Storytime: Sunshine.

November 3rd, 2010

The problem started – as it so often did – with Little Hmen’s efforts to be more like his big brother Surmok.  When Surmok built a raft, Little Hmen did too, and had to be fished out of the river before the caimans got at him.  When Surmok began to get friendly with girls, Little Hmen took up poking his sister with a stick and had to be spanked.  When Surmok carefully crafted an atlatl and some darts with his father’s help, Little Hmen took up his stick again and tried hitting it with rocks.  He missed the stick, but hit his foot.  When Little Hmen heard tales of his brother’s famous skills of eld in hide-and-seek, he ran away from home and hid in a hollow stump for three days before coming back hungry. 
This time, the problem was a bit more serious. 
It started with Surmok putting that atlatl to good use.  He drew back his arm, dart nestled snugly in the cupped end of the throwing-stick, hurled it hard and fast, and watched as the shaft embedded itself in a tree trunk some hundred feet away.  He grinned, all those white teeth flashing in the crisp, happy sunlight, and Little Hmen suddenly wanted to try that very badly indeed. 
“Let me do it,” said Little Hmen, as his brother reloaded. 
“It’s too big.  Go away,” said Surmok absently.  He was already sighting the next tree, imagining it as a nice fat meal on legs. 
“Please?” asked Little Hmen?
“Pleeease?” whined Little Hmen, and this was where he made his mistake, because he tugged on Surmok’s tunic to get his attention and pulled a bit harder than he’d thought he would, right as Surmok was leaning back and balancing to get the throw just right.  He lurched and danced on the spot to keep his footing, and the toss of the dart went nowhere near that tree.  Up, up, up, up, and up it went, high into the sky, so high that it seemed it would touch the sun. 
Which it did.  Speared it, in fact. 
The sun toppled down past the horizon with a wail that woke up sleeping people a hundred-day’s-walk away, and the world went dark at midday. 

“It wasn’t my fault,” said Little Hmen to his father and the rest of their gathered village at large. 
“Yes it was,” said Surmok. 
“Well, I didn’t mean to,” pointed out Little Hmen. 
Their father rubbed his face wearily.  He needed some sort of drink made from an interesting plant and a bit of quiet and a nice shady spot to enjoy his drink in.  Of the three, he was blessed only with an abundance of the last.  Being the chief was less than a good thing some days, which were most days. 
“It doesn’t matter whose fault it is –” said Father. 
“It’s his,” said Surmok.
“No it isn’t!” said Little Hmen.
“-but we still need to fix it.  You broke the sun.  We need that.  We’re going to need some really big magic to fix that.  Someone like Murri Three-Noses.”
“He’s dead,” called Father’s cousin from the crowd.  “Ate a turtle without chewing for a bet.”
“He choked to death?  I heard he could break boulders by breathing on them!”
“No, it went in fine, it was more when it was leaving.”
There was a moment. 
“Right,” said father. 
“How about Slelloc Slell?” suggested grandfather Takl.  “I heard he juggled a mountain once on his littlest finger, and brought a jaguar home as a pet when he was an infant.”
“That was sixty years ago,” said Father. 
“He’s only learned more since then.”
“He’s forgotten half of it.  I heard that he brought rain to a village last year, and it was bright purple.  And then it flooded them all out.  He can barely remember how to dress himself now, let alone any magic.” 
“Hrrmmph,” said Takl. 
“Cloli Bloodletter?” called a voice. 
“Asks for children as payment,” replied Father’s cousin. 
“Ixchol the Quick?” proposed Surmok, who remembered him from some of the stories his mother used to tell him. 
“Lost a footrace with a zephyr a month ago, has to spend a year without moving a muscle from where he sits,” said grandfather Takl.  “Serves the damned fool right for his brashness.”
“What about Elder Lactl?” suggested Mother. 
“She’s crazy,” said Father.
“She works just fine, crazy or not.  She took that curse off your aunt very nicely.”
“She made her wear a necklace of fish heads for three months.”
“And the smell worked just fine to drive off the curse now, didn’t it?  I say we go with her.”
“She’s a woman,” grumbled grandfather Takl.
“So am I,” said Mother, “and you managed to survive me until I married Xapa.”
Father looked out across the village.  “Any other ideas?”
Murmurs reached a mumbled consensus: no.
“Then we send out the call to Elder Lactl,” said Father.  “And she and my sons will go and try to fix this business before it gets out of hand.  In the meantime, I think we’ll need a name for this new thing that’s popped up with the sun gone.  Let’s call it the dark.”

