Escape Pod 541: As Travelers in Sky Boats
As Travelers in Sky Boats
by Kristin Janz
My sister blames the Travelers. Before they came, she says, we were content within the small world we knew. No one wondered what lay beyond the flat blue horizon where ocean met sky, or who journeyed between the stars. Children never complained that there was an easier way to mend fishing nets, that they did not like the taste of seaweed. Men did not abandon responsibilities to pursue the impossible fantasy of becoming Travelers themselves.
One rainy night, when both she and the water leaking through our roof were keeping me awake, I told her that she sounded like a Traveler when she spoke that way. Who was she–or they–to tell me how I should live, what I could know or not know?
She did not speak to me the rest of that night or most of the day that followed. I did not enjoy her silence as much as I had expected to.
“May I hold that?”
Traveler Jarrett hesitated before answering me, as Travelers often did. Unable to understand our words, they relied on their tools to tell them what we said and how to answer. But I did not think Traveler Jarrett’s hesitation came from not understanding, not this time. I had pointed to the tool on his wrist while asking and then held my hands out, palms facing up. How could he not understand that?
Traveler Tess murmured a warning in Traveler Speak, but Traveler Jarrett unfastened his wrist tool anyway and placed it in my outstretched hands.
Traveler Tess moved her finger around in the air in front of her, listened for a moment to a voice no one else could hear, then looked directly at me and said, “Please be careful with that.” As if I were a small child and might start bashing the wrist tool against the packed earth floor of the Travelers’ house! Traveler Tess tried to act like a mother to the other Travelers, like my sister did with me. I did not think they heeded her any better than I with my sister.
The Travelers looked like us but came from an island in the sky, an island too distant to be seen. I had not known there were islands among the stars and was eager to learn more.
I fastened the tool around my own wrist. It had a smooth, polished surface, dark like a still pool in the forest. When its band circled Traveler Jarrett’s wrist, images of colored light would flash across that surface, shifting as he spoke or danced his finger through the air.
Traveler Tess’s own finger danced again and then she said, after another pause, “It won’t work for anyone except Jarrett.” That was how they spoke to us: the dancing of the finger, the listening, then the words. I had concluded that the tiny pearl glinting inside each Traveler’s ear was a tool that told them which words of our language to use when they had something to say to us, although I did not understand why they had to wave a finger around to make it work. Sometimes, even when their words were correct, they were difficult to understand. Their voices would rise or fall at the wrong time, or they would emphasize words strangely. Traveler Tess spoke better than any of the others did.
“I can tell it to work for you,” Traveler Jarrett said, followed by some words in Traveler Speak. Lights appeared on the surface of the wrist tool.
“Wrist tool,” I said. “Show me the island in the stars where the Travelers come from.”
Traveler Tess started drawing in the air, but before she could speak, the lights on the wrist tool had transformed into an image of the starry night sky. I recognized the constellations of the Longboat and the Great Sea Jelly, though they were so tiny I had to squint and bring the wrist tool close to my eyes to see them well. Then all the stars in the image turned into long streaks, as if they were falling out of the sky towards me. Faster and faster they fell, until the entire surface of the wrist tool was a white blur, and then that faded into darkness.
Traveler Jarrett leaned in to see. After checking with his ear tool, he said, “It’s showing you what you would see if you traveled from here to our home.”
As he spoke, new points of light appeared, growing larger, and then one light grew so large that it filled most of the wrist tool’s gleaming dark surface. The light was a perfect circle, blue and white with patches of green and brown, and before it grew enough to cover the surface of the wrist tool, I saw two smaller lights, one on either side of the circle, one round and the other like a waning moon.
The large blue circle itself looked like a full moon, and I said so. “Could I travel there in one of our boats, or would I have to use yours?” And how would I point my boat into the air, make it fly like a sea bird?
“We didn’t use the boats you’ve seen to travel all the way,” Traveler Jarrett said. “We used a special boat that’s much larger to bring us from our own island in the sky to yours. Once we were here, we built the water boats so we could visit you.”
Traveler Tess said something to him in an urgent voice. To my surprise–and theirs too, I think–Traveler Jarrett’s wrist tool spoke out in a voice like hers, saying, “Jarrett! They aren’t supposed to know we have a base on this sky island.”
Both Travelers stared at the tool on my wrist, dismayed. Before I could ask why I was not supposed to know that, we heard shouts from outside, from the direction of the beach.
