include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for The Salt People by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


the Salt People


Other books

by L Lee Devocelle

Moon Shine

The King Who Had No War and Posh Kutar


The Salt People

a Future World Book

Copyright© 2018 by L Lee Devocelle

Smashwords Edition

Visit the Author at:

www.smashwords.com/profile/view/Explorers21

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever, including Internet usage, without written permission of the author.

This is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places or events used in this book are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, alive or deceased, events or locales is completely coincidental.

If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase a copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of the author.

Book design by Maureen Cutajar

www.gopublished.com


Dedicated to my Grandchildren

May you build a world that discards its weapons for the outstretched hand of friendship.


Acknowledgements

To my four children, Michael, Jeremy, Aaron and Amy, and to all those who supported in so many ways over so many years. Without each of them, none of this would have been possible.

To Smashwords and Maureen Cutajar a special word of gratitude. The former for providing the platform and pathway to publish, and the latter for lending her skill and enthusiasm to bring a long-cherished dream to life.


Table of Contents

The Valley

The “Long Before” Time

Winn

Margo

Sightlessness

Josh

A Secret

Again

Michael, Peter and John

Seeds of Doubt

Life and Death

Visitors

Alone

The Unknown

Arna

A Meeting

Michael’s Revelation

Spies

The Plan

A Band of Thieves

Caught

The Unexpected

Second Thoughts

A Dormant Volcano

Punishment

Certainty Unraveled

An Apology

Boats, Books and Beads

Healing

A Glimmer of Hope

A Man Named Petra

Eastward

Margaret

Winfield

The Gawkers Come to the Valley

New Horizons Near and Far

Attachments:

“Finding Stars” – Coming Summer 2019


Bury me,

Bury me

By the Sea,

Let the Salt Sun

Watch over me,

While Balsamic Waves

Wash away my sins,

Till heaven,

Sweet heaven,

Welcomes me in.”


In a land of salt air

And white silver sand

Lives a people so odd

That no one ventures near,

Except perhaps to wonder,

And far too oft exclaim:

Thank God we are not like them.”

. . . But some things must be uncloaked. Revealed. Brought forth. For what we fear, we too easily doubt. And what we deny, too easily scorn, so that lives go on and time melts away and great things are lost to timid hearts and anxious minds.


THE VALLEY

A brilliant orb of fire hung in the sky like a ship at anchor. Moving neither east nor west above the endless sea and the land that gazed out upon it. Beyond the sea lay a valley. It was an odd place for a valley to be sure, but it had been there forever, or so the talebearers told.

To an outsider coming upon it for the first time, it was akin to imagining that on a day of its own choosing the floor of the earth withdrew a bit of itself into itself. Not so much as to fashion a giant crater, but enough to form a beautiful depression suitable for a lovely village.

The valley floor was broad and flat, with meandering channels randomly placed along its slopes to catch both spring thaws and autumn showers and guide them to well-situated streams, lakes and rivers. In sum, it was a near magical place blessed with rich, fertile soils and the finest of Nature’s bounty.

At the center of the valley stood a town, quiet and neatly ordered. What a keen eye would describe as “picturesque”. The valley’s tallest edifice being a white clapboard steeple suitably surrounded by pleasant houses, well-kept lawns and cobbled walkways.

However, as too often happens in a world such as ours, this unusual valley was also a source of curiosity and amusement. For the people of the valley held fast a secret. One that kept intruders at bay and fell readily into the hands of opportunistic businessmen, who, in due course, cultivated the “Gawker”. Lured to the valley rim by flights of imagination and very little fact, the Gawker happily traveled from near and far, toting wicker chairs and three-legged stools, spyglasses dangling from about their necks; straw hats and frilly bonnets shielding both their faces and their consciences.

The object of all this amusement did its best to ignore their unwanted guests—a habit they mastered quite expertly over time—time being the healer of all maladies of course. Or so they told themselves.

As a result, the Gawkers’ stories grew in grandiosity and number, until on this particular day the valley by the sea is more monstrosity than curiosity. Move evil than good. A harmless evil, they are quick to point out, so long as it is observed only from afar.


THE “LONG BEFORE” TIME

In the year 1427 the ocean’s shore grew thick with salt and the sea receded far beyond its breakers. So odd were these events that they were meticulously set down by valley historians, some of whom went to great lengths to try to explain them as well. And to be sure, many an explanation was offered by scholar and mystic alike.

As it turned out, the answer was both simple and profound, for it seemed that a world drought was sucking the sea into its ravenous mouth. Landmasses appeared where none existed before; and an earth accustomed to nurturing life gave way to endless miles of cracked and withered ground. No living thing was left untouched, not even the once fertile valley.

