Authors: Jack Lasenby
“From the Traveller who looks back the Gods take one eye; from the Traveller who never looks back, they take both.”
In land called the Whykatto, south of the city of Orklun, the sun rises angry in the sky, eats the winter grass and flames towards the western horizon. As the sky turns fiery, figures appear in the landscape: a boy, limping, accompanied by an old woman. Cast out from their tribe they make the Journey alone, away from the sun’s rage, away from the deserts of the north, toward the southern lands.
This is Ish’s tale, a tale of rejection, of survival against the odds, of growing up in an age when much is feared, and few can be trusted.
Intense, vivid, poetic
a cruel and beautiful book.
Jack Lasenby is one of our finest writers for children.
we were the
From the Traveller who looks back the Gods take one eye; from the Traveller who never looks back, they take both.
For my teachers
Two men were sent north to the city of Orklun. One man returned to the Travellers waiting on the Whykatto plain.
He said they had sheltered underground during the sun’s rage, and tramped at night. They climbed through toppled walls and reached a river too bitter to drink. It was so big they could not see the other side. There were no trees, no grass in Orklun, he told the Travellers. The ground was burnt hard like pottery. Sand drifted between the walls. When the last of their water had gone, his companion drank from the bitter river and went mad. He ran outside, threw off his clothes and hat, and the sun killed him.
Orklun must once have had more people than we could imagine, said the man who came back. Not one was left. He found water in a tunnel deep beneath the walls and returned, tramping by dark. One morning, crossing the hills south of the city, he was caught by the sun before he got to the first trees.
He managed to reach the Travellers’ encampment near the Whykatto River, reported what he had seen, and died. The Travellers went down into the cave, saw the Animals’ Dance, and began their Journey south past the walls of Hammertun.
* * *
“Why did the man die?” I asked my father, Hawk.
“The sun ate him.”
“Is that what happened to the people of Orklun?”
“The old stories say there were too many people,” said my father. “They cut down the trees, covered the soil with walls, and poisoned their river until the sun grew angry and
stopped the rain. Nothing grew. They starved. A few escaped. Some the sun caught and killed. Some were eaten by wild dogs. And some made the Journey south. They were our ancestors, Ish. The first Travellers.”
“If there is no rain, where does the poisoned river come from, the one in Orklun?”
My father shrugged. “Something else the man said before he died. The river emptied as it ran; then it ran the other way and filled up again. It did that twice each day.”
“How can a river turn and run the other way?”
My father shrugged again.
“When did Orklun die?” I asked.
“Longer ago than anyone can think of, Ish.”
It was the Travellers’ dream that they would make the Journey north to Orklun to live again beside the river so big it had no other side, that ran one way and then the other. In fact we made the Journey south to the mountains, for the summer rains.
Travelling morning and evening to escape the sun’s anger, we fed our animals on the fresh grass. As summer ended we circled north to the Whykatto plain where winter brought rain and grass for the animals. That was the Journey we made, yet people still talked of the dream of Orklun. I listened and wondered if they had forgotten the sun that killed a city.
The first time I remember the cave I was calling my sister. “Rose!”
“I'm here, Ish.”
“Where were you?”
“Don't be bad-tempered.”
“I am not bad-tempered! â¦ Rose, I'm scared.”
“Rose is here. She'll look after you.”
That's the way it had always been. Rose was there, and she looked after me, even when I was scared â or bad-tempered.
She seemed to lead me down through darkness for ever. Somebody hung on to my belt. My stomach hurt because we were only allowed to suck on dry knucklebones before going into the cave. I could hear other children crying, but Ish, the son of Hawk would not cry, not so long as I could feel Rose's hand.
We stopped. There was a sigh as everyone knelt. Somebody's knees cracked. Rose giggled, and someone said “Shh!” Rose put her arm around me, and I leaned into her warmth.
“I'm here, Ish,” she said. “I won't go away.” There was a silence when even the babies did not stir.
