Author : Kathy Kachelries, Staff Writer

They’d followed the grishna since the beginning of time. Their elders described uncountable days and night, each lasting several lifetimes, since the first keeper had been formed from hard-packed snow and melted by the grishna’s breath. They had never neglected their duty. They hibernated with the large creature, curled up in a vast pile of limbs between the grishna’s tusks, and when they woke they gathered food to care for the endless being. It never spoke. It was a god, so it never had to. When they spoke it was in whispers and gestures, mimicking the silent movement of the grishna’s several mouths with the one tongue they possessed, and this was what fascinated the linguists.

The first outsider came during night, while they slept. Before they awoke a half-dozen had arrived, with boxes that trapped voices and forced them to perform at will and other boxes that clicked and whirred, frightening the grishna. Once, it tore through the outsiders’ enclave, reducing their boxes to brightly colored shards, but everything was quickly replaced.

With time, they learned to live with the newcomers. The grishna adjusted to their presence, and the keepers followed suit. They accepted that the new beings must have been charged to follow them in the same way they were charged to follow the grishna, so they did not interfere.

The first word the linguists learned indicated the most solid snow, the kind that could best hold the grishna’s weight. The kind they’d been carved from, at the dawn of time. The second word was the word for heat, particularly the heat of the grishna, though they believed it also applied to fire. After that, the words came quickly, and although the outsiders lacked the limb used to indicate the passage of time, they could communicate their origin.

And the keepers communicated theirs.

More arrived. Too many to count. Again, the grishna was frightened. Again, the grishna adjusted. The linguists offered food in exchange for words spoken into the box, and the keepers no longer foraged. The grishna was fed as well, food that it seemed to prefer to what the keepers had always gathered. The outsiders were no longer outsiders. They became a part of life. Some of the keepers learned the methods of the boxes, some even learned the second language. They were told about the light, how it came from far away, and how the stars did not mark the days of the grishna’s life. New words were created, to describe new ideas and new objects. When the first one was taken away to be studied, he returned with stories that terrified and thrilled the others.

All of them wanted to see the lights and feel the nauseating movement. Many of them did. The elders waited for this to pass, knowing that all things passed, but some of the younger ones never returned. If they did, they wore coverings over their fur in shades no keeper had seen. They no longer hibernated. They spoke words no keeper’s tongue should be able to form. The grishna grew restless. Nobody studied the grishna.

When the elders left, the linguists noted it with interest. The smaller footsteps of the oldest keepers made small indentations in the larger footsteps of the grishna as they walked away from the lights and boxes just before another uncounted nightfall. They’d followed the grishna since the beginning of time. They had never neglected their duty.

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