Sharptooth: 3

Refresher (the short version): National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Bang out a 50,000 word (shitty) first draft between 11/1 and 11/30. That’s an average of about 1650 words a day, for 30 straight days. The rules? Has to be something new, not an old project that’s getting dusted off.

I’m going to free write (in Word, and then paste here), meaning no edits and likely lots of typos. Be gentle, friends. Or, if this isn’t your thing, then come back in December. (I mean, I’ve gone for almost three straight years posting only once a month, so….)

No set up, introduction, or summary. Just writing. I’ll add some version of this intro to the top of each post, and I’ll try to keep up with the total word count, for anyone who’s counting (that would be me). And this probably won’t be a daily thing, though I’ll try to keep it close to that because it’s the only way I might actually finish.

And I’ll link the previous entries in this header, if I can remember to do that.

“Garden or orchard?” he asks, as he and Helen pull on their coats and gather their things.

“Hmmm. Think there are any pears left to find?”

“Doubtful,” he says, looking at the glaze of cold outside the front windows, “but there are apples.”

“Orchard on the way, then, and we’ll walk through the garden on the way home.”

Then she adds, trying to sound casual and unconcerned, “What are you making for dinner? I mean, she’s coming tonight, isn’t she?”

Helen watches her father’s face. She has been thinking all morning about how to broach this subject. His lips tighten just enough for her to see that he is annoyed.

“Yes,” he says, wrapping a knit scarf around his neck. “Elizabeth is coming for dinner. She wants to help you prepare for your interview.” He tucks the scarf ends into his coat, collects his bag, and turns to look at Helen. “And I’m just as happy about that as you are,” he says, grinning. “But she is coming, whether we like it or not.”

The morning air is warmer than they expect. Toward the river there are clouds, but the sky above them is clear. Caretakers have raked most of the leaves clear of the walk, piling them around trees and over home gardens so there is a carpet of brown, red, and gold on either side of their path.

Because he is a Teacher, they leave for school earlier that others, so they have this time mostly to themselves.

“What’s your lesson today?” she asks.

“It’s a favorite,” he says, “’How the Fire Clan Got Rid of Sabretooth.’ Remember that one?”

“Firekeeper protects the clan?” she says. “Of course I remember that!”

“Firekeeper protects the clan, yes. That’s actually the story before this one. This is the story about killing Sabretooth. So we’ll talk a little about the story before, read today’s story and then do some work gathering and making weapons and tying straps together. It’s all very barbaric, I think; It’s a gruesome lesson, really. But every year they love it. So we’ll do all of that, and then they’ll act out the story and make little models, practice spelling words.”

He stops walking. “It’s spelling bee today, isn’t it” he says. “How could I have forgotten?”

“It is, but you don’t need to come. It’s a silly contest. I don’t even know why we do it.” She keeps walking.

“There’s never been a Writer who didn’t win the seventh year spelling bee,” he says, and at this she stops. “Elizabeth wants me to be a Doctor or an Architect. She wants me placed in something different from the ‘family line of work,’ and you know it, and you know I don’t want that, and you’re going to let her pressure me anyway, aren’t you.”

He thinks, but does not say: You are exactly like your mother. Instead, he puts a hand on her shoulder, and says, carefully, “It is a lot of pressure, I know. The placements are intended to be the best match for each and every one of you, so you’ll have a lifetime of meaningful, enjoyable work that is in harmony with everyone else’s work. Your aunt wants that for you, so think of her pressure as a kind of caring and concern for your happiness.”

She feels her body resist this bland response, his attempt to pacify her. But a voice inside her head tells Helen to accept this statement, to let it be. It is a warning voice, which puzzles her.

They resume their walk.

“Did you always want to be a Teacher?” she asks, trying to make up for her outburst but not wanting to let the subject go entirely.

“Yes, always,” he says. “River people do things a bit differently, as you know. We didn’t have placements and exams and all that. But my mother was a Teacher. We hauled parcels of school books with us everywhere we went. She had different students every day, it seemed, so she was always switching around from book to book, lesson to lesson. You should have heard her tell the story about Sabretooth, the River people loved that one, too. I suppose that’s why I wanted placement in the second year, so I could teach that story and think of her.”

“She taught all the years, all at once, skipping around?” Helen asks.

