a short story
It was broad-limbed Artelmin who first voiced the doubt.
Artelmin the proud.
"We cannot survive here," he said, warping his feasils to
shape the words, channelling the wind through with deft strokes of his
nether blinds. "The sun no longer provides for us all. We block
each others' basking in our struggles for the failing light."
"But what else can we do?" Shiazu asked, her feasils atwitter.
"Where else can we go?"
"We must follow the sun," he said, simply.
A chill settled on me as he uttered the words, a premonition of loss.
None of my forebears as lorekeeper had ever contemplated such a thing.
My outermost feasils almost trembled at the thought of it. Yet mindful
of my responsibilities, I restricted them to a single twitch.
"To where?" I asked. The rustle and swish of a concerted
folding of the group's blinds formed a backdrop to the question. My
unease was evidently widely shared. "The sun has not gone,"
I added. "It rises and falls as it always did."
"But ever nearer the horizon," Artelmin argued. "And
for a shorter time each day. If we follow it west we may catch it in
its fall, have the benefit of a full day's light again. Be restored
to our former estate."
He swept his blinds roundly in a gesture that encompassed us all. Sturdy
Fenroth. Poor lopsided Bertellon, whose oft-retold encounter with a
fangwin had stripped his feasils all down one flank. The wily Shiazu,
adept in the luring arts. Hooglis, with his blinds formed into that
strange brush on top. Stolid Krugg. The younglimbs, feasils held to
rigid attention, not daring to interrupt in such an argument. And Valatha,
my dear Valatha, rootlimbs curled just so in that way I found irresistible,
whose blinds were sublime, whose shimmering feasils spread in a perfect
"We are not as we were," continued Artelmin. "We spend
our days bickering, jostling amongst ourselves for a few meagre rays
of light. There is no future for us here. We must follow the sun."
"But this is our home," I reasoned. "Lorekeeping holds
no hint of any other browsing ground. This is where we belong."
"Yes, yes!" a chorus of rustled whispers assented. The agitated
flickerings of feasils attested to the unease amongst the group. Artelmin's
was an awe-full proposal. Most of us were eager to grasp at any reassurance.
"There were good times here once," I argued. "There
will be again. The day's length has always changed with the season.
This is only a more pronounced variation. Things will surely soon return
to their proper state."
"That was before the new sun," Artelmin said. "Before
Instantly I sensed the mood alter. Feasils drooped in apprehension
as individuals sought to shut out the unwelcome implication. Blinds
sagged on all sides as the air of dejection rippled through the ensuing
As Valatha too succumbed, even I was touched by the contagion, withdrawing
deep within myself, blinds drawn down tight in an instinctive reaction
The new sun, for so long an expanding glow in the night
sky, is all but gone now. I can barely detect a residual trace whenever
the clouds of night part and the empty skies draw away my precious warmth.
It had promised much as it drew near, of perpetual days and boundless
drafts of energy for our feasils to absorb at will.
All sad illusion. Soon, as mysteriously as it had arisen, it began
to fade, having reached barely a quarter of our true sun's intensity.
But by then it had set those strange wandering suns of the night whirling
into crazier dances against the sky, and somehow altered the normal
seasonal balance between night and day into something new. Something
strange and terrible.
I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies. The true sun still
rises each day and rolls along the horizon, warming my fibres for a
few precious hours before it slowly sinks again and I must retract my
rootlimbs, draw down my blinds and fold my feasils about me against
the cold. I am still able to convert enough life giving energy to delve
into the earth, to scrabble amongst the crevices in the underlying rock,
seeking out nutrients and the surface meltwater which forms by each
afternoon. My feasils may be pale imitations now of their former gaudy
glories, may look faded and draggled, as if pest-ridden. My rootlimbs
may no longer be so sensitive to the conditions beneath my four basal
stalks; but they still function. I strain enough sustenance to last
me through the static hours; the long hours of darkness when all my
senses seem to fade to black and white. I am still alive; if only just.
And it could be worse. At least the fangwen no longer roam the plains.
With my grouping dispersed, drawn one by one somewhere over the horizon
by the uncertain prospect of greater sunlight and richer pickings further
west, I would be an easy target for any of the once troublesome beasts
which remained. But I have sensed none of those sharp-toothed, mournful-voiced
creatures for many seasons now. Too many seasons to keep count.
Likewise, I have no knowledge of those of my grouping who have gone
west. Nor of the other groups which on glorious sunlit afternoons used
to dot the plains with shimmering pools of colour as blinds were outstretched,
feasils spread wide as an allure to poach potential partners from other
groups, or sometimes (oh, happy decadent days) purely for the pleasure
The plains are empty now, the pallid, dispersed light which does fall
on them reflecting only from bare rock or sparse scrubgrass. For all
I know I may be the last of my kin.