The drought persisted for seven long years until its devastation was complete. Where sea met land, a spiteful wind arose and thrust its discard inland in the form of sharp, silver crystals of salt. Succulent crops and lavish forests withered. Raging fires scarred acre upon acre of once productive earth. Among the valley’s inhabitants disease and misery became the only constants.

Pitted against an enemy more powerful than they, the Ocean Peoples passed over in numbers too great to bear. No family was left unscarred. Nearly two-thirds perished.

Mercifully, in the winter of the eighth year a light snow blanketed the valley and its slopes. To weary eyes that had forgotten its beauty, the glistening landscape appeared like a carpet of precious jewels. Each survivor, no matter where they were, dropped to their knees and offered a prayer of gratitude. Men and women wept openly.

Though that first winter offered scant relief, the spring of 1435 burst from the skies—as if a heavenly plug had worked itself loose. The first fragile cloudbursts were followed by regular cycles of nourishing moisture. And nature, as only nature can, gratefully took what it was given and dotted the landscape with miles of fledgling vegetation.

The first hint of green on a distant rise was met with triumph and celebration. Precious seeds stored years earlier were retrieved from underground pits and tenderly planted. Fervent prayers were offered for the first harvest.

When they were able, the valley people ventured out onto the plains in search of fauna to replenish their nonexistent livestock. Their efforts were meager. Only a few animals had survived. How? No one knew. Some were sickly; a few even died. But slowly, and in step with their caretakers’ recovery, the animals regained their health and new offspring were birthed.

The first taste of goat and cow milk was cause for great joy. Fresh eggs were blessed with equal reverence and gratitude. Having survived such an awful period of loss, the Ocean People came to understand the limitations of the world that fed and clothed them; and with gratitude as their guide, they blessed nature’s bounty while being ever-vigilant of its oft fickle ways.

The first weeks of recovery gradually blended into months. And the “Plague”, as the seven-year drought came to be called, weaved its way into memory.

When they were ready, the survivors built a memorial. Simply conceived, it portrayed a grandfather and his grandchildren sipping a salty brew that symbolized both the bitterness and desperation of those years. Mounds of silver sand encircled them. Where an inscription might normally be found, only the year “1427” was etched. Human words, they all agreed, were poor substitutes for that which had been endured.

Over the succeeding years the Ocean People came to consider themselves blessed—favored as it were—and they clung to a stoic confidence that such awful hardship would never cast its dark shadow over their valley again. Surely once was more than enough!


WINN

Winn Garnet stood on his broad veranda and lifted his face to the sun. He welcomed its warmth. It’s powerful energy. He stretched out his arms and invited its heat to consume him.

A slow steady burn began at the apex of his spine and worked its way inward until his vessels, his organs, his very cells burst with a vigor so potent that he felt one with the great sphere of fire above him.

A normal mortal would find the ritual strange, maybe even insane. Surely the Gawkers on the hill would name it so. But for Winn Garnet it was a way of “knowing” that which he had never seen. Of forming in his mind not only the idea of a brilliant light, but also the flaming orb that contained it. For you see, the valley by the sea was indeed different. On this one point the great gaggle of gawkers was not wrong.

The Ocean People who inhabited the valley were exceptional—exceptional in the way they lived and worked, learned and played, and in the way they related to each other. For to a person, not one could see. Not one thin spinet of light or form passed thru their unmoving irises. Each and every valley inhabitant “wore” a pair of unvarying eyes the color of salt, a cruel alteration that had become dominant over time, whereupon the Sighted became fewer and fewer until none remained at all.

Though the Ocean People tried mightily, some even dedicating their entire lives in its pursuit, no cure was ever found or magic potion concocted to reverse that which was set in motion following the Plague.

Eventually, the people of the valley resolved to move on with their lives. And when they fell into despair and cursed their lot, they were reminded that their ancestors had been spared; and to be spared was not a gift to be spent under the gloom of self-pity.

In the course of time “sight” became an “inner” vision rather than an “outer” truth; and their unseeing eyes, opaque adornments that completed the contour of their faces—filling sockets that might otherwise be dark, empty pits. Because they could not see, they learned to choose their mates and build their friendships using the more personal attributes of touch, voice and character.

One’s “appearance” faded from memory and speech and “beauty” flowed from knowing the person you interacted with, which seemed to them a purposeful and unhurried process that led to lasting friendships and holy unions.

