“It was the time before story, the time before myth,” Anansi began, his voice gaining rich undertones that seemed to resonate in Ryan’s bones. He leaned in to the fire, and Ryan felt himself draw in as well. “There were a people who hunted and gathered across the world, for back then the world was much smaller than it is now.”
“The people did not have a name, because they did not know of other people. They were just ‘the people.’ They would later become the Akan, and they would found the kingdom of Ghana, they furthers west of the great kingdoms noted by Bilad el-Sudan. Their descendants number twenty million, not counting those taken to the New World. But in this time, these were just the people, and their number was only a thousand.”
Athena leaned in and rested her head on Ryan’s shoulder. He leaned back to rest his head on hers as Anansi continued.
“Among the people, there was a young man. As is common with young men, this young man believed he was invincible. Unlike other young men, he did not seek to prove his invincibility with feats of strength or by hunting the great and dangerous beasts of the world or by engaging in combat to show his might. This young man knew he was not the best in any of those. What he was best at,” and here Anansi gestured, and the fire began to change shape, rising until it looked like a tree, “was climbing.”
“This young man could climb like no other, and sought to prove that at every chance he got. Every tree they saw, this young man would challenge any and all to climbing. He would race of the trees and gather eggs to feed the people, and so was often taken on hunts, even though he was a poor hunter. While the other young men hunted, he would climb the trees and gather eggs, and if the hunt was poor, he at least would always have food.”
“Then one hunt, the people went further than they ever had before, chasing a herd of…” Anansi frowned for only half a moment, and with a gesture he shaped the fire again, this time forming it into the appearance of something like the cross of a hornless rhino and a giraffe, with thick skin and legs but a neck almost as half as long as its body. “I do not remember what they were called, and modern man has not yet found their bones to give them names. They were dangerous prey and had to be worn down, but a single one would feed many of the people.”
“Their hunt took them to something the young man who climbed had never seen before. It was a vast slab of stone on its side that rose high into the sky, higher than any tree could ever hope to reach!” Anansi chuckled. “Truly, the young man had never seen anything higher than that. He had to climb it. The other young men egged him on, but they didn’t need to. As soon as the young man saw it, he knew it must be climbed. In your tongues, you call them cliffs, but at the time the people had no word for them. When the people became the Akan and spread far enough to live beneath the cliffs, the young man made his home there.”
“So he did, climbing rock and stone as swiftly as he could. For the young men below, they could not see many of the hand holds he grabbed, so to them it looked like he was sticking to the rock face. By the time he was halfway up, he had been given a new name, a name that would stick with him the rest of his life.”
“That name was Ananse, which later became Anansi. In the language of the people, it meant spider.”
Ryan smiled at the warmth in Anansi’s voice. The story had a familiarity to it in his voice, and watching Anansi tell it was like watching someone settle into a comfortable, familiar chair after a long day on their feet. For once, Ryan didn’t want to ask any questions. “On top of that cliff, the young man found a stone. That stone was also an egg and it was also a universe. As soon as the young man stared into the stone, he could see the stars envelop him, and with that he became something more, although he wouldn’t learn of what he truly was until much later, when the Akan were visited by a goddess of love and war.”
Crystal nodded her head in acknowledgement of the reference.
“With the stone, the young man could open a hole to a field that could take him anywhere on the world. He sought the highest places there were. Cliffs like what he had climbed before. A great canyon on a land across the sea. A mountain so high, the young man learned he did not need air when he reached the top. During his travels, he learned he would not age, and that even if he fell he would heal from any injury, even death. The young man realized he was, in fact, invincible. He would always return to the people, however, and he would tell them stories.”
“The people noticed the young man never aged, and they met others like the young man who were eternal. They called these men and women abosom. The people believed the universe was created by a god they called by many names, one of which was Nyame. Since this young man was the first of the abosom the people had met, they honored him by making one of the names of Nyame to be Anansi Kokuroku, the great spider.”
“The young man, in his travels, met other abosom. They went by other names in other lands, and they fascinated the young man, who at this point was not so young. He told the people, who at this point were the Akan, stories of these distant people and these strange abosom. Because the young man told so many stories, they named him keeper of stories, and at one point he memorized all the stories of the Akan and of every culture he met. He held all the stories in the world.”
Dianmu gave Anansi a brief smile of thanks. It seemed she’d been as curious about that as Ryan had been.
“The young man Anansi was almost as happy as he could be. He even taught other abosom the wisdom of the people, the Akan, although since he preferred to teach with games he had rigged to win, they often did not appreciate it, and called him trickster for it. But that was not why the young man was not as happy as he could be. There was one thing that he lacked.”
“Among the other abosom, the young man Anansi was not the strongest. He was not the cleverest, although he was very clever.” Athena interrupted with a snort of laughter at the lack of humility, “He was not the wisest, although he was very wise. And before too long, there were too many stories for him to hold them all, so he could not be the abosom who held all the stories in the world. There was nothing about the young man Anansi that was unique. There was nothing he could claim that another abosom could not claim.”
“So the young man Anansi sought something no other abosom had done. Some feat that would set him apart from all others. And after travelling as far as he could, after speaking to ever abosom he could find – from the Aesir to the Tuatha Dé Danann to the Yaoi to the Kami to the Deva to the First Spirits – and among them all he found one task none had completed.”
“None had ever climbed to the moon. So the young man Anansi decided that would be what made him unique, that would be what would set him apart. He would be the first of the abosom to climb to the moon.”
