Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard
A Novel by Lawrence M. Schoen
(Published by Tor Books, December 29, 2015)
Chapter One: A Death Detoured
RÜSUL traveled to meet his death. The current had carried him away from his
home island as if it understood his purpose. He lost sight of the archipelago
before dusk, as much a function of the falling rain as the southerly wind that
pushed him onward. In the days since, the sun had risen and set unseen, a
slightly brighter spot that eased itself across the overcast sky. Nor had it
cleared at night to permit a glimpse of the heavens. The clouds changed color
as the rain ebbed and flowed, and the wind drove him across the water of its
own accord toward an unvisited destination. Rüsul didn't care. He had no need
to hurry. He could feel the increasing proximity in his bones and that was
enough. More than enough. An aged Fant on a raft alone and at sea, the wind
filling his makeshift sail and carrying him toward the last bit of land he
would ever stand upon. His father and mother had each left in the same manner,
and their parents before them. That's how it had been, going back generation
upon generation to the very founding of Barsk.
He'd felt it coming on all season. His every perception called out to him,
less clairaudience than common sense. It was part of the way of things. One
felt the change in pressure that signaled the nearness of a lull in a storm.
One smelled the sweetness of tevketl long before the berries actually ripened
so as not to miss their brief span for picking. And one knew when it was time
to die. Rüsul could no more fail to recognize his coming death than he could
be surprised by a pause in the rain or sour berries.
The certainty came to him one morning. He'd never been the type to awaken
easily, always struggling to cross that daily border between slumber and the
responsibilities of the wide awake world. But that day he had opened his eyes
and known. Death had announced itself, named a time and place, and left him
instantly alert. Rüsul had risen and gone about his day with a wistful smile,
a bit sad that his time was ending but also relieved to know for sure. That
knowledge signaled the start of the final rite of passage for every Fant.
His assistant had seen the change in him at the workshop that day,
acknowledging it with a simple question. "You know?"
Rüsul had smiled. "I do. The last lesson I need to learn. No sadness from
you, Yeft. It's long overdue. Besides, I know you've wanted my tools since
the day you ended your apprenticeship."
The younger Fant ignored the barb and instead asked, "Is there anything I
can do to help? Do you have enough time for everything?"
Rüsul had been thinking it through since breakfast. Time enough to complete
the game board and pieces he'd promised to his elder daughter's husband
after drinking too much beer on the night of their Bonding. Time enough to
finish the lintel for the great window in his son's new home. And time also
to build a stout raft and gather together the supplies he would need for the
voyage. He had no goodbyes to say. Yeft had seen the knowledge on his face as
much because they'd worked side by side for thirty years as because it had
been so fresh. The rest of his loved ones would realize what had happened
after he'd left. None would come seeking him. Until the day they each woke to
their own invitations, they wouldn't even know where to look.
HE'D been on the open water for five days, seated comfortably enough at
the front third of a raft, his back against the short mast that held the only
sail. A tarpaulin covered a jumbled pile that occupied most of the other two-thirds. Beneath it lay jugs of fresh water and beer to quench his thirst,
assorted fresh fruit to enjoy before it spoiled and dried fruit for after if
the wind died or the current slowed and delayed his journey. There was grain
and salt for making cold porridge, and an assortment of succulent leaves as
much for dessert as for late night snacking. Rüsul had also packed a
scattering of various soft woods and, despite his promise, held onto his
favorite knife. At the last moment he'd been unable to part with it, though
of course he wouldn't need it when he reached his death.
For the last five mornings he'd eased leisurely from sleep as usual. His
daily ritual consisted of breaking his fast and then tending to his ablutions
over the back end of his raft. He'd raise the sail and often as not tack in
the direction that felt right. That done, he would take a chock of wood and
his knife from under the tarpaulin and settle in with his back once more
against the mast and spend the day carving. His hands and trunk did the work
with the familiarity of experience, freeing his mind to wander at will through
a lifetime of pleasant memories. When he grew thirsty he'd stop for some
midday beer, and when hungry for an early supper. By dusk he'd set aside his
knife and furl the raft's sail. As the last of the day's light fled, Rüsul
would examine the statuette he'd made, the face of some old friend or
relative gazing up from the wood as clearly as it had from his memory. His
talent at carving had brought him a modicum of fame and security. His work had
become quite collectible, but these pieces would never be admired by anyone
else. Before laying himself down for sleep, he made a point of saying farewell
to the day's effort and pitching it over the side for the ocean to claim.
