of the Last God
(Book IV of the Oerth Cycle)
(C) 2001 BY
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Pup-Chup scrambled up the tree last, as he was Chief, and it was his duty to make sure all the others were safely up in the trees. Once, long ago, their people had lived in small huts on the ground - but no longer. The Snap-Snaps, ever hunting, had taught the musties that a hut on the jungle floor was little more than a trap. The vast trees of the jungle, however, provided an alternative, and all the musties of Pup-Chup's tribe and all the musties of all the other tribes he had ever encountered lived high in the ancient trees of the deep jungle, far out of the Snap-Snap's reach. Most of the ancient trees the musties lived in were well over two hundred feet tall, though the musties did not live that high, preferring to build their homes in the stronger, older branches between a hundred and fifty and two hundred feet from the jungle floor. Some tribes had tried burrowing into the ground, but the Snap-Snaps soon learned the signs of a hidden burrow, and dug the musties out with their large, sharp claws. Thus, the trees had become the only safe place - if the Snap-Snaps attacked, the musties simply dropped stones on them. From nearly two hundred feet in the air, a stone weighing ten pounds struck with enough force to crush the skull of a Snap-Snap, or break any bone it struck. More, they could do little in return, as it appeared their vision was very limited. Even when they were looking up, trying to see the musties in the trees high above them, they could not see the stones falling on them in time to jump out of the way. Of course, it was not completely safe in the trees - it required eternal vigilance. The Snap-Snaps had long, sharp claws, and if the musties did not keep a close eye out, they would try to climb the trees in the dead of night. It was fortunate that this was difficult for them to do, as they were quite large and heavy, and a climb up a hundred and fifty or two hundred feet of broad, soft-barked tree, a simple scramble for a small and light mustie, was a dangerous and slow undertaking for the much more massive Snap-Snaps.
Fire, of course, was another concern. The musties were excruciatingly careful with their own fires, not merely because a careless spark might destroy their homes, but might even bring the whole of the jungle down in flames. Horrid though the Snap-Snaps were, they too were careful with fire. Many years ago, when Pup-Chup was very small, the Snap-Snaps tried burning the musties from the trees. The musties easily escaped the resulting firestorm, scurrying along in their inter-connected walkways among the trees, then leaping from tree to tree as the fire spread. The Snap-Snaps, however, were not so lucky. Many were roasted alive in the flames they'd started, and even when the fire finally died down after three days, their troubles were not ended. The ash and dirt were washed into the swamp with the next rain, choking out the fish, which were the Snap-Snap's main source of food. When they tried to hunt the jungles, the musties dropped stones upon them from high in the trees, and killed many starving Snap-Snaps. Ever afterwards, the Snap-Snaps were very careful with fire. As Pup-Chup's father had observed, 'Very mean is the Snap-Snap, very ugly is the Snap-Snap, but very stupid, they are not.'
As evening fell, all the musties of Pup-Chup's village gathered in the main lodge - a large, roughly circular tree-house in the center of the complex of tree-dwellings that formed Pup-Chup's village. There was much wailing and weeping, and all the musties hugged Pup-Chup, hoping to console him. Pup-Chup released his tears, as it was not the mustie way to hold in one's anguish. That led to hateful thoughts, and long, deep hurts. Pup-Chup had no children of his own - the Spirits of the Jungle which watched over the musties had, apparently, decided not to bless he and Mishi in that way. Now, Mishi was gone, and Pup-Chup knew that there would never be another for him.
It was not that there were no other females in the village, of course. No, there were many single females in Pup-Chup's village, and probably many would have been happy to have been his mate. Yet, Pup-Chup had only loved Mishi - she had been his heart's desire ever since they first met, at age eight.
Finally, Pup-Chup's tears subsided into sighs, then silence. The other members of the village slowly returned to their homes, each hugging him before they left the main lodge. They had their own families to care for, and to feed - and the last meal Mishi had been able to gather would feed many, combined with what the other hunting parties had gathered. Soon, only Pup-Chup and Na-Nu were left. Na-Nu was Mishi's grandmother, and she had out-lived all her other family - now, even Mishi. Quietly, Na-Nu hobbled over to Pup-Chup, and sat before him on the fur-covered floor of the lodge. "Mmm... Very sad, this is, my Chief. Very sad am I for you," she said quietly.
