Keta's Storybook!

CANYON, a novel in two parts

PART I

Chapter 1

In the early morning the usual muted daylight enveloped her as she jogged down the canyon. It had been dry for many days now so there were many plant shoots coming up between the rocks for her to pick. Occasionally she came across an insect or rodent which she also collected and when she felt she had enough she turned back. If she was this hungry the others must be wanting a meal as well. She scanned the canyon walls for any life she might have missed on her way back to the cave dwelling, never wanting to miss an opportunity to gather more.

Hers was a desolate world. Remote and sparsely populated, life there was harsh and unyielding. Dangers abounded, food was scarce and it was an eat-or-be-eaten existence. The humanity dwelling there felt as though they were in a prison, being punished. Purgatory even. To venture out from their homes meant putting their lives at risk, but necessities could only be found out in the unforgiving landscape. The people lived, huddled together, in a cave burned into the top of a crystalline stalagmite rising up from a canyon bottom. The canyon was rocky and barren, visited often by a terrible wave of acidic water that churned and flowed at irregular intervals, burning and killing everything in it’s path. The crystal rock of the stalagmite was the only thing that could withstand these constant acidic washings.

 

After the waters receded, the people had to wait a day or two for the deadly acids to evaporate. Any life that may have grown in the spaces between the river’s visits was scorched and poisoned. On the ground surface above the canyon raged terrible and hulking monsters. Animals, bigger than life and more ferocious than nightmares. From their cave dwelling at the top of the stalagmite they could see the ground surface above the canyon, and the people trembled as the animals fought and brought down prey. Noone dared venture to the ground surface, where trees grew and food must be plentiful. The beasts did come into the canyon from time to time, but not very often and were easy to detect with their thundering steps and roars.

There were stories that the people told each other, through the dark nights and frightening days. Stories that this world had once been wondrous, filled with glories and treasures, and the people spent their days in lofty pursuits or idle recreation. A place where the sun shone brightly, not the hazy half-light that they now saw. Food grew from the ground with such ease that one simply had to reach out and pick it up! To these people, now always hungry and subsisting on roots and grubs, it seemed like a paradise. They told each other these stories when the winds howled fiercely, or when the acid rivers came, or when the horrible monsters lurked outside.

Teone did not much believe these stories, always hanging back at the wall when the people gathered to tell them, but it seemed to help her younger siblings calm down so she always brought them to the circle to listen. When the family needed food, it was Teone that braved the outside to get it. She had been watching carefully since she was a young child from high above the canyon where they dwelt. She knew the times and rhythms of the elements, she could sense when the predators were gathering at the cliff walls, and most importantly she had an awareness of when the acid rivers would come rushing through the canyon.

 

Teone’s family was large but disorganized. The years of starvation and hard living had taken their toll on the older members of the family, and the young ones were gripped by fears and anxieties about the world that surrounded them. They lived in a loose community, separated from any others that might dwell on their world. Their people had long ago made a home in this canyon which had been worn away into the ground by the acid rivers that flowed about the planet ceaselessly. The only thing that remained in the canyon was the stalagmites of crystal rock that towered high. At the top of these stalagmites were caves bored into the rock, which the people had taken as their home long ago. It was relatively safe up there, away from the flowing acid, and unreachable by the flesh-eating monsters that roamed the land atop the cliff walls of the canyon. The monsters wouldn’t often venture down into the canyon due to the danger of the acid, but sometimes hunger would force them there, and then anyone down below trying to gather food or fire materials could never survive.

Since she was a young child, Teone had learned a route up and down their rock home, so now she could scamper it with surprising speed. She had fashioned for herself a pouch that she would wear over her shoulders, quickly collecting whatever foodstuffs she could find on the canyon floor. Today had been a good day, there was some remains of a carcass from last nights feasting left for her to pick over the bones and bring home. That meant enough soup for everyone, and maybe a good nights sleep for her without the constant crying of one or another of her siblings. As always, her return from food-gathering garnered interest, as she was by far the most capable collector. She brought her findings to the fire-pit at the centre of the cave and briefly exchanged greetings with those tending it. They thanked her and promised her family first servings of soup, for which she was grateful. As always, she quickly took her leave.

