Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
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The Soulbird Pendant

by NC Smith




We saw the Strangers on the top of the ridge. There was no place to hide. They probably had already seen us. If not, they would soon. I didn’t know want to do! The Tall Man, my friend, saw my distress and took my arm to support me.

“Easy now, love,” he said. “Maybe you should sit down.”

I nodded, my vision already shrinking and heartbeat pounding in my ears. With shaking hand, I grabbed his arm, and the Tall Man eased me down on a fallen, moss-covered tree trunk. Focusing on taking a couple of deep, shaky breaths I looked at him. He crouched down in front of me and patted my knee. “It will be okay, my friend. I have a good feeling about this. These people are not enemies.”

He took my hands and held them in my lap, which was oddly comforting. I managed to create a weak smile with my trembling lips, and squeezed his hands to thank him. Then I had to put my hand on my chest to feel the soothing shape of the Soulbird pendant hidden under my clothes, before scrambling up to stand next to him to greet the strangers. How did the Tall Man know that strangers wouldn’t be dangerous? The only thing I knew, was the wrecked ship where we lived on the beach and the hillside behind it. I had never seen other people apart my own group: the Boy, the Silent Woman, the Tall Man, the Twins, the Man with the Crutch, the Hunter, the Girl with White Skin, the Deaf Man, the Scarred Girl, the Old Woman, and the Little Girl. 

Nobody had ever climbed over the ridge because we had everything we needed between the ocean and the hill: fresh spring water, wild vegetables and fruit, prey, sunlight and shelter from the rain. And of course, the big boxes we had to fill with black objects every day, which didn’t leave much time for exploring. There routine never changed – work, food, sleep. Repeat.

The Strangers waved to us and walked down the ridge. I looked at the approaching people with a mixture of feelings, fear, anxiety, excitement and hopefulness, all in a big jumble, messing with my body. The Strangers looked undistinguishable, had I not known better, they could have been a part of our group. The Tall Man’s hand on my shoulder was warm and assuring. Maybe this wasn’t as scary as I had thought. But how would meeting them change our lives? And would a change be good? Maybe, maybe not.

Conversing with the group of five people who had walked down the ridge created more questions than answers. The Tall Man invited the Strangers into our wrecked ship to offer food and shelter for the night. Getting somewhat over my earlier anxiety, I wanted to show hospitality in this extraordinary situation. This far we had thought we were the only people in the world! While walking back to the ship, I gave my already full bag of food to the Tall Man to carry, and got busy planning a dinner for a larger group, wandering off from our path to pick some extra fruit, leaves and herbs. The Tall Man conversed lively with the strangers.

As we approached the bay, the Strangers told us that their ship looked exactly like ours from a distance, including a similar stream of small black objects pouring out to the sand from a big crack in the middle of their ship. They didn’t know how the ship had landed on the beach, or where the smooth, roundish objects came from. But just like us, they sorted and boxed all the objects on the beach side of the ship. At night the filled boxes would vanish, and there would be new boxes waiting in the morning, with one single item in each of them to show what to put into the box. 

The Boy and the Little Girl ran to greet us when we got closer to our ship. First, they gave the Tall Man a hug and then hid behind his back peeking at the Strangers from the relative safety. Others of the group were still working on sorting the last objects, but the Hunter had gone fishing to the next bay. We all trusted the Tall Man’s judgment when he announced that the Strangers were friends. The Boy was sent to let the Hunter know we would need more fish today.

“We are so happy to find new friends. Thank you for offering us shelter and sustenance, we appreciate it very much,” said a Woman with Long Braids, who seemed to be their leader.

“The pleasure is ours,” said the Tall Man and introduced our people to the Strangers. The Little Girl was still timid and stayed close to the Silent Woman, helping her to clean the fruit I had brought.

“We had begun to think we were the only people on this island after exploring towards many different directions from our ship, and never found anyone else. This is a new beginning to all of us!” the Woman with Long Braids continued. I had gotten over my earlier fears, and showed the Strangers to the empty rooms we had in the ship.

