Exile’s End is a complex, sometimes uncomfortable examination of artifact repatriation and cultural appropriation. An artifact of indescribable and irreplaceable beauty created by an “extinct” culture has been the basis of another culture’s origin stories. The race who created the artifact has survived on a distant world and has sent a representative to reclaim it, throwing everything into question.
Inspired by the SF camp in Danzhai, China, which is co-hosted by the Future Administration Authority (FAA) and Wanda Group.
Let’s sing of the lightbeam journey
Of the man who was not a man
Sent by the Whispering Kindom
To search the sky for ghosts.
How did he find the way?
He followed the poison papers,
He followed the scent of secrets
He followed the footsteps of ashes,
Retracing the path of exile.
Can reversing exile set it right?
The series of events that would make Rue Savenga the most reviled woman on Sarona began only minutes before closing time at the Orofino Museum.
The windows had been rain-streaked all day, and now had gone dark. Rue was at her desk, reading a new art history treatise she needed to review, when her wristband chimed.
“There is a gentleman here asking to see you,” the guard at the front desk said. “He says he’s come from Radovani.”
Radovani was seven light years away. Rue glanced at her calendar. No appointment. She could easily dodge this one. But the book was disappointing—simplistic ideas gussied up in jargon—and she needed a break. “All right, I’ll come down,” she said. That was her first mistake.
The parts of the museum beyond the public galleries were cluttered and utilitarian. Exposed conduits and plumbing ran along the ceiling above her as she paced down the scuffed-tile corridor lined with crates and display cases no one wanted to throw away. Emerging into the airy, sophisticated architecture of the lobby was a release from claustrophobia.
It was clear who her visitor was. He stood out for his stillness in the bustle of departing visitors—tall and slim, with long black hair pulled back in a tie. His hands were in the pockets of a jacket much too light for the weather outside.
Rue introduced herself. When she held out her hand, the young man stared at it for a second before remembering what to do with it.
“My name is Traversed Bridge,” he said; then, apologetically, “I have an unreal name as well, if you would prefer to use that.”
“No, your real name is fine.” Rue had no idea what he was talking about, but it seemed the polite thing to say. “You’ve come from Radovani?”
“I just arrived by wayport. I came directly here.”
“What can I do for you?”
He looked at the floor, as if at a loss for words. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I’m not good at this. They should have sent a woman.”
Mystified, Rue said, “You’re doing fine.”
He looked up. He had beautiful, liquid charcoal eyes. “I was sent by the Whispering Kindom of the Manhu. I have come to find our ancestors.”
None of this rang any bells with Rue. “I think they may have called the wrong person,” she said. “You probably want to speak to our ethnographic curator, Magister Hess.”
“No, I was given your name,” he said. He fished a card from his pocket. Her name was written on the back. On the front was printed the name and contact information for a colleague at the Radovani Archives, someone who ought to have known better.
Rue sighed. “All right, then, why don’t you come up to my office and you can explain.”
She led the way back. When they reached her office, he looked around and seemed to relax. “It’s good to get away from the ghosts,” he murmured.
Most people called Rue’s office austere—or, if they were being polite, minimalist. The other curators’ offices were adorned with art and artifacts from their private collections. But Rue was not a collector. It was not that she didn’t love the art; she would have raced into a burning building to save the museum’s collection. She just had no need to possess any of it.
She offered Traversed Bridge a chair, and he sat. There was still a circle of quiet around him.
“So you’re from Radovani . . . ?” she prompted.
“Oh, no,” he said. “I am from a place you call Eleuthera. We call it Exile.”
Eleuthera was even farther away than Radovani, a planet settled only in the past three centuries as an experiment in radical self-determination—hence the name, which meant something like “freedom.”
“You have come a long way,” Rue said.
“Yes. I had to retrace the steps of the ancestors. They came from Radovani more than a hundred years ago, but that was not the world called Home. The historians on Radovani told me this was it, but I’m not sure. It doesn’t look like Home.”
“What does Home look like?”
“It is a green and leafy place. It has extra suns and moons.”
“Well, we have two suns,” Rue explained. “The second one is not very bright, and today you couldn’t see either one, because of the rain. There are three moons.”
“At Home, there were originally more,” Traversed Bridge informed her. “But the hero Whichway Traveler shot them down.”
“They were too bright.”
Rue nodded. “Why did the Whispering Kingdom send you, Traversed?”
“Kindom,” he corrected her. “We don’t have kings. We have kin.”
“They sent me to find our ancestors and ask them a question. I am told you can help me.”
Frowning, Rue said, “Who were your ancestors?”
“They were Manhu. Your name for us may be Atoka.”
Suddenly, everything made more sense in one way, less sense in another. The Atoka had been an indigenous people of Sarona, and the museum did have a small but priceless collection of Atoka art—priceless, because it was the only collection in existence. The Atoka had been wiped out seven hundred years ago. They were extinct. Only their art survived, tantalizing and enigmatic.
Frowning, she said, “We greatly revere the Atoka. But we believe them to be dead.”
“Oh no,” Traversed said sincerely. “We are still alive. They tried to kill us all after the Battle of the River Bend eight hundred years ago. They hated us, so they tried to castrate all the men, and passed a law making it illegal to be Manhu. But a few hundred of us escaped to Refuge, which you call Radovani. We settled on what we thought was empty land, but after three generations, they decided we had no title, and so others took our houses and farms. We wandered then. Sometimes people tolerated us, but in the end they always wanted us to give up being who we were. They called us Recalcitrants at first, and then Atavists. When people started to accuse us of crimes, the state sent out death squads to hunt us down and garrote anyone they caught. They would leave dead babies hanging from lampposts as a warning. At last they shipped the last of us off to Exile, and we have been there ever since. The whole story is told in our songs. It takes three days to sing them.”
He told this grim tale in a matter-of-fact, even proud, tone. Rue listened, frowning. If his allegations were true, it would upend five hundred years of scholarship. It could not be true. Could it?
Cautiously, she said, “There are scholars who would be interested in meeting your people, Traversed. They will want to find out whether you are truly the same as our Atoka.”
“It’s not still illegal?” he said a little anxiously.
“No, don’t worry about that.”
“You wouldn’t mind some of us coming back? Just to visit, I mean. If this is Home.”
“Everyone is free to visit.”
“And our ancestors? Do you know where I can find them?”
Rue glanced at her watch. The museum was closed by now, but the lights might still be on in the galleries. “I can show you one of them right now, if you want.”
A transformation came over him; his face drained of everything but nervous awe. He sat up as if something had filled him, inflated him. She waited until he said in a heartfelt whisper, “Yes. Please.”
She stood and led the way out. She liked showing this particular artwork to people who hadn’t seen the original; no reproduction had ever done it justice. She had written the definitive monograph on it, and it had made her career, but she had never found out much about the people who created it. The legends surrounding the Atoka were so thick, and their symbolism so important, that the truth was elusive—even, in a sense, irrelevant.
The gallery was dark, but at the other end of the room the display lights on the artwork still glowed. It was a special installation, because this was the most famous work the museum owned, and people from all over the Twenty Planets came to see it. Usually there was a crowd around it, but now it hung alone.
Traversed stopped in the doorway, arrested by some strong emotion. “I feel like I shouldn’t be the one here,” he said. “It should be someone better than me.”
Gently, Rue said, “Wouldn’t your people be disappointed if you returned and said you hadn’t seen it?”
He looked at her as if seeking permission.
“They did choose to send you,” she pointed out.
With a visible effort he overcame his uncertainty and followed her across the darkened room.
People called it a painting, but it was actually an elaborate mosaic, made from pieces so small it took a magnifying glass to see them. Rue had commissioned a scientific analysis that had shown that the colors were not, strictly speaking, pigments; they were bits of bird feather, beetle carapace, butterfly wing—anything iridescent, arranged so as to form a picture. And what a picture it was: a young girl in an embroidered jacket and silver headdress, looking slightly to one side, lips parted as if about to speak. Operas had been written about her. Volumes of poetry had speculated on what she was about to say. Speeches invoked her, treatises analyzed her, children learned her story almost as soon as they learned to speak. She was the most loved woman on Sarona.
