kidneys, wincing. “I'm going to have a baby,” she told us.
A silence of shock, no sound but that of the fire licking its damp logs. Then there was a general growl of outrage. “What have we just come from?” John Yellowbeard shouted. “Do you have amnesia? What were you thinking?”
Annie flinched. She and Han looked at one another. A few of the men jumped to their feet. I remember seeing one of them clench his fists. I don't know who it was, but he was near me, and his knuckles flickered white in the firelight. There was a lot of shouting then, accusations of recklessness, of selfishness.
“Please try to understand,” said Han. “We have no consolation except in each other. We can't be the only ones.” We looked at one another and knew that he was right.
A portion of many Night Meetings after that was dedicated to a discussion of what to do. Could this baby — just this one — be permitted? No. Many of us, myself included, felt that that would set a dangerous precedent, and create resentment: why should Annie and Han be permitted their baby, and no one else? Could the pregnancy be terminated? None of us had that kind of medical training, and we didn't yet know the herbs on this island. It seemed too risky. Well, then, the baby would grow to term, and be brought to a quick end. That much was decided early on, but Annie swelled into her ninth month without our ever deciding how it should be done.
Meanwhile, we began to talk about how to raise the children already in our presence — specifically, how to tell them what had come before. “We should tell them the truth,” I counseled, “and tell it often so that they never forget.”
“We can't do that,” someone said. “It will give them nightmares.”
“Then let them have nightmares.”
The Grandmother Eleanor rapped on a large stone with a smaller one. She did not have a strong voice, so she got our attention that way. “We can't hide the truth,” she said. “The ones who are old enough to remember will tell the ones who aren't.”
“This generation has the opportunity to grow up without fear,” said Young Arlo. “The first generation we know of. Shouldn't we protect that?”
I argued that it was better they have nightmares they could wake from than unwittingly recreate nightmares from which they couldn't. “It would be irresponsible,” I said, “not to teach them our history.”
We went back and forth like this at Night Meetings for a long time. Finally we settled on a kind of curriculum. The youngest children would be allowed their innocence for now. When they reached an agreed-upon age, which at that time was seven, they would begin to hear the stories. That's when we instituted Evening Meeting on Fifthdays. We worked out the answers to the questions children would ask. Questions like, “What's a rabbit?” Questions like, “Why?” We worked out what would be told, and how, and by whom, and every Fifthday telling began the same way: These are not myths. These are not made-up stories.
Annie was having contractions, and we knew we had to arrive at a decision. By that time, we'd learned that discussions involving seventy adults were not tenable. We'd learned to form pods to consider and study a matter and take proposals back to the community. I was in the pod whose job it was to decide the fate of this first island baby.
“We could send it out to sea in one of the long boats,” Young Arlo said. Young Arlo always had impractical notions. I think he saw a kind of poetry in giving the baby over to the waves.
John Yellowbeard shook his head. “That's unkind. The baby would die of thirst or exposure.”
“Quick and painless,” I reminded everyone. “That's what we agreed on.”
“Anyway,” said the Grandmother Eleanor, “that would waste a boat.”
“We should send them all out to sea. All four of them,” said Eldon. Eldon was a ruddy-faced youth I knew from my old township, quick to judge and eager to punish.
“Enough of that,” said the Grandmother Eleanor. “No one is going anywhere in a boat. What about a knife? A swift, sharp knife?”
“Or a heavy stone?”
But no one wanted to do such a job. In the end we decided suffocation was best, and that was the plan we laid out at a Night Meeting shortly before Annie was to give birth. Annie and Han couldn't bear to participate in the pod's discussions, but had agreed to consent to whatever the group decided. I kept thinking the couple and their daughter would steal one of the long boats and row away in the night, but they never did. I remember them coming before us, eyes shiny with fear in the flickering light, to hear our plan. They looked at one another, clasped hands.
“Who will do it?” Han asked in a flat voice. I half-expected Eldon to jump up and offer, but he said nothing, did nothing, looked at the dirt at our feet like all the rest.
“I'll do it,” said Annie. “I have to be the one to do it.”
Two nights later Annie had her child, a baby boy, rounder and pinker than one might have thought his mother's diet of rationed mussels and salmonberries would allow. She brought him to Night Meeting wrapped in one of Han's shirts. She and Han knelt in the center of the circle near the fire. We said a few words. Not prayers, for we were a people emptied of prayer by that time, abandoned by our ancestors and our gods. But a brief apology, and a fervent wish that no one in our little group would repeat this painful mistake. Then Annie pinched the child's tiny, upturned nose between her two fingers. He kicked once, twice.
She let go. “I can't,” she said.
There was a rumble of impatience in the crowd. We were all weary of this tragedy and wanted it to be over.
Han stood. “I'll go instead,” he said. Annie let out a yelp like a wounded animal, but Han continued, “I'll swim into the ocean. Or you can suffocate me. As you see fit.”
Eldon jumped up then. “It's not a fair exchange,” he barked. “We'd lose a strong grown man who can work. He — ” Eldon pointed at the infant “ — that, is nothing but a draw on our resources.”
