Above the warm haze and buzz of insect voices, a steady pounding rang out on the sandy shore. A small group of natives had gathered to watch the funny man work on his big fish box, for so they called it. A few even helped him set his metal sticks, fetching and carrying when time allowed.
Some few aided him because they understood the value of his purposes, a number because they were fond of the kindly traveler, others acted only because it amused them. Tormenting him amused these last too, but this they did not dare do too often. He was a guest of their Chief, this blanket-wearing shaman from far away with his goggle-eyes, but who could not be amused by a man who covered even his feet in the hot summer sun?
The dreary work on the storm shelter dragged on. This was the part of his labours that Atrus always dreaded. The building of this project seemed to drag forever onward. He tried to take satisfaction as each part came together in these long hours, as his dreams of pen and ink took on solid reality in stone and steel, but always there came these moments. The times when he knew he was going on only because if he were to stop now, he might never finish.
The insects droned endlessly in his ears, the humid air made his wardrobe cling to him, and the women and children below only reminded him of how long it had been since he had spent time with his own family. A hot breeze brought him scents of tropic flowers inland, and he thought longingly of home..and of Catherine. She had returned to the Myst Ages to tend their gardens for their own winter provisions, and he had sent Achenar & Sirrus with her to assist with the gathering and canning, and to ready trade items for other needed supplies. It was probable, but not certain, that the locals might reward their work after it had proved itself but they couldn’t count upon it. They were giving here because it was right. A gift that requires a gift in return is not a gift at all. It helped to know it would be beautiful when it was done, he reminded himself, as he mentally conjured up his drawings. Even if they never acknowledge its worth, we will have added something beautiful, as well as useful to this Age.
Atrus sighed and hammered in another connecting link.
One of older boys, bored with Atrus’ steady grim pace, gave out a sudden shrill cry. Startled. Atrus’ hammer struck the girder at an angle and slipped, marring the surface. Atrus groaned at the mark, for it would have to stay, there was not time to replace it. He turned to remonstrate with the joker but another boy had slipped by and deposited a large crab on the worker next to him. Nikral felt it pinch in and panicked, flailing into Atrus, and knocking both of them sideways. Nik grabbed onto the partially attached girder but Atrus fell into the muck below.
Ignoring the laughing children, Atrus sat up and spat out the mud in disgust. Slowly he pulled himself upright upon the rock below the mud, but as he stomped back to shore his shoes and socks were sucked into the muck. He pulled his boots free but his socks were now full of the small sharp brambles that grew everywhere near the shore. Now they stuck into his feet, caught his jacket, and crowned the top of his shins as he limped painfully into clearer waters of the inlet nearby.....stifling small yelps from innumerable small stings.
These nettle-like seaweed growths concentrated in former tidal pools like this...the only suitable land the Chief Eeruk had been willing grant him. It wasn’t as far away from the shoreline as he would have liked, but the great rock below would hold the structure. That was the important thing. His fortress was sure to be surrounded by floodwaters during the height of the storms, but if he built it well, this shouldn’t matter.
He waded into the overwarm ocean waters and felt his aches ease, but its very comfort was a warning for those with eyes to read the signs, for those with an ear for the old histories. What was before would be again. The great storms would come, and soon.
He looked up into juvenile faces still grinning at his calamities and finally lost his temper. Tossing his hammer furiously to shore, he yelled in exasperation.
“Why do you think I do this? For me? For MY children? I can simply leave when the seas return in the clouds! Perhaps that is what I should do!”
Seeing his anger, the boys faded back as their elders assisted Atrus painfully toward shore and settled him on the healing hot white sands. Atrus was soon sorry for his uncharacteristic burst of temper. Truth was, he was worried about many things. It had irritated him beyond reason to see a boy smiling at his pain, wearing an expression he had seen recently on Achenar’s face. He had been deeply shocked at his son’s lack of empathy for the plight of the natives here. Clearly Achenar could not be trusted with the full complexity of the Art, though this decision pained Atrus deeply. He mulled over this as the islanders sought to soothe him. The children brought him flowers and odd shells and rocks such as they knew he loved. Soon Atrus was smiling, much to everyone’s considerable relief.
Mother Anirhek looked up from her grinding and smiled. The visitor had stopped his work, good. He had delayed his midday meal too long already. It was well that he wished to protect them from the coming storms, but it would not do for him to overwork himself.
Anirhek had promised Atrus’ Lady she would look out for Atrus’ needs in her absence. So far, he had not cooperated very well. He worked from dawn to dusk most days, nor did he heed Anirhek’s pleas to rest and eat until her very insistence goaded him into compliance. Lately he was silent, fighting loneliness and worry.
The children loved him, and many adults were grateful for his concerned efforts. But always there were those too foolish and too young to be allowed in the great hunts and fishing expedition the men were on, trying to pile up these supplies ahead of the winds. They were grumpy at being left behind, and inclined to make mischief. These especially found the stranger more interesting than the chores they were assigned in the village. It was likely some of their foolishness was designed to gain Atrus’ attention, in hopes he would stop and tell another of his wonderful stories of great machines and places far away. Young maids completed the crowd. For they slipped away from their duties to watch the handsome men work, and to giggle and gossip with one another.
