From the author: Anthropology is filled with stories of cultures that practiced ritual and sacrifice to anchor their place in the world. There's little to reason to doubt that the far-removed generations of the survivors of a spaceship that crash landed on an empty but livable planet might not develop their own rituals,unrecognizable to their technological ancestors.
Waves lapped against the ceremonial canoe, and Jermone let them lick his fingers while Cynda rowed. When they fished together, they both took a paddle, but today was special, the Whales' run first day, and she rowed him, the king. People pampered the king. They said, "As goes the king, so goes the island." Ever since last year when blonde-haired Glinn handed him the crown, it was true. They pampered him. They served him roasted bananas and flavored goat's milk. He picked the best fish from the day's catch, and Cynda's mother, the Queen's mother, spitted it on a stick to cook separately from the community's meals. He was key to the Whale's run ceremony.
When Cynda once winked conspiratorially across the fire to remind him they were friends the silliness came to him, and he laughed. The Queen's mother laughed too, and so did the others close enough to hear. After all, he was king.
"I like the music the boat makes.” His voice sounded oddly deep to him, as it had since the last Whales' run. The ocean’s emptiness swallowed it. It was something to say, at least. Something to lighten her mood. “Have you ever listened to it?”
Cynda said nothing for a while, and Jermone let the surge of her paddling lull him. He offered a small prayer to the ocean gods to keep the waves calm and to speed their journey.
Ahead, the waves rippled to the mist that hid the Land. He turned on his shoulder to look at Cynda. Beneath him the damp wood cooled his skin, and the sun burnished his face. Cynda knelt in the stern. She bent forward on each stroke, and her breast-cloth flapped; the intricately painted, beaded strings clicked together as they swung against her firm belly. It fitted loosely because it had been tailored for her sister, and no one had changed it. Making the clothes required all year, and the fit mattered less than the ritual. Jermone hid his grin, thinking warm thoughts. He’d dreamed today often, the ritual day.
Cynda’s strong and dark arms, much darker than his, tensed with the effort; her face serious; black hair tied back and braided. Her legs, too, below the short, brightly feathered skirt, rippled with muscle. She and Jermone had run races along the beach from Shark Point to the old wreck, and he barely beat her. He'd slap the rust encrusted space ship an instant before her, and they'd collapse into the shadows, laughing until they could breathe again. The wreck stretched into the sea where the broken and sagging corroded metal slabs merged with orange and red corals. He couldn’t tell where the ship’s remains stopped and where the sea-creatures began.
"Do you believe in the gods?" she said, leaning into the next stroke. "I mean, do you really believe in them?" She always asked questions. Jermone recognized Bundi's influence, and he scowled. Trust Bundi to ruin the day, an old, stupid, bitter man from an insignificant family with no daughters so his name would die with him.
Jermone closed his eyes, sighing. "The gods are in everything, of course." He tried to imagine the sea gods, but instead her ghost image floated, pale and featureless. The sun floated behind, a dark ball in a dark sky. "Gods in the tuna and the clams, in typhoons and in us." He squinted. The sun glared behind her. A few loose hairs caught the light in a silvery halo. "Gods in my hands, Cynda, in my body, just like yours."
"That's not what Bundi says. He told me there are no gods--we didn't believe in gods in the old days. There was no need for ritual."
Jermone's drew a sharp breath and held it for a second. He asked, "You're not thinking . . . you wouldn't . . ."
"No, of course not. I'll go through with it. I'm just talking. That's all. Remember, you have been training for this for a season. I've just had a few weeks."
He relaxed and rested his back again against the boat's moist wood. "We have a responsibility, you know. Glinn did his duty, and so did your sister." Jermone remembered Glinn, tall and startlingly blonde--few islanders were blonde--stepping into the canoe before the last Whale's run. He wore dignity like a robe. All season since the people spoke with admiration of Glinn's departure.
Cynda continued rowing, her expression dark. "She should have never bathed in the river. She was foolish."
