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InkwellMachine
June 7th, 2013, 10:55 AM
SMALL HANDS
by Benjamin Cook

Rhaka was sowing seeds into the freshly-tilled earth when the drums sounded in the distance. The warning pounded through the village, ushering people back into their squat adobe homes. There was the quiet din of footsteps and closing doors, followed by a sudden silence that filled the otherwise empty streets.

Rhaka gathered her tools and rose slowly, her bones creaking inside her. The people would all be cowering inside their houses, waiting anxiously for the wanderers to pass. Rhaka was too old to scurry like the rest of them and too experienced to fear the wanderers, so she took her time. As she crossed the garden, she heard something in the silence. Someone was crying—a child. Rhaka followed the sound out into the street, where a small girl stood trembling in front of her home.

“Mama,” the girl called between sobs. “Mama, where are you?”

The girl heard Rhaka’s footsteps and whirled around, her face red and lined with tears. “Come, child,” said Rhaka, “did you not hear the drums?”

The girl’s frown deepened. “I lost my mother,” she sniveled, suppressing another sob.

Rhaka smiled down at her warmly. “Well, perhaps you could stay with me until the wanderers pass. This is my home,” she said, gesturing to the adobe structure beside them.

The girl stared up at her, confused and afraid.

“Only until they pass,” said Rhaka, “Then, when it’s safe, we’ll go find your mother. What do you think?”

The child thought for a moment and then nodded uncertainly.

“What is your name, little one?” Rhaka asked, closing the door and setting the gardening tools down beside it.

“Otuah,” she said.

“What a lovely name,” said Rhaka, walking to one of the nearby windows. The girl eyed it uncomfortably. Skylights provided the only source of sunlight inside most homes, leaving them dark through much of the day. Rhaka, however, had decided to have a window cut on either side of her front door. It was common superstition that making eye-contact with the wanderers was fatal, but she preferred to watch them in their processions.

“Tell me, Otuah—have you ever seen the wanderers?”

She shook her head. “Mother says they’re dangerous. They hurt people. I’m not allowed to watch them.”

Rhaka frowned, looking out onto the street. The wanderers were terribly misunderstood creatures. It saddened her to think that people were raising their children to despise them, though it had always been the case. Legends and superstition were strong in the Moreh people. Most would never see the wanderers—most would never want to.

“I see,” said Rhaka. “Would you like to?”

Otuah furrowed her brow. She had stopped trembling, and the tears were beginning to dry on her cheeks, but there was still fear in her voice. “Isn’t that dangerous? Won’t they hurt you if they see you?”

“Oh no,” said Rhaka, smiling. “Those are only stories. I watch the clay-children each time they pass, and not once have I had reason to fear.”

“Clay-children?” Otuah repeated.

Rhaka nodded. “Yes. Come,” she said, beckoning Otuah to stand at the window, “watch with me. You will understand when you see them.”

The girl was hesitant at first, but she decided she was more curios than afraid and joined Rhaka at the window. She heard the wanderers long before she saw them. The sound was a low hum, whistling like wind caught up in a canyon. It resonated through the air and crawled across her skin. They appeared first as specks, growing on the horizon. As they neared the village, Otuah was able to make out arms and legs. They were like small people, but their proportions were all different. Some of them had arms that dragged on the ground behind them, while others barely had arms at all. One of them passed by the window and looked up at Otuah. Two empty holes had been bored into the creature’s face for eyes, and another for its mouth. She shivered. It looked to her like the creature had been sculpted entirely from wet clay.

“What are they?” she finally asked, watching hundreds of them wander through the village listlessly.

“That requires a more thorough explanation, child,” Rhaka said. “I could tell you the story if you would like, though. We have time.”

“About the Wa—“ Otuah stopped herself, looking back out at the wanderers in the street. They were small. Docile. Child-like. These were not the monsters she had always been told they were. “—the clay-children?”

The edges up Rhaka’s mouth quirked upward. “Yes. About the clay-children.”

Otuah nodded eagerly.

“Very well,” said Rhaka, retreating from the window to a chair tucked into a nearby corner. “Excuse me. I am getting old and tired. I must sit. You may watch while you listen, though.” Rhaka pulled a long-stemmed clay pipe from a sack beside the chair and packed it while she spoke. “You know, child, you were one of them, once.”

Otuah made a face. “I don’t remember that.”

“No one does. That does not make it any less true. We all came from the clay.” Rhaka puffed on her pipe thoughtfully for a moment. “Have you heard of Hedeh, First to Wonder?”

