Oota's Tale



"As with all the ocean’s prophecies, this last one must also come to pass. I do not tell this tale to frighten you child, but so you will lament the knowing of it, and thereby remember..."

Yuma knew better than to interrupt Oota Dabun when the Elder got a certain glimmer in his eye. That one surviving eye -- the other pierced long ago by a Hunkpapa arrowhead -- held a flame that danced around itself in myriad coruscations.

A faraway look rose on the old man’s face like a polished moon upon the grasslands outside, and a narration of one of the High Fables always followed it.

Oota Dabun’s gift with words had earned him the right of tribe storyteller for half his immeasurable life. More than words, really. For after a minute of listening to the Elder’s resonant voice filling the wigwam, Yuma could actually see the shapes created by those words -- a falling star, say, that may or may not be a spark from the small fire smouldering between them. On this day, Yuma’s thoughts conjured up a vast ocean, wider than any word could possibly contain.

Yuma crossed his legs and touched his headband to invoke the learning spirit of the owl to whom the single feather nodding there had once belonged. He propped his chin on his hands and presented the Kokopelli medicine man with his most attentive stare.

Satisfied, the old man drew a husky breath from the wigwam’s foggy air and went on:

"The words of this foretelling are not written down, for that would require a language unknown to the depths. No, child, the knowledge is summed up in the weight of the shifting tides, the potent currents that ebb and flow below the below, where the waters run blacker than any night you have ever seen in your twelve short wheels.

‘The wisdom weaves across plankton and coral, sandbank and reef, carried on perhaps, by the delicate sweep of a squid’s tail or the ever-silent mouthing of a lone cuttlefish..."

Yuma coughed. Oota Dabun raised a bristled eyebrow like a snow-laded bough.

"What is skwid?"

"A fish with many legs."

"A fish with legs?"

Oota nodded. "You too have legs? One for running and one for kicking?"

Yuma nodded uncertainly. Oota smiled.

"You too were once a fish...but that is a tale for another day. This day, I shall tell you of a different breed of fish, a grand old master of the upper waves. I shall tell you how his prophecy passed through aquatic generations, never missing scale or gill, never skipping tentacle or claw, and how the master ensured its heritage. From the time when the first rains came, weeping grey sorrow across countless years, until the bottomless canyons filled up like a well, and Brother Land lost his wager to the Sea Mother, the prophecy lay buried in the soul of the waters."

Oota paused to throw some herbs on the fire. The dry leaves crackled, sending up embers into the gloom. The smell of them touched Yuma’s nostrils with pungent fingers.

"Those waters pool around us now, sending ripples back into the first day and then forward into the long future. It is the ocean of yesterday where I begin my tale, in the northern seas, where the cresting waves are a blue shroud for our dead forebears, the Crystal Race....’

Yuma sat up in excitement. "You speak of the Drowned Island?"

"I speak of the Deep, child, and all the things that swim within it. But some ghosts will not be silenced by distance or by time. Know this; when the Drowned Island sank, crystal shards scattered to everywhere and nowhere and all the places in between, the eldest of our people washed up along these shores. The first of us became the Kokopelli -- a myth in ourselves, that no book tells of or man speak of without a blessing or a curse -- but again, that is another tale. See the branches of the Story Tree, child, and how no beginning is one beginning, but forks out like a prairie road, like wandering feet through virgin grass, going wherever fate may lead?"

"Yes, Age-Father."

"It is the same way with us. Some of us were Kokopelli, and some of us went down with the Island and became creatures of the Deep -- noble beings such as the dolphin and the seahorse...and the whale..."

"The Crystal Race turned into...fish?"

Oota nodded, feeling the beat of the tale warm him in a way the fire could not.

At the same moment, Yuma felt the chill of the ancient waters, their weight pressing down from the canvas walls. Dust blowing against the outer skin of the wigwam sounded like rain falling on waves, or waves hushing upon a sandy beach.

The canvas billowed and swelled as if the sea itself echoed there. Shapes thrown by the fire flowed across the patchwork -- humpbacked, wide finned, smooth as marble -- a school of shadow whales spearing through the depths.

"Behold, child, the ocean of the past..."

Without any transition other than a slow swirl of smoke, the walls of the wigwam glimmered and evaporated. Yuma remained sitting with the old man around the fire, but now the endless grasslands were visible all around him. As Yuma watched, the shadow whales surfaced and dived between the windblown blades as though the prairie itself was a heaving sea. A moment after that and the grasslands were a sea -- the rolling green pastures bruising to dark slate, the shade of stormy skies and unspoken regret. The grass blurred into a blue forever, the wind tossing each wave into argent pearls of spume and then down into a profound and inky trough.

