Posted: August 25, 2011 in SciFi

The invisible sun set in the Red Horizon beyond the mountains of the Great Divide. The old woman called all the young children to her. The girls varied in age from 10 to 13.  They had been chosen by the village elders because they had been chosen before birth by the gods. They all had golden-red hair and blue eyes. It was a sign of their purity. To the Jesuits it was considered a curse. Boys who were born with golden-red hair and blue eyes were removed from their families at birth and were taken to a sacred place where they would be inducted into secret rites by the High Priests.

The old woman was the last of the Ancients and also the last link with the past history of all the villages. She was the sole memory of the community of Red Valley and indeed its historian and had witnessed the Beginning of the Red Age. She was known throughout the valley as the Red Priestess.

She now sat in the middle of a circle of rocks which had been placed to the left of the entrance of the cave from where they could see over the valley without being seen by anybody from below. The girls each took their positions as instructed by her in order of seniority of age. The old woman knew each of them from birth as she had been present when they were born.

The elders would inform her of a pending birth and it was her divine right to preside at these occasions to ensure that the right girls were chosen. She had convinced the villages that it was pre-ordained that the girls be chosen and that she educate and teach them. Some of the villagers such as the Jesuits were very negative and fearful of her but when she convinced them that the red hair was a bad omen, they agreed. The parents of the chosen girls were obliged to pay the old woman in food and hand-made clothing for as long as the girls were being inducted. The elders would arrange for the contributions to be brought to the priestess. This was the first group to be selected.

Around the priestess, a smaller circle of rocks had been placed which separated her from the children. These rocks had a special significance as they represented the decades since the Beginning of the Red Age. Each decade was counted by the number of migrations of the birds which flocked to their valley each year. Ten migrations counted for one decade.

These migrations lasted for about 100 days and took place roughly once every 360 days. Each Village had a special Counter whose task it was to calculate when the next migration could be expected. It caused great consternation and even anger if the Counter in a village was incorrect with his counting of the days. The good Counters developed calendars which took account of all the days. These calendars were carved into the soft stone found in the area or were written on the papyrus and hemp sheets developed by the Jesuits. A good calendar was a sought-after item and was usually reserved as a gift for the Headman of a particular village. Some calendars were true works of art and consumed substantial production time of the Counter.

The counting of the days was a very important occupation with great responsibility and required great skill, especially during the bitterly cold periods when the pink snow would blanket the mountains surrounding the valley. During this time, the days would be short and dark and it was difficult to find food. It was therefore important to be able to predict the arrival of the birds accurately. This enabled them to gather sufficient food for the cold months and for each village to prepare itself for the cold. They could not count the days or months by the stars or the moon as they had never seen the celestial bodies. The counting of months had not been done since the birth of the Red Age.

The stars and the moon were legends spoken about by the elders who had heard about these wonders from their parents and grandparents. The Caesareans only knew that the gods lived in the clouds because they could hear them play and fight. The thunder and lightning in the clouds was clear evidence of this. It was the gods who decided that the red clouds get brighter during the day and darker at night. The rains also came from the clouds and this was because the gods did not need the water and loved them and blessed them with their bounty.

The bird migrations also came from the cloud gods and appropriate sacrificial offerings were made by the Caesareans to ensure the birds would arrive. After their arrival great feasts were held in each of the villages to celebrate the new season. The birds would appear magically from the clouds at the predestined time and they knew exactly where to go, each type of bird to its own area to nest and breed the next generation. Each migration brought with it so many birds that the skies darkened for ten days. There were birds large and small, ranging in a myriad of colours from bright white to totally black. They had been given names by the villagers to distinguish each type according to its habits, the calls they made and their plumage.

The terrible noise and smell created by the birds was borne with great patience by the villagers as they provided bountiful food and eggs. They also attracted other animals such as snakes which were delicious, as well as cats and other feline animals which fed off the young chicks and the eggs. The migrations also provided the communities with fertiliser used to enrich and break up the hard soil for the crops they were able to produce; feathers were used to clothe them and make blankets. The children would gather the feathers and soft down before the great departure of all the birds back into the clouds, and bring them back to the women who would craft the blankets and clothes.

