Thud, thud, thud. Old Roger was banging a stick on our group log to get us up and out of our shelters.
“Wake up, you lazy newhairs. If you don’t hurry up, the dip will be over before we even get there, and all the bucks will have gone back up Dark!”
Hmmph, hmmph, hmmph, went the trees all around us, pumping and pumping hot sap from under ground. Hmmmmmmm, went forest. And from over Peckhamway came the sound of axes from Batwing group. They were starting their wakings a couple of hours ahead of us, and they were already busy cutting down a tree.
“What?” grumbled my cousin Gerry, who slept in the same shelter as me. “I’ve only just got to sleep!”
His little brother Jeff propped himself up on one elbow. He didn’t say anything, but watched with his big interested eyes as Gerry and I threw off our sleep skins, tied on our waistwraps, and grabbed our shoulder wraps and our spears.
“Get your arses out here, you lazy lot!” came David’s angry spluttery voice. “Get your arses out fast fast before I come in and get you.”
Gerry and me crawled out of our shelter. Sky was glass-black, Starry Swirl was above us, clear as a whitelantern in front of your face, and the air was cool cool as it is in a dip when there’s no cloud between us and stars. Most of the grownups in the hunting party were gathered together already with spears and arrows and bows: David, Met, Old Roger, Lucy Lu . . . A bitter smell was wafting all around our clearing, and the smoke was lit up by the fire and the shining lanterntrees. Our group leader Bella and Gerry’s mum, my kind ugly aunt Sue, were roasting bats for breakfast. They weren’t coming with us, but they’d got up early to make sure we had everything we needed.
“Here you are, my dears,” said Sue, giving me and Gerry half a bat each: one wing, one leg, one tiny little wizened hand.
Ugh! Bat! Gerry and me pulled faces as we chewed the gristly meat. It was bitter bitter, even though Sue had sweetened it with toasted stumpcandy. But that was what the hunting party was all about. We were having bat for breakfast because our group hadn’t managed to find better meat in forest round Family, so now we were going to try our luck further away, over in Peckham Hills, where woollybucks came down during dips from up on Snowy Dark.
“We won’t walk up Cold Path to meet them,” said Roger, “we’ll go up round the side of it, up Monkey Path, and then meet Cold Path at the top of the trees.”
Whack! David hit me across the bum with the butt of his big heavy spear and laughed.
“Wakey, wakey, Johnny boy!”
I looked into his ugly batface—it was one of the worst batfaces in Family: it looked like he had a whole extra jagged mouth where his nose should be—but I couldn’t think of anything to say. There was no fun in the man. He’d hit you hard for no reason, and then laugh like he’d made a joke.
But just then a bunch of Spiketree newhairs arrived in our clearing with their spears and bows, walking along the trampled path that linked our group to theirs on its way to Greatpool.
“Hey there, Redlanterns!” they called out. “Aren’t you ready yet?”
Bella had agreed with their group leader Liz that some of them could come along with us and take a share of the kill. They were the group next to us Redlanterns in Family and, for the present, they were keeping the same wakings and sleepings as us, which made it easy for us to do things together with them (easier than with, say, London group, who were having their dinner when we were just waking up).
I noticed Tina was among them: Tina Spiketree, who cut her hair with an oyster shell to make it stick up in little spikes.
“Everyone ready then?” Bella called. “Everyone got spears? Everyone got a warm shoulder wrap? Good. Off you go then. Go and get us some bucks, and leave us in peace to get on with things back here.”
We went out by a path that led through a big clump of flickering starflowers and then into Batwing. A whole bunch of Batwing grownups and newhairs were in their clearing banging away at a giant redlantern tree with their blackglass axes, working in the pink light of its flowers. We walked round the edge of their clearing to Family Fence, dragged away the branches at the opening, and went out into open forest. No more shelters and campfires ahead of us now: nothing but shining trees.
