When the sun had a sunk almost to the edge of the purple ocean, hanging there like a giant orange ball- much larger than the sun of Mother Earth which he remembered with such nostalgia- Kroudar brought his fishermen back to the harbor.
A short man, Kroudar gave the impression of heaviness to some, but to others all bone and stringy muscle. It was the sickness of this planet, the doctors told him. They called it “body burdens,” a subtle thing of differences in chemistry, gravity, diurnal periods and even a lack of tidal moon.
Kroudar’s yellow hair, his one good feature, was uncut and contained in a protective square of red cloth. Beneath this was a wide low forehead, deeply sunken large eyes of a washed out blue, a crooked nose that was splayed and pushed in, thick lips over large and unevenly spaced yellow teeth, and a chin receding into a short ridged neck.
Dividing his attention between sails and shore, Kroudar steered with one bare foot on the tiller.
They had been all day out in the up coast netting the shrimp-like trodi which formed the colony’s main source of edible protein. There were 9 boats and the men in all of them were limp with fatigue, silent, eyes closed or open and staring at nothing.
The evening breeze rippled its dark lines across the harbor, moved the matted yellow hair on Kroudar’s neck. It bellied the shipcloth sails and gave the heavily loaded boats that last necessary surge to carry them up into the strand.
Men moved then. Sails dropped with a slatting and rasping. Each thing was done with sparse emotion in the weighted slowness of their fatigue.
Trodi had been thick in the current out there, and Kroudar pushed his people to their limit. It had not taken much push.
They all understood the need. The swarmings and runnings of useful creatures on this planet had not been clocked with any reliable precision. Things here exhibited strange gaps and breaks in seeming regularity. The trodi might vanish at any moment into some unknown place- as they had been known to do before.
The colony had experienced hunger and children crying for food that must be rationed. Men seldom spoke of this anymore, but they moved with the certain knowledge of it.
More than 3 years now, Kroudar thought, as he shouldered a dripping bag of trodi and pushed his weary feet through the sand, climbing the beach toward the storage huts and racks where the sea creatures were dried for processing. It had been more than 3 years since their ship had come down from space.
The colony ship had been constructed as a colony tool, filled with select human stock, their domestic animals and basic necessities, and it had been sent to plant humans in this far place. It had been designed to land once, then broken down into useful things.
Somehow the basic necessities had fallen short, and the colony had been forced to improvise its own tools. They had not really settled here yet, Kroudar realized. More than 3 years- and 3 years were 5 years at mother Earth- and they still lived on the edge of extinction. They were trapped here. Yes, that was true. The ship could never be reconstructed. And even if that miracle were accomplished, the fuel did not exist.
The colony was here.
And every member knew the predatory truth of their predicament: Survival had not been assured. It was known in subtle things to Kroudar’s unlettered mind, especially in a fact he had observed without being able to explain.
Not one of their number had accepted a name for this planet. It was “here” or “this place.”
Or even more bitter terms.
Kroudar dumped his sack of trodi into a storage hut porch, mopped his forehead. The joints of his arms and legs ached. His back ached. He could feel the sickness of this place in his bowels. Again, he wiped perspiration from his forehead, removed the red cloth he wore to protect his head from that brutal sun.
Yellow hair fell down as he loosed the cloth, and he swung the hair back over his shoulders.
It would be dark very soon.
The red cloth was dirty, he saw. It would require another gentle washing. Kroudar thought it odd this cloth: Grown and woven on Mother Earth, it would end its days on this place.
Even as he and the others.
He stared at the cloth for a moment before putting it in a pocket.
All around him, the fishermen were going through a familiar ritual. Brown sacks woven of course native roots were dumped dripping onto the storage hut porches. Some of his men leaned then against the porch uprights, some sprawled in the sand.
Kroudar lifted his gaze. Fires behind the bluff above them sent smoke spirals into the darkening sky. Kroudar was suddenly hungry. He thought of Technician Honida up there at the cook-fire, their twin sons- 2 years old next week- nearby at the door of the shipmetal longhouse.
It stirred him to think of Honida. She had chosen him. With men from the Scientist class and Technicians available to her, Honida had reached down into the labor pool to tap the one they called “the old ugly.” He wasn’t old, Kroudar reminded himself. But he knew the source of the name. This place had worked its changes on him with more visible evidence than any of the others.
