Part 1: The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing (first half)
Part 2: Letters from Zedelghem (first half)
Part 3: Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery (first half)
Part 4: The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (first half)
Part 5: An Orison of Sonmi~451 (first half)
Part 6: Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After
The Story So Far . . .
Sloosha’s Crossin’ really is a crossing, the point at which we move out of the first halves of the six narratives and cross over to the second halves. Sloosha’s is presented in its entirety, in the first person, as an older Zachry tells the tale of his life, presumably to a group of children gathered ’round. The first thing you’ll notice is the dialect: it’s written in English, but a corrupted (or evolved) form of English that is as foreign to modern ears as Adam Ewing’s 19th-century English is.
Zachry’s tale begins on Big I, in the Hawaiian islands, long after The Fall of humankind. When he is 9 years old, he, his brother Adam, and their pa are on their way back from Honokaa Market, when Zachry goes into the bush after a bird. He hears the voice of Old Georgie (the Devil) whispering to him, and becomes aware that Kona raiders are about. He accidentally leads the Kona back to where his family is, and then hides while the Kona butcher his father and take his brother as a slave. Horrified, he returns to the Valley where he lives, reporting the Kona attack but never telling anyone that he led the warriors to Sloosha’s Crossin’.
Zachry talks about his gift for herding goats, and the peaceful lives of the Valleysman. Because of his goats, he knows the Kohala Mountains well and knows of the existence of a few Old Un buildings there that others are unaware of. He recounts the tale of his first baby, when he and a girl named Jayjo are 12 years old. Assuming they will settle down together, everyone is saddened when the baby boy is born without a mouth or nose holes, and suffocates immediately after being born.
Back in the “present” of the yarnin’, Zachry digresses somewhat. He discusses the one true god followed by the Valleysmen, Sonmi, who lives amongst her followers, saves the sick, and guides souls from the bodies they died in to the wombs where they will be reborn. The only obstacle to this process is bad deeds, which Old Georgie stones a soul for, eventually claiming a heavily stoned soul for his own and eating it. That soul will never be reborn after that. Zachry figures his soul is already partly stoned because of the events at Sloosha’s Crossin’.
But the Valleysmen believe inherently in rebirths. He mentions the School’ry as one of the special places that housed Old-Un Smart, including windows made of glass, books, and “the greatest of ‘mazements,” the only still-working clock on all of Ha-Why: “I mem’ry Abbess sayin’, Civ’lize needs time, an’ if we let this clock die, time’ll die too, an’ then how can we bring back the Civ’lize Days as it was b’fore the Fall?” (p. 247).
The Valleysmen also have an Icon’ry, where the icons of each person are kept. Valleysmen carve their own icons in life as a sort of living record to be left behind and to be shown respect after their deaths. Zachry has been in the Icon’ry twice at this point, once to pray to Sonmi for his mother’s health, and once during his Dreaming Night, when he was 14 years old and therefore a man. On this vision quest, Zachry dreamed, and the Abbess augered his dreams:
“One: Hands are burnin’, let that rope be not cut.
Two: Enemy’s sleepin’, let his throat be not slit.
Three: Bronze is burnin’, let that bridge be not crossed.” (p. 247)
The storytelling Zachry is drawn by his invisible audience to tell the tale of the Ship of the Prescients, whose magical ships glided across the water to trade once a year with the Valleysmen. The Prescients have more of the Smart of the Old Uns and would barter incredible ironware for foodstuffs, never giving Smart greater than what was already available on Big I, nor talking about what the rest of the “hole world” is like, preserving the Valleysmen’s level of Smart and Civ’lize and never disabusing them of any notions they might have.
One particular year, Zachry is tending to his goats, and to a girl named Roses, when the Prescients arrive for their annual bartering. He doesn’t bother going to see them, assuming his mother will. She, however, wasn’t able to get there either, and to their surprise, they discover that one of the Prescients, a Shipwoman named Meronym, has asked to live among the Valleysmen for six moons. In return for the Valleysmen’s generosity, the Prescients have given twice as many bartered goods as usual. And because no one was there to represent Zachry’s household, and because everyone is skittish about having a stranger from a strange tribe living with them, the group voted Zachry’s dwelling to be the one to host Meronym.
