'He blinked! He blinked!' From a long way off--an echo--Isador's piping voice.
Then, after a while, a deep voice. 'Get your mother.' Then the sound fell away. Rodji was rolling down a long slope that didn't seem to end. He heard music. His hand itched for the circumambient but no one could find it for him. Then he was awake. His mother was beside him.
When he woke again he sat up. The room was filled with people.'Hello,' he said.
They all beamed down at him. For a while no one could speak.
Then, 'G'day, Rodji,' Fostos said.
'Quick,' said Summer to Ducki, 'give him the soup.'
Aah, the cauliflower thickness of it, sweet and salt, creamy smooth.
'Not so fast. You might be sick.'
'Where's Copper?' Rodji asked.
'Here I am.'
'Yeah,' said Ducki, 'she's the one that found you. She would've walked right past but you were snoring so loud she couldn't miss you. Lying flat on your back, asleep in the light.'
'How long ago was that?'
'Three days. You must have been tired.'
'What else can we get you?' asked Summer.
'It sounds ridiculous,' Rodji replied, 'but I'd love a couple of grilled lamb chops and a poached egg.'
'Nothing wrong with this fellow,' said Bronze. 'When do we put him to work?' He sat on the couch and hugged his son hard. 'Welcome home, Rodji.'
But something's wrong with you, Dad, thought Rodji. You're thin.
'Two lamb chops, one poached egg, coming up!' Someone had come in from the kitchen to see how Rodji was. He headed straight back.
'You haven't changed,' said Ducki. 'A hungry-guts as usual.'
'Don't be cheeky, boy.' Rodji sat higher to direct a mock blow at Ducki but went weak and flopped back on the couch.
'Easy,' said his father. 'You've been in bed for a while.'
'What I want to know,' said Isador, 'is how you got the funny clothes.'
'Not now,' said Copper, 'wait till he's stronger. Then he can tell us what's happened.'
'No, it's all right,' Rodji said. 'I got them in the outer world.'
'Outer world?' said Fostos.
'There,' said Summer. 'Don't worry about it now.' She turned to Bronze. 'I think he's still delirious.'
'No, Ma,' said Rodji, 'it's true. After the machine got me ready...'
'You be quiet now,' she said. 'I want you to rest a little longer. Then you can tell us what happened. I think we'd all better leave him now, so he can sleep.'
'Come on everyone,' said Britos, who had been looking on quietly. 'He doesn't want us all crowding in now.'
'Wait, Britos,' said Rodji. 'The Accusers...I want to...'
'The Accusers are not here any more,' said Britos. 'We learnt how they attacked you on the morning of your banishment. You'll hear more of it later.' Britos looked wearily at Bronze. A grey pallor tinged both their faces. 'The upshot of it all was, Rodji, they were banished, permanently, the whole lot of them.'Fostos added, 'They're living near the coast of the Evening Sea. But it's made it hard here. There aren't enough people to work the fields. The weather's been brilliant for once and everything's growing but, somehow, everyone's tired.'
None of you look too good, thought Rodji. The world is breaking down, people first. Maybe I am too.
But in a few days Rodji had returned to normal. He did not have the sickness affecting so many of his companions. He felt strong and well but quite confounded as to how he could explain to his family all that had happened to him, and he had no idea how he was to get back to the outer world to finish his work. Deep within him he knew the urgency of the task, but now that he was back home he did not know how to explain to his people their plight. Yet he could see the evil of the Accusers continuing to damage them.As the days passed the memory of what had happened in the outer world began to fade. He returned to work in the fields. He wore ordinary clothes and never tried to explain the change. Gradually he began to doubt the reality of what had happened to him in the outer world. Perhaps he had imagined it. It was like a bad dream. It would be stupid and embarrassing to talk of his adventures to an audience that could not understand. Apart from the sickness, the world looked just as it had always done. Surely everyone would recover and all would be well again.
But every night when he tried to sleep he would see Lakremae before him, just as he did the first time--in her dreaming bag. Then he would toss for hours, burnt with anguish by the knowledge that somewhere, perhaps beneath him, in the outer world, she waited for him. He could see her, feel again that first touch when he laid his hand on her warm head, thinking she was an illusion. He could smell the perfume she wore toward the end of his stay. The separation from her and his guilt in doing nothing about it tormented him. Every night he swore he would do something the following day--but every day he put it off. The dream evaporated and he was afraid of the reactions he would meet.
One night in early summer he slipped from his couch, pulled on some clothes and crept down the corridor to the long house entrance. He sat there on the top rung of the bontu ladder, looking up the Night Light. He wondered what it would be like to see the real Night Light with stars around it in a real sky. He remembered the night in the overhouse when Lakremae and he had sat in the dark under the willow tree. The memory made him sob aloud.