Kroudar held no illusions about why he had been brought on this human migration. It was his muscles and his minimal education. The reason was embodied in that label written down in the ship manifest- laborer. The planners back on Mother Earth had realized there were tasks that required human muscles not inhibited by too much thinking. The Kroudars landed here were not numerous, but they knew each other and they knew themselves for what they were.
There’d even been talk among the higher echelons of not allowing Honida to choose him as a mate. Kroudar knew this. He did not resent it particularly. It didn’t even bother him that the vote among the biologists- they’d discussed his ugliness at great length, so it was reported- favored Honida’s choice on philosophical rather than physical grounds.
Kroudar knew he was ugly.
He knew also that his present hunger was a good sign. A strong desire to see his family grew in him, beginning to ignite his muscles for the climb from the beach. Particularly, he wanted to see his twins, the yellow-haired one like himself, and the other dark as Honida. The other women favored with children looked down upon his twins as stunted and sickly, Kroudar knew. The women fussed over diets and went running to the medics almost every day. But as long as Honida did not worry, Kroudar remained calm. Honida, after all, was a technician, a worker in the hydroponics garden.
Kroudar moved his bare feet softly in the sand. Once more, he looked up at the bluff, along the edge grew scattered native trees. Their thick trunks hugged the ground, gnarled and twisted, supports for bulbous green-yellow leaves that exuded poisonous milky-sap in the heat of the day. A few of the surviving Earth-falcons perched in the trees, silent, watchful.
The birds gave Kroudar an odd confidence in his own decisions. For what do the falcons watch, he wondered. It was a question the most exalted thinkers in the colony had not been able to answer. Search ‘copters had been sent out after the falcons. The birds flew offshore in the night, rested occasionally on barren islands, and returned at dawn. The colony command had been unwilling to risk its precious boats in the search, and the mystery of the falcons remained unsolved.
It was doubly a mystery because the other birds had perished or flown off to some unfound place. The doves, the quail- the game birds and songbirds- all had vanished. And the domestic chickens had all died, their eggs infertile. Kroudar knew this as a comment by this place, a warning for the life that had come from Mother Earth.
A few scrawny cattle survived, and several calves had been born here. But they moved with a listless gait and there was distressed lowing in the pastures. Looking into their eyes was like looking into open wounds. A few pigs still lived, as listless as the sickly cattle, and all the wild creatures had strayed off or died.
Except the falcons.
How odd it was, because the people who planned and conceived profound thoughts had held such hopes for this place. The survey reports had been exciting. This was a planet without native land animals. It was a planet whose native plants appeared not too different from those of Mother Earth- in some respects. And the sea creatures were primitive by sophisticated evolutionary standards.
Without being able to put it into those beautifully polished phrases which others admired, Kroudar knew where the mistake had been made. Sometimes you had to search out a problem with your flesh and not with your mind.
He stared around now at the motley rags of his men. They were his men, He was the master fisherman, the one who had found the trodi and conceived these squat, ugly boats built within the limitation of the native woods. The colony was alive now due to his skills with boat and net.
There would be more gaps in the trodi runs, though. Kroudar felt this as an awareness on the edges of his fatigue. There would be unpopular and dangerous things to do then, all necessary because thinking had failed. The salmon they had introduced, according to the plan, had all gone off into the ocean’s vastness. The flatfish in the colony’s holding ponds suffered mysterious attrition. Insects flew away and were never seen again.
There’s food here, the biologists argued. Why do they die?
The colony’s maize was sometimes a thing with strange ears. Wheat came up in scabrous patches. There were no familiar patterns of growth or migration. The colony lived on the thin edge of existence, maintained by protein bulk from the processed trodi and vitamins from vegetables grown hydroponically with arduous filtering and adjustment of their water. Breakdown of a single system in the chain could bring disaster.
The giant orange sun showed only a small arc above the sea horizon now, and Kroudar’s men were stirring themselves, lifting their tired bodies off the sand, pushing away from the places they had leaned.
“All right now,” Kroudar ordered. “Let’s get this food inside on the racks.”
“Why?” someone asked from the dusk. “You think the falcons will eat it?”
They all knew the falcons would not eat the trodi. Kroudar recognized the objection: It was tiredness of the mind speaking. The shrimp creatures fed only humans- after careful processing to remove dangerous irritants. A falcon might take up a frond-legged trodi, but would drop it at the first taste.
