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Chapt. 14: Abundance

By Michael Jesse

When Laura opened her eyes she was not home, but still in the little bedroom in Irenia's house. Jack was breathing heavily beside her and for a while Laura stared at the room, which she had not seen very well the night before. It was small and simple with uneven walls made of logs covered in plaster or some kind of white stucco. Drops scattered on the squares of glass imbedded in the sloped, plaster ceiling, and the dusty smell of recent rainfall drifted in an open window. An even better scent of something baking wafted through the doorway from which she heard the whistle of female ruah voices.

"Gran, I want to keep them." It was Riona's voice. "They're so cute," she went on. "I love how their delicate little pink toes grab onto everything."

Irenia tittered. "I want to see Verdu's face when you tell him that."

"I can handle Verdu."

"I know you can, dear. But don't get too attached. These young ones don't belong here."

"But what if that ship never comes back? It may have been lost in the storm."

"Child, I'm afraid we have to expect that it will be back, or one very much like it. So much has changed now."

Jack jolted awake and cried out, staring around the room in confusion. Riona and Irenia galloped to the doorway and stood peering in.

"Is everything okay?" Riona asked.

"All they need is some breakfast," Irenia announced. "And I have apple tarts just out of the oven."

"As soon as we have you presentable," Irenia said, "we have an important visit to make."

After breakfast, washing and hair-grooming, Irenia led the children down another dirt path among the little houses scattered around the hillside. Ruah adults were at work in their gardens or lounging in the tall grass near their homes while children ran and squealed. Most stopped what they were doing to watch as Jack and Laura walked by. Irenia held her head high and strode proudly down the path like a little old lady on her way to church.

As the path rose over another hill, Jack and Laura saw more little houses spread out in no apparent pattern. One house looked different from the others. Like the other houses it had a stone chimney, walls made of birch logs and white stucco, and rows of glass blocks built into one side. But the blocks were stained different colors like the windows of a church, and there was a second chimney built separately from the house. Three female ruah had been working at something outdoors, but stopped to stare as the party went by.

Irenia whistled a polite greeting, but continued to walk briskly down the path and Jack and Laura followed, looking back as the females used long poles clamped in their teeth to pull a glowing-hot blob from an outdoor oven and rested it on a stone table. They immediately began squeezing the molten glass between blocks of wood until it was in the shape of a cube, and pushed the block of hot glass with the pole until it fell steaming and hissing into a bucket of water.

Irenia led the children farther down the winding trail and over another hill where they came upon another busy scene. A crew of some dozen or so adults and children were at work building a house. One large male used a metal blade attached to his horns to chop the birch logs to equal lengths while others carried the logs with their teeth, one at each end, and stacked them in place between other logs that had been pounded vertically into the ground. Each step required the coordinated movements of two or more workers and they kept a rhythm going by playing a song with a strong beat.

But as some of the ruah noticed the unusual group approaching, the song faltered and one by one all took notice and the work stopped. One old male who seemed to be in charge stepped toward them. His mane was a shaggy mass of gray, and his black horns were gnarled and growing into each other like the exposed roots of an ancient tree.

"Bless me, Irenia," he rumbled, "so these are the savien pups everyone is talking about."

Irenia reached up to kiss the old ruah on the cheek. "They're children, dear, not pups. And as a matter of fact we were on our way to the gardens — to see you, Haran — but I'd forgotten this is building day. Where is Ralla?"

"Here, Mother Irenia!" came a whistle. A female ruah trotted excitedly out from the group where she had been helping to build the wall. "Isn't it wonderful? Haran says we'll be putting on the roof by tomorrow!"

"I'm just glad it's your turn, dear. Riona has been hoarding pottery and kitchen supplies for you. Let us know when you're ready to decorate." In her excitement, Ralla did not notice Jack and Laura at first and gasped when saw them.

Whistling the ruah versions of their names, Irenia introduced Jack and Laura to each of the ruah in turn. All said some version of "blessings to you" and reacted with delight as Jack and Laura returned the greetings.

"And now, children, I present you to Haran, our chief gardener and master builder — as well as my dear friend."

Laura again whistled the standard blessing, but this time Jack blew the word "peace," which he'd heard Verdu use when greeting others at the funeral. When Verdu said it, the word was low and rich and actually felt peaceful. But Jack did not have Verdu's lower range and it sounded shrill in his own ear and he wished he'd repeated Laura's greeting instead.

But Haran seemed impressed, and even touched. "Peace to you, little ones," he said in return, "and may the joy of The Spirit be with you always."

"If you have a moment, Haran, I do need to speak with you," Irenia said.

The old ruah bowed his heavy horns. "For you, always, Mistress Irenia." Haran gave instructions to the others on the next phase of the project and then led Irenia and the children on down the path where they soon began to pass an orderly series of garden plots.

