The personal blog of the cultural ambassador to the newly discovered planet of the Ant-people (the Myrmeiods).

Friday, March 30, 2012

Time Goes By

I've been spending a lot of time with Kahe'ni recently. We never really were friends before, not that we had anything against each other, we just didn't talk. Part of it, I guess, is that I won't be able to spend time with her later--it's now or never to talk to her, and I pick now. Part of it is that I don't really have much else to do, besides talk with people, and except for the children, everyone else here spends a lot of time working. Kahe'ni spends most of her time now on an oxygen line, and it's not portable, so sitting and talking is about all she can do. I entertain her, and telling me about her planet probably helps her feel useful.

But she does have a lot of useful things to say. She has seven decades of personal experiences to talk about, and that's probably the smaller part of what she knows. She was telling me something about this country's history--not like she remembers several hundred years of history, but her interests and perspective as the layer of a country-folk has lead have lead her to an almost personal appreciation of it. Today she told me a story somewhat different than the one I was told when I was briefed for my service here.

I was told that when the Imperials arrived here almost six hundred years ago, the land was occupied by several different tribes, most of which lived by small-scale horticulture and hunting and gathering. Most of the tribes were warlike, always fighting with each other. They also fought against the Imperials, but the Imperials had a higher birthrate due to a combination of a better diet, since they ate a high-protein, fish-based diet, and had more effective medicine. As a result, the Imperials could sustain higher losses in war and still win, which they did in areas near the shore and near navigable rivers. The tribes in those areas were ultimately eradicated. In other areas, conquest was not economically feasible, so the Imperials made treaties with those tribes. The colony gradually developed as a multi-cultural society, and eventually fought for and won its independence.

I'd figured out pretty quickly that the coastal tribes were not entirely eradicated; the language of the country folk is not mutually intelligible with any of the languages of the inland tribal peoples, for one thing, nor is it remotely like Imperial in its structure, although the two have many words in common--there's been a lot of borrowing in both directions over the years, apparently. But I didn't really understand what had happened--clearly the coastal tribes did not escape intact.

So yesterday Kahe'ni told me. No wonder she takes it a bit personally; it's not only her people, it's her caste. It's the layers, specifically, who were lost.

All Myrmeoid cultures have the same demographic categories; caste is a matter of biology, and they can't change it any more than...I was about to say any more than we can change sex, but of course that's not quite right. Caste, and the fact that families must unite all stages of life and all three castes, are not culturally dependent, I mean. How families are assembled and how families relate to each other IS culturally dependent.

The Imperials live in large families that function as units with the state. Children are separated from their families as early as possible and educated in groups in order to instill solidarity. The coastal peoples used to have small families organized loosely into tribes. People stayed with their families longer, and only flyers ever moved between tribes. The tribes were at war more or less constantly, but war to them meant little skirmishes over land rights and served to keep each tribe more or less in balance with it's resource base. The tribes had no chiefs, but were knit together politically and culturally by the layers, who were each the heads and centers of their families. It was the layers who maintained the structure of each family and each tribe over time, handing group identity off from generation to generation, layer to layer, since their biology makes it hard for a family name to be passed down through a genetic lineage.

When the Imperials came in, they moved slowly enough to learn something of the local culture, and they learned about the central role of the layers--and they killed them. Better nutrition had nothing to do with it; the Imperials had greater military force because their efficient brutality caught the locals by surprise, and because unlike most Myrmeoid cultures in which flyers are the warriors, if warriors are needed, the Imperials train second-post-pupals and even children for war. Since Myrmeoids can produce babies at a prodigious rate if they want to, Imperials can simply start breeding about fifteen years before they want to attack, and built an army about as large as they like. In all fairness, I don't think they do this anymore, but five hundred years ago they bred children as cannon fodder and swarmed over whole cultures like...well, ants. Their victims, whose warriors did not begin training until their forties, couldn't keep up. They declared the land theirs, and when the layers objected, the Imperials had them killed as ringleaders of rebellion.

Without their layers--and without many of their flyers--the families and tribes collapsed. Within a single generation it became impossible for anyone to identify as a member of a family or tribe--everyone lost track of themselves. A lot of the children were taken away to school, further disorienting and disrupting the survivors. This is what they mean when they say the coastal and river tribes were eradicated. They're very sorry about it, apparently--but the children are still taken away to school, according to law. A lot of them never come back.

It's not a racial thing--genetically, everyone's gotten mixed up. If there was once a genetic distinction between the two groups, it's been lost centuries ago, because flyers don't really keep track of who fathers their children, and no one keeps track of where flyers came from; flyers are still allowed to transcend tribe. But family and tribe were never about genetics, they were about group connection to the land and they were about stories. The stories moved between generations and made unrelated people family, binding them to the land and to each other. Just like a flyer could lay her egg in the communal nest and trust the family would take care of it if she took care of the family, a family could trust its children to the land and to the tribe, knowing they would be taken care of, as long as the pattern as a whole was kept going.

When the layers were killed, Kahe'ni says, it was like the baskets of stories fell over and broke, and the stories scattered and shattered and died--this is the imagery she used. She, and many of the other country-folk layers, are trying to re-gather the stories, make and fill new baskets--and it is not finished. Five hundred years, and it is still not finished. She's told the stories she has to many people already, but she also had had many babies. She wanted one more. I guess she wants to retell her stories, too--and I'm a writer. I'm a student here. I guess my job is to collect, record, and retell her stories?

She sits next to her oxygen tank all day now, disconnecting only to relieve her bowels and bladder, to lay her daily egg, and sometimes to walk slowly around her farm in the evening--she breathes with her abdomen, remember, and the tube covers her whole abdomen, so other abdominal functions require disconnecting so she doesn't foul the tube. This morning, when she got back from one of her walks and reconnected--her abdomen heaving painfully and asymmetrically around the cancerous mass--she told me not to feel sorry for her. Or, at least, that's what I thought she said. We were speaking Imperial at the time,since she knows I'm still more comfortable in that language, and Imperial does not distinguish between singular and plural pronouns. They do distinguish between inclusive and exclusive pronouns--one "we" includes present company, the other doesn't. She used the exclusive version, excluding me. So what she said, grammatically, could have meant "don't feel sorry for me, Kah'eni," or it could have meant "don't feel sorry for us, the country folk." Context suggested the latter, since she went on to explain that they have influenced Imperial culture at least as much as the other way around, that they have retained their language and much of their culture, that even their way of life has been changed more by time than by the Imperials. Most of their produce is native in origin, and while they no longer hunt as much, they do raise urdles, which is much the same thing. They're still here.

Maybe she meant both things, herself and her people.

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