“We call her Aldry,” Rue said.
Traversed Bridge looked transfixed, as if he were falling in love. He whispered, “That is not her name.”
“What do you call her?” Rue asked.
“She is Even Glancing.”
Rue liked that name. It fit her.
The lights illuminating the portrait were mounted on a track, and they slowly moved from side to side, so that you could see it lit from different angles even as you stood still. Rue waited, watching Traversed Bridge’s face for a reaction, because the image changed. At one point in the cycle, the background, which was normally a dark indigo blue, erupted in a profusion of feathers. There were silver wings behind her, appearing then gone.
“Did you see the wings?” Rue finally asked.
“Yes,” Traversed said. “I can see them.”
“Many people can’t,” she said. “They are in a wavelength not everyone’s eyes can sense.”
“They are moving,” he said.
“Really?” Rue had never heard anyone say that before. But everyone’s experience of the portrait was slightly different.
“She is about to speak,” he said.
“Yes. Everyone wonders . . .”
She stopped, because his face had gone rigid, like a plastic mannequin, all animation gone. His body stiffened, then began to tremble. He fell with bruising force to the floor.
Rue knelt beside him, then came to her senses and used her wristband to call for help. But as she watched by the shifting light from the artwork, the humanity flowed back into his frozen face. He blinked, then focused on Rue, tried to say something.
“Lie still. Help is on the way,” she said.
“She spoke to me,” he whispered. He did not seem in pain, but full of wonder.
He looked around, saw he was on the floor, blushed in embarrassment, and sat up.
“Are you hurt?” Rue said.
“No, no. I am so sorry. Don’t worry. I am fine.”
“That was a nasty fall.”
“I am used to it. This happened all the time, when I was young. My spirit would leave my body, and I would fall down. I would hear voices no one else could hear.”
“Voices in your head?” Rue said, her amateur diagnosis changing.
“No, no. They were in my left hand.”
A guard looked in, then came over. “Should we call an ambulance?” he asked.
“No,” Traversed said, struggling to his feet again. “I am so sorry to put you to inconvenience. I am fine. It is over.”
Rue exchanged a glance with the guard, shrugged. “A little too much excitement, maybe. Come back to my office, Traversed, and you can sit down.”
By the time he slumped back into the chair, Traversed was looking sad and preoccupied. Rue had seen hundreds of reactions to the portrait of Aldry, but never that one, and she was curious.
“You said she spoke to you,” she said as she brewed tea for them both.
“Yes.” He stared at the floor. “I didn’t understand all she said.”
Rue waited, and after a pause he went on. “She is lonely. All this time we thought we were the ones in exile, and it turns out she is the banished one, even though she has never left Home. To us, Home was a place. To her, it is her people.”
Rue handed him tea. “That makes sense.”
He looked up at her pleadingly. “She says she wants to go back. She wants to see an Immolation.”
Rue didn’t like the sound of that. She tried to keep her voice even. “What is an Immolation?”
“I don’t know.” Traversed shook his head. “That was the part I didn’t understand.”
Rue was in a delicate position. There were strict laws covering repatriation of cultural artifacts, and there was a protocol to follow. If it had been any other artwork, she would have given an automatic set of responses. But Traversed Bridge had not yet made a formal claim. The half-crazed young man was here without credentials, without legal representation, carrying only an implausible story.
Besides, repatriating Aldry was unthinkable. The entire planet would rise up in arms.
If she said nothing, he might never find out that repatriation was an option. It would save a great deal of trouble. No one could accuse her of anything.
She sat down in a chair facing him and said, “There is a way for you to request the return of the portrait. It is called repatriation. You would have to file a formal request, and it would be a very difficult one to win. It would be challenged, because Aldry is deeply loved here, and she is part of our culture as well. You would have to prove beyond doubt that your people are the Atoka, and that she was illegally taken from you.”
He was looking at her like a starving man. “But there is hope?”
“A very little hope.”
“I want to bring her back. It is what she wants.”
Rue smiled and said, “Why don’t you sleep on it, and return tomorrow? Nothing can be done tonight anyway. Where are you staying?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll have to find someplace.”
Rue gave him directions to a budget hotel that was close to a transit line, and walked him to the main door of the museum.
“Thank you,” he said as he was about to step out into the driving rain. “They told me I would find helpers along the journey, and I have.”
Rue didn’t answer, because she wasn’t sure whether her role was to be helper or hindrance. “Have a good evening,” she said, then turned away, knowing she would have to do some explaining tomorrow.
He came to the prison of ghosts;
For Hoarder people do not free their dead.
Their feet fall heavy, weighted by the past
They do not hear the spirits cry for freedom
They heap up secrets in an archive
And lock the doors to keep them in.
How do you free a ghost?
“That’s preposterous!” said Galbro Hess.
The Curator of Ethnology was nearly as wide as he was tall, dressed in an overstretched cable-knit sweater, his gray hair standing up in spikes. Normally, he was an agreeable, jolly person, but Rue’s story had struck a nerve.
“I get them all the time, charlatans and kooks pretending to be Atoka, or to have some sort of spiritual connection to them. There are even re-enactors who pretend to hold Atoka ceremonies. It’s a pile of . . . well, you know. I’m afraid you were taken in, Rue.”
She had found him in the ethnographic artifact storage area, where he was sorting a collection of broken ceramics spread out on a large, padded table. Around them, shelves rose to the high ceilings, packed with carved masks, handlooms, model boats, drums, and similar things, mostly brown. That was Rue’s main objection to ethnographic material: it was so monochromatic.
“I can spot a charlatan,” Rue said. “He didn’t read that way. For one thing, he’s not from here, he’s from Eleuthera. I don’t think they have Atoka re-enactors there.”
“They don’t have Atoka either,” Galbro said grumpily, sorting a glazed brown ceramic from even browner unglazed ones.
“He told a long story of how some refugees escaped to Radovani.”
Galbro looked up, but then waved a hand in dismissal. “All that shows is that he did his homework. It’s true, there was a remnant population that went to Radovani. But they were persecuted there, and subjected to forced assimilation. In the end they lost their culture, intermarried, and dwindled to nothing.”
“He says they persisted long enough to be exiled again to Eleuthera.”
“A convenient story.”
“Regardless, I’d like to know more about how we got our Atoka collection.”
“Whose side are you on?” Galbro objected.
“I just want to be prepared. If this ends in a repatriation claim . . .”
“No one’s going to repatriate Aldry.”
“I know that, but to prepare our response I want to be sure we came by her legally.”
Galbro stopped his pretense of working and rested his fists on the table. “Sorry, can’t give you much joy there. The problem isn’t with the museum; we did everything right. But the original collector . . . well, you know how they were in those days. Regular looters and bandits. It may have been legal at the time, but by current standards, no.”
“What happened?” Rue said.
“Have you ever heard of the Immolation ceremonies?”
“No. That is, I’ve heard the word, but not what it means.”
“It was the heart and soul of Atoka culture. Once every three generations they would take all their earthly belongings, pile them up in the center of the village, and light a bonfire. Then they would burn all their homes to the ground, so that the next generation would have to start over with nothing. All their wealth, their art, their subsistence would go up in flames. It was the reason the Atoka never built a great civilization—because they voluntarily reduced themselves to poverty and dependence whenever they started to get ahead.
“When our ancestors came to Sarona, they tried to convince the Atoka of how pointless and self-destructive the custom was. From their point of view, the Immolations reduced the Atoka to begging from their more provident neighbors, whose surpluses would be drained to subsidize Atoka beliefs. If they refused to help, well, starving people will get desperate and take what they have to. As tensions grew, our ancestors began to forcibly suppress the Immolations. In one famous instance, an Atoka village was all assembled and ready to light the bonfire when soldiers marched in and drove them out—then, naturally, looted the pile of goods ready for the torch. The Atoka were so enraged they attacked, and that was the beginning of the wars that led to their destruction at the Battle of the River Bend.