Flames cracked the dark. A red slash jagged the black curtain. Light split and bulged. The air rattled with the patter of animals' feet trotting towards us. Closer. Louder. Galloping, rumbling, thundering hoofs. Rose trembled. I could neither turn away nor close my eyes. The air shook.
Suddenly the Stag Man grew out of the pitchy-black. High
he swung his branchy head, and people moaned. I moved because Rose moved, swayed with her as everyone swayed.
Out of the darkness the other Animals towered, the ones we had names for, and the forgotten ones the sun had eaten. We hissed our terror as they shook claws, horns, tusks, teeth. The light shrunk to a red crack that closed and left us kneeling in darkness.
“It's all right, Ish. I'm here.”
And there was a dissonant howl, bellow, squeal, bray. I butted my head under Rose's arm. Light exploded. The Animals danced across the wall of the cave. Plunge of horn, tusk's flick, flat-eared snarl, talon, claw, antlered toss; they danced, leapt, and we danced and leapt, too. Yell. Howl. Bellow. Groan. The light vanished. The dark rushed in. The Animals disappeared, but I could still see them painted on the skin of my eyes. And silence again, silence and tiredness.
I found Rose by her voice and, weak with hunger, we stumbled up through the dark. The air smelled dusty. Greyness came and, suddenly, the sun's dazzle. We put our hands over our eyes, pulled on wide hats, and ran screaming for the tents and the Feast of Thanksgiving. The Gods of the Cave had told us to set out on the Journey again. That was the first Animals' Dance I remember.
The very first thing I remember was Rose. Rose took me from my mother’s body when I was born and she died. “I made you,” Rose said. She looked after me, kept me safe from the sun. I would have died but for Rose. My father told me that.
When I asked about my mother, Rose said, “She used to dance and laugh. Her name was Kala. She had dark hair and brown eyes. How she gave birth to someone as ugly as you, I’ll never know!
“I don’t know if I did the right thing, bringing you up. You were a bad-tempered kid, Ish, more trouble than you were worth.”
“Am I still more trouble than I’m worth?” I asked and bolted, and Rose snarled like the Dog Man. She barked and chased me, and I had to run really fast to get away. If she caught me, then look out! She growled and bit and tickled me till I lay helpless, laughing till I cried – once I peed myself – then she’d throw me up on her shoulder and run back to camp. They were good times when I was little and Rose used to play with me.
I wanted to be like Hawk, my father. Rose made me a tunic just like his. I wanted a bow and a spear like his, and a knife on my belt. I copied the way he walked around the animals, the way he spoke to people. I watched how he ate and drank. I tried to lie down like him when he slept. I couldn’t walk exactly the same, but I wanted somebody to say, “Is that you, Ish? I didn’t know if it was you or your father.”
My father knew when the rain would fall, where the grass
would grow, when to move on, and where to go. He carried the map of the Journey inside his head. My father was our best hunter. He could cook, make clothes, and cure the sick, animals and people.
Somebody once said, “Leave Hawk naked in the desert, he’d make fire, feed and clothe himself, and walk out with a string of animals following.” And the others sitting around the fire laughed and nodded. “Aieee! Yes! Yes!” And a voice said, “Hawk, the Leader!” Only one man kept quiet, and I hated him for it. I thought I was the only one who noticed, but Rose noticed, too.
“You mustn’t let Karly Campy see you hate him,” she said.
“He doesn’t like our father!”
“That bad temper of yours will get you into trouble one day.”
When my mother died and I was born, something happened to one of my legs. Some said I should be put out in the sun, but Rose fought them. She wasn’t going to let them put me out for the sun to eat just because of a funny leg. It was really crooked then, but she rubbed and straightened it. She poured water on it. She dug a hole in the sand and buried me to the waist to straighten my leg.
