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A little cheese and a little whine

The Birds by the River (short story)

“In the beginning – “ said the Chief.

Or rather, said Kantun the translator. Lemâitre sat on the edge of the simple seat which had been provided for him. Here was the culmination of twelve months’ solid work. After a year of trading chickens and counting the words for red, this was the good stuff.

“In the beginning, there was Barat.”

“Barat?” asked Lemâitre. Chief Anzo thought for a moment.

It had been, twelve months earlier, the discovery of a lifetime. In the depths of the Indonesian jungle, there was a tribe utterly unknown to Western academia. It was an anthropologist’s dream. Lemâitre had heard rumours about more adventurous travellers catching sight of an indigenous people in areas previously thought to be unpopulated, and had led a team to investigate. He could hardly have been more richly rewarded.

“Barat is the god of nothing, and of potential. Barat is the absolute nothing that comes before everything, and at the same time, contains everything.”

Lemâitre nodded his understanding. Anzo continued.

“Barat was unhappy that he was nothing and his anger burned bright. He breathed deeply and grew, as a bullfrog grows when confronted with an enemy. And his rage was fire, and thus fire was born.”

The tribe called themselves the Chantai, and Lemâitre and two of his colleagues, Stephens and Peterson, had set up camp near to their village. The tribe had been friendly from the beginning, and communication had proved to be surprisingly easy. Kantun was a positively gifted linguist, and they had a pidgin language in less than a week. They had advanced from there rapidly.

“Now the body of Barat was huge, and still full of the brightness of his rage, and his body was filled with –“ the Chief paused, thinking – “with many, many tiny creatures, the Tonpel and the Titonpel, fighting for the soul of Barat, numbering more than the stars in the sky. Each moment, millions died and were reborn, in constant, never-ending conflict. The Tonpel, by chance, gained a slight advantage and as the rage of Barat cooled Tonpel and Titonpel alike joined with their brothers and transformed into new, and bigger creatures, the Norab and Tinorab.”

“What were they like, these creatures?” asked Lemâitre.

Anzo appeared impatient for a moment.

“They were very tiny, simple things. They still exist today; they are all about us. But I must tell you of Barat.”

Lemâitre nodded, keen not to interrupt Anzo’s flow any further.

“Barat was still growing, but his rage was growing cold, and the Norab and the Tinorab grew tired. And then came the Great Slaughter, and each Norab did battle with one Tinorab, and each killed the other; and only because the Norab outnumbered the Tinorab did anything remain.”

The Chantai were a peaceful people, numbering only 43 – 21 males and 22 females, 6 infants, 8 adolescents and the rest adults. They farmed a small patch of land outside their settlement, hunted in the jungle and fished in the nearby river. Their crops had been successful for as many years as anyone could remember, and most of them were proficient hunters and fishers. They had a system of writing which all but the infants knew, but very little written material that Lemâitre could see.

They had established all this in the first couple of months of their investigations, during which time they had also managed to establish a good understanding of the language, largely thanks to the tireless efforts of Kantun. And then their learning had stopped. The Chantai remained friendly, and would happily discuss the weather, and hunting, and fishing; and tell Lemâitre about the crops, and the animals, and the beautiful flower they had seen by the river and how remarkable it was to watch the birds diving after the fish. But they would say no more.

“Now Barat’s rage had cooled, although still his body grew and grew. The fires of the great war were dimming, and he came to see that he was no longer nothing, but was everything.

“When the Norab had arisen from the Tonpel, they had arisen in three great houses, and now in the calm that followed the Great Slaughter, they began to experience their true nature. For each family is drawn to the others, and across the body of Barat, the Norab became married together, the three families joining in twos and sixes, for these were the sacred numbers decreed by Barat; and out of these unions, the air was made. And thus the body of Barat was filled with air.”

Lemâitre had persevered. He had asked them about illness, and they had said yes, sometimes people became ill, but they were healed by Botsu, the eldest of the Chief’s sons, who was expert in these things. Did he use potions? asked Lemâitre, and the Chantai would smile, and say that it was difficult to explain, but didn’t he see how beautiful the sky was this morning?

“And still Barat grew, much more slowly now, and still his anger cooled, so that the air, forged in the unimaginable heat of battle, grew cold, and the Norab grew lonely. And so the air began to gather; and where it gathered, the gathering drew still more air together. And soon the gatherings grew huge, greater even than the earth, and as the families of the Norab jostled together in these gatherings, they grew hot once again; and so the stars were born.”

At first, he thought that the Chantai simply could not answer his questions; that they simply didn’t understand what he was asking, or how to answer, but after a few months, he realised he was being stonewalled. This was not unusual; the tribe had welcomed them at first, and it was not unnatural that at some point their openness would come to an end. The problem was, how to get past this point?