For you see, when one is sightless, one draws more fully from each of the remaining senses. The world about you speaks through myriad “voices”, and your life’s journey is tempered by what you experience and not what you behold. To judge any part of creation without spending time with it—be it a tree, a dove, a lamb or another human being—is inconceivable. When sight is removed, every new encounter is a surprise and a miracle.

Beyond personal relationships, the people in the valley cleverly adapted their homes and jobs, their town and its amenities, their individual and collective lives to fit their particular needs—which, over the decades, became ordinary needs, neither more nor less challenging than any other human might encounter anywhere else on earth.

As the years wore on, some of the Ocean People ventured forth into the so-called “normal” world, but none remained longer than a few months or so. Their odd, silver-eyed appearance frightened most people off. And when cruel hawkers recognized easy money in the vacant irises, they teased the bearers with elaborate lies and promises of fame, only to put them on public display, in return for which the unsighted received precious little reward and much ridicule and shame.

There were of course, as in every society, kind souls who took pity on the strange aliens from the valley; but kindness and kind words did not put food on the table, nor lend peace and hope to body and soul. Jobs for the unsighted were nonexistent in the “normal” world, as were schools and books and all the countless accommodations required to create a safe and welcoming place to call home.

In due course, all but a few of these wanderers returned to the valley by the sea, many sad and hard in spirit. The outside world “was,” they said, “harsh and unforgiving,and their valley home, though safe, was “forever limiting.” In turn, these troubled souls felt sentenced to a life of monotony with no possibility for adventure into what they came to call “the great sighted beyond.”

When no manner of reasoning or compassion could bring them peace, they sulked away in quiet misery, some turning to idleness or drink to ease their pain. For even within a close-knit community, a body sometimes chooses isolation and loneliness.

We should pause a moment to note that the Ocean People provided for their own without exception, even those who did not contribute to the wellbeing of all. To them each human life was precious, even those that on the surface made no sense at all.

However, the village by the sea was indeed a “closed” place, as these few who ventured out rightly came to name it. It was made so not by choice, but by circumstance, and centuries of experience seemed to confirm that for its own survival, such it should remain.


MARGO

Margo Garnet stood before her class and clapped her hands twice, waiting patiently for the room to grow still. While doing so, she paused a moment to inhale the rich roses of summer thriving just outside her classroom windows. It was a sweet, delicate fragrance that teased her senses and sent a special thrill through her body.

“Deep, dark roses,” she whispered to no one in particular. “Rich lush colors.”

Of course Margo had never seen a rose in her entire life, but she had “read” about them in the histories of the sighted Ocean People. And she had “traced” the petals, stems and thorns with her thumb and forefinger in the purposely raised drawings of the last of the sighted as they hastily transcribed the more delicate aspects of their valley before they too passed over.

Yet, no matter how gifted or adapted she and her fellow citizens became. No matter how self-sufficient or inventive, Margo still found it impossible to “picture” color—true, living, vibrant color. For her, the all-consuming “darkness” had become a roadmap for that which she could not see. To Margo, the world of Sightlessness was “night”, the blackest, black of nights. “Black”, Margo understood.

“Black consumes all color,” the Ancients had written in one of their more philosophic moments. “Its opposite gives all color away,” they continued. “In between is every variation possible.”

Margo imagined “white” as light—the absence of dark—those nameless specks that danced randomly inside her brain when she rubbed her eyes after a long day. Flashes that came and went at will. A fleeting memory, perhaps, of a time long ago when her people could see both dark and light.

Within seven decades of the Plague, sightlessness embraced all but a handful of the Ocean People. With time running out, the sighted that remained set about creating a language that enabled them to transcribe their diaries into the “script” of the sightless. The resulting system, which employed both hands and ears, was then taught to the teachers of the valley, for what better way to pass it on from one generation to the next.

Finally, however, the dreaded hour arrived, and the last scribe passed over. And yet, the eighty years it had taken the blindness to become complete had also been a gift of sorts, for it had provided the Ocean People with the time necessary to adapt to their fate. And though many unanswered “whys” lingered, the bitterness that accompanied those first miserable decades waned, and sightlessness became just another part of who they were, in addition to their being strong, intelligent and unyielding in the face of adversity.

For another one hundred years the Ocean People lived in peace and obscurity while Mother Nature provided generously and prosperity blessed their valley.

Then, in the year 1607, the Mountain people came ashore. But because the valley was far west of the vast mountain ranges, these new arrivals never knew of the Ocean People and the Ocean People knew nothing of them. Both supped from the ocean’s magnificent “table” on different aspects of its endless shores and each thought the great ocean land theirs and theirs alone.

