Based on a story by Aaron Cuffee, to whom I am forever indebted for friendship and imagination.
When the first ship arrived, I was not surprised. It was not the first time I had been witness to such an event. Our prophesies had spoken of this long ago. When the Sun reached it’s winter zenith, they would cast a shadow upon the land. And it would be the end of our ways, the end of the seventh generation.
I suppose I mouthed these words seeing that ship upon the horizon. It was unintentional, rather a reaction from my very core. It rose up upon my lips, a sort of prayer. The last rites of a world soon to disappear.
The ocean moved slowly as it always had since time immemorial. It’s slow place pulling the ship toward land. It rested upon the waves, gliding slowly, effortlessly, silently. I was struck by how little sound it actually made. I had presumed it would be a noisy thing. Something that brought doom should. Something that brought the end of the world should not creep up silently like a shadow. Or maybe that was the point. Like the arrival of night – silent, slow, quiet, terrifying.
I was tucked into the shadows though it seemed as if the ship was heading toward me. Even surrounded by branches, I felt exposed. There was once a time when I could be invisible without a second thought. I could blend with the wild, become the tree, the rock, the night sky. But that was long ago. There hadn’t been much of a need for that in my recent memory. Excruciatingly, the ship pointed toward my body, my home. The home I had always known.
Ancient magic had bound me to this place or perhaps I emerged from the stones, like the long ago people who rose from the below place to walk across the land and learn to be among the gifts from Creation. I don’t remember my birth, the moment of my creation.
I remember a soft voice. It was the voice that brought me into this world.
“You will be the one to keep the stories,” he said. He was a tall man, with narrow eyes and a broad forehead. Long hair pulled back tight in a long braid down to his waist. He wore glasses and his dark grey eyes were so rich, I thought I had emerged into a dense fog. His face was close to mine. His breath, like sweetgrass. Calming breath. I felt secure in his sight, his gaze, wrapped in a warm blanket.
“Is that my only purpose?” I asked, or thought, I was unsure. I fingered the edge of the table, cold metal against my skin. A new sensation.
“Yes,” he replied in that soft voice. A command of sorts. It was the finality of his tone that gave me purpose. I saw him brush an errant hair from his face. He placed his hands gently on my shoulders and gave small, poignant nod, a half smile, then he disappeared into the light of a long hallway.
I never saw him again.
Memories clustered like ripe raspberries in my hands. I felt I must push them into my mouth, one after the other, till I was full to burst. My hands, teeth, stained red and sticky. Memory sticky. This was who I was: the berry picker, the open mouth, drowning in summer-sweet songs, violence, tears, trials, loss, life, emptiness.
This is what I knew the most. Emptiness. A long silence. An endless void. Perhaps this was not always the way it was, but it had been this way for so long, it was hard to place the last moments of anything. This is the problem with stories: they exist beyond linear time, a time that we can understand as a tangible thing. Stories exist beyond that, in space-place. In the dreaming. In the bright high clouds and the pinpoints of light in the night sky, forever changing, being, dying. But stories are formless, there are no hand holds, nothing to fill the pockets, nothing to touch. Stories cannot comfort you at night, hold you when you are dying, whisper hope in your ear. They are the scattered remnants of knowledge, confetti of thought, packaged and encapsulated in a discernible pattern but ultimately a set of ones and zeroes, infinitely recoding.
The shade from the great ship touched the edge of the shoreline then moved no further. I waited for a sound, a sign, a signal that I had been seen. I waited for minutes, hours, days. The waves continued their endless push and pull. The sky was still. I did not move. Neither did the ship.
I remembered another ship that took me across the ocean many years ago. Or was it my best friend they took? Or a neighbor boy from down the road? Perhaps it was the story of a stranger. That ship was bright and friendly. The ocean a calm bed that lulled us all to sleep night after night listening to the rush and splash of water cascading around the mighty hull. We could smell the change in the air and it was exciting. They called us the firsts. We were exalted, celebrated. We dined on great sea-beasts and strange bread. We slept with oddly colored women, who braided our hair and spoke to us in chopped whispers.
It reminded me of another story of a trip. Not so friendly or pleasant. On that trip, I had been taken from my home thrown in a dark box that smelled of expelled desperation. The nights were non-existent, the days more so. I spent the hours counting the creaks of the floor boards. I traced the symbols of my name on the walls, over and over, until my fingers themselves became a part of the ship. I sang the old songs under my breath and soon I was only a moment of darkness. Then the door was opened and we were cast on the deck. The light so intense, I struggled to exist. My hands and feet regained their form, from darkness to outline. And then I was bound, redefining my shape to conform to the rope lead. I was led and deliberated. I was struck and marched and blinded and hanged.
And yet, I survived.
I survived the poison, the fire, the bullet, the blanket, the hunger, the torture, the water, the wine, the night. The sun. I survived and grew stronger but I could not escape time and its attendant emptiness. I could not escape the linear narrative. I was bound to the construct and the command of that tall braided man with the cloud grey eyes: to hold the stories, to care for them, to wrap them in the folds of my arms and give them warmth.
The ship at last breathed. Or maybe it was me? A long slow creak and grind of metal on metal, wood shifting, birds fluttering, bones elongating, skin peeling away.