Meronym arrives with gifts for each member of Zachry’s household, but he is suspicious of her motives and refuses her gifts. He dislikes the way others from the village ask her questions and pretend to understand her answers. He thinks she tells many lies, but acknowledges that a few things she says may be truths: that her ancestors darkened the colour of their skin in order to cope with “the red-scab sickness,” and that she is fifty years old, which shocks the Valleysmen, who rarely live past forty. Zachry feels she is unnatural, and dislikes the way she settles in amongst them, learning their ways.
One day she accompanies him goatherding and he sees her drawing a map of the terrain. He goes to the abbess with his concerns that she plans to harm the Valleysmen, but the Abbess tells him he must have evidence to support such a huge accusation. As Meronym’s popularity grows, so do Zachry’s suspicions. When he hears her asking questions about the Icon’ry, he lies in wait there, expecting her to sneak in and do harm to their most sacred space, Sonmi’s dwelling. Instead, he finds one of his own people, Napes, guiding her in and telling her about the time his ancestor went all the way to the top of Mauna Kea, shared loot with a ghost, and met Old Georgie himself. Georgie laid claim to Napes’ ancestor’s soul, for the top of Mauna Kea is Georgie’s dwelling. Napes leaves to give Meronym time to explore, and Meronym addresses Zachry: somehow, she has known he was there the whole time. Zachry accuses her of not telling him the whole truth about her purposes there. She, in turns, points out that she knows he has a secret too, and his mind flies to thoughts of Sloosha’s Crossin’, which no one knows about. She swears to him that the Prescients mean the Valleysmen no harm, but he doesn’t believe her.
Instead, Zachry waits until she’s out and goes rooting through her things. He finds a silvery egg, which when warmed to the touch produces the image of a ghost girl. She seems to be answering questions in Old-Un tongue, and he is haunted by her. Suddenly her image disappears and is replaced by a man who is addressing Zachry, scolding him for going through his guest’s things.
Three moons later, Zachry’s little sister Catkin steps on a scorpion fish and falls deathly ill. Zachry begs Meronym to use her Smart to save Catkin. Meronym refuses, saying she can’t get involved in Valleysmen’s destinies. Zachry throws himself upon her mercy, admitting to everything that happened at Sloosha’s Crossin’, giving her that bargaining chip over him in exchange for her help. Reluctantly, she gives him a pill and makes him swear that he will administer it without anyone seeing, and if Catkin survives, he’s to give all credit to the village herbalist.
Later on, after Catkin recovers, Meronym reveals a desire to climb Mauna Kea. Zachry volunteers to go with her: “One, I owed Meronym for Catkin. Two, my soul was ‘ready half stoned, yay, surefire I’d not get rebirthed, so what’d I got to lose? Better if Old Georgie ate my soul ‘n someun else’s who’d get rebirthed else, yay? That ain’t brave, nay, it’s jus’ sense” (p 269). They set out together, passing by Sloosha’s Crossin’ and at one point hiding from Kona raiders. They trade stories, and after Zachry asks her several questions, Meronym tells him some truths he has trouble believing: that the Fall wiped out almost the whole world, with only tiny pockets of Civ’lize left, that the Fall was not “tripped” by Old Georgie but by Old Uns themselves because of their awful hunger for more of everything, and that his god, Sonmi, was a “freakbirthed” human who lived and died hundreds of years ago, and isn’t a deity.
One night when they make camp, Meronym falls asleep but Zachry sees a Honomu fisher appear, wanting to share their fire. He knows this is a ghost, like the one that Napes’ ancestor saw. The next day, Meronym gives Zachry a pair of Prescient boots because his footwear has worn through. They reach the gates to the Old Un settlement and use a rope to climb over them. Inside are buildings that Meronym calls “observ’trees,” where Old-Un priests studied the moon and stars.