"Proud, you mean, don't you? The river gods know a proud person when they see one. Would you rather I was here with her instead of you?" He waited for an answer. He’d envisioned a different version of the trip. The whale's run first day was supposed to be special, and he'd been waiting for a year. And she was Cynda, his friend.
Her voice softened. "I didn't mean that. What I mean is I don't want to be here at all." Cynda laughed. It wasn't a happy laugh. "Do you know why we are doing the ceremony today and not a few days ago or days from now?"
"The whales, naturally. They spoke to the Queen’s mother and told her today is the first day of their run."
"No, I don't think so. Whales run in the spring, but no one knows the first day. No, mother watched me, not the sea. She watched me to decide when we should go."
He didn't understand. But Cynda’s beauty fascinated him, and the sky glowed above like a glad expression, so he remained silent.
She rested the paddle across her legs and let the boat drift. "Jaimie and Clurk declared for each other yesterday."
Jermone rolled to dangle his fingers into the ocean again. "It's a good time to declare. Good omens come with the Whale's run."
"They're a season younger than us."
Water splashed into his hand. He closed his fist, but the water ran out, and he held nothing. A few evenings weeks ago, before the river monster rose up and killed Cynda’s sister, Jermone and Cynda had gone into the forest to gather fire-wood. After a while, they had rested in soft grass in a stand of palm trees, and she had tickled him. He tickled her back, but instead of squirming away, she'd pushed herself against him, and her fingers against his ribs had become a caress. Her dusty and smooth skin slid beneath his hand. Her breath filled him, sweet and deep. For a moment, he forgot his kingship, and reached his hand down over her hip bone.
"We can't," she had gasped, "you are promised," but she held him still, and nothing remained in his head but her feel, her back’s curve, the pulse pounding in her breast, and they moved. She murmured something throaty; it could have been a plea. But a plea for what? He couldn't tell.
In the distance of the trees, the Queen's mother called for them, and, breathing hard, they had pushed away.
Since then, replaying that evening consumed Jermone’s thoughts. Until then, the Whale's run seemed spiritual but unreal. He didn’t think about it. Since then, the ritual swamped his imagination. He’d wake in a sweat from dreams. A part of him (he blushed to think) was pleased Cynda's sister had died. He prayed and made sacrifice to the forest gods to ask forgiveness, but the omens were ambiguous and hard to read.
Cynda said, "Bundi told me it's not gods in control but a strange force, genetics. Mutagens. There didn't use to be monsters in the river. He says, unchecked, animals change fast. Whatever took her, he says, might have had a carp for a parent or a salamander."
"You mean like a bad cow or chicken? A blasphemy we'd kill at birth?"
Jermone had a hard time imagining the creature’s parent the villagers had netted from the river the next day after Cynda's sister's death having been an innocent salamander. Larger than a pig, the animal had come from the water raging, all teeth and spines and ferocious velocity. It had torn two good nets to tatters before they'd killed it.
"Do you want me to row for a while? No one will know.”
"No. We'll do this right. We're there."
The palm trees' dark line peeked through the mist ahead. Waves slipped onto the shore, and their escape down the narrow beach hissed gently. Beyond the sand’s long stretch, old stained metal and glass buildings reflected bright bites of sun through the trees and vines that covered them.
"Can you see any of them . . . the clothes-apes?" Jermone asked.
"They hide. They're afraid."
"Do they . . . you know . . . wear clothes?"
Cynda grunted. Jermone couldn't tell if she was mad at him or thought it a silly question. He wanted to make conversation. Anything to not talk about the ceremony. He forced himself to sit still.
Jermone continued, "They hide because you're the queen. You're a special person. The gods protect you, and the clothes-apes know it."
She sighed. "Being special didn't help my sister, but Bundi says it has a lot more to do with hunting parties. Many seasons ago, he says, before you or I were born, a queen's daughter was taken while gathering medicine root. She vanished. A hunting party came and killed clothes-apes by the dozens, and now they stay back in the woods. We're safe on the beach as long as there are two of us. At least during the day."
