Thursday, 15 December 2011

What If Everything Was Forgotten? by Zoe McAuley

Zoe McAuley says:

I study archaeology and archaeology isn't, strictly speaking, a science. That made celebrating science through a subject that isn't really a science rather tricky. So what could archaeology do for the sciences, I wondered. In what 'what if' scenario could archaeology really shine? When lost things need to be found and when lost science needs to be recovered. So I wrote about archaeology serving as memory for the sciences.

That, and I like a good post-apocalypse with crazy collecting bag-ladies.

What If Everything Was Forgotten? by Zoe McAuley

They call her mad, the Rock Whisperer, but they still send their children to her to learn. No one else cares so much for letters as the Rock Whisperer. No one else has the patience to press words into the children’s brains, nor numbers and sums into their skulls. Mara's turn came when she was entering her seventh summer and big enough to cross the two deep-wooded valleys alone. She was given little warning. She brought in the basket of eggs one morning, as she did every other, and found her mother and aunt bickering over their millstones.

"Take a look at her," her shrewish aunt tutted. "She's far and away old enough to make it. My Tam was smaller than her when he started and twice as easily lost."
Her mother snorted, "What's the use of it though? I never had no lessons with a crazy stranger. You just come to know these things."
"Really? Mara dear, how many eggs are in that basket?"
Mara looked puzzled, "There's lots, I looked really hard. I even got the ones the speckled one hides under the trough."
"Yes, very good, but what number?"
"More than yesterday?"

It was decided that she should visit the Rock Whisperer the next day, once the eggs were in. Two other children in the village had the trip to make and jabbered as they walked, distracting her as she tried to learn the route.

"You'd better be careful what you say," said the smaller one gleefully, a boy two years her senior. "If you say a word she doesn't like, she'll grind you up with her seed chewer. She'll says it's for herb-grinding, but don't believe it. And she hates lots of words, like all the words she says they didn't have before the Winter. Dunno how they can have not had words, but she says they didn't."
"It's called a language," said the older girl, a cousin recently stretched by growth spurts. She was clever, everyone said it. She'd been learning letters with the Rock Whisperer. Some muttered that she'd been learning spells too. "A language is having the wrong words for things, but those words still mean the same as normal ones."
"See? Don't listen too much or you'll turn out like that. I only go when my folks want me to count up the sheep again, but she wants me to learn tricky stuff, about fracting and splitting the herds into little herds or something. She's mad."
"She's not completely mad," the girl said. "Her ideas usually work."
"What about all that junk she has?"
"Alright, that doesn't work."

Mara gaped when she saw the house for the first time. It was not one of her village's roundhouses, all posts and thatch. It was stolen from an alien world. Lumps of orange stone, each an almost perfect block, hung together in a neat pattern, stuck with thick grey mud. The edges met in sharp corners, the walls straight as blades. The shape wandered, boxes cutting into boxes. The roof was pointed too, and lapped with stone scales. Mara's world had been rough-hewn from nature, surfaces seldom finished or smoothed. She crept forward to stroke the strange rocks.

"You like it?" a bright-voiced figure stepped out of the doorway. "I built it myself. Took ages to find bricks that weren't too worn, had to take down a few whole walls. They were nearly fallen over anyway. Then lugging them over here and putting them back up again. Still, it was worth it. They work so well, these Autumn houses. It's all from the Ruins, you know, every brick and tile. It's how houses used to look, you see, before the Great Winter. The books told me so, I'll have to show you the books. And the ruins too, they told me. The stones told me how they got there. Well, in their own way. You've come for lessons, I take it? I was wondering when you would turn up. Mara, isn't it? Anita's littlest one? It'll be good to have a new face, see what you make of it all. That's the best bit, seeing what you make of it all."

Mara stared up at the Rock Whisperer for the first time. She was lean and sun-beaten, not some dark-lurking invalid like her great-uncle, like she had expected. Her great-uncle, long ago lamed by a horse, was the only person she knew with books and he spent all the time sitting and reading his four books again and again. No, the Rock Whisperer was built like a mink, her eyes just as quick and bright. She wasn't as old as Mara had expected either, old enough to lose track of her years but not so old that it was killing her. Her clothes were as peculiar as her house. Where Mara worn home-woven woollen, the Rock Whisperer wore a tunic of a strange sheen cloth covered in hundreds of tiny circles, its colours swaying between pink and purple as she moved, and faded blue loose leggings with a fine weave and thick seams. Both were patched and twisted from repairs, but their oddness made them grand. About her neck hung a dozen tarnished trinkets: a little bear without all its limbs, letters and numbers, a handful of hearts in all sizes and styles.