Skins from predators were used to create and decorate their shelters. Cat and hyrax fur as well as woven hemp material was used for warm clothes and blankets. These animals were captured by the men folk in traps. The New Londoners had discovered that the droppings of the birds contained chemicals which they could use to tan and soften leather.

Yeah, times were good when the birds came.

There were eight large stones in the inner circle where the Red Priestess sat facing the girls. They were placed at exact distances from each other. Every decade a new stone would be found which was almost identical to the others. Expeditions to find this special Stone were organised by each village. This was the only time the villages really co-operated with each other and together they would search for the Stone. Only one Stone was needed and it was a great honour to find the Stone which was approved by all. It would then be ceremoniously placed in the inner ring and all the other rocks would be spaced equally again from the other. It is foretold by the Red Priestess, that when the stones touched each other and formed an unbroken circle, it would signal the End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the New Exodus. It was not very clear to all the villagers what this implied, but the ceremony was seen to be important and they all participated.

The Placing of the Stone ceremony is attended by all the headmen of the villages as well as by the High Priests and the Red Priestess, who presides over the rites. The Jesuit Vicar General never attended in person as he delegated the function to a member of his Inner Circle. He considered the practice to be heathen yet important enough to witness.

The seven girls sat on the outer rocks facing the Red Priestess. The day was drawing to a close and it was quickly getting colder. They had spent the day cleaning the cave and creating their own little spaces where they would spend at least the next three migrations of the birds. They were very hungry but knew that food would not be forthcoming. They shivered, partly from cold and partly from anticipation.

“I say to you, listen to my words and dream upon what I say, for you shall be called upon to repeat every word without changing one iota. The wrath of your children’s children shall be visited upon you should you not do this with all your heart and with all your soul.” Her voice was soft and musical and had a rhythm to it which had a hypnotic effect on the children.

They were young and had never witnessed a Placing of the Stone ceremony. The next such ceremony would only be due after another two migrations. By then they would be well versed in the requirements of the Placing of the Stone and what would be expected if the stones touched each other.

“I am from the clouds,” the old woman said.

The children gasped in unison. Surely then she was a god! The rumours they had heard were true.

“I have seen the Place of the Ancients and I have spoken to people who I could not see and have been spoken to without being seen. I was but one of a very large village which was larger than our red earth. We were all able to do what I could do. We could fly in silver birds which made thunderous noise across the skies; we could move across the earth on rivers of black stone; we could swim below the oceans in whales made from iron and we were able to see sights such as have never been in your eyes.”

“Our power lay in changing the very earth to our liking and it was this power which led to the destruction of the Place. We killed great villages with weapons so terrible that it burnt people for Five Stones. We created monsters from iron which walked the earth, destroying everything before them. We became the killers of Earth. It is our destiny to remain here until we, the people of Red Valley, have learned to work together and to unite to take on the greatest challenge of our lives which will be to leave the valley and look for the Promised Land. I will not see the Promised Land as I am the last of the Old Order, the last of the Ancient ones. It is written that a new beginning is needed. I am of the old world and for fear that I will contaminate everything, I will remain here in the valley till I die. I carry within me the seeds of a new destruction.”

The girls found what she said to be incomprehensible. It was however their sole duty to remember her words exactly as she spoke them and to transmit them to future generations. It was not for them to question her and or to understand what she was saying.

To their surprise the Red Priestess then starting singing a song the likes of which they had never before heard:

“Take the wave now and know that you’re free

Turn your back to the land, face the sea

Face the wind now, so wild and so strong

When you think of me — wave to me — send me a song

Don’t look back when you reach the new shore

Don’t forget what you’re leaving me for

Don’t forget when you’re missing me so

Love must never hold, never hold tight, but let go

but promise to send me a song[1]

Her voice had a beautiful lilt to it as the song faded into the night. The children were totally under her spell. She was surely of the gods and sent here to do her good work.

It dawned on one of the girls that the real message she was teaching them lay in the song. She understood that they were the fortunate ones because they would lead the exodus from the Red Earth.

[1] Apologies to C. NíDhubhghaill and D. Downes


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