This sixth day had gone much like the others. Rüsul's left hand had all
day long guided the knife slowly back and forth across the chock in his right.
The constant rain created the illusion that the outer layers of wood were
being washed away to reveal the figurine beneath. Later, as the sky began to
lose its glow and he sat finishing his porridge and fruit, the rain faded
entirely. For the briefest of moments the heavy clouds parted and Rüsul
enjoyed the unfamiliar sight of sunset and felt the red light of Ekkja on his
skin. Defter than the touch of a loved one's nubs, warmth flooded through the
folds and wrinkles of his naked body, relieving all weariness while reminding
him of just how weary he'd been. Then it passed. The clouds closed again and
the rain resumed. He took down the sail.
Rüsul finished his dinner and leaned over the edge of his raft to rinse his
bowl and spoon before tucking them away under the tarp along with his carving
knife. With his trunk he cradled the day's work, a perfect rendering of
Margda, Barsk's long dead Matriarch. Her face looked back at him with
complexity. There was pain and certainty, confidence and confusion, as if
she'd just been thrust deep in the throes of one of her prophetic seizures.
It was possibly his best work ever.
He had muttered a farewell to the carving and raised his trunk high,
preparing to fling the figure into the sea, when the ocean dropped away.
The raft, which had risen and fallen with the sea's mood, froze stiller
than calm water. The sudden stability caused Rüsul to tumble over backwards.
The tiny rendering of Margda slipped from his nubs as he landed on his
backside. He rolled onto his knees, one hand moving back and behind the bottom
of his left ear to rub at a sudden stitch in his side. His other hand braced
against the raft until his balance returned and allowed him to crawl to the
Peering over the side he saw an expanse of grayness below the raft. It
sloped down in all directions too far to measure in the rain. Beyond that lay
water. The ocean had not so much dropped from beneath him as something else
had surged up from below it, lifting him and the raft.
"There! At the far end. Take him, now. And quickly!"
Rüsul turned. From beyond the other side of his raft, a gate of some sort
had opened in the gray below. A tall, bizarre-looking person stood next to the
opening and three more poured from it. All four had been wrapped in fire-bright plastic, more plastic than he'd seen in his entire life. The legs of
their slacks thickened to form heavy boots. The sleeves of their shirts flowed
into gloves and the collars rose up into hoods that hid their heads. Following
their instructions, three of them advanced upon Rüsul. Translucent gray masks
covered their faces. Two had hold of his arms in an instant and hauled him
upright like a wet sack of leaves.
It all happened so fast, so unexpectedly. He was on his way to die. The
sameness of the past days had helped him to distance himself from the world
and his past life. None of this should be happening. His brain wanted to deny
it, disbelieve and make it go away. The hands gripping him made that
impossible. As his feet scrabbled beneath him, the greatest piece of
strangeness came clear to Rüsul and he struggled to pull free. No trunks. From
even a short distance, their plastic hoods and masks rendered his assailants
anonymous. But this close he saw the truth. Tiny pointy ears set well back.
Long snouty faces with little black, slick noses. And all younger and stronger
than him. His pitiful attempts to break away from the two holding him ended as
the third wrapped more red plastic around each of Rüsul's wrists and pulled
them behind his back. The three pulled him from his raft and began marching
him over the grayness toward their gate, past the fourth figure.
"You're Dogs. Cans, aren't you? I've seen pictures. But you can't be
here. You're not supposed to…" He passed within the grayness and stopped
speaking, his eyes trying and failing to make sense of the featureless surface
surrounding him on all sides. He knew he moved because his feet stumbled and
scraped as his captors dragged him along. His stomach flipped and for a moment
the possibility of his evening meal coming back up distracted him. They seemed
to move in a broad arc and the grayness gave way to painfully bright light
that defined a corridor. The three Cans stopped. Rüsul steadied himself
against them, squinting down the walls that somehow existed where nothing
belonged but the open sea.