“If I’d known more,” she said, “I’d have made it perfect, but I was a bit young. It’s a pity you’re such a mongrel kid, Ish,” she said. “Maybe I should have left your leg crooked, let them put you out in the sun. Maybe I should have knocked you on the head, like the runt in a litter. Then I wouldn’t have to put up with you now!” And she’d yell and chase me because I was pulling faces and poking out my tongue. But I’d run that fast, even on my funny leg. One day I’d run so fast Rose couldn’t catch me.
I did heavy things, lifting, chopping, carrying firewood, water, the young animals. I thought I would make that leg stronger than the good one. Instead, my hands and arms got stronger, and my back and shoulders. My father felt the
muscle on my arm and smiled. “Good boy, Ish. Some day you’ll lead the Travellers, if you can control that bad temper.”
One winter there wasn’t enough rain in the Whykatto. The feed was eaten out early, the dust began to blow, and we went down into the cave and saw the Animals’ Dance. We ate the Feast of Thanksgiving – there wasn’t much, but we still called it that – and got ready to leave.
Tomorrow there would only be dust devils twisting across the plain, flattening wisps of smoke where the Travellers’ fires had been. A couple of wild dogs nosing for scraps. A few sparrows and mynahs pecking where the tents had stood.
Rose called the mynahs cheeky brutes. She disliked them because they waited and hopped out of our way at the last moment. She used to tell me to fire a rock out of my sling at them, but I liked birds.
“I wish I could fly,” I told Rose as we packed.
“You just think you’d give me cheek then fly away.”
“You’d have to land, and then I’d catch you.” But I knew she couldn’t, not if I was a hawk. Hawks fly high. They don’t pinch food, not like mynahs, but they could if they wanted to. Hawks can do anything. When Rose asked me what sort of bird I wanted to be, I said, “A mynah,” because I knew she’d wrinkle her nose. I didn’t tell her I wanted to be a hawk. Instead I used to scratch with my toe in the sand as we travelled. A line for a soaring hawk. A line for its claw tucked out of sight. A dot for its wild eye.
We took down the big tents and dismantled the looms. We made up pack-loads with the cooking pots, axes, and ropes. Travellers can’t carry much so we hid the heavy winter tent poles inside the cave for the Dancing Animals to guard. The men rolled rocks across the cave mouth, and we poured baskets of shingle over them. Once the wind heaped sand, nobody would know what lay behind. All summer
there would be little to mark our campsite among the walls: a stone fireplace lapped in dust, a few steps down the bank of the dried-up water-hole. And the sun would eat anyone who tried to live in the dust storms of the dry season on the Whykatto plain.
Under the small travelling tents we lay through the hot hours. I kicked and twisted till Rose told me to lie still. “You must rest or you won’t get your animals across,” she said. I lay still and slept then. Suddenly she was shaking me. People were moving.
We heaved the panniers and baskets up on the donkeys’ pack-saddles. The sky was old and sad like wrinkled skin. The campsite looked tired. In the powdery afternoon light the bigger flocks were already moving out along the ways my father had ordered. They snatched a leaf here, a blade of grass there, moving slowly to arrive fresh and strong for the first test of the Journey, the Narrower Ford.
The old women would cross and keen the animals to them. The young men and women would wait by the channels to help the weak and small. The sheep and goats would string down into the crossing. There would be dust, cries of animals, shouts, and my father’s voice encouraging, directing. Hawk would get us across the Narrower Ford.
Rose smiled as I whistled Bar to collect my little flock. I pretended I hadn’t noticed. My goats were all ones I had grown up with, like Jokey, Tarky, Whitey, Blacky, so I knew immediately if any were missing. Jokey was easy to find. He could run out a branch as if it was flat ground, stretching his neck for leaves and bark. Just look for a tree. There weren’t many in the Whykatto.
Bar knew we had to get the goats to the ford that evening. He knew more about it than I did. He was big enough to push me wherever he wanted me to go. But that day I was Bar’s master, and he was my dog. For the first time, I was going to put my own flock across the Narrower Ford.