In writing the NICU journal I rediscovered my thirst for writing and knew that I needed a project to work on after the boys were home and the NICU journal was complete. My strange pondering on history and conviction that there were civilizations and stories from a time before time inspired me to write folktales as if they were the ones from an ancient and lost civilization. It wasn’t until just yesterday that the framing narrative came into my mind and I knew I had to start this next project. Once done it will be 10 to 12 pieces of short fiction presented as folktales from a lost civilization. I wanted to share this first one here as it is the first piece of short fiction I’ve written in 18 years. The last short story I wrote was my freshman year in college. I took it to my academic adviser proud of what I’d created. He read it and told me that I should learn French and translate French literature to English. Looking back and knowing this professor to be a devote medievalist this might have been a compliment of some part of my writing, but it is not the storytelling aspect. I haven’t even attempted to write a piece of short fiction since so forgive me for any indiscretions. It has been a long time since I’ve dabbled in this genre.
Due to the strange and unfortunate disappearance of one Professor Walter P. Snodgrass, I take this opportunity to lay my memories to paper in the hopes of finding within them some clue as to his whereabouts. It was some years ago when I first met my dear friend Professor Snodgrass, He summoned me to his office when I was but an undergrad and he was my academic advisor. They had chosen him as my academic advisor because the disciplines of English and Chemistry couldn’t be further from each other on the academic scales and the administration felt that this dichotomy would provide balance to our choices of electives and extra-curricular activities.
Professor Snodgrass’s office was adorned as you would expect of a professor of his tenor. He had been at the university as long as anyone else had been and there was scarcely a faculty member that could recall what life was like on campus before Professor Snodgrass. He sat behind his large mahogany desk with his fingers splayed and held up in an expression of excitement common to learned men. He waited not a second after his office door opened to begin a conversation, he had obviously rehearsed.
“Welcome. Welcome. Please come in and take a seat at your leisure. I am excited to make your acquaintance and share with you my discovery. I was hesitant at first when given an English major as my advisee because that is a degree with absolutely no practical value if you pardon my saying, but on vacation in the Near East I made a most shocking and humbling discovery. I realized, we, scientists think we know so much of the world. That knowledge and discovery move linearly, and we are always standing upon the peak. That is not the case. There are peaks and valleys and I am afraid this discover would set the world upon its ear and change nearly everything we understand. I wish to tell you what I found but you must promise me two things. One you should never ask to see the source material, and, two, that you cannot tell another living soul or write any of this down until the date of my passing from this mortal plane.”
My head rose to nod and as soon as the professor saw even the hint of agreement, he began this story.
“In a time long ago. Before time itself, and certainly before any civilization that we moderns know of, lived two brothers, Tol and Heztol. Tol was the younger and more superstitious of the brother but he acquiesced to the superior knowledge of Heztol when it came to the daily operation of their farm. Heztol knew all about rotating crops, irrigating the fields, when to leave a field fallow, and at what time of year it was best to plant. Tol knew none of this.
One day Tol and Heztol were sitting on a hill overlooking their farm and Heztol said to Tol, ‘Look out upon all the land we have been blessed with. Do you ever wonder who blessed us with this abundance Tol?’
‘I do not wonder this,’ replied Tol.
‘Neither do I for it is clear that the land has blessed us. Our parents and their parents before them choose wisely when they choose to settle here,’ Heztol remarked.
Tol was shocked by this statement and wished it could be put back in Heztol’s mouth as soon as it was out because he knew the gods would be listening and they would not be happy with his brother’s statement. Since Tol knew the gods were listening he reprimanded his brother by saying, “Dearest brother, Heztol, this is not the case. Our parents and their parents and the generations before them did not choose this land. The gods choose this land. Our ancestors made no choices. They wandered through deserts and valleys and over mountains guided by the stars and the moon which the gods placed to guide them to this spot. This is why we are here. It is not the land that has blessed us, but the gods that live in the heavens above.’
Heztol never believed his brother to be so uneducated and so superstitious, but knew he couldn’t set the record straight by lecturing his brother and so he asked, ‘Ask yourself this, Tol, if it is the gods of the sky that bless this land then why must we irrigate the fields and draw water from the river instead of waiting for the rains? If it is the gods of the sky that bless us then why is it that rotating the crops and leaving the fields fallow regenerate them? If it is the gods of the sky that bless us then why is it we must fertilize the fields with animal dung and fish carcasses? Why is it that all the gifts our fields give us grow from underneath and not from the heavens?’
Tol had no answers to this but he knew the gods were listening and did not wish the blasphemy himself and said to his brother, ‘Perhaps you are correct but on the chance that you are not I have no wishes to take on the curse you have brought upon yourself. Therefore, I provide no answer.’