We all three ran out of the house, one that the people of my island had built for the Travelers to sleep in while they visited. Others were emerging from houses all around. My older sister came out of our house, her little boy tottering after her. Our eyes met across the clearing. Every day, she complained that I was shirking my responsibilities, visiting the Travelers when I should have been weeding vegetable gardens or weaving baskets.
On the beach, my sister’s husband and two of his friends glared at two Travelers across a pile of fishing net. When we got close enough, I saw that the net had been ripped almost in two, long strands of laboriously twisted bark fiber shredded into uselessness.
“It was their boat,” my sister’s husband announced. Neither Traveler denied it. “It has knives underneath and they took it straight across our net.” My sister’s husband was not a large man or a violent one, but his will was strong. No one on the island would stand against him if he wanted something.
“We didn’t know the net was there,” one of the frightened, guilty Travelers said. She eyed the harpoon brandished by one of the men as if she feared being spitted upon it like a fat, toothed fish.
“How could you not know the net was there?” my sister’s husband demanded, anguish in his voice. “There were floats marking it, all along the edge!”
The two Travelers shrank even closer together. They did not seem to realize that my sister’s husband and his friends were angry with them only as one would be with a careless child. Except that the Travelers were not children. They were older than most of us, and we could hardly force them to give up their playtime for the next several days until they had mended the net.
Traveler Tess said something to them in Traveler Speak, then turned to me in alarm when Traveler Jarrett’s wrist tool said, “You need to be more careful! These people aren’t advanced enough to have food stored up in case they can’t catch fish.”
Traveler Jarrett reached out one hand to me, beckoning with the fingers, while using the other to dance around in the air and ask the ear tool what to say. “I need that back now.” He pointed at the wrist tool.
I shook my head, moving away. What did Traveler Tess mean, we were not advanced enough? Of course we stored food! They had tasted our smoked fish and dried seaweed.
“Jarrett!” Traveler Tess said. Traveler Jarrett spoke again, but instead of turning his words into ones I could understand, this time the wrist tool’s surface went black.
An argument in Traveler Speak followed, mostly between Traveler Jarrett and Traveler Tess. We listened to the unfamiliar words. At the height of their argument, I held the wrist tool close to my mouth and murmured, “Wrist tool, please tell me what they’re saying.” But it did not respond.
“You and your Travelers,” my sister muttered against my ear, as if all the time I spent talking with them made me share responsibility for the damaged net. I moved away from her, pretending she had not spoken. I wished I did not have to live with her and her husband and son. But I was not quite old enough to find my own husband.
Finally, Traveler Tess approached my sister’s husband and his friends. “We are very sorry for our carelessness. If you teach us, all the Travelers will work together to mend your net.”
My sister’s husband shook his head. It took children years to learn how to collect and prepare bark fiber, how to twist strands together tightly enough to hold and yet loosely enough to stretch without snapping. No one would let a child work on a proper net upon which a fisherman depended. “It would take longer to teach you than it would take us to repair the net ourselves,” he said. “It is done and in the past. We will not look upon it again.”
“We have a tool that could repair it without being taught,” Traveler Jarrett said.
Traveler Tess started to protest angrily in Traveler Speak. One of the Travelers responsible for the damaged net joined in. Traveler Jarrett shook his head and pointed to the net, refusing to give way.
We all listened to their incomprehensible argument, as we had before, until my sister’s husband said, “This is true? You have a tool that can repair this net?”
“Yes,” Traveler Jarrett said. Traveler Tess said nothing.
My sister’s husband addressed his next question to her. “Why don’t you want to use this tool?”
She frowned, as if trying to decide how to answer. Finally, she said, “The tool has never been used to fix a net. It might not work.”
“Will it do more damage to the net than your boat did?” my sister’s husband asked.
“No,” Traveler Jarrett said, when Traveler Tess did not immediately answer. “If it doesn’t work properly, you can pick out the new strands and fix it yourself. It won’t damage what’s still there.”
“Then I want you to try,” my sister’s husband said. His friends murmured agreement.
We all wanted to see this marvelous tool, but not even Traveler Jarrett would go so far. They took a heap of bark fiber and the torn net into the gleaming boat that had ruined it, and they made the boat skim away out to sea so quickly that none of us could follow. The sun had hardly moved across the sky when they returned with a net mended more expertly than the hands of a fisherman with a lifetime’s practice could have done it.
When they returned, Traveler Jarrett asked again for his wrist tool, which I gave him. I had spent all the time they were gone trying to make it work, but it might as well have been a shard of black knife glass, cold and unresponsive.