"You may have heard my tomatoes won first prize this week," Haran said as he opened a gate made of tree branches.

"And every week since the season began," Irenia noted. Haran hooked a basket with one of his horns and began selecting samples of his produce to put into the basket, which swung from his horn as he walked.

"Now these peppers are doing well, this year," Haran remarked, selecting one for his basket, "but they aren't quite as nice as those in your family's plot."

"Oh, I'll be sure to tell Cousin Arral you said that," Irenia said with a trilling laugh. "I know how competitive you two are — and you usually win of course."

Haran bowed modestly to the compliment, taking care not to tip his load. "We all bring our individual talents to the community. Come fall, Arral will collect his ribbons for pumpkins, melons and apples as he always does — and of course your family has won the Canning Cup six years in a row — a record I believe."

"Perhaps you could explain to the children how the gardens are organized," Irenia said. "They may be staying with us for some time and will need to take their part."

"Ah, well, that's quite an important topic, that is, but I'm biased I suppose. Well, let's see, there are currently twelve active gardens, divided up by family group but we tinker with the numbers to keep things balanced. It seems to work best when there are about 20 or 30 ruah responsible for one garden plot, not counting the littlest ones. Usually there's one crazy old codger like me in each group who wants to be out here every day keeping an eye on things, but most family members just need to be available one day a week as needed. Some weeks there's not much to be done except weeding and watering and other times we're quite busy with planting or harvesting."

As Haran talked he picked a few more things and led the little group along the brick path to a wooden table under the shelter of a small, vine-covered roof.

Soon Jack and Laura each had a plate of fresh raw vegetables, grapes and a bowl of water. Jack was eager to dig in but had learned to wait for the perfunctory "in gratitude" that Irenia and Riona whistled before meals. But Haran evidently took such matters more seriously. Closing his eyes, he burst into a joyful song in which the phrase "we pray in gratitude" was repeated like a chorus as he listed all of their blessings and then he shifted to "we pray in hope" as he sang of days yet to come. Laura was mesmerized and it took her a few seconds to realize when the prayer was over and that Irenia was speaking.

"– and so I've come to ask if you would organize the food supply for the patrol teams and the beach sentinels."

"Of course," Haran instantly replied. "I am glad to serve the community in any way that I am able, and deeply honored to be asked by you personally, Mistress Irenia." Sliding his plate aside, Haran bowed his head and laid his heavy horns with a thump on the wooden table.

"Oh Haran, don't be so formal," Irenia tsked as she rose and kissed the back of his neck.

As Haran raised his head again Laura realized she was gawking, her teeth still stuck in a dripping tomato.

"I certainly hope you have tomatoes where you're from," Haran said to her in a mock-serious tone.

"Yes we do," Laura said wiping her chin and hurriedly chewing. "It's our mother's favorite vegetable to grow in her garden."

"Really? Well I like her already. So how do, uh, how do mine measure up against hers?"

"Well, please don't tell her I said so, but yours are definitely better."

Haran piped a delighted laugh. "Did I mention they've won first prize recently?"

Laura grinned. "I thought I heard someone mention that. We have a fair once every summer where prizes are given."

"Only once a summer? Goodness, that would never do around here, would it, Irenia?"

"Not with you involved, Haran."

"Oh, it's not just me. Arral would not know what to do with himself if he were not trying to beat me week after week." He leaned closer to Laura, as if he were about to reveal a secret, "I'm afraid we're rather competitive. Not so much on quantity — though of course our first priority is making sure the community has sufficient stores for the winter — but except in especially bad years that's easily accomplished so we tend to compete over the biggest this or the best-tasting that." Haran held the stem of a clump of grapes between his toes and ate them one at a time as he spoke. "And by the way, this is becoming a splendid season for grapes. I predict this year's wine will earn the Solstice Cup in ten or twelve years."

"You probably do quite well on market days," Laura said politely.

Haran gave her a puzzled look. "I'm not sure what you mean. I don't actually do any of the crafts."

"I meant your vegetables and fruit," Laura said. "I just assumed you took all of this to market."

Haran made a little tooting with his horns that reminded Laura of the way humans laugh politely when pretending that a foolish statement must have been intended as a joke. "We wouldn't trade food at market, dear girl. It goes to everyone in the community, and to winter storage of course. And I'll bet you won't be surprised to learn we have contests for that too, would you?" he declared with a real laugh this time.

When it was time to leave, Irenia led them in a different direction than the way they'd come from her home.

"There's something else I want you children to see," she said. "It should be starting in a few minutes."

As they walked a familiar sound came on the wind.

"That's Verdu, isn't it," Laura said.

"Yes," Irenia replied. "He's playing The Call."