Meronym removes the silvery egg, which she calls an orison, and uses its Smart to record everything she can. As she works, Zachry is plagued by visions and voices sent by Old Georgie. This is his dwelling, and he urges Zachry to murder Meronym for the good of the Valleysmen. Not knowing his internal struggle but sensing that he is troubled, Meronym tells Zachry that the thin air can play tricks on them.
In one building, they come across the well-preserved body of what Meronym calls a “chief ‘stronomer” and Zachry believes is a “soocided priest-king.” The dead man speaks to Zachry, urging him to murder Meronym because she is sick with Smart the way the Old Uns were. Zachry finally agrees to murder her, and when they step outside, he raises his spiker…
This, I think, would be the place where the story would break, if there were yet another narrative after it. However, this is the central tale, and so it continues. In a split second, Sonmi changes Zachry’s mind and he throws his spiker high over Meronym’s head. She never knows he nearly killed her. Still, Old Georgie is after him, and as they climb the rope over the gate, he urges Zachry to cut the rope. But Zachry remembers the Abbess’s auguring and refuses: “let that rope be not cut.” Georgie threatens to kill all of Zachry’s family in revenge.
Back down to the village they go, closer and more understanding of each other now. Zachry finds he has some notoriety, and mothers are telling their daughters to stay away from him for he must have sold his soul to Old Georgie while he was on Mauna Kea.
Meronym’s last moon with the Valleysmen coincides with the yearly Honokaa Market. She accompanies the Valleysmen, who are laden down with the extra Prescient goods for barter, as Zachry’s “Aunt Ottery,” who does drawings of people at the market, much to everyone’s astonishment. The market is a time of celebration and trade, when all the peaceful tribes come together, share their food and drink and weed in a show of generosity that resembles the Haida potlatch, and celebrate together.
Zachry spends that night with a Kolekole girl in her camp, but in the morning he dreams that his long-dead father is urging him to wake up. As he goes to find breakfast, he realizes that the sounds he thought were carried-over partying are actually battle. The Kona have amassed their forces and have attacked all of the tribes at this time of peace and trust. They are enslaving, raping, and/or killing everyone in their wake.
Zachry is captured and despairs for his family and the bleak outlook for his enslaved future. He realizes that one of the men he spoke with the day before, Lyons, has betrayed them all. Then one of the slave boys is selected and gangraped by the Kona. Just as Lyons is about to have his turn, another Kona appears on the scene and uses an incomprehensible weapon to quickly and quietly kill all of the Kona. This, of course, is really Meronym in disguise.
Meronym and Zachry consult the orison. Duophysite, the man who earlier scolded Zachry, now asks for his help in getting Meronym to Ikat’s Finger, where Prescient kayaks will be waiting for her. It seems that the whole of Big I has been enslaved by the Kona, and more troubling to the Prescients, a plague has been moving through other pockets of people and seems to have wiped out the Prescients on the Ship. In return for Zachry’s help, there is a place for him on the kayaks. Zachry agrees to get Meronym there but will stay on the island to look for his kin. Meronym admits that Zachry’s suspicions of her actually had a shade of truth to them: the Prescients have been seeking a new place to settle because of this plague.
Together, Meronym and Zachry double back to the village. Heads are on pikes and no one seems to have survived or escaped enslavement. Zachry laments the burned-out school’ry. The last of the Old Un books are gone, and the last clock is gone. Kona guard the village, but Zachry and Meronym sneak into his old home, where it is clear his mother and sisters have been killed or taken. Sorrowfully they leave, but Zachry insists on stopping at the Icon’ry first, to save his kin’s Icons if nothing else. There, he finds a sleeping Kona. He grapples with himself, remember the second auguring: “Enemy’s sleeping, let his throat be not slit.” Though he wrestles with himself and knows it is “right” to leave the Kona be, he exacts revenge anyway and slits his throat. He grabs the Icons and they hightail it out of there, but soon after they leave the alarm is raised: the dead Kona has been found, and Zachry’s actions have made escape that much more difficult.