“Using his magic field he was able to make it easily. It almost disappointed the young man to step onto the lunar plain. It was grey and lifeless and empty of even air. He had done it, but what use was it? There was no story here on this grey and lifeless world without even air. Or so he thought.”
“Then he saw a tree.”
Ryan looked at Crystal, who shrugged, and at Dianmu, who didn’t notice as Anansi leaned back. The flame shifted again, this time taking the form of this tree Anansi had found. Only it wasn’t a tree, although Ryan could see how you’d think so without a frame of reference.
“This tree was like no other tree the young man Anansi had ever seen. Its leaves were as black as obsidian and flat and shone in the sun. Its branches were great bowls with tiny, thin branches coming out of them. Its bark reflected light. The young man Anansi would later learn the bark was called metal, and much later would lean the bowls were called antenna, and much later after that learn the black leaves were called solar panels.”
“But at the time, the young man Anansi could only see it at as a tree. And at the base of that tree, a great beast slumbered. This great beast was, like the tree, unlike Anansi had ever seen. Its skin was the same as the bark of the tree. Its legs numbered eight, like the spider Anansi was named for. It had four heads. The great beast awoke as young Anansi approached, and it spoke to him, but the tongue it spoke was not the tongue of any of the peoples young Anansi had spoken to. Anansi tried to greet it in the language of the Akan.”
“The great best did not like the speech of the Akan, or perhaps it did not like young Anansi. It answered young Anansi by belching bolts of sunlight so powerful they fried the head of young Anansi, and he died on the moon.”
Anansi shifted his hand again and the fire shifted with it, taking the form of the monster Anansi had described. Crystal let out another gasp, and Ryan thought there was a word in that sound. “Szarmic.”
Anansi paused to look at her, but Crystal motioned for him to continue, muttering, “Later,” as she did. He nodded and continued. “Young Anansi would later learn these heads were cannons, and much later would learn this sunlight was called laser. Because young Anansi could not die, not even from having his fool head burned away by sunlight. He returned to the people, for he was powerfully Hungry after regrowing his fool head. But young Anansi could not let himself be defeated. So he returned to the moon, and to the tree that shone in the sun, and the great beast that could fire sunlight from its four heads.”
“He died again, of course.” He grinned at the laughs that got.
“Young Anansi was stubborn, so he returned after feasting again. And again. And again. And yet again, until his deaths numbered seven. The elements young Anansi knew were uncooperative on the moon. Anansi realized that on the moon, in the great beast’s lair, he could never win. So he became clever. When he went back to the moon next, he did not try to fight the great beast. He did not even answer it when the great beast spoke that strange tongue. Instead, he stole the great beasts tree, and he ran. He ran back to Earth and there he planted the strange tree of the great beast, and then he waited.”
“As young Anansi thought, the great beast was protecting the tree that shone in the son, and it chased Anansi. Instead of chasing Anansi through his great plain that he got from his black stone, it chased him by leaping into the empty sea between the moon and Earth, and it flew across that void by spitting its sunlight at the moon.”
“They battled when it got to the world, but here young Anansi was with his elements. Nature sung with him, and Anansi was able to draw the great beast to a lake. Young Anansi lured the great beast to spit the sunlight at him when young Anansi dove beneath the waves, and a great cloud of steam emerged.”
“This is what young Anansi wanted. He had thought of how mist makes sight harder, and since sight needs sunlight, mist must block sunlight. The mist also blocked the spit sunlight of the great beast, and with that shield the beast’s own sunlight had made for him, young Anansi was finally able to fell the great beast, spilling its guts that sparked with lightning.”
“And that is the story of how young Anansi, who was never a great hunter, defeated his first great beast, the creature that hid on the moon and guarded the tree that shone in the sun. From that story, the Akan learned that there would always be someone stronger than even the abosom, but none would ever be cleverer than Anansi.”
He gestured at the flame, letting it turn back into a ball, and leaned forward with a smile. “For you see, young Anansi did not tell the Akan of his seven deaths on the moon.”
Even with another bout of laughter, it took a moment for Ryan to realize the story was over, and he had to shake himself awake. It was like he was coming out of a dream. Athena sat up a bit straighter, although when Ryan went to move his arm she leaned back into it. “Wow,” he said after a moment.
“And thus you learn another rule of storytelling, Ryan: the greatest compliment is not question or applause, but the silence of thought.”
“I…can’t argue that,” he said, glancing around. Dianmu, who hadn’t spoken yet, was looking at Crystal.
Crystal was crying, silent tears that shone in the firelight. Anansi followed Ryan’s gaze and saw Crystal, frowning. “Crystal…” Anansi said, his voice low and comforting.
“The szarmic. I remember it.” She looked at Anansi, blinking away the tears as she did. “I remember. It was a war machine, one of Lemurian design.” She took a deep breath. “I’d like to go next, Anansi. I think I have a story. One I had forgotten. Forgotten so thoroughly I’m not even sure how true it is. But I think it has truth to it, yeah?”
Anansi nodded, and Crystal wiped her face, standing as she did. Her voice cracked as first as she spoke, although it gained strength with every word. “This is a story I knew I had but I’d lost long ago. I’d lost it so long ago I stopped caring that I couldn’t remember the story, because I had the important details. I thought. But now that I remember it – or a version of it – I have to tell it before it’s forgotten again.” She looked around the circle, until her gaze reached Ryan, where it stopped. The look in her eyes…Ryan had never imagined those eyes could hold such pain, and in that instant Crystal looked to be every one of her million years.
“This is the story of how I killed the world.”