“Well, our Atoka collection came from the descendants of a man who was an officer in that troop of soldiers. A man of his rank got first pick of the loot—and the Aldry portrait was the best Atoka culture had to offer.”
Rue was silent, shocked. “That is a horrifying story,” she said at last. “We can’t tell that to the public. They would be outraged.”
“Well, they think of the Atoka as idealized children of nature, not as flesh and blood who could be just as wrongheaded as we are. Sure, what the soldiers did was heavy-handed; but if they hadn’t saved the portrait, it would have been burned, not preserved so that we can revere it today.”
Who were the helpers?
One was kindly,
One was clever,
One was upright,
One was wealthy,
And one was treacherous.
Rue returned to her office feeling troubled. She had taken the problem to Galbro in hopes that he would see it as an interesting topic for investigation. But he was too anchored to his conviction about the extinction of the Atoka. The made-up portion of his mind had crowded out the curiosity.
Her spirits sank further when her wristband alerted her that Traversed Bridge had returned. It would be up to her to explain to him.
This morning he was wearing a heavier coat, much more appropriate to the weather. “The lady at the hotel gave it to me,” he said when Rue remarked on it. She couldn’t help but notice that he brought out generous impulses in people.
“Have you thought it over?” she asked when they reached her office.
“Yes,” he said. “I need to do as Even Glancing told me, and bring her back.”
Rue pulled up a chair and sat facing him. “All right. Now, I can’t guide you through a repatriation, Traversed, because my first loyalty is to the museum, and they will contest this claim. It’s a complex, expensive process, and you may not win. The first thing I would advise you to do is hire an attorney to make the formal claim. You will also have to hire an expert to help you prove that your people are truly the Atoka.”
“But we know who we are,” he said earnestly.
“That’s not good enough for the court. You need a documented trail of evidence. The museum will have experts to testify that you can’t be who you say you are. We also need to know that you are truly authorized by your people to make this claim. Can you get that?”
Gravely, he nodded. “I will have to send a message to my Kin Mother.”
“Is she the one who sent you?”
“Yes.” The shadows of complex thoughts moved behind his eyes. “I had no sisters, and I was firstborn, so it was my duty to go out into the world. They chose me to go to university.”
It surprised Rue a little to hear that he was university educated; he gave such an impression of unworldliness. “Did you get a degree?”
He nodded. “Hydrological engineering. I wanted to design a dam for the mountains above my village, to stop the river floods and bring us reliable water. I am here instead.”
His obvious disappointment made Rue say, “Well, you have plenty of time. You can still do that when you return.”
He shrugged. “I am earning my right to be a person.”
She wanted to ask more, but it was a risk to know too much about him; it might cloud her loyalties. Instead, she continued, “You will also have to prove that the object was taken from your people illegally, and that it has an ongoing cultural importance to them. The museum isn’t likely to contest the first point, but what about the second? What traditions do you have about Even Glancing?”
“None that I know,” he said.
“Then how did you know her name?”
“It is written on the portrait.”
There was no label or inscription. “Really?” Rue said skeptically.
“Yes, in the design on her jacket.”
Rue called up a photograph on her tablet. “Show me.”
He pointed out the portion of the embroidery that gave her name. “And this part says, ‘Cherished daughter.’ Maybe she was the daughter of the artist.”
“What about the wave design on the border?” It had played an important role in Rue’s interpretation of the work’s symbolism.
“Oh, that’s not a wave,” Traversed said. “It’s a thought. She is thinking, you see.”
If what he said was true, a great many art historians would look very foolish, starting with Rue herself. The best way to handle this would be to get ahead of it, to be the one to publish the new information. But that would be an admission that she accepted his claims of cultural authority. A clever attorney could use that against the museum.
“So your people have no tradition, no story, about Even Glancing?”
He shook his head. It was an important concession. She felt a little compromised to have wheedled it from him. “Then why do you want it back?”
“Because,” he said seriously, “there is a ghost imprisoned in it.”
Good luck arguing that in court, she thought. But all she said was, “That’s it?”
“That’s enough. We need to free the ghost.”
“And how would you do that?”
“We have to destroy the picture.”
Rue’s horror must have shown on her face, because he said, “It is the only humane way.”
It was unthinkable. “Traversed, this artwork is acknowledged as a masterpiece—not just on this world, but all over the Twenty Planets. It’s in all the art history books, and people honor the Atoka for having created it. Doesn’t that make you proud? Don’t you want to preserve the greatest achievement of your ancestors?”
He didn’t have an immediate response, but seemed to be weighing what she said. She watched, hoping he would reconsider. But at last he shook his head. “It’s not worth her suffering. Pride can’t justify that.”
He really believed it. Rue had been taught from childhood to respect the beliefs of other cultures—but damn it, she had her own core principles. “Then I am bound to oppose you,” she said. “I cannot see this artwork destroyed.”
They sat in silence, facing one another, aware that they had become enemies.
“You had better go now,” Rue said.
“All right.” His expression was regretful. At the door he stopped, looked back. “I’m sorry.”
“I understand,” Rue said.
But she didn’t.
How do you lose your name?
When people stop telling your story.
Why must we tell our story?
Because others start telling it for us.
The gallery was relatively uncrowded except for the clump of people around the Aldry portrait. There were masterworks all over the walls, but people had eyes only for Aldry. They wanted to say they had seen her. They wanted their photographs taken with her. Some just stood there for minutes at a time, watching the image change, transported.
They all knew the story.
Once upon a time, Aldry was a real girl living in an Atoka village that had tamed all the birds in the forest around them. Birds were their messengers and their music; birds ate the troublesome insects and brought warnings about the weather. They made nests in the thatched roofs of the village, and kept everyone below dry. Artisans vied to create elaborate cages for them.
Then one day the Atoka spied an ominous fireball descending from the heavens: the landing craft of the settlers who were the ancestors of present-day Saronans. That the two peoples were very different was clear from the start, for the Atoka had amber eyes like owls, and where normal humans had body hair, the Atoka had downy feathers. The new settlers were refugees pushed out of a crowded, urbanized planet. They were woefully unprepared for a subsistence life scratched from alien ground. If it hadn’t been for the kindness of Aldry’s people, they would have perished. The natives taught them which crops could be cultivated and which were poison, how to hunt the abundant wild animals, how to speak to unfamiliar nature. But as the settlers multiplied, and more of them arrived, relations grew tense. Conflict seemed inevitable. It had happened that way throughout human history.
But Aldry prevented history from going down its familiar, violent path. She had fallen in love with a bookish young settler—the very one who chronicled the whole tale in cramped and sideways antique language. In her culture, a woman’s decision to marry conferred personhood on the man she chose, and when she announced her intention to unite the two groups, the Atoka could no longer regard the settlers as invaders of questionable humanity. The marriage ushered in a period of peace. Aldry bore twin boys. One of them favored his father’s people and one his mother’s, for one had hair and the other had down.
It came to pass that a terrible flood swept through the settlers’ town, destroying the homes and fields they had labored for years to build. Viewing the drenched mudlands where their crops and storehouses had been, they knew they faced starvation. Then Aldry saw her duty. Sorrowfully, she kissed her infant boys goodbye and set out alone into the forest. Five days later, an immense flock of birds came to the village. Led by a silver pheasant, the birds descended onto the fields, each with a seed in its beak, and replanted all the crops. The village was saved, but no one ever saw Aldry again. It was said that a silver pheasant perched on the ridgepole of the house where her grieving husband raised her orphan boys, as if to keep them company.
When the boys became men, they quarreled. One went to live with the Atoka, the other stayed with the settlers. They both became great leaders, and their sibling enmity passed to their people. When war broke out, they faced each other in battle. But just when the Atoka brother was about to kill his twin, he glimpsed the silver pheasant in the sky above, and spared him for Aldry’s sake.