What did they eat, those waiting birds?
Flacons knew a thing about this place that humans did not know. The birds knew it in their flesh, in the way Kroudar sought the knowledge.
Darkness fell, and with a furious clatter, the falcons flew off towards the sea. One of Kroudar’s men kindled a torch and, having rested, anxious now to climb the bluff and join their families, the fishermen pitched into the work that must be done. Boats were hauled up on the rollers. Trodi were spread out in thin layers along racks within the storage huts. Nets were draped on racks to dry.
As he worked, Kroudar wondered about the scientists up there in their shining laboratories. He had the working man’s awe of knowledge, a servility in the face of titles and things clearly superior, but he also had the simple man’s awareness of when superior things failed.
Kroudar was not privy to the high level conferences in the colony command, but he knew the physical substance of the ideas discussed there. His awareness of failure and hovering disaster had no sophisticated words or erudition to hold itself dancingly before men’s minds, but his knowledge carried its own elegance. He drew on ancient knowledge adjusted subtly to the differences of this place. Kroudar had found the trodi. Kroudar had organized the methods for capturing them and preserving them. He had no refined labels to explain it, but Kroudar knew himself for what he could do and what he was.
He was the first sea peasant here.
Without wasting energy on talk, Kroudar’s band finished the work, turned away from the storage huts and plodded up the cliff trail, their course marked by, here and there, men with flaming torches. There were fuzzy orange lights, heavy shadows, inching their way upward in a black world, and they gave heart to Kroudar.
Lingering to the last. He checked the doors of the huts, then followed, hurrying to catch up. The man directly ahead of him on the path carried a torch, native wood soaked in trodi oil. It flickered and smoked and gave off poisonous fumes. The light revealed a troglodyte figure, a human clad in patched shipcloth, body too thin, muscles moving on the edge of collapse.
It was not like this on Mother Earth, he knew. There, the women waited on the strand for their men to return from the sea. Children played among the pebbles. Eager hands helped with the work onshore, spreading the nets, carrying the catch, pulling the boats.
And the perils here were not the perils of Home. Kroudar’s boats never strayed out of sight of these cliffs. One boat always carried a technician with a radio for contact with shore. Before its final descent, the colony ship had seeded space with orbiting devices-watchers, guardians against surprises from the weather. The laboriously built fishing fleet always had ample warning of storms. No monster sea creatures had ever been seen in that ocean.
This place lacked the cruel savagery and variety of seas Kroudar had known, but it was nonetheless deadly. Kroudar knew this.
The women should wait for us on the shore he thought.
But colony command said the women- and even some of the children- were needed for too many other tasks. Individual plants from home required attention. Single wheat stocks were nurtured with care. Each orchard tree existed with its own handmaiden, its guardian dryad.
Atop the cliff, the fishermen came into the sight of the longhouses, shipmetal quonsets named for some far distance place and time in human affairs. Scattered electric lights ringed the town. Many of the unpaved streets wandered off unlit. There were mechanical sounds here and murmurous voices.
The men scattered to their own affairs now, no longer a band. Kroudar plodded down his street toward the open cook-fires in the central plaza. The open fires were a necessity to conserve the more sophisticated energies of the colony. Some looked upon those flames as admission of defeat. Kroudar saw them as victory. It was native wood being burned.
Off in the hills beyond the town, he knew stood the ruins of the wind machines they had built. The storm which had wreaked that destruction had achieved no surprise in its coming, but had left enormous surprise at its power.
For Kroudar, the thinkers had begun to diminish in stature then. When native chemistry and water life had wrecked the turbines in the river which emptied into the harbor, those men of knowledge had shrunk even more. Then it was that Kroudar had begun his own search for native foods.
Now, Kroudar heard, native plant life threatened the cooling systems for their atomic generators, defying radiation the way no life should. Some among the technicians already were fashioning steam engines of materials not intended for such use. Soon, they would have native metals, though- materials to resist the wild etchings and rusts of this place.
They might succeed- provided the dragging sickness did not sap them further.
If they survived.
Honida awaited him at the door to their quarters, smiling, graceful. Her dark hair was plaited and wound in rings around her forehead. The brown eyes were alive with welcome. Firelight from the plaza cast a familiar glow across her olive skin. The high cheekbones of her Amerind ancestry, the full lips and proudly hooked nose- all filled him with remembered excitement.