Jermone wanted to ask about the night, but he bit his tongue. She sounded unsure already, and he didn't want her talking about it again, so he studied the beach instead. A black ribbon moved along the water line, and for a while he thought it was a long snake, undulating back and forth with the waves. As they drew closer, he could tell it wasn't a continuous line at all, but hundreds of separate parts. Finally, as the waves turned from swells to breaking water, he saw crabs no bigger than the palm of his hand made the line. They skittered down the beach, followed the retreating wave, and moved inland when the water returned. When the canoe plowed slushily to rest, and Jermone jumped out to pull it onto the beach, the crabs scurried off or dug themselves out of sight. He could see them a spear's throw away, but they wouldn't come closer.
He crouched at the water's edge and placed the flats of his hands on the wet sand to thank the sea gods for safe delivery and ask the earth gods to welcome them. Cynda stepped from the canoe and didn't pause as she strode up the beach. He prayed for her too.
Long seaweed strands, turned brown in the sun, lay above the water line, and when the wind off the ocean paused, their mossy, damp smell floated down to him. The trees, too, smelled: dark and huge and vegetable. Then the breeze picked up, carrying away land odors and replacing them with salt spray and fish.
"Should we start now?" asked Jermone. He tried to calm his voice, but he couldn't. It quavered.
"No, the tide's not fully out."
"What should we do?" He scuffed his feet through the sand. The texture differed from the island, grittier, as if broken shells filled it, but it was also warm and soft. He sat. In the trees, something screeched.
They both started. "Was that . . .?" Jermone said.
"I don't know. Didn't sound like a bird."
Jermone moved closer to her, keeping an eye on the woods.
Cynda said, "I've never seen a clothes-ape. There's lots of things on Land I haven't seen. Bundi says changes happen fast here too. There's no one to check, no Queen mother to pass judgments on births. Other animals might be here beside the clothes-apes."
“Maybe they are the gods.”
“I doubt it.”
Cynda sat beside him, facing the woods just paces away. Under the dark canopy, the sand vanished and everything became shadow. Great vines wrapped themselves around trunks and swooped from tree to tree. Above the forest, tiny birds darted in and out of the palms, feeding on insects; and more birds, long-legged ones with gray bodies and long beaks trotted along the tree’s roots, poking their bills into crevices. The trunks creaked in the sea-breeze; bees or wasps hummed, and behind them the waves whispered their secrets in steady rhythm. Jermone scrunched his fingers deeper into the warm sand until they were under Cynda's hand. She didn't move other than to tilt her head back to look at the ruined buildings that rose from the forest. "Do you believe people use to live here?"
Jermone glanced at her. A grain of sand clung to her thigh, and he wanted to brush it away, but he feared to touch her now with the ceremony so close. He thought about Jaimie and Clurk.
"I don't know," he said. "They're sad to look at. Not like the god’s homes at all."
She turned to study him, propping herself on one arm. "Do you have doubts?"
He shook his head. "Oh, no. None at all. I just thought they seemed broken down, like . . . I don't know . . . deserted. But, of course, they're not. The gods are there, just as they are in the sea and land." He looked for evidence of the gods in the ruins, but rust-streaked metal and broken glass in shiny bits clinging to gaping windows’ edges consuming sunlight, revealed nothing within.
"You're nervous, aren't you?" she said.
Jermone tried to swallow, but he couldn't. She sat too close, and all he wanted was to hold her. He remembered the run on the beach. She had quivered then. Mystery filled her, and he felt lost within it. But he knew he had to discover it; to find it out, and yearning’s ache stirred inexorably, irresistibly. The memory tormented him. Her closeness dominated, not the ceremony’s importance. He feared if his mind were not pure, the gods would be displeased. The ritual had to be perfect, but she was so close. He remembered her breath’s taste beneath the palms.
