one day they come out of their hut for the last time, after a long night's sleep...always very early in the morning, that's why we never saw it. the one comes out wet and shivering and slowly unfurls its wings. the others stay by it, waiting, watching for the sunrise and the warmth, and then for the first time it leaps high and flies.
and they go back home to prepare the remains, as if that one had truly died. no wonder we never suspected!
and one day many years later (and this even more i shouldn't know and could never tell) the flying one shivers again and sheds its wings. slowly they fall, like twigs, old dried flowers, and its skin falls away too, scales falling one after another, piles of purple-gray at the base of the tree - and what do we know, we assume they're dead leaves.
and what's left is light, shimmering, almost visible, solid but impossible. and it rises, slowly, and is gone.
we came there to study the natives, a dull but relevant species, intelligent enough to be worth bothering with, but never going to take the galaxy by storm! they were bipeds, like us, tall and furry, thin for their height but not at all frail; we'd calculated the gravity here at just under earth normal. they were an active species, always busy doing something, basking perhaps in the midday sun but off again as soon as it got cool.
they seemed very much like younger furry versions of ourselves - parents and children, grandparents too, all living in little mud-brick houses, little mud-brick villages. we watched fascinated as they bult new houses brick by brick, shaping them from the reddish clay, drying them in the sun, stacking them many times high into a conical beehive of a hut. a group of these would cluster in a larger circle, larger family patternings.
they spoke as they worked, joking with each other, some running amusement that we learned to translate and, if not entirely appreciate, at least understand. the children were always nearby, spending the working hours under the trees, watched over by some of the older ones; or sometimes they'd run over and play at a smaller version of it, stacking tiny handfuls of the mud into little circles, sometimes making it all the way to the roof! an adult might come over and put a leaf on top, and then these little huts would be carefully walked around for the rest of the day, even when it took some trouble to avoid them.
they gathered grains and vegetables, fruits and nuts, and prepared them for eating and storage, in yet more mud-brick structures. the storage huts were larger, not taller but bigger around and oval rather than circular, and stood on their own at one end of the village, often almost under the clump of trees that seemed a part of every community, inhabited by birds of various sizes and a few small shy mammals.
making the bricks was the work of the older people, who would spend hours sitting quietly by the riverbank, under the trees, scooping out the reddish clay and patting it into shape. a younger person would drop by from time to time to carry the half-dry bricks to the drying field, a flat open area where the sun shone all day and would bake them hard. they were solid but crumbly, often flaking apart or melting in the seasonal rains, and this necessitated frequent repairs and new buildings - but no one seemed to mind; they loved the work and seemed happiest when doing it. natural builders, we thought, a very good sign for future evolution!
beyond that, there wasn't much of interest: the villages were all alike and there was no rivalry or complex social structure, no competitive games, no extended kinship patterns. their work was careful and well-done, but they seemed to have little interest in changing or extending it. the bricks were just bricks, and it never occurred to them to ornament them, or vary them in any way. though they liked to talk, they had no written language (and yet how easy with the wet clay nearby, and a branch to serve as stylus!), and their speech was nearly all about simple everyday things. their huts were comfortable but minimally furnished, and personal adornment was also minimal - a few clay beads perhaps, but nothing more.
we learned most of this by observation, easy enough to do since they never minded having us around, and would encourage us to sit there in the shade all day, or walk around and look at things, as long as we didn't get in the way! food would be offered to us at mealtimes, though we generally preferred our own ration packages, in which they took no interest after an initial sniff or two.
later, one of the younger people, named something like ell, became our guide and informant. we had left off note-making and were wondering what to do next, when he came over and asked if he could help us with anything. ell was genial, always ready to talk or show us around, and we began to learn many of the finer points of hut-making, food-gathering and other relevancies of life on this world. he also helped us fill in our vocabulary, and eventually corrected several grammatical misunderstandings, making his speech and the others' much easier to follow,
after a few weeks of this, we began to feel that we were really on the way to understanding this society. ell was always happy to explain things, and once our knowledge of the language was better, others did too, often volunteering small stories or nuggets of information, or wanting to show us their hut.
they were more reticent about some things than others, to be sure, and our questions about birth, death, mating, and the like often went unanswered, even by ell - shrugs or guarded looks were what we seemed to deserve. well, we were young ourselves, without much experience; we had learned most of our business from tapes of lost tribes on earth, who had apparently been only too happy to share all these things with their "civilized" studiers.
