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April 22, 2024

The Clans of Ur

By Sand Pilarski

Heading south from Promontory Hot Springs along the rocks and sandy beaches of the shorelines, a traveler finds the main road wandering along the boundaries of the lands of Ur. A good deep river enters a little harbor, and a couple small docks receive mail and luxury goods from infrequent ships. Sometimes a vessel will even come floating down the river to the ocean, laden with parchment books or the overflow of bumper crops of vegetables, but more likely the cargo will be a passenger from one of the seven Clans, headed out into The World to earn a living and follow The Way.

On either side of the River, two standing stones mark the beginnings of the North River Road and the South River Road. The four stones are all about fifteen feet tall and eight feet wide, and bear carvings that depict the symbols of the seven Clans.

I've heard it said that the position of the symbols indicate the ranking of the Clans, but that isn't true; the purpose is much simpler. The two vertical rows of three carvings capped by the seventh make a simple map, just a reminder of which clans lie in what order on which side of the river. Going upriver on the north side, the seeker would encounter first the Ur-Sidden, whose gift is that of reading the thought of others, clever questioners who can get their clients to tell them the deepest thoughts in their hearts. Then come the lands of the Ur-Sutten, the greatest archers in this half of the world, who are said to be able to guide their weapons not only with skill, but by willing them to hit their target. Then the Ur-Trabben, the seers who look at things and see the possibilities of the future, or the echoes of past.

On the south side of the river, starting from the Harbor Gate, one passes through the people upon whom no magic or curse has an effect, the Ur-Nollan, the best neighbors to have between the outside world and the Ur-Raffens, who are so furious in nature that they can start fires and call storms. Or at the very least, when the Raffen Clan are angry, fires have been known to start, and it would not be uncommon to see an Ur-Raffen out in a storm, shaking a fist at the clouds. To soothe their furies and ease the troubles of others, the Ur-Hannan reside deep in the lands of Ur, a clan whose empathy is reknowned, who can share the emotions of others, to help carry their burdens, as it were.

Finally, far upriver where the water is narrow enough enough to be bridged, and in a few places, shallow enough to be forded, lies the ancestral home of the Ur-Jennans, who have a knack for herblore, a profound righteousness, and a sense of how things are between the Seen and the Unseen. And though most of the lands of Ur are found beneath a canopy of forest, the Jennan Clan maintains one large open plain for the farming of grain and the Assembly of Clans, which occurs once a year, after the harvests.

In one of the long colonnaded buildings under the trees on the edge of The Fields, an aged instructor with a tattoo on his right jaw and frizzy, matted white hair is seated on a reed mat, with about ten children on the dusty floor around him. School is in session.

"Long ago, when the Life that makes the world breathe found that there was too much grain and too many fish, too many mice and too many mosquitoes and flies, the time had come for birds to be created. The Life flowed through the birds, but they still had only as much form as you see in the reflections in the ripples of the river.

"'Choose the food for which you hunger, and a gift that you wish for your children,' the Life told them. 'But keep in mind that some rewards require some sacrifice.'

"The birds thought and thought about what there was to eat, and what talent they wanted their offspring to have. Then, after much thought, the Pelican, who was brave and determined, stepped forward and said, 'I would like some fish, please. And I want my children and their children to have the gift of great flight.'

"And so, it was so. Pelican was given the gift of the most beautiful, graceful flight that takes him from the clouds all the way to the dive under the sea that catches him his fish, and he catches all the fish that he needs to feed himself and his family. But what did he have to sacrifice?"

The children listen with wide-eyes, wondering what will come next, for didn't Pelican get everything he asked for?

"To be able to take flight from the surface of the sea, Pelican could not have talons," says the old teacher, making his gnarled hands look like claws. "Instead he had to have feet shaped like wide paddles to push off the water. And so how would he hold his fish? The instant he made his choice of food and gift, his beak grew long, and beneath it grew a floppy, featherless bag of skin to capture and carry his fish.

"'Ee-yoww! Ee-yoww! Ee-yoww!' screamed the Peacock, (and you can hear him say that even nowadays) 'I sure wouldn't want my kids to look like that! I love fruits of the tree and vine, I'd like to eat them all, but I want my children to be beautiful to look at.'

"And so, it was so. Peacock has a voracious appetite for grapes and plums, and his children's beauty is such that they are known and admired all over the entire world. But the weight of his beautiful plumage is so great that he flies about as well as a wet blanket hanging from a clothesline. And while the Pelican still tucks his chin against his chest in embarrassment for Peacock's rude comments, you must note that Pelican never gets caught and eaten by coyotes, but Peacock must always be on guard.

"The other birds thought long and hard about what they liked to eat and what gift they would ask for, and indeed, what they might have to give up to get them. The Swallow swallowed," says the elderly one, making the children giggle as he demonstrates with a big gulp, "and stepped up to Life and said, 'I think that flies and mosquitoes are tasty.' The poor bird blinked in trepidation. 'And I, too, would like my children to be able to fly well.'

"And so, it was so! Swallow flies with rapid turns and speed such that our eyes can barely follow, and has a mouth like a cup to catch the little buzzers on the fly. And because he was willing to eat the mere insect pests of the world, his sacrifice was not so bad -- he just has to live close to where his buggy dinner is, and does not get to travel far from home."