Tol was correct for in the bushes not far from where the brothers sat lurked Ranzr, the god of fire and knowledge, and he had overheard Heztol’s heresy. After the brothers returned to their fields Ranzr immediately rushed to the seat of heaven and called a meeting of the council of the gods to discuss the brothers’ punishment. It had to be swift and severe if they were to understand the wrong of what they’d done, and Tol was not excluded. For it was his laxness in worship that had led his older brother to stray from the path of the righteous.
Ranzr addressed the gods thusly, ‘There are two brothers that toil their fields and do not reward us for our gifts. The one brother openly denies our existence and the second brother believes his unwillingness to put his blasphemy into words makes it non-existent. We must punish them. Prove to them that we have given all and all can be taken away.’
‘What do you propose brother,’ Boom the voice of the sky rider, the god of thunder and night, Dohar.
‘Blessed Dohar, it is this I propose. I will send my fires to burn their crops and torch their fields. There will be nothing left for them to eat and they will be forced to ask for our blessings,’ Ranzr exclaimed.
At this, all the gods nodded save one. Wafthur, the water nymph, goddess of rivers and wildfowl rose and raised her voice in disgust, ‘Those young men come to my river every day and take my waters to feed their fields. They come to my rivers to bathe their bodies. They drink of my waters to refresh their minds. Do I ask them for sacrifices? Do I demand their acknowledgment and unconditional surrender of their being? No. I do not demand these things. My fellow brothers and sisters I implore you to reject Ranzr’s wanton and selfish desire to punish these men for it is our sacred duty to guide and protect mankind. This is why we warred against the ones that came before, and it is why we swore our covenant to mankind after they were drowned in the great flood. We cannot punish these two because they do not swear fealty or send up burnt offerings. The action of charity and benevolence is its own reward.’
Ranzr did not counter Wafthur with fancy speech or talk of duty he only uttered, ‘It is our right as gods to be worshipped by lesser beings,’ and all but Wafthur cheered as Ranzr left to set fire to the fields and drive Tol and Heztol from their lands.
It was dry and hot on the day the fires came. The fields burned for three days and three nights. When the fires were out Tol went to Heztol and asked, ‘What are we to do brother? Our fields have been destroyed.’
Heztol responded, ‘Our fields have not been destroyed. Only what we planted in them. See here, brother. Look upon the season of the year. It is only mid-summer. We have time still until the harvest. Those fields were old and the soil needed turning. We were forced to plant slow-growing crops that needed all spring and summer to grow. Now that the fire has refreshed the fields and returned the nutrients we can plant faster-growing crops. If we work hard, day and night, for the next three days we will have a harvest.
And the brothers worked hard for the next three days and nights and when the harvest moon showed bright in the western sky they had a harvest. They had their stores for winter and would survive another year.
‘This is a travesty among all travesties,’ Ranzr proclaimed to his fellow gods, ‘Not only did my curse fail it turned into a blessing. We must come up with a new plan to ruin their fields and drive these men from their lands.’
Proforninese, the goddess of the four winds, stood and addressed her fellow gods, ‘It is my belief that the creatures that ride my winds should be sent to devour their crops and curse their fields.’ Ranzr nodded in agreement and Proforninese left to see that her work was done.
This time the gods waited until the weather started to cool and harvest time was fast approaching before launching their assault. Riding the eastern winds came a legion of locust to devour the brothers’ fields and on the first day they ate up half the crops. On the second day, they ate up half of the crops that remained. On the night of the second day Heztol went down to the river and found growing a plant perfect for making rope. Out of this he wove a netting to cast over the remaining crops and when the locust came on the third day to finish the brothers’ field, they became caught in the netting and died.
‘Brother, what are we to do? Only a quarter of our crops remain. This is not enough to see us through the winter,’ Tol exclaimed to Heztol.
‘Relax, brother, this is not a problem. For you see the locust could not get to the roots of the crops they ate and it is the roots of those plants that we eat and not the flowers. In all their effort they destroyed nothing of value and by leaving behind their carcasses they gave us even more to eat. We will roast the bugs on spits and eat their flesh to see us through the winter,’ Heztol said to calm his brother.
Ranzr paced and fumed in front of his fellow gods. His fires had failed. The riders of the winds of Proforninese failed. He called the council once more and proclaimed, ‘We must try once more to drive these insolent men from their fields. Twice now our curses have turned into blessings and we have unwittingly helped them survive the harsh winter. I implore you to offer me a solution. We must show these men that the gods are not to be denied. They must acknowledge us and give thanks at all we have given them.’
There came a voice from the back. The voice of the nameless and obscure one. The voice of the guardian of the underworld and keeper of the wild beast. And it is these words that voice spoke, ‘My tortures are known throughout all the realms, and it would be my honor to offer my services to my fellow gods. I will remove these men from their lands and destroy their fields. The only payment I require is one soul from each of you. The soul of your favorite worshiper.’