Not so, however, with the arrival of the Hill and Plains people some years later. For on one of their first excursions inland they came upon the secluded valley—but only to observe it from afar. For by then widespread rumor had cautioned them to “keep their distance” lest a vile scourge befall them as well. Where the stories came from, no one could remember. It was said that after the drought and the onset of blindness, some of the sighted Ocean People left their ancestral land as stowaways on passing ships and carried their horrible tale with them. What became of these talebearers was also a mystery. Did they birth sightless children, too? Was there a group of sightless people living on some distant foreign shore?

The “vile” scourge” that the newcomers spoke of took many forms, only one of them being based in fact. And as with all stories born of too much imagination, the Ocean People were described as huge and garish looking, with six fingers on each hand, bird beaks for noses and sores on their arms and legs—another curse, no doubt, from the same malady that robbed them of their sight.

Early on, a few of the Hill and Plains mustered up the courage to steal onto the valley slopes, only to dash away in panic at the first actual sighting of the town and its habitants. And though from a distance the Ocean People did not appear any different than the intruders themselves, none of these interlopers shared that bit of information with their kinfolk upon returning home. For what worth is a daring adventure unless it is fraught with danger and intrigue?

Eventually, the novelty of the valley waned and necessity turned its attention to more pressing issues. Many years passed during which the Hill and Plains people established towns and villages, planted crops, tamed wandering beasts and scaled the great mountains far to the east, both for the challenges they offered and for the rich wooded forests that made for fine building materials and kindling. Only then did the story of the Ocean People reach the mountain communities. Oddly, these rugged mountaineers did not react with the same curiosity that later consumed those to the west of them.

Eventually, Gawking became an infrequent pastime and those gawked upon slowly came to hope that in time it would cease completely.

But the reprieve was only a ruse, for there were those who grew to see the valley as more than just a day’s outing. They saw coin. Easy and abundant coin. The first such opportunist was glib of tongue and charming of manner and he cleverly enticed the curious and moneyed to his storefront, where, on a map especially made, he pointed to the Valley:

“For one gold coin,” he beckoned with twinkling eyes, “I will unveil nature’s cruelest secret.”

Of course, as with any profitable venture, the Huckster soon garnered rivals, each with equally clever plans to outdo his competitors. And thus began the ritual of the Gawkers. For what sells better than the misfortune of those whose existence has no meaning to your own?

With each successive year the Gawkers grew bolder and more crass. Shouts of “defective” and “deformed” flew over moss covered housetops, followed by whistles and horns and thunderous drums. And though the Ocean People could barely decipher the vicious taunts, they knew intuitively that they were mean-spirited.

To endure what they could not control, they concluded that the Hill and Plains people were not “evil”, just judgmental and ill-informed. That did not mean that hard feelings did not exist among the residents of the valley towards their neighbors above. However, so long as the Gawkers stayed in their place behind their special spyglasses—which some of the Ocean People who ventured out of the valley had heard mention of—no great harm was done. Laughter and shouts were ignored, albeit with much self-restraint. For in truth, what could be achieved if they responded? More importantly, what might be lost?

For you see, the Ocean People were practical to a fault, and of all the challenges that accompanied sightlessness, one stood out among the rest: that active resistance might eventually bring invasion, war and the loss of everything they held dear.

In turn, the Gawkers harbored fears and doubts of their own; and beyond hateful words of false bravado, none ventured onto the valley slopes lest they too succumb to the plague of blindness “that turned normal, seeing eyes, into garish, silver knobs.”

By and by, both groups decided, though none spoke of it within hearing of the other, that they had no need for each other anyway. The sea was vast enough for all to partake of; and so long as the Ocean People did not visit upon it at the same time as their neighbors on high, a fragile co-existence came into being. Only time and circumstance had the power to alter the stalemate. And as the wisest among them knew, time and circumstance rarely revealed their plans before they were ready.


SIGHTLESSNESS

Following in the tradition of the First Scribes, the valley people continued to “write” down their history. Stories of the drought of 1427 now comingled with stories of the Gawkers on the hill and of those valley residents who had traveled beyond the hills and mountains in search of the “great sighted beyond.”

Few understood the history of Ocean People as well as Margo Garnet, who taught history to mid-level students at the valley’s red brick school house just north of the village center.

This afternoon Margo and her students would digress from their regular lessons and turn to a topic that of late had consumed the youngster’s minds—much as once it had her own. Today they would talk of the Gawkers on the hill.

