Life on a lifeboat isn’t much of a life. It is like an end game in chess, a game with few pieces. The elements couldn’t be more simple, nor the stakes higher.
This week for Snippet Sunday I’m putting up an entire short story. This is the rough first draft I wrote some months ago and then abandoned. The biggest problem is that it is simply too damn grim. I like a few things about it and want to completely re-write the thing in a lighter vein, if possible. In the meantime, here is what I’ve got. Any ideas?
The Fortress of the Copper Thieves
Mobungu tossed all afternoon – he had a two day shift of guard duty coming up starting that sundown and he wanted to get some sleep. In his dreams he ran through a thick forest – its image was blurred and indistinct because he had never actually seen more than a handful of trees at once – chased by something hissing and shaking the foliage behind him, out of his sight. He wanted to turn and look, but knew that if he paused, it would overtake him, whatever it was. In the dream he could feel hot breath on the back of his neck. All he could do was continue to rush forward in a fog of overpowering fear – thorn-studded vines tearing at his skin, brambles cutting his feet, and branches grabbing at him, pulling him back. It felt like he wasn’t moving at all and the thing behind was just about to catch up.
For the twentieth time he woke shivering, his blankets cold and wet – soaked through with his own sweat. Orange light was pouring in under the lip of the lean-to and Mobungu realized that it was finally evening and time for him to move to his guard post. His joints creaked as he rose and pulled on his tunic, then his woven serape marked with the double triangle symbol of his tribe, and placed the rusted iron pot over his head. He gathered up his spears and atlatl. They clanked as he bound the the throwing stick and the barbed shafts with the cloth strip that served as holster and sheath – again embroidered with the sign of his tribe. Mobungu shuffled out of the shelter and struggled through the cold mud down to the water.
His canoe was tied up on a stake driven into the slippery clay of the bank. Mobungu slid down and hooked a knee around the stake, reaching out with a metal bucket to bail the water out of the canoe. It was made of thin iron plates hammered flat and riveted together. It leaked like a sieve. As he worked, the clang of the bucket against the wet metal was familiar to Mobungu – but that didn’t make it any more pleasant.
The sound reminded him of his old pirogue, which never leaked and was always quiet. His father had built the canoe before he was born. It had been hollowed out from a single log – a log that must have been far larger than any piece of wood that Mobungu had ever seen. His father said they had built a fire inside the log and used scrapers to hollow it out, to fashion it into the long smooth shape that slid so silently through the water. His father had been a great warrior and the pirogue his prized possession. When his father had fallen in battle – an arrow pierced his throat – there was some talk in the village of the honor of burning his body in the fire of his battle-canoe, but his wife said that was too wasteful and the pirogue was passed down to his son.
Mobungu protected the pirogue as long as he could, but as the white powdery plant-death spread and spread the shortage of wood became so acute that one icy winter evening, the village elders commanded him to drag the canoe up to their metal hut where it was chopped apart and used for their heating-fire. It felt like a chunk of Mobungu’s heart had been ripped out and consumed by the Elder’s need for heat, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
Once the canoe was bailed, Mobungu slid into it, nestled himself against the cold bottom and ungiving sharp bulkhead and began to paddle. The oar was a metal tube with a flat piece bolted to the bottom and it was cold in his hands. The vessel was not efficient but Mobungu was strong and he moved quickly down the estuary and out into the choppy salt water of the large bay. It was short distance across to a small island where the first line of defense for his village was set up.
They had traveled a long way to reach this point, the farthest east they could go. Almost a third of his village – most of the children and all of the old people – had died in the terrible journey, but they had no choice; driven forward by tales of a gigantic ancient city full of treasures. The elders had called the tribe together and set them on the long trail to the east, knowing they could no longer survive on the dying lakes and barren mountains of their home. The pain and tribulations of the journey were almost unbearable, but the tales were truthful. Paddling with his head held high – as he neared the guard post Mobungu could see the rotting towers of the ancient city still glittering in the failing light of the setting sun. It was still a long way away, isolated on a huge island in the estuary, covering an island that split a mighty river that poured down from the north right before it joined with the sea.
