Despite the kinship he felt with the Singing Folk, the First found himself growing frustrated and bored with them as the days wore on. Each day was much like every other for these simple people and even though listening to their songs reminded him of better times, he quickly began to find their gossip and repetition tiresome. But he was unwilling to abandon Gift, although he had not been allowed into the crude hut where she was healing by the old wise woman – called Wind – and so he remained close by. But he took to climbing up the stony escarpment where the tribe made its home whenever he could and sitting there, alone, watching the sky. None of them ever did the same; they appeared to fear the high places and avoided looking up at him when he was there. Now that the pressure to look after his own survival was removed by the instinctive generosity of the Singing Folk, he had more time to reflect on his situation, and it did not put him in a frame of mind he relished. Indeed, at times he thought he could almost feel the creeping tendrils of madness on the edge of his vision, threatening to claim him again. The hardest time was dusk, when the stars began to come out, but he couldn’t pull himself away. He felt like the eyes of his lost siblings, his father, were watching him from those impossibly distant points of light. He knew it was absurd – the photons shed by those stars took thousands of years to reach him and he even wondered whether, if he looked hard enough, he might see the ancient shadow of himself ghosting across the firmament, an image frozen in the deep past. But that too was absurd, for that light reached this forlorn world long before his physical form must have. But still he gazed at the night sky, wonderingly.
One morning, as the horizon began to grow pale with the dawn, he heard someone climb up beside him. He turned, and saw that it was Gift. Her face looked drawn and there were dark circles under her eyes, but she was healthy and she smiled at him. “Gift,” he said softly.
“Snake,” she said. She sat down beside him on his rocky perch. The land was composed of shadowy shapes, stretching off to the lightening horizon.
She sang a brief song, outlining her fragmented memories of how they’d met. In her simple mind, he had become indelibly associated with the event, and so it had become his name, in some strange way. He wondered if all the Singing Folk’s names were arrived at in the same manner, but struggled to express this idea to her. “Why are you Gift? Whose gift?”
“Mother,” she sang, “a gift to her. Of life.”
“But all children are gifts in that sense. Why were you special?”
She shook her head. “No children. No brother. No sister.”
The First understood. “You’ve no siblings. Your mother thought she was unable to have children.” He didn’t think she took his full meaning, but her quick, repeated nods as he spoke seemed to indicate he was correct. She sat down contentedly beside him after that, saying nothing else. “Aren’t you curious?” he asked her after a little while. “About who I am…where I’m from.”
“Snake,” she said firmly.
“No, I mean before that.” The idea only caused her to frown in confusion so he pointed up at the purpling sky. There, low on the horizon, was the steady light of the Morning Star. “Do you remember, Gift? Do you remember how I told you about who I was? I’m from up there. The sky. My father sent me here, to this place, to punish me.”
“Father?” Again, the untranslated word he used only caused consternation amongst these creatures. They had no word for father that he’d been able to discover.
“Father. The man who gave you life.”
“Mother give life.”
“Yes, but…” He thought about the Singing Folk and their community. They mated enthusiastically and often and it occurred to him that he’d seen no family groups. They lived in one large, robust clan and he supposed that Gift – and all her people – did not know which of the men was their father. “My father,” he tried to explain, “gave me life.”
“Mother,” she corrected automatically.
“Well…yes. Mother is correct too, in a way.” His father was both genders and neither, truthfully, but the First and most of his siblings generally knew him as male. It had never been important prior to this conversation with this strange, primitive Gift. “I came here, from the sky. Where did you come from?”
She pointed down at the village below, just waking up with the early dawn light. “There.”
“No, I mean your people. You don’t belong in this place, do you? You’re not evolved to live in this way. You’re…nomadic. This sedentary lifestyle doesn’t suit you.”
She didn’t know what he meant, obviously, but she did turn and look out across the landscape. She pointed east, towards the desert from which he’d emerged. “Red land,” she said, “death.”
“Yes. The wastes. You can’t survive there.” He pointed towards the west. “What’s that way?”
Gift shuddered. “Death,” she said again.
“More wastes? More red land?”
“Silent Folk.” Her smile was gone. She looked small and frightened suddenly, in the twilight.
The First considered her words carefully. The Singing Folk were refugees then, running from some other people. Perhaps they were the last of their kind. What chance had brought him here to these benighted people, just as they reached this bottleneck in their long, painful history? Perhaps not chance at all. Perhaps his father’s hand guided him, even now in his bleak exile.
“Gift,” he said, “you don’t have to live like this. This could be a land of plenty.” In a crevice in the rocks beside him was an accumulation of dust blown in from the barren countryside. He searched through it and pulled out a seed. “Do you know what this is?”
She shrugged helplessly.
“This is a bush, Gift. Or a tree…I don’t know. But if you planted it in the ground, it would grow, and perhaps bear fruit. You could cultivate it and you wouldn’t have to forage and risk being bitten by snakes anymore.” He swept his arm out. “All this could be farms, Gift.”
She didn’t understand, of course. How could she? He was improvising the lexicon as he went along, trying to make her see the possibilities, but despairing that her mind was too simple. But then an idea occurred to him. A little nervously, hesitating over the words, he began to sing her a song about the seed he held in his upturned palm and, as he did so, speaking her language properly for perhaps the first time, he saw her eyes widen and, in their depths, the small fire of soul begin to kindle.