Margo Garnet placed her right hand on the edge of her desk and then took two steps back and three to the right to where her chair always sat between two barely raised tracks. In the event she became distracted and miscounted, she could likewise find her chair with the ball of her foot, upon which she wore a special soft-soled shoe that easily located the many such “tracks” placed throughout the village and in its homes and shops.

Margo’s village had hundreds of paths, walkways and unpaved thoroughfares over which buggies, carriages and all manner of carts traveled daily. Each pulled by trained beasts of burden as familiar with the village as any of its inhabitants.

Being in a valley was a godsend for the Ocean People, for there were no sudden precipices to fall from or other large obstacles to worry for. Protrusions or natural oddities that did pose physical threats had long since been mapped out; and each household was kept abreast of any “new” dangers by a special team of rangers who traversed the roads and pathways daily, searching for and removing such hazards.

The first thing each youngster was taught when he or she set out on their own in the valley, be it their own yard or a trip to the village square, was how to move about in a world they could not see. To assist in this undertaking all were presented with a “touching” wand made of a light, flexible material that, when used properly, could identify any obstacle in their paths.

The rods also contained a quite unique device called a “tune”. Like the strings of a fiddle or the melodious keys of a piano, the rod gave off a different “note” when it came into contact with dissimilar objects. This ingenious invention was refined regularly by engineers and scientists as they delved further into the world in which they lived—including that which could be touched and felt and that which was entirely invisible to even the sighted. The Ocean People imagined, and rightly so, that nowhere else on earth did such a device exist. This pride also comforted them when the lack of sight was most troubling. It reminded them that they had done amazing things, that the human mind and spirit had no bounds, and that although the Plague had taken much away, it had also unlocked great treasures.

Lastly, and certainly not least, all the inhabitants of the valley, from the time they were old enough to learn, were schooled in the use of their remaining four senses: hearing, smelling, taste and touch. A healthy and prosperous life required it. At times Margo imagined walking into a classroom of the Hill and Plains people and teaching those very subjects to their young people. In her heart of hearts she believed that every person, regardless of their situation, would benefit from such knowledge, for it opened a vast world that only the Sightless truly understood.

By the time each valley child finished third grade, he or she could make their way about the village as well as any sighted person. Add to this the four heightened senses and a highly developed intuition, and you had a community that ran as smoothly as any of its counterparts anywhere on earth.


JOSH

“On the grassy plain that encircles our home,” Margo began, “the Hill and Plains people come, and with special glasses look down into our valley. These glasses, we have been told, make things far away seem very close.

“You have all heard of these people?” Margo asked quietly, more as a courtesy than anything else, for of course they had.

“Yes.” Came a shy reply.

“And?”

“They—they shout at us,” the voice continued haltingly, “and it echoes in the village.”

The timid voice was Edda’s. A curious and quiet child with a special gift for music. Edda was particularly sensitive to the Gawkers, for their constant presence and irreverent taunting could not but disturb such a gentle spirit.

“Of late,” her mother, Janna, had remarked recently, “Edda’s music has begun to suffer. She still plays, but there is so much sorrow in her pieces now.”

Margo sighed at the memory of that conversation and an unhappy, but familiar sentiment touched her heart. “Why do you suppose they watch us?” She prodded gently.

“Because they’re stupid!” offered another voice.

This one was far from timid or restrained. It belonged to her son, Joshua. His open hostility had become a common occurrence of late and belied a deepening anger over that which he had no control. Of equal concern was Joshua’s natural protective nature, especially toward Edda. Like his father, Joshua’s heart was far more loving than each let on and when it came to those they cared about, each could be fierce in their desire to protect them.

Margo and her son had spoken often about the Gawkers on the hill, but no matter what she said, nothing dispelled his growing desire to confront them. Like his father, Joshua was a big boy and would likely grow into an even more powerful man. Though sightlessness was a restraint to direct physical action, Joshua was clever and determined; and many days Margo worried for the confrontation such hotheadedness might one day provoke.

“Do you really think they’re stupid?” Margo prodded gently, all the time longing to be able to “see” the expression on her son’s face, read the hurt and frustration in his eyes. Though Margo and all the parents of the valley had mastered the art of touch that allowed them to interpret emotions through the tips of their fingers, Margo sensed there was more just beyond her reach; a final piece that only a pair of “living” eyes could provide.

“Josh?” she asked once more, using the shortened version of his name and the one he most preferred.

“Only stupid people spy on others! Only stupid people make fun of people with no eyes, people they’ve never met!”