The expanse of water between the shore and the city was rough and wide, but not an impenetrable barrier. After their terrible migration Mobungu’s tribe was stopped, though – trapped, starving, on the bank, thwarted in their desperate quest by the powerful tribe that lived in the city. They were doomed by the tribe of the copper thieves. The vast bay and the estuaries that lined it was guarded by the fortress of the copper thieves, which was on a small island. Mobungu’s guard post faced that island fortress, across a short stretch of water. If the copper thieves were to launch an attack on his village, a quick warning would be the only thing that might save them.
Darkness fell quickly as Mobungu slid into the guard station and climbed out of the canoe. He was replacing Teemanga, who had been on duty for the last two days. As he approached the shack Teemanga was stretched out beneath a blanket and snoring loudly. Sleeping while on guard duty was a crime punishable by death, but Mobungu simply kicked Teemanga on the back of his legs until he woke with a snort. There were many crimes that were going unpunished in these dark days.
“It’s all yours. Your food has been delivered,” said Teemanga as he gathered his few belongings together for his return to the village. He moved with a weary sloth and gestured at a small pile of stale disks of biscuit arranged on a cloth.
“That’s not enough for two days,” said Mobungu.
Teemanga shrugged, “That’s what you’ve got.”
“You bastard, You’ve taken some of mine, let me see.” Mobungu started grabbing at Teemanga, pulling on his clothes.
“Go ahead, look all you want. I’ve got nothing.”
“Then you must have already eaten it.”
Teemanga simply gave another shrug and silently walked down to his canoe, which was smaller and leaked even worse than Mobungu’s. He would have a difficult crossing in the cold darkness.
The sun was now completely gone and a cold fog blowing in from the sea. Mobungu sat down in a chair they had fashioned that looked out towards the island fort. It was invisible in the darkness and fog, but Mobungu knew his duty was to keep looking, no matter how futile. Weakened by hunger and exhaustion he didn’t think he slept, but still, the dream in the forest kept coming back, so he must have dozed off. He was amazed by the beauty of the forest but terrified by the unknown horror that chased him.
He thought he felt a scaly hand lined with icy razor claws begin to close on his shoulder when he started awake with a scream and realized the sun was rising to the east, the horizon glowing orange and peach, the water calm. The sun warmed him and gave him a little strength and after an hour or so burned the fog off of the water and Mobungu could see the fort of the copper thieves clear as crystal in the still morning air.
The island fortress was silhouetted against the distant slanted falling towers of the ancient city and stood like an impenetrable obstacle to the riches that must still be there. Mobungu lifted an apparatus they had built out of a metal tube and glass lenses found in an abandoned town along their journey and raised it to his eye.
The clear morning and magnification of the telescope enabled him to see the fortress clearer than he ever had. It looked so close, he could almost reach out and touch it.
The major part of the fortress was a huge star-shaped stone building, taking up most of the area of the little island. Mobungu knew that an assault against these vertical walls of stone was a hopeless gesture – the warriors within were safe from an outside threat. Rising from the center of the star was a series of gigantic steps leading up to a stone building in the shape of a giant pillar, towering up into the sky. This pillar was decorated with columns and windows and was built stout and strong.
The elders of the tribe had said that this giant pillar had once supported an enormous statue, reaching a hundred arms high. They said it was a statue of a woman and it was made of the most precious metal of all, it was made of copper.
Mobungu smiled at this – surely it wasn’t true. He had never seen more than a handful of copper in his life, what tribe could possibly have the unimaginable riches they could use to build a giant woman of this metal, and put her up on that stone pedestal. He closed his eyes and imagines the smooth, red-orange expanse of polished copper. He thought of the smooth curves of the giant woman, the swelling thighs, the overhanging breasts, the flowing hair molded in precious metal. Mubungu imagined she would be smiling at him, maybe with giant arms outstretched in welcoming.
