The Brighter World

In  by June 23, 2023

The sun was so hot, and the two full wooden buckets weighed so much! No matter how Tallie held them, their hard handles, salvaged Old-Time wire wrapped in rawhide, hurt her fingers or her palms, and every time she stepped carelessly, another gout of the precious water would slop out into the dust and filth of the street. But big sister Hepsa needed the water so she could have supper ready when Mother and Father came home hungry and tired from the fields, and fetching it was Tallie’s job.

In some places, the villagers built long conduits out of adze-hollowed logs, or even out of stone, to bring fresh water in. Traders sometimes had lengths of Old-Time pipe, too, closed and perfectly round, made of copper or strange slippery stuff called plastic. The village smith liked the copper, and the plastic tube made good spouts: but the pieces were far too short for a conduit, and nobody knew the secret of joining them anymore.

Tallie scuffed viciously at a pebble, careful not to let her shoulders join in the motion. She knew how to use an adze, at least for simple jobs, but building a conduit all the way from the spring to the village was far too much work for one little girl. It figured: the workers who were good at building things weren’t the ones who had to carry the water. Grownups said that the work built character, but grownups always said silly things like that. Tallie was doing perfectly well with the character she had now. And ... the buckets were so heavy.

She was at the marketplace now: only a little way to go before she was home and could put the buckets down. Hepsa would still want her to peel vegetables and sweep the floor, but that wasn’t so bad.

Today wasn’t market day: the square was empty except for one thin grey-haired woman, a stranger, slouching on one of the hewn-log benches. She wore a shirt of coarse woven stuff, and a worn deerskin skirt. A battered walking stick rested against her legs, the wood grimy with long use. When the woman saw Tallie, she pulled herself up straighter. “Come here, girl,” she said. “I want to tell you a story.”

“I’ve got to get home, aunt,” said Tallie.

The woman reached into her patched leather shoulder pouch. “Would you like this apple?”

Tallie looked dubiously at the small wrinkled fruit. The village storerooms had better, though at this time of year, early summer, they were only given out once a week. How could she refuse politely? Sharp eyes watched her expression. “You’ve been working so hard, dear, carrying those big buckets for your family. You deserve a little rest and a bite to eat.”

Tallie couldn’t argue with that. She set the buckets down and held out her hand. “That’s very kind of you, aunt.”

The old woman smiled and gave her the apple, then began like all the storytellers did. “Hear me!” Her voice rose in the traditional chant, pitched to attract an audience out of a noisy market-day crowd. It sounded strange in the empty square. “Hear me! Hear me, and I’ll tell you a tale, a tale of long ago and far away.”

“Do you know any stories about werewolves? Or spaceships?” Tallie took a bite from the apple. The flesh was no longer crisp, but there was only one small rotten patch.

“Yes, I do, but they aren’t the story you’re going to hear now.” The woman was using her normal voice again. “I’m going to tell you a story of how people began to work together.”

Once a crowd had put a few coins into a storyteller’s cup, they usually wrangled amongst themselves about the choice of story: that was the first part of the entertainment, and could go on for some time. But today, Tallie was eating the storyteller’s apple, and it wasn’t her place to argue. She nodded. “The adults work together in our fields every day. Some days we work with them.”

This is different.” Sharp iron in the woman’s voice. “This is a story of the years when the seas began to rise. When the sun burned the plants, and the winds scoured the soil. This is the story of what people did to save the world.”

“Tell me, please.” Tallie flicked the rotten bit of the apple into the dust with her thumbnail, took another bite, and made herself comfortable at the empty end of the bench.

“In those years a leader came forth. She had a voice that could charm a baby from its mother’s breast, that could talk a squirrel down from a tree, or soothe the storm wind. She saw that the earth was sick, sick from the breath of the factories and the machines. She saw that the storms grew worse each year, and that the seas rose higher. For years she had watched the earth grow sicker, waiting for somebody to take the lead and fix things: and when nobody else stepped forward, she did so herself. She called people together—first the people from her town, then from her country, and finally from the whole big round world—and she told them that they were dancing down the road to destruction.” The storyteller paused.

At this point, usually some grownup would have added another coin to the cup, but Tallie had none. “Did they listen to her?” she asked.