Mara said nothing, her little dark eyes bulging. The Rock Whisperer smiled.
"Terribly exciting, isn't it? Let me show you the rest."

The Rock Whisperer's house was a den of wonders and a monument of madness. It was clogged and cluttered beyond all hope of comfort. Furniture was jammed into every space just large enough to take it. There were great upright boxes which stood from floor to ceiling and had lids that opened like doors, made of some substance patterned like wood but with the smoothness of ice. There were tables, broader and flatter than any conveniently cut log, the legs wastefully braced with metal. There were great iron chests, with wire shelves inside and an odd pattern of four metal wheels laid flat on top. And over each of the large treasures were a thousand smaller ones: shaped scraps of metal, the sheets of wire-studded card and the splinters of pressed wood.

More sinister was the ruin-bone, lying about as if it were no more than wood shavings. It took all manner of forms: boxes, cups, bottles, tiny people, ropes and endless other forms with no clear purpose. Its smooth, warm surface and elegant curving shapes invited the inquiring hands of the braver children and the Rock Whisperer showed nothing but love for it. Most people would not have it in their homes, calling it cursed. Ruin-bone came only from the Ruins, where it was as common as dirt. There was no creature that yielded it, no trees from which it could be cut, no ore that melted into it. It came from nowhere but the past and most people were keen for it to stay there. Not the Rock Whisperer though. She gathered it up like a harvest of falling fruit and fussed over each piece like it were a newborn baby. Sometimes the villages would ask her why she kept it, why she risked bad luck for useless relics. "Because it lets me speak to the dead," was always her glee-filled answer. They seldom asked her anything after that.

Of all the things that overwhelmed Mara as she stepped into the house, it was the books that startled her the most. Before that moment, she had seen a total of nine books: her great-uncle's four, the blacksmith's two, a tiny one with gilded edges that they kept but never opened for the story was that it was somehow holy, and the two village tomes, the great chronicle of happenings and the tally of harvests. But around most of the Rock Whisperer's rooms, balanced on reconstructed crushed-wood shelves, was a layer of books. Most were damaged, some unreadable, some peeled open with careful hands. Blended in with them were reams of ancient brittle paper, now covered in notes, translations from a dozen ancient languages into more modern squiggles. Mara peered into an open volume and gasped at the faint but perfect picture of a woodland, just as if she were looking at real trees. The Rock Whisperer grinned again. She always seemed to be smiling.

"It's called a fotograf. The Autumn people could catch sight onto paper somehow - haven't quite figured it out yet, I'm afraid. Still, they're beautiful. I have hundreds, of all manner of things, I don't even know what some of them are."
"These ones are trees," said Mara softly.
"Oh, I'm well aware of trees, my dear girl, but what about this?" the Rock Whisperer spun and plucked a book from a shelf like a heron spearing a fish. Just as deftly she flicked open the crinkled pages and slapped the book down in front of Mara. This picture was senseless - all multi-coloured blobs within blobs. Mara frowned.
"I haven't a clue either, and the text isn't the usual Autumn script. Another piece for the project, I suppose. Oh, I can't have told you about the project!"

Everyone knew about the Rock Whisperer's project. Or rather, everyone knew that the Rock Whisperer had a project. Understanding the project was somewhat rarer.

"The project! Yes, I'm trying to translate the writings from before the Great Winter. Some of it is like ours, but the words are different and there's so many more of them. And so many things I don't know the meanings of, but so many things it can tell us. How the world was..."She meet Mara's blinking eyes. "I'll show you." She swirled again, grabbing another book and snapping it open. "See," she jabbed a finger at a faint grey picture of curving rooftops, "it tells me about a building-maker and shows me how his buildings looked. They might be ruined, but the book can tell me."
"Is that what the Ruins look like?" Mara asked. She had always imagined them to be more swampy, with insects scuttling everywhere.
The Rock Whisperer shook her head fiercely, dislodging some of the old metal clips snapped into her hair. "No! Nononono! This is somewhere else, somewhere far away. I've been looking at maps, I think I've found it on some of them, but I'm not sure where we are, been trying to work that out for years. You see, if I cross-reference these two maps...," she stopped suddenly, her hand halfway to another shelf. "I'm meant to be teaching you to read, aren't I?"
"Numbers please."
"Ah yes, numbers. Numbers, then letters, then advanced theoretical geography. It'll make more sense that way."

