Teabox Tales - Ancestral Reliquary
Updated: Dec 20, 2021
This is a story I wrote for my Creative Writing course at university. It's partially based on a novel that I'm working on, and is the first piece of work of mine that was graded a first! I'm rather proud of this one.
I’ve always known that it wasn’t my land, and I’ve always known that they weren’t my people, but I think my heart broke for them. I’d had a fascination for them for as long as I can remember; the last inheritors to an ancient saurian legacy in their little hermit kingdom.
I think that deep down I became a writer for them. All I’d ever wanted was to tell their story to the world, and for the world to care for them as I did. Through a series of career misadventures, I’d accidentally become a sports journalist, but I found that if I waved my press passes in the right direction I could slip right on through and write whatever I wanted. It was skirting the rules, sure, but it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Actually getting to them was a struggle. Their coastline was so swamped by moored fishing boats that no sailor would be able to take me. The reason was well-known of course; none of them fished anymore, not when the end of days was coming.
I ended up paying out a small fortune to a man on the mainland with a helicopter. He was one of the lucky few to have a relationship with the islanders, and he said he’d call ahead and have someone there to greet me.
The pilot touched down on rough-hewn limestone foothills in the shadows of a great looming cliff. It guarded the island like a vast castle wall, protecting it from both the crashing ocean waves and the prying eyes of outsiders. Life in the stranglehold of its shade was fragile and transient, and only scrubby little weeds could cling to the rocks.
As promised, there was someone there to greet me. The Temple Mother. I recognised her immediately; her face having graced a thousand grainy amateur photographs.
She was a small and ancient creature; her body hunched and her skin a mosaic of keeled blue scales. Her eyes were slit and hawkish, and she looked through me as if I were as clear as glass.
Her walk: which was aided by a gnarled walking cane; was stooped and digitigrade, and a long, feathered tail swayed behind her like a rudder.
She waved dismissively at the pilot before approaching me, pulling me into her arms as if I was an old friend.
“This isn’t your burden.” She said, her reptilian breath cold against my cheek. “There’s no shame in turning back if this is too much for you, and I don’t doubt it will be.”
“I’m fine.” I replied, not quite understanding what she’d told me.
The Temple Mother turned from me and away from the foothills, pointing into the distance with a clawed talon.
"Look. You can get the best view of the city from up here."
The sight stole my breath in an instant. Just past the horizon was a city of many vibrant colours, nestled like hidden treasure in a thicket of rich olivine rainforest. The buildings were domed and tightly clustered together, each one painted in swirling colours. The biggest one of all was right in the middle, jutting out like a spike in the skyline.
It was curled and twisted like a cone shell; its elegant spire marked by streaks in varied vibrant hues. This was the Ancestral Reliquary, the greatest accomplishment of the island’s civilisation, and what would soon be the lasting legacy of its people. I’d only ever seen it in photos before, and the impact of seeing it in real life will never leave me.
It was a moment in need of saving, and I wanted to take a photo of my own. But when I reached for my pocket to grab my mobile phone, I found my hands freezing before I could turn it on. I tore my gaze away from the view for a moment, staring at the device that was once so familiar in my grasp, but now felt cold and foreign. Holding it was causing something to creep guiltily in the pit of my stomach. I put the phone away. I didn’t even want to think of it anymore.
“We need to move if we want to get there before the crush wakes up." The Temple Mother said, grabbing me by the hand and dragging me along as if I were a little child.
We travelled down a set of stairs cut into the limestone, leaving the hills and entering the dense forest. It was warm and humid under the leafy canopy, but the atmosphere was strangely silent. The trees were lush and green and vital, but everything else was utterly unmoving, a soundless crypt of bark and leaves.
My reptilian guide ran her bony hand through the leaves and tutted at the stillness.
“It’s too still, look at it. I’m glad things will soon be right again.” She said, her voice soft and thoughtful. She looked up at me expectantly, but I couldn’t quite think of anything to reply. We just stood there for a moment, eyes locked, until I could finally come up with something to say.
“Are you really going to go through with it?” I asked, shattering the silence like glass. “All of you? Even the children? Do the children have to die?”
The Temple Mother sighed and looked down at the forest floor, her tail swishing in contemplation.
“We make the island sick, even the children. The clouds are dark, and the tides are rising. If we don’t act soon, they’ll swallow the island forever.”
“And that’ll fix things?”
“It worked when the ancestors did it, and it wasn’t in vain. They left only their bones, but we continue to cherish them. One day the new world will come, and new people too, and they will thank us.”
“Right…” I sighed, ready to drop the morbid subject.
Suddenly, a slight sound rang out on the horizon. The Temple Mother turned her head to its source, hissing in realisation.