One child raises a hand. "But what about the ones that migrate to Capistrano? They're far from home, aren't they?"

"They were zealots who came along later. We'll discuss them another time." Make a note to talk to this child's parents, thinks the Elder. "After the Swallow, Owl threw his wings out to the side in frustration and said, 'I really enjoy the taste of mice, but all I want for my kids is that they live in peace and quiet.'"

The instructor holds out his hands to the children, and they chant, a bit raggedly, "And so, it was so!"

"That's right! Owl catches mice all the time, and flies and dines and sees the world at night, when most everyone is quiet and asleep. But he had to give up all the interesting news coverage of the daylight, and sports are right out for him, except for the occasional night game in the big cities. People say Owl is wise, for he speaks little, but in reality, Owl hasn't much to say because peace and quiet at night are rather dull.

"Then it was Canary's turn. Canary had watched the other birds make their choices and their wishes and receive their shortcomings and thought he had it all figured out. 'I could be content with millet and thistle seed,' he said. 'And what I'd like for my descendants is that their song would be so lovely no one would want to kill them.'"

When the old teacher holds out his hand, the children around him shout, "And so, it was so!" in unison. The teacher smiles and continues. "Yes, so it was. No one wanted to kill Canary because his song was so beautiful, but alas! he and his many great-grandchildren were kept in cages so that people could hear the song. No more freedom for Canary.

"Next came the Finch. And Finch was about as scared as he could be, because he had watched the other birds speak up, and didn't want his children to be ugly, or clumsy, or stay-at-homes, or boring, or in captivity. 'Please, Life, I'm fond of seeds from the weed grasses, and my only wish for my children is that there be a lot of them and that they grow up to be adult Finches.'

"'Okay,' Life told him, and so, it was so. But just then Owl and his cousin the Hawk burped, and began to think that Finches were quite a delectable feast in themselves. You see, Life knew that too many adult Finches would be a bad thing.

"Last of all came the Crow. Crow leaned back in his branch and watched all the other birds. 'Sorry, Life,' said Crow. 'I don't buy into this game. What I see is that everyone asks for something they want, and everybody gets something they don't want.'

"'What would you like to dine upon,' said Life to the Crow. 'And have you nothing you want for your children?'

"'Forget the food angle,' said Crow. 'Instead I want two things for my kids: fabulous flight, and the wits to avoid danger.'

"Life actually laughed at the request. 'We can do this. In fact, it's what I had in mind for you since the World was made.'

"And so, it was so. Crow is an acrobat in the air, and so smart that he can survive anywhere in the world. The Crows keep moving, and learning, and they live for many lives of the birds around them. But the sacrifice Crow made was his food. For although Crow will gladly eat grain or bugs or fruit in season, the fish and mice he craves he cannot catch himself. Crow eats whatever he can find -- a scavenger who dines on others' leftovers as much as on what he can garner for himself. And for his cheekiness in challenging Life, he also got a voice that makes people want to throw rocks at him; nevertheless, he is bold, and always speaks his mind."

"Seven birds and seven Clans," says the bright child who questioned the migration of swallows. "Is this about us?"

"You are correct, child," says the Elder. "There are excesses of things in the world that the Clans must look at and act upon. But instead of mice and grain and insects, we Clans of Ur must observe thievery, greed, and crime, and each clan is responsible for attempting to put a stop to those overindulgences. Yet the gifts of each Clan are different, and each Clan has its weaknesses. So we rely on each other."

The bright child asks, "Which birds are we Jennans? Are we the crows?"

"Who can say?" smiles the Elder.

A grubby child on the edge of the group has a stick with which she's been drawing pictures in the dirt at the edge of the floor. "The ones around us who have been listening say that this tale has been watered down to the point that it hardly makes sense."

The old instructor climbs to his feet like an arthritic cat. He takes the hand of the bright child and the grubby child. "Class is dismissed." The other children scurry off to their homes and playgrounds.

"Come on, I think you two ought to meet with Gimmer, the head of the Clan. She can tell you the whole tale, and she knows the ghosts who have been listening, too."

All the clans know the story of the creation of birds, and we tell it to our children over and over again. At the autumn Assembly of Clans, children of the Ur-Hannen and the Ur-Sutten will bicker over the interpretation of which bird stands for which clan, while the elders will use the tale to demonstrate how our gifts each fill niches in the ecology of interpersonal relationships and how we must depend on and nurture one another.

We also tell it as a fable about choices that we make for our posterity. The king chooses safety for his family. He possesses land and fortifies it with castles and weapons and soldiers. He is safe, but must somehow press into servitude the people around him to maintain that safety, and can never relax his hold or his judgement again. The merchant chooses wealth, employing his cleverness by buying cheaply and selling for a profit. Rich beyond measure, the merchant will never hunger, nor will his sons. However, will his sons ever become clever themselves, having all that they need already provided?

What choice would I make if I stood before Life on the breath of the World? I would like it if the lands and the gifts of Ur could live on, in peace. As a shaman, I take my herblore and my staff out from Ur to the rest of the world, to bring healing to the ill, assistance to those in need, and a voice to reprimand offenses. Heal, help, and holler, we say of the Ur-Jennans. That's what we do.

And the consequence of my choice? Oh, there are always consequences ... but those are stories in themselves. Remind me to tell them some time.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-10-27
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