So she sat on the cave floor against the wall, behind the gathered people where she could keep a watch over her younger brothers and sisters. She didn’t listen to the stories, but she already knew them so well she didn’t need to hear it. She didn’t believe it anyway, it was just some foolishness invented by the older people to ease their weary minds and placate the youngest ones. How could this world, so brutal and dark and dangerous, have once been green and pleasant? She scoffed at the idea. She thought it better to live in reality, harsh as it may be, rather than to escape into fiction. How could one survive in this place, after all, if constantly letting their mind get fogged up with stories?

Had Teone been born into less dire circumstances, she probably would have grown up to be a lawyer, or a teacher. She was very quick-witted and sharp, had good attention to details, and once she learned something she didn’t forget it. But in this world, there was no room for lessons or abstract thought. It was all about survival, pure and simple. Teone never even knew anything about philosophical principles, or math. She did know how to read the time of day from the sun’s position, was extremely alert to any impending danger when she was foraging on the canyon floor, and had very fast reflexes. But there was no time or opportunity to consider lofty ideals or delve into the realm of ideas.

They had no books or paper in their cave, just the bare minimum necessities for survival. The only teachings that were passed between the people were the stories, which many found uplifting but Teone considered to be fairy tales. She lived in the world of reality, she fought to survive and to feed her family and the others every day. She did not have time to wallow in a world of make-believe!

Teone was somewhat uncomfortable around people. She took care of her siblings when her mother was busy caring for her father, but otherwise she stayed away from the others that lived in her dwelling. Of the ones that were her age, she could not interest herself; they seemed very foolish and silly to her. Most of them did not often leave the cave; they would sit around languidly, sometimes lending a hand with food preparation or making pelts. They only perked up when it was story time. Then they all huddled together in groups and seemed to fall into a light trance as they listened, open mouthed, to the same repetitions that they had heard a thousand times before.

Teone remembered a time when she was much younger, when her father was still healthy and she didn’t leave the cave often either; there were some older folk that she used to be able to talk with and relate to. One man taught her how to sharpen rocks for tools, and a women showed her how to dry the pelts and stitch it together for clothing. Sometimes they would talk of other things besides the chores; but those people were gone now and Teone couldn’t really remember any details. The shock of her father’s injury and the resultant need for her to go out into the canyon daily drove all other things from her mind. Now that she was older she didn’t try to bond with any of the others, she preferred to do her work and go out alone -where she had a better chance of survival without having to look out for someone else- then come back and sit quietly alone while the others chattered their inane talk. Today, she would have liked to sit at the cave entrance and gaze out at the sky, if not for the bitter wind that blew at night, tainted by the acrid odour of the river-acid.

She never understood why her attention was always drawn up to the sky, at night there was nothing to see but an expanse of darkness, and in the day it was a sad, muted sunlight that seeped through the dense atmosphere. But whenever she stopped in her work of gathering food or fire materials, or if she had to hide from a predator, she always found herself looking up into the sky. Almost as if she were waiting for something.

In the morning Teone rose earlier than anyone else. She was satisfied to see them all soundly sleeping; the soup had done it’s work. She drank a cup of the still-warm broth, put her pouch across her shoulders, and stepped out to the cave entrance to survey the landscape. From here she had a good vista; off into the distance was the top of the cliff, the land which surrounded them and which they did not know. Here the towering monsters dwelt, all shape and manner of them. When they walked the ground shook, the pebbles trembled. When they roared the people cowered. They were big but they were fast, with razor-sharp talons and teeth that could rip a grown man in half. She had learned the path these beasts took in the odd times that they would venture down into the canyon, she studied that path now to see signs of recent disruption. It seemed to have been untouched since yesterday.