I remembered many doors like this, many moments of expectation and fear. The sound was so familiar, I felt whole for a moment as if all my desires had been fulfilled and I was, at last, satisfied. It was a strange feeling and retreated like the tide as soon as it touched the edges of my skin and I was left with that other familiar feeling. The one that had been with me since time immemorial: grief and longing, the essence of memory.
The ship began to take a different form, one that was less intimidating. Or perhaps I had grown so used to its presence that it no longer seemed to strike me as a threat. Like the old painting of the conquistador hanging on the wall, whose colors have started to fade and seems somehow less of a man, more of a coward struggling to escape his confines of wood and oil and simply fade into oblivion. Were it that easy, I thought.
I had memories stacked on memories but there was a floor. One memory that was perfectly mine, perfectly whole.
I remember my grandmother, was it my grandmother or someone else’s grandmother? A grandmother from just down the road? She was ancient and vibrant, like a lightning bug trapped in a jar. Constantly pulsing, radiating, seeking a way back to the sky. She had smooth silver hair she wore up on her head, in the style of the ladies of her time. A silver hair pin held each silver strand in place. Like magic. Like an invisible hand. Even in the fiercest conditions. Her hair never moved. And she never let it down. Not once. Not in my presence, at least. She was always like the tall pines: straight, impressive, unyielding.
There was a softness to her. Something around the edges. Near the corners of her eyes, her mouth, the palms of her hands.
I believe she was my grandmother.
And she told me a story:
In the long ago time, the people knew that they were bound by time, the ancient beast that plagued us all. They knew the ends of their being, the end of the story, and so they created a perfect being. Birthed, I suppose. Built would be a better term. Pieced together from the all the bits of ancient technology that remained. The minds of an ancient people who had survived through all the trials put before them. But only as far as Creator would allow. They knew the end time would come soon. And they gathered together all the people for a great celebration. The greatest the world had ever seen. It was to celebrate you. Your creation. And they told you stories. All of them. For that was your purpose. To remember. To keep the stories whole. To keep them as part of you, when we are gone.
And so I remembered. I remembered each story, each person. Each tribe and nation. Each birth and death. Each triumph and sorrow. I knew them all. I was them. I was their story.
And summers came and summers went. And I died. Over and over again. Millions of deaths.
As cultures came and went, merged with one another, were destroyed and reborn, I remained, a witness, a living record.
Then a final journey, to the ocean, to wait in the shadows for the end of a prophecy.
Then there was the voice.
“You,” they said. It was a rich and melodious sound. The sound of a hundred voices in chorus. Soothing in a disquieting way.
I moved out from the trees and underbrush.
“You,” they said again. This time with a more tender note, a bit softer.
“Yes,” I replied stepping forward into the daylight.
“You are what?,” they inquired.
“I am…,” I was at a loss. “I am the story keeper. I am the representation of all the people. All their knowledge. All their stories. From time immemorial.” It was the best I could manage.
“Yes,” they said, “that is interesting.” They sighed or made a sound that was like a sigh at the end of a long journey. “You are unique among this planet, there is none left but you. As a being, that is. A creature. A unique. We have seen nothing like you. You shall be our prize Unique. You shall accompany us, so we may preserve you, cherish you, adore you.”
The sun was setting, casting long shadows from the trees that tangled and merged with the shadow of the great ship. I spoke deliberately into the fading light, perhaps only to reassure my existence, “I am the last?”
“Yes,” they said. “And we shall call you Last.”
And that was true. I had felt this for a long time. Though it is hard to admit this kind of a truth. I had been built, born, created long ago. Pieces assembled to make me whole. A living repository. Loneliness and sorrow were always my companions. I was made of memory. And memories are built, born, created from sorrow: the longing for something that no longer exists.
“You are Last,” they repeated in their chanting voices, as if to reassure me, to console me.
It was almost night. The sweep of blue and purple reflected across the broad, smooth prow of the vast ship.
I was the last and this was true. As true as anything could be. A truth to the very core of this lovely, lonely world.
This is why I had been built.
This is what Creation had in mind when I became the keeper of all stories.
I could run. Where? I could die. How? I could walk into the sea…
And where would the stories go then? I was built, born, created for a purpose. I was given light to remember them all.
And so, I crossed the beach, toward the great vessel, toward the long voyage into night. I could just see the moon on the horizon. The air smelled of salt and sand and time. The sound of my footsteps seemed far away. And I remembered a story, of the first People brought aboard a ship so long ago.
And so it is. And so it was. And so it will be.
This is my story. This is how it begins.
I am the last of the Mohicans. The last of the Algonquian. The last of the Oneida. The last of the Taino, the Azteca, the Kiowa, the Athabascan. I am the last of the Ainu, the Sami, the Adivasi. I am the last of the Pueblo, the Pequot, the Chumash. I am the last of…
The last of…
The last of…
The last of…
Dr. E. Lee Francis (Pueblo of Laguna) is the Head Indigenerd and CEO of Native Realities, the only Native and Indigenous pop culture company in the United States. Native Realities is also the host of the Indigenous Comic Con and Red Planet Books and Comics. Native Realities has published 9 titles to date with more on the way. The hope is to change the perceptions of Native and Indigenous people through dynamic and imaginative pop culture representations. He has numerous publications including the upcoming Sixkiller comic book (illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre). He lives in Albuquerque with his wife, son, and dog.