I receive but poor reward for my daily basking. I struggle to feel
replete, even under the afternoon sun. It is strange how, at such a
low angle in the sky, the sun looms so large: yet its warmth seems as
nothing compared to the splendours I recall from my youth. Then, each
day seemed a carefree stroll from one browsing patch to the next - with
hardly ever a need to spread my blinds to their fullest extent to catch
So much has disappeared since the change, not much of it for the good.
Artelmin was first to leave. A particularly fierce storm
had just subsided and the dulled disc of the late afternoon sun was
creeping through the departing clouds when he declared his intent.
"I have endured enough," he said. "There is nothing
for us here but endless storms and a cold chill in our fibres. I will
leave now before it is too late, alone if necessary; and follow the
sun. Should any of you wish to accompany me, I will be grateful for
There was a moment of silence as the group absorbed the finality of
his announcement, some sage folding of blinds in acceptance of his decision,
a few whisperings of anguish.
"What say you, Borellan?" he asked me. "Will you accompany
me?" For that brief moment I thought his manner might have held
an air of uncertainty, even pleading.
"You know I cannot," I told him. "A lorekeeper stays
always with his kin." Then he was Artelmin once more, rustling
his blinds decisively, angling his feasils to express understanding
"Then I will take my leave," he said. "Those who decide
not to follow my path I hope to meet once more in the Great Browsing
At this, Shiazu began to rustle and twitter, shimmering her feasils
in a simultaneous expression of distress and coquetry before falling
on him in a flurry. Perhaps embarrassed by her unseemly display Artelmin
quickly disengaged himself from contact.
Hooglis and I dipped blinds with him, my tips touching his in a formal
farewell. Valatha embraced him in a suitably decorous fashion.
Artelmin saluted us all in turn, even down to the smallest younglimb
- a thin and reedy specimen, deprived of sufficient energy and consequently
lacking in growth for her age, but nonetheless delighted by the compliment.
The contrast between the two - one still strong and full of vigour despite
a few ragged edges, the other pale and etiolated, barely able to function
- was, I am sure, a contributory factor to the subsequent exodus, praying
on the minds of those who witnessed it, speaking more eloquently for
Artelmin's case than any words of his could.
Artelmin paused only a moment to see if anyone would join him before
lumbering away with a jerky gait, front rootlimbs anchoring in the cracks
in the rocks, the tops of his blinds swaying heavily as he brought his
rear stalks forward, rootlimbs trailing, to set base for the next step.
He seemed to make slow progress at first, pausing at times to replenish
his energies, his spread blinds curiously dark against the lowering
red sun. But all too soon he was lost to a dot in the wide expanse of
the western plains.
The weather has settled into a new pattern. The wild storms,
ferocious, unpredictable - whipped up out of nothing, or so it seemed
- no longer rage as they did. They have been replaced instead by a long,
bitter wind spiralling continuously out of the north and east, too often
laden with flakes or balls of ice. A wind which never ceases, day nor
night, which ruffles my feasils in their daily attempts to trap the
solar warmth, mocks their efforts to maintain my body temperature during
the long dark nights, which has no trace of heat, which fills my weary
fibres with a cold dull ache. Which dumps its frozen loads on my feasils,
ripping and tearing at the strands; batters my rootlimbs so that I have
to retract them, reducing the precious time I have for browsing.
Where is the rich, warm, cleansing rain that used to fall so joyously
in its season, ridding our feasils of the accumulations of dust that
dulled their shine, filling the cracks and hollows of the land to overflowing,
leaching out essential food elements from the soil and rock?
The next day Shiazu prowled the browsing grounds, pestering
first Hooglis, then Fenroth, proceeding at length to the younglimbs,
hoping to flatter them with her attentions.
Me she did not approach, correctly assessing my bond with Valatha was
too strong. In the end she turned to Bertellon, shimmering her blinds
at him shamelessly, bewitching him with attentions he had long since
forgotten. By late evening their interlocked shadows beckoned to us
from their position partway to the horizon.
A few more left over the next days, during the lulls the storms allowed
us. That trickle was soon to broaden to a flood. On one dark day of
glowering clouds and howling gales, fully half of the remaining group
set off in pursuit of better pastures - even Krugg, the least likely
of deserters - driven before the wind like so many discarded feasils.
I grow steadily more tired. Sometimes it seems as if time
stands still when I hang my blinds in the sunlight, the constant wind
ruffling my limp feasils as I attempt to take in the elusive warmth.
No longer can I simultaneously move nimbly among the rocks as I do so;
there is too little energy to be had. I spend my days greedily absorbing
as much as possible and it is still a pitifully small amount. All too
quickly the arc of the sun's circle dips below the horizon and I must
make my mad dash to meet my body's demands, stocking up sustenance,
drinking in enough moisture to last through the long, icy night and
scarcely warmer morning ahead.
