Love Letters to Earth

by Henry Quicke







A Great Victory


A strong and mysterious ocean current washes east to west around the island of the Shumi people.  The current is notorious among sailors, both because its strength can push an unwary captain off course and because of the junk that gets drawn into it, some of which can ram and cause great damage to even a large ship.  This “junk” can be both natural and man-made, everything from trees to car parts.  Sometimes things that aren’t supposed to float will be drawn to the surface briefly, like whales coming up for air, before they descend to the unknown depths, not to be seen again for many years.  It is recorded in the minutes of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee that the crew of the freighter Woosop claimed to have seen a World War II tank surface beside their ship and turn its turret toward them before sinking again.  What’s not recorded is that, following this incident, the crew of the Woosop developed a compulsive interest in history, so much so that they earned a reputation for raiding the history sections of libraries in their ports of call.  Several of the crew went on to become published and respected university historians.

It’s not known whether that WWII tank ever reached the island of the Shumi, but many other things have, and the Shumi consider each of these a gift from the sun.  In exchange, the Shumi give equivalent gifts to the sun by day’s end.  The gifts are symbolic of the mutual goodwill between Shumi and sun and also a reminder of the great alliance that helped save the world.

Long ago, it is said, the sun and moon competed for control of the sky.  The moon in those days was equally as bright as the sun, and the almost constant daylight was distressing to the Shumi, who found it difficult to sleep.  Also, the efforts of the moon and the sun to outshine each other made the temperature uncomfortably hot.  The Shumi were an irritable people in those days, and no one knew what to do about it.

Then, one day, the sun sent one of its winged messengers down to the Shumi to request their assistance.

“If something isn’t done soon,” said the winged messenger, “both the sun and the moon will burn themselves out.  Then the whole world will wither and die in everlasting darkness.”

The Shumi pondered this and were scared.

“Listen,” added the winged messenger, “the sun has no personal resentment towards the moon.  The sun only wants what’s best for the world.”

“Well, if the sun wants only to save the world, why doesn’t it simply shut itself off?” asked the Shumi.

“That is not the way of the sun,” said the winged messenger.  “Or the moon, for that matter.  Both are fighting for victory, and if either were to give up, the victory of the other would seem empty—and so would the world.”

The Shumi couldn’t argue with that.  Besides, they knew that the behavior of the sun and moon was beyond their comprehension.

“What is needed is a great victory,” said the winged messenger.  “And such a victory depends on your help.”

The Shumi felt no animosity toward the moon--at least no more than they felt toward the sun.  In fact they found both the sun and the moon rather irritating because of the heat.  Nevertheless, the Shumi decided to ally themselves with the sun.

The great battle waged for months.  The sun and moon fought with light and heat, and the Shumi fought with rocks, shells, and coconuts, all of which they threw at the moon from battle stations high in the tallest palms.  Eventually the projectiles took their toll on the moon, whose light faded and whose weaknesses were exploited by the sun and its assigns.

Finally, the moon was killed and the great victory attained.  The Shumi felt proud when they looked to the sky and saw the moon’s carcass and the battle scars left by the Shumi projectiles, but they were saddened, too, because they had never harbored any ill-will toward the moon, at least no more than they had toward the sun.

So when the winged messenger descended to offer its congratulations, the Shumi had a suggestion.

“We would like to honor the moon’s memory,” they said.

“You took those words from the sun’s mouth,” said the winged messenger.

After some negotiations, the Shumi came to an agreement with the messenger, who then read it back to them: “Each day from now on, the sun will send you gifts, and you will in turn send gifts to the sun.  This exchange will remind us of our great victory, and the goodwill generated by the exchange will be our way of honoring the moon, who fought bravely and who never meant any personal harm to either the sun or the Shumi.”

And so the sacred custom began.  Each morning, several Shumi are sent out to the rocky eastern shore of the island to collect the gifts the sun has sent them that day.  Not anything that washes up is a gift from the sun; the sun is unlikely to send them a coconut, for instance, since the sun knows the Shumi have plenty of those.  Same goes for seaweed, palm fronds, and shells.  But tires, buoys, splintered hulls, bottles and cans, rope, and drowned dogs are clearly signs of the sun’s generosity.  The Shumi collect these items, usually one or two each morning, but sometimes as many as seven or eight when the sun feels especially generous, and carry them back to the village, where they are put on display for all to see and appreciate.

The elders then have the rest of the day to come up with a suitable gift.  Sometimes their response is as simple as a palm frond or an article of clothing.  Other times, they are challenged to find more complicated offerings, as when they once received a crate full of chickens, two of which were still alive.  On that day, the elders debated for hours because they felt they must respond with something special.  They decided on a gift of three living snakes, a man’s infected pinkie finger, and the split ends from a woman’s braided ponytail, which they bound together with vines.

Each sunset the gift or gifts are taken ceremoniously to the west end of the island, down a wide sandy beach and far out into the shallow waters, where they are tossed toward the setting sun.  Cheers rise from the shore.  Gifts have been exchanged; another day has passed.

Unfortunately, the gift exchange is not the only consequence of the great victory.  As the Shumi walk in silence back to the village, the ghostly disk of the moon rises up before them.  Secretly, many feel a deep sense of guilt.  None will say it aloud, but they suspect that they may have killed off the moon just to save themselves from the annoying heat.  In a moment of weakness, they let their irritability get the better of them.  Now, their daily tribute to victory and to the moon’s bravery feels like an empty gesture—not so different, they suspect, from the emptiness the sun had warned would follow a quick surrender.

But there is one difference.  Tonight, as it does every night, the pale moon will haunt their dreams, glowing dully like the staring eye of a drowned dog.  There is meaning to it.

The Shumi wonder if this is the meaning the sun had in mind.