“Adwoa, is your school uniform washed?”
“Yes, mama, but why do I have to go to school? I hate school. My friend Tawia doesn’t go anymore.”
“You’re going because the world needs changing and you have to have your head full of learning to change it. You’ll understand when you’re older. Now, if that’s done, to bed with you.”
“But we’re not sleepy,” Adwoa protested.
“Yeah, not sleepy,” added her young brother.
“Sit down, children, and I’ll tell you a story.” Grandmother Yaa, sitting by the fire with her sewing, beckoned the children over. The firelight flickered on her dark skin. “Then maybe sleep will come and carry you off to the morning.”
Adwoa’s mother, Grandmother Yaa’s daughter, smiled, remembering stories past. She was sorely tempted to stay and listen to this one, but the wash needed finishing, and she had a childhood behind her that had filled her with many stories to keep her company. Hopefully, her little boy and girl would be so fortunate, and more fortunate still, when they were grown.
The boy and girl settled around their grandmother’s feet, listening eagerly. For a moment, Grandmother Yaa closed her eyes, letting the words wash over her.
“The thing you must understand is that Africa is motherland to the whole world.” Her needle flashed in the firelight as she worked, her words and her fingers never faltering. “Africa is where we all came from, from where man spread to every corner of the Earth, and Africa is the place where all stories begain. But long, long ago, there were no stories because the Sky-God, Nyame, had them all. The Spider didn’t think that was fair, so one day, Anansi decided to go the Sky-God to ask how much they would cost...”
The webs spread through his entire cave, glittering in the scant moonlight that filtered through a few small gaps in the stone.
In the near-dark, the great Anansi was just a spider, because that was what he was. Admittedly, he was a very, very large spider, but seemingly no more than that. He skittered in the dark, he ate his flies, and he made his webs.
But even so, there was no spider in the world that spun webs like Anansi’s. The webs were where the trickster kept his stories. They shone in the faint light, etched in silver, ever changing - old stories breaking in the breezes, their strands hanging until they were rebuilt into something new.
Two lines of web twitched as if in a sudden breeze, the vibrations calling up Anansi’s attention. The spider climbed over the webs and stones to take a look at the story that was caught, formless, in the web. The spider gathered silk of his own and began to etch the story into view.
“Oh, this is nooot good,” he said to himself, when the story had taken form. “Not good at all.”
He considered the threads that held the story, surveying the many, many others they were attached to. As they sometimes did, the stories gave him pause.
Sometimes Anansi acted. Sometimes he did not. Sometimes he acted in certain, small ways, that appeared like not acting at all. Always, he made his choices carefully.
He looked again at the story he had just etched, and at one of the stories from which it had sprung. There was a story in the form of a young man with a staff, surrounded by snowflakes, in a place snow absolutely did not belong.
“Fool boy,” said Anansi, touching one hard-shelled black spider leg to the edge of the web. “Come to play on my continent again, I see? Perhaps it’s time someone taught you a lesson...”
“So, where are we going again?” Jack called out as he and the Sandman slid through the mossy tunnels that led through the Earth, caught up in the Easter Bunny’s wake. Sandy’s hands were thrown high in the air in delight as he and Jack were pulled along for the ride, and Jack too had come to enjoy travel by tunnel as an exciting mode of transport.
“Didn’t North tell you back at the pole?” Bunny called from up ahead.
“Sooort of. It was really quick and he wasn’t making a lot of sense.” Jack paused. “And I may have been looking at something else at the time.”
Jack could just about hear the rolling of Bunny’s eyes. “By what, if I may ask?”
“Oh man, have you seen the new zeppelin things North just built? They have these little planes that detach and fly off and the yetis were testing them, so - ”
“So you ignored vital information to watch the pretty planes, is what I’m getting.”
“Hey, they were cool. Weren’t they, Sandy?” Jack said, as they slid through a loop-de-loop. Sandy nodded, because, yeah, they were pretty cool, even though he’d paid attention to the briefing.
Sunlight blinded Jack as Bunny reached the end of the tunnel, which spat them out onto a wide meadow of lush grasses. Birds nattered in the surrounding acacia trees and the sun beat down, still blinding above them.
Boy, that sun. It was shining a lot, and along with the shining came a nearly solid wall of humid air, slamming onto Jack like a wet plastic bag.
The frost spirit shook his head. “Oh no. Nonono. Send me home. I didn’t sign up for this.”
“Actually,” Bunny looked over his shoulder at Jack, grinning just slightly. “You did sign up. Maybe you should have paid better attention to what you were agreeing to back at the pole.”
“I don’t do hot.” Jack tugged at the collar of his hoodie, fanning sticky, humid air down his neck. That only made him hotter so he stopped. “Where are we? It’s got to be a hundred degrees here.”
“Senegal, and -” Bunny licked his finger and held it up in the air “- I’d say it’s only about thirty.”
Jack snorted. “It is not thirty degrees. I know thirty degrees. Thirty degrees and I are practically best friends.”
“Celsius, mate. That’s about eighty-six Fahrenheit.”
“Look, anything above fifty is not really my idea of a fun time. Whose bright idea was it to send a the winter guy to Africa?”