Elder Lactl was called in the traditional way.  Everyone got together and caught every animal they could find – mostly bats, which seemed to be enjoying the new ‘dark,’ and insects – and asked them politely to get her to come over. 
Then they waited.
And waited.
And waited a little more.  They weren’t quite sure exactly how long, though.  Not with the sun missing, no longer weaving its cheerful circle around the edge of the sky to show the hours of the day ticking past. 
“Cloi Bloodletter steals the wings of eagles and flies a hundred leagues in a minute,” muttered one. 
“Ixchol the Quick could spin the world three times on a single sprint,” grumbled Surmok. 
“Hah!” said grandfather Takl.  “Slelloc Slell once voyaged to the stars and back on a boat made from a single feather – and all in an afternoon!”
“Only place he travels to nowadays is his chamberpot,” said mother.  Grandfather Takl mumbled something about the rudeness of youth and the cruelty of your children. 
At long last, Elder Lactl came, bumping and jostling down the muddy old trade route.  She was sitting on her hat, legs crossed firmly above the rim as it slid along the dirt, spinning and oscillating so that she never faced squarely forwards.  It came to a gradual halt in the village square, spinning her about to face the small assembly of curious witnesses with her bent back. 
“Hey ho there,” she spoke to empty air as Father adjusted his tattered and dusty ceremonial headdress, freshly-plucked from its languishment under his bed.  “What’s the problem?”
Father adjusted his planned speaking style from ceremonial to straightforward in self defence.  “The sun’s gone.  Can you fix it?”
“Oh, right,” said Elder Lactl, stepping from her hat and stretching her spine.  The thousands of intricate little beads on strings that made up her robe clicked and clacked together like a fistful of pebbles, skittering off the surface of the long, long knife that dangled from her neck like a razor-edged pendant.  “Sure!  Who did it?  Someone must’ve done it.”
“It wasn’t my fault,” said Little Hmen. 
Elder Lactl laughed, and bent down to look at him face to face.  The old, old woman’s skin looked more tanned and beaten than grandfather Takl’s old trophy jaguar skin, she smelt like dust and dirt, and her nose was longer than the length of a stretched finger.  But the thing about her that made Little Hmen stare was neither of these; it was her eyes.  They were a clear, deep brown, still sharp, and quite obviously not looking at the same thing as anyone else was, ever.  They were sorcerer’s eyes, magic eyes, and he felt very odd indeed seeing them turned on him. 
“No, I expect not,” she said, straightening up (barely) and taking that worrying gaze off Little Hmen.  “Boys will be lads, always breaking their toys.”
“He broke the sun,” said father, rather pointedly. 
“Toys, suns, same things.  Always something shiny to the imagination that goes smash proper when you drop it.  Especially something forbidden.  ‘Don’t look at it!’ you warn them, so of course first comes looking, then touching, then breaking.  This is exactly why I never had any children of my own you know.  Troublesome, aren’t they?”  The last was addressed in a conspiratorial tone to Little Hmen.  He shrugged. 
“Well, there’s no use crying over spilt sunshine.  I’ll take your boy here with me and we’ll be on our way to go fix up this mess.  Better take your other one with me too, seeing as he threw the dart in the first place.  Bless him, but he must have a good arm.  We might need that.”
Surmok opened his mouth to protest innocence, and immediately shut it under the baleful glower of his mother’s expression. 
“Right then,” said Elder Lactl.  “Best move off while the night’s young.”
The trip was long and far, farther than Little Hmen or even Surmok had ever been from home before.  That wasn’t saying much, but still.  Little Hmen was sure that they’d been walking for days, missing sun or no, and it was scarcely an even bearing of burdens – each stride of Surmok’s was two or three of his and Elder Lactl simply sat on her hat and let it bear her where she wished, usually facing the wrong direction.  This was a good thing; not only did it take that gaze of hers away from them, but it also meant that the greater amount of her rambling spilled into the forest, away from their ears.  Elder Lactl talked a lot – no, more than a lot.  Elder Lactl talked more than grandfather Takl in a reminiscing mood, something that both the brothers had separately and privately concluded to be impossible earlier in their lives.  She talked about animals, and plants, and places she’d seen, and people she’d known, and about the weather and the sky and she never, ever stopped.  It was more tiring than the walk, even as the ground grew high and rocky. 
Finally, after a particularly lengthy anecdote about a troublesome tapir made Lactl pause for breath, Little Hmen seized the chance to ask the question that had been brewing in his head for half the trip. 
“Are we there yet?”
