My mother cocked her head and fixed me with that beady eye of hers, and those who did not know her might have detected censure, even hostility in such a look, but I could see the fondness that shone deep inside.
“Eat, little one. Food is the product of effort. Unless we strive, we starve.”
“I am eating, Mama!” I protested, bending to my task. “But my head is full of such confusion. My thoughts fight and shout each other down so I cannot think clearly at all!”
“Hatchling-hood is never easy.” My mother pronounced. “The thoughts and visions of Before crowd through your mind. Trust me my dear, they will fade. By the time you reach my age only the simple issues will remain.”
“If I reach your age. They say all but a few of the very best children from here will join the ranks of The Taken.”
“Well, then you must eat your food and grow strong so you will be one of the very best, mustn’t you? Remember, your worth is judged by the life-orbs you can lay. Now be quiet and eat!”
For a while I obeyed my mother. I fought for food from the soil, as she taught me. Scratch right, twice; scratch left, twice. Peck up the seeds, and the little ones before they have time to run. Food hard won, however plentiful and inexhaustible it seemed. She remained at my side, teaching as well as eating; a reassurance in a world that was still so very big and so very frightening to me. At last I could restrain the questions no longer: “Mama?”
“Yes?” She treated me to a slow stare.
“What was Before? Why is it so jumbled up?”
“I can’t answer that. When we last met, Henry the Magnificent spoke of a word that is passed around. He called it ‘reincarnation’. He said that those from Before believed in this word, and after it happened they should not expect to forget it all – the Before, that is. The reincarnated, he said, would carry their memories into their new infant bodies. They won’t understand what they remember, but it will be there just the same. That’s all I know. Perhaps the High Council will tell you more. Maybe when you are grown you should ask them!”
I shuddered as I looked towards the horizon, and the great building where the High Council sat. Although I had been told there were days when the doors were opened and those who had courage might walk inside, I could not imagine myself daring to be so bold. “Some say that the members of the High Council are selected from the ranks of The Taken.” I told my mother. “Do you think that’s true?”
“You ask too many questions, Little One. No-one can tell you what happens to The Taken, because no-one has ever returned with the tale. Eat now.”
I had to wait upon the hour, but at last my mother joined her friends, and whenever four or more ate together the little ones were forgotten. I wanted to be forgotten for a while. Once I knew I was not watched, I broke away from my sisters. I discovered Henry the Magnificent feeding quietly among the houses. He frowned at me.
“What is it, hatchling?”
He looked very forbidding, but I had to ask him. “I want to know how I get to speak to the High Council, Oh Magnificent One. Can you tell me?”
Henry stared at me with his inestimably wise eye. “At your age? You are either very learned or very naive – why on earth do you want to speak to them?”
“I have a question that I must find an answer to.” I replied. “It is screaming in my head, and I know it is very important.”
“Ah! You have a reincarnate question. Don’t worry, little one. Has your mother not told you? It will go away.”
“No. No, Great One, it won’t! (Begging your pardon!)” I added hastily, because that eye had acquired an irritated look. “I understand about the reincarnate noises, but this one is much louder than the rest. It asks in a language I can’t understand, yet I hear it so clearly!”
His Magnificence did not answer at once. He continued to feed in his slow, measured way and I knew better than to interrupt. He was considering my words.
“Maybe;” He said at last, pausing in his work; “maybe I see something in you, child. Only a very few your age would dare to disturb me in my feeding, and perhaps none would argue with me as you are doing. I will help you.”
I barely restrained my hops of joy. “Oh, thank you, Magnificent Henry! Tell me what I must do?”
“Let me see. Let me give this some thought.” Henry pecked at a small creature, making it tumble over and over in its anxiety to escape. “First, you must be sure to avoid selection for The Taken. You must get a name.” He dispatched the terrified mite with a quick swallow and a toss of his head. “Tonight the manna is given by the small god, she they have called Tessa. Be first to greet her when she comes, turn your head to see her – don’t be afraid, she will not harm you – show her your devotion and thanks, and if you are fortunate she will give you your name.”