Hmmmph, hmmmph, hmmmph, went the trees. Hmmmmmm, went forest.
We walked for a waking under the light of the treelanterns, slashing down whatever birds and bats and fruit we could get as we went along, and finally stopped to rest at the big lump of rock called Lava Blob. Old Roger handed us out a gritty little seedcake each, made of ground-up starflower seeds, so we could have something in our bellies, and then we settled down with our backs against the rock, so we didn’t have to worry about leopards sneaking up behind us. There were lots of yellowlantern trees round there, which we didn’t get so much back in Family, and also yellow animals called hoppers that came bouncing out of forest on their back legs and wrung their four hands together while they looked at us with their big flat eyes and went Peep peep peep. But hoppers were no good to eat and their skins were no use either, so we just chucked stones at them to make them go away and let us sleep in peace.
When we woke up, Starry Swirl was still bright bright in sky. We ate a bit of dry cake and off we went again, under redlanterns and whitelanterns and spiketrees, with flutterbyes darting and glittering all round us and bats chasing the flutterbyes and trees going hmmph, hmmph, hmmph like always, until it all blurred together into that hmmmmmmmmm that was the background of our lives.
After a few miles we came to a small pool full of shiny wavyweed and all us newhairs took off our wraps and dived into the warm water for crabfish and oysters to eat. All the boys watched Tina Spiketree diving in, and they all thought how graceful she was with her long legs, and how smooth her skin was, and how much they wanted to slip with her. But when she came up she swam straight to me, and gave me a dying oyster with the bright pink light still shining out of it.
“You know what they say about oysters, don’t you, John?” she said.
Tom’s neck, she was pretty pretty, the prettiest in whole of Family. And she knew it well well.
In another couple of hours we reached the place where Peckham Hills began to rise up out of forest of Circle Valley, and started to climb up through them by Monkey Path, which isn’t really a path, but just a way we know through the trees. The trees carried on up the slopes—redlanterns and whitelanterns and scalding hot spiketrees—and there were flickering starflowers growing beneath them, just like in the rest of forest. Streams ran through them down from darkness and ice, heading toward Greatpool, still cold cold but already bright and glittering with life. And small creatures called monkeys jumped from tree to tree. They had little thin bodies, and six long arms with a hand on the end of each. Handsome Fox shot one with an arrow, and was pleased pleased with himself, even though they were all bones and sinews and only give a mouthful of meat, because they move fast and are hard to aim at with those big blotches on their skin that flash on and off as they swing among the lanternflowers.
As we climbed up it got colder. The starflowers disappeared, the trees became smaller, and there weren’t any monkeys any more, only the occasional smallbuck darting away through the trees. And then the trees stopped and we came out from the top edge of forest onto bare ground. Pretty soon, when we’d climbed above the height of those last few little trees, we could see whole of Circle Valley spread out below us—whole of Eden that we knew, with thousands and thousands of lanterns shining all the way from where we stood on Peckham Hills to Dark shadow of Blue Mountains away in the distance, and from Rockies over the left, with the red glow of Mount Snellins smouldering in middle, to the deep darkness over to our right that was Alps. And above all of it the huge spiral of Starry Swirl was still shining down.
Of course, with no trees to give off light with their lanternflowers or to warm the air with their trunks, it was dark dark up there—you could only just barely make things out in the starlight and the light from the edge of forest—and it was cold cold, specially on our feet. But us newhairs dared each other to run up as far as the snow. The ice felt like it was burning, it was so cold, and most kids took ten twenty steps, yelled and came running down again. But I took Gerry right up to the ridge of the hill and then, ignoring Old Roger yelling at us to come back, went far enough down the other side so that the others couldn’t see us.
“We’ve made our point now, haven’t we, John?” Gerry said, shivering. We only had waistwraps on, and buckskins round our shoulders, and our feet were hurting like they’d been skinned. “Shall we go back down to rest of them now?”