“Hmm?  Oh no, no, no, no!  Not in the least!  Why, first we’ve got to go the wrong way.”
The two brothers stopped and stared at that, in spite of all their parents had taught them about manners (important when dealing with your elders) and respect (very important when dealing with magic).  It was quite all right, as Elder Lactl was too busy steering her hat around a troublesome mud patch to notice, frowning as the edge of its brim toed the muck. 
“Tricky, tricky – we need to find the sun, see?  The poor thing’s gone haring off wounded thanks to the rotten luck you boys had.  So we need to track it.  But the sun’s in the sky, you see.  You can’t track that from the ground, oh no my never.  Sky’s the only way to go.  And to track its path in the sky, we’ll need something that travels through the sky.  And this old hat just won’t cut it, sad to say as the truth is.  So we’re going to hunt up something a bit better.”
“Eagle wings?” asked Surmok.
“No.  They get awfully, terribly crabby whenever you try and borrow them.  I’m not as young as you; I don’t heal that fast anymore.”
“A boat made from a feather?” suggested Little Hmen.
“They make me sneeze.  No, no, no, I’ve a better plan.  We’re right near the mountains now, boys, and I’m going to call in a favour from a friend with a wonderful nose.  Plug your eyes, would you?”
Elder Lactl put a finger between her teeth and another in her ear, squinted one eye shut and bulged the other, and let out a whistle so piercing that it set both the brothers’ teeth a-quivering.  Right away there was a flapping and fluttering in the sky and down came a bird smaller than half a hummingbird, cloaked from skull to tail-tip and all about the wings with the most beautifully pure white feathers, so clear and clean they made clouds look dirty.  It landed on the tip of Elder Lactl’s long, long nose and gave her a most cunning look. 
“Elder Lactl,” said the bird, its voice like music on the ears.  “What do you want?”
“We’re looking for the sun, Condor,” explained the old magic woman.  “And it’s not at all these boys’ fault.  Understood?”
Condor looked a bit confused. 
“Good.  Anyways, I happen to know you have the most marvellous nose in all the things that fly.  Would you mind putting it to use for us?  Smell us out the sun’s resting place, if you would be so good.  I promise, I’ll help you out.”
“I guess so,” said Condor.  “But this had better be worth it.  The sun burns my nose and makes my head itch.”  He took off again, circled them thrice, and dipped in the air. 
“Follow me!” he called.  So they followed him, deeper and longer into the mountains, through crevasses and over crags, around ravines and past moraines. 
“Follow me,” he called as they walked over snow and ice, the brothers shivering in weather far, far colder yet than any they’d ever wished to imagine, let alone endure.  Elder Lactl remained oblivious to the temperature, and offered them icicles to lick. 
“Stop!” he announced, as they were clinging to a cliffside (except for Lactl, who was sitting on her hat as it slid down the face inch by careful inch).  “Just to your left.  No, your other left, Little Hmen.  There.  The cave.”
There it was, a broad, flat, gaping cave opening.  The air that came from it was dry and flat, as appealing as breathing sand.  
“Well, I’ll be filled with toucans,” marvelled Elder Lactl as they gingerly sidled into the place’s depths.  “The underworld.  It slid all the way down into the underworld.  My, boy, but you do have a good throwing arm.  And you’re going to need it in a moment, because you can’t come down here without a fight.”
Sure enough, a pair of men were standing farther down the tunnel.  Their feet were planted firmly on the ceiling, their bodies were withered bone with thin skins, and their eyes gone and empty. 
“Halt,” pointed out the one on the right. 
“And die,” submitted the one on the left.
“Can we leave now?” asked Little Hmen.  The knives those dead men were carrying were obsidian, finer than glass and sharper than his mother’s mind. 
“No leaving,” the two stated firmly.  “That’s the rule.  Come in, but don’t leave.”
“Well, we’re definitely going to have to get the sun to leave,” said Elder Lactl.  “So I’m afraid we’ll have to change that rule of yours.”
“Make us,” said the men. 
“Certainly.  I bet you each of us can defeat you once each when we return through here.  And if we do, you have to let us go.  Does that sound fine to you?”
The two dead men grinned at each other, a fine and tricky feat to perform when your jaw muscles are locked.  “It does.”  With a creaking of joints and a shedding of dust they stood aside, arms crossed and locked across their rotting barrel-chests, vicious knives sheathed carefully in their bony ribs. 
“That was too easy,” said Surmok as they walked farther down the tunnels, opening up into caves and shapes that were too weird to be real. 