“The Ancestors came in boats from another island,” I told Traveler Jarrett. We rested on mats in the house he shared with the other Traveler men, I in a low crouch on the balls of my feet, he on his backside with his feet tucked under his ankles. “They had angered the god of that island, and he began to drown them with fire vomited from his belly. But the sea goddess told the Ancestors to trust her and she would carry them to safety upon her waves. So they sailed their boats away, and after many days they came to a new island, better than the one they had left.”
“That’s very interesting,” Traveler Jarrett said. “Where did those first Ancestors come from?”
I frowned. His tone was that of a parent listening to a child’s play-story about tiny winged people who dance in the foam where waves break upon rock.
I fiddled with the bracelet I had made for myself, strands of twisted bark fiber with a large, decorative flake of knife glass positioned over the back of my wrist. My sister hated it, but her husband just laughed and asked me to make one for him, too.
“Where did your Ancestors come from?” I asked.
Traveler Jarrett looked uncomfortable, even though the Travelers’ houses remained cool throughout the day no matter how fiercely the sun shone on the roofs. They had tools that blew cold wind inside. My sister’s husband had taken one away while the Travelers slept and brought it to our house, but it would not work for him any more than Traveler Jarrett’s wrist tool would work for me when Traveler Jarrett did not want it to.
“I want to hear what your people believe,” Traveler Jarrett said.
“That’s why we came here. To learn about you and your customs.”
“I want to learn about Traveler customs.” We all did. After the Travelers fixed the net, several older children crept down to the beach where the strange boats were drawn up and tried to climb aboard one to look for the net-mending tool. But the boat sent jolts of intolerable pain through the limbs of all who touched it. From that night on, the gleaming boats were anchored out in the bay at night and the Travelers used one of our rowboats to go back and forth.
“There’s nothing special about our customs,” Traveler Jarrett said. “They’re not better than yours. They’re just different.”
I shook my head, frustrated. I was the only islander who would still tell the Travelers the stories they wanted to hear without demanding anything in return: a net mended, a wind-blowing tool for my own house, more of their delectable food in its shining wrappers. That was because what I wanted most of all was to learn about them, to know the things they knew.
“You treat us as if we’re ignorant children,” I complained. “Do you think I’m not clever enough to understand about your Ancestors?”
“No,” he said. “Of course not.” He sat there for a moment in silence, thinking, before consulting his ear tool. “People have to learn things for themselves. My Ancestors used to think that whenever they came to a new island, they should teach everyone who lived there to be exactly like them. But it didn’t work, because their ways didn’t always make sense for those other people. Your ways are right for you.”
I hardly noticed that I had gotten him to talk about his own Ancestors. Our ways were right for us? Days spent weaving and mending nets, nights of wrenching hunger when storms drove the fish away?
But he would not tell me anything if I shouted at him, as my sister had. “If you tell me where your Ancestors came from,” I offered, “I’ll tell you about the Ancestors of the Ancestors.”
He glanced at the door as if wondering whether Traveler Tess might be on the other side, listening. I knew better than to ask her about her Ancestors. She hated my bracelet almost as much as my sister did.
He leaned in closer and his finger started dancing. “My Ancestors came from an island in the sky. The island grew them, as it grew the plants and animals, birds and fish. At night, they wondered if there might be other islands like theirs among the stars. They dreamed of traveling. They learned to build tools that could look deep into the sky, and when they found new islands they made sky boats to travel there. They took plants and animals from their own island, because they could not eat what the new islands grew. They took tools to make the air of the new islands more like theirs. After many years, the new islands looked like the old. And at night, the men and women who lived there looked up. They wondered if there might be other islands, farther still, among the stars.”
His story reminded me of the one I had just told, about how our own Ancestors had come to these islands, and I told him so. He seemed uneasy when I told him this. I did not understand why.
“The Ancestors of the Ancestors,” I said. “They came from another island, many days’ journey upon the ocean from that first island I mentioned. They angered the god there, so he sent earthquakes that crumbled the mountains and waves that swept them out to sea in their boats. The sea goddess carried the boats to a new island, and they promised the god of that island that they would not anger him as they had the old god. Of course, they did anger him. That’s how it has always been. People anger the god of their island and he drives them away. They find a new island, and they have good intentions not to anger the new god, but eventually they do.”
“What about the very first Ancestors?” Traveler Jarrett asked. “Where did they come from? Which god or goddess created them?”