“She is the mother of us all,” Saronans said. She was the generous spirit of the planet that welcomed them and invited them to be at home.
The portrait dated to an era at least two hundred years after the original events. It was thought to be an Atoka artist’s image of Aldry, with wings foreshadowing her sacrifice. Who else could it show?
Unless it was Even Glancing, the daughter of the artist.
Rue shook her head impatiently. In an important way, it did not matter. Whoever she had been once, she was Aldry now. Generations of Saronans had woven that identity around her. And they would not easily give it up.
What did they say on Refuge?
They said, “Speak another language.”
“Give up your primitive ways.”
“Be more like us.”
And what did they say on Home?
“Be our imagined angels.”
“Be what we can’t be.”
“Reject us, love us, teach us, exalt us.”
We are so tired of being told who to be.
Rue half expected never to hear of Traversed Bridge again. The odds against any lone individual mounting a credible repatriation claim were so high that, when he realized it, he would most likely become discouraged and leave for home.
She underestimated his determination.
Three weeks later, as she was picking up breakfast on her way to work, her wristband started to chime insistently with news alerts having to do with the museum. She put in her earpiece and listened on the tram, her attention so absorbed that her body had to take over the automatic job of exiting at her stop and walking to the staff entrance.
The story was sensational and appealing: a remnant of the Atoka had been discovered on faraway Eleuthera. Old Radovani records filled in their history. Now, an Atoka emissary had come seeking the ancient homeland of his people. After traveling across the light years, the young man had met only rejection and disbelief from the Orofino Museum.
When Rue got to her office, there was a message summoning her to see the director.
Galbro Hess was already in the director’s office when she came in. “Of course I told her,” he was saying. “It’s just the truth. There is no way Atoka culture could have survived intact through hundreds of years of persecution on Radovani.”
The director was a handsome, distinguished older man with a neatly trimmed beard. His aura of scholarship was a sham; his main job was care and feeding of the museum’s benefactors. He was good at it, and Rue considered it in her own best interest to make his job easy.
When he saw Rue, he said, “Magister Savenga, what’s this about our rejecting a repat claim out of hand? You know we can’t legally do that.”
Rue settled down in a chair, deliberately projecting confidence and calm. The director knew how to handle donors, but she knew how to handle him. “We haven’t rejected any claim. In fact, I am the one who told Traversed Bridge how to file one.”
Outraged, Galbro said, “You did what?”
“If he’s a charlatan,” Rue said, “it will come out. Did you listen to the interview?”
Uncomfortably, Galbro said, “All right, maybe not a charlatan—just deluded and naïve. But now he’s got an attorney and a pipeline to the press. His story’s an invasive weed, a virus people have no immunity to. It’s going to sweep the world.”
The director interrupted, “But there hasn’t been a repat claim?”
“Not yet,” Rue said.
“All right.” The director had his talking point. That was all he needed. “I want you two to handle this as you would any other claim, and refer all press to my office. We need to graciously suspend judgment, as befits our responsibility as guardians of Saronan cultural heritage.” The press release was almost writing itself.
“We need to find out what he wants,” Galbro said. “He may just be an opportunist, wanting to hold the painting hostage for gain.”
“No,” Rue said calmly. “He wants to destroy it.”
The two men looked at her in speechless horror.
Galbro found his voice first. “What, is he threatening to re-enact an Immolation? This really is a hostage situation.”
“He’s following voices. Revelations.”
“Oh great. We’re dealing with a lunatic.”
Severely, the director said, “That doesn’t leave this room. You could jeopardize our case, Galbro.”
“But we’ve got to expose him!”
“We won’t do anything. If he’s exposed, it will be the media, the court, or other scholars. We have to appear neutral.”
As they were leaving, Galbro muttered to Rue, “You really have gotten us into a mess.”
“Don’t worry, Galbro,” she said. “I’m not letting anyone set a match to Aldry.”
What did they tell him, and what did he say?
“You are not yourself,” they said.
“You are not Manhu.”
“You should be Atoka.”
“No,” he said.
Galbro was right: Atoka fever swept the land, sea, and sky. The story enthralled the public. It was better than finding a species given up for extinct. It was a chance at redemption, a chance to save what was lost, to reverse injustice, to make everything right.
The reality of the Atoka faded into inconsequence.
The museum was forced to put its other Atoka artifacts on display—a bronze drum, a life-size wooden baby, a carved eggshell, and an obsidian knife so thin it was transparent. Visitation shot up. Archaeologists were sudden celebrities. Musicals revived, bad old novels came out again, embroidered jackets crowded the racks. Rue’s coffee shop sold Atoka breakfast buns.
Suddenly, there was money for all things Atoka. When Orofino University received a grant to investigate the claims of the Manhu, Rue felt reprieved. With the length of the light-speed journey to Eleuthera, it would be at least ten years before the researchers could travel there and reach any conclusion. By then, the mania would have died down.
But she had not reckoned with recent improvements in instantaneous communication by Paired-Particle Communicator, or PPC. It was now possible to send video via arrays of entangled particles, thwarting the limits of light speed. Sarona had no direct PPC connection to Eleuthera, but the university was able to set up a relay via Radovani, and enlist local researchers.
“They’ve got universities on three planets collaborating,” Galbro told Rue in gloomy discontent—partly at the fact that they were taking the Manhu seriously, and partly at being left out. “I can’t imagine what it’s costing.”
“Conscience money,” Rue observed. “Guilt is a powerful thing.”
“It’s not guilt,” Galbro said. “It’s pride, to prove that we’re better than our ancestors—as if we inherited their planet but not what they had to do to get it.”
“You are a cynic, Galbro,” she said.
Though they were banned from participating, both of them had contacts at the university who kept them up to date, and so they were prepared for the report’s conclusions even before it came out.
All the evidence lined up. DNA traces from old bones on Sarona matched Manhu blood samples. Linguistic similarities showed through the haze of poor records on Sarona and imperfectly transmitted grammar and vocabulary on Eleuthera. The chain of documentation from the Radovani Archives told the shameful tale of their persecution and deportation. Science said it: the Manhu were descended from the ancient Atoka of Sarona.
The report’s release revived interest that had grown dormant in the many months it had taken to complete the research. Legislatures passed resolutions honoring the Atoka, money poured in for statues and murals. Documentaries aired until everyone thought they knew the story.
It was then that the repatriation request arrived.
The first meeting the two sides held was in the director’s office at the museum. It was to be an attempt to negotiate a compromise solution and avoid litigation. Rue was invited; Galbro was not.
“Don’t give it all away,” he told her beforehand.
It was more than a year since she had seen Traversed Bridge, except on-screen in interviews, explaining over and over that the Manhu did not really have feathers or owl eyes. Today, dressed in business attire, he looked anxious and ill at ease; but still he had that aura of self-possessed silence. His lawyer was a young woman with flaming red hair and a sprinkling of cinnamon freckles. She would have looked winningly roguish if only she had been smiling, but she was not. She introduced herself as Caraway Farrow.
The museum’s attorney, Ellery Tate, mirrored his client, the director—a distinguished older man with an air of paternal authority. The director was present, but silent. He had told Rue he wanted her to represent the museum, so he could stay above the controversy.
Tate opened the meeting, speaking in a generous, calming tone. “Thank you all for coming to help find a mutually agreeable solution.”
“We are happy to talk,” Farrow said.
The museum’s first proposal was to create high-resolution replicas of all the Atoka objects for the Manhu to take to Eleuthera. Farrow glanced at Traversed Bridge, then said, “I don’t believe that would be acceptable to my clients.”
“Oh?” Tate said, as if surprised. “We can make replicas that are quite identical to the original, down to the molecular level.”
Traversed Bridge said softly, “A replica would not have a ghost. It would be soulless.”
There was a short silence. Rue could hear the director shifting in his chair. Then Farrow said, “The Manhu might allow you to make replicas for the museum to keep, if you don’t contest returning the originals.”