It was impossible, but it warmed his heart to imagine it so.
The elders said the copper thieves pulled the statue down and melted it to make armor and weapons. Mobungu returned to his telescope and gazed at the top of the pedestal, at the statue the copper thieves had built to replace the woman they had destroyed.
This statue was obviously male, and, while not made of a rare and beautiful metal, it was constructed of something extremely precious to Mobungu and his tribe. It was made of wood.
It looked like it towered fifty arms high, half as big as the elders said the woman was, it wasn’t as high as the pedestal it perched above, but it was still the most massive thing Mobungu had ever seen made in his time. It was a stylized warrior, feet together, knees bent facing out to sea. His head was topped by a fringed helmet, his face obscured behind a lathwork of a protective screen. His hips were thrust forward and one arm held a huge round shield. The other arm was raised high, holding a spear toward the heavens. The tip of the spear was barbed with a wicked looking series of wooden hooks.
The statue was not very old. When his tribe had arrived the thing was still yellow and fresh and they could smell the fresh-cut aroma when the wind was right. They could still hear hammering and cutting sounds booming from the interior as the copper thieves completed some unseen bracing.
As the summer ended and the cold winter fell upon them, the tribe gazed upon the graying and weathering statue, imagining the warmth that the wood could produce. They never could figure out where the copper thieves had obtained the raw materials. All their searches west of the river were in vain, everything was dead, killed by the spreading white plant-death. Any attempt to cross the river or to approach the ancient city was met by swarms of soldiers from the army of the copper thieves. They were watching and would dispatch death upon any one that tried to enter their territory.
Mobungu looked at the statue, at the fortress below and at the small area of the island that bordered the fort. The island had grass. It was dormant and brown now, but during the summer the ground was green, a color Mobungu rarely saw. Most amazing of all – there were still living trees. Some stood alone, and a couple of small groves hugged the stone walls or the surging shore. Some had lost their leaves for the winter, but a few were pyramid-shaped and still held their foliage. Seeing the color green, and knowing the trees were still alive, filled Mobungu with longing and a tiny spark of hope.
Through the day and into the night Mobungu stared at the statue. He would look through the telescope until his eyes grew tired and then he would stare with his bare eyes. By the afternoon he had eaten all the biscuit that had been left for him and he knew he had a day and a half of hunger ahead of him.
He knew he was supposed to stay awake, but how was that possible for two days? That night was clear and the moon was full. As he sat in the chair and looked through the telescope he could see the statue and the fort below… dim but clear. Beyond, the ancient city seemed to glow with flickering ghosts in the moonlight.
Without realizing he was doing it, Mobungu drifted off into sleep and instantly began to dream. This time he was running through the forest but he didn’t feel the rough branches clutching at him, he didn’t feel the thorns of the vines tearing at his skin. Instead of a panicked run he felt like he was floating along a wooded path. He was able to look around and realized that the trees now looked like the ones he had seen that day on the fortress island. He was still being chased but he felt no fear.
Once he realized he wasn’t afraid any more, he drifted down to a stop along the path in the forest. He calmly turned toward what is was that was chasing him, and he saw the branches shaking and moving and he felt a great joy as he waited for whatever it was to emerge from hiding. The first thing he saw was a wooden man – a copy of the statue on the island, but small, human sized. His wooden skin was polished, supple, and showed a glossy grain. One arm was still extended back into the hidden shadows beneath the trees and as Mobungu watched, the wooden man held the hand of a companion that emerged into the light. It was a copper woman, a normal sized woman, a copy of the ancient statue that Mobungu imagined in his daydreams. She gleamed in the sun, polished and flawless. She stood beside the wooden man and they smiled at him, together. Mobungu noticed the swelling in the copper woman’s belly and he realized she was pregnant.