Yes,” he laughs, “it was one big jumble, depending on her audience. She knew all the books, all the lessons by heart. She was a marvel. Until we came here, of course, and she had to fall in line with the rules. Anyway, yes; I always wanted to follow my mother’s example. When I decided to settle here, even though I was grown and technically beyond placement, I asked to be assessed and placed as a Teacher.”

“That’s how you met my mother?” Helen asks, surprised that he has given her this opening.

“Yes,” he says, looking up toward the clouds over the river. “She was writing about the trading post, and she’d heard about the ‘traveling school,’ so I suppose you could say she was looking for me, and she found me.”

They reach the edge of the orchards, where carts are lined up under the apple trees, ready for the day’s work.

“Shall we pick our morning snacks?” he asks, and she knows the topic of placement and work and her mother are all closed again.

The second-year children are feisty in the chilly weather, so he has let them play longer than usual, climbing trees and picking up nuts as they walk from the school building to his part of the campus where the caves are.

Two girls carry baskets of costumes. Others carry stacks of books. A few of the boys are already fighting, playfully, over who will act out which of the characters today when they play out the story lesson. He hears one of the girls remind the others that this process has already been decided. She says that they agreed at the beginning of the school year to draw numbers from a basket every day so the selections are always fair.

She is destined for the Council, he thinks, just like Elizabeth.

It is shady near the caves, so he hands out blankets as they settle in, sitting in a circle around him.

“Who remembers,” he asks, “where we are in the story?”

A dozen hands shoot up.  He calls on them one by one, letting each tell one short part until the stage is set for today.

“They spent the night in the cave, for the first time!”

“They were very afraid.”

“Hyenas! They were afraid of hyenas!”

“But the fire scared the animals away.”

“Firekeeper stayed up all night, protecting the fire, so everyone else could sleep.”

“It was cold, so Sabretooth had disappeared, because he doesn’t like the cold.”

“There were leaves on the ground, because it was fall.”

He smiles at this last one. It is a detail from the story that almost never comes out unprompted.

“Yes,” he says. “All of that. And it was fall, just like it is here, now, just like today.”

The children settle. He opens his book, and they do the same. He reads aloud:

As soon as the sun was up, messengers started from the cave to ask the people on the hills for help.

Nobody stopped to eat breakfast.

Cave people did not eat together. They each gathered their own food and ate alone.

They did not wander far to gather food today.

Everyone was watching for Sabretooth.

Sharpeyes was the first to find him.

Sharpeyes saw Sabretooth crawl into the thicket for a nap.

The messengers came back with people from the hills.

They went to the thicket to see Sabretooth, but they did not dare attack him.

They had learned to put handles on their flint points, to make good hunting knives.

But the handles were short, and it was not safe to attack Sabretooth with those weapons.

Their axes and hammers were larger and stronger, but they were afraid to use them now.

While they were all wondering what to do, Strongarm went to look at Sabretooth again.

Sabretooth was sleeping heavily after hunting and eating all night.

He was lying under a large branch of a big oak tree.

The trunk of the tree was outside the thicket where Sabretooth was sleeping.

Strongarm asked the elders to come see what he had seen.

Together, they made a plan and told the people.

Everyone was eager to help.

They brought all of their animal skins into the circle. They cut some skins into strips and used others to make a large bag.

They found a large, strong, straight branch and tied a sharp flint to one end of the shaft.

Strongarm tied the bag around the shaft. He asked some of the children to fill the bag with stones. He asked others, who were older, to make a long strap, using the strongest strips of skins they would find.

When the weapon was ready, Strongarm carried it on his back and began climbing the oak tree.

He was very careful. He was very quiet.

When he reached the branch that hung over Sabretooth, Strongarm waved to the people. The elders led the people back to the cave, away from the thicket.

Strongarm was all alone with Sabretooth.

He did not stop to think what might happen.

He used his stone knife to cut the heavy strap. The strap snapped where he cut it. The heavy bag and the spear fell straight down into Sabretooth.

Sabretooth roared and tried to escape, but he could not.

After a few minutes, Sabretooth lay still on the ground.

Strongarm climbed down from the tree and called to the people.

They saw Sabretooth lying on the ground and knew they would be safe in the cave from now on.

He closes the book and looks at the children’s faces, noticing all of their different reactions. It is the same every year when he reads this story. Some children are ready to reenact the hunt; other children weep for Sabretooth. Some children will sit quietly. He always wonders what those silent children are thinking about.

Total word count to date: 4256/50,000 (pretty far behind, but catching up is not impossible)


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