She was not born to their village, like almost all of them. One morning they had awoken to her yelling at the gate of their fenced-off little fortress, with a voice cracked and dusty.

"Hey! Hey, anyone living in there? I can see the smoke, there must be someone in there! Can you open up? I just want a chat! It's been so long."

They muttered among themselves for a while. She wasn't from the nearest villages, for they were kin and familiar. She wasn't a trader, though she did carry a bulky pack, for traders always boasted of what they were selling as soon as they could. She wasn't a raider for she was weedy and carried no weapon. And she was no raiders' spy, said some, for no one would send someone so oddly dressed, in bright pattern in an unknown fabric, to do anything subtle. They let her in eventually. She was gratefully and gabbling, engaging anyone who dared to look for too long.

"Hello! Who are you? Hmmm, smells like you deal with the pigs, am I right? No no, I didn't mean to be cruel, I've just learnt to trust my nose. That's a very nice weave, for handmade stuff, I mean...Well, there's other sorts as well, oh never mind, shouldn't have mentioned it. Had a good harvest? Good to hear it. Always a good conversation starter, asking about the harvest and I thought ours might be about to flounder. My village? Oh I haven't got one...I've been travelling. You don't see many people travelling... Oh, it's not as dangerous as all that. People really overstate the dangers. I've been travelling about for years without being murdered. Or murdering anybody else, just so that's clear. There are really many people at all in the...wider world, so I'd thought I find some and I found you. So how many of you are there? That's a very large hut..."

She was happy to chatter for hours, over the simplest and the most bizarre topics in the same breath. Some pulled their children from the fireside as the holes in her story deepened, some got bored of her babbling and wandered off to their daily work. A few drew closer, curious at what would slip out next. She talked until the evening, when the rough cauldron was rolled out of the night's stew.

"Oh never mind about all that, the dinner should be on me tonight. You've spoken to me for so long. It was nice to hear all our words, all your voices." she skipped to her pack, a shadowy bundle abandoned to a corner, and began to pull out metal logs, each cut to a hand span in length, with a thin bark of white-faded paper. Then came a strange wheel of fangs on a handle, with which she pierced and gutted the logs with long-practised ease. Inside, with honey in a hive, was soup, thick with vegetables, all out of season. Soon a dozen of these had been emptied into the pot and rested on the fire. "Oh, they're something I picked up. I live off them most of the time actually, they get a bit dull after a while. It's like wrapping cheeses in wax, but for anything. Oh no, I don't make them. I find them. Where? Well... oh look, it's done. Bowls anyone? This one, I think, is called Scotch Broth. There's a lot of it around." Only the brave ate that night.

It wasn't poisoned, of course, and she spent a happy night curled up in human company. But in the morning she shouldered her pack again. "I'm sure you're all kind enough that if I were to ask to stay, you'd have me, but I'm not going to ask that kindness of you. I think I've been on my own too long to be able to not be on my own for long, if you follow, although," she said brightly, "I might visit."

She did drop by from time to time, bringing food-cans and trinkets. Then one spring she appeared with a strange cart filled with strange rocks. "I need a home," she told them whenever she sheltered in the compound for the evening, "I've found so many things, they need to be put somewhere. I'll be just two hilltops over, I can see you from there."

They could see her too and watched with baffled wonder as her 'brick' house rose slowly. She laboured alone, turning away the few villagers who offered a hand. They had their work, she told them, and she would not pull them away from it for her benefit. "If I want to live in an ancient clay rockery, I don't see why anyone else should suffer for it."

Mara wandered home late that afternoon, her head tumbling with numbers. The Rock Whisperer had poured out a great bucket of fist-sized ruin-bone objects, triangular with three spikes protruding from one side. "These are rather common, attached to lots of things. They don't seem to do anything but they make good counters," explained the Rock Whisperer, before taking Mara through the basics on putting things in groups. She thought she got the gist of it.

Mara came back three days later, alone this time, as the others were busy at chores and her mother was content that Mara knew the path. As she reached the Rock Whisperer's door, she paused. There was whispering inside. Peering through the open doorway, she could see the strange woman gripping some trinket, turning it over and over, running fingers over it, staring at its plain surfaces, whispering all the while.