Kroudar wondered if the planners had known this thing about her which gave him such warmth- her strength and fecundity. She had chosen him, and now she carried more of their children- twins again.
“Ahhh, my fisherman is home,” she said, embracing him in the doorway for anybody to see.
They went inside then, closed the door, and she held him with more ardor, stared up into his face which, reflected in her eyes, lost some of its ugliness.
“Honida” he said, unable to find other words.
Presently, he asked about the boys.
“They’re asleep,” she said, leading him to the crude trestle table he had built for their kitchen.
He nodded. Later, he would go in and stare at his sons. It did not bother him that they slept so much. He could feel the reasons for this somewhere within himself.
Honida had hot trodi soup waiting for him on the table. It was spiced with hydroponic tomatoes and peas and contained other things which he knew she gathered from the land without telling the scientists.
Whatever she put in front of him, Kroudar ate. There was bread tonight with an odd musty flavor which he found pleasant. In the light of the dingle lamp they were permitted for this room, he stared at a piece of the bread. It was almost purple- like the sea. He chewed it, swallowed.
Honida, watchfully eating across from him, finished her bread and soup, asked, “Do you like the bread?”
“I like it.”
“I made it myself in the coals,” she said.
He nodded took another slice.
Honida refilled his soup bowl.
They were privileged, Kroudar realized, to have this privacy for their meals. Many of the others had opted for communal cooking and eating- even among the technicians and higher echelons who possessed more freedom of choice. Honida had seen something about this place, though, which required secrecy and going private ways.
Kroudar, hunger satisfied, stared across the table at her. He adored her with a devotion that went far deeper than the excitement of her flesh. He could not say the thing she was, but he knew it. If they were to have a future here, that future was in Honida and the things he might learn, form, and construct of himself with his own flesh.
Under the pressure of his eyes, Honida arose, came around the table and began massaging the muscles of his back- the very muscles he used to haul the nets.
“You’re tired,” she said. “Was it difficult out there today?”
“Hard work,” Kroudar said.
He admired the way she spoke. She had many words at her disposal. He had heard her use them during colony meetings and during the time of their application for mating choice. She had words for things he did not know, and she knew also when to speak with her body rather than with her mouth. She knew about the muscles of his back.
Kroudar felt such a love for her then that he wondered if it went up her fingers and into her body.
“We filled the boats.” He said.
“I ws told today that we will soon need more storage huts,” she said. “They are worried about sparing the labor for the building.”
“Ten more huts,” he said.
She would pass that word along, he knew. Somehow, it would be done. The other technicians listened to Honida. Many among the scientists scoffed at her; it could be heard beneath the blandness of their voices. Perhaps it was because she had chosen Kroudar. But technicians listened. The huts would be built.
And they would be filled before the trodi run stopped.
Kroudar realized then that he knew when the run would stop, not as a date, but almost as a physical thing that he could reach out and touch. He longed for the words to describe this to Honida.
She gave his back a final kneading, sat down beside him, and leaned her dark head against his chest. “If you are not too tired,” she said, “I have something to show you.”
With a feeling of surprise, Kroudar became aware of unspoken excitement in Honida. Was it something about the hydroponic gardens where she worked? His thought went immediately to that place upon which the scientists pinned their hopes, the place where they chose the tall plants, the beautiful, engorged with richness from Mother Earth. Had they achieved something important at last? Was there, after all, a clear way to make this place arable?
Kroudar was a primitive then, wanting his gods redeemed. He found himself full of peasant hopes for the land. Even as a sea peasant he knew the value of land.
He and Honida had responsibilities though. He nodded questioningly towards the twins’ bedroom.
“I arranged…” She gestured towards their neighbor’s cubicle. “They will listen.”
She planned this, then. Kroudar stood up, held out his hand for her. “Show me.”
They went out into the night. Their town was quieter now; he could hear the distant roistering of the river. For a moment, he thought he could hear a cricket, but reason told him it could only be one of the huts cooling in the night. He longed wordlessly for a moon.
Honida had brought one of the rechargeable electric torches, the kind issued to technicians against emergency calls in the night. Seeing that torch, Kroudar sensed a deeper importance in this mysterious thing she wanted to show him. Honida had the peasant’s hoarding instinct. She would not waste such a torch.
