Myth of the First Sailor
One year, long ago, a dead man followed a salmon.
It was all because nobody planted a tree over his grave. His brothers, they all fought in the wars. They flinted arrows, they sprinkled mountain water over their shoulders, they charged in, clubs raised when their village needed protecting. They did things proper.
But Mockingbird, he didn't. He was oldest, he should've. Except he killed another man once, in a fight over water during the drought, and he said, he'd never do it again. Everybody told him, Mockingbird, you can't make an oath like that. You got a family to protect. You earned your warrior's club protecting your momma and sisters, remember? It wasn't so bad then was it, killing a man.
He just clenched his jaw and glowered, impassive as any damn warrior, and went back to mending fishing nets.
Then the wars came. Villages far and wide started fleeing from the south. First, they were friendly, knew where they were. Told folk, don't you go south, there's people disappearing, getting eaten, dried up, torn to bits, some even went crazy. The People worried, but they didn't see any crazy men coming up from the south, so they figured they'd be alright. But before there were crazy people, there were refugees that weren't so friendly. Didn't speak a word of real language. They thieved and looted and killed. Stripped every stream, bush, and trap they came across, no matter it didn't belong to them.
They're passing through, Mockingbird said, we hole up and get what food we've got and they'll be on their way someplace else.
Only it didn't stay that way, did it? First the strangers were stealing and moving through, but then they were trying to stay. Take some women and girls, sometimes, push the People out into the dry forests where fires devour.
Mockingbird's brothers weren't having none of his oath then. They fought, everybody fought, except Mockingbird.
That's how he died, wasn't it? He fought a little, sure, but not to kill, and so they smelled the weakness on him like honey. Took five of them to bring him down, but down he went. Then his wife got taken, and that was that. His brothers, they didn't have the time to bury him, so they figured, well if you can't bury a man, you lay him in a boat and send him on down to the sea. Plant a tree over a man's grave, he'll grow into the fruit and leaves, so the birds'll carry him off, and he'll fly. But if you can't, you send him down to the sea. Sea, he doesn't have a memory, does he? He'll wipe a man all clean, and the dead man'll find rest, even if he doesn't get closer to the sky.
Except this time, Mockingbird, this dead man who wouldn't fight, they didn't have a boat. They lashed a few fallen trees together and hoped it'd make do. It almost, did too. Got him halfway there before his body fell right off.
Now, he might've just wandered. Like the restless dead do, til he faded. But the problem with rivers is, they smooth rocks real clean, perfect almost, the oldest ones. And those old stones, they remember. His body and memory, they bumped right up against some old, smoothed rocks, old as bones of the earth, and memory's the one thing the dead don't want. All that memory, it infected the blood that was left inside him, got right up inside his own memory.
So Mockingbird, he doesn't know, is he that man Mockingbird, or is he the earth? And you might remember, the earth's not resting easy. There's all that war, and unnatural things chasing good decent folk to thievery and looting.
But he knows he's dead. He's supposed to forget, and he knows it, but which way's he supposed to go? So he just follows the river. And there's that big shelf, you know the one. All the waterfalls go right over, won't wear away for anything. And he asks that shelf, Shelf! Where do I go to forget?
And that Shelf, bless him, he doesn't know. He says, well, dead man, you better go on down to the sea. That's where all the dead things go. There's a lot more of them these days you know. Lots of dead things floating on down from the mountains.
And Waterfall, she overhears, and it's that time of year where her hair's all white and full. She tells him, I don't know if you'd better forget just yet, dead man. Seems like there's some reason you're walking.
But Mockingbird, he just has to forget. So he goes on down, down Shelf, and Waterfall's not going to argue with Shelf. I guess I'd better move my hair out of the way for you, she tells the dead man, but watch out for gulls.
Well Mockingbird thinks, what's so bad about gulls? Birds are supposed to take me up to the sky, bits of me at a time. Maybe they'll do the job before I even get to the sea.
Only it doesn't work, does it? He gets down to Sand right by Sea, only those gulls! They aren't going to let him near. They swoop all around, take away bits of his hair, bites of his skin, one even tries to make off with his eye. No memories are going with all those bits.
Why not? he shouts up at Sky. I'm meant to go with you aren't I? How come your children aren't taking me with? He starts swatting and swatting at those gulls. He's going to keep his eye after all, he figures, because he might need it.
Sky, she gets worried, because dead men aren't supposed to walk, and the memories of river-smoothed stones aren't meant to get inside them either. Why'd you come out here? she asks him, you're supposed to grow up into a tree and down into stones, so Earth keeps your memories and you can fly with me.
I have to forget, he tells her, I have to get to the sea. Sea'll take it away.
Sky feels bad, so she asks those gulls nicely not to eat him anymore, and keep an eye on him just to make sure none of the other gulls try it. I don't think Sea can take it away, she tells the dead man, but you go on and ask him.
So those gulls, they follow him all the way down to the beach, all the way to Sea. He gets there, only Sea isn't paying him any mind. Sea, he's a big old son, big as earth, some folk even say bigger. He's thinking on storms the size of mountain ranges, and trenches all his children hide in. How's he going to notice one dead man, shouting at him on his shores?
Mockingbird shouts at old Sea right into the night, and those gulls, they stick around. All the crabs're coming out by then, and the gulls get to eat them right up. And the gulls're watching and watching, Mockingbird throwing all the curses of stone and sea and sky out on the wind, not that it makes a difference to Sea.