But luck is with them, and as they make their way to Ikat’s Finger, Zachry wonders how and where the souls of Valleysmen will be reborn without Valleyswomen’s wombs to be reborn in. He asks Meronym if Civ’lized or savage people are the stronger, and Meronym tells him they approach the world differently: savage people take whatever they want right away with no thought of the future, Civ’lized people plan ahead and go without in the present if it means a better future. She tells him that the Old Uns had some of both in them.
Nearly to Ikat’s Finger, they come across a whole platoon of Kona. Meronym is able to bluff them a little, making them think she is a Kona general long enough to gain a head start, but the Kona attack, shooting a crossbow bolt into Zachry’s calf. They gallop toward the bridge over the Pololu River, and Zachry remembers the third auguring, “Bronze is burnin’ let that bridge be not crossed.” He convinces Meronym to forgo the bridge ride their horses through the river instead, and sure enough as the heavily armoured Kona thunder across, the bridge gives way and they plunge to their deaths. This gives Meronym and Zachry enough time to get to the meeting spot for the kayaks. Meronym does her best to heal Zachry’s calf and gives him something for the pain. In a haze, he misses the Prescients’ arrival, and when he awakens he is on the kayaks: Meronym has made the decision that she cannot leave him behind to an almost certainly dire fate.
Zachry the storyteller in the present winds down his yarn, and the narrator’s voice then changes to that of Zachry’s grown son, who is either interjecting or has, perhaps, been retelling his father’s telling. This new narrator informs us that Zachry’s yarns were often just “musey duck fartin'” (p. 308), stories for children and stories that have grown a bit crazy in his old age. Zachry even believed that Meronym was the reincarnation of Sonmi because of her comet-shaped birthmark. Zachry’s son believes there is a lot of truth to the yarns about Meronym and the escape from the Kona, and indeed he still has the silvery egg in his posession. He gives the egg to his audience, and bids us to hold it and look at what the egg will show.
Seriously, doesn’t that give you goosebumps? Sloosha’s sets up the boomerang back into the latter halves of the first five stories by actually handing we readers/listeners the orison and asking us to look at it.
In many ways, this most complex of all the narrative voices is telling the most straightforward adventure story. In several places, Zachry and then his son make clear that his yarnin’s are not necessarily 100 percent true. His talks with Old Georgie strike me as embellishments meant to scare children around the campfire rather than the “hole true” of what actually happened to him. Meronym’s recounting of the Prometheus-inspired story about how the survivors of the Fall in Panama were given fire by Crow, who flew to the Mighty Volcano and fetched fire for the people, hints at this: stories are stories that have within them kernels of truth but are not always a blow-by-blow factual account. This doesn’t make their meanings or emotional resonances any less true or necessary. What of Zachry’s yarnin’ is true and what is false or embellishment? I think the meat of the story truly happened, but his hallucinations of ghosts and maybe even the augurings are later additions for the benefit of his audience.
In this section we see the culmination of hints of disaster that have played out earlier. There is mention of the great city of “Buenas Yerbs” that was wiped out in the Fall, which hearkens back to the setting of Luisa Rey’s story, and there is a tribe of “Swanekke,” who must be the survivors in that area. We have the “red-scab” disease that is alluded to in Sonmi~451’s story, and references to how much of the world is “deadlanded,” which again speaks to the idea of nuclear disaster wiping most of humanity out. Sonmi herself has gone from a clone about to be executed, as we last saw her, to a deity: somehow, her story, her words, have become teachings that have spread through the last pockets of Civ’lize. Zachry has trouble believing she was a (freakbirthed) human who lived and died, and isn’t a god.
The transient nature of religions is suggested here. While Sonmi is the absolute god of the Valleysmen, Zachry refers to a strange Old-Un building called “Church” where part of the Honokaa Market takes place: “Last there was the bart’rin’ hall, a whoah spacy buildin’ what Abbess said was once named church where an ancient god was worshiped, but the knowin’ of that god was lost in the Fall” (p. 285). Further, the Prescient Duophysite’s name raises some questions: it is close to “dyophysite,” a word used in Christian theology that refers to the dual nature of human and divine in Jesus Christ. Does this speak to the higher level of Smart the Prescients have, the closer to “godliness” they are, or the dual nature that Meronym refers to in the Old Uns to be both Civ’lize and savage? The Prescients, one would assume, have some psychic ability, based on what they call themselves, and on how Meronym seems to know where Zachry is and at least the basics of his mood even when he isn’t volunteering that information. Or perhaps they call themselves Presicents because they are able to learn from the past to see into the future, to understand that humanity has to be kept from hungering too much if it is to survive itself.