Tate looked at Rue. She had to force her voice to sound calm. “That might work for the ethnographic material. But in the case of the Aldry portrait, a replica would not have the same aesthetic qualities.”
Farrow was studying her, frowning. “Why is that?”
“We have tried to replicate it in past,” Rue said. “There is something about the three-dimensional microstructure of the materials that can’t be reproduced. We’re not sure why. The whole effect is flatter, less animate. And the wings don’t appear.”
Traversed Bridge was watching her fixedly. She realized she had just said the same thing as he: the replica was soulless.
“Would it be possible,” Tate said, “to work out some sort of shared custody for the painting? I can imagine an arrangement where the original would be on loan to the Manhu for a period of time, say twenty or fifty years, and then travel back to Sarona for the same amount of time.”
Stony faces greeted this proposal. Rue had told Tate what the Manhu intended to do with the portrait; he was trying to make them admit it.
“Accept that the portrait is the property of the Manhu,” Farrow said, “and we can discuss its future. Until then, there is no point.”
She is a wily one, Rue thought. She saw the trap.
Tate said, “We are prepared to offer you the originals of the other artifacts if you will accept shared custody of the portrait. It’s a reasonable compromise.”
Traversed was already shaking his head.
With a steely gentleness, Tate said, “Please consider the time and expense of defending this claim if it goes to court. You will be trying it in a Saronan court, before a Saronan jury. Aldry is deeply beloved here.”
Traversed Bridge’s face was a wall of resolution. “Would you leave one person suffering in prison for the sake of redeeming a few others? This is not a balance sheet. You can’t weigh souls on a scale and say four make one not matter.” He turned to Rue. “You want us to ask for something that means nothing to you, something easy to give. I’m sorry, we can’t.”
“Ask for anything but Aldry,” Rue said.
“Your people made her up,” he said. “You can remake her.”
No one had anything to answer then, so the meeting was over. They would meet again in court.
How did he craft his case?
He made it on a frame of steel,
He wove the body of sandalwood,
He decorated it with feathers,
He filled it with rushing rivers.
What do we mean by steel, sandalwood, feathers, and rivers?
The frame of steel was justice.
The sandalwood was steadfast.
The feathers were eloquence.
The rivers were compassion.
And what scale was used to judge?
What ruler can measure the past?
Rue Savenga was, at heart, an uneventful person. She had always tried to do the right thing within her safe, unremarkable life. She had never considered herself the kind of person to take a courageous stand. That was the realm of ideologues and fanatics.
Now, she found herself thrust into an event that forced her to ask where her basic boundaries were. What line couldn’t she cross? How far would she go to defend her core beliefs?
What were her core beliefs?
The wanton destruction of art, she found, was where she drew her line. It was an act so heinous she could not stand by and let it happen. So when the museum’s attorney asked if she would testify in court, she agreed. She was willing to fight to save Aldry from the flames, even if her own reputation burned instead.
The trial was held in downtown Orofino, in a tall, imposing courthouse where monumental sculpture, marble, and mural dwarfed all who entered, in order to strike them with respect for law. When Rue arrived, there were two groups assembled in the park facing the courthouse, shouting at each other. Public interest was so high that the trial was to be broadcast, and opinion was split. Half of Sarona saw Rue as the defender of their heritage, and would execrate her if she lost. The other half saw her as the defender of long-ago injustice. They would execrate her if she won.
The courtroom’s air was busy with hushed conversations when she entered. It was a tall and cylindrical space with a skylight above and stylized, treelike pilasters of polished stone lining the walls. A large circular table stood in the sunken center, surrounded by tiers of seats crowded with press and other witnesses. Rue took her place on the side of the table reserved for the museum’s representatives and their witnesses; on the other side sat those testifying for the Manhu. The judge and clerk sat in the neutral spaces between, facing each other. Rue knew two of the expert witnesses she was facing—magisters from the university who could establish the Manhu-Atoka connection. She nodded to them without smiling.
The aim of Saronan law was to reach a resolution, not necessarily a victory for one side. Each side argued its case, the judge proposed solutions, and if no agreement could be reached, the jury imposed a compromise. But this trial was to be conducted with only a judge, not a jury. Rue had no idea what the calculations had been on either side; perhaps it had something to do with the impossibility of finding a jury whose mind was not already made up.
The judge called on Caraway Farrow to begin the proceedings by stating the case of the Manhu. She did it succinctly: the artworks had been illegally seized by Saronans in the act of suppressing an Atoka religious observance. The Atoka had suffered grievous harm as a result. Now, the return of the items was a vital step toward righting injustice and reviving Manhu cultural practices.
The case that Farrow presented was logical and unflinching. An ethnologist told how the art had been looted, and a historian gave the story of the Atoka genocide and exile to Radovani. A geneticist and a linguist established the Atoka-Manhu connection.
“And do they still speak the Atoka language and practice Atoka culture?” Farrow asked the linguist.
“No,” the magister replied. “But there are old people who remember enough of what they were told as children to reconstruct some of it. Now they are very interested in reviving the language and culture. Our records will be valuable in the effort.”
Last, Farrow produced a power of attorney from the Whispering Kindom, designating Traversed Bridge as their representative on Sarona.
Tate challenged none of it, except to establish that there was nothing in the evidence that precluded a different remnant of the Atoka turning up in future, with contrary demands. He also extracted an admission that the Whispering Kindom was not the only kin group among the Manhu, and that the others had not expressed their desires. Farrow asked Traversed Bridge to address this last objection, as court procedure allowed.
“If there is any difference, we can work it out among ourselves,” he said softly, staring at the table. “We should have that right.”
It occurred to Rue that he had not looked at her once during the whole presentation.
The court recessed for lunch, and reporters scrambled out to record their summaries in the hallway. Rue and Tate left by a back door to avoid them. She had a feeling of dread.
When the trial resumed, it was the museum’s turn. Ellery Tate spoke in an avuncular, easygoing manner. Rue knew it to be an act, but it was an effective one. He gave the argument they had crafted together. “We maintain that this is not a simple case of stolen goods,” he said as if it ought to be obvious to all. “The portrait of Aldry, and its tragic story, is the patrimony of two separate cultures—that of Sarona and of the Manhu. In fact, it has played a more vital role in Saronan history than on Eleuthera, and it has an ongoing role as part of our process of remembrance and acknowledgment of the painful past. Sarona needs this artwork. We seek only to share it with the Manhu.”
Tate called on Rue to give a presentation about the role the Aldry portrait had played in Saronan art, history, and literature. It was her expertise, and it was easy to demonstrate Aldry’s centrality. “We have constructed our own cultural identity around this image and its story,” she concluded. Looking straight at Traversed Bridge, she added, “We love and honor her, because we also are her descendants.”
For a second, he raised his eyes and met hers.
In a low voice, Tate asked, “Magister Savenga, what will the museum do with the portrait if our request is granted?”
“We will keep it in trust for future generations,” she said. “However, we will be willing to loan it to Eleuthera, if that can be done safely. We want to assure that it is preserved and seen by all who wish to see it, forever.”
“And has Traversed Bridge told you what the Manhu wish to do with it?”
“Yes. He said they wish to destroy it.”
For a second, the courtroom was utterly silent. Then there was a stir, till the judge called for order.
Tate turned to the judge. “Sir, we submit that the Manhu seek to make an irrevocable choice. Their plan precludes any possibility of compromise. Once they destroy it, we can never go back. Sarona values this artwork, the Manhu don’t. It is . . .”
“That’s not true,” Traversed Bridge interrupted, looking at him for the first time.
“Are you saying Magister Savenga is lying?”
“No. She is right. We want to destroy it, in keeping with our tradition. That doesn’t mean we don’t value it. We value it in a different way than you—not as a piece of property but as a living ancestor whose desires must be respected. We want to honor her wishes.”
“We cannot call her to testify,” Tate said.
“I must do that for her,” Traversed Bridge said.
“That is hearsay.”
“I would not lie.”
“You may be mistaken.”