"Some scratches on the outer casing, nothing serious, the owner a little careless so not a terribly precious item. But not for heavy duty use either. Screw holes in each corner... might come apart. Brightly coloured paper pictures on the casing, probably for children then, right style of child-centric art of that period... Hinges still working well. Differently coloured, slightly mobile parts set in dips in the case...probably attached inside somehow. Probably an example of 'but-tons'. Moves a little when pokes but nothing else...ah, I didn't hear you coming in!"

Mara jumped as she was spotted. "Didn't mean to earwig," she murmured. "Didn't know if you were busy."
"Oh no no, just going through a bag I'd forgotten about," she snapped shut the little device and offered it out. "Do you like it?"
Timidly Mara took the mysterious, possibly cursed object. She had pondered the matter for the past three days and concluded that if ruin-bone was reliably cursed, then the Rock Whisperer would have caught plague, burst into flames and had her house fall on her all at once. As she seemed to be in good health, it couldn't be that dangerous. "Is that picture a duck?" she asked.

What if the Rock Whisperer had special spells to keep off the curses, the thought invaded Mara's head. She dropped the device as if it were red-hot. The Rock Whisperer sighed and picked up her toy, "Bit you, did it? Never mind. Back to numbers?"

The smell of her home was always welcoming whenever she returned from one of her expeditions. As dusk dulled the landscape, she would climb to the hilltop. Her bag of treasures would weigh on her as it had for miles that day and miles more in the days before. Almost giddy with the knowledge the weight would soon be lifted, she would stagger to the doorway and slump against the wall as she finished out her key. It had taken weeks to find a door with a lock that still worked and a key nearby, but she had to have one. It was such an elegant idea. The sound of the tiny metal parts in motion was music to her. Her neighbours thought it magic, a spell tied to a token, but then her neighbours thought everything she did to be magic. The door unlocked, she would tumble inside, letting her bag finally fall to the floor. The house would smell of stillness and dust, the attempt at plaster crumbling a little here and there. She had followed the recipe as best as she could, but where she didn't recognise the ingredients she had improvised. The house was mostly stuck together and that would do. She would light the candles, the glass eggs affixed to the ceiling simply for show. And at last she would fall onto her settee, a monstrous thing stitched together from a score of images and a hundred scavenged husks. Lumpy as it was, she could lie upon it and know that it was twenty times softer than the old straw on which her neighbours slept.

Mara began to like the number lessons. It was mostly moving the spiky counters, the 'plugs', from one heap to another. She even took to practising with her egg collection, proudly proclaiming to her mother the total produce of the day as she handed over the basket.

As soon as the Rock Whisperer was content with her counting however, they moved onto letters. "Now some people will tell you that you don't need letters, but they're fools. It's not just the chronicle and tally, you know. It's not even sending letters to other villages. It's the whole world, everything that used to be, all yours if you know enough of letters."

They started with simple books, filled with running dogs and 'shops'. When she wasn't having Mara read, the Rock Whisperer would read out passages from her favourite books, following the words with a finger as she spoke, to show Mara their shape. One book she held more precious than any other. It had been among the first armful of books she had recovered on her first venture in the Ruins. It was more than an inch thick and held together by a green papery cover. She read from it most days, even though every word was etched in her memory, even the ones that still meant nothing to her. She read it as a kind of religious observance, honouring the words which had made her who she was. She read it to Mara too, from time to time.

"Information on the type of mould used can generally be obtained by the simple inspection of the artefact. If it shows evidence of casting on both upper and lower surfaces, a two-piece mould was presumably used. More elaborate shapes are likely to have required the lost-wax method..."
"Is that your magic book?" Mara once asked her. Her curiosity had simmered for months.
The Rock Whisperer broke off from her evening reading. "No, not magic. There is no magic, not anywhere. I'm not a witch, you know. You can ignore what the other children say," the Rock Whisperer scowled a little. "You can ignore what your parents say too."
"Well, if it's not magic, what's it for then?"
"It tells me how to see what things were like before they were broken, to see what the past looked like, to listen to dead people," the Rock Whisperer beamed as she spoke, every word coiled tight with delight.
Mara gave her a withering look, "And you say that's not magic?"
"It's not. It's..."the rock whisperer lowered her voice to an awed and secretive hush, "...called archaeology."