“The inside of our ship looks different,” said the Woman with Long Braids. “On the hillside of the ship, where you have the private sleeping quarters, we have a staircase going down to the baths. It is very nice; I think you should come and visit us.”

The Girl with White Skin volunteered to take our visitors to the stream with the pool of water to get refreshed. While watching them walk away I experienced a feeling of loss. Getting busy fixing dinner for a larger group I decided to think about this later, but a part of my mind wondered if it would actually be possible to explore the island further and learn about our surroundings. And how did the Strangers manage to complete their work faster, so that they had time for exploration?

In addition to the extra fruit and herbs collected on the way home, I had quietly asked everyone in our group to contribute to the dinner, which they were happy to do. I made a special soup of roots and vegetables, cooked in the huge pot with fragrant herbs. All the fish the Hunter had caught were baking on the coals, wrapped in leaves. The moonlight dinner under the palm trees was a great success. We enjoyed the warmth of the fire in the outside cooking area, sitting on the benches the Tall Man had built. The Silent Woman had made mead, and the Strangers were wondering where she had found the honey and the lemons for it. The Silent Woman just smiled quizzically and held her pitcher up offering to pour more mead into our wooden cups. She was greeted with smiles and loud cheers. We all agreed about collaboration in the future.

Very early next morning, when our Visitors were getting ready to leave, the Woman with Long Braids pulled me aside to have a private discussion.

“In our group we have an older woman whose appearance is similar to yours. Her skin is a little lighter, but she has similar curls, and your amber colored eyes. I thought that you might be relatives. Would you like to come and visit us?”

For a moment I stared her speechlessly. A hidden door had been opened in my mind. Instinctively I touched the Soulbird pendant hanging under my dress, while nodding to her, several times. Just touching the pendant and knowing it was there made it easier for me to calm down and have some control over the images and thoughts that unexpectedly flooded my consciousness.

“Yes. I would like that very much. But I don’t think I can leave my people for many days. We might not get all boxes filled. And I don’t know what might happen then.”

“We have a bigger group and I could return here with some of my people, so that we could help filling the boxes while you and some others are traveling,” said the Woman with Long Braids.

This was quite an exciting opportunity. I thanked the Woman with Long Braids many times for her suggestion and offering for help. Then the Tall Man and I walked with our Visitors to the top of the ridge. Waving goodbye to them, I held onto my Soulbird pendant, and hoped that they would return soon. Funny, how completely my opinion about the Visitors had changed. The Tall Man teased me softly about my hanged opinion, and encouraged me to go visit the other ship. We certainly needed an opportunity to learn more about our environment.

I desired to find some privacy to sort out the new thoughts that were lurking in the edges of my mind. The Sun that was still hanging low enough, so I decided to go bathe before work. Soon I floated in the pool by the stream, eyes closed, listening to the babble of rushing water and letting my mind wander freely. It felt amazing. After a moment I saw a tall, slender woman in my mind. She was wearing a sea foam dress, and somehow, I knew her name: Vellamo. With the name a vast surge of knowledge washed through my mind; suddenly I was aware her being the Mother of the Waters, and recalled my own mother teaching me to respect her as well as all the lakes, streams and oceans for their life-giving qualities. I wanted to stay in the pool for the rest of the day, but I really, really had to go to work, so that my group wouldn’t suffer because of me. So, I got dressed and walked to the ship, carefully memorizing and storing everything I could about my newfound knowledge of Vellamo and my mother. 

After the Visitors had left, ordinary life began to seem a little dull, even if busy. I thought the work took more time than it used to. Despite trying to find time to talk with the Tall Man in private, I never seemed to have a suitable moment. I wanted to tell him about Vellamo and other new memories I had experienced. Days were so similar it was hard to tell them apart. How long time had passed since the Visitors came? And who should make the trip to visit their ship, when the Visitors returned? We discussed these questions over dinner in the evenings. The Hunter said he didn’t want to go. Who would catch all the fish, rabbits, and occasional deer if he went away? Agreeing that this could present a problem in the future, should something happen to the Hunter, we decided to have everyone else work a little more every day, so that the Hunter could teach the Twins how to hunt and fish.