Sandy looked over at Bunny, then back at Jack, then pointed a single finger at Jack, raising his eyebrows.
“Again, yours,” said Bunny. “You not only agreed to come with, you volunteered. Now, what kind of nong would volunteer for a mission on a continent not fit for a winter guy, when a winter guy is what he is? Would it be the kind of nong who’s too busy watching the pretty zeppelins to pay attention when he’s being told what the mission is?”
Both Sandy and Bunny were staring at him, and Bunny had his arms crossed in the posture that Jack had come to think of as his ‘Jack has got kangaroos loose in the top paddock again’ stance.
“I can handle it,” Jack groaned, reluctantly. The heat made him uncomfortable, but it wouldn’t weaken him unless it got much hotter than this. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Bunny turned and loped across the plain, Sandy bobbing along behind. Jack tried to call up a small wind to cool him down, but the slight humid breeze barely made him feel less suffocated. He trundled over the grassy plain after the two other Guardians, trying to ignore the rising sensation of stickiness.
“Can someone answer my question? What did I agree to here?”
“Lights are going out on the globe, all over the continent.” Bunny stood up occasionally as he loped, smelling the wind (which, being from behind, unfortunately smelled mostly of them.) “Believers are disappearing in strange patterns.”
That did sound more serious to Jack than toy zeppelins. “Kids suddenly aren’t believing anymore?” he asked. “Like with Pitch?”
Sandy looked back at Jack and shook his head sadly. An image of a skull and crossbones appeared over his head.
“There’s reports in the news of kids going missing. Ones that match the lights,” Bunny said. His tone matched Sandy’s expression.
Jack’s eyes went wide. “You mean, they’re...?”
The question trailed off into silence, and silence was his answer. Bunny even stopped walking to turn and face Jack.
“It’s not always belief,” he said, gently. “Being a Guardian - it’s not all presents and dreams and eggs and quarters under pillows. You know what Pitch was willing to do to Jamie. He’s not the only one.”
Now Jack felt ridiculously guilty for not paying attention. Any other complaints about the heat were immediately banished from his mind.
“Do we have any idea what’s doing this?”
“There are rumors that it’s not a human threat. Rumors of something like us - only newer.” Bunny started walking again. “That happens sometimes. There are things that start as something else that get believed in - us Guardians, to name a few - the things that get changed by belief, and the things that are believed in first and come into the world as a consequence of that.”
“Yeah yeah, I know. The second one’s what the Groundhog is.”
“Exactly. One day Phil’s minding his own business, eating some grass, dumb as a your average groundhog, the next he wakes up speaking full sentences. We don’t know that’s what this is, though. We’re going on nothing, Tooth is swamped with the start of hockey season, and North’s looking into a problem in Tibet with the yetis. That leaves the three of us to figure it out, and deal with whatever it is.”
Sandy looked to Bunny, creating an image of a spider over his head.
“Right you are, Sandy - us, and possibly Anansi.” Bunny didn’t sound likely to rely on this possibility. “He’s a tricky one to pin down, though. For the most part, he handles this continent himself, but he doesn’t always step in. Or he doesn’t always step in right away. No telling yet which one’s the case now.”
Jack frowned, skeptical. “Why trust him if he won’t always help?”
“He knows what he’s doing. Anansi’s a trickster. He doesn’t go about things in the most direct way, but you’d be surprised how much he does go about.”
“I’m a trickster and I wouldn’t just let bad things happen to kids.”
Bunny actually laughed at that. “Freezing up water fountains and covering my eggs with snow in the spring is not the same as being a Trickster.” Something in Bunny’s tone put a capital on the T. “Pointless pranks are your deal, not Anansi’s.”
Jack frowned, jutting out his chin in indignation. His pranks were perfectly good pranks and hardly pointless, thank you very much. Bunny ignored the look and went on.
“Anansi is old - old, and dangerous. The only thing you can count on with Anansi is that everything he does has a purpose. Maybe not an obvious one, but a purpose nonetheless. If he doesn’t step in, we do. If we do, it meant he knew we needed to step in. That’s how it works with him.”
So, basically, the local guy was hands-off and that was why Jack was being lead, uncomfortable and irritated, through unfamiliar territory. “Sounds pretty indirect to me.”
“Yeah, well, it’s best you show him and the locals respect. He’s powerful. And even older than Sandy.”
Sandy nodded vigorously.
“It’s bad enough you brought that blizzard to the Serengeti when you were on your little bender. He’s going to dislike you from the get-go.”
“It wasn’t like it was the whole Serengeti,” Jack grumped. “And I get it, I get it. Don’t upset the locals.”
Their hike brought them to the top of a hill at the edge of the meadow. A forest spread out below them, dark and thick-leaved.
“So,” said Jack, not wanting to think about the still, hot air likely trapped in that dense jungle, “Where are we going now?”
“All this time, you mostly kept to yourself, right?” Bunny asked. Jack nodded in response. “Then it’s about time you had a lesson in diplomacy.”
“Hey, I’m completely capable of being diplomatic,” Jack insisted.