She dropped her hand behind her again so she didn’t face him. "I don't believe in gods anymore. There are none, and Bundi is right. My sister wasn't killed because she made a river god mad or because of pride or anything else. She died because a hungry animal needed to eat, and she was there."
"But the ceremony?" he offered.
"It doesn't work. The whales run whether we try to please the gods or not. The whaling will be successful whether we do this or not. Some men will die. Some will live. Some cows and chickens and goats and babies will be born who are not what they should be, and the Queen mother will take them behind the hill and smother them. The world is as it is."
"But everyone believes in the ceremonies. If we don't sacrifice to the gods, why would they care for us?"
In the vegetation, Jermone thought he sensed movement. Something watched back there; something that did not want to be seen.
"Bundi says we don't belong here. We're from someplace else. He says we've become magicians, and our magic is associational." She stumbled over the word. "A goat sheared and left in the forest for the goat god. A painted fish for the river god. A handful of blessed grain for the grain god. In the spring . . . well, for the spring, a fertility rite. The whales must run, and there must be ritual and offering. There's cruelty in it, he says. Logic and cruelty."
Jermone crushed his hands into fists under the sand. If anyone else said this . . . but no one else would. Only Cynda, the accidental Queen who had always been the second daughter would be so irreverent, and only because she was his friend could he listen.
But he feared for the ceremony. He thought she was trying to back out.
"Everyone says Bundi is mad. He's old, mad and no one listens to him.”
Cynda went on as if she didn't hear him. Sun-light glistened on her shoulders. She closed her eyes as if shutting out him and the forest and the light.
"The old wreck on the beach shows we're from some other place. Bundi says from another star. It carried us to the island, but the trip or the landing damaged it. People tried to live here, though. They tried, and there must have been a lot of them. Look at their buildings."
"Those are the gods' homes."
A branch snapped in the woods. Strain as he might, Jermone heard no more sounds.
Cynda said, "They built them tall and shiny, but the forest fought back. Maybe their babies all had to be killed, and they couldn't live with the sorrow. Maybe the animals were too much. They lost. They retreated to the island where they could kill any threat."
"The people have lived on the island forever."
"And what about the clothes-apes? What do you think they are?" Cynda turned again toward him, reached across herself and held his wrist next to the sand.
"Devils?" Jermone offered. His thoughts tumbled. There were no elders to answer her arguments. He had to stand for the island and the ceremony’s success. He could see it slipping away. What would he tell them if he failed? The hunts would go bad. The whales would run deep and too fast. Fish would flee the nets and fruit would rot in the orchards.
A low frond on a tree near the edge moved, and for a second Jermone thought eyes looked out at him. He blinked, and they vanished.
"Are they apes becoming men, or are they men becoming apes?" said Cynda.
Jermone rubbed his free hand across his mouth, profoundly aware she still held his wrist. "Cynda, if I had not been king, and if you had not become queen, would you have declared for me?"
She didn't answer, but her grip tightened.
"The tide is almost out," she said. "It's time for the ceremony."
"You'll do it?" he gasped. "You'll do the ceremony?"
She stood and straightened clothing, knocking the sand from the feathers in the skirt and untangling the bead strings that dangled from the breast cloth.
"Not for the gods. I'll do it for you, and because you believe in them. It's ritual and offering just like goats and fish and grain. Don't make me talk, afterwards, though. I have to end it then."
She walked toward the water line, then waited till a wave came in and made a mark in the sand where it stopped. She knelt and pushed sand aside, hollowing a place in the beach. Water flowed into the bottom, but she continued digging a long, shallow depression. "It has to happen where the sea-gods and the land-gods meet. Bundi says we believe in symbolism."
"We believe in gods." Now, so close to the ceremony, Jermone struggled to breathe. They were doing the gods' business, making life good for the island, and they should be joyful. But Cynda moved as if she wore a thousand stones tied round her. Her movements slowed and seemed painful.