The girl shook her head.

“Ah. Well then,” said Rhaka, reclining in her chair, “that is where we will start.”

#

The story begins long before our people. It begins before trees learned to bear fruit, and before the seasons that taught them. It begins before the great sorrowful skies poured the oceans down upon the land. It begins even before the clay-children themselves.

It begins with the Earth-Mother.

Like the sun that watches over us and its billion children in the night sky, the Earth-Mother has always been and always will be. Her power is without bound and her wisdom infinite. When she sleeps, the winds slow and the waves calm. When she rages, new mountains pierce the sky. When she loves, the fields run green and lush with her beauty. For many long years, all this was enough. The Earth-Mother was content with her simple existence.

She eventually looked outward into the empty skies and saw for the first time the sun, staring down at her. His beauty captivated her, and for a time she was in love. She stretched with her mighty stone arms, throwing mountains out of the dirt that she might embrace him, but it was not enough. Though she could feel his gaze upon her, he would always be out of her reach. She began to learn loneliness. Slowly, it consumed her. She veiled the sky in clouds, but still the sun shone through, as if to mock her. She looked to the starless, clouded night, casting her gaze away from the sun.

To mend the pain growing inside her, the Earth-Mother began to bear children. They crawled out of the clay and wandered, purposeless at first. Each of them held a small piece of the Earth-Mother’s power, and as they wandered they shaped and created in a way that she could not. Creatures of the clay-childrens’ design began to roam the Earth-Mother’s surface, and the wounds she had suffered started to heal. She began to invest in the new children her whims and desires, and in so doing gave them purpose. Some un-made the mountains she had thrust into the sky. Many of them crafted new creatures. Others still roamed, creating and un-creating listlessly. Only one, however, was made to learn.

The Earth-Mother had long known curiosity, but there were things still beyond her grasp. She could not feel her grass underfoot. She could not climb her mountains and look out upon her expanses. Her sight extended beyond the sun and the stars, outward infinitely into the skies above, but for all this she could not look upon herself. This curiosity manifested itself in a single clay-child, birthed to sate The Earth-Mother’s thirst for knowledge.

The Earth-mother called the child Hedeh and watched him roam, gathering truths and observations about her that she never would have known. For a long time, she was happy with Hedeh, until one day another clay-child un-made a creature that the Hedeh had been watching. That day, Hedeh learned curiosity. He wondered why the other clay-child had done such a thing. As questions often do, this question lead to others, until Hedeh was so distracted by his thoughts that he no longer saw to feeding the Earth-Mother the knowledge she so craved.

Hedeh had lost his purpose and along with it the creation powers the Earth-Mother had borne into him. Under the hot sun, spiritually severed from his mother, the clay-child began to harden and crack. His dry shell broke away, and from the dust crawled the first human child.

#

The clay-children had long passed, but Otuah was still standing by the window, listening eagerly. She waited for the story to continue, but Rhaka was silent, puffing her on her pipe. “What happened next?”
Rhaka shook her head. “I wish I could tell you, child. You are still too young.”

“But…” said Otuah, disappointedly. “I want to know more.”

Rhaka raised an eyebrow at the girl, and then smiled. “I am glad. I worry what others would think, though. There is a reason your mother never told you this story.”

“No one will know,” said Otuah. “Please?”

Rhaka sighed and looked at the girl for a long moment. She was very young to be so curious, but it was understandable. The story was a secret, and for someone so young and inexperienced, there are few things more enticing.

“Perhaps later,” said Rhaka. “We should find your mother.”

The village was built on the side of a large hill, its roads winding up the deep slant from base to crest. The homes at the bottom were sparse and poorly built, all of them made from adobe or mud. The architecture and living conditions gradually improved toward the top of the hill, until the buildings were almost all made of wood and stone, some of them even built with multiple floors. It was here that Otuah lived, where she could be safely hidden away from the clay-children by those seeking to protect her.

Rhaka guided Otuah home and they bid each other goodnight. The girl reminded Rhaka of herself when she was young, full of wonder and questions. Was she wrong in filling the girl’s head with ideas about the clay-children? They were, in their own right, dangerous, but not in the way the Moreh people believed. If someone were to get to close to a clay-child who was in the middle of creating or re-creating or un-creating something, it was possible for it to do any of those things to a human, but they lacked a reason to otherwise.

