In the winter of the dry ground, when the winds blew bitterly but the snow stayed thin, my brother came to birth, and my mother died. Ludd, the one who looks at the stars and knows the hearts and bodies of men, saw that my brother still moved and cut him from his mother as the hunters open a carcass.
We called the baby Enn for his large size and his strength. His father, Idd, chief of our tribe, predicted a strong hunter and a father of many grandchildren, but Ludd did not speak agreement, and one woman present said she saw trouble in his eyes.
I loved Enn and helped to care for him. I gathered and cooked for the woman who suckled him, and when the time for weaning came I chewed food and fed him from my own mouth as our mother would have done. But Enn did not walk when the summer came; he did not speak the name of his father when the winter returned; and he did not look at the paintings of the hunters on the walls of our caves, nor listen to the tales all children need to hear.
Enn watched me and sometimes other children; he liked to hear my voice, but he loved to play with sand and pieces of wood, and he loved the movement of water, the rolling of stones and the upward flow of the fire. His father looked at him with hope, sometimes, and would lift him to watch snow, rain or hail.
“He feels no fear,” Idd said as they watched a summer storm together. “He will be a brave hunter.” I hid my eyes at the lightning, but Enn bounced and laughed, looking from the lightning to the crackling of the cooking fire and back again.
“Look,” Idd said quietly. “He sees that the fire and the lightning share one element. He sees it for himself. He considers it as a hunter considers the trail.” But Ludd, the wise man, looked away and seemed sad.
I taught Enn to walk as his second summer passed, but he never followed the other children or played at hunting. He liked to sit by himself, staring at trees, or rocks, or his sticks of wood and strings of leather and wool—staring, sometimes, at the sky. I spoke words to him many times, my face close to his, and I saw that he knew what each word meant, but he did not speak to me in return.
On the day that the hunters killed the giant buffalo in the fall of the summer in the year of the small drought, Enn watched the bringing home of the great carcass. The people placed poles under the heavy weight, so that the strong men could drag the heavy carcass the more easily towards our caves. Enn ran to and fro, flapping his hands, drawn to the rolling movements and the bringing forward of the rollers that came free as the back of the load passed over. “Them, them,” he shouted many times. “Spear them! Tie them!”
“He talks,” people told one another, staring in surprise. “But he talks nonsense. The hunters have already speared and killed this prey.”
However, Idd showed great pleasure when he heard of this. “My son speaks,” he said proudly. “He speaks of hunting and of prey. One day he will join and lead the hunt.” I did not see Ludd’s face, but I saw that he shook his head.
When I looked for Enn the next daylight, I found him outside the cave, placing small sticks under a large, flat stone and rolling it along as the hunters had done, but he did not seem satisfied. Over days and seasons he worked like a tanner working hides, but with stones and wood and strings. He tried to tie the sticks to the load, but they would not then roll. He collected hollow sticks of kindling stems and threaded leather thong through their length, then tied this to his flat stone, but this did no better. Sometimes he curved green twigs all around the stone and rolled the whole stone over inside its rounded covering, but nothing pleased him and he would become angry with me if I watched.
I left him alone. The children of his winter, even of the winter after his, learned to gather and to cook food, but Enn kept his own company, forming strange circles with his sticks and his wooden pieces, and leaving the cave, often for whole days, without bringing home any food for the tribe.
“Allow him to do this,” Idd commanded when some of the women began to grumble. Ede, the woman who had nursed him, patted the shoulder of her own son and praised him loudly for the basket of fat snails he had collected. Idd ignored her, but refused at evening time to taste the toasted snails, and so did I after him.
Enn grew tall, taller than I, and stronger, but still played with pieces and would neither hunt nor gather. He would cook, if the women of our cave allowed it, but they grew angry because his roasted meat tasted better than theirs. Instead of using the stone griddle, he speared his meat with a sharp stick, propped it upon upright sticks and turned it with a crooked handle, and the meat cooked all through without burning. Ede told her sisters that meat cooked so delicately could give no-one any strength, but I noticed Ludd, whose teeth had grown weak and few, enjoying his share even while he frowned at Enn’s circular movement in cooking it. “The circle will bring trouble,” he muttered. “Those who move in circles go mad.”
“The earth moves in a circle to the fire,” said Enn, but even his father shook his head. The earth does not move. If the sun, the moon and stars move in circles, their insanity cannot hurt them, and cannot touch us.
The fire had waned, but Enn still sat beside it, turning his handle slowly, staring at the twisting of his bare spearing stick. He took lumps of clay from the ground and squeezed them on to the stick, making wide circles that rolled with the spearing stick and gradually hardened over the embers.
“He does witchcraft,” said Ede’s oldest sister with a laugh. “You must give place to him, Ludd, when he knows more of circles and madness than you do.”
