Hope

Hope

by Jane Jago

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The Night Librarian

 

Jane Jago is an eccentric genre hopping pensioner, who writes and paints for enjoyment  and gets in terrible trouble because of her attitude. To find out more about her, check the links in the description.

 

The spirits of the woodland felt the pain of their holy places dwindling under the assault of the human machines, but they were patient beings who bided their time and watched. They saw the rise of the arrogant ones with their fat bellies and careless cruelty, and they also foresaw the fall from grace engendered by such greed and stupidity.

Knowing that the end game was afoot and with the feeling in their souls that their children had a part to play in the plans of Mother Earth, they sent one of their own precious young ones to the place where the wealthiest of the humans raised their own younglings. Flora cast down her eyes and did as the spirits commanded, even knowing her own chance of motherhood was taken from her by the needs of of the forest beneath her feet.

She was ‘welcomed’ at the place and given the dirtiest and most menial of tasks to do. Working only for her bed and board she became the most trusted of all those whose destiny was to care for the young whose parents found those tasks beneath their greatness. She was a quiet creature, but one who listened and understood more than the untroubled brown eyes ever showed. She heard the pontifications of the ‘doctors’ and the priests as the fertility of the human race fell away. She kept her face calm when the silverbacks in their expensive suits declared this to be a punishment of god on women who no longer knew their place. She smiled inwardly when the scientists explained that this could not be the case, citing the deformity of the male seed as the primary cause. But she could not hold back the tears of pity when the soldiers came and took the foremost scientist of all from his office in the nursery. They burned that venerable old man alive, and his screams sounded to Flora like the first death cries of the human race.

Some days, when she looked at the innocent younglings in her care and she saw how sickly they were becoming, she cursed those who sent her to witness the end. Of course, she didn’t live long enough to see the game through (even forest folk do not live that long), and when she became too old to work her place was taken by a sturdy youngster with broad shoulders and a plain face. The humans named this person Bessie – thinking Salicis Arbore far too fanciful a name for a servant.

Bessie wasn’t as amenable as Flora and the humans feared her a little so that when she announced that she was taking Flora home to die nobody argued. Only the oldest among the matrons even daring to ask if she would return.

“I will. If you will get out of my way now.”

The human woman moved aside.

Bessie carried the dying Flora into the forest, walking for many days until she found the grove of trees that remembered Flora as a sapling. She laid her frail burden down on the rich loam. As Flora faded away her memories flooded Bessie’s mind and and her voice spoke in the silence.

“The last of them must be saved.”

Then she was gone.

Bessie trudged back to the nursery, stubbornly set on the route of duty but with a heaviness in her heart.

Fifty years of hard labour passed, while the world around the place of the younglings changed almost beyond recognition. The forest retreated and the cruel sun now beat down on an ochre-coloured desert, wherein the grey building occupied the only oasis for a thousand miles. And still the human race plundered and pillaged. And still they had no luck reversing their infertility.

So matters stood when Bessie – now the only adult left in the place, whose only job was to look after the only human cub born in a decade – received a pilotless drone with a package containing her instructions. She felt the heaviness that her heart had known since the day of Flora’s death rise up and almost choke her. The silverbacks had decided the fate of the youngling they had named Hope. And it wasn’t to be kind.

She waited until moonrise before walking quietly out into the garden. Accessing the memories Flora passed to her she could see the days when there had been maybe a hundred human cubs playing in the kindly moonlight. But now there was just the one lonely youngster swinging on the rope swing that there used to be such a big queue for. The shadow of simple happiness as it swung across the face of the moon made Bessie’s heart hurt for she had come to love this human as much as if it had been her own seedling planted in the forest loam.

Sensing her approach Hope turned and called joyously.

“See how high I can swing. I think I can almost touch the sky.”

“Indeed you can, loved one. Indeed you can.”

She tried to keep her voice light and cheerful but there was no fooling Hope. The youngling stopped swinging and came to sit in the grass at her side.

“Tell me, Bessie. What is it that you know? What makes you so sad on this beautiful night?”

Perhaps she should have lied or dissembled, but she had not the heart or the skill to fool the clear-sighted intelligence that lived in the head that seemed almost too big for Hope’s slender neck.

“Because you appear genderless, they have decided they can make you a female. I have been given the hormones to put in your foodstuffs. And when you grow breasts they will take you to try and impregnate you with their poisoned seed.” A tear fell, and Hope put a gentle had on the shoulder of its kindly nursemaid.