Sightlessness was at the heart of Josh’s anger. It was not just that the Gawkers gathered on the hill, or that they judged him before they even had a chance to meet him, but that they possessed something Josh did not: eyes. Eyes that could observe and make fun of his every move.

While age might temper her son’s pain, such a process was neither easy nor guaranteed. The Gawkers on the hill only fueled the flame that, in children like Josh, was highly combustible. One day a confrontation would take place, of that Margo was certain. A body can only absorb so much helplessness before it implodes.


A SECRET

The adults of the valley held themselves to a special code of behavior. One they neither shared with their children nor often spoke of among themselves. For once blindness became total, marriage and birthing were practiced as a closed union among the valley people only. Though some held onto the possibility that blindness might not carry to new offspring if the union was of mixed peoples, the discussion had become mute over the years, given that intermarriage with the Hill and Plains people seemed most unlikely given the abhorrent attitude of the Gawkers toward the Ocean People.

“We do not need them and they do not need us,” the village Elders repeatedly declared on the rare occasion that the issue arose.

“The Gawkers come only in the good weather and disappear in times of gale and snow. For less than seven months a year do they trouble us. As long as they do not venture into the valley and we do not travel onto the hills and plains when they are about, there is nothing for us to fear.”

Never discussed among the Ocean People, however, was the fact that they were prisoners in their own land, a land their forefounders had settled and nurtured, and lived and died upon. The very same ancient spirits who might be peering down from their heavenly abode right now and asking:

Why, after all they themselves had overcome, did their descendants submit to this fate of isolation? What did they really fear? Did their blindness hold them back or was it something deeper and more profound?

The answer to these questions would eventually come by way of a series of events outside their control, heralded by the dwindling number of Gawkers on the valley’s rim and the fragile state of prosperity that accompanied their demise.


AGAIN

In 1427 the Ocean People were unprepared for the perilous events that descended upon them. But in 1757 no such naiveté remained. It was clear to even the youngest inhabitants of the valley that a deadly drought was again poised to consume the land.

The Hill and Plains people, of course, had no such historical memory, and in turn, no defense. Daily they gathered together for comfort, a glimmer of hope from their leaders, and most importantly, to determine by what means they would face that which confronted them: endless kilometers of parched and cracked soil beneath another day of remorseless sun.

The people of the valley, though experiencing the same circumstances, did not experience the same panic, for following the drought of 1427 their ancestors resolved never to be caught unawares again. And each succeeding generation honored that promise meticulously.

In cool, underground caverns the Ocean People built-up annual stores of root vegetables by the gross, forgoing an extra helping at table to secure as much reserve as possible. As well, extensive underground aquifers were mapped and maintained to protect them from overuse and contamination. The valley elders, who considered it their primary task to review the plan annually and update as needed, now predicted that with careful oversight and judicious use the valley could stretch its water supply to last four years or more. Beyond that, no one dared think. The drought of 1427 had lasted seven years. And though surrounded by a vast and bountiful ocean, no one had yet been able to separate the salt from the its liquid base, which in turn kept the water unpotable and ultimately useless for hydration.

Unfortunately, the Hill and Plains people knew nothing of the valley’s foresight. And though faintly aware of the drought of 1427, they had been so consumed by outlandish tales of those they considered inferior that they failed to put all the disjointed pieces together. Especially the part that told of a seven-year drought, a devastating loss of life and the terrible blindness that followed in its wake.

At the moment, however, they were overwhelmed by more immediate crises. Their water supply, erratic in good times, was already being rationed. Dozens of citizens had fallen ill. Some hovered at death’s door. Treatment was trial and error.

Had they spent the previous decades building a relationship with the valley people, instead of ridiculing them, the present calamity might have been less tragic. For the valley seemed to be Mother Nature’s favorite child. With its steep downward slopes and abundant forest and foliage, all moisture that did not soak into the soil was naturally channeled into stone runways that ran like mazes across the valley floor, flowing simultaneously into surface reservoirs and underground tunnels and caves.

No such natural abundance seemed to bless the land above.

As fall receded, and chilly winds whipped off the surface of the sea, the people of the ocean land huddled together and braced for the long winter ahead. Snow, like the rain before it, came sparingly, spitting slivers of brittle ice and little more.

At times such as these the will to survive is the strongest of all human drives. In response, some choose war and plunder to fill empty stomachs, while others reach out to forge links where none existed before.

Oddly, neither side considered either of these options as a first line of defense. No hands of friendship were extended nor armies raised. Instead, old hurts and mistrust solidified into greater isolation, leaving future scribes to describe the drought of 1757 as both disaster and triumph—the likes of which had never been witnessed before. Or since.