Pup-Chup nodded quietly, but found he had nothing to say in return.
"Always like this, it was not. Once, very rare the Snap-Snaps were. When little were you, hardly ever were they seen. Now often seen are they. Very bad this is. Wondering why is this, I am," Na-Nu said, stroking her grayed muzzle.
"I know not," Pup-Chup replied, and sighed. "Just so, it is. Like rain, or sun, or falls the rock from the open paw. Just so."
Na-Nu was silent for a long moment, thinking. Finally, she reached to her side, and picked up a small basket. From within it, she withdrew two fish. "Here. Eat."
"Not hungry, am I," Pup-Chup replied.
"Bah! Eat you will! Mishi-fish! Last thing she catch, ever, this is! Eat. Share Mishi love, like all of village, you will. Eat."
Pup-Chup sighed, and took the fish, then sat quietly with his grandmother-in-law, eating. As he ate the fish, he found tears came to his eyes again. Na-Nu was right - this was the last food brought in by Mishi's paw. It was right to eat it, and share the love and respect everyone had for her. The fish's head crunched easily, as their bones were soft and easily chewed. The rest went down slowly, as Pup-Chup took his time in eating the last meal his mate would ever gather for him and his tribe. Finally, it was gone, and Pup-Chup sighed.
"Wash. Come," Na-Nu said, and rose to her feet. Pup-Chup followed wordlessly as she led him to his own little room in the lodge, then poured water from a goat-skin into a carved wooden bowl. Together, the two musties washed their paws and muzzles in silence.
"Come. With me, sit. Come," Na-Nu commanded, tugging Pup-Chup's paw. Pup-Chup nodded, and together they sat on the fur-covered floor of the little room Pup-Chup had shared with his mate. Na-Nu looked into her grandson-in-law's eyes for a long moment in silence, then finally spoke. "'Just So' it is not, Pup-Chup," she said.
"Huh? What mean you?"
"'Just So' things the Snap-Snaps are not. Thinking am I that maybe many things musties say is 'just so' is not 'just so'. Thinking am I a reason for everything there may be - or nearly everything."
Pup-Chup shook his head. "Na-Nu, why then falls the rain?"
"Know I do not. Sky-spirits weep, make rain, perhaps. Perhaps not. But nowise rain is 'just so' just because Na-Nu knows not the reason."
Pup-Chup grinned at Na-Nu. "A 'just so' thing this is, Na-Nu," he replied, thinking Na-Nu was being terribly silly.
Na-Nu shook her head. "Is not. Look you here," she said, and reached into the pocket of her little green-dyed leather dress. In a moment, she held out a small wooden box. "Tell me - inside this box is what?"
Pup-Chup sighed. "To play game, I am not wanting now, Na-Nu."
Na-Nu poked Pup-Chup with her free paw. "Play anyway. If here Mishi was, wanting you to be sad forever she would not be. Play. Come - guess. Inside this box is what?"
Pup-Chup sighed again. He knew Na-Nu was right. It was not the mustie-way to dwell on unhappiness, but rather it was their way to seek good cheer even in the darkest moments. Pup-Chup put aside his grief as best he could, and studied the small wooden box in Na-Nu's little paw. "Hmm... Shaking the box I can be?"
"Hmm... Sniffing the box I can be?"
"No," Na-Nu replied, pulling the box a little farther away, so Pup-Chup's sensitive nose wouldn't smell anything from it.
"Hmm..." Pup-Chup listened carefully, but couldn't hear anything. He was fairly certain if he asked if he could press his ear to it, Na-Nu would say 'no' again. "Cricket maybe, but no sound is there. Hmmm... Pebble. Pebble it is. Small, no sound. Pebble."
"No. Rain-cloud it is," Na-Nu replied, her ancient face deadly serious.
Pup-Chup blinked. "Rain-cloud cannot be in box!"
"Why not?" Na-Nu asked, her eyes piercing.
"Because too big the rain-cloud would be! Very, very big, and very high in sky is the rain-cloud!" Pup-Chup replied, indignant. It was not the mustie way to cheat at games.