Another person came toward him, taller and leaner than the others and clad
in blue plastic that lacked hood or mask. She advanced on him with a liquid
gait. A Cheetah with a significantly flatter face, a smallish nose, and even
beadier, black eyes than the Dogs regarded him and drew back her lips to
reveal gleaming teeth.
"I am Nonyx-Captain Selishta," said the Cheetah. "Do you have a name?"
Rüsul blinked. The light hurt his eyes but the questions racing through his
mind hurt more. Why were there Dogs on Barsk? Why a Cheetah? Why were they
speaking to him when he'd left all conversation behind. Why would anyone ask
the name of a dead man? Could any adult be so ignorant and stupid?
"I'm on my way to finish dying," he said.
The Cheetah sneered at him. "Of course you are. You all are. And of course
that's why you're naked as well? How foolish of me to think otherwise. Well,
old man, your demise is going to have to wait a while. My people have many,
many questions to ask you, and I need you alive for that."
The Fant shook his head. "It doesn't work like that, I…"
A cold plastic hand slapped Rüsul across the face. And then again.
"My name is Selishta. This ship and these men obey my will. I'm the only
one who gets to say how things work here." She pulled her hand back, staring
a moment at the glove as if her fingers had touched something disgusting, then
stepped back. She directed her attention to the Cans.
"Maybe this one will know something useful about whatever shrubs and
leaves the drug comes from. Hold him here a moment while the rest of the crew
secures his flotsam, and then put him below in one of the vacant isolation
"Shrubs?" said Rüsul, more to himself than the others. "I was a wood
carver, but that's past. I've died."
The Cheetah stepped back, waving one gloved hand in front of her stupid-looking nose. "If you had, I've no doubt you'd smell better than you do."
Rüsul's eyes widened and he studied his surroundings for the first time.
As the Dogs had hauled him in he'd acknowledged only the formless gray of the
place, but now the clear outlines of plastic wall panels, metal floor tilings,
and piercing artificial light removed all doubt that he was inside an
artificial structure. He gazed longingly back at the open gate they'd brought
him through, where Nonyx-Captain Selishta stood silhouetted against the
darkening sky. Rüsul watched as other Dogs in their red plastic suits hurried
past the Cheetah, carrying away his supplies in the tarp that had previously
covered them. Other Dogs had dragged the mast and sail in and down another
corridor. Moments later, more of Selishta's crew entered with the
disassembled pieces of his raft. And then he saw the Cheetah stoop to pick up
something else. As she straightened up and regarded the object in her hand,
Rüsul saw that Selishta had found his carving of Margda.
The Nonyx waved the carving in a gesture encompassing everything that
moments ago had made up Rüsul's raft. "You won't need any of that where
we're going." She paused and regarded the image in his hand. "This is one
of your women? Unbelievable. And I thought the males were the ugly ones." She
tossed it away.
The Cheetah dismissed Rüsul with a wave and the pair of Dogs took him away,
deeper into the "ship" as the captain had named it. But it wasn't like any
vessel of good wood that he had heard of, open to rain and sky. The world
seemed to close in around him, and at first Rüsul imagined that he had
actually died. But he knew it wasn't time yet. Time, in fact, seemed to have
stopped. A claustrophobia that he'd never known before squeezed at his heart.
To the chagrin of the Cans leading him, Rüsul's body went limp. Head and
trunk down, he began to wail, as mournful a sound as any living being could
manage. The Dogs dropped him. They clutched at their heads and kicked him
until pain silenced him.
"Why do they all do that?" said one of the Cans, over the sound of the
Fant's moans. "I think my ears are bleeding."
"Shut up and grab an end," said another. "I just want to get him into a
cell before he catches his breath and starts in again."
"Why do I get the smelly end?"
"The whole thing stinks. All the more reason to hurry up and dump his ass
where he won't be polluting our air."
One took Rüsul's arms, the other his legs. Neither Dog came anywhere near
touching his trunk or ears.
"How can something that's been sitting out in the rain for days smell
"Yeah, every time we grab another one, I worry the ship's recycler is
going to break down and then we're all screwed."
They hauled him ever further away from his death.