Then, one morning the Tall Man was nowhere to be found. We had not seen him since the previous evening when we let the fire die and said good night to each other. From early morning everyone was busy sorting the small black objects so that we would get all their boxes filled before the nightfall. The Little Girl ran to the Tall Man’s bedroom to see if he was there, but only saw an empty bed and a scary thin black thing on the pillow. She said it looked weird and was as long as her forearm. The Little Girl didn’t dare to touch the black item, but closed the door and came running to tell us, crying so hard that we could barely understand her words.

I hugged the Little Girl and promised to keep her safe, offering to work with her the whole day. During the short lunch break I went to see the “black thing” in the Tall Man’s room and found a black raven feather on his bed. Taking the feather brought tears to my eyes, touching it made me feel his presence. I decided to hide it in under my pillow. When I returned to work, nobody asked anything about the black thing that had frightened the Little Girl. Everyone seemed to have forgotten she ever mentioned it.

Throughout the day we all grew more and more worried about the Tall Man, agreeing that it was not typical behavior for him to vanish just like that, because he wouldn’t put us in a danger of not getting all the boxes filled. He would have told others had he planned to leave. And where would he go, anyway? I worried that there was something dangerous and unusual going on, something we were completely unaware of, and suggested we should secure his door. Maybe we could pile rocks in front of it to make sure nobody got in there at night without us knowing it.

“That is the stupidest idea I have ever heard” said The Girl with White Skin. “Maybe I want to have that room, it is better than mine. And who put you in charge, anyway?”

As an astonished silence fell upon us, everyone stared at the Girl with White Skin. Then the Silent Woman shook her head and quickly signed to the Deaf Man about the challenge. I suggested she could choose any one of the empty rooms if she wanted a different room. The Girl with White Skin frowned at my suggestion and stomped away. Maybe she reacted this way to the loss we all felt about not finding the Tall Man. The Little Girl had teary eyes because she didn’t like arguments.  I invited her to sit on my lap while working and we both found it comforting. Yet, something kept seriously bothering me, constantly nagging in the edge of my consciousness.

After finishing my work, I excused myself and asked others to take care of the dinner. I truly needed some solitude and walked to the stream with the pool of water perfect for bathing. It was my happy place. After dropping my clothes in a sunny spot on a big rock by the pool, I waded in holding on to my Soulbird pendant, silently asking for support from Vellamo, the Mother of the Waters. Something had been seriously bothering me since touching the raven feather. I tried to relax thinking how soothing the water felt on my skin. Looking at the forest around the pool I suddenly realized what the problem was: there were no birds. None. Nothing with wings, really, not even insects in the forest. I got so scared I didn’t know how to deal with it. Trying to relax my abruptly tightened muscles, I kept telling my body that everything was all right, there was no imminent danger. After bathing and warming in the sunny spot, I snuck back into my room to touch the black feather under my pillow. The silky feel of the feather brought tears to my eyes and grieving a huge loss of a friend, all birds and flying creatures, I cried myself to sleep.

The Silent Woman knocked at the door and gestured that I should join them for the dinner. When I refused, not knowing what to tell others if they asked what bothered me, she looked concerned and gestured that she would bring her dinner to my room. After dinner I saw the Twins, the Hunter, the Deaf Man, and the Scarred Girl carry big rocks from the beach and piled them against the door of the room that used to belong to the Tall Man. Next morning all the rocks were gone. The bedroom was perfectly clean. There were no signs of the Tall Man ever having been there. The following morning the Twins saw the door open, and a Blue-eyed Boy walked out of the room. He looked maybe 12 or 13 years old and appeared very confused about where he was and why. The Twins promised to take care of him and show him how everything worked.

After the Tall Man had vanished and left me the feather, I began having reoccurring dreams about mother, waking up in the middle of the night feeling anxious, clutching to my Soulbird pendant. The bird seemed to be pulsating very, very gently, and the tiny black stones marking the eyes of the bird were glimmering in the darkness. Or, maybe it was the moonlight peeking into the bedroom.