The gods were shocked at the audacity and brazen nature of the nameless one, but one by one they acquiesced. Ranzr first, then Proforninese, and finally, the rest. All save Wafthur promised the soul of their favorite worshiper. The nameless one did not mind Wafthur’s refusal for he knew it was she that had let grow the plants Heztol used for rope and had blessed the brothers all their days. They were her favorite worshipers and he was going to claim their souls himself.
It was spring, planting season to be exact when a rumbling shook the ground and a cloud of dust rose from the edge of the forest. Tol looked to his brother as he walked the rows of their fields pushing seed after seed a finger’s length into the soil. ‘Brother, do you hear that? Brother, do you feel that?’ Tol asked as the ground continued to shake and the cloud of dust grew closer.
‘I do, brother, but what can it be? Until it announces itself a danger it is nothing we should concern ourselves with. There is much planting left and though the days grow longer they do not last long enough. Let us finish this work before the chill of night descends upon us,’ Heztol replied.
Tol was concerned at his brother’s nonchalance but he did not have the time to express this as out of the dust emerged the form of ferocious feral hogs. The hogs tore into the fields, dug up the seeds, and rooted through the soil.
‘We must grab our spears,’ Heztol shouted and rushed to the arming shed. Tol stood in shock, unable to give his feet a command to obey. Sensing the danger Heztol possessed the hogs turned their attention from the field to him. They ran after him and caught him just as he reached the edge of the field.
With sharp teeth and brawny bodies, the hogs ripped Heztol apart. The sinew and ligament of his legs snapped as they were torn from his body. Heztol’s blood-soaked the soil as his entrails were dragged from his guts. With ravenous jaws the hogs dug in. They masticated his flesh and slurped his blood, but they did not let him die. None when near his head or throat until he was moments from death. Heztol turned and made eye contact with Tol just as a hog approached, opened its jaws over his throat, and gave him his final mercy.
Tol’s knees struck the ground and his fist and tears rained down upon the soil. Tol wept until the moon and stars rose in the sky. Then he rose knowing there was much to be down to rebuild and he would have to do it without his older and wiser brother. As he turned to walk back to the farmhouse a feminine wisp of a spirit manifested before him. It was Wafthur, water nymph, goddess of rivers and waterfowl. She looked at Tol, sadness in her eyes, and knew she must use all her powers to restore what was lost. ‘Listen to me Tol and follow all my instructions. It is the only way to return your brother and protect you from my vengeful brothers and sisters,’ Wafthur laid out her instructions thusly, ‘Go down to the river and sit upon my banks. Sit silent and still for three full days and nights. When the time comes a trout will speak you to go. Then you must lift the flattest rock upon my beach and take from underneath it my mystical river knife. With this knife, you must sculpt from clay the form of your brother upon your fields. Then sneak among the murderous hogs as they slumber and slit their throats one by one. Collect the blood and keep it separate from the bodies. Boil the bodies of the hogs until nothing remains. Boil the fat to tallow, bones to broth, and liquefy whatever else remains. Once this is done take the blood of the hogs and pour it into the mouth of your brother’s idol. Walk around it three times counterclockwise uttering his name with every third breath. Then do the same with the boiled remains of the bodies. Once you finish your brother will be reborn to you, but I must ask of you two more things. This first is to never stray from this land. I cannot protect you elsewhere, and the second is to welcome all travelers that come by land or river. If this is done you and your brother shall be granted happiness
Tol saw the difficulty of the task in front of him, but he loved his brother and wished not to live life without him. Tol went to the banks of the river and sat for three full days and nights and for three full days and nights cold rain fell from the sky. Tol did not move. He sat stark still and waited for the talking trout. At the end of the third night, a trout leapt from the river and said to Tol, ‘Find the flattest rock and take up the mystical river knife for tonight there is much work ahead of you.’
Tol crept into his fields and with the knife, he dug up clay and sculpted a visage of his brother. When the sun fell from the sky and the moon took its place Tol snuck among the sleeping hogs and one by one strung them up and slit their throats draining them of all their blood. With that task done he sat out a massive cauldron and boiled the hogs’ bodies until nothing but liquid remained.
Tol took the blood and the boiled bodies to the carving of his brother. First, he poured the blood down his throat and walked counterclockwise around him muttering with every third breath, ‘Heztol…Heztol…Heztol.’ Upon completion of his third rotation he repeated the process by pouring the boiled remains of the hogs down his brother’s throat and then walking counterclockwise three times muttering with every third breath, ‘Heztol…Heztol…Heztol.’ As soon as Tol’s foot hit the ground at the completion of his third circumvention he heard his brother gasp for air and saw him rise. He embraced him and told him the promises he’d made to the goddess. From that day forth the brothers lived upon their land, tended their fields, and welcomed all travels whether they came by land or river.”