Yuma and Oota floated a hand’s breadth above the dragging waters, liquid walls rearing on all sides but never dimming the brightness of the flame between them. The spice in Yuma’s nostrils had become the distinctive tang of salt.

"Even before the first man was an inkling in the World Father’s limitless mind," Oota Dabun continued, "the Sea was old. Its secrets sacrosanct, its mysteries untold. Before the oceans waned, before Brother Land divided into continents and skerries, the Great Whales sang to each other in the Diminishing Deep. Take a breath child. Take a breath..."

Yuma did as instructed, the salt and rain stinging his throat. Then Oota chanted something, and boy, Elder and fire all plunged downward into the tugging darkness.

The swells closed over their heads like a sudden nightfall, and beckoned on by the flickering firelight, Yuma felt himself sinking.

"When a man dies," Oota told him through a whirl of bubbles, "it is always to the sea he returns. Born of water, born in water, to water he returns. The sea is a cerement for all that has ever lived. Here, an angel may raise a man’s soul up to the heavens...or a demon wrench them down to the fiery fissures on the ocean floor. One last baptism and then eternity. The whales around us are the sentinels of this endless passing..."

Yuma had not been aware of the whales until Oota mentioned them. His vision cleared, pushing back the murk into a cerulean sheen. Within the luminescence, he observed the mammoth shapes gliding around them -- the shadow whales grown huge and hoary, all swimming in the same silent direction.

A scarred fin passed over Yuma’s feather, and the boy caught sight of tremendous gills and peculiar markings as the school headed past the glittering fire and onward into chasms of dusk.

The boy was ready to ask a question when the Deep reverberated with ballooning echoes, like the sound a heart might make when it finally breaks.

"Hearken to the master’s song. The song of aeons and self-sacrifice. The Song of the Leviathans."

Even the old man sounded breathless with wonder.

Yuma, his eyes fixed on the passing tailfins, asked:

"What are they saying? What are the words of their song?"

Yuma smiled again, though now the gloom reflected in his face.

"They sing of the coming dark," he said. "They sing of the coming of man."

Yuma turned toward the Elder with a fearful look. Oota nodded, confirming the youth had every reason for dread.

"Yes, child. They sing of the End of Time."

"Only twice will they make this journey. The one you are seeing is the first. They travelled thousands of miles, every single whale upon the earth, to meet in the axis of the Deep and consider their purpose. And the sea delivered unto them a prophecy."

Yuma swallowed with eagerness.

"What was it? What did they learn?"

Oota slowly shook his head, his hair weaving pale reeds in the undulating current.

"Alas, the words of this foretelling are not written down, for that would require a language unknown to the depths. But look around you child, and drink. Drink of the dreaming past. Share in its splendour."

Yuma gazed uncertainly into the layers of ocean around him.

Suddenly, a shaft of sunlight split the blue, sending bubbles shimmering in a halo across the infinite emptiness. Looking down, he saw coral blooming in pink flowers and a string of coloured fished dashed under his feet like the lick of a rainbow. Soft trees worshipped on the rippling seabed, their lush fronds sweeping up eddies of sand, scattering diamonds into the wash.

But the clarity of these things were more than mere visions -- in his mind and in his heart, Yuma drank of the clarity surrounding him, and something nameless stirred within his breast, exalting soundlessly.

Yuma, Oota and the impossibly burning fire drifted over a tangle of kelp to where a jagged shelf of rock jutted out in both directions. Beyond it, the ocean proper heaved and swayed. As far as Yuma could see, the waters were crammed with whales.

There were scabrous grey beasts, their flanks crusted with barnacles, and there were sleek black creatures, livid white stripes streaking their glossy skins. There were ponderous behemoths with narrow slit mouths, and smaller mammals with strange snub noses, all suspended in a vast circular tier beyond the shelf.

Oota didn’t need to tell the boy what the phenomenon signified. Yuma had been to enough tribal councils to recognise a moot when he saw one. Here, the exchange of resonant mantras substituted the passing of the peace pipe, but unlike the Kokopelli get-togethers, what the marine denizens deliberated remained an enigma.

Oota pointed upward into the circling galleries above, his wizened features drawn together in thought.

"And so it begins," he said.

As if his words were a cue, the whales began chanting a sonorous dirge. An extraordinary current moved around the outside of the gathering like a sluggish whirlpool, and as it flowed, the aquatic lament spiralled into a lone melancholy note. The waters vibrated, and Yuma put up his hands to his ears, fearing the cacophony would deafen him. The dirge reached an almost unbearable pitch, and then abruptly, it ceased.