Her collection wasn't as senseless as it appeared at a glance. The books were arranged by theme, or at least her best interpretation of their themes, and each cupboard contained a different group of items. Grouping items was very important, her book told her. She had her mug cupboard, with shelves of shattered crockery arranged by shape. She assumed that they got bigger over time, as more food seemed to become available over time, so she had at the top a shelf of tiny espresso cups and at the bottom mugs so big that they bordered on bowls. Of course, bowls were in a different cupboard, arranged by depth of curve. Another cupboard held a selection of number-pads, palm-sized ruinbone objects studded with numbered buttons. There were several cupboards of boxes filled with metal hairs impaling cards. There were clothes too, a few salvageable enough to wear.

Her pride and joy was the peddle-lamp. She had found plenty of the bicycles during her travels. She had straightened one out enough to ride it, after falling into the rubble a great deal. Keeping out of sight of the villagers' paths, she had even brought it home and used it to fly back and forth to the Ruins. When that one disintegrated into a cloud of rust, she sought out a replacement and it was then that she found the lamp. She had dragged a bicycle from a collapsed barn-like ruin where many bicycles had been smashed together and had hauled it to a favoured patch of flattish ground. As she launched and began to peddle, the faceted plastic disc strapped to the handles gave off a sputtering light. In shock she mis-twisted the handlebars and spiralled to the ground. The light died. The Rock Whisperer scrambled to her feet and threw herself onto the bike again. Once again the light flickered faintly. The Rock Whisperer cackled in delight.

She spent the winter poking through a sack of lamps, whirling peddlers and rotting wires. By spring she had four working peddle-lamps, hidden away to spare the villagers their inevitable terror. But with every turn of a peddle, every puzzled-out wire, every beam of light, she wondered what else in the Ruins might still work.

Mara set aside her book with a sigh. It was filled with 'poems', strings of words which ignored all the rules that she'd so carefully learned. The Rock Whisperer appeared to be dozing in an armchair, but opened an eye when Mara's recital stopped. "Bored? I plucked that off a half-collapsed third storey. I didn't go through that for something dull."
"Well, you did," Mara wriggled restlessly. "What are the Ruins like? You talk about all your books and gadgets, but you never talk about what the ruins are like."

The Rock Whisperer opened the other eye and gave Mara a long, cool look. There was a shadow in her expression that Mara had never seen before, in over a year of lessons. She cringed away from the interrogating gaze. "No, I don't, do I?" the Rock Whisperer began softly. "Most people don't want to hear about it. I know I prattle on and on about everything I find there, but that's different. People don't want to think about the Ruins as a place, a real physical place that I or you or any of us could walk to, could touch. They want to keep it as a nasty dream, or some kind of fairy realm you only stumble into through stories. So I don't make it real for them. You want it to be real? Fine. The first thing is that the Ruins are huge. It takes a day to walk from one side to another, and that's if you know the way. And those aren't the biggest ruins I've seen. Oh yes, there are lots of ruins, they're not just one special place, alone in all the world. There are ruins everywhere. Some of them are tiny and almost entirely eaten by plants. You can only find them if you understand the shapes of the earth, how it mounds over the buildings and silts up the paths. Others are vast. The largest I saw seemed to have no end. You could climb the tallest buildings still standing, look out and see only more ruin. There's brick and stone everywhere. The buildings tumble in and leave a layer of bricks over the soil, makes it tough going to walk over. And the stone has iron rods running through it and is slowly crumbling to dust. It's rather like the sea-shore, I suppose, with great lumps of rock sticking up everywhere. Some have their shapes still, enough to shelter in and to find things. A few are almost complete, they're the best pickings but they're usually claimed in the big ruins. Oh yes, people live in the ruins, did that ever cross your mind? Only the huge ones, of course, but there are whole villages clustered here and there, picking over scraps. Some even have farms in the open patches. Frankly, most of them are just as ignorant as the countryfolk ...that came out a bit too harsh. People just want to survive, they don't want to think, even when they have the ruins all around them to think about. Oh, the paths, that's the other strange thing - there are great broad paths of black sticky stone, with buildings lined up along them. More are broken now, trees growing up through them, but they're still useful to follow. There's metal husks in the way sometimes and...oh the metal trees! Well, posts, they stick up out of the ground everywhere. No idea why. They have wires inside, so they must have done something. Wires are a sure sign of doing something."

She sank into her chair, deflated from saying so much. "You know," she added in a whisper. "I could take you there, if you like."