As Rhaka turned to enter her house, she noticed something across the way. Three houses down, a small figure sat alone in the darkness. Squinting, she could see the three distinctive holes bored into the front of its head. The clay-child sat, puzzling over a tiny doll someone had left hanging beside their doorway. The child would be there all night, formulating new questions about the various other interesting ornaments left out for it. Come morning, its skin would be cracked and crumbling, and the owners of the house would take it in, awaiting the birth of their new child.

Rhaka scowled. She had always thought of adopting the clay-children as selfish. It meant stealing creation from their small, helpless hands, just to avoid the pains of birth. It had been years since she’d heard of a human-born child, which frustrated her. The clay-children did not deserve to be pried from their peaceful ignorance, but there was little she could do.

Then, for the first time, something occurred to her. Rhaka looked up and down the street, but no one appeared to be awake. She emptied the gardening tools from the basket beside her door and crept out to where the clay-child was sitting, thankful for once that her people did not believe in windows. It was so fixated on its new toy that it hardly paid any attention to Rhaka as she scooped it up and placed in the basket.

She watched the clay-child by candle light long into the night. She’d taken away the toy as soon as she had the child inside her house, and now it sat, almost motionless. She questioned whether she was doing the right thing, but a thin crack running through the child’s torso strengthened her resolve.

#

Otuah appeared at the front door early the next morning while Rhaka was rolling a piece of clay. The child approached her and held out a small lanyard of colorful stones, tied into a length of twine.

“I made it for you,” said Otuah, “for helping me yesterday.”

Rhaka smiled. “Thank you, child,” she said, taking the lanyard and tying it onto one of her bracelets. “Very thoughtful. Would you like to come in?”

The girl nodded and stepped past Rhaka into her home. She watched as the older woman kneaded the clay, spreading it out into a disc and then balling it up, over and over. “What are you making?” she asked.

“Oh…” said Rhaka slowly. “This is for a pestle, child. Mine broke.”

“Can I help?”

“Well, I don’t need any help with this one, but you could make your own if you would like.”

Otuah perked up at this and Rhaka began showing her how to knead the clay. Rhaka never married and she refused to adopt the clay-children, but she’d always quietly longed to rear a child of her own. Spending time with Otuah eased Rhaka’s loneliness. She found herself smiling more than she had been used to for the last decade or so.

As they worked, Rhaka noticed something odd about Otuah’s pestle. She had stuck it to the low table-top so that it stood up by itself, and then placed a clay ball on top. At first Rhaka thought perhaps that she was decorating the pestle, but as the girl worked it slowly transformed into a small clay-child, eyes and mouth poked into the face and all.

Rhaka smiled. “That reminds me—we have a story to finish.”

“Really?” said Otuah, beaming up at her.

“Yes, child, but only if you promise to keep it secret. Will you do that for me?”

The girl nodded and Rhaka started into the story as they shaped their clay.

#

The Earth-Mother grieved at the loss of her favorite child. To atone for dooming Hedeh to a life of questions and idle wonder, she birthed new clay-children to watch over him. Under their care, Hedeh grew into a strong young man. He learned and became wise, and soon watched over the clay-children that had once taken care of him.

In turn, Hedeh showed each of the children how to question, and one-by-one they shed their clay skin. The Earth-Mother watched and her heart grew weary at the loss of so many of her children. She tried to birth more, but curiosity spread from Hedeh and his family like a disease, corrupting the children and ruining their creative powers.

When the last of her children was gone, the Earth-Mother wept, flooding herself with great sheets of rain. The waters rose and destroyed and cleansed, washing away the remnants of the conscious clay-children. All was destroyed in the floods, except for Hedeh and three of his children, who fled high up into the mountains. Even after the floods fell and separated into what we now call the seas, Hedeh remained.

He and his family bred and were prosperous. Soon the north was filled with his people—the Moreh people. Our people.
For many years, new clay-children carried the Earth-Mother’s wrath and sought to un-make humans. They hunted us in the night. It was during these years that we learned to fear them. We learned to build windowless homes. We learned to build fences and walls. We were few in numbers and scared in those days. Perhaps, without our fears, we would not be here.

Eventually the Earth-Mother’s temper wore thin, and the clay-children began to wander once again, content in purposeless creation. We never unlearned our fear of them, even when they stopped seeking us out. In time, we learned to adopt the clay-children and gave up birthing our own, but we never stopped hating them for their retaliations. To this day, our people still call them “wanderers,” refusing to acknowledge the good in them until the clay-children are twisted into one of us.
#
Otuah was quiet for a long time. “Does that mean we’re the bad ones?” she finally said, eyebrows knit together in thought.

