Nua and the Reedwork

By Isaac Dust


There have always been words passed down through time.

Long before today’s papyrus scrolls, even before the ancestors used the tips of river reeds to stamp the first glyphs into damp clay, the old societies had verse. Chants full of history, rules, and taboos were conveyed from one generation to the next in metered verse, so they would be remembered. That, my children, is how we know the story I’m about to tell.

If you can, picture the Mau. They were a hardworking riverside people, much like us but, of course, far less advanced. When it came to chants and verse, they were no exception. The stories and dictates passed down from their ancestors were considered sacrosanct, yes, holy. And anyone who ignored them did so at his own peril. The values of the Mau were entrenched in the ideals of teamwork, consensus, and conformity.

The Mau rose with the sun and worked the river. Using sharp spears, the men hunted the rainbow trout that were plentiful in the river, and sometimes even the wild pigs that hid in the nearby hills. The women gathered wild emmer, barley, and oats to make cereals and mush. In the summers, the catch was good, and the stores of dried cereal were full. During the warm months, the Mau ate well.

In the winters, however, ice would harden blue on the river, the wild grains would disappear, and times could be hard indeed. 

Every young Mau knew well that discipline, order, and foresight were necessary to survive the difficult months. They revered the honeybee and the hive, paintings of which adorned the caves near the river. You see, bees and their hives represented well the Mau’s strict social structure and served as a constant reminder never to stray from the dictates contained in the ancestral commandments. The first and most important of these was the Rule of Consensus and Conformity. Elders spoke of it with the veneration it deserved. Children chanted a simplified version when they were just about your age. 


Work as one in ice and sun

We are free when we agree

The olden ways make happy days

Work like the bee, live happily


So, all Mau were expected to work together and to follow the established ways of the people. If disagreements arose, they were settled in a convocation of the elders.

These traditions served the people well – until the arrival of the Generation of Hardship. Then, cold winter followed upon cold winter, and summers were short. The stores of cereal were empty, and the fish of the river were invisible under thick ice. Babies died and elders withered. Then the Sickness spread from hut to hut. People ran high fevers, and leaking blisters appeared on their skin. The numbers of the Mau fell rapidly. Soon, there were many more huts than there were people to live in them. 

It was during this difficult time that young Nua passed through her initiation rites and arrived at adulthood. She loved the village and the people very much. She was clever and could recite the commandments as well as anyone in the village. Yes, she could chant the sacred verses beautifully, but she was even more interested in discussing their origins and their meaning. Her curiosity seemed endless. 

Nua was solitary by nature. She would often forage on her own, sometimes returning late, often with more grains than two of the other women combined. This was due to her cleverness and her willingness to look where no one else dared, and then to fearlessly sample her discoveries, which had made her ill on more than one occasion. Her favorite pastime, though, was sitting alone weaving river reeds into intricate shapes and patterns, some of which had never been tried before. Then, on one of her gathering expeditions she discovered a stretch of river nearly a half day’s walk from the village where an unusual species of reed grew. They were longer, stronger, and yet more pliable than the reeds near the village. She discovered that they were nearly impossible to break with her bare hands – especially when she twisted them together in a special way. During her fourteenth summer, all she did day after day was use her weaving magic to combine lengths of reeds. It was slow work, but the results were surprising: long, thin, very strong lengths that could be used for many purposes. 

The Mau villagers, however, had started fretting over Nua, some even becoming suspicious. She spent so much time alone, they said. Worse, she had refused to marry the young man the elders had selected for her. It's true, the day before the marital ceremony, she had disappeared into the hills and had stayed away for one entire moon. Of course, she eventually returned to her hut and her reeds. But gossip had set in, and the villagers came to see her as odd, as different from the rest. Some called her ungrateful in their time of hardship. It was even rumored that she had stopped reciting the Commandment of Consensus and Conformity. 

So, no one really noticed when she moved her belongings and her reedwork supplies to a hut on the outer edge of the village. 

This all took place during the Generation of Hardship. For many more seasons, life was difficult. More loved ones were lost. And Nua was simply forgotten. For seven winter cycles, she lived alone at the edge of the village, one of the few untouched by the Sickness. During this time, she refined her craft, and once the Sickness had passed, she began trading her reedwork with the Upriver People, who admired it greatly. Soon, the Upriver People were trading it with their Upriver People, who also admired it greatly. 

The reedwork was admired for its many uses. In time, pliable nets for capturing fish were tied with it. A hanging bridge was hung across the river with it. One of the Upriver peoples had even begun tying dried skins to long sticks, holding them against the wind to propel their rafts along the river. When the Mau first saw these rafts gliding along in the wind, faster than the swimming trout, they were frightened. Later they were impressed. In the end, though, they instructed their young to keep to the traditional ways, to paddle their rafts they way they had always been paddled. The wind-rafts were forbidden and eventually forgotten. 

Nevertheless, everyone benefitted from the reedwork trade, and the life of the Mau changed slowly and surely for the better.

Yes, living alone, Nua was unusual. But her love and dedication for her village and her people never wavered. She and the other Mau were deeply communal, so all things were shared equally. Eventually, all the women, old and young, pitched in with the reedwork and shared in the resulting bounty. Soon, Nua’s trade with the Upriver Peoples was bringing a wealth of goods to the Mau village. Now there was more dried fish than ever before, new kinds of medicinal herbs, and enough heavy furs to keep every Mau warm during the season of little sun. The village had once again begun to thrive. Some were now even calling it the Time of Prosperity. The Generation of Hardship was becoming a mere memory.

Of course, just as we rely today on our pyramids, on our astronomy, and on Osiris to flood the Nile, the Mau and their upriver neighbors came to rely on the new things they had, the new technologies and security that trade had brought. In time, Nua had taught the other Mau the deepest of the reedwork secrets, and they all contributed to the prosperity of the village. The reedwork was now at the center of their economic well-being.

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Through many seasons of little sun and through many seasons of plenty, Nua had continued to live alone in her hut on the edge of the village. Her contact with the others was not rare. She attended births, feasts, and funerals, but she still seemed to prefer her days alone. 

Then the time came when she was no longer young. Despite her contributions to the village, she was once again forgotten, left to her solitary work on the edge of the village. 

The Generation of Hardship was now just another story in the history chants, and a new generation of Mau flourished, raised on the stability and security of abundance. Passionate young minds emerged. And, as will happen, with the abundance had also come experimentation. Some of the young began new endeavors, and some left the village to move upriver, even downriver. However, such rapid change did not accord with the ways of the Mau, and a crackdown followed. Some said the fundamental values were being threatened. New leaders emerged, and with them came a renewed zealousness for the traditional dictates of Mau society. More than ever before, a powerful adherence to these was demanded. Every morning and evening the children of the village were required to gather together under the painting of the hive and chant in nasal tones the Rule of Consensus and Conformity – even though they no longer understood the meaning of the words.

This new set of leaders called themselves “elders” just as their predecessors had, although they were still in their prime working years. One in particular, Suru, became curious about the moribund hut on the outskirts of the village. He called a convocation and proclaimed the importance of following the sacred dictates, especially those related to conformity. He inquired about the mysterious old woman living in the hut at the edge of the village, suggesting she was out of compliance with the societal strictures. He ordered an investigation, which was quickly concluded. The unwavering conviction of his words, his passionate intensity, inspired a glorious consensus. Now, during the process there was one man who bravely defended the old woman. He was an actual elder, old enough to remember her contributions, wise enough to understand that the village might not even have survived without her innovations during the Time of Hardship. But the old man was shouted down by younger, stronger voices bent on consensus. In the end, a proclamation was chanted out for all the villagers to hear. For her individualistic, curious, and solitary ways, the old woman was formally accused of violating the Rule of Consensus and Conformity. 

The accusation was true. Nua had always been an anomaly. She had done things in ways the Mau were unaccustomed to, unprepared for. She had relied on creativity and innovation, which, at heart, were at odds with the Rule of Consensus and Conformity. Now, Suru and the young elders had to choose between their traditional ideals and a mysterious new light just barely discernable in the distance. Of course, my children, from our vantage point it’s easy to understand that the mysterious light they observed was none other than the future itself. Unfortunately, their eyesight was not sufficient to make out much more than a blur. They saw only the choice immediately before them: allowing Nua to continue her solitary work at the edge of the village or making a statement, one that would teach the youngest of the Mau that Order and Conformity were important above all else. 

The following morning was crisp, as mornings are at that time of year. Thin sheets of ice, no thicker than the wing of a dragonfly, were beginning to form along the edge of the river. A group of villagers appeared outside the moribund hut at the edge of the village, carrying skeins of reedwork. They ordered Nua from her hut, unwound some lengths of reedwork, and used it to tie her hands behind her back. They led her into the treeless hills far beyond the river. 

She was never seen or heard from again.