“Does this mean that now is the time?”

“It does. If you have the courage.”

“It’s not a case of courage. It’s more a case of being realistic. If I am the last of my race so be it. If I am not prepared to be made the subject of their experimentation…”

“Truly spoken. Tomorrow then. In the heat of the sun…”

Hope leaned on the shoulder of the only being that had ever offered unconditional friendship and sighed.

“How did we come to this?”

Bessie thought for a while. “I don’t rightly know. What I do know is that the greed and savagery of some of your race brought them to a place of power, which they have continually abused, handing their entitlement down from generation to generation. Only now they have nobody to pass it to. Which is why you are so important. You must understand that you are not just the only human youngling around here, you are the only human youngling anywhere on the breast of the earth.”

“Are you sure, Bessie?”

“More or less. The other two I knew of haven’t survived whatever was done to them.”

“Oh. I see.” Hope turned a pair of weary eyes to Bessie’s palely moonlit face. “If I’m so important, why did everyone but you run away?”

“Fear mostly. At first they thought you wouldn’t survive. So a lot ran away for fear of the punishment if you died. Then you weren’t the female child the preachers prophesied. So another slew headed for the hills. And so on.”

“Why did you stay? My own kind abandoned me. But you stayed. Why?”

“At first I remained for the sake of duty. But soon it became love. And there is no greater force than love.”

“So will you come with me tomorrow then?”

“Of course I will. You’d not survive the desert without me and my hunting skills.” She took the smooth roundness of Hope’s face in her two rough palms. “We will do it together. But for now how about using your catapult on the three camera drones that are buzzing about the place.”

The next morning as the sun turned the desert every shade of rosy pink and silver, two figures left the shelter of the nursery. They wore cloaks the colour of the desert sand and carried stout walking poles. A week later they stood atop a spiny ridge and Bessie laid a hand on Hope’s arm.

“Take a last look, loved one. From now on you will be unable to see the place of your birth.”

Hope looked back soberly.

“I wonder if there will ever be children there again.”

Bessie shrugged and they moved away, disturbing nothing as they made their careful way.

By any reckoning they had been around half a year walking when the landscape began to change. Hope breathed deeply.

“What is that smell.”

“It’s the earth. The smell of fertile lands. I honestly never thought we’d get here. See the ribbon of silver in the distance. That’s the great river and beyond it is the forest where we will be safe.” Then Bessie looked at her companion fully. “Not that anyone would recognise you now.”

Indeed it was hard to reconcile the thin child on the rope swing with the brown hard youngling whose body moved with oiled ease, at one with the earth and at ease with self.

Hope laughed, low and amused. “No. I have changed somewhat. Not least by becoming a full male. I don’t understand how that happened.”

“It’ll be the water, the place where you were had much female hormone in the water from all the women who had lived there.” A strange voice spoke from quite close and Bessie felt for her knife. “No knife needed my sister. I am a watcher from the old gods – those who sent first Flora then she who is named for a willow tree to guide and guard the last human.”

“Show yourself then.” Hope spoke harshly.

“It cannot. If it is truly what it says its body is far away under a tree somewhere and only it’s awareness is here. There is only one way to tell.”

Bessie nicked her own thumb with her sharp blade and let three drops of blood fall to the earth. Something screamed and they were vouchsafed sight of a half-naked youngling tied to a tree.

“He speaks sooth.” Bessie rubbed her thumb with a piece of aloe vera from her pack. “I expect we will see a welcoming party in a few days.”

“Why was he tied to that tree?”

“To anchor his spirit while his awareness roamed.”

“Oh. I see.”

And Bessie rather thought he did see.

While the rest of humanity dragged out its days among the drugs and the plastics and the desperation, Hope grew to manhood in the forest where he learned to respect and understand the earth on which his two feet stood. In the fullness of time he took a mate from among the forest females and the young of the young of his young played around his legs before he was taken to his rest.

The earth healed and the forest took back her own.

One night a band of travellers stepped out of the woods into a clearing where a pile of grey stone gave evidence of where a building once stood. One of the younglings found a rope swing still attached to the boughs of venerable tree.

“Look Mama,” he shouted, “look how high I can swing.”

As his mother looked his shadow across the moon awoke some dormant racial memory and she turned to her mate.

“I think this is a holy place. It seems to me to be where hope was born.”

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