If it were not for the regular nightly accumulation of clouds I doubt
I could survive. Despite their cargoes of snow and ice they provide
a blanket of sorts against the cold, cold sky. In their absence only
the prickle of feeling from the many tiny suns of the night - too weak
ever to fuel my needs - counteracts the loss of heat from my exposed
feasils. After such nights it is late indeed the next day before I recover
sufficiently to spread my blinds. Two in succession may be the end of
The saddest departure was Valatha's. It still pains me to
recall our final embrace when, entwined rootlimbs anchored deep into
the rock, our blinds came together and, hidden within the folds, I extended
my plins into her carpla and shuffled off the gifts-of-life, savouring
her sweetness for the last time. Though we both knew there was little
chance of issue from such a union, her season not being due, it somehow
felt the only way to honour the end of our long relationship.
"Why must you leave?" I implored her, feeling the weight
of her impending departure throughout my limbs.
"I have stayed too long for all the good it has done," she
replied. "The days grow ever colder, the sun ever lower in the
"I am afraid, Borellan," she continued. "Afraid that
if I do not leave now, I never shall. Afraid that if I remain here,
my fibres will return too soon to the earth from which they sprang."
My blinds sagged with the thought, for I could not agree. "Let
others do what they will," I said. "I did not quicken under
a wandering sun of the night. Nor, I trusted, did you. Think well, Valatha.
This is where we first took root, grew up as younglimbs together, shared
our first embrace."
Her feasils shimmered in distress, but their cruel angle was a message
in itself. They were turned away from me. In all the years I had known
her, I had never seen them held so.
"I have thought, Borellan," she said. "Look around you.
Artelmin had it right; there is nothing left for us here. Can you not
see that? Why do you cling so stubbornly to what is clearly lost? Beyond
the western plains there is at least hope. Here there is none beyond
the prospect of an early death. I feel it in every fibre. Even through
the bitter chill its rank odour fills my pores whenever I take breath."
I had no reply. What reply was there? I too had felt the sense of rot
and decay, suffered the cold embrace of the encircling gloom, desired
a more kindly light to pluck me from its clutches.
But my life had been spent on this one small browsing ground. I knew
of little else. I could not share her belief, her hope. All that I could
think of was to endure. Even though all the light I had ever known was
dying, I had no faith that salvation could be found somewhere over the
"Go, then, if you must," I told her, and sensed her flinch.
In remorse - I could not bear her to think ill of me - I added, "And
take my blessing with you," to help ease the pain of parting.
The angle of her blinds altered in response. I shuffled hesitantly
towards her. We matched tips awkwardly, moving slowly to a fuller union.
Our intertwined limbs in the end became racked with convulsions of sorrow
rather than pleasure. Finally she extricated herself gently from the
embrace and turned to follow in the rootsteps of Artelmin, Shiazu and
Bertellon; Fenroth, Hooglis, Krugg and all the rest. She did not look
I stood, my sad blinds outstretched to catch the dying light, and watched
her shadow, in a miserably elongated distortion of her perfect shape,
extend eastwards back to me, across the plains.
I have felt the urge for her many times since then, my plins aching
with the weight of unshed gifts-of-life, but there has been no Valatha
to receive my bounty. I doubt, too, that she would still embrace me
with that old fervour. My plins are dry and shrivelled now, my dishevelled
feasils a poor invitation to a union.
It seems it is I, who held to the ancestral browsing paths,
who have been the most deluded. It was not enough to torture my soul
that the others should leave, especially my poor sweet Valatha, but
now my steadfastness in remaining has been mocked, and most cruelly.
I never thought to see life bring forth such bitter fruit.
Today the full arc of the sun did not rise above the horizon. The perpetual
wind threw a blanket of cloud over the sky for much of what little daylight
I was granted, and chilled my fibres anew with its frozen cargo, but
a tiny wedge of the disc remained always beyond my senses. A thin wedge,
true: but tomorrow it will be thicker. Today, from the sun's pathetic
rise to its final set, like too many days past, has been but a long,
slow dusk compared to the full glorious summers of my youth.
Were those golden years the greatest delusion? It is hard to remember
them now, with the daily struggle to survive uppermost in my thoughts.
Sometimes it seems that they are only a dream, of a different life in
some strange place of the imagination, yet at others they are bright
and clear in my mind's perception, a softly glowing vision of better
days in times past.
But I must shake myself free of all such thoughts. I have more pressing
matters to consider.
The western plain lies before me in all its emptiness. I must draw
down my blinds against the fall of night and prepare as best I can for
the long journey (to what nameless destination?) that tomorrow I must
start across it.
