Bian’s great-grandmother Nuy was the first to see the new pinprick of light in the sky.
Bian had followed Nuy downriver to the seashore only because her mother had insisted that she look after the old woman. “Don’t let her out of your sight,” Tasu told her. Bian did not argue with her mother, although Tasu knew as well as she did that Nuy often wandered down to the shore in search of solitude and was able, in spite of her advanced age, to look out for herself.
Bian found Nuy sitting on a hill overlooking the ocean, her basket empty of fish. The sun was nearly below the horizon in the west. Bian strolled along the shore, clutching her own small basket, kicking up sand while pretending to look for any fish that had washed up onto the beach.
“Go back to your mother,” Nuy said at last. Bian halted and shifted her basket from one hand to the other. “Go on home, child. I don’t need you here watching me.”
It was no use telling Nuy that Tasu had only sent her here to fetch any fish that might have been washed ashore; Nuy could see through a lie as well as anyone. “I know you don’t need me,” Bian admitted, “but Tasu insisted.”
“Tasu worries far too much about me.”
“Not any more than the rest of us do.”
“And then everybody wonders why I like to wander off by myself.” Nuy waved a hand. “Lately it’s because I can’t bear to see all of your worried looks and sense everybody’s concern for me. It’s enough to make me feel I’m being smothered by your worries.”
Bian dropped her empty basket and sat down next to Nuy. The old woman’s long white braid hung over her left shoulder and down the front of her sleeveless tunic; her slim bare legs and arms were almost as muscular as those of a young person. She was much older than other great-grandparents in their village, because the first of her seven children had not been born until she was in her forties, and her children had followed her example of living for a long time with their mates before having children of their own. Her age was most visible on her lined neck and around her eyes, where deep wrinkles were etched around drooping lids.
“You’re one of the First,” Bian murmured. “It’s natural for us to be concerned about you.”
“I’m the only one of the First who’s still alive,” Nuy said. “That’s what you meant to say.”
Nuy was right, of course. She always knew what was lurking in the recesses of Bian’s mind, sometimes even before Bian herself became aware of her own hidden thoughts.
Nuy had outlived all the first generation of Home’s children, that first generation born of the people who had come down from the sky to settle this world. She had told the story of those sky people often. “All of us grew from the seeds sown here by Ship, that great vessel launched by our ancestors,” Nuy would begin. “Some of those seeds were the people who came down from the sky, who flew down from Ship to live here on Home. Ship was the child of the people of Earth, and its purpose was to find other worlds like Earth, worlds where its seeds could be sown and where they would grow and flower and preserve true humankind.”
At that point, Nuy was often interrupted by two or three of the youngest children, who wanted to know what and where Earth was, what “true humankind” meant, and whether the heavens were anything like the vast sea that stretched to the southern horizon. When she was much younger, Bian had imagined Ship as a very large boat sailing in from the sea and then up the river to disgorge its living cargo along the river’s banks, but she had soon learned that Ship could not have been anything like their boats. Ship, Nuy had explained, was more like one of Home’s two moons, an orb of rock, but with a hollowed out core and crannies where people could live, and with powerful engines that could carry it across the vast distances of space, and with a mind far more complex and all-encompassing than a human being’s.
“Other seeds from Earth were scattered over Home,” Nuy would continue, “and those seeds sprouted into the rabbits and horses and birds and cattle and sheep, the small and large cats, the dogs that befriend us and the wolves and bears that avoid us. None of those creatures existed on Home before our kind came here, and the greener grasses of the plain and many of the plants that feed us also sprang from the Earthseed sown here. If human beings were to survive, we could not live on Home as it was, or so Ship and its designers believed. Some of the life-forms of Earth would fill the niches that Home had left empty, and Home would in time become another Earth. That was their hope. But Home isn’t just another Earth. And we may all be a part of humankind, but strands of Home also took root in us and live within each of us.”
That was usually where Nuy ended her story whenever she told it to the youngest children. The rest of the story, a tale of the distrust, resentments, hatreds, and battles that had also made them what they were, could wait until they were older. Those battles had finally ended, and after that most of their people had left their original settlement to live along the banks of the river and near the sea. But a few had remained in the north, inside their domed dwellings, because they feared growing too close to Home and losing their true humanity. The battles among them might lie in the past, but distrust had remained.
“Will Ship ever come back?” Bian and some of the others had asked Nuy when they were older.
“I don’t know,” Nuy always replied. “Perhaps.”
The sky had grown dark green. Bian sat with Nuy, not speaking, until the sun set. Nuy intended to stay here at least until the first moon rose; Bian sensed that as soon as the old woman lifted her head to gaze at the sky.
“I saw a strange light in the sky last night,” Nuy said then. “Just before dawn, a light I’ve never seen before. It was only a tiny pinpoint of light, yet it didn’t flicker in the way that the stars do. I wonder if I’ll see it again tonight.”
Nuy was silent after that. Bian sat with her until the sun had set and the first of the stars appeared. Nuy glanced from right to left, grew still as she gazed east, then suddenly clutched Bian’s shoulder. “There it is.”
Bian saw it now, a tiny beacon on the horizon. The unfamiliar speck of light shone steadily as it moved slowly across the sky. Nuy let out a sigh and Bian sensed a disturbance inside her great-grandmother. Nuy was afraid.
“You fear it,” Bian said before she could stop herself from speaking.
“I’m afraid of what it might mean.” Nuy’s grip on her shoulder tightened. “You remember the story of how we came to be and how we were brought to Home. Not the story that I told you when you were very small, but the rest of it, the part of the story you heard when you were older.”
“Of course.” Bian gently removed Nuy’s small bony hand from her shoulder.
“Most of the ones your age never did hear the end of that story,” Nuy continued. “Your grandmother heard it, and I think your father might have heard it all, but I may be the only one left in our village who remembers that Ship made a promise to our ancestors.”
Bian frowned. “What promise?”
“Ship’s promise to return.”
Bian turned toward Nuy, surprised. “But you never told us—”
“Ship promised to come back here,” Nuy said, “to see what we had made of ourselves. That was the true end of the story. But as the years passed, most of us came to believe that Ship would never return, that in carrying out its mission to seed other worlds, it might have forgotten about this one. Others worried instead that some misfortune had come to Ship, that it was unable to return, or even that it might have traveled so far across space that it could no longer find its way back to Home. What’s the point in telling young ones about Ship’s promise when it seemed likely that the promise would never be kept? I began to ask myself that after I’d been repeating the story for a while, so I started leaving that part out. When no one ever complained, I decided it was best to leave it that way. Maybe Ship would return, and maybe it wouldn’t, but it was better to get on with our lives and not think about that.”
“No one else ever told us the story except you.”
“Yes,” Nuy murmured, “I seem to have become the guardian of that tale in our village. I have grown to prefer the more uncertain ending I gave it.” She looked up at the sky. “Maybe that new light is only a small planetary body that was roaming the heavens. Maybe Home has just captured it and made another satellite of it. That’s what I’m telling myself now. It can’t be Ship.”
“There’s no reason to think—”
“I don’t want it to be Ship.”
Bian waited for Nuy to explain what she meant by that, but her great-grandmother said nothing more.
SEED SEEKER Copyright © 2010 by Pamela Sargent