Rhaka shrugged. “Perhaps. It all depends, child. What do you think?”

Otuah frowned and looked at her replica clay-child. “I wouldn’t want to hurt her,” she said, running a gentle finger over its tiny features. “I want her to be free and happy the way she is.”

Rhaka smiled. She had not expected Otuah to understand the story, let alone reach such a profound conclusion. After the many years she’d spent alone and ostracized for her strange beliefs, she felt hopeful again. Otuah made it seem as though there was some hope for the future, if the children were taught the truth.

“Come,” said Rhaka, putting a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “There’s someone I would like you to meet.”

She led Otuah into a second room from which everything had been removed except a small basket at its center. The clay-child sat inside, still and placid. It tilted its head slightly, regarding Otuah with some curiosity as she entered the room.

Otuah’s eyes grew wide. “It’s in your house,” she said quietly.

“I saved it last night. Someone was going to make it their child.”

Otuah stepped closer. “Can I… touch it?”

Before Rhaka could respond, the girl was reaching out toward the clay-child. There was a reverence about the way she touched its cold skin, stroking the rings around its eyes and the crack in its torso. The creature sat, staring back up at her. It began to move its arms, reaching as if to touch her face.

“Otuah,” said Rhaka, pulling her away suddenly. “I… it’s delicate. The crack.”

The girl looked up at Rhaka, a mixture of confusion and fascination glistening in her large, brown eyes. There was something else there, too. Fear, perhaps.

Rhaka forced a smile. “I think your doll will be done drying soon. Come, we should look.”

Otuah left soon after, taking her small clay-child with her. Rhaka set aside the pestle she’d made and began to roll out another length of clay. She spent the evening repairing the fracture in the real clay-child’s skin and wondering why she reacted the way she did. She’d touched clay-children before. She’d seen them up close and never felt afraid. Watching the clay-child reach for Otuah had done something to her, though. The girl was so small and helpless, and Rhaka wanted to think the same was true of the clay-child. It was not, though. She had seen them create and destroy as if it were a game. She once watched one of them pick up a brick and twist it, shape it, until it start squirming and writhing. When the creature was done, the brick had legs and a tail and looked something like a salamander. It was alive.

She sighed, touching the clay-child’s small hands. So much power in such a little body. So much potential. Perhaps her people were right to hide their children away. Perhaps the clay-children were more dangerous than she believed.
She did not want to think about it.

#

It was several days before Rhaka saw Otuah again. She expected it had something to do with the woman that approached her while she was tending the garden.

The woman was tall and serious-looking, and she walked across Rhaka’s small yard as if it were her own property.
“Hello. Is there something I can help you with?” Rhaka asked, trying to sound pleasant.

“Your name is Rhaka? Rhaka Sum?”

Rhaka nodded up at the stranger. “That is my name, yes.”

“You should be ashamed,” the woman spat, her expression suddenly dark and hostile.

Rhaka could feel heart beginning to pound. Her breath fluttered feebly inside her chest. Somewhere beyond her sudden light-headedness, she knew that someone must have seen her abduct the clay-child three nights ago. She tried to think of something to say, some defense, but her thoughts were hidden beneath the dread welling up inside her.

The woman pulled something from the sack around her shoulder. “You should not be showing little children to make things like this,” the woman said, thrusting a figurine at Rhaka.

She cradled the small clay-child in her hands, its tiny hole-eyes staring up at her.

“You will not be seeing my daughter again,” said the woman sternly. “Otuah should know better than to talk to strange old women, and you should know better than to mislead her about the wanderers. Do you know what she said to me two days ago? She told me she wishes she’d never been born—that she’d rather still be a wanderer.” The woman sneered at Rhaka and shook her head. “I don’t know what sort of lies you’ve been telling her, but if I hear any more of this nonsense…” She trailed off and gave Rhaka a long, hard look, then stomped away.

Rhaka sat in the garden, alone except for the doll. She wasn’t sure whether to feel outraged or relieved that the clay-child was still a secret. She mostly felt guilty for teaching such hard principles to someone so young and impressionable. She sighed and took the doll inside, setting it down near Otuah’s lanyard.

They clay-child’s curiosity slowly waned over the next few days. She watched it re-learn creation. It seemed to pull its materials out of thin air, uniquely able to twist and craft something from nothing. By the time Rhaka felt ready to release the child, the room she’d been keeping it in was littered with strange objects and tiny, unlikely creatures that crawled along the walls and floor.
While she sat watching the child, waiting for a new group of wanderers to pass through, there came a knock at the door. Otuah stood in the street, smiling.