"That's the song he played at the funeral," Jack said.

"It's connected to the story Verdu told us last night, isn't it?" Laura asked. "The Mother tells Cetaceous she needs to sleep and wants him to call to wake her . . . later on?"

"That is the most commonly held interpretation," Irenia said, "though strictly speaking The Call itself is not actually mentioned in the Song of Cetaceous. The Call is, of course, a very old tradition, almost as old as The Song itself."

"But why does he play it so loud?" Jack asked.

Irenia made a long, breathy whistle that could have been a laugh or a sigh. "We're a little early yet. Let's rest here a bit and I'll try to explain." She sat down on the grassy hillside and the children sat next to her. "Verdu has played The Call at least once a day for most of his life. He is a ‘caller' — in fact he is considered by some to be The Caller. Have you noticed anything about his horns?"

"Uhhh, they're big?"

"Yes, they certainly are, but that's only part of it. He has an odd number of pipes, which would be notable enough by itself, but he has 15 of them. Most ordinary ruah males have eight or perhaps ten pipes. Twelve is considered quite handsome.,and a 13-piper — like my Thurdom — is most extraordinary. But 15 is what Cetaceous is said to have had — and so it is supposed that his heir would as well. Verdu was quite young when his horns started to come in, and right away it was clear he was special because he started with five instead of the usual four. When the five grew into ten and then into 15 while he was still so young, well, people were telling him he was The Caller before he fully understood what that meant."

"So all his life he's had this huge responsibility?"

"Well, yes," Irenia said, "though I'm sure he would deny ever feeling burdened by it. He is very proud of this and has devoted his life to the Ministry of the Call, but I do sometimes wonder if it was unfair to him."

"But . . . I don't get it," Jack said. "Is the Call supposed to . . . wake up God?"

"If taken literally, yes, that's what the song is about. But for most modern ruah, The Call is simply a ritual about our union in The Spirit. It asks all who hear it — not just all ruah but all life — to join together as one. But for Callers — and sometimes you may hear them referred to as ‘Constant Callers' and I'll tell you now not to repeat that term because it's rather a pejorative — the Callers really do expect a miracle every time they sing The Call. They expect The Mother to literally move. No one quite agrees on what that means, though there are all kinds of theories and I'm sure Verdu would love to spend hours telling you more about it. But the simplest way to put it is the callers believe that if they pray frequently enough, or loudly enough, or at just the right moment, or if just the right set of horns plays The Call–"

"The one voice She is waiting for?"

"Why yes, Laura! How on earth did you know that?"

"We heard Verdu say it," Jack said. "He and Riona were arguing about it after the funeral."

"Jack!" Laura admonished.

"Well they were!"

Throughout this conversation, Verdu's voice could be heard trumpeting The Call and now it reached its forceful conclusion. Irenia closed her eyes as she listened to the final note that only Verdu was able to hold for so long. When it died she sat motionless for a few heartbeats more, as the children waited quietly beside her.

Laura broke the silence with a whispering whistle close to Irenia's ear, which pivoted towards her, "that what will happen?"

"That the Mother will become aware of us again, and take care of us again — to quote the old spiritual." Irenia stood and continued up the hill, her small gray toenails gripping footholds in the tall grass

"So . . . you believe that–"

"I do not. But Verdu does, as do many other fine ruah whom I love and admire. I do not dispute their beliefs, but I do not share them either. I'm a scientist by training, though long retired, and I have never put any stock in the literal Awakening. But I can understand why so many people turn to religion for answers. After all, our planet is dying and there's nothing that science can–"

"Dying!?" both children exclaimed at once.

Irenia laughed at their reaction. "Don't worry; it will take a while and we'll all be long dead ourselves by then."

"But what do you mean it's dying?" Laura asked.

"The water," Irenia said. "It is gradually evaporating and not being replenished at the same rate. But surely you know this. Don't you have scientists where you come from?"

"Well, um, yes," Laura replied, "but . . . we're not from here."

Irenia stared at her with a hint of annoyance. "I'm aware of that, child, but this is a global phenomenon. Wherever you are ‘from,' the gradual decline in sea levels should be quite obvious. Unless you're from another planet." She trilled a brief laugh while Laura and Jack exchanged a look.

"Irenia," Laura said, "there's something else we should tell you."

"About where you're really from?"

Laura nodded. "It's hard to explain and we don't quite understand it ourselves, but–"

She was interrupted by a sudden angry commotion of many ruah horns and a racket of wood clashing against wood. It was all happening beyond the next hill and Jack and Laura ran to see.

Laura expected to see MacWilde's men attacking the village, but as she and Jack stopped at the top of the hill and looked down on the main village green they saw no humans at all; only ruah. They were attacking each other.

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