“The crush. They’re awake.” She said. “Be quiet and you’ll hear them.”
“What’s the crush?” I enquired. I would regret asking.
I heard them before I saw them; a great and consuming roaring as we approached the Reliquary. This was the crush, the festival to end all festivals in the heart of the city. It was wall-to-wall bodies. A sprawling leviathan of rainbow scales and feathers; dancing, playing, fighting. The crush rose with the sun and fell with the moon, sleeping and waking as if it were all one big creature.
The noise was all-encompassing. Voices singing, shouting, screaming. Living people making any and all noise they could while they still drew breath.
An aromatic amalgam of cooked meat, flowers and sweat hung in the air like a sickening miasma, and I found myself intoxicated. My heart was beating in my chest like a timpani drum, and I felt more alive than I’d been before or since. Part of me wanted to join them; to live at fever pitch until the world fell apart around me. But my guide still held tightly to my hand.
The Temple Mother wielded her walking cane like a staff, and the crowd parted diligently like the red sea. The door to the towering Reliquary opened with a swing, and a gaggle of temple attendants ushered us inside. Then, they slammed the heavy door behind us, and we were insulated from the noise by brick and thick wood.
My ears were ringing in the newfound silence, but the ache was soon forgotten as I laid my eyes upon the island’s greatest treasure. Before me stood the bones of a tyrannosaurus rex, twisted and manipulated to stand upright like a man. There was something viscerally awful about it, as if it were a grotesque parody of the creature it was in life, and the impossibly intricate golden armour it wore was not helping.
“The Warrior King.” Said one of the temple attendants proudly. “One of the great ancestors who laid down their life so we might live. We keep him here to preserve him for the next world, along with all of our other treasures.”
I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream and cry and tell them that this was all a big mistake. A misunderstanding. That their Warrior King was a mere fossil, and that their apocalyptic omens were the effects of global warming caused by my own stupid, brutal culture. That they didn’t have to lay down their lives to save their beautiful island.
But I kept my mouth shut, not uttering a word.
I think The Temple Mother had noticed my distress, spiriting me away to her private quarters so I could get on with the business of actually writing my article. And write I did.
I filled up my entire notebook with what amounted mad ramblings, documenting every second of the experience in ludicrous detail. It took an hour to get it all down, possibly the most productive hour of my career, and I was utterly drained afterwards. The Temple Mother watched me quizzically the entire time, occasionally peering over my shoulder to read what I’d written.
“I wonder…” She said as I finished, the words leaving her mouth as if they were completely normal ones to say. “Once we’re dead and burned and gone, won’t the people of the next world be very small? It’s just that the ancestors were very big, but I’m smaller than you.”
“They’ll look upon this place, and it’ll seem even bigger than it is to us, and then we’ll be the giants.”
I rubbed my tired eyes and sighed. “I’m sorry, I’m not…”
She looked at me intensely, an emotion I couldn’t quite read in her eyes.
“When you’ve told our story, and we’re famous, will they come here when we’re gone? Will they tear our island apart like an old carcass looking for clues? What will they leave for the next world?”
It was something I hadn’t quite considered until that point. Once my article was published, I had no control over how the people reacted. A hungry press descending on the island like a flock of vultures was a real and frightening possibility.
In the end, the people of the island were free to do whatever they felt was right. But they deserved the sanctity of the grave, and I couldn’t promise them that if I told the world their story.
“I don’t know.” I said honestly.
The old woman forced a hollow smile, a line of needle-like teeth revealing themselves behind her lips.
“You’re a good man. I trust you know what to do.”
Now that my article was finished, it was time to leave. The Temple Mother took me by the hand and guided me to my waiting pilot, before taking me in her arms once more as I prepared to board the helicopter.
“When will it happen?” I whispered.
“When the moon is new, the island will be new.” She replied. “Don’t be sad for us.”
The journey home was a tiring blur, and the next thing I remember clearly was crashing on my bed, my notebook clutched tightly to my chest. I had a decision to make: publish my writing and betray the island, or go to work empty-handed and risk losing my job.
I went to the office the next morning, but when I’d burst into tears at my desk my choice had been made. I don’t know exactly what triggered it: the guilt I’d felt the first time I’d reached for my phone, or The Temple Mother’s impassioned plea.
Either way, no article would be published. I threw the notebook in the back of an old filing cabinet and locked it up tight. It would never be seen again. I was fired soon after, but it was ok. I didn’t feel the need to write anymore.
The island didn’t need me to tell its story, that honour fell to their Ancestral Reliquary and the treasures it contained. I drank a toast to them on the night of the next new moon, wracked with a grief that soon gave way to strange new hope.
I know it’s silly, but for their sake I pray that they get their new world.