Exile’s End

By Carolyn Ives Gilman

Exile’s End is a complex, sometimes uncomfortable examination of artifact repatriation and cultural appropriation. An artifact of indescribable and irreplaceable beauty created by an “extinct” culture has been the basis of another culture’s origin stories. The race who created the artifact has survived on a distant world and has sent a representative to reclaim it, throwing everything into question.

Inspired by the SF camp in Danzhai, China, which is co-hosted by the Future Administration Authority (FAA) and Wanda Group.

                                                                          Let’s sing of the lightbeam journey

                                                                          Of the man who was not a man

                                                                          Sent by the Whispering Kindom

                                                                          To search the sky for ghosts.

                                                                                       How did he find the way?

                                                                          He followed the poison papers,

                                                                          He followed the scent of secrets

                                                                          He followed the footsteps of ashes,

                                                                          Retracing the path of exile.

                                                                                       Can reversing exile set it right?

The series of events that would make Rue Savenga the most reviled woman on Sarona began only minutes before closing time at the Orofino Museum.

The windows had been rain-streaked all day, and now had gone dark. Rue was at her desk, reading a new art history treatise she needed to review, when her wristband chimed.

“There is a gentleman here asking to see you,” the guard at the front desk said. “He says he’s come from Radovani.”

Radovani was seven light years away. Rue glanced at her calendar. No appointment. She could easily dodge this one. But the book was disappointing—simplistic ideas gussied up in jargon—and she needed a break. “All right, I’ll come down,” she said. That was her first mistake.

The parts of the museum beyond the public galleries were cluttered and utilitarian. Exposed conduits and plumbing ran along the ceiling above her as she paced down the scuffed-tile corridor lined with crates and display cases no one wanted to throw away. Emerging into the airy, sophisticated architecture of the lobby was a release from claustrophobia.

It was clear who her visitor was. He stood out for his stillness in the bustle of departing visitors—tall and slim, with long black hair pulled back in a tie. His hands were in the pockets of a jacket much too light for the weather outside.

Rue introduced herself. When she held out her hand, the young man stared at it for a second before remembering what to do with it.

“My name is Traversed Bridge,” he said; then, apologetically, “I have an unreal name as well, if you would prefer to use that.”

“No, your real name is fine.” Rue had no idea what he was talking about, but it seemed the polite thing to say. “You’ve come from Radovani?”

“I just arrived by wayport. I came directly here.”

“What can I do for you?”

He looked at the floor, as if at a loss for words. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I’m not good at this. They should have sent a woman.”

Mystified, Rue said, “You’re doing fine.”

He looked up. He had beautiful, liquid charcoal eyes. “I was sent by the Whispering Kindom of the Manhu. I have come to find our ancestors.”

None of this rang any bells with Rue. “I think they may have called the wrong person,” she said. “You probably want to speak to our ethnographic curator, Magister Hess.”

“No, I was given your name,” he said. He fished a card from his pocket. Her name was written on the back. On the front was printed the name and contact information for a colleague at the Radovani Archives, someone who ought to have known better.

Rue sighed. “All right, then, why don’t you come up to my office and you can explain.”

She led the way back. When they reached her office, he looked around and seemed to relax. “It’s good to get away from the ghosts,” he murmured.

Most people called Rue’s office austere—or, if they were being polite, minimalist. The other curators’ offices were adorned with art and artifacts from their private collections. But Rue was not a collector. It was not that she didn’t love the art; she would have raced into a burning building to save the museum’s collection. She just had no need to possess any of it.

She offered Traversed Bridge a chair, and he sat. There was still a circle of quiet around him.

“So you’re from Radovani . . . ?” she prompted.

“Oh, no,” he said. “I am from a place you call Eleuthera. We call it Exile.”

Eleuthera was even farther away than Radovani, a planet settled only in the past three centuries as an experiment in radical self-determination—hence the name, which meant something like “freedom.”

“You have come a long way,” Rue said.

“Yes. I had to retrace the steps of the ancestors. They came from Radovani more than a hundred years ago, but that was not the world called Home. The historians on Radovani told me this was it, but I’m not sure. It doesn’t look like Home.”