You need to fly out there, the gulls tell him, out where Sea might notice you.
I can't fly, Mockingbird says, and if I swim I'll get eaten.
A boat, they say, isn't that what you flightless sorts use, a boat?
Boats are for rivers.
The gulls all gather round, conferring with each other, the way birds do when they're resting. It takes them a while, then they tell him, well how bout we do both. You take a boat and we'll fly out and we'll all get Sea's attention together, that way, we'll have somewhere to land on, and you'll have help getting his notice.
They don't just go with, either, those gulls. Mockingbird knows he can't row enough to get far enough, so he gets a line for every one of the gulls. They take one end in their beaks, and all fly out together, and they pull his little boat faster than a deer can run.
Days and days they went, him paddling, gulls pulling. Every time the wind blew from the deeps, he'd shout and holler and curse at Sea. The gulls would fly round and round, calling too.
Take my memory, Mockingbird says, take it old Sea!
He even tries getting in the water, thinking, maybe Sea will hear him then. Or at least know he's there. But fish, they like eating dead things too, don't they? One of them finds him right off and nibbles, he scares it off but then he sees. All the salmon, the ones that swim in the rivers all the way up to the People, they're swimming now, out to sea, all of them together.
We're not far enough out, he tells the gulls once he gets back up. The gulls don't like that any, but Sky talked to the dead man, so they figure, well, we said we'd help, better keep going.
So they follow those salmon. They follow them for days and days, weeks and weeks, Mockingbird rowing, gulls pulling. Salmon are everywhere, they push, too, there's so many of them.
Finally, the salmon notice Mockingbird, and they ask him, what's a dead man doing rowing? We thought those birds were eating you.
Stone gave me memories, he says, and I need to forget. But Sea won't pay me any attention.
We'll tell him, they decide, and some of them go off to do just that. Sea's supposed to take dead things down, to where his children can eat them and take the memories away.
Sea, though, he's not too pleased. He's busy. He has his storms to think of, and the salmon, they're not really his children, are they? His children don't live in rivers, they live way down deep. You tell him, Sea says, go ask Sky, her birds should eat his memories up.
Her birds are with him, the salmon say, that's why he's looking for you.
Why didn't he go drown himself then and stop wasting everybody's time!
He's already dead, but he's still got his memories, and more besides.
Bah! Fine I'll go talk to him.
So Sea goes right on up, up to the surface which he hates doing, and scares all those poor salmon away. His children come too, all tentacles and big eyes, because they've never seen a whole man before, just eaten little bits. And Sea says, why're you rowing, you're supposed to forget.
I can't forget, Mockingbird says, you've got to take my memories, and the ones Stone gave me.
Sea takes one close look at Mockingbird, and he knows, eating him up won't work. Stone's memories aren't his or Sky's to take. You've got to go the long way, he tells the dead man, back to Earth.
Please, great father Sea! he shouts, even though Sea isn't the People's father, I can't go back, you've got to take them.
No, you follow these salmon, he says, they'll take you the long way back, through the spirit world. You take those memories back to Stone and Earth, before Earth misses them.
And Mockingbird, he doesn't have any choice, does he? Sea feels bad, but he can't help any, and goes back to his storms and waves. There's no salmon around, but Sea's children follow him back down deep, so the salmon come back.
Maybe, Mockingbird thinks, if the salmon go to the spirit world and come back, and he does too, then he'll come back alive. So off he follows, chasing those salmon for weeks and weeks, and months and months, until the sky blurs into the sea, and water into air, and the sky goes dark during the day and bright at night. Blood leaks out of him, and moonlight replaces it. The gulls and the salmon fly and swim side by side, and Mockingbird, he can't remember a time he was ever alive. The skies catch fire, and the water reaches up to put it out.
But he follows those salmon. He follows and follows til he doesn't remember anything but that he's supposed to follow, that and the old memories Stone gave him. When those salmon lead him on back, he's forgotten he wanted to forget.
The gulls fly him back, he rows back, and the salmon push him back, til he finds the beach again. The gulls leave him then, but he doesn't stop. He keeps following those salmon. Right up the very river he came down, up Waterfall, up Shelf, up and up like he was a salmon too. He gets all the way back to where the People are, or used to be, but he doesn't stop. The village's empty now, but he doesn't remember why it shouldn't be.
All he remembers is, he has these memories, and Earth knows there's something wrong.
When he stops following the salmon, he goes south. It's the only place he knows in those memories. South and south, through empty village after empty village, til he finds what's wrong.
Ground's opened up, and there's a big old hole there, right into the underworld. Everything's been coming out, and eating people up, because it's too bright under Sky for underworld critters.
That dead man, he climbs down into that hole, right down to where Earth meets the underworld, where the last rocks are. And those rocks know right away where those memories he had came from. They gobble the memories right up, straight out of his hands, taking the last bits of blood that got left inside him.
Earth feel it, and closes up, and Mockingbird, well, he wasn't Mockingbird anymore, was he? The dead man, he turned all the way into stone, and helped close up that hole. Those memories healed up that big old wound in earth, and he finally had all his memories taken away.
And that's why, when men want to forget, but haven't yet died, they take to the sea, and follow the salmon.