MICHAEL, PETER AND JOHN

Michael and his sons, Peter and John, stood on the ridge overlooking the valley. A few yards behind them rested an abandoned wagon, now horseless, for Michael had decided to release the beasts to their own resources in the hopes they’d find their way back home again. He could not call the action his most honorable moment. A man of much heart and compassion, he had been forced more than once of late to make choices that tested his moral compass sorely.

Michael’s wife lay critically ill in their home on the plains from an illness of undetermined name and origin. The city’s apothecaries attributed it to rotten food and contaminated water, which bore a greenish scum and emitted an awful smell. No matter the cause, dozens of his fellow citizens suffered similar complaints for which no remedy had yet been forthcoming.

Michael and his family were former Mountain People who had moved to Winfield, the plains’ largest city, because it offered greater opportunity for work and prosperity. Situated two miles inland, Winfield supported a population of 30,000 and offered all the amenities of an advanced metropolis of the mid-1700s. Oil-fed lamps and assorted wick and candle brought light to the city each morning and night, while a small hospital cared for its citizens’ medicinal needs, and a university, with extensive library, nourished their minds and souls.

It was there in that very library that Michael, who had been hired to archive the university’s oldest historical documents and artifacts, first became acquainted with the valley people. In the beginning idle curiosity drew him to the random volumes. But over time he found himself nearly consumed by them.

They told of a people not unlike those he had known in the mountains. A people who had arrived on this land long before anyone else inhabited it and whose valley he and his sons now looked down upon with both dread and uneasy hope.


SEEDS OF DOUBT

Winn and Margo set the aged texts aside and flexed their aching fingers and arms. Like Margo, Winn was a teacher, but of upper-level university students. Both shared the same passion for history and its many nuances. Since the onset of the drought, the two were often ensconced in the archives of the valley library where animated discussion had given way to intense research sessions seeking some yet unknown clue regarding the Plague of 1427 and the blindness that followed. Had either of them been called upon to speak of such events each would have responded with confidence and a plethora of facts. This morning, however, they could only voice bewilderment and doubt.

“I don’t understand,” sighed Winn. “I’ve read and reread these diaries since I was Josh’s age.”

“As have I,” concurred Margo. “But only to learn and reflect. We studied them in the context of history—never as a matter of life and death.”

“Volumes one and two must really be volumes five and six,” said Winn.

“And volumes twelve to twenty are likewise later notes or versions.” Agreed Margo.

“Someone surely noticed this, especially early on?”

“I doubt authentication of the journals was our ancestor’s first priority once the last scribe passed over. The greater burden would have been to create a community in which the sightless could live, work and prosper. Decades passed before what we now enjoy was firmly set in place. It is likely the records of the scribes gradually fell into disuse, save for the occasional scholarly pursuit.”

“And now?” Asked Winn.

“I assumed all the sighted records were copied in ‘our language.’ It never occurred to me this did not happen. That time simply ran out.

“When the drought was at its worst, there must have been hundreds of incidents and reports. Stories to be confirmed, names of the dead catalogued, not to mention attempts to cure the incurable.

“Even if we found the missing volumes, Margo, what would be the point?” Countered her husband, frustration eating away as his resolve.

“They would be useless without eyes.”

“Precisely!” he proclaimed dejectedly.

A long silence descended upon the two, and with it, a deep sense of futility. Was this the final chapter of their story? After all they and their ancestors had accomplished, had they been wrong? Perhaps terribly wrong?

Margo’s hand now rested over Winn’s. She sensed the thoughts running through his mind; and though she could not translate word for word, she knew they matched her own.

Suddenly, Margo removed her hand from Winn’s and stood up. “Come,” she said, her voice filled with a resolve he knew only too well. “We cannot give up now. If fate had willed annihilation of the Ocean People we would not be standing here having this conversation. We would be just a footnote in history.

“Our people have lived and prospered in this ocean land for nearly 400 years. We have met and overcome every obstacle sent our way, even that which robbed us of our eyes. The Great Spirit spared us for a reason. It believed in us and now we must believe in ourselves with equal resolve.”

From his seat beside the long wooden table scattered with papers, Winn engaged the voice and its energy. Whereas his resolve might waver now and then, Margo’s never did, or not so he’d notice.

“I will seek out the Council Captain and request a meeting,” he said resolutely. “If we are to act, it must be now.”

“Good idea,” said Margo, her padded footfalls retreating down the long stone corridor that led to the out-of-doors. For at this moment Margo felt trapped. As if the walls of the valley that once protected her were suddenly closing in at a pace she could not outrun.