Instead of leading him toward the green lights and glass roofs of the hydroponic gardens, though, she guided their steps in the opposite direction towards the deep gorge where the river plunged into the harbor.
There were no guards along the footpath, only an occasional stone marker and grotesqueries of native growth. Swiftly, without speaking, she led him to the gorge and the narrow path which he knew went only down to a ledge which jutted into the damp air of the river’s spray.
Kroudar found himself trembling with excitement as he followed Honida’s shadowy figure, the firefly darting of her light. It was cold on the ledge and the alien outline of native trees revealed by the torch filled Kroudar with disquiet.
What had Honida discovered- or created?
Condensation dripped from the plants here. The river noise was loud. It was march air he breathed, dank and filled with bizarre odors.
Honida stopped, and Kroudar held his breath. He listened, there was only the river.
For a moment, he didn’t realize that Honida was directing the orange light of the torch at her discovery. It looked like one of the native plants- a thing with a thick stem crouched low to the land, gnarled and twisted, bulbous yellow-green protrusions set with odd spacing along its length.
Slowly, the realization came over him. He recognized a darker tone in the green, the way the leaf structures were joined to the stock, a bunching of brown-yellow silk drooping from the bulbous protrusions.
“Maize,” he whispered.
In a low voice, pitching her explanation to Kroudar’s vocabulary, Honida explained what she had done. He saw it in her words, understood why she had done this thing stealthily, here away from the scientists. He took the light from her, crouched, stared with rapt attention. This meant the death of those things the scientists held beautiful. It ended their plan for this place.
Kroudar could see his own descendants in this plant. They might develop bulbous heads, hairless, wide thick lipped mouths. Their skin might become purple. They would be short-statured, he knew that.
Honida had assured this- right here on the river drenched ledge. Instead of selecting seed for the tallest, the straightest stalks, the ones with the longest and most perfect ears- the ones most like those from Mother Earth- she had tested her maize almost to destruction. She had chosen sickly, scrawny plants, ones barely able to produce seed. She had taken only those plants which this place influenced most deeply. From these, she had selected finally a strain which lived here as native plants lived.
This was native maize.
She broke off an ear, peeled back the husk.
There were gaps in the seed rows and, when she squeezed a kernel, the juice ran purple. He recognized the smell of the bread.
Here was the thing the scientists would not admit. They were trying to make this place into another Earth. But it was not and could never be. The falcons had been the first among their creatures to discover this, he suspected.
The statement Honida made here was that she and Kroudar would be short-lived. Their children would be sickly by Mother Earth’s standards. Their descendants would change in ways that defied the hopes of those who planned this migration. The scientists would hate this and try to stop it.
This gnarled stalk of maize said the scientists would fail.
For a long while, Kroudar crouched there, staring into the future until the torch began to dim, losing its charge. He aroused himself then, led the way back out of the gorge.
At the top, with the lights of their dying civilization visible across the plain, he stopped, aid, “The trodi run will stop…soon. I will take one boat and…friends. We will go out where the falcons go.”
It was one of the longest speeches he had ever made.
She took the light from his hand, extinguished it, pressed herself against him.
“What do you think the falcons have found?”
“The seed,” he said.
He shook his head. He could not explain it, but the thing was there in his awareness. Everything exuded poisonous vapors, or juices in which only its own seed could live. Why should the trodi or any other sea creature be different? And, with the falcons as evidence, the seed must be slightly less poisonous to the intruders from Mother Earth.
“The boats are slow.” She said.
He agreed silently. A storm could trap them too far out for a run to safety. It would be dangerous. But he heard also in her voice that she was not trying to stop him or dissuade him.
“I will take good men,” he said.
“How long will you be gone?” Honida asked.
He thought about this for a moment. The rhythms of this place were beginning to make themselves known to him. His awareness shaped the journey, the days out, the night search over the water where the falcons were known to sweep their low gliding runs- then the return.
“Eight days,” he said.
“You’ll need fine mesh nets,” she said. “I’ll see to having them made. Perhaps a few technicians, too. I know some who will go with you.”
“Eight days,” he said, telling her to choose strong men.
“Yes,” she said. “Eight days. I’ll be waiting on the shore when you return.”
He took her hand and led the way back across the plain. As they walked he said: “We must name this place.”
“When you come back,” she said.