likewise their beliefs and myths - if these people had any they must be simple indeed. did they worship the sun? most primitives did! or perhaps the large biped bird-creatures that often lived near a village, eating fruits put out for them, as if they were considered good-luck totems or sacred animals. we could argue for hours based on the lost tribes of earth, the american aborigines for instance...it was all fascinating stuff, and to think we were seeing it firsthand, as the primary culture and not some sad relic being crushed under a dominant culture.
their rituals seemed to be few, and minimal; they were people who lived solidly in their daily lives, preoccupied with food and the weather and each other's small concerns. for instance although children were born rarely, each had a naming day shortly after birth, and that we were allowed to observe, a simple ceremony conducted by one of the village elders, followed by their version of a feast, fruit and an afternoon off from the brick-making!
similarly near the end of our stay, we were able to witness a funeral. out came the leaf-wrapped remains of one of the older people, looking very small and pitiful, and were carried away to the riverbank, again observed by the birds, wheeling in the flickering light of the afternoon sun, and the body set down to float away, perhaps as far as the sea. we were even permitted to film this, and we played the results many times, marveling at the lack of emotion shown by these primitives - did they simply forget their dead that soon, or was there some crude myth or wishful afterlife at work here?
as they turned away from the river, the birds accompanied them a little way, then settled down in the trees again. the villagers began to smile and chatter, and again we had to shake our heads at their lack of solemnity - they were like children, already forgetting it! soon enough it was back to the brick-making and the eating of fruit and the long evenings by the river, a simplicity we could only wonder at, we who had real work to do.
and so we finished our project, packed up our notes and tapes and prepared for departure. i lingered behind, somehow reluctant to leave, though i was tired of the heat and dryness, ready to get back to civilization. our aliens wouldn't miss us much, we were sure - and to be honest there wasn't much potential here, no sign of any technology higher than the brick or the digging-stick, and no interest in acquiring any, even after watching us all these months. not one of them had been intrigued or inspired enough by any of the simple devices we allowed ourselves on-planet - not one had tried to emulate, or questioned us, or wished for more. they were happy but unimaginative, too well adapted to their environment to need change, too placid by temperament to want it. if there was ever to be development here, it was a long way away!
"primitive stasis due to favourable environment" we wrote, and had to classify them fairly low on the intelligence scale. we hoped our next race would be brighter, perhaps even ready to learn from us - we had so many plans in place for this, such desire to share our learning, our technology (carefully of course!), our better way of life! we could save them from what we went through, all the wars and mistakes, the religious excesses...imagine that! but it wouldn't be here. we might stop by again someday, just to check in - and certainly if nothing else interesting came along we'd be back, any intelligent race was worth studying. a second longer look might yield subtleties we'd missed the first time, on our tight schedule.
but we set all that aside, eager to get back to base; there would be plenty of time for poring over notes later, and who knows what might emerge. the field team would make their contribution, and some of us might stay to work on the extended study; it would be nice to have a year back home, among the comforts of civilization...i was longing to sleep in a real bed again, enjoy an evening out with friends, see what was new on the holos.
and yet i was wistful, for some reason unready to go, feeling a strange pang at the sight of the birds overhead, the people peacefully walking back to their huts after an afternoon's building and brick-making, the dappled sunlight still shimmering through the clouds.
and somehow i began to walk away from the lander - if i missed it today, they would come pick me up tomorrow, no doubt assuming a last wide scan or round of final notemaking.
but the night fell quickly, and i couldn't find our camp, forgetting that we had already taken away all the tents...and when i grew afraid and wanted to signal the ship, ell came and found me. "wait," he said. "please wait till morning." and he took my signaller away, surprising me - we had thought they had no idea what it did.
the night was long, and i knew that high overhead they were busy preparing for departure - surely they wouldn't leave me behind? the night was very black, and landing was difficult even in daylight, but surely they would wait? ell held my hand, and i saw my panic...even if they couldn't raise my signal, they would come looking for me soon enough.
the wind dropped, and very early, ell took me to the village, another village, and this time i saw all they had hidden from us. "why me?" i cried, weeping, and the bird told me that someone must know. and the god spoke too and said i must keep the others away, never let them get too curious - would i do that for them? and i knelt to him, though he said it wasdn't necessary, and promised, and begged to come back some day. and he said i might, and blessed me, and let me go.