'You really miss her, don't you?' Copper had come from somewhere in the dark. She sat next to him. 'Why don't you tell me about it, Rodji?'
'Yes, I miss her,' he said. 'But it's not just her. I don't know how to explain it all.'
'Not even to your twin sister?' she asked. 'Who else is going to listen?'
'It's just that it's so hard to explain.'
'Is she beautiful?' Copper asked.
'Yes,' he replied.
'What's her name?'
'That's a sad name for a beautiful girl.'
'That's what I thought when she told me,' Rodji said. He lapsed into silence. Copper had started this. He needed her to keep it going. Despite the relief, it hurt to talk.
'Come down here,' she said. 'I've got something that might help you.' She walked down the steps and ran across the silver clearing into the trees. In a few moments she returned. Rodji was waiting in the clearing.
'You know that I was the one who found you when you got back,' she said. 'Guess what else I found.'
She lifted her arm and a golden circle appeared, glowing softly in the dark. She let it hang there in front of him and walked round to join him.
'Now, I ask you, what would my twin brother be doing with something like this? I'm sure he didn't get it in this world.'
'So when you heard me say the outer world you didn't let on?'
'I thought you might like to tell me yourself, first.'
'How did you hide it?'
'How do you think?' she said.
'You just left it where it was, visible side down?'
'It took me a while to figure it out. But there's something you should know. It's losing power.'
'What's the use of showing it to me then?' Rodji cried. 'How can I get back?'
'It has some power still. You should try it out tomorrow. Fostos and Sherri often come with me into the forest to hunt. It's about time you joined us. But, for now, haven't you got a little story to tell me?'
In the forest the next morning Rodji repeated his story to the incredulous Fostos and Sherri.
When he had finished Copper said, 'I've heard this twice now but I still don't understand: if what you say about our world is right, where did it come from?'
'Well--I know this sounds like a dream tale, but ours is not the only world like this. Lakremae said that nine worlds like cylinders were made once, a few thousand years ago. Our people made them. We used to live on this big round world that was one of a number of worlds that spun around a star. That's where we are supposed to return. Well, the people
had found out a lot about the star system and they wanted to go farther, to find out about other stars. The cylinders were all sent out but there were some big problems.'
'No kidding,' said Fostos.
'I told you, this was a long time ago. There was a war--a fight involving everyone on the round world--and, after it finished, a sickness broke out.'
'Like the sickness now?' said Sherri.
'I don't know. But everyone on the round world died.'
'So, the only people left were the ones on the little worlds, like ours,' said Sherri.
'They thought they were safe, travelling among the stars. But before the cylinder worlds got too far away from one another the people who lived in ours heard that two of the other worlds had been destroyed--by the evil I told you about, like the Accusers. After all this time, we might be the only ones left.'
'Why didn't they go back home to the round world like we should?' said Sherri.
'They might have,' said Rodji. 'But as far as we know, the first person to figure out how to accomplish it was Lakremae's grandmother-- just before our ancestors came into this inner world. They didn't have anyone then who could play the music to make the flowerships. When I play on the circumambient it'll make the ships. They won't weigh anything, neither will we--that's why we can go so fast. No one thought of that before...and then they'll all join together and we'll go back to Earth...'
'Earth?' said Sherri.
'The round world I've been telling you about--home! No one could get there before because no one was good enough at music.'
'But, hooray, now we have my brother, the hero...' rejoined Copper. They were at the clearing where she had planned to try out the circle. 'Here we are,' she said. 'Now let's see if this thing works.'
'If it doesn't work,' said Fostos, 'then your story is going to be harder to believe that it is now.'
Copper held the circle and under Rodji's instructions she began to discover its powers. Fostos and Sherri were mute with astonishment. Rodji realised that when he was first introduced to the circle it was last in a series of wonders he had already assimilated. Apart from Fostos' cylinder, this was the first magic from the outer world his friends had seen.
But when Rodji took the circle from Copyright show how he had climbed through, he knew that what she had told him the previous night was true--most of its power was gone.
'When I came back from the outer world, I simply climbed through the circle and appeared on the edge of the long house clearing. If this were working properly now, I'm sure I could climb through it and get back to the outer world again.'
'Why don't you try?' asked Sherri. 'As long as you promise to come straight back, of course.'
'Watch,' said Rodji. While he held the circle with his right hand, he placed his left hand and arm and shoulder through the circle. The air in the circle felt sticky but his arm disappeared just the same.