“What does Home look like?”

“It is a green and leafy place. It has extra suns and moons.”

“Well, we have two suns,” Rue explained. “The second one is not very bright, and today you couldn’t see either one, because of the rain. There are three moons.”

“At Home, there were originally more,” Traversed Bridge informed her. “But the hero Whichway Traveler shot them down.”

“I see.”

“They were too bright.”

Rue nodded. “Why did the Whispering Kingdom send you, Traversed?”

“Kindom,” he corrected her. “We don’t have kings. We have kin.”

“They sent me to find our ancestors and ask them a question. I am told you can help me.”

Frowning, Rue said, “Who were your ancestors?”

“They were Manhu. Your name for us may be Atoka.”

Suddenly, everything made more sense in one way, less sense in another. The Atoka had been an indigenous people of Sarona, and the museum did have a small but priceless collection of Atoka art—priceless, because it was the only collection in existence. The Atoka had been wiped out seven hundred years ago. They were extinct. Only their art survived, tantalizing and enigmatic.

Frowning, she said, “We greatly revere the Atoka. But we believe them to be dead.”

“Oh no,” Traversed said sincerely. “We are still alive. They tried to kill us all after the Battle of the River Bend eight hundred years ago. They hated us, so they tried to castrate all the men, and passed a law making it illegal to be Manhu. But a few hundred of us escaped to Refuge, which you call Radovani. We settled on what we thought was empty land, but after three generations, they decided we had no title, and so others took our houses and farms. We wandered then. Sometimes people tolerated us, but in the end they always wanted us to give up being who we were. They called us Recalcitrants at first, and then Atavists. When people started to accuse us of crimes, the state sent out death squads to hunt us down and garrote anyone they caught. They would leave dead babies hanging from lampposts as a warning. At last they shipped the last of us off to Exile, and we have been there ever since. The whole story is told in our songs. It takes three days to sing them.”

He told this grim tale in a matter-of-fact, even proud, tone. Rue listened, frowning. If his allegations were true, it would upend five hundred years of scholarship. It could not be true. Could it?

Cautiously, she said, “There are scholars who would be interested in meeting your people, Traversed. They will want to find out whether you are truly the same as our Atoka.”

“It’s not still illegal?” he said a little anxiously.

“No, don’t worry about that.”

“You wouldn’t mind some of us coming back? Just to visit, I mean. If this is Home.”

“Everyone is free to visit.”

“And our ancestors? Do you know where I can find them?”

Rue glanced at her watch. The museum was closed by now, but the lights might still be on in the galleries. “I can show you one of them right now, if you want.”

A transformation came over him; his face drained of everything but nervous awe. He sat up as if something had filled him, inflated him. She waited until he said in a heartfelt whisper, “Yes. Please.”

She stood and led the way out. She liked showing this particular artwork to people who hadn’t seen the original; no reproduction had ever done it justice. She had written the definitive monograph on it, and it had made her career, but she had never found out much about the people who created it. The legends surrounding the Atoka were so thick, and their symbolism so important, that the truth was elusive—even, in a sense, irrelevant.

The gallery was dark, but at the other end of the room the display lights on the artwork still glowed. It was a special installation, because this was the most famous work the museum owned, and people from all over the Twenty Planets came to see it. Usually there was a crowd around it, but now it hung alone.

Traversed stopped in the doorway, arrested by some strong emotion. “I feel like I shouldn’t be the one here,” he said. “It should be someone better than me.”

Gently, Rue said, “Wouldn’t your people be disappointed if you returned and said you hadn’t seen it?”

He looked at her as if seeking permission.

“They did choose to send you,” she pointed out.

With a visible effort he overcame his uncertainty and followed her across the darkened room.

People called it a painting, but it was actually an elaborate mosaic, made from pieces so small it took a magnifying glass to see them. Rue had commissioned a scientific analysis that had shown that the colors were not, strictly speaking, pigments; they were bits of bird feather, beetle carapace, butterfly wing—anything iridescent, arranged so as to form a picture. And what a picture it was: a young girl in an embroidered jacket and silver headdress, looking slightly to one side, lips parted as if about to speak. Operas had been written about her. Volumes of poetry had speculated on what she was about to say. Speeches invoked her, treatises analyzed her, children learned her story almost as soon as they learned to speak. She was the most loved woman on Sarona.