“I am not.” He turned to Rue, addressing her directly. “I am sorry to cause you pain. But that is the only way for us to be free of our pain. It has been building for generations. It is our parents’ pain, our grandparents’, clear back to Even Glancing. We carry it around with us, always. We must do this to free not just her, but ourselves.”
Rue leaned forward across the table, speaking directly back to him. “But here’s the thing, Traversed Bridge. This is not an ordinary object. At some point, great art ceases to be bound to the culture that produced it. It transcends ethnicity and identity and becomes part of the patrimony of the human race. It belongs to all of us because of its universal message, the way it makes us better.” She paused, drawing breath. “Yes, it has a ghost. The ghost speaks to all of us, not in words but in our instinct toward beauty and goodness. We are better for having seen it. If it burns, something pure will pass from the world. Do you really want that?”
Their eyes locked together. Traversed Bridge looked as if he was in a vise, and it was tightening. At last he looked down.
“Do you wish to change your request?” the judge asked him.
Slowly, he shook his head. “No. I have to do this,” he whispered.
“Then the court will recess for half an hour,” the judge declared.
Tate was optimistic during the recess, but Rue felt no sense of satisfaction. No matter what happened, someone would be harmed. Far fewer would be harmed if the museum won; but that was like weighing souls on a scale.
When the trial resumed, the judge surprised everyone by announcing that he would give his decision, skipping the usual negotiation of compromise. “Mr. Tate is correct, the Manhu request precludes compromise,” he said. “What they seek is an irrevocable right, and they have already rejected anything short of that.”
Rue’s heart leapt. The judge went on, “However, all the eloquent arguments that have been advanced here do not alter one fact: the portrait is a piece of property, and that is the law that must apply. The museum received stolen property. It was done in ignorance that the true owners survived, but the law is still the same. The Manhu are the owners of the property, and it must be returned to them.”
The courtroom erupted into noise: jubilant noise on one side, agonized protest on the other.
Tate looked staggered. “I had no idea he would decide the case on such narrow legal grounds,” he said to Rue. “We can appeal.”
Rue knew that her director would not want that. He wanted to get this controversy behind him as quickly as possible. She might be able to persuade him, but . . .
“No,” she said. “The law is our cultural heritage, and we have to respect it.”
Across the table, Caraway Farrow was hugging Traversed Bridge in joy; but he did not look joyful. His eyes were once again downcast, avoiding Rue’s. He looked exhausted.
I need to reconcile myself, Rue thought. I need to stop caring.
But not yet.
How did she travel?
They would have sent her by lightbeam,
Fast as a flash,
But the light did not want to take her.
“I’m afraid to be shaped in your memory,” it said,
“Your sorrows and your exile.”
You cannot argue with light.
The artifacts could not be sent to Eleuthera by lightbeam, because what would emerge at the other end would be mere replicas of the originals, robbed of their ghosts. The fastest express ship that could be chartered would cost a fortune and take almost sixty years; but a Saronan capitalist pledged the money, and it was settled.
Rue oversaw construction of the capsule in which the artifacts would make their voyage. In the six months it took, crowds thronged the museum to see Aldry one last time. It was like a funeral. An endless procession passed by her in heartbroken silence.
On the day she came off display, Rue watched the gloved art handlers lower her into the cushioned case where she would be sealed in a nitrogen atmosphere to prevent aging. Rue wanted Aldry to arrive as perfect as she set out.
“Shall we close it up?” an art handler asked.
Rue looked one last time at that young, mysterious face. The expression hadn’t changed. Rue wanted to remember it, since memory was all she would have.
“Yes, close it up,” she said, and turned away. She would never see Aldry again, she thought.
But she was mistaken.
When she comes back the sky will brighten,
Old men will play at cards,
Teachers will review their lessons,
Cooks will stir broth in their kitchens,
Ghosts will not cry in the night.
We will be free of the past.
What good is the past?
Rue was a vigorous ninety-five years old when she realized that fifty years were almost up, and if she were to take the lightbeam to Eleuthera, she could arrive there in time to meet the ship carrying the artifacts.
It was not an easy decision. She would not age a second during the trip, but the rest of the universe would see ten years pass. And on the journey back, another ten years. Everyone of her generation would be dead by the time she got home, and everything she knew would change.
On the other hand, the Aldry trial had been the pivot point of her life. When she looked back, everything before it seemed to have led up to that event, and everything after had followed from it. She had spearheaded an effort to change the law—not just Saronan law, but interplanetary law—so that artifacts of surpassing cultural and historical value could be considered by different standards. A case like Aldry’s would never again be decided as if she were a sack of potatoes. It was Rue’s most important legacy.
Not to go to Eleuthera would mean choosing to miss the end of the story that had shaped her life, and that gave her an unsettled feeling. She wanted to be present at the end, however tragic that end might be.
Secretly, she cherished a glimmer of hope that sixty years would have changed the minds of the Manhu. Once they saw the artwork they would want to save it.
And so one day she closed her eyes on Sarona and opened them on Eleuthera. She had expected someone from Eleuthera University to meet her at the waystation, but instead, the small group waiting for her was led by Traversed Bridge. She recognized him instantly. He had aged well. He still wore his hair long, though now it was streaked with gray, and his eyes were feathered with wrinkles. The biggest change was that he now looked confident and happy.
“This is Softly Bent, the woman who chose me,” he said, “and our eldest daughter, Hanging Breath.”
The two women were dressed in embroidered jackets, with their hair neatly coiled in buns on top of their heads. They both had a determined look that made Traversed Bridge seem positively easygoing by comparison.
They collected Rue’s baggage and Traversed led the way to a rented electric groundcar. He drove, with Rue in the seat beside him. The city around them was a hive of activity. Everything seemed shiny, new, and under construction.
“I’ll take you to your hotel so you can rest up,” he said.
“Thank you. I’m too old for this interstellar travel nonsense.”
“Tomorrow, we will go to the university to open the shipping capsule.”
“It has arrived?”
“A couple weeks ago. They have had it in storage, acclimating.”
“Good. I am glad they are treating her well.”
He glanced at her sideways. “People are quite curious about why you are here. There are some who think you have come to snatch her back. If they are guarded with you, that is why.”
“They can rest easy,” Rue said. “The decision can’t be unmade, unless the Manhu change their minds.”
“That is what I told them.”
They drove on a while in thoughtful silence.
“Did you ever build your dam?” Rue asked.
He smiled. “Yes. You will see it, if you come to our village.”
“Of course I will come to your village. I’m not going to travel all this way and not visit the Manhu.”
He nodded, but glanced at her again. “They made a song about me,” he said.
“About your role in the trial, you mean?”
“About my journey, the trial, everything. And they gave me a new name when I got back. It is a great honor. I am now called No.”
“Because when people kept trying to get me to do this and that, and accept less than we wanted, I kept saying no.”
“Hmm,” she said. “That would be fine, except that the right answer is almost never ‘no.’ The right answer is ‘maybe.’”
“I will tell them you said that,” he said, amused. “You are in the song, you know.”
“I can imagine. Probably the wicked woman guarding her treasures like a dragon.”
“No, in our songs, dragons are lucky.”
She decided she liked Traversed Bridge. Of course, she had never disliked him. She had always thought his convictions were misguided, but sincere and deeply held. But then, so were hers.
The next morning it was an ethnologist from the university, Magister Garrioch, who picked her up. He was a young man with a curly blond beard and a worried expression. Leading her to the car, he told her how he had done his dissertation on the Manhu, and had profound respect for them—“But this Immolation idea that No picked up on Sarona is just plain crazy.” As she settled into the car, he paused before shutting the door. “Can’t you persuade them not to go through with it?”
She gave a wry laugh. “I tried that once. It didn’t end well. Anyway, what makes you think I would have any leverage?”
“No is key to this,” he said. “He is deeply respected, and he respects you.”
“If that is true,” Rue said, “he started respecting me as soon as I stopped trying to persuade him of things.”