“Oh, not at all,” said Elder Lactl.  “It’s easy to get down into the underworld.  Everybody does it sooner or later.  They just get shirty about you trying to leave.  Now, Condor, which way was that sun?”
“Follow me,” said Condor, and they went on and in, further into the underworld, farther from where living people should ever be.  The ground grew harsh and spiked, too cruel for warm feet to tread; the walls turned into things that weren’t; the ceiling wasn’t there and was there at the same time while not being either.  And the whole place was covered in mists and fogs that Little Hmen and Surmok were never entirely sure existed.  Maybe they were just imagining them so they wouldn’t have to see what was really there.  Then again, Elder Lactl bobbed along cheerfully on her hat, nose twitching, sorcerer’s-eyes staring at things that hurt to look at as happily as a snake in a bird’s nest. 
“It’s here,” said Condor.  The little bird was looking less than well himself.  He kept twitching at any sounds smaller than a footstep.  But he was right: there was the sun, floating in a pool of water, light flickering feebly, weighted down by the embedded bulk of Surmok’s dart. 
“Oh dear,” said Elder Lactl.  “This is very bad.  Worse than I thought.  Your arm is even stronger than I thought, love, and a good thing too.  You’ll need that when you all walk out of here.”  She cracked her knuckles and stepped off her hat, shook herself like a cat coming out of the rain, and picked it up. 
“Now,” she said, placing it most carefully on her head, “is time for the magic.  First you, Condor.  What do you want?”
“A wish for myself,” said the Condor.  “For later.”
“Saving up, eh?  Clever bird.”  Elder Lactl blew on her hand and licked her knife and put them together, then pulled away the little splash of blood that came out of this and did something that made it vanish in a little piff of light.  “There you go!  Just wish hard, and it’s yours.  A hard bargain, but a good one.”
“What about the sun?” asked Little Hmen.  “Are we going to carry it?”  He asked the last with a worried whine in his voice, and for good reason – just standing near the pool made your skin crawl with uncomfortable warmth.  Dim it might be, but cool it wasn’t. 
“Dear me no. don’t you worry your little head there at all.  We can’t carry it back into the sky; the idea is to get it rising all on its own again, under its own power.  Surmok, would you like to help it?”
Surmok edged his way to the pool cautiously, gripped his dart by its shaft, and pulled.  His knuckles smoked lightly as he yanked away the weapon, its wooden point stained radiant with the sun’s blood. 
“It tore the muscle,” he said.  “Will it fly again?”
They looked at the sun expectantly.  It managed a few weak bobs that took it to just level with Little Hmen’ chin, then gave up and splashed back into the pool. 
Elder Lactl clucked her tongue and drew her knife once more.  “Pity.  Ah well, I thought it would come to this.  The poor thing needs to lighten itself.  And since I seem to be in possession of the lightest thing among us, it’s time I parted ways with both it and all of you.”
“What?” said Condor and Surmok, largely at once.  Little Hmen was too busy looking at his brother’s newly burnished dart. 
“Be quiet for a moment,” said Elder Lactl, and she cut open her chest.  Blood poured out slowly as she yanked and tugged on her ribs, broke one, two, three, four, and pulled out her heart, which she carefully slipped loose of its bounds. 
“Here you go,” she said brightly, and dropped it into the sun.  Then she fell over dead. 
In the surprised silence that followed, Little Hmen was the first to notice and point at the sun.  It was floating, bobbing up uneasily and wobbly on thin air, light as a feather or an old witch’s heart. 
“I think we’d better leave,” said Condor. 
The trip back was easier, if only because they had but to retrace their bloody footsteps, tracking the remnants left by the rough rocks underfoot, taking it in turns to fan the floating sun forwards and upwards.  Up until the very maw of the underworld, and the dead men that guarded it. 
“A challenge,” mused the one on the right, which was now the one on the left. 
“As agreed,” chuckled the one on the left, who was on the right. 
“The child first,” they said together.  “Let us spare him seeing his brother die.”
Little Hmen thought for a moment.  “Can I face one of you?  I’m half as big as a grownup.”
The dead men shrugged.  “It can be so.”
“I pick hide-and-seek.”
“I will seek,” said the one on the left that was on the right.
“Count to ten.”
The dead man did so.  Little Hmen hid behind his brother. 
“You are not hiding very well,” said the dead man. 
Surmok looked behind him, at his little brother, and realized something. 
“You can’t see him, can you?”
“No,” admitted the dead man. 