Mara sucked in a breath. She thought of creeping along ancient paths, where everything was made of ancient mystery. Then she thought of her family's tutting faces when she returned, changed and corrupted. She shook her head.
The Rock Whisperer sighed, "You're not the first. It's always no."

She was always strange, even as a child, stuffed full of questions, questions which had no bearing on the gathering of the wheat or the pulling of the vegetables. When she was seven, she learnt of the ruins and that was the start of her downfall.

"Now I'm letting you wander, now that you're old enough," said her mother on her twelfth birthday, "but you can't wander everywhere. You can't go onto Long Beach alone, because the sands will suck you down. You can't go into Half-Hill Thicket, because the wild dogs live there. And you can't go to the ruins, because the ruins are evil."
"Evil?" her eyes lit up. "How can a place be evil?"
"Because it can," her mother scowled. "Evil people lived there."
"Evil people? What did they do? Are they still there?" her eyes grew even wider.
"They're all dead. They were evil and the Great Winter came and killed them for it. That's all there is to it. Now go collect the eggs."

Of course, as soon as her chores about the farm allowed, the young Rock Whisperer went to the Ruins. Days passed and she did not return. Her family grew frantic and called help from nearby villages to aid in the search. They did not search in the Ruins because it was well-known that all who went there perished. A fortnight went by and her family mourned her, for they had little hope that she could have lived this long alone, with wild beasts, raiders and the land itself all keen to kill a young girl. A month had passed when she returned. She was smiling as she skipped into the village, a little chubbier and with a bundle hugged tight to her chest.

"Sorry, I'm late home, I found the most won-"
Her mother screamed at her for two full hours before she could speak another word, finishing the rant with "And where were you anyway?"
"It was wonderful! There was food locked in metal eggs, and cosy rooms, and all sorts of metal shapes and these!" she let the bundle spill onto the packed-earth floor and books fluttered forth. Some were stuck sealed with damp, others were worm-chewed, some faded to blankness, but enough of the words and pictures shone through, the writing too regular for a human hand. "They're not quite like real words, but I think I can work them out. At least sometimes. It's a big puzzle!"
Her family drew back as if she had begun to froth like a rabid dog.
"Where did you get these?" asked her uncle, the village chief, sternly.
"I went to the Ruins," she said, a little sheepish. "But I brought you a present!" The last thing she drew from the bundle, wrapped in a cloth that was not wool, was a tiny copy of a cow, made of pure ruin-bone.

The next hour was a blur. Her more skittish relations shrieked and fled, crying of curses. The sterner stood fast and shrieked at her parents, lamenting the evils of their child. Her father cowered. Her mother took hold of her by her rough-spun tunic and threw her out of the farmhouse, books launched swiftly after her. "Get out, you little monster! You've cursed the lot of us! I told you, I told you it was evil and look what you've done. You wicked, ungrateful, vicious child! Get out, get out of here and never come back!" In tears, the young Rock Whisperer snatched up her treasures and ran into the falling night, headed for the one other sanctuary she knew. She headed back to the Ruins.

Mara had noticed that something was amiss with the Rock Whisperer all winter, but she was grown used to the strange woman's strange ways. She had been even more distracted than usual and Mara struggled to pull her from some strange tome and her sheets of scribblings, of tunnels and boxes. In the end she gave up visiting, the short and stilted lessons not worth the trek through the snow.

Her mother shrugged off Mara's concerns, "The old bat will come out of it. This happens every few years, she gets the Ruin-madness worse than usual. Probably been touching too much ruinbone again. She got obsessed with this metal box once, was convinced that it should be able to talk. She got over it. She'll get over whatever this is too. Not that it matters too much for you, you've got more than enough letters in you now. You don't want to be spending more time up there than need be."

Mara tried to catch her again when the snow cleared, but she found the brick house abandoned, a note pinned to the door. "Gone to Ruins early this year. Back soon. Probably gone soon too though." And true enough, she was back within the week, laden with foul-smelling lengths of metal. It was quick and easy when she knew what she was looking for, she told Mara when they bumped into each other on the path, as the Rock Whisperer headed off again. "I wouldn't bother waiting up for me. I've got lots to do!"

And so the spring passed and then the summer, in endless little trips to ferry back pieces of metal. There were great sheets of the stuff, poles and rings, pots and toothed wheels. The village smith visited her more than once to trade, as in the past she was traded her scraps for food. It was usually apples, she was fond of those.

