Short Story: Dust We Return


There is always changing information in the investigation and study of our human prehistory. A recent magazine article tickled my imagination within the last week, and I’ve been cogitating over it ever since. The story makes the case for much earlier incursions by humans into the Americas than previously recognized. One of the speculations is that the early explorers, some immigrant parties, may have died out without populating the new lands they found. Even though the areas were bountiful. So, this story offers a thought about why humans may have failed in the long ago.     
The small body I hold in my arms is now still. The spirit within is waiting, hesitant before departing into the sky, to join our ancestors. Soon the dust below our feet will accept the body, a return to the earth where all things begin.
Even though the birth was early, we had much hope for the new life. A perfect body, unlike so many births that have suggested our Gods have abandoned us.
My sister and mate sits away from me, pining for the loss of her child. But she will forget quickly as she is one of those born with only part of her spirit, as many have been.
Even though the child is still, body and spirit, I must recite our oral history to it. The Gods demand that it knows it’s ancestors, or it will wander among those in the afterlife alone.
Beginning with the birth of the sun, I relate the stories of the Dreamtimes, and I feel the tiny spirit moving within my breast and behind my eyes as it listens.
The accounts of our fathers and mothers flow from me, as I am now the only rememberer left.
Beginning in the dusk as the day ends, as the sky-people begin to gather their sticks to be lit the next day to provide light and warmth as the new sun, the hours pass as I sing the spirit-child into harmony with those-that-go-before.
I speak of the Recluse and how he wraps people traveling alone in the folds of his wings to smother them. A warning to my child-that-walks-alone. Most spirit-beings are harmless, though, so I relate that as well.
When the moon-man rises, his story cascades from my lips, speaking of how he makes his journey across the sky to overcome the dark of the night.
The giant frog that creates floods, the story of the Fire Tree, and how the seven stars came to be known as the Ice Maidens, and how children are strengthened by rubbing the Ice Maiden’s frost on their bodies, is offered as instruction to the departing spirit of my newest child.
Stories of the past, the great hunts, the mammoths and camels and horses that fed and clothed us over the many generations, and the lessons learned. These things join the legends of the Dreamtimes.
Sometime before dawn the new history of the last five generations comes to my lips. The tale of how two hands of closely related people decided to part ways with the Mother Family, stepping off the earth they knew and into the unknown void. The saga of our ancestors departing and how they learned to walk on water and air, new paths unknown to those left behind.
The first children born to the new Clan flourished. The lands they walked over, never stepping in the same footprints twice, provided an abundance of game. As they met no other people, they advanced more and more quickly into the empty spaces. Time and injuries were not unknown, so there were losses, but their numbers grew. Before they turned to follow the coast south there were many sons and daughters walking with them, and every woman carried an infant on her hip or slung across her back.
Our grandmothers delighted in bringing new lives into the family. They would honor the thunder-man when he laughed loudly, smashing his rocks together to make the lightning. Running into the storm, they would raise themselves up to accept the rain that carried the spirit-children down, those seeking to find a mother in order to be born.
The first evidence of the Gods’ anger visited the third generation. The rains came, but no matter how many times our grandmothers danced beneath the showers, many of them remained barren.
Some of the elders speculated that the Gods wanted our Clan to return to our homeland, to take mates from other Tribes. But the strongest among them convinced the rest that returning would be more difficult than heading south into the warmer climates of the coastal plain.
A few infants were born before their time, and several of those that survived were small and weak. The numbers in the Clan remained the same when they should have been growing.
As the family moved south the coast opened onto larger beaches, less rocky, with open areas inland. There were fewer bears, and better hunting as herds of grazing animals fed on the open tundra.
As the fourth generation emerged, there were deformities. Some children didn’t survive, and others were left out to die because they would be a burden to the tribe. The first children-of-the-half-spirit were born. Between babies that were born unwell and the numbers of infertile women, our numbers plummeted. We were burdened by aging people of limited use. If the coast hadn’t been so fruitful, so easy to find food and sweet water, the elders would have been asked to take the long walk.
During the first fertility hunt of the fourth generation, a black swan was killed. No one had ever seen a black swan, and the elders asked the crows about why the swan had dark feathers. The crows told us that long ago they found an injured white swan, torn by eagles, and in sympathy they offered some of their own feathers so the swan would be warm while it healed. The black feathers were accepted by the injured bird, and as they grew, it plucked out its own feathers until only black feathers grew, except for a few white feathers in its wings. Crows usually speak boldly, but they took my father’s father aside to whisper in his ear, telling him that our Clan would die out because of the black swan’s death.
I am of the fifth generation, and I am old. My sister and I survived, only two of ten that did. The rest have been entirely barren, never greeting the thunder-man successfully. Of the ten, five were half-spirited, only able to survive with instruction from the rest of us. My sister is one of them, and the only female to bear children. Seven children, and none survived longer than the cycle of the moon. All born too early, and most joining our ancestors before they breathed air.
My mate is too old to bear children. She was many years between this last birth and the one before. There will be no more.
The infant spirit is now informed, one of us, and I can feel it departing. The tearing of it from my heart is a terrible pain, hard to endure.
I can see the sky-people lighting the sticks they have accumulated over the nighttime. The red dawn of the newly kindled sun is starting to glow beyond the hills.

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