“How could they do otherwise? I tell you, child, she had a voice of gold. And she was not alone: she gathered helpers around her. There were wise scientists who knew all the secrets of nature, and clever engineers who could build anything you could think of. There were administrators who could turn a thousand aimless people into an efficient team, and financiers who could find the money to pay for it all.”

Tallie wasn’t sure quite what all these people did, but it sounded very grand and wonderful. She hugged herself and listened.

The old storyteller’s eyes glittered. “She told the people that it was too late to save some of their cities, but that they could save the rest—and they listened to her, and they built new homes for those whose old homes were lost. She told them that if those who had more than they needed helped those who had lost everything, then everybody would have something—and the rich people heard her, and they gave, and they gave. No longer was it the fashion to be wasteful while others went hungry and homeless. And she told the people of the world that they could be strong and brave, and that they could choose the way of honour—and those who had once been weak and fearful became such a force for good as the world has never known. They faced hardship gladly; they worked beside old enemies like sisters and brothers; and in the end they won through, and the new world that they built together was brighter and better than before.”

Tallie popped the core in her mouth and chewed. She looked around at the dusty marketplace, at the shacks lining the stinking road. People said that the Old-Time world had been a place of marvels, of buildings a thousand feet high, of machines that flew like birds and ran faster than horses. If there was a world even brighter than that, it must be somewhere very far away! Anyhow, the apple and the story were finished. She stood up, reached to take up her buckets again, then remembered her manners. “Are you thirsty, aunt?” Carefully, so as not to spill any water, she moved one of the buckets over by the woman’s feet, putting it within easy reach.

The woman smiled. “I am, dear! Telling stories is thirsty work.” She took a tin mug from her pouch, reached down, dipped up water still cold from the spring, and sipped. “Thank you very much .”

Tallie looked at the stranger’s lined face, her tight lips, and sensed an untold secret. “Aunt, is that a true story?”

The storyteller gazed silently into the depths of her tin mug. “It’s a story,” she said.

Tallie hesitated. “Were you once that woman, the leader?”

“Weren’t you listening, child?” She slapped the bench, impatiently. “I told you it was just a story! We had no leadersno real leaders. That was the problem! And me? In university I presented a few papers about climate change to people who already agreed with what I said.” Tallie had only a vague idea what a university was, but the old woman’s voice was so bitter and so intense that she was afraid to interrupt. “Then I went into politics, because they said that was the best way to become powerful. Like all the other politicians, I told people that they could have whatever they wanted—maybe not right now, but very soon. And I was good at telling them that—oh, I was very, very good.” She sighed. “But we all knew that the world was going to hell, didn’t we? And we all looked the other way because it was easier. And so, of course, it happened. Maybe we—maybe I—could have done more. We’ll never know, will we?”

Tallie’s eyes prickled with tears. She blinked them away, bit her lip. “Then … then why tell me that stupid story, if it’s not true?” Instantly she regretted her rudeness, but the old woman’s expression did not change.

“Because every story’s a lesson, child. And every lesson’s a possibility.” She put her cup away and got to her feet, straightening as stiffly as a rusty hinge, using her stick to lever herself upward. “Thank you for the water.”

“Have you eaten, aunt?” Tallie asked. Hepsa would grumble later in private about not being warned, but hospitality to travellers was everybody’s obligation.

The woman shook her head. “There’s somewhere else I have to get to tonight. But it’s good of you to ask, dear. Now remember that story, and when your chance comes to make this poor world a better place—do it!” She flashed a quick grin, then turned and walked, with only a hint of a limp, toward the big road that led to the next village and the wide world beyond.

Tallie picked up her heavy buckets and trudged homeward. That water conduit, now: that was something that would make the world a better place. The village, anyway. But she’d have to get a lot of other people to help her build it … and that would mean standing up at the next village meeting, making her proposal in front of all the adults and elders, and explaining why it was so important. The thought made her feel trembly inside, but she knew that she could do it.

And then maybe they could all do something about the stinky streets.

Copyright © 2023 Robert Dawson

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Robert Dawson

Robert Dawson teaches mathematics at a Nova Scotian university. His stories have appeared in Nature Futures, AE, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies. He's an alumnus of the Sage Hill and Viable Paradise writing workshops.

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