My cousin Gerry was about a wombtime younger than me—his dad was giving his mum a slip, in other words, about the time that I was born—and he was devoted to me, he thought I was wonderful, he’d do just about anything I asked.
“No, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Be quiet and listen.”
“Listen to what?”
“To the silence, you idiot.”
There was no hmmmmmmmm of forest, no hmmph, hmmph, hmmph of pumping trees, no starbirds going hoom, hoom, hoom in the distance, no flutterbyes flapping and flicking, no whoosh of diving bats. There was no sound at all except a quiet little tinkle of water all around us coming out from under the snow in hundreds of little streams. And it was dark dark. No tree-light up there. The only light came from Starry Swirl.
We could barely make out each other’s faces. It made me think about that place called Earth where Tommy and Angela first came from, way back in the beginning with the Three Companions, and where one waking we would all return, if only we stayed in the right place and were good good good. There were no lanterntrees back there on Earth, no glittery flutterbyes or shiny flowers, but they had a big big light that we don’t have at all. It came from a giant star. And it was so bright that it would burn out your eyes if you stared at it.
“When people talk about Earth,” I said to Gerry, “they always talk about that huge bright star, don’t they, and all the lovely light it must have given? But Earth turned round and round, didn’t it, and half the time it wasn’t facing the star at all but was dark dark, without lanterns or anything, only the light the Earth people made for themselves.”
“What are you talking about, John?” Gerry said, with his teeth chattering. “And why can’t we go back down again if you just want to talk?”
“I was thinking about that darkness. They called it Night, didn’t they? I’m just thinking that it must have been like this. What you get up here on Snowy Dark: it’s what they would have called Night.”
“Hey John!” Old Roger was calling from the far side of the ridge. “Hey Gerry!” He was scared we’d freeze to death or get lost or something up there.
“Better go back,” Gerry said.
“Let him stew a minute first.”
“But I’m freezing freezing, John.”
“Just one minute.”
“Okay, one minute,” said Gerry, “but that’s it.”
He actually counted it out on his pulse, one to sixty, the silly boy, and then he jumped up and we both climbed back over the ridge. Gerry went running straight down to the others, but I stood up there for a moment, partly to show I was my own man and didn’t go scurrying back for Old Roger or anyone, and partly to take in how things looked from up there on top of the ridge: the shining forest, with darkness all around it, and above everything the bright bright stars. That’s our home down there, I thought, that’s our whole world. It felt weird to be looking in on it from outside. And though in one way the bright forest stretching away down there seemed big big, in another way it seemed small small, that little shining place with the stars above it and darkness looking down on it from the mountains all around.
Back with the others, Gerry made a big thing about his freezing feet, asking some people to feel them and rub them, begging others to let him ride on their backs until he had warmed up, and generally hopping and skipping around like an idiot. That was how Gerry dealt with people. “I’m just a fool, I won’t hurt anyone,” that was his message. But I wasn’t like that. “I’m not a fool by any means,” was my message, “and don’t assume I won’t hurt you either.” I acted as if I didn’t feel the cold in my feet at all, and pretty soon they were so numb anyway that I really didn’t. I noticed Tina watching me and smiling, and I smiled back.
On we went, just below the snow and along the top edge of forest, where there was a bit of light from the trees, Old Roger grumbling and moaning about how newhairs had no respect any more and things were different from how they used to be.
“Old fool was scared he’d have to go back to Family and tell your mums he’d lost you,” said Tina. “He was thinking of the trouble he’d be in. No more slippy for Old Roger.”
“Like he gets it anyway,” said dark-eyed Fox, who my mum had told me once with a shrug was like as not my father. (But then another time she said it could have been Old Roger—he wasn’t quite such a fool once apparently—or maybe a pretty little newhair boy from London she once slipped with. I wished I knew, but lots of people didn’t know for sure who their dad was.)
Excerpted from Dark Eden by Chris Beckett. Copyright © 2014 by Chris Beckett. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.