“We call her Aldry,” Rue said.

Traversed Bridge looked transfixed, as if he were falling in love. He whispered, “That is not her name.”

“What do you call her?” Rue asked.

“She is Even Glancing.”

Rue liked that name. It fit her.

The lights illuminating the portrait were mounted on a track, and they slowly moved from side to side, so that you could see it lit from different angles even as you stood still. Rue waited, watching Traversed Bridge’s face for a reaction, because the image changed. At one point in the cycle, the background, which was normally a dark indigo blue, erupted in a profusion of feathers. There were silver wings behind her, appearing then gone.

“Did you see the wings?” Rue finally asked.

“Yes,” Traversed said. “I can see them.”

“Many people can’t,” she said. “They are in a wavelength not everyone’s eyes can sense.”

“They are moving,” he said.

“Really?” Rue had never heard anyone say that before. But everyone’s experience of the portrait was slightly different.

“She is about to speak,” he said.

“Yes. Everyone wonders . . .”

She stopped, because his face had gone rigid, like a plastic mannequin, all animation gone. His body stiffened, then began to tremble. He fell with bruising force to the floor.

Rue knelt beside him, then came to her senses and used her wristband to call for help. But as she watched by the shifting light from the artwork, the humanity flowed back into his frozen face. He blinked, then focused on Rue, tried to say something.

“Lie still. Help is on the way,” she said.

“She spoke to me,” he whispered. He did not seem in pain, but full of wonder.

He looked around, saw he was on the floor, blushed in embarrassment, and sat up.

“Are you hurt?” Rue said.

“No, no. I am so sorry. Don’t worry. I am fine.”

“That was a nasty fall.”

“I am used to it. This happened all the time, when I was young. My spirit would leave my body, and I would fall down. I would hear voices no one else could hear.”

“Voices in your head?” Rue said, her amateur diagnosis changing.

“No, no. They were in my left hand.”

A guard looked in, then came over. “Should we call an ambulance?” he asked.

“No,” Traversed said, struggling to his feet again. “I am so sorry to put you to inconvenience. I am fine. It is over.”

Rue exchanged a glance with the guard, shrugged. “A little too much excitement, maybe. Come back to my office, Traversed, and you can sit down.”

By the time he slumped back into the chair, Traversed was looking sad and preoccupied. Rue had seen hundreds of reactions to the portrait of Aldry, but never that one, and she was curious.

“You said she spoke to you,” she said as she brewed tea for them both.

“Yes.” He stared at the floor. “I didn’t understand all she said.”

Rue waited, and after a pause he went on. “She is lonely. All this time we thought we were the ones in exile, and it turns out she is the banished one, even though she has never left Home. To us, Home was a place. To her, it is her people.”

Rue handed him tea. “That makes sense.”

He looked up at her pleadingly. “She says she wants to go back. She wants to see an Immolation.”

Rue didn’t like the sound of that. She tried to keep her voice even. “What is an Immolation?”

“I don’t know.” Traversed shook his head. “That was the part I didn’t understand.”

Rue was in a delicate position. There were strict laws covering repatriation of cultural artifacts, and there was a protocol to follow. If it had been any other artwork, she would have given an automatic set of responses. But Traversed Bridge had not yet made a formal claim. The half-crazed young man was here without credentials, without legal representation, carrying only an implausible story.

Besides, repatriating Aldry was unthinkable. The entire planet would rise up in arms.

If she said nothing, he might never find out that repatriation was an option. It would save a great deal of trouble. No one could accuse her of anything.

She sat down in a chair facing him and said, “There is a way for you to request the return of the portrait. It is called repatriation. You would have to file a formal request, and it would be a very difficult one to win. It would be challenged, because Aldry is deeply loved here, and she is part of our culture as well. You would have to prove beyond doubt that your people are the Atoka, and that she was illegally taken from you.”

Read more https://www.tor.com/2020/08/12/exiles-end-carolyn-ives-gilman/

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