Then Sherri screamed. 'Look!' They turned to where she pointed among the tress to their right. There was Rodji's left hand, arm and shoulder, floating next to a small birch tree. Shocked, he jerked his arm back through the hoop and it disappeared from its place next to the beech tree and reappeared in its rightful place on his body.
'Do you think...?' began Fostos.
'Of course,' said Rodji. He let the circle float in the air just above the ground then carefully stepped through without touching it. Instantly he reappeared next to the beech tree but a little closer than his arm had been.
'May I have a go?' squealed Sherri? She walked straight over to the floating circle and stepped through without touching it. She appeared three paces in front of Rodji.
'Wait,' he cried. 'I see now. Each time we use it, it loses power. There's nothing here to make it stronger again. Look!' The circle had dropped to the ground and rolled over, golden side up. 'We mustn't use it again,' he said. 'We need to keep it as proof that I have been to the outer world, otherwise no one else will believe me.'
'It's too late,' said Copper. The golden circle faded away to nothing in the grass.
'I wish I didn't have to believe this,' said Fostos.
After a time Copper spoke. 'There's something else, Rodji. Dad isn't just sick. He's dying.'
Rodji had not wanted to think about this fear. 'Dad?'
'That's why I was out last night. I had a bad dream and I woke up. I wanted to tell Ma about it--but when I came to their door they were talking in a way that made me stop and not go in. And I heard Dad talking about the pain. Most of the adults have it now. It's been eating them up for weeks. It's already killed some of the old people and the little children. Rodji...'--fear was in her eyes--'we're all going to die. I know it. There's nothing we can do.'
Rage came over Rodji. Anger at himself for denying his own responsibility. Because he had done nothing people were dying. Love for his father burnt resolution into his heart.
'You...you three,' he cried. 'I want you to come with me to the outer world. I'm going to need your help.'
'But how can we get there?' asked Fostos. 'The circle's gone. The cave you told us about is full of rock. We don't have enough time.'
'There is another way,' said Rodji. 'But it won't be easy--Do not fail to climb. Seek the birds' path.'
'What?' said Copper.'Old Gengah's prophecy. That's the only part that hasn't come true yet. It's the clue for how we get back in!'
'It must be high up,' said Fostos. 'Could it be Mount Carmund?'
'No, no--the cave I went in before must have been nearly that high.'
'But that's the highest point in the world,' said Sherri. 'There's nothing higher than that...except the Day Light.' She gestured upwards. 'Seek the birds' path... Where do birds fly?'
Rodji squinted up at the Day Light. His mind raced over everything he knew about it. How the charge for it built up during the night. How it was propelled along an invisible magnetic tunnel through the axis of the cylinder. How not only light and heat, but special chemicals were released that eventually entered the brains of the inhabitants of the inner world, maintaining their fear of water and confined spaces and slowing their language development, for it was important that when the people of both worlds met they could talk with one another. But none of these thoughts helped.
'Rodji,' said Copper, 'what is at the ends of the world?'
'I told you, the stars.'
'No, I mean at the other ends, where the seas finish.'
'That's it! Where the Day Light comes out in the morning...we can get in there. You're a genius, Copper!' He hugged her. 'I know just enough about the end walls to get us up. But first we're going to need some help. We must call a meeting of the council at once. Come on, don't just stand there with your mouths hanging open--we've got to move!'
While he was in the outer world Rodji had seen a model of a raft in the wood museum. It took three days to reproduce something like it, life size. They moved it by cart to where a tributary ran into Calm River at the north-western edge of the forest. It would take them a week to get to the sea. Then they would sail, drift, paddle until they came to the great wall that stood at the end of the Morning Sea.
When it was time to farewell the four travellers, Summer said to Rodji, 'When I last said goodbye to you I knew you would return. This time I'm not so sure. Be careful Rodji. Come back to me.'
'I speak for us all, Ma,' he replied. 'We will return before the Night Light comes again. When we return,'--he spoke louder, addressing everyone assembled on the banks of the river--'when we return we will be coming to take you all to a place far from here. So prepare yourselves. You will be saved from what is to come.' Then he saw the Mikosi family sitting next to Bronze. They were weeping. 'You all remember Mikos,' Rodji shouted. 'When he died he said, Take them all with you, Rodji. Now I understand. Some of you must go to the Accusers and tell them what is happening. If they come to the long house in time, they too will be saved.'
Bronze rose shakily from his seat on the river bank. 'Goodbye, Children of the Trees,' he said. 'May the spirit of our people be with you always.'
Rodji, Copper, Fostos and Sherri boarded the raft. Ducki gave the last push that launched them into the river. 'Stick with it, pigsy,' he yelled as they glided out toward the bend in the river. 'See you soon!'
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