Looking frustrated, Garrioch went around to the driver’s seat and started the car. After several blocks Rue said, “I take it there is nothing you can do to prevent the Immolation?”
He shook his head. “Whenever I try to argue, No points out that the Manhu were promised freedom when they came to Eleuthera. He gets really legalistic about it.”
“I’m afraid we taught him that,” Rue said.
“Unfortunately, his argument goes right to the core of our values here. We really believe in freedom.”
“Even freedom to do stupid and self-destructive things?”
“Even that—as No keeps pointing out. Infuriating old man.”
“He was an infuriating young man, too.”
Since Eleuthera had no proper museum facilities, the university was storing the shipping capsule in the basement of their humanities building. When Rue and Garrioch arrived, they found Traversed Bridge waiting along with a delegation of seven Manhu. They looked out of place in the youthful bustle of the glass and brick lobby. All but two of them were elderly women dressed in drab gray. Traversed Bridge introduced Rue to one who seemed to be their leader. “Magister Savenga, this is the Kin Mother of the Whispering Kindom, Vigilant Aspire. She is my aunt.”
Respectfully, Rue said, “I am pleased to meet you.”
Vigilant was a tiny, aged woman, but her eyes were quick and watchful. She regarded Rue with polite suspicion.
Magister Garrioch led them all downstairs into a room off the loading dock, where the shipping capsule waited, still sealed after its long journey. A conservator and two students stood waiting in white lab coats. There was an air of hushed anticipation.
“Vigilant Aspire, would you care to break the seal?” Garrioch said.
She stepped forward and undid the latch. As Garrioch and Traversed Bridge raised the lid, a sigh of old nitrogen escaped. Inside, the artifacts rested in their cushioned cradles. The room was silent as the conservator and her helpers lifted the pieces one by one onto a waiting table: first the drum, then the carved baby, the eggshell, and the knife.
There was a moment of consternation when that appeared to be all. Rue said, “The portrait is underneath.”
The students lifted the tray that partitioned the capsule, and the artwork was revealed. They tilted it vertical so everyone could see.
There were gasps. Aldry looked exactly the same as in Rue’s memories from sixty years ago. She shone, radiant, even in the industrial lighting of the workroom, with her wings revealed. She had never looked so beautiful. Rue felt a painful exaltation at the sight. It had been years since anything had made her feel like this.
Vigilant Aspire’s cheeks were wet with tears. She looked reverent, moved to the bottom of her soul. Rue looked at Traversed Bridge. He also was staring at Aldry, a hint of sadness in his gaze.
The Kin Mother moved forward and raised a hand as if to touch the artwork. Rue suppressed an automatic urge to give a warning about the delicacy of the surface. It was no longer her responsibility—or her right. The Manhu owned the artwork now.
Vigilant brought her lips close to the painting and whispered something to the girl with the wings. Then she stepped back, overcome. Another old woman put an arm around her shoulders.
The Manhu spent a long time examining the artifacts and the artwork. The room seemed to fill with their emotion, tangible as smoke. Traversed Bridge hung back in order to let the others see everything, and Rue took a seat beside him. “What did she say to Aldry?” she whispered to him.
“She welcomed her home,” he said.
At length, the students returned everything to the capsule and latched it again, and Traversed Bridge made arrangements to have it picked up in a truck for the journey to the Manhu village of Threadbare. Rue learned that Magister Garrioch was going to accompany them, and arranged to ride with him.
They set out the next day in a convoy of cars, escorting the flatbed truck carrying the capsule, strapped down under a tarp. It was a long drive into misty, forested hinterlands. The farther they drove, the higher the mountains became and the worse the roads, till they were following a bumpy dirt track that writhed along the sides of sheer gulches, precipices above and chasms below. It was late afternoon when they rounded the shoulder of a mountain and saw a wide valley open up before them: green, terraced fields, a sparkling river, a bridge, and a cluster of tile-roofed homes. The convoy stopped so they could call ahead to announce their arrival and the women could change into brightly embroidered jackets.
“It doesn’t look threadbare at all,” Rue said to Garrioch as they stood at the side of the road looking down on the village.
“Not now. They have made enormous progress in the last fifty years, especially since they put in the dam.” He pointed, and Rue saw it. She had expected something of earth and wood, but instead it was a sheer crescent of concrete, cutting off a narrow gap in the mountains upstream.
Traversed Bridge walked up to them. He saw where she was looking and smiled. “What do you think of it?” he said.
“It’s amazing, Traversed. I can’t imagine how you built it out here.”
“We had to set up a plant to make the concrete,” he said. “We imported the steel sluice gates and machinery, but we did it all with local labor. It took a long time.”
“It’s a great achievement. A wonderful legacy.”
“Yes,” he said, gazing at it proudly.
The rest of the convoy was ready to proceed. “Would you like to ride with me?” he asked her.
She surveyed the situation, then shook her head. “Thank you, but I think I’d better stay in the back of the parade. This is for you and your people.”
He nodded, and headed to his car.
When they came down the steep hill into the village, they found the road lined on both sides with people dressed in their brightest clothes. The convoy passed between jubilant villagers shouting, singing, pounding on drums, and shaking rattles. After the last car passed, the people crowded into the roadway, joining the procession as it threaded through the narrow streets and downhill toward an open plaza near the river.
The vehicles stopped in front of a large community meeting house, and the crowd pressed around them. Two young men jumped onto the bed of the truck and threw the tarpaulin off the capsule. All noise ceased as they unlatched the cover and threw it back. One of them picked up the drum and held it overhead so everyone could see, then passed it down to someone in the crowd. The other objects followed. Then, after a moment of puzzlement, they uncovered the portrait and raised it high between them, showing it to the crowd. It flashed iridescent in the sun, and there was a collective gasp. For a moment, all was silent; then someone began to sing. Others joined in, till the whole crowd was singing solemnly, in unison.
“It’s a welcome song,” Garrioch said to Rue.
The two men descended from the truck and began to carry Aldry around the town square so everyone could see her. The people holding the artifacts fell in behind. The crowd drew back reverently to let them pass. Everywhere, people wept in joy.
Rue realized that Traversed Bridge had come up and was standing beside her, watching. She said, “I am glad to see them so happy.”
He nodded. “They have known nothing but pain for so long. Generations. You can see all that pain pouring off of them, washing away.”
He had been proud of the dam, but now his pride came from a deeper spot. This was his true legacy, Rue thought. Surely now he would reconsider throwing it all away. Aldry herself was the true persuader.
After circling the crowd twice, the procession of artifacts passed inside the community hall, and people started lining up for a chance to see them all again. The sun had dropped below the mountain to the west, and the air was growing chilly. A festival atmosphere had taken hold. Five musicians began to play on pipes and drums, and brightly dressed girls formed a ring for dancing.
“Would you both do me the honor of staying at my home tonight?” Traversed Bridge asked Rue and Garrioch.
“Thank you, that would be lovely,” Rue said.
Reminded of something, Traversed said, “Just don’t ask my wife if you can help with anything. It will offend her.”
His home was close to the center of town, as befitted a leading citizen. It was a large structure with a concrete-block first floor and a second floor of stained wood, with intricately carved shutters and rafters. The windows glowed bright and welcoming, and electric lanterns hung from the eaves.
Inside, grandchildren were everywhere. When Traversed Bridge’s daughter saw the guests enter, she hustled the youngsters off to another room. Traversed offered the guests something he called “wine,” which turned out to be a potent distilled liquor. They could hear bustling from the kitchen. A young man who bore a striking resemblance to the young Traversed Bridge peered into the room curiously, and Traversed went to give him some sort of instructions.
Garrioch whispered to Rue, “No is a little hard on his son. The poor fellow can never live up to his father’s standards.”
“No doesn’t remember what he was like at that age,” Rue whispered back. Or maybe he does, she thought, and doesn’t want to be reminded.
They ate a bountiful dinner with the other adults, and then Softly Bent showed Rue to a shared sleeping room with five beds. Tired from the journey, she decided to turn in early, and fell asleep to the sound of music from the town square.