One day while foraging for food in the forest, I saw the Woman with Long Braids again. Hugging her I realized I had no idea how much time had passed since we met earlier. This time five other Visitors were with her. After introducing her companions, we walked together to my ship. The Visitors joined us working so that we got the boxes filled faster than usually. The Blue-eyed Boy seemed to be deeply frightened about the Visitors, so I went to work with him and asked what bothered him.

“Aren’t you worried about the strangers?” he whispered to me. Only then I realized that he had not been here the last time we saw the Visitors. This made me remember the Tall Man, and I had to fight back tears, because I didn’t want to scare the Blue-eyed Boy.

“No, they are not really strangers, we have met them before, but it was before you came here. Do you remember where you were before you joined us?”

He looked at me like I was insane and stated with absolute certainty that he had never been anywhere else. I considered, for just a moment, about telling him how the Tall Man had vanished a day before the Blue-eyed Boy appeared in that bedroom. I worried, though, that it would increase his anxiety and worry, so I redirected the discussion to the fish he liked the best and what he had recently learned from the Hunter. My own concern about the distorted reality we all shared, and the complete lack of having a concept of time beyond one day burned my throat, but with a dedicated smile, I managed to keep my tears back and our discussion lightweight. Our situation seemed to be even worse than I had thought.

During the dinner we planned for the trip, deciding upon the necessary gear to travel and sleep in the woods for three nights. We also discussed who should go as the four Visitors promised to do the work for those who traveled and make sure all the boxes got filled in time. The fifth Visitor and the Woman with Long Braids were the ones who could find the way back to the Visitors’ ship as it wasn’t easy to navigate in the forest with no roads or paths. I asked if the Silent Woman and the Twins would like to go to the trip with me and they were all nodding excitedly when the Girl with White Skin jumped up. 

“Why does she get to make the decision about who gets to go?” asked the Girl with White Skin and stormed to the Woman with Long Braids. “There should be a vote, or some better way of making decisions. Why can’t I go?”

“Because I didn’t invite you. I invited her, and extended the invitation to those she thought would be best to bring with her,” said the Woman with Long Braids, smiling calmly and seemingly being entirely unaffected with this reaction.

Everyone else were holding their breaths, waiting for what would happen next. The Girl with White Skin looked around, and realizing she wasn’t getting any support from others, she turned on her heels and stomped back to the ship. She muttered something under her breath, something that didn’t make any sense to others. It sounded like a different language.

******

I found the journey exhilarating. I loved to walk through foreign parts of the woods and sleep under the stars. The further away we got from our ship and camp, the easier it became to discuss different things that didn’t relate directly to sorting the small stones or finding food. Nobody seemed to have ever been sick in their ship, and oddly enough I couldn’t recollect a time when a member of my tribe had been unwell. There were other bizarre things too: no babies, no deaths, no change. Just the paradise island, and work. Every day I hoped to hear birdsong, or see some insects buzzing, but the forest remained unchanging. It wasn’t just our area that was void of all life with wings. After a few attempts of discussing flying animals and insects and getting confused looks from the Woman with Long Braids and others, I didn’t quite know how to ask the question of missing birds. I considered showing the black feather to them, but worried about the consequences. Therefore, I kept it hidden.

Walking all day was surprisingly easy, even though the sleep eluded me and I ended up staring into the moonlit forest at nights – perhaps because I kept on waking up from remarkably vivid dreams about the Blue-eyed Boy being either my brother or son. So weird! After the second night I had such a vivid image of mother in my mind, although I couldn’t remember where she was. Nonetheless, acquiring additional memories excited me; therefore, it was harder to contain the anticipation of meeting my mother soon.

After our third night in the forest, we got to the camp of the Strangers and saw their ship and beach in the midday sunlight. It felt almost like coming back home. Their ship had the same pile of black objects pouring out from the hole in the side, but there was a different door to the living quarters. The Woman with Long Braids guided us through the door, and showed the way down to the showers and bath. After bathing and refreshing someone would come and show us to the rooms where to sleep while visiting. The Woman with Long Braids whispered to me that the person taking care of dressing room was the one who might be my mother.