Into the lull, a lesser whale sailed into the centre of the expectant arena, clearly volunteering for some unknown duty. The whale’s bottle-shaped nose nodded once, twice, and then the tiers of the various leviathans dispersed, beating their mighty fins as if carried away by the echoes of their hymn.

"And so it ends," Oota breathed sadly.

Yuma watched until the whales had disappeared into the wavering distance. All but the bottle nosed creature, who lingered silently above the shelf, remained behind. Then, with a gentle flick of its fin, it moved gradually toward the surface.

Oota passed his hand over the fire, eyes twinkling, and then they were travelling again, drifting in the creature’s wake.

As they went, Yuma observed outlandish shadows keeping pace with them. At first, the shadows were indistinct, spectres dancing through the gloom, but after a while, they struggled towards solidity.

"We journey on the under-rivers of time," the old man said. "Behold, child, the ocean of the future..."

The waters grew colder and darker. Here and there, Yuma saw shady patches glimmering in the deep, and then huge nets fell around him in bristling curtains, sweeping cyclones of fish into their closing snares. Yuma let out a cry as he watched a dolphin battling against a wall of rope, tail flickering desperately as it sought to free itself, while every motion entwined it further toward its doom.

As they moved nearer the surface, following the distant shape of the little whale, elliptical shapes struck out across the waves, and Yuma knew he was looking at the underside of remarkable boats.

He opened his mouth to demand an explanation, when a gargantuan shape came zooming up from the depths. Long it was, with flanks as black as charcoal. The cylindrical vessel reared past, its rounded nose arrogantly parting the tides, a single turret cresting through the current like a blunted boning knife.

The force of its passage sent Oota and Yuma reeling around their campfire, the old man’s fingers clinging to the boy’s jerkin to prevent the eddies from carrying him away. In the confusion, Yuma caught sight of men’s faces pressed to the rounded port of a window, set like a cold eye in the vessel’s side.

The strange undersea boat thundered past, and then was gone, leaving behind it a trail of some oily substance.

Oota righted himself, a look of concern upon his face, and pressed his free hand to his chest. In a moment, Yuma and the fire broke the surface of the ocean, whirling in a circle above the mellow waves. Instinctively, the boy grabbed a lungful of air from the cloudless sky, as though the journey had robbed it of him.

Gulls flapped wildly about his head, their eerie cries competing with the thud-thud of some approaching beast.

Yuma turned, and yelled in terror as the enormous white brow of a ship bore down on them. A shadow fell over the day. Oota Dabun passed his hands over each other, and the fire swung out of the vessel’s way.

The giant ship passed them with a roar, huge blades pummelling the waves, smoke belching forth from the towering funnel set upon its back. An acrid smell assaulted the boy’s nostrils, and he looked to the elder in despair.

Oota said nothing. They were speeding over the waves, leaving the gulls and the smoke behind. Up ahead, Yuma caught sight of the little whale again, and pointed, hollering out.

As they travelled after the animal, they passed immense constructs rearing out of the water on thick black legs. Chains and pipes writhed from the upper deck of the structures, piercing the depths in countless spears. The air around these angular islands seemed full of foreboding, and Yuma felt a chill encase his heart.

"Yes, child, you do well to shudder. Here you see the wicked plunderers, the ravishers of the Deep. They drink the very blood of the land, never seeing how their own flesh connects to the Earth. For each stolen jewel, each pilfered vein of the planet’s soul, a little piece of man dies too."

"It...it is the great wheel turning," Yuma stammered.

Oota gave a scowl, though not for the boy. "Yes. And for the very last time."

A sheen of scum floated upon the waves, and Yuma turned away in disgust.

Up ahead, a coastline rushed toward them, and the little whale, nothing more than a fleet shadow under the waves, moved swiftly toward it.

Hills rose gently above the rocky shoreline, parting to make way for the broad river dissecting the land. At the river’s mouth, Oota clapped his hands, pulling the fire and the boy under the surface again, shooting upstream in the wake of the whale.

The river narrowed, became murky, yet the impossibly burning fire illuminated the way. Yuma looked in dismay at the passing sights -- the twisted shell of a ruined vehicle, the reefs of sewage and the yellow streaks of poisoned foam choking the riverbed.

Once, they passed a submerged mountain of metallic cans, and in another moment, a bloated body, eyeless sockets staring at Yuma as it drifted past, toothless mouth gaping in some wordless rebuke.

A troubled cry resounded in the boy’s ears.

Ahead of them, the bottle nosed whale was in trouble. Shadows cast by bridges crisscrossed the river’s surface, and the whale struggled against jags of junk, crude stone abutments and the rusted hulls of boats. Yuma gagged on the filth, peering up at the wavering outlines of tall buildings looming over the flow. He saw an orange eye set in the side of a looming brown tower, glaring down into the waters like a scourge.