The next morning she got up just after sunrise and went out, intending to walk to the river. Early as she was, a crew of Manhu were already in the square, building a cone-shape wicker framework that towered ten meters into the air. She sat on a bench in front of the community center, watching them work with a sense of foreboding.
Garrioch came into the square, took in the scene, and saw Rue. He came over to her.
“It looks like they’re going through with it,” he said grimly.
“Yes,” she agreed. The workers were placing firewood and charcoal inside the conical framework.
“Maybe we should leave.”
“No,” she said. “Our presence may be a deterrent. There may be something we can do.”
He looked sick at heart, but sat down next to her.
All through the morning people came, carrying belongings to hang on the wicker pyramid, or to heap around it. They brought blankets and clothes, food and furniture and fishing tackle, baskets, birdcages, books, and baby cradles. Children contributed drawings they had made and toys they had treasured. Old women brought intricate embroideries, and craftsmen gave up their carvings and tools. Everything valuable, everything treasured, was added to the pile.
By noon it was a massive tower, and men on ladders were filling the upper tiers. Vigilant Aspire came into the plaza, leaning on Traversed Bridge’s arm. He brought her slowly over to the bench where Rue and Garrioch sat, and they rose to let her have their seats.
“Are you leaving?” Traversed Bridge asked the visitors.
“No,” Rue said, facing him with determination. “We are going to watch.”
He hesitated, taking in her expression, then looked away. “As you please,” he said.
He walked off to find some other people in what was by now a large crowd of two or three thousand. Rue watched as he led a group of four others into the community building. They emerged with each one carrying an artifact. The crowd made way as they proceeded at a stately pace toward the pyre. Each artifact was handed up to a man on a ladder, who attached them high up on the framework. Last of all, Traversed handed up Aldry, and the worker hung her at the very pinnacle of the pyramid. The sun flashed on her wings, spread like a silver bird.
As the ladders were taken away, some musicians started playing a song on reed pipes and drums, and the crowd gathered round, singing. When the song ended, the musicians threw their instruments onto the pile and drew back. Five men came forward with cans of kerosene and started splashing it on the lowest tier of the pile. The square was so quiet, a child’s voice asking a question echoed loudly, and laughter rippled through the crowd.
The five men soaked long-handled torches in the kerosene and lit them, then looked to Traversed Bridge for a signal.
Rue could no longer hold her peace. She pushed through the crowd to where Traversed Bridge was standing. “Traversed,” she said, and he turned. “For pity’s sake, stop this madness.”
His face looked set, like concrete. “You don’t have to stay.” Then, as she refused to move or back down, the emotion he had been holding back broke through his control. “You didn’t have to come at all. Why are you even here?”
“I did have to come,” she said. “I do have to witness, for my people. So you will know the pain you are causing us.”
“What about our pain?” His voice broke on the words. “Your people never cared about that.”
“Is that what this is really about? Revenge for wrongs we did to you?”
He drew a breath, gathering control. “This isn’t about you at all. It’s about us. Our chance to reclaim who we are.”
“By destroying everything you have achieved, everything you have to be proud of?”
He looked up at Aldry. “Even Glancing will live in our songs,” he said. “She will still be radiant in our memories. But she will be free. And so will we.”
Rue realized that the men with the torches were still standing by, waiting for Traversed to give them the signal. The entire crowd was watching silently.
He nodded for them to go ahead. The men turned and thrust the torches deep into the pile. The fire kindled right away, blue kerosene flames licking upward. The crowded square was utterly silent as they watched the fire climb higher and higher. Rue wanted to flinch away, not to see, but she forced her eyes to stay on Aldry as smoke billowed around her.
She felt Traversed Bridge take her hand, and she gripped tightly as she saw the portrait start to scorch, then blacken, then kindle. The flames were now roaring skyward, and they engulfed Aldry, hid her. Finally, the whole wicker contraption collapsed, and everything fell into one flaming pile.
There were tears on her face, though she didn’t know how they had gotten there. She wiped them away and turned to look at Traversed Bridge. His face was also wet.
“We have to leave now,” he said.
The whole crowd was moving, exiting the square. Traversed Bridge walked back to help Vigilant Aspire to her feet, and Garrioch came to Rue’s side. “Do you want me to bring the car?” he asked.
“No, I can walk to it.”
They found themselves caught in a tide of people, cars, and animals leaving the village. The narrow road was clogged, and Garrioch’s car could move no faster than the general pace. Several times they stopped to pick up elders whose legs had given out, or mothers carrying babies, until the car was full and people were riding on the hood and bumper.
When they came to the wide spot on the mountain where they had paused the day before to look out over the village, the crowd stopped moving. Everyone gathered to look out over their homes, and the bonfire still smoking in the center. Rue and Garrioch got out to see what was going on.
Traversed Bridge’s rental car brought up the last stragglers, and he got out to survey the scene. Then he took out his phone and made a call. Everyone was looking west to where the sun hung low on the shoulder of the mountain.
A puff of smoke bloomed from the midpoint of the dam, and seconds later came the sound of the explosion. A gap appeared in the concrete wall; then, slowly, the top started to collapse and water poured out. As the whole midsection of the dam crumbled, a massive brown gusher erupted. Gathering speed as it passed down the valley, it took boulders and trees before it, foaming as it washed toward the village.
At Rue’s side, Garrioch was groaning. “I can’t watch,” he said. She couldn’t take her eyes away. The water swept into the village, smashing buildings, engulfing the bridge, and spreading out to wash over the fields.
So much effort, so much progress, and now the Manhu were back to the poverty where they had started.
The reservoir continued to drain as the sun set, and the drowned valley fell into shadow. Everyone seemed to be preparing to spend the night where they were—lighting campfires, spreading blankets, gathering in family groups. Garrioch turned to Rue for guidance. “Should we leave?”
Rue looked around her. She didn’t want to abandon them all like this and go back to the city’s comforts. “If they can sleep on the mountain, I can sleep in the car,” she said.
He looked relieved—partly not to have to drive the mountain roads all night, but more so not to have to make a decision, she thought.
They dined on some nut bars and fruit chips that Garrioch had in the car; it was more than some of the Manhu had. Then, as night fell, people started singing around the campfires—lilting, happy songs that the children could join, and that masked the sadness.
Rue woke before dawn. The scenes of the day before kept running through her head. When the sky started to lighten, she left the car with Garrioch still sleeping in it. The mountain air was chilly, but the sky was clear.
She was not the only one awake. Out on the edge of the cliff overlooking the valley, Traversed Bridge was sitting, his back to the camp, looking out into the void. She walked over to join him.
Below, the place where the village had been was a sea of mud and debris, a brown wasteland. Nothing had survived. Upstream stood the breached dam like an ancient ruin.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
He paused a long time. “No,” he said. “It’s hard to give it all up. But anything worth doing is hard.”
It didn’t follow that anything hard was worth doing, she thought, but left it unsaid. He already looked broken.
“What will you do now?”
“Start over,” he said heavily. “Or at least, my kids will.”
She was silent then, wondering how anyone could bequeath such devastation to their children.
As if hearing her thoughts, or thinking them himself, he said, “I did it for them. So they would never have to wonder if they were truly Manhu.” He looked up at her. “We don’t want to be like you people of Sarona, you Hoarders. We don’t want to drag our past behind us. It’s too heavy for us to bear.”
They fell silent again. The sun peeked over a gap in the mountains, lighting the valley below them.
“Look,” he said, pointing upstream. Above the dam, a large flock of birds was circling. They shifted course, then came down the valley, till they settled in a cloud on the flats where the village had been.
“Maybe they’re replanting our fields,” Traversed said, smiling.
Rue could almost see the flash of silver wings.
What good is the past?
The past is everything lost.
The past is never again.
The past doesn’t feed anyone.
Only the future does that.
“Exile’s End” copyright © 2020 by Carolyn Ives Gilman
Art copyright © by Mary Haasdyk