Heart pounding in my chest, so loud that I thought others would hear it, I let the Silent Woman and the Twins go down first. Then I squeezed my Soulbird pendant to muster all mental strength and descended the stairs with wobbly knees. A short wooden corridor led to the dressing room with small lockers for the clothes and the few personal belongings people had. From the door I could see the silhouette of mother, her hair a bit gray, but still curly and long, tied up to a bun in the back of her head. Mother looked tired, but talked gently and kindly to the girls in the room. Then it was my turn. Mother smiled and said:

“This way, dear. You can put your personal belongings on this shelf here, and then go to the washing room in the left.”

I couldn’t believe that mother didn’t recognize me! Had I changed so much? Surely, she would recognize the pendant? I wanted to say something, maybe only “Mother, it’s me” – but I couldn’t trust my voice, so I nodded and fumbled the pendant over my head. Hands shaking, I showed it to mother, who displayed no recognition of it, either. I didn’t want to let go of the pendant, but I carefully placed it on mother’s hand, and closed her fingers around it, hiding it into her palm. Just like mother had done to me before we came here.

Looking into my mother’s eyes and holding her hands, noticing how she still didn’t recognize her firstborn, a terrible realization began to grow inside me. The empty eyes of my mother sparked a memory about a contract we had signed. Both of us would give ten years of our lives to work on any given assignment and then we would get a house and our saved salaries, so that we could live comfortably for the rest of our lives. This was not my mother! It was a programmed image of her. “Your trinket will be safe right here, dearie” said mother, and smiled at me placing the Soulbird pendant into the locker.

More memories were bursting into my mind, while I blindly stumbled after other girls into the hammam style shower room hoping that my wobbly knees wouldn’t buckle too soon. I sat down on the warm tile bench in the center of the room, while others headed to the showers in the corners. This was some kind of a huge mistake! I shouldn’t have met my mother here.  Ignoring the requests of the bathing attendant, I sat frozen in the steamy room, lightheaded, everything starting to unravel in my mind. The new awareness about my life not being real, but just suggested images in the mind hung upon me with a crushing weight. After focusing on calm breathing for a while, I was able to force myself to walk to the shower.

Standing in the warm shower for the first time in years I felt the pangs of chilling fear. The pendant was my token. I had never been apart from it. I shouldn’t be apart from it. I keenly felt the pendant only ten meters away in the dressing room, but couldn’t go get it without causing a chaos, and probably putting everyone in danger. But how can you stop yourself from thinking something? I squeezed my eyes shut and focused on making my mind blank, enjoying the warm water caress my skin. 

******

Over the next two days I practiced serious compartmentalizing to be able to walk and talk. And to smile and pretend that nothing was wrong. The Woman with Long Braids apologized very genuinely that the Woman Attending to the Dressing Room was not what we had hoped for her to be. The likeness was so uncanny. I thanked her for the effort, and then changed the subject to the differences between the ships. I could talk about something ordinary like that while my mind screamed for real answers. This ship was better equipped than ours and there were more people working on sorting the black objects. Otherwise, everything looked the same. Both crescent beaches seemed to open towards North which prevented the beach and the ship from becoming too hot. At nights I clutched to my pendant, drifting off to half-sleep and feeling exhausted in the morning. Behaving like everyone else was harder every day, no matter how hard I tried.

After two days it was such a relief to start the journey back to our ship. Since the first day of my visit, I had purposefully stayed away from the baths, being thankful for not having to meet again the old woman who looked so like my mother. It had been so creepy, her eyes not recognizing me. Clutching to my pendant through my dress I forced my thoughts away from that and other distressing things. I needed complete privacy to explore all the scary thoughts and experiences from the past few days. And figure out where all the birds had gone!

The Woman with Long Braids and her friend walked us all the way back to our own ship. The Silent Woman and the Twins seemed to have noticed my changed behavior, and I tried my hardest to act normally. Only at nights I gave myself a permission to think about the situation. On our last night in the forest, trying to rest silently and staring the sky, I realized I couldn’t recognize any constellations. But why? Did the builders of this place think it was an unnecessary detail? Or, were they worried it would remind people about their other lives? Their real lives? I covered my mouth with my sleeve to silence the sobbing. But I think the Woman with Long Braids heard me, because she was extra nice to me in the morning.