“Now in the heat of the stars, the Norab in the air became free, and it reminded them once again of the time of battle, and Barat revealed more sacred numbers, and the Norab joined in new ways, in accordance with these numbers. And the air came to the stars, and the Norab jostled each other, and the stars would become too hot, and would explode, and scatter the Norab throughout the body of Barat; and the Norab, in their new unions, made the air richer, and made the dust, and so earth was born.”

His first recourse was bribery. He offered them medicines, but no-one was ill; food, but no-one was hungry. He talked to them of chemical fertilizers, and they laughed, asking why they would pollute their land when they were not short of food. He talked about farm machinery, and they asked what they men would do during the harvest season, and how they would stay healthy.

He had shown them his radio, and they had been impressed, but not sure why they would want such a device when anyone could speak to anyone else essentially by raising their voice or walking a few yards.

He had –at not inconsiderable expense – acquired a TV and a satellite receiver, and introduced them to the delights of broadcast television. This had exactly the opposite of the desired effect, with the Chantai vaguely interested in the concept, but appalled at the misery and vacuity it depicted.

“And as a man cannot stand in water without changing the current, so a star cannot sit in the heavens without changing them. So the Norab that was dust was trapped in the current of the stars, and began its great dance, dancing in rings around the stars. And the heavy air joined with the air that had always been, and so water was born, and the water danced around the stars with the dust.”

He had realised, then, how basic his mistake had been. He had assumed that these were a simple people, with no pretensions at sophistication, and he could not have been more wrong. The Chantai, he realised, were culturally self-conscious; despite their insularity, they knew of the rest of the world, and regarded themselves as superior to it.

“And as the families of Norab that were air had once gathered to make the stars, so the Norab that were dust, and the Norab that was water, gathered together in the great dance, and these gatherings became worlds, and of these worlds, one was the Earth.”

So, he offered them science. Specifically, he offered them high-school science textbooks for Kantun to translate. Books with pictures of the stars and galaxies, of atoms and molecules, of cells and proteins. Books of equations, and Laws, and formulae. Books that represented the highest knowledge he felt he could impart across the language barrier.

This had aroused their interest, and it was only a few weeks later that Anzo had summoned him, and said he would be happy to share the tribe’s creation myths with him, as the beginning of an exchange, a mutually respectful exchange, of knowledge and ideas.

“And so that, my friend, is how the Earth was born, and that is the end of my story for today. Think on what I have told you, and tomorrow, I will tell you of the great struggle of life, and how man came to be.”

And with a smile, Lemâitre was dismissed. He stood, and bowed slightly, and walked from the room, hardly able to contain his excitement.

***

“How did it go?” asked Stephens, his colleague.

“It was incredible. Their creation myth is quite unlike anything I’ve heard in a culture like this. But that’s not the exciting thing. It parallels exactly what physicists believe about the big bang. I mean, it’s all wrapped up in talk of gods and demons but structurally – “

“But that’s – that’s incredible. Are you sure they aren’t just regurgitating what we’ve given them in the books?”

“No, the picture is more detailed than what’s in the books. I mean, those are just high-school books. They miss out all sorts of detail and get some things plain wrong. But what the chief said got everything right. I must get a message to the University.”

Stephens knew there was no point in trying to continue the conversation; he watched as Lemâitre sat at his laptop and started to draft an email, all the while shaking his head and muttering about how remarkable this was. Stephens smiled to himself, and went back to his work.

***

Botsu emerged from the shadows. “Do you think he understood?” he asked his father.

Anzo thought for a moment. “It is difficult to say. I did my best to make it as simple as I could, but these people –“

“I know. They are so primitive. So little understanding. Their ideas are so full of error – not just the difficult things like their psychology, but even their basic physics. They seem to know little of the universe and less of themselves.”

“It is indeed difficult. But what are we to expect when they still use radio waves to communicate? And move around in those awful machines? My understanding is that they are powered by burning long-chain hydrocarbons from mineral deposits, and that they have a worldwide system for extracting and distributing them. “

“But – but what will they do when the minerals run out?”

“Precisely. Madness. Absolute madness.”

“Well. At least we have begun. We have a long road ahead of us, but I believe we are doing the right thing.”

“I too, my son. Now, I think I will rest for a while.”

“Very well, father.” And Botsu left the room.

Anzo shook his head. He hated to be so patronising with these strangers; taken singly, they all seemed quite intelligent and reasonable. Clearly amongst the better developed of their people. But they were so very, very far behind.

He clapped his hands, and the holographic simulation that was Kantu disappeared. Anzo sat and reclined in his chair, and activated the nanobots circulating in his neural fluids, reliving in vivid detail some of the more beautiful moments he had experienced watching birds dive for fish in the river.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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