Sandy and Bunny each gave him, and each other, an amused look. “Says the bloke who’s idea of g’day is a snowball to the face.”
Jack opened his mouth to retort, then left it open for a moment before conceding, “Touche. Still, just because I’ve never done it doesn’t mean I don’t know how to do it. It’s just talking to people. I talk to people all the time.”
Never mind that it was only recently that some of them started talking back.
“Alright, well, a lesson wouldn’t be a lesson without giving you a chance to fall on your face, eh?” Bunny was still grinning with the same amusement. “We’re heading to a village of the Yumboes in that forest there. They’re a sort of local fairy, eyes all over the place, and we need them for some information. How ‘bout you be the first to say hello?”
“No problem,” Jack said, taking to the air, staff slung over his shoulder, a cocky grin on his face. “Lemme show you how this diplomacy thing is done.”
He zipped down towards the forest. Sandy tugged on Bunny’s arm, giving him a skeptical ‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ face.
“We’ve got to teach him somehow,” Bunny responded. “And if he’s not going to listen before he runs, don’t you think we should let him stumble it out now, rather than later?”
Sandy considered this carefully, then nodded vigorously. He waved a trail of sand into the air, which turned into a small sand Jack zipping speedily past, question marks appearing in his wake and puffing completely out of existence.
“Exactly. Didn’t even think to ask us what he should know first. He needs to learn that those questions need to be asked.”
Sandy nodded, crossing his arms as images appeared over his head. Jack near a window, ugly horselike shapes zipping past, and the sandy image of Jack zipping after them without a second thought. He pointed to himself, moved his hand to show he’d followed along, then crossed his arms over his chest and stuck out his tongue like he was dead.
Bunny watched the images, his ears picking up with surprise. “You never told us you were running after Jack when that happened.”
Sandy shrugged, miming brushing the dust off his hands. It was hardly important now - he was back, Jack had learned, and the slate was wiped clean. He tapped his chest, conveying that following had been his decision. His brush with death was his concern, not a burden for Jack to bear.
Still. He lifted his hands in a ‘buuuut’ gesture, as the sand over his head depicted Jack falling to the ground dead.
“I’m with you there, mate,” Bunny said. “If he doesn’t learn to be more cautious, it might be him next time - and he might not come back like you did.”
Sandy nodded ardently.
“All the more reason he’s got to learn.” Bunny grinned. “And there’s nothing wrong with us watching him do it.”
Sandy apparated a popcorn box out of sand and tossed a glittering kernel into his mouth.
Bunny smirked. “Yup, this is gonna be good.”
“Hello?” Jack called out into the forest. The trees were close and thick, the canopy above him a messy tangle of branches that blotted out the sun. The shadows were so dark, they seemed almost solid. Even Jack didn’t dare go rushing in. “Uh, is anyone there? I’m Jack Frost, one of the Guardians?”
The trees shivered as if in a sudden breeze, the rustling of the leaves like whispers spreading from one tree to another.
“Uh, something’s up on your continent, with the kids? We’re here for information, to try to fix it.”
No answer. No whispers.
“Look, kids are in danger,” Jack said, gesturing futilely with his staff. “We - ”
A cry from the trees - “HE HAS A WEAPON!”
The earth erupted around him, and suddenly Jack was wrapped in a net of woven vines, his arms pinned to his sides, his staff falling uselessly to the ground as the vines whipped him into the air. Even his mouth was completely covered.
Familiar, raucous laughter filtered through the vines and to his ears. Through a small gap he could see Bunny and Sandman coming closer to where he was hung, suspended, from the trees. It took Bunny considerable, and obvious effort, to get his laughter under control. Even Sandman was smiling as if moments from bursting into laughter.
Bunny’s voice still had a jovial tone as he called, “The Guardians come in peace to speak to the Yumbo people. Here is our offering of the violence that’ll be left behind at their doors.”
He took out his boomerangs and laid them in the grass, then took off his leather satchel of exploding eggs and did the same. Sandy, in turn, held up his hands in a placating gesture of submission, showing that he was unarmed and intended to stay that way. They both bowed to the shadows.
“Hail to the Guardians! Your offering pleases us. You are welcome to the city of the Yumboes!”
“Now, about Jack over there, can you let him go? He’s new. Still learning the ropes.” Bunny peered over at Jack, crossing his arms and raising a bushy eyebrow. “Literally, at the moment.”
Jack glared through the gap in the vines.
“You arb desthpibable.”
The webs shivered as Anansi wove more of the story into his great tapestry. There were small silver people in the trees now, and Anansi knew exactly what that meant.
“Time to go,” he said brightly, climbing up his webs, out of his lair into the afternoon sun. When the light hit him, his shape changed to that of a man - though a man unlike any in the world, since there were no other men with huge spiderlegs sprouting from their backs. Anansi began casting lines of web from his hands into the wind, creating something akin to a parachute that billowed as it filled with wind.
“Wind, old friend,” he called out, “take me where I need to go!”
The wind whipped at the web parachute and flung Anansi into the air, carrying him off at breakneck speed. The wind also carried his laughter wherever he went, laughter nearly as old as the world itself.