The Grandmother Eleanor rapped on her large stone with her smaller one. “We should send an old person,” she said. “That's what makes the most sense. I'm the oldest one here. I'll go.”
Looking back, I have to say it was not a sound decision for our group. We pretended that it was, because we were cowards: none of us wanted to kill the child, and none of us wanted to volunteer, ourselves, to march into the ocean and not march out. It is true that the Grandmother Eleanor did little physical work. But she guided us well. After she was gone, it fell to the next oldest to play that role, and the next oldest was much younger and not nearly so wise. The next oldest was me.
After that sad time, some years passed with no pregnancies. People were strong and resisted one another, or else they were very, very careful and very lucky. We used those years to learn the rhythms of the seasons: when the berries came — at the outset of the warm time — and when the red fish came — before the long cold rains. We learned to smoke and dry and store foods, and to take one egg from a heron's nest but leave the other two. And we remained a thin people.
We refined and expanded our compendium of histories. Afraid that they would change in the telling or be forgotten, I asked John Yellowbeard and a couple other of the literate ones to write them down. I asked Barclay and Small Esther and others who were deft with a brush to paint our histories on stone. They had to devise ink and writing or painting surfaces and to agree on the order of the telling, and this group was the first of the pod of the scribes that is still writing today.
In a ceremony at Night Meeting I hewed off my old-island name and asked to be called Bowlegs. I'd been a growing child in the time of no plant foods, in the time of nothing but rabbits, and I had the rickets to prove it. I wanted to make an example of myself as loudly and as clearly as I could.
These are the good things that I did.
But when the first wave of children passed into adolescence, there was a change.
These are not myths. These are not made-up stories. So careful to preserve our histories, we had nevertheless failed to make a plan to keep our numbers from expanding. Three very young women turned up at about the same time with growing bellies. One of them was Tessa, Annie and Han's little girl, now about thirteen.
“She should know the rules better than anyone,” people whispered about her. “Is this some kind of act of rebellion?”
“Do you think she's avenging her little brother?” others said. “Do you think she's angry about what we almost did to him?”
The same pod as before, give or take a few people, gathered to discuss what to do. “Should we do what we did last time?” said John Yellowbeard. His eyes and mouth sagged.
“It won't work. It's not enough,” Small Esther said. “Those of us who were adults on the old island have a strong incentive to not conceive babies. But this group of young people has no memory of the calamity.”
“But we've told them all our histories,” Young Arlo said.
“I think,” I said, “that only firsthand knowledge of the calamity is enough to overcome such a strong drive. I think we need a new strategy.”
“They should all be rounded up,” cried Eldon, “and made an example of! At Night Meeting!”
“And who are the fathers?” Small Esther said. “These young women didn't get pregnant by themselves. Whatever happens to them should happen to their young men as well.”
“Yes!” several others chimed in.
“We need to think about the babies,” I said. “What to do about the babies, not how to punish the parents. And really, I'm more concerned about what to do in the long run than what to do about these three.”
But I had lost control of the pod. My people were agitated, and didn't want to think about the long run. Eldon sprang up and ran into the village. He dragged Tessa out of a hut and down onto the beach. She screamed with fear and pain as he pulled her by the arm through thickets and over logs. “You won't get away with this!” he hollered at her. “You'll pay for what you've done. And who is he? Tell us now and we won't kill you!” He began beating her, so blindly angry that his hollered questions were incoherent, and the girl couldn't have answered them to his satisfaction if she'd tried. Other men from the village ran down out of the bush to pull them apart, and Tessa retreated, sobbing and hiding her bloodied face, in the arms of her mother and other women. Eldon stood panting in the sand. “They won't get away with this,” he told the others. “They should all be punished.”
I was standing at the edge of the village watching, thinking that the Grandmother Eleanor would have been able to prevent this madness. Now, looking back, I'm not sure that's true. But I did have an idea about the long run. So it came to pass that we divided our band of a hundred souls into two. All the men and boys went to live somewhere on the other side of the refuge, and by agreement, they did not tell us where. We, the women and the girls, also moved our settlement, so that the men would not know our whereabouts. The only ones permitted knowledge of both settlements were myself and four other women of a certain age, who were entrusted with the responsibility of communicating between the two.
These are not myths. These are not made-up stories. Maybe because of their youth and inadequate diet, or due to the random kindness of fate, none of the three young pregnant women brought forth babies. They refused at first to identify their mates, but after they miscarried, one by one, they seemed less secretive, and one by one they identified the father of their babies as Eldon. Not long afterward, Eldon disappeared.
Now in the red fish season of my life, I hope to live the rest with no more babies, no more calamities. If we are wise, my people will stick to our settlements and not tinker with the safeguards the elders have put in place. Or perhaps we will go poking about and find one another, and love one another and make more children than we can feed, and leave the land scoured of leaf and bird and fish, and fall upon one another as a last resort. Maybe the wisdom of the elders will stay our hands. Or maybe we will give in to rashness, as is our wont.
Jan Underwood is the author of two novels, Day Shift Werewolf (2006) and Utterly Heartless (2013), as well as essays and poetry. She writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. You can find out more about her work at www.funnylittlenovels.com.