He found himself tiring more quickly than he’d imagined from the journey to the place where Gift’s people – the Singing Folk – apparently made their homes. The route that she groggily directed him along took a much-used path slightly uphill, towards an outcropping of jagged rocks he could see towards the west. They wavered in the midday haze. In his haste to rescue this woman from the snake, he’d forgotten that the sun was still high, and it continued to beat down on them both mercilessly. Gift, better adapted to this environment, seemed unaffected by it. With her naked body held so closely against him as he trudged along he found his thoughts turning back towards the needs of his mortal flesh. Gift was the first creature like him he’d encountered since his arrival on this world and he thought that, like the animal he’d killed whose meat had been the most beautiful thing he’d ever tasted, perhaps it was merely starvation that motivated him. But, as he surreptitiously glanced down at her, he reconsidered that position. Her lean form was extremely pleasing, and he knew much about aesthetics. What convergent evolution had led her to resembling his own kind so perfectly? Or was it all part of his father’s design, their similarity of appearance somehow encoded into the deep fabric of the universe perhaps? But then, he had undergone such a tumult recently that perhaps his own mind betrayed him. Was this mortal body really him? Had he indeed flown amongst the stars, through the rippling coronae of dying suns and into the burning quasar hearts of galaxies a billion light years distant from the one in which this small world resided in this shape? It was possible it was all an illusion and, if that could be manufactured, how much else had been placed in his mind?
The First dismissed such pointless existential thoughts. What good was it to ponder on these unknowables? Perhaps he was some kind of simulacrum, sent here to this world for some other purpose, but what of it? He had only his memories as a point of reference, after all, so doubting them served no purpose. Instead he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, bearing the weight of the fading Gift, getting her towards help as quickly as possible. Now was not the time to linger over the curve of her thigh or the way the sun caught the edge of her breasts. He was gripped with a fervent desire to save her suddenly, as if the physical kinship they appeared to share indicated some deeper connection. Perhaps it did.
The Singing Folk, such as they were, lived huddled against the lower crags of the rock formation he had seen. Up close it was much larger, providing the only substantial shelter for miles around. No wonder then that these people had chosen to make their homes here. And they were people, of a kind. The First entered their rough settlement to stares from dozens of pairs of eyes. They were much like Gift, naked and physically robust, though none possessed her beauty or cleanness of form. He understood immediately how they got their name too for, like Gift, they constantly raised their voices in song, only falling silent to watch him in consternation. He had expected awe or even terror, but instead he just received confusion. Some gazes slid right across him, as if there was no room in their minds for a newcomer like him. The settlement was little more than a few crude lean-tos set amongst the rocks, along with several much-reused fire pits. From the glowing embers and the black stains etched into the stone close by, the First supposed they were always kept lit, probably to ward off predators. But still, the people had a hunted, wary look about them, and he saw lots of injuries. Gift was seemingly young and relatively carefree, a rare exception in this brutal world, perhaps.
“She was bitten by a snake,” he said as he laid her down in the centre of the encampment, “do you have anyone who can heal her?”
The men and women who surrounded him seemed stunned that he could speak their language. Perhaps they were the only speaking people, at least in this part of the world, but a young man ran off and returned leading an ancient, stooped woman who leant over Gift and began to sing as she rummaged in a bag she wore at her hip.
The First stayed with the Singing Folk while Gift rested and healed. He was drawn to them somehow, though they were a strange people. They almost always communicated in verse, jabbering in their sing-song way about everything. It was almost all improvised on the spot, which he found strange. They were wrapped up in their own affairs and, though they tolerated his presence and seemed content to share food with him, they never sang at him or directly acknowledged him at all. Attempts to engage them himself proved futile, even though he had saved the life of one of their own. He tried to seek out Gift’s father, thinking he might be a useful point of contact, but his search was futile – ‘father’ was evidently an unknown concept to the Singing Folk. They were a limited people in many ways, but they lived in a close-knit troupe and cared for their young, sick and elderly. They shared, and of course they sang with their clear, beautiful voices. Their existence was rooted in the here and now and, for all the music that suffused their lives, none of them ever sang of the future or where they’d come from. The First considered them in relation to himself – like him, their place was uncertain, even in their own world. A people with no history, and no destiny. Were they much different from him at this moment? Perhaps staying here, at least until he was certain the girl, Gift, was safe, would give him some answers. And the same might be true of them for, though he saw a society that was stable and content, he couldn’t ignore how poorly adapted them seemed to their environment, how hungry and scared they were, and how often hunting parties returned to the village with fewer members than they’d left with. The Singing Folk were doomed, he came to understand.