"Rain-cloud it is. A 'just-so' thing, it is." Na-Nu replied, unfazed.
"Is not! To fit in box so small, the Rain-cloud too big it is, and this everyone knows!"
"So, if Pup-Chup know this 'just-so' thing is not 'just-so', maybe other 'just-so' things not 'just-so', eh?" Na-Nu replied, and smiled.
Pup-Chup paused. "But..."
Pup-Chup was silent for a long moment, thinking. "Hmm... Right you are, Na-Nu. All 'just-so' things, 'just-so' perhaps are not. 'Just so' it is, perhaps, when musties know not the reason. When knowing we are, like rain-cloud and box, no more is 'just so', is 'why so'."
Na-Nu grinned. "Ah! Guess right you have!" she said, and put the box in Pup-Chup's paw.
Pup-Chup grinned and opened the box - then blinked as he saw it was empty. "In box nothing was?"
"No, in box something was. Guess right you have already."
"Wisdom, mate-of-my-daughter's-daughter. In box was Wisdom. Now, in you is wisdom," Na-Nu replied, and nuzzled Pup-Chup with a grin.
Pup-Chup grinned, and nuzzled his grandmother-in-law back. "Thank you. Keep box should I?"
"Yes. And each time thinking you are 'just-so this is', Na-Nu and box remember shall you."
"Remember this I shall," Pup-Chup replied, and as looked the little box in his paws, a thought occurred to him. "Na-Nu, many old stories you do know, yes?"
"Yes," Na-Nu replied, nodding.
"Hmm... At night hunt the Snap-Snaps now. Torches they use. Always so this was?"
Na-Nu shook her head. "No. When little was I, never did the Snap-Snaps come out at night. Safest time to hunt, the night was. Then, one night, torches they did have. To hunt at night no longer was safe."
Pup-Chup considered Na-Nu's words, and after a long moment, a thought occurred to him. If her memories were correct - and he had no reason to think they weren't - then once, many years before he was born, the Snap-Snaps did not hunt at night with torches. As he thought about it, Pup-Chup realized that the reason for that just might be that all those decades ago, they didn't have them - they simply didn't know how to make fire. It was even possible that they only discovered fire near the time when he was born, or perhaps a few years before. Certainly their action in burning the jungle when Pup-Chup was very young was a foolish and rash decision - much like that of an inexperienced child who had yet to learn of the true dangers of fire. And, as he considered it, it made sense. The Snap-Snaps lived in the swamp - and, apparently, liked being in the water. They did not use rafts or boats or anything artificial, they simply swam, like fish (though they were not fish, by any stretch of the imagination). It made sense that the Snap-Snaps might not learn the secret of fire easily, and might make foolish decisions about it once they did learn it. Though fire was a simple knowledge to the musties, one known for perhaps thousands of years, it might not be so simple to the water-dwelling Snap-Snaps. It dawned on Pup-Chup that their ability to hunt at night was due only to their discovery of fire - and that implied something else about the Snap-Snaps, something quite important.
"Ah," Na-Nu said, seeing Pup-Chup's expression. "Like seed is Wisdom. Planted, now grows, yes?"
Pup-Chup nodded. "Yes. Thinking am I that hunting at night they once did not because they had not fire. Thinking I am that poorly see they at night - perhaps see they at night not at all."
Na-Nu nodded. "Thinking am I that you are right."
Pup-Chup sighed. "But helping much, this knowledge is not."
"Yes, help it does. At night from now on fishing we can be - seeing well at night we Musties do, Snap-Snap not. Many fish can we catch, perhaps," Na-Nu replied.
"Yes, maybe. Maybe wrong I am. Maybe try, all die, we will."
"No. Thinking am I that you are right. Thinking am I that the Snap-Snaps blind at night are - or nearly so," Na-Nu insisted.
Pup-Chup was silent for a long moment, staring down at the little box in his paws. "Yes, but that not bring Mishi back," Pup-Chup replied quietly.
Na-Nu reached out, wrapping her
arms around Pup-Chup, and hugged her grandson-in-law tightly.
After a moment, Pup-Chup hugged her back.
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