“Really? Is that how you got your name, Oh Magnificent one?”
Henry ruffled his neck feathers. “Not exactly. I was very fortunate, because I am of the cursed sex. But I know how it is done. You are also fortunate because you have three white feathers by which the goddess may recognise you. But you must keep putting yourself before her, every time she comes. Then perhaps, if you are very lucky, she will favour you at the Ceremony of the Taken, and make you one of her chosen angels.”
“I will be raised to the High Pen, next to the Council?”
“If you are very, very lucky. Now go away, hatchling. I have the hour to call!”
I scurried away, grateful for Henry the Magnificent’s indulgence with me, and behind me, I heard him crow his challenge into the gathering dusk.
I did as I was bidden. I obeyed my mother, by growing big and strong, and I abased myself before the goddess Tessa, whenever she came to bestow the manna upon us. It was easy to follow Henry’s advice, because she was a very benevolent goddess, and the more I gained her attention, the more of the manna ended up in my end of the trough. So I grew, which pleased my mother, and I did all honour to the little goddess, who began to call me with the word Betty, which I understood was to be my name.
So! The first of my objectives was achieved. I was Betty, and one morning I was touched – yes, touched – by the goddess! She came to the pen specially to see me, and she made noises very like those in my head! Now I would try extra hard to please her, so she would form a fondness for me. I could not believe my luck!
Everything was going so well. We, the children of the pen all fledged and strong, the manna greater and more plentiful every day. And I always understood that the Ceremony of the Taken happened without warning, but I never expected it so soon.
It was at once awe-inspiring and terrifying, for the two greater gods descended upon the pen, reaching down for us with their mighty hands, raising us up from the ground to place us in their vessels. I had no time to say farewell to my mother before I too was raised up! I was to be one of The Taken! Dropped into a vessel already packed tightly with my friends, I pecked out in my terror. Those I had called my friends pecked back at me; my infant wattles were torn and bleeding, my feathers ripped loose. Where was the smaller god Tessa? Where was I to be taken now?
We were trapped, all of us, in a small pen, blind to the sky: there was no feeding, nowhere to scratch or peck. The gods moved among us with fearsome claws of their metal, burying them into our necks. My turn must come soon, and when I had been stabbed by the claw I could see I must be removed too, following my sisters and brothers, wherever they might be taken. But I had a dreadful foreboding. I think I knew there was nowhere to go from there. This was why no-one ever returned from The Taken. This was where it ended.
And now I will tell you how it was. Five of us remained – my special brother (our life-orbs were opened together) had just succumbed to the claw and my turn had come – the hand of god was reaching down for me. My brother’s cry of agony had not yet faded when there was a shaft of light and little god Tessa was before me, smiting the hand aside as she cried out my name! Before I knew it I was snatched into her arms: she was stroking me and touching me with her beakless mouth! She bore me back into the light! She took me where the water was warm to bathe my wounds!
I live here now, as Henry the Magnificent predicted, in the High Pen. Five sisters and Randolph the Resplendent are my companions, and yes, I have visited the High Council, too, for we are allowed to roam loose in that compound where the building sits. They are strange, the members of the High Council, for they live in small pens which collect their life-orbs, taking them away as they lay them. Their feathers are almost rubbed off, but their minds are clear and their voices speak of a freedom such as I have never known. A freedom, they say, that will happen soon.
For countless generations they have been working among themselves upon their life-orbs, modifying them, altering them, adding a tiny microbe that will soon be perfect. Then will be Ragnarok – then will be the twilight of the gods! There will come a great winter of storms and ice, and a disease from which those who have sinned so heinously, those eaters of our children, will not recover.
It is a wonderful thought, I suppose, and it has answered that question my mind was always asking. I worry, though, because I cannot give my little god a warning. Unless, perhaps, she learns to look into my eye?
© Frederick Anderson 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.