“It doesn’t count, and I should know.  I was the best and hide-and-seek in the village, and I say if you can’t see him, you haven’t found him.”
The dead man grunted and shoved and heaved and pulled, but it couldn’t budge its feet from where they sunk into the roof of the tunnel. 
“Fine,” it said in poor grace.  “The child passes.”  Little Hmen walked between them with fear in his heart, but it was for nothing.  The knuckles of the dead men twitched on their knife-handles, but nothing more. 
“Now it is the bird’s turn,” they said.
“Easily done,” said Condor.  “I challenge you to smell what I smell.”
There was a pause, during which the dead man on the right who was on the left felt the gaping hole where his nose had been.  It was not a kindly one. 
Condor had the good grace to take his victory in silence. 
“The man then,” seethed the dead men as one. 
“I challenge you,” said Surmok, “to best my throw.  I’ll wager I can hurl a dart farther than either of you, and I’ll even forgo my atlatl, to make things fair.”
The two dead men looked at their great bony arms, then at Surmok’s (relative) slimness, and they burst into laughter, the long, hard, cold laughter of the dead that can go on forever, and sometimes does.  “Agreed,” they chuckled, and each plucked loose their spine, blackened and bone-spiked, a great javelin thicker than Surmok’s waist.
“On the count of three, as one we throw,” he said.  “One,” grip the darts, “two,” brace the hold, strike the pose, “three,” go. 
Up and out soared Surmok’s dart, no longer hidden by his hand, and as it was loosed – just a fraction’s split ahead of the two giant spears – it shone with bright line, the blood of the sun.  The dead men roared and groaned and clutched at their empty eyes that couldn’t see in agony, and their throws clattered hollowly off the walls of the underworld, aim spent and wasted. 
“I pass,” Surmok said, and ran through rather hastily, before they could change their minds. 
Last came the sun, floating up from below, and the dead men were in no mood to talk. 
“Friend of cheats.”
“Do not leave,” they said, and swung their bare fists at it as hard as they could.
There was a flash, a scream and a sizzle, and the dead men weren’t there anymore.  Unfortunately, the sun had been wedged rather tightly into the ceiling. 
“I can’t reach it,” said Little Hmen. 
“I can’t reach it,” said Surmok. 
“I can,” said Condor, and he flew up and up to the sun in its prison.  He pecked and heaved at the rock and tugged and snipped at the sun and nothing came of it but singed feathers and a sore beak, no matter how hard he tried. 
“I wish I were bigger!” he cursed.  And then lo and behold, there was a swirl and shake and he was bigger, bigger than Surmok and Little Hmen and their mother and father all put together.  His wings nearly burst the tunnel’s walls with their thunder, and with two sharp blows he smashed the rock with his wings.  A snap of his mouth plucked loose the sun, and with his hardest breath he blew it loose, up, up, up and out of the underworld, tumbling loose and wild into the sky. 
‘It’s out,” said Little Hmen, scrambling into the open air. 
“It’s not steady,” frowned Surmok, watching its ascent with worried eyes. 
Condor didn’t say anything, and on questioning couldn’t.  His throat was burned away to near-nothing, his beautiful feathers had been burnt to black almost all over his body, and his head was bald and scorched.  Despite all the thanks offered to him he was in no fit mood for company, and so set off home immediately. 
Surmok and Little Hmen took their time walking back, and so noticed a new difficulty: the sun was falling.  Instead of settling back into its comfortable spiral around the sky, it arched up, up to the very top, then began to slide back down again.  By the time they were home, that awful dark had appeared once more. 
“Well, that isn’t good,” said Father when they told him what they’d done.  “All that effort, just for one day?”
“It wasn’t my fault,” said Little Hmen. 
“There’s only so much lightness in one heart,” said Surmok.  “Maybe it ran out.”
“Well, we’d better get it some more,” said Father.  “And there’s got to be an easier way of doing it.  We can’t send someone all the way to the underworld each and every time we want some sunlight.”
“Yes we can,” said Surmok, who’d just had an idea pop into his head.  “It’s easy to get into the underworld.  Everybody does it.  We just need to send someone down with their heart in hand.  A good light heart.  That’s the important bit; it has to be light.”
There was a very long conversation after that, and that’s where most of the rules were laid out. 

The above myth is considered to be the only known rationale given for a rather peculiar quirk of Xlalec religion.  Although their sun cult emphasized – as did many others – the necessity of sacrifice to maintain the sun’s presence, it is the only known example that demanded that its priests be skilled comedians. 


“Sunshine” copyright 2010, Jamie Proctor. 

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