The Sun Went Dark
“Grandmother, how did the world die?”
The old woman sighed; the child had forgotten again. She leaned back against the pile of furs, wincing at the dull ache in her bones, a result of the insistent cold of the world outside their cave. She began to stroke the child’s silver curls with her gnarled fingers, weaving several strands into a loose braid. “Haven’t I told you this story many times before? The Incitement? The war? Don’t you remember?”
The child flopped against the furs, picking the fraying edge on one of them. “No,” he admitted. “I don’t.”
The old woman looked at the child with a disapproving expression, though the leathery skin around her eyes creased with a distant sadness. He couldn’t tell what put it there. Just the same, she obliged, wrapping her thin shawl tighter around her shoulders as she spoke.
“There were once only two spirits on this world,” she said. “Khalaqu, the spirit of light, rain, and creation—and her brother, Tamiru, the spirit of darkness, storms, and destruction. After they balanced the sun, rain, and darkness, they became invisible. Then people rose up from the elements: Jagaser from ice, Sviroser from sand. The spirits gave them a heart, the life-giving part.”
The child groaned. “No, Grandmother,” he protested. “Not that far back. Start with the exciting stuff!”
The old woman stared at him, then sighed and nodded. He watched the spark of relief that flashed for a moment across her face. Perhaps she was glad he remembered something.
“It started with the freezing of the land,” she began. From a small alcove in the rough-hewn wall, she plucked an icicle. The small piece of ice had jagged edges and rested in her hands. The child leaned forward, reaching out a hand to touch it. But the ice was melting, and soon it had waned into a puddle.
“It didn’t happen quickly. At first, no one noticed. Then the cliffs began to break, and the Vandrender began to die, and icestorms were harsher than ever. The tribes were terrified. They ran to the kingdoms of Sviros, pleading for help before they froze with the land. The Assembly helped the refugees at first, but then, I suppose, their cities became too crowded with the Jagaser. They no longer let anyone in, though there were many tribes left on the ice. And then, just like that, the sun went dark.”
She paused, getting to her feet and hobbling to the mouth of the cave around the corner. The child followed her, shivering at the chill that licked his face. Before the hooked overhang of rock that marked the entrance of the cave, an icy, barren wasteland lay. If the child squinted, he could see the shadows of steep mountains in the distance.
They didn’t often go outside. The grandmother was worried he would get too cold, or they would get lost in an icestorm. But he was always curious about what lay beyond.
The old woman stretched out one of her bent fingers, pointing to the star-speckled sky. She made a quick grab, as if catching something, then pulled her hand back down. When she opened it, a little circular shadow rested within.
“The sun had always been distant, that much was sure. Always favored Sviros over Jagas. But the tribes could see it, rising and falling, in the distance. I was a young woman the day it abandoned this side of the world completely. I wasn’t paying much attention. But one moment the sun was there. Then, darkness. That was the last we saw of the sun.”
The child’s eyes were wide with fascination. He knew the sun never came back. He had never seen this thing she spoke of, this golden creature that would rise and fall like something that lived. But the way she told it was mesmerizing, shocking, he could almost imagine it in the sky. The grandmother let the shadow fall from her fingers and led the child back to the warmth of the furs.
“Jagas has always been cold, but soon even those who had lived there for years couldn’t stand the frost. And then there was war. You see, the Jagaser grew more fearful as Jagas froze over, and Sviros would not let them in. Fear can cause us to do irrational things sometimes. First comes pain, then hate. And violence soon broke out.”
She paused and glanced at the child, who had lost interest, squirming on a pile of furs. The old woman raised her eyebrows. “Am I boring you?”
The child looked up. “No, Grandmother! Not at all. But…when are you going to talk about him?”
The old woman’s expression changed from wistful to one of disgust in an instant. “Him? Why would you want to know about him?” She spat the word, loathing strong in her voice. The child could hear something else beneath it, however.
The child shrugged. “Because….”
The old woman shook her head, her face weary. The child watched her expression, suddenly worried she would stop the storytelling. “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to tell—”
“No, no, I will tell you about him,” the old woman said ruefully. “My refusing won’t make your curiosity go away. I know that. So. Him. Some might say he was the cause of all of this. I don’t think that is necessarily true, but I do know he was the reason the war began, although he didn’t live to see it. Perhaps it would have served him right, to watch the destruction of his world, to hear the screams of agony that he caused. I don’t know if it would have done any good, though. Most said he had a heart of ice.”
“Why do they say that?”
“He was a murderer of innocents. A breaker of families. A purveyor of doom, if I’m feeling particularly dramatic. He committed the very worst of sins among his own people, and without cause.”
The child looked thoughtful. “Without cause? Why would anyone do that?”
The grandmother shrugged. “I’m not sure. Some, my dear, are born evil.”
At that, the child frowned. He didn’t say anything for a long time. “I don’t think anyone is born evil,” he decided, speaking at last. The grandmother tilted her head, inviting him to elaborate.
“Babies aren’t evil,” the child went on, emboldened that his grandmother had taken him seriously. “At least, I don’t think they are. They don’t want to kill. Something must have made him that way.”
“Well, it must have been very bad, whatever it was,” the grandmother remarked wryly. Something strange flickered in her eyes, and the child could see she was hiding something, though he didn’t ask. She got to her feet, with difficulty. “Perhaps that’s enough storytelling for tonight. It’s almost time for bed—”
The child leapt up. “Wait! Not yet! I want to hear more!”
“There is not much more to tell,” the grandmother explained. “These are stories I must keep remembering over the years. They change over time, and I do not have the best memory, you know.”
The child looked disappointed. “Neither do I,” he said. “Why don’t you write any of it down?”
“Our books for writing are very limited. We don’t have enough to fill them up with stories.”
“Even if it’s our history?”
“History,” said the grandmother, placing her hand on the child’s chin, “can be passed down many ways.”
“Are there no books? No paintings, at all?” The child’s questions would not cease. His grandmother sometimes spoke of the art her ancestors had created long ago, and part of him hoped there were pieces of the history left.
The old woman opened her mouth, about to respond, then closed it, frowning. She turned, muttering to herself. The child caught some of her whispered words. “Inappropriate…forbidden…not good for a child to hear about him.” The child looked on, straining to hear, trying to stifle his questions. Then she turned back to him.
“There is one book,” she announced, her eyes dark. “But we are not supposed to have it.”
The child opened his mouth, but the grandmother held up a hand. “However,” she said, “I will read it to you. It’s not as if anyone can harm us, anyway.”
She disappeared into the cave, and the child trotted after her. They walked for quite a distance, taking several sharp turns until, finally, the grandmother halted. She walked over to an old pile of skins and bent over, flinging them behind her, revealing a little wooden box. Gingerly, as if handling fire, she grasped the top of the box and removed it, setting it on the ground beside her. Then she reached into the box. The child waited in anticipation as she drew out a small, worn book, which she handed to him.
The child held the book in his hands. It had a crude cover, leather-bound, so old it nearly disintegrated with his touch. In the cover was engraved a single word, unfamiliar to the child. Tabidaque.
“What does it mean?” he asked, but the grandmother just gave a quick shake of her head.
“It’s an ancient word. Open it.”
He began to open the book, but the grandmother stopped him. “Perhaps we should sit down. This may be a while.”
The child nodded and sat down on the pile of skins and furs. The grandmother joined him, and together they poured over the book, such a rare object in these times, lit only by the faint glow of firelight. With a delicate touch, the child flipped open the cover. Slowly, he read the words out loud.
“Unfold the web of sorrow and deceit
Buried deep in shadowed regions…”