I was not sure what he meant by “first Ancestors”. The pattern of angering gods and moving to new islands went back and back and back. There was a children’s song where each successive verse was about an earlier island and an earlier god. No one knew what had really happened farther back then the last five or six, so after that you had to make up islands, gods, and disasters. The song ended when no one could think of any new ones. “I don’t know,” I said. “Did a god or goddess create your Ancestors?”
“No!” He didn’t need to ask his ear tool how to say that. He said it emphatically, like a child whose mother asks if he was the one to knock over the pot she found broken. More carefully, he said, “Some of my people still believe so, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but most of us don’t think it’s necessary to invoke gods and goddesses in order to explain where we came from.
“Why is there nothing wrong with it?” I asked. “If it isn’t true?”
“How can anyone know for certain what’s true and what isn’t?” Traveler Jarrett said. “Based on the evidence, it seems most likely to me that no god was involved. But someone who believes in gods might say that I wasn’t there when it happened, and neither was anyone else who’s still alive or has left records for us to find.”
Traveler Jarrett and I did not talk about gods or Ancestors after that. But later, I wondered if Traveler Jarrett also thought it was not necessary to invoke gods to explain where my people came from. Did he believe there were any gods at all, anywhere?
I thought it best not to ask Traveler Jarrett about this. It would have made him unhappy, and he might not talk with me anymore. Then how would I learn to become a Traveler?
At first, after the Travelers left us, their boats gliding silently out of the bay and into the horizon, life seemed to return to normal. The new houses built for the Travelers were given to some grown children still living under mothers’ roofs. They seemed pleased with them, although disappointed that the Travelers had not left the wind-blowing tools behind. The Travelers left nothing behind, though we had showered them with gifts. Some complained bitterly, but I would not. I understood that not giving us anything was meant to be a sort of gift. It was a bad gift, but meant kindly, and I found I could not be angry with them.
Life seemed normal, until the day my sister’s husband and one of his friends failed to return from fishing. We would have thought their boat capsized, but the weather had been calm and the annual sea serpent migration was still months away. And some of the other fishermen told us that my sister’s husband had talked of sailing out after the Travelers, of finding the base Traveler Tess had not wanted us to know about, of demanding to be taken in a sky boat to one of the islands in the stars. Of becoming a Traveler himself.
Others followed, mostly men but a few women and girls. Visitors from neighboring islands told us that some of their people were leaving too, although the Travelers had not visited them. They had heard from us of the wondrous tools, and dreamed of Traveling among the stars.
Roofs go unmended, vegetable patches in the forest were left uncultivated and have receded under a thicket of undergrowth. Young men leave the smokehouse fires to die out while they steal away to build boats fit for a long voyage. My sister spends her nights weeping, and to my shame I feel anger more than sympathy. I want to tell her she brought this grief on herself. If she had listened when her husband spoke of his admiration for the Travelers instead of cursing them, perhaps he would have stayed. Or he might have taken her and his son with him, to see the Travelers again, or settle on a new island, or whatever adventure found him and his companion.
We are like the Travelers, although they never understood this. They saw us as children, or as rare sea jellies that could not be touched for fear of ruining their fragile beauty. But we thrive upon change, on the shifting currents, on the unpredictable winds and storms. We are not of these islands any more than they are. The Travelers are arrogant, to think they could change us into anything we would not want to be.
Most of us have decided to leave these islands once the storms move on. We may never find the Travelers, but if we do not, the sea goddess will carry us upon her currents to our new home.
I want my sister to come with us. She wants to stay behind, trying to hold onto the life the Travelers wished for us. And who am I to say how she should live?
I have been adding new verses to the children’s song about islands, gods, and disasters. Verses about the Ancestors of the Ancestors of the Ancestors. How they crossed the sky to come here, in boats that could sail among the stars.
About the Author
Kristin Janz is a Canadian speculative fiction writer who has lived in the Boston area since 1998. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, On Spec, and Crowded Magazine, and she is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop.
Kristin and her husband, Donald S. Crankshaw, have edited and are independently publishing an anthology of speculative fiction stories that engage with Christianity in some way–Christian characters, themes, or cosmology. Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith will be available in both paperback and ebook in August of 2016, and includes stories by Nebula-nominated authors Beth Cato and Kenneth Schneyer.
About the Narrator
Ibba Armancas is an Inland Empire PBS writer/director and TV host whose COVID-themed educational kids show “Pandemic Playhouse” airs Friday starting January 2021. You can find out more about her, it, and her puppet pals at https://www.