The Little Girl ran to hug me when we arrived at our own ship. Everyone wanted to hear more about the other ship and we kept answering all kinds of questions. I soon had to excuse myself for being too tired, and went to my room as soon as it was possible to leave the dinner without being rude.

******

Next thing I knew was being in a white room with bright lights. People were talking to me but I couldn’t make any sense of their words. They seemed comforting, though. I felt for my chest to be sure her Soulbird was still there. Relieved to find it, I fell asleep holding tightly onto the Soulbird pendant. When I awoke again, the nurse was bringing breakfast on a tray: oatmeal and coffee. Everything felt weird, and I wasn’t sure where I was. My life in the forest was still the most real thing I was hanging onto, and I kept wondering how my friends were doing, and if they got the boxes filled without me. The Little Girl must be so worried. I hoped The Silent Woman was taking care of the girl, and my eyes welled up with tears.

“Dearie, whenever you are ready, here is something for you” said the nurse and offered me a box.

It was a beautiful hand-crafted wooden box. When I opened it, I saw a bright blue feather, a silver version of my ceramic Soulbird pendant, and also a letter from my mother.  How did I know it was from my mother? Slowly I nodded to reassure myself. I would always recognize mother’s handwriting. The letter was addressed to “Iris”. Suddenly I remembered that was my name.

The letter started “Dear Iris, I know this will come as a surprise to you, but the deal we made was a different than the one I let you believe.” I put the letter down and held tightly on both of my Soulbird pendants. I took the blue-striped feather from the box and ran it over my face to remember the soft touches of mother. Blue was her color. Or, had been her color. After calming down I continued to read the letter.

“A long time ago, your father and I decided that if anything happened, we would make decisions that are the best for your future. And, as you know, after the accident we couldn’t live in the house anymore, nor afford decent education or healthcare. I couldn’t watch you throw away your life, which is why we came here. I am so sorry I lied to you, but you don’t know everything that affected my decision. The doctors said that I wouldn’t have much time left, but we also agreed that the projection of my body would be useful for at least 15 years in the simulation. So, this is what we did: We, that is you and I, signed up for a 20-year contract. But as the owner of the account, I chose to take 17 years of the servitude and give you only 3 years of it. Your little brother is living with your dad’s sister, and her family is taking good care of him.”

I dropped the letter on my lap and looked at the nurse for confirmation. The nurse nodded, and offered to add some medication make it easier to adjust to the new reality. I refused. My mind flooded with memories of my parents, of our house and playing with my little brother. Then I gasped, remembering the accident and dad’s funeral. And then I remembered how everything had changed – I couldn’t go to the university anymore, because we couldn’t afford the tuition or housing. We both had to work full time to have even the bare minimum to live on in a small apartment which we shared with two other families. How had the world gotten to this place? I closed my eyes and remembered the wildfires and the wars and famine. My tears were running again.

Again, the nurse offered more sedatives to make it easier for me to re-adjust to the reality. Again, I refused and asked to be left alone. After promising that I wouldn’t try to unhook myself or do anything else stupid, the nurse left insisting on leaving the door open. I nodded my agreement. I had a lot of thinking to do and trying to remember everything. For a moment I admired the simple design of the ceramic Soulbird, remembering that the design had been in our family for hundreds of years. Carefully I placed it into the wooden box with the letter. Then I held the silver pendant in one hand and the blue striped feather in my other hand, took a deep breath and closed my eyes, fully concentrated on remembering everything. Everything.

THE END


2021 NC Smith

Bio: NC Smith grew up in Southeastern Finland, spending summers by the sea reading books and stories, loving the works of Tove Jansson and Ursula Le Guin. In 2007 she decided to export her educational expertise, and finally found herself in the Pacific Northwest employed at an online university. In her free time, she either reads or walks on the beach, imagining and writing about alternative worlds and cultures.

E-mail: NC Smith

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