A Tale before Time
A Short Story
By Lisa Wood
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Cover art retains a CC2.0 license and was used with permission from:
The image was altered. Colors and textures were changed as well as the background deleted and a new one added. A big thank you to LeeAnn for all your help.
An ancient woman banged her staff on the hard red clay of the earth raising a cloud of dust around the staff creating a fine mist that landed on the woman’s feet darkening the skin to an even ruddier brown.
“Mama Connai, will you tell us a story before we are sent to our bedrolls?” The sweet face that stared up at the old woman was dirtier than her feet but was equal measures of adorable so she could not find it within her withered old heart to tell the child no.
“Yes, little one. This cold autumn weather chills me to the bones, though, so sit a piece with me here by the fire and I will tell you all the story of how our world was born.”
Some of the older children moaned and lamented that they’d heard this story hundreds of times, but Mama Connai simply said, “and if you sit and listen, you will hear it once more. But if you listen close, perhaps you will hear something that you’ve never heard before.” They grumbled, but a bedtime story was a bedtime story and anything that kept them out of bed just a little while longer was fine by them.
They sat in ragtag groups, leaning into each other for extra warmth in the chilly autumn air, and Mama Connai began her tale in the common manner of her people.
There was a time. To mortals, it would have seemed long ago, but to the immortal beings who maintain the balance of the world’s natural elements, the time has been only a few generations; it was a few epochs, as it were.
This was the time of the Earth’s nativity, its infancy. During this post-natal time, there was only one elemental, the Omni – the all mother; one mother rearing up the Earth as best she could.
She succored the Earth as long as she was able, but soon it had outgrown her gentle care. It had progressed to its toddlerhood, throwing tantrums its poor mother could not begin to control.
There was a tinkling laugh that broke the peaceful hush that had fallen over the children, and Mama Connai shot a look at one of the older girls who withered under the stony gaze, “and what exactly is funny about this story.”
The child was immediately contrite, “Oh, no. Mama Connai, I was just thinking that the Earth probably looked a lot like little Seth when Moot eats the last strawberry of the season.” Laughter erupted from the group and Mama Connai could not repress her smile as a small brown boy turned a forbidding shade of cherry: one not unlike his favorite fruit.
“Pipe down then,” she interrupted with good-natured humor, “so we can finish this story before your mothers haul you off to bed.” She cleared her throat and continued her story where she’d left it off.
The Earth was in chaos, and the Omni realized that she would need assistance if she were to return her beloved Earth to a state of contentment and joy.
The Omni meditated. She watched her progeny squirming in the throes of a longed for maturity. She knew that she could no more control her creation than she could bear the thought of destroying it to start anew. She would need help, but there was no one to help her. For, she was the only one of her kind. She had only the Earth for a companion, born of a burgeoning love and a sheer determination.
Then, she knew. It was her love that had birthed her dearest joy, and it was her love that would save it now. She considered all the facets of the Earth there were to love: the great and glorious sea, that gave the Earth its deepest depths and most ferocious storms; the great green grassy fields, that fed the Earth; the mountains rolling in the distance, which built the earth up with unparalleled strength; the breeze blowing clear across it all, cleansing as it went; and also there was fire which burned bright with all the passion and love that the Earth contained. She considered each of these things, and she loved them until they each manifested a physical being. She called these beings the elementals. They were not simply born of, but also controlled their respective elements. They were linked, and while one prospered, they both did, but if one was harmed, they both felt the blow.
The Omni loved her elementals as much as she did the Earth, and eventually, the first humans came to be, born of her love for the physical manifestations of her progeny. This was the dawn of man, a time of discovery unlike any other in human history.
Originally, the elementals did not reproduce.
Mama Connai felt a tugging on her sleeve as gentle as a leaf falling in a spring puddle. It was one of the smallest children staring at her with a most bemused expression. “How do you reproduce?” Mama Connai nearly choked on her own tongue. The innocence in the child’s eye was her only saving grace.
“Well, now little one,” the old woman sputtered as she attempted to bring together the words that would answer the child’s question and offer the least chance of blundering into territory the child needed to be talking to her parents about. Then as she looked around their humble home, she realized that for the most part, these children knew the basics of childbirth and conception – cloth was not the best barrier to keep out the noises of lovemaking coming from within. “Reproduction is when grown people make new little people. Now, hush up sweet one so we can hear what happens next?” She struggled to remember where she’d stopped, then she remembered: reproduction, and nearly groaned. “As I was saying:”
The elementals did not reproduce at first. They lived on this way for many centuries, and while they thrived, the natural elements of the world existed in balance. But after a time, these ancient beings became tired. They had never felt this way before and did not know what could have caused this feeling. One by one, the elementals found a quiet corner of the world and drifted off into hibernation. Some slept for many years, others for decades, and occasionally for a century or two. While the elementals rested, the natural elements of the world fell into discord: once, the world erupted in fire; another time, there was a great flood; but, the worst was when the Earth froze: fire and water both falling out of balance at the same time.
While the natural elements of the world were in balance, the humans of the world worshiped them, but when the balance was thrown, the humans wanted retribution for their hardships. The elementals came together. They were afraid. They had no strength; they had no idea how to appease the world in their current state. Some said that the humans were ungrateful, and deserved to be punished. Others argued that they had done their part, and now they had earned their rest. Finally, it was decided that they would meet with a delegation of humans to try and find an amicable solution.