"So, will a basket do for the lot?" he asked, scratching at the surface of a misshapen lump, hoping for some metal beneath the rust. "That's our usual."
"Oh no! Nonononono," the rock whisperer bounded from her unpacking with alarming speed and snatched away the piece. "I need all these! They're for the project, you see. That's a valve. Those are important. I need lots of valve, or so Haynes says. Though if the sea-village people come by, I could do with whale oil..."
The smith left her to it. There was little to be gained in fighting with her when Ruins-madness was upon her.

It seemed that she was content with her rust heap by the end of summer, for she dashed off in the other direction towards the coast, with a bundle of golden scraps and shining fabrics. Two weeks later, she returned with gallons of whale oil, a mule to carry the lot and a face-splitting grin. "I've got everything now!" she squealed as she passed the village. "Wait and see! You'll love it!"

They didn't really wait, they simply went about their lives and time passed just as quickly. Winter came and yet the Rock Whisperer did not appear at their gate seeking heat and company. Some muttered that perhaps finally her odd ways had claimed her. Perhaps she had drowned in all that whale oil. Perhaps she had eaten it all and burst.

By some good fortune, it was Mara who spotted her first, on a crisp day after the Thaw. She had been tending to the goats, feeding them the scraps of the night before. She had given up hope on more lessons. An older girl had taken over the task of teaching the littler ones, but she didn't really know any more than Mara. She contented herself with borrowing her great-uncle's books and with tending goats. They were more interesting than chickens.

A great roar ripped through the valley. The goats bleated and fled. Mara froze and glanced about for the source of the sound. It was louder than any sound that she had ever heard, except perhaps the river in a flood and a falling tree. The roar continued, continuous like the purring of some monstrous gravel-stuffed cat. The Rock Whisperer had told her about monstrous cats, but she was sure that there couldn't be lions here. A shadowed shape rolled over the brow of a nearby hill. It was the size of a wagon and just as blocky. It lunged down the slope, the whirling of its four dark wheels becoming plain. It was a wagon, but of metal and glass, rolling loose without horses to guide it. The stench of burning whale oil clogged the air. As Mara squinted at it, she saw a figure squatted behind a glass panel and upon it the glimmer of sequins. The other villagers were beginning to run out, spears in hand and armoured leathers hastily donned.

"What is it?" her cousin called to her as he ran to her side. "What is that thing? Get back inside!"
"It's some kind of monster! A Ruins fiend!" cried one of the others.
"No, wait, I think it's..."Mara faltered, unsure of what she thought it was. "I think it's hers."
As the monster sprinted towards them, above the sound of its furious snarl came the voice of the Rock Whisperer, shrieking with joy.
"Look! Look at it! It works, just like the manual said!" As she neared the crowd, she turned the strange wagon and circled around and around the village, flicking up mud and grit. "It's beautiful! Isn't it beautiful? We could go anywhere! It's so quick. It's a car, a horseless wagon! I fixed it. We can fix things, we can make it work again! We can have it all back again!"


  1. Zoe, I thought this was an outstanding piece of writing. I do hope you'll pursue writing fiction alongside archaeology.

    Your piece reminded me of one of my favourite poems: Edwin Muir's THE HORSES...

    Barely a twelvemonth after
    The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
    Late in the evening the strange horses came.
    By then we had made our covenant with silence,
    But in the first few days it was so still
    We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
    On the second day
    The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
    On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
    Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
    A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
    Nothing. The radios dumb;
    And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
    And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
    All over the world. But now if they should speak,
    If on a sudden they should speak again,
    If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
    We would not listen, we would not let it bring
    That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
    At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
    Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
    Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
    And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
    The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
    They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
    We leave them where they are and let them rust:
    "They'll moulder away and be like other loam."
    We make our oxen drag our rusty ploughs,
    Long laid aside. We have gone back
    Far past our fathers' land.
    And then, that evening
    Late in the summer the strange horses came.
    We heard a distant tapping on the road,
    A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
    And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
    We saw the heads
    Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
    We had sold our horses in our fathers' time
    To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
    As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
    Or illustrations in a book of knights.
    We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
    Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
    By an old command to find our whereabouts
    And that long-lost archaic companionship.
    In the first moment we had never a thought
    That they were creatures to be owned and used.
    Among them were some half a dozen colts
    Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
    Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
    Since then they have pulled our ploughs and borne our loads
    But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
    Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

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