Idd now frowned, and I could see his thoughts like the tracks of a deer by the river. He had hoped for a great hunter, second to none alive, but legend could also crown the wise. Love, I thought, can also crown the life of a child, and Enn had both my love and Idd’s. I went to Idd’s bed that night, as though I and not my dead mother had belonged to him and had given birth to his son. Like an aged woman I did not mind when Idd, older than my grandfather, had no use for my body except for its warmth beside him. But in my dreams I felt trouble approaching, and it approached with the noise of galloping buffalo, but not on hooves. It came in great, rolling circles that thundered across lands, enslaving people who had never given battle, throwing up structures to cross wide rivers and boring long caves through the very mountains to the other side.
Enn left the cave early the next day, and stayed away for days and nights, longer than a wound takes to heal. When he returned, he brought a large duck—his first prey—but he did not carry it aloft with a hunter’s pride. He had tied it to a flat piece of wood and he pulled it along. It moved so smoothly that I almost looked to see if it slid on rollers—but no rollers went before or lay behind.
Then Enn turned it sideways to me, and I saw the circles; a large circle at either side, formed by thick, flexible willow strips wound round and round a wooden shaft as thick as a spear. Blocks of wood, pierced by holes, held the shaft in place under the wooden form, so that the circles rolled beside it but the shaft never rolled out from under it. Enn placed a leather strap over my shoulder, and as I pulled, the whole wooden device followed me. I liked it.
The people of our cave surrounded us and stared at Enn’s creation. Idd untied the duck and held it up, belatedly, for the applause of the tribe, but men and women alike stared with suspicion and waited for Ludd to speak.
Ludd walked around, in a circle, but would not touch Enn’s work.
“What have you made?” he asked at last.
“It will make heavy weights and long distances easy,” said Enn. “It will give men and women rest from toil, time to wander and to create new thoughts. It will confer freedom of movement.”
“You call this a device for freedom and the saving of labour,” said Ludd slowly, quietly, yet more bitterly than the sleet whips one’s face at the start of a long winter.
A man laughed: my cousin, Hebb. “It does not bring easy carrying,” he said. “A weaning child may carry a duck, but you drag the duck, the wood, the speared circles and the leather straps!”
Enn looked at his father as though for approval. “I can make larger,” he promised, “and carry buffalo carcasses, carry all of our furs and weapons and beds when we have to move lands in the times of poor hunting. The labour of travelling and of carrying goods will lighten. Fewer will die in times of hardship, and our tribe will strengthen.”
“Yes,” Ludd spat, “our tribe will strengthen. We will accrue goods, multiply and take over the lands of other tribes. We will carry heavier weaponry, and win greater and greater wars. Listen to my prophecy. Devices will become larger, more complex, creating unforeseen and oppressive tasks of commerce and communication, of measures and monument, of further invention. The spanning of distances and times, the spread of arguments and changes, will engender madness. Old people will suffer confusion and uncertainty. Young children who have not yet learned to interpret the sounds of the birds will learn to tell numbers beyond their fingers, beyond even their toes, and those who teach them will always and ever have to measure and speed their learning—”
“You speak nonsense,” Idd interrupted. “You speak obscenity. No man can measure the knowledge of a child without destroying the child’s soul.”
“I speak of what is obscene: the path we now follow. I prophesy trouble and madness if you allow your son to continue.”
“How may I choose otherwise?”
You may burn this device and castrate and banish your son—the child I delivered from his mother’s death. I will grieve too—but this must be done.”
“I have done no wrong,” Enn said in bewilderment.
“Men, women, children, will journey towards evil, journey ever faster between your rolling circles. All parts of the world will know all other parts, and share their separate troubles. Where knowledge multiplies, so will lies—and worse than lies: half-truths. Fire will consume the black rocks of the earth, until in the end the last ice will melt and the waters of earth will rise….”
“And what then?” Idd asked sharply.
Ludd, who had ceased speaking, looked at him as though he had forgotten.
“What will happen after the waters of earth rise?” Enn asked, eagerly.
“There will follow wars… famines… sickness…. And only those who still know how to live in caves will survive.”
“You describe a circle,” Enn said, almost as though pleased.
“I describe a choice,” said Ludd, facing Idd eye to eye. “Choose.”
A pause followed, a deep pause, long enough for a butterfly or moth, newly out of its cocoon, to stretch and lift its wings.
“What can I say?” Idd asked finally. “I have only one living child, one son. I will not banish him, may the future bring what it will. We will return here, in our far-distant posterity, after all these things, and decide whether I have chosen well or ill. I cannot do otherwise.”
And so we follow the path he chose.
BIO: Fiona Jones is a spare-time writer living in Scotland. Fiona’s stories have been published by Longshot Island, Folded Word and a number of other venues.