“When what they SHOULD be doing is preparing extra foods to last the months of devastation,” Anirhek said to herself. “They SHOULD be strengthening the huts, gathering what fruits remain or tending their animals. We haven’t much time!” A lady passing Anirhek nodded at her remarks and offered her a hand gathering up the food for Atrus and his workers. But Anirhek wasn’t truly angry. She knew the young always have difficulty envisioning the piles of things needed to last the long winter days.
Hurrying to the work site she took in the scene. Anirhek sent her helper, Ralas, for soothing aloes as Atrus and his followers ate their dinner. Eeruk apologized at length for the afternoon’s foolishness. The boys sheepishly added the crab Nikral ‘caught’ to the pot along with others and everyone settled in around the campfire. Atrus expressed his gratitude for the ministrations and dismissed the incident with humorous expressions, pantomiming his comic fall for those who had missed it. The evening lightened very much when Nikral’s crab escaped and attached itself to Atrus’s socks drying nearby.
When Atrus headed toward his rest, Anirhek discovered he had been trying to repair his ripped socks himself and took over the job. She added these to the pile of mending she already had for him and put out a previously repaired set. He seemed to go through many socks. She made a mental note, humming softly as she worked far into the night.
At last the storms came. Thick, black roiling clouds with shrieking gales in their wings. The eaves of the stone and metal fortress sang a soprano to the bass of howling winds. Inside the entire town huddled with their animals and supplies. The old stories had spoken truly. The sea had become one with the sky.
Atrus watched the groaning girders carefully, but so far all was well. Only a true tsunami could defeat the sturdy tower he and his friends had erected. He had once feared that this was what the old stories had meant, but his initial tests didn’t show instability in the Earth but in the sky...the part Achenar had been allowed to write. Now the season of storms had begun, and he knew for certain it was catastrophic hurricanes with which these folks had to deal. He still felt guilty, even though their histories revealed that the link had simply found a place that included the problem described in the kormahn, He had done all he could. He had built the people new places of refuge. He had used the Art to settle the streams of air into a stable pattern, but this change would only be visible over the long term. Right now there was nothing to do but hold on.
He turned back to the story he held in his hands. It was hard to be heard above the waves but reading aloud seemed to help keep all their minds off the devastation outside. He just hoped there would be enough left for them to rebuild on the island afterward. He prayed silently and continued. “And God said to Noah.. Make yourself an ark of gopherwood; make rooms in the ark....”
A cold, but gentle breeze drifted through the surviving trees, wafting the delicious smell of roasting hams all over the island. Gentle affectionate laughter echoed pleasantly in the still night. Atrus had done it again. On his first visit back to the village after the storms he had burnt his socks. Despite the work it gave her, Catherine found it quite funny that even the campfire embers of this place seemed to have it in for Atrus’ socks.
As Atrus had hoped, the first onslaughts of the great winds had also been the last. He had adjusted the upper air currents so that the temperate weather had returned. The island had lost much, but not as much as he’d feared. With help from his assistants, Atrus and the locals had been able to rebuild the main village in mere weeks. The islanders had taken it from there.
Eeruk stood up and faced his benefactor with twinkling eyes. “Nahvah, is it true this is the time of year you call Christmas? When men give gifts to one another in honor of the Maker who gives us everything?”
Atrus nodded. The occasion was coming quickly. He had explained that because this event was soon to be celebrated in his house, he would not be able to stay this time as long as they obviously wanted him to do. He could tell them the Christmas story if they wished, but he would do so only if they wished to hear it. Amazing stories were one thing, but this one was the basis of a faith. For, like every people he had encountered so far, these gentle souls seemed to have their own understanding of the Creator of all things. He respected that. He felt blessed to know so much of the beliefs of his own Dni and human ancestors. He only wished he had a chance to make more things for his own family. He had spent more than half a year on their troubles. Yahvo knew, there had been little time to do anything else. Myst was going to require some serious maintenance before long, especially the plumbing. Eeruk’s words reclaimed his thoughts.
“Good. we have a surprise for you.” Eeruk gestured to the brawny sailors behind him.
The men disappeared into the huts. Eeruk smiled. “You have saved our lives, Friend. It is small enough thanks but .......”
The men came back with reed trunks packed so full the presents pushed up the lids.
“These are for you”
Atrus found that the trunks were filled with smoked fish (the islanders had been
delighted to find the fish remained plentiful after the storms), beautiful shells, woven
baskets, vividly dyed bolts of cloth, rope, and supply bags filled with salt, dried seaweed and more. They had wanted to make sure that Atrus’ family would also be well provided for this winter. Atrus was deeply touched and said so over and over.
But as Atrus opened the last trunk, Catherine clapped her hands to her mouth to stifle laughter. It was full of socks. Bright socks, for the islanders had used their brilliant dyes liberally in his honour. There were carmine red socks, orchid purple socks, cyan blue socks, sun yellow socks, and even argyle socks that perfectly matched the bedspread in their room in the tower. He was now the proud possessor of dozens of pairs of the tropical flowers of hosiery.
Atrus took out the most unusual pairs and turning to Anirhek, bowed deeply. They were clearly her masterworks. “Chehv shehm beh r’Argyle” Anirhek turned pink with delight. “I shall be well clad.” Atrus grinned and put them on. The islanders cheered.
Then everyone dove into a feast well worth remembering. Their happy chatter filled the starry night with joy.