a prehistoric naming

She knew what they would do to her. The spirits had spoken. The ground had shaken, soil had shifted and rock had split. The sun had not been seen for days, rain had fallen more forcefully than it had ever done before. The river had become gigantic, taken trees and moved lumps of land. It hammered against itself with a thudding that continued by day and by night. 
     There was no doubt why the spirits were angry. She was the reason. A demon and his children lived within her. Devils locked her eyes, shook her body and made her vomit. She could not make sounds that made sense. She could not do as she was told. She was frightened when bravery was not needed but not scared when everyone else was afraid. 
     The girl knew she could not do what others did and that they thought she was worthless. She also knew that suddenly she had value – as a sacrifice. The sky had spoken, the river had risen, the land had moved. She would be given to the river in the hope that it would appease the gods. 
     The spirits in the valley were usually kind as long as they were properly honoured. They gave much nourishment and rarely took a life, especially if the right offerings were made. Food, ornamental bracelets and bronze weapons were usually sufficient to please them, but there was no better offering than a child. They had not given a child in a long time. The girl knew that was what the river spirits wanted. She was no fool. She understood, even though she could not make others understand her understanding.
     She knew when the time had come. She saw the leaders agree.  She was untied from the house post and taken to the riverside. Seer wore his antler crown and carried the sacred stag-bone maul.  She knew what would be done.  She had seen Seer do it to the boy who, like her, never learned to behave. 
     Greyface blew sound through the cow horn. Seer chanted words that only spirits understood. The river roared its reply, and licked the sodden lips of the land. Greyface, who had always hated the girl, sank his claws painfully into her arm and neck and steered her towards the torrent.  She struggled and screamed and Greyface slapped her and spat shouts at her. He tore the fawnskin tunic from her and forced her to her knees on the inside of the bend where the bank jutted out over the tumbling water. Seer pounded the earth with his stomping dance. He shouted his song and called to the river gods three times before raising the execution bone.
     The river surged. She felt the ground beneath her knees fracture. Greyface let go of her, yelped and tumbled. She fell also, and saw Seer falling too, spiralling away from her, still clutching the stag maul but losing his antler crown. Then she felt the ice-heat of the water as the river grasped her.  She heard her breath go, but gulped it back.  It tried to leave again but she always gulped more, even after some of her gasps had taken only water.  She coughed and thrashed and felt her feet kick at stones that were too slippery to let her stand. The water hurt her, but also lifted her, and carried her. She stretched her hands but gripped only nothing as the river bundled her and started to smother her.
     The water spirits swam into her mouth and she thought she would choke, but she did not. The river carried her on and on, tumbling and turning her but never ducking her for more than a breath at a time. She travelled more quickly than she had ever moved; faster than a fleeing deer, faster than a killing bird in a dive from high sky. She was pushed, turned and tussled as the water took her; but to where? To the place in Seer’s songs? The place of spirits, from which no one returned?  The thought darkened her mind. The cold heat was not hot or cold anymore. Her body did not want to breathe. She was just bone and flesh that had become sodden stone. Her eyelids were too heavy to be held open and they slid shut and sealed. She descended deep into a colourless night of solid silence.

She had not died. Her ears awoke. She heard calls close by. She saw faces that she did not know.  They wrapped her in what felt and smelt like new goatskin and lifted her, and as they did so, she drifted into a warm and soundless dreamland, where she remained for a time without length.
     She understood that the river she loved had broken the ground beneath her, saved her life and taken those that had tried to kill her. Then it had delivered her to a new land. The river had understood her, cared for her, preserved her. In the days after it donated her, it quietened, slimmed and returned to its more usual temperament. It was as if it was recovering from giving birth.
     The tribe that received her did not think to kill her. They dared not, for the river had entrusted her to them. They protected her, nourished her, and honoured her, and from their kindness she grew stronger.  She started to speak more.  She made little sense, but they saw that not as a weakness but a mystery. She was, they decided, not a reject of the river god, but the mouthpiece of it.  Hence when she stood by the river and spoke of it, they thought she spoke for it. They asked her what the river said. She listened to the sound of her saviour and copied it. ‘Ealonus’ she said. They learned that word and chanted it as the name of the spirit of the river.
     Long after she had grown old, died, and been cremated with full honours, the worship of her and of the river continued. The pronunciation of the name slowly changed, eventually becoming ‘lonus’, then ‘lon’, then ‘lune’.   The settlement beside the flow was fortified and its title became ‘Loncastre’, and then ‘Lancaster’ and hence the land for miles around became ‘Lancashire’.  
     Now Lancastrians name the river as they walk by or wade in it; but what they say is incorrect. The river still chants its true sound. Only the naturally favoured hear it, and name it, correctly.

This story was first published in The Lancashire Post on Saturday 8th October 2022

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