“Otuah,” Rhaka said, exasperated. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to see you and the clay-child.”

Rhaka frowned. “Your mother came by this morning and told me to stay away from you. You should go home, child.”

“But…” Otuah’s smile disappeared. She stood obstinately, staring up at Rhaka. “Please, Rhaka? I won’t tell her I came. She won’t know.”

“She will, child,” Rhaka started to say, shaking her head, “so I think it best that—“ and then she stopped, listening. The drums sounded in the distances, signaling the coming of the wanderers.

She looked down at the girl and sighed. “You’d better come in until they pass. After that you must go straight home, though. Do you understand?”

Otuah’s smile returned. She stepped into Rhaka’s house, closing the door behind her. “Can I see the clay-child again, Rhaka?”

“No, Otuah. The clay-child is… different from the last time you saw it. It’s not a good idea.”

The girl was sad at first, but that quickly disappeared as they watched the wanderers pass. She asked Rhaka a profusion of questions, some most would have thought far beyond the comprehension of someone so young. Rhaka tried to stay quiet and give round-about answers to most of these questions, which only heightened Otuah’s curiosity. She asked things like where does the Earth-Mother give birth to clay-children? and could I make new things if I was a clay-child too?

If only to escape a torrent of questions that she would have felt guilty for answering, Rhaka excused herself, leaving Otuah alone at the window. She kindled a fire in the brick oven the next room over and began to prepare the ingredients for a loaf of bread. The child was so intelligent. She had so much potential, so much free thought. Otuah was, Rhaka thought, much like a clay-child herself, but powerful in a different sense. She could not create, but the girl wondered like few else could.
There was a sudden, low, piping sound—the kind the clay-children made when they were passing through the village. Rhaka left the oven burning and went to the window.

Otuah was gone.

Rhaka looked outside, but there was only the slow-moving swarm of wanderers, filling the streets. She heard the sound a second time and was able to place it more clearly. It was coming from inside the house. A sudden wave of realization swept over her and she hurried through the room and turned into the hallway, then halted.

There, at the end of the hall, sat two clay-children. One of them was smoothing the surface of the other’s face and arms. The new clay-child was still only half-made, and the material used to build it had not come from thin-air like the other things the clay-child had made. At the end of the half-constructed clay-child’s arms were two small hands.

Human hands.

Otuah’s hands.

--------

Author's note: keep in mind, this was written in standard manuscript format. It's ugly formatting, but I don't make up the rules. If you're unfamiliar, # means 'section break'. I should have underlined my italics, but that one always escapes me... You'll also have to forgive me if paragraphs aren't separated properly. Html doesn't deal well with indentations, so I had to manually space out the paragraphs. How irritating.

At any rate, I hope you found it enjoyable. Perhaps given proper input I'll wax this one and send it in to Clarkesworld or something. Who knows.

Quick239
June 7th, 2013, 01:59 PM
As you've already taken the time to read and comment my writing, I thought I'd do the same for you.

I have a lot of good things to say about this piece. The story flows perfectly and none of the sentences or paragraphs are superfluous. Everything has its rightful place and it all comes together to make a great story. I loved the characters, namely Otuah because she had a spark of intelligence and curiosity I can relate to. I do not know how you came up with this story of Creation but it is quite the interesting twist as it doesn't follow the normal "God is almighty and its creations are within its power and without fault" kind of ideal.

Your grammar is quite impeccable. I've noticed one or two mistakes at best.

The ending was quite good, albeit slightly predictable (not that it is a bad thing in this case) and it left me wanting more of the story and more of your writing specifically. Your writing style is simple, elegant and can cater to those of us who enjoy complex storytelling without making it inaccessible to those who prefer something simpler. I could learn a lot from you in that department.

I simply adored the parts where Rhaka recounted the story of the Earth-Mother and how it was described. It left me thinking of old stories I'd hear around camp fires when I was younger and it gave of a good reminiscent feeling.

Also, the moral implications of your story deliver a poignant lesson. If you're willing to read into it, a few things pop out - racism, segregation, fear of things misunderstood and the most obvious; tradition isn't necessarily good because it has been done in such or such a way for ages. If I had any children, I would read them this story in hopes of them learning those lessons which I believe were meant to be delivered through your text.

I don't believe I have a great many comments or advice other than this. Perhaps you would gain from describing the clay-children with great detail. But maybe that's just me and my obsession with lengthy descriptions :)

Keep up the good work and I hope to read more of your work soon,

Quick239