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A break from promoting Unpsychology Magazine 9.1: Imaginings. This week’s post is the third short story instalment in our new Fictions & Fabulations series.
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Habitants was the third of the Watertime series of short fictions written for Unpsychology Magazine. The stories are set in a future — in a place a bit like the UK — beset by devastating seasonal floods. The Heat has ravaged the land; and the RageTime has left an uncertain, fearful society — a world in which outliers, artists and Lostlings creep around the edges of the present, and live with the legacies of a far distant past. The first of the stories, Bobcat in the Watertime, can be found HERE, and the second, This Soaring HERE. These are all newly edited versions for this new Unpsychology Substack.
We are the Habitants of the Watertime — living free while Humans struggle, as they always have, with the water and the earth and the baking sun. We adapt.
Slithering in the wet lands; sheltering in the desert dry. Our time is short and long — each one of us a mortal spark, come quick, soon gone — but Habitant time lingers; stretching into the deep past and beyond; into the deep future and beyond.
We are living timepieces, some of us: trees that grow slow and still have souls. We (the trees) are the Habitants that hold all this together, and we (other, other-than-humans) are the Habitants that tell the stories.
Who is speaking this? It cannot be a fox or a hawk or a ferret or a badger or a mouse. It cannot be the wind or the hills or the encroaching tide or the beating sun. It cannot be the ghosts or ancestors or descendants. It can only be the conduits, those Humans that are called Lostlings, who speak with us and follow us into the currents and flows of the World — as it was, as it is, as it will be.
She is a Lostling. She roams these lands. She scurries and crawls the narrow runways through forest and scrub like a small animal herself. Sometimes climbs trees. Sometimes explores crumbled Human remnants of past ages. She finds other kindred spirits — across time and distance — and speaks to them: embeds herself in the Lands and avoids and keeps her distance from other Humans – as we do.
She – like us – knows what has been done; knows the Rage and the Heat and the Water as times of death and pain. But these are also times of Pilgrimage. She travels to times and places with the zeal of human believers who raised their faces to the sky-gods (much good it ever did them).
Till now, she has travelled well-trodden lanes and byways, but we know she will make a longer journey — a sacred, perilous odyssey. We like human words that have hints of the wild in them — so she will embark on a ‘peregrination’ very soon, in a future that she and we can sometimes see: when the time is right; when the conditions are favourable; when the wind is in the right direction; when the tides and flows are aligned.
Who is speaking this? Are you suspicious of this voice? We are the Habitants and we are the dolphins and curlews and seals and sea-otters and sharks and a myriad of small creatures. We are a universe, a constellation of fire. We are the ancients — the ghosts and echoes, the future manifestations. She is Bobcat, and she is one of few and she (and they, the few) speak for us. You will have to trust this certainty – and listen carefully when they talk (which is seldom, as Lostlings are solitary, lonesome creatures).
This is what they will tell you: There was a Fire and a Rage and a Watertime. There were waves that swept away Humans in great surges and outbreaks of hope and death, disease and fear. And the Lands were flooded with grief, and they lie under these dark waters to this day.
The other thing about Humans is that they sing. Bobcat remembers the songs her mother sang to her; and Gramma too. The Wildthings, Flute and Kim and all the others, sing now and they sing for the world – and our voices can be found in their voices.
We are the Habitants and, when a Wildthing’s voice soars, the people hear us in these songs: the whispers of us-the-trees, the roars of us-the-bears and the songs of us-the-blackbirds. They hear the rumble of thunder and surf, and the wind high up in the mountains. They hear the soft plash of us-the-brook and the harsh, relentless clamour of us-the-storm. The people are frightened and uplifted – their existence terrifies them as it always has. In ages past, they turned to gods and their clever ways to fend off this fear. Now the Wildthing songs remind them of us. It keeps them grounded; keeps them honest and fearful — which is how we like to see them.
Humans are peculiar creatures. They are Habitants too, though have long forgotten this. Still, after all their trials, they build their smooth buildings and travel to the City in their near-to-silent Letrix — like long snakes carrying unrelenting dreams in their dark bellies. There have always been Tecks and BigMen among the Humans, and for all their cleverness, they always forget to learn from what has come before. They have their History, which is written down and spoken with a kind of reverence, but nothing ever seems to change. We Habitants have no memories of that kind (except through the channels of our Lostlings) but we adapt and embed what went before into what will come. The Humans once called this evolution – much good that knowledge has done.