The boy tasted blood.

He squinted into the murk, and saw the open wounds in the whale’s flanks. Dark red streaks meandered through the gloom like hungry wraiths. The little whale sang out in pain, banking onto one side as it neared the shallows, rising to take a breath of the fetid air above.

"We have to help it," Yuma urged. "The animal is hurt."

Oota shook his head. "What must be, must be. That is the backbone of prophecy."

Yuma began an argument but the elder would not hear him. Men in leathery skins had arrived in the haze around them; bizarre lenses placed over their heads as they swam toward the bottlenose whale and placed their hands upon it.

In each of the men’s faces, Yuma read shock and apprehension, and his heart leapt toward them. But Oota Dabun remained unmoved.

"See now," he said to the circling divers, though they could not hear him, "see how your envoy has come! As your glaciers melt, your waters rise and your sky darkens. It is too late to mourn the foolishness of yesterday! Here now is your sacrifice. The world is changing, and there is no room left in it for greed!"

The men floated around them helplessly, the reflections of the city above playing on their visors like a riddle of doom.

Then, in a blink, they were gone.

The bottlenose whale rested against a benighted mud bank, slowly dying.

Oota, Yuma and the fire drifted over to it, and the old man placed a hand near its unblinking eye.

"Rest now, Uullarooph," he soothed, "and know this was not of your doing. Others will come -- many, many others, penguin, whale, shark and squid -- washing up along the banks of the Earth’s last cities on a rolling surf of death. They will choke the harbours, strangle the inlets, fading and rotting beneath the moon and sun, their stench a cry to heaven. Each one will come with the prophecy, to warn humankind against their wounding. Each one will come as a sacrifice, a plea to cease the murder of the sea. You were the first. For this, you will be remembered..."

Yuma, his throat thick with tears, leant toward the fire and the old man.

"Why?" he demanded. "Why must this creature die? Will the human tribes never listen?"

Abruptly, the fire winked out. A tremendous rush of wind and water coiled around the boy in the engulfing darkness, and out of the roaring gulf came Oota’s voice, great and terrible, sundering the world.

"Not until the sun goes out and the sky turns black. Not until the seas dry up and the earth cracks wide. Not until the stars fall and the moon crumbles. Not until the last tree falls and is swallowed by ash. Not until the mountains shatter and the hills explode. Not until the last living child on the last living prairie takes its final breath. Then -- and only then -- will humanity look back and say, ‘I am sorry. I was wrong...’"

A howling filled the universe. Yuma covered his face to shut out the visions conjured by the old man’s words. He wailed against his own skin, tasting salt and shame, and barely felt the warmth of the fire when it returned.

Oota Dabun placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

They sat in the wigwam, the pungent herbs crackling on the blaze between them, the winds caressing the grasslands outside and buffeting the canvas walls.

Gradually, as Yuma’s encampment reassembled itself, he let his hands fall into his lap.

He faced Oota with his tear-streaked face.

"Home," he breathed, as if to confirm it. "Home again -- in the past. And these visions, these sights you’ve shown me..."

Oota gave a melancholy smile, "All yet to come, my child. Yet to come."

"But...but if all those things have not happened, then...then there must be a way to change it, to choose a different path..."

Oota shook his head. "Alas. Death will come from the ocean, Yuma."

"But...but there has to be something we can do!"

Oota considered the boy for a moment, his grizzled white head nodding slowly. Finally, he looked away and said:

"There is one thing. One thing only."

"What? What is it? Tell me and it will be done!"

Oota’s smile faded to a wrinkled line of sorrow.

"Bend not one blade of grass," he said.

Yuma took this in, his mind spinning. After a while, he looked up from the fire and faced the Elder with a troubled brow.

"Age-father, that is impossible."

Oota sighed, and clasped his hands together, knowing that the Fable and the lesson had come to an end.

"Yes, child. But such is the nature of man."


© 2006 by JwBennett

Bio: JwBennett, self-styled neomythologist, is a British writer of dark fantasy, horror and the occasional contemporary fable. His mini-novella Practical Devil Worship (For All the Family) is available now in a limited edition format and his debut novel Unrequited (under the name James Bennett) is released this summer through Zumaya Publications. Oota's Tale was inspired by events in London 2005.

JwBennett is presently at work on a dark fantasy trilogy. Raised in the wilds of Africa and Cornwall, he now lives at large somewhere in the UK. Further information is available on the author’s website: JWBennett: Neomythologist

E-mail: JWBennett

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