Mobungu woke, not in fear like he had every morning since before he could remember, but calm, relaxed. He realized he had a purpose. It was almost dawn, the moon had set, but there was the tiniest smear of gray across the eastern horizon. He took the cloth covering that wrapped his spears and wound it around the tip of his longest, straightest weapon. He gathered up a flint stone and striker that the guards had kept next to their lookout post. At one time, the idea was to light a signal fire in case of attack, but the fuel had long ago been used up. Still, Mobungu knew he could use it to kindle the tip of the spear. The cloth was of ancient origin and he knew it would melt and burn with a quick and strong flame.
He took the flint, striker, spear, and Atlatl and slid into the canoe. He paddled hard across the smooth morning sea towards the fortress of the copper thieves. The sun began to rise as he coursed across the water and the edge of the orange disk peeked above the broken towers of the ancient city as he slid against the shoreline and leaped up onto the island.
He had not been noticed yet. A single small canoe with one half-starved man must not be enough of a threat. He began to run and marveled at the feel of the dormant grass against his bare feel. He looked at the ruined city, closer than he had ever been to it before and realized that between the toppling towers small groves of trees were growing. He ran to the closest tree and touched it, feeling the rough bark against his fingertips. This one was leafless but he quickly moved to one that still was covered with green. The leaves were thin, sharp needles, and Mogundu ran his fingers into the branch, feeling the sharp tips pierce his skin. The ground was covered with needles that had fallen, but these felt soft against the soles of his feet. The tree gave off a sharp, sweet odor that he had never known, and a yellow sticky sap came away from his hands which smelled the same.
He heard shouting in the distance and realized that he had been seen. Knowing he didn’t have very much time he dropped to his knees in the sweet needles under the green tree and pulled out the flint and striker. A couple quick blows and the cloth wrapping on the end of his spear was glowing with flame. A spark fell and the bed of needles began to smolder. Mogundu stared and smiled at that, breathing in the sweet smoke and marveling at the crackling sound. He almost missed the soldier running at him, covered in shining copper armor and swinging an orange-gold sword.
The clanking armor slowed the soldier and Mogundu was able to dart up and run towards the fort. A horde of guards was pouring out of a line of copper-clad wooden doors and rushing toward him. They clanked along, faces hidden by copper screens, the rising sun glinting off their waving weapons. He was fast though, and he ran almost unchecked through their ranks. A swinging blade swished against his shoulder, slicing skin and leaving a red streak that began to spout. It was his left side, and Mogundu knew he didn’t really need that arm. He laughed at the pain and kept running until he began to approach the very wall of the fortress.
By now the cloth wrapping was burning brightly and flames were whipping back, fanned by the wind of his rushing forward. Without slowing down he used his right hand to fit the end of the spear into the atlatl and holding it firmly used all his momentum and the strength in his legs to swing the spear-thrower forward, launching the flaming spear in a high, fast arc towards the statue of the wooden man.
The spear rose with frightening speed, propelled by the leverage of the atlatl, until it struck the statue in the hip. The wood was dry and weathered and the burning cloth stuck to it like a bee to a flower.
Mogundu fell to his knees and stared, laughing like a madman, watching the flame immediately begin to spread. He was so delighted he never saw the guard running up behind him and swing down, his bright copper sheathed sword striking the kneeling man in the back of the neck, completely severing his head from the rest of Mogundu’s body. It was still laughing when it hit the ground.
That morning, as the villagers gathered they could see the column of smoke in the east. They rushed to the waterside to see the distant giant wooden man consumed by flame. They couldn’t know what had caused the conflagration, and it filled them with deep despair. After a short counsel with what leaders that still remained, they gathered their belongings together and began to move off, slowly, into another doomed journey, this one to the west.
Pretty damn depressing, huh. Well, to make you feel better, here’s a video to cheer you up. C’est Si Bon. It’s all good.