We sound critical of the Humans, but we are indifferent really. They are lost cousins who were determined to step out in a particular direction, against our advice, and left the rest of us behind. After a while, with a shrug, you have to let the wayward cousin go on their way, and turn back to Life and all that it offers and demands. And they made us suffer, these self-regarding cousins – they would deserve our hate and vengeance if our souls that were made like that…
Bobcat is sitting curled up in a hollow in the woods. She hasn’t spoken for days. There are songs going around her head, and she wishes she could hear her sister sing or just hear her eager voice telling her news. Her precious Pad sits useless in the deep pocket of her coat – drained over days, so cannot connect any longer. She would like to talk with Flute and hear that voice that gives life to the world — she would like to tell her the stories she holds inside about the way the Lostlings have always been the edge people – Borderlanders, she remembers someone once called them. She would like Flute and her kin to give voice to these stories from beyond the borders.
There has been a change and Bobcat is retreating from it, as all Humans have tended to do. The inevitable must be faced, however, and she knows she will have to move, and soon. The clamour in her head is becoming overwhelming, and lying here, still and breathing, in the way that she has learned to calm herself after the hot ghosts have been visiting, will not be enough. She will need to move. To travel. To leave these lands she knows so well, to go into the past, into the future, into the City, into the Tecklands, then into the West, where she heard so many Humans fled when the Ragetime struck.
History has been building in her mind. Flooding in like in the old times. And the ghosts and Habitants who had started whispering are now more insistent. Tell our story, they are saying, tell the Humans who we are and why we are in you. Bobcat wants to fend off their call, but she has no refusal left in her. She remembers those words from the book and the voice of the women in the room with the dead eyes: “Then the floods came.The fires came. My home died. I died. I rose again. I wrote this story.”
We, the Habitants are swarmed around her, waiting and listening, shuffling and rustling. Expectant. The story she told – of that other Lostling* – is our story too. And Bobcat’s journey is in the telling. We know, we have seen this coming.
This time she is leaving. She rises from the hollow. She will set off in a direction; probably to the West. But first she must make a visit before she turns away forever from the familiar scrubland, soft groves and the seasonal rise and fall of the river waters, and the sediment they lay down.
First she must climb the crumbling stairs to the tower and go to the turret room right at the top and gaze out over the lapping flood-waters, and whisper farewell to the familiar ghosts with their familiar stories, then descend into the scrubland behind the estate and say goodbye to us the waiting Habitants who have been protecting her all this time in preparation for this journey.
And then she will go back home (carefully, carefully) and she will gather some things (Humans always do this, even Lostlings), charge up her Pad and pack a small bag. She will look around the meagre room she lives in and close the door behind her when she leaves (carefully, carefully) in the dead of night.
She knows that she will not be leaving us — we will be with her all the way.
No-one will miss her here, but this journey is about connection and she will travel by foot (carefully, carefully) using all the tricks and tracks we taught her, and make her way to the woods that surround the Big House and hide there. She will see the Wildthings and their Guardians walking the paths, but they will not see her, and she will hear the songs of the Wildthings as their voices soar in the Hall. She will call Flute on her Pad and tell her that she is just outside, and Flute will gasp and laugh and go and meet her, and hold her tightly and feel her Bobbie’s cool, ghost-sense against her cheek like winter’s breath. And Bobcat will hesitate, but only for the moment in which she will kiss her sister on the head, and breath (in her turn) the soft summer smell of her hair, and then turn and disappear into the woods, where we are always waiting for her.
We, the Habitants of the Watertime are living free, but only, as ever, within the bounds that Humans created for us. Yet, we adapt. We have weathered the storms of their making, and found ways of orienting to their time and space. This is hard, and we need the channels to be open, but this is the task we have set ourselves, in the Watertime that lies before the next Time.
Slithering in the wet lands; sheltering in the desert dry, we will be with Bobcat as she goes. This time to the City, perhaps to see Jake. This time to the West, perhaps to find the Humans who left. This time? Wherever the hot ghosts guide her. And then onwards on her pilgrimage — her peregrination.
The purpose is only partly known, and there been a bargain struck. We, the Habitants, need our story to be told, so the future (which we know) can become what it is destined to be. Bobcat needs to find a kind of connection — she’s not sure what or how – between the book (which she now carries alongside her Pad in the shoulder bag she carries close to her) and the ghost voice of the woman in the room.
Who is speaking this? Are you suspicious of this voice? It’s time to make a choice: to trust what you are told, or to turn away in scorn and disbelief, and believe your other gods instead if you must.
Who is speaking this? We are the Habitants and you will have to trust this certainty…
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