He didn't know all the details of the ceremony. These were the Queen's secrets, and the Queen's mother. They knew the ritual’s procedures, the hidden words to be spoken and the mystic gestures. Jermone knew just his part, and what he had to do. "I don't want you to be sad.” He held his own hands together helplessly. "The gods will reward us all for a good ceremony." But he didn't believe his own words. The gods seemed imaginary, and only Cynda existed.
She stopped and observed the shape she'd dug, a human shape with a place for arms and legs to lay flat, half buried and half revealed. "Next year there will be another king for the Whale's run. I'll be here with a different king. In fifteen seasons, mother had eleven children." Her voice sounded old and distant. A wave slipped over the edge and carried some sand into the depression.
She faced him, eyes so brown and profound he thought he could fall into them. "I am to remind you the ritual is not about you and me as people. You are, today, on the Whale's run first day, a representative of the male force in the universe." She chanted now, not looking at him anymore. "The male force hunts and protects, feeds and builds, fathers and dies."
Moving her feet into the matching shape, she sat. The water covered the back of her legs. "I am a representative of the female force in the universe." Laying half in the earth and half out, she said, "The female force nurtures and instructs, creates and maintains, mothers and dies. If the sea-gods and the land-gods are with us today, we will make a Queen's daughter to lead the people when I am gone as my mother did before me. We will assure the Whale's run success and the hunters will come home sated and unharmed. Many children will be born live and whole."
Jermone looked at her. Water soaked the feather skirt. Her eyes closed, and the line of her jaw was grim.
"Think of me," she said, "as earth and sea. You are sky and trees. Cynda and Jermone are not here now."
Still, Jermone did not move. From the jungle he could feel eyes upon him, judging him, and nowhere did he feel the gods. For many nights he had envisioned sky and tree gods filling him at this moment; he had imagined Cynda as she was now, willing to be with him and everything would be correct, but he hadn't guessed at this emptiness. He hadn't foreseen reluctance or misery.
Cynda opened her eyes. "Come on," she whispered, reaching her hand up. "We have no choice."
And she drew him down into the sand, into forgetfulness, where the sun warmed him and the sea became a salty caress. And at the explosive, powerful moment, he thought she said, "I want just you, Jermone." But he couldn't tell because he called her name over and over again in his mind. In the sand and the sea, in her and in him, he sensed no gods--or he touched them all. The world was different and new. Nothing mattered.
Afterwards they both cried. He didn't feel adult. He didn't feel like a king. The ritual ended, and he had done his part. Cynda lay beneath him in the sand, and every wave swept around them in warm baptism.
Now, only the sacrifice, the offering, remained.
He didn't talk, and Cynda kept silent as she had promised. Like some earth elemental, she rose from the bed she had dug, the sand and water falling from her. Before she stepped into the canoe, she touched his face once, not like a good-bye, but as if she wanted to be sure he was real. Then she paddled into the ocean, leaving him sitting on the beach, watching her form grow smaller and smaller until he lost her on the horizon.
For a long time, he sat thus.
He thought of her on this beach a season from now, digging a bed for herself with some other king, and the picture left him empty. He could see no gods in it.
Then, something screeched in the jungle behind him. Jermone didn't turn at first. He searched for Cynda on the sea, one last glimpse. Dried leaves crackled; something grunted, and stealthy footsteps crunched in the sand.
When Jermone turned, twenty had come from the forest. Some monstrous, some human, male and female. Others, he didn’t know. He wished he could tell Cynda--he wished he could talk to her again–they did wear clothes. Cloth scraps hung from their shoulders or around their waists. One wore a hat, a battered blue cap with leaves stuck in it.
As they drew close, one caught his eye: tall, and blonde and familiar. Jermone only saw him for a second before the others crowded around. Their harsh breath rattled, and they hardly seemed like gods or devils.
This story originally appeared in Paradox #2.