There were seven elementals of mixed gender, four girls and three boys, so it was decided that the humans could send an equal and opposite number. When the humans arrived, the ancient elementals felt a stirring within themselves that they had never imagined possible, each assuming they were the only one feeling such things, kept their feelings secret from the other members of the delegation. They did not, however, keep their feelings from the objects of their confusion.
This time the interruption came in the form of giggling coming from the gaggle of little girls perched closest to the fire. It was an ear piercing sound. Mama Connai looked, and she knew they were up to something. “What now? Would you rather go to bed or hear the end of this story?”
“No Mama. Gurt has simply been consulting teacher about some words we never knew before.”
“Pray child, tell me. What exactly about your education do you find possessing of such hilarity?”
“It’s just we know what comes next in the story Mama.” The girl cowed unexpectedly, and finished somberly, “we will be quiet now. Thank you, Mama.” And they did quiet, but they weren’t quite sure why.
“I’m glad you girls know what comes next because you’ve made me forget my place? Let’s see the delegates came from the human villages, and they were feeling things they’d never felt before. Yes. That’s right.”
They each found time, in secret, to be with their inexplicable paramour. After a single tryst, the attraction vanished instantly. It made no sense, but they found themselves sated, and so they did not bother with the whys of their newly found lack of feelings.
Mama Connai cut her eyes at the girls in a warning fashion, daring them to interrupt again before she continued with her tale.
The council met for three months, never able to determine a solution that would suit both parties: the elementals needed their rest, but the humans could not weather another natural disaster. After a time, it became obvious that their secret time, stolen away from the council meetings, had not been in innocence. The women, all but one, were pregnant. It was soon clear that one of the sisters, a twin the which of one it is still debated to this day, was infertile. The fertile twin it was later learned had conceived twins herself.
The elementals were in shock. They had not considered this to be a possibility for them. The shock soon turned to fear. From the moment this second, half-breed, generation breathed the earthly air, the first generation felt their bodies change. Their powers were sapped to almost nonexistence. By the time the first five decades passed, there would be a marked change in the physical form of the original elementals. They would have begun to age for the first time since their seventeenth year.
The babies grew and aged for exactly seventeen of those years. On the eve of their seventeenth year on the Earth, the second generation of elementals came into their full power, and the Earth fell, once again, into a peaceful balance. Humans existed that way for many more centuries until one by one the second generation became exhausted.
In time, each found themselves drawn irresistibly toward their perfect mate. Just as it had been for their parents, the draw was unlike anything they’d ever felt before. It was so strong, it seemed unnatural, but in truth, it was entirely natural. It was nature’s way of propagating the balance of all of the natural elements of the Earth.
“Prop – Proppa – , Mama what’s that mean?”
A withered smile crossed the woman’s face, “dearest, it is the assurance that all of the natural parts of our world can continue to live on in harmony.”
“What about us Mama Connai? How do people fit in? How do we stay in balance?”
Her smile grew wider. It never failed that they wanted to find a way to work themselves into the bedtime story, no matter what the tale being told was about. She’d half a mind to come up with a story about small children who were actually consumed by Curiosity just to see if they’d want to be a part of that one. She had a small laugh considering the indigestion Curiosity would develop after such a meal.
“People, my dearest children are kept in balance by the Omni, the all-knowing mother who created and loves each and every one of you.”
“So, she knows more than you Mama Connai?”
A wrinkled wink was the old woman’s answer to the impertinent question. “No one knows more than Mama Connai, child. Now, let us continue our tale. Shall we?” She was answered by awed silence, rapt attention, and not a few sleeping faces, so she continued her story where she’d left off.
A paramour of the human race would come along and woo each elemental when they’d done their fair share of work in this world, thus conceiving a child that would take on the burden and carry it for another generation. In this way, the world stayed safe: a covenant made between the ancient gods of the very nature that can save or consume this race of people who reside within it and the humans the covenant was wrought to protect.
Each generation of elementals confiscated their parent’s power, leaving only the barest trace within them that kept them young much longer than any human could hope to live, but once they’d lost the command of their element, they were no longer immortal. They’d just aged more slowly. Over time, a few elementals have had the idea to band together to stop each other from succumbing to the propagation when it comes to them so as to retain their power. Such hoardings never go well for the squirrely elemental. They’d trap themselves within a cave – causing destruction without as they denied nature the vital connection required to maintain the covenant.
Thus far, no elemental has been entirely successful at resisting the pull. Some have fought the good fight, but even when they outlived their prospective suitor, there is always another not far behind and living in a cave is only fun for so long. It seems to me, in these modern times, as though the suitors come faster upon the passing of their predecessor, but perhaps in my old age, time is passing faster than it did in my youth.
Mama Connai finished the story as she always did and looked around to appraise the sleeping faces of the children of her village. They were more precious than any jewel that could be dug from the mountain cave. Their faces were dirty, and there was drool dripping from many of their tiny mouths, but not from one. One child looked at her with eyes as wide as the full moon, and Mama Connai winked at her and said with a cackle and a hammer of her staff on the hard packed earth, “off to bed with the lot of you now, or your mothers will have my hide.”
Thank you for your time, and more importantly: thank you for reading A Tale before Time. If you enjoyed it, and want to encourage others to read it, please take a moment to leave a review of this story. Your honest feedback is all I ask, negative or positive! Also, feel free to share with friends you think may also enjoy this story, or any of my work.