Other points of connection to past stories are subtle, for example Zachry learning to shoot by aiming for ever smaller pieces of fruit, which recalls the abusive situation Chang pulls Sonmi out of when Boom-Sook and his drunken friends try to shoot ever small pieces of fruit off her head. And of course the comet-shaped birthmark, which appears in this story on Meronym’s shoulder. Somehow, Zachry is able to piece this together with information about Sonmi, or so it would seem from his son’s thoughts on his father’s “loonsome” ideas.
We have the very physical theme of ascent here as Zachry and Meronym ascend Mauna Kea, which recalls Adam Ewing’s ascent up the Conical Tor in the first story. The metaphorical ascent/descent theme is at play here as well: as they reach the top and see all that the Old Uns had once had to offer, Zachry wrestles with the idea of murder. And not long after their descent, the Kona attack, plunging the island into war and barbarism. The further descent into Zachry’s home valley shows how much death and destruction has been wrought, and the loss of the Civ’lize, possibly for good (though of course, that Zachry is telling these stories to another generation suggests that human life does continue on, as do societies). This also sets off the “descent” theme in the second halves of the stories, as we will come to see as we descend out of the book.
The idea of the remaining Civ’lize on both Prescient Isle and Ha-Why being wiped out at the same time is interesting, as is the implicit comparison between the plague that kills the Prescients and the Kona who kill the Valleysmen. The ideas of levels of predacity are strongly at work here: the broken state of humanity is the result of the nation-led predacity we’ve seen hinted at in previous narratives. The Kona prey on the other tribes both at the individual level and at the societal level. The slavery we see recalls strongly the tales Mr. D’arnoq tells of the enslavement of the Moriori by the Maori in Adam Ewing’s narrative. But we also have smaller levels of predator/prey happening, for example the villagers all but forcing Zachry’s family to take on Meronym when no one else wanted her, because they weren’t there to speak for themselves, as well as Lyons’ betrayal of the tribes at Honokaa Market.
The idea of Civ’lize needing the time of clock is also playful and intriguing. Without a timepiece, is there time? Does one really need to know the time to be “civlized”? This brings up more questions about the ideas of “truth” and “hole true,” which come up all throughout this narrative. We’ve seen evidence of unreliable narrators in each of our six stories so far. Each, with the possible exception of Luisa Rey’s (but more on that in the upcoming Luisa Rey post) are someone’s tale, someone’s unconscious or deliberate shadings of the truth. Is there ever any real “hole true”? “Then the true true is is diff’rent to the seemin’ true?” Zachry asks Meronym regarding the movement of the earth around the moon (p. 274). Meronym responds, “Yay, an i’t usually is, an’ that’s why true true is presher’n’rarer’n diamonds.” Even as Meronym is totally certain about Prescients’ views of who Sonmi was and the lack of afterlife, Zachry dismisses what she knows as less than what the Valleysmen know: she doesn’t believe in reincarnation, and yet reincarnation exists absolutely for Zachry (and, perhaps, for us as readers, because we have been shown these tantalizing hints all throughout the narratives).
I find with this story that while it’s at first difficult to get into because of the warped and devolved way of speaking, the longer I read it, the easier it is to understand, until at last my brain is reading it rhythmically and without difficulty. This is, to me, as brilliant as any languages Tolkien invented. This is an entirely plausible way for English to morph and change many hundreds or thousands of years down the road, or at least is representative of that change, even as it recalls the difficulties we first have reading Adam’s dialect in the 1850s.
This story also most directly lays out the idea of souls presented in this book, and I’ll leave you with the quote that, to me, most embodies the spirit of Cloud Atlas:
I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’ that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.
You might also like: