When the Orange Sky Gleamed

“I’m going to tell you a story about the time when the orange sky gleamed,” said the old man.

The children gathered around the fire moved closer. Some of them leaned forward so that they could hear the story. One of the older children wasn’t quite as interested.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between persons, places, and events and those in the real world are purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012
Henry E. Neufeld

“The sky is blue in the day, and black at night. There are clouds. Sometimes they turn orange in the evening, at sunset. But the sky is never orange and it doesn’t gleam.” He was just into his teens and pretty smart. He wasn’t going to be awed by eerie sounding opening lines to old men’s stories.”On this day, it was orange, and it gleamed,” said the old man. Before the confident kid could interrupt him again, he continued. “We got up in the morning and there was just a bit of orange in the southern sky. It was a bad omen.” The confident kid rolled his eyes.

“The shaman said it was a bad day. ‘When there’s orange in the south, stay under your roof,’ he told us. But the chief wouldn’t listen. He needed to get a caravan going to pick up gold, gems, and various items of bronze, iron, and even steel from the south. The shaman told him again not to go.

“‘How long should I wait?’ asked the chief. ‘Until the orange sky no longer gleams,” said the shaman. But the chief wouldn’t listen, especially when the shaman wouldn’t tell him how long the gleaming would take to go away. So he sent out the caravan anyhow. In fact, he went with it. I begged to go. I was about your age.” He pointed to the confident kid. “I was just as stupid too. But they wouldn’t let me go.

“Days went by. Almost the entire sky to the south turned orange, and it gleamed, sometimes with white, sometimes with various colors, but always with an orange tint. To the north, over the sea, the sky was pretty much clear. It was windy, but the whether was not too bad. Nobody had an explanation for the time when the orange sky gleamed.” The confident kid rolled his eyes again. He wasn’t going to be taken in by the repetition of the eerie phrase.

Other children weren’t so jaded. “What happened?” they asked eagerly, leaning forward to hear the old man’s answer.

“A week went by, and the orange started to fade from the southern sky. But the caravan didn’t come back.” The old man paused for a moment and pretended to be falling asleep. The children started to ask what happened next. They were acquainted with waiting for a caravan to return. It was how their town made its money. But they couldn’t remember a time when a caravan just didn’t return.

“Another week went by and the sky was completely back to normal. But the caravan still didn’t return. The shaman didn’t say ‘I told you so,’ but one could see it on his face. It was really quite obscene to be so happy about a disaster. The chief’s son, who was in charge in his absence still thought the caravan might have been delayed. Maybe the load hadn’t been ready. But after three weeks it was hard to pretend that there wasn’t something terribly wrong.

“So the chief’s son sent out a patrol to look for the caravan. They rode horses, so they moved faster than a caravan. They couldn’t find any sign of the caravan. They did find that the sand dunes looked somewhat different. The men were used to the sands moving about some with the winds, but this was like they were traveling through a different country. Finally they arrived at the foot of the southern mountains where the town was where they usually picked up their loads.”

He paused again and pretended to be falling asleep.

“What did he find there?” asked an eager voice.

“Oh what?” The old man pretended to wake up suddenly.

“What did he find? Did he find the caravan? Did they get back home?”

“So many questions!” said the old man. “Well, no, they didn’t find the caravan. In fact, they didn’t find anything at all.”

“You mean, except the town,” said the confident kid, not sounding quite as confident as he had before.

“No, there was no town there. They could see the mountains rising up from the sand. They had all the landmarks. But where they were there was nothing but sand.”

The confident kid made a dismissive motion with his hand, got up, and walked away. The other kids were horrified. They demanded another story, claiming they couldn’t possibly go to sleep now.

The confident kid grew up, and he never forgot the story. He became a caravan merchant himself. New towns had grown up at the northern edge of the mountains. They bought things from the miners in the mountains as they always had. Caravans from the northern coastal towns came and carried them across the strip of desert land between the mountains and the coast and then sold them to trading ships. The winds rearranged the sand a bit, but not so much that one couldn’t find one’s way.

Then one day the confident kid sat down around another campfire and heard another story. It was an old man from the mountains. He also told about the time when the orange sky gleamed. His story was a bit different. The gleaming started to the east and built quickly. He described a bit of fire in the sky to the south as well

“What did everyone do?” asked the young man who had once been the confident kid.

“Oh, nothing in particular. We just stayed inside for a few days mostly,” said the old man. Then he paused, expectantly. But the confident young man wasn’t going to ask. Finally he couldn’t resist. He had to finish his story. “After the sky cleared we took our next load north to the town at the base of the mountains, but the town was gone.”

The confident young man was startled. He thought it had been an old man’s tale, but here was another tale to match. He wasn’t sure it was the same town even, but the stories matched so closely.

It took him some weeks to find someone who knew where that town at the base of the mountains had been. The current town was in an oasis which had a spring. It was entirely a new town. The elder who finally admitted to remembering where the old town had been could only tell him it was no more than a mile or so off to the east of the new one.

“But the town is lost, young man,” he said. “There’s no reason to worry about it. It’s buried in the sand.”

That was precisely what the young man thought. “Who owns that land?” he asked the elder.

“Owns a piece of the desert?” said the old man slowly. “Well, nobody.”

“So the confident young man went back to the coast to hire some men. Nobody was very interested in his plan, but he was able to find enough people who needed the work. He took them back to the place where the village had disappeared, and set them to digging. It required a month of digging.

The townspeople were delighted with all the money they were paid for food and water for the men digging in the desert. It never occurred to them to question the motives of the crazy man from the coast. But after a month he found what he wanted. There was the town, and there was the bodies of people, hidden in houses and covered in sand. He found even more than he expected. Though there was no way he could identify the people involved, he could tell there had been a caravan in town, and their cargo was well preserved under the sand.

The confident kid who had grown up into the confident young man became quite a rich man. But he never told the townspeople what he had found. His workers were more than happy to share the wealth and head for home.

Every few months after he returned home he would go to the great campfire in the town square and tell children a story. It was often the story of when the orange sky gleamed. And then he’d tell them the moral of the story. “Pay attention to the stories your elders tell. They might just have something important in them to help you grow up and become rich.”

(This story was written for and submitted to the one word at a time blog carnival – orange.)

There was a new town by the stream near the base of the mountain