I suppose I must travel in hope. Who knows? I may once more meet with
I have come upon an eerie place; made worse by the murkiness
of the light. Weird shadows seem to lurk in the gloom cast by the cloudcover.
My senses are plagued by transitory miasmas conjured from the swirling
I cannot be sure whether my lumbering progress towards the sun is succeeding
or not. Whenever the clouds part the furthest extent of its disc remains
always tantalisingly beyond the horizon. But at its fullest it seems
no smaller, as far as I can tell, than when I set out.
Each "morning" I wait with impatience for its heat to warm
my fibres, hoping to lumber as many extra steps forward as possible
before the meltwaters form in the late afternoon and I stop to browse.
Without the daily thaw I would find it harder to break into the frozen
land, lose more precious time.
To my surprise the soil here is good; and there is little beyond scrubgrass
to compete with me for nature's bounty. Once the ice has melted, my
rootlimbs can roam freely in the quiet earth.
But each short day's journey is ever more wearisome, my active moments
are taken up with absorbing the sun's rays, or pressing ever forward,
or finding food. I have little energy left over for reflection, nor
for remembrance, the sacred duty of the lorekeeper.
I have lost count of the days. The western plains are long
behind me, the scene around me now is one of desolation.
The soil is poorer here, a bare covering on the underlying rock. Any
sustenance it provides is hard-won. Were it not for an intermittent
few misshapen hummocks which provide a richer fare I might not have
survived this far. There is something increasingly familiar about those
shapes. But their lines are distorted, worn away by erosion and decay.
I have no time to ponder the mystery; I must move ever onward if I am
to catch up with the sun.
I have made no progress for several days. Despair has held
me locked and unable to function. My only motions have been the reflex
raising of my blinds to catch the brief day's light and the involuntary
shudderings of my outraged body.
Ah, that curled rootlimb! To my horror and disgust it made me realise
that I have been feeding on the decaying bodies of my dead kin.
Which of those shapes was Artelmin, I wonder, which Hooglis? Have I
been feasting on the remains of Shiazu or poor Bertellon? That stout
one there, is it Krugg? The taller one beyond, Fenroth?
It is a good thing to enrich the soil, to return dust to dust, and
eventually to feed the goodness that was in your fibres on to your descendants,
to give younglimbs you have never seen a solid start to life. But there
is a time to such sombre feastings, a due season. Not now, so soon after
the deaths, and without the proper ceremonies. I was too close to those
who have fallen to face the thought of what I have done - albeit unknowingly
- with any equanimity.
The rootlimb was unmistakable. It could only be Valatha's. Dear Valatha,
whose feasils shone the brightest of us all.
Why have I alone been spared, when the brightest and best of us are
I stagger on. Daily, I follow the sun, wending my way ever
westward in forlorn anticipation of finding the sunlit pastures we all
set out to reach spreading at last before me. But that land of promise
lies as far away as ever. My quest, it seems, will never end.
The true sun still hugs the horizon, making a mockery of my efforts
to catch up with its decline and fall. At night, whenever the clouds
part, I scan the skies in constant hope of finding another new sun swelling
there, that might restore order to the swirling chaos left by its predecessor.
But it is a useless longing. Visitations like those are beyond rarity.
Nothing will bring back the halcyon days of memory.
What dreadful sin did we commit that we should have been subject to
this fate? In our delusion we accepted the coming of the new sun with
joy. None of us saw in it the seeds of our destruction.
Those dreadful mounds are long behind me; the memory of Valatha's rootlimb
a reproof and inspiration both. To keep travelling, in constant battle
against the interminable chill wind behind and the ever retreating sun
ahead, is the sole tribute I can make to the vain efforts to survive
of Valatha, Artelmin and the rest.
The winds still wail incessantly, like a continuous chorus of demented
fangwen. Occasionally one howl will stand out from the rest, more mournful,
more full of regret, as if a fangwin is truly near and on a hunt. But
surely none of those once most-feared of beasts can have survived where
we did not. And yet, I almost hope for it. How fitting it would be if
I should, at the last, provide sustenance for at least one of my poor
The days of my life wear down in the same exhausted, dulled routine.
With every dawn the creak as my blinds fan slowly outwards, feasils
spreading wide to catch the feeble light. The all too few hours hanging
in the sun - an agonising effort barely worth the reward. The scrabble
amongst the rocks and soil in search of food and water. The short day's
journey into night, scrambling slowly towards the setting sun.
And, at the close of each slow dusk, a drawing down of blinds.
© Jack Deighton 2005, 2007.
This story was first published in Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative
Fiction edited by Neil Williamson and Andrew J Wilson (Mercat
Press, £9.99, 304 pages, paperback, August 2005, ISBN: 1841830860).
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