LIFE AND DEATH

No sighted person had ever set foot on the valley floor. The innately curious or ardent drinker occasionally stumbled to the within a few kilometers of the valley proper, but none—not one—had gone further. Michael and his sons were poised to be the first. Three uninvited strangers, ill and desperate. Arriving in the midst of a drought where every additional body meant less for someone else. Yet Michael new something about the valley people no one else knew; and he was counting on that knowledge to keep harm at bay.

The youngest of the boys paused at the edge of the great slope leading into the valley and bent over in a coughing fit. Michael pulled a flask of water from his satchel and offered him a sip. Tears welled up in the young father’s eyes, but he was quick to brush them away. There was precious little time for sentimentality. He had to be strong. More importantly, he must keep his sons’ spirits up.

It crossed his mind briefly that had he shared his plans with others in Winfield he might not have felt so utterly alone at this moment. In truth he could think of only one person who might have lent a sympathetic ear. One who, like himself, had never joined the Gawkers on the hill, not because he was not curious, but because he found the ritual as distasteful and unkind as did Michael and his sons.

Michael recalled his friend’s face the last time they met. The steel gray pallor. The cloudy, blank eyes. He remembered the day of his friend’s burial. One of the most dismal of his life—and the day he decided upon the course that had brought the three of them to this most perilous juncture in their lives.

Michael looked over at John now slumped against a large, round boulder. His eyes were open, but the empty look was heartrending and it cut Michael to the core. Now, more than ever, he wished he had not brought his youngest with them; but John had begged not to be left “with all the death and suffering,” and Michael had succumbed against his better judgment.

“John.” Michael prodded him gently. “It is time.”

The lethargic youth stirred slightly, his vacant eyes offering a flicker of hope. Michael reached down and pulled him to his feet. He motioned for Peter, his eldest, to help him.

“He won’t make it, father.” Peter pronounced stoically.

“And we will not leave him behind!” Came his father’s terse reply.

“We should have left him with mother!” Peter replied with all the arrogance of youth running as fast as it can from its own fears.

Michael’s anger spent, he withheld another angry response and took an unsteady step forward, then paused to wait for Peter to respond likewise. Despite his son’s hostility, Michael knew he would do the right thing.

Peter looked first at his father and then at the sagging form of his younger brother, whom he dearly loved. Slowly he walked up and put John’s arm about his shoulder. His father did likewise.

John was his best friend—often times his only friend. But John was his complete opposite. He was the one who stepped in to protect his older brother when he was teased for his odd pursuits and bookish nature. For Peter was a solemn boy more comfortable with plants and nature than with people. If truth be told, Peter was glad to be gone from Winfield and the constant stress of living there. Had his father not held firm when he begged to remain in their mountain community and his mother shed more than a few tears at the thought, he never would have left.

Looking down into the valley, it was clear the drought had taken its toll, but Peter could still see the rich vegetation that thrived there in better times. It was a virtual paradise for one whose greatest delight was to sketch and study the magnificent variety of Mother Nature. Already at the age of 17 Peter had identified over 100 different species of plants and determined which were friendly and which were potentially harmful or poisonous. There was so much he still wanted to do and learn.

Soon he would be old enough to chart his own course. Then he would leave his family and travel to some great city where the best minds of his time were willing to share their wisdom and accept him as one of their own.

As he and his father made their way down the hill Peter’s only thought was that he had so much to live for and absolutely no control over any of it ever coming to be. His brother was ill and his mother likewise. Each day the high sun dried up more and more of the sea and left in its stead pile upon pile of slivered sand. The plants he dearly loved wilted away hourly and his fellow human beings likewise. He and his father had been spared the worst effects of the lack of decent food and water, but if nothing changed, and if the Ocean People would not help them, could not help them, then it was only a matter of time before a like fate claimed them too.


VISITORS

“We have visitors,” whispered the tall, lanky Ranger to his much shorter, yet equally fit companion.

Samuel sat upright on the rock where he had been eating a lunch of fresh goat cheese, roast pig and warm teff bread. He wiped his mouth with an oft-washed cotton cloth and listened carefully. Every sense tuned to high alert.

“Strangers.”

“Yes,” replied his companion, Garvel. “They travel along Isage Ridge from the Plains.”

“How many do you think?” Queried Samuel, still in a whisper.

“Two, maybe three.”

“They are very quiet.”

“They’re moving together, dragging something I think.”

Samuel placed the remainder of his lunch in a large canvass bag, slung it across his shoulders and stood. “I will return to the village and warn the others.”


Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-25 show above.)