In Your Lifetime
1129 words long
Magda led young Domden to face the last statue, the most important, the one that all children graduating into adulthood must name for themselves without benefit of prior teaching. "And what do you make of this one?"
Notes from the author:
The random words “variation” and “limbs” suggested a population of no two alike, each person with their own morphological uniqueness, like the chimerae in Laini Taylor’s novel Daughter of Smoke and Bone. The phrase “timely communion” indicated a religious rite commemorating a special time for the community. And the Four of Swords showed a statue in repose, perhaps a tomb, maybe a mythological sleeping hero who would arise to their people’s need.
The rising of the sleeper under the hill is generally considered a good thing, even if the circumstances prompting their awakening tend to be dire. But what if the once and future king is actually the villain?
The statues filling the grotto could not do justice to the great variety of forms in which the People came. There were relatively few statues, and six generations of the People. Still, they were an adequate symbolic representation, if not a literal census.
Magda led young Domden among the statues as she had led him once before. Like most children, introduced to the grotto during the year they were first judged able to walk (on however many limbs) and talk (with whatever shape of tongue), Domden had laughed and run from one statue to another, saying that this one had Momma’s tail, that one Poppa’s crest, the other feet shaped like those of Big Sissa. And, like most children, Domden ignored one particular statue entirely. Indeed, it might not have been there. It would be different this time.
This second guided tour would be Domden’s last; should he come through the grotto again, it would be by his own choice and on his own recognizance. Today was his graduation walk.
Magda brought him face to face with a particular statue, not far from the entrance. “Do you recognize this one?” she asked.
“That is First,” Domden said promptly. “The Founder’s first creation and the first of the People.”
“How do you know?”
“Because of the seams between the parts of his body. First was a patchwork Person, assembled rather than born.” That much was rote and correct. Domden went off-script to ask, “It’s really just a symbol, though, isn’t it? The Founder didn’t cut and sew animals together really, did he?”
“Yes and no.” Magda had answered this many times before, and didn’t hesitate now. “The patchwork was internal, on the genetic level, which doesn’t lend itself to sculpture. The statue of First likely represents a large group of our First People, none of them looking much different from our animal ancestors despite the changes that the Founder worked on their DNA. The first People you’d recognize as such were First’s children.”
They continued through the grotto. “And this one?” Magda said, stopping before a gigantic Person with four forelimbs and six limbs below. Each lower limb was sculpted powerful with muscles for springing and pouncing; each finger on each of the four hands was tipped with razor-sharp claws to pierce and rend.
“That is Soldier,” said Domden, and recited as he was taught the tale of the People’s rebellion against the Founder, who, having created the People, mistook them for simple possessions and treated them accordingly.
Similarly they paused before a great many other statues. There was Speaker, bringer of language, kindler of the fire of the mind. There was Settler, who led the People to the land they now occupied. There was Governor, who brokered the principles of cooperation that made the People truly a people. And so on and so forth, statute after statue, until the last statue, the most important, the one that all children graduating into adulthood must face and name for themselves without benefit of prior teaching. “And what do you make of this one?”
Domden tilted his triangular head to one side. His long jaws munched and his teeth ground as though his thoughts were tough morsels to chew. Finally he said, voice uncertain and hesitant, “I don’t recognize it. Does that mean I fail?”
Magda looked at him sharply, then tried to hide her reaction. “No,” she murmured, “you’ve already passed every test.” But it made her uneasy. She had recognized the statue immediately on her own graduation walk. Its three limbs in triangular formation, its row of prehensile dorsal fins, its long dangling furry ears, all were as intimately familiar as her own reflection in a mirror. She had expected it to look differently to Domden, of course; it should have shown him his own shape, an older version of himself. It showed whoever viewed it their future; it was known as the Stone Oracle. Magda, trying to turn her startled look into a reassuring smile, prompted Domden gently. “Describe what you see.”
“It’s small. I mean, even smaller than Lilliette and Rhianne. It has only two lower limbs and two upper, with neither fur nor scales. No wings. The upper limbs end in articulated digits, like the Soldier’s, but with neither claw nor talon. Its face is flat and its mouth just two soft lips without protrusion of fangs. No weapons at all, unless what it’s holding—?”
Magda’s breath came short with recognition. “What is it holding?”
“You tell me,” Domden retorted. The walk had been long, and his patience must have been fraying. “I don’t know what it is.”
“Humor me, honored student,” Magda said, using the formal title to remind Domden that respect was still owed. “Describe what the being depicted by the statue is holding.”
Domden blinked with both sets of eyelids and lowered his snout in a gesture of remorse. “Apologies, honored tutor. It looks like a tube,” he said, “with another tube inside it, and a sharp point on one end. Is that a weapon? For close combat, maybe?”
“It’s a tool for administering medicine deep beneath the skin and into the blood,” she answered distractedly; as an adult, she had access to the museum where captured relics from Soldier’s original rebellion were housed. “Or a weapon for injecting poison. I’ll show you one later, if you remind me. But we are done here. Let us finish the ceremony.”
Domden’s face lit up with pride. His schooling was over, his childhood done, his graduation walk survived. All that was left was the graduation party. He almost ran ahead before Magda’s paw on his shoulder recalled him to this last piece of required decorum. They walked together through the grotto’s exit and into the light, and the crowd, that awaited them on the other side.
“My People,” Magda announced, “I present to you Domden D’elat, our newest adult citizen. Greet him in friendship and respect.”
During the hectic gaiety that followed, Magda found a quiet corner with the other two tutors who’d guided graduating children that day. “The Stone Oracle,” Magda said, and her heart fell at the others’ worried nods. “Your charges saw it too?”
“A human man holding a syringe,” Lilliette confirmed.
“The Founder.” Rhianne wrung her long fingers together and lashed her tail against her left flank. “He’s coming back. What else could it mean? In their adult lifetimes, the Founder will come back.”
“Yes,” Magda said. “We’ll have to tell the others, prepare ourselves for—I don’t know. For whatever the Founder’s intentions are.” She sighed, looking around the huge cavern where all was festival. “Tomorrow, though. What’s one more sunrise? Let our three graduates enjoy their big night. No need to ruin their fun too soon.”
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