Teone turned her attention to the breeze, sniffing carefully to test for acidity. The rivers of acid that circulated the planet came at random intervals; with frightening speed a sudden wall of water would appear that not only swept up any loose material in it’s wake but instantly ate through anything organic that may have dared to grow since it’s last passing. The people would cower deep inside their caves, afraid of even the smallest drop landing on them, until the waters passed. This is why food was so scarce; if the people tried to live on the ground outside the canyon they would become food themselves to the beasts that ruled there, but in the canyon nothing could grow to any size because the acid rivers would inevitably come again.

As Teone stretched and languished at the cave’s entrance - it was never good to rush the morning’s exit! - her mind cast back to the stories of last night. The people told that once the wars were over and their world was ruined, the canyons were worn into the terrain by these acid rivers that raged over the planet. Eventually the rock and earth was eaten away or washed away, and out of the wreckage remained only these stalagmites of pure rock crystal. The only thing that could withstand the acid. As the rivers kept coming the canyon got deeper and the rock grew taller. The grandparents of the people that she knew as her community gathered at the base of a grouping of these stalagmites and decided that it was the only safe place for them to occupy. Since that day, some of them had never again left. So terrifying was life outside that they would rather starve than endure it.

But not Teone, she could never stand being cooped up for very long in the dark, dreary confines of the cave; with the madness of others howling in her ears, and the cries of the hungry children weighing on her heart. She used to watch her father descend their home every day to the canyon surface, until a horrible fall crippled him forever. That’s when she took it upon herself to feed her family. Today the air was clean and brisk, no acrid odour or heavy flavours lingered on the breeze. When she checked in the distance there was no looming shapes of beasts to cause her worry.

So she started to climb down the wall, eager to get the food-searching part of her day done. It would be nice to go to sleep with a full belly for two days running! She finished her climb and hopped down to the canyon bottom. First she went back to where she’d found the bones yesterday, but nothing remained there. The site was picked clean, either by small rodents and animals that dwelt in the canyon walls, or by the grubs and maggots that always seemed to quickly find such things.

She moved on, keeping a sharp lookout for any scurrying creatures that she could trap or bring down with a well-aimed rock. This only worked sometimes though, most often they subsisted on whatever roots she could dig up from beneath the charred surface of the canyon. Often she had to walk for hours to see any signs of life at all. Noone else from her community dared venture this distance from their dwellings, and she knew that this was why she returned home with food most often. She had studied the landscape carefully and knew exactly where to turn back so she could make it safely back up into her home before nightfall.

But today she was feeling oddly chipper and her mind kept wandering. She stopped occasionally to kick over and few rocks and gather up some of the bugs that scurried there, putting their squished bodies into her pouch along with a couple of roots she had found, but her mind was elsewhere. She reached her usual turning-back spot, but she noticed that the hazy orb of the sun was still quite a ways from reaching the apex of it’s daily rounds. She stopped briefly to consider . . . turning back now and re-tracing the same old steps she had taken for days and years uncounted into her past to . . . . what, the confines of that cave again? Or continue carefully forward for a short while, just to see what’s up ahead?

She was still deliberating when she realized that her feet were already carrying her onward. She started paying close attention to her surroundings, always prepared for some unexpected attack. A few stones she put into her pouch, ready to launch at an attacker. This part of the canyon looked just like that in which she lived, but the gentle winding of it’s path through the earth now obscured the comforting view of her home. She started to consider turning back when the sound of voices drew her forward.

She crouched behind a rock and craned her neck around the corner to a sight that almost made her fall over.

People! Other people that she had never seen before! in all of her life she thought that her small community was the only humanity to be found on this wasteland of a planet. But here, a short distance from where she turned back in her searches for food, were more people! A deafening roar rose up in her ears as she focused acutely on what she saw. Her heart pounded so, she couldn’t think straight. It was as if a whole new reality were opening up before her; what other undiscovered truths lay beyond the confines of the canyon? If there were other people, just like Teone’s in every way, living so close to their home; what else could they find out if they were to but look? She sat very still and quiet for a short time, letting her heart settle back to normal speed and the roaring in her